Writing for Free and the Danger of the Single Story

“… publishers that don’t pay people amplify privileged voices who don’t need to get paid.”

This was a tweet that Sarah Kendzior (@sarahkendzior) sent out today as part of an ongoing dialogue on whether writers ought to write for free.

Kendzior is a St. Louis-based writer who focuses a lot on what she calls the “prestige economy,” that is unpaid work, such as internships or writing for the Huffington Post,  that people do in exchange for exposure or experience and a line on a resume. In an interview with PolicyMic Kendzior explained:

We have had a fundamental shift in what is “normal” corporate behavior and “normal” personal sacrifice. Because this shift is cloaked in terms like “meritocracy,” and espouses values like hard work and education, people have been reluctant to recognize it for what it is: the annihilation of mobility…This is aristocracy masquerading as meritocracy. Higher education is the lynchpin of social inequality, but it really begins earlier than that, with public schools based on parental tax bracket. Add to this the influence factors in admission — private schools, discrimination against high school students that have to work instead of “enrich” themselves through activities, expensive SAT prep courses, and so on — and you see how early this stratification begins.

I have written quite a bit here about the frustration of trying to make a living as a writer, the insistence that artists should do it for love in order to prove their authenticity, how it is assumed that writers will have a second (primary) source of income, and how contracts are sometimes written in ways that do not allow writers to have the normal security of knowing when, if and how much they will be paid for completed work.  I’ve written quite a bit about how a writer can deal with this state of affairs emotionally.

I recommend also an editorial in today’s New York Times by Tim Kreider “Slaves of the Internet, Unite!

“I’ve been trying to understand the mentality that leads people who wouldn’t ask a stranger to give them a keychain or a Twizzler to ask me to write them a thousand words for nothing,” Kreider wrote.  “I have to admit my empathetic imagination is failing me here. I suppose people who aren’t artists assume that being one must be fun since, after all, we do choose to do it despite the fact that no one pays us. They figure we must be flattered to have someone ask us to do our little thing we already do.”

Kendzior’s tweet, however, made me step back and look at the big picture.  What is the real harm in a system that requires writers to be either independently wealthy or supported by someone else in order to stay in the profession?

(Incidentally, while Kendzior describes this as a “new normal” I do not believe this is the case. I have read a lot of history and I do not remember any period in which writers found it easy to get paid for their work.  Literature has always been created by the elite and their work frames how we think of the cultures that spawned them. The write for free on the internet model is only the 21st Century manifestation of this problem.)

Keeping those who cannot afford to go without a paycheck out of the field limits our vision and our cultural dialogue. Writers are the people who are charged with speaking about the world. We are the journalists, the reporters, the social commentators and the fiction writers. Writers observe the world and tell us what they see. They tell us who we are as a people.  If only the well-to-do can stay in the field for long then the view of who we are as a people is skewed.

I wrote a while back about famine blindness.  Most Americans who read the Biblical parable of the Prodigal Son do not remember that there is a famine in it. That is because we simply do not understand hardships that fall outside our personal experience.  They are so unreal to us that we fail to account for them at all.   It is not exactly fair to say that a person who comes from a well-to-do family, who is a 4th generation Harvard graduate, is unsympathetic to the obstacles in front of someone who did not have those advantages.  She is not aware of the obstacles at all.  She can be told a story that includes them and not even hear relevant information.

In my earlier article on famine blindness, I asked what it meant for public policy that our members of congress are substantially richer than the people they are hired to represent. I wonder now what it means for our culture if our American story is only told from the point of view of people who can afford the luxury of working without being paid?

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