Why Do Writers Act Like Robber Barons?
Several weeks ago, at the university where I teach, I noticed something that disturbed and confounded me. The visiting artists brought in by other departments, most notably Music, did a lot more work—both on and off campus—than our visiting writers ever do.For instance, Music’s last visiting artist of the semester, a renowned Canadian cellist, gave a presentation before the whole department and taught two master classes—one for cello students; the other for any students who perform chamber music. He also visited two community venues—the junior high school and a senior center—to perform and talk; and, finally, he gave a public performance of Edward Elgar’s famous Cello Concerto in E Minor as part of a year- end concert put on by our local symphony orchestra. That’s six separate events. We’re lucky to get two events out of our visiting writers. On my blog Payperazzi I complained about the situation and wondered aloud: How does Music do it? What magical forces of persuasion do they own to get so much out of their visiting artists?
I received a very revealing response from a friend of mine who acts as general manager for our symphony orchestra. First she explained that due to a network of outside partners, the Music department is able to enhance the pool of money it is given from the university with which to pay artists-in-residence. So they pay more. But that’s not the only reason. My friend said that most musicians, certainly most jazz and classical musicians, are intimately concerned with cultivating and maintaining public appreciation of, and interest in, their art forms. They are happy to make forays into the community because that represents an investment in the future—the future of their own music and of music generally. Then she coyly needled me. I would think, she said, that writers would be concerned about the long term standing of their art forms too?
Yes, you would, wouldn’t you? With the ever-plummeting sales of literary fiction, the decreasing number of high circulation magazines that publish short stories, and the readership for poetry being almost exclusively made up of other poets, you would think so. But the truth is—and this is what I told her—the writers we tend to bring to campus are of a large enough stature that they don’t have to worry about their own standing, so they feel entitled to let the public service stuff slide. The state of the art form be damned.
But cynical selfishness is not the only problem here; that’s not the only disturbing piece of this art-for-pay puzzle. What I find equally problematic and less explicable is this ingrained notion, both in the general public and among writers themselves, of writers as celebrities. You publish a few books with a big New York house, maybe you win an award, and you expect to be granted American icon status, with all the trappings that go along with that: idolatrous fans, glamorous tv and radio check-ins, a circle of writing student acolytes, and big money for public appearances. Believe it or not, it’s not that uncommon for a “big name” writer to insist on a payday of $25,000 or more to come to your town or university. (And then do very little.) I’ve heard of some that charge $50,000.
It was explained to me long ago—and I can’t remember by whom—that such money-grabbing behavior isn’t really unreasonable. You see—so the logic went—these writers don’t really want to do public appearances, so they raise their prices so high that very few organizations can afford to get them. For years, I repeated this explanation to others, as if it held up. But more and more I am seeing it for the bull hockey that it is. After all, if Joe Writer only wants to do three public appearances a year, then all Joe Writer has to do is take the first three offers he gets and then tell everyone else, “Sorry, I’ve made my quota for the year. Contact me next year.” He can charge $5000 an appearance and do this. He can charge $500 an appearance and do this.
The motivating principle here is simple laissez-faire capitalism. Robber baron rules. Supply and demand. Maximizing your profit. If a “big name” writer charges $25,000 or more per appearance it’s because he or she can. $25,000 is more than $5000. And aside from the naked greed involved, it’s part of a wider and systemic problem with writers in this country. Namely, that too many people—writers included—seem to believe that aspiring toward literary success is the same thing as aspiring toward celebrity. (In an honest moment, student writers, especially student novelists, will admit to you that their dream is to hit it big, to reap fame and fortune. And, believe me, the idea of fame is just as important to them as the idea of fortune. Maybe more important.) For too long the American academy supported this nonsense by paying ludicrous salaries to writer “superstars” and then asking very little of them. Writers, not being stupid, took full advantage. In fact, a whole generation of creative writing teachers operated under the assumption that the less you do in and for your classroom the better; that your job is just to show up, do your charismatic act, collect a paycheck, and maybe sleep with your students. While this is painting with a broad stroke, anyone who took an American creative writing class from the mid-1960s through the mid-1990s can think of an example of a professor, usually male, who matches that characterization.
But why anymore should writers think of themselves as celebrities, for heaven’s sake, much less “superstars”? Why make celebrity demands? Why expect celebrity money? I think it’s fair to say that for a time in this country’s history writers were among the best known of our fine artists. The country felt ownership of them and investment in them in the way they did not opera singers, for instance, or expressionist painters. And I think there was a simple reason for that. While very few people can sing opera or paint worth a lick, everyone has written something at some point in their lives; maybe even a bit of creative writing. And they’ve all studied literature at some point—if only during a class or two in high school. Far more people, at least, than have studied opera or painting. Writing was an art form that the population broadly felt a connection to, felt that it understood. Writers could indeed become popularly well known—think Fitzgerald, think Sandburg, think Hemingway, think Capote, think Tom Wolfe; indeed, sometimes on the order of movie business celebrities. But now? You can count on one hand the number of writers whose names would be recognized by a random set of the American population; you can count on a couple fingers the numbers of writers who would be recognized if they stepped into a supermarket in mainstream America. It’s perfectly possible nowadays, even typical, for a writer to be well known in writing circles and utterly unknown outside of them.
So why all this haughtiness? Why this monetary need? Shouldn’t writers be more concerned—desperately concerned, in fact—the writing as an art form survives and thrives? That their art form actually does still connect with the populace? Because if it doesn’t how long will creative writing last as a viable form and a career? How long will reading? How long will publishing? Shouldn’t a writer want to work—work hard—to ensure that? $25,000 is too much to pay for an hour of any writer’s time. (And perhaps for an hour of anything.) Especially if the writer is merely lofting mundane replies to softball questions. It may be an honor to sit and listen to a given writer for an hour; but it’s not $25,000 worth of honor. It’s just not. It is just not. So the next time a writer asks for $25,000 to do a half-hour reading and answer questions for 45 minutes, don’t say “Okay”; instead say “What are you an artist or a money machine?” Or, better yet, ask him: “Don’t you care if your art form survives?” Then have fun watching him dance around that question.
John Vanderslice teaches in the MFA program at the University of Central Arkansas, where he also serves as associate editor of Toad Suck Review. His short stories have appeared in dozens of leading journals, including South Carolina Review, Seattle Review, Sou’wester, Laurel Review, Crazyhorse, and Exquisite Corpse. His linked book of short stories, Island Fog, published by Lavender Ink in New Orleans, was named by Library Journal as one of the Top 15 Indie Fiction Titles of 2014.