Pecuniary Botheration: Plague of the Writing Life

(Here is the first part of an essay about writers and money that originally appeared in the literary journal drafthorse. I will share more of this essay over the next few days.)

Even in these difficult economic times the notion that art is somehow loftily and blissfully ignorant of money matters is a myth that perpetuates. Maybe because at one very visible end of the economic spectrum are the Oprah and Today Show authors, writers who have hit the literary equivalent of winning the power ball. But weighing down the other end of the spectrum are the other ninety-nine percent. Those writers who toil at their craft for years, decades even, with little or no promise of remuneration.

The cultural and historical assumption has generally been that tying monetary value to literary work somehow taints it. The writer (or artist) is supposed to be above worldly considerations, creating art in a rarefied atmosphere unburdened by everyday concerns such as the plumbing bill or college tuition fees. I was reminded of the impractical nature of this outlook recently when a writer friend of mine mentioned, “I really hope I get a $700 finalist award from the Illinois Arts Council so I can pay for my daughter’s retainer.”

Seen in these terms, payment for a short story becomes this month’s groceries, an advance on the novel means a down payment on a car to replace the old clunker, sale of a poem means, if you are lucky, a cappuccino.There should be nothing inherently wrong with looking at art as commerce. After all, in other occupations, one gets paid for one’s labor. And, one might add, a welder or a waitress engages in real labor, while a writer sits in a chair in the comfort of his or her own basement dreamily setting prose to paper. (Yeah, right…)

It is a basic economic premise that work produced has a certain value. That value might be easy to define in terms of products like copy machines or American Girl dolls. But what is a poem worth? Is there a monetary value that can be placed on a short story such as “The Lottery”? Does one’s work have no value if no one buys it and it never enters the marketplace?

Even though public perception may be that writers are removed from the gritty battlefields of commerce, nothing could be farther from the truth. In fact, most writers are very aware of their tenuous and precarious foothold on the economic ladder, and historically their correspondence bears this out. In one missive, Nathaniel Hawthorne called this whole messy business “pecuniary botheration.” He knew the reality – at the age of forty-one he was on his way to live in Salem, Massachusetts with a wife and baby and only ten dollars in ready cash.

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