Give it Away Give it Away Give it Away Now
I was on the fence about doing my birthday-week fundraising tin-cupathon this year until the New York Times wryly reminded me that I am an idiot :-)
It is not quite true that writing pays badly....I know I sound like some middle-aged sourpuss who’s forgotten why he ever wanted to do this in the first place. But I’m secretly not as mercenary as I’m trying to pretend. One of the three people who asked me to do something for nothing that dispiriting week was a graduate student in a social work program asking me if I’d speak to her class. I first sent her my boilerplate demurral, but soon found myself mulling over the topic she’d suggested, involuntarily thinking up things to say. I had gotten interested. Oh, dammit, I thought. I knew then I was going to do the talk. And after all, they were student social workers, who were never going to make much money either because they’d chosen to go into the business, which our society also deems worthless, of trying to help people. Also, she was very pretty.“Let us not kid ourselves,” Professor Vladimir Nabokov reminds us. “Let us remember that literature is of no practical value whatsoever. ... ” But practical value isn’t the only kind of value. Ours is a mixed economy, with the gift economy of the arts existing (if not exactly flourishing) within the inhospitable conditions of a market economy, like the fragile black market in human decency that keeps civilization going despite the pitiless dictates of self-interest.My field of expertise is complaining, not answers. I know there’s no point in demanding that businesspeople pay artists for their work, any more than there is in politely asking stink bugs or rhinoviruses to quit it already. It’s their job to be rapacious and shameless. But they can get away with paying nothing only for the same reason so many sleazy guys keep trying to pick up women by insulting them: because it keeps working on someone. There is a bottomless supply of ambitious young artists in all media who believe the line about exposure, or who are simply so thrilled at the prospect of publication that they’re happy to do it free of charge.I STILL remember how this felt: the first piece I ever got nationally published was in a scholarly journal that paid in contributors’ copies, but I’ve never had a happier moment in my career. And it’s not strictly true that you never benefit from exposure — being published in The New York Times helped get me an agent, who got me a book deal, which got me some dates. But let it be noted that The Times also pays in the form of money, albeit in very modest amounts.So I’m writing this not only in the hope that everyone will cross me off the list of writers to hit up for free content but, more important, to make a plea to my younger colleagues. As an older, more accomplished, equally unsuccessful artist, I beseech you, don’t give it away. As a matter of principle. Do it for your colleagues, your fellow artists, because if we all consistently say no they might, eventually, take the hint. It shouldn’t be professionally or socially acceptable — it isn’t right — for people to tell us, over and over, that our vocation is worthless....
Some kinds of writing pays extraordinarily well.