Artists as the Working Poor

I live in a town where some of the best young writers come to the nation’s best writing school. They get their degree from the workshop that has created more Pulitzer-Prize winners than any other institution of its kind. And then, newly minted, the bulk of these writers finds a minimum-wage job. Many of them stay there for years. You take a cab in Iowa City, and you’ll run into a guy who’s working on his manuscript. I have friends who’ve worked on road crews, and who signed up to de-tassle corn. I worked for three years alongside African refugees, as we provided personal hygiene for adults who were developmentally disabled. We did more than that, and it was deeply meaningful work—but my point is that for every artist who finds acclaim, or even a teaching job, there are a dozen who become the working poor.

I’ve spent six years writing a 900-page novel that *might* see publication, and that *might* earn more than the average first-novel advance, which is $10,000. After publication, royalties usually come in at $2.50 per hardcover book sale, and writers don’t see a dime of that until the royalties pay back their advance. Furthermore, if a store—such as Walmart or Amazon or Barnes and Noble—sells their book at a discount, the royalty payment goes down accordingly. Payment for paperback publication—which is essentially a much-hoped-for second publication—goes down even more.

Am I complaining? Well, kinda, because the research for this post has made me depressed. But my larger point is that artists need financial support from outside organizations. Typically writers practice their craft within the gaps of a full-time job. And if they have a family to feed (and to spend time with!), they probably write less often than that. Art, you’ve probably heard, is the soul of a culture. It is its conscience, and its reflection, and one of its greatest sources of mutual empathy. We saw slavery more clearly after reading Roots or Beloved. We thought deeply about war after Slaughterhouse 5, or Catch-22, or The Things They Carried. Marilynne Robinson, who is a freak of a success, got her scholarship to Brown University, from the Department of Defense, because back then, people like Eisenhower knew that artistry (and education) provided cultural defense. 

There is a reason why programs like the NEA exist. They provide breathing room for the folks who speak to us through story—which is to say, encounter. And when the whole country can no longer agree on either the facts or the rational argument that would come from those facts, then I’m afraid the empathy from the artist-made encounter is one of the only ways we can ever hope to find common ground again.

(Originally posted March 18, 2017)

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