Saturday, May 16, 2009


I don't often read Atlantic blogger Megan McArdle, because most of what I have read has been forehead-slappingly idiotic. But some of what she's got to say in this post is dead on. A brief excerpt:

...writers are, as a class, extraordinarily at risk. They spend their twenties, and often their thirties, living paycheck to paycheck. They are extremely well educated, and all that education is not only expensive, but builds expensive habits. You end up with a lot of friends who make much more money than you--who don't even realize that a dinner with $10 entrees and a bottle of wine is an expensive treat, not a cheap outing to catch up on old times. Our business is in crisis, and we lose jobs often. When we do, it's catastrophic.

This is what David Brooks calls "status-income disequilibrium", and unless you are among that happy breed of writers who is married to someone with a high-paying job, or who has a trust fund, you feel it keenly. Everyone you write about makes more than you. Most of the people you know make more than you.

This is absolutely right, and it's part of what drove me, and the other freelance writers I discussed it with via email, so crazy about Dan Baum's Twitter account of how he was hired, then fired, by the New Yorker (now collected here). That guy was getting $90,000 a year to write? I've never come close to a buck a word for anything I've written, and frankly, given the state of the publishing industry (and I'm including websites in that), I don't ever expect to. From where I (and every other writer I personally know) sit, the kind of money Baum - and Edmund Andrews, the New York Timesman McArdle links to and discusses in her post - make is mind-boggling. Incomprehensible. One of the outlets I write for pays me $15 for a CD review. Others pay $25. I'm supposed to care about these guys' problems?

I started freelancing just about thirteen years ago, and I was working in a warehouse at the time, faxing in copy I'd typed on an electric typewriter. It's been nine years since I had a job doing anything other than writing and editing, but to be honest, I can very easily foresee having to return to non-writing work, and cranking out reviews and stories at night and on weekends, in the future. When I read about some writer signing a contract to write for a magazine for $90,000 a year, or getting a half-(or multi-)million-dollar book advance, my reaction isn't aspirational - I never think "one day that'll be me." I think that just like everything else in American life, writing is about connections and juice, and I showed up just a little bit late to the party, and through the wrong door - yeah, I got in when you could still get hired as an editor just by being good with language, without needing a college degree (which I don't have), but I don't know the people who would bring me to the attention of somebody at Rolling Stone, never mind the Atlantic or the New Yorker. So pardon me if I don't squeeze out a tear for Baum or Andrews. I've got CDs to review.

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