WRITERS, LIES, AND FILTHY LUCRE

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Lately writers have been talking about a piece by Ann Bauer in Salon. Entitled “Sponsored by My Husband,” the essay reveals that Bauer’s writing career is subsidized by her husband’s comfortable salary. “All that disclosure is crass,” she writes. “I’m sorry. Because in this world, where women will sit around discussing the various topiary shapes of their bikini waxes, the conversation about money (or privilege) is the one we never have.”

breaking_upWe don’t? Over the course of my career in writing and publishing, and as a frequent presenter at writers’ conferences, I’ve met countless published writers; and I’ve yet to take part in a conversation that didn’t devolve within seconds to talk of money. It’s an obsession, probably because there’s so little of it to be had in the profession. If you see a few professional writers at a table with their heads together, I guarantee you they’re not talking about the use of metaphor in modern fiction or the latest linguistics theory. They’re dishing about advances, royalty rates, and the monetization of backlists.

Of course, that’s talking writer to writer. When it comes to public speaking, writers have a different agenda. They talk about art and transformation, hard work allied with inspiration.  Bauer attributes this to their desire to present an Olympian image: the Celebrated Author descending from on high to disperse wit and wisdom to the adoring throngs (or semi-throngs; the usual book event draws an average of 8 to 12 attendees, half of them related to the author.)

slushThere are more generous explanations; but even if Bauer’s is right, should we begrudge writers their little affectations? I don’t think so. In real life, most writers are working stiffs with mortgages, kids, and too little money. Once in a while, though, we get to dress up and play rock stars; and what’s the harm in that? Consider the writer’s life. For years at a time, she leads a cloistered existence, laboring in isolation without feedback, encouragement, or paycheck. Then her book is published, and there is a great flurry of activity. The writer takes off her sweats, dons her official writer clothes,  and emerges blinking from her cave to toasts and accolades. It would take a hard heart to deny her a bit of basking and a glass or two of champagne before shutting her up again.

But writers should tell the truth, insists Bauer, though I’m not sure why; no one else does.  “We do an enormous ‘let them eat cake’ disservice to our community,” she writes, “when we obfuscate the circumstances that help us write, publish and in some way succeed.”

Depends, say I. Sometimes a little obfuscation can be a good thing. As a fiction writer, I have, admittedly, an ambiguous relationship to the truth; that is, I think it takes many forms beyond the literal. But in this case, my objection to excessive truth-telling is practical. If authors were to use public appearances to complain about how poorly they are paid (which is absolutely true), how would audiences react? They’d still see the author as privileged, only now they see him as privileged and whiny. Every profession has its drawbacks. Very few writers would swap theirs for, say, coal mining or sausage making. Personally, I’d rather use those rare public outings to shine a light on my work than on the conditions under which it’s produced.

I’m all for honesty and openness, in their place. This blog’s mission is to provide just that sort of honest, down-to-earth guidance to other writers, both published and aspiring. I believe writers need to share information and experience in order to plot our path through the rapidly changing publishing ecosphere.

But don’t cork up that champagne just yet! If we can’t have riches, we can at least have fun. One of the characters in my last book, A DANGEROUS FICTION, makes an appearance at her book launch dressed as Cleopatra, borne on a litter by four strapping young men in togas. Ms. Bauer might think this over the top. To me, it seems about right.

woman in litter

 

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About Barbara Rogan

I am the author of nine novels, including A DANGEROUS FICTION, published by Viking and Penguin. I'm also a former editor and literary agent. Currently I teach fiction writing on my online school, www.nextlevelworkshop.com.
This entry was posted in Promotion, the writing life, Writers and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to WRITERS, LIES, AND FILTHY LUCRE

  1. muriel kaplan says:

    An insider’s view, revealed to an outsider reader. Thanks!

  2. Jenny Elliott says:

    Excellent post, Barbara–must share!

  3. Carol D'Amico says:

    “But writers should tell the truth, insists Bauer, though I’m not sure why; no one else does.” Brilliant and oh-so-true observation, and timely as well! Don’t you think Barbara, that we all relate more to the idea of the artist struggling in the cold garret then of one surrounded by comfort and luxury? Bauer seems to want to mess with the myth, not always welcomed by the masses.

  4. deniz says:

    “Personally, I’d rather use those rare public outings to shine a light on my work than on the conditions under which it’s produced.”
    Hear hear!
    I mean, there are only so many instances where I can laugh at the joke of the at-home writer in sweatpants (I don’t even *own* sweatpants. Ick. I do have pyjama pants, though [bg]) — isn’t the money issue sort of the same thing?

    On a side note, it doesn’t matter how open you are about your process, finances, thoughts re same, etc., you’re still liable to trolling from detractors (witness the number of people who still think Amanda Palmer got a book deal “because of her husband” (never mind her own successful music career and the endless reach of her TED talk, etc.) or the number of people who think Neil Gaiman slapped together a few board books “just to add to his millions” and that they were “only published because he’s already famous” (once you’re really successful, people will always ignore your history).

    • Hi Deniz!

      I have sweatpants, and I deploy them. But I’m with you on the jealousy factor. I get it, of course. For many writers, there’s only so many times you can hear “Sorry, not for us” before they decide publishing’s a rigged game and it’s all about who you know.

      It’s not, though. I’ve had the pleasure of seeing many of my students go on to sell their work, not through connections but through sheer merit and perseverance. My first novel was never published. It hurt, of course, but I took it as a challenge to write something better, and I did. If I’d given up then, the eight books that were published thereafter never would have existed.

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