Thursday, December 11, 2008

Brother Can You Spare a Dime?

There is a whole lot of crash-and-burn talk going on with writers these days. I was just talking to one author I edited who is a freelancer, and he was talking about places - magazines, websites - wanting more for less. And the big problem is, it's not even a matter of the publishers holding back necessarily! In many cases, no one is making money. So if you go chasin' it, you might end up staring down a big empty hole.

So what to do? Call Obama!

Two new articles have come out about whether President-elect Obama should revive a Federal Writers' Project like the one that we had in the 1930s following the Great Depression. Are we ready for a literary bail-out? (So asks Jennifer Schuessler at the NY Times' Papercuts blog.)

Paul Greenberg's piece will appear in this Sunday's NYTimes, arguing not to resuscitate the old FWP model, but to instead model the AAA - Agricultural Adjustment Administration, which worked to lower the production of produce. Why? Well...

Overcapacity has been something generally acknowledged across the writing industry for at least 10 years. In a 2002 essay in The New York Times, the onetime best-selling novelist and story writer Ann Beattie mourned the situation of the modern writer, living in a world where people are more interested in “being a writer” than in writing itself. “There are too many of us, and M.F.A. programs graduate more every year, causing publishers to suffer snow-blindness, which has resulted in everyone getting lost,” she lamented. That Ann Beattie must now compete on Amazon with a self-published author named Ann Rothrock Beattie is proof of how enormous the blizzard has become.

I'm always amazed at the number of people who claim to be or want to be writers, versus the smaller number of people who really and truly read books.

Greenberg's piece is somewhat tongue-in-cheek but still of interest to those of us who worry about just how much garbage clogs your modern corporate bookstore.

Greenberg ends with a biting quote from Graham Greene:
“Are you prepared for the years of effort, ‘the long defeat of doing nothing well’? As the years pass writing will not become any easier, the daily effort will grow harder to endure, those ‘powers of observation’ will become enfeebled; you will be judged, when you reach your 40s, by performance and not by promise.”

Yowser, huh?

The other article considering this idea is by Mark I. Pinsky over at The New Republic. A bit more straight-forward, this article includes a nice brief history of FWP and does at least imagine, if not call for, a resuscitation of the federal program.
This time, the FWP could begin by documenting the ground-level impact of the Great Recession; chronicling the transition to a green economy; or capturing the experiences of the thousands of immigrants who are changing the American complexion. Like the original FWP, the new version would focus in particular on those segments of society largely ignored by commercial and even public media. At the same time, the multimedia fruits of this research would be open-sourced to all media, as well as to academics.

Interesting concept to consider. However, try to sell this idea to anyone who gets a whiff of the blog Daily Routines, which chronicles "how writers, artists, and other interesting people organize their days." Some show discipline, sure - Toni Morrison writing before dawn, when her children would start to wake, or J.M. Coetzee writing seven days a week - and then you have the others who are a bit more... eccentric? Says Truman Capote:
I am a completely horizontal author. I can't think unless I'm lying down, either in bed or stretched on a couch and with a cigarette and coffee handy. I've got to be puffing and sipping. As the afternoon wears on, I shift from coffee to mint tea to sherry to martinis.

Can you imagine the conservative reaction to that man getting a federal subsidy? Not so much, but I'm certainly glad his writing made it into the world.

Back to the drawing table perhaps...

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