Why More Writers Should Talk About Money

A new collection of essays and interviews breaks one of the biggest taboos of the literary world.

Leonid Pasternak's 19th century painting "The Throes of Creation"  (WIkimedia Commons)

Money makes people anxious—perhaps even more so with writers. The relationship between commerce and writing is commonly sketched out in caricatures: the starving artist, the hapless student, the privileged few who “make it.” More often, it’s not addressed at all.

But in the past few years, some writers have begun to more openly approach questions of class. The internet has seen a profusion of such pieces: A writer who is “sponsored” by her husband calls on other writers to be more transparent about where their money comes from. Another outlines the clear advantages that being born rich, connected, and able to attend expensive schools furnishes to becoming a successful writer. In another case, a woman who wrote a well-received debut novel details how she went broke after a single advance.

A new book of essays and interviews with writers on the topic of money, released earlier this month, aims to dig even deeper. Scratch: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living, edited by Manjula Martin, includes hard truths and thoughtful meditations on class and capitalism while also functioning as a survival guide. In one essay, Roxane Gay (Bad Feminist, Difficult Women) speaks frankly about her student debt, annual income, and past day jobs. In another, Martin herself explains the kind of code-switching by which writers conceal their class background in talking about their careers.

By turns comforting, depressing, and illuminating, Scratch paints a fuller, more personal picture of what it’s like to make a living from—or while—writing. I spoke with Martin about the intersection of writing, money, and class, as well as the process of making Scratch. (This conversation has been edited and condensed.)

Joseph Frankel : Some of the writers you spoke with for Scratch were very frank about their finances and their class backgrounds. Others were a little more reluctant. What accounts for these different levels of openness?

Manjula Martin: In my experience working with writers on this topic, it’s often the people who have more money who don’t want to talk about money. Transparency is a really scary thing for a lot of people in any profession, and I think there are good reasons for that. But people who are excited to talk about the topic, even if they’re nervous, inherently understand ... that it takes transparency to change stuff. It’s the old saw of “knowledge is power,” and I think that extends to writers and money.

There are a lot of barriers to access for people who come from low-income backgrounds, or maybe less traditional educational backgrounds, or who have had to deal with other types of prejudices in their life. If we want that to change, we need to start being honest about how this business actually works.

Frankel: Essays in the collection call attention to the creative value of day jobs and, in the case of Leslie Jamison (The Empathy Exams), their impact on writers’ output. Others, particularly the piece by Alexander Chee (The Queen of the Night, Edinburgh), think that the discussion of day jobs helps to romanticize unfair pay for writers. How do you think about the relationship between other kinds of work and writing?

Martin: I think that some of the stuff Chee says in his essay is particularly valuable for younger writers who maybe haven’t been around in an era where folks were ever really compensated well. I’ve certainly written for free. I’d bet Chee has done it too, and I think he talks about that in his essay. But if you’re hiring me to do work, you need to pay me, is sort of his stance. And I agree with that 100 percent.

You mentioned romanticizing that relationship between work and craft. I think it’s very tricky because there is a lot of dangerous romanticization, and that can set writers up, particularly in the beginnings of their careers, to blunder in a business they know nothing about.

Chee has a great quote in his essay where he talks about how any education in writing should include an education in how to make a living as a writer. There is a place for the romantic in the writer’s life, but there’s a difference between romance and being ignorant. Gay says that really nicely in her interview where she’s just like, “I don’t want to kill the dream of my students by being like, ‘it’s really hard to make a living!’” But it’s also the responsibility of older generations of writers to let folks know really what it’s like.

It drives me equally crazy to read advice to writers on the internet that’s like, “Here’s how to write a bestseller in 7 steps” or “You are guaranteed to get a book deal.” I think that’s the flipside of the same coin.

Frankel: Going back to Chee, he recalls looking at the lives of his writing mentors—tenured academics and literary magazine writers—as models for his career. These models, he writes, have now become less attainable. How do you think the financial prospects of writing have changed over time, or affected the voices that get to be heard?

Martin: I think anyone who is alive and of working age in even the 1990s has experienced in their lifetimes—and I’m including myself in this—a decline in the ability to make a living as a writer, whether you’re writing books or working as a journalist. Chee and I are around the same age, and I also worked in magazines in New York in the 1990s, and that part of his essay rang very true to me. There were people who were definitely making $2 or $3 a word to write profiles in GQ. And you can still write profiles for GQ, but it’s been 20 years and that rate has not gone up. If anything, it’s gone down. Particularly when it comes to journalism, that is a measurable truth.

In the book industry, it’s a little harder to measure because the industry is so wacky about advances. But I do think that as it becomes more difficult to make a living as a writer, a narrower selection of voices are being heard. And that means a more limited pool of stories are being told. As we’re moving into an era where the freedom of press is going to be severely restricted if not entirely threatened, I think that question becomes even more urgent.

Frankel: In your essay on your own writing and working life, you say, “It’s presumed my story is authentic when I speak about work and art and say I was once a seamstress.” You then introduce the idea of “writerly code-switching”—a way writers with a degree of class privilege reshape their stories about their own “day job struggles.” What shapes the way writers talk about their “struggles,” or relative lack thereof?

Martin: Everybody has a story they tell about themselves to themselves, and then everyone has a version of that story they tell to the world. I don’t think writers are all that different—I think everybody does this. Maybe people don’t articulate it as well if they’re not people whose work it is to articulate things.

What I was doing in that essay was to really call bullshit on my own story. I have this narrative of myself as a scrappy college dropout who made it, when in reality, my parents work in a university and have my whole childhood. I was middle-class growing up.

I was definitely very poor for many years, but that was a poverty of choice. Cheryl Strayed (Tiny Beautiful Things, Wild) talks about this in her interview: She is a very educated person, and so she has chosen to go into debt in order to do her art and make her work. But she grew up very, very poor, as in like goes-hungry-sometimes poor, and so she’s very attuned to that difference.

I think it’s crucial for writers who are talking about their struggles with money to be rigorous in examining their own narratives, and making sure that their narratives reflect reality. The legend of the “starving artist,” I think, on one hand can be very true, because we have always lived in a society and an economy that doesn’t value the arts monetarily in the same way that it values other things. On the other hand, let’s dig a little deeper than that, and if you’re not actually starving let’s talk about that.

Frankel: Jamison argues that all art is shaped by outside forces, including money and the institutions that have it. How do you think the influence of these forces like universities and publishing houses plays out in the kinds of writing that see an audience?

Martin: I think [those forces] entirely shape what gets seen. These multiple influences that Jamison talks so brilliantly about—money, institutions, the influence of other artists, your community or your cohort—are huge. It’s interesting because I think Jamison is arguing that rather than institutions destroying the integrity of work, they are actually what makes up the work, and I think that’s true to a certain extent.

Frankel: Daniel José Older (Shadowshaper, the Bone Street Rumba series) writes that the language of economics—what “The Market” demands—is used to obscure barriers that are in place for writers of color in publishing. Are there other ways the language of economics covers up the obstacles writers face?

Martin: The language of “quality” and “merit” also gets used to obscure things. There’s an idea by publishers and editors that “we only choose the ‘best’ stories to publish. That’s our only rubric. We’re looking at stories in a ‘pure’ way. And only judge them on their value.” That’s just not how humans work, and if you’re a person whose job it is to edit or publish, you have tastes and feelings and opinions, and that goes into what you’re choosing. Otherwise it would be boring.

But I think that relying on the language of merit doesn’t acknowledge the types of barriers—the racism, the sexism, the economic privilege—that are inherent in our culture and our society and, obviously, also in publishing. And in fact there are studies that publishing is some crazy percentage white, right? (Editor: A study from January 2016 found that the publishing industry as a whole was 79 percent white.) That doesn’t happen because only white people write good books.

Frankel: A lot of writers in this collection, including Jamison and Strayed, seem to be making a call for financial transparency from individual writers. How do you think that greater openness can shape the way people perceive writing as a career?

Martin: The only people who benefit from nobody in an industry knowing what each other makes are the people at the very top, the people signing the paychecks. The people getting the paychecks never benefit from that. It’s my hope that this kind of open conversation can have an empowering effect both on writers and people who want to be writers. While it can be scary to confront so-called “real talk” about money, it’s essential. And it could hopefully allow writers to have greater control of the economics of our business.

The whole thing with Scratch is writers are a part of the world, which means that we are part of the economy. And this project is the product of my belief that we can be better at our jobs, and also better at our lives and have better jobs and have better lives if we acknowledge that we live in the world like everyone else.

Frankel: What should younger or aspiring writers take away from Scratch?

Martin: If this book can help people understand what it is actually like to be a working writer, it’s done its job. There’s so much speculation, vagueness, and mystery around that, that just that existing on paper is important.

When I told people about this project, overwhelmingly, they would say “Oh, good, it’s not just me who’s obsessed with this stuff.” A lot of people are curious about this. Money is intricately entwined with the type of work we do. We don’t have to like it, we maybe don’t even have to be good at the money side, but we have to acknowledge it and know that that’s okay.