Via Who Pays Writers?, Scratch magazine, and now her new book, Manjula Martin has sought to bring the one subject that writers avoid discussing into focus: money. Romantic, pure, creative writing should not be beholden to something as grotesque as a market, the thinking goes; one writes because one loves to write! But by shunning the business side of their work, people in creative fields are hastening their own devaluation in culture. Like it or not, we all live within a market where we have to fight for our value.
Martin’s book, titled Scratch: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living, explores the friction between commerce and creativity by getting authors, essayists, and journalists to speak on the record about building a writing career. Ahead of Scratch’s release, Martin spoke with Paste via phone from San Francisco about art, money, and selling out. (The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
Paste: When people talk about writing, they often mention that you should “do what you love.” Scratch shows how dismissive or privileged that position is, because writers also have food to buy and rent to pay. People don’t seem to understand that writing is a job as well.
Manjula Martin: I think this is true with a lot of creative professions. It’s understandable to me that people don’t view creative work as real work, not because it’s not real work, but because the people who do it do love it. It does have that extra something—passion or romance or inspiration or whatever you want to call it—that makes art so meaningful to our society.
That said, it strikes me as a little bit crazy that people might choose to do a job without really understanding the economics of how that job works. And so Scratch is very much about balancing those two things. Building a writing career—or any sort of creative career—is really about figuring out what works for you, and to do that, you need to understand everything about it. You need to know what your value is.
Paste: I use Who Pays Writers? when I’m looking for places to shop pitches, because I don’t want to waste my time on people who aren’t going to pay me. I think before Who Pays Writers?, people felt awkward talking about it. Do you think that’s the case, and do you think that has hurt writers in the long run?
Martin: Definitely; it hurts us tremendously. That’s what this is all about. Look at it this way: If you want to look at it in traditional workplace terms, the only person who benefit by workers not knowing how much other workers get paid is the boss. Now in writing, there are many different ways to define who the boss is. A lot of times, editors aren’t sitting there getting rich and only paying us $50 a piece, that’s not normally how it works, right? Anyone who’s actually worked with an editor or as an editor understands that.
But I do think it’s really important to understand that this cult of silence around the economics of creative work is hurtful to the workers. It’s harmful in a very direct way, in that it makes it very difficult to economically survive for the writer, but it’s also harmful to the work we do. Pretending that art is sacred and exists separate from the real world, pretending like literature is sacred and exists separate from the real world, only does a disservice to literature.
Paste: You have a great quote from a Nick Hornby interview where he says his work is important to him and he’s never written for money, but he does know he’s working in a market. And I think that’s the kind of practicality that many creative people don’t bring to their life.
Martin: Yeah! Even if you are a literary writer and you only intend on selling 50 copies of your book—which, I don’t know anyone who intends that, but let’s say it exists—the fact that you are operating in a sphere in which the way people make money isn’t relevant means you aren’t actually writing the world. Your characters aren’t real people if you’re not a person who is in tune with the real world.
I say that because I talk to a lot of people who are just coming out of MFA programs, for example, and it’s shocking to me how little people learn in MFA programs about what it actually means to publish. Even just the process of how it works, let alone the money part.
I talked to a class last year that was at a private liberal arts school, known for somewhat experimental work, and they were completely uninterested in how to actually publish a book or get articles published. And I stopped the discussion, and I was like, “Hey! Dudes! Do you think that you are going to just sit in your apartment and type and become famous? Because that’s not how this works, and it’s also not the right reason to be a writer.”
Paste: What’s surprising to me is that you have to hit a certain critical mass to influence change, but people don’t want to do that because they don’t want to “sell out.”
Martin: The selling out question is huge. Here’s what I think about that: If you are a person who wants someone to read anything that you have written, you are a salesman one way or another. That doesn’t mean you have to be comfortable with it, it doesn’t mean you have to be good at it, but it does mean that you have to do it. So if that’s not a thing one is comfortable with, one should figure out a way to set up a career that doesn’t require that.
I also think that there are many bad things about the internet, but one of the cool things is that people who are doing more obscure work can find each other more easily. I think that idea of being a genius and sitting alone in your room making avant-garde work that is pure from the demands of the marketplace is fading, because the geniuses are all talking to each other on the internet while they’re alone in their rooms, which means that something is getting out there.
Colin Dickey writes about that a bit in his essay in Scratch. He talks about how we have this perception that in the past there was pure literature separate from the needs of the marketplace and how that’s actually a myth. There has always been a conflict between making art and selling art. It’s always something artists had to negotiate, from the days of patronage to now. Colin writes about the first Greek poet who gets paid for his work, and how everyone said he was a sellout. And he kind of was, but he placed a value on his work. He wasn’t afraid to ask for it, and that was a historical moment.
Making money from your work isn’t selling out, but changing the integrity of your work to make money is selling out. I mean it in a political context. We’re about to be in a moment where writers really are under threat from the powers that be and freedom of speech really is under attack. So I think when the stakes are that high, the conversation about selling out changes a little bit. Because it’s not just about “oh you’re a sellout because people like you,” it’s “oh you’re a sellout because you are compromising your work in order to support oppression.”
Paste: I think that the idea of a pure, art-loving society goes back to this idea of the silence, that we don’t speak about our work as a marketplace. Where do you think that originally came from, and why is it keeping us blind?
Martin: I think that while the tension between writing and money has always been there in our culture, it’s always been there for a reason: Our world doesn’t value creative work monetarily in the same way that it values other work. And when something is perceived as less than, it becomes hidden and has to move underground in certain ways. Then all of these smaller things keep happening.
Romanticism is a big one; people have a very romantic notion of what it means to be a writer. I think it’s really important to honor that romance, because that is the drive and the spark of something that makes people actually do this work. Which is generally not remunerative and not the easiest job in the world—it ain’t coal mining, but it is not the easiest job in the world—so I think it’s important. And I think Roxane Gay talks about this in her interview [in Scratch], when she’s like, “I don’t want to kill the romance. Let my students have their fantasies.” But also make sure you are sending people out in to the world prepared to actually do battle with the forces that be. There’s a difference between romance and ignorance.
Paste: Do you think that we have less of that romanticism and silence now than we’ve had in a long time, or maybe ever?
Martin: I can only really speak to my lifetime. I do think that, on one hand, no one talks about this stuff, but on the other hand, it’s all anyone talks about when you’re a writer, right?
I think that this Who Pays Writers? and a lot of parallel conversations that have been going on in other writing communities have opened up this conversation more in the last five years or so. I’m certainly not the first person who has talked about this, so I don’t want to imply that, but I do think that as the larger economic climate gets more difficult—for journalists, for book publishing, for people who are freelancing—the conversation gets heightened, because there is a need for it.
That said, it’s not over. That’s one of my main points that I want to get across with these projects: It’s not over, and it’s never going to be over. This is a daily part of doing this kind of work, dealing with the commercial side and the financial side and the economic side, so we might as well get good at it.
Paste: Is there anything else you’d like to discuss?
Martin: There’s been a lot of talk lately about diversity in publishing, and I think that journalism and publishing have a lot of barriers to access for people who aren’t coming out of traditional paths. Those traditional paths often include a certain type of educational path and a certain type of middle or upper class background. Usually people who are white, overwhelmingly straight, and men still rise faster to the top. And it’s often, at least in the past, been headquartered in big cities.
So if we really want to change the ways that these industries are working, we need to understand the way these industries work. And we also have to include economic diversity in that diversity. If only the people who can afford to work for free are the people who are working, what kind of stories are getting out there in the world?