I found an interesting article in Dissent, a quarterly magazine of politics and ideas and one of America’s leading intellectual journals.
Who pays Writers? asks Maggie Doherty, a lecturer at Harvard University, where she teaches American literary and cultural history. This is a question that keeps getting asked and of course not many writers are getting paid. Of course, the question is not remarkable, but Doherty surprises with her observations:
“Radical literary experimentation continues, but it has become the privilege of a few. In Barth’s day, a robust welfare state supported writers. Public patronage programs provided new classes of Americans with the resources needed to write and, through financial support, enabled them to take aesthetic risks.”
It’s hard to believe the kind of support writers used to get. Now, the story has changed though.
“No longer supported by the state, today’s writers must meet market demands. Those who succeed often do so by innovating no more than is necessary. Many of today’s most celebrated writers marry experimentalism with accessibility; they produce prize-winning fiction with just a dash of formal excitement, enough to catch the eye of cultural gatekeepers but not so much that it renders a work unmarketable. They forge aesthetic compromise and favor political consensus. Their work reassures readers more often than it unsettles them. This isn’t so much bad literature as boring literature.”
The author chronicles how projects like the Federal Writer’s Project(FWP) and the NEA Literature Program gave writers from all backgrounds a chance to express themselves in radical ways. Writers were paid to get their life out of the way so that they could experiment and create voices that were more critical and honest.
Today, Doherty thinks writers are forced to think more about money and so they don’t really want to talk about the most obvious things. They are forced to sell themselves out as they play to market trends and not to the need of better literature. A writer really can not be a diplomat.
“When writers are forced to conform to consensus positions, either political or aesthetic, the literary world starts to look depressingly monochrome. Literature that appeals to the mainstream isn’t just politically anodyne—it’s aesthetically predictable.”
We see this happening everywhere, regardless of the politic the country chooses. This brings us to the role of the writer. Is he or she a mouthpiece of those whose patronage they receive or do writers have a voice of their own?
If they do have a voice of their own, don’t they pay the price for it?