...Yet I heard from these women again and again that they assigned the greatest value possible to their writing precisely because they were aware no one else would do so, and because writing is real work. This valuation, unconsidered by the market, can instead be measured in terms of time, emotional energy, curiosity, focus, exchange of ideas: elements women know have essential currency in their lives. Even while raising a toddler, S. gets up to write in the mornings before her teaching job. That her writing is the labor of least immediate need – if she didn’t do it, her family wouldn’t go hungry or become homeless – doesn’t push it to the end of the to-do list. G. told me that she “tries not to compromise for anyone,” which means that writing trumps hanging with friends. K., who turned to freelance writing and editing after failing to find steady work in her new city, says that although she is apt to prioritize nonfiction assignments that pay, her fiction is what has “long-term value” for her: she hopes to get paid for it someday, but in the meantime she likes to remember that the value of writing is ultimately measured by the impact it has. “You don’t know where words will go,” she said, especially given the democratic access made possible by the Internet. [emphases added]
There's ... possibly some cognitive dissonance in deciding to value your writing because you perceive that no one else does but to keep writing all the same in the hope that it will have an impact. There doesn't have to be, of course, but all art is a social activity to some degree or another. You choose to value the art you make because you know that, right now, no one else does. That might be why, as Matanya Ophee put it in something he wrote years ago, when you get down to it you have to concede that all publishing is ultimately some variation of vanity publishing.
In 1938, writing Three Guineas, Virginia Woolf bemoaned to her imaginary correspondent the fact that in order for women to receive an education that would allow them to earn a living, already a struggle, they had to subject themselves to the very values of competition and domination they hoped to escape by wriggling out from the financial grips of men. Women who have the education and privilege to earn their own money and spend it on time devoted to non-market creative production are in some ways acting out Woolf’s dream. Every time we sit down to write, often in the economic margins of our own lives, we choose ourselves and our work over activities whose value has been set by others. Simultaneously, we determine a value scale for our writing that’s different from the one set by a magazine’s pay rates, a tenure committee, or the book-buying public.
This value scale is reflected in women’s goals for their writing. When I asked the women I spoke with about the endgame of their work, their responses were civic and existential, not just commercial: to create books people read and want to talk about, to exchange ideas, to make beautiful things. Not that we should knock commerce: for women especially, the passive income that can come from a successful book is yet another way of establishing the fiscal independence that can lead to cultural influence with fewer strings attached.
Woolf would enjoy this above all about the growing cadre of female “writers and _____.” We have found a way to continue our own education, and each other’s, by creating work that exists somewhat outside the economic influence of a society where we still only count sometimes. Our society sends women a gloppy salad of mixed messages: extolling mothers while denying them paid family leave, encouraging creativity only when it’s applied to saleable products, and keeping the cost of education high enough that students can barely afford to exchange ideas for fear of losing the job opportunity that pays their loans back. Amid all of that noise, we’ve still managed to create spaces – an hour here, an afternoon there – where only our work and its impact matter. [emphasis added] But nothing comes from nothing: the ability to do that is a natural extension of our ability to participate in the labor force at all. As Woolf put it, once a woman earns her own money, “she can declare her genuine likes and dislikes. In short, she need not acquiesce; she can criticize. At last she is in possession of an influence that is disinterested.” Criticizing and influencing now means something more than writing alone in a room: somewhere in that zone of fiscal and ideological independence, we have to take seriously our responsibility to value our work – and each other – loudly, especially when others won’t
This piece reminded me why Joan Didion considered feminism to be more or less a waste of time. There were more important things and more interesting things to write about, for Didion, than some imaginary sisterhood. One of the things I've read from Scott Timberg over the years is a polemic that has it that if we're not careful production in the arts will be a leisure activity. Debra cash considered it a good line.
“If we’re not careful, culture work will become a luxury, like a vacation home,” Timberg writes. It’s a good line, and one that anyone who values a diverse cultural ecology would want to affirm. What he doesn’t want to admit is that, absent direct patronage, professional culture workers have often depended on outside sources of income. For some it was the second job (in the post-war period, that job was primarily teaching, a job indirectly subsidized by the government in the form of the G.I. Bill fostering a new population of students). For others, it was something unrelated (meet pediatrician William Carlos Williams). For many (more than we have usually acknowledged and certainly more than today’s BFA and MFA students are aware) it was a trust fund, family member, or a spouse of means. That cushion made it possible for a talented person work on a novel or a painting until the work could earn respect, if not a proportionate wage for the work the artist put into it. Maybe the market would respond, and maybe it wouldn’t, but at least the creative person had a chance to find out.
But I consider it stupid and dishonest. "culture work" has always been the luxury of people in societies who didn't not have to worry about presently dying of starvation, malnutrition, pestilence, war, etc. The arts have always been the product of leisure.
I'm on the fence about "the culture of free". Part of why I'm on the fence about it is that I'm not sure I think artists (read that as writers, musicians, poets, etc) should be able to make a living in the arts. What if the arts scene that was celebrated in the last half century or so was a kind of cultural bubble, a side effect of the wartime and post-war production explosion? What if, as some folks have proposed, the proliferation of certain types of avant garde activity in the Western arts was in some way bankrolled by the CIA? Don't snicker too much, there's an actual book on this topic I'm planning to get to later this year.
Ever since Miyazaki's The Wind Rises came out a few years ago I've been thinking about how film critics said it was a film about the nature of art ... but nobody seemed willing to take the simple step of proposing that what that film might say about art is that it is invariably the servant of an empire, no matter how idealized and idealistic it may be to those who work within whatever "art" may be. Which would you choose, Caproni asks Jiro in one of Jiro's vision/dreams, a world with ... or without the pyramids? The question is a haunting one because it is a question that, historically speaking, we've always had only one answer for, we live in a world with pyramids.
Long, long ago scribes were uncommon. Scribes were part of an elite, part of a religious or political elite. There were whole empires in which the capacity to read and write was guarded as a privilege not to be dispensed to the rank and file and the masses. We live in an era in which writers seem to want that scribal/priestly caste's halo. If we can't get that veneration from others ... we'll bestow it upon ourselves?
When so many critiques of institutional and informal power consist of the proposal and observation that there's ultimately no such thing as "disinterested" speech ... it seems weird to propose that "now" women can arrive at what Woolf presented as an aspiration. How sure should we be that we want to live out a highbrow perspective? I mean, if you're into that, great. I have some highbrow tastes myself. It's just that ... it doesn't seem like criticizing and influencing have changed all that much. No one "counts" all the time. "Counting" is a sometime process even for the most powerful man in the world.
Sometimes it's helpful to remember that if today writers keep saying stuff to the effect that the words they can write down can/could/would/should/will have the power to change reality as we know it and that seems a bit overhyped ... that's kind of one of the ineradicable undercurrents of humans writing. The hope and ambition that the written word could change the world as we know it probably goes back as far as the world's first written word.