Saturday, May 21, 2016

Neal Gabler's Atlantic piece about financial struggles for the writer, and different people react to the white male privilege part while not questioning the viability of anyone "making a living" as a writer from jump

Noah Berlatsky has written about the Neal Gabler piece for the Atlantic that was trying to make a case for the hollowing out of the middle class that transformed into an occasion for sniping from a writer or two about his extravagant level of privilege to write about having a place in the Hamptons.  Berlatsky has written about how the dream of living as a writer seems to be slipping away.  He's able to get by because his wife works fulltime.  And while he ... :
 could sneer at Gabler for trying to pursue meaningful accomplishments rather than taping his nose to the grindstone and churning out anonymous dreck. But I'd like to be paid for meaningful accomplishments too. That's one of the dreams of democracy: the hope that somehow you can spend hours in fulfilling pursuits, and in return you’ll be granted, if not an extravagant living, then at least a comfortable one.
The fact that fame and fortune for writers no longer go together as they once did is part and parcel of meritocracy's death throes. Meritocracy has always been mostly a myth, but in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, as inequality dropped, it seemed more solid than ever before. Talent really could be rewarded, it seemed; a writer with smarts and talent could get those book advances, and pay the mortgage too.
Now it's one or the other—and soon enough it may well be neither. Opportunities for writing scutwork are drying up too; who needs people to write boring encyclopedia articles, for example, when you can get the crowd to do them for Wikipedia instead? I envy Gabler his accolades. He may envy my relative financial security. But soon enough we may both envy our past selves, as writing becomes solely an avocation for those who can afford it, rather than a way to make a middle-class living, or any kind of living at all.
It's hard to shake the sense that everything that the sentence "Meritocracy has always been mostly a myth ... " has been written by someone who knows better.  I spent about a decade in the non-profit sector and when the question was posed to me by a friend about doing this arts thing as a non-profit work my response was to say it seems you have to work out whether you're going to participate in the arts as a consumer/attender or as a producer/performer because in the lower rungs of non-profit you just don't get paid enough to swing both.  On the other hand, depending on who you work for, your medical benefits/coverage might be better than in the private sector ... .
The decline of Mark Driscoll here in Seattle might be a sideways case in point--unless you have access to the resources to secure the game in your favor you could pursue a life of writing or you could have sex that leads to babies but the odds don't seem especially high that you can pursue both the sex (and its consequential offspring) and writing without having some advantages.
Which gets us back to that part where Berlatsky's wife works fulltime.  In her review of Scott Timberg's Culture Crash Debra Cash was obliged to point out something that's been fairly obvious about the history of the arts--it's not just some point about how modern consumer capitalism makes it increasingly implausible to "make a living as an artist", it's that virtually no one in the history of the world has actually "made a living" just by being an artist, not even in the mid-20th century United States. 
“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.

That’s one of the reasons that pop culture exhortations to follow one’s bliss are so maddening. They imply a kind of privilege at the very heart of the class structures Americans are eager to say don’t exist. The fraying of the middle class is not just something that has happened to creatives. It’s just that Timberg never thought that what had happened to unionized manufacturing workers could happen to the educated type of knowledge workers who worked at the LA Times.

Cash's point bears repeating, plenty of writers and artists who were famous half a century ago had teaching jobs and teaching work was functionally working for the government with the art being the side project that sometimes made money. The extent to which arts education declines to address how often the reality was that famous writers and musicians and artists lived off of someone else's fortune and good will is the extent to which there's a failure in arts education.  Fernando Sor had a bureaucratic military position as he began his path to becoming one of the most celebrated composers who played the guitar; Haydn's contract had him in the military class handling aristocratic party music; and while Marxists might have found this shocking and offensive it turns out a pile of avant garde music in western Europe in the wake of the end of World War 2 was funded by the Central Intelligence Agency.

It might be better to tell writers that they don't have a right to get paid if people don't want to pay them and that they should never expect to "make a living" being a writer.  But writers don't seem eager to go that path.  It's more appealing, perhaps to debate Gabler's privilege or to lament that writers are finding it harder to make a living these days than to consider the possibility that in music and letters the post-World War 2 economic boom was a non-replicable bubble. 

For as many articles as I've come across lamenting the sorry state of adjunct faculty and the morass of student debt issues ... I only rarely come across proposals that the educational industry itself might have a part in this.  Well, there's Jim West, who has stated that colleges shouldn't even offer doctoral

The adjunct crisis exists because too many departments have too many PhD students. The only cure is for departments to offer PhD’s for the number of jobs there actually are.

Creating 500 PhD holders when there are only 30 positions suitable for those PhD’s is not only immoral, it is driven purely by economic considerations on the part of the University.

Berlatsky is enough of a Jane Austen fan he can surely appreciate that the draconian rules of a prestige racket could be the way to explain the entire educational/literary culture of the contemporary United States, as well as academics.  Decades ago I went to a probably terribly overpriced private Christian school and while I was there I talked to folks who went there rather than the University of Washington and a couple of them explained to me their reasoning--that they wanted to go to a college where when professor W is listed as teaching the class Professor W is actually teaching the class, not handing off all the scut work of lecturing and grading papers to the teaching assistants while Professor W is busy securing tenure by writing a passel of articles. 

Warn students up front they are not likely to land paying work in their field of study and they can prepare accordingly.  The best advice I got while I was working on the music minor part of my education was to be told I'd never make a living as a musician but that if I could secure work that let me keep making music (maybe even in work tangentially connected to the art) and be able to spend time with friends and family that would be success enough.  I took that advice to heart.  That was a music teacher at a college who didn't lie to me about the odds of "making a living" in music. 

If we get a "return" of folk culture for music that will be the return of people making music at a financial loss.  When folk musicians made folk music did they make a living at it?  We'll never know for sure but to the extent that folk musicians weren't vocational musicians they made music after they were done with everything else in the business of not-dying. 

Some of us believe that culture work HAS ALWAYS BEEN A LUXURY, the kind of thing people can get to work on because they live in a stable geo-political region that is colloquially known as a nation state or an empire. Did you not die because of a famine or a flood or a war or drought?  Great.  Write or sing a song or make a poem to celebrate.  That a life in the study of the arts was necessarily available only through a stable body politic even comes up in the correspondence of one of our Founding Fathers, John Adams:
 I must study Politicks and War that my sons may have liberty to study Painting and Poetry Mathematicks and Philosophy. My sons ought to study Mathematicks and Philosophy, Geography, natural History, Naval Architecture, navigation, Commerce and Agriculture, in order to give their Children a right to study Painting, Poetry, Musick, Architecture, Statuary, Tapestry and Porcelaine.

Adams seemed to be of a mind that the opportunity to make a life of dedicated study of the arts would be a third-generation thing from the foundational work he'd done circa 1780.  If there were no stable socio-economic infrastructure then the study of, let alone the creation of, a culture of arts, was not going to be practical.

Now should we question whether the kind of stable empire in which the arts were pursued as study, leisure and vocation in the United States as really a just one?  Yes, because the Founding Fathers made that their issue with respect to the English empire.  So it's absolutely proper to question whether the stable empire in the United States in which the arts were pursued was altogether just or whether it was rife with evil.  But it's possible to say that and to observe that anyone who says that there can be a life of the arts without empire is missing the boat of human history as a whole. Humans have been imperialists for millennia and the most dangerous thing we can do is pretend that's not what we've done for millennia.  The story of the tower of Babel testifies in just one of a million ways that we humans have noticed we like to make names for ourselves.  You can make as much art as you want but no one has promised you "a living" for it.  Historically the kind of way you'd make a living just writing books that other people have to read has been in the realms of academia and religion and those two spheres were pretty much the same for a long stretch of human history. 

While writers like Berlatsky and Timberg can have good reasons for fretting that the golden days of mid-20th century vocational writing seem to be gone, for those of us who were never in on that era and who look at the broader expanse of human artistic activity ... it seems like the post-World War 2 economic/cultural bubble was a boon for a particular type of white guy that has been an ahistoric blip in the coarse of human history.  If white progressive guys are feeling like they have less opportunity to "make a living" just being a writer we should step back and ask not why those days can't come back but whether or not their ability ot make that living was symptomatic of the racial divide some of those white progressive writers seem to be aware of now but without connecting dots as to their literary legacy being a beneficiary of said inequality. 

What if the perceived "meritocracy" was simply a sign of how the game was rigged?  The game is always rigged and the distinctions across empires aren't about whether the game is rigged but who the game is rigged to favor.

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