How The Literary Make A Living

While pondering the eternal question of how full-time artists can fund their work, Alan Jacobs looks back to a 1945 essay by the poet and critic R.P. Blackmur, “The Economy of the American Writer”:

From our vantage point, perhaps the most interesting point here is Blackmur’s uncertainty about the most likely source of support for artists: will they find their place in the world of the university, or in the world of the non-profit foundation? Well, we know how it turned out: while foundations do still support artists of various kinds, universities have turned out to be the chief patrons of American artists — especially writers.

Blackmur sees that even at his moment support for writers and artists is drifting towards the university; he’s just not altogether happy about that. He’s not happy because he has seen that “the universities are themselves increasingly becoming social and technical service stations — are increasingly attracted into the orbit of the market system.” A prophetic word if there ever was one.

The universities have in the intervening seventy years become generous patrons of the arts; but what is virtually impossible for us to see, because we can’t re-run history, is the extent to which the arts have been limited and confined by being absorbed into an institution that has utterly lost its independence from “the market system” — that has simply and fully become what the Marxist critic Louis Althusser called an “ideological state apparatus,” an institution that does not overtly belong to the massive nation-state but exists largely to support and when possible fulfill the nation-state’s purposes.

On a related note, author Jess Row recently spoke out against the idea of writing for exposure rather than pay:

My feeling is that if we’re talking about a large publicly traded media company, then the contributors ought to be paid something, even if it’s very little. The question of journalism being degraded so that it’s basically being treated as something that you just do for exposure or visibility or self-branding—perhaps it’s not a conspiracy per se, but it is by all accounts a corporate strategy.

I have a lot of problems with the idea that we should be paid less for book reviews that appear online than those that appear in print. I understand that because of the internet the question of how any of these properties make money is very much up in the air, but somebody’s making money, and some people are making a great deal of money, and the people who aren’t making any money are the people who care the most about what they’re doing—the writers and the contributors and the journalists, the people on the ground. I think that’s an unacceptable position, and I think that’s an unacceptable model. It’s a good business model, but an unacceptable artistic or cultural model.