Philip Greenspun's Why I'm Not a Writer and Hacker News

I submitted a Hacker News (HN) link to Philip Greenspun’s essay Why I’m Not a Writer, which begins:

I’m not a writer. Sometimes I write, but I don’t define myself as a career writer. And that isn’t because I couldn’t tolerate the garret lifestyle of an obscure writer. It is because I couldn’t tolerate the garret lifestyle of a successful writer.

He’s right. The garret lifestyle is one reason (there are many others too) why so many writers are now affiliated with universities, as detailed in Mark McGurl’s excellent book The Program Era. In fact, university affiliation has become so pervasive that Neal Stephenson told this hilarious story on the subject in a Slashdot interview:

[… A] while back, I went to a writers’ conference. I was making chitchat with another writer, a critically acclaimed literary novelist who taught at a university. She had never heard of me. After we’d exchanged a bit of of small talk, she asked me “And where do you teach?” just as naturally as one Slashdotter would ask another “And which distro do you use?”

I was taken aback. “I don’t teach anywhere,” I said.

Her turn to be taken aback. “Then what do you do?”

“I’m…a writer,” I said. Which admittedly was a stupid thing to say, since she already knew that.

“Yes, but what do you do?”

I couldn’t think of how to answer the question—I’d already answered it!

“You can’t make a living out of being a writer, so how do you make money?” she tried.

“From…being a writer,” I stammered.

At this point she finally got it, and her whole affect changed. She wasn’t snobbish about it. But it was obvious that, in her mind, the sort of writer who actually made a living from it was an entirely different creature from the sort she generally associated with.

And once I got over the excruciating awkwardness of this conversation, I began to think she was right in thinking so. One way to classify artists is by to whom they are accountable.

In the HN thread, another poster named Quantumhobbit linked to Orson Scott Card dealing with the same subject. As Quantumhobbit says, “Basically his advice is make sure you have another source of income, such as a rich uncle, before you decide to become a full-time writer. There is no guaranty that you will make enough to support yourself, even in genre writing.”

But the most interesting response comes from Gwern, who said, “I note that [Greenspun’s essay is] from 1996, when the bubble was getting hot; are you suggesting that the web has not panned out for writers and that they are equally screwed online as off?” In reply, I said:

I think that the date of Greenspun’s essay is indicative of how little has changed, rather than how much. Most writers didn’t make very much money then, and they still don’t, which many people don’t seem to realize; one writer friend who also teaches university classes recently wrote to me and said that a colleague had asked, in all seriousness, if he was rich now that he’d written a book. Writers often work like astronauts to achieve relatively modest financial success, which people like the poster in the original HN thread might want to know before getting started in earnest at trying to write for the book market. Take a look at these posts from a guy who works in the sales department of a major publishing house regarding current advances for most types of fiction.

“are you suggesting that the web has not panned out for writers and that they are equally screwed online as off?”

Depends on what you mean by “panned out” and “screwed”; I can’t really tell from the nature of the question. If you mean, “Do I think writers can make enough from the Internet to support themselves?” the answer is yes; if you mean, “Will many of them do so, especially relative to the number who would like to?” the answer is “no.” In fact, I even wrote a blog post at Grant Writing Confidential on the subject of how unlikely it is for people to make money from blogging.

(Note: the above is slightly edited from the original.)

Gwern replied:

But to expand on what I meant: I remember that back in the dot-com bubble, the bubble Greenspan wrote that essay in, there was a lot of enthusiasm and hype about how the future would be so much better for authors and artists than the old world of offline publishing – the Web would empower creators, cut out the middlemen, and channel tons of money to them, via the magic of 0-cost publishing, micropayments, and other things like search engines or aggregators. Greenspan’s essay seems to buy into that zeitgeist, albeit relatively modestly.

Of course, that vision has largely come failed to come true (spectacularly so in the case of micropayments and agents). I wondered if the point of your linking this old essay was to emphasize the contrast and make clear that writing is still a marginal business regardless of where it’s being distributed or what neat technical gadgets are involved.

That wasn’t my point, but if I’d been smarter it would’ve been. Half the 1996 equation Gwern describes has come true: the web has vastly empowered writers’ ability to reach readers (and consultants’ ability to reach clients). But it definitely hasn’t channeled vast amounts of money to most writers, and many kinds of writers—like professional journalists—are being laid off en-masse.

In the world of the web, as in the 1849 California gold rush, the people who make real money aren’t the people panning for gold, but the people selling equipment to and building infrastructure for the people panning for gold. So too with online writing: Matt Mullenweg, the founder of WordPress, which drives this blog, probably makes or will make far more than anyone writing on it.

All of this could probably be appended to advice for a very very beginning writer. I think that knowledge for its own sake is valuable, even, or maybe especially, for artists.

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