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.

The very very beginning writer

Literary agent Janet Reid is asking for advice. Or, more specifically, she’s asking writers for advice about advice:

When you were starting out, what advice did you get that REALLY helped you? And I mean both helped you improve as a writer, and helped you deal with the sense of failure and frustration when you wanted to do something so bad you could taste it, and it wasn’t working.

I left a comment, but after 90 of them, I’m guessing she probably got all the advice she wanted. That being said, I wish that a) all of the following books had been written, b) someone pointed me to them, and c) I was smart enough to find and read them:

—James Wood’s How Fiction Works
—Francine Prose’s Reading like a Writer
—The two collected volumes from the New York Times, Writers on Writing.
—Renni Browne and Dave King’s Self Editing for Fiction Writers

Those five are the major ones. A few others that might be worth leaving off at first because they could be overwhelming:

The Writer’s Notebook: Craft Essays from Tin House
—William Zissner’s On Writing Well
—Martin Amis’ The War Against Cliche
—Steven King’s On Writing

It’s somehow popular to argue that writing can’t be taught, but the more experience I accumulate, the more I begin to doubt that advice. Mark McGurl tackles it to some extent in his book The Program Era, which is also probably worth reading for anyone pondering a career in writing fiction, since so many of those careers today run through teaching at some point or another.

Someone else in Reid’s comments section gave similar advice to mine but in different words: “Go to your local library and read every book in the “How to write” 808 section.” Good call. If the writer takes this advice, they’ll learn more than they ever could in 10 or 15 minutes with Reid. The writer might disagree with some or most of what’d dispensed in the books I listed, or the books listed in the 808 section—which is a good thing, because otherwise fiction would droop into being formulaic. That being said, I still think that at least knowing such guidance exists is a positive: it gives you something to work with, or something to work against. Either way, I think the knowledge imparted will beat beating one’s way around blindly in the dark.

EDIT: A friend has been telling me to read Robert Olen Butler’s From Where you Dreamfor months, and I’m now getting around to it (this kind of lag between meaning to read something and actually reading it isn’t unusual for me: the number of books I’d like to read expands faster than the amount of time I have to read, and the list is continually being reshuffled based on needs and idiosyncrasies). With that long preamble, I’d like to point to this passage:

If I had me to talk to me back when, I might not have had to write a million dreadful words. If I’d caught me at the right moment—and in the right spirit—I might have had to write only a quarter of a million—maybe not so many as that if I’d really listened. You might ask, why did he write five terrible novels? How many terrible novels can you write? The answer is that I had no idea how badly I was writing. None. And my ability to continue working through a million words was so rooted in self-deception that I might not have been able to hear this message. So those are the things you may have to sort through, too.

You might. But if you stumble on this post, or Olen Butler’s book, or some of the other books listed above, in time, you might still come out with fewer terrible stories and novels than you would otherwise.

EDIT 2: This post concerning Philip Greenspun’s “Why I’m Not a Writer” is also germane. If you’re rich enough, you don’t have to worry about food and rent. Everyone else does. If you want to be a professional writer, one useful way to go about it is by starting off with a fat inheritance so you don’t need a day job. And if you want to be a writer, you’ll probably have a day job for life.

Literary fiction and the current marketplace

Literary agent Betsy Learner posted on the business of selling novels. I’d shorten this quote if I could, but what Lerner writes is too compelling for paraphrase or a one-sentence excerpt:

A lot of painful conversations lately about literary fiction and its demise.

Was it ever any different?

When I was an assistant at Simon and Schuster 25 years ago, there was exactly one literary fiction editor. And his position was rumored to be precarious as a result of focusing exclusively on the literary stuff. (In fact, he was let go a year later.) Of course, this was especially true at a house like S&S where monster political and celebrity books ruled. I can still recall an anxious conversation between a senior editor and a publicist because they couldn’t remember if Jackie Collins preferred white roses or red.

I understood at that tender age that to focus entirely on fiction was to jeopardize my hope of becoming an editor.

This implies that nonfiction is the more secure field, which jives with what I’ve seen on many literary agents’ websites and blogs; there seem to be almost none who work solely with fiction but many who work exclusively or almost exclusively with nonfiction.

Which makes me wonder: why? Part of the reason might simply be that more nonfiction books move through stores in a given year than fiction, but I wonder also if part of the reason is that nonfiction simply has a shorter shelf life. I can’t imagine many pop nonfiction titles from, say, the 1930s to the 1960s are still read much because whatever fields those authors covered have changed sufficiently that their work is no longer useful save in a historical sense. Obviously, there are exceptions—both presidential candidates in the recent election cited Niebuhr Reinhold as an influence—but the general trend seems to hold.

But the novels of Bellow, Roth, and so forth are still fresh as the day they were published; I have ancient copies of For Whom the Bell Tolls and Tennyson’s Idylls of the King that are delightful. My used copy of John Barth’s Giles Goat-Boy is an original hardback. New copies of those works still sell. That’s a boon for readers but probably not so good for new writers, who have to compete with the masters. The result: a literary marketplace where it’s harder to break in as the length and number of established predecessors grows, leading to an equilibrium that favors nonfiction over fiction. “Monster political and celebrity books” flare brightly like supernovae while the literary stars are dimmer but give persistent light for those who would see them, while writers become more dependent on university and other forms of patronage to make it in a marketplace that, rightly or wrongly, doesn’t much value their work in a financial sense.

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