Tim Kreider and the Problem of Too Many Writers

Tim Kreider has a very familiar sounding complaint in the New York Times. It is familiar because his article follows a well-worn template of talking about the Brave New Bad World of Free Content, and because the Times routinely publishes such Op-Eds. Like most screeds put out by what I have termed ‘the whining artist‘ it is incoherent.

This sentence is the heart of the complaint:

[In] our information economy..“paying for things” is a quaint, discredited old 20th-century custom.

You’ve heard it before: writers are being asked to write for free; no one values writing any more; writers won’t write any more if they don’t get ‘paid’. And so on. (Musicians often make similar complaints.)

This sentence though, does not inspire confidence that Krieder has the slightest clue of what he is talking about:

I spent 20 years and wrote thousands of pages learning the trivial craft of putting sentences together. My parents blew tens of thousands of 1980s dollars on tuition at a prestigious institution to train me for this job. They also put my sister the pulmonologist through medical school, and as far as I know nobody ever asks her to perform a quick lobectomy — doesn’t have to be anything fancy, maybe just in her spare time, whatever she can do would be great — because it’ll help get her name out there.

I’m guessing a pulmonologist is not in the business of producing intangible material that can be effortlessly copied and distributed at minimal cost. Furthermore, barriers to the market for pulmonologist are high: years of expensive education, apprenticeships etc. It’s a pity Kreider’s parents blew so much money on training him to be a writer; perhaps they didn’t realize that these days just about everyone and anyone thinks they can be a writer. And too many of them act on this belief.

That brings us to the heart of the matter. I too, would like everything, all the time, for free. I realize quickly enough that some things in this modern world are not free and yet others–depending on their relative scarcity–are almost free.

For instance, once I’ve paid my internet subscriber’s monthly fee, I can read unlimited amounts of political opinion; everyone has one, and everyone wants to share it with me. I can also read unlimited amounts of poetry, short stories, essays, and so on. There are, it seems, many, many writers around these days. What is it that makes the writing profession so attractive, that so many writers, according to Kreider, are giving their work away for free?

The answer, I thought, was obvious: for a while, thanks to a very particularly structured industry that grew up around it, writing made money and fame for some writers. These writers are cultural icons, giants who stalk the land. Their lives beguile us; we want to be like them. Their fame and riches made many people forget that they were exceptions, and that most writers still failed to make a living. Even the writing lifestyle began to seem glamorous: all that drinking and hanging out in cafes. And didn’t Arthur Miller hook up with Marilyn Monroe?

Writing seems easy. Why not just pull up a piece of paper and a pen and write? Or a typewriter? Or now, a word-processor? Perhaps if you get lucky, you could be admitted to a ‘writing program’ and tap into all the contacts your professors have with agents, editors and publishers?

Soon you find that many, many others have the same dream. And everyone is scribbling away furiously. So many tools to write with; so many publishing platforms; so many lives and things to write about. There’s too much to read; how will I get readers to notice me in this sea of well-crafted words?

Perhaps by ‘exposure’? Perhaps by using my writing as a ‘loss-leader‘ so that I can secure that paying gig, that big contract, that advance, that book tour, that glossy jacket photo, that writer’s cabin on a remote island? Or if not, perhaps I can get a job teaching writing at a writer’s program that turns out more writers? Or less glamorously, perhaps I could teach writing at a college to incoming freshmen? That way, my writing will have made some money for me. Not directly, but indirectly. And then I can get to hang out in cafes and call myself a writer.

Written content is not scarce; quality written content still is; writers need to get noticed. The situation that Kreider then complains about–content being asked for, and being given away for free, just to get ‘noticed’–is almost inevitable.

It would help if writers would stop thinking of themselves as God’s Gift to Mankind and instead began regarding themselves as just another species of creative ‘producers’ whose ‘content’ is not very scarce, and lends itself to easy distribution and reproduction. Interestingly enough, I don’t read too many Op-Eds by artists saying that people are asking them to make paintings for free; they never had a content industry grow up around them and hence have no reason to not think that things are just as they have always been: most artists don’t make money from their art.

Perhaps the fame and riches of the writers of days gone by was a blip in normal service, and not the norm?

12 thoughts on “Tim Kreider and the Problem of Too Many Writers

  1. Ouch. You have a point. But I still think Krieder does too. He was referring to the frequent REQUESTS to write for free, which is a new phenomenon. One could always choose to and maybe you’d get paid, maybe you wouldn’t. But you wouldn’t get asked to do it as much. That’s why I think his suggestion is a good one–turn down free work you don’t want to do. And he’s also right about the downward economy. When I began writing for magazines, pay was $1 a word. Websites, even prestigious ones like Salon routinely pay much less for similar content.

    1. Martha,

      I think there is no doubt that there is some exploitative behavior going on – caused by the nature of the market. Kreider’s advice is a good one in that sense. I’d be very interested to see what happens if it is followed up.

  2. I appreciate your reflection, particularly your encouragement of the unfettered artistic spirit. I read the post partly to say, “even if means you’ll never get famous or rich or recognized, keep doing what you are doing.” Refining and redefining what it means to be human has never been a lucrative pursuit and as artists and intellectuals have pointed out over the course of human history, money often clouds vision. At a very minimum, money is not the point.

    It strikes me that Kreider is talking less about art than about labor. Right there out in the public consciousness, he submits a scathing critique of a modern institution that depends on free labor – media making money on the backs of unpaid workers. And he calls for those workers to organize.

    You talk about privilege. He talks about solidarity. You both encourage forward movement. The ways in which your thoughts and Kreider’s thoughts work together bring to mind a passage from The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver:

    For forty-three years of my thinking life I have been a revolutionary; for forty-three of
    those years I fought under the banner of Marxism. If I had to start all over again, I would
    of course try to avoid this or that error but the general course of my life would remain
    unchanged. I will die a proletarian revolutionist. My faith in the communist future of
    mankind is firmer today than it was in the days of my youth.

    Natalya has just come up from the courtyard and opened my window so that air may
    come in. I can see a wide strip of green grass along the wall, the pale blue sky above
    and sunlight on everything. Life is beautiful. Let the future generations cleanse it of all
    evil, oppression and violence, and enjoy it to the full.

    Art and labor – in their most alive forms – must coexist.

    1. Colleen,

      Thanks for your comment.

      I am probably too harsh on Kreider, as he means well. I think it would be a good idea if writers started to say no so that we can get a better idea of who will be paid and who will not, and what incomes could be made from the current market. I do think the changes in the political economy of writing will require different approaches from writers themselves, possibly in how they think they can best support their art.

  3. Thought-provoking post! I found this sentence in the quoted article interesting: “If you had a dime for every time someone posted that …” Calculating the theoretical sum of those dimes, it didn’t seem all that funny.”
    … as this is it exactly what “Internet philosopher” Jaron Lanier is proposing. I don’t claim it is realistic, just intriguing. Lanier criticizes the power of the “Siren Servers” who own the infrastructure and logistics – distributors, publishing houses, and web 2.0 sites make money based on users’ contributions. Artists and creators of original content are the losers in the current model according to him. Lanier proposes an economy based on micro-payments every time “your content” is used or shared. This would include your post and my comment here and even the use of aggregated data by governmental agencies and large corporations tracking their customers.

  4. Truthfully, only bad writers give their work away. I no longer bother reading self-published authors’ free ebooks, nor websites that have switched to paying writers in “exposure bucks.” It’s abundantly clear that most of the time you get what you pay for. Unfortunately, as more and more people are exposed to such bottom-barrel writing, both literacy and interest in reading will likely suffer, creating a vicious cycle.

    1. WWW: I feel like I should disagree with you but I haven’t read enough (or any) “self-published authors’ free ebooks” or “websites that have switched to paying writers in “exposure bucks.” I did blog for a while without remuneration (over at ESPN-Cricinfo) which later helped me get a book contract and is now paid (albeit peanuts!)

      Thanks for the comment. (your last point deserves a longer reply, which I will try to write some time).

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