Some days, your Facebook and Twitter feeds are full of viral cat videos. Other days, a New York Times op-ed makes the rounds. The latest of the latter made me wish it was a Grumpy Cat kind of day.
Tim Kreider’s piece, link-bait titled “Slaves of the Internet, Unite!” took the creative community to task for its lack of author payments. Kreider has a valid argument against the 21st century culture of free information and creative collaboration. As he points out, it can be demoralizing to have your work regarded as disposable, and we don’t ask for freebies from most other professions (such as his brain surgeon sister, who has never been asked to perform a lobotomy in her spare time). Where do these editors and academics get off, he wonders, telling him that there is simply no money to pay contributors? Or evading the subject of payment at all, because how dare he even expect for reciprocation for his work?
But what this New York Times rant seems to forget is that these requests for submissions and pro-bono acceptances don’t come from some evil corporate overlord. They come from fellow writers, who are also working unpaid, pouring their own time and money into journals and sites to feature work that they love and respect. As an editor of such publications and a contributor to several, my contempt does not lie with the people who are kind enough to accept and promote my work in the platforms they’ve built. I realize that I’m not being paid because they don’t think I deserve it; it’s because they’re making no money if they’re fortunate, and more likely running in the red.
Does that make our economy acceptable? FUCK NO! Look at every creative and humanities-based career system, and you’ll find parallel stories of despair. The despicable adjuncting system, poaching of Google Image photography, unpaid graphic design internships…there isn’t a single branch of the left brain that isn’t getting screwed by an abysmal labor market and freewheeling share-conomics of the internet. It sucks, but it doesn’t make it any less real.
Which makes the plea Kreider cops at the end of his piece ring tinny and empty to my ears:
So I’m writing this not only in the hope that everyone will cross me off the list of writers to hit up for free content but, more important, to make a plea to my younger colleagues. As an older, more accomplished, equally unsuccessful artist, I beseech you, don’t give it away. As a matter of principle. Do it for your colleagues, your fellow artists, because if we all consistently say no they might, eventually, take the hint. It shouldn’t be professionally or socially acceptable — it isn’t right — for people to tell us, over and over, that our vocation is worthless.
For a man with book deals and a contact at the Times who will return his emails, this is great advice. Established writers have the luxury of saying no to start-up journals, to small readings and conferences, to helping their colleagues. They still have the connections and resources to get their work out in the world at a price. For those of us just starting out in the writing life, refusing to publish or participate in unpaid projects would be a death sentence. No one would read our work. Agents wouldn’t be able to sell our manuscripts to publishers, and we would have nothing to add in our query letters. When we support other literary projects by contributing our work, we are giving and taking from the community: taking an opportunity to reach readers and fellow writers, to make connections, to have a credit to our name. When such journals and sites feature consistent, quality work, they benefit in the same vein. Exposure isn’t intangible, it’s essential.
The system should change, but we can’t sit tight until it does. The revolutions in our hearts do not run with the whims of capitalism; we create when we can, share where we can, and hope the hard work meets a stroke of luck strong enough to propel us into the light.
And perhaps my own argument smacks of the elitism I find in this piece, as a writer who works a day job. I’ve always known that I can’t rely on my work to pay my bills, so I strive to find a job that is steady and flexible enough to accommodate doing what I actually love, what gives my life meaning, although has yet to put a morsel of food on the table. It’s taken all of my twenties, but I think I’m finally striking a balance. I’d love to reach a level where my work commands a price, but in the meantime, I am thankful to every editor, publisher, and mentor who has helped me with their own time and assets, free of charge. Because, royalties or no, we’re all in this together.