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Want to write the great American novel? Get a job!

March 17, 2010

Franz Kafka gave new meaning to the term "working writer."

If you weary, as I do, of writers whining like entitled children about how hard it is to make a living as a novelist, then you’re going to love a new chart at Lapham’s Quarterly, which succinctly makes the point that writing is best done for love. Even the greatest novelists had to work for a living.

Henry Fielding, author of Tom Jones, one of the very greatest early novels, worked as a magistrate for Westminster and Middlesex, making the modern equivalent of $40,000 a year. Franz Kafka made about $40,000 a year while laboring as a chief legal secretary for an insurance company.

And poor Charlotte Bronte earned less than $2,000 a year for the thankless job of taking care of other people’s children, which included sewing and mending, as a 19th century English governess.

In the Los Angeles Times, Carolyn Kellogg (charmed as I am by this chart), quotes William Faulkner’s 1950 Nobel acceptance speech:

“I feel that this award was not made to me as a man, but to my work — a life’s work in the agony and sweat of the human spirit, not for glory and least of all for profit, but to create out of the materials of the human spirit something which did not exist before.”

As a young man, still under the delusion he was a poet, Faulkner worked as a postman at the University of Mississippi, making the modern equivalent of $18,000. True, he gave up mail carrying when he left school, but Faulkner was forced to work most of his life, grinding out screen plays for Hollywood — he famously adpated Heminway’s To Have and Have Not, the only movie script written by a Nobel Prize winner, based on a book by a Nobel Prize winner.

I’m not saying it’s easy to find the time and energy to write when you have a full-time job. While a postman, Faulkner wrote some of the poems collected in his first (and justly neglected) book, The Marble Faun. Bronte wrote almost nothing while laboring as a governess, though the experience did provide valuable research for Jane Eyre.

But others produced some or all of their best work while holding down demanding, often non-literary jobs: Most impressive is Anthony Trollope, who got up at 5 a.m. to write his 19th century social satires before slogging off to his day job as a postal surveyor (what we would now call a “supervisor”). He produced 11 of his novels this way, including The Chronicles of Barchester series, still read with pleasure today.

Kafka worked in that insurance office most of his adult life (he died at age 40), writing much of his revolutionary work, including short stories like “In the Penal Colony.” And while T.S. Eliot was grinding out his modernist masterpiece, The Wasteland, he earned between $18,000 and $31,000 as a clerk for Lloyd’s Bank of London.

Should writers be free to create their books without anxiety over money? Maybe in a perfect world–which is precisely not the one in which we live. I submit that the best books are likely to be written by people who have jostled shoulders and traded sharp elbows with others in the workaday world.

So shut up and write “not for glory and least of all for profit.” Or not.

35 Comments leave one →
  1. March 17, 2010 1:05 pm

    No writer should go into writing novels expecting to make a living–even more foolish is doing this while following in the footsteps of noir writers like Jim Thompson, David Goodis, Dan Marlowe and Gil Brewer, all of whom died broke. The business is such a crap shoot, there’s so much randomness involved, and so much out of the control of the writer. But it’s the dream that keeps people going.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      March 17, 2010 2:36 pm

      I hope it’s the satisfaction of writing something, making something that didn’t exist before. Even if it’s about a sociopathic South Boston Irish mobster with a paranoid chip on his shoulder and a hidden gift for writing (and plagiarism). As for dying broke, it helps if you are not an abject drunk, like Thompson was.

  2. Candice permalink
    March 17, 2010 1:28 pm

    What Dave says is true. But I shiver when I think of corporate type “bosses” giving their employees the old “it’s mission, not money” mantra. We do, after all, have to pay the rent and buy the things vital in this cruel mean world.

  3. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    March 17, 2010 2:41 pm

    Thus has it ever been. Alexnder Pope or somebody, I can’t find the quote, said if he had it to do over again he would be the publisher, not the writer, so as to make a little money.

  4. rachel permalink
    March 17, 2010 2:54 pm

    I agree. I think that authors should have real people jobs and real people experience. Otherwise, what do they have to write about? That being said, I think we all work too much. This 40 (+) hours a week business is frankly just ridiculous. I love the idea of being disciplined and waking up early and sitting down to write. But I wish that I could sit down to write until say 11:00 rather than 7:45.

    I didn’t know that about Kafka, and I find it very interesting. Makes sense though, considering subject matter.

    • Candice permalink
      March 17, 2010 3:16 pm

      Oh that we worked only 40 hours a week. With email and social media and cell phones and such, we can work around the clock, and many of us do.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      March 17, 2010 3:35 pm

      It’s my understanding that Kafka took his duties very seriously, and that his work made the lives of poor people better. Then he’d go home at night and write until the wee hours. He drove himself too hard, that boy. Candice, I’m sure you will agree that things were better for everyone back in the days of landline phones and IBM typewriters, fax machines and snail mail.

      • Candice permalink
        March 17, 2010 7:46 pm

        In a way though I do like my technology. Catch 22.

  5. March 17, 2010 3:08 pm

    For many year, Chauncey, I compiled such lists for spiritual sustenance… Especially the 10 years I when I worked in the United Nations in Egypt. Kafka’s double life was a huge source of inspiration – law clerk by day, writer of existential horror stories by night. What’s in a (dead end) job, I would tell myself, even the noble Spinoza was a lens-grinder. Thinking and writing were vocations not jobs, one had to ‘do’ something.

    If you want to get something done give it to a busy person, so the saying goes I think some-thing of this applies to writers with jobs. Besides, when there are pressures of the day and precious little time to spare, one writes what is absolutely necessary and not the needless, vacuous puffs that are produced when loafing around.

    Ok ’nuff said, gotta get back to loafing around;) Yahia

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      March 17, 2010 3:56 pm

      Yes, and when writers have the luxury of writing for a living, how often do they turn coy, or slothful, or take up the hobbies of drink, drugs or assorted mental illnesses? Let me clarify, though. While I agree with Rachel that writers are best served by real-world experience (and yes, writing program satraps, cossetted from the common herd behind your ivy walls, I’m talking about you), I do not mean to suggest that writers deserve to suffer. No one deserves to suffer. My main point is, this is the way of the world, and it’s been the way of the world since the first Sumerian put the first chisel to the first tablet.

      Yahia, you make a good point about the productivity of busy people. And why shouldn’t it apply to creative types? I think of those “needless, vacuous puffs” produced by writers from the lap of writing program luxury as hothouse flowers. Some exceptions exist, I know, but still…

  6. March 17, 2010 4:42 pm

    I’m with you, those hothouse flowers – with their tenderly incubated sense of entitlement – deserve to wither…

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      March 17, 2010 10:39 pm

      And they will, in time. But given the state of the earth, time may be the one commodity in short supply, and the apocalypse may come with hothouse flowers in full bloom. Well, no one said the Demiurge lacks a sense of irony.

  7. March 17, 2010 11:09 pm

    I know you’d like it if I could disagree with you sometimes, but I’m just not a disagreeable person. Sorry Chaunce!

    The dangerous thing you do here is to make the blog-reader imagine that our generation is not the only or even the best generation. Others came before us! You are tampering, challenging, the “arrogance of the Modern”. I have recently been reading some reviews and discussions of G.K. Chesterton. He did the same thing (you’re in pretty good company Mr. Mabe!). Yes, other generations had to”keep it real” by actually living in the real world. BTW, this is one reason rappers (witness Eminem) make music that descends in quality directly proportionate to their ascending fame. They lose touch with the pain and poverty and anger that once made their work (sorry to use this word) authentic.

    I have often wondered about my own work, whether being bi-vocational wouldn’t make my words more “real”.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      March 18, 2010 2:12 pm

      The tyranny of the living over the dead is not new, T.J., as I’m sure you know. But the version rampant today is, I’ll agree, unusually virulent. Partly it’s the fault of the Baby Boomers, who came of age in the sublime belief they were different and better than all that had come before, and partly it’s the illusory light cast by all our technological advances. If we can make all these neat stuff, then we must be the crown of history! Stuff is just stuff, though. Nothing new under the sun, just the old stuff (good and bad, vices and virtues) poured into shiny new wine skins.

  8. March 18, 2010 7:28 am

    Seductively awful vision that, Mr Mabe, but I’m not convinced. I think the best rise to the top because they are closer to life and life gets her way in the end. Here’s Kafka siding against himself: ‘In books [& MF(A) programs;] there is such little life, but in life oh so many books.’

    And again: ‘In the struggle with life, side with life’

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      March 18, 2010 2:17 pm

      You make a strong, and evocative plea, my friend. But I can’t help but note the proximity of the word “art” with the word “artifice,” and declare my conviction that all art is artificial, and has but little to do with life, which is always infinitely more varied and complex and textured than the most brilliant artist can render. On the other hand, however, I think I am arguing for artists to–as we say nowdays — embed themselves in life, including workaday life of one sort or another. In the struggle with life, side with life, indeed, but be careful not to mistake life with effeteness.

  9. alexis permalink
    March 18, 2010 9:15 am

    If you don’t love it, don’t do it. Because it’s hard and it doesn’t pay all that great, even when you do get published.

    It is really hard to hear people who have “made it” complain about it.

  10. Candice permalink
    March 18, 2010 11:36 am

    Real life is real life whether you are lazy, drunk, wealthy, poor, hard-working, whatever. I guess my question is how do you define Real?

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      March 18, 2010 2:18 pm

      To begin, it’s the opposite of virtual.

      • Candice Simmons permalink
        March 18, 2010 7:10 pm

        Alas, Chauncey Mabe. You have made a statement with which I argue. Yet anyway.

  11. March 18, 2010 11:44 am

    By trying to be fully present to Life and pay attention, instead of trying to escape, limit it, or withhold?

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      March 18, 2010 2:18 pm

      But is is not art a means of escape?

  12. John Karwacki permalink
    March 18, 2010 12:36 pm

    Great comments today. Kafka looks like a guy who’s just seen a huge insect. Writers write, many will not be paid for their process, doesn’t stop them from writing if they are writers. Artists create, they can not not create any more than give up breathing. So keep breathing, and keep writing. Vanity is its own reward.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      March 18, 2010 2:19 pm

      Oh, you clever boy! Vanity is its own reward! Bravo.

  13. March 18, 2010 12:48 pm

    The money in the book business is in consulting in the industry. How to. How to to to. Just mail the fee. I had a brilliant marketing professor years ago. His lesson was, you have to know what you are marketing. Today people will tell you it does not matter. It does.

    So who wants lessons on how to write. To publish. To market. To blog about it all? I will teach you how to write a novel. I will keep the fee, the rites to the book , your dog and cat. What do you think about that.
    I write because I like to write. It is creating something that last forever.

  14. March 18, 2010 12:55 pm

    I am a writer, which is actually true even
    when I am not writing, and a nonwriting writer is a monster inviting madness.

    Kafka in a letter to Max Brod

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      March 18, 2010 2:20 pm

      Aren’t we glad that Max Brod was night a firebug?

  15. March 18, 2010 1:03 pm

    As far as working. Last week I was told by a team of Dr.’s to stop working 75 hours a week. Way to much. I work, I write, I work. I ya,ya,yah. I wish I could just write. One day maybe.

  16. March 18, 2010 1:09 pm

    Love Yahia’s quote “a nonwriting writer is monster inviting madness.” I write because I NEED it. Not because I Want it. My greatest fear has nothing to do with publishing, but everything to do with sitting at my keyboard with nothing whatsoever to say. Writing really is a form of therapy and a way to stay sane. Well, sort of sane – depending on what that word means.

    • Candice Simmons permalink
      March 18, 2010 7:08 pm

      Yes, that’s it. A need!

      • March 18, 2010 8:47 pm

        Candice, we’re on the same page. No one would subject themselves to the slings and arrows of this cut throat profession if they didn’t need to sit down everyday and create their own world, a world they sort of-maybe can control. At least better than everything going on outside that door.

  17. Tommy permalink
    March 18, 2010 2:21 pm

    Does a career in Professional Whining count?

  18. March 18, 2010 8:27 pm

    Absolutely, it is inner imperative and self-medication -if it means anything.

  19. March 18, 2010 8:43 pm

    Yahia, big hug from the Duffer.

    • March 18, 2010 8:57 pm

      Accepting it gratefully, fellow alchemist, Duffer:)

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