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