by Somayeh Shams
Writing, as my M.F.A. advisor used to say, is an addiction, and, unfortunately, like all good drugs, it does not come cheap. There is no other way to explain this all-consuming, patience-building exercise that takes so much of our time away from our families, friends, sleep, and exercise. That creates no (or very little) income. Each year the Association of Writers and Writing Programs, AWP, conference and book fair attracts over 12,000 attendees. Hopeful young writers, emerging writers, and writers whose names have filled our canons attend to advertise their work, to learn, and to leave their solitude for four long days to be part of the conversation. With over 2,000 presenters and 800 book fair exhibitors, the conference, according to Wikipedia, is “the largest and most inclusive literary conference in North America.”
Naively, I never even considered money when I chose a career in writing. I had finally come to terms with the fact that I didn’t feel passionate about my scientific path and all I wanted to do was write. I quickly applied for an M.F.A. program, the thought never crossing my mind that, unlike most other careers, writing needed an income to support it. If I had truly understood that fact from the beginning I might have made different choices, gone through the process differently so I could have prepared for my family and my future. Because, let’s face it, I wasn’t going to quit writing.
Still, the thought that writing is likened in our minds to a compulsion, with little value for us except as an instant gratifier and no value to society, makes me uneasy. Have the benefits of books and literature not been proven again and again? Are we not, when luck strikes us, putting out a product? Do we not provide a service? Isn’t our time worth anything? How has society come to believe that writers do not deserve to get paid while so many other jobs are over-inflated? When a conference attendee asked Roxane Gay at AWP 2015 about the emerging writer’s avenues for financial support, until that ever-elusive faculty position is acquired, those same positions being shamelessly replaced with underpaid adjunct positions, she responded, “have a day job.”
But can everyone afford working and writing? How about when you have a family to feed and take care of? Does this mean that writers who “make it” either have made certain choices and sacrifices that most others in other careers seldom need to? Or that those successful writers are from an already more affluent class, thus falsely representing the actual writing population or the population as a whole? I suspect both of these are true. How, then, can a person struggling to make ends meet, a parent who must spend time away from their writing desk, afford being a writer? Those who do are extraordinary exceptions. My child’s calls are louder than my desk’s. The publishing process is discriminatory and those marginalized either by race, financial burden, or gender—they feel the brunt of it.
Tillie Olsen had to abandon her first novel and did not publish Tell Me a Riddle until 1961, decades after her work first came out in Partisan Review. She recounted her struggles with money, work, and motherhood in her book Silences, analyzing the problems that working-class writers, women writers and writers of color face. Frustrated, she wrote,
Literary history and the present are dark with silences: some the silences for years by our acknowledged great; some silences hidden; some the ceasing to publish after one work appears; some the never coming to book form at all. What is it that happens with the creator, to the creative process, in that time? What are creation’s needs for full functioning? Without intention of or pretension to literary scholarship, I have had special need to learn all I could of this over the years, myself so nearly remaining mute and having to let writing die over and over again in me. These are not natural silences—what Keats called agonie ennuyeuse (the tedious agony)—that necessary time for renewal, lying fallow, gestation, in the natural cycle of creation. The silences I speak of here are unnatural: the unnatural thwarting of what struggles to come into being, but cannot. In the old, the obvious parallels: when the seed strikes stone; the soil will not sustain; the spring is false; the time is drought or blight or infestation; the frost comes premature.
She lists the innumerable greats who struggled with those silences: Thomas Hardy, Melville, Rimbaud, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Jane Austen, Theodore Dreiser, Willa Cather, Franz Kafka, Katherine Anne Porter. . . . “How the creative working atrophied,” she writes, “and died in them—if ever it did.” She names the different ways in which writers come to be silenced:
Deletions, omissions, abandonment of the medium (as with Hardy); paralyzing of capacity [ . . . ] Publishers’ censorship, refusing subject matter or treatment as “not suitable” or “no market for.” Self-censorship. Religious, political censorship-—sometimes spurring inventiveness—most often (read Dostoyevsky’s letters) a wearing attrition. The extreme of this: those writers physically silenced by governments.
Olsen was briefly jailed in 1934 for her union work, charged with “making loud and unusual noise.” In our current political climate, with many of us out there standing up to evil, this form of silence seems no more out of the realm of reality.
Since graduating I have focused on finishing my book, obsessing over words and sentences, over the fact that I want the love and dynamics of my Iranian characters to be as honest as possible, particularly for my American readers. Again I am incapable of combining the idea of money with that of my book. By that I mean, in thinking about what Olsen mentions above, I am not sure how marketable my book is and if it would interest the publishing industry. And, again, I am not sure knowing the answer would change anything.
I have learned in recent months that over 80% of the world’s publishing is owned by 5 publishing houses, known as the “Big 5.” I have also learned that Hachette, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Penguin Random House, and Simon & Schuster are media conglomerates and giant corporations prioritizing profit. In her book The Handover, in which she studies the publishing industry in Canada, Elaine Dewar wonders how a publishing industry led by profit, telling the world what to read, can cultivate diversity of ideas and opinions. And with so much control by a handful of entities in the market, don’t publishers have the power to force what they think a project is worth onto the writer?
A 2014 Digital Book World and Writer’s Digest Author Survey found that 53.9% of traditionally-published authors make $1,000 or less a year from their writing, while only 1.3% reported making more than $100,000.
The digital industry is also a stressor for the struggling writer. More and more writers, in the hopes of building their reputations, write for free for non-profit e-journals that can’t afford to pay them.
With so many odds against the writer, I wonder how many of us turn away from writing? What are the statistics for the marginalized writers who must put aside their dreams for survival? Or how about, as Olsen wrote, “the silences where the lives never came to writing. [ . . . ] those whose waking hours are all struggle for existence; the barely educated; the illiterate; women. Their silence the silence of centuries as to how life was, is, for most of humanity”?
Yet I am hopeful. I feel in recent months something changing in this country. I hear the voice of discontent loud and clear. In the background of hate and evil I hear the thirst for knowledge, for diversity, for equality growing. I see a pushback where acquiescence used to be.
Writers—like Roxane Gay and Vievee Francis—with brilliant work that once went unnoticed are finally being honored. At AWP 2017 the panel “Which Comes First, Activism or Artist?” was well attended. At another panel I sat in a room full of writers excited to hear Iranian writers and translators discuss the Iranian diaspora. Journals like Nimrod are pushing, despite the challenges they face, to diversify and make room for the voice of the marginalized. I am looking beyond this administration for a time when perhaps programs and journals and small publishing houses have enough subsidy to support an equal agenda. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have a literary world where equality is a reality, where all writers can be paid for their art and the work they do?
At the end of the Iranian diaspora writers panel, during the Q&A portion, someone said she hoped that the Iranian writers would have more panels like these, suggesting that this should not be a one-time thing. Many in the room nodded, excited, energized by the readings and discussions. Anita Amirzevani leaned over her microphone and noted that they’ve had a panel every year—but that it had never been well attended. My hope now is that their voices are finally being heard.
Somayeh Shams is an Iranian-born writer and a graduate of the Warren Wilson M.F.A. program. She has been a fellow for the Hedgebrook Writers in Residence and a merit scholar at the New York State Summer Writers Institute. She serves on the editorial board of Nimrod.
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