Thursday, September 22, 2016

Brokeback Writer

By Steve Weddle

If you've felt a disturbance in the Bookternet this week, you might have been surprised to find that Franzen isn't to blame.

Merritt Tierce, recipient of awards, critical praise and sweet, sweet book money, recently wrote a 1,700-word piece for Marie Claire about the "dark side" of something called "literary fame," according to the article's deck.

Here's the piece. The main argument seems to be that she had a book come out two years ago and has not been able to live exclusively off the proceeds of that 226-page "dirty razor of prose" published by Random House.

tl;dr? Aight. Let's roll.
Love Me Back was reviewed by The New York Times ("brilliant, devastating"), the Chicago Tribune (one of their dozen best books of 2014), Texas Monthly ("one of the most mesmerizing heroines in recent fiction"), the San Francisco Chronicle ("ferociously good"), the Los Angeles Review of Books ("extraordinary"), Electric Literature ("the greatest restaurant book on earth"), mentioned in The New Yorker (twice), name-checked by St. Vincent, blurbed by Roxane Gay and Carrie Brownstein, and translated abroad. It won the Texas Institute of Letters' Steven Turner Award for Best First Fiction and was shortlisted for the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction. Etc., etc., etc.
Everyone loved the book, so much that she has to move to "etc etc" when the praise becomes too much to mention. That's neat. Gracious, she must be awful happy.
I had an astonishingly good first run.
Which is, for the most part, over.
Publishing has moved on to Sweetbitter and The Girls and more Harry Potter. Publishing is always moving on. Foolish poet that I am, I didn't realize how hollow that would make me feel. 
Yeah. I'm feeling you. The world is full of other books. That sucks.

So, she had a job, but quit the job when the book came out, thinking that she'd live on her husband's income while working on the next book, which she says gave her stress.
I haven't been able to write since the moment I started thinking I could or should be making money as a writer. I haven't produced a Second Book.
Yup. Feeling ya. Writing is stressful. Writing for sweet, sweet book money is stressful. That sucks.

Jim McCarthy, an agent and seemingly smart and clever human, said this on Twitter:
You know when to quit your day job as a writer? When you either a) have banked enough to live on for more than a few years, or... b) have published multiple books and your earnings are remarkably consistent, or c) you have someone who is willing to support you.
See if you can take a leave of absence if you get to tour your first book. Take a sabbatical. But holy christ, don't QUIT.
No author of mine has told me they were quitting their day job without giving me agita. And they mostly made the decision AS BESTSELLERS.
This business is competitive, and it is fickle, and it is difficult, and I want everyone to make a living as a writer but BE CAREFUL. PLEASE
And also? It should be noted that there is ZERO shame it being a writer with a day job. It doesn't make you less of a writer or less serious 
Long story short? I actually bought and loved your book, Merritt Tierce, but you owe me a Xanax for making it through that article.

 Yes to all those things, right?

You can make a living as a writer, of course. Nick Mamatas put it thusly:

You have to, you know, write stuff to live as a writer. Then you have to sell stuff. No one is going to pay you to sit around in your sweats all day and just type words into Scrivener. Even the Medicis needed ceilings painted.

Tierce herself addresses this in the original post about not being able to live on the proceeds from a novel you published a couple years back:
I would like to be paid to write.
I would, right now, sign in blood a contract that would pay me $40,000 a year for the rest of my life. No advances. No royalties. No freelance checks, no honoraria, no prize money, no film or TV options.
Yeah. That would be cool. I'd like to be paid to play banjo. I'm arguably one of the top five or six banjoists (yes, it's a word. shut up.) in my entire neighborhood. I'd love to be paid to just sit around and play in house without having to sell tickets to a concert or sell CDs or merch. I'd love to fly to Paris every year and eat cheese. I'd love to get through a week without pissing blood. I'd love to watch a baseball game every stinking day. None of that is likely to happen. And no one is going to pay me $5 to "just write," much less $40,000. Gracious. That's some sweet cash right there. 

I'm with Merritt Tierce there. That would be super cool. Then she says this:
At this stage in my vocational life, $40,000 is probably well below my earning capacity. I have a terminal degree from the most prestigious writing school in the country, and I've published a book with a major house—these qualify me to apply for tenure-track positions at universities.

Who the what now? Well below the what? Most prestigious? Major house? Damn it. Damn it. Why? I was totally with you. And now, now it's as if, I mean. Look, forty grand is sweet, sweet cash. Maybe these words don't argue that the author is too good for forty grand a year to just write. I dunno. Are we saying forty grand is settling for less than the author is worth? Being handed forty grand to write is taking less than what the author is worth. I mean, I think that's the argument here. I didn't got to the "most prestigious writing school in the country" and I haven't published a book with a "major house," so I'm just working with what little brain I have. But, you know, forty grand ain't no insult.

Worth more than forty grand a year. OK. Well, if I go to work in the morning making twenty grand a year, you know what I'm worth? Twenty grand a year. If I convice my boss to give me a raise of a thousand bucks a year, you know what I'm worth? A sweet twenty-one grand a year. (I didn't attend the most prestigious writing school in the country, but I can find a calculator.)

Tierce says she took a job with the post office making $16.65 an hour, but the job made her too tired to write after. Which is how we get to the idea of being paid to just write.  Yes, writing is hard. Writing when you're tired is hard. Writing before work is hard. Writing after you've spent three hours trying to help your kid through some horseshit math crap called "lattice multiplication" is hard. 

You can make a living writing, even if you're writing after work, it seems.

Ester Bloom wrote about this, in response to the Tierce column. Being a writer isn't a job

You can write as part of your job, of course. Largely that will mean doing the kind of un-fun, unsexy kind of arranging words that pays the bills: content marketing, for example, or corporate communications. Nicole Dieker is an exemplar. With hard work, she has been supporting herself as a writer for years now.

Lincoln Michel responded to Ester Bloom's response thusly: The hell it ain't:

The fact that writing is hard and there are many hobbyists doesn’t mean it isn’t a job either. It is very hard to be a professional athlete or a head chef, and many people practice sports or cooking as hobbies. But we would not pretend an NBA player or a head chef doesn’t have a job.
The more important point is that something can be a job even if it doesn’t pay you as much as you wish it would.
And that's really the point, isn't it? It can be a job even if the pay is poop. You can go broke working a a job that doesn't pay enough to live on.

You can't get by for years on one novel. Who are the super-successful novelists? Evanovich. Grisham. King. Many others. Each of those writers has published a novel since you started reading this post. Patterson has published six. Not written. Published. No one gives a crap how many novels you've written. Did you ask the pizza person how many pizzas she made today? No. You paid for the one you consumed. When a publishing house buys your book, they pay for product, not process. Yes, even a Major House.

I'm with Tierce that writing is tough, stressful and that trying to live for years on the proceeds of one highly praised novel is tough. She said she's sold about 12,000 copies. If you get a couple bucks for each hardback -- after you've earned out your advance -- then 12,000 copies at two bucks is 24 grand. (I don't know the terms of her contract, of course, though I do have access to that calculator, still.)

Can you live for a few years on 24 grand? Some do. Of course, they'd much rather get paid 40 grand a year for just writing or playing the banjo, I imagine.

For what it's worth, I don't have a problem with anything Tierce said in her 1,700-word piece in Marie Claire. I think she's wrong on many points, but I appreciate her writing about what she's gone through. I've read as much of her fiction as she's read of mine, I figure, so I can't speak to the novel itself, though I've no doubt it's wonderful.

You can make more money by publishing more than just a novel every few years, of course. You can write columns and Kindle singles and stories. I published a short story in a glossy last year and that alone has made me more money than all my other writing combined. Publishing is weird.

Here's a list of magazines that pay writers

You know who is on that list? Marie Claire.


Art Taylor said...

Wow. Crazy good post here--and the punchline at the end is a winner.

Steve Weddle said...

Thank you, sir.

Aimee Hix said...

You were way more generous than I would be, Steve. I mean, the crux of her piece is 'things didn't go like I expected/planned/wanted.' That's life. It's not unique to fancy It Girl writers. Or am I the only one who's had to eat a few shit sandwiches along the way?

She wrote and published a book. It got good literary reviews. It's gotten good Amazon reviews. It's gotten average GoodReads reviews. She's made money on it. And that's that.

Now you pick your ass up and write another one because the days of being able to sit back on your laurels because you accomplished one thing are long ... oh, wait, they've never existed. And if you have to eat some more shit sandwiches along the way, them's the breaks.

Dana King said...

I read the Marie Claire piece, too. You summed it up well, and captured most of my thoughts. Her whole piece came across as whiny: I wrote a kick ass book, now rose petals should appear on every sidewalk I traverse. (Okay, that's over the top, but it is along the lines she's thinking.) She figures she's paid her dues and now she's owed. She's also full of shit. No one is owed a living doing what they want to do. No. One. Not Jonathan Franzen nor Lee Child.

As for her "I'm surprised and disappointed to find Life does not meet my expectations, I refer to The Book of Swearengen: Pain or damage don't end the world. Or despair, or fucking beatings. The world ends when you're dead. Until then, you got more punishment in store. Stand it like a man... and give some back.

Alan Orloff said...

You should have gotten a little somethin' somethin' for this excellent post. Next time I see you, I'll buy you a drink!

Steve Weddle said...

Aimee, Yeah. I'm with ya. "Ass In Chair" is the only way. I don't know of any writer who has gotten sweet cash from a positive Amazon review of his/her book.

Dana, Life is all about giving back? Can't disagree with that.

Alan, You're on. Thanks

Benjamin Sobieck said...

This the best thing I've read all day. Nicely done, Steve.

Unknown said...

You nailed it, brother. Given all of the different flavors of adversity and hardship conspiring against us, who in the #$&% would possibly want to make a real-life attempt at writing for a living?! I mean, I got up at 5am before my day job and worked on my new novel hahaha but, still, who?!

Renee Asher Pickup said...

I think a lot of writers think of writing like hard labor. I did it, so I deserve a living wage, dammit! But it's not. It's like being an actor. You're probably going to have to have a day job and do commercials, and work really hard and try really hard, and always keep getting better - and even then, you may never be a star. You may always have to keep that day job and hold tight to your SAG card and be happy when you get booked for a small recurring role on a TV show with low ratings.

Being realistic about it, you probably know making a good living doing it is a long shot.

JJStick said...

Nicely done, Steve. She should try being a poet.

Steve Weddle said...

Benjamin, Thanks.
WDP, Early morning is the time that works for me, too. Before the tireds get to me.
Renee, Yeah. That makes great sense.

Mathew Paust said...

Here's how I see it: You write a "kick-ass" novel, it kicks a little ass, and then the buzz and the sales fizzle out. Oh, woe, but ain't that life? I wouldn't mind experiencing the first, but if writing means making magic to a writer--other than the monn-ney, Lebowski--then shouldn't I be trying to work magic on my next novel, keeping any expectation of a repeat sequence superstitiously hidden from myself to, you know, keep from jinxing the juju? But I live simply, so there's that.

Anonymous said...

People are funny. You, sir, are hilarious. Very much enjoyed.

Donna M. Johnson said...

I met Merritt Tierce after her book came out. Upon learning that I had once worked in trade journalism and as an ad writer to support my daughter, Tierce said she had never wanted to prostitute her talent in that way. She went on to tell a room packed with would-be writers that she didn't believe one could teach others to write. She didn't mention her attendance at the prestigious MFA program where one wonders what it was she learned, if it wasn't to write?

Surely those of us fortunate enough to receive the kind of reviews and attention that Merritt received must know that the glow of attention and affirmation last maybe 15 minutes, if that long. It's ephemeral--and more than most writers will ever get. A little more gratitude, a little less whining, a lot more freelance work are in order.