Rachel Swirsky (rachel_swirsky) wrote,
Rachel Swirsky

The Other Side Speaks

Lit people have taken on the pay rate flap in this piece by Roxane Gay on The Big Other.

Gay considers the difficulty of offering payment:

There are three primary means of raising the money to pay writers that don’t make me uncomfortable–via advertising sales and subscriptions, via grant funding or donations, or by subsidizing expenses with your own money. As a print magazine, advertising sales (theoretically) and subscriptions account for a significant portion of the money we use to print each annual issue. It would not be sustainable for us to direct those funds toward paying writers who currently receive a copy of the issue in which their work appears as an honorarium. Grant funding, particularly for very small magazines, is very hard to get. We write grants and try our best but grant money is always soft money and as such it is also not a sustainable option. We have never received a donation but we do believe in fairy tales. Subsidizing the magazine with personal funds, which is what most independent publishers do, is as realistic as a given publisher can afford but if you are not independently wealthy, this option, lest I sound like a broken record, is not sustainable.

And also how payment is not part of her outlook as a writer:

As a writer I must confess I am always shocked when a literary magazine pays me for my writing. It makes me feel uncomfortable, so accustomed have I become to writing for free and sometimes not even for contributor copies. What does it say about the state of literary creation that compensation has become entirely foreign and as elusive as a mythical creature?

Gay's post is thoughtful, although I disagree with parts of it -- an awful lot of genre magazines with small circulations face the same barriers toward paying authors, and yet manage to produce token or per-word rates. I'd rather see her frame the post in terms of choices rather than possibilities. Her enterprise opts for different emphases, which is a legitimate decision, but not a statement of what's possible.

Some of the comments, however, are naive to the point of being amusing. Old canards raise their heads. Business is the opposite of art, and we should be Real Artists! Writers not only don't get paid, but shouldn't get paid! Or maybe they should, but only in a mythical reality where the public values literature more -- though there's no discussion that perhaps this can be achieved through writers agitating or even being vocal about pay rates.

As a lit writer friend of mine, Tim Jones-Yelvington, said in response to the thread:

I mean -- I'm all for decoupling the meeting of my material needs from creative labor (same for activist labor) if it is what seems necessary to create my strongest work (and in the case of activism, what seems best for social movements I support, as there is a trap in organizing for your job instead of for social change), but let's please not romanticize poverty or the devaluation of artistic labor.

I've written before that the lit community has different attitudes toward payment and prestige and that writers should account for those when they're thinking about the value of a sale and whether or not they are being exploited by a magazine. A "for the love" sale has different meaning in the lit community than it does in the speculative one. But that doesn't mean that these attitudes should remain unquestioned, let alone be romanticized.
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