Sunday, August 3, 2008

Writing for Free: What It Means to the Future of Literature

Writing for free. When I first started out, nearly 10 years ago, new writers were being harangued by established writers not to write for free. It undervalued writers and would bring about the collapse of literature. Most of us back then still worshiped that image, already fading into myth, of the writer who woke each morning to sit in front of a typewriter (by then a laptop, but it's just not the same), and do nothing all day but pound out prose or poetry that would be handsomely compensated or at least earn a living. At the same time, we newbies understood that breaking in probably meant submitting to free markets at least in the beginning.

We can chase our tails with the chicken/egg argument, but suffice it to say, very few current writers, even well-known ones, can support themselves solely with their writing anymore. Yes, there are the J.K. Rowlings and the Dan Browns , but for every writer who has struck gold, there are hundreds, maybe even thousands, supporting themselves in some other way. The lucky ones at least teach writing. Others pursue the same jobs the rest of the world does to make a living, from waitressing to lawyering.

Certainly those writers who harangued us all in the beginning are now saying, "I told you so," as they peruse the want-ads, but I'm not so sure this trend is really such a bad thing for the future of literature. While doing another job might take time away from writing, people who want to do it badly enough find the time. Furthermore, working outside the home can provide inspiration that sitting at a desk thinking up stories just can't. Take writer Karl Iagnemma, author of the short story collection, On the nature of Human Romantic Interaction and the recent novel, The Expeditions. Iagnemma is a robotics researcher at MIT, and his study of mathematics works its way into his fiction in fascinating ways. Working as a waitress or a bookstore clerk or simply riding the bus or the subway each day during rush hour or after the night shift when the world is a little different can also provide inspiration. Perhaps all those stories in The New Yorker about divorce and relationship issues and thinly disguised versions of the author "finding herself" are the product of minds that just don't get out enough. Sometimes I think the average working grunt, who doesn't see herself as such a fascinating person, is more likely to look outside herself for something interesting to write about.

My thinking on this issue could be colored by the fact that I've always been associated with online publications that can pay little or nothing , but I look at it this way. What we are left with now is a majority of writers who want to write so badly they will do it in their spare time and for free. They also go out into the world everyday and interact with real people doing real things. Things that make fascinating stories.

To me that can only bode well for the future of literature.

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