“There are four ways to survive as a writer in the US in 2006: the university; journalism; odd jobs; and independent wealth.” (Keith Gessen, n + 1) 1
Some writers manage to live off their art. Some inhabit a grey area in which they earn a livable wage off non-creative writing. And some writers work 40 hours a week elsewhere. Wallace Stevens retired as the vice president of an insurance company, notably turning down a professorship from Yale to stick with his office. William Carlos Williams decided in high school that he would become both a writer and a doctor—which he did. That’s one kind of writer. Among their present-day successors is Edward P. Jones, who worked as a business writer for almost 19 years after earning his MFA. During this time, his coworkers might have been surprised to know that his first story collection was nominated for a National Book Award. Robert Olen Butler published his first four books while working as editor for an energy industry trade magazine.
It is true that there are writers of the kind Gessen described, people like Maxine Hong Kingston, an emeritus professor of English at UC Berkeley, or the late David Foster Wallace, who after working a succession of odd jobs taught at Pomona College until his death. “Literary author” did eventually become their vocation, although they held other jobs along the way. It’s true, many great American authors do eventually end up here. But few start out here.2
Which one is the serious writer? The executive, the professor, or the business writer? Any of them could be, any of them could not. Ask Kafka if his day job mattered to his fiction, as a new collection of his office writings alleges. Ask Bukowski, who dreamed and dreamed of getting out of his 40 hour a week hell. If by “serious” you mean “a writer who can live off her writing,” then compare Jones’s accumulated wages as a business writer with the earnings on his under-read story collection.
We’d like to offer a simple criterion to distinguish serious writing from everything else: the quality of the writing. And we offer as a corollary that, the free market currently showing itself to be capricious, irrational, and perhaps even dangerous, the amount one is paid for writing is at best a weak indicator of that writing’s value.
What it all comes down to is this: the nexus of prestige, money (and one’s relationship to it), time, socio-economic position, and self-image is something that each writer navigates for herself. There is no one correct answer; and quite frankly, we’d be surprised if any writer has ever consistently chosen the same answer over the course of an entire career. Certainly, to shoehorn the possibilities into the four Gessen enumerated is to radically diminish the possibilities for writers working today.
All of this was in our heads when we decided to present a special issue of The Quarterly Conversation focused on writers (and readers) and work. We work, and we suspect that most of you do too. We also read and write. Well, it’s time we consider how it all comes out.
Ralph Ellison once declared that the great American theme is the search for identity. From childhood on we are asked what we are “going to be,” and it’s a cherished American truism that the answer to this question, and to the riddle of our identity, can be found by looking at that place we spend 40 hours out of the week. No wonder it is sometimes hard to accept that those times when we feel most intensely ourselves—including the time we spend reading and writing—are completely extraneous to what we “do,” and therefore “are.”
Is work nothing more than a simple economic transaction that takes away eight hours of your day, leaving you the space to be whoever you want in the other 16? Should it be anything more than that? Does it need to fulfill or recognize what is within you? And doesn’t getting paid for something sully the relationship?
We don’t know, but in search of answers we present five writers who have considered what work means to us—not just as writers but also as readers. Consider: whatever your relationship to your job, it can at times be tough, and literature can do much to humanize an environment that tends toward dehumanization. Knowing that work enables creative writing is a huge motivation. Simply looking forward to reading a novel at lunch can redeem those other eight hours. Jobs may not recognize people as artists, or even individuals, but we always have the option of reasserting the value of both literature and of the people who identify with it. Off the job, or on it.
The features in this issue tackle these issues. In his essay “Soulbroken,” Billy Thompson writes about how his lunch hour reading both redeems and devastates him. John Lingan and Nicole Gluckstein look at how two great writers from the 20th century, William Gaddis and Charles Bukowski, handled their relationship between work and literature. Barrett Hathcock attempts to untangle the conflicted threads of wage-based writing and its creative counterpart. Lastly, Sacha Arnold considers how the novelist Carter Scholz has limned the career and workplace of one of the late 20th century’s strangest and most portentous professions: atomic weapons research scientist
In this issue we are also proud to offer an audio podcast interview with Aleksandar Hemon and book reviews, encompassing international titles, works from small and independent presses, and a couple juggernauts whose names will likely already be familiar to most.
2 In all this hubbub over who is a “real” writer, it’s useful to remember that some writers dismiss the question altogether. Richard Grayson, who has published numerous books and earned raves from the likes of The New York Times, has worked his whole life and is content to consider his writing a “hobby.”
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