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Cash for Words: A Brief History of Writing for Money

Money taints everything, why not writing too?

Vsevolod Mikhailovich Garshin, by Ilia Efimovich Repin, 1884.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Humanities Fund Inc., 1972.

Charles Dickens was paid by the word. This was junior high, we were reading A Tale of Two Cities, and this fact, when it was first uttered, raced like a rumor through the classroom, overtaking everything. Suddenly, every other word in Dickens’s novel seemed like unnecessary padding, every sentence overstuffed, wasteful, filled with excessive detail. It didn’t matter that A Tale of Two Cities is among Dickens’s shorter novels; once we’d been introduced to the economy of writing, everything was tainted.

How to trust each word from that point on? “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness…” How to tell what of this was necessary, and what was extraneous? At the same time that we young students were being taught to cut padding from our own writing, here we were forced to read the work of someone rewarded for piling it on. Once I’d formed this picture of Dickens in my mind, it became an easy way to discount his novels as superfluous. (In fact, Dickens was paid by the installment, not the word; serializing his novels in periodicals allowed for a more sustained, steady income than waiting for book royalties.)

Money obscures one’s relationship to work; it distances us from ourselves and the things we make. Karl Marx, using the example of a weaver who sells a bolt of linen for £2 and then buys a family Bible with that £2, describes such transactions in terms of alienation: “The linen, which in his eyes is a mere commodity, a depository of value, he alienates in exchange for gold, which is the linen’s value-form, and this form he again parts with for another commodity, the Bible, which is destined to enter his house as an object of utility and of edification to its inmates.” Because the value of goods is dominated by the market, one’s labor becomes subordinate to the ascribed market value, and once we begin to mistake this market value as true value, we lose any genuine connection we might have had to the work.

Money taints everything, why not writing too? Once its value is determined by the marketplace rather than the writer or the reader, our relationship to literature becomes estranged. From bloated celebrity advances to rejected masterpieces, the market is more than just a poor arbiter of lasting quality: it tends to obscure that quality behind purely economic motivations. Good writing, we’re told time and time again, is born from love, not avarice. But this romantic picture of the writer, toiling without regard to money, is itself a fiction—one whose roots stretch back several millennia, and whose effects we’re still dealing with today.

The first writer to charge by the word is thought to be the Greek poet Simonides, who became legendary for his stinginess. Prior to Simonides, poets relied on a patronage system. In exchange for food, lodging, and prestige, poets would provide wealthy benefactors with writing that extolled their virtues, as well as act as general companions and creative writing coaches for the patron’s own work. Amorphous and difficult to pin down, it was a system that allowed at least some poets to make a living without overly quantifying their art.

Simonides changed this. He wrote for money, and he kept precise books. Despite his undisputed literary excellence, this quality came to define him above all else: Simonides was thought to be parsimonious, a miser, putting money above all else. Ailian, his biographer, commented simply that “No one would deny that Simonides loved money.” In Aristophanes’s Peace, Simonides is described as one who would “put to sea upon a sieve for money.” It is to Simonides, agree most classical commentators, that we owe our current estrangement from our words. As Anne Carson puts it in the Economy of the Unlost, her study of Simonides and Paul Celan: “I like to think Simonides represents an early, severe form of economic alienation and the ‘doubleness’ that attends it.”

As Carson herself notes, the tension between a patronage economy and a money economy had been building for some time, and during Simonides’s lifetime these two systems overlapped, despite being often described as diametric opposites. The distrust and distaste that Simonides garnered may have been due, in part, to his refusal to live in an ambiguous status afforded by these two contradictory structures, to play the game. Whereas previous writers and artists had negotiated the contradictions of a system that was intentionally not fully articulated, Simonides cut through the Gordian knot of such confusion, demanding a simple and straightforward equation of words and money. As a result, he appeared to all as avaricious—his love of money more central than his love of poetry.

The system Simonides spurned was one of patronage and gift. Goods and services were exchanged based not on their value but on the value of the relationship between giver and receiver. For Carson, the essence of Simonides’s perceived greed “was the commodification of a previously reciprocal and ritual activity, the exchange of gifts between friends.” In such an economy, one’s obligation to one’s community and to one’s writing trumps any obligation to cash.

Little is known about the actual Simonides. There are few contemporaneous accounts of his life, and he quickly became a stock figure for greed. As classical scholar Norman Austin notes, no other writer was so unequivocally associated with avarice, even though others (including Simonides’s contemporary, Pindar) wrote about money with equal frankness. All of this, Carson suggests, may be an indication that when it comes to Simonides we are not talking about a poet so much as we are talking about an idea. “Everything gets more interesting,” she writes, “if we understand his greed as a biographical trope for the whole burgeoning fifth-century money economy.”

But regardless whether Simonides himself was responsible for this shift, or whether he simply became the straw man associated with a larger trend sweeping the classical world, the shift toward monetizing poetry had long-lasting effects. In short order, money became widely recognized as a corrupting influence; Pindar, in his second Isthmian Ode, nostalgically laments earlier times when “The Muses were not mercenary in those days, nor worked for hire, nor were the songs of Terpsichore for sale.” And Horace, in his discussion of the poet Choerilus, whose pockets Alexander the Great filled “with lots of royal cash, as a reward for his misbegotten badly written verses,” adds that writers who work under such economic motives mar both their subject matter and their writing. There is a moral in the tale of pay-for-play poets like Choerilus, who was given a gold coin for each good verse he produced, and a beating for each bad verse: in the end, he was flogged to death for his writing.

No matter. We have continued to blur and smudge both good deeds and good writing with money more or less constantly ever since then. Pindar’s lament against the Simonideses of the world has continued unabated to the present day. Writing for The Telegraph in 2014, Sameer Rahim complained: “You can’t go on a writer’s Facebook page or meet them for a drink without the discussion turning to what their publisher is doing—or not—to boost their sales, who the most ruthless agents are, or where to get the best-paid creative writing gigs.” Simonides’s original sin, for Rahim, continues to taint the work of writing, even to this day. Bothered by this endless avarice, Rahim wondered, “I know they have to eat, but when did it all become about the money?... Call me a romantic but it might actually benefit a writer not to rely on books as their main source of income.”

Perhaps this age of capitalist greed is coming to an end; with the rise of online publishing, the material costs of publishing have all but vanished, allowing for a world once again untrammeled by commerce. “Luckily, the freedom offered by the Internet offers a chance to resurrect the idea of writing for love, not money,” waxes Rahim. “So far online self-publishing has been the preserve of fan fiction and erotica but it can’t be long before high-quality fiction starts to emerge.” In two thousand years, we have not strayed far from Pindar’s long-ago complaint: “Men used to write for love alone; now they write for money.”

It would seem, perhaps, easy enough to go back, to separate writing from commerce. Rahim’s vision of writers holding other jobs and writing in their free time, their words no longer bound to feed them, is an easy enough solution. But the story of Simonides also suggests the way in which these two things—words and money—are closer in value than they appear. “Simonides appears to have been the first to introduce meticulous calculation into songmaking and to write songs for a wage,” writes one commentator of his legacy. Carson notes that in the Greek, the word smikrologia, “meticulous calculation,” can suggest not just “minute care about financial expense, miserliness,” but also “minute care about details of language, exact expression.” Dionysius of Halicarnassus, writing of Simonides, notes that one should “Watch very carefully Simonides’s choice of words and the exactitude with which he puts things together”; the word exactitude here is akribeia, which likewise has a dual meaning: it can mean “precision, accuracy, exactness of language” or “parsimony, frugality, stinginess with money.” Simonides, then, not only became the first to charge money for his words, but also, these sources suggest, awakened in Greek culture the fact that money and words bear an analogous relationship to each other.

“Money had a radical impact on ancient culture,” Carson concludes; “Simonides reacted to it by inventing a poetry of radical economy.” Rather than simply stating that Simonides interrupted a literary economy of gift and patron, of charity and reciprocity, one might perhaps suggest instead that he revealed, or at least cemented, a latent relationship between language and currency that was always there.

I have a small stack of gifts I’ve received from publishers I’ve written for: a few mugs, a tote bag, a T-shirt, some stickers, even a few 7” records. Primarily these are from small journals: places that weren’t even paying editors, let alone writers. I’ll write for free to help a new publication that I admire get off the ground, or because I admire their mission, or because the editor is a friend of mine. In a few cases I’ve been offered a small amount—barely more than an honorarium—that I’ve turned down to help defray the publisher’s costs.

This is part of the gift economy of writing: Occasionally I’m asked to contribute a piece for no pay, and to do so as, more or less, a gift. And the implication here is always that one does such things out of love: love for new publications, love for new voices, and a love of seeing one’s own words in print. In such cases, asking for cash, or turning down an offer for lack thereof, is always gauche.

Asked to write for love, not money, the writer is asked to exit the money economy and return to the gift economy. In 2007, poet Robert Hass suggested that this boomerang trajectory was the natural way of art. While institutions such as copyright exist “to put works of art on the market for a while,” Hass sees the situation as temporary: “then they come out of the market and back into the commons, because the commons is where they came from. And the way they came there is just as anybody here who ever wanted to write, wanted to write because they got gifted.”

There’s something beautiful and utopian here, but it’s worth recognizing that this is not a true gift economy in the sense first defined by Marcel Mauss and other anthropologists. Gift economies, above all, are a means of keeping goods in circulation, as well as cementing bonds. Receiving a gift, be it a banquet or a poem, is only the first part of the equation. The receiver is then expected—more than expected, obligated—to return the favor. And not just return it, but to exceed it; the gift given in return must be more valuable than the original gift.

This obligation is a means of ensuring that goods and services stay in circulation in a given community, and it is also the means by which social status is determined. In Potlatch—a festival of elaborate giving practiced by various cultures of the Pacific Northwest—the goal is to give so much, and so lavishly, that your benefactors are perpetually in your debt. As Mauss notes, the gift economy may be “apparently free and disinterested but nevertheless constrained and self-interested.” The gift, Mauss writes, appears generously given, but this is at best a “polite fiction, formalism and social deceit,” behind which lies “obligation and economic self-interest.” In gift economies, the obligation “to reciprocate worthily is imperative. One loses face for ever if one does not reciprocate,” writes Mauss. “The individual unable to repay the loan or reciprocate the potlatch loses his rank and even his status as a free man.”

It may be that the term “gift economy” is a misnomer; it is a circulation economy, and it doesn’t work if it consists only of gifts given in one direction. Georges Bataille describes potlatch as “the solemn giving of considerable riches, offered by a chief to his rival for the purpose of humiliating, challenging, and obligating him. The recipient has to erase the humiliation and take up the challenge; he must satisfy the obligation that was contracted by accepting. He can only reply, a short time later, by means of a new potlatch, more generous than the first: He must pay back with interest.”

Potlatch, like any gift economy, can never be a one-way process; those who receive gifts are indebted, and they are obligated to return the favor in order to save face. If editors and publishers—appealing to love, not money—ask for the gift of free words, then by the logic of the gift those writers can expect a return, with interest.

Largesse only makes sense when it is constantly returned, when it is part of a great wheel of motion. The accusation of a writer’s stinginess can only be valid when it disrupts an already moving series of gifts and reciprocities. When this reciprocity is lacking, the humiliation lies entirely with those asking writers to give their words for free.

Excerpted from Scratch: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living, edited by Manjula Martin and published by Simon & Schuster.