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On Writing as a Profession

“How can I become a professional writer?” is the question they keep asking in a hundred different fashions. They are young men helped through college by the GI Bill of Rights or young women who have taken Professor Smithkin’s course in Creating the Novel (English 207A); and now they want to work for a publishing house while writing the first book that will make each of them famous. “All I need is a job to keep me going for a while,” they say. And you don’t know what to tell them because, although there are many promising byways that may lead to literary recognition as if by accident, there is at present only one marked pathway open to most young writers, and it may take them to the wrong destination.

In the nineteenth century there was a better path, one that led through the printing shop of a daily or weekly newspaper. The young writer started by learning to read proof or set type, and this was sounder training for him than all the Professor Smithkins can offer their students. His work with a type-metal alphabet might give him a tactile sense of words; at the very least it would teach him how to spell and punctuate. Later he would write for the newspaper and his best stories would be reprinted so widely that magazines would begin asking for his work. This was, roughly speaking, the path to recognition that was followed by Whitman, Howells, Bret Harte, Mark Twain and Lafcadio Hearn.

After 1890 most of the newspaper printing shops were unionized and no longer offered casual employment to young men serving their literary apprenticeships. The new path to recognition led through the city room of a big-town newspaper. Dreiser, Huneker, Mencken, Stephen Crane and David Graham Phillips, in fact most of the writers who appeared between 1890 and 1915, got their start as cub reporters. But that path began to be closed, too, after the First World War, by the disappearance of many dailies and by the fiercer competition for jobs on those that remained. Later, with the founding of the Newspaper Guild, reporting ceased to be a poorly paid apprenticeship and became a career in itself.

The 1920s were the bohemian period in American literature. Young writers went to Greenwich Village or Montparnasse and lived partly on the bounty of their relatives, but chiefly by their wits. They found odd jobs, mixed their own gin, rolled their cigarettes at home and talked their way out of paying bills; but they also wrote books reviews and magazine articles and worked on their first books with the help of advances from hopeful publishers. Some of them managed to support themselves by writing almost from the day they left college.

Their successors, the young writers of the 1930s, were not so lucky. They came to New York at a time when the most hopeful publishers had gone bankrupt and when there were few jobs to be found—except on the expanding Luce magazines, which offered high salaries to some of them, but left them morally bewildered and with little time for independent work. After 1936, however, there was the Federal Writers’ Project, which kept hundreds of young people alive while they were finishing or failing to finish their first novels.

Today there is no Writers’ Project and most of the other apprenticeships to a literary career are closed or nearly closed. It is still possible for a young man to live cheaply and by his wits while somehow writing a first book; but not even this bohemian path is open to most young writers. They have wives and children to support; early marriage has become the mark of a new generation. Needing an assured income, however small it may be, hundreds of them are finding it in the universities, where they win scholarships or draw monthly checks from the Veterans’ Administration and afterwards find junior posts on the faculty.

As a path to literary recognition—the only path that many young writers are able to follow—university scholarship has several disadvantages. It is a career in itself and encourages the writer to direct the best of his energies into study and teaching instead of original work. Economically it offers few rewards: the salaries for beginners are miserable and the long vacations are an illusion, considering that most instructors have to teach in summer schools in order to pay their bills. When they do find time for writing they are likely to feel a want of subject matter, since the universities stand outside the current of American life. A subtler disadvantage for writers is that academic salaries, however small, can always be depended on and thus encourage them in the fatal habit of looking for security instead of risking their careers with every new task they undertake and every book they publish. They surrender a little of their freedom and sometimes all of it. They have superiors to placate and the superiors have to worry about the board of regents and the state legislature. A rash book by a young professor might result in a diversion of funds from the English department to the medical school, or it might mean a small legislative appropriation for the whole university.

If the young professor writes his book in spite of everything; if he braves the disapproval of the academic community or of the larger community on which it depends; if the book is published and talked about and even has more than the average sale for a first novel, what then? Perhaps he thinks that he is launched on a career in literature; but then he reads his semi-annual royalty statements and learns that most authors can’t earn a living simply by writing books.

There was a time during the war and for a year or two afterwards when writing books was for once a profession that supported hundreds. In those days a romantic novel that was chosen by one of the major books clubs and sold to Hollywood might yield its author as much as half a million dollars before he paid his income tax. There were of course very few of these bonanzas, but many books were being sold in editions of 50,000 and more. The publishing trade and the writing trade flourished together; and even the authors whose books refused to be successful could usually find jobs as staff writers for magazines or motion-picture studios. Then the literary boom ended between two seasons while American business was still at the high tide of postwar prosperity. Like the entertainment industry, publishing went into a slump from which it was slow to recover.

At present it seems to be back in a fairly stable position, with publishers complaining as usual but managing to stay in business. In spite of television and canasta, the average bookstore sale of average books—if there are any—seems to be higher than it was before the war. Book-club orders have fallen to about their 1940 level, after a period of steep decline in which the Book-of-the-Month Club lost more members than the Literary Guild. Almost the only flourishing reprint market is for 25-cent books with pictures of busty women or corpses on their shiny paper covers. Production costs of all books are much higher; they climbed more than sales did in the boom and fell only a little during the slump. The retail price of books has increased by 25 or 30 percent on the average: not nearly enough to cover the increased cost of manufacture. Authors’ royalties, especially for first books, have decreased a little in percentage; but the dollar royalties are somewhat larger, on account of being based on the higher retail prices. In one respect the author’s situation is unchanged. Unless he reaches the book-club audience, his income from writing books, now as before the war, is likely to be less than the earnings of a Southern mill hand. He can work a year on a book, feel happy when it is praised by reviewers and find in the end that it hasn’t earned enough in royalties to cover the $1,000 that he may have received as an advance before the publication.

If he tries to balance his accounts by writing for the magazines he will find that the changes in this field have been much more sweeping than among the book publishers, who, compared with the owners of big-circulation magazines, are a group of conservative small business-men. It was the “general” magazines that used to offer the best market to free-lance writers; but that was thirty years ago and the market has dwindled away. The Saturday Evening Post, Collier’s and the Cosmopolitan are among the few magazines that still try to print stories and articles for all the family. Most of the other weeklies and monthlies that flourish today are appealing to some particular audience or interest; they are women’s magazines, news magazines or magazine digests. Many of them are partly or wholly staff-written by salaried authors. All except the digests print many pictures, thus cutting down the space for text. Incidentally, the market for magazine fiction has suffered much more than that for articles.

There are, however, many other sources of income for the experienced writer. If he is not employed by a public institution or a private enterprise, he is among the last of independent craftsmen. Like the consulting engineer and the attorney, he has acquired skills for which there is a public need. He has learned to work with words, attitudes, emotions and he never knows who will be the next to engage his services.

Even though his income is in the lower brackets, his tax return on March 15 is likely to be more complicated than that of many middle-sized corporations. He worked part of the time for a salary, like a clerk; he worked part of the time for fees, like a physician; and part of the time he lived like a capitalist on his Rents and Royalties. His necessary business expenses?—but they are beyond his powers of estimation and he simply potshots at them, hoping that his guess won’t be too low. As for the sources of income, a typical list might run like this:

1. Five or six magazines paid him fees for writing articles or stories and small fees for writing book reviews.

2. Three publishers paid him for reporting on the literary quality and chance for success of various manuscripts, usually at $25 a report, and may also have called him into consultation about the revision of other manuscripts.

3. Another publisher asked him to write an introduction to the new edition of a book that is on its way to becoming a classic.

4. One of the smaller book clubs gave him a monthly retainer for serving as a member of its editorial board

5. Two broadcasting stations asked him to speak on sustaining programs that paid $50 or $75 for a 15-minute talk.

6. Several universities invited him to lecture, usually for $100 a night and traveling expenses.

7. For a week in the summer her served on the staff of a writers’ conference, and had he chosen he might have made a tour of several conferences, on a sort of Chautauqua circuit.

Twice a year he received a report from his own publisher about the sale of books he had written in the past. There wouldn’t be many dollars in his royalty account, but sums might be owed him for subsidiary rights—say for a translation into Spanish or Swedish or for a reprint by Pocket, Signet or Bantam Books.

By all these means—the author reflects as he puts his tax return into the mail—he has managed to scrape through the year. Some day he would get a windfall, a sudden check from a book club or an award from some foundation, and it would give him leisure enough to finish a long book he was planning to write.

I have been describing the situation of a fairly fortunate writer, any one of the scores or hundreds whose names are familiar to publishers and editors and college deans, but whose works have never reached a mass audience. There are other authors, younger or less known, who find it much harder simply to keep going. They work in a chaotic industry where there are no labor unions. Of course there is the Authors’ Guild, which is always trying to improve the terms of publishers’ contracts; but the Guild hasn’t enough members to give force to its recommendations. So far it has done nothing whatever for book reviews, translators, ghost writers or manuscript editors and revisers, and those are the fields in which many writers have to earn their precarious livings. Fees for such work have to be fixed by negotiation between a small craftsman and a not very big businessman; and the craftsman can’t often be a hard bargainer. He knows that he is replaceable and that the supply of book reviewers, translators, ghost writers and manuscript editors is almost always greater than the demand for their work. The result is that he usually accepts too small a fee and writes at top speed, carelessly, in the effort to finish the job before the money runs out.

If somehow he finds time to write a book of his own and if it happens to hit the public taste, his troubles are only beginning. The second book will be harder to write and may not sell half so well. The third book, read by his publisher with a discouraged frown, many remain in manuscript—and then the Connecticut house that he bought with the proceeds of his first book will go back on the market and the no longer so young or inexperienced author will begin wondering whether he can ask for his old post on an editorial staff or a Midwestern faculty. If the statistics could ever be brought together, authorship would prove to be among the riskiest of all occupations, with a mortality higher than that among structural-steel workers or deep-sea divers. I am not thinking merely of the failures, but of the good writers who succumbed to what in many cases were occupational diseases; alcoholism, suicide, insanity; and yet each year there seem to be more young writers eager to undergo the risks of the trade.

In the class structure of American society writers have a curious position. They are generally regarded as belonging to the professional classes, on an economic level below that of doctors or lawyers and perhaps above that of university professors; yet socially they don’t fit into the pattern. They don’t drive the right sort of cars or live in the right part of town. They don’t belong to country clubs or “service’’ clubs or bridge clubs or societies for civic improvement, and they have, roughly speaking, no organizations of their own.

Their neighbors, most of whom are clerks or skilled mechanics, are likely to regard them with distrust, as if they were surrounded with an atmosphere of the dangerous or illicit. Lights burn too late in their houses and sometimes there is noisy singing behind the closed blinds. They are rumored to drink too much and to be careless about their marital obligations. The tradespeople aren’t certain that they will pay their bills. The rumor gets around that they are Communists.

The distrust and vague hostility that divide writers—and intellectuals in general—from the mass of the American population have a long history behind them. At the very least they go back to grade school, where most of the future writers were the bright boys and girls who weren’t very good at games and weren’t invited to all the parties. It was the same in high school and later in college: on one side the uneasy feeling of the athletes and class politicians that they weren’t being sufficiently admired; on the other side was the shame of the bright boys at not being invited to join fraternities in which, as a matter of fact, they would have been unhappy. Still later in life the division that began by being one of temperament would take the form of opposing caste loyalties. There is no doubt on which side of American life the wealth and power lie. Only a few of the bright boys go into business or corporation law and, judging from some I have known, they seem to do so with a feeling of having betrayed their own group. Very few of them go into politics and it is only by accident that one of them is ever elected to Congress.

The distrust of intellectuals that began for many Congressman in school days might help to explain the attitude towards the arts that is expressed on many page of the Congressional Record. In one speech after another writing and painting are described by implication as unsound and possibly un-American activities. Scratch an artist, the orators seem to say, and you will undoubtedly find a Red. Any encouragement to literature and the graphic arts might become a subversion to a subversion.

Notions like these, outlandish as they seem when we come across them in Congressional debates, are nothing new in American history. Except during the brief days of the Federal Arts Project (and what a storm they raised in Congress!) the American government has done less for artists than any other government in the world, less even quantitatively than small states like Belgium and Denmark. At present it offers no prizes, medals, fellowships, honors, pensions or sinecures to writers, painters or musicians. There is exactly one official post in about two million that has to go to a practicing artist; I won’t name it here because some Congressman might move to abolish it, even though the funds are provided from a private source. In the past Congress refused to establish international copyright until 1891 and then passed the bill only because it was supported by the typographical unions. That writers also supported it was a count against this urgently needed legislation.

There are, of course, advantages to this indifference or hostility. Partly because he receives no encouragement from the state, the American writer feels less responsibility toward the state than do most of his European colleague, and he also has much less fear of state censorship. In a similar way his partial isolation from society gives him more freedom to do his own work and hold his own opinions (though he often feels that he would suffer economic penalties if he tried to express them in print). Besides the economic threat that hangs over him, there is another sense in which his freedom of thought and action is subject to the mass pressures of a democracy—that is, he is continually being admonished, by looks or gossip, to vote the right ticket, have the right flowers in his lawn, drive the right sort of car and cut his books to pattern. Always he is being tempted to prove his standing in society by earning money and thereby sacrificing the quiet and the watchful indolence that his talent needs if it is to flower.

Writers in this country have no center of opinion among themselves that would help them to resist this pressure from without; I mean nothing that serves the purpose of the French literary schools. On the whole, they lead rather solitary lives. It is true that during their early twenties they tend to form groups of a dozen of more that gather in one another’s rooms to drink and talk or listen to recorded music; but the groups soon dissolve as their members marry and disperse into their separate households, each with a very few close friends whom they see once or twice a week. Almost the only large gatherings of writers over thirty are when one of them publishes a book that seems to have a chance for success; then his publisher or his literary agent may give a cocktail party that serves as a rallying of the clan. In New York, where not so many writers live today as lived there twenty years ago, there is no literary café like the Flore or Deux Magots in Paris. There are few literary salons. Edith Wharton told us that New York society had always mistrusted writers and the situation hasn’t changed much since her time.

A more important lack, connected with the absence of schools and salons and literary cafes, is that of good conversation. It can be heard sometimes in Boston and more often in the South; but Americans in general are story-tellers rather than conversationalists, so that an evening in company is likely to hop rather than glide along, in a series of anecdotes followed by laughter and a silence. Enough cocktails will give the illusion of conversation, but not the reality; not the strong current of words and ideas in which a group is carried forward like swimmers on the same river. One result is that American writing, especially when it deals with ideas, seldom gives the impression of being spoken. Try reading it aloud and one finds that much of it is unpronounceable.

There are other characteristics of American literature that seem to result, not from broad economic or social forces, but from the specific situations in which writers live. Most of our serious writing, as distinguished from our magazine stories, has always tended to be eccentric or provincial; even Hawthorne and Emerson bear the marks of their isolation from good society and their partial isolation from any society, just as Faulkner and Wolfe would later bear them. In subject matter, too, American literature shows the result of isolation, since few of our authors have lived in close contact with financiers or politicians or labor leaders or simple business-men. If many representative figures are missing from our representative novels, the reason is chiefly that the novelists preferred to write about persons with whom they were familiar. Often they chose exceptional characters who, like themselves, were outside the current of American society.

For the most part our literature has been critical of American society, often wisely critical, but sometimes peevish and ill-informed; is seldom speaks for the party in power. Lacking in most of our fiction have been the qualities that Matthew Arnold praised in Chaucer’s poetry, which he described as having a “large, free, simple, clear yet kindly view of human life,” and again as having “largeness, freedom, shrewdness, benignity.” The qualities are indeed present in Whitman and Mark Twain; but elsewhere in the best American writing they are likely to be replaced by narrowness and intensity, with depth of experience compensating for want of breadth.

There is a fact-mindedness in American life that has always produced good reporters. There is a how-mindedness, a respect for technical skill, that has made our writing almost from the beginning, and certainly from Hawthorne’s day, as smooth and efficient as our engines. The skill is best-shown in shorter efforts, lyrics and stories and novellas; it is something different from the imaginative grasp that unifies a long novel. In general we do not give our authors the sort of lives or the sort of recognition that would encourage them to undertake vast constructions; there are no real epics in our poetry, and except for Moby Dick we have produced very few epics in prose.