Confessions of a Guilty Freelancer

Context N°24

William O’Rourke

The following is an excerpt from the preface of William O’Rourke’s Confessions of a Guilty Freelancer, which was published in summer 2012 by Indiana University Press. Reprinted with the permission of Indiana Press.

The Internet has turned writers into content providers, most often working for free. The word freelance is now becoming literal, at least the “free” part. Why?

Lots of reasons.

Higher education, for one. Just as there used to be clear distinctions between commercial and literary fiction (and nonfiction), distinctions that, over time, have become decidedly blurred, there are fewer distinctions separating the work of what professors do in order to retain their jobs. Scholarship must be created, scholarship, which, in the past, did not necessarily pay enough to provide a celebration dinner, but which was necessary to keep the maker employed, and, thank the Lord, eventually tenured.
The growth in the academic world of the creative writing MFA over the last thirty or so years (increasing from a handful of such programs in 1970 to over three hundred, currently) has dragged hundreds of writers, novelists, poets, and non-fiction writers into the same world the dedicated scholar inhabits. Publish or perish. And the changes that circumstance has brought about are easy to see. For one, check the back of any volume of, say, The Best American Short Story volume, pre-1945. You will find 1–2 pages listing the publications from whence the stories have been picked. More than half were high-paying journals, the long-gone slicks, many defunct or empty now of fiction.

Now, there are thirty pages of journals listed in the 2010 volume, with only a handful of high-paying publications included. Most are subsidized journals, existing because of universities or the ample pockets of a few rich people. Other than in advertising, the short form of both non-fiction and fiction is largely a non-remunerative form, except for a fortunate few.

I am not a member of the chorus of MFA program bashers. I don’t believe we have an oversupply of writers; if anything, we have an undersupply of readers. Reading literary non-fiction and fiction is not part of the popular culture; it is an activity of the unpopular culture, but, nonetheless, it is still alive.
In the unpopular culture, the literary one, the current situation is not healthy. When Barnes & Noble and Borders began, such large stores were considered predators, out to eliminate the mom-and-pop bookstore business; but it quickly became obvious the big-box outlets were turning books into objects to be looked at. The stores were galleries of books (and coffee shops); now, even they are imperiled, teetering toward bankruptcy.

The literate culture supposedly demolished the oral culture a couple of centuries ago, making literacy an elite and dominating bastion. But, the oral culture has now come back with a vengeance. Technology has led the way: the Internet, the Web, communication in general (cell phones and the like), operate in a volatile mixture of oral and loosely written speech, a medium that requires typing, or “texting.” The latest form of half speech and half prose, from Twitter, the “tweet”, has not ushered us into a new golden age of the brilliant aphorism. We now see, we now look, and occasionally hear; but fewer read, except for what can fit on a screen. (And writers played a foreshadowing role, when they abandoned their typewriters and began to stare at their work magically materializing on a screen when they adopted computers as “word-processing machines.”) Recently, I saw a picture in a major newspaper of grandparents giving a Kindle to their eight-year-old grandchild; when grandparents play that role, good-bye print culture.

In our largely aural-visual culture, we have reached an odd place in the pernicious division—not just of income, the gap between rich and poor—but of literacy. There is now a slice, not that much bigger than the one percent of the population that controls so much wealth (though, of course, not the same people), who can be called hyper-literate. These are the people who used to read the book reviews that have now disappeared from so many newspapers.

The division of literacy and money continues to echo the economic distribution our country now lives with. The top ten percent of the income distribution are certainly the book buyers, the book buyers of so-called “better” books. For the non-buyers there are the libraries, always under siege by government budget cutters.

But libraries have taken over the distribution of the aural-visual popular culture too, as well as the unpopular culture of literary fiction and non-fiction. And, then, like the poor, there are many who read almost nothing, or nothing like books. The poor may have flat-screen TVs, but not yet Kindles.
I don’t mean to be apocalyptical. But I am prone to taking the long view. The old days of freelancing, when writers tried to make a living cobbling together cash from diverse publications, is certainly over, though, in the way of the wild man in the woods, one or two such people may be still doing it. But many writers are writing for free (especially those who do it as a second job), just as college graduates the last few years find themselves working as unpaid interns post degrees.

And the ascendancy of the memoir over the past two decades and its fast and easy relationship with the truth has contributed to the general diminishment of overall literacy. The lack of trust begets confusion, which, in turn, lessens the status of the endeavor.

Our winner-take-all society operates in the literary sphere as fiercely as in the rest of the world. More and more power is given over to the gatekeepers that remain; book reviews are shutting down, even as the number of “books” published each year continues to rise (if you just go by ISBN numbers.) The New York Times Book Review rules over a kingdom which now consists mostly of the abandoned villages and crumbling castles of departed nobles and their former duchies. But its power remains considerable. The setting of fashion is a high-capital operation. The New York Review of Books remains, most likely because of its lack of any competition. The rarest thing for most contemporary writers is to have their work written about beyond a 700-word limit.

And occasionally even fashion setters are upended. In a society where even the self-declared tastemakers do not know who are the best writers anymore, once in a blue moon outside agitators (usually judges of a few powerful prizes, themselves high-capital operations—the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, etc.) can shake things up.

Nearly twenty years ago in Signs of the Literary Times, SUNY Press, 1993, I wrote of the case of Larry Heinemann’s novel Paco’s Story, which was nominated for the National Book Award for the best novel of 1986, but was passed over for review by the New York Times Book Review until the nomination. The NYTBR testily reviewed it after the nomination, but took a defensive tone because its own judgment had been questioned on who was who and what was what, even after the novel won the prize.

And  it happened again in 2010, when Jaimy Gordon’s Lord of Misrule was nominated (and then won) the National Book Award for fiction. This time, the Times ran a review and an article and the Book Review mentioned it, too, in a news column, though not a review, but the paper wasn’t as pugnacious about its oversight as it was in Heinemann’s case. It seemed to have learned a lesson. Humility is in order in these days when no one, evidently, is able to keep up with all that is happening.

Even an Edmund Wilson couldn’t keep track of the literary world today. And that, at least is being acknowledged, if only begrudgingly. But, as any writer of books knows, there are three things one hopes for: to be published, to be reviewed, and to turn up in bookstores. What one learns is one of those must happen (publication), but it is even more difficult to capture all three.

In commercial journalism, what is happening is easier to see, since it is being played out in popular culture on flat-screen televisions. The phenomenon of political consultants and operatives becoming television journalists continues unabated and the cult of celebrity dominates the news, both in its coverage and its production. The paradox of niche journalism that cable television can offer (entire shows on pet veterinarians, or people who hoard things, etc.), still thirsting after large audience numbers in order to be economically viable, thereby becoming dumber and dumber, continues. Small “journals of opinion” struggle, even when backed by families flush with excess capital. But writers still long for readers, which is a perennial reason they will work for free. These days there are fewer calls for “public intellectuals.” It is a job category I always wanted to fill, but there is not much demand at the moment, even less than there was two decades ago. Those that thrive are corporate intellectuals, hosted and promoted by the largest media outlets (primarily television) in the land.

When I was a young writer the idea of generation had a lot of power in the literary culture, the notion of writers connected to each other, influencing one another. But the academy, for the last couple of decades, has more or less abandoned the idea of generational links, labeling such mere chronology and coincidence unfashionable. But writers still are interconnected, and in the literary world, it matters. But, along with connection there comes exclusion, and there is sufficient intellectual dishonesty afoot in the literary community to overlook other writers when so inclined.

One literary trend has definitely mirrored the political: globalization has affected everything. Examination of the recent O. Henry prize volumes and The Best American series will show almost as many stories set abroad as in the USA. We are all postcolonial writers now.

Freelancers, guilty or not, are at the mercy and good graces of editors; someone has to like what you do before it gets published. It’s a free press as long as you own one, etc. (H. L. Mencken 1880–1956). Some writers find they can’t live with editors, but no writer can live without them—except, perhaps, the writer branded with a word as ugly as freelancer: the blogger.

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