By Ellyn Gaydos
Special to Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Seven of the authors featured in “Scratch: Writers, Money and the Art of Making a Living” have called Brooklyn home at one time or another. The recent Pulitzer recipients, including Brooklyn playwright Lynn Nottage and novelist Colson Whitehead, only confirm the heavy concentration of writers in the borough — but how do accredited and aspiring writers fair? The collection, edited by Manjula Martin, founder of Scratch magazine, is something of a practical guide to what is the modern minefield of writing professionally. In addition to essays, “Scratch” includes interviews with authors on how they are getting by and usually it is not a simple answer.
Many of us read is to escape the kind of workday reality depicted in this book: deflated egos, money problems and networking. These are not Allen Ginsburg’s journals or Rainer Maria Rilke’s “Letters to a Young Poet”; these are people fighting with their agents and themselves. Of course, the trope of the starving artist is an enduring one and literary history is riddled with family disputes over money (Walter Benjamin), complicated relationships to benefactors (Zora Neale Hurston) and downright criminality (Jean Genet). And then there’s the denial of any kind of origin at all, by writers in hiding like Thomas Pynchon and until recently, Elena Ferrante. But this book aims to drift away from the romantic, a hard task for the writerly kind and toward the practical.
In Leslie Jamison’s (author of “The Empathy Exams”) contribution “Against ‘Vs.’” she discusses a lecture she delivered at the Guggenheim honoring sculptor, Doris Salcedo:
“Money lurked in every corner of this talk. Not only was I getting paid by the Guggenheim to give it, I was also getting paid by Columbia to teach the texts that had become central to it. My job was also helping to pay for my daughter’s afterschool program, which allowed me the time to give the talk at all; but spending the afternoon with my daughter the day before I gave the talk was part of why I hadn’t been able to edit it as much as I would have liked.”
It may seem as if Jamison’s talk has been hijacked by the many streams of influence running throughout, but Jamison herself concludes that in part, our discomfort comes from the fantasy of the artist as individual, a fantasy that wrongly supposes the individual can live on fumes, unbound to this world by familial obligation, or the institution of work. Instead, Jamison nudges the reader to consider “the ways in which larger collective bodies make art; that art doesn’t get made simply by the isolated body of the individual artist”
Daniel Jose Older, fantasy and YA author, addresses “the disproportionately white publishing industry,” which “matters because agents and editors stand between writers and readers…often, as writers of color, to portray our stories in all their vibrant authenticity, in all their difficult truth, means we’re not writing for editors and agents.” Not writing to editors and agents may mean, no book deal. Older adds it is not about promoting token voices but rather publishing the vast range of literature by people of color that is under represented.
Emily Gould discusses the pressure put on women to ingratiate oneself to peers and “insiders” from promoting books on social media that are only “okayish” to baking cookies for your readings. Other writers like Yiyun Li, state more candidly about the business, “I was just oblivious. Very oblivious.”
Choire Sicha, novelist and former Gawker editor, provides definitions of market terms like “subscriptions” and “display advertising” for the woefully naïve adding, “if you’re a writer at a decent-sized online publication, there’s nothing better you can do for yourself at work than buddy up to a couple of ad sales bros.”
As I tried to read “The Insider,” Kate McKean’s essay about remaining current in the publishing world, I became increasingly distracted by a child feeding Cheetos to her father on the A train. Later, a woman trying to stand up ripped off her hospital bracelet and threw it to the ground. Pigeons flew through the subway tunnel. Though this book asks important questions about the worlds of business, publishing, and academia (worlds some writers would like to pawn off as invisible accessories to their success), I kept wanting to look away.