Whatever became of the middle-class author and the Great American Novel?


One of my English professors recently found out that I work for the newspaper. I was walking out of his seminar – where we’d discussed the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s book, “Stride Toward Freedom,” specifically, how King contributes to the literary tradition of the 1960s by stressing nonviolence and love in the fight for civil rights – when he asked me about my work with the paper.

“So do you want to be a writer?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” I said, relaying the typical reluctance to concretely outline post-graduation plans that is the hallmark of the college senior. “I’d like to be.”

“So would I,” he – full professor, tenured, published and with a Ph.D. – replied, laughing.

I smiled, but the truth of the situation cast a grim reality: It is hard to be a writer, and it seems to be getting more difficult in today’s world of instant connectivity, quick answers and short attention spans.

In fact, a recent article written by Lynn Neary and published by NPR outlines this growing trend – that making a living off of writing is nearly impossible. The article, aptly titled “When it Comes to Book Sales, What Counts as Success Might Surprise You,” mentions a survey conducted by the Author’s Guild.

“Just over 1,400 full and part time writers took part in the survey, the Guild’s first since 2009,” the article says. “There has been a 30 percent decline in author income since then, and more than half of the respondents earned less than $11,670 (the 2014 federal poverty level) from their writing related income.”

Furthermore, the article quotes Roxana Robinson, president of the Author’s Guild, who delivers even more sobering news.

“You used to be able to make an absolutely living wage as a writer,” she says. “You wrote essays and you published them in journals. You wrote magazine pieces and you got paid very well for those. And you wrote books and you got good advances. So being a writer, it didn’t usually mean you would be rich, but it had meant in the past that you could support yourself.”

So what happened?

There are the obvious exceptions to the notion that you can’t make a living off of being a writer. Newspaper titans like David Brooks, Michael Gerson, Mark Shields, Charles Krauthammer and Paul Krugman break the mold; they certainly seem to be doing all right, and their writing continues to be published or read (or skimmed) by millions. And books like Donna Tartt’s 800-page masterpiece, “The Goldfinch,” and Anthony Doerr’s World War II epic, “All the Light We Cannot See,” fly off the shelves. But where is the middle-class writer? What happened to those writing positions for the rest of us – those who want to, but are realistic about, writing the Great American Novel? Why aren’t elementary school children coming to class on Halloween dressed not as police officers or professional athletes, but as writers – comfortable jeans, fleece sweater with cat hair, maybe a pair of dad’s Birkenstocks?

The answer, it seems, is in what we, as a country, value. Writing – having long, contemplative thoughts – gets in the way of everything that speaks of commercial progress: productivity, fast solutions, numbers and tangible, reportable results. We seem to be lost in what we want to do, and we’ve lost sight of what we’ve done. This means that reading and writing – which require self-reflection, no matter the genre – get lost in the thrill of ‘progress at all costs’. The great books and the notable columns still sell because, thankfully, not all has been lost. We still crave a sense of culture outside of material success. But the art of the average writer – the contributor, the essayist – is a dying one, and this should be cause for alarm.

Though it doesn’t always (read: rarely) bring resounding commercial success, writing is a necessary and essential profession. Society needs people to help it examine itself. If we don’t have the people, good writers, to critique us, to give us a solid argument that enables a deep self-examination, then we are a hopeless people – controlled by and subservient to the machinations of material gain and ignorant of the plights of the human condition.

At this point, you may be rolling your eyes – “this guy and his typical English-major banter,” you may think. But the situation is real; as a society, we need to do better to support the thinkers, the professors, the artists and the writers – those among us who help us understand what it means to be human.   

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