Money and the Public Eye, However…

What would I do without Twitter? I would hardly know what anybody ate for lunch, much less what the literary world is aggrieved about on any given day. When over the weekend I saw a bevy of literary folks tweeting “!$(&*^% rich people” and similar, I knew that something juicy was afoot.

All that Twitter anger was directed at, or at least occasioned by, Ann Bauer’s piece, titled “Sponsored By My Husband: Why it’s a problem that writers never talk about where their money comes from,”  in Salon. 

A brief recap: in her article, Bauer talks about the fact that her marriage has provided her with the financial means to write freely and work only sporadically (and to go to daily yoga classes, among other things). Bauer calls her discussion of these facts “crass,” but suggests that it’s much worse to be guarded about finances than it is to be crass about revealing them. She mentions a presumably independently wealthy Famous Male Writer who, when asked by a Stranger at a Reading to talk about how he’d gotten by financially in the time he spent writing his book, seemingly lied and said he’d survived on honoraria from writing a handful of articles.

Bauer (and, it seems, a majority of the article’s readers) were aggrieved that the Famous Male Writer hadn’t told the truth to the Stranger, given the fact that she was out of the literary loop and didn’t realize that articles don’t pay particularly well.

I get the criticism. I do. Personally, I’ve been forthright with my students who’ve asked about the financial side of being an author. Everybody who knows me is well aware that I’ve always had a day job to bolster the writing efforts. If beginning writers seek me out for advice on writing and money, I’m typically candid with them about what the financial landscape looks like. And I’m not at all opposed to Bauer’s talking about her own financial situation and the freedom it’s given her to work.

However, I have a hard time getting past the idea that the Famous Male Author, whoever he is, should have to answer highly personal questions in a public forum, especially when asked by someone he doesn’t know and has no personal responsibilities toward—just a curious stranger who has a passing interest in his livelihood. I don’t endorse his lying to said stranger, but I can’t endorse her question, either.

We don’t ask people outside the creative culture to disclose to the details of their cash flow to strangers. Imagine walking up to the guy behind the deli counter at the grocery store and asking him how he gets by. Does he make all his money at the store, or does he have someone subsidizing his rent? How much does he make per hour, anyway? And how much credit card debt does he have? Most of us would think that it’s a wildly inappropriate move to interrogate the man simply because he’s there, we’re there, and we’re interested.

Yet writers are so often asked to reveal everything about themselves. From our finances to our health to our past traumas and addictions to our current struggles and griefs, we exist in a literary culture that encourages complete candor, regardless of whether an author is ready or comfortable with disclosure. Should authors have to give accounts of every aspect of their lives? Or is there any room for artists existing as private persons?

Maybe, instead of demanding that authors constantly divulge more and more about their lives, maybe we can give people a little space. Some things aren’t everybody’s business, after all. You do not owe me access to your bank statement.

And maybe there’s room for a little more good will in the literary space. Do I envy Bauer? Absolutely. Her life sounds pretty darned great, at least from the glimpse she gives us in her essay. But do I understand the vitriol and the “!$(&*^% rich people” comments? Not so much. I envy her in the same way I envy people whose health makes it possible for them to travel to writing residencies or simply go work in areas remote from well appointed medical facilities. That’s a part of the world that’s closed to me. But other people’s health, like other people’s financial wellbeing, is not inherently my oppression. Issues like accessibility and wealth distribution are important ones, but they’re no one writer’s individual responsibility to solve. Maybe–and this isn’t asking too much, I think–we can all be a little more gracious with one another.

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3 thoughts on “Money and the Public Eye, However…

  1. I think this ignores the issue that people are genuinely curious about how to make a living at what we love to do. Artists, actors, writers–we all get asked this all the time. While I do bristle at the idea that my finances are more public than others’, it’s a small price to pay for the tradeoff: being transparent about them–willingly–will help others to take the path I’ve chosen, if that’s what they want. They should get to make the choice with all the information they can have.

  2. But isn’t there some room to point people toward resources that aren’t, say, personal info? For example, I’d send a young writer to a publication like Scratch Magazine that contains awesome information and much better help than my own, single experience provides. And I’m not knocking transparency, just saying that there shouldn’t always be the expectation that all aspects of one’s life must be on the record.

  3. I’ve just spent the last two days (5 hours!) with Charles Bukowski. Here was someone without apologies for some of the very reasons you mention here. I feel a kinship here, too. I spent the first 45 years of my life tending to the farm of family, the one I grew up with and the one I tended to afterwards. Then it was my turn. I held out. I was careful. I have a wife who likes to [white collar] work — I like to work, too — but then it was time to make a stand . . . and I stand for myself. Am I lucky? do I owe an explanation? In the society I grew up in and in the one I live in today there are times when i do feel like I owe an explanation — shame on me! These are great discussions. Thanks

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