A New York Times Book Review essay latches onto Bailoutmania with a humor piece focused on a mythical writer’s bailout, and like most humor, brushes up against a few bruised areas along the way. Still, it’s a humor piece, so we’ll start with writer Paul Greenberg’s lead joke:
A little while back my daughter told me the following depressing joke:
Woman: What do you do?
Man: Me? Oh, I write books.
Woman: How interesting! Have you sold anything recently?
Man: Why, yes. My couch, my car and my flat-screen television.
A snarkier writer-father might have added, “and I sold those things to pay for your private school tuition!” But instead it got me thinking that there was a real problem here. Not just a small problem involving issues of respect between one writer and one teenager, but rather a national problem of respect where being a writer has become so widely associated with being a loser that we have become the stuff of common jokes.
The rest of the wittily written piece similarly amuses, though like most humor, the knife cuts close to home, including in this graph about “overcapacity” in the writing universe – a real (if little talked about) issue, even in copywriting:
Overcapacity has been something generally acknowledged across the writing industry for at least 10 years. In a 2002 essay in The New York Times, the onetime best-selling novelist and story writer Ann Beattie mourned the situation of the modern writer, living in a world where people are more interested in “being a writer” than in writing itself. “There are too many of us, and M.F.A. programs graduate more every year, causing publishers to suffer snow-blindness, which has resulted in everyone getting lost,” she lamented. That Ann Beattie must now compete on Amazon with a self-published author named Ann Rothrock Beattie is proof of how enormous the blizzard has become.
It’s not true that everyone who can type claims writerhood, but a quick survey of the many writer’s forums, sites and blogs suggests significant growth in the writer population, and not always among those capable of adding to the craft.
In many ways, the copywriter’s recession began years ago if downward trends in fees paid for lower-end projects are any indication.
While Greenburg’s essay is generally hilarious – his farm-billish plan to subsidize half the working writers to not write is golden – he taps into a larger populist resentment about the financial and car company bailouts, where greed and failure are simultaneously reviled and rewarded by the same congress.
We’re at the tail end of a period where no corporate subsidy seemed too big or too outrageous – and find ourselves in the midst of a financial meltdown where “too big to fail” leaves individual workers clutching an empty bag and a large debt about to come due. Populist resentment isn’t just to be expected, it’s probably demanded (at least that’s my understanding of democracy).
Still, this is humor, and Greenburg finishes on a properly literate note, wrapping his words around a Graham Greene quote (an Underground fav):
The economy slips deeper and deeper into its trench, and yet the workspace for writers seems to get more crowded by the day as refugees from other professions take cover behind what they hope will be the respectability of the writing life. The other day, as I looked down on the field of cubicles from the “resting area” on the balcony, I felt an urge to read aloud from a Graham Greene story I had disregarded in my 20s: “Are you prepared for the years of effort, ‘the long defeat of doing nothing well’? As the years pass writing will not become any easier, the daily effort will grow harder to endure, those ‘powers of observation’ will become enfeebled; you will be judged, when you reach your 40s, by performance and not by promise.” Harsh stuff. But don’t take Greene’s word for it, or mine. I’m a writer. Maybe I’m just trying to clear a little more room for myself at the workspace.
Keep writing, Tom Chandler.