Samuel Clemens, the world's first Mark Twain impersonator, once said that if you wish to write, you should start writing for free. If no one is paying you to write after three years of effort, you should give up and try something else, like shoeing horses. But those were different times. Today, there is no Sacramento Union to take one on in recognition of one's wit and pith, and by now even the Sacramento Bee can probably only pay sub-living wages to its few remaining full-time staffers: brave Dan Walters, comforting Anita Creamer (pronounced 'Kramer', she claims).
As many of you know, I have been writing prolifically and uninterruptedly here at jehsmith.com since 2005, for free. As a result of this activity, I have indeed been paid by a number of different publications, both newfangled digital and primitive print, to reproduce under their banner the sort of writing that impressed them here. I do not know whether the amount of money I've brought in in this way would impress Clemens enough to keep me out of the stables, but anyhow it's been a nice way of supplementing my admittedly first-world monthly salary. However, I find that the sort of writing I enjoy most is the spontaneous effusion you find here, the 'blog posts', as they're called. When I write for publications, editors tend to want not an entirely veracious reproduction of the sort of work they find at jehsmith.com, but only a semblance of it, an approximation sufficiently deformed to fit with their own commercial or ideological motives.
Generally, and not surprisingly, the higher-paying the project, the more the editors presume to have the right to dictate what I say. The editor's job, I have learned, can basically be summed up by the commandment: Instead of saying this thing you wanted to say, why don't you say this other thing you didn't want to say? And I say, OK, I receive my check a few weeks later, and for some complicated reasons I really don't understand I continue to be credited as the author. Often I'm contacted to write things, for surprisingly significant sums of money, for venues where I know in advance I will not be read, obscure art publications, in particular. I gather they have funding from some wealthy benefactors that they need to disburse by a certain date for tax purposes. And so I crank out a few thousand words about some art I don't care about, some poetry injected into the DNA of a microbe in a petri dish or something; or, what's worse, I'm asked to address issues from the world of academe, as if these were the sort of things I care about, the sort of things that make life interesting. As if I were a mere 'philosophy blogger', a lesser Leiter.
Anyhow, I'm trying to find new ways to cut out these superfluous characters, and focus on writing just those sorts of things I want to write, while still enjoying a nice stream of revenue à côté. And this is why I'm reaching out to you, faithful readers, and, after eight prolific years of writing simply for the love of it, am asking you to help sustain this project with a donation (the PayPal 'donate' button is on the upper right-hand side of the page).
There are a number of reasons why writing has grown less remunerative in the present era. We are by now all too familiar with the indignation of accomplished journalists who are asked to contribute to adolescent e-venues 'for exposure'. I recently read a fiery tirade (or what in blogging parlance is uniformly and monotonously called a 'rant') from the fellow who tracked down and interviewed Pol Pot, only to be asked by the now fully neoliberalized Atlantic to share some of his work at no charge. None of this is the Atlantic's fault, or anyone else's either. It has to do with profound changes in the social meaning of literacy, changes that are millennia in the making, and that have seen two moments of rapid and punctuated transformation, one at the end of the 15th century, and one since 1997 or so.
It has sometimes been noted that if the Gutenberg revolution heralded a new age of universal literacy, the subsequent revolution in electronic social media has brought us an era of universal authorship. Why pay certain people to write and publish, when anyone who wants to 'publish' is free to do so? Authors, in such an environment, can only go the way of village scribes, who once were charged with the task of composing official attestations and solemn declarations that their illiterate neighbors could then sign as their own with a clumsy x. It's hard for me to even say what my relationship to writing would have been like had these my most productive years not coincided with the era of social media and blogging. I read far less of other people than I used to, and my craving to read is often filled by the near-instantaneous self-authorship of a new text custom-designed for my own enjoyment. I don't know how many other people are doing the same thing, but I presume that this new habit of mine is a symptom of the very same transformations that are depriving journalists of their living wages, obliterating august periodicals, and rendering Mark Twain's advice irrelevant.
But all of this means that if an individual believes in the value (and by value I mean something that is intrinsically not intrinsic) of what he has to write, he must adapt to the new reality and find new ways of making words into money. I admit that when the institutions that once served as intermediaries --or, perhaps better, money launderers-- drop out of the picture, the whole endeavor can easily come to seem fraudulent. I am telling you outright that I am looking for new ways to perfect a sort of chrysopoietic art, whereby intellectual capital is transformed into plain old capital, and the bluntness of this avowal somehow seems a betrayal of the craft one claims to love, as it supposes that the words with which one begins are analogous to the base metals of alchemy, rather than being themselves the gold one is after.
And yet there is no reason in principle why what is luciferous should not also be lucriferous, or, to use a more recent century's argot (without going so far as to deploy the suffixual -z): there is no reason why these skills should not pay the bills. The soupçon of alchemical charlatanism arises, one supposes, from the fact that these are not just any skills, but rather the sort that involve the apparent production of something from nothing. These are not 'skills' in the sense of being able to shoe a horse, but rather those of a conjurer. And if I had hoped to mean 'luciferous' only in the sense of 'light-bearing', inevitably that other sense, current among phobic Catholics and grubby metalheads, imposes itself and reminds us of the dark and deceitful side of this activity for which I am now demanding recompense.
It is not, I mean to say, much of a skill. In a lovely essay entitled 'On Literature', Karel Čapek spends two-and-a-half pages or so recounting how, when he was a lad, he and his little friends would run around their Czech village, clamoring on top of one another to look through the blacksmith's window and catch a sight of him at work with his red-hot irons. Then they would run to the leathersmith's, and then the cooper's, and they would dream of themselves, someday, as men, making things. I have been writing for half a century now, Čapek tells us at the very end, and never once has a little boy spied on me through my study's window.
And yet, I'd like to think I am producing something of value here, something it might not be at all interesting to watch in the making, but still worth assessing once made. I'd like to think that what I have created here is not really a blog at all, but rather a veritable online feuilleton of arts and culture and history, which just happens to have an editor-in-chief with a particularly pronounced way of doing and seeing things, and indeed an editor-in-chief who is the sole writer and who has therefore given his own proper name to the entire operation.
I'd also like to think that love, skills, and bills can be brought together in a way that is not unseemly. You might be wondering why I am so concerned about the last of these, when, as I've already acknowledged, I have a steady salary in a profession that, unlike journalism, has not (yet) gone down the tubes. The answer is complex, and I have already admitted that it is a decidedly first-world problem. Yet it is my first-world problem, and I own it: I have decided, somewhat recklessly, in the middle of a comfortable North American academic career, to up and move to Paris, to pursue the same career here, but on terms that are materially less advantageous, and that require me to explore creative ways to supplement my salary. My particular first-world problem then is to find a way to meet my first-world responsibilities: for example, to fund the several transoceanic voyages I am fairly required to take over the next year, and to produce the obscenely elevated caution required simply to get in the door of a Parisian apartment. You might say that this is all the high-brow equivalent of the street punk who scrawls on his cardboad sign: Not gonna lie. Need pot. But does the street punk give you year after year of challenging and unpredictable prose? I am not begging for change. I am proposing an exchange. I am not exactly curing muscular dystrophy here, but --admit it-- I am bringing a bit more light into this chiaroscuro world.
There you have it: I am asking you, generous reader, to fund my romantic escapade. I could keep seeking my supplements by writing for publications whose vision I do not fully share, and no doubt I will continue to do this as necessary. But I'd so much rather keep producing unadulterated prose, prose I can be happy to call my own. This is why I have come up with the present scheme, to whose details I now turn. I have resolved to only write new pieces when new contributions come in. Rather than letting dollar amounts determine length, I have decided to fix the price list in accordance with the different discursive registers. Thus, a contribution of $100 will get you a brand-new 1000-word essay written in a cool, analytic tone. A contribution of $250 will get you a new bit of ribald satire (another genre in which I specialize, but which takes considerably more inventive effort). For $1000, you will get a rapturous ode. A contribution of $10,000, finally, will be considered as a commision for a major new undertaking, the details of which will be explained in private correspondence with the donor. No contribution, finally, is too small, even if anything less than $100 is insufficient, by itself, to send us over the threshold and motivate the creation of a new essay.
The present essay was itself composed in acknowledgment of an initial $100 donation from one of my benefactors of long standing, for which I am most grateful. I see now that I am already 754 words over the promised count, but what the hell. There is a reason why 'free' as in gratuit and 'free' as in libre are the same.