Writing for Money

Here’s a very interesting review of a very interesting-sounding new book on Mark Twain, by Peter Krass. The review, published in the Wall Street Journal, was written by one of my favorite business journalists, Roger Lowenstein, who has written good books on Warren Buffett and Long-Term Capital Management and good recent articles on immigration and on the history of the mortgage-interest deduction. (He has also reviewed Freakonomics, favorably, but that only furthered my appreciation of his work, rather than establishing it.) My favorite Lowenstein article ever was his profile of Richard Thaler, the University of Chicago behavioral economist. (I had hoped that Lowenstein and Thaler might collaborate on a book after that article; I think it would have been fantastic.) It was that article which led me to begin researching behavioral economics and the psychology of money; I got to interview Thaler himself, and he was as interesting as Lowenstein’s article promised.

The Twain book sounds especially fascinating to anyone who is interested in the twin arts of writing and money-making. I always want to sneer at people who sneer at writers who wish to actually be paid for their work. This troupe of sneerers seem to believe that writing is art and that art comes from the soul and that the fruits of the soul shall not be bought. Here, for instance, is Willa Cather on the subject:

Religion and art spring from the same root and are close kin. Economics and art are strangers.

To which I say: Feh. Or, to cite another master, Keith Richards:

Art? As far as I’m concerned, that’s just a shortening of “Arthur.”

I should be clear here that I am quoting Richards from memory; I may be way off. (For all I know, it may have been Twain himself who said the above. As I’ve written here before, Twain is credited with roughly half the famous quotes in human history.)

Here is the gist of the new Twain book, as described by Lowenstein:

The tabloid title — “Ignorance, Confidence, and Filthy Rich Friends” — does not do justice to Mr. Krass’s rather momentous point. Which is that literature was, for Twain, only a secondary goal. Mr. Krass maintains that the author’s “primary focus” — indeed, his “primal drive” (emanating from his father’s bankruptcy) — was to accumulate great wealth.

Does this somehow cheapen Twain’s “art” in your eyes? I am guessing that a lot of people who have read, loved, and taught Twain over the decades prefer the Willa Cather quote above rather than the Keith Richards quote. But this fact remains: Twain’s drive for wealth drove him to produce literature. Call it an unintended consequence if you will. But, if you like the unintended consequence of good literature, it makes it a little harder to condemn the “greed” of a writer.


kah

First, I think you're setting up a false dichotomy. Economic motivation might have worked for Twain, if Mr. Krass's thesis is valid, but perhaps Cather found herself unresponsive to the same incentive. Different people respond differently to different incentives, because personalities vary.

Second, I don't think readers care why a book is good or bad, they just care if it's good or bad. Twain and Cather both wrote very good books.

Third, why do you think that Twain researchers would tend to have a preference for the Cather quote? I'm not a member of the literary academic community, but that assumption sounds naive on its face to me.

danuthu

i always thought that Oscar Wilde had the best quotes :)

check them out, some are brilliant!
http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/authors/o/oscar_wilde.html

egretman

The primary rule of business success is loyalty to your employer. That's all right--as a theory. What is the matter with loyalty to yourself?
- Speech, 3/30/1901

Excellent post. Good book. Always nice to get another unexpected perspective on such a famous person. Peter Krass may be guilty of overemphasising a minor point, but still it's a side of Twain we don't often see.

Let your sympathies and your compassion be always with the under dog in the fight--this is magnanimity; but bet on the other one--this is business.
- Mark Twain, a Biography

jamesetimmer

I don't think it cheapens Twain at all: When I made my first $20 on something I wrote a few days ago I was absolutely ecstatic (especially after college, in which I paid thousands of dollars to write - Now I'm only about $79,980 from even!).

jonathank

Shakespeare wrote for the cash, with a specific eye to what the audience would like. He even wrote the sonnets to make money and a reputation. Jane Austen wrote to make money for her family, which had been severely reduced in circumstances by her father's long illness and death.

Mozart wrote a lot on commission or subscription, meaning he sold tickets to a series and wrote concertos to fit. He wrote The Magic Flute so it would play to the masses more like a German music hall than a grand opera.

Michelangelo painted the Sistene Ceiling because he got paid for it by the Pope. Raphael produced art for buyers. El Greco painted mostly on commission.

Heck, Caesar wrote the Gallic Wars to trumpet his success, to put his name in front of the public after many years away at war and to advance his position.

If an awareness of the world cheapens Sam Clements, then give me more like him! His worst stories are better than Cather's best and his best are among the classics. Maybe the real point is that high-falutin' ideas about art REDUCE its long-term worth because the best art is part of this world and thus better echoes this world's real concerns.

BTW, if you have a chance, visit Twain's house in Hartford. Nice house. A good man who loved his family and would play with his kids in the evening telling them stories. Imagine what that would have been like.

Read more...

ljohnson

I think what happens here is that people associate the myth of the starving artist with writers. I can't speak for other art forms but at least for writers, virtually all the writers that are considered great today were commercially popular during their time. From Plato to Shakespeare on down to Dickens, Twain and Hemmingway, this is true. I'm sure there are exceptions but they are rare.

If you look at the academic community and see how many write but are commercially unsuccessful, it's not hard to imagine that it is self serving to perpatuate the idea of the starving writer who is unappreciated during his own lifetime.

frankenduf

Dostoevsky was broke
I dont see monetary gain as sullying Twain's reputation precisely because he was by admission a cynic and so did not aspire to lift the reader to the lofty realm of virtue

kah

"people who sneer at writers who wish to actually be paid for their work. This troupe of sneerers seem to believe that writing is art and that art comes from the soul and that the fruits of the soul shall not be bought. Here, for instance, is Willa Cather on the subject:"

Is it fair to call Willa Cather a "[person] who sneer[s] at writers" when she is a writer herself?

She is presumably describing her own experience.

This whole post doesn't impress me. It seems to exhibit a very superficial understanding of the subject.

kah

I guess what I am trying to say is, Stephen is basically asking for data from us to try to decide whether freakonomics is mature enough that empirical data can be used to measure art.

A quick answer is, no. Put in a few decades more on nice clean robbery analyses, and then come back to the topic.

Maybe also check what neuroscience has to say on the topic by then.

Art is really hard, guys. If you can nail it down, I am impressed, but really, your field is still pretty young...

kah

If more pay makes better books, then how come highly-paid sequels to successful first novels are often not as good as the less well-paid first novels?

jwinter

"Religion and art spring from the same root and are close kin. Economics and art are strangers."

Without additional context, I wouldn't read this quotation the way you have. She doesn't say that economics and art are enemies, she says they are "strangers". So I'd read it that the two are orthogonal to each other. There's no guarantee of economic reward if you're a great artist and there's no guarantee that you're a great artist if you've been rewarded economically.

furiousball

I was the co-writter of a song that was used in a souther eastern regional Ford commercial during the NCAA tournament last year. My check from ASCAP for my mechanical royalties? $7.08. Seriously.

Listen the majority of artists, whatever the medium don't make squat. An artist that wants to be successful doesn't cheapen their art. The economic well-being of an artist vs. their art itself are separate things. If you don't like the art or even if you don't like the notion of partaking in the art of someone successful, change the channel, turn off the radio, etc.

As Viktor Frankl taught us in Man's Search for Meaning, we ALWAYS have a choice.

egretman

Trying to tease causal intentions from artistic expression is not a scientific endeavor. Therefore, it's not an economic endeavor.

Such effort is in fact an artistic endeavor. The reasons why an artist made an certain artwork is a notorious subject for art critics. Are art critics scientists? Hardly. Therefore, Peter Krass's inferences are necessarily suspect and problably ultimately worthless.

But I still say, Peter Krass's book is worthy. It brings out another side of Twain that is glossed over in many of his biographies. It's just that he should have stopped there.

Jennifer42

Art, schmart, if it wasn't for money there would be no art- and if any artist worked simply for the purity of their art, the stuff would be on display in their yards, not for sale.

If I didn't get paid for writing, I'd have to something I enjoyed less, so I could fee my family. So there it is.

cicerotully

A few thoughts:
Hungry artists do tend to produce better art, desperation and the muse being close friends.
Artists that have died of starvation, however, aren't very productive.
The proof is in the proverbial pudding. I personally do not determine my like/dislike of art based on how much the artist did/didn't get paid for producing it.

ElbortMacSoof

"Making money is art and working is art and good business is the best art."

-Andy Warhol

jyb

There's an article in this month's MAKE magazine about Twain. Essentially it was about him being an awful venture capitalist and investing with someone with a great idea who never went to market.

Jennifer42

Funny, I was just leafing through that issue at Borders tonight.

stuart

Great post!

Reminds me of a visit to the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. They had a big display of the Night Watch by Rembrandt. It is a painting of the Amsterdam police force of the day. Or so it appears...

In fact to have your face in the picture you had to pay Rembrandt. The more you paid the bigger your face. As a result most of the policemen in the picture turn out to be bankers and businessmen. Does this cheapen the art? Hell no!

DG Lewis

kah writes:
"If more pay makes better books, then how come highly-paid sequels to successful first novels are often not as good as the less well-paid first novels?"

Regression to the mean. You wouldn't pay a writer to write a sequel to a bad novel, so novels that have sequels written are by definition far better (or at least far better selling) than average. Since the first novels are clustered at the "good" end of the bell curve, there's a high probability the sequel will be worse.

The same holds for movie sequels, TV show spin-offs, and any other case where the decision to commission a second property is based on the quality, success, or popularity of the first property.