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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.