Don’t Give It Away for Free!

Screenshot of Jessica Hische's shouldiworkforfree.com (© Jessica Hische)
Detail of Jessica Hische’s shouldiworkforfree.com flowchart (screenshot by the author, © Jessica Hische)

Last week, a New York Times opinion piece fired up my Facebook newsfeed. Titled “Slaves of the Internet, Unite!” and penned by Tim Kreider, the piece pleads with writers not to indulge in that pervasive and pernicious cultural habit: writing for free.

Kreider’s op-ed is funny, smart, and over-the-top, which occasionally leads to some stretching of his argument. (He compares his situation with that of his sister the pulmonologist, saying no one asks her to perform a free lobectomy in her spare time, but I’m not quite sure I buy the comparison.) It also leads to gems that any writer struggling to eke out a living will savor:

This is partly a side effect of our information economy, in which “paying for things” is a quaint, discredited old 20th-century custom, like calling people after having sex with them. The first time I ever heard the word “content” used in its current context, I understood that all my artist friends and I — henceforth, “content providers” — were essentially extinct.

And this:

Not getting paid for things in your 20s is glumly expected, even sort of cool; not getting paid in your 40s, when your back is starting to hurt and you are still sleeping on a futon, considerably less so. Let’s call the first 20 years of my career a gift. Now I am 46, and would like a bed.

Kreider ends with a rallying cry asking other writers not to give it away for free, so as to help lift the boat for all of us, or however that metaphor goes.

When I read Kreider’s piece, part of me immediately wanted to trumpet his message everywhere; another part of me admitted all too readily that the issue is complicated. In this day and age, writing for free brings with it real benefits, the most obvious of which is the chance to write for money; that’s how mine and I’m sure countless other careers started.

People tend to blame the internet for the downfall of the livable writing wage, which I think is probably accurate. People also tend to laud the internet for bringing a greater number and wider range of voices into the cultural conversation, which I think is probably accurate as well. But writing — like art — still has a major diversity problem, as well as a gender one. We remain far from the utopian democratization proposed by the evangelists of Web 2.0.

One aspect of the diversity-in-writing discussion that I’ve found noticeably absent is any mention of class, most likely because you’d need real, hard data to understand the economic backgrounds of working writers. But I venture to guess that if you did have the results, you’d find a whole lot of people who come from middle- and upper-class backgrounds and not so many from lower.

Choosing writing as a profession is an economic risk. Having a safety net, like a family you’re pretty sure won’t let you don’t end up homeless, helps. Easy access to education also helps, both emotionally (confidence) and materially (contacts, connections). A sense of entitlement definitely doesn’t hurt. A recent opinion piece in the Guardian by Chris Arnade, a Wall Street banker–turned–photographer, was overly simplistic but made a solid point:

I am able to take risks as an artist because I have money. … we rarely hear the stories of the poor as told by them. If they are told, it is by other artists who come into the neighborhood and interpret what they see.

Paying writers — and artists, and musicians, and photojournalists, etc. — matters, for a myriad of reasons. One of the strongest is that, without it, we’ll never really achieve that long-overdue democratization. Not until we find a way to make these creative pursuits viable professions.

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