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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Jillian Steinhauer

Jillian Steinhauer is a former senior editor of Hyperallergic. She writes largely about the intersection of art...

24 replies on “Don’t Give It Away for Free!”

      1. Dear Mr. Vartanian:

        And how is that intelligence useful to me – or anyone else, for that matter?

        I should put my thought-bubble in a more friendly manner: which is to say, I know I’m being exploited somewhat. The only reason I write art criticism is because I do it reasonably well; I know a little something about my subject; and I think I should be throwing mud up on the wall in spite of the conditions under which I will be working for the foreseeable future. There are a fair number of good writers in the field, but none have my perspective, which is as practicing painter who is also a history nerd, a lover of good literature, and – to tweak something I’ve already said – a representational painter to boot. The word “representational” is very important because, as a rule, defenders of this movement – one might legitimately call it that – write flaccid prose and are, as a rule, appallingly conservative. I stand to the left of the whole lot and use the bully pulpit Examiner.com affords me to champion the values I respect and admire. It also allows me to throw satirical brick-bats at people and institutions who, like our Republican friends, wish to get away with the murder which they promote as espousing traditional American values. That is why I write and that is perhaps why I haven’t landed a job in this area.

        1. Well, you’re always welcome to pitch us. Perhaps there is something you might write that would fit into Hyperallergic? It does sound like you have a unique perspective. I think part of the whole process is speaking up and here you are. Go, Brett!

          p.s. I’m assuming your comment was designed to be under the comment thread below (just in case people reading this might be confused).

          1. Dear Mr. Vartanian:
            I suppose I could do that. In fact, I might have something for you right now.
            Thanks for the suggestion.
            As to your question, I just wrote my little essay, addressed it to you, and posted it.

          2. Dear Mr. Vartanian:
            And have. One of your editors has my query. Not only that: I wrote the piece for which I queried.
            Thanks again for the suggestion.

    1. I’m not sure if you’re implying that I should or shouldn’t have been paid to write it, but yes, of course I did.

      1. One of the stigmas of words on the internet is the strong nature of readers to read context of sentences to be demeaning or implying. I was not implying any worth here, Jillian, only the reassurance that you are being compensated somehow for an article about being compensated somehow.

  1. Until a few years ago, I was adamant about getting money for virtually everything I did. However, with the advent of online journalism (and, with it, that justifiably under-commodified entity, the self-appointed social critic), a lot of the opportunities that were available some years before started to wither – or merged with something that would presumably protect them. As a result, I’ve become a citizen-masochist whose writing, because I provide it for nothing, is unconsciously dismissed as having no, or limited, value. And I’m not sure I don’t subscribe to this unconscious blacklisting myself. Most citizen journalism is fairly wretched. The content is often submerged under an illiterate algae that smothers whatever good sense and hard-earned wisdom it may actually possess. When I attempt to write my rolling periods, I rather resent being lumped in with the citizen journalist tribe. But I’ve not found any way to elevate my profile and must consequently accept the negative status I have apparently brought on to myself. I consider my writing venues archives – or so I tell other people. I’m frankly embarrassed that I “publish myself”; accept the threadbare prestige of seeing my words in print; and continue to write for nothing because I’m not very good at the town-criering that swells one’s audience and leads to Bigger and Better Things. No, I don’t like to work for nothing and believe I’m talented enough not to. And yet I do. And don’t see, given my all-thumbs cyber-capacities, how that’s likely to change.

    1. I do think there’s tons of good writing out there on the internet that was either self-published or written for a publication but went unpaid. I’m sorry that you feel this way about your own work. I didn’t intend to perpetuate any stigmas here; writing for free doesn’t mean it’s bad writing at all. That’s part of the problem!

      1. Dear Jill:
        I feel very good about my work. I merely regret that it’s stuck in a crack, as it were. Because I have no patience with all of the widgety things that presumably draw people to a blog or site, my reviews, profiles, and criticisms go largely unnoticed. I would, in fact, invite you and whoever else might be interested in art criticism, to go to my Examiner.com page and give it a look. So far, I’ve posted twenty-one reviews. And they are reviews, not cursory jabs or opinions-on-the-run.
        I respectfully disagree with your assessment of the general run of writing on the internet – particularly writing that is entirely self-generated. There are glittering exceptions, but they are just that: exceptions.

        1. Well I think overall, yes, there’s a ton of crap on the internet. My point is just that payment doesn’t always determine quality. (Although obviously it helps in many cases.)

          1. Dear Jill:
            No, it doesn’t, but if people were not paid, I would not have had access to the good writing that has nurtured me over the years. After the grammatical errors and stylistic boo-boos crop up in a typical internet review, I skim it for what information it might provide and move on.
            I think every serious writer should be paid. And by serious, I don’t mean passion for a subject; I mean a commitment to the clarity and precision without which good writing isn’t possible. While a small number of worthwhile essays, reviews, and opinion pieces are written without so much as a monetary how-do-you-do, the people who write them are generally unhappy about that and try to get their work into more plausible venues. I have and I’ll keep at it. In the meantime, I will unspool my thoughts and impressions – albeit unhappily – without pay.

  2. I’ve been writing an art blog since 2008. I have ads but no one buys anything – the last Amazon report was $.80. But, my reputation has become a form of currency in that I get invited to events, my opinion is (mostly) respected and my cultural life is rich.

    1. Definitely—that’s another reason why people do continue to write for free (and another reason why I started doing so). But I think there’s a distinction between writing and self-publishing your own blog as a labor of love and publications who commission, edit, and publish pieces but don’t pay for them. I suppose I should have made that distinction clearer in the piece.

  3. The point that paying writers would diversify the writing community (and our overall media perspective) is the cherry on top of the argument to pay writers.
    As an artist struggling with being invited to contribute to events with no mention of pay, the article packages a lot of conversations (complaining) I have had with other artists for years. I don’t understand a lot of the arguments in the “its complicated” piece. The fact that everyone writes has nothing to do with paying to write for a publication. Almost everyone cleans their house but it isn’t OK to ask for free maid service.

    I think the “slaves” article is completely valid and what you write here ads another layer and broader social perspective to it.

    1. Yeah, I do think that piece is valid, too, and I know a lot of this is rehash. That’s why I didn’t get into it too much—much as I feel strongly about this, I don’t know if we need another piece that spells out all of the very obvious reasons why we writers and artists need to get paid. I pointed out the class/diversity issue because I feel like it’s one that hasn’t been discussed much yet.

  4. The other options are to:
    1. Not pay anybody
    2. Pay everybody
    In either case, most people will then work on what passionately inspires them

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