The Worth of Our Work (with Some Thoughts on Jonah Lehrer)

Alas, alas!
This hurts most, this . . that, after all, we are paid
The worth of our work, perhaps.

— Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Aurora Leigh

The very smart and funny Adam Roberts has decided to put an end to his blog Punkadiddle. Iif you haven’t already had the pleasure, you should check out the archives – I particularly enjoyed his skewering of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, especially this one, which starts hilarious and ends profound (that reminds me–time for a tea break!). As a Victorianist, though, I found posts like this one of the greatest value to my own thinking.

It’s understandable that Adam would decide to close up shop in one venue when, as he says, his time and energy are needed elsewhere. Blogging consistently (by which I mean not just posting regularly but staying involved with comments and generally maintaining a site that reflects genuine engagement with its subject and with other readers and writers) does take a lot of time and energy, and people’s interests and priorities change over time. As a result blogs ebb and flow, and come and go. The Valve, where both Adam and I were contributors, ran out of steam a while back, and that was a group effort, which in theory should be easier to keep invigorated. I’ll miss following Adam’s work at Punkadiddle, but I’ll look forward to keeping up with it in other venues.

One part of Adam’s farewell post really made me think:

Once upon a time writers were paid in money, but now writers are paid (in the first instance at any rate) in eyeballs, which may or may not at a later stage, underpants-gnomically, turn into money.  Part of this new logic is that the writer ought to be grateful simply to have the attention of those eyeballs.  I’m as deep into this new economy as anybody, of course; I read many thousands of fresh new words, free, online every day.  But I wonder if it doesn’t have more downsides than ups.  Take the material contained in the archives of this blog.  If the sort of thing I write is worth paying for then I’m a mug to give it away for free; and if it isn’t worth paying for (of course a great deal of online writing isn’t) then I’m wasting everyone’s time, including my own, carrying on.

As a number of comments on his post have noted, it’s tricky to measure the worth of a blog monetarily: for many bloggers, the chief attractions of the form are the intrinsic pleasures of the writing itself and of the conversation that it stimulates. Yet as Rich Puchalsky comments there, “It’s very easy for people to say that the value of an activity is not measured in what it earns… but part of the monetization of attention is that yes, really, it is hard to say whether written work that people don’t pay for is valued.” Certainly as long as work is unpaid it doesn’t make sense to keep it up unless the effort is repaid in some other way, while anyone who’s enjoying the writing and doesn’t need or want money for it can hardly be faulted for continuing to do it. But how much does the willingness of so many people to write criticism for free make it difficult for those who hope to make a living at it?

As Adam says, it’s a strange new economy here on the internet, with attention or “eyeballs” the primary currency. Adam and I are both somewhat insulated from the effects of this because we’re academics. As Tom Lutz wrote about the Los Angeles Review of Books, “Many of us are also supported, as I am, by our universities (however much they, too, are shrinking and under siege), and so we can write and edit “for free” as part of our commitment to the dissemination of knowledge that is integral to that job” (“Future Tense“). There’s a sense in which Adam and I are both already getting paid for whatever we write, depending on how broadly we define our university’s missions and our professional obligations. (I have a few times made the case that academics who write blogs related to their areas of specialization are making valuable contributions — here, for instance, and more recently here.) Blogging for free can be understood as a variety of open access publishing, and I don’t think anyone’s making the argument that academic articles made freely available aren’t valuable–but at the same time, built into arguments about such open access publishing is the assumption that the work is already being paid for. Academics are also hardly used to being paid specifically for their publications. I have never received a dime from any journal that published my work: the currency there is not eyeballs but prestige and professional recognition. (I also wasn’t paid by the LARB for the essay I published there.) I made a few hundred dollars in total from each of my books. Academics are accustomed, that is, to thinking of writing primarily in non-monetary terms. But, as Lutz points out, “many of us are not [academics],” that is, not everyone publishing their writing for free online already has economic support for that effort.

I don’t know how to do the math here, really, especially when models that assume scarcity increases value hardly seem to apply. Criticism is not a pursuit that responds well to supply and demand, any more than literature itself is–not if what you want is some version of “the best that has been thought and said.” The relationship in both cases between popularity and quality is surely a vexed one. It makes sense in some ways to expect the best work from people who will do it no matter what, simply because it means that much to them, but then with professionalism comes a particular kind of experience and expertise, as well as editorial and public scrutiny which, perhaps, leads to better work overall. (Even as I wrote that last bit, though, I wanted to retract it: the quality of criticism that appears in a lot of paid venues is not inspiring, outside a few elite publications. Punkadiddle is–was–many times better than the review section of my local paper, or of either of Canada’s national papers, for that matter. But isn’t that as much a sign of the limitations of the marketplace as of anything else? Presumably, newspapers publish the kinds of reviews [they think] their subscribers want to read. See also this critique at Lemonhound of a recent published review, though I don’t know if it was paid for.)

In any case, as Lutz says, “We don’t know what the future of publishing is, but we know that the future for every writer requires food.” Edward Champion wrote a strongly-worded response to Lutz’s essay. “Financially speaking,” he observes,

The Los Angeles Review of Books is no different from any other group blog or online magazine. As Full Stop‘s Alex Shephard observed, the question of basic survival is crucial to all writers, regardless of where they come from. The Los Angeles Review of Books‘s present interface relies on Tumblr and, even though it has featured close to 100 posts, it is just as dependent on volunteers and donated time as any other online outlet. As such, so long as it does not pay, it assigns zero value to the labor of its contributors, which makes it not altogether different from The Huffington Post.

“Lutz’s essay is unwilling to swallow the bitter pill,” Champion concludes: ” in a world of free, expertise no longer has any value. . . .  those who want the content are so used to getting it for free that they expect writers of all stripes to surrender their labor for nothing.” In the comments, he and Lutz go back and forth a bit about whether his assessment is unduly negative. I’m certainly hoping that the Los Angeles Review of Books succeeds in its aim of finding a sustainable financial model that includes fair pay for its contributors. As Champion points out, Open Letters Monthly is one of several other “quality online outlets” that have been “getting by” with basically no revenue stream. It’s a labor of love, something we keep doing because we believe criticism is intrinsically worth doing as well as possible. Is this, as Champion says, “an unsustainable model in the long run”? As he’s well aware, oddly it isn’t (as long as we’re willing to cover the core costs, like server space and postage, ourselves), because enough people want to write that they’ll do it for free–if they weren’t, it would certainly be impossible for us to keep offering the magazine for free, which is what the new internet economy expects. Would we like to pay our contributors, never mind our editors? Sure! But we can’t, and they (and we) are all willing to do the work anyway. Maybe, as Adam says, we’re all mugs.

That said, there are people who are paid for their writing, and it seems both inevitable and just that at this moment when there is so much great criticism online for free (the problem, of course, is finding it reliably: the challenge is curating and filtering the endless proliferation of material) there is sharp scrutiny of those lucky few. What should our expectations be–what should the standards be–for those who somehow have made writing a paying gig? It would be gratifying if the hierarchy of quality were clear: if only the very best (the smartest, the most engaging, the most eloquent, the most original) writing was writing that made money. (Heck, it would be gratifying if the very best writing was the writing that attracted the most eyeballs! If only.) This is pretty clearly not the case, and I know I’m not the only person writing for free who sometimes puzzles or even fumes over the results (see, for instance, Steve Donoghue’s often excoriating series on ‘the penny press.’). “You have eight pages in The New Yorker!” I have been known to rant … you’d better use them really, really well! Meaning, of course, use them as I would use them, if I ever got the chance! (Though is it really the money that matters, or, still, the eyeballs? Writers want readers above all. Hence the difficulty of figuring out the economics.)

I think this paradoxical context of scarcity amidst abundance is relevant to the recent brouhaha about Jonah Lehrer, whose “self-plagiarism” has cast a shadow over his recent appointment to a pretty plum position: staff writer for The New Yorker. Is ‘repurposing’ your own work the worst sin a writer can commit? Of course not. Writers rework material all the time. Academics, for instance, routinely use material first in a conference paper, then an article, and then in a book. A writer like Lehrer whose main contribution is a particular expertise or insight in a field is bound to repeat it in multiple variations. But there are ways and ways of doing this, and the measures of how best to do so (ethically, creatively, intellectually) surely include not just transparency (acknowledgement, “as I said in this prior piece,” and attribution, “previously published in”) but also development and enrichment (if large chunks of wording need no revision whatsoever over a long period of time, that suggests not so much dishonesty as mental stagnation). Even if it’s not a strictly illegitimate practice, it’s not very impressive for a writer to be so repetitive.

It’s also a kind of double-dipping. Some have disputed the entire idea of “self-plagiarism,” on the logic that you can’t steal from yourself. That’s true in a literal way, but you can try to get credit twice for doing something once–for submitting the same assignment to two different classes, for instance. That’s considered cheating at a university because it means you did not in fact do the amount of original work your credit-based degree requires. It devalues your credential, and it means you looked for a short-cut, too. The best students don’t do that; the best educated students haven’t done that. The best writers, similarly, won’t be the ones doing the same thing over and over and trying to get credit for it every time. You can’t put the same publication more than once on your c.v. as an academic or, I assume, on your resume as a writer. That’s padding, to make your list of publications look longer than it is. In both situations, time pressure is proposed as an excuse (students are stressed and over-committed, Lehrer’s a busy guy). Srsly? Without even sorting out whether Lehrer had the legal right to rerun material he’d already published (and as far as I know, the consensus is that he retained copyright on his material, but I don’t know the specifics of his contracts), again, don’t we expect something more of our best writers? And don’t we expect staff writers at The New Yorker in particular (a job many of those Champion describes as currently having to “debase themselves for scraps” would be overjoyed to get) to be conspicuously the best? Don’t the editors of The New Yorker expect that their writers will set an example of intellectual curiosity, originality, creativity, and rigor?

Yes, there’s an element of Schadenfreude here, but  it’s about something more than just sour grapes. Those of us who write for free online have heard for years about the deficiencies of our amateur efforts (here’s Ron Hogan on the same example)–it’s no wonder that we get riled up when the very publications that supposedly set the bar for us all turn out to be kind of slack, orwhen  those who somehow (“underpants-gnomically,” as Adam so colorfully says) turn their writing into money turn out not to be conspicuously better than those who don’t or even, like Lehrer, kind of worse. I’m not saying Lehrer clearly doesn’t deserve to be a staff writer at The New Yorker. He’s not a book critic, and he’s got special expertise and celebrity of his own, so he brings things to the table that presumably have their own kind of value. (Still, I would have expected that kind of disrespect for the magazine to be disqualifying for keeping his post.) Even so, I think his example does further complicate the discussion about what writing is worth. In some of the ways that really count, Adam’s writing at Punkadiddle is clearly worth more to him (as an exercise of his own intelligence and wit and expertise) than Lehrer’s was worth to him. Lehrer wanted the paying gigs: to sustain them, he had to take shortcuts and, as a result, he shortchanged his readers and his publishers.

How should we really measure and repay the worth of our work or others’? It’s a wonderful thing to do work that you love, but as the economy of the internet shows (or, for an example in a different area, the economy of higher education), love can make exploitation awfully easy–and there’s no guarantee that love is what you’ll buy with your money, as The New Yorker found out.

I have no interest in monetizing Novel Readings. I am fortunate not to need this work, which I enjoy and benefit from in other ways, to be a specific source of income. But I know (as Ed Champion and Tom Lutz know) that the work we do online is not really free, even if we make it freely available, and I worry that Champion is right that we are all contributing to the devaluing of criticism even as, ironically, we all read and write it for free because we do value it. Open Letters Monthly does not have the manpower or resources or infrastructure to do the kind of massive fundraising work going on at the Los Angeles Review of Books. We do, however, have a PayPal account set up for donations. If you’re ever wondering if you can do anything to help sustain the wonderfully rich and generous and perhaps (if Champion is right) ultimately unsustainable world of online book reviewing, one small gesture would be to put a little in the hat there. At the very least, it would help us with the cost of our web hosting, the one thing eyeballs alone can’t buy.

17 thoughts on “The Worth of Our Work (with Some Thoughts on Jonah Lehrer)

  1. Edward Champion July 2, 2012 / 3:27 pm

    Rohan: Thanks very much for this thoughtful piece. It’s worth pointing out that, since Lutz and I duked it out last August, the Los Angeles Review of Books has developed a revenue stream to pay its writers (good on Lutz here) and I have included sponsor spots for The Bat Segundo Show. So there has been progress. However, I do worry that many nimble minds are still writing for free — especially at places like The Rumpus, The Awl, and The Millions, where the people who run the site take all the spoils and aren’t especially generous at allocating these funds to the contributors who spend many hours crafting essays. (ZERO dollars for a 1,500 word essay. Not even a $15-20 token fee. I mean, come on. Even Strange Horizons pays its contributors something meager. )

    Granted, if the money isn’t much, I can understand that it needs to go back into operating costs. I know that this is how it works with The New Inquiry and they are working hard to eventually pay people. And I think it’s the same with Open Letters Monthly. But if you are running ads, and the sites I named above most certainly are, how is this any different from running a sweatshop? How is this any different from the HuffPo model? It’s the content that allows these sites to survive. At what point do we reach a Hubbert’s Peak? Recall the big kerfuffle when McSweeney’s wanted to underpay comic book artists for a contests. Why do comic book artists understand compensation when writers do not? So long as essayists and journalists insist on an attention economy, we’re going to have this problem. But unfortunately, as you point out, the allure of tapping immediate curiosity is often at odds with this basic mode of survival. Do you think we’ll see a workaround for this anytime soon, Rohan? There once was a time when newspapers possessed enough resources to support “unmarketable” stories and maintain well-rounded coverage of stories that drove people to the people and stories that existed because it was important to cover as much as possible. The question now is whether online websites, especially on a niche level, will be able to sustain this in the next few years. I certainly hope they can. But it involves being generous and recognizing labor.


  2. Lee July 2, 2012 / 4:48 pm

    I disagree with this point that Champion makes: ‘…in a world of free, expertise no longer has any value.’ In fact, it’s just the opposite: in a world of free, it’s precisely expertise that provides value. Commercial value, whether paid in dollars or eyeballs or cowrie shells, is hardly the only way of judging worth.


  3. Rohan Maitzen July 2, 2012 / 5:03 pm

    “in a world of free, it’s precisely that expertise that provides value”

    Yes, of course, but Lee, the very problem we’re trying to sort out is how the people who have that expertise are supposed to make a living. They (and Ed) share your sense of non-commercial value, but at the same time, writers still have bills to pay. This is the fundamental tension here, isn’t it? It would be nice to be able to disregard crass payment, but it’s ultimately dollars that pay rent and buy food and so on. The high-minded “it’s not all about money” approach isn’t sustainable unless the people providing that valuable free content have other sources of income.

    Ed, I don’t think I know enough to say whether a workaround is coming. We’re seeing newspapers experiment with controlled access, and though the initial reaction to things like the NYT’s ‘only so much for free unless you subscribe’ policy seemed pretty hostile at first, I’m not sure it has worked out that badly. Would we discover that people will pay to read the rest if we dole out the content more stingily? (But I doubt we could do that at OLM, since we don’t have the technical wherewithal.) One idea I think we might try is the ‘curated’ e-book, something the LARB has been doing. We have pretty deep archives and have run a number of features at OLM that seem to lend themselves well to repackaging. But it’s wildly unlikely that will turn us from a volunteer organization into a profitable one; it would just help us sustain the operation. Subscribers? Patrons? Wealthy benefactors? Or perhaps we just plateau at ‘this is the level we can reach while all still working our day jobs.’


  4. Rohan Maitzen July 2, 2012 / 6:22 pm

    Also, while we’re discussing non-commercial value, I feel I should add that I believe strongly that at Open Letters we do give our writers something valuable for contributing (besides the eyeballs we bring to their work), which is our scrupulous editorial attention. I have benefited enormously from the input of my colleagues there, and for any aspiring writer there is no better learning experience and long-term investment than showing your work to people who will really, really try to make it better while still retaining your individual voice. One of our more disappointing experiences, actually, was with an author ‘repurposing’ a piece in its entirety in another publication, without acknowledging that it first ran in Open Letters–although our authors retain copyright, we work hard with them on their pieces and it would have been nice to get at least a nod towards that effort. I guess this was our own small-scale brush with Lehrer-ism.


  5. steve donoghues July 2, 2012 / 9:50 pm

    I never know quite what to make of this whole subject when I find some new iteration of it! It can be such a muddle, and the muddle is largely born of that one trouble-making line, “Once upon a time, writers were paid in money.” The writers in context here are book-reviewers, and the bygone-era implication of the line is a complete illusion: 99.9 percent of all book-reviewers in the history of the craft have most certainly not been “paid in money” – it’s ironic that this is one of the only aspects of the publishing world that HASN’T been changed by the Internet. Ever since the out-and-out business of book reviewing was born in the modern era – and burgeoned to monstrous proportions in Rohan’s beloved Victorian era – the vast majority of those reviewers have typically been ‘paid’ in the usual way: you get your name in print, and you get to keep the book (and those periodicals that VERY reluctantly coughed up a shilling or two for the work compensated by actually requiring reviewers to SEND BACK the book). This has always been the case, and it’s still the case – witness the large number of reviewers who get inundated with galley copies which they review for no other remuneration. The idea that poor exploited reviewers are now being bullied by Adam Smith’s invisible hand to provide their ‘content’ for free when in Ye Good Olde Days they’d have been paid a living wage is just a fantasy – in fact, book-reviewers are BETTER OFF with the Internet than without it: unlike pre-1990, it’s now very easy for a bored, Web-surfing editor at the New Yorker to run across Novel Readings, see that its author consistently writes better, more interesting, more engaging prose than half his paid freelancers, and CONTACT her with the appropriate blandishments. Book-bloggers should be glad they have the clean, well-lit forum they have, shouldn’t they?


  6. Lee July 3, 2012 / 3:57 am

    Yes, I most certainly do understand the fundamental tension, as you term it, and I happen to be one of the lucky ones who has a supportive spouse, a small income from translating and the occasional short story publication (OK, miniscule>, not small), and most of all a frugal lifestyle. Nor do I have any answers for others who would like to earn a living from writing, except maybe that most of them shouldn’t. I tend to think that good work can be done by the dedicated amateur and likely even benefit from other occupations and concerns – I get a lot more to mull over from the immigrant who helps me cut my trees than from blog blather, writers talking mostly to each other, and yet another Brooklyn guru (apologies to Ed, who is not implicated). But of course I’m thinking mostly about fiction and poetry, rather than criticism. You will, I hope, forgive me when I point out what Philip Roth has to say:

    “Ha, ha,” he [Roth] says. “Now you’re talking! I would be wonderful with a 100-year moratorium on literature talk, if you shut down all literature departments, close the book reviews, ban the critics. The readers should be alone with the books, and if anyone dared to say anything about them, they would be shot or imprisoned right on the spot. Yes, shot. A 100-year moratorium on insufferable literary talk. You should let people fight with the books on their own and rediscover what they are and what they are not. Anything other than this talk. Fairytale talk. As soon as you generalise, you are in a completely different universe than that of literature, and there’s no bridge between the two.”

    Is he completely serious? Who knows. But he’s Roth, and he’s … well, do you hear my sigh of envy?

    Link to interview:

    As to editorial attention: I’d rather learn the hard way – from the best books I can find; and the worst. There’s nothing more painful and therefore more individual, genuine, and lasting than personal experience.


  7. Rohan July 3, 2012 / 9:52 am

    “Blog blather” — that’s pretty sweepingly dismissive! Why are you wasting your time here, then? (At least I’m not in or from Brooklyn, though.)

    I couldn’t disagree more with Roth, of course. Sure, it would be great to have no more “insufferable literary talk” (though he and I, or you and I, or any of us, might disagree on which literary talk is “insufferable”). But his hyperbolic prescription would also shut down all kinds of attentive, passionate, thought-provoking, mind-expanding conversations about literature, none of which prevent people from being alone with books and having their own intense experience of them, but many of which will enhance that personal experience, and some of which will encourage people to experience books they would never have thought to hole up with before. Literature classes very frequently have that effect, as do great critical essays–or, for that matter, thoughtful blog posts. And if you can do your very best work without input from others, more power to you, but many writers learn a lot from sympathetic but rigorous editors: I’ve seen it happen over and over, including to me. (I can’t speak to this from the point of view of creative writing, mind you, and I know MFA programs are controversial — but long before there were credentialed writers’ workshops, poets and novelists were showing each other, or their friends, or their editors, drafts!)

    I certainly agree that “good work can be done by the dedicated amateur”–we publish a lot of it at Open Letters. Would people do better work if they could give it their single-minded attention? In some cases, surely yes. (You think of Roth, I think, say, of Woolf: “you may object that in all this I have made too much of the importance of material things … five hundred a year stands for the power to contemplate, … a lock on the door means the power to think for oneself”). But I think this returns us quickly to the question of how a writer’s work should be valued and recompensed by those who read it. Good criticism requires significant preparation and effort, and for those who do value reading it, is it fair that they should expect to do so for free? (If you think as little of criticism as Roth pretends to, no wonder you don’t really think people should get paid for it.)


  8. Lee July 3, 2012 / 10:59 am

    I quite like to provoke an interesting discussion, and also reserve the right not only to repurpose my (own) words but to contradict myself. Of course there’s some good blogging. Some. Just like there are some good critics. Some.


  9. steve donoghues July 3, 2012 / 11:36 am

    There are more unspoken assertions floating around here than you could swat with a palm frond! The worst by far is Lee’s amazing, appalling comment about getting more to ‘mull’ from his (immigrant, naturally) landscaper than from ‘blog blather’ … if what’s being mulled in that instance is tree-lore, fine – but if it’s book-mulling, then Lee must be a very poor reader indeed (which certainly doesn’t seem to be the case), or else somewhat condescending. There is no ‘natural,’ Earth-mother spring undefiled of book-reading – it’s a carefully-cultivated (like trees, which I notice Lee isn’t allowing to just take their natural course) skill, like any other.

    That ‘spring undefiled’ assumption is of course all over Roth’s quoted comment, but that’s no surprise, since the man’s a talentless moron. The only reason any misguided soul would be tempted to sigh in envy about this plodder’s every thoughtless utterance is because Roth is a famous writer. And from his perch as a famous writer, there he is pompously calling for a moratorium on all that annoying book-talk: just put readers alone in a room with the books, let them figure out literature on their own, without any of this big-city book-larnin’ … it’s all typical hypocrisy from a man who mentions ‘craft’ in every interview but has been writing about his penis for fifty years. Hypocritical because: how do any of those envious sighing readers even know Roth’s name? WHY is he a famous writer? Not because he’s a great writer – and even if you think he is one, not ONLY because of that. His contemporary Gilbert Sorrentino was a much greater writer, and he’s unknown today. No, the reason he’s a famous writer and gets to make pompous calls for the abolishing of book reviews is because of …. book reviews. His entire career – and the careers of hundreds of writers right alongside him – was MADE by book-reviewers urging their readers to read his books. And whether or not that urging was misguided, it most certainly wasn’t done by some innocent, undefiled noble savage locked in a room with Roth’s books; it was done by skilled professionals, who learned their trade in large part from other skilled professionals. This ‘I’d rather learn the hard way’ is utter nonsense – I doubt anybody would be encouraged if their heart surgeon boasted of such schooling.


  10. Rohan Maitzen July 3, 2012 / 11:55 am

    The historical point is interesting, Steve. I think that even if you’re right about 99.9% of book reviewing being unpaid in the past, something is still different in the consumption of their work: what the internet has done is create an appetite for (even an expectation of) free content. Were 19thC publications just handed out to every passerby? Did people refuse to pay for the TLS? That it may have been the norm not to pay people for book reviews forever, does not, of course, prove that this was a fair system, and it highlights the continuing importance of other income to support that work–I wonder how many of that 99.9% that was content to be paid in a book and some eyeballs had a nice sum in the 5%s. Maybe that’s the way book reviewing will always be: an occupation for either the privileged or the obsessed, for those who can afford to do it anyway, and those who simply can’t resist doing it anyway. But I agree with Ed that when a business depends on and profits from someone’s labor (obviously, not the case for all review publications) but doesn’t pay for that labor, something’s awry.


  11. Amateur Reader (Tom) July 3, 2012 / 4:53 pm

    Another great idea would be a hundred year moratorium on novels and poems, allowing the rest of us to catch up. I know, Steve is already caught up – I mean the rest of the rest of us.

    Or even better, the writers keep writing but they do not publish. The manuscripts are sealed up and dropped into the sea or shot into space and at least one is concealed in every attic in the world. Then, when the hundred years is up there will be this amazing wave of discovery, unrivaled since the Renaissance, of lost masterpieces.

    Better make it two hundred years.

    Is he completely serious? Who knows. Good one, Lee! Good one. Nope, no way to tell.

    More seriously, congratulations to Adam on the run of Punkadiddle. It will be a loss. The recent “Top-Ten All Time Bestselling Books” series was fantastic. Why on earth did no one with money say “I want that on my website, too”?


  12. Adam Roberts July 3, 2012 / 7:03 pm

    Thank you, Rohan (and Amateur Reader) for the more than generous things you say about me; more than I deserve, but I’m touched anyway. A fascinating wider discussion, to which I don’t have much to add at the moment, beyond saying this: Steve D., my sense is that you’re wrong about Victorian reviewing being undertaken for free. Can you name a single nineteenth-century publication that published reviews, was sold to the public and didn’t pay its contributors? I can’t. Things get looser in the twentieth century, I suppose; especially towards the end of that century; but even here ‘99.9% of reviewers are unpaid’ is a massive overstatement (I appreciate that you’re being polemical, but still). Broadly: reviewing used to be a living for a whole class of literary journalists, some of whom were writers supplementing meagre book-sale incomes. It isn’t any more. I’m not saying that’s necessarily a bad thing, of course. I suppose the thing of which we shouldn’t lose sight is that the internet has facilitated a massive democratisation of what used to be a rather elitist activity. But still.


  13. steve donoghues July 3, 2012 / 11:01 pm

    Gah! Here for once in my life I’m NOT being polemical and that’s what I’m called! I can think of SCADS of periodicals that published book reviews and didn’t pay their reviewers – hence, that 99.9 percent! The Boston Globe paid its book reviewers a penny a line for almost a CENTURY – and was almost never punctilious about actually sending the money. The five other daily Boston papers in the 19th century didn’t even offer that little – with them (and with the equivalent newspapers of every other big city, as well as the ethnic niche-papers printed in Yiddish or Polish or Italian or what have you), the remuneration was a) you slowly built a string-file of published work (with the hope of landing a writing job that DID pay) and b) you got to keep the books. The Mercury, the Dial, the Saturday Evening Post, the London Review, the old Courant – Virginia Woolf herself, when she was just starting out, waited almost an entire YEAR for the TLS to pay her the pittance they owed her for a review (and they demanded she return the book – which neither she nor any of their other reviewers often did, bless them). Waiting a year for your pittance – or waiting six months to be paid $2 for the work of reading an entire book and generating 200 lines of commentary about it – these things I’m including under the heading of ‘not getting paid.’ My point is, the rise of free Internet venues isn’t changing the financial prospects of the vast majority of people who write about books (Amazon posts hundreds of new reader- reviews A DAY, all from unpaid writers) – unless, perhaps, it’s improving those prospects, by providing an easily-accessible platform where prospective employers can find (and perhaps want) their writing. That process happens more often in this age of the Internet than it ever did or could in prior ages – hell, it’s happened half a dozen times at Open Letters alone!

    What Rohan says is certainly true: the periodicals themselves weren’t free and nobody expected them to be, the way so many Internet users today expect every scrap of content they encounter to be free (although that’s changing rapidly, as it was inevitably going to – look at the price for the electronic version of J. K. Rowling’s forthcoming opus). But even the most well-funded periodicals of Ye Olde Times were hilariously averse to paying their reviewers – and the vast, sprawling shrubbery of smaller venues simply didn’t. In that sense, things haven’t changed much for book-reviewers at all.


  14. steve donoghues July 3, 2012 / 11:04 pm

    And Tom, what’s this business of ‘catching up’? I want MORE books, not fewer! I’m caught up with my galleys out to September – if writers stop writing, what am I supposed to do in mid-winter? Play chess with my fat gassy basset hound?


  15. steve donoghues July 3, 2012 / 11:08 pm

    And Adam, if you’d by chance like a new HOME for your wonderful Punkadiddle, Rohan and I know a certain well-respected little online literary journal that would love to have you (and if you say “The Quarterly Conversation? Great!” I’ll SMACK you – or worse, trust me – Rohan will! Hee).


  16. Lee July 4, 2012 / 9:59 am

    Hi Steve, I’m glad I provoked you to a nice long series of comments – some good stuff there. Do remember, though, that my assertions not at all unspoken – or at least unwritten. And yes, I condescend all the time – even to myself.

    Is (s)he completely serious? Who knows.

    (What about your assumption that I must be a man?)

    The man who cuts my trees tells me stories about his years in the mines of Kazakhstan and his early life. Yes, he’s an immigrant – but then again, so am I, strictly speaking. Or at least a foreigner. And his daughter is probably going to end up being my heart surgeon, since she’s well into her medical degree. While I busy myself blathering on blogs.

    And yes, I’d rather learn the hard way: so what? It’s my choice, and no one is obliged to read what they don’t like. And there are certainly examples of writers whose training is essentially self-training. Craft is trainable, one way or another, but I doubt that someone can be taught energy, vision, Henry James’s grace, something I call ‘deep style’, etc. And it’s these which in the end separate great writing from good. (Now don’t scream, Steve, because of course I don’t put myself in even the latter category.)

    None of which really addresses the central question of this post, i.e. how critics (and writers) are supposed to make a living. But to be frank, I don’t see many answers here. Rohan is of course right that ‘free’ and ‘freely available’ are not identical. Beyond that, it’s mostly speculation – though nothing wrong with that. Freeman Dyson reminds us that predictions are not supposed to be true, only stimulating to the imagination.


  17. Lee July 4, 2012 / 10:25 am

    Rohan, I honestly don’t see why your work online should necessarily devalue criticism. If I can get loads of stuff for free, then I become more choosy, not less. The blogging critics I read all have another source of income – Ed, DG Myers, Ron Slate, Matthew Cheney, Jenny Davidson, a couple more – so I don’t know why most of them need to be bound for extinction (except in the normal way, ahem). Paying for server space isn’t all that prohibitive if you would like to be independent of Google and the other big guys. So that leaves the matter of time and energy. Would these critics be better critics if that was all they did? I’m not convinced.


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