I Would Like to Be Paid to Write, and Other News


On the Shelf

This could be you, writer!

  • Ottessa Moshfegh wrote her novel Eileen with a plan: to get fucking rich. As a fiction writer, she thought, there’s only one way to do that—give the people the formulaic drivel that they want. In a profile for the Guardian, Moshfegh explains that “she didn’t want to ‘keep her head down’ and ‘wait thirty years to be discovered … so I thought I’m going to do something bold. Because there are all these morons making millions of dollars, so why not me? I’m smart and talented and motivated and disciplined and … talented: did I say that already?,’ she laughs. ‘I said: fuck it. Which was also: fuck them. I was pretty hostile. I thought: I’ll show you how easy this is … So … it started out as a fuck-you joke, also I’m broke, also I want to be famous. It was that kind of a gesture.’ ”
  • But let’s not get carried away. Writing doesn’t really make anyone rich. Ask Merritt Tierce, whose debut, Love Me Back, came out two years ago to “wide acclaim”—she was interviewed here on the Daily, even. Now she’s broke, because that’s how this industry works: “I haven’t been able to write since the moment I started thinking I could or should be making money as a writer. I haven’t produced a Second Book … For over a year after Love Me Back came out I woke up every day with this loop in my head: I should write. But I need money. If I write something I can sell it and I’ll have money. But I need money now. If I had money now, I could calm down and write something. I don’t have money now, so I’m probably not going to be able to calm down and write something. To have money now, I need a job. I should get a job … Because no matter how you do it, no one is paying you to write. They may pay you for something you wrote, or promise to pay you for something you have promised to write. They may pay your room and board for a month or two at a residency. They may pay you to teach, or to edit something someone else has written. They may pay you to come to a university and talk to people about writing. None of this is the same as being paid to write. I would like to be paid to write.” 

  • If you’re dead set on hacking it as a writer, you should at least enlist big data to help you out. Ask the computers what to do. These are algorithms we’re talking about, people. They’re bigger than you, smarter than you, and in a century’s time they’ll become self-aware and obliterate everything except the cockroaches. So yes, you should listen to the two professors who taught machines to find best sellers: “Over four years, Archer and Jockers fed 5,000 fiction titles published over the last 30 years into computers and trained them to ‘read’—to determine where sentences begin and end, to identify parts of speech, to map out plots. They then used so-called machine classification algorithms to isolate the features most common in bestsellers. The result of their work—detailed in The Bestseller Code, out this month—is an algorithm built to predict, with 80 percent accuracy, which novels will become mega-bestsellers. What does it like? Young, strong heroines who are also misfits (the type found in The Girl on the Train, Gone Girl, and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo). No sex, just ‘human closeness.’ Frequent use of the verb need. Lots of contractions. Not a lot of exclamation marks. Dogs, yes; cats, meh. In all, the bestseller-ometer’ has identified 2,799 features strongly associated with bestsellers.”
  • Maybe it’s best to skip the writing and become an urban planner instead. It’s basically the same thing. There are plenty of utopian designs you could try to erect, for instance, effectively turning fiction into reality. In the nineteenth century, Ebenezer Howard drew up concepts for his Garden City, which featured concentric circles designed to prevent sprawl: “Instead of cities expanding like ooze over the earth, he imagined planned cities that grew in organized buds. They would be large enough to support industry, small enough so that access to work, school, play, and nature would be easy, and all interconnected by a network of roads and rails … At the center of the city there would be a vast park, ringed by a Crystal Palace containing shops and a winter garden, and edged by the city’s museum, hospital, and other institutions. Past the center, houses would line six radiating boulevards and a series of circular avenues. The residential areas of the city would be divided into the two main bands. In between, a ring park would add green space and host the city’s schools and playgrounds. The outer ring of the city would be devoted to industry, with the railroad running right along the edge.”
  • Today in ruins: old photographs of Palmyra, a Syrian trading oasis, reveal four thousand years of history—much of which has now been turned into rubble. Ingrid D. Rowland writes, “In September 2015, the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles acquired the first photographs ever taken of Palmyra … Louis Vignes was a young lieutenant in the French navy whose interest in photography earned him a place on a scientific expedition to the Dead Sea region in 1863. The twenty-nine photographs he made of Palmyra during his visit in 1864 (including two panoramic shots) were finally printed in Paris by the pioneering photographer Charles Nègre … The Lebanese war that raged between 1975 and 1990 and the Syrian civil war of the past four years have damaged or destroyed many of the monuments that Vignes records in his photographs. The worst destruction, certainly, was inflicted between June and September of 2015 by the militants of the Islamic State, who first tortured and killed the eighty-one-year-old site director Khaled al-Assad before beheading him and hanging his body from a column.”