The Hunger Artists

By Emanuel Derman
October 3, 2011

I came across a very  interesting post by Sam Harris about the difficulties of getting paid for being an artist, a writer, or a public intellectual.

It caught my attention for two reasons: first because I discovered that there are many websites with pirated PDFs of My Life as a Quant. Second because, in working on my current book, I thought that the writing was going to be the hard part. That part was actually fun most of the time. But since then, encouraged by the marketing people at my publisher who are basically too overwhelmed to do much for me, I’ve found that marketing takes more time and even more nervous energy, and causes (at least for me) much more gut-wrenching than the writing. Basically, you are supposed to run around and shout, very loudly,  “Look at me.” I try to do that as much as my inbred reticence will allow. (And I’m getting better at it.)

To be fair, Look At Me is probably what any writer or even scientist wants. This is a quote from a 1950s letter from Norman Mailer to William Styron:

“I didn’t write [The] Naked [and the Dead] because I wanted to say war was horrible, or that history is complex, resistant, and almost inscrutable, or because I wanted to say that the coming battle between the naked fanatics and the dead mass was approaching, but because really what I wanted to say was, “Look at me, Norman Mailer, I’m alive, I’m a genius, I want people to know that; I’m a cripple, I want to hide that,” and so forth.”

So, is it sad that you may have difficulty get paid for shouting “Look At Me”?

My initial knee-jerk reaction to Harris’s post was “Yes, Wow, it’s tough that one can’t make a living by writing any more.” And that’s increasingly true: publishers are under assault, they don’t keep back lists, they want only bunkerbusters,  people do expect free music and movies, etc.

But on the second jerk, I’m not so sure. There is a long and glorious history of artists doing day jobs and making art when they can. T.S. Eliot worked at a publishing house. Wallace Stevens worked as an insurance executive. Spinoza ground lenses to support himself. Scientists publish but are paid (mostly) by research grants and teaching stipends. They do their work and do what they have to do to write or paint or poetize. It’s a privilege to speak and even more so to be heard. It’s nice if one can make a living making art or doing science or philosophy but it’s not (pardon me) a God-given right.

And even more so for public intellectuals, a vanity term that reminds me of Kafka’s hunger artist, making his final living by displaying his fast-to-the-death in a circus. But though the world is a poorer place without artists and scientists and writers, I’m less sure if that’s so in the case of public intellectuals. Intellectual is an adjective best not self-employed.  Christopher Hitchens, sharp as always, wrote that “the higher one comes in any “approval” rating of this calling, the more uneasily one must doubt one’s claim to the title in the first place.”

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I reckon this problem will one get aggravated due to the Internet onslaught. I shudder to think of someone who can’t be anyone else. Who simply doesn’t want to do anything else. It’s so easy (read: inevitable) for such a person to eternally walk in the penniless corridors of the real world.

While having a paying avocation would keep monetary hiccups at bay, won’t such preoccupation interfere in an author’s main job?

Posted by pariveshP | Report as abusive