There’s been a lot of attention the last couple of days to this piece by author Ann Bauer—the title is self-explanatory: “ ‘Sponsored’ by my husband: Why it’s a problem that writers never talk about where their money comes from.”
It’s a message that needs to be heard. Bauer was married to and then divorced from an addict, becoming a single mother to their three children, one with disabilities, before she found her “sponsor.” She began her writing career before her second marriage, but makes the very obvious point that it is simply easier to have money than not—in order to write, in this case, but really in order to do anything. And she calls out (not by name, although there’s a lot of speculation as to their identities) a couple of writers of independent means who she’s witnessed blushingly attribute their success to hard work alone.
People took offense at her message, though, as people will do. Some of them didn’t want to be told writers don’t make much money (!!!). Some had trouble with the heteropatriarchy. Some missed the point and thought the piece was gloating. Some seemed miffed that Bauer needed decent conditions and stability in which to write.
Then this piece by Susan Straight surfaced, in which she describes how she’s produced ten books in the crevices left by life: “I wrote in my green Mercury Villager van, with headlights that made it look like a shark at night, according to the girls who waited for me to pick them up from practice for everything children can practice for. For 24 years I wrote not while driving but while waiting in parking lots for hours.” Although I very much doubt it’s how Straight meant it (and it was written before Bauer’s piece), some people took her narrative as proof that people like Bauer were too precious and persnickety, required too much. That Straight—also a single mom, and, apparently, a faster writer—was tougher and nobler and deserved more credit.
Writing is hard, sometimes. It doesn’t make much money. I’ve had people ask me at readings what my advances were and how much money I’d made. I’ve had people ask me—challenge me, really—about why I didn’t self-publish instead. I’m not getting into that whole debate, except to say that there are a lot of writers out there who want desperately to believe that writing is the way to untold riches (and that the “legacy” publishers exist only to cheat authors out of these piles of cash), and they get very put out if you whisper otherwise.
On the flip side, there are people who are outraged that writers can’t make a decent living anymore, like that’s a new thing. Well, there was a brief shining moment when F. Scott Fitzgerald could get $20,000 in 1925 dollars for a magazine story, but the longer history has been of artists having patrons—sponsors. John Gardner (in On Becoming a Novelist) said that the best thing a writer could do, male or female, was to marry rich. He was serious. Now we have a system of MFA programs and teaching positions, which works in its own imperfect way.
I don’t have any hardship stories—none that I care to share, anyway. We all have them, and some of them are more extreme than others, and some of them have to do with money and others have to do with matters that are even weightier. I’ve been the beneficiary of a great deal of privilege, and I’ve also surmounted obstacles and worked hard. I often wonder how things would have turned out if I had had to deal with circumstances like Bauer’s or Straight’s. For a while there, in my twenties and thirties, I was hanging on by my fingernails—as a writer, sometimes as a person—and that was just as a married mom of healthy children. I was determined, incredibly stubborn, but if I’d been a self-supporting single mother, I honestly don’t know where I would have ended up as a writer. I mean that I honestly don’t know. It might have been okay. It might not have. Either way, it would have been my responsibility.
For any writer the main task is to get out of her own way, and those barriers, or issues, or demons, whether financial or psychological or practical or spiritual, take as many forms as there are writers. Some people have bigger barriers than others. That is a fact.
Whenever I hear a discussion about writers supporting themselves, or about how in the world you write if you’ve got kids (which is a question you get asked only if you’re a woman), I think about my male writer friends. I have always thought that, in the end, I had it easier. The men I know—most married, with kids—seem to feel, no matter how liberated they are, an extra psychological burden of being the breadwinner, which in some cases makes them give up their writing, or delays it in the extreme. That’s patriarchy too. They don’t feel the freedom to take risks. They don’t feel the freedom to fail, to have a part-time job, to have people snub them at parties because they seem unimportant. For every Ben Fountain, who wrote at home for eighteen years before publishing his first, award-winning book, while his wife went to work as a tax attorney, there are probably hundreds of would-be novelists who are instead corporate attorneys themselves, or mechanics or teachers or bankers or any profession you care to name that’s respectable and includes benefits and makes a man feel like he’s doing his job as a man.
Ben Fountain, though, was man enough, artist enough, to be sponsored by his wife. Just like Ann Bauer was sponsored by her husband. (And, obviously, this is a discussion about couples who can survive on one income, whoever’s it happens to be. An enormous amount of luck from the start.)
I feel like I got the patriarchy to work for me. I don’t know if that counts as subverting it, but it doesn’t much matter. I had kids, which I very much wanted to do, and then stayed home with them, and flew under the radar, and wrote. It was a confluence of my upbringing and expectations, my husband’s, the culture’s. Call it luck, call it privilege; it’s both of those things, and possibly also it was a bit ruthless, on my part, but at some point I realized what I had, and I ran with it. You have to get what you need.
In one of the great, early Paris Review interviews, William Faulkner said, “The writer’s only responsibility is to his art. He will be completely ruthless if he is a good one. He has a dream. Everything goes by the board: honor, pride, decency, security, happiness, all, to get the book written. If a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate; the Ode on a Grecian Urn is worth any number of old ladies.” Now, Faulkner wasn’t above hyperbole. And I am too full of scruples and conscience and timidity to follow his dictum to the letter.
But I remember it.