December 10, 2013
Tomorrow, Wednesday, December 11, will see the publication of two of my pieces on The North Star, including a piece that the magazine Jacobin deciding to yank, on the Undocumented movement, at the last minute and without explanation.
I’ll post the link here, of course, as soon as it goes live. North Star will be publishing the piece Jacobin was too afraid to print, along with my account of what happened. But I wanted to dwell today on one of the issues covered in the forthcoming articles, that of unpaid/underpaid labour in the publishing world combined with often horrible working conditions, especially in the world of Left publishing.
You would think that left media would, at the very least, adhere to basic standards of pay but, as this recent Vice article demonstrates, even publications and media outlets like Mother Jones and Democracy Now exploit un/underpaid intern labour, and subject them to humiliating demands.
I’m happy to see all this attention paid to the plight of interns, and that there are now more complicated conversations about the nature of the labour that goes into publishing.
But the conversation around the payment of working writers is still inadequate, except for a few spots, and that’s because while people are able to understand, say, bringing coffee to your boss or filling out surveys or tweeting endlessly as forms of “work” that should be compensated, they’re still largely incapable of understanding the invisible kinds of labour that go into writing, or that writing is in fact a form of labour. Danielle Lee, a zoologist and blogger, was called a “whore” when she declined someone’s request to blog for free.
For all this, on a large scale, we can certainly a blame a capitalist framework which relies on the extraction of maximum profits from exploited labour. But I’d like to also suggest that too many of my writer and publisher friends are to blame for the current state of affairs, because they’ve bought into the idea that writing is some kind of special snowflake activity, practically a divine ordination that will bring about tectonic shifts in the world and that it should therefore be nothing more than a “labour of love.”
That last phrase needs to be excised from all languages, and every person who uses it should be made to pay a $50 fine, every single time. If they happen to be a publisher or editor, the fine should go up to $500. If you’re a working writer like me, which is to say, someone who makes a living, barely, from writing alone, you should be allowed to pummel everyone who uses the phrase with a very large, iron hammer, with impunity. Or, at least, this.
These days, whenever someone talks to me about writing as love, I tell them how much the average writer makes for the average piece: $75 (that’s high in some quarters—I’ve had editors offer me half that as if they were doing me a big favour by, perhaps, not being paid themselves). And then I ask them to take their current monthly salary—many of these hobbyist writers have day jobs—and divide it by that number to see how many such pieces they’d have to produce to come up with just rent and other essentials.
The problem with publishing today, even and perhaps especially on the Left, is that it is increasingly becoming crowded with people with enough money to “do” writing as a hobby (and we might want to think about all the class, gender, and race privileges that can denote), and that most publishers think of paying writers out of a general sense of noblesse oblige, not because they actually realise that blank pages with no words on them wouldn’t get them readers or advertisers. To compound matters, there’s a new phenomenon of public intellectuals and academics desperate to make themselves seen in publications other than academic journals. As my articles will indicate, Jacobin’s cowardice came about because of a number of reasons, but its arrogance was bred in the very conditions it claims to critique. An excerpt:
Jacobin’s cultural cachet emerges, perhaps somewhat ironically, from a very particular set of circumstances bred by neoliberalism. The breakdown of the stability of university jobs, the dwindling prospect of tenure for many in academia, and the fact that professors are increasingly being admonished to publish in the “real world” to prove that their work is “relevant” has meant that publications like Jacobin are able to depend on a large number of highly educated (but not necessarily qualified) writers for whom writing is not their source of income and whose names lend a star quality. These kinds of publications also attract established writers looking for newer, hipper markets for their writing. Whether or not we discuss such people as scabs, moving in to take writing jobs that could be filled by people who need to write for money is perhaps a topic for another day, and I want to recognise that this is a more complicated conversation that needs to had. I’ve written about the issues of writing for free in my Make Art! Change the World! Starve!: The Fallacy of Art as Social Justice, and Sarah Jaffe has a list of reading materials here.
All of this is part of the larger context of censorship which played out at Jacobin. It’s not just about a piece being turned down at the last minute, but about larger systemic and structural issues.
At the end of the day, Left publishing will increasingly be filled with lots of timid writing that doesn’t require the hard skills that experienced writers might bring to their work (the ability to make cold calls to potentially hostile sources is itself becoming a dying skill). Publications which depend on star academic personalities are apt to forget that academics, even tenured ones, are not actually free to pursue truly brave and interesting work in public: They are always accountable for their public output to a university system which can make arbitrary decisions about their public statements. In the meantime, writers like me are desperately trying to make ends meet, rushing to meet deadlines, and tripping over ourselves to produce work that requires more than the tepid forms of cultural analysis that academic public writing tends to produce (yes, there are exceptions, but few). I’ve often used the term “scab” to refer to those who will write for free for places like Huffington Post, a giant corporation that could easily afford to pay every writer an astoundingly fair price but won’t. I think it might be time to also apply it to those who write for places like Jacobin for free or for very little, when working writers find it impossible to work for a pittance and their ability to ask for more is stymied by publishers who can hold over their heads the fact that Big Name Professor So-and-So would work for free; at the very least privileged writers need to demand excellent pay for their work to make sure publishers know the value of writing (and that opens up a whole other can of worms, but it will at least force publishers to think about valuing writing in monetary terms).
I know “scab” is a difficult word for many people to hear, and that its use, historically, has meant very specific labour practices, but I do suggest that we start thinking about what it means for us on the supposed Left to only think about labour in the abstract and to not consider that the shifting dynamics of a neoliberal world demand that we rethink our own places in the machinery of exploitation.
There’s lots more in the two forthcoming pieces. The issue at Jacobin was not that they didn’t pay me—my editor there, Peter Frase, went to bat for me and I was paid the full negotiated amount—but a complex web of circumstances and unprofessionalism that reflects a much larger and growing malaise in the world of Left publications.
I hope you’ll join me on North Star tomorrow and that my articles stimulate difficult but necessary conversations in real life and real time.
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You can read more of my work on the issue of writers, pay, and neoliberalism in these other pieces.