The Blog Question Part Three: Endorsed by Bloggers United Local 1003

As it happens, I’m boycotting the Huffington Post. It has not been a particularly difficult commitment—I never read it and rarely ever get linked to it, but, now that there’s a boycott, I suppose I’m joining.

Blogging at the Huffington Post does not pay well. Indeed, it doesn’t pay at all. This didn’t bother anyone at first, but, since Arianna Huffington sold her eponymous post to AOL for some obscene amount of money, this arrangement came to seem less than ideal, casting HP’s network of bloggers as chattle bought and sold on blogslave market. But surely this isn’t the case, right?

Well, it is.

Yes, the Huffington Post will tell you that its army of bloggers gladly serve, and, at any rate, its paid, full-time staff doesn’t mind, and this is obviously true to some extent. Still, others will argue that these bloggers’ willingness to work for free threatens the livelihood of other bloggers who lack the luxury of being able to work for free as well as the paid journalists with whom they share a market. This is also true, more or less. Some bloggers, it seems, fancy themselves journalists, not writers. Writers have long since reconciled themselves with not getting paid.

This may seem like a new development. One imagines writers across the ages Scrooge-Mcdiving into the mountains of gold they make from playing lost generation in Paris and London etc., but successful writers, writers who can live off the proceeds of their work are rather rare across the ages. Shakespeare does well enough for himself, as do Hemingway and Stephen King, and perhaps Dan Brown, but Pound lives off his wife’s inheritance, Joyce dies penniless and toothless, Marlowe gets stabbed in the eye because he doesn’t want to pay a bar tab, and Ayn Rand lives on the entitlement programs she railed against her entire life because, as it happens, there isn’t much money in writing.

Not to say that all writers live out their sorry existences as paupers. Many write, frankly, because they don’t have much better to do with their time. Like most arts, writing is a pursuit of the leisured class, and, has never been a particularly profitable enterprise. To make a living writing, one makes one’s living elsewhere, whether at universities and colleges, if one’s lucky, or else at coffee shops and restaurants. Perhaps it seems more austere from the outside, but, from my experience, the poets, polemicists, and novelists in and around Chicago are hardly different from the bus boys and baristas in Hollywood.

Those Who Can, Do

This is where I make wise and say “those who can’t, teach,” but many great writers and artists teach for their money and journalists have always had it the best. That is, until they didn’t. Now they want bloggers to stop ruining it for them, stop reminding everyone that journalists are, in fact, writers, and will gladly work for free if no one cares to pay them. So, they boycott the Huffington Post, and I support them. Sort of. This problem plagues most art and media, and addressing it from any angle matters to the wider creative class. It doesn’t necessarily mean they’re right.

Over at Mischief + Mayhem, Dale Peck has a similar approach for publishing, skirting major publishers and distributors like Amazon.com and Barnes and Nobles who have a tendency to give up-and-coming or unconventional (some might call them “risky”) writers the short end of the stick if anything at all to placing prices and profits back in the hands of smaller presses, publishers, and the writers with whom they work. Peck says “The whole point of writing literature was that in exchange for not getting paid a lot of money, you could say whatever you wanted; now, you don’t get a lot of money and you don’t get to say what you want. All of which segues to why writing is fucked.” This characterizes writer’s relationship with their distributors well: The safe bets rules a risky market.

Spoiler: the boat sinks.

But writers never staked their claim to legitimacy on profit, and certain journalists’ move to do so may prove a bad strategy. Nevertheless, like everyone else, they need money, but, increasingly, neither universities, publishers, newspapers nor, alas, wealthy patrons will subsidize their work, perhaps because they gauge the legitimacy of the work by profit. But is this a good measure of worth? Of quality? Probably not. but who’s to say? The journalists and bloggers boycotting the Huffington Post have contributed their two cents; yes, “we won’t get any legitimacy until we demand it,” but the glut of those willing to scab make this a risky wager. Those not affiliated with journalism will have an even harder job of demonstrating their relevance and legitimacy to the market, and any reluctance to do so will only isolate and endanger writers in general.

The various turf wars in the struggle to define legitimacy certainly don’t help either, since everyone is on different decks of the same precariously floating boat. Until that gets straightened out, those who can will continue to gut the profitability of writing from the inside out, and it will become more difficult to get anything that doesn’t fall into some rigid formula of readability into the hands and under the eyes of readers. Not to say we have reached a literary crisis event horizon beyond which all quality and originality will vanish. But…

Do you have legitimacy? If so, Comment below (or perhaps link back to us and lend us some). Is a nation-wide artists and writers’ union working towards sustainable, quality content the answer?  Is it possible? Is it too late?