The Broke Novelist

I haven’t been able to stop thinking about Merritt Tierce’s article in Marie Clair about going broke after publishing a critically-acclaimed novel. It popped up on my Facebook feed shortly after it was published on September 16, and I keep revisiting it.

On the one hand, Tierce’s dilemma speaks to the increasing costs of living in America. I can’t wrap my head around a US$786 utility bill. She says she kept her house at a cozy 85 degrees and this was literally the hottest summer in the world. But even with the air conditioners running all the time to keep the temperature just under unbearable, I’m shocked that a utility bill can be so high.

The cost of living in the United States is one of the reasons my husband and I moved to Taiwan in 2013. To date, our biggest electricity bill has been NT$8000, which is about US$255 for two months. Ironically, it wasn’t even our bill: we inherited from a stereotypically irresponsible trio of English teachers when we took over their lease. We can only assume that the three of them air-conditioned their bedrooms and the living room all summer.

In contrast, our combined take-home pay is generous. Not by American standards. Not enough to pay US$800 utility bills. Combined, we aren’t even earning the US$40,000 a year that Tierce is fantasizing about. But we work and we still have time and money to save, to spend, and to travel.

Come to Taiwan, Merritt Tierce! I don’t want you to have to dip into your son’s college fund to pay the rent!

 

Which brings me to my second line of thought: Shouldn’t Tierce be able to pay her bills if she wrote a very good book? Shouldn’t she be able to live off the earnings from that book, and her husband’s income, long enough to write another one?

At the risk of proving my ignorance or naivete here, has it ever been possible for most writers to live on writing alone? I think writers have about as much chance of getting paid like Stephen King and JK Rowling as kids who want to be astronauts have of stepping foot on the moon. In 2016, real artists have day jobs, don’t they? Tierce doesn’t even want to invest all the time and effort it takes into being a full-time freelancer, which, honey, I understand. There is so much to do besides write when you take that road, that it makes my little ADD-addled head spin.

But has any writer, especially any contemporary writer, made enough money to live by just writing critically-acclaimed novel after critically-acclaimed novel?

To be able to afford a room of one’s own–the space and time to create–most everyone has to sell their present time to the most accommodating bidder or mortgage their future with loans, or second-book deals. Not so many of us can count on an inheritance or even sufficient financial support from a spouse.

Maybe the folks who are self-publishing romance and adventure e-books have the right idea. But the ones I know are still teaching English, too.

I feel like somebody needs to tell Tierce to “write like a motherfucker.” Not me. I only wish I was published. But Cheryl Strayed could.

I bought Tierce’s book. A blurb from Roxane Gay is a good enough endorsement for me. And I’d like to encourage her to keep going. She might never make the list of the country’s best-paid authors, but she definitely won’t if she stops now. The odds are high, the work is hard, and I don’t want to have to wait tables, deliver mail, teach English, or hustle for one-off writing gigs any more than she does, and I’m not even on a path that leads to the Iowa Writer’s Workshop.

Nolite te bastardes carborundorum!

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