Creative Idealism vs Risk Aversion

Or, how the Great Recession damaged, and continues to damage, artistically-inclined Millennials.

To have a lifestyle that allows you to put creative endeavors front and center, to prioritize art above other concerns, you need one of two things: a safety net or the willingness to fly without one. And most of my generation doesn’t have either. We don’t have security, but we’ve become risk-averse in the extreme, unwilling to sacrifice what little we have scraped together. We’ve seen what happens when you take risks, when you don’t plan well enough, or when you put your faith in the wrong institutions. As students, we trusted that education and dedication would get us where we wanted to go. “Self-determination” was the buzzword of my high school, as though being capable and wanting a thing enough were sufficient in this world.

I know so many Millennials in similar straits to mine — mostly in theatre, some in writing, some involved with music or visual arts. The ones who are more sensible than I am wised up in college and went into computer science or medicine instead (higher debts, but higher chance of paying them off, too). The ones who are braver than I am, who do strike out and try to live entirely on their art, generally have to accept a pretty low quality of life in order to do so, or else they have to sacrifice a lot of independence. And the trade-off for the rest of us, struggling to achieve some sort of satisfactory balance, is less than stellar. “Selling out” for job security doesn’t bring the boons it once did. It’s still a survival game. Entry level jobs now require years of experience, tenure tracks have disappeared, and employers of all stripes are likely to hire the candidate who will ask for the least rather than who’s best for the job. We may have our heads above water, but that’s not the same thing as success. And we have to tread pretty hard just to stay there. For all of that, we’re told to be grateful — and the sad part is, most of us are. We know our situations could be worse. The lesson we learned from the recession was that we are never safe. Financial security is elusive to the point of being mythological. Even for those of us who are successful, or who have had familial or spousal safety nets to fall back on, I think that fear still lurks for anyone that’s even a little self-aware: This could all evaporate, and then what would I do? That’s what keeps us in this limbo. As I told a friend earlier today, I feel like it’s hamstrung our generation.


So what does this have to do with writing, specifically?

All aspiring authors, I think, dream of being the one to land that mega-advance that allows you to set aside mundane concerns and retire to a charming nook to pen the next work of genius — then of having sales numbers so spectacular that financial survival is never a problem again. We’re not stupid. We know the reality is nothing like that. But it’s still the stuff of our daydreams.

I won’t pretend to have intimate knowledge the inner workings of the publishing industry — I’m not there yet. I’m closer and better-informed than I was a year ago, but until I am a published author, what I’ve got to go on is still speculative and observational. That said: Writing is one of the few careers in the world where you can put in thousands of hours of work, never knowing if you’re going to get paid for it or not. (Though similar ideas certainly prevail elsewhere in the arts — that you should do it for the love, be grateful just to “express yourself”, and not expect compensation for your sweat and blood and time). And even if you do get paid for it, that seems to endow less security now than it used to. I’ve read various studies and observations from individuals in the industry, tracking the decline of advances from publishing houses over the past decade.  That makes it harder for writers to justify the hours and energy it takes to create. For my peers, that means the hours scraped out of lives already dominated by multiple jobs and energy already brought to its breaking point by financial stress.

Something of a sidebar: This doesn’t entirely derive from but does relate to the ongoing dispute between Amazon, Hachette, and others. It isn’t all Amazon’s fault, and it isn’t all Hachette’s. I’m not on either side here — I’m on the side, as I must be, of authors, particularly the new and unproved, who are hurt most by the fight and the conditions that created it. Advances and royalties have been declining since before they started feuding, for a wide variety of reasons — but this particular drama encapsulates a lot of the problem. The distributor, apparently under the impression that manufacturing costs account for most of the expense of creating a book, want more money out of e-books, arguing that lower overhead for the publisher should mean more profit for them. (This is, of course, never minding that most of the expense is not in the physical object but in the labor behind it from the writer, agent, editor, graphic designer, proofreader, typesetter, marketer, etc). When distributors take a bigger slice of the pie, there’s less left for publishers to give to authors. This leads to smaller advances. I suspect it also contributes to those advances being harder to earn back, royalties-wise — thus making it challenging for writers to see continued revenue. And then all of that tangles together with how much a publisher can afford to and will choose to spend on marketing and publicity, without which even great books will flounder into obscurity.

Taken all together, there seem to be a lot more impediments to making a sustainable career as an author than there used to be. As several analysts have pointed out, this ultimately discourages a lot of writers, or at least delays them from being able to seek publication, since writing has to be crammed into the hours not spent just trying to get by — and the creative world is weaker for that. As Evan Hughes pointed out on Slate back in May, “Diet Coke has a set formula of ingredients, so the actual beverage is not going to get worse if Walmart drives a hard bargain. That’s not necessarily the case with books, each of which is a unique product. If publishers make less money on every book, they are going to pay people less to write and edit them, and talented people will decide to do something else with their time.” This crux is particularly damning for writers of my generation who have learned to be risk-averse.

And yet — I am, essentially, an optimist. That impossible daydream tantalized and provokes me, so I continue to create and I continue to hope. I will wear myself ragged balancing my cost of living with my artistic drive. If I’m to be honest here, it’s at least as much cussed stubbornness and pride as it is idealism. I refuse to let conditions beat me down. I refuse to let the gray mists of discouragement swallow me up. I will be as tough and resilient as this course demands.

It’s exhausting. But I’ll keep going.

This was heavy. Here’s a playlist that I use to keep my spirits up:

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