June 24, 2009
A Living Wage for Living Literature
If you hang around with me long enough that we get a chance to go to a fancy restaurant together, you might get to hear this parable. It used to be possible to be a professional waiter - one who thought of service as a career. And the service you received was service from a career professional. But as wages declined, so did service. A rotating cast of college students and twentysomethings can sometimes surprise you with their talent or enthusiasm, but they can’t make a career of it. You come in, you do your best, and you rotate out, and what you end up with are a lot of chain restaurants where it’s good to be a college student or twenty-something, good to drink a lot and eat a lot, but comparatively few places were you can feel like a gourmand.
The New Yorker’s The Book Bench tells a similar story about wage cuts among younger workers in the publishing industry. The impetus to the post are cuts at William Morris, where entry-level workers saw their pay cut from 13.50/hour to 9.50/hour.
Tiny salaries in the low ranks of publishing are miserable for the young workers, but they’re probably worse for literature (You can insert “movies” for “literature,” if that’s the prism through which you want to read this.) It’s a truism of the industry that most of these jobs are held by people who can afford them—people with some parental support and no student loans. Often they’ve had unpaid internships, that most pernicious example of class privilege. Their superiors are the same people, ten years later. They—we!—are smart, cultured people with good intentions, but it’s easy to see how this narrow range could lead to a blinkered view of literature.
So, if you’re sick of coming-of-age novels about comfortable young men, a little solidarity with the lowly assistants might help.
Although now I’m scratching my head: the privilege thing I get, but are publishing companies and talent agencies overrun by dudes? I’ve never gotten that vibe.