Imagine a young Ernest Hemingway in the 21st century. He’s abroad for a few months in Paris and arrives at the home of Gertrude Stein to sip Sancerre and discuss writing and other writers and those things a fledgling author and his accomplished mentor might chat about after a day of creative labor. They consider a second bottle of wine and perhaps taking a meal together, but this is the 21st century, and the young Hemingway has to hurry back to his flat to grade a stack of papers, and even Ms. Stein, an established author in mid-career, has lesson plans to prepare. All of their school work that evening, though, will have to wait until each has completed their respective social media obligations, with both authors making rounds on Facebook and Twitter before posting a selfie they posed for on Instagram. Neither will write tomorrow. Nor the next day. Hemingway will return to the States without a completed novel, as he had hoped; Ms. Stein will contemplate either a career change or a teaching post in Montana.
This fantastic scenario, appropriated for the 21st century, is indicative of the obstacles many contemporary writers, of all levels, face in the current environment, as all but a very few have to struggle to reconcile a diminished publishing industry and a bleak academic existence.
E.L. Doctorow stated that the job of an artist is to be true to the times in which they live; these days, writers are more likely to be true to the times in which they teach (and tweet).
Teaching and writing have long been symbiotic partners. It was common for the young writer to use academia as a means of support while they toiled away on their inaugural attempts at publication. The “struggling” writer didn’t usually wait tables or tend bar or do odd jobs: he/she taught English (a nice fallback as a career if said publication attempts never came to fruition). And a continued, albeit lessor, role in academia might remain even after a certain level of success was achieved since it kept one in touch with their craft and added additional income and a certain prestige (not to mention a break from the constant pressures of isolated creativity).
But the ability to find “success” in publishing has changed dramatically. The days of large advances are almost entirely over, even for authors of the highest caliber. Previous winners of prestigious prizes can no longer expect an advance which would compensate them accordingly for the time, often years, spent working on a novel. And royalty payments, even in lieu of a healthy advance, are simply a luxury most writers, at all levels, are not privy. Mid-list and fledgling authors, those who are lucky enough to find a publisher, can expect low five-figure advances with those in the four-figure (often, low) range being more common as well as a meager hope of seeing any royalties. To make matters even worse, publishers rely on the authors themselves to do much of a book’s publicity, spending an inordinate amount of time engaged in Social Media promotion that takes away from both the time and mental energy needed to create. This is, simply and obviously, no way to make a living.
As a result, writers from all levels are scrambling for jobs in academia. A recent posting for a creative writing position at a New Jersey college generated nearly 500 applicants. But it’s not just the New York metro area that is hyper-competitive. Established authors are looking for faculty positions anywhere in America that they can be found. Many are commuting long distances simply for a part-time paycheck in an MFA program, while the less-established writers are burdened with adjunct work that requires immense hours for meager pay which often leaves them hovering around the poverty line with very little chance of advancement (and even less time for writing).
There’s an old and cruel adage that goes: Those who can’t, teach. Well, now it’s more likely that even those who even can, can’t teach (a reasonable load).
This one-two punch that writers and teachers face should be of concern to our society. Artist of all varieties are crucial contributors to culture. It is primarily the job of writers to evoke empathy, to use the depth of narratives to examine the human experience in a way in which we can all benefit. We should be nurturing writers on all levels, supporting the established ones and giving the upstarts a genuine shot at creating a body of work that will be read again and again. The teaching of English is as important as the writing of the books which inform the discipline since educators teach students how to read carefully, write with authority and to think critically, skills in which citizens of a democracy need to possess. Whether the instructor is an author of any stripe or not, they should not have to comb the country looking for work, nor should they be exploited by colleges who turn more and more to miserably-paid adjunct faculty that increases the bottom line of the institution but leaves both instructors and students deserving more.
Where are we as a society when the venerable vocation of writer/teacher is no longer sustainable? And where will it lead?
Published on The Huffington Post: End of the Writer/Teacher?