There’s a War on Science, Too

I get it. I really do. Science is self-correcting. It’s based on rigorous methodology, and hard observable measurable data. Hypotheses are testable or not at all. Tests yield repeatable, verifiable results or the hypothesis gets junked. Therefore Science trumps all those fluff bunny humanities subjects that “anyone can study” because “they’re all opinion anyway” and don’t require the intellectual rigor of a physics degree. Also, fuck religion.

Guys. In a pure Platonic ideal realm of theory, perhaps that same realm where sky fairies dance, and unproved teapots circle the sun, and no true Scotsman evades fallacies, and everyone has unquestioning faith that all gaps will get bridged without moving the goalposts – Science (note the capital S) is rumored to work that way. As it is practiced in the real world, Science is as riddled with confirmation bias as any crazy religious belief.

Yes, I know Science isn’t supposed to dirty itself with the real world, but as something of a quasi-rationalist (meaning a humanities “fluff bunny” with formal training in legal reasoning) I know how to go where the facts lead. And the facts are that a significant number of scientific results are not reproducible, scientists do change facts to fit theories, peer review is often more riddled with politics than the proverbial French court, and that money can and does buy results. When evaluating the results of any scientific study, the first question should be, “Who funded this?” And the last question should also be, “Who funded this?” It’s also useful to ask whether the scientist has tenure and, if not, who’s on the tenure committee.

This is not news to actual scientists. Start here.  Jonathan Eisen provides several links to serious discussions of irreproducible results and confirmation bias in Science in his blog, The Tree of Life. Professor Eisen’s piece is a response to Michael Suk-Young Chwe’s opinion piece in the New York Times, Scientific Pride and Prejudice.”

Suk-Young Chwe calls attention to a 2012 Nature article by C. Glenn Begley and Lee M. Ellis that reports that they (Begley and Ellis) “were able to replicate only 6 out of 53 ‘landmark’ cancer studies.” Eisen objects to Suk-Young Chwe implying that this is somehow news, and that scientists never previously confronted these issues.

Which is why it would be helpful if certain Internet atheists would sometimes bother to distinguish between Science as it is supposed to work and Science as it actually works under the constraints of politics, funding, and the pressure of getting tenure. Those who hold to Science as the highest and best way of understanding reality might want to focus on the social and political reasons that Science – and our understanding of reality – is compromised and degraded every day. Science, and what it offers humanity when allowed to do its work unfettered, is too valuable to get handicapped by politics.

That ought to command more attention than shaming some hapless Internet commenter for holding a cherished belief they can’t “prove” to somebody else’s satisfaction. If you really want to promote scientific thinking, donate a buck to some poor schlep with a brilliant idea that could expand humanity’s knowledge base but that has no commercial application. In our corporatized, nothing matters unless you can monetize it culture, that would be a truly radical, edgy thing to do.

But I digress.

Anyway, Suk-Young Chwe, a professor of political science at UCLA, stepped in it with Eisen when he pointed out what should be obvious. That when it comes to critical thinking and recognition of one’s own tendency to confirmation bias, the humanities, and literary criticism in particular, have much to offer. Literary critics are trained to be aware of their own biases. So are lawyers, by the way. (Argue this side. Now argue the other side.)

Although Suk-Young Chwe does sound somewhat naïve to suggest that scientists aren’t also trained to be aware of their biases, by highlighting the thought process that supports literary criticism, he (perhaps unwittingly) points out that humanists and scientists should be natural allies, because we’re all harmed by a public that doesn’t get what we do.

What jumped out at me in Suk-Young Chwe’s article and Eisen’s response was a naivety on both sides regarding public perception. Here’s what I mean. Suk-Young Chwe writes that, “Despite the popular belief that anything goes in literary criticism, the field has real standards of scholarly validity.”

Eisen responds:

This is a red herring to me. I can find no evidence that their there is a popular belief that “anything goes” in literary criticism. So the author here sets a very low bar and then basically any presentation of standards is supposed to impress us.

Actually, the public, to the extent it has any idea of what literary criticism actually is, really does believe that “anything goes in literary criticism.” Eisen disagrees with this, but Eisen runs with a highly educated crowd that constitutes a poor sample group of the general population. I’ve encountered this belief my entire life, this denigrating of humanities studies as somehow fluffy at best and a kind of con game at worse. “It’s just opinion, and my opinion is as good as yours, and you can’t ‘prove’ Shakespeare was really writing about mortality in his sonnets [there’s that teapot again, thanks Russell], so everyone gets an A.” It really does exist. And it manifests itself in the current devaluing of humanities education and the people who seriously pursue it, which I’ve written about in this blog.

An idealized view of Science as somehow free of error really exists among the public, too. Again, mostly among non-Scientists who never had to compete against colleagues for grant funding or go through the tenure process.

Of course it isn’t news that the public doesn’t get what scientists and humanities scholars do. But it is news or should I say – newish, that as a culture the rift between the educated and uneducated is getting so large it resembles something out of pre-Enlightenment Europe. The public doesn’t get any of us.   Between the naïve Science groupies who deify Science (string theory’s sooo kewl, in an alternate universe I could be Bill Gates!) and who form a market group for the flashy woo-ridden stuff (time doesn’t really exist!) and the red state yahoos who don’t “believe” in evolution but haven’t presented any evidence supporting a better model, Science has its own PR problems. For a reading list of popular woo-ridden physics, go here.

To stave off the hate mail (or possibly to attract more of it, never can tell), my point is not to criticize pop physics, which would be arrogant of a non-physicist like myself to do. My point is that when there’s an obvious appetite among Science groupies for ideas that could have been copped from the Vedas, Sufism, William Blake, or any mystic strain of pretty much any religion, maybe Science and humanities ought to be shaking hands. Not because of common intellectual ground (although that certainly exists), but because both fields are only valued by the public to the extent that they pander to sensationalist tastes, and this situation isn’t healthy for the culture. (Maybe the humanities equivalent is the history groupies who think they understand the ancient world because they’ve seen some cool cgi movies with awesome fight scenes.) Some movies have a nexus of historical accuracy, just as some popular physics (I assume) has some connection with actual Science, but when the point is to attract a mass audience, it also devalues actual scholarship for that audience. Humanities has suffered from this for a long time. “Anyone can learn history from watching the Discovery Channel.” Seems Science does too.

The war on the humanities is essentially a war on critical thinking – and so of course the pure sciences are equally a target. Scientists and humanities scholars should be natural allies. What happens, though, is the kind of snarking that STEM people reserve for humanities majors, as if we’re not both targets of the toxic ignorance running through the culture like a black river of doom.

It’s difficult to fight for more funding when the red states don’t “believe” in Science. It’s impossible when scientists will backstab each other for grant money and offer dubious, irreproducible results under pressure of getting tenure, keeping their university jobs, and not having to drive a courtesy shuttle for a car dealership for a living.  Here’s what happens to scientists whose work is Nobel quality and whose funding isn’t.  In case you didn’t click, the link is to a news story about Douglas Prasher, the brilliant chemist who generously shared his work with colleagues when his research funding ran out, forcing him out of Science and eventually into driving a shuttle.   Those colleagues won the Nobel prize for chemistry a few years ago, for work that used Prasher’s research.

Science is a blood sport. So is literary criticism, by the way. Scarce resources will do that.

That is why the reproducibility movement, which is written about in a Washington Post article by Joel Achenbach called “The New Scientific Revolution” is being greeted with mixed reviews. The scientific community recognizes that the pressure to publish and the limited funding available to researchers is a huge temptation to fudge data, and that, often, experimental results cannot be reproduced. So the scientific community is getting tough. Reproducibility, which should have been a dogma of the scientific community for the last four centuries, is now a “movement.” According to Achenbach, “the leaders of the scientific community are recalibrating their requirements, pushing for the sharing of data and greater experimental transparency.” This push is taking the form of top-tier journals announcing new publication guidelines, pharmaceutical companies with large financial interests demanding more rigorous pre-clinical results, and the Center for Open Science (COS) at the University of Virginia. COS, founded by Brian Nosek, facilitates data sharing.

All good, although all stuff that Science is supposed to be doing anyway. The fact that there needs to be a self-conscious “movement” to make sure everybody in the pool really is complying with the scientific method says a lot about the sorry state of Science today. This says more:

Betsy Levy-Paluck, an associate professor of psychology and public policy at Princeton, said of the reproducibility movement, “I think it’s the future.” But there has been controversy at the laboratory level: Some researchers have complained that the reformers are going overboard.

“There are worries about there being witch hunts,” Levy-Paluck said.

And that’s the problem. In the cutthroat world of limited research grants, where Nobel-quality scientists are driven from the field for lack of funding, the reproducibility movement can easily become a witchhunt, a means to eliminate rivals by finding something, anything in their results that in some fashion can be questioned. Reproducibility is necessary, but reifying it into a “movement” is likely to have a chilling effect on innovation, and close the comfort zone of play that all thinkers need to spend time in without apology.

We humanists got ass-kicked out of that zone decades ago. As I’ve blogged elsewhere, that was partly our fault and partly the culture’s. Seems you Science guys are here now, too, for similar reasons. The culture doesn’t value the hard sciences or the humanities. Both fields are destroying themselves. I don’t know how to change these things. I’m just reading the narrative.

Recommended Article: Scott Samuelson’s “Why I Teach Plato to Plumbers”

Recommended:  Scott Samuelson’s recent piece in The Atlantic, “Why I Teach Plato to Plumbers”  (Thanks to fellow writer Matthew Graybosch for sending me the link.)

The humanities do matter to real people.  Profoundly.  Samuelson writes about teaching philosophy to students experiencing personal tragedy:

A mother who’d authorized for her crippled son a risky surgery that led to his death once asked me with tears in her eyes, “Is Kant right that the consequences of an action play no role in its moral worth?”

The problem is that average people, the “plumbers” Samuelson teaches, are increasingly being denied access to the best that has been thought and said.  Education budgets are decimated.  The wealthy pay for their own children to attend elite universities and “dress themselves in cultural capital” (i.e. liberal arts study) while everyone else is encouraged to consider education purely in terms of utilitarian job preparation.  As I’ve written elsewhere on this blog, and as Samuelson argues, this state of affairs bodes ill for a democracy.

Samuelson reminds us that, “We don’t intellectually embrace a society where the privileged few get to enjoy the advantages of leisure and wealth while the masses toil on their behalf. Yet that’s what a sell-out of the liberal arts entails.”

He got that right.  Worth a read.

Manhattan is Losing its Bookstores, But Not its Sense of Delusion

I haven’t posted in a while, but the current hysteria in the New York Times about the loss of brick and mortar bookstores in Manhattan is so unintentionally comical and just plain awkward that I had to comment.  The article, “Literary City, Bookstore Desert,” by Julie Bosman, illustrates almost everything that has gone wrong with New York’s “literary culture”:  misplaced nostalgia bolstering a no longer warranted sense of cultural importance, stunning entitlement, understandable reluctance to separate idealism from reality, pretentious whining.   This piece showcases it all.

Brick and mortar bookstores, like lots of other retailers, are leaving Manhattan in droves because, to cop a line from James “Jimmy” McMillan III, “the rent is too damn high.”  One Manhattan bookseller, who, like most retailers, couldn’t afford the $40,000 per month rent for store space on the upper west side, eventually decided to open a second store in (shudders!) Brooklyn!  Although this bookseller “fell in love with the neighborhood” (Williamsburg) and enthuses over the “magnificent” space she found, Bosman manages to make this sensible decision sound quasi-tragic.  “After spending years scouring Manhattan for a second location, Ms. McNally . . . abandoned her search . . . and settled on Brooklyn.”  The horrors!  Cue the organ music!  McNally Jackson only has one Manhattan location.  (Check it out, it’s on Prince Street, and it looks like it’s worth a visit.)

I don’t know about you, but if I lived in Manhattan and there was an enticing bookstore across the bridge, I wouldn’t have any problem paying it a visit.  Or three.  Or five.   Or simply ordering its books online, as McNally Jackson conveniently allows.  I would hope most serious readers would feel the same way.

But apparently I’m missing something.   That’s where the misplaced nostalgia bolstering a no longer warranted sense of cultural importance makes an entrance.

According to Bosman, the loss of bookstores in Manhattan is “threatening the city’s sense of self as the center of the literary universe.”  Really?  I thought the corporate insistence on publishing books based on popular websites, twitter accounts, and Klout scores rather than actual writing quality did that a long time ago. 

What’s rich is, writers who write for a small audience are very much supposed to denigrate their work as a “hobby” because it doesn’t bring in the money a cute cat book might.  But bookstores that can’t draw enough folks to keep their doors open in Manhattan – now that’s a cultural crisis and something really needs to be done!!  Like what?   Well, here’s where the stunning sense of entitlement comes in. According to Bosman: 

The closings have alarmed preservationists, publishers and authors, who said the fading away of bookstores amounted to a crisis that called for intervention from the newly minted mayor of New York City, Bill de Blasio, who has vowed to offer greater support for small businesses.

A crisis.  Robert Caro, a twice Pulitzer Prize winner for Biography, sums it up:

“How can Manhattan be a cultural or literary center of the world when the number of bookstores has become so insignificant?” he asked. “You really say, has nobody in city government ever considered this and what can be done about it?”

Uh, Mr. Caro.  I respect your work.  I really do.  Anybody who reads my blog knows what high esteem I have for the humanities, and for people who do serious historical research.  But Manhattan hasn’t been the “literary center of the world” – except in its own mind – in a really long time.  That’s because in our 21st century, technology saturated, post-culture way of distracting ourselves through life, there is no “literary center of the world.”  You can’t have a literary center without a meaningful literary culture.  The city government is hardly in a position to recreate one.  Your own work on political power dynamics in The Power Broker should point the way to the futility of thinking government is going to do jack on that score.

Manhattan is not special.  Brick and mortar bookstores have been dying throughout the rest of the country for at least twenty years, and I don’t recall anybody in the New York literary establishment handwringing about that devastating loss.  Maybe that’s because bluestockings like me aren’t supposed to exist outside of Manhattan, so when our bookstores disappeared nobody in your neighborhood considered it a “crisis” or really even considered it at all.  Or maybe that’s because New York really is so insular it doesn’t get the fact that if bookstores die everywhere else in the country, they’re not going to enjoy a vibrant existence in Manhattan simply because there used to be a viable literary culture there. 

I’ve been lonely for a literary culture for a long time. Then I finally came to realize that literary reading and writing is a 19th century activity, the industry (publishers and booksellers) needs to be much smaller to service the small number of serious readers in the population (which would result in higher quality product), and those few people in the population who truly are children of the word are so busy knifing each other in the back to get whatever fast-fading recognition they can that it’s better to take the veil.

It isn’t (just) the high rents in Manhattan.  It’s the right wing, higher education, artists themselves, a public who hates humanities majors, and writers and artists who view public success at their craft as such a zero sum game that they can’t bring themselves to tolerate another’s success.  Disappearing bookstores are regrettable, but they are way down the list.

Bosman writes, “[w]ith the closing of several Barnes & Noble and Borders stores, it is difficult to shop for new books in Midtown . . . .”  No, Ms. Bosman, it isn’t difficult at all.  It’s called Amazon.  Besides, as I’ve argued at length in this blog, Barnes & Noble really ought to close, because it isn’t doing its job. 

Bookstores are only a meaningful marker of high culture if serious readers actually visit them.  Outside of  New York, that’s no longer the case.  And inside of New York, that’s increasingly less the case.

And then there’s the understandable reluctance to separate idealism from reality.  Bosman reports that there is talk of publishers opening bookstores.  I like the idealism of publishers owning bookstores – I’m Victorian enough to seriously get into that.  But I’m enough of a realist to know that the corporations who own the publishing houses will ruin that lovely ideal.  It won’t be anything like the past.  It will be like the present – corporate driven hodgepodges with godawful cafes and toy and trinket sections trying to be all things to all people, while, because it’s New York, pretending to be cultural centers to the rest of the world.  And, because it’s New York, getting a handful of strivers to admire the emperor’s clothes.

Speaking of clothes, there’s this:

David Rosenthal, the president and publisher of Blue Rider Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House, predicted that stores like Urban Outfitters and Anthropologie would become more important in the publishing ecosystem as stand-alone bookstores decrease.

“The serendipity of hanging out in a bookstore is just diminishing,” Mr. Rosenthal said. “We’ll become more dependent on stores that are not primarily bookstores, but have some degrees of books. It’s better than nothing.”

No, it’s not.  When you now have to sell books based on how well they synergize with hipster uniforms at Urban Outfitters it’s time to call it a day.   How about we stop trying to reach literary readers through nonliterary means?  That is in large part why Barnes & Noble is failing.  How about we admit that most physical bookstores are economically unsustainable, and treat the book “business” as the small business it is, for the small number of literary people that still exist.  How about we readers and writers become an exclusive, cool, semi-secret (by default because nobody else cares) edgy intellectual club again?  

Because there’s no money in it?  You mean like now?

Yes, the rent is too damn  high.  Also, let’s stop decrying the loss of physical bookstores without acknowledging the loss of what used to make those bookstores valuable.

 

Mainstream Publishing Industry “Products” Are About to Get Even More Awful

But first, as to validation.  (See previous post.)

I was stunned to see that there is at least one literary agent, Andrew Wylie, who gets it.  Mr. Wylie said in a recent interview for New Republic what I’ve been saying here in my quiet corner of the Internet for a long time.  That the publishing industry needs to lose its corporate overlords, return to its role as a purveyor of culture, and focus on people who actually like books.  That means reducing its size to fit its real market instead of constantly trying to cobble together an ever-shifting “market” out of people who don’t care for reading.  Mr. Wylie said:

The biggest single problem since 1980 has been that the publishing industry has been led by the nose by the retail sector. The industry analyzes its strategies as though it were Procter and Gamble. It’s Hermès. It’s selling to a bunch of effete, educated snobs who read. Not very many people read. Most of them drag their knuckles around and quarrel and make money. We’re selling books. It’s a tiny little business. It doesn’t have to be Walmartized.

Thank you, Mr. Wylie.  As an “effete educated snob who reads” and damn proud of it, I feel like the Cassandra in the corner when I say those things.  It’s awesome that you agree.

Of course, we “effete educated snob[s] who read” are a dying race.  Folks don’t read or think critically or appreciate anything fine because they are choosing not to learn how.   Which makes the latest disruption to the culture, brought to you by Scribd, Oysters, Entitle, and other new businesses that provide ebooks to consumers, either horrifying or comical.  I vote for horrifying, based on the impact this will have on us “effete educated snobs” via the corporate-owned publishing entities.

We are now at the point where businesses can monitor your reading.  Not just which books you buy, but which of those books you actually read, when, how far, what parts you skip, what parts you linger over, whether you finish, and where you stop.  If this technology doesn’t spy on your private reactions to the text in your hands and issue reports on your intimate emotional and intellectual relationship with any given book, it’s close enough to make one feel violated.

Oyster’s “privacy” policy tells would-be subscribers: “We receive and record information regarding reading behavior on the services including, but not limited to, the books that users click or open, specific pages opened or read, and words displayed to end users.”  Scribd told David Streitfield, the author of a recent New York Times article on the subject, that it’s “going to be pretty open about sharing this data.”  You’ve been warned.

Does that mean the NSA gets dibs on who seems a bit too enamored with Sufi poetry?  Will spending too much time with the poetry of Ahmed Shawqi or Khalil Gibran get you put on a no fly list?  When are you expected to stop reading your favorite translation of The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám before the authorities want to talk to you about your suspicious interest in Persian poetry?  How many minutes are allowed per page?  What about political books?

Anybody else find this creepy?  Reading is a private act.   Stop monetizing (or whatever the new ugly corporate-speak word is this week) my private activities.  As a reader, I don’t want some Peeping Tom spying out my relationship with the written word and pimping it out for a dime, or excuse me, being “pretty open about sharing this data.”  My reading habits are not free labor for some marketing department.  Piss off.

As a writer, I have zero interest in Big Brothering it around with my readers.  If they want me to know how they react to something I wrote, they tell me.  Voluntarily.  That’s how it should be.

The most awful part of this isn’t the privacy violation, because one can certainly choose not to subscribe to these services.  It’s the assumption on the part of the business-of-disruption types who are cheerleading for this ugly encroachment of private dreams that this data is a meaningful window into what real readers want.  It isn’t.  But the data will get used anyway to dictate the template for future books in the hope that following the model will generate more profit.  Otherwise why would anybody want to collect this information?

Everyone knows what’s going to happen next.  The latest stats will dictate the formula that must be followed for the corporate bean counters to vet a book.  And if you think mainstream “product” can’t get any worse, wait until these kinds of insights become engraved in stone by traditional publishers.  From Mr. Streitfield’s article:

 At Oyster, a top book is “What Women Want,” promoted as a work that “brings you inside a woman’s head so you can learn how to blow her mind.” Everyone who starts it finishes it. On the other hand, Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.’s “The Cycles of American History” blows no minds: fewer than 1 percent of the readers who start it get to the end.

So did Madison Q. Reader pause her screen for 7 minutes and 43 seconds because she hated the passage?  Because she loved the passage and was reading it several times over?  Because a package came to the door and she got distracted and left her ereader on?  Did she stop reading at Chapter 4 because she hated the book?  Or because she loved the book so much she bought a physical copy at that point? (I’ve done that.)  Maybe she ordered the ebook version to have the book right away because she couldn’t wait, and then stopped reading the ebook when the physical book arrived at her doorstop?

We can’t know.  And as to the 1% of readers who finished Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.’s The Cycles of American History, which was originally published in 1986, could this be because at this point interest in that book is largely among researchers who only have use for a particular chapter?  To say the book “blows no minds” and compare it unfavorably to What Women Want (entirely different intended audience) is a preview of what’s to come.  Books that have nothing in common, including their intended audience, will be compared on the basis of the data.   Want to write a serious study of American history?  Better force it into the template of a popular dating guide!  Because our data shows that’s what readers want!

And that’s why – as an “effete educated snob” or maybe as just someone who still gets angry at the destruction of the culture – I’m outraged that this is even happening.  That tech and business people who don’t understand what literature is get to determine what sorts of things get inflicted on the reading public based on templates generated out of meaningless data.

So, because corporate culture is the best example I know of touring the world on the back of a single too-simplistic model without ever leaving home, we are in for a deluge of literary “product” written to spec.  Again, from Mr. Streitfield’s article:

The longer a mystery novel is, the more likely readers are to jump to the end to see who done it. People are more likely to finish biographies than business titles, but a chapter of a yoga book is all they need. They speed through romances faster than religious titles, and erotica fastest of all.

Imposing analytics on something as undefinable as writing is going to kill what’s left of creative endeavors.  Limiting stories to whatever template the data spits back isn’t writing.  It’s something else.  Engineering?  Hacking? Writing by numbers?  Isn’t there enough bad formula fiction available now?  Even in the literary section?

Anybody waiting for this to get applied to film?  Music?  Hey, the stats show a lot of people start talking over guitar solos, so let’s re-release classic rock albums with the instrumental breaks removed.

As a reader, I want to be surprised.   I want to encounter something I wouldn’t have been able to imagine liking in the first place, but the way the writer put the story together hooked me and gave me the pleasure of experiencing the world differently.  You can’t capture that kind of thing with data, but you can make it far less likely to happen.

 

Yes, of course writers should be paid for their work. Here’s why that’s not going to happen.

A few months back, I wrote a piece on whether writing is a dying profession.   My take was that, given the sorry state of traditional book publishers, there’s no longer any incentive for writers to honor the antiquated model of hiding their work in a drawer for years until an acquisitions editor taps it with a magic wand and declares it good enough for public consumption.

Everyone who loves books knows that publishers have abandoned their role as gatekeepers of quality writing in favor of being profit generators for corporate shareholders.  Confusing the two functions is a disservice to the culture, but it’s a disservice you can rely on.

Now there’s a firestorm on the Internet over the lamentable practice of not paying writers for their work, touched off in part by Tim Kreider’s New York Times op ed piece, “Slaves of the Internet, Unite!”   Kreider says out loud what every writer, musician, artist, actor – well, all creative persons – have been grumbling about as long as I can remember: “People who would consider it a bizarre breach of conduct to expect anyone to give them a haircut or a can of soda at no cost will ask you, with a straight face and a clear conscience, whether you wouldn’t be willing to write an essay or draw an illustration for them for nothing.”  Kreider, and many other creative folk, would like to see this practice stopped.

Yes, it is outrageous.  Yes, it needs to stop.  It needed to stop twenty years ago, when club owners refused to pay bands, or worse – only allowed bands to play who paid the club for stage time.  It sucked then, and it sucks now.

But it won’t.  Stop, I mean.  

Here’s why.   For us creative folk to get paid, all of us have to say no to working for free.  That will happen when the sun turns aquamarine and spits fishes at Mars.

First, our society is neither well-read nor well-educated, so most people can’t distinguish quality writing from the gum under their shoe.  That means there’s no reason for any entity that exists solely to generate profit to pay for quality writing.  And in fact, nobody pays for writing.  Publishers care so little for it they often don’t even read the books they publish.  As an aside, if you are an indie writer who still believes traditional publishers offer some kind of mystical validation of the worth of your work, please do yourself a favor and read this.   Then get back to the hard work of creating something awesome to share with the rest of us.

What publishers are paying for is self-marketing skills. They are paying for how many people they can get a bean counter to think your “product” will bring in.  That is all.

Second, if an individual writer does say no to working for free, it won’t take long to find another who will say yes.  This means that there is always somebody who will provide writing for free or for almost-free (remember, most traditional publisher advances for first novels work out to less than minimum wage, and writers never refuse those terms).

I’m not saying all artists are scabs, but enough are to insure that getting paid, or getting paid a reasonable amount for our labor, will always be problematic.  By “artists” I mean all creative people.  I’m aware some folks find the word “artist” off putting because it’s been misused as a self-designation by a lot of pretentious twits, but I find it useful as a catchall word for people engaged in creative pursuits so I’m going to use it anyway. 

People ask for free art with a clear conscience because most of the time, artists comply.  It’s really that simple.  A lot of folks have no problem asking most service providers to work for free – attorneys, web designers, hair stylists – it happens.  There’s something about the intangible nature of time and expertise that makes some people reluctant to pay for it.  The difference between artists and other service providers, however, is that the latter are willing, as a group, to say no.  Sure, lawyers occasionally take on cases pro bono (for the public good); web designers and hair stylists might occasionally agree to donate their work to a charity, but most of the time they refuse to work without compensation.

Artists still buy the scam that they’ll help their careers if they forgo pay and work for exposure, so they let themselves get screwed by anyone who promises same. 

Writing isn’t a business – that’s a foreign paradigm imposed on writing by corporate structures.  Most of us are Samuel Johnson’s “blockheads” at least part of the time (look how many of us blog for free), and all of us have different standards for when we’d willingly give our work away.  A gift for a friend.  A donation to a worthy cause.  Maybe a really cool project we’re genuinely excited about contributing to.  I’ve written for free without regrets.  My books, however, are for sale

Where it gets messy and exploitative and wrong is when a website, publisher, music venue, or other organization “invites” an artist to donate work that a) the artist had no interest in producing before the invitation, so accommodating would be labor, and b) stands to make money from said work that the artist will never see, or c) has no problem paying everyone else associated with the project.  Business entities who do this almost always promise “exposure” in exchange for free labor.  “Give us a free article, drawing, song, live performance and all of our customers/visitors/clients will see your work and provide you with more business.  We promise they will.  We’ll even link to your website.”

Unfortunately, a lot of artists are so terrified of possibly missing an opportunity for exposure (whether or not the promised exposure actually exists or will actually translate to sales) they rarely get paid a fair amount, or get paid at all.  That’s the fault of the artist. 

Here’s a true story.

Many years ago, I met an extremely talented painter who was excruciatingly eager to tell me that he “made a living” doing book covers.  I use quotes because after we chatted awhile, he complained to me that he was in terrible financial shape. His teeth were rotting, or he had some kind of gum disease or something.  He couldn’t afford a dentist. He couldn’t afford health insurance.  He was unhappy that he wasn’t getting paid more for his art, and therefore “had to” live off  less than – I don’t remember – some yearly income that closely resembled the federal poverty line.  He could barely pay for rent, food, and art supplies.   But he wasn’t interested in supplementing his artist income with anything else, because well – if he did that, he couldn’t say he was “earning a living” as an artist!  Apparently, he’d suffer through losing his teeth to claim that badge.  Deriving his sole income from his art was that important to him.

See the problem?  If you buy the myth that you’re not a real artist if you don’t exclusively earn a living from your art, you can feel the need to so fiercely defend your self-image that you’re willing to self-destruct.  This makes you ripe for exploitation.  I suspect he knew that, talented as he was (and he was extremely talented) if he held out for better pay, there are a lot of other extremely talented artists chomping at the bit to take his place, some of whom would be happy to work for exposure.

There’s a lot more talent out there than creative jobs that require it.  Artists know this, and it makes them hesitant to demand more pay, or any pay.  Some choose to live without health care if that means being able to “make a living” as an artist.  Ego trumps all.

Anyway, it’s not just the arts.  Some businesses, like Yahoo, have adopted the practice of stack ranking, which means managers are required to rank all employees along a curve and to give a certain percentage a low rating, even if those low rated employees are extraordinarily good at their jobs.  If all of your employees are stellar, you are still required to give a certain percentage a low ranking so the company can lay them off.   This is the kind of corporate-devised template that artist was facing.  There are so many highly talented artists out there it’s easy to get stack ranked by complaining about pay.  Or complaining about anything.  With the added bonus of loss of artistic legitimacy in the eyes of a public that’s been hornswoggled into thinking that only mass-marketed art has value, or that the higher stack ranked employees really are better.  It isn’t the money, it’s the terror some folks feel of being extraordinary at something and having it go unrecognized.  For some that terror is so strong they’ll forgo the money to make it stop.  You tell me if that’s sad or silly.  But it’s clearly a factor in why we don’t get paid.

It isn’t just artists who get manipulated and exploited – it’s scientists, journalists, (also here) and everyone else who works with intangibles like time and knowledge and skill. It’s artists, however, who run the most scared of risking status for a living wage.  Although maybe that’s now starting to change. Kreider’s article has attracted a lot of interest.

So how do you get everyone to just say no?  There’s no writers union that can make that happen, no way to enforce that all writers get paid, or even to determine fairly who gets economic protection (union membership) and who doesn’t.  What would this look like?  “You can’t hire our union members to write long-form articles without pay.”  “OK, I’ll hire nonunion members who will work for free.”  “Our members have demonstrated higher skill in their craft.”  “So what, you think the average American can tell the difference? Put up a provocative headline, and we’ll get enough clicks to satisfy our advertisers.”  

And who determines how much any member should get paid for what kind of work?  Who has the stomach to navigate the ugly politics that will inevitably arise from that?

Musicians unions are useless for the majority of musicians who play in bands and freelance, and I’ve yet to meet a stage performer who will let mere money stand in the way of getting an ego boost on stage.  Sorry, it’s true – which is why artists are largely to blame for this.  Venue owners know this well, which is why they charge performers to play.  Performers historically shut up about it, preferring to maintain an illusion of being sought after, rather than paying for access to live audiences.

And what happens if you do just say no?  Note the ugly reaction indulged in by the blog editor of Biology-Online.org  when a biologist he invited to write for his blog told him that, as a professional, she expected compensation.  The scientist, Dr. Danielle Lee,  has a PhD in biology from the University of Missouri-St. Louis, studies animal behavior and behavioral ecology, and is currently a postdoctoral researcher who writes extensively on her areas of expertise.   When Dr. Lee asked to get paid for her invited contribution, the blog editor who had invited her responded by asking – get this – if she was an urban whore.  What’s striking isn’t just his refusal to pay this scientist, it’s his over the top ire at the mere suggestion that he should pay her for work he solicited.

Artists get this too, with a generous dose of shaming.  “How dare you expect us to pay you when everyone else will work for free? You think you’re so much better than so- and- so who worked for free?  We don’t pay artists but we provide wonderful exposure and you should be grateful for it.  If you brought us something we value, like a following (marketing ability), as opposed to artistic ability, you might get paid.”  (More on this sensitive issue of “following” later.)

So, there’s that.   Artists naturally get convinced that asking for a fair wage for fair work will blacklist them.  Editors will talk.  Club owners will talk.  Gallery owners will talk.  People will think you’re difficult and no one will ever want to exploit work with you again.  You’ll never make it.  Better shut up, lower your eyes, and work for smiles.

As to the sensitive issue of bringing people in.   Here’s the reality.  The part that sucks harder than geese on candy.  No business pays for talent.  They pay for your platform, and for how many people (dollars) you bring them. In other words, for your marketing skills.  One has nothing to do with the other.  So you sacrifice years of your life to your craft and the guy down the road who can barely write coherently or play three chords gets the gig because he’s more successful at self-marketing.  Contrary to what many writers have been told, traditional publishers are not in the business of “validating” your writing ability.  They are in the business of making money.  Those are separate issues.

For perspective, check out who just got “validated” by Random House.  A New York Post Page Six reporter just got a book deal for blogging about the 300 sandwiches she’s been making her boyfriend as a means to earning an engagement ring.  Nobody even bothers to pretend this deal is based on writing ability, because it isn’t.  The blogger has a platform, a cutesy blog full of recipes and photos of sandwiches, and a cutesy concept.  I’m not dissing her (from her copious food photos I’m sure she makes a mean sandwich, and who can fault her for exploiting it?) – I’m using her story as perspective for writers who beat themselves up thinking they must be “validated” by a commercial publisher for their work to be good enough, and out of this desperation work for free for anyone who asks.  Commercial publishers validate what they can monetize, your writing talent has zip-all to do with it.  Put up a blog of sandwich photos and recipes, have a platform reporting celebrity gossip for a well-known paper, be in publishing circles (she is long-time friends with a couple of Random House editors) and you’re in.

Revisionists like to argue that the arts have always been that way. “Dickens wrote for money.” But the fact is that until recently the arts have always been a mix.  There was a time when publishers and record labels (who for all practical purposes no longer exist) had room in their budgets, and enough religious faith in the taste of their acquisitions people, to release lowest denominator focused money makers and take chances on more experimental, sophisticated work, sometimes multiple chances on brilliant stuff that took a while to catch fire.  The culture was better for it.  Then the bean counters rolled over the industry and declared that everything has to turn a profit at all times, and destroyed the arts.  (Yes I’m being glib here, but not by much).

So here we are.  If you see a way out of the morass, drop me a line.