Cash for Words: A Brief History of Writing for Money

From The New Republic:

Charles Dickens was paid by the word. This was junior high, we were reading A Tale of Two Cities, and this fact, when it was first uttered, raced like a rumor through the classroom, overtaking everything. Suddenly, every other word in Dickens’s novel seemed like unnecessary padding, every sentence overstuffed, wasteful, filled with excessive detail. It didn’t matter that A Tale of Two Cities is among Dickens’s shorter novels; once we’d been introduced to the economy of writing, everything was tainted.

How to trust each word from that point on? “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness…” How to tell what of this was necessary, and what was extraneous? At the same time that we young students were being taught to cut padding from our own writing, here we were forced to read the work of someone rewarded for piling it on. Once I’d formed this picture of Dickens in my mind, it became an easy way to discount his novels as superfluous. (In fact, Dickens was paid by the installment, not the word; serializing his novels in periodicals allowed for a more sustained, steady income than waiting for book royalties.)

. . . .

The first writer to charge by the word is thought to be the Greek poet Simonides, who became legendary for his stinginess. Prior to Simonides, poets relied on a patronage system. In exchange for food, lodging, and prestige, poets would provide wealthy benefactors with writing that extolled their virtues, as well as act as general companions and creative writing coaches for the patron’s own work. Amorphous and difficult to pin down, it was a system that allowed at least some poets to make a living without overly quantifying their art.

Simonides changed this. He wrote for money, and he kept precise books. Despite his undisputed literary excellence, this quality came to define him above all else: Simonides was thought to be parsimonious, a miser, putting money above all else. Ailian, his biographer, commented simply that “No one would deny that Simonides loved money.” In Aristophanes’s Peace, Simonides is described as one who would “put to sea upon a sieve for money.” It is to Simonides, agree most classical commentators, that we owe our current estrangement from our words. As Anne Carson puts it in the Economy of the Unlost, her study of Simonides and Paul Celan: “I like to think Simonides represents an early, severe form of economic alienation and the ‘doubleness’ that attends it.”

. . . .

As Carson herself notes, the tension between a patronage economy and a money economy had been building for some time, and during Simonides’s lifetime these two systems overlapped, despite being often described as diametric opposites. The distrust and distaste that Simonides garnered may have been due, in part, to his refusal to live in an ambiguous status afforded by these two contradictory structures, to play the game. Whereas previous writers and artists had negotiated the contradictions of a system that was intentionally not fully articulated, Simonides cut through the Gordian knot of such confusion, demanding a simple and straightforward equation of words and money. As a result, he appeared to all as avaricious—his love of money more central than his love of poetry.

The system Simonides spurned was one of patronage and gift. Goods and services were exchanged based not on their value but on the value of the relationship between giver and receiver. For Carson, the essence of Simonides’s perceived greed “was the commodification of a previously reciprocal and ritual activity, the exchange of gifts between friends.” In such an economy, one’s obligation to one’s community and to one’s writing trumps any obligation to cash.

. . . .

It would seem, perhaps, easy enough to go back, to separate writing from commerce.

Link to the rest at The New Republic and thanks to Dave for the tip.

For the record, PG sees no taint in honest commerce and art. Both commerce and patronage may produce excellent artistic results. Or may fail to produce excellent artistic results.

9 thoughts on “Cash for Words: A Brief History of Writing for Money”

  1. Jerry Pournelle mentioned conversations with authors who wrote in the 30s, 40s, 50s for pay by the word, “lighting a cigarette was worth 10 words and filling and lighting a pipe 25 words.”

  2. Repeat after me: making money by doing something you love is perfectly honest. The is no crime in making money for a living. What rule says you have to hate what you do to make money?

    • The rule that says everyone has to suffer as much as I do, otherwise I might have to consider I’m partly responsible for my fate.

  3. ” Goods and services were exchanged based not on their value but on the value of the relationship between giver and receiver.”

    Sounds like another way to disconnect the author from payment… you would write, and they would pay you something based on how much they like you.

    Nope. You are cordially invited to go [redacted] yourself, New Republic.

    • Yes, and I thought this was cute:

      “For Carson, the essence of Simonides’s perceived greed “was the commodification of a previously reciprocal and ritual activity, the exchange of gifts between friends.”

      ‘Gifts between friends’ implies that artist and patron were on equal footing with each other, with a balance of power in the relationship, which was very much not the case. He who has the gold, makes the rules.

  4. The whole “Dickens got paid by the word so he used too many” irritates me to no end. Can’t people just say they don’t like Dickens writing style and be done with it? I love Dickens, and I think he uses just the right number of words to say what he wants in his own voice. If that’s not someone else’s taste, fine, but I wish they’d just say it’s not their taste, not try to make it an argument about quality.


    • Gods help the artist who wants to be paid for his work. Starvation and suffering in the garret was good enough for Van Gough, it’s good enough for the rest of us! Food and decent living conditions are just a distraction, anyway.

  5. Proust, now there’s a guy writing like got paid by the word. Some people like it, some prefer Hemingway or Hammett.

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