Will Work for a Nominal Fee

This weekend The New York Times ran a call to arms for uncompensated creatives by writer and illustrator Tim Kreider that’s got the Internet’s chattering underclasses feeling even chattier than usual. In his op-ed, Kreider calls for an all out moratorium on unpaid writing work.

The complexities of this argument are clearly not lost on Kreider, as much as some people (read: editors doling out low to no-paying writing gigs like candy) would like to argue otherwise. As he writes:

In fairness, most of the people who ask me to write things for free, with the exception of Arianna Huffington, aren’t the Man; they’re editors of struggling magazines or sites, or school administrators who are probably telling me the truth about their budgets. The economy is still largely in ruins, thanks to the people who “drive the economy” by doing imaginary things on Wall Street, and there just isn’t much money left to spare for people who do actual things anymore.

And Kreider understands that working a series of fiscally indefensible gigs until someone decided you actually warranted a paycheck has always been de rigueur for writers at the early stages of their careers. But as he notes, the “apprentice” stage that many people once happily endured in their 20s is now stretching further and further out, thanks in large part to an information economy in which “‘paying for things’ is a quaint, discredited old 20th-century custom.” The so-called “democratizing” force of the internet has had upsides for artists, certainly, but this is not one of them.

The move away from compensating all writers but those at the highest levels is also frequently justified as the unfortunate but natural byproduct of the industry’s imploding profit models. But, as Kreider rightly points out, the “crisis in journalism” is more and more being used as a smokescreen for unrepentant greed. Many magazines that can afford to pay no longer do, because . . . well, they don’t have to.

I agree, in principle, with everything Kreider says. But I differ with him in method. In his piece, he extolls young writers in particular to reject unpaid assignments. He writes: “As an older, more accomplished, equally unsuccessful artist, I beseech you, don’t give it away. As a matter of principle. Do it for your colleagues, your fellow artists, because if we all consistently say no they might, eventually, take the hint.” The trouble here is that Kreider assumes that you can mobilize a group of people known as “young writers” in the same way you can mobilize a group of workers on a factory floor and you just can’t. For all of the burgeoning talents who read Kreider’s words and decide they would be betraying their fellow artists simply by doing the same sort of intellectual indentured servitude he did to get a toehold in publishing, there will be a bajillion more lined up and waiting. Aspiring writers are like ants; there are always more of them and they are tireless. And because these ants can’t be organized as a block they really have no collective bargaining power at all.

No, really, the only people with the influence required to force changes are the big names–the writers who can predictably deliver the clicks editors are after. It’s only when the creatives with real cultural clout start to draw a line that the powers-that-be will take note. When Michael Lewis, Malcolm Gladwell, and John Krakauer stand up and say, I will not be affiliated in any way with an organization that fails to fairly compensate its talent, then editors and owners may start listening. If celebrities stop allowing their words to be reprinted on Huffington Post until Arianna finally knuckles under and starts compensating her professional contributors, you can bet she’ll re-examine her business model.

Let’s not fool ourselves: unpaid writing gigs are never going to go away. Beginners will always be asked to make unfair sacrifices and they will make them, because, for artists, the need to express oneself trumps the profit motive–until it doesn’t anymore. Thus it ever was. But Kreider’s manifesto is still worth taking seriously. Because as he says:

Practicalities aside, money is also how our culture defines value, and being told that what you do is of no ($0.00) value to the society you live in is, frankly, demoralizing. Even sort of insulting. And of course when you live in a culture that treats your work as frivolous you can’t help but internalize some of that devaluation and think of yourself as something less than a bona fide grown-up.

Artists don’t necessarily deserve to get rich, but everyone deserves some respect.