It’s Hard to Focus On a Novel When You Can’t Pay the Rent

Pressland Editors
Sep 23, 2019 · 8 min read

Invisible labor and the undervaluing of cultural criticism in the journalism economy.

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The line between reading assignments on benches and sleeping on one is thinner than it used to be.

By Rebecca Bodenheimer

It’s a difficult time to be a writer. Independent of the type of writing you do, staff jobs are disappearing, mushrooming the ranks of freelancers and creating ever-fiercer competition. Freelance rates are not only sagging way behind inflation, but have actually plummeted since the advent of digital media.

But most writers who do cultural criticism — a rubric that includes book, TV, film and music reviews and essays, visual arts criticism, and broader socio-cultural commentary — are struggling even more than the average technology, science or business reporter. Bluntly stated, most are unable to make a living. Cultural critics are lucky to get 10 or 15 cents per word, and are sometimes paid less than $100 for a feature-length essay.

One of the main reasons cultural criticism is underpaid and undervalued compared with other types of journalism is because the labor it requires is “invisible.” Many readers (and a surprising number of editors) wrongly assume that writing a 1,000-word think piece is simply a matter of sitting down and putting thoughts to paper. In fact, forming and relaying an informed opinion requires many hours of preparation, from consuming and analyzing the piece of art in question, to the conducting of deep secondary research.

I began researching this piece with a hunch that my work is underpaid as compared with other types of writing, based on my own data on the rates various outlets offer. To test my hunch, I designed a short anonymous survey to assess the current state of payment for cultural criticism. I got the idea after a source expressed hesitation to share specific rates she’s been paid, because she felt it would negatively affect her ability to negotiate in the future. (The pay range for cultural criticism became painfully clear with Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s revelation a few months back that she makes $4 per word for her celebrity profiles.)

Her response illuminates the broader disempowerment freelance writers face in the current media climate, where competition makes all relationships with editors seem tenuous, and pay rates are often opaque, varying widely from writer to writer, with culture writers occupying a disproportionate number of the lower rungs on the pay ladder.

“It’s sad out there for literary criticism,” concluded one of my anonymous sources.

The data from my survey was acquired from members of various online writer networks. Out of 44 responses received, 23 percent of respondents were book reviewers; 23 percent were film or TV critics; 20 percent were music critics; 11 percent were visual arts critics; 14 percent wrote mostly broader socio-cultural commentary; and 9 percent wrote other types of cultural criticism. As a group, they represented a broad spectrum of culture critics.

The results show that the average amount paid for a piece of cultural criticism is $238, from a range of nothing (as in, zero dollars) to $700. Only three of 38 quantifiable responses listed an amount of $500 or more. The most common response (eight people) was $200.

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Would you spend weeks reading and writing about this book for $238?

When respondents to my survey were asked, “Do you think cultural criticism is underpaid in comparison with other types of freelance writing and/or reporting?,” the large majority responded with a resounding “yes.” As one respondent answered, “The hours put in — reading the book, often re-reading the book, reading other books, academic research, several rounds of (often structural) edits — cannot compare with any other kind of writing I’ve done.”

Mainstream newspapers like the Washington Post typically pay $300 to $400 for a book review, regardless of whether the book being reviewed is 300 pages or 600. Smaller digital publications, meanwhile, often pay $100 or less for feature-length reviews.

Both the anonymous survey responses and the writers I interviewed emphasized the invisible labor of cultural criticism, and the ways this labor is disregarded or misunderstood by editors, media outlets, and the general public. As mentioned above, people assume critics just sit down and write an essay; they don’t count the hours spent reading a whole book, watching a whole season of TV — often rewatching scenes to check for accuracy — or attending art shows. Often, the time is divided differently between reported writing and criticism, but it could involve just as many hours’ work.

Because consuming culture is considered to be a leisure activity, many people believe it isn’t really work and that cultural critics would just be doing it anyway. The reality is that, with a fast-moving news cycle, and media outlets requiring writers to have a news peg to drive up clicks, cultural critics are often bingeing TV shows or books in an unnatural way that is the opposite of pleasurable. Bingeing and other forms of rushing or gorging are not thoughtful ways of consuming culture, and thus do not lend themselves to the kind of reflection or analysis needed to write a good review.

Respondents identified various forms of invisible labor they perform beyond the actual writing. First, there’s the initial consumption of the work in question, which can take up to 15 hours, especially if you’re reviewing a book or a whole season of television. Arts journalist and critic Jillian Steinhauer saw the time spent writing cultural criticism as similar to that of reported work. “In both cases you are gathering information in order to become a mini temporary expert in whatever you’re writing about,” she said. “So, whether you’re doing that by having conversations with people, or by reading books, you’re still doing it.”

Reneé Reizman, who writes about performance and site-specific art, mentioned not only attending events, but also editing and color-correcting the photos she takes. Because she has film production and photo editing skills, and the main site she writes for doesn’t have a budget for a photographer, she’s often asked to contribute photos for her pieces with no additional compensation, even though the editing requires additional labor.

Reizman also mentioned other forms of research that go into cultural criticism. “I think a good cultural critic is making connections to broader themes or current events or ideas,” but editors rarely understand “how long [I] spend trying to tie together this historical context just so I [can] write one or two little sentences about it,” she said.

In addition to the invisible labor, several writers felt that editors don’t value the cumulative knowledge cultural critics have built up over years in order to speak about a topic with authority. Lisa O’Neill, a freelance writer and cultural critic, said there was a “denigration of the intellectual work that it takes to produce [cultural critique] in a timely fashion.” Her experience includes teaching writing at the college level, and this is partly why she can turn over work quickly. “There is an attitude of, well you just knocked this out in a couple of hours and it’s like, okay, I did,” she said. “But it’s because this stuff has been percolating for years. It does not mean that they get to pay me less for that.”

In a similar vein, an anonymous survey respondent wrote, “Editors are always trying to tell me that no ‘research’ goes into a piece of cultural criticism, as if I haven’t spent my entire life reading, listening, watching, thinking, talking, etcetera, so that I’ll know enough about the cultural context of whatever I’m writing about to cover it intelligently.”

This points to another common refrain among cultural critics: criticism is more challenging to write because it takes more “brain work.” Literary critic and cultural historian Joanna Scutts wrote, “When I have done reported stories the time isn’t more, it’s just scattered — you’re waiting for people to call you back, or figuring out who to contact. It’s not deep brain work, but people think it’s Spotlight or something. And the deep, sustained attention to a work of art — that’s definitely undervalued, because people think it’s fun. And [that] anyone with a Goodreads account can be a book critic.”

Reizman also found straight news reporting to be less demanding, because it doesn’t require as much analysis, and when you have quotes it’s easier to “string the story together.” Nonetheless, an outlet was willing to pay her more for a reported piece than for her art reviews.

Despite the relatively low pay rates for cultural criticism, all the writers I spoke with were insistent about the actual value of cultural criticism. O’Neill pointed to the disparity between the high rates of consumption of cultural critique — the way these pieces often go viral — versus how little they are paid; in other words, a piece that paid only $200 can generate a huge number of clicks. She noted that we can see the value in these pieces in “how they’re shared and the way that people are interacting with them on social media—[and] the passion of their responses.”

Steinhauer argued that the current media climate makes cultural criticism “more important than ever, because there’s so much stuff out there. Basic literacy skills are really low and [there’s] photoshopped fake images everywhere. People need to know how to read the world around them, which I think is what cultural criticism does.”

However, the value of cultural criticism appears to be lost on many people, including high-profile artists. As a by-product of uncritical “stan culture” that gets magnified in the social media echo chamber, some younger artists seem to think that critics are merely extensions of an artist’s PR team. Just this past spring, Michael Che, Ariana Grande and Lizzo issued scathing social media clapbacks to critics. Amazingly, the instances involving Che and Grande didn’t even relate to their own work, but to that of their friends, Colin Jost and Justin Bieber, respectively.

Lizzo misguidedly tweeted, “PEOPLE WHO ‘REVIEW’ ALBUMS AND DONT MAKE MUSIC THEMSELVES SHOULD BE UNEMPLOYED.” Earlier this month, singer Lana Del Rey issued a similar Twitter barb at renowned music critic Ann Powers, even though Powers wrote a largely positive review of her recent album. Lizzo ultimately backtracked (without apologizing), but by that time the damage was done. Whether unwittingly or not, these high-profile artists are siccing their millions of followers on often poorly paid and disempowered writers who are just doing their job of engaging critically with art. Sometimes, as in the case of Grande’s stans, this has lead to violent threats being hurled at writers.

Given that cultural criticism is already undervalued in terms of the labor involved to produce it, it’s disheartening that critics must also endure scorn, abuse, and even threats, because they dare to train a critical eye on a piece of art. As Variety columnist Caroline Framke wrote, “At a time when celebrity press is almost entirely reserved for glowing PR, gushing profiles, and interviews between celebrities… the idea and function of criticism itself has never been more in question.”

Rebecca Bodenheimer is a freelance writer and cultural critic whose work has been published by CNN Opinion, Vice, The Lily, Mic, Billboard, The Rumpus, and other outlets. Find her on Twitter @rmbodenheimer.

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