Every now and then Alex would see or hear something that appeared to be for no one but soon enough turned out to be for someone and, after a certain amount of advertising revenue had been spent, would explode into the world for everyone. Who was left to make stuff for no one? — Zadie Smith, The Autograph Man
I read the above-mentioned quote in Zadie Smith’s sophomore novel The Autograph Man and thought about why I write, and in turn, why others write. Writing for me, I like to think, is unconnected to capitalism. I write because I enjoy the act of writing and the process of thinking. But that is only a half-truth. If I were to be honest, I write because I want others to read my thoughts. I want others to engage with my ideas. In short, I want readers.
Don’t we all?
A couple of weeks after started my new job in January, a colleague of mine walked by my desk and asked what I was reading during lunch. I was surprised because I had never been asked that question in my previous place of employment. For the most part, my ex-colleagues thought it was funny that I brought books to work. That was fine, of course. I just laughed and kept on reading.
In February, another colleague and I started talking about the books we were reading. Me: Against Everything by Mark Greif and The Autograph Man by Zadie Smith. Him: A History of Bombing by Sven Lindqvist. He asked what I was interested in and I said that I liked to write, both nonfiction and fiction. He mentioned a writing club that started in January. I asked if I could join. He sent the email invite the next day.
The writing club is a small group of individuals interested in writing of all sorts: travel writing, narrative nonfiction, screenplays, short stories, novels, essays, children’s books, etc. One has a book contract. Another has an ongoing gig on Upwork, a freelancing website. I am elated that this group exists because it holds me accountable. If I tell this group that my goal is to write thirty pages of prose by the end of the month, then I damn well better write thirty pages of prose. Before this group, I had nothing else but myself to motivate my writing. And sometimes, self-motivation is not enough.
If I write a book, I do not have high hopes that it will be published and advertised in a way that would lead to thousands, possibly millions, of copies being bought. I say this because I have this self-deprecating way about me that does not allow me to think that what I write is any good, even when some would say the opposite. That is just the way my brain functions in this moment in time, for good or bad. And thus, when I think about writing, I do not think about how I can turn the words written in the quiet of my basement (or lunch break, or cafe, or library, or phone while sitting in a car) into dollars that would then help pay for the basement where I sit and write, even though I would not object to that lifestyle. I do not want to sound braggadocious. I just wonder, if my brain worked differently, if I wrote purely with the desire to make enough money to live comfortably and then some, would it dilute the substance of my writing? Is writing for no one somehow more valuable, or pure, or authentic, than writing for recognition, or money?
This is conjecture, but to me, only those with the means to create art for art’s sake, outside of economic interest, would want to make art, in all of its forms, for no one. I am thinking about individuals with, say, a trust fund, or venture capitalists that create art in their home studios. For someone like me, who would struggle financially if I lost my job tomorrow, economic interest, though not the primary reason for writing, is never out of mind. I get that writing is not like playing in the MLB, but if I can make a little money, why would I not?
The poet and novelist Ben Lerner wrote an excellent essay in Harper’s Magazine entitled “Damage Control: The Modern Art World’s Tyranny of Price.” In the essay, Lerner writes about art vandalism and how, according to some vandals, the act of “destruction” sometimes adds value to a piece of art. An example of this would be Andy Warhol’s painting Shot Red Marilyn, which was renamed from Red Marilyn only after it was shot by a “self-described witch and performance artist” named Dorothy Podber. As Lerner writes, “In 1989, Shot Red Marilyn sold for $4 million, at that time a record for a Warhol at auction.” This is art attached to economic interest. This is capitalism. And it is still art.
Lerner also writes about the Salvage Art Institute (SAI), an organization based in New York that specializes in damaged art. That is, art that is “worthless,” or art that is “no longer art” to the art market. Lerner visited the SAI and noticed that there were works of art that appeared, to his “unsophisticated eye,” identical to their former, economically valuable, incarnation. This “was art outside of capitalism.”
Maybe making stuff for no one is not possible, at least for me. There is pleasure in sharing my writing (that is, if I ever feel like what I wrote is good enough). I enjoy talking about what I am interested in — writing fiction, book reviews, criticism, etc. — in the writing club. Members of the writing club encourage me to put myself out there, to pitch to online magazines and other mediums, and I agree with them.
I guess, then, what I really want is to make stuff outside of capitalism. Maybe, what I am waiting for, as Lerner writes, “is a future where there is some other system of value, in the art world and beyond, than the tyranny of price.”
Then again, I want to make a living, too.