Saturday, April 27, 2013

Giving It Away III


For lo, another dance around the Maypole.  I'm hoping to round off my commentary on what is changing in our society, too fast and in a highly destructive direction.

The hope and expectation -- Wall Street is huffing and puffing -- is that a conciliatory Fed and traditional economic cycles are pulling us out of what is referred to as "the worst recession since the depression."  I hope so, Lord knows I hope so.  Printing trillions of dollars and pouring them into federal bonds has supposedly raised the water-line enough so we can float back out to sea.  Our huge international corporations are electric with "productivity," which means finding ways to manufacture and distribute goods and services cheaper and without the labor costs heretofore associated with middle-class capitalism.  Profits are way up.

In 1896 William Jennings Bryan grabbed off the Democratic nomination for president by decrying the willingness of the Republicans to nail up the country on a "Cross of Gold." Gold meant the gold standard, the sine qua non to the plutocrats of his day.  This reverence for gold in our time equates to productivity.  The productivity we celebrate has been accomplished by a variety of methods -- off-shoring, automation, the dizzying and frequently dangerous rush into computerization of vital functions from financial bookkeeping to national defense.  Money is being saved.  But employment stays down, union wages are a memory, and millions and millions of competent people here are working for wages below what it takes to pay the bills.

Various remedies present themselves:  In China, where Apple I-phones are assembled, the workers reportedly line up every afternoon once their shift is completed for the oppportunity to climb the ladder at the back of the towering building and throw themselves off, one of the few corporate perks.  Options for the increasingly desperate middle class here are not a lot more attractive. The thousands who slave for minimum wage at McDonalds are routinely dependent on food stamps, which translates nicely onto the corporation's bottom line.  American taxpayers are subsidizing McDonald's worldwide expansion.

In America the arts have always been the canary in the coal mine, to coin a phrase, and surviving writers and painters and actors and film-makers are now wading around ankle-deep in dead canaries.  I hear it everywhere.  One friend, a seasoned director of movies for TV, tells me that the $120,000 he got to take on a film has now been cut back to $10,000.  He can expect to absorb the expenses.  Another friend with a worldwide reputation as a photographer of the great tells me that The New York Times, which once routinely sent him $250 to run one of his photos, now remits $2.50.  I'm told things are no better in the music business.

And writing?  I tried to suggest in a recent blog what sort of contracts writers -- myself included -- are expected to submit to.  When Poland was under the heel of the Soviets I visited a couple of times.  What the Soviets had not looted was given over to conditions that approached slave labor.  I heard the same joke several times.  A Red Army officer approaches a local workman.  "Give me your watch," the officer demands, "and I'll tell you the time."

Surviving publishers -- and, I am told, a number of agents, who seem to get quite upset when their charges hesitate to turn over years of work for next to nothing, forget the residuals -- appear to be reconciled to living off the land.  Work is so hard to sell that whoever is left is out there is cannibalizing the remains.  Books are increasingly being written on a "work for hire" basis -- a small guarantee out front, no secondary rights retained, a year's work pounded out in a couple of months, a rushed literary product that is effectively unreadable, little or no marketing effort, and the result all but disappearing on publication day. 

Here we have "productivity," the soulless exploitation of talent and resources, everything calculated toward the bottom line.   Is this the culture we make so many sacrifices to protect?  Perhaps we should reconsider.

If we still can.

Burton Hersh

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Giving it Away II


I hope at least one of my recent offerings has left you somewhat bent out of shape.  Flexibility is important for those on the straight and narrow.

Evidence of the extent to which practitioners of any of the arts now find themselves on their own continues to compile.  A page-1 piece in the April 17 New York Times points up how widespread self-publishing is becoming among even celebrity authors.  David Mamet expects to put out his next fiction himself, since "as traditional publishers have cut back on marketing, this route allows well-known figures like Mr. Mamet to look after their own publicity."

I doubt that this is a breakthrough Mr. Mamet sought. For the mid-list -- i.e. "serious" -- writer, the sort of support most publishers currently offer, combined with startling contracts that effectively confiscate many or most established subsidiary rights, has thrown the writing community back a couple of hundred years.  Thoreau and Whitman put out their own masterpieces. Perhaps we are returning to our roots.

Prospects continue to deteriorate.  Many years ago, when our children were young, I took them back to my boyhood neighborhood in Minneapolis to show them the Minnehaha Falls.  It had been a spring and summer of drought; the Minnehaha creek that fed the waterfall had pretty much dried up.  Below the Falls were small, shallow pools in which whatever carp and bluegills had survived were fanning back and forth, listlessly.  Youngsters from the neighborhood, mostly black youngsters from the nearby tenements and a handful of Chippewas, had waded in among the sluggish surviving fish and were stabbing them with glee and flipping them onto the mud of the banks with sharp sticks.  This was a scenario Longfellow missed.

Publishing has devolved into pretty much the same scene.  The banks of American Letters are strewn with what was once the talent of several generations.  Terms -- take it or leave it -- that until recently would have been regarded in the industry as as beneath contempt are thrown out there without apology.  Horrible work-for-hire contracts that leave any writer who hopes to eat regularly sure to go hungry before he grinds out the manuscript he had just taken on. Novels from which the film rights, and the foreign rights, and even the right to introduce the same characters in a subsequent book are scarfed up by the publisher.  Marketing -- publicity budgets, and often enough well-connected publicists themselves -- represent costs the publisher has largely sloughed off, leaving contact with the media to unpaid interns. Advances are token, if they are offered at all.  Any hope of future royalties are eaten alive by legalistic gobbledegook.

Agents, desperate for fifteen percent of something, appear to have gone along.  A few years ago, when a non-fiction book of mine turned out to do some business, two film producers turned up and tried to option the screen rights.  One spelled it out:  three thousand dollars for five years, serious money if and when a studio came forward and committed to the picture.  The producer had nothing more than several cut-rate biker movies to his credit, and my book dealt with politics at the presidential level.  I had thoughts of writing a screen play myself.  The option offer was minimal, but my agent felt this could work out, so I told him to go ahead and put the deal together.

The producer got back:  He had been thinking, and the best he could do was a fifteen-hundred-dollar offer to pick up the option.  I said no.  If this was the way the producer intended to do business, how could we depend on anything he passed along to us if there ever really was a sale?

My agent was upset.  He cut me loose.  The way he sized things up, fifteen percent of something, however token, was better than nothing, and I was acting like a sorehead..  My feeling was, why give something inherently valuable away?  Furthermore, the holder of the option was likely to resell it at a profit, and who could tell what scavenger was next in line?

So people in our trade are selling one another out all up and down the feeding chain.  It may be that the internet, so costly to so many of us, will become our salvation.

Interesting times, at least for the survivors.

More next time around,

Burton Hersh 


Sunday, April 7, 2013

Giving It Away


Perhaps a bit late again.  Life intervened, especially a rocky week with a flu-like cold.  Back at it now.

The burden of my comment this week -- don't groan! -- is close and dangerous to my heart:  the state of professional writing in America.  Perusing a recent  -- March 18 -- New Yorker I came across a Talk of the Town piece by Adam Gopnik.  Philip Roth is now eighty and appears to have decided to stop using his brain, and his home town of Newark gave him a celebration.  Roth's has been a long run of important literary accomplishment.  He deserves his party.

Halfway into his piece, Gopnik observes that "Happy as the birthday promises to be, it is hard not to worry that it doubles as a bon voyage party for the American writer's occupation itself.  The future of writing in America -- or, at least, the future of making a living by writing -- seems in doubt as rarely before.  Thanks to the Internet, the disproportion between writerly supply and demand, always tricky, has tipped: anyone can write, and everyone does, and beginners are expected to be the last pure philanthropists, giving it all away for the naches.  It has never been easier to be a writer; and it has never been harder to be a professional writer."

If anything, Gopnik underestimates the enormity of the predicament.  This has been coming on for a long, long time.  I made a living -- most of the way, a good living -- writing professionally starting in the middle sixties.  Even then there was a tendency, and even in the choicest markets, to reduce the writer of talent to a morsel, to attempt to flavor him up a little and then let the institution consume him.
I remember two long afternoons closeted with William Shawn, the reigning troll of serious magazine journalism and at the time the editor-in-chief of The New Yorker, while he worked me over in his winsome and indirect way in an effort to get me to sign on to the magazine's bondage system -- I would attempt pieces for the magazine, its staff of editors -- each with a different colored pencil -- would mark up whatever I produced, and after the results had been processed to everybody's satisfaction the piece would go into the magazine's inventory, to be recalled -- possibly -- for some future publication.  I would not be permitted to offer it elsewhere.  While putting in this open-ended apprenticeship I would have access to a draw account of $10,000 annually, enought to live modestly on in the Manhattan of the time. 

Without agreeing,  I tried one piece for the magazine, entitled "In Quest of Squalor."  I followed a group of lady commissars visiting from the Soviet Union all over town and did a rather tongue-in-cheek sketch about their repeated disappointment at not finding capitalism the wreckage they thought it was. The piece didn't make the cut; Shawn's assistant, Patricia Nosher, wasn't amused. So that was that.

I moved on.  As early as my senior year in college I had signed on with an excellent literary agent -- Curtis Brown -- and in time a piece I tried on spec got bought by Ski Magazine, where the acute editor, John Fry, signed me up for a series of features.  All expenses paid, several thousand dollars each.  Then I ran into the editor of Esquire, Harold Hayes, at a cocktail party in Greenwich Village and he asked me to stop by and talk.  My first treatment of the then-fledgling senator Edward Kennedy -- which the magazine ultimately anthologized -- was the result.   Esquire was hot -- major writers from Tom Wolfe to Norman Mailer were confirming their reputations there -- and my career was off and running.

I'm attempting to make several points here.  Even in those days, editors were looking to get a writer on the cheap.  Lock him or her up.  But there were also visionaries running the important publications who understood that they had to assist, encourage -- pay! -- talented people coming up, not muscle and confine them.  Literature in America flourished.  A significant career -- usually on the mid-list -- remained possible, although, more and more, academia was tempting away talent.

And now?  In literary terms, we are living in Dresden on the morning after.  Adam Gopnik should only know.  Gopnik to the contrary, everybody can't write, with or without a computer.  Real talent is very rare, our survival as a civilization depends on people who know the difference, and once we parch out completely it will be like sacrificing rainfall -- the end of the experiment.

Next time I'll be more explicit.

Burton Hersh