What is a Writer Worth?

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What if writers were paid for their effort instead of their product? Many skilled professions involve more labor than financial reward, but writers seem particularly short-changed. Inventions, fine pieces of art, these can still command appropriate prices. Authors cannot negotiate book sales, cannot hold out for the highest bidder. Not only are print editions on the wane, digital copies are continuing to lose value. Ninety-nine cents has become a common price tag, and authors are often compelled to promote their books by giving them away for free.

What are writers worth? What would be a fair wage? A landscaper friend of mine told me last week that he always charges by the hour, not the job, as unforeseen problems can cause delays. This makes sense, and I admire him for his business acumen, for insisting that he be treated fairly. SURVIVAL SKILLS and LOVERS AND LONERS, my short story collections, include stories that were written over several years, and some of these pieces took months to write. One of the stories actually started out as a novel that grew flabby; I wound up scrapping about forty thousand words. Untold hours went into the making of these two books. Even if authors earned minimum wages, most would be rich beyond measure. Writers would rule the world.

Hard labor, that’s what good writing is. A dedicated writer is a slave to herself. Unlike inventors, who achieve their goals by fixing failures, writers continue on faith, not knowing if their revisions are improvements. No one can help them. Sentences are paths, and writers must blunder down one after another, hoping they have made the right turns and will not wind up lost. The journey is loaded with trip hazards, and writers must avoid them all: the pitfalls of clichés, the slopes of sentimentality, the sloughs of despair, the dreaded stasis of writer’s block. If an author is lucky enough to arrive at her goal, to finish a story she is pleased with, she must then work to acquire readers. For authors, who are generally introverted, marketing is far more onerous than writing. It is not a labor of love, and there is no end to it.

Writing is a three-step process: seizing an idea, putting this idea into words, and then into the right words. Of course, the right words for one author may be, will be, the wrong words for another—there are any number of ways to write, and mediocre writing can result in stunning sales. Writers must work to please themselves, knowing their stories may never be appreciated or even read.

I will work on one sentence for hours if need be, shuffling the words around and around until they click into place. As I wrangle words, I often think of Raymond Carver, who considered himself not a minimalist but a “precisionist”—what an apt term to describe the love he brought to his craft. Carver knew he’d never achieve perfection, but he kept reaching for it anyway, struggling year after year to bring out his best.

You can’t put a price on a good book, but you can buy one for under a buck. Most writers will never produce the stunning book they envisioned, nor will they reap the monetary rewards they have earned. As readers, we can at least offer them one dividend: the courtesy of a review. Reviews posted on Amazon or Goodreads cost nothing and require scant effort. Just a couple sentences is all it takes to let a writer know her words have not vanished.

Lost in Las Vegas

photo 3This morning from the 39th floor of a Las Vegas hotel room I watched the sun rise over the mountains. Impervious to the sweeping humanity below them, these mountains are the area’s only static feature and serve as a boundary to the manic development. Without their silent enforcement, who knows how big Las Vegas could get? No way will this city stop itself.

You don’t spend much time in your room, luxurious though it is. You spend lots of time walking through the hotel. This is because the exits are few and far between; if it weren’t for fire safety, there probably wouldn’t be any. Reaching one of these secret outlets requires a winding trek past Baccarat and Black Jack tables; past acres of glowing slot machines; past Chanel, Cartier, Hermes, Gucci, Rolex; past sleek bars and stylish restaurants; past dazzling chandeliers, color-changing waterfalls, giant silk flowers, colossal glass balloons, massive mosaics. Stunned by the cumulative effect of these displays, you wander for hours, lost in time, for there are no clocks in these hotels and no windows. Light and temperature, meticulously controlled, are designed to make your body forget itself.

photo 1In an effort to keep guests inside at all costs, many hotels have joined forces and created connecting passageways. These escalators and skywalks are so effortless, so discreet, that you usually unaware of the transition. How did you get from the Encore to the Venetian, from the Palazzo to Caesar’s Palace? At last, exhausted by the journey, the visual stimulation, the constant campaign of music, you stumble into a lounge or restaurant and blearily eye the menu. By then you are inured to the exorbitant prices and scarcely bother to look at them.

What did you expect? This is, after all, Las Vegas. If you think a hotel that charges $370 a night should not charge another $20 for WiFi, you have a point, but so what? Money reigns supreme here. To suggest it has a limit amounts to blasphemy. If you cannot get into the spirit of spending, you need to leave the premises. Nothing personal—you just don’t belong.

I had not been to this city in fifteen years. Previously, I recall being charmed by the clever use of faux materials. This time the sets were alarmingly real. As I walked across miles of Italian marble, I began to understand the extent of the riches involved and it made me queasy.

Many people loathe Las Vegas. It is a reckless, heedless city. It stands for all the wrong things. One day this city will run out of water—the one thing it does not have a surfeit of—and nature will be the big winner.

The mountains are out there waiting.

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