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Paying writers not to write

What do you call 500 lawyers at the bottom of the ocean? An excellent start. Okay, that’s an old joke, but it’s indicative of a feeling in the general populace that folks in the legal profession are overpaid blowhards.

Lawyers tend to resent jokes like that. Imagine the horror a writer must feel to discover that practitioners of Chaucer’s “crafte so longe to lerne” aren’t immune to the same kind of ribbing. At least, that’s the impression one gets from reading Paul Greenberg’s recent New York Times piece entitled “Bail Out the Writers!” Greenberg, having been told a “depressing” joke by his daughter, the punchline of which acknowledges the meagre incomes most writers can expect to recoup from their prose, launches into an impassioned cri de coeur based on his discovery of “a national problem of respect where being a writer has become so widely associated with being a loser that we have become the stuff of common jokes.”

Actually, the piece is a humorous screed in the mode of Swift’s “A Modest Proposal,” but, like Swift, Greenberg conceals a serious point beneath the ironic veil. He suggests that in a world in which Ann Beattie must compete with a self-published author named Ann Rothrock Beattie, there may be a problem of overcapacity in written output. His solution is for the government to buy out half the writers currently pumping out books at the rate of two years’ average annual income, or $72,000 U.S.

Paying writers not to write sounds ridiculous, but it actually addresses a key problem that has been plaguing North American publishing for some time now (and that is coming into dramatic relief thanks to the recent economic downturn). It may be anathema to say it “ and this Quillblogger is well aware of the hackles that are likely to be raised by those who have long benefitted from publishers’ profligacy “ but perhaps it’s time to recognize that people are acutally publishing too much.