While we've all been busy posting to social media about supporting artists in the time of COVID-19, and maybe even buying a piece or two if we're lucky enough to still be working, we're leaving a very important factor out of the mix.
I'm guilty of it, too, but the fact is—we aren't thinking about writers. At least not with the same level of regularity as other artists.
I'm also guilty of stealing this topic, or at least taking inspiration from a Facebook post by former SFR food columnist Michael J Wilson, who opined online, "It's not just musicians and visual artists…"
Indeed, as sites like bandcamp.com began waiving revenue shares once a month for its musicians, and visual arts organizations both local and national launched well-publicized grants for struggling artists, freelance writers and novelists, poets and zine creators took a dive alongside them—but with very little by way of resources and even as some who work day jobs at home (don't even get me started on the whole writing's validity as a single source of income conversation) manage to scrape by .
"There are two aspects to this," says author, educator and publisher James Reich, whose Stalking Horse Press has put out Reich's works, Wilson's poems and tomes by wordsmiths such as Duncan B Barlow and Quintan Ana Wikswo. "On the one hand, the loss of in-person readings, book launch events, salons, conferences, etc. absents a profound human quality in the way literature is shared and enjoyed; on the other hand, to be fair, most writers of fiction or poetry aren't using their art as a source of weekly gig income, so I'm reluctant to make a special case for writers as a general matter of economics."
Still, writing a book, Reich says, represents a shocking amount of time and labor—from the actual writing to the workshopping, editing, production and promo of the thing. But, he continues, it isn't as if scribes are conducting a dozen live readings per month to make rent as Santa Fe musicians often do. One of his biggest concerns at the moment, however, is in what happens next as opposed to right now.
"It remains to be seen what allowances publishers are willing to make for new authors whose books will naturally stall somewhat during these times," Reich laments. "The large presses are already risk-averse. Aesthetically, I imagine them becoming still more cautious, impoverishing the art."
Reich says he's lucky Stalking Horse didn't have any titles launching over the spring (he's looking for next year's projects now, though). Stalking Horse did publish an anthology called Dreams of Montezuma featuring students from the New Mexico School for the Arts, where Reich is chair of creative writing and literature. In any case, Reich is ultimately not out to make an impassioned plea for the future of writing as a career: The pandemic, he notes, has put certain things into perspective.
"Environmentally, artistically, psychologically, this should be something of a period of introspection," he tells SFR. "There are problems in literature like everything else, and I wouldn't be at all sad to see some of it go the way of all flesh: if there was never to be another literary panel at the AWP [Association of Writers and Writing Programs] conference, I don't think literature would suffer at all; quite the contrary."
We Were Witches author Ariel Gore has noticed the shift as well.
"The pandemic has certainly traced the economics of the books I've had come out this year," she says. "We joked at the launch of Santa Fe Noir at Collected Works [Bookstore and Coffeehouse] that it was 'the last public gathering,' and that turned out to be somewhat true."
Gore compiled the collection of locally writ noir tales, which indeed dropped at the outset of national stay-at-home orders. The timing could not have been worse for the book, even as our lit critic Molly Boyle said it was "a pleasure to discover how different imaginations can channel the chiaroscuro energy of well-known places."
Gore says she doesn't believe writers should try to horn in on the artistic spotlight or make visual artists and musicians feel guilty for getting by. The arts, she says, are one of the few things keeping us going right now.
"Artists, including writers, are getting us through these scary times and helping us all find ways to embrace the new paradigm we're entering, helping us imagine how we do and don't want to live into the future, helping us all think about ways we can decenter capitalism in our lives," she says. "Let's all support each other with whatever resources we have. Not take the money from visual artists and give it to writers, but rather abandon the corporate money-suckers who have us convinced it's more 'convenient' to send all our resources to Jeff Bezos whose business model, incidentally, had crushed the economical viability of being an everyday working author long before the pandemic had a chance to."
And there it is.
Times are tough, no question, but not newly so for authors. Everyone interviewed for this story, in fact, noted that things were not so different for writers. One could call them students of the human condition, and they're doing what they can on the page and in their lives. Gore, for example, offered refunds to students who signed up for her writing workshops pre-pandemic—another hit in an already dismal world of words; but, she says, she's also opening her eyes to certain positives.
"All of us have a really different quality of time, and it's making more room for meandering storytelling as opposed to just Tweets and soundbites," she explains. "I think a lot of us are dialing back and taking some time we've long-missed to just hear a good story in the same way that a lot of us are finding the time and the rhythm to grow a garden."
Writer Darryl Lorenzo Wellington, whose story "The Homeless Detective" appears in Gore's Santa Fe Noir, says he's doing pretty OK during the pandemic, but he also has a regular day job as a communications fellow with the Washington, DC nonprofit Community Change. Wellington has also worked as a journalist, a novelist, a graphic novel writer and in a freelance capacity for years.
"It's a very troubling time," Wellington tells SFR. "Most writers are more like writers-slash-teachers, which can still result in a loss of income when you've got teachers with fewer hours or who have been cut."
Still, he says, there has traditionally been certain resources available for writers, like the Pen America Emergency Fund (which has been temporarily depleted due to COVID-19 after reportedly granting monies to 10 times its normal number of writers) or the Creative Capital Arts Writers Grant, which, at the time of this writing, is still endowed through the Andy Warhol Foundation.
On a local level, the Santa Fe Arts and Culture Department's Culture Connects Coalition Artist Relief Fund grant, which should be entering its third round of accepting applications soon, is open to writers. Despite that, Wellington notes, the real underlying issue is that working as a writer has not, in most cases, been a viable career path for decades.
National magazines, for example, pay very little, according to Wellington; years ago, he could make a living freelancing—and he did—today, however, he says he could easily rattle off a long list of well-known publications who have official policies about paying hired guns as little as possible.
"I would say if [a publication] has the resources to pay for writing, they should pay for them," he notes, "but that's why so many writers do other things."
Still, his day-to-day is largely unchanged.
"As many have pointed out, writing is pretty much at-home work anyway," Wellington says. "People are all different, but in terms of time, there's a quote I've always liked, and I can't remember who said it, but they said 'Writers are lower-class economically, but they're the aristocrats of time.' I'm privileged in that respect, but that's the nature of the job."
San Antonio-based writer Sam Bee, who recently released his first book Boom City through Anti-Oedipus Press, says his life hasn't changed much, either, but that doesn't mean he often feels supported.
"I think writers are largely left out of the conversation when discussing the support of artists," he tells SFR. "But I am fortunate enough to have a job that allows me to work from home. I feel very blessed to be in that position. I also feel guilty. A lot of my friends and family have had to file for unemployment and loans."
Like Wellington, Bee works a day job, but more importantly sees this time as both a creative catalyst for writers, and as an opportunity for would-be readers.
"Right now is a time when everyone is having to think more creatively," he says. "I support that evolution."
So is there an answer? The sad truth is that we weren't effectively supporting writers before COVID-19, and even as we ravenously consume their efforts now, we're probably going about it all wrong. It's time to find and support local publishers and Patreons. It's time to delve back into poetry and fiction—if nothing more, than for a brief respite from the trash fire our country has become.
"I encourage people to read for the calmness and the reflection," Wellington adds. "I'm sure there are people who are going to want to write stories and novels after this…sometimes literature can help you understand things a lot better."