literacy

Scratch: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living

29430716Manjula Martin collected essays by contemporary writers claiming to shed some light on what it means to struggle as an artist. Each writer approaches the topic in a different way. Some, like the more famous Cheryl Strayed, Jonathan Franzen, and Roxanne Gay offer their thoughts in interview format, whereas others take creative liberties to capture their history as a writer, their journey, and relationship with books. The overarching topic is: money. How much money do artists get and what does it mean? For instance, Cheryl Strayed explains that even though she received a large sum of money as an advance for Wild, it was given to her in installments. She had so much credit card debt, student loans to pay, and two small children. The art world is the only case in which sometimes people expect you to work for free in hopes that “the love of the public” and “followers” is enough compensation, as if you owe the gallery and the publishing house for being published, rather than being paid for your labour and hard work. It’s the only time when you could wake up one morning and think: today I could make zero dollars, or get a $50,000 advance, we’ll never know. It’s hard to imagine that while being on book tour, Strayed’s check bounced when trying to pay the rent.

The opening essay by Julia Fierro for instance focused on the ways in which she felt inferior to her classmates in university as well as at the Iowa Writers’ workshop. How she started hoarding and collecting books she couldn’t afford so she could stay in the ranks of her classmates, and how subsequently this resulted in her avoiding reading altogether for a while. She writes:

“My loan money moved from my bank account to my bookshelf, and not once did I stop myself, look around my apartment at the stacks of unread books–several lifetimes’ worth–and think of Jay Gatsby and his library of pristine uncut books. My fear was too loud. Fear that I was inauthentic, undeserving of a place among my mostly Ivy League–educated classmates who, it seemed, were more well-read than even the gray-haired authors who were our professors.”

Colin Dickey wrote a very interesting essay that was more historical and academic in nature. He cites a lot of Karl Marx, but begins his essay with the way in which Charles Dickens’s work got immediately tainted for him the day he found out he was paid by installment. He writes:

“once we’d been introduced to the economy of writing, everything was tainted….how to trust each word from that point on…money taints everything, why not writing too”

Roxanne Gay discusses how she remains in academic circles at universities, and teaches classes, just because they offer her a steady salary and health insurance. When she broke down her income, she discloses that less than 30% of her income comes from her writing.

I also found that this collection poked at a strange can of worms regarding the Jonathan Franzen-Oprah Winfrey conflict, back in 2001. When it comes up in the interview, and reminds readers about the conflict, some women are referenced (like Jennifer Weiner) who used social media to point out that critics rarely pay the same attention to women authors, as they do to Jonathan Franzen back when this conflict was happening. Franzen responds here with:

“well, I am a male animal, and there’s nothing I can do about that. I can’t stop writing and disappear just because someone chooses to project onto me her grievance with a million years of sexist human history”

What I found strange was that Jennifer Weiner is also one of the essays in here, and it’s written in essay/memoir format whereas Franzen’s is in interview format with the editor. The interview is by far the longest and I felt as if the editor was swooning over Franzen whereas Weiner was “left alone” as it were. In her essay, Weiner writes conversations she never thought she would have to have with herself like

“big-name critics will call your work ‘subliterary,’ and big-deal writers will sneer at the notion that your books deserve even a smidgen of attention in the New York Times…History ought to give me some context. Women’s work has always been devalued, seen as less. ‘commercial’ she asks for what she doesn’t deserve, says the privileged white man, who gets both sales and respect–as if privileged white men haven’t always been the ones to make those judgement, and those judgement haven’t always been in their favor.”

It’s an interesting fight/argument (which let’s face it, it’s about posterity), but it wasn’t why I bought this book.

As a reader interested in the “nitty-gritty of the writing profession” which is what I came to this book for, I did not find those answers here. For one Cheryl Strayed, Roxanne Gay,  Jennifer Weiner, and Jonathan Franzen are all best sellers who made money, got film deals, and some reached critical acclaim. The Franzen-Weiner “fight” was kind of central to me when I looked back.

My favourite by far was Colin Dickey. His essay actually focused on the topic. Cheryl Strayed’s article got my attention because of her success, but everyone else kind of fell through the cracks. For one, I didn’t find myself caring about authors I haven’t heard of, but if I did, I would have liked them to discuss the struggle more, rather than the details of biography. This was Spinster all over again, I got biographies I never asked for. I came to this collection looking for financial struggles, what did it mean, how much? What fees did you have to pay? Where did you live? How did you manage? One Goodreads reviewer put it best:

“the essayists tiptoe around pragmatic questions of money to instead navel-gaze about issues of privilege and class. Several of them explicitly repeat the problem this book was supposed to solve: they flatly refuse to discuss specific financial details.” – Amy Rogers 

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Analysis of ‘The Reader’ | Reflection

***WARNING: This is a reflection/analysis there are many spoilers“***

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the readSince 2009 I have been incapable of answering wholeheartedly, or even understand myself, why my answer for “what’s your favourite movie?” has been: “The Reader.” I had no personal relationship, nor family history with Germany and the Holocaust, nor felt particularly attached to the study of law. Many films (and books) before and after The Reader had interacted with this theme so much that Ricky Gervais jokingly remarked to Winslet in the introduction to the 2009 Golden Globes after she had received nominations for both an Oscar (which she won) and a Golden Globe (also won):

“I told you, do a Holocaust movie the awards come, didn’t I?”

I was partly embarrassed that in order to get to the highly philosophical and literary discussions at the end—should one choose my suggestion and associate me with the film through recommendations—that one would have to sit through 45 minutes filled with somewhat uncomfortable sex scenes between a 36-year-old woman and a 15-year-old boy.

vorlesserHaving re-watched it this past week, re-read the book, and interacted with it through Audible as well, I have finally figured out the film’s appeal: it is a highly biblio-centric puzzle. The Reader is not for a lazy audience. The film purposely leaves many unanswered questions for which the book, written by Bernhard Schlink, is an absolutely crucial companion.

Professor Rohl makes an excellent point in the film as he says:

“the question is not whether it is moral, people often tend to know murder is wrong, the question is: is it legal, and not by our laws, no, but by the laws of the time.”

The law however, can only work with facts, and these facts are rooted in text. The jury mainly worked with the text of the Jewish survivor and the records are the only proof that Hanna Schmitz or any other defendant had participated. Knowing Hanna is illiterate through Michael’s voice we understand as a distant audience why it looks suspicious to others that she should have rejected a secretarial position with Siemens and rather purposely enrolled in the SS as a guard. There’s a beautiful line in the book where Michael says

“with the energy she put into maintaining the lie, she could have learned to read and write long ago.”

Although the novel contains many more clues to Hanna’s illiteracy pre-trial, the movie displays flashes of Hanna’s passive looks at menus looking with envy at young children who have no difficulty ordering what they desire.

There is however a very important detail that the movie has left out and I wouldn’t have been able to find the answer until much later with the help of the book. In the middle of a class discussion one eager students says (about the Holocaust):

“everyone knew, our parents, our teachers, the question isn’t whether everyone knew, the question is how could you have let this happen and why didn’t you kill yourself when you found out?”

Near the end of the novel when Michael has been notified of Hanna’s suicide he explores her cell. He narrates (in the book):

“I went over to the bookshelf. Primo Levi, Ellie Wiesel, Tadeusz Borowski, Jean Amery—the literature of the victims, next to the autobiography of Rudolf Hess, Hanna Arendt’s report on Eichmann in Jerusalem, and scholarly literature at the camp.”

The prison manager tells Micahel:

“several years ago I had to get her [Hanna] a general concentration-camp bibliography and then one or two years ago she asked me to suggest some books on women in the camps, both prisoners and guards…as soon as Frau Schmitz learned to read, she began to read about the concentration camps.”

To me, this is the most important detail. Hanna couldn’t read so she lacked empathy and couldn’t read people either. She says in the film after Michael is so worried and concerned that this whole time she hadn’t learned anything from the trial, nor thought about any of the victims: “well I did learn kid, I learned to read.” Hanna kills herself because as the young student suggested: the only redemption from the knowledge of and participation in the Holocaust is suicide.

It could be argued that the film tries to empathize too much with a Nazi—but this book (and movie) is much more about the inferiority an individual has due to illiteracy. Had Hanna been able to read she might have taken the job at Siemens instead. By asking young Jewish girls to read to her before sending them away perhaps she gave them better last days than other prisoners in similar situations.

The first time I watched the film I interpreted Michael’s silence on the knowledge of Hanna’s illiteracy as revenge and anger. I thought he felt that because she had slept with him, and met him when he too (like the prisoners) was weak/sick, and that she had treated him the same way as she did many other young people that he suddenly wasn’t special in her life—and the audiobooks that followed were his redemption. However, Michael is special because he’s Hanna’s only survivor. He survived her treatment and he knew her secret.

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Hanna’s tombstone

The film is entirely biblio-centric. It interacts with the legal system using text and archives for proof (memoirs included), reading aloud and audiobooks, and the ultimate shame of being illiterate which resulted in crimes beyond the human imagination. What Schlink gets to in the end is that reading teaches one empathy. Only through reading can one truly think about life in another’s shoes and only when Hanna learns to read can she really understand the camps—despite the fact that she was physically there. Michael keeps Hanna’s secret until the end because he knows that to her it is a bigger shame to admit that she is unable to read than to take all the blame for what happened at Auschwitz.  In the end all we see is what is left of Hanna Schmitz as text: two words on a tombstone hidden in a rural cemetery.

Michael shares their story as text. He narrates:

“at first I wanted to write our story in order to be free of it…[then] I wanted to recapture it by writing…and it came back, detail by detail and in such a fully rounded fashion, with its own direction and its own sense of completion, that it no longer makes me sad.”

This is the film and book’s ultimate message (to me at least): stories heal. Michael and the young Jewish woman used their experiences with Hanna Schmitz and healed through text. Writing as therapy, and reading as empathy: that is The Reader, and that is why this will continue to be my favourite film and one of my favourite contemporary books.

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Movie still at the very end where Michael visits her grave