Tag Archives: Oscar Wilde

The real secret to making it as a writer: Be fabulously wealthy before you even start

In a recent Salon article, Noah Berlatsky argued that to be a successful writer, while one might need “work ethic, knowledge, skill, perseverance… none of them is as important as the one, single most important thing. Which would be luck.”

Berlatsky’s piece suffers from what Daniel Dennett calls deepities: “A proposition that seems both important and true — and profound — but that achieves this effect by being ambiguous.” That is, if we take Berlatsky’s assertion as he intended it, hyperbolically, it is banal: We all know that luck affects us in all parts of our life. And if we take it at face value, it is manifestly false. Does Berlatsky really believe that luck is more important than work ethic, knowledge, skill and perseverance?

That’s a hard case to make, although it does correctly note that those latter qualities alone (work ethic, etc.), while to varying degrees necessary for success, are too often insufficient. So Berlatsky wasn’t wrong there, he just picked the wrong culprit. The real problem in writing isn’t luck, it’s money.

Reading, writing and thinking are all tasks that are nearly impossible to cultivate while performing manual labor. As Plato first noted, when discussing education, “sleep and exercise are unpropitious to learning,” and therefore students should avoid intense exercise as they pursue educational endeavors. Writing is what Veblen would call “conspicuous consumption,” a task primarily done by a “leisure class” uninhibited by manual labor.

As Oscar Wilde wrote, “under existing conditions, a few men who have had private means of their own, such as Byron, Shelley, Browning, Victor Hugo, Baudelaire, and others, have been able to realise their personality more or less completely. Not one of these men ever did a single day’s work for hire. They were relieved from poverty.” Because Byron and Baudelaire were free from the need to perform physical labor, they could invest their time in culture. In contrast, the poor, “having no private property of their own, and being always on the brink of sheer starvation, are compelled to do the work of beasts of burden, to do work that is quite uncongenial to them, and to which they are forced by the peremptory, unreasonable, degrading Tyranny of want. These are the poor, and amongst them there is no grace of manner, or charm of speech, or civilisation, or culture, or refinement in pleasures, or joy of life.” The luxury of comfort is still denied the poor and working class and it’s difficult to read Shakespeare after hours of drudgery. Far easier to drink a beer and watch the game. In his book, “Masscult and Midcult,” Dwight MacDonald notes that “the great cultures of the past have been elite affairs.”

In a recent interview with Longform magazine, New Yorker staff writer Evan Ratliff said, “I don’t think it’s feasible to work a full-time job and be able to do this type of reporting … it really requires dedicated time.” And time, as we all know, is money. Success at writing means taking unpaid internships, low-paid fellowships or writing almost for free for years.

Mark Twain once said that success in writing requires one to “write without pay until somebody offers pay. If nobody offers within three years, the candidate may look upon this circumstance with the most implicit confidence as the sign that sawing wood is what he was intended for.” To do such writing (while paying off debts from Columbia Journalism School) without some side source of income, means, most likely, coming from an upper middle-class or affluent background with parents who can bankroll you. I’ll state the obvious: There aren’t many poor writers. How could there be? How does one practice writing in abject poverty?

This dynamic pervades even socialist thought. Gramsci, the poorest of Marx’s early 20th century interpreters, only wrote a sustained historical and theoretical critique when he was imprisoned. And it’s no coincidence that the great expositor of working class misery, Engels, was the son of a wealthy capitalist. The working class had neither the time, nor education, to consider their own plight. It’s no coincidence that the greatest thinker to address capitalism, Karl Marx, died destitute and was sustained only by patronage of Engels. Sadly, as the Marxist tradition grew divorced from the working class, its expositors grew increasingly obtuse, with Adorno, Della Volpe and Althusser increasingly unreadable. While Marx intended his work to be accessible to the working class, the later Marxists seemed to have rather the opposite intentions. As Perry Anderson notes, “the whole tradition swung increasingly away towards bourgeois culture.”

The “great thinkers” of the past were, for the most part, were those wealthy enough to think and be heard — Montesquieu, Smith, de Tocqueville, Keynes, Schopenhauer, Hegel, Freud, Darwin, Huxley. Pick a thinker, and you’ll find a wealthy family behind them. Much the same is true today.

Originally published on Salon.

What a Wall Street banker says about our society

n the New York Times, a former Wall Street banker begins a deep and emotional piece on wealth addiction with the following confession:

In my last year on Wall Street my bonus was $3.6 million — and I was angry because it wasn’t big enough. I was 30 years old, had no children to raise, no debts to pay, no philanthropic goal in mind. I wanted more money for exactly the same reason an alcoholic needs another drink: I was addicted.

The piece is important for numerous reasons, but what strikes me particularly is how much Polk’s story coincides with what we are feeling as a nation. Last week I wrote about new evidence that as societies develop, they eventually reach a point where increases in GDP no longer bring about corresponding gains in happiness.

As more states across the U.S. (and more countries across the world) begin adopting alternative measures they find that while GDP has been increasing, other measures of well-being have remained flat. Our national Genuine Progress Indicator, which takes into account environmental, social and distributional (inequality) has remained stalled for decades, while GDP growth has plodded forward.

Could it be that as a society, we are addicted to growth? There are numerous indications that this is the case. For one, research finds that when asked ““What do you think will be the most serious problem facing the world in the future if nothing is done to stop it?” only 10 percent of American said, “the economy,” while 25 percent said “the environment” or “global warming.” And yet progress on climate change is constantly stalled by members of Congress warning of harm to economic growth (even though climate change will is alreadypummeling economies).

Regulations are constantly denounced on the spurious claim that they will “kill jobs,” even though the most comprehensive studies show that they don’t. We have ad campaigns based around the idea that you should ruin perfectly good phones and computers, even though e-waste imposes horrific costs on the environment and children in developing countries.

As E.F. Schumacher warned, “Call a thing immoral or ugly, soul-destroying or a degradation to man, a peril to the peace of the world or to the well-being of future generations: as long as you have not shown it to be ‘uneconomic’ you have not really questioned its right to exist, grow, and prosper.” Obama has opened up new drilling, pressured by groups promising “jobs” and “growth” even while we face an inflating carbon bubble.

As Oscar Wilde wrote long ago, “In a community like ours, where property confers immense distinction, social position, honour, respect, titles, and other pleasant things of the kind, man, being naturally ambitious, makes it his aim to accumulate this property, and goes on wearily and tediously accumulating it long after he has got far more than he wants, or can use, or enjoy, or perhaps even know of.” What he says of individuals can just as easily apply to societies.