There were some negative responses to my post about Justin’s letter.ly subscription earlier. I was initially inclined to brush them off the way I usually brush off the comments of people who choose to open a conversation with “Go fuck yourself.” But rereading my post, I can see why these people were annoyed. It does seem like an awful lot of people are passing the virtual hat to support their creative endeavors these days — Kickstarters, magazines with “donate” buttons, bookstores circulating petitions to keep themselves open — my inbox is full of this stuff too. It’s hard not to feel guilt-tripped or just overwhelmed. I think it might have seemed like I was simply suggesting that we should all be required to put our money where our ‘likes’ are or GTFO, but that wasn’t my intent. Also, I know committing to $2 a month isn’t “very inexpensive” to everybody, which sucks. I wanted to encourage people to buy this thing, which I’m very excited about, and that was my clumsy way of saying so.
I can also see why people are frustrated that I’d reject something that seems, to them, like generosity — “likes,” the valueless (but maybe not entirely meaningless) currency of the Internet. One person wrote:
"Reblogs etc are free publicity and some of us poor folks like to support things even if we’re broke.
If the free publicity isn’t wanted folks should say so, that way us awful poor folks with no monies can publicize people who like it.”
This is a complicated thing. ”Reblogs etc” are “free publicity.” But as most people who have received a bunch of the Internet’s vaunted “free publicity” over the years will tell you, it is a total crapshoot as to whether that “free publicity” will ever translate into anything other than more “free publicity.” Some of the frustration in my post probably comes from my experience with Emily Books. It’s nice to be liked and reblogged and we’re grateful that social media is providing us with a way to showcase the books we’re selling, and it’s true that each reblog enlarges our audience and introduces us to new potential buyers. It certainly isn’t meaningless to me when people like a post on our blog, or like the announcement of a new monthly pick on Facebook. But what’s really meaningful to me is when someone buys a book or a subscription from us, and what’s super extraordinarily beyond meaningful is when that person reads that book and tells us whether she enjoyed it. And from what I can tell so far, “liking” and buying aren’t very closely correlated. Or even …. correlated at all. I’m sure corporations have teams of social scientists trying to untangle this problem as we speak, but my very informal market research tells me that being able to “like” something might even make people less likely to buy it. Maybe because they already feel like they’ve done their part to “support” it?
The other piece of this is: how should the arts be funded?
Go fuck yourself emilygould. For real. I have no time for this “everyone can afford small luxuries!” bullshit I keep seeing on Tumblr. No, I can’t afford your art, or your porn, or your recipes, or whatever goddamn nonsense you’re offering.
You want me to buy your shit? Go fix the corrupt system that means I can’t first. Oh, it’s quite hard isn’t it? Exactly, shut the fuck up.
I do think we should “fix the corrupt system” that makes a person feel this upset by the suggestion that, instead of enjoying someone’s artwork and writing for free, s/he ought now to consider paying $2/month to enjoy it. But I don’t think the answer is “everything should be free, so that no one has to feel poor.”
One of my many favorite parts of Inferno, Eileen Myles’ “novel” about the life of a poet, is about what it was like to come of age artistically at a time when the NEA was giving grants to poets and strange experimental art and tiny magazines. She makes it sound like basically any person in the East Village with a half-articulated dream could get some cash to put on her lesbian feminist performance art. Hot on the heels of this period was a contraction, when a lot of artists were defunded — “fired, essentially, for speaking the truth,” Myles writes — because their work was strange and sexual and dealt openly with AIDS.
That part was not a shock to me but it was a shock to read about the previous period, when the government had been so open-handed, and had allowed such marginal figures to become part of the Official Arts Infrastructure, even if only for a moment. I came of age artistically, if it’s possible to type a phrase like that without sounding like a total asshole (it’s not) at a time when the issue of who got to be Official Artists was just beginning to be complicated by a new iteration of a very old problem: the problem of which mediums could be considered a viable platforms for Official Art, or even any kind of Art at all. Could anything on the Internet be considered Art? Did this Art deserve attention, or even to exist? Weren’t we kind of paying for it already, with our attention? And then we’re back at square one, or at least angry-reblog one.
If you devote a large part of your life to making writing, art, or any other creative work that doesn’t have as its end result a clearly commercially viable product (i.e., I’m not talking artisanal pickles or ombre tights or short stories about middle-aged couples who go to a party and leave vaguely dissatisfied + maybe there’s a Holocaust reference in there) (jk about that last one, kind of), you are going to either need to figure out how to get paid for that work by somebody — the government, your audience, some kind of patron — or you’re going to have to figure out something to do with the remaining portion of your time that doesn’t make it impossible to have enough hours or mental real estate remaining to do that work. I’ve read many variations on the theme of “everyone makes it work in her own way,” but though that’s kind of true, there are still underlying themes of every artist’s super-unique story that we ignore at our peril.
I’m a fan, personally, of art that sucks at marketing itself, that doesn’t have a cute backstory or a built-in “platform,” that is not cuddly or “adorkable” and doesn’t immediately lend itself to a hierarchy of “rewards” for “backers,” that is antisocial and prickly and deeply strange. So the trend towards crowdsourced funding for exactly the opposite kind of art leaves me cold. But if someone like Justin, whose blog posts defy description, wants to give people access to his work in exchange for money and he’s found a way to do so, then I’m sorry if $2 is too expensive for you but to me it seems like a really, really, really small price to pay for A GODDAMN MOTHERFUCKING LITTLE SCRAP OF HOPE FOR WEIRD NEW WORK IN THIS SHITSHOW OF A MARKETPLACE.
I’m just sad my payment has to go through Amazon, but that’s a whole other can of worms.