Making a living as a writer is hard. Most of the authors I know have second jobs or rely on Patreon to keep the lights on as they spin stories. I recently wrote a post about where to buy books so that authors could have as big a slice of the profits as possible. So I was absolutely tickled to see this article from Sian Cain in The Guardian about a multi-million dollar payday for George R.R. Martin…for a minute. I’m happy for Martin’s success, but that success got me to thinking about all of the other writers who are scribbling as fast as they can to come up with a breakthrough book. Martin deserves every penny—I believe in paying artists what they’re worth—but what about those other authors out there creating amazing things?
There are grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities and prizes like the MacArthur Fellowships and literary prizes, but these are rare. They’re also out of reach for many writers, especially in genre fiction. Also, because they’re limited, those funds will eventually run out. Because I am a greedy reader, I would like to propose the return of the Federal Writers’ Project. Created as part of the New Deal, this program hired writers to draft all sorts of projects about American history and life. (One of these projects was later published as The Food of a Younger Land, which I found utterly fascinating.) The pay from these projects paid living expenses, but didn’t take up so much time that the authors wouldn’t have time for their own projects. Zora Neale Hurston, Vardis Fisher, Richard Wright, Kenneth Rexwroth, Saul Bellow, and thousands of others were supported through the Depression and into World War II by the Federal Writers’ Project.
I remember feeling more amused than anything else when I first learned about Patreon. It’s such a medieval idea! But if a medieval idea like Patreon can help keep N.K. Jemisin and other writers at their keyboards, why not bring back a decades-old idea like the FWP? I would be thrilled if some of my tax dollars went to pay for an author to collect urban legends, record oral histories, and generate more stories for me to read.