A starving artist and a viral spiral

Pablo Picasso, The Tragedy, 1903

Yesterday one of my Facebook friends invited people to visit his website, where he’s put up a PayPal button for donations. The cause? Help him with his daily struggles – pay the rent, buy food, that kind of thing. He described himself as a starving artist. The first comment: “Are you f*&%ing kidding? Who do you think you are, asking for money? What do we get for it?”

I jumped in, saying, “What we get is the chance to read Ned’s* poems online for free.” I then proceeded to say how few local writers had bought my books. This in turn prompted more angry responses. How dare Ned and I think we deserved to get paid? So what if I was Albany Author of the Year? The exchange between the two gentlemen continued with considerable vitriol, and other writers jumped in with their own tales of woe – “I can barely make ends meet either, but you don’t hear me bitching and moaning about it!”

Why not? What’s so shameful about admitting we’d like to sell our own work, or even inviting people to make voluntary contributions in order to read it on the Internet? This in turn brings up another important topic – how much are we willing to give away by pouring our creative energies into sharing online? Does there come a time when we can reasonably ask for payment for everything we’re putting out there? What’s in it for us?

For me, what’s in it is the joy and excitement of communicating with people all over the world, the instant gratification of knowing my words are being read and appreciated.  But I wouldn’t mind a little cold hard cash now and again.

I’m reading a fascinating book by David Bollier titled Viral Spiral: How the Commoners Built a Digital Republic of Their Own. I saw the author on C-Span’s BookTV a couple of months ago and was intrigued enough to order it online. It’s not easy reading, and I’m not yet ready to write an entire post about it, but here are a few provocative quotes:

Never in history has the individual had such cheap, unfettered access to global audiences, big and small . . . .

The people . . . are reclaiming culture from the tyranny of mass-media economics . . . overthrowing the ‘read only’ culture that characterized the ‘weirdly totalitarian’ communications of the twentieth century. In its place they are installing the ‘read-write’ culture that invites everyone to be a creator, as well as a consumer and sharer, of culture . . . Two profoundly incommensurate media systems are locked in a struggle for survival or supremacy . . . (pp. 8-11)

Powerful stuff. But although Bollier stresses power to the people and the heady virtues of sharing information in the global commons of the Internet, he’s not clear about exactly how we commoners are supposed to profit in this new marketplace. Maybe he’ll have some answers later in the book – I’ll keep you posted.

Words have the power to wound, even – or maybe especially – online. In the course of the angry Facebook exchange, I interjected a memory from the years I was working as an art therapist at Hudson River Psychiatric Center in Poughkeepsie. At a social on a locked ward one Friday afternoon, an alleged “recreation therapist” said to one of the patients, a gifted artist, “I hate to say it, but you look like shit.” The next day the patient escaped from the ward, headed over to the railroad tracks that ran along the river, and committed suicide by train.

The Viral Spiral of the Internet can be a force of positive energy, a way to build community, or it can infect people with hostility and anger. The choice is ours every time we log onto the World Wide Web.

Please share your thoughts on this important topic – I’d love to hear from you.

*I’ve changed Ned’s name, but the online exchange took place among members of the Capital District’s vibrant writing community. We don’t all need to agree – getting total agreement from artists is like herding cats – but I hope we can agree to disagree in a more civilized manner. Then again, who am I to talk? I’ve been known to use the F-word too.

19 thoughts on “A starving artist and a viral spiral

  1. There is absolutely no shame whatsoever in promoting your own books, products, crafts, services, whatever … those stick-in-the-butt critics need to shut up. And fork over some dough, too, lol. Sheesh – unless you’ve got a huge contract with one of the BIG pub houses, nobody knows about your books unless YOU tell everybody about them and ask peeps to buy them!

    The Old Silly

  2. I’m glad you agree, Marvin! Your response helps give me the courage I need to read this blog at the open mic POETS SPEAK LOUD tonight. Reading a blog instead of poetry is daring enough – I hope I don’t provoke more fighting, but then if I do, so what? As usual, I plan to promote my own books as well.

    • Thanks, Don. I think you should start a blog – you’d love it! Begin by posting that “Underwear Boy” poem you read last night at POETS SPEAK LOUD.

  3. I thought this kind of plea would happen sooner than it did. Not much different from the incessant (!) pleas that come in the mail every day, or on the telephone. What? You thought the “Do Not Call” list was real? Apparently not.

    We average 20-30 calls per week asking for $. Well, that’s another issue, right?
    Personally I wouldn’t ask for donations to my personal account, even if I was a “starving” artist. But I understand the impulse.

    What I find really sad and troubling is the people, and there seem to be a lot of them, who are moved to vitriolic negative responses to this poet’s request. They usually come from people with too much idle and unsupervised time on their hands. My suggestion is to ignore the vitriol. It’s the most insulting thing you can do to those who insist on purveying this kind of pollution.

    • I agree with you, Carl. I was surprised at all the intense anger that emerged online. But I think the storm has blown over by now.

  4. POSTSCRIPT: I did read this blog at last night’s POETS SPEAK LOUD, in a slightly edited version, and it went over well. I prefaced it by saying the basic message was “Don’t diss people on Facebook,” and read it in a quasi-humorous tone.

    Fortunately I was able to talk with the guy who’d made the nasty comments – it’s part of his persona; his poems are outrageous as well. My hubby said that while I was reading, this guy was giving me a thumbs up and pointing to himself proudly, saying “That’s me!” But I had the courage to talk with him in person and bury the hatchet, although the temptation was strong to just stay away and shut up.

    Unfortunately the guy who asked for donations wasn’t there – as he said in a later comment, he’s embarrassed when he can’t afford to donate when they pass the hat for the reading. Then there’s the question of the $$$ involved in ordering drinks and/or food. (Lark Tavern, in case you’re wondering – I love their Madison burgers with bacon and bleu cheese.)

    On Facebook, these comments get lost after they’re supplanted by newer status updates, but unfortunately the bad vibes can hang around forever if you don’t somehow clear the air.

  5. This is a hot topic and I am not sure if I would ever start asking outright for money to support my blog, etc. However, I understand what prompts people to do so. As you said, Julie, we all spend a great deal of time with these efforts that do not bring in any revenue. It would be nice to get paid.

    I do have a friend who does a humor blog and he put a buy button on his blog asking if anyone would like to buy him a cup of coffee. There is also a link if someone wants to buy him a donut, too. I think he is asking for 50 cents for the coffee and a dollar for the donut. I thought that was a cute way to solicit payment. He just recently added that to his blog, so I don’t know if it has brought in money or not.

    Such a solicitation done in a clever, non-pushy way might be an acceptable move.

    • I’m not about to start asking for money on my blog, but I’m going to add a PayPal button in the near future so people can buy signed copies of my books directly from me. It has to be better than the $2.00 and change royalty I get for each book now – when and if I get them, which seems suspiciously seldom.

      BTW, for anyone else reading this, my books are available from Amazon right now. I’ve been remiss in not making this site more enticing when it comes to buying.

  6. I wouldn’t send in a donation to someone who blogs just because that person asked for money, even if the work is good.

    Now, if it were available as an ebook download, then there is a legitimacy about it. Not too hard to do and everyone’s happy that likes that sort of thing. I’m not a poetry reader usually myself, not that there’s anything wrong with it, as Seinfeld would say.

    Morgan Mandel

    • Good idea about e-books, Morgan. Re: donations just to help the artist, I wouldn’t do that either, but Julie Powell of Julie & Julia fame had a PayPal donation button on her blog when I first went there – even after the book was a best seller and the movie was out! When I went back, she’d deleted the button, though – she’s probably rich enouogh without it.

  7. You didn’t make clear in your first post that it was a Poet asking for money on his blog. Poetry makes a difference because poets are not really paid enough if anything for their work. Love of poetry is supposed to be its own reward. Bologna! I agree with Samuel Johnson: “Nobody but a blockhead writes for anything but money.” I think the ebook suggestion is a good one. Probably this is the future for blogs. The really good ones (like Julie’s…ahem!) are worth paying for. Marilyn aka: M. E. KEMP, author: DEATH OF A DANCING MASTER, coming in the Fall and giving it away for charitable causes only.

  8. Last time I checked its a free country. Nothing wrong with promoting your works. I hear people do it all the time. I see people promoting their books, poetry, and CDs in Starbucks, on the street, out of the trunk of their cars, at the beach, etc. More power to them.

    Stephen Tremp

  9. I think you’ve touched on one of the most important issues as publishing redefines itself (much as the music industry did and is continuing to do). How does good content get renumerated? Where does the artist fit in? Is it possible to publish without a middle wo/man, or middle wo/men? Great post–and nothing’s too controversial in this brave, new world, to my mind.

  10. This week I blogged about another author who asked for donations so she could take time off work to write fulltime. Must be a trend. I see nothing wrong with promoting your work. If you feel you need to charge people who read your work on line, that’s fine. It’s up to the reader whether they’re willing to pay or move on to another site. But, simply asking for donations from others to support your “writing habit” seems wrong to me.

  11. Hi Jenny and Jane, thanks so much for stopping in. Yes, this is an issue with many ramifications. The music industry is a good model – there are many examples of people who promoted their own work and then got picked up by major labels. Brandi Carlisle is the latest example who comes to mind.

    Jane, I tend to agree that people should get something for their donations. BTW I promised to send the author who inspired this whole discussion $10 on PayPal, but I’ve procrastinated, and now I find myself resenting my promise. I’m going to keep my word, though.

  12. The point of what David Bollier is saying is that those of us participating in this alternative “marketplace” are in it not to profit. He is describing 2, opposing camps: those driven by the profit motive & those who are using the new technology to get their work out there without going through a corporate gate-keeper.
    Blogs, internet, even simple things like word-processing & cheap, good high-speed printers/photocopiers make it possible for more people to put their art to the world. We the artists now have the tools of production at hand, we don’t need the corporate managers.
    Of course artists should be paid. I pay the feature poets at my events (as do many others in this community), & I’ve worked with arts organizations over the year to get grant money that is then put in the hands of the artists. But Capitalism is the least capable economic system to do that. Even the few big name poets whose books are reviewed in the New York Times have “day jobs.” If you are in this to make money you’re in the wrong business.
    But to whine & moan about not being paid is infantile. Instead, more folks should do what you do, Julie, do your art & get out there & promote it.

    • Hi Dan, and welcome. I don’t think the two camps are necessarily “opposing” – it’s possible to want to make money and also to use new technology to bypass the gatekeepers.

      I believe the music business is ahead of writers in this regard – alternative pop musicians have been releasing their own material for years, bypassing the big record companies and earning more of what they make. There are also more musical collectives releasing products by various artists. Perhaps musicians are more used to working collaboratively than writers.

      I appreciate all you’re doing for the local writing scene. Your inviting me to read from my then unpublished novel and billing me as a mystery writer was one of the major inspirations for my self-publishing my books. And yes, you did get me paid, but that was secondary to the recognition. I wish everyone on the local scene were as positive and benevolent as you!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s