For a long time I worked in healthcare, an industry where the capitalism-socialism debate is a lively one. Why haven’t I jumped more actively into that fray? Though I doubt I’d have much to offer that’s not already been covered, it’s mostly because I’m not in that business anymore. I write novels now — I’ve changed industries. Fiction writing too seems ripe for exploring postcapitalistic alternatives, even if it isn’t the subject of heated public debate. As I wrote at the end of the “About” page on this website: This time it’s personal. This time it’s fictional. This time it’s real.
I worked in healthcare; I did a job and I got paid for it. When I’d work on spec as an entrepreneur, I did it with the expectation that eventually I’d get paid. Do I work in fiction? As writer I’ve been a speculative entrepreneur, but those bets didn’t pay off. Even if the postcapitalist scheme I’ve been outlining on Ficticities were to be actualized, I still wouldn’t be able to make a living from writing. With resolute frugality financed by 401ks, index mutual funds, and social security (a classic mix of capitalistic and socialistic revenue streams), we figure we can make it to the end of the race. Projected revenues from books? They don’t even factor into the equations.
Do I nonetheless deem myself a professional writer of fictions? I’ve had no formal training, don’t hold the advanced degree emblematic of professional status. Originally a profession was a public declaration of vows taken upon entering a monastic order. In professing oneself a writer of fiction a vow of poverty is required; chastity and humility are optional but generally frowned upon. When in public I admit to being a novelist it feels less a profession than a confession.
Once while walking in Nice I came across a young man handing out copies of his poetry, begging bowl on the sidewalk in front of him: a profession of poetic monasticism. That’s not me. Recently I’ve engaged in an extended email exchange with a professional poet: he teaches poetry in an MFA and Ph.D. program; a few volumes of his poetry have been published. He writes:
I try to be as creative as possible in my private life. Going around the house I will write out-loud. Whole scat-poems (maybe scat in several senses). There are only two rules: I write as best as I can at the very tip of moment’s tongue, and I don’t allow myself to remember any of it.
That’s not me either.
I don’t associate with other novelists, either professionally or socially, so I’m not motivated by affective solidarity to pursue postcapitalist fictional alternatives. Worse: I don’t much like what other novelists write. Of the novels on the New Release shelves at my local public library fewer than ten percent draw my attention, and most of those were written by foreign authors. My working assumption is that published American novelists are holding themselves in thrall, conforming to the bland expectations set by an industry that values return on investment more than excellence and distinction. There might be plenty of American novels out there that I’d want to read, but they never see the light of day because most likely they wouldn’t make enough money. Relax the commercial constraints and the New Release shelves will spontaneously overflow with American novels that I’d like to read. I acknowledge this is a kind of blind faith on my part, unsupported by any tangible evidence other than my own novels. But what if I’m wrong, and American novelists are already giving it their best shot? What if they’re already happy with what they’re writing, inspired by commercial standards rather than constrained by them?