Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Westlake on the Rewards to Short-Form Writing

I read a lot of mysteries, and so of course I'm a fan of the extraordinarily accomplished and Donald Westlake. He is perhaps best-known for his comic crime novels, including those featuring John Dortmunder books, but he also wrote some excellent tough-guy noir crime novels under the name Richard Stark, and dozens of other novels. Westlake diesd in 2008, but a collection of his miscellaneous nonfiction writings was just published in The Getaway Car, edited by Levi Stahl. Much of it is blessedly unrelated to economics, but here's a passage that caught my eye about payments for short stories, from a short essay that Westlake wrote in 2000 to an anthology of mystery stories.
"The durability of the short story is astonishing, all in all. It does not these days make any reputations, nor are the financial rewards particularly lush. Today's slick magazines pay for a short story exactly what the slick magazines of the twenties paid for a short story; not adjusted dollars, real dollars [by which I think Westlake means that the nominal dollar payments are the same]. F. Scott Fitzgerald got the same pay from the magazines as today's writers in similar venues, but in his day that was enough to keep him in Paris, whereas today the same income is enough to keep you on the farm. 
"Today's digest-size magazines pay just what their uncles, the pulps, used to pay. Up and down the market, this is the one and only example in the entire American economy of a durable and successful resisitance to inflation. 
"Then why does the short story continue to endure? Given the way our world works, the modest financial return very strongly implies a modest readership; if the millions were clamouring for short stories as though they were Barbie dolls, the price would go up. ... So it must be love that keeps the form alive, the writers love for the work."
Some quick reflections.

1) There's some career advice here for all those students, year after year, who tell you so seriously that it breaks your heart that they "just want to be a writer."

2) Are there other examples of nominal prices that haven't changed for a number of decades in the US economy?

3) For teachers of econmomies, even quick and dirty examples of supply and demand are always useful, if they can catch the attention of students. You're welcome.

4)  Those of us who write blog posts surely sympathize with writing short stories for love and a modest readership. As a practical working writer, Westlake focused mainly on novels in part because the financial rewards were better. Writing books, instead of blog posts? Hmmm.