As a novelist, I often feel pressure to act as if my work is completely detached from financial considerations. When an interviewer asks, “What made you write this book?” they don’t want to be told that writing books is literally my job, or that I have bills to pay, or to be treated to an explanation of the role of labor under capitalism. So like most writers, whether they write poetry or self-help, I generally try to fulfill expectations by talking as if I spend my days eating lotuses and weaving dreams, too filled with artistic inspiration to care about money.
I really would love not to care about money, and I’m a very impractical person, so I have huge potential in this area. But I’m always really poor, so I can’t get started. I care or starve. That doesn’t mean my novels aren’t inspired by ideas and feelings and experiences, but I also have to write something that sells.
I’ve often found that pressure helpful. I suffered for years from writer’s block, but there’s no cure for being blocked like being a month behind on rent when your only marketable skill is writing. Writing for a living can also help cure you of preciousness, of your idea of yourself as a superior soul. It reminds you that the reader is who it’s all for; that the point is to communicate, not impress. The best work I’ve done has come from a friction between artistic aspirations and worries about the sales department.
But when I really needed a paycheck, I’ve also written a lot of crap.
I’m not calling this material “crap” because it was genre fiction or ad copy. There are people who write these things with integrity and artistry and passion. I mean that I did jobs I didn’t believe in, and I phoned them in. I wrote things as fast as I could type them because I was given an unrealistic deadline. I did jobs so poorly conceived it was impossible to do them well. I wrote reading guides for schools where the template I was required to use was so wrongheaded, I felt complicit in making America stupid. I wrote an introduction to a new edition of the US Constitution although I had no background in either history or constitutional law, and it went out under the name of the real historian who’d written the (unacceptably boring) introduction to the previous edition. The least of my crimes was writing a children’s book about Ancient Greece sourced entirely from Wikipedia—the least because, as the editor told me, all their writers used Wikipedia; that assumption was built into the deadlines. Another time, I wrote two reviews of computer games before I had ever played a computer game, including the ones I reviewed. No ethics in gaming journalism on my watch. In fact, the practice of assigning writing jobs to people with no expertise is common, and feigning expertise is one of the indispensable skills of the hack. One political writer I know told me his foolproof system was to buy a bottle of whisky, stay up all night reading articles on the internet, and write the thing at dawn. Another described their job as being “like meeting someone new, fucking them, getting pregnant and giving birth inside five hours every damn day. Then doing it again the next morning.”The practice of assigning writing jobs to people with no expertise is common, and feigning expertise is one of the indispensable skills of the hack.
My worst hack job of all time was writing three erotic romances—to give them their polite name, though the ones I wrote were really just porn for women. It was the worst job both because the stuff I wrote was unforgivably bad, and because it was the hardest. Each novel had to be 100,000 words, and I got $5,000 each. My idea was that writing these would buy me time to write my “real” novel, so I gave myself a month for each one, and stuck to that deadline like a person defusing a bomb with a digital clock ticking down beside them. From the moment a porn month began, I porned every hour I was awake.
Before I go on, let me say that I know many people write erotic romance because they love the genre. I have nothing but respect for people who are devoted writers and readers of erotic romance. I deserved the two-star reviews they gave me.
But I’m not one of them. I’m incurably not one of them, in the same way I’m a person who can’t appreciate the charms of eggplant. No amount of money could make me one of them, much less $5,000 for 100,000 words.
But I also have deep respect for writers of erotic fiction because I learned how hard it is. The first sex scene was no problem, but then there was another. And another. Each one had to feel different—but, as the editor had warned, it couldn’t get too edgy. It didn’t have to be all vanilla, there could be chocolate—but not too much chocolate. I soon realized this meant writing the same scene over and over, and trying desperately to make the 17th bowl of vanilla-with-chocolate-sprinkles seem different from the first 16.
Furthermore, as everyone knows, when you’re not in the mood for it, porn is gross. After the first few hours, it was also unendurably boring. Nonetheless it made me horny, in a downtrodden, creepy way. I was disgusted and horny and disgusted by my horniness. I was hornily falling asleep in my chair. I was hornily staring out the window and hornily wondering how I got to this point.
But the real bane of my life was getting the characters undressed. When you’re trying to be sexy, you don’t want to write, “He took off his shoes. Then his socks.” Yet often your characters are wearing shoes and socks. They’re wearing tights and pants and sometimes even coats and gloves—all of which must go before the scene can get going. You don’t want to inadvertently create a mental image of two people fucking in socks and ski hats. So you’re constantly racking your brains for fresh versions of, “In a trice, they were naked,” or, “He undressed her impatiently.” I was singularly bad at this. Again and again, I found myself staring at the lines “She took off her shoes. Then her socks,” with my brain absolutely unresponsive.All day, as I wrote sex scenes, the three cats and a dog sat in a circle at my feet and stared at me judgmentally.
I took heroic measures to stave off the crippling boredom. I named a well-endowed character “Choo-Choo.” I had the characters have sex on boats, in department stores, in the lion enclosure at the zoo. The first novel was about a university—for sex!—and I incorporated subtle parodies of academic culture into the blow job class. The next novel was about sexy jewel thieves and, for a brief time, I was giddily inspired: I incorporated a fireman’s pole and miniature horses into an orgy scene and it was like being the only person on Neptune singing a beautiful aria into the emptiness of space. But by the time I was writing the last novel (about a tv channel—for sex!) I had lost all capacity for invention. I trudged through the scenes about the sex soap opera and the sex game show spiritlessly, wretchedly, like a donkey turning a mill wheel.
During this period, I went to pet-sit for an acquaintance, also because I needed the money. He had three cats and a dog, and I’ve never encountered pets so needy. At first, it was a constant battle to prevent all three cats from climbing into my lap, while the dog simultaneously nosed in to lick my typing hands. With persistence, I trained them to keep their distance for long enough periods that I could work. This meant that all day, as I wrote sex scenes, the three cats and a dog sat in a circle at my feet and stared at me judgmentally. It was like an allegorical representation of True Art offended by the hack’s betrayal.
Of course, I’m not the first “serious” writer who’s gone through this kind of thing. F. Scott Fitzgerald was not only the author of The Great Gatsby, but of the advertising slogan for a local dry cleaner: “We Keep You Clean In Muscatine.” Both Faulkner and Hemingway wrote for the Ford corporate magazine, the Ford Times. Among Martin Amis’s early works is a book of tips for winning Atari 2600 games called The Space Invaders Book, and Neil Gaiman began his career with a biography of Duran Duran.
There have been hacks as long as there have been writers. The 19th-century novel Grub Street is about a miserable hack writer in a world of miserable hack writing; it takes its title from the 18th-century English term for hack writing, which Samuel Johnson defines in his dictionary as: “originally the name of a street … much inhabited by writers of small histories, dictionaries, and temporary poems, whence any mean production is called grubstreet.” What Johnson doesn’t mention is that many of the “small histories” of that time were fake. Daniel Defoe’s entire career as a novelist began with books that passed themselves off as the memoirs of pirates, thieves, and castaways. To some degree, this practice is responsible for the invention of realism, as writers like Defoe had to make their accounts sound as credible as possible. The epistolary novel also originated largely with books that were sold as real correspondences, like Letters to a Portuguese Nun. In the early 19th century, it remained common to introduce a novel with a preface explaining how the author had “found these documents”—i.e. the novel itself. By that time, readers weren’t expected to take this literally; it was a spandrel left over from a more credulous age. (Of course hack writers continued to invent genres through the 20th and 21st centuries, from the murder mystery to dinosaur porn.)
Looking back further, it’s hard to beat the shamelessness of the 16th-century author who wrote a fake deathbed confession for the writer Robert Greene and hawked it as a pamphlet. I personally feel a kinship to the writer Thomas Nashe, now best remembered as a collaborator of Shakespeare, because although Nashe was fiercely snobbish and loved to sneer at the mercenary behavior of others, he also wrote porn for cash. His poem, “The Choice of Valentines, or The Merry Ballad of Nashe His Dildo,” explicitly describes the narrator’s sexual misadventures with a woman who, left frustrated by his premature ejaculation, finishes herself off with the eponymous dildo. When upbraided for the filthiness of such works, Nashe excused himself by saying poverty forced him “to pen unedifying toys for gentlemen.”
Like most poems of the time, “The Choice of Valentines” was never published. It was written to attract the financial patronage of a nobleman. For centuries, this was a crucial source of income for writers, and hack writing consisted largely of flattery. All students of classics are familiar with the countless Roman verses written in praise of Maecenas, whose most memorable quality was his willingness to give money to poets. Elizabethan literature has entire genres devoted to flattery, like the “country house” poem, in which the writer thanks a patron for a free vacation by gushing about the accommodations. The first known country house poem, dating from 1613, was written by a woman, Emilia Lanier, who’s primarily known as an early feminist and possible mistress of Shakespeare, but was also a hero of sycophancy; her one book of poetry contains 35 full pages of fawning dedications to no fewer than nine noblewomen.
And as long as I’m outing myself as a hack, it would be remiss of me not to use this opportunity to mention that my latest novel, The Heavens, has Emilia as a major character. After all, what could be more appropriate than revealing that this essay was written to promote something else—my “real” work? But does that make this essay a piece of hack writing? Perhaps it’s cleverly self-referential? Is this a cynical essay or a high-minded ad? Maybe it’s basically a begging letter? Where do we draw these lines? Here I can’t resist quoting a real begging letter from the medieval poet Mathieu de Vendôme to his father because, although it wasn’t intended as literature, it’s a lovely cri de coeur that speaks for poor writers everywhere: “I am in want. I have no books and no clothes. Paris drinks money. What tiger would refuse its kitten?”
The moral of this story is that hack writing isn’t even that well paid. Grub Street wasn’t just known for its shoddy publications, but for its poverty. Today’s hacks could often walk down the street, fill out an application at Duane Reade and make the same money for fewer hours. Yet it’s surprisingly hard to give up. Even when you’re not perpetrating a hoax, it has a sleazy glamour to it. You’re a rogue, a Humphrey Bogart character, a scrappy low-life living by your wits. And finally, it’s still writing. When people ask what you’ve been doing, it still feels good to say, “I’m writing …” even if the end of the sentence makes you blush.
So I want to finish by reminding you of the classic joke about the man who gets a job cleaning up after the elephants at the circus. A friend comes to see him and finds him, shovel in hand, knee-deep in elephant shit. The friend cries out, “You can’t do this job! Come work in my office. You can wear a clean suit! I’ll pay you whatever you’re making here.”
The guy looks up from shoveling shit and says, “What? And give up show business?”