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On (not) writing for free


Art Practical has a piece by Aruna D’Souza, who currently writes about art, food, and culture for the Wall Street Journal, about her transition from being a tenured academic to a freelance writer, and why she decided at a certain point to stop accepting writing gigs that paid in mere “exposure”:

For a while, as I made my transition from professor to civilian, I wasn’t sure how to handle the invitations that I was getting. Most were extended by well-meaning colleagues who didn’t believe me when I said I was changing careers; they all seemed to assume that I still had a salary and a research fund and all those other perks that make contributing one’s work without an honorarium possible. I accepted these invitations because it was slightly humiliating to refuse to take part in an exchange of ideas simply because I couldn’t afford it. It felt like the academic world’s equivalent of admitting that one needs food stamps. (The irony that so many adjunct instructors in academia are actually living on food stamps is not lost on me.)

So, stupidly, I subsidized a lot of institutions—publications, universities and colleges, professional associations—because I did what a lot of people do: I imagined that the fact that I was subject to economic realities was my failure and not the failure of larger systems of economic relations. The point isn’t that I shouldn’t have been as embarrassed as a food-stamp beneficiary should be; the point is that a food-stamp beneficiary shouldn’t be embarrassed either. We are all playing a predetermined role in this economy; we’re not where we are because we failed but because capitalism works.

My decision to refuse invitations that didn’t cover my costs (my time, my travel expenses, and so forth) came when an Ivy League academic, whose work and opinion I hold in very high regard, wrote to me to tell me how much she admired my decision to change careers—and invited me to review a book for a very attractive, slickly designed, and widely read website that she edits. The gig sounded tempting; I wanted to write about that book, and I wanted to do it in a publication like hers. We talked for a bit about the details (word count, deadline, and so on). As almost an afterthought, I asked what my fee would be.

“Unfortunately,” she said, “we don’t pay contributors—yet—but we can offer a huge amount of exposure, as our articles often reach tens of thousands of readers.”

I struggled not to snort a laugh. My friends and I had a running joke about this—the “think of the exposure” line that is often said by people trying to get things done for free that should, in any reasonable accounting of value, be paid for. But until this moment, I’d never actually had it used on me.

Image: Dawn Kasper. THIS COULD BE SOMETHING IF I LET IT, 2012; installation view Whitney Biennial, 2012. Via Art Practical.