It’s a common complaint, of course. Some writers say they are poor and really mean that they only have five credit cards with credit limits of $25,000 each and just got an advance for only $50,000.
When I say I am poor, I mean I have no credit cards, I live on my income as a freelancer plus my meager royalties and haven’t had an advance over $50,000 in a decade.
Twenty-five years ago, when I was just starting out as a writer, I told myself that I was only going to do work that was related to writing. If it wasn’t actual writing, it had to be editing or teaching writing. I’ve stuck with that — which is, of course, why I am poor.
My agent has told me that it would be good for my career (she means credit rating) if I stopped writing about politics in both my non-fiction and fiction for a time and concentrated more on something Nicholas Sparks-like. (One editor who took pity on my penury let me write porn for him under a pseudonym. He told me I was the only porn writer he knew who always had to make the porn political. From him, unlike my agent, it was a compliment.)
“Make some money,” my agent said. “Saving your own world is still saving the world.”
The problem for queer writers is we want to write about our own lives, not the lives that everyone else is already writing about. I just can’t write “The Notebook” or “The Last Song.” It’s not that I don’t have a sappy romance in me — I am sure that I do, since I tear up during Hallmark commercials. But I’m queer. And, while like all good writers I can project into an alternative world, be it filled with vampires and shape shifters or heterosexual couples in which the woman acquiesces to the man, some things interest me more than others.
Thus I’m not going to be writing a Nicholas Sparks-type book any time soon, because only the straight version would sell.
I’ve had the money conversation with many other writer friends. My straight writer friends are making way more money than my queer writer friends. Not because they are necessarily better writers, but because we queers all have to support ourselves. Which takes time from writing.
There’s also the marginalization issue. Heterosexuality is never going to be a literary “trend” — it’s a social construct. No agent or editor ever says to a straight writer, “that trend is over. Try writing something less hetero. You know, more Ann Bannon.”
Let’s be honest: If it weren’t for a handful of independent presses like Bold Strokes and Bella and Alyson, plus a bunch of university presses with queer editors, many of us would be writing our hearts out at our kitchen tables at night while dreaming of being published. But it would be a dream deferred.
One well-known queer writer used to tell me that most queer writing didn’t deserve to be published because it was poorly written and the stories were pedestrian. It was this writer’s claim that only good queer books got published by mainstream presses and that independent presses were for the also-rans.
I disagreed. I had been published by the big presses and the small presses and each had their merits. My main disagreement with that argument, however, was with the idea that only the creme de la creme of queer books should be published. If second-rate straight books flood the marketplace, why not middle-rate queer books as well? Not all our work will be Pulitzer material, but it is still part of our collective voice. And our collective voice needs to be heard whether the mainstream thinks the “trend” of our “lifestyle” is over or not.
Which brings me back to the money problem. How do we maintain a strong literary voice for the totality of our queer community — the L’s and the G’s, the B’s and the T’s and even the I’s and the Q’s — if our writers can’t make a living as writers?
We can’t. When Stonewall crested there were a mere smattering of queer books available and most of them were either pulp fiction or creepily clinical texts. Now we have a plethora of queer books —fiction, non-fiction, memoir, humor, erotica, young adult, biography, drama —but we are still a subset of the literary sphere because our marginalization keeps us from living as writers.
Sure, straight writers struggle, too. But is there a queer equivalent to Nick Sparks or Elizabeth Gilbert’s “Eat, Pray, Love”? When I pitched a book on lesbian sexuality to my mainstream publisher I was given the hairy eyeball. “We aren’t doing books like that anymore.”
As long as our lives as queer writers are considered part of a trend that is trending out like big hair and up-turned collars, as long as we are marginalized as not-quite-befitting a mainstream audience, as long as we have to write straight for money, we are either going to be poor or in a different kind of closet than the one we first came out of. Either way, as queer writers, we still have a lot of work to do to solidify our literary legacy and keep it going for the future. With or without the cash.