Burroughs Adding Machine

Social justice, arts and politics, life in New York City

Kafka Was a Secretary

And Faulkner was the head of his local post office.

Adjusted for inflation, the salaries for Kafka and Faulkner were $40,000 and $18,000, respectively. Puts the importance of writers having a day job in perspective.

I like this nifty little chart from Lapham’s Quarterly for several reasons. First, it’s got a tongue-in-cheek tone, not taking itself too seriously (“Occupational Hazards” for the man who captured existentialism in the form of a cockroach?: “Tedious memoranda, bureaucracy”). I’m also impressed with the variety of writers captured: canonical writers like Trollope and Fielding; Charlotte Bronte’s salary and responsibilities as a glorified nanny; and, of course, Kafka in his modernist profession.

Another reason I like this chart is its premise: Very few writers earn their living merely off writing. A good number of us in 2010 teach writing, some writers I know earn their paychecks in publishing or arts administration, and the wise ones, in my opinion, earn their living outside academia or the arts altogether. For years, a good friend of mine earned his living in Brooklyn as a carpenter–and a fine one at that. I’ve half-heartedly joked with friends that I planned to become a baker, relishing the solitude and actual product of this work. Show up for a hard day’s work (unrelated to writing) and then arrive home with a clear head (unmuddled or exhausted by writing shop-talk).

It’s eye-opening for some of my aspiring writers to adjust their mindsets and envision that that writer’s life–even after attaining a level of success like publishing novels–does not adequately pay the bills.

Kafka was a secretary. Bronte was a nanny. And Faulkner was a postmaster (supposedly a poor one–drinking and lazing–at that). Who’s to say that writing and fortune belong in the same breath?

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About Me

Ricco Villanueva Siasoco is a Manhattan-based writer and non-profit manager. More

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