Big Shiny Robot: Pay the Writers | Arts & Entertainment | Salt Lake City Weekly

Big Shiny Robot: Pay the Writers 

Give the job of writing the respect—and compensation—it deserves.

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Writing is an artistic craft, like any other. At its most basic, the art of writing is essentially based on shining the light of feelings and ideas through a prism of empathy, influences and art. On the other side, you get a rainbow of understanding for readers to perceive, enjoy and (hopefully) allow them to grow.

"If it isn't for the writing," legendary Hollywood producer Irving Thalberg famously said, "we've got nothing. Writers are the most important people in Hollywood. And we must never let them know it." Right now, thanks to the boom in artificial intelligence and the abysmal treatment of writers that led them to go on strike in Hollywood, writers are being forced to assert their self-worth in clearer terms than ever. It's a chance to figure out what the place of the writer is in the 21st century, and how we move forward.

But to be a writer, at this moment in the 21st century, is to be inherently undervalued. Consider this: National magazines at the beginning of the 20th century would pay columnists and short-story writers as much as $1 per written word. Imagine how well you could survive on selling a single 5000-word short story to the Saturday Evening Post in 1920. Even in today's dollars, that $5000 would be a king's ransom.

Compare that to the professional going rate today, though: a paltry minimum of 8 cents a word. For every outlet that pays even as much as 25 cents a word, there are a hundred more that want to pay you in "exposure," or the hope of royalties, instead of cash for your labor. Part of the reason for this switch is that many readers don't actually like paying for words anymore, hence the foofaraw over lawsuits against the Internet Archive, who spent some time during the pandemic just giving away digital books without actually, you know, paying the writers.

The pay a writer earns doesn't include all of the work it takes to learn about what you're writing about, too. When I write about Star Wars or Doctor Who, or any of the other licensed universes I'm paid to work in or write about, I'm only paid for the written words, not for the effort that goes into learning enough about these worlds to write about them competently. That's just another sacrifice a writer is expected to make.

Even when writers band together in unions and get publishing deals, few writers have the means to ply their craft as anything but a side-gig. The capitalist society of the United States loves the work of writers, but is actively hostile to a political system and lifestyle that would actually produce high quantities of great writers. I lament all of the future Shakespeares, Kurt Vonneguts and Ursula K. Leguins whose words the world will never have, because instead of making a living in short fiction and building to their great full-length novels, these writers are instead working themselves to the bone for the bare necessities to live.

At the end of the day, Hollywood knows they have nothing without writers. Publishers have nothing without writers. Readers can't read without writers.

Tech-bros, however, are pointing to AI and saying, "We can do this without writers." But have you read any of the drivel produced by AI? It's nonsensical. AI has no capacity to create that prism through which good art shines. Even if AI writing gets better at becoming a facsimile of the writing humans can do, it will still lack the depth of emotion, creativity and spirit of a human writer—because artificial intelligence doesn't have emotions. It can't. It never will.

So, what can you do? You can put your money where your mouth is. Pay for the words you want to see, the shows you want to watch, the movies you want to enjoy. Buy the books you want to read. Subscribe to that newspaper. And then, once you've devoured these written words, crafted at the hands of artisans, shout about it from the rooftops, and feel good about the investment you made.

Otherwise, we're going to end up in a world where the only people who can afford to be writers are those who are on the payroll of companies that don't care about the empathy-building, world-changing nature of a finely-crafted story. And even then, these happy few will likely only be paid to prompt AI to write the stories for them.

Vonnegut said that writing (or practicing any art), no matter how badly, is a way to make your soul grow. But computers don't have souls, so pay actual writers to grow theirs. Cross our palms with silver, and watch the world become a better place.

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