John Cheever: Nightmares about money until Playboy stepped in
Books Features

Cheques and balances

John Self says that while writing has always been seen as a vocation, the characters many authors care most about are the ones printed on their royalty statements

This article is taken from the March 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.

If you’re looking for something character-building — in the same way that it was character-building for Wile E. Coyote to keep on going when the cliff didn’t — may I recommend starting a new self-employed career in the teeth of a global pandemic? In autumn 2019 I left my day job, throttling a livelihood of 20-odd years to pursue full-time the vocation of book-botherer which had until then been a — forgive me — side hustle. Well, other people come roaring out of their midlife crisis with leather elbow patches on a Honda; I chose metaphorical tweed and clouds of ink.

Last year was a sticky, slippery one for writers of all types, without question. Novelists saw their new releases paused, rescheduled, and finally sprung on a distracted public just as the bookshops closed again. And stage-door Johnnies like me, sucking on the hind teat of those shifting releases to feed our reviews, interviews and three’s-a-trend features, are collateral damage.

We’ve been buffeted from the other side by publications suffering badly in their turn. They have seen ad revenue and sales come to an emergency stop in the face of lockdown. Therefore they need to cut back on page count and freelance spending — on rare occasions even decommissioning existing work. (A particular shock, this last, to a boy from Belfast who was assured in the 1990s that decommissioning was an unequivocally good thing.)

It’s comforting to assume things were easier for writers when print ruled, and the captive readership had to take what it was offered

Others in the arts have had it worse, of course — most theatres, for example, have been closed since last March. But as Philip Larkin put it, when writing to his friend Judy Egerton about the approach of their respectively dreaded Christmases: “Yours is the harder course, I can see. On the other hand, mine is happening to me.”

It might provide perspective, or just distraction, to look at how other writers coped with the money question. After all, while pulling words out of air is grandly seen as a vocation, even a passion, it’s pretty clear that throughout literary history, writers have been very interested indeed in how much they’re going to get paid. “No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money,” said Dr Johnson, even though James Boswell, who recorded the words, felt sure he must be joking.

As elsewhere, with writers there are the haves and the have-nots, though they blend and blur: the haves often think they’re have-nots; the have-nots know their place. The writer most awash with cash might have been Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. When he began writing Sherlock Holmes stories for the Strand magazine in 1891, he was paid £4 per thousand words, equivalent now to around 50p a word — close to a market rate today for some publications. But Holmes’s huge success meant that when Conan Doyle attempted to give him up by shoving him over the Reichenbach Falls, the Strand stuffed his mouth with gold, paying him the equivalent of a GP’s annual salary at the time — £1,000 — for each standalone Holmes story.

Money is an intensifier, a flavour enhancer, exacerbating a writer’s best and worst qualities

The success story sure to have every writer grumbling in their guts is Roald Dahl, who in 1942 was encouraged by C. S. Forester to write about his experiences in the war. Dahl’s very first stab at writing, “A Piece of Cake”, was immediately accepted by the Saturday Evening Post, which paid him $1,000: around £12,000 now. “Did you know you were a writer?” Forester asked him; and if Dahl’s celebrated misanthropy, racism and antisemitism haven’t yet had him cancelled, perhaps this outrageously frictionless ascent will do the job.

It’s comforting to assume things were easier for writers when print ruled, and the captive readership had to take what it was offered and damn well like it. But even in the early twentieth century, before the rise of the working-class writer, there were plenty who were permanently on their uppers; often, curiously, those we associate with glamour and wealth.

Evelyn Waugh never stopped wanting a richer start in life, and as a child would walk far enough from Golders Green to ensure that his letters were postmarked Hampstead. In 1928 he asked his agent A. D. Peters to “please fix up anything that will earn me anything, even cricket criticism or mothers’ welfare notes”. By the early 1930s he was earning around £2,000 a year, a third of which was from journalism; this was around the time that “five hundred a year” was declared to be the income required to distance a writer from money worries (by Virginia Woolf, who had none), though Waugh still felt himself to be permanently “starving” until the success of Brideshead Revisited in 1945.

But no writer of that era was quite so desperate as the gilded father of the Jazz Age, F. Scott Fitzgerald. Like Waugh, he resented not being higher-born, “distrusting the rich, yet working for money with which to share their mobility and the grace that some of them brought into their lives”. Like Jay Gatsby, for a time he spent his way into this lifestyle. But by the 1930s, his literary stock was low and he was writing to fund what Arnold Gingrich, his editor at Esquire, called “the fantastically expensive treatments for mental illness” undergone by his wife Zelda.

Working as a screenwriter in Hollywood in the late 1930s, in 18 months Fitzgerald earned an eye-watering $91,000 from MGM, but was unable to save any of it, and by 1939 he was freelancing and selling stories to Esquire, each accompanied by a desperate whipped-dog plea for cash. “I wish you’d wire the money if you like this story.” “Again the old ache of money. Again will you wire me if you like it.” A low point came on 22 December 1939, when he begged Gingrich for “a hundred advance on really excellent story to reach you Tuesday so I can buy turkey”. As good as his word, he delivered the story a day early — on Christmas Day — with the note, “Please wire money. Thanks.”

Money is an intensifier, a flavour enhancer, exacerbating a writer’s best and worst qualities, as we can see from Fitzgerald’s inability to look after it (he was, on his own account, “only a mediocre caretaker of most of the things left in my hands, even of my talent”). The same goes for Henry James, whose circuitous mode of expression finds its perfect form in a letter to his brother about his publisher, complaining that “the delicious ring of the sovereign is conspicuous in our intercourse by its absence”. 

It’s said Dali would skip paying the bill at a restaurant by doodling on the back of his cheque, knowing that it would thereby never be cashed

Perhaps his publisher, Macmillan, didn’t understand what he was asking for. What money intensifies most is the essential dominant trait of the writer: insecurity. A writer is someone for whom an editor’s response “This is great” means “I suppose this will do”, and money multiplies these insecurities deliciously.

Take John Cheever, who was never free of financial worries until his late sixties, when his collected Stories became a bestseller. On changing publisher, he apologised to his new editor Bob Gottlieb: “I’m afraid I was a nuisance about money, but I have this nightmare where I push a supermarket wagon across River Street — macaroni and cold cuts — and am either run down by Roth in his Daimler or buzzed by Updike in his new flying machine.”

It turns out he was right to be paranoid: Cheever’s rate for stories at the New Yorker was, unknown to him, half what they were paying John Updike. Happily, he had begun selling work to Playboy instead. “They pay well and are hospitable, and the tits aren’t any more distracting than the girdle advertisements in the New Yorker.”

Money reveals character in other ways. Spectacular grifter Salvador Dali was, said his publisher Peter Owen, “a creep [but] not as mad as you’d think. When you mentioned money he suddenly became very sane.” It’s said Dali would skip paying the bill at a restaurant by doodling on the back of his cheque, knowing that it would thereby never be cashed.

Perhaps writers and money were never meant to go together, all the better to keep us lean and hungry. There is undoubtedly a remaining glimmer of the romance of the struggling scribe — there was a performative element to Philip K. Dick’s being reduced to eating dog food — but nobody can bring their A-game when worrying about how to pay the bills.

But it is not easy to reset the relationship between writers and money. Money, as well as the spark of daily life, is a surrogate for the appreciation and applause that writers, most alive when alone, rarely to get to see in person. They need it literally, but also figuratively. Only occasionally does the tree fall in the other direction: Robert Louis Stevenson once rejected royalties that he felt were excessive, surely a first and last in literary history.

How do we solve the problem of writers and money? In his 1994 essay “The Trouble with Money”, Ian Hamilton wrote about the experience of writers sitting on committees that grant money to other writers. “Wild-eyed anarchist novelists would transmute into prim-lipped accountants. Tremulous lyric poets would rear up like tigers of the bottom line. Book-reviewers who, I knew, lived in daily terror of being rumbled by the Revenue were all at once furrow-browed custodians of public funds.”

This seems as good a way as any to reset the relationship: giving writers control over other people’s money won’t make them any richer, but at least withholding it from others will make them feel a lot better about it. I am, of course, happy to do my duty.

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