As I was reading the new James Joyce biography, I started to wonder whatever happened to the patronage system?
Joyce had a knack for picking up patrons, for making it clear that he was a true genius, that he could not do something as gauche as work for his money, and his works of earthshaking brilliance would never find form if he and his family were not financially supported. As so here came a number of heiresses, willing to hand over large sums of money and not ask too many questions about where these important novels might be.
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Instead, today, writers are absolutely expected to work for their money. And as Eddie Campbell’s new comic book about money, The Lovely Horrible Stuff, makes clear, much of that work consists of writing their publishers, their collaborators and their freelance employers to ask where exactly their money might be.
Campbell gives us a very thoughtful examination of the troubling intersection of art and money. It’s an old worry that has troubled many a writer, as Campbell imagines the letters William Shakespeare may have had to write to those who owed him cash. “So many of my finest phrases have been recommissioned into the service of debt collection,” Shakespeare tells Campbell at the bar. “Thrice you have promised me that said monies will arrive...tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow.”
There is something about The Lovely Horrible Stuff that almost feels taboo breaking. Helen DeWitt, the author of the brainy cult favorite The Last Samurai, created a stir by frankly discussing the history of her advances in a series of interviews last year. It’s a subject rarely broached baldly. Artists are supposed to be above the day-to-day concerns of money and greed, and the romantic notion of poverty still pervades. When advances are spoken of in figures, it is generally done coyly and obliquely. For DeWitt to come out and publicly state, This book made me X amount, and these are the concessions to the work that had to be made as a result, the easily scandalized writing world drew in a sharp intake of breath. (They also began to label her as crazy and high maintenance, but that is an expected response.)
Perhaps the most chilling part of The Lovely Horrible Stuff is the conversations between Campbell and TV producers who wanted to adapt his graphic novel The Fate of the Artist. Television and film has long been a moneyed refuge for writers, from Dorothy Parker to Richard Price. Few publicly complain about their experiences, unwilling to be targeted for revenge, perhaps. And yet Campbell’s dialogue reveals that in exchange for the money, and they did seem to be promising a good deal of money, Campbell was expected to, well, dumb it down. Strip the Eddie Campbell out of his writing. Add in William Shakespeare head-butting a guy in the bar, rather than talking all that British stuff. And Campbell’s writing, as light and breezy as it has ever been, is not about strong narrative or easily digested storytelling. Which is why, perhaps, he feels comfortable burning that bridge, as it seems to be a fluke that the approach was ever made.
The Lovely and Horrible Stuff is lackadaisical and meandering, taking in all of the things Campbell has tried to do for money, including a strange experiment in writing a Batman comic, playing around with the tax code by creating a one-man company called Antelope Pineapple Pty Ltd, and shifting his work from publisher to publisher. It has immense charm, but it’s a little thin.
Perhaps my complaint stems only from the fact that the issue is tackled so infrequently. Generally, biographers, like Joyce’s, only broach the topic of money when they can safely talk about it decades after the writer has died. I cannot expect one man to do the work of a hundred, nor one book to become the definitive volume. Publishing is a business, as they are happy to remind you as they drop you for not earning back your advance. And the long history of art versus money will continue long into the future.
Jessa Crispin is the founder and editor-in-chief of Bookslut.