If you want to know why writing is not likely to prove a very remunerative career choice, this and this are about the most lucid and honest explanations I have seen. Anyone who thinks either that writing just must be a lucrative endeavor or that American culture values what writers do should read them.
However, as compelling as these pieces are as testimony to the mythos of the writing life, they do leave unadressed two underlying questions: Why do would-be writers think the "literary world" overflows with treasures waiting to be claimed? Why does the United States reward its writers so stingily, if at all?
No doubt many people see that a few writers (mostly authors of potboiling trash, but a few real writers as well) manage to write books that actually reach a paying audience, or to sell a book to Hollywood and apparently make a tidy sum out of it, and conclude that it must be a more common phenomenon than it is. Perhaps they simply feel that they, too, have the kind of undeniable talent that will make them financially successful at it as well. It's probably a good guess, however, that these very naive sorts give up on the notion of being a "published author" when they discover that writing actually involves hard work or they get their first rejection slips.
Perhaps some people think of book publishing as just another quarter of Celebrityville--and book publishers certainly are doing everything they can to validate such a conception--and assume that, like the other more glittery sections, it mush be awash in cash. Unfortunately, the "book industry" only illustrates, rather pathetically, how the entertainment industry more widely is ruled by the laws of commerce rather than the dictates of art: the money goes where more money can be made, and where entertainment dollars are concerned, books attract very few.
Quite possibly, however, many starry-eyed writers believe there must be money to be made through plying the writer's trade for a perfectly good reason. Producing good and useful books is an important thing to do, and, well, those who do it should be rewarded for it. And it's hard to argue with this logic. They should. Only the free-market ideologues and the grumpiest defenders of the "commercial" could deny that the creation of literary art in any genre is an inherently worthy endeavor that ought to be supported at least to the extent of allowing writers of proven talent to earn a living at it. And as John Scalzi makes plain in his essay, writing is damn hard work--much harder work than Donald Trump has ever done--hard enough to satisfy even the hoariest demands of the most Puritanical of work ethics.
Which of course brings us to the second question. Why are American writers compensated so poorly, even when many agents, editors and publishers live in high style? Mostly because they allow themselves to be. Most writers who really like what they do are willing to do it despite being shafted by the powers that be. They think the rewards lie elsewhere, or will come later, maybe even when it's too late to enjoy them. When it comes down to it, most truly dedicated writers don't care enough about monetary reward (although it would surely be nice as a side benefit) to put up much of a fight against a system that exploits them at best, ridicules them the rest of the time. They just want to write, and any arrangement that allows them to do so will suffice.
And what would American literature be without these dedicated types. Hawthorne and Melville, Dickinson and Whitman. Faulkner. Even Wallace Stevens, who managed himself to exploit the system in order to provide himself with the means to write poetry no one would have ever paid for. Closer to our own time, Joseph Heller and William Gaddis spent years in obscurity doing menial writing-related work in order to write novels that at first few people cared about. Richard Yates endured years of misery in order to keep writing. It could be argued that the much-derided creative writing programs are really just a prop that writers have found to support the writing habit itself, the possibility of being paid a living wage while continuing to write, although even this is done indirectly, a sinecure provided in return for scholastic services rendered. Unfortunately, there aren't enough of them to go around.
Just a cursory glance at literary history (or simply at the history of book publishing) is enough to show that serious writing (serious art in general) is finally not something that American culture has much use for. The very words "serious" and "literature" and "art" have mostly been held in contempt as vestiges of all that European fol-de-rol as an alternative to which God created Americans. Where there's money to be made from it, as there is with the ocassional literary writer, the capitalist vultures will pounce on it, and this keeps the publishing belly full for a while. Otherwise, the best a serious writer could probably hope for is that they'll ignore you.
Original link provided by Tingle Alley.