Is ‘being the next Stephen King’ a realistic goal for a writer? That’s who I wanted to be when I grew up. The first book of Mr. King’s I ever read was Thinner, twenty-four years ago. At the time, I felt like I’d discovered my life’s purpose: I was going to be a writer. I was going to write horror stories like Stephen King and become rich and famous…just like Mr. King.
Time evolved my work, as well as my expectations. I stopped writing horror fiction in high school, turning my attention inward, writing about relationships and the many ways people mess them up. I’ve published two novels, worked on a webcomic, and I write for a few blogs. Yet none of my artistic work has ever made very much money. Instead, my writing income comes from my day job, creating corporate documents for HR clients.
Patronage has historically been how writers and other artists have made their living. From its roots in the 14th century to the Patreon accounts of today, artists have relied on others to sustain their art. Other ways to make money from art also exist. There’s bookselling. Commissions. Government programs. Relying on the generosity of others. In 2015, Ann Bauer wrote a tremendous essay about how her husband’s salary essentially subsidized her own career. Yet each revenue stream comes with catches. Selling art on the open market means that the art must first be marketable, palatable to a mass audience. Patronage and generosity also requires that the patrons enjoy the art to some degree.
Government subsidies comes with their own catches, especially in the United States. The USA has never been a big believer in arts subsidies; the annual budget for the National Endowment for the Arts is $158 million, a pittance compared to some European countries’ arts spending.
When artists don’t have to worry about where their next paycheck is coming from, they have the freedom to be more experimental. Their next work may fail, but the freedom to fail is assured. It’s this freedom to fail that seems missing from the United States. Not just in the artistic world, but everywhere. As I get older, the American Dream has morphed into an ever-present Sword of Damocles. The threat of failure is omnipresent: in the threat of medical bankruptcy, the absence of a social safety net and the crushing weight of student loan debt. When success does come, it’s fleeting: a viral video moment or a spot on the 24-hour news cycle before the world moves on. Sustained success like that enjoyed by Stephen King and others of his generation seems rarefied and more than ever out of reach.
How can artists survive in this climate? There’s no easy answers. To be unafraid to fail, the consequences of failure must be mitigated. Government funding would help, as would more understanding from art buyers. Artists like myself who don’t need to rely on income from their art have the most freedom; our art can be as experimental or niche as we like. But for others, it falls to patrons and other buyers of art to, well, buy art. Seek it out. Recommend it to your friends. The long tail of the internet means it’s never been easier to discover the nichiest of niche materials. Search for those who share your interests; you’re sure to find them.
I think I was somewhere in my mid-twenties when I realized I was never going to achieve the same level of notoriety as Mr. King. My fiction is too insular, too quiet. The webcomic I worked on, Chefs in Black could have been big, had we ever reached an audience of more than fifty. Sure, I could have spread the word, but that would have taken more time than I had available. However, at that age I made a conscious trade: fame for creative control. My work may not ever be seen by more than a dozen people at a time, but it is mine.