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Guest Post: Brendan Jones on Writing, Being a Dude, and Spousal "Sponsorship"

 

Brendan Jones is currently a Stegner Fellow at Stanford University.  His novel, The Alaskan Laundry, will be published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in Spring 2016.

 

So yeah – what’s up with no guys responding to Ann Bauer’s Salon article “Sponsored By My Husband”? Laura Brogan in Dame Magazine argues about the importance of commitment to the craft, Allison Williams and Kelly Sundberg in Brevity on the pros and cons of supporting oneself. But where’s ol’ Chad Harbach when you need him? Ben Percy? Too busy on a man-weekend? Why no high-test males chiming in on how nice it is to have a “very loving [partner] who shows up at the end of the day, asks me how the writing went, pours me a glass of wine, then takes me out to eat.” Foot rubs and salted baths and all the rest of it.

The idea of being a kept man rubs a guy funny, and not in the good way. We pretend to be good postmodern dudes, striding around in our skinny jeans and v-neck t-shirts, feminist-leaning, using all the right words in the presence of the opposite sex. But when it comes to the “crass” subject of money, this idea of being supported by a woman makes us flinch. I mean, I doubt Hemingway ever bragged to Dos Passos over how Hadley bought him his first Corona typewriter (true).

So I’ve got a couple things to say about guys and sponsorship, and then I’ll tell you why I think Bauer’s article sucks.

I’ve always had jobs other than writing, from age 12 on, leaving school at 19 to work in Alaska’s commercial fisheries. But one balmy evening in April 2013, while having a beer in the Great North, I got a telephone call from a Palo Alto area code. A woman with a gentle Irish brogue told me I had been awarded a Stegner Fellowship at Stanford. And, like that, friends, I had my introduction to what it felt like being a kept man. And let me tell you, it’s really nice. There are trade-offs – even as I sit here now in Oakland in my Stegner-sponsored apartment, tapping away on my Stegner-sponsored computer, I feel useless, lazy, a particular anxiety of not doing anything.

The fellowship will only last another few months. At which point I will return to Alaska to have my first child with my partner, who is a lawyer on the small island where we live. We will be married in December.

Over the course of the engagement I’ve caught friendly flack from writer friends for “marrying well.” Money is not something I’ll have to “worry” about. This all came to a head the other night out at dinner. As I passed the salt to my stepfather he said: “So do you think you’ll be a stay-at-home father?”

My hand stopped midair. You kidding me? 

But it was a reasonable question. My wife’s earning potential is greater than mine. Yes I have a book coming out with a great publisher. But why not just stay at home with the wee one and write your next “heady little book,” as Bauer calls it, while your wife makes the serious money? This is how I took the question.

I clacked the salt down in front of him. “No.”

On the way home, vrooming through the dark Oakland streets, I thought about the Bauer article, which Suzanne had recently sent me.

Listen – at the end of the day, there’s no doubt Bauer is right. In the first couple months of the fellowship I watched my troubles deliquescing in Stanford’s hot sun of money with a shit-eating grin; having three thousand dollars show up in your bank account at the end of each month really isn’t so bad. But I have no intention of bringing this dynamic into my marriage. Even if my wife respects what I’m doing, as she certainly does, I’m not going to be spending every workday at home, changing diapers with one hand and writing my little books with the other, giving the manuscript a good wipe-down for poop and spittle before sending it off to my editor. I’ll be changing roughly half the diapers, and I know my fiancée expects to do the same.  

So there’s the rage at his suggestion that I be sponsored by my wife, at least the obvious edge of it, dry powder set off when traditionally-minded folks like my stepfather, with nine to five jobs imply writing isn’t real work.

 But what’s more interesting to me is how this breaks on gender lines. Perhaps I was feeling an inverse of the annoyance women experience when people ask if they regret committing themselves to their careers instead of having children. It doesn’t seem like that much of a stretch. I know that “stay-at-home father” seemed, especially in the words of my stepfather, whom I deeply admire, a euphemism for “deadbeat.” After twelve years of making a living with my hands in Alaska, it was insulting. I certainly mean no disrespect to the hard-working men doing it all over the world. It just – wasn’t my vision for myself.

And this gets to why I think Bauer’s article sucks. A marriage, it seems to me, is a project of shared vision. Two people stepping forward, looking at one another, and saying Yes. What interests me in reading the article – and also, much more importantly, as I prepare to go through life with a partner –  is how these visions, these passions are negotiated. My fiancée, for example, is passionate about small-town law and public interest. I am passionate about writing. How can the two of us, both reasonably intelligent, hard-working individuals, manage our partnership in a way that doesn’t occlude one passion for the other?

Here’s the thing: I don’t recall any mention in the Salon article of whether Bauer’s husband enjoys this job which pays all the bills, pays for him to travel the 500+ miles for her readings. In fact, there’s hardly a chin-nod in the direction of the poor guy. I mean, did he dream of riding bulls in the rodeo? Restoring antique furniture? Who the hell knows? She certainly doesn’t seem to.

Don’t get me wrong. As a kept man of Stanford I recognize the sense of ahhhh, finally I've reached writing paradise. I’m supported and suddenly I’m overflowing with a writer’s central currency – time. But Stanford is a business. When you join this other person, standing across from you, who lives, breathes, and desires (it seems here we’ve lost track of whether this is a man or woman, and that’s just fine) isn’t there a built-in obligation to ask how can we both be the best sponsor for each another? At no point in her essay does Bauer articulate her husband’s own vision for himself. Perhaps he’s perfectly content in whatever high-paying job he has. But I gotta say I don’t trust the article (and frankly, her marriage) and here’s why: because she doesn’t take the moment to say, oh, by the way, he’s happy too. That, in my own way, I’m sponsoring him – perhaps not with money, but in some other manner we’ve figured out for ourselves.

Because it’s always going to be a shared vision. Man, woman – it don’t matter. It’s always going to be a joint project.

Sponsored by My Husband vs. Sponsored by My Wife

This blog was started, in part, by a desire to continue, broaden, and deepen the discussion brought up in Ann Bauer’s Salon piece, “Sponsored by My Husband.”  In the essay, Bauer makes the following confession: Her husband pays the lion’s share of the bills, while her writing career does not.  I would be misleading future young writers, she argues, if I led you all to believe that writing is my bread-and-butter, providing for my comfortable lifestyle.

Sure, it’s damned hard to make a decent paycheck as a writer.  But income disparity is nothing new between partners.  After all, one partner is bound to make more money than the other, and as “a marriage” transforms into “a family,” the pot becomes more and more shared.

So why did this article attract so much attention within the writing community?

I propose the answer to that question lies in writing’s long and fraught history with “sponsorship.”  Writers are often – and often very comically – portrayed as deadbeats, people who hang around the house in their pajamas, throwing crumpled up balls of paper into a trashcan.  There is no guarantee, either, that the “work” a writer does will have valuable output.  The assumption is that the writer in question has a powerful belief in him/herself (which in turn invites ridicule – “what ego!”).

After Bauer’s article turned up on Salon, a few other writers came forth to chime in about the various ways in which they are “sponsored.”  None of them were men.  “Just once,” I complained to a friend, “I would like to see one of these articles written by a man.” 

Are there no sponsored men out there?  VIDA has provided ample statistics illuminating the ways in which male writers still dominate literary fiction, and are published more often in “venues known to further one’s career.”  And yet, I still know quite a few guys who would be hard-pressed to pay their bills solely by writing.  It’s a struggle all writers face, and I would argue that lingering assumptions about gender roles only makes this subject more complicated.

 In Ann Bauer’s case, her message is clear: Back off feminists, my man may bring home the bacon, but I have Virginia Woolf’s proverbial room of one’s own; I’m quite content with my situation and find it empowering.

Certainly, one can argue the relative feminism of Bauer’s position, but what happens when the gender roles are reversed?  When a male writer stays home while his high-powered wife works, how is he viewed?  Even in same-sex couples where, ostensibly, the division of labor is not dictated by traditional gender roles, there is still “the one who stays home” (that is, in the case of writers, who work from home), and hence, the one assumed to be in charge of all matters domestic (hot tip: not all writers are natural Martha-Stewart types).

And there is the issue of child-rearing.  Bauer’s essay only skirts around this component (yeesh, no pun intended there).  She picks bones with a “glamorous” female writer born to a pair of literati parents, who advises serious writers not to have children.  Bauer responds, “I wanted to leap to my feet and shout. ‘Hello? Alice Munro! Doris Lessing! Joan Didion!’…But the essential point was that, the quality of her book notwithstanding, this author’s chief advantage had nothing to do with her reproductive decisions.  It was about connections.  Straight up.  [The female writer in question] had them since birth.”

It’s worth noting that Bauer’s children from a previous marriage are grown; she is married to a second husband during the period of happy sponsored productivity she describes. One of the dangers of working at home is the lumping together of different “jobs.”  Writing is a full-time job (or can be when approached seriously).  Raising children is a full-time job, and we already know domestic work has been historically and chronically undervalued.  Lumping the two together risks implying that neither job requires or deserves one’s full attention and effort.

Going back to my earlier complaint (“Just once I would like to see one of these articles written by a man”), the fact that there is no “Sponsored by My Wife” article circulating out there begs the question whether most men would feel emasculated – even in our postmodern age – to write the kind of confessional essay Bauer writes.

What of historical precedent?  When I close my eyes and try to think of the most manly-man writer I can imagine, I think of Hemingway (this is no accident; journalists and academics alike have long posited that Hemingway took pains to cement this link between masculinity and his image in the public eye. Lillian Ross's 1950 New Yorker interview reveals a man deeply invested in posing).  During his early career, Hemingway and Hadley subsisted mostly off her income (modest returns from her family money), enabling him to publish short stories and journalistic pieces, so it stands to reason that the “Sponsored by My Wife” dynamic has existed, and likely – somewhere out there – continues to exist.

 In a future blog post, I’m aiming to get a male writer to weigh in on why there’s no “Sponsored by My Wife” essay, so stay tuned.    

On Selling a Book in Partial Manuscript Form - Part One

I suppose this could also be titled “On Selling a Book You Haven’t Written Yet.”  For non-fiction writers, this is almost always how they sell their books to a publisher.  The writer drafts a spiffy proposal, gestures to her sources, and makes some educated guesses as to how the market will react to the book in question.  The agent shops the proposal around.  Once an editor buys the proposal, the writer agrees to deliver the completed manuscript on a deadline specified in her contract – most commonly in about a year’s time.

I can only assume most successful non-fiction writers are comfortable with this process. 

For writers of literary fiction, “selling on a partial” is a little different.  In fact, there’s no set process.  I’ve known authors who’ve sold their books-in-progress by showing an editor several chapters and a detailed outline, and I’ve known authors who’ve said, “Oh, I just sold her ‘the next one,’ whatever it turns out to be.  I described a really vague idea.” 

Selling on a partial, generally speaking, is only an option after a writer has gotten over the hurdle of writing and selling a debut novel (although, I do know one author who sold his debut novel on a partial manuscript, and did it without an agent – but this is a true anomaly!). 

After I sold my debut novel the regular old-fashioned way (you know: write the whole thing, polish it up, have your agent give you notes, polish it up again, bite your nails as your agent sends it around to editors) there was a lull while I waited for my pub date to arrive.  There was nothing more I could do on that first novel – it was already copyedited and off to the presses – and I’d begun a draft of something new. 

I made the unorthodox decision to go ahead and sell my still-in-progress second novel to my editor.  Why is that unorthodox?  Because my first novel hadn’t come out yet.  In terms of sales, we had no idea how it would do.  Usually, when your first book does well, your agent asks for a larger advance when selling the second one.  And if your book does, ahem, not so great… the editor may not even be able to justify buying it. 

From a certain perspective, publishing is basically a legalized gambling practice.  Editors make bets on the manuscripts they acquire.  “I’m going to pay this author X amount of dollars, and hope to get that back tenfold.”  Sometimes they lose.  By buying my second book before my first book had even hit the shelf, my editor was taking a chance on me. 

I suppose I was taking a chance on her, too.  I knew I liked the way she edited.  And even though my first novel hadn’t come out yet, I had ample reason to believe there was no one better to promote it.  If I waited until my first book came out and it sold well, was there a possibility I could ask for a ton more money?  Maybe.  It’s a question of a bird in the hand versus two in the bush. 

I sat down and made a list of the pros and cons, and came up with following:

PROS

- chance to stick with an editor I love

- peace of mind that I’m not throwing my time away on a manuscript no one wants

- money from advance will pay bills as I wait for first book to come out

- have access to editorial feedback early on as the narrative develops

- motivation of a deadline

CONS

- could possibly receive higher advance if I wait to sell this

- have access to editorial feedback early on as the narrative develops

- pressure of a deadline 

Since I spent the previous blog entry agreeing with Ann Bauer that, as professionals, writers need to be able to talk about money/income (although I spent most of that post complaining that I want that discussion to continue to go deeper), I will address the financial aspects of my decision.  It’s no use insisting that, just because writers are artists who love their work, they aren't forced to make major life decisions based on financial practicalities.  Like any other kind of professional, writers have to consider the time/income ratio that dictates their relative lifestyle, how they pay their rent, and how they spend their days.

Ultimately, I decided the immediate income was more valuable to me.  While, if I waited, I might be paid more for my second novel, the immediate income would allow me to continue writing full-time, and maximize the chances that there would be a second novel, full stop. 

When my debut novel came out, it did reasonably well.  Perhaps I could have made more money on that second contract.  Was I sorry I had already sold the book-in-progress?  My answer is still no.  Having an editor cast her lot in with me gave me the confidence to believe in the second book as I wrote it.  And having a contract in place made me feel like I had a legit job.  When strangers asked me what I did for a living and I replied “I’m a writer,” my brain would internally go, That’s right; I have a contract, I have a boss, I have a paycheck, I have a deadline.  Perhaps this is a very die-hard middle-class, suburban, bourgeois outlook to have, but all of these things -- contract, boss, paycheck, deadline -- made me feel happier and more secure about my place in the universe. 

For me, a bird in the hand really was worth more than two in the bush. 

Now, on my PRO/CON list above, you might have noticed that a few of those items repeated in both categories.  In the next entry, I hope to address the other considerations a writer must take into account when selling a book before it’s done: Making art on a deadline, and how different it can be to work with your editor through those early drafts.