Writers’ Habits of Spending

Having read a number of writer’s biographies over the years, I’ve often observed that writers of the first rank appear to have self-inflicted financial difficulties — difficulties that seem to go beyond the fact that literature doesn’t pay.

Melville, Joyce, Baudelaire, Dostoyevsky, and Balzac leap at once to mind, not merely as being poor managers of their money, but, in some cases, as being perhaps proud squanderers of it. Even Proust, who inherited a great deal, seemed bent on spending beyond his means.

This is deserving of psychological study. Is it just normal human behavior, amplified by these legendary figures? Or is there a certain excessiveness of temperament required of an artist, which others ought prudently to steer from? Or is it a result of poverty and despair — a sense for the total irrelevance of their craft to most people? Or is it taken as a moral to behave recklessly with money, the better to show that it is, actually, trivial? … (And there is a broader question at hand, maybe, of whether being prudent with money should be considered a failing or a success.)

From La Peau de Chagrin — :

A debt is a feat of the imaginative that they cannot appreciate. A borrower is often carried away and over-mastered by generous impulses; nothing great, nothing magnanimous can move or dominate those who live for money, and recognize nothing but money. I myself held money in horror.” (Ellen Marriage translation)

Une detter est un oeuvre d’imagination qu’ils ne comprennent pas. Des élans de l’âme entraînent, subjuguent souvent un emprunteur, tandis que riend de grand ne subjugue, rien de généreux ne guide ceux qui vivent dans l’argent et ne connaissent que l’argent. J’avais horreur de l’argent.

[Just before this, the narrator laments the “morality de Barême”. François Barrême is considered a founder of la comptabilité — modern accounting. (French Wiki).]

This attitude (of which there are many quotable instances) can also be found in Wilde’s De Profundis

Philistinism was the note of the age and community in which [Christ] lived. In their heavy inaccessibility to ideas, their dull respectability, their tedious orthodoxy, their worship of vulgar success, their entire preoccupation with the gross materialistic side of life, and their ridiculous estimate of themselves and their importance, the Jews of Jerusalem in Christ’s day were the exact counterpart of the British Philistine of our own. Christ mocked at the ‘whited sepulchre’ of respectability, and fixed that phrase for ever. He treated worldly success as a thing absolutely to be despised. He saw nothing in it at all. He looked on wealth as an encumbrance to a man. He would not hear of life being sacrificed to any system of thought or morals.

[Perhaps here is a good place to note that (1) this post is based on my memory of books in some cases read a while ago, and probably imperfect in themselves, and therefore, though not intended to be deceitful, not entirely to be trusted; and (2) this sample lacks diversity. I don’t believe I’ve read a biography of a woman aside from the recent Gooch one on O’Conner — and haven’t read one on a minority aside that of Stephen Douglass on himself, and I can’t recall what he said, if anything, in that book, about how he dealt with money.]

… Proust, Balzac had definitely a taste for luxury; the former was known also for his prodigious tipping and generous gifts. I recall Ellman describing Joyce’s facility in sending away disappointed creditors, but I think he too (though much, much poorer than Proust) spent more than was called for and was a good tipper. I recall Joseph Blotner, I think it was, saying that when Faulkner received self-addressed stamped envelopes within fan letters, he neglected the letters but kept the stamps for his personal use. (This reminds somewhat of his character, Flem Snopes, who was so cheap that in lieu of using actual chewing tobacco he began just moving his jaw.) There is also Panurge’s famous speech in Gargantua in praise of debt, somehow related to all this: the morality of not saving, the morality of giving all, like the poor woman of the New Testament who gives most, since she gives everything… And I was surprised in the Gooch biography of Flannery O’Connor to hear her say in a letter she was “all for Medicaid” I think the quote was, as she faced high, uninsured medical bills on account of her lupus. (“Surprised” — just erroneously thinking of her as having existed in a world apart from anything like Medicaid.) It was also dropped that she received income from a rental property…. Whitman, although receiving help from friends and family, seems to have been quite self-sustaining, mainly but not entirely through newspaper work, and bought a house, and died with money in the bank. Samuel Johnson was careful, as well as charitable, with money (eventually with a pension from the crown), and never had much. Hart Crane, like Vincent Van Gogh, was always reduced to asking relatives for aid [a common thread between these two, maybe, of incessant self-abasement before relatives and others/ begging for money] but also won a Guggenheim scholarship and had a patron in Otto Kahn. I believe O’Conner, too, got aid from a foundation at one point (was her term at Yaddo subsidized?), and Faulkner of course won the Nobel prize and its award later in his career. (I wish, incidentally, that the Nobel Prize people would consider the economic benefit of the money they give to recipients more than the political/ cultural comment they may make.) The most recent literary biography I’ve read was Jocelyn Baines’ of Joseph Conrad, in which Conrad is portrayed as often requesting money, not making much from his work, but not a penny pincher: going on the occasional vacation and being a generous host. Below I give a quote of Baines’ describing how Conrad, in a letter, figures he’d be in a pretty good financial position if only his books fetched reasonable prices, which reminds me of something that can’t be left unsaid here: that all these writers were, whatever their assets as money managers might be, drastically underpaid for their artistic work. And I say this leaving aside any of that amorphous cultural benefit their writing gives, and just thinking of the economic benefit it’s created. How many copies of Ulysses and Nostromo have been sold after the death of Joyce and Conrad? How many careers have been made studying and writing and teaching about those books? These people, responsible for making tens and hundreds of millions of economic activity, let’s say, had to spend an unseemly amount of time harassing their relatives for scraps. The Conrad quote:

In the same letter he looked back on his financial achievement during the twelve years of his writing career. He worked out that he had written eleven novels (volumes, to be precise) and had lived at an average rate of 650 pounds a year. If, he said, each book had brought him in 1000 pounds he would have had 5000 pounds in hand, but as it was he owed [his publisher] 1,572 pounds and had other debts well.”

(I’ve tried without success to get a plausible figure for the value of 650 pounds in the early twentieth century. What I’ve come up with seems way too much relative to how Conrad lived.)

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