Why Do Creatives Put Up With No Pay?


If you’re a writer or if you work in publishing — hell, if you know anyone who writes or works in publishing — you’ve probably been forwarded the job advertisement/internship posting from Dalkey Archive Press.

It’s an extraordinary document, a call-out for unpaid interns (though there’s vague mention of "short term paid contracts") that insists applicants "do not have any other commitments (personal or professional) that will interfere with work at the Press (family obligations, writing, involvement with other organizations, degrees to be finished, holidays to be taken, weddings to attend in Rio, etc.) … DO NOT APPLY IF ALL OF THE ABOVE DOES NOT DESCRIBE YOU."

Then there’s this:

"Any of the following will be grounds for immediate dismissal during the probationary period: coming in late or leaving early without prior permission; being unavailable at night or on the weekends; failing to meet any goals; giving unsolicited advice about how to run things; taking personal phone calls during work hours; gossiping; misusing company property, including surfing the internet while at work; submission of poorly written materials; creating an atmosphere of complaint or argument; failing to respond to emails in a timely way; not showing an interest in other aspects of publishing beyond editorial; making repeated mistakes; violating company policies."

Got that? If you’re the successful candidate, forget any plans for Saturday nights — unless your idea for a good evening involves unpaid toil in the offices of Dalkey Archive Press. Oh and when you are in there, keep your lip zipped: interns, like children, must be seen and not heard.

It’s almost a parody — and John O’Brien of Dalkey subsequently defended the posting as a Swiftian modest proposal in an interview with the Irish times, saying it was intended as "serious and not-serious at one and the same time".

All very well, but in the same interview he couldn’t help but reiterate the underlying message. "Employers do not offer internships out of the goodness of their heart (well, perhaps some [do])," he said, "they want the internships to be the grounds on which people prove themselves."

In other words, suck it up, kids.

In any case, as Mary Elizabeth Williams noted in Salon, satirical or not, the ad went viral because it felt so instantly familiar, particularly in the world of letters: Compare, say, the extraordinary tale from aspiring journalist Matt Smith about how, if you want to write for the Telegraph, you must not only be prepared to munch on merde, but also smile broadly and shout, "Très bon!" as you do so.

What’s particularly interesting about the current episode is that Dalkey Archive Press is not some crappy tabloid notorious for kiss-up, kick-down bullying but a boutique publisher specialising in high-end literature.

"Several years ago someone in an interview tried to get from me a one-word description for the kinds of books we publish," explains O’Brien on his company’s About page, "[and]I finally said that the correct word was ‘subversive,’ which is still the word I would use."

It’s a reminder of how a certain aesthetic radicalism has helped justify the worst working conditions within white collar industries.

In his One Market Under God, Thomas Frank describes how, during the dot com boom, employers encouraged young coders to identify as anti-authoritarian creatives, letting them sport zany haircuts, listen to indy rock in the office and cover themselves in tattoos. Yet because their rebelliousness was purely aesthetic and explicitly individualist, it worked out quite nicely for management, thank you very much: the young rebels disdained collective organisation as irredeemably old fashioned, and so could all be smartly marched out the door as soon as the economy turned sour.

Something similar happens within literature (though with worse haircuts and more tweed).

Jyotsna Kapur describes the prevalence of what she calls "an old narrative" about the arts: an idea "that artists are genius outsiders, voices of dissent, rugged lonesome individuals who live on the margins, victims of economic marginalisation and social misunderstanding, with a special, even sacred relationship to their art that must be protected from the intrusions of the world."

This sense of artistic endeavour as inherently rebellious — "subversive", if you like — helps legitimise the Dalkey-style workplace, since, Kapur argues, rather than being somehow anomalous, artists are actually exemplary neoliberal employees — especially since they don’t realise it.

Think about how writers are accustomed to honing their skills on their own time. They often pay for their own training, through courses or university degrees. By and large, they don’t join unions; they understand their careers in purely individual terms — indeed, they’re often told to think of themselves as "brands". They’re not only willing to accept short-term contracts, they’re pathetically grateful for them — every creative writing student dreams of a book deal.

Construction employees would sell their right arms for a workforce imbued with similar values among their labourers. Yet within literature, a kind of neoliberal individualism not only prevails but is widely celebrated, especially by those who look down at blue collar workers as mindless drones.

This, then, provides opportunities for the John O’Briens of the world to wrap their exploitative "internships" in an idealistic gloss. The long unpaid hours are entirely justified since you’re not working for money — you’re laboring for the glory of literature with a capital L.

Now, just because writers are ripe for abuse, that doesn’t mean that the perceived opposition between art and the market is entirely false. One of the complexities in the ongoing debate about whether aspiring authors should ever write for free is that, while unpaid internships are characteristic of neoliberalism, so too is the notion that worth can only be measured through monetary exchange.

"Milton", noted Marx, "produced Paradise Lost for the same reason as a silkworm produces silk. It was an expression of his own nature. Later on he sold the product for £5."

There’s nothing wrong with volunteerism. No-one becomes a poet thinking about the bling — and nor should they.

Yet there’s a difference between a freely chosen devotion to an aesthetic or political commitment, and the sleazy mistreatment of idealistic young people in the name of art.

The newly spawned @dalkeyintern Twitter account illustrates the point with some fine snark: "Every time I finish a particularly tiresome batch of filing, I feel a warm glow of satisfaction for a job well done. I love books!"

In a piece in the latest Overland (which I edit), Rjurik Davidson argues that writers must realise that the dilemmas they face are largely irresolvable on the individual level, that the bleak vista currently presenting us will only change through collective organisation. He notes, for instance, that the artistic output of many of the 20th century’s greatest writers depended on a network of counterhegemonic publishers, newspapers and booksellers, a network that has since been largely destroyed.

The Dalkey Archive Press episode provides a kind of negative proof. There’s a reason why no-one would dare offer such conditions to building workers — and that reason’s called the CFMEU.

Literary subversion is all well and good. But, sometimes, what writers really need is a fighting trade union.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.