The common wisdom tells us that time is money, but for a writer, money is time. Writing is not the same as typing—it takes much more time: time to gaze out the window awhile thinking, reflecting and dreaming your way onto the page for instance, to pause, reconsider, order your thoughts, conduct research, to write, of course, but also to read what you have written, consider it, change it, polish it. This is what grants and advances against royalties are for.
I was in my early 30s when I received my first advance. I can’t remember the exact figure. Something like $14,000, and, of course, I only got half of that on signing. While this does not seem like very much now, in 1974, cobbled together with renting rooms in my house, workshop fees, and lectures, it allowed me to focus on writing my book. Since, as it turned out, Woman and Nature took me four years to write, the advance did not last long enough. But with a bit of luck and lots of nerve, I managed. A grant from the National Endowment for the Arts during one of those years made a big difference.
Over time, as I gained readers, the advances increased. I received a relatively larger advance for 1981’s Pornography and Silence, and that one took me far less time to write. During the period it took me to write that book, I felt relatively flush. But soon after it was in print, I was close to being broke again.
If writing as a profession is often less than profitable, it’s also wildly unpredictable with regard to finances. For my next book I had several ideas, none of which I was able to sell. I did not develop any of these proposals. Finally, during what was understood as a crisis caused by a nuclear arms race, I decided to write about the intersection between gender and weapons of mass destruction. I knew I had the right subject when I realized that whether I found a publisher or not, I was going to do it. I did receive an advance for that book eventually, though the money disappeared long before I completed A Chorus of Stones, which came out in 1992. That book took me 10 years to write, during which it often seemed I was living off the fumes from my passion for the subject.
The research alone took me at least three years. It was a perilous time, during which more than once either my health or my spirits faltered. Yet I never regretted my decision. The greatest reward writers receive is not monetary. Like farmers who love their work, most writers are less motivated by profit than by love of the work itself.
Though A Chorus of Stones was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and is taught in many classes throughout the country, it was not a bestseller. It was what is called a midlist book. I was turned down for more than one grant, most probably because—as its subtitle, The Private Life of War, indicates—weaving public and private histories together, the book fell outside familiar categories.
Over the last two decades, as the publishing industry faltered in the wake of the internet, most large publishers stopped giving midlist writers advances large enough to last more than a few months. Even though, in the first year after they are published, midlist books do not sell as many copies as bestsellers do, they often stay in print for many more years, catching up in sales over time.
But there is another, more compelling reason to support the midlist. Though some bestsellers break boundaries and explore new ideas, many tend to align with what is already popular, what we already know and want to hear more about. By contrast, as they venture into the unknown, midlist books often take greater risks, inventing new forms, revealing unique ways of seeing. Isn’t this what we need now as we find ourselves sinking under the weight of a history of unfortunate decisions our culture has made in the past?
Without always intending to do so, some writers will find themselves ahead of their time. Such visions provide a resource for our culture that we ought to be protecting. Just as we help farmers to grow the food we eat, shouldn’t we find a way to give support to those who help our understanding to grow? It’s about time.
Susan Griffin is a Pulitzer finalist and the author of more than 22 books. Her latest, Out of Silence, Sound. Out of Nothing, Something, will be published by Counterpoint in January 2023.