Books Reviews


Scratch, edited by Manjula Martin


Scratch is an interesting collection of personal essays and interviews on the financial aspect of writing put together by Manjula Martin. The contributors discuss money and success in their unique ways.
The book’s first section Early Days does not have a common thread of advice, except maybe to imply that good timing and having great contacts help you. Kiese Laymon points out the danger in confusing literature and publishing and portrays a tortuous relationship with a terrible editor.
Alexander Chee describes his writing career. Cari Luna talks about the importance of having a great agent. Caille Millner‘s conversation with Richard Rodriguez addresses the solitude in writers’ lives and the need to interact with others to be noticed. In her interview with Martin, Yiyun Li talks of working hard and shunning social media. Robert Lennon quotes Vladimir Nabokov‘s words only to disagree with them.
There is a lot of honesty in Daily Grind, the middle section. Here, Roxane Gay talks about her remuneration and the ambition to win a Pulitzer or to write something worthy of it. Emily Gould talks of women in publishing, Sari Botton of ghostwriting, Choire Sicha of advertising writing, Nell Boeschenstein of reluctantly accepting a teaching job, and Sarah Smarsh of quitting one without another job in sight.
Then there is the brilliant, startling Harmony Holiday essay, which discusses Amiri Baraka and his selling of books in the context of taxation, reparation, and his grandfather’s lynching.
The final section Someday has YA author Malinda Lo talking of seemingly successful authors struggling in private to get by. It also has interviews with Austin KleonNick Hornby, and Jonathan Franzen. It has a frank essay by Jennifer Weiner on not being taken seriously by critics, despite being a commercial success.
The book ends with a delightful essay by Laura Goode about producing an indie film, crowdfunding, direct distribution. This is a strange addition because there is no mention of self-publishing or small press publishers anywhere else.

Scratch is meant for those who write or aspire to become writers. It discusses writers trying to earn money while dealing with race, class, and privilege issues. It has many behind-the-scene stories of writing, getting published, and earning money and fame.
The contributors are largely published literary fiction authors—the so-called Iowa-NYC-MFA crowd. When they aren’t writing their books, most teach, receive research grants, or write long essays in august publications.
The book features very few genre fiction writers who make money in the publishing business. There are no indie authors of Amazon Kindle bestsellers. There is also nothing on writers outside the United States.
Neither is there any mention of the majority of paid writers who work in business-related fields, such as content development, transcription, advertising, marketing, and sales. There is only one ghostwriter, Sari Botton, who is not a great representation as she is also a much-appreciated editor and essay writer.
Although the prevailing scheme seems to be not quitting day jobs, there are no straightforward discussions on it. While Cheryl Strayed and Roxane Gay are candid about the money they earned, most others do not write about their financial situations. Nobody among them discusses academic writing or related issues.
Many veer away from the subject of money towards discovering their selves, following their dreams, and building their reputation and persona. Some of them equate success with being published and gaining public recognition.
Most writers do not know how others in their profession earn their living and whether they can do so comfortably. Almost all of the book’s contributors rely on other professions, such as teaching, to survive. The irony is that they teach writing, even as they fare badly at supporting themselves by writing alone.
There are also no thoughts on whether an MFA is necessary to learn to be a good or successful writer, does self-promotion help, or how current issues, such as digital publishing, affect the profession.
However, there are a few frank essays that mention the struggles of writers and how they can make ends meet by relying on multiple income streams. Also, all essays/interviews were interesting and informative in one way or the other.
For example, you learn many things about advances, agent percentages, and different outlets to write for. You also learn about sad realities, such as how luck, race, and privilege, can influence your career, even if you are extremely talented.
As Susie Cagle writes in her essay, it can be hard to know how much your writing should be worth. What makes it double hard to demand a certain price is that the world believes and propagates the idea that art is a labor of love and is not for profit.
Scratch raises many questions but does not necessarily answer them. This is good because it helps evaluate the purpose of your writing. Its relevance and worth to you depend on what your purpose is as a writer and where you are in your journey towards achieving it.

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