“Don’t Do It For Money”?

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This week an article about the 1962-63 newspaper strike was everywhere. The Vanity Fair piece is very good, pointing out that the strike opened up career possibilities for many of the New Journalists—Gay Talese, Nora Ephron, Tom Wolfe, and Calvin Trillin among them, names that still mean something even outside the realms of journalism nerdery. It touches only briefly on the founding of the New York Review of Books in an apartment on West 67th Street – specifically, Robert Lowell’s and Elizabeth Hardwick’s.

People were talking about money and writing this week as they do any other and I happened to be researching a subject adjacent to the NYRB’s founding and came across this note, in David Laskin’s Partisans, about the start-up process:

The articles [for the first issue], written gratis on extremely tight deadlines, descended on the editors in an avalanche.

The early issues of the NYR, in other words, relied on the generosity of writers. It was a passion project. It’s worth considering. There continues to be this idea that there was a golden age where everyone was paid what their work was worth. The marketplace is a hostile place for a writer, of course, now, and no one would argue that fees are down from what they once were. I’m just saying: here’s a beacon of hope for people who feel their work is not being adequately compensated; for most work people have really, truly, wanted to do, it has never been the case.


Michelle Dean has written for a variety of places, including The Awl, ELLE and Bitch. More from this author →