Endangered… and necessary: A talk with Scott Timberg

No, this post isn't about the extinction of the Dodo; it could be, but it isn't. Actually, it's about another species whose situation is bad, though not as bad as the Dodo's (at least not yet): the critics/writers/various members of the contemporary arts and culture world.

One of the insights prompted by reading Scott Timberg's book Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class (Yale University Press) is illustrated by what New Yorker critic Richard Brody says about it in a recent column:

Timberg offers a bracing reminder that it's an inestimable privilege to be able to work--to make a living--as a critic. It's also a vast responsibility. The critic--as Timberg aptly emphasizes--is a crucial participant in the world of art. The creation of the art 'scenes' that Timberg sees as vital to the work of individual artists depends greatly, he writes, on the discerning activity of critics.

Timberg, who also plied his trade at the L.A. Times, provides us with a sober view of the decline of arts and culture professions that would be even more upsetting if his voice wasn't so calm. Thank God for that. Considering that he found himself in a situation like many described in the book, you'd expect a bitter or angry tone, but there isn't. As a writer at the top of his craft, he knows that tone counts for as much as anything.

His book supplies both the broad and back views -- the creative communities that once made great art possible, the shrinking outlets and lack of medical insurance that now makes the freelancer's life (and the creation of lasting art) so much harder.

He also allows himself to step forward and share parts of his own story as they inform what he's discussing.

Call of the Siren is fortunate to share the following dialogue with Scott on the writing of this book and his thoughts on some of the challenges facing the creative class.


First, some questions about the actual circumstances of how the book was composed. Did this start as a series of reported pieces, or did you envision it as a single work from the beginning? 

Scott Timberg: The genesis of my book – as opposed to the crisis it describes, which is more inchoate and complex —was pretty crisp. An editor at Salon – one of my oldest friends and journalistic allies – called me and said, “You know, somebody ought to take a look at the way the Internet is destroying the creative class.” The somebody he had in mind, I think, was me. At first I resisted, but as I thought about it I realized he was onto something, even if it was not quite that simple.

Over the next few months I wrote a number of reported essays on the crashing of the creative class. I had a book in mind, but was not certain I had a real book until I wrote a piece that came to be called “No Sympathy For the Creative Class,” which turned into chapter six of the book.


How long did the research and writing take? Did you worry about echoing too closely other books that also look at the state of arts and culture today?

ST: I think between that first article and publication was about three and a half years. I did other stuff along the way – writing, teaching, getting pushed out of my house by a nasty German bank, etc. – but the ideas and argument behind the book were always with me.

I was aware of some of the other work in this vein – Florida on the creative class, Nicholas Carr on what the Internet was doing to our souls, etc. – but the story I was interested in had not been told.


In the past, I think most fiction and nonfiction writers would've been thrilled to receive a five-figure offer for a book.  It sounds like a lot, but when you factor in all the research and time spent writing, it amounts to the same as what used to be the annual salary for a basic editorial position at a paper or magazine.

Now, you hear nothing but stories of incredible six- and seven-figure offers, and every writer dreams of that. What happened to normal expectations?   Do you see this as another symptom of the erosion of the arts and culture playing field?

ST: Well, three things have happened over the last decade or so. First, we’ve doubled down on our “lifestyles of the rich and famous” obsessions and celebrity worship, which were already pretty fullblown when I was a kid in the ‘80s, but which has deepened since. (This goes for the press and media, too – more high-profile reporting of big advances, box-office yields, etc.)

Second, publishing – and many other culture industries, especially pop music and the movies – has reoriented itself around blockbusters while eroding what we call “the midlist.” And of course, the midlist is often where the best and most serious work takes place. (Pretty much every short story writer or poet, even the famous ones, are mid-list writers. Similarly, every indie-rocker and every indie-filmmaker relies on a mid-sized budget or less.)

Third, budgets for culture have gone way down, especially publishing advances, which has been clobbered by Amazon, the Kindle, press consolidation, etc. So while we hear about Lena Dunham’s $3.5 million advance for her memoir, we hear less about the fact that the median advances – and here I am relying on an educated guess by my onetime agent – are down to about half of what they were before the ’08 crash. That has a very tangible effect for someone without a trust fund or tenured position trying to buy themselves time to write something.

This mismatch is a major theme of my book.

I feel really lucky to have been able to write a book and am proud of the way it turned out. I’d love to do another one but I'm not sure I can afford it with the current state of the art.


Robert Lowell, Cheever, and all the rest enjoyed artistic communities that many artists and writers just don't have today.  But the internet tries to offer a sense of community with different bloggers connecting and creating online communities.  

It's not the same as what those groups of artists enjoyed, but it counts for something, doesn’t it?  Isn't there something positive about technology keeping people connected and creating alternative kinds of communities?

ST: The Internet does some nice things, sure. I just completed a very lively email interview with the novelist Rick Moody on The Rumpus site. I enjoy ranting on Twitter or passing around gossip with college friends on Facebook, sure.

As for any kind of community, well, I guess it’s better than nothing. But call me old fashioned if you like: I prefer real urban spaces, a real physical presence, and a time when writers, musicians, artists could afford to live (and meet) in city neighborhoods. I guess I think traditional literary/ artistic bohemia is better than sitting in a room blogging, no matter how good your Internet connection.

(Re John Cheever, one of my favorite writers: I am not entirely sussed on the biography, but don’t know that his Boston stretch was really marked by community and literary productivity. I could be wrong, but I think it was mostly the opportunity to do a lot of drinking.)


You've written about Deborah Harkness and Neal Stephenson for the Times — do you know the work of gothic novelist Carlos Ruiz Zafon?  He wrote "Shadow of the Wind" and the following lines, taken from "The Angel's Game," which are very romantic about the life of a writer:

"I'm an author of penny dreadfuls that don't even bear my name.  My publishers … are a couple of second-rate crooks who are not worth their weight in manure, and my readers don't even know I exist.  I've spent years earning my living in this trade and I have yet to write a single page that satisfies me.  The woman I love thinks I'm wasting my life and she's right…. Right now I'm satisfied if I manage one or two decent sentences in an hour.  That's the sort of author and the sort of man I am."

So much of Zafon's work presents the writer like this, as some kind of heroic outcast — it's hard for me not to get pulled in by the romanticism and idealism of lines like these.  I thought of these lines again as I read about all the struggling artists in your book.  I'd guess your response would be different  — more ironic — to this passage.  I'm guessing you'd say, sure, this is inspiring if you don't have to actually live like this or worry about paying a mortgage.  What do you think?

ST: That’s a great quote, and it is hard not to respond to the dejected, bohemian pull of that passage. The “heroic outcast” tradition is real – this is the Poe/Baudelaire model and it was especially common in 19th century Paris.

But as you say, it is easy to see yourself as this pure, defiant martyr to culture if you are in college (paid for by your parents and state funding), a wealthy celebrity, or drawing on a trust fund. That is, it’s a great, sustainable way to look at the world and your place in it if financial reality doesn’t matter. Otherwise, things get a bit more complicated.

There’s something else about that point of view – and whether those words are coming from a character/narrator or from Ruiz Zafon himself seems worth noting here – that is not just naïve but dangerous. That is, it amplifies an idea already pervasive in the general culture, that artists are born to suffer, that “it’s all about the passion,” the Paul Ryan-ish notion that discomfort is good because it motivates people (though Ryan himself is a rich boy whose family owns half of his hometown), etc.

If you extend the logic of that passage, it means we have no reason to make life livable for artists and scribes, because they are these accursed gutter-dwellers who live in their own private demimonde, what they do is “magic,” etc. (Why do they need medical coverage, for instance? So then you end up with these sad benefit concerts for musicians who get hepatitis or whatever.)


It's disturbing to think anyone would use passages like this one to justify ignoring the plight of artists, but I'm sure many do.  For me, it's just inspiring (the words belong to a character, not directly to Zafon)--the sort of passage that says don't give up, no matter what.

Scott Timberg:  I very much respect a romantic and idealistic vision of culture and culture-making. But more broadly, what my book tries to do is to get people from all across the spectrum – left and right, burgher and bohemian, artist and politico – to take a clear, honest look at how a life in the arts and culture really works. And then to ask if the reality is consistent with our values as a society. I’d like us to forget the myths and legends for a minute, and to start there.