Poe-sonal Finance: The Dream and Doom of Creative Work

In which Poe shows you his bank statement (and it sucks)

Unlike some of his Romantic predecessors, Edgar Allan Poe had no trust fund. No economic support of any kind, really, from his early 20s on.

Lord Byron, for his part, had a sexy gothic ruin of an ancestral family estate that he could sell off, while Samuel Taylor Coleridge could boast of a generous, relatively hands-off patron who essentially delivered him a $1,000-a-month UBI. It wasn’t enough cash for lavish living, but it did ensure basic survival. (Like seriously STC’s youthful marriage limped on for a few more years almost solely because of this money. Would you believe that being able to pay the rent and buy food can help keep a family intact? Amazing!)

Poe’s situation was different and, in many ways, sadder. As an artist, he had to adapt to the demands of the marketplace, or else mothball his efforts altogether. If he wanted to spend his time writing, then he’d better write stuff he could sell.

The enormous economic pressure under which Poe labored also had a positive effect, however. In part because of this stress, he became extraordinarily good at appealing to a mass audience. His most famous works, from “The Raven” to “Annabel Lee” to “The Tell-Tale Heart,” are crowd-pleasers. And that’s not a coincidence. Just try to think of another 19th-century American writer who, today, counts fans in professional wrestling and the NFL, and gets spoofed on The Simpsons and South Park.

Poe is pop in the most lasting way. Even Byron, incredibly famous in his own age, can’t compete, never mind STC.

I grant that this is an optimistic view, but I think the economic pressure under which you and I labor can be good for us, too. Or, at least, good for our work.

Creating art for the market, for the masses, has a way of limiting your self-indulgence, beating the preciousness right out of you. It can get you out of your own head and into a subject, teaching you to consider what appeals to people beyond your own immediate concerns. In short, it’ll encourage you to seek and develop an audience. In the best-case scenario, you may even produce work that stays popular for 172 years and counting, finding new fans in every generation. You may even appear, decades after your death, in an epic rap battle. Hardly the worst fate.

People lament the rise of the “attention economy” today. Yet in the grandest sense, there’s never not been an attention economy. Ask any middle child. Some theorists have even argued, convincingly, that humans evolved to tell stories and make art precisely so as to gain attention from their fellow humans.

Attention is power. Attention is influence.

That’s not to heap praise on our larger financial and social system, rife with obvious and egregious problems and injustices. Just like Poe, we’re stuck with intellectual-property law that favors huge companies over individual creators. The people with capital still reap most of the rewards that should (probably) accrue to creators.

And like Poe, we’re all operating in a marketplace so packed with aspirants that it becomes almost impossible to charge for one’s own work, no matter how much time and energy it takes to create that work. This is true no matter what kind of creative work you’re doing, whether you’re scrawling stanzas or producing YouTube shorts. It’s why we’re all stuck in this very real matrix of day jobs, side hustles, and Sallie Mae.

I’ve written before about how Poe earned only about $6,200 from ALL the work he did over his 20-year career—a number that includes the payments he received for his poems and stories, the speaking fees he earned from lectures, and the salaries he earned from his editorial positions. Adjust that $6,200 for inflation, and it works out to an average of about $20,000 a year, below today’s federal poverty line. And, you know, Poe was a genius. (He was supporting a family, too, with his wife and mother-in-law living under his roof, or lack of one.)

For a deeper look, here’s a chart I assembled for my book, showing the teeny-tiny freelance payments Poe received for some of his best-known works:

Oof. And yet... I find myself moved. Even, yeah, kind of inspired to get cracking on my own stuff and try to put the cash-economics or lack there of aside. Is it just me, or is pondering Poe’s poverty bracing, edifying, clarifying? Is it simply depressing to brood on how little society may pay for masterpieces—or is it, at the same time, freeing?

I think it’s both. Pondering Poe’s poverty shows us how it has been true for a very long time that converting attention to cash is a difficult venture, especially if/when the system is stacked against you. It’s a reminder that even geniuses may struggle to monetize their work within their lifetimes.

You wouldn’t call this good news, exactly, but it does let you and I off the hook a bit. Understanding that your financial “failure” may not be your fault has a way of taking the pressure off. And when your moonshot projects fail to generate vast riches through which you can swim like Scrooge McDuck, you’re left free to blame the system instead! And hey, you may be correct. Anyway, the lack of cash you’re suffering now is no barrier whatsoever to your future recognition as a world-changing genius.

We all wish conditions were different. They should be probably different! But since they’re not, today, right now, this minute, at least we can take comfort knowing that even the most talented and dedicated artists have still had to scrape, struggle, and fight to turn likes and eyeballs into dollars.

For my part, I can no longer read or even think about “Annabel Lee”—that hypnotic dark fairy tale, that heartsick little brainworm, so memorable, so ingenious, so effective on so many levels—without thinking Dude got just $10 for this.

$10.

$10.

Just $10.

A Good Link

Thanks to Jane Friedman for pointing out this insightful Twitter thread. It’s one of the smartest things I’ve read lately about planning your creative career and managing your creative ambitions—and I’m convinced this writer is dead right about how to position yourself to become one of the top-of-the-heap folks in the attention economy. Or at least one of the middle-of-the-heap folks.

As always, if you’re enjoying this newsletter, would you forward and share? Maybe you’ve got some friends who, like us, love to gawk at other people’s incomes because when is other people’s money not interesting, right?

Thanks for reading, and all best,

Cat