First of all, I want to say how honored I feel to be speaking here tonight--doubly honored because, though I've been a consistent, dues-paying member of UAW Local 1981 since the 1980's, and though I've been a dedicated activist with another UAW local, 7902--the union that represents part-time faculty at my former employer, the New School--I can't say I've been active with the National Writers Union. I've just been tremendously grateful, through the years, that the NWU was there, fighting both good old garden variety exploitation and the harsh consequences for freelancers of the radical structural changes afoot in the publishing world. The ascendency of bookstore chains and then Amazon at the expense of independents, the collapse of the so-called midlist book, the multiple revolutions in electronic publishing, the evisceration of print journalism--taken together, these developments threaten writers at a level that strikes me as metaphorically comparable to the Enclosures in late 18th and early 19th century England. As described by E.P. Thompson in The Making of the English Working Class, the enclosures of common lands broke the independence of artisan workers, driving the poor into a stark condition of miserable industrial servitude. The National Writers Union is our vehicle for collective resistance to the corporate publishing juggernaut.
I find the topic of this evening's celebration, "Writing the Future," to be both thrilling and terrifying. It's thrilling because we are living such a fraught historical moment, with a surge of peaceful, creative resistance as working people in many countries proclaim our intention to "write our own future," rather than have it written for us by the corporate masters, the post-colonial masters, the masters of war--in short, the one percent. As Indian novelist and activist Arundhati Roy reminds us, what we need now is not only mobilization, but a sea change in the social imagination: “Our strategy should be not only to confront empire, but to lay siege to it. To deprive it of oxygen. To shame it. To mock it. With our art, our music, our literature, our stubbornness, our joy, our brilliance, our sheer relentlessness – and our ability to tell our own stories. Stories that are different from the ones we’re being brainwashed to believe." ["War Talk"]
If Roy is right, as people devoted to crafting words and shaping narratives, we writers have a central role to play. What an opportunity! But--at the same time, what a fearful responsibility! To "write the future" means squarely facing the long odds against fashioning a truly sustainable global order, one that bends the narrative arc in the direction of justice. Even beyond that, we must face the threat of threats: absent some radical course corrections, humanity may not have any future at all. As just one example, the Durban climate conference, unfolding at this moment, raises the most profound questions about our ability to compel a reconfiguration of the planetary economy and a new accountability on the part of wealthy nations for their (our) disproportionate part in creating this crisis.
Beyond chanting, "We are unstoppable--another world is possible!" it will take the full spectrum of human skills, courage, and creativity to bring that world into being. We have no guarantees. As writers, we are indeed on the frontlines of a new situation for the species imagination: not the mere possibility of "the end of the world" (something that many cultures and traditions have depicted in mythic and religious terms), but the prospect that we may quite literally be done in by failure to grasp the consequences of our cumulative power to destroy each other and the biosphere. Our collective challenge, then, is no less than the invention of what poet Muriel Rukeyser called "a nameless way of living, of almost unimagined values.”
The invention of that way of living, I want to suggest, may depend less on snazzy futuristic visions than on our ability to face and assimilate the truths of history, as in the writing of those poets and novelists whose work constitutes a profound meditation on histories of survival in the face of terrible damage. I’m thinking, for example, of the moment when Tayo, the American Indian war veteran and apprentice shaman at the center of Leslie Marmon Silko’s great novel Ceremony, arrives “at the point of convergence where the fate of all living things, and even the earth, had been laid…[T]he lines of cultures and worlds were drawn in flat dark lines on fine light sand, converging in the middle of witchery’s final sand painting. From that time on, human beings were one clan again, united by the fate the destroyers planned for all of them, for all living things….”
So, I've moved from the very local and specific--the plight of the American writer caught in the gears of a technologically-enabled structural shift in the publishing world--to the very, VERY big picture of planetary crisis. Where does a plucky, U.S.-based writers' union that fights for freelancers sit in all of this?
The first and simplest answer is that "we (writers) ARE the 99%," and as in other industries, a union is an absolute necessity to help us fight the conditions of our exploitation. Whatever our genre or specialty, the vast majority of wordsmiths are targets in the class war being waged against all kinds of working people. Our first task is simply to survive long enough in our profession to even have a shot at writing in the future. I recently got scared, then infuriated, when I realized how many of my writer friends, both older and considerably younger than I, have left New York or are on the verge of leaving because they can't afford to live here any longer. Add to that the numbers of those with strong publishing track records who can't get their new work accepted anywhere, or are making the choice to sign a contract for virtually no advance simply to get a book out, and you will see that, if the 99% of non-elite writers expect to sustain a writing life, we must get together and fight back. United we bargain, divided we beg is every bit as true for writers as for transit workers, teachers, carpenters, or nurses. Pay the writer!
The Writers Union is also a vehicle for freelance writers to enact solidarity with other unionists in our struggle for social justice, thus having an important effect on both the direction of the labor movement and the larger political process. I'll give just one key example, Local 1981's affiliation with U.S. Labor Against the War. USLAW works within local unions and nationally to raise labor's voice against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, calling for new priorities that cut military spending and channel tax monies into domestic job creation, social safety nets, and more. Thanks largely to USLAW's organizing within union locals, many of which passed their own resolutions on the topic, last August the AFL-CIO's National Executive Council issued a groundbreaking statement that reads: "There is no way to fund what we must do as a nation without bringing our troops home from Iraq and Afghanistan. The militarization of our foreign policy has proven to be a costly mistake. It is time to invest at home." It means a lot to have Local 1981 affiliated with USLAW, even more so because there's a strong network of other UAW locals in the northeast that have made the same commitment.
I don't have time to mention all the ways in which the National Writers Union fights to give us a shot at writing a livable and creatively satisfying future, but in closing, I want to touch on one more key dimension of this effort. When I look at the list of major campaigns that the NWU has been involved in, legal actions like the historic Tasini vs. the Times lawsuit (involving electronic publication rights to material originally published in print) and the current action against the proposed Google Book Settlement stand out as major interventions in writers' struggles to control the products of our labor. Above and beyond the important question of our legal right to our "intellectual property," the ability of writers to exercise a decent level of control over what happens to the material we produce implicates, in the long run, the cultural understanding and impact of that work. Like other intellectual workers--teachers, public interest lawyers, and medical professionals, for instance--writers are discovering that getting organized is the precondition for effective resistance to corporate-style attempts to hollow out our vocation until it has no meaning beyond its ability to generate a profit. We see this currently in the redefinition of writer as "content provider," implying that our work is nothing more than the necessary pretext for lucrative ad click-through rates, while the term "author" is reinterpreted in the lexicon of publishing conglomerates to mean the celebrity, famous for being famous, whose "book" can be manufactured with the aid of a ghost writer.
"Writing the future" means, in the fullest sense, wresting back our work from corporate definitions of "content" and reasserting the centrality of our storytelling, wordplay, reporting, and critical analysis to the future shape of the culture itself.
National Writers Union 30th Anniversary Celebration/December 5, 2011
Photos by Thomas Good/NWU