Writers Strike, Silence Falls
In solidarity with the striking screenwriters, there will be no laugh lines in this blog, no stunning metaphors, and not many adjectives. Also, in solidarity with the striking Broadway stagehands, no theatrics, special effects or sing-along refrains.
Yes, I realize the strike could deprive millions of Americans of news as Jay Leno, Jon Stewart, and the rest of them are forced into re-runs. If the strike and the re-runs go on long enough, the same millions of Americans will be condemned to living in the past and writing in Kerry for president in 08. But are re-runs really such a bad thing? After opening night, every Broadway show is a re-run in perpetuity, yet people have been known to fly from Fargo to see Mamma Mia.
And yes, it's a crying shame that so many laugh-worthy news items will go unnoted on the late night talk shows: The discovery of Chinese toys coated with the date rape drug. The news that pot-smoking Swiss teenagers are as academically successful as abstainers and better socially adjusted. Bush's repeated requests for Musharraf to take off his uniform. Could there be a simple explanation for the powerful affinity between these two men?
True, a screenwriters' strike is not as emotionally compelling as a strike by janitors or farmworkers. Screenwriters are often well-paid--when they are paid. All it takes is for a show to get cancelled or reconceptualized, and they're back on the streets again, hustling for work. I know a couple of them--smart, funny women who clamber nimbly from one short-lived job to another, struggling to keep up their health insurance and self-respect.
But my selfish hope here is that the screenwriters' action will call attention to the plight of writers in general. Since I started in the freelancing business about thirty years ago, the per-word payment for print articles has remained exactly the same in actual, non-inflation-adjusted, dollars. Three dollars a word was pretty much top of the line, and it hasn't gone up by a penny. More commonly in the old days, I made a dollar a word, requiring me to write three or four 1000-word pieces a month to supply the children with their bagels and pizza. One for Mademoiselle on "The Heartbreak Diet." One for Ms. on "The Bright Side of the Man Shortage." One for Mother Jones on pharmaceutical sales scams, and probably a book review thrown in.
There was a perk, of course--the occasional free lunch on an editor's expense account. These would occur in up-market restaurants where the price of lunch for two would easily exceed my family's weekly food budget, but I realized it would be gauche to bring a plastic baggie for the rolls. My job was to pitch story ideas over the field greens and tuna tartare, all the while marveling at the wealth that my writing helped generate, which, except for the food on my plate, went largely to someone other than me.
For print writers, things have gone steadily downhill. The number of traditional outlets--magazines and newspapers--is shrinking. Ms., for example, publishes only quarterly now, Mother Jones every two months, and Mademoiselle has long since said au revoir. You can blog on the Web of course, but that pays exactly zero. As for benefits: once the National Writers' Union offered health insurance, but Aetna dropped it and then Unicare found writers too sickly to cover. (You can still find health insurance, however, at www.freelancersunion.org.)
So, you may be thinking, who needs writers anyway? The truth is, no one needs any particular writer, just as no one needs any particular auto worker, stagehand, or janitor. But take us all away and TV's funny men will be struck mute, soap opera actors will be reduced to sighing and grunting, CNN anchors will have to fill the whole hour with chit chat about the weather, all greeting cards will be blank. Newspapers will consist of advertisements and movie listings; the Web will collapse into YouTube. A sad, bewildered, silence will come over the land.
Besides, anyone who's willing to stand up to greedy bosses deserves our support. A victory for one group, from Ford workers to stagehands, raises the prospects for everyone else. Who knows? If the screenwriters win, maybe some tiny measure of respect will eventually trickle down even to bloggers. So in further solidarity with striking writers, I'm going to shut up right now.