I felt my blood pressure skyrocket this morning when I learned that nonfiction wunderkind-turned-pariah Jonah Lehrer was given $20,000 for a mea culpa sermon at the Knight Foundation’s Media Learning Seminar, addressing the Bob Dylan quote-fabrication scandal in which he was embroiled last year. My sister-in-law — a fellow freelance journalist who sent me the news with the note “Makes my blood pressure rise” — had the exact same response. I didn’t stew listlessly after reading the article, however. I took out my calculator and went to work.
In five years since graduating from college, I’ve published roughly 125 nonfiction articles. They range from blog posts for book review websites like The Millions to cover stories for my local alt-weekly paper, The Providence Phoenix. The most I’ve ever been paid to write is 75 cents a word for my alma mater’s alumni newsletter. Much more frequently, I get paid around 20 cents a word to write articles for the Phoenix and around three cents a word to contribute to my local Jewish newspaper, The Jewish Voice and Herald. I write for other outlets, free of cost. When I added up the payments for those 125-or-so articles, the sum was less than half of Lehrer’s $20,000 payday.
I don’t report these numbers to elicit pity. Like many young nonfiction writers, I supplement my writing (non-)income with odd jobs: teaching writing at a local college; pay-for-hire research and copywriting; leading literature discussions for a group of local middle-aged women. And like many Jewish kids of a certain milieu (I’m a 27-year-old son of a doctor and attorney who graduated from private prep schools and universities), I’m far from a charity case.
But I write this to illustrate exactly how offensive Lehrer’s honorarium is to anyone in the nonfiction writing business — particularly those of us close to Lehrer’s age who scan Gawker for Lena Dunham’s latest book deal and stare wistfully at the words “staff writer” on the contributors page of our weekly New Yorker. Lehrer proved last year that he isn’t nearly as Digital Age-savvy as he was supposed to be. But even he should know that his $20,000 fee would speak louder than his Knight Foundation remarks.
This new mini-scandal doesn’t have to be an aftershock to the earthquake that crumbled Lehrer’s career. He could turn it around. So, Jonah, if you’re reading, here are a few suggestions for paying your infamous honorarium forward.
With his film “My Trip To Al-Qaeda” on HBO in September and his one-man show, “The Human Scale,” about to open in New York City, Pulitzer Prize-winning author and The New Yorker staff writer Lawrence Wright has a lot going on. During a short window between memorizing his lines and beginning rehearsals, he found time to answer a few questions about “The Human Scale,” which is based on his experiences in Israel and the Gaza Strip last year. Directed by Oskar Eustis of the Public Theater, the play opens on October 2 at The New Yorker Festival and will continue its run at 3LD Arts and Technology Center until October 31.
Zohar Tirosh-Polk: How did this play come about?
Lawrence Wright: I had a done a one-man play before, “My Trip to Al Qaeda.” That was anomalous to start with, and I thought I would never do that again. Then I went to Gaza for The New Yorker in July 2009, and when I came back Karen Greenberg at the Center on Law and Security asked me to give a speech about Gaza. The more I thought about it, I realized it was very familiar to the people of that region, but here people are so unacquainted with it. I thought maybe I would try another one-man presentation, so we assembled all this video and we did a reading last December at the 3-Legged Dog theater, and it was during that time that Oskar Eustis at the Public got interested.
Yesterday, Martin Fletcher wrote about stories he’s covered for NBC’s London bureau. Martin Fletcher’s newest book, “Walking Israel: A Personal Search for the Soul of a Nation,” is now available. His blog posts are being featured this week on The Arty Semite courtesy of the Jewish Book Council and My Jewish Learning’s Author Blog series. For more information on the series, please visit:
I’m lousy at titles; I may spend more time thinking about what to call a book than planning its content. But what I’ve discovered is it doesn’t matter much what I think because the publisher decides anyway.
The title I decided on, after much anguish, for my first book about my reporting career was “The Exploding Cow and the River of Death,” which related to two of the stories in the book. That kind of black humor is a tradition for journalist memoirs. My favorite such title is Edward Behr’s 1985 book “Anyone Here Been Raped and Speaks English?” It refers to a journalist in the Congo who came across a group of Belgian nuns who had been raped and shouted the question.