Writers as House Cleaners; David Frayne on Employment Dogma; Bartleby, the Scrivener

For the final issue released in 2018 (originally published through the Substack newsletter), I welcome you to the first issue of The Anticareerist Reading Room. This series features short commentary and quotes from a sampling of a few selected anticareerist-friendly reads featuring ideas I’ve been pondering lately.

On Writers Working ‘Day Jobs’ as House Cleaners

Recently I was asked to contribute a few thoughts to another writer’s piece about writers’ day jobs. Among the topics addressed was an interview with Caitriona Lally, an Irish writer who won the Rooney Prize – a major literary award – from her alma mater Trinity College Dublin, where she studied English and now works as a cleaner.

As someone who worked as a full-time solo house cleaner for five years while I struggled (often fruitlessly) to find time and energy for writing about the problems of writers taking day jobs, the subject matter hit close to home. I’m sure Stephanie Land, author of the much-anticipated upcoming book Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother’s Will to Survive has a thing or two to say about this topic as well.

“What does it say about a culture,” I ventured, “…when someone with Caitriona’s level of writing talent must spend the bulk of her time working as a house cleaner just to meet her basic survival needs? As a lifelong bibliophile, I can’t help but think of the literary treasures readers are collectively missing out on because countless other gifted writers in similar situations have so little time to write. I want to live in a world that makes it possible for people like Caitriona Lally to make the best use of their literary gifts. I want to live in a world where Catrionia – and any other writers who are truly and deeply called to this craft, whether they’ve won awards or not – can write full time and still cover their basic survival needs.”

“Please understand,” I added, “…that it’s not my intention to imply that intellectual labor is “above” manual labor, or that manual labor can’t be enjoyable. Frankly, the work I did during my years as a self-employed professional house cleaner was a hell of a lot better, less stressful, and less exploitative than most of the office jobs I’ve had to endure. House cleaning is skilled labor. Especially professional house cleaning. Anyone who’s done it knows that. (All labor is skilled labor, for that matter.)

If Caitriona Lally wanted to clean houses for income some of the time and write the rest of the time, then that should be her prerogative. The key phrase there is “her prerogative.” What I’m addressing with The Anticareerist is the structural injustices involved in constraining her choices such that she must prioritize cleaning (or whatever other paying work she can find) over her writing, because writing prize-winning novels doesn’t pay enough to cover even her basic survival needs.”

Ultimately the piece about writers’ day jobs got scrapped, so I decided to share my comments here instead. If I’d had a chance to continue, I might have written about a deeply entrenched component of the ongoing problem of writers’ low pay: the culture of “working for exposure” and the refusal to recognize art and the creative process as “real” work. This is a problem for all the arts, of course, and I’ll have more to say about it in future writings.

For now I’ll just say to Caitriona Lally and Stephanie Land and all the others who are cleaning houses when they’d rather be writing: I know your pain. Not because house cleaning is shameful – it isn’t – but because it hurts when structural conditions interfere with the full pursuit of your creative calling.

This is one of the many reasons I support unconditional basic income, and one of the reasons I started whywork.org, the project that ultimately became The Anticareerist.

David Frayne: “Stop Repeating the Mantra that Work is Good For You”

In a recent piece for the New Statesman, David Frayne – author of one of my favorite anticareerist-friendly books (The Refusal of Work) – takes on a pernicious aspect of employment dogma: the unqualified notion that productivity in employment is “good for your health.” Benefits claimants are forced to endure endless propaganda touting the dignity and health benefits of “work,” narrowly defined as paid employment. Frayne writes:

“Productivity in employment…is being imposed as the ultimate symbol of health, and the only recognised way to make a social contribution. The researchers Lynne Friedli and Robert Stearn suggest that the latest policies amount to a kind of “psycho-compulsion”: a good old-fashioned brainwashing, which people are being forced to endure under the threat of sanction. Activist groups such as Disabled People Against Cuts and Recovery in the Bin are also pointing out the ethical problems with these policy developments, whether it is their trivialising attitude to long-term health conditions, or their failure to see the impossibility of giving meaningful consent to work-focused psychological interventions under the threat of destitution. […]

“There may be an evidence base to highlight the psychological importance of having a job, but in what sense does this really say anything meaningful, in a social context where working a job is pretty much the only way to avoid social stigma and put food on the table?”

I’ll repeat this bit once more for emphasis, because this basic truth is so often ignored or glossed over: “…their failure to see the impossibility of giving meaningful consent to work-focused psychological interventions under the threat of destitution.”

Frayne rightly points out that as long as we live in a culture of compulsory wage labor for survival, we cannot truly and meaningfully consent to any paid employment.

Frayne also writes that benefits organizations require claimants to “discuss employment aspirations as a condition of their benefits.”

This means those of us who don’t have any “employment aspirations” must convincingly pretend we do have them – and then describe them in acceptable terms to the organization – as a condition of receiving the means to buy food and other basic life necessities.

This conundrum brings to mind hiring managers who say things like “we don’t want someone who’s only here for the paycheck.” There’s an unexamined assumption that most people are exercising “free choice” in the job market, because…well, they can just get another job if they don’t want this one, right?

I mentally translate statements like “we don’t want someone who’s only here for the paycheck” as: “Not only must you perform the labor of the job itself, you must also perform sufficient emotional labor to convince us you’d take this job voluntarily, even if you didn’t need the money.” I don’t know about you, but I don’t see much dignity in that.

Today’s job-seekers must develop skills to convince employers that they want the job because it’s their “passion.” No employer wants to address the truth underlying all job interviews in a world without unconditional basic income: all wage labor contains elements of coercion when people cannot turn down paid jobs without risking hunger and homelessness. What was that bit about employment and “dignity” again? ‘Cause last time I checked, those conditions didn’t exactly lend themselves to robust health.

Under conditions like this, researchers won’t learn anything useful about people’s real aspirations. No one will know who (if anyone) actually wants these paid jobs. But if they asked better research questions, they might just learn a thing or two about the ability to perform emotional labor to survive.

An Anticareerist Take on Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street

Recently I picked up Herman Melville’s short story “Bartleby, the Scrivener” for the first time since adolescence. My first encounter with the story of Bartleby took place through watching the film in my seventh-grade honors English class.

I recall that the film based on the story made a lasting impression on the youthful version of me, though perhaps not for the reasons the instructor intended. I recalled the film as depicting “a strange man who kept saying ‘I prefer not to,’ over and over and over again, and then died at the end.” What was the point…? I wondered. What a dumb film, I thought. Why did we watch this? What a waste of class time.

Later on, after years of wage labor, it began to dawn on me that this Bartleby character might have been on to something with his passive mode of resistance. Perhaps my English instructor hadn’t been so clueless after all. Leo Marx describes Melville’s story as “about a writer who forsakes conventional modes because of an irresistible preoccupation with the most baffling philosophical questions.” Sounded a lot like what I yearned to do with my life.

The resistance growing inside me escalated in high school, especially after I got hired at a fast food restaurant. I spent a great deal of time wishing I could just go home and write instead. At every turn, though, I heard the same refrain: “Go to college! Get a real job! Make yourself employable!”

But I don’t even want a job. Why do I have to get one? I’m a writer. I need to write. That’s my calling. That’s what I’m here on Earth to do.

I did go to college, where the get-a-job pressure only escalated. It hasn’t let up since.

“Why don’t you apply for more jobs? Work on your resume? Go to some networking events?” people would say. And whether or not I voiced it, in my mind I repeated over and over:

I would prefer not to.

Nothing much has changed since then. Youthful scrivener me may have been wrong about the relevance of the Bartleby character, but she was absolutely right to question the need for everyone to get a “normal” job.

Adult scrivener me still prefers not to.

And now I write about it.

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