News & Criticism

"Resurrect" the Federal Writers' Project?

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You can't fault Mark I. Pinsky for dreaming. The award-winning religion writer was laid off from the Orlando Sentinel in July, and his essay for The New Republic was probably more of a vehicle for his frustrations than a sincere policy proposal (unlike some of the other people demanding big money from Uncle Sam's supposedly bottomless pockets). Either way, Pinsky's essay is worth reading in full despite its lack of a compelling argument:

Any federal effort to put back to work the hundreds of thousands thrown out of work in the nation's hard-hit industrial, construction, airline, and financial sectors should consider displaced news media workers--including those newly laid off from the publishing industry--as well….

The Federal Writers Project operated from 1935-1939 under the leadership of Henry Alsberg, a journalist and theater director. In addition to providing employment to more than 6,000 out-of-work reporters, photographers, editors, critics, writers, and creative craftsmen and -women, the FWP produced some lasting contributions to American history, culture, and literature. Their efforts ranged from comprehensive guides to 48 states and three territories to interviews with and photos of 2,300 former African-American slaves. These are preserved in the seventeen volumes of Slave Narratives: A Folk History of Slavery in the United States from Interviews with Former Slaves….

Today, there are many dislocated "old media" journalists from newspapers, radio, and television on the street--here I declare my personal interest, as one of them--who could provide a skilled pool to staff a new FWP. But since these journalists represent only a fraction of the larger displaced workforce, it is fair to ask what the public benefit would be of money spent….

Gifted FWP alumni who went on to distinguished literary careers in literature include John Steinbeck, John Cheever, Nelson Algren, Saul Bellow, and African Americans Zora Neale Hurston, Ralph Ellison, and Richard Wright. The recent death of Studs Terkel-- a FWP veteran who went on to use the skills he developed in the program to chronicle the working- and middle-classes on his long-running radio show and in his Pulitzer Prize-winning books--is a reminder of how valuable this kind of experience can be. Ellison used his FWP research in Invisible Man, and Steinbeck and John Gunther relied on the FWP state guides for Travels With Charley: In Search of America and Inside U.S.A., respectively.

This time, the FWP could begin by documenting the ground-level impact of the Great Recession; chronicling the transition to a green economy; or capturing the experiences of the thousands of immigrants who are changing the American complexion. Like the original FWP, the new version would focus in particular on those segments of society largely ignored by commercial and even public media….

How would it work? Administering the new FWP as an individual grant program through community colleges and universities could minimize bureaucracy and overhead. In consultation with the Obama administration--perhaps through the National Endowment for the Humanities--and Congress, guidelines could be established and a small staff assembled in Washington to oversee the projects, in the form of grants, rather than hourly wages. Projects could be pitched locally to colleges, or suggested and posted by them, vetted preliminarily and then approved or rejected by the national staff.

Pinsky's policy prescriptions are ambiguous and take a lot for granted: What if Barack Obama can't "stimulate" several million green jobs? And where's the money going to come from for the additional FWP jobs, many of which wouldn't be green? And who's going to make up the objective panel of project reviewers? (Pinsky's concession that such a massive program might fall prey to bureaucratic abuses is a laughable understatement; his conviction that there's a way to circumvent the bureaucrats is, at best, wishful thinking.)

That leaves the historical elements of the essay (it's hard for me to say anything bad about underwriting greats like Bellow and Ellison) and Pinsky's opinion, which he shares with many journalists, that the government can't "just do nothing" while the media industry goes through a period of creative destruction. As someone who works at an alt. weekly, I won't deny that I'd like a little more job security. On the other hand, I'd rather join the growing ranks of PR writers than pitch my porn reviews to some stuffy, government pencil-pusher. (And let's not forget that a government-backed medium would be even less adept than a privately-owned dead-tree paper at keeping up with "citizen journalists.")

NEXT: Recently at Reason.tv: Robert J. Samuelson on The Great Inflation and Its Aftermath—how Reagan and Volcker tamed economic policy and why Obama should be listening

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  1. “the FWP produced some lasting contributions to American history, culture, and literature.”

    I read the FWP guide to my mother’s home state. It contained many derogatory remarks about the Native American population. It was like NEA art, but with racism instead of porn.

    (Disclaimer: I know that most NEA grants don’t go to porn – but artists fight like the dickens to assure porn the *right* to NEA funds).

  2. Honestly, I’d rather just pay them welfare. I’d rather pay them 2/3rd’s of their former salaries to stay home and watch TVLand.

    Paying them welfare picks my pocket, but at least I would be spared all the socialist realism crap that a new FWP would probably put out.

  3. “the socialist realism crap that a new FWP would probably put out.”

    You may be thinking of the Federal *Theater* Project. I watched one of their agitprop works on *public* TV.

  4. Can one of the house liberals weigh in here: This would be a egregious waste of taxpayer money.

  5. Am I wrong, or was 3/4ths of FWP works things like “A Collection of Oral Poetry as Remembered by the Residents of Enid, OK”, i.e worthless fluff and collections of things already available elsewhere? At my local library this is the case.

  6. A more worthwhile project would be to digitize the Library of Congress and all federal & state archives.

  7. Pinsky’s concession that such a massive program might fall prey to bureaucratic abuses, and his conviction that there’s a way to circumvent the bureaucrats are both laughable understatements.

    How is his conviction that there’s a way to circumvent the bureaucrats a laughable understatement? And if it is a laughable understatement, isn’t that an argument in favor of the program?

  8. Fluffy, my thoughts exactly. Giving them government jobs creates inefficient jobs and ties up good workers doing inefficient things. If one agrees that there should be a social safety net for people laid off and trying to find work during downtimes, the way to help these people is to help them along until they can find work, not give them crap work. This way, there is much more chance that they will return to the private sector doing something useful. It would also cost a shitload less to taxpayers, and the economy overall.

  9. Fluffy distracted me. I originally wanted to say that people always talk about how its easy to have ideology when times are good. It makes me happy to see the Reason writers sticking to their guns, even when talking about a bailout for the media, and their job security isn’t guaranteed.

  10. I thought Obama already had a jobs project for laid-off writers. Somebody’s got to lean on shovels as all that new infrastrucure goes in, don’t they?

  11. I’m a (largely inactive) collector of Americana.The FWP put out some great regional Americana and I wish I had more of it.I have original Farm Security Administration photographica as well,I’d really like more of that as I could sell it for big bucks in even a bad economy:)I even like Socialist Realist courthouse murals. 1930s cultural material is way cool but I don’t want to see them try it again.I don’t think we’d get the same quality of stuff(to say the least) and it would cost a whole lot more.

    Of course I am adamantly opposed on economic, cultural,moral and ideological grounds to any State funding of the arts.

    That said, we’ll probably get another FWP.

  12. The other white meat.

  13. we don’t need to spend money on journalists, but if we could pay for some dead European film directors to stimulate our flagging popular culture, that would be great. Subsidies and confused bureaucracies have produced some of the world’s greatest art.

  14. I’m buying up shovel futures.

  15. Dead tree journalists are working for government for the most part anyway. I don’t see politicians letting the propaganda machine fail. That is, unless you employ writers who call out corruption. That could cost you some public stadium funds, for sure.

  16. SIV
    I did hear they did this project of travel guides for all the states that were really good, and other regional things that you mention. I’m sure they funded good writers (didn’t they keep Dashell Hammett afloat for a while, that guy is great).

    I just think that this kind of thing would also be done quite adequately through local governments (courthouse murals) and private sources (I know you agree, not arguing with you just saying my part on this silly proposal).

  17. the hundreds of thousands thrown out of work

    Were any of them actually thrown out of work?
    Was there real and demonstrable defenestration?
    I for one would pay to see that.

    I hereby submit my proposal for the Federal Defenestration Project.
    I will require $132 million. Thank you.

  18. Administering the new FWP as an individual grant program through community colleges and universities could minimize bureaucracy and overhead. In consultation with the Obama administration–perhaps through the National Endowment for the Humanities–and Congress, guidelines could be established and a small staff assembled in Washington to oversee the projects

    He’s funnier than Steve Chapman; maybe reason could throw him an assignment once in a while.

    Actually, if the newNewDeal Writers’ Welfare Project assigned a reporter to every Congressional hearing and conference committee, with absolute immunity from censorship, we might get a fascinating oral history of sausage-making in the twenty-first century. But that’s no more likely than “minimal” bureaucracy or overhead.

    ******

    It’s twenty degrees below zero; where the fuck is that global warming I’ve been hearing so much about?

  19. Canada’s example on this point would be a neat illustration of how useless government grants are when it comes to funding writers. As a reviewer, I’d notice that there were basically two kinds of novelists – the first time person, who wrote a “semi-autobiographical” novel, and pretty much was never heard from again, or if they were, they’d managed to snag a tenured position as a creative writing prof and cranked out a novel every 5-10 years. If you were to look at in terms of productivity (number of books published by the writer) and sales (people willing to read their novels who weren’t getting paid to do so like me) the grants, by any objective measure are a failure.

    Occasionally, you’d get someone more driven who actually liked to write (I’m thinking of Russell Smith) and while they applied for government grants like everyone else) didn’t have a problem whoring themselves out as journalists, or I think in Douglas Coupland’s case as a sort of roving “Gen-X” consultant. In that case, while I’m sure the government grant wasn’t a bad thing, these guys had enough drive to get their novels published on their own.

  20. Thanks to all comments, even the usual collection of anonymous cranks and whiners.
    Of course the government can do nothing about displaced jouranlists, which is what is likely to happen. The Republic will survive.
    To clarify, I envisioned — in a light-hearted way — a cross between modest Pell grants and the NEH evaluation process. By using community colleges to evaluate and monitor proposals, they would stay close to the ground. No “creative” arts proposals, like novels or reviews; the criteria would be too subjective. Just documentary, primary source material. Grants would range from $5,000 for individual proposals to $50,000 for group efforts. Payment would be incremental, based on making satisfactory toward agreed objectives, also determined by local folk.
    For the record, I am now a full time author, working on my fourth book, occasionally free lancing. For the past 40 years, I’ve survived in the free market, free lancing and stringing news for 8 cents a word, salary at two newspapers and, more recently, lecturing at universities for what people think my entertainment/educational value is. I wouldn’t be a likely applicant for any new FWP grant.
    Cheers,
    Mark I. Pinsky
    I’ve sold about 200,000 books, titles written with small or no advances. I make my money in royalties — not promises or proposals.
    Mark I. Pinsky

  21. Mark I. Pinsky,

    You’ve converted me. In fact I think we should extend the idea. After all, what’s so damn special about writers?

    There are a lot free lance programmers out there like myself that could use government grants of $5,000 grand to do experimental programming. I have a lot of ideas for user interfaces that I’ve never been able to develop because I don’t have the time. Who knows, maybe I could up with the next great thing that changes the world. I should get a grant to tide me over between commissions and releases.

    After all, we all know that everyone has a god given right to make a living in whatever profession strikes their fancy, even if they don’t have the skills to produce a product that others will voluntarily pay for.

    I mean, we don’t want a system in which people have to fulfill the wants and needs of others in order to make living, do we?

  22. Although Steinbeck owned all of the WPA state quides, he claimed he NEVER worked on a WPA project. I would, appreciate any information that shows he DID work for a WPA project.

    Herb Behrens
    Monterey/salinas

  23. I wouldn’t be a likely applicant for any new FWP grant.

    But you still want to pick my pocket to pay your buddies and colleagues. Pardon me if I ask you to kiss my ass.

  24. I wouldn’t write off a Federal Writer’s Project so quickly. I, for one, have always been curious about that 1000 monkeys on typewriters producing Shakespear thing, and would like to see if it actually would work.

  25. The 1,000 monkeys would be working at random, so they’re as likely to produce *Hamlet* as to produce *What Is To Be Done.* With 1,000 hacks who are nonrandomly trying to produce hackery, you *aren’t* going to get *Hamlet.*

    Of course, Shakespeare had a certain extent of government sponsorship. For one thing, his acting troupe had the patronage of, I believe, the Lord Chamberlain. Actors needed an official sponsor or they would be classified as vagabonds. I presume that some of their activities were subsidized, too, but I don’t know the details.

  26. Oops, did I say Shakespeare? I meant the Earl of Oxford, or Lord Bacon, or whoever.

  27. For one thing, his acting troupe had the patronage of, I believe, the Lord Chamberlain. Actors needed an official sponsor or they would be classified as vagabonds. I presume that some of their activities were subsidized, too, but I don’t know the details.

    I suspect acquiring the patronage of a noble in order to continue producing plays required sending cash, not forwarding bills, to said noble.

  28. I got a grant from the federal government for $12,000 in financial aid, see how you can get one also at
    http://couponredeemer.com/federalgrants/

  29. I got a grant from the federal government for $12,000 in financial aid, see how you can get one also at
    http://couponredeemer.com/federalgrants/

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