Bill lettres

Have sex with your father? Ho-hum. Kill somebody in your youth? Been there, done that. But confess in print how much money you make, and all hell breaks loose.

Published March 2, 1999 8:00PM (EST)

If one judges literature by the intensity of the hate mail it generates,
Vince Passaro has had a whup-ass year. His August 1998 essay in Harper's
generated pages on pages of angry letters in the November issue. It
generated letters in response to the letters. The current Harper's
(March) features three letters in response to the letters in response to
the letters, in one of which a writer of one of the original round of
compares herself to "a surgeon, [who] must ... make an
aggressive cut and cause pain" to excise the vile tumor of Passaro's prose.

Passaro's offense? He bravely and perhaps naively decided to open up his
wallet to the readers -- specifically, to write an essay about his
inability to live within a $100,000 household income. In "Who'll Stop the
Drain?" Passaro (a past Salon contributor) tells how he and his wife racked up $63,000 in debt to credit
cards, friends and relatives despite two jobs, freelance proceeds and a
heaven-sent $900 rent deal on a Manhattan apartment. "This is not a story
about conspicuous consumption," Passaro opens, contending that he leads a
fairly frugal life -- with the major exception of $36,250 in educational
expenses to keep his three kids out of New York's public schools. He
details at length his debts, his run-ins with collectors and his longtime
casual, Catholic-influenced attitude toward money (he burned a $100 pile of
cash in his college dorm in an argument about the "inherent value" of

A half year later, Passaro -- who by day is director of communications
at Adelphi University -- still seems puzzled that anybody would think his
admission was such a big deal. A Harper's contributing editor who usually
writes deep literary review essays, he expected the typical response --
10 letters or so, half positive, half negative. He got a vicious torrent.
He was "untrustworthy at best and offensive at worst." "A free-spending
baby boomer with a staggering sense of entitlement." "A complete idiot."
The essay generated snippy comments in the press and God knows how much
Schadenfreudesprache in New York's ever-bitter journalism circles.
He even became a traveling fiscal curiosity, interviewed on Public Radio
International's "Marketplace" and brought on "Nightline" Dec. 29 "as
the national poster child for the overspent American." (Not all the
attention was negative, mind you: Two concerned readers sent Passaro $50
and $100 checks, which -- after repeated attempts to return to the
insistent contributors -- he cashed.)

"People are hysterical about the subject of money," Passaro says. In
particular, he argues, his piece touched off class sentiments that
Americans feel passionately yet refuse to recognize: "You're not supposed
to approve of class distinctions, nor are you supposed to aspire to a class
above your own, nor are you supposed to even acknowledge the idea of
class." The article, suggests Harper's deputy editor Colin Harrison,
violated taboos -- you don't reveal your finances and you don't run up debt
without showing appropriate guilt. "The typical way to write about debt is
to pile up a bunch of numbers and have a raised eyebrow and shaking finger
and wrap the whole thing in kind of a Puritan sermon. The power of the
piece is ... that he's willing not to be cowed by the question of debt."

That it came from a guy getting a hundred large a year, of course,
hardly helped. "I took pains not to complain," Passaro says. "I was saying,
'Here's my life. How's yours?'" This message apparently translated widely,
though, as "I make more money than you do. And yet, for the sake of my
children, I really should have even more" (a common refrain, by the way, to
any resident of a white-collar urban nesting neighborhood). By most people's
measure, announcing you're $63,000 in the hole is complaining. And
though he tries to tie his woes to a larger middle-class crisis ("there is
a big problem out there, and not just with the Passaros"), Passaro -- an
atypical earner in a city with atypical economics -- is not that
representative. But he was probably painting a bull's-eye on himself
regardless, simply by writing about his own finances.

Brag about your money or bitch about it; either way, we don't want to
hear it. (OK, we do -- greedily -- but we'll despise you for it.) True, the
story of the starving artist is familiar and sympathetic, but that's
because we hear it not from his own underfed mouth but in comfortable
retrospect (Orwell's reminiscences, Paul Auster's "Hand to
) or through admiring biographers. Beggaring one's creditors is
practically an entrance requirement for the canon (and the stuff of literary movie heartthrobs): James Joyce scholars love the story behind a 1904
photo portrait of the young
-- asked what he was thinking when his friend snapped the
picture, the legendary freeloader replied, "I wondered would he lend me
five shillings."

In our own time acclaimed novelist James Wilcox became the face of
literary penury, but not by his own hand: A 1994 New Yorker profile
depicted him scraping by, despite critical raves, on niggardly advances and
rationing himself bargain chicken from the supermarket rotisserie. The
article revived interest in his work, but there was inevitable sniggering
afterward, and, underscoring the social stigma of opening the ledgers in
public, even the New Orleans Times-Picayune granted the Louisianan a "most
dubious distinction" award.

But the successful writer? Oy gevalt! Don't get the financially
successful writer started on his money problems. ("Financially
successful writer" is a fraught and contradictory term, but I'll define it
here as a writer who earns all or a substantial part of an
average-to-above-average income from writing.) Earning embarrassingly less
than many of their subjects, yet in many ways removed from the experience
of typical 9-to-5 clock-punchers, writers occupy a roiling rapids of
multidirectional resentment. Somebody once mentioned to me the average
income, comfortably into six figures, of the readers of Fortune magazine,
where I write, and since then I can't file a piece for that magazine
without feeling like I should be carrying a silver tray and answering to a

And when you're talking financially successful writers kvetching about
money, you're talking James Atlas. An accomplished biographer, editor and
critic, Atlas is probably no more obsessed than any other writer with, as
he puts it, "the fiercest desire of all these days -- the desire to get
ahead." But he sure is more willing to bellyache about it. A string of
Atlas' New Yorker essays in the last few years compose an Iliad of
writerly envy. He seems to have had a decent life. He mentions a little red
farmhouse in Vermont, an apartment overlooking Central Park, children in --
sure -- private schools. But all around him, brokers, doctors, even other
writers are making mad phat money, '90s money, fuck-you money. ("One of my
oldest friends in the literary world has recently hit it big. How big? ...
A million, two million?") He mourns the days when artists could be shabbily
genteel and buy real estate for a song ("How come Jules Feiffer gets to
summer on Martha's Vineyard?"). He phones fellow literatus Jason Epstein to
determine that one now needs $350,000 a year to live "a comfortable life in
Manhattan -- private schools, a decent apartment, a modest summer place."
He notes in not one but two articles that he is forced to subsidize his
trips abroad by -- gasp! -- writing for Travel & Leisure.

But today, Atlas is stepping up and doing something about it. Seeking
money to put where his mouth is, Atlas has become an entrepreneur,
publishing a new series of short biographies in conjunction with Viking
Penguin, backed with Wall Street financing. In a New York magazine
Michael Wolff insinuated that Atlas' little metal car would
henceforth be passing "Go" with speed-of-light periodicity, and you can be
damn sure that set tongues a-waggin' in the aforementioned
bitter-journalists' community.

So even as Atlas wrote wistfully last year that "the city is awash in
money" but "I'm trying to be happy where I am," he was in fact drawing up
blueprints for his start-up. In retrospect, the closing of that essay --
"show me the money" -- is no mere plaint. It is a manifesto, Atlas' new,
improved version of "Old father, old artificer, stand me now and ever in
good stead," his "hypocrite lecteur!" Atlas is giving us the business
venture as the culmination of art, a literary endeavor with return on
investment, taking Flaubert's dictum that the artist "should live like a
bourgeois" and slamming it to the next level. Bourgeois, hell! Live like
Jeff Bezos! "Make it new"? Strike it rich!

Atlas and Passaro have reached two different solutions to the ancient
art-vs.-money perplex: Transcend it or come clean about it. When Passaro's
essay came out, I was, like him, working an academic day job, my wife was,
like his, a librarian and we earned less and paid more than he to live in
an apartment in a nice but less-coveted New York neighborhood. I was, shall
we say, less than sympathetic to his personal woes. But despite my
objections as a fellow striver, I at least envied him a little -- not just
for his rent-stabilization deal but for defying that Cratchit-like fiscal
meekness most of us share, that cringing, hide-the-pay-stub modesty.
Passaro tells me now he doesn't regret the essay, though he might raise
class issues more explicitly if he did it again, and that he'd probably
make the same financial choices: "You want to live your life in such a way
that it gives you joy and comfort when you're old."

Wrapping up the interview, we talk for a minute about work, which is to
say, we talk about money. I ask him about his full-time freelancing days
('88 to '93, fiction, reviews, author profiles for Esquire and Vanity
Fair). I give him my half-assed opinions of Web economics and micropayments
and banner ads. He asks me if I'm really making a living at this
online-writing business, and I tell him yes, and -- of course, of course --
I do not say how much.

By James Poniewozik

James Poniewozik is a Time magazine columnist on TV and media.

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