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Selling Yourself: Tao Lin and Wallace Shawn

By posted at 12:04 pm on August 8, 2008 4

Tao Lin, a young writer with a flair for cleverly drawing attention to his work, is in the news again. His latest scheme is to take investments from “the public” in his novel-in-progress in exchange for a portion of the royalties.

The move appears to have been successful; shares are no longer available and Lin got written up in several mainstream publications, including a fairly lengthy piece in the Telegraph, and dozens of blogs. What nobody mentioned, however, is that this has been done before, some 40 years ago, by another outsized, New York personality.

In the early years of his career, playwright and actor Wallace Shawn did the same thing, according to a John Lahr piece that originally ran in the New Yorker and is collected in his book of profiles, Show and Tell published in 2000. Shawn, son of legendary New Yorker editor William Shawn, was a struggling writer going out of his way to achieve literary success without tapping into his father’s considerable influence. Lahr writes:

Back then, Wally was forced to follow his own quirky, unconventional path. He told me he’d “sold stock in himself” – his way of rationalizing a twenty-five-hundred-dollar loan he took from a consortium of friends in the sixties, in order to go off and write his plays. (To this day, the investors receive a small yearly check).

The juxtaposition of the two schemes presents an interesting notion. $2,500 40 years ago got you some small percentage of a budding artist’s career in perpetuity. $2,000 now only gets you 10% of the royalties for a novel. Inflation, I suppose.

Finally, despite Shawn’s scheme (I believe) initially being revealed in a New Yorker piece and despite Shawn’s obvious ties to the magazine, The New Yorker, in its (admittedly very brief) mention of Lin’s plan on its own blog, did not catch the Shawn connection.

Given the fractured state of publishing and the enthusiasm for trying new models, perhaps this shareholder form of patronage will take off, but it will have been Shawn, not Lin, who was the first innovator.





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4 Responses to “Selling Yourself: Tao Lin and Wallace Shawn”

  1. qzed
    at 1:37 pm on August 8, 2008

    I saw a documentary about Frank Lloyd Wright that mentioned a scheme just like this. I suspect that this approach is nearly as old as creative expression itself. Isn't it essentially the basis for the patronage system of earlier eras (though the currency, in those cases, was not always necessarily money).

  2. Max
    at 1:46 pm on August 8, 2008

    I'm glad you mentioned patronage. That occurred to me as well, but I thought a discussion of it might overwhelm the discussion at hand since it has played such a huge role in arts throughout the ages.

    What is interesting about Lin and Shawn's schemes is the idea of taking on investors and sharing the spoils of your art rather than relying on commissions (which it seems is what patronage mostly amounted to). In this more "modern" way of doing things, the artist would seem to retain more control, though I suppose there are shareholders to think about. And as with any "corporation," one is obligated to look after their interests.

  3. ed
    at 3:00 pm on August 9, 2008

    Actually, Chateaubriand was more than a century ahead of Shawn. The French diplomat's final book, Mémoires d'Outre-Tombe, was written over the last several years of his life and published among a select few. Chateaubriand sold stocks in the work, abdicating the rights and selling it to his investors, who then rescued him from poverty.

  4. Max
    at 3:05 pm on August 9, 2008

    I figured some genius out there would be aware of earlier examples. Thanks, Ed. Anybody know of others? It seems like too good of an idea not to have been hit upon by other writers and artists.

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