Between 1935 and 1939, the Federal Writers’ Project (FWP)—an initiative funded by the Works Project Administration under the New Deal—provided employment for some 6,000 jobless writers [in the United States]. Today, as stunned authors in Australia and around the world come to terms with the economic consequences of the coronavirus pandemic, that experiment deserves reconsideration. As the ABC recently noted, Australian writers—who earn, on average, less than $13,000 directly from their work each year—will be affected on multiple levels: by the cancellation of festivals, talks, and other paying gigs; by the closure of bookshops; by redundancies and cuts in publishing houses; and by job losses in the related industries (from academia to hospitality) through which they supplement their incomes.
It was the American New Deal more than anything else that legitimated the kind of stimulus packages again being discussed in Australia not just for the arts but across the economy. When Franklin D. Roosevelt took office, the crisis of the Great Depression forced him, despite his own fiscal conservatism, to rush through various rescue measures of a now-familiar nature. The US government guaranteed bank loans to prevent further financial collapses; it encouraged industrial cartels to control prices and production levels; it purchased unsold crops from farmers; and through the Civil Works Administration, the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, and, eventually, the Works Progress Administration it sought to create jobs.
Recent calls for postpandemic bailouts for artists in general or writers implicitly evoke that legacy. Ben Eltham, one of Australia’s best arts writers, has spelled out one version of such a package in The Conversation, while the WA arts newsletter Semaphore has run an open letter calling for, among other things, more funding to the Australia Council.
Obviously, the publishing scene today—dominated by vast multinationals, for whom books are merely part of a broader engagement with the “entertainment industry”—differs greatly from the more small-scale milieu of the 1930s. Even so, it’s still worth noting how contemporary thinking about funding literature differs from the Federal Writers’ Project in several important ways.
Most importantly, the job schemes of the 1930s as a whole, including the Writers’ Project—emerged from intense class struggles in a way that today’s plans do not.