First came “Granta 121: The Best of Young Brazilian Novelists,” a 2012 edition of the British literary magazine. Then Brazil was the guest of honor at this year’s Frankfurt Book Fair, held in October and attended by some 90 authors representing the country’s literary diversity. Next year we will perform a similar role at the Goteborg Book Fair in Sweden and at the Bologna Children’s Book Fair in Italy.
And yet, despite all this fanfare, when in Brazil, do not tell anyone you’re a writer. Not only will they deny you credit at the grocery store, but almost certainly they will laugh at you, asking right away: “No, seriously. What do you do for a living?”
Unless your name is Paulo Coelho, writing is seen as about as useful and profitable as whale-snot collecting.
At least writers are not alone in their disgrace. According to the 2013 Global Teacher Status Index, Brazil ranks next to last in a list of 21 countries regarding the social status of teachers. Our average teacher salary is $18,550 per year (compared with $44,917 in the United States), but the actual annual base salary at public schools is around $8,000. Only 2 percent of secondary students want to pursue a career in teaching.
Like in the United States, entertainers, athletes and business executives are among our highest earners. Unlike in the United States, here the average mathematician, philosopher or historian earns less than $12,000 per year. Don’t ask about writing; it’s not considered a career at all.
One explanation is this: The average Brazilian reads just over four books a year, two of them only partially. The main reasons people don’t read: lack of time (53 percent), lack of interest (30 percent) and preference for other activities (21 percent) — overwhelmingly, for watching television.
In line with this general shortage of readers, the initial print run for new novels in Brazil is often 3,000 copies, and it’s unusual to sell that many.
Let me give you some personal numbers. I wrote a book in 2008 that won a literary prize and recently sold its 3,000th copy. The book retails for around $15, the author’s royalty rate is 5 percent, so I earned $0.75 from each copy. So for the book that took me one year to write and four more years to sell, I earned a total of around $2,250 (and a bout of depression). I’d have done better donating my body to science.
But if, as I have, you decide that writing is still your dream and eating isn’t that important, then you’d better find some other source of income.
So you decide to be a journalist. Not the wisest of ideas at the moment, since lots of publications are being closed. We have almost no titles publishing short stories or excerpts from novels, and every magazine and newspaper seems to be reducing the size of its articles to an average of 350 words, allegedly because the reader doesn’t have the patience to read anything longer.
Those who are still lucky enough to be employed are increasingly being turned into temporary or freelance workers. Only 59.8 percent of Brazilian journalists are formally employed with proper registration under the labor laws, while 26.8 percent work as various kinds of freelancers or independent contractors — as I do. The average salary for journalists is around $19,000 a year, although I never seem to be paid that much. I have never been formally employed, either.
An alternative is working for a publishing house. I started as a copy editor, making $3.44 per page, which for a standard 200-page novel could result in $688 for three weeks of work. Later I became a translator — and got $2,552 for the three months I spent translating “The Great Gatsby” into Portuguese. More recently I’ve earned $1,144 for working on “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” which is full of puns and untranslatable rhymes.
But there are plenty of other ways to use a flexible mind. In one adult decade of surviving, I’ve managed to correct movie subtitles (especially those translated from languages I don’t speak, like Polish); rewrite celebrity gossip news; produce various types of essays for lazy students; create publicity pieces on ice creams; answer sentimental questions on a website using a Russian persona; and make up short and funny quizzes for an entertainment website.
I wrote a children’s book about bellybutton lint; a graphic novel on Rube Goldberg machines; and lots of reported articles about subjects no one else wanted to approach. I did a hypnosis course, went to a samba marathon, met palindromists, watermelon sculptors and the world’s smallest couple. I traveled to China twice and got to learn about astronomy, depression, sleep disorders, turtle caring, tap dancing and grief.
That last one was easy; every Brazilian writer is an expert in it.
Vanessa Barbara, a novelist and columnist for the Brazilian newspaper Folha de São Paulo, edits the literary website A Hortaliça.