Alex Ross points to the results of a recent survey of American composers. One bit in particular caught my attention:
They have a median total income of $45,000, and, on average, they derive 19% of that amount from composition. Yet they spend twenty-seven hours a week on composing-related activities. Eighty-five respondents — 6.4% of the total — make a living entirely from writing music.
Obviously classical music composers and authors isn’t an apples to apples comparison, but I do think it’s instructive that only 6.4% of them earn a living off their work. As with classical music, so with writing: you don’t need to live off your art to be a "professional."
It is true that there are writers of the kind Gessen described, people like Maxine Hong Kingston, an emeritus professor of English at UC Berkeley, or the late David Foster Wallace, who after working a succession of odd jobs taught at Pomona College until his death. “Literary author” did eventually become their vocation, although they held other jobs along the way. It’s true, many great American authors do eventually end up here. But few start out here.