Finding Method in the Madness: Social Causation Theory and Mental Illness in the Writing Profession
Ernest Hemingway famously said, “There is nothing to writing. All you have to do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed” (Knott 17). Hemingway, like so many writers before him, recognized the role that his mental anguish played in his ability to develop original and creative stories. It is widely acknowledged in the field of psychology that creative writers are far more likely to be diagnosed with mental illnesses than the general population, and there are countless studies from a variety of disciplines offering new theories to explain the observation. Much of the scholarship has focused on the link between creativity and mental illness, using biological and biocritical approaches to explain why writers tend to be mentally ill. Many of the studies from these approaches have been heavily criticized, however, for their small sample sizes and lack of objectivity in diagnosing participants. Furthermore, as Simon Kyaga briefly points out in his study of the correlation between mental illness and creative occupations, there are sociological explanations that have not been considered by these other researchers (89).
What remains to be considered is how sociological factors could be impacting the high rate of mental illness among creative writers, which social causation theory may help to explain. Social causation theory is the idea that people who work in low income, high stress professions are more likely to suffer from mental illness than those in higher economic classes. Because writers, particularly creative writers, often lack economic security due to their career choice, the group is more at risk for mental illness than the average person, according to social causation theory. This article will begin by explaining the history of and evidence for social causation theory, followed by an explanation of how social causation theory may impact the professional writing community. Finally, it will demonstrate how social causation theory may have affected three of the most influential studies on mental illness among writers without the authors taking it into account, potentially causing an inflated correlation between creativity and mental illness.
2. Explanation of Social Causation Theory
It is generally accepted in the fields of psychology and sociology that people in lower socioeconomic classes are far more likely to suffer from mental illness than those in middle and upper classes. There are competing theories, however, as to why this inverse relationship occurs the two main theories being social drift theory and social causation theory. According to social drift theory, people experience a negative shift in economic status as a result of the onset of mental illness. The landmark study that first introduced social drift theory was E.M. Goldberg and S.L. Morrison’s 1963 documentary study of 706 schizophrenics, aged twenty to thirty-four, that had been admitted to mental hospitals in England and Wales. By comparing the social class in which the men had been born (based on information about their father’s occupation at the time of their birth) to the level of skill required for their profession immediately before they entered the hospital, Goldberg and Morrison found that approximately half of the men who were born into upper class families and had access to education beyond high school worked in unskilled positions as adults (786-793). Based on this data, the authors theorized that some aspect of mental illness caused the men to achieve positions far below what would be expected based on their class background and level of opportunity (Goldberg and Morrison 794). However, it should be considered when looking at the Goldberg and Morrison study that their results were not tested against a control group, so it is impossible to know how often the rate of social drift for young schizophrenics compares to the rate for mentally healthy young men of a similar age and social class.
This study sparked interest in the concept of social drift in the field of sociology, and other researchers attempted to replicate the study’s result in different populations, confirming the findings of Goldberg and Morrison (Birtchnell, Langner and Michael, Turner and Wagenfeld). Social drift theory continued to be a popular explanation for the high rate of poverty among the mentally ill until the early 1990s after John W. Fox published an analysis of some potential issues with the assumptions and methods used in these prior studies, applying new statistical methods of social mobility analysis to their data. The major assumption in the previous studies with which Fox takes issue is that social inheritance is uniform when in actuality, the degree to which our social background affects our ability to achieve economic success is largely based on our origins (349-350). In his study, Fox analyzed the social mobility models used in the control groups for many of the prior studies and found that they are inconsistent with accepted models for the general population and are therefore statistically inaccurate (349). After Fox’s study was published and as more research was conducted on the topic, the scholarship largely abandoned social drift theory and began to focus on social causation.
Social causation was first observed in a study conducted by Faris and Dunham in Chicago that investigated the prevalence of mental illness within large cities, specifically Chicago, in 1939. The authors plotted the former residences of people who were admitted to mental hospitals in the Chicago area and found that far more of the patients came from the most urban, central parts of the city that had significant social and economic issues such as high rates of crime, juvenile delinquency, and unemployment. Faris and Dunham conjectured that the high stress of living in a socially and economically unstable environment leads to a higher risk of mental health problems (xi). This assertion has been supported by decades of research, including a study by William B. Eaton et al. of 907 people living in Baltimore, Maryland in the early 1980s who were asked to fill out baseline questionnaires on their socioeconomic status and mental health and then given questionnaires two years later. Socioeconomic status was measured based on each participant’s educational attainment, personal and household income, and value of assets, and mental health was assessed using a survey endorsed by the American Psychiatric Association (Eaten et al. 6-8). The study looked at how the participants’ socioeconomic status and mental health changed over time and found that the presence of major and manic depression has very little impact on social mobility, suggesting that social drift did not apply in this population. On the other hand, the presence of depression after the two years was significantly negatively correlated with participants’ socioeconomic status, providing strong evidence for social causation. It is also worth noting that the psychological demand of a person’s profession was correlated with higher rates of depression, with an increase in each unit of psychological demand resulting in a 25 percent increase in the probability of having depression. Additionally, physical demand and hazardous work conditions did not have statistically significant effects on the rate of depression (Eaton et al. 9-11). Faris and Dunham’s study remains one of the most cited studies in the literature on the relationship between socioeconomic status and mental health.
John Mirowksy and Catherine Ross published a book, Social Causes of Psychological Distress, in 1989 that further interpreted the results of studies like those by Eaton et al. and Faris and Dunham by looking at specific aspects of the stress that come with low socioeconomic status. Compiling and analyzing four comprehensive studies on the link between mental illness and social status, Mirowsky and Ross found that low social status and the presence of mental disorders are closely linked (77). In their individual analysis of a study called the Illinois Survey of Well-Being, Mirowsky and Ross looked at social characteristics like gender, income, education, and level of personal control over circumstances to divide the sample population into two groups they felt represented those with the “best” and “worst” conditions. According to their study, “(I)f we split society into two halves, better and worse, the worse half of society has 83 percent of all severe stress … Stated another way, the odds of being severely stressed is 5.9 times greater in the worse half than in the better half” (Mirowsky and Ross 176). They argued that while the inability to support oneself or one’s family is a significant stressor, the largest contributor to the “causal mechanism for psychological distress” is a lack of control over one’s career and life circumstances (Mirowsky and Ross 253). This notion is particularly relevant to the creative writing community due to the lack of control that writers must feel over their economic status due to the fact that their income is highly dependent on factors that are largely outside of their control such as the demand for their work in publishing houses or how well their work sells in the consumer market. Furthermore, the necessity for authors to create marketable art likely makes artists feel as though they do not have total control over their work.
There are strong arguments for both social drift and social causation and both likely affect the mental health of those working in the writing profession, but the empirical support for social causation theory is much stronger than that for social drift theory, which is why the analysis in this will focus solely on social causation. As Kyaga suggests when describing potential faults with his study on mental illness and creativity in the professional writing population, social drift theory could be impacting writers because people with serious mental illnesses are often unable to work in a traditional work environment (89). As a result, they may be attracted to self-employment in creative fields, which would cause there to be an abnormally high rate of mental illness among creative writers. While this is a valid theory that is certainly playing a role in the prevalence of mental illness in writing profession, there is more evidence to suggest that social causation is at work. As will be demonstrated in the next section of this paper, a high percentage of writers live below the poverty line and have unstable incomes due to the nature of their work, which could be leading them to experience high levels of stress and increasing their risk of becoming mentally ill.
3. Application to the Writing Profession
Because the arts are often viewed as a nonessential aspect of society subordinate to more practical pursuits like science or engineering, those who choose to work in the field have been historically undervalued. As a result, the majority of writers suffer from economic hardship and a lack of financial stability, and developments in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries have only exacerbated the issue. According to a recently published study by the Author’s Guild, the average income from writing-related activities for an American author is $8,000, thirty percent less than in 2009 when a survey was last conducted, and more than half of American authors live below the poverty line (“The Wages of Writing”). While authors devote excessive amounts of time and energy to their creative endeavors, they often fail to see their work pay off economically due to a variety of factors.
Particularly with creative writing, the level of economic success an author will experience is largely dependent on market factors, not necessarily on the degree of effort from the author or the merit of the work. In the past, authors largely wrote for their own satisfaction with commercial considerations as a secondary concern due to the lack of emphasis on marketing. Thomas Wolfe was one such author, writing that “(t)he notion that the public accepts or rejects anything in modern art, the notion that the public scorns, ignores, fails to comprehend, allows to wither, crushes the spirit of, or commits any other crime against art or any individual artist is merely a romantic fiction, a bittersweet trilby sentiment” (24). This may have been true when Wolfe was writing in the early twentieth century, but developments in the publishing industry have made marketing a necessary evil for modern writers. Thomas Whiteside writes about the growing struggle of writers to maintain artistic integrity in an increasingly commercialized industry in his three-part New Yorker piece: “Many writers are disheartened; works of literary merit are often not published because they may not be readily marketable by prevailing standards. Middle writers [those with two or three published works] and authors of first books are suffering the most” (63). Whiteside attributes this emphasis on marketing to changes in the publishing industry over the last fifty years.
Before the 1960s, publishing houses were far less commercial than they are now, focusing more on the value of the works they were publishing than the books’ ability to make profit. In the ’60s and ’70s, large corporations began investing money and implementing profit-centered inventory and accounting strategies in publishing houses that revolutionized the way the previously antiquated industry did business (Whiteside 113). Whiteside asserts that this emphasis on the commercial aspect of publishing has required editors to focus “on the development, promotion, and sale of the big book, of the profit-boosting current best-seller, at the cost of their concerning themselves, as they feel they should, with the discovery and nurturing of perhaps less profitable but artistically more meritorious works” (118). As a result, writers who are trying to break into the publishing world with works that are of great literary merit but little commercial value are less likely to have their books published, and even if they do somehow manage to get published, their books will not receive the advertising support from the publishing company they would have in previous years and may be quickly taken out of print if they do not make money as soon as they hit the shelves (Whiteside 127). This emphasis on the commercial value of books has taken a toll on editors, agents, and writers alike. Book agent Morton L. Janklow said in an interview with Whiteside, “(S)o many writers are treated like children by publishers … Here you might have somebody that has worked for years writing his book, and it’s as though what he produced after all that labor were a baby sent out for adoption – when he handed the manuscript over, he had no say about it” (Whiteside 65). Whiteside also interviewed Lynn Nesbitt who works as the vice-president of a major publishing house. She reported feeling stress over the despair writers are feeling as a result of commercialization:
Most writers never did make much money of course, but the situation today is that now some writers are making enormous amounts of money, and the disparity is greater and more alarming and more frustrating to those writers who aren’t. Formerly, authors of middle books felt better about themselves, and about the way they were being published, and about their work, than they feel now. They’re disheartened by what they see going on in the business (Whiteside 131).
As Nesbitt describes, there is a growing disparity between writers who earn the most and those who earn the least. According to Huffington Post, 10 percent of the industry’s top authors earn 50 percent of the wealth (Sheridan). Michael Meyer of The New York Times reports that in the past almost all first-time authors received small advances and as they gained an audience and produced more works, their advances would grow. Today, the pattern is for first-time authors with predicted bestsellers to receive very high advances, such as Jonathan Safran Foer’s widely reported $500,000 advance for his first book, Everything is Illuminated, while authors with less marketable, midlist works receive an approximate average of $11,000 for their advances. As the President of the Author’s Guild notes, it is important to consider that writers do not take home the full amount of their advance and must pay for services that would be included in the salary of the average American worker (Meyer). They have to pay commission to their agents and self-employment taxes as well as for a space to work and health insurance. In contrast with most midlist writers, bestselling authors also have the opportunity to generate a great deal of money on the paperback rights for their books. The 26-year-old Foer was famously able to net $950,000 from his publisher for the paperback rights for his first book (Meyer). These shifts in the publishing industry have caused a huge pay gap between bestselling authors and new writers, putting even more pressure on writers to publish marketable works.
Along with changes in the publishing industry, writers have had to adapt to the rapid developments in technology that have revolutionized the way people consume media. According to a Codex Group survey, in 2009 less than five percent of readers reported purchasing an eBook in the last month, but in 2015, this percentage has grown to nearly fifty percent of readers and the trend shows no sign of slowing (“The Wages of Writing”). Publisher’s Weekly reports that in 2011, $2.3 billion was generated from eBook sales in the United States, but the yearly revenue from eBooks is expected to grow to more than $8.19 billion by 2017 (Doctorow). However, authors are seeing their incomes decline while publishers’ profits increase as eBook sales soar. According to economist Michael J. Dubner, under the current royalty configurations, authors get significantly smaller royalties on eBooks than they do on print books. He uses the example of Kathryn Stockett’s 2009 bestseller The Help. Stockett’s standard royalty for hardcover editions of the book was $3.75 and for eBooks, it was just $2.28, resulting in a 39 percent income loss as compared to if the book had not been sold as an eBook. On the other hand, her publisher’s margin on a hardcover book was $4.75 and $6.32 on an eBook, resulting in a 33 percent higher profit margin for the publisher (Dubner). In addition to the losses on royalties, authors who publish eBooks also lose money from Internet piracy. One of the most impactful aspects of the development in reading technology has been the ease with which consumers can illegally acquire an author’s intellectual property from torrent sites. In the months immediately following the advent of the IPad in 2010, there was a seventy-eight percent increase in illegal book downloads from the popular site BitTorrent. Today, twenty-five percent of the eBooks that are downloaded in the United States are not authorized, resulting in millions of dollars lost to American authors every year (“The Wages of Writing”).
With the level of income authors are receiving from writing, authors often have to turn to alternative jobs they may not enjoy such as teaching or non-academic positions to earn supplemental income, which may contribute to a lack of satisfaction. The classic example of a writer working an odd job to pay the bills is bestselling horror fiction author Stephen King, who worked as a janitor at a local high school despite having a degree in English from the University of Maine. Eventually, King got a job teaching at the high school and after selling the paperback rights to Carrie for $400,000, he was able to quit teaching to pursue writing full time (King). Not all writers are as lucky as King, though. David Gessner, an essayist and professor of creative writing at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, writes that when he was in college, his professors who were novelists and poets “approached their jobs (as professors) with all the liveliness and enthusiasm of members of the Politburo,” treating their positions “not as jobs, but as sinecures, and the university itself as a kind of benefactor.” Today, teaching creative writing has far more demands than the job had thirty years ago, demands that “often crash up against the necessary fanaticism of the writing life” (Gessner). Gessner writes that one of his creative writing colleagues who would have preferred to focus on his professional writing hated working as a lecturer so much that he called his academic career “death by a thousand cuts.” The necessity of working at a university or in a high school to supplement income from writing can distract writers from their creative pursuits and lead to increased feelings of dissatisfaction.
It is apparent that the great majority of professional creative writers suffer from economic hardship, at least some of which is caused by the increased focus on the marketability of works that are being published. No longer are large publishing companies willing to invest time, energy, and money on first-time and midlist writers who will not earn them a large profit margin. Instead, the focus has shifted to bestselling books that may have little literary merit but will fly off the shelves (or e-shelves) at popular booksellers. It appears that many authors have struggled to reconcile their desire for literary merit and artistic integrity in their works with the need to sell copies so they can make a living, which may be taking an emotional toll. How does the stress of living in a world where one’s work is undervalued and the next paycheck depends on unreliable consumer trends impact the mental health of authors?
4. Implications for the Scholarship
It is almost universally accepted within the scholarship that creative writers are far more likely to suffer from mental illness than the average person. However, exactly how much more likely writers are to be mentally ill and the cause of the phenomenon have been heavily debated. Nancy C. Andreasen’s 1987 study on the rate of mental illness among faculty at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop was the first empirical study to introduce the idea of creativity as a possible cause for mental illness among writers. Since its publication, the two other most influential studies in the field by Ludwig and Kaufman have focused on creativity as well. However, as has been discussed in the work of Kaufman, Rothenberg, and Lindauer, all three of these studies have serious issues including small samples sizes, poor comparison groups, biased selections of participants, and inaccurate statistical interpretation. This section will address a previously unconsidered issue with these studies: the potential effect of social causation on the prevalence of mental illness among creative writers.
Before 1987, the only research that had been conducted on the relationship between creative genius and mental illness was based on anecdotes and much of it was general, seeking only to discover whether a relationship existed or not. The first study that empirically tested the relationship and asked deeper questions was neuropsychiatrist Andreasen’s fifteen-year-long study of writers in the University of Iowa’s Writing Workshop. To address her research question of whether a relationship between creativity and mental illness exists, Andreasen interviewed thirty faculty members of the workshop as well as thirty control subjects from various non-creative careers about their creativity and their history of mental illness. She then diagnosed those who were mentally ill using the standard criteria from the psychology field and compared the rate of mental illness between the two groups, finding that eighty percent of the writers experienced mood disorders in comparison to just thirty percent of the control group.
As Lindauer reports in her critical analysis of the Iowa study, Andreasen mistakenly assumes that creativity causes mental illness simply because the writers scored higher on the creativity test and demonstrated a higher rate of mental illness than the control group (39-40). However there are a variety of other factors that could have contributed to this correlation, including “heredity, certain childhood experiences, major life crises, the impact of a mentor or model, innate intelligence, (and) an unusual imaginative ability” (Lindauer 42). The relative wealth of the creative writing population in relation to the control group could also have impacted the results of the study, though it is less likely in this study than in others that would follow it. While the case for the impact of social causation is not as strong in the Iowa study as it is in others that will be discussed, there are certainly opportunities for it to arise among the study’s population. The experimental group in this study is of particular interest because it consists of faculty at a well-regarded institution; the Iowa Writing Workshop is considered to be one of the most prestigious Masters of Fine Arts programs in the country and it attracts some of the nation’s greatest literary minds as faculty and students. While there is no data on the salaries of the study’s participants, the average salary for a full-time instructional professor at a college or university in 1987 was $35,897, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, compared to a national average salary of $23,884 for all occupations, which would seem to suggest that these professors had little occasion to worry about money (“Average Salary”).
However, Andreasen did not consider that many of these professors she studied did not begin as commercial successes and likely went through the financial struggle of the emerging author. Moreover, many of the professors would have had both undergraduate and graduate degrees, which could lead them to have to pay back student loans, resulting in financial stress. Andreasen also does not specify what level of faculty her participants were, meaning they could have had incomes far lower than that of the average full-time professor. The experimental group was compared against an “occupationally varied sample of control subjects” including “hospital administrators, lawyers, social workers, etc.,” many of whom probably had higher incomes than the professors (Andreasen 1288). According to social causation theory, these factors could lead to an inflated rate of mental illness among the experimental group in the study. The risk of social causation significantly impacting Andreasen’s study, though, is comparatively very low due to the nature of the population she studied. The creative writers in her study held faculty positions at a well-regarded institution of higher learning and therefore likely have much lower stress levels related to finances than the populations studied in subsequent studies.
Kaufman’s paper, The Sylvia Plath Effect: Mental Illness in Eminent Creative Writers, is divided into two different studies he conducted to investigate whether some types of creators are more likely to have psychological disorders than others. The first examined biographical data from 1,629 prominent writers including both male and female poets, fiction writers, non-fiction writers, and playwrights. Kaufman acknowledges that the study is based primarily on his own perception of mental illness in the writers’ biographies, but he claims his analysis is valid because he uses key identifiers like hospitalization or suicide attempts and he averages his ratings of the degree of mental illness with those of a second rater. Using a logistical regression on his data, Kaufman found that female poets were significantly more likely to be mentally ill than other types of writers. While there is abundant evidence that women are at a higher risk of mental illness than men, this does not explain why female poets have a higher rate than women who write fiction or non-fiction. In order to explore this question, Kaufman conducted his second study in which he examined the biographical information of eminent women from a wide variety of fields including fiction writing and poetry among others, finding that female poets remained the most likely to have mental illness or experience a tragedy, a conclusion he calls the “Sylvia Plath Effect.” Kaufman theorizes that female poets are the most creative of the groups he studied, which may lead to higher rates of mental illness.
Kaufman fails to consider that the vast majority of female poets make far below the average income of writers in general. On average, female authors earn only seventy-eight percent as much as male writers and their books are less likely to get reviewed in the press or win awards that can boost notoriety and sales (Goldin). Because Kaufman’s subjects came from A Reader’s Guide to Twentieth Century Authors, the gender pay gap for these writers was likely much greater, since women earned just sixty percent of what men earned throughout most of the twentieth century, according to economist Claudia Goldin. Most of the female writers writing during the early part of the twentieth century would have been largely dependent on their families for money with little to no source of income on their own since just 15 percent of women held jobs outside the home in 1890 (Goldin). Moreover, poets generally make less money than other fiction and non-fiction writers because they have a smaller audience and their work typically sells for a few dollars a line in contrast with books that can sell for much more. For the best-selling poetry books of 2011, the most popular book earned the author approximately $44,177, while the second and third earned $4,377 and $5,625 respectively (Friedman).
Even Sylvia Plath, perhaps the most famous American female poet, experienced stress due to financial difficulties throughout her life. While at Smith, Plath published her works in literary journals and magazines in an effort to support her family as they underwent severe financial troubles. Plath never became wealthy during her lifetime, as her most renowned collection, Ariel, was not published until two years after her death. In fact, she lived in relative financial despair after her fellow poet and husband left her to care for her two children, and she committed suicide not long afterward (Peterson-Hilleque 15). Plath did not believe her “insanity” contributed to her success as an author. After surviving a suicide attempt during her time at Smith College, Plath wrote that she worked best when she was feeling well: “When you are insane, you are busy being insane – all the time. When I was crazy, that was all I was” (Peterson-Hilleque 17). While a combination of factors could have led to Plath’s mental illness, the financial stress of supporting her family through the minimal writing poetry and occasionally teaching creative writing classes certainly look a toll on her mental health.
This is not to suggest that female poets are the only writers in Kaufman’s study that were at a high risk of financial stress due to their jobs. A Reader’s Guide to Twentieth Century Authors, the book Kaufman used for his biographical study, includes many modernist writers such as Joseph Conrad, James Joyce, and D.H. Lawrence. These writers experienced financial hardship due to the modernist idea that works of great literature are avant-garde, or not popular among the general public, and therefore do not generate large profits. According to Joyce Piell Wexler, “The myth of the suffering artist is much older than modernism, but the modernists’ situation was unique because any financial success they might have eventually achieved would have undermined their status as serious artists …They refused to make their books more accessible merely to increase sales because such as decision would be, as both Joyce and Lawrence said, prostitution” (xiv, 2). Wexler asserts that the increasingly capitalistic market developing during this time period allowed for a wide variety of books to enter the market, which “limited the income of elite authors” (xxi). In other words, unknown authors had a higher chance of being published during the modernist period, which led to a flood of books in the market and in turn, reduced the profits of popular authors. With the attention they received, popular writers also had to combat legal disputes of censorship over libel and obscenity allegations, which not only cost money in itself but also delayed production of the authors’ works (Wexler 10). As a result of these modernist conditions, many of the eminent writers that Kaufman studied were not wealthy despite their aesthetic success, and in fact, many intentionally maintained low incomes in order to sustain their image as a “starving artist” that placed literary merit over commercial concerns.
Arnold Ludwig, inspired by Andreasen’s “landmark study” at the Iowa Writer’s workshop, attempted to reproduce and add to its findings by conducting a similar study on a different group of writers with slightly different methods. What distinguishes Ludwig’s study from that of Andreasen is his focus on women as participants, his inclusion of childhood sexual and physical abuse as a factor in his analysis, and his used of a quantitative measure of creativity rather than assuming that writers are more creative. Ludwig also sought to study the ways in which psychiatric illnesses other than mood disorders affect creativity, attempting to move away from the emphasis in the scholarship on manic-depressive illness that Andreason’s work has prompted. In his study, Ludwig examined fifty-nine writers from the Women Writers Conference and a control group of women from non-creative fields that were matched for a variety of demographic and intelligence-related factors. The participants were assessed in a series of tests and interviews that are standard to the psychiatric field and completed a questionnaire used to identify psychiatric disorders. Ludwig also chose to quantitatively measure the creativity of the participants using the Lifetime Creativity Scales tests, addressing an issue in the earlier scholarship of Andreasen and Jamison. Like the Iowa study, participants rated their first-degree family members’ level of creativity and mental illness so that the heritability of these traits could be studied.
Ludwig’s research validated the findings in the Iowa study, revealing that the female writers were almost twice as likely to have a mental disorder than participants in the control group and the first-degree family members of writers were far more likely to both have a mental illness and display creativity. The study also introduced new findings into the scholarship regarding the role that childhood sexual and physical abuse can play in the development of mental illness and creativity. A significantly higher percentage of female writers reported abuse than the control group, and Ludwig found that the women who were abused experienced mental illness at a much higher rate than those who were not. His findings also recognized that not only do female writers have higher rates of mood disorders, but they also exhibit panic attacks, eating disorders, drug abuse, and generalized anxiety far more frequently than control subjects, suggesting there may be more factors at play than just a single disorder when it comes to creativity.
Unlike Andreasen’s study of faculty at the Iowa Writers Workshop, there is a high probability that social causation impacted the results of Ludwig’s study. While many prominent female authors attend the Women Writers Conference, most of the women who attend the gathering are emerging writers. In fact, the conference offers a number of scholarships for women in graduate programs who would not ordinarily be able to attend the conference on their own due to financial obstacles, and many of the workshops are centered on breaking into the publishing industry rather than the academic concerns that would draw professors or topics that would benefit well-established writers (“Our History”). For example, the 2015 conference include such panels and workshops as “Publishing Strategies for Poets,” “Signing with an Agent,” and “Young Women Writers & Poets Readings” (“2015 Itinerary”). Clearly, the conference is designed to attract not just established writers, but those who have not yet been published as well.
As was discussed in section three of this paper, emerging writers trying to get published for the first time often face significant financial challenges. Ludwig compared the female writers against women with other professions, matching for age, education level, occupational status of both parents, race, status of parents’ marriages, the extent of social conformity in their parents, and the size of the communities in which they were raised (1651). While these measures likely increased the accuracy of the study, Ludwig notably did not match for the participants’ income level. Ludwig provided no data on the income of his subject pools, but it is likely that the emerging writers and graduate students who attend the conference make less money than women from other professional fields. In failing to match for income in his study, Ludwig very likely allowed social causation to influence his results.
This paper has highlighted a potential issue with previous studies that have been conducted on the prevalence of mental illness among writers, using statistics and anecdotal evidence to demonstrate that low salaries and economic uncertainty may cause higher rates of mental illness in accordance with social causation theory. While just three studies were considered here, there have been numerous others conducted with similar methods that have not used economic status as a measure for their participants. The possibly erroneous notion that creativity is causing higher rates of mental illness among authors may be contributing to the problem by preventing writers from getting the psychiatric help they need. Moreover, this idea may dangerously romanticize mental illness among creative professionals, playing into the stereotype of the disturbed artist and causing afflicted writers to believe that if they seek treatment for their illness, they will lose the creative edge that helps them produce great writing. Empirical studies need to be conducted to establish whether social causation is affecting the writing community so that mental health strategies for this population can be reevaluated as needed.
Not only does the material explored in this paper have important implications for the writing community, but it may also provide some valuable insight into the value of art in our society. During the age of modernism, writers were encouraged to publish works that challenged their audience and introduced ideas that were not necessarily mainstream. Readers were interested in consuming literature that reflected a diverse range of viewpoints, opening up the marketplace for a wide variety of artistic expression and keeping the pay gap between eminent and lesser known authors relatively low. In fact, writers who enjoyed commercial success often drew criticism for “prostituting” themselves by playing into the whims of the public at the expense of literary merit. This problem would be baffling to today’s authors who operate in a market in which book sales are the primary concern and literary merit is barely considered. But this idea is not just confined to the world of literature. Too often do films that are elegantly directed and superbly written get shoved aside for blockbusters with gratuitous violence and sex. Too often do albums with great musical value go unnoticed in the plague of Top 40 hits that play into the public’s fascination with celebrity culture and partying. In today’s society, art is not valued in the same way that it used to be. Why aren’t publishers willing to print books that may not fly off the shelves, but will make a significant contribution to the literary world? Why are consumers willing to illegally download intellectual property, preventing authors from being paid for the work they have spent years writing and refining? There is not the same respect for the artist as there was one hundred or even just fifty years ago, and it is no wonder that writers are suffering financially and psychologically as a result. If we are to begin addressing the problem of social causation in the creative writing community, perhaps the first step is to examine and reevaluate how we value art in our society.
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