Saturday 3 April 2010

Writers as stars?

(Painting by Stuart Pearson Wright
linked from UsableMarkets)

It's a funny thing being a writer at the moment. Writers are lauded and celebrated everywhere. Reading groups have sprung up like fungus; readings and book launches are packed; the radio waves are filled with writer interviews and book programmes; famous writers are consulted on non-writing matters; literary festivals proliferate like coat-hangers left in a cupboard; celebrities think it worth their while to pretend to be writers and pay ghosts to produce books with their name on; The Reading Organisation and The Reading Agency try to bring reading to a wider constituency and promote/exploit the therapeutic benefits of literature; creative writing courses are crammed with wannabe writers - everyone loves writers, suddenly.

But not books. Libraries close, or reduce their book stock in favour of space for computers, 'mediatheque' installations, or just empty space for readings and performance. (Oh, the irony - remove the books to make space for authors giving readings from, er, books.) Geeks and moneymakers shout loudly about e-books and the potential for replacing the active role of imagination in reading text with the passive and lazy consumption of multimedia. Authors are paid less and less - very few earn even the average wage, many earn below the minimum wage. Bookshops stock more copies of fewer titles, and shun anything not guaranteed to be a bestseller. Books are commoditized in supermarkets, sold for practically nothing by Amazon re-sellers (even books that have only just come out), stolen by pirates.

How has this dichotomy arisen and where will it lead? How can society on the one hand idolise writers and on the other hand despise books and their place in our lives? It's not even as though it is different people doing the two things. The same people who promote new trends in publishing before considering how to address the financial impact on professional writers are those who turn up at readings.

I would be the last to say that society owes writers a living. I have never applied for an Arts Council grant or any other source of support for my writing. But in a market that apparently wants writers, why does no-one want to pay a sustainable amount for our work? Why are they happy to let us talk on the radio for free or virtually nothing, but not happy to pay the going rate for a book in print? It looks as though we are returning to a world in which the only people who can afford to write are those with another source of income. Some people say that's fine, you can write in your free time. But that will exclude many people - single, working parents don't have free time; people on a low wage may be struggling with more than one job to make ends meet. And we need books written by people from all parts of society, so that all parts of society can find something they want to read, that they feel speaks to them, and so that we can all, as readers, enter different worlds unfamiliar to us.

It should NOT be necessary to subsidise writing by doing literary festivals, school visits and 'personal appearances'. Nothing wrong with these as extra sources of income for those who like doing them - but they are not and should not be, an essential part of the job of being a writer. They require a completely different skill set and THEY ARE NOT WRITING, they take time away from the job of being a writer. If I wanted to be a performer, I'd have gone to RADA instead of Cambridge (oh, hang on...) - I'd have been in Footlights instead of the library.

If society really values writers and reading, can they please stop treating books so badly? Fame is all very nice (perhaps) but food on the table is more sustaining. I don't want a free glass of warm Pinot Grigio in Heffers every other week - I want my books to be sold for a fair price and to be paid a fair price for writing them.


  1. I find this very interesting - the same thing has happened with food. We laud and applaud chefs, watch endless programmes about cooking and eating and yet food has gone through shocking deflation over the last 10 years. So much so that full-scale arable and dairy farmers only survive through subsidy and fruit farms, like ours, barely stay afloat.

    People will pay £3.00 + for a bottle of hair conditioner but, according to the supermarkets, they won't pay enough to cover the production costs of a punnet of strawberries or a pint of milk.

    Bizarrely, I think it's all about need. The more available something is, the less highly it is prized. The stakes are raised, people seek social thrill rather than escapism; social thrill rather than a belly full of decent food.

    It'll change when need returns. People will begin to value core, important things again, rather than surface dressing. Tragic though it is, we seem unable to appreciate the good we have when we have too much of it.

  2. Hear hear, Stroppy! I actually see fame as one of the downsides of writing. Books should speak for themselves. If you have to glitz them up or parade a celebrity author in order to sell them, then what does that say about the content of the book?

    To my mind, the only time fame for an author becomes appropriate is - say - in the case of JK Rowling, where the books spoke first and the fame followed after. Almost any book will sell with a huge marketing campaign behind it. Only the very best will sell by word of mouth. I know which kind of fame I'd rather have.

  3. It is the idea of 'writing' that is valued by society rather than any actual writing. This idealised writing is glamorous; the other, the real writing, is not. Idealised writing is done by beautiful, sexy, tortured souls; real writing is done by ordinary-looking people in cardigans with tortured bank accounts. My new year resolution in 2010 was to transfer from real writing to idealised writing. Unfortunately, three months have gone by and I haven't found out how you do it yet.

  4. Wonderful, insightful post and comments here. And to go along with this upside down situation, you have newly published authors wondering why their books aren't paying the rent, why they must, yes they must, utilize social media and do presentations and appearances to promote themselves and their books, and why it's just not the happy blissful state they imagined when they got that contract offer.

  5. Kathryn, I really feel for you - I will spend lots on good food, but can't always even find it (remember last week's episode with the artichoke heart paste?). Do you get your raspberries in W/rose with your name on? I'll buy them if you do!

    Katherine - I agree; I don't want to be famous, I want to write my books and be left alone to do it. But I realise that it's no longer possible. Time to kick ass. But I'll still want some running-away-to-hide time.

    So true, Brian... I think you need to swap your cardigan for a Paul Smith suit. (No, I have never seen you in a cardigan - perhaps you are half-way there already.)

    Thank you, Karen. Congratulations on your book deal! Your comment made me think, though - I enjoy doing the online stuff, hate doing real-world stuff. But the online stuff takes only as much time as you want to give it, and you can do it in spare moments, whereas it takes a real time commitment to go and talk or do a workshop or whatever. I resent that drain on my time, and being bossed about by other people.

  6. Great post.
    I find I am being torn. The out and about (school/ library visits etc), which I really do enjoy and also pays the bills, has gone from being once in a while to taking up so much time and energy that I am struggling to find 'protected' time to write.
    I also find the on line stuff is fine but can be another form of procrastination, another thing that takes me away from the actual act of writing. With my new book 'Dead Boy Talking' coming out in June I will be spending even more time out and about and on line talking about it.
    But I think Brian is right when he says it is the idea of writing that is valued by society. The actual day to day mechanics are often very different to the picture in the mind of the general public. It doesn't seem to matter how often writers write about the reality, those desperate to get published just don't want to hear it.