Saturday 15 December 2012
Who pays the piper?
Before we start, though, I would say that this post is in NO WAY critical of the friend whose remark sparked it. This has been my view for years, she just reminded me of it, and how it is a more important issue now with such massive public spending cuts.
I don't approve of Arts Council grants to writers. There. I've said it. The public purse should not - as a rule - fund the personal ambition of people who want to write fiction, poetry, or non-fiction.
I'm not against public funding of the arts - I see no problem in funding projects where the intended beneficiary is the public - but I don't see a grant to finish a novel as benefiting the public. The public doesn't need another novel, there are already plenty. A community might need a theatre, or an art gallery, or subsidised tickets to performances, but arts funding should be targeted at the general good and not at individual authors in need of money. Notice I say 'as a rule' - there will always be a few exceptions. But this is about the majority of cases.
A couple of weeks ago, I was having coffee with a very good friend, an award-winning writer in an area that generates virtually no income, who is now writing in a different genre. Let's call her Kate. She had been advised to apply for an Arts Council grant and we were talking about whether or not she should do so. She asked if I'd ever applied and if I ever would, and I'd said 'no' to both questions.
'But it's different for you,' she said. 'You get paid for what you write.' I accepted that and we moved on.
But that came back to me later. I do get paid for what I write. Or, rather, I write what I get paid for. I talk to publishers and my agent about what publishers want. I take almost any commission that comes my way (these days - in the past there were often too many and I turned away those I liked less). When there is not enough writing to be paid for I build websites, make book trailer videos, teach creative writing... do other things that pay.
I will write on subjects I'm not hugely attracted to and for markets I'm not keen on, because I have to put food on the table and writing is my job. If I were a doctor who specialised in fractures, I couldn't say 'I won't do broken arms, they're boring. Bring me only broken legs.' If you have a job, you have to do the less interesting bits as well as the exciting bits. That's how you earn enough to live on. If you want to be precious about your writing, that's fine, but don't expect the rest of us to pay to keep you pure.
Why, at a time when there are people without enough to live on, should the public purse fund someone who wants to write a book? It's not as though there is a world shortage of books. This is not a case of people who can't find a job asking for unemployment benefit. It's a case of people who will probably write a book anyway, though possibly more slowly without the funding, asking for public money to write it now.
I know Kate's book will take a lot of research. I know it will probably win awards when it is published. That's not the case for all books funded by Arts Council grants - some won't even find a publisher. I don't see why my friend working in Waitrose and doing a degree while building his band in his free time, or his friend in Waitrose who is establishing himself as an illustrator, should subsidise people who want to short-circuit the struggle and be paid from the public purse to write.
This year, I've been writing a couple of books for which I have no contract. I write them when I have time, and they would go a lot better and more quickly if I didn't have to keep earning money at the same time. That's why it's a good idea to get a contract and advance. These are in short supply - I know, that's why I haven't got one. (Or maybe because the books aren't good enough, or because I haven't approached any publishers yet with these half-baked ideas.)
If a writer produces books that sell, the publishing industry should work in such a way that the writer is adequately paid for their work. That's not always the case - but that's a problem we have to tackle within the industry. In times of plenty, society can perhaps afford to subsidise writers - but not now. Not when benefits are being cut to the bone, when more than 100,000 people in the UK rely on food banks, libraries are closing and schools can't afford books or teachers. Yes, if we collected the taxes we are rightly owed, we wouldn't need cuts. But now - right NOW - the money isn't there. So let's spend what there is on things that really matter. And that isn't one more untried novel.
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For the record, I have no problem with charities supporting writers (the people who give to or endow those charities have chosen to spend their money in that way). And I don't think my view automatically extends to all forms of art. A cellist, for example, needs to keep practising at a high level to secure their skill for the future. A writer can take a break or work slowly with no real detriment. And anyone - really, anyone - can find some time to write if they really want to. But time and writers is another rant, for another day.
STOP PRESS: catdownunder has carried the debate to Australia on her own blog so please do take a look at her points and commenters.