Friday, February 12, 2010

Who'd Be a Writer?

Apologies for the recent absence from this blog, which was due to much busy-ness. One of the very many things which preoccupied me was a visit to a private secondary school to conduct workshops with younger classes and to talk to upper school classes about the whole business of being a writer. My readers may be interested to know that the matter of greatest concern for the future guardians of our culture appeared to be that of Making a Living, and achieved its best expression when I addressed the whole of Year 10 in the hall at the end of the day:

Boy 1: What's your best-selling book?

Boy 2: How many of it have you sold?

Response of shock at the figure of 3,000 (they opened by asking me if I like Twilight, and know that it has sold in the millions), and I explain that I write literary and not commercial fiction, and that it's not on the whole possible to make a living out of literary fiction.

Boy 3 (puzzled): But what's the difference between literary and commercial fiction?

I explain, essentially that literary fiction doesn't obey the expected formulae, isn't simply entertainment.

Boy 4 (a bit incredulous): So why don't you write commercial fiction that sells?

I explain that though I may sometimes have thought of it, basically I can't and don't want to: I'm looking for the truth rather than just to entertain, and I'm constitutionally incapable of doing the expected thing (adding that I was always in trouble at school, which raises a titter).

Boy 4 (really incredulous): How do you buy things?

I explain that I do other things for money such as talks like the one I am giving now.

Boy 5: So isn't it just a hobby then, rather than a job?


Hm. Not so sure I fired up that particular lot to be writers...

18 comments:

WOMEN RULE WRITER said...

Oh God, they clearly can't grasp the art for arts sake thing then. That's a bit scary. When yu say it's a 'private school' does that mean they are from wealthy families?
Private schools in Ireland are only for the rich or the social climbing.
Would that explain the emphasis on money?

I always hope for one shining face at talks like that - the kid who you KNOW just adores books and writes themselves.
Anyway, to be fair to youngsters, adults also are baffled by the lit fic vs commercial thingie - my mother often urges me to 'write one of them chick lits'. Grrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr!

Elizabeth Baines said...

Well, I do think that the stress on results which pervades all our schools now is maybe heightened in a private school, where many parents are hoping to be buying a financially secure future for their children...

Vanessa Gebbie said...

Fair enough... quite astute questions, really. The sad fact is, if I didnt have someone else paying the bills, I would not be writing as much as, or at the level I now am.

Best to go into these things with eyes open. Who knows, E - you may have sent all those lads off to find themselves rich women...

Elizabeth Baines said...

That's a thought, V! And I think they were sharp enough!

Shop Girl said...

Hahaha i even struggle to grasp the art for art's sake thing most of the time. Writing doesn't make any sense but makes so much sense at the same time.

Literary Kitty said...

Yes, I think that's our results-driven culture all over. It's quite sad really. :(

Elizabeth Baines said...

They were realistic, though, as V says, and I must say I was impressed by their astuteness.

SueG said...

As they say, "out of the mouths of babes"....

Elizabeth Baines said...

True, Sue. And maybe, V, they will grow up to be politicians with a mission to fund artists properly, or at least captains of industry with a mission to sponsor them...

Though I can't help thinking it's more likely that it just put them off bothering with literary fiction altogether...

Vanessa Gebbie said...

You did exactly what the visit intended, though. Made them think.

Elizabeth Baines said...

Well, I hope so, V!

Charles Lambert said...

This brings to mind a piece by Madeleine Bunting in the Guardian a few days ago about the issue of assisted suicide. She talks about what we mean by a "useful" life and wonders if we haven't allowed "usefulness" to become restricted to ideas of earning capability. If these kids are anything to go by, she's right to worry. If I were their parents, I'd hide the pills.

TOM J VOWLER said...

Explaining art for art's sake to the X Factor generation will presumably get harder and harder.

It struck me that 3,000 is actually a lot of folk. Imagine them in a long line outside your front door. Then add all those people they'll lend the book to, all those who'll pick it up from a charity shop or second-hand from Amazon - that's a lot of people touched by just one piece of art.

Ergo, it really should be more easy to make a living from literary fiction.

Elizabeth Baines said...

Charles, the paradox you point to (ie that we're all interested now in making money, yet the money-making jobs are fewer and fewer) reminds me of another: the fact that government is encouraging universal university education while cutting university funding. Food for Kafkaesque stories, though, eh?

Tom, I always think of it like that. This morning I did a great library reading. Although I had an audience I only sold 6 books, but I actually thought that was fantastic, because in fact most of the audience had already read shared library copies of my book through the library reading group. It was an interested audience already familiar with my work, which is a great thing to experience. Obviously it would be great to make a living out of writing what we want to write, but the really most important thing is that people read our work and are touched by it.

Elizabeth Baines said...

Nuala, just to go off on a tangent for a mo: as for mothers and their writing advice, mine is always telling me I'd sell better if I put more sex into my stories/books, yet when she read the erotic story in Balancing she was really shocked and didn't like it. I guess there's sex and commercial sex, just as with anything, and as I said to those school students, sometimes you're just not constitutionally cut out to do the expected (commercial) thing...

Trinity said...

I find the biggest problem with the world, is the whole commercial thing. Can you imagine Van Gogh being asked, why doesn’t he paint more commercial? I like some commercial stuff, because I don’t have to think about it, but in terms of what will live on forever…its not the commercial stuff.

Brian said...

Oh, please, not the Van Gogh/commercial fallacy again. Why is he always held up as the poster boy for the "my art is too important to compromise my vision!" approach? He changed his style more than once and was sufficiently desperate to sell work that he openly did pastiches of other artists.

As for "the stuff that survives isn't commercial" - hmm. Dickens? Shakespeare? Puh-lease.

Elizabeth Baines said...

Brian, I rather agree with you about Van Gogh.

Not sure that anyone said that art that's commercial doesn't survive though. And of course what's acceptable (and is facilitated and sells) in one era may not be in another. I think there's a consensus that the publishing industry in our current era is very much afraid of anything too unexpected.