Friday, May 13, 2011

Writing, earning and psychic space.

Facebook and Twitter have been buzzing over the searingly honest article on Some Blind Alleys by Carlo Gebler, in which he charts his progress/descent from what he calls an 'author', writing with a 'proper function of [the] imagination', to professional writer no longer able to 'drift off into the mild trance' required for 'honest' reading and writing. A precis of the article wouldn't do it justice, and it's worth reading in full, but I will quote the passage in which he lists the pressures forcing this change:
I am so fucked off with how the world has gone to the dogs and in particular that little bit of the world I think I care about most, which is the Kingdom of Literature: for on top of the abolition of the Net Book Agreement, all sorts of other deleterious developments have worsened the lot of writers (at least in these islands) over the last fifteen years, among which, and in no particular order, are the following: the rise of branding; the enslavement of publishers to media endorsement by celebrity presenters; the obsession with the physical appearance of writers which in turn has meant publishers demand ever younger, ever more photogenic authors; the decline of the editor in publishing houses in order to save money; the abandonment by publishers of the idea that writers have lifelong careers and that given the right support over a lengthy period they can develop; the failure of payment for literary endeavour either to keep pace with inflation or to reflect the actual amount of labour involved in literary production; the atrophy of community (writers have never been more marginal and their enterprise more quixotic and ridiculous); and, finally, the eclipse of literary forms that once helped writers to survive, such as the short story, especially the short story broadcast on radio.
This all has such strong personal relevance for me, and in the spirit of Gebler's honesty I'll explain why. For my first published short story I got £50 from the Transatlantic Review, and like Gebler I wrote it in a private trance after a childhood and young adulthood of receptive reading. Ten years later I too was teaching creative writing and editing and writing reports and reviews. I was no longer writing short stories - the lit mags were all dying and no one was paying for them any more. I was writing radio plays, because they did pay, and writing them increasingly according to the marketing notions of commissioning editors without literary backgrounds and concerned with focus groups. I was running around in the kind of circles Gebler describes, hyped up, with that attitude he describes, an aggressive acquisitive kind of creativity, and no longer receptive to my unconscious in the way that is conducive to true art.

In the end I came to the decision that unless I gave up the idea of being able to keep myself and stopped all this extraneous activity I was never going to get back to that truly productive 'imaginative trance'. It's difficult to say publicly that it went against the grain to be kept by my partner, since to other writers, including I imagine Gebler, that's an enviable option they don't have, but I didn't find it easy to give up my financial independence. As a result, though, it has mattered less to me that being published by a small literary publisher (which I am) means basically making no money on one's writing. At least it has meant that I can concentrate again at last in the right way and produce work with which I can be truly happy. And at long last I've found the psychic space to sink properly into a longer novel for which I previously didn't have the time or headspace - though it's required so much that I've neglected this blog recently, and for that I apologise...

Is this where we've got then? To a point where only those who are kept can afford to write exclusively and with proper attention - unless, that is,  they write commercial fiction?
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