Sunday, May 03, 2009

Crumbling traditions

Interesting article by the ever-thoughtful Ian Jack in yesterday's Guardian, pointing out that the idea of making a living out of writing is historically a recent one, arising in the 19th century with the swelling of the middle classes, and that it's a historical bubble about to burst with the advent of the internet and a generation 'now growing up with the idea that words should be read electronically for free [as] a new human right'.

Imagine my feelings as I sit here at my kitchen table on a sunny Sunday morning and find myself agreeing with him! I, a member of the Writers' Guild, brought up on Trades Union principles of a fair (ie living) wage for fair sweat, even if it is at the typeface! I, who have argued passionately against those who assert that writers should be happy to write for love and use this as an excuse to remunerate everyone else whose job depends on the primary production (publishers, producers, sidekicks and secretaries to the same) but not the primary producers themselves!

Well, I still feel passionately about that, but let's face it, the far more important thing is to keep being published, since, as Jack says 'the moral and aesthetic case for writing' is to 'think, imagine and describe and then communicate the result to an audience'. And how many can keep doing that when the holy grail of huge riches for a book leads to mid-listers being dropped in their droves (what happens to their 'living' then?) and agents and publishers passing up any manuscript not thought likely to bring in those millions (no living in the first place for most, and, it could be argued, the best - in literary terms anyway)? Personally, I'm thanking my lucky stars to have found a publisher interested in literature above all else: inevitably with small literary publishers, there's no money, but your books don't need to be on the bestseller lists to stay in print for longer than it takes to whip around a bookstore, and if your next book doesn't get published it won't be because it's not likely to appear on Richard and Judy or whatever ra-ra platform is going replace them.

And if the worse came to the worst, I'd rather publish my books for free online than have no one read them at all. This is the kind of scenario Jack entertains, and which he says is going to lead to a new 'age of the gifted amateur'. He notes the irony that meanwhile, the 'professionalization' of literature continues apace, with British universities
'turning out about 1,300 "creative writers" every year.

Why do young people apply? Because they think they can be the next Zadie Smith. Why do universities encourage them? Because money can be made from fees. Is this responsible behaviour? We need to weigh the smashed hopes of creative writers against the financial needs of their tutors, who are themselves writers, and earning the kind of money that writing would never supply. A closed little dance: tutors teach students who in turn teach other students, like silversmiths in a medieval guild where a bangle is rarely bought though many are crafted, and everyone lives in a previous world.

Meanwhile, in the week that the first-ever women poet laureate is appointed, Robert McCrum salutes the Orange Prize. It's interesting and gratifying that he acknowledges that 'in 1996, no question, literary London was a boy's club', since it was a world in which he himself was of course a prominent figure:

The imprints were run by men. The books they published were mainly written by men and the critics who reviewed them would mostly pass in the catalogue as members of the male gender. Sex is a poor basis on which to evaluate a work of art, but the dominance of the male in the book world was hard to overlook.

Yet here was the puzzling thing. None of this bore any relationship to the truth about the reading public. Everyone in publishing knew it was women who were the devoted fiction buyers, women who avidly read and discussed novels and women who kept the business ticking over

and that he can refer to 'chauvinist troglodyte naysayers retir[ing] to their caves to growl angrily to themselves about gender politics'. I do like the way McCrum is prepared to re-examine things, a quality in short supply I think nowadays.

And as for Mark Lawson, well, I don't know whether he writes too much to have time to think or whether he's just too much in love with his own wordplay, but his statement yesterday that the appointment of Carol Ann Duffy and the death of U A Fanthorpe coinciding represents a 'changing of the guard amongst Britain's female poets' needs a bit of examination, I'm thinking...


Sue Guiney said...

You've said it all. All I can say is I agree with everything and seem to spend half my life lately trying not to tear all my hair out.

Elizabeth Baines said...

Hah, Sue!

Adrian said...

Although its less concerned with literature than visual art - be worth you having a look at the Art of With at the Cornerhouse
- Charles Leadbetter's essay addresses some of the changes (and concerns), though I think the Ian Jack piece actually answers quite a few of them. The point you make, that everyone in publishing except the author makes money out of it, is worth reiterating.

Elizabeth Baines said...

Yes I read about it on your blog, Adrian - thanks for the tip!