I’ve wanted to be a writer for as long as I can remember – since the time I could hold a pencil between my four-year-old fingers and scratch out the letters of my name. I still want to be a writer, and I suspect that it will take me a lifetime to learn to be the kind of writer that I want to be.
I’m going to use an old-fashioned word here that will make some people who read this instantly dislike me: I think of writing as my vocation. The root of the word vocation is the Latin vocare, which means to call, and writing is to me the habit, the practice, the labour and the craft that bids me attend to it, even when I cannot or will not listen to the calling. The act of writing brings into being my truest self, and losing the ability to write will cause me – has caused me – to lose my grip on sanity.
I am 32 years old, and until the last month or so I have never been able to say that I make my living from writing. The living I make now is precarious in the extreme. My current monthly income is equal to slightly more than the dole and a bit less than a pension – with the distinct advantage, as I see it, of not having to deal with Centrelink, because having to deal with Centrelink makes me want to kill myself. I have less than $5000 in savings, a negligible amount of superannuation, and no assets. I have no partner with whom to share expenses, no wealthy friends or patron to subsidise my living costs, and no rich parents to whom I can turn for free accommodation or a cash bonus.
Since I entered the workforce at age 17 – I have worked variously in retail, as a disability carer, and as a casual university tutor – my days have been accompanied by the constant hum of financial anxiety. My annual earnings have almost never exceeded the minimum wage. I have a HECS debt that has been accumulating interest for a decade now, and I will probably never repay it. By year’s end, at the latest, I will need to find a second job again. I never expect, nor have I ever expected, that writing will pay my way – but right now I can make the choice to scrape by on a low income, precisely because I don’t have dependents (like children, or a sick parent) or financial responsibilities (like a mortgage) beyond my day-to-day living costs. If I did, the decisions I make would be very different.
‘Writers who are hobbyists, who have jobs that aren’t “writer”, undercut the market,’ argues Clem Bastow in a recent essay for The Lifted Brow. There is a nascent organising campaign underway in this country – and elsewhere in the world – to try to ensure that writers are paid fairly for their skills and labour. I don’t disagree with this campaign – I support it wholeheartedly.
What I do disagree with is a narrow, instrumentalist understanding of who a writer is and what value or purpose writing can serve. Bastow comes down hard on the side of professional writers like herself who earn a full-time – though rarely lucrative – living from freelancing, and criticises hobbyists and ‘enthusiastic amateurs’ who, she argues, are actively eroding her work conditions. Here, I beg to differ. I think that Bastow and her supporters are aiming at the wrong target. I write now to defend the amateur and the hobbyist – the writers who can’t, won’t or don’t earn a living from their work.
Defending the hobbyist does not mean undercutting the professional, as Bastow’s argument implies. We are not each other’s enemy.
I am happy for Bastow and other professionals like her to make a living from their writing, and I admire the specific skills that this kind of full-time freelancing demands: the energy needed to pitch timely and relevant story ideas; an ability to research efficiently and to write quickly, and the reliability needed to meet constant deadlines. I possess few to none of these skills. I write slowly, often requiring deadline extensions, and I am not particularly interested in making my writing fit with the day-to-day news and opinion cycle. I have no ability to ‘network’ or to sell my work on the strength of my pitches – not once in my life have I successfully pitched cold to an editor. I wait to be asked to contribute to a publication, and sometimes I have waited years. I have very little self-confidence, and I have turned down offers of publication and pulled out of assignments entirely – including for Overland – because I don’t trust my own abilities.
The context in which my writing appears matters to me a great deal: over my dead body will I ever sell my words to the Murdoch-owned press. I am not, then, someone who is likely to succeed as a freelance professional, and it has never been my aim to do so. Does this make me less of a writer – less deserving of respect for the skills I do possess? By Bastow’s terms, I think it does. By her definition, I am an amateur. Well, fine. I am content to be that amateur, and to sell my labour elsewhere to buy myself the time I need to do the kind of writing I want to do.
This doesn’t mean that I am willing to give my writing away for free to anyone who asks for it. I am as angry as anyone at the exploitative practices of corporate media companies who pay editors, illustrators, web designers and affluent CEOs – but not their writers. I am angry at the short-term greed of newspaper publishers like Fairfax who seem to think that sacking all their skilled staff and filling their newspapers and websites with poorly written opinion columns is the way forward for journalism.
But the financial imperatives of full-time journalists are not those of poets, novelists or critics, and the financial model of a corporate media organisation is not necessarily appropriate to a non-profit literary or academic journal. To insist that these things are the same – or rather, to insist that commercial journalism is the only model worth fighting for and that any other model of writing and publishing simply undercuts the market – is not at all helpful.
The question of whether writing has a value aside, or wholly apart, from monetary value is not just, as Bastow half-jokes, ‘a question for my therapist’. It is a question for all of us who want to keep open the possibility of writing (or any other art form, for that matter) as something other than a commodity to be bought and sold. I don’t want to live in a world where writing is synonymous with ‘content’ – words that fill up the space between advertisements, equivalent to the soy lecithin that pads out your chocolate bar because corporate food companies are too miserly to pay for real ingredients.
‘Content’ can be written by monkeys, or by algorithms, and eventually it will be. If as writers we organise only to defend the market value of ‘content’ then we have already lost the battle to be recognised, and respected, for the other kinds of value that our craft can bring into the world. I wish that the English language had a different word than ‘value’ to signal these other purposes and dimensions of writing, because apart from anything else I think we get confused over what the world ‘value’ means. Does it mean anything apart from a price point, or an hourly rate? I hope so.
The writing that I am paid to do is shaped, inevitably, by commercial imperatives. I make the majority of my current income as the music critic for The Monthly magazine, and in doing so I acknowledge the boundaries and expectations of the genre: these monthly columns are not a space for wild experiments with narrative structure or cutup, Burroughs-style textual collage. I have to write what is in some way ‘saleable’ to keep my job, and so I do, but there are other kinds of writing that I have long practiced in – like poetry, and zine-making – to which these pressures do not apply. I have made zines since I was a teenager, and I completed a Masters degree in poetry, and while I’m happy to take $5 for a zine sale or an honorarium for a poem, I don’t practice in either of these forms for the sake of selling – in fact, it is freedom from the imperative to sell that allows me to write what is, to me, the most valuable work I do.
Of course, I would prefer for poets to be better financially compensated for their skills – but I want this to be a recognition of the social value of poetry, not its market value, which will always hover close to zero. Something of this recognition of social value exists in the limited system of writer’s grants that we have in this country, grants which allow a small number of writers to support themselves while they create work that might have little to no commercial appeal. We could be arguing for a much wider application of this system, for something like a writer’s stipend to provide a basic wage for writers across varying disciplines.
Bastow argues that we need to see writers as skilled workers, and we do to need to do this, but this means recognising that writing is a valuable skill regardless of its value to the market.
Even for full-time freelance journalists, certain kinds of writing are more ‘valuable’ to the market than others. It isn’t an accident that star columnists at Murdoch newspapers are paid thousands of dollars per column. Such a price is not, as anyone with eyes can see, a reflection of the writer’s actual writing skills or of their critical acumen; lavish compensation here is a reflection of a writer’s social capital, a recognition of the fact that, helpfully for Murdoch and the fellow members of his ruling class, such writing acts to reproduce and maintain a political ideology which supports the advantage of a wealthy few. By contrast, an investigative journalist who wants to spend six months researching a series of articles on the shortage of low-income public housing in an Australian city will find themselves with few, if any, buyers for their work; this kind of writing has little value on the market because it does not reproduce the values of the market.
In such a case, what it is a writer to do? Maybe they hold out for a price which reflects their skill and labour, but maybe they just go ahead and do the work anyway, for little to no pay, working a second job in the meantime to cover their living costs. I wish that writers didn’t have to make this choice, but many do, because as long as we live in a society which only rewards, monetarily speaking, certain kinds of labour, there will always be writing work to be done that has a negligible market value but a very high social value. The two things do not correlate closely, if at all.
I can’t emphasise this point enough. If we insist that all writers act as full-time professionals and place all of their work for sale upon the open market, then we are also insisting that a writer’s worth can only be measured by the price their writing commands, and that writers who fail to make a living from their work are therefore less properly to be called writers than those who do. By logical extension, this means that the majority of writers throughout history – the majority who have failed to make a living from their work – do not deserve to be called writers.
The mid-list novelist who works a second or even third job to get by is not actively undermining the conditions of a freelance journalist. Our common problem – the common problem for all workers who have nothing to sell but their labour – is publishers and media companies who seek to extract profit from the surplus value of our work, particularly when the profit they extract is from labour which they insist we undertake for free.
I spent months researching and then six weeks this summer writing a 35,000-word monograph for a major independent publisher who could have afforded to pay me an advance, and didn’t. I tried arguing with the editors about their policy, but I knew that it wouldn’t result in a change, and I signed the contract and wrote the book anyway, without pay. Perhaps I shouldn’t have done this, but the personal importance of the work outweighed, in the end, my desire to be paid for it. Writers make this decision all the time, and will continue to make it.
Bastow argues that writing is a commodity which should be seen in the same way as coffee or a loaf of bread, as something bought and sold, but I don’t agree. Writing can be a commodity, but it can also be more than a commodity, with a value that exceeds its market price, and unless we recognise this then the argument over writers’ pay will be reductive and divisive.
In a situation like the one I describe above, where my own individual objections and misgivings in the face of being asked to work for free mattered little to the publisher, what would have helped me was a union. Historically, unions have been the way in which workers organise to defend the value of their labour against the exploitative dynamic of capitalism, which is always to extract higher profits by driving down conditions and wages. As writers we need to organise collectively, and negotiate collectively, for wages which represent fair compensation for our labour. This kind of collective organising becomes increasingly difficult to achieve when our workplaces are atomised and our job security is non-existent. Again, this is no accident: it is much easier for employers to deal with a docile, frightened workforce of isolated individuals than it is for them to negotiate with a unionised body of workers who will, if necessary, withdraw their labour to defend their conditions. This is why an action like the writers’ boycott of Crikey’s Daily Review section in 2013 (which I took part in) was effective, because our response to Crikey’s policy of zero pay was organised and collective, not individual.
Our challenge as writers is to organise around the work we do, which is writing, while also recognising that our work is not only something that we sell. I don’t see that my primary task as a writer is to sell my work, or even to publish it – I see that my task is to write. Just this morning I came across an interview with the Moroccan novelist and poet Tahar Ben Jelloun, in which he says:
To me if a writer writes to earn a living, he is bound to compromise–to consider what sells and what doesn’t. That is not my preoccupation. I am glad to have found a readership, but one can’t write only what is likely to sell. A writer is not a shopkeeper.
I agree. There are things I write that are not for sale because I want the work to be recognised for a kind of value that is not monetary – as a gift, for instance. There are things I write that are not sellable, because they are of a kind that has no value on the market. Lastly there is writing that I do sell, and expect to be fairly paid for. The latter category of value is what we must organise, collectively, to defend and hopefully to improve. The former two are the categories of value that motivate me, and countless other writers, to write and to keep writing, and these cannot be priced.