Just before his life changing win of the 2014 Man Booker Prize, Richard Flanagan was contemplating work in Western Australia’s mines. His second novel, The Sound of One Hand Clapping (1997), sold more than 150,000 copies in Australia. He has been the recipient of the Tasmanian Book Prize, the Queensland Premier’s award for fiction, the WA Premier’s Award for Fiction, and the Commonwealth Writers Prize.
Despite these accolades, Flanagan was unable to live on the proceeds of his work.
His win will change this. The vast majority of other writers, however, are not so lucky.
Earlier this month, Horace Engdahl spoke out against what he called the impoverishment of literature across the Western world through creative writing grants and programmes. Engdahl, one of a panel of judges for the Nobel Prize for Literature, suggests that, while vibrant work is emerging from Asia and Africa, the West’s literary work is corrupted by institutional financial support and an associated disconnection from reality.
But the notion of a Western writer tethered to institutions and grants, rather than employment, seems unfounded. The Guardian reported that in 2013 the median income of a UK-based professional author was £11,000 (just over $AU20,000). This amount is barely the minimum wage. An earlier Australian study by David Throsby and Virginia Hollister for the Australia Council suggested that the median earned creative income of writers was just $4,800.
In 2007, the New Zealand Society of Authors found that only 9 percent of established authors earn over NZ$50,000, while 77 percent earn less than NZ$10,000. Only 30 percent of mid-career writers had received a grant in the four years prior.
So if the literature is impoverished, then so are the writers trying to survive on their work alone. Most writers, however, hold a secondary income: Throsby and Hollister indicate that while the median total arts income of a writer was $11,700, the total income was $35,000.
I am a creative writing student. My cohort will be the third graduating year from an ex-chip factory in one of Auckland’s most socio-economically disadvantaged areas.
As a student I consider my part time job a necessity and, in many ways, a rite of passage. At twelve years old, I started my first job as a mothers’ help and haven’t been without gainful employment in the thirteen years since. I have travelled; I’ve lost friends and family members; I’ve changed a thousand nappies; I’ve taken drugs and made mistakes. I’m grateful for my experiences, but what Engdahl seems to be prescribing is the trope of the tortured artists, which I struggle to swallow. I need to believe that there is a light at the end of the tunnel: that one day I will have a period of time in which I can write, exclusively.
The aspirations of my classmates are realistic, and their part-time jobs are equally grounded. Matt is a checkout operator at a supermarket. Mary manufactures calendars. Annaleese works in retail, while Jesse staffs a franchised coffee house and I work with children on the autism spectrum. These students-cum-employees hope to be able to create without the daily pressures of steady income, but know that this is a remote possibility.
Thankfully, the New Zealand Book Council lists 77 grants and residencies available to authors each year. Therein lies our opportunity to write.
‘Like all things creative writing can be taught well and taught badly,’ offers Eleanor Catton, who remains a creative writing teacher after her Man Booker Prize win. ‘I would say that the discipline provides many marvellous opportunities to explore and champion things of value, rather than being of value, necessarily, itself. When it is taught well, it attends not only to creative expression, but to creative impression, too: questioning the assumptions, prejudices, beliefs, and ideologies that lie behind and beneath the impulse to write. These challenges are of value because they pave the way to enlightenment, not only on the part of the individual but on a social level as well.’
Amber Esau is in her final year of an Auckland-based Bachelor of Creative Arts, majoring in creative writing. She’s circumspect in confessing that she would like to make a living as a playwright, as she sees this as a distant goal.
Her hopes for New Zealand’s literature, however, are firmer. ‘I want there to be a better synthesis between Polynesian language and literature and the English language,’ she says. ‘I’m Samoan, Maori and Irish. I think for a lot of Samoans, especially Samoan poets, they have this need to belong and I’ve been there – we all have a need to belong somewhere – but it has overwhelmed the writing.’
She contends that the technical and analytical tools gained through her studies help her to cast a critical eye over this dynamic. And it seems that in a world so saturated with voices opining on all things cultural, there is a need for a place to develop this ability.
A student from a famed American MFA programme, however, is disillusioned with the system. ‘I feel like I’m only as valuable as my writing and I have no worth to them beyond that,’ says ‘Lucy’ (her name has been changed).
Her course of study was presented to her as a brilliant way to complete a novel in a supported environment while making industry contacts and learning from the best. She will emerge with not only a degree but a pedigree, of sorts, making her far more appealing to publishers: an endorsed product.
Since her arrival, however, she has suffered from crippling writer’s block.
‘The whole writing and publishing system is really just a parallel of so many other careers where it’s a fight to the top,’ she says. ‘I think all the grants and residencies and the way MFAs work, as well as the publicity writers get and have to prescribe to, all feed the same thing. It’s so hard to distance yourself from feeling that you’re worth less than other writers because you’re not as successful, and my self-esteem has been hugely affected. I can’t write anymore.’
Lucy’s sentiments mirror Engdahl’s concerns about the ‘professionalisation’ of the role of the writer. But she hopes to graduate from her MFA into full-time employment, and for writing to become the thing she loves once again. One day she hopes to attain a grant to work on a certain project, and has already been offered various residencies across the world. Her approach – work a lot, write a little – doesn’t seem far from the reality of so many writers publishing creative works today.
Engdahl’s authors, however, occupy some romantic plane of imagination, in which they are sustained by language itself – or, alternatively, they subsist on the minimum wage, buffered by meager royalties. The practical implication of his hope for Western authors seems to be pushing for something slightly different: more culture, perhaps. More ‘otherness’. He seems to be suggesting that the West is running out of stories, and the stories that are being told are not to his taste.
In literary history, there have always been patrons to support the lucky few. That this patronage has acquired a governmental and institutionalised aspect perhaps exerts a constraint. But such writers are surely no more constrained than, say, the Cavalier Poets, who wrote works almost exclusively to rave about their king. Shakespeare himself found a patron in William Herbert, the third earl of Pembroke – an incredibly wealthy politician and aristocrat. Allegedly, the bard’s largest source of income, however, was not his literary works but his astute investment in real estate near Stratford.
Jack Kerouac, today famed for his counter-cultural values, wrote to friends and colleagues about the failure of publishers in understanding his brilliance. In one postcard to Viking editor Malcolm Cowley, he claimed of his work ‘than have it demeaned I’d rather it were never published.’ He valued the integrity of his work over its commercial success, and his revolutionary legacy lies in both his style and his own character.
Yet the house where he wrote a significant portion of his novel The Dharma Bums is now a residency for aspiring and established writers, offering accommodation and a stipend for three-month stints. Such residencies are part of what Engdahl’s criticising.
But Kerouac believed in furthering the integrity of literature. In offering space and support, this residency affords the shared dream of writers world over: to write.
There is, of course, a validity to Engdahl’s claims regarding the vibrancy of work emerging from Asia and Africa. It is important that someone in such a position is speaking about the necessity of voices that have traditionally been marginalised. But so many stories of the world remain marginalised, and will be silenced without support.
The 2014 Man Booker longlist was made up of 13 authors, only three of whom were woman and only one a person of colour. The disparity is mirrored in the UK schooling system: by 2017, 38 percent more texts written by men will be studied than texts written by women. Surprisingly, in a socio-political climate moving to embrace gender equality more than ever before, this number is a 12 percent increase on the disparity of 2013’s reading list. Representation of people of colour fares even worse.
The publication industry is also changing dramatically, in ways that we’re only just becoming aware. The 2015 New Zealand Book Awards have been delayed due to lack of support and sponsorship. Presses and bookstores are closing across the globe. Twitter followings are consulted before many book deals are offered. A blog can serve as a resume. The cult of the author mirrors that of the celebrity, because visibility and fans are becoming ever more crucial to success.
We live, now, in a world that is saturated with voices. All of which are offered the same platform: the internet does not demand a qualification or critical analysis. Perhaps it is the great democratiser, but writers must work harder than ever to be heard amid the milieu. The experience of an author who first published only ten years ago will soon be obsolete.
I am surely biased, but my program, at least, appears to be doing it right. As an undergraduate course in a disadvantaged area, where entry is based more on passion than grammar, it caters to a diverse range of students whose other options are severely limited. The most exceptional writers among my classmates have disabilities, are ex-gang members, and are from isolated towns way north of anywhere at all. Attendance is as high as the calibre of our instructors. The acquisition of craft and syntax is juxtaposed with psychology and critical thought. Commercial success is not the goal – indeed, frank discussions around our literary futures are frequent and honest.
What we are encouraged to do is tell stories, important stories, and to tell them well – to speak to our sense of urgency and to craft the things we must say until they must be heard.
The reality is that graduates with creative arts degrees will earn less than graduates of any other degree. There must be something else driving students to such courses. And there must be value in citizens who choose to follow a path of passion when the end of the road looks so bleak.
‘I don’t have any future literary aspirations,’ says my fellow student Annaleese Jochems. ‘I’d like to write good things that will make me happy and be valuable. I don’t think of writing as a process where I try and achieve things. I more think of it as trying to build myself a soul. Building a soul is making a construction and not doing it blindly, doing it with consideration and thought.’
Though Lucy has struggled with her course of study, she still considers good tuition and mentorship to be the key to literary success. And after graduation, she still wants to write. ‘I just want my writing to be a place for me to play and have fun and explore. Through reading things that I really love I do feel like I connect with something bigger than myself. I want writing to be that, without any of the external pressures impinging on it, but that’s so hard. And without financial support, it’s harder.’
Perhaps it is neither the funding nor the education system that needs transformation, but the global cultural narrative around what qualifies as successful literature. Positive mentorship, affirmative action and financial support for emerging writers all have the power to foster such a change. A flood of writers desperately seeking positions as taxi drivers or waiters, as Engdahl suggests, would not be harmful. But it also would not be productive. It is merely privileging a certain kind of life experience over another, while denying people the opportunity to gain the skills required in translating this experience onto the page.
‘Luckily,’ says Eleanor Catton, ‘it’s quite easy to distinguish bad and good educations in creative writing: the bad ones are the ones which promise results.’
Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.
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