In 1956, describing the process of artistic creation, the French writer and dramatist Henry de Montherlant wrote that le bonheur écrit à l’encre blanche sur des pages blanches: ‘happiness writes in white ink on a white page.’ When we attempt to capture the visceral nature of happiness in words, it doesn’t show up.
I was reflecting on this idea recently after finishing Ellena Savage’s debut collection Blueberries, an assortment of essays which seek to question how people find means to exist in a world where any fixed social or economic habitus is precarious and fleeting. In Savage’s book, the writer is depicted as both manufacturer of cultural capital and capitalist subject, one whose job it is to ‘go about reproducing – without pay, with minimal pay – the cultural capital that is exchanged between wealthy women and men.’
Like happiness, the inextricability of capital from the production of the written word is one of those material realities that does not always appear when we crack open the spine of a book. In common with many other artists, writers are among late capital’s most avidly tricked-out assets. Not expected to be motivated by crass material concerns themselves, their output nonetheless provides a handy source of wealth for other industries to profit from: industries of marketing, of publishing, of academia. In these spheres, the written word functions as both vehicle of employment and source of surplus value. (Savage again – ‘You are a writer, and you know what that means: you don’t do it for the money. You don’t do it for the money, which is a great reason people have to not pay you for your writing.’) As creator, the writer inhabits a paradox: art is often created without pay, or with minimal pay; yet many clearly profit from it.
Although it is a truism to state that writers are (generally) not ‘in it for the money’, they do not exist within capital-free idylls either. ‘Poetry makes nothing happen’, writes Auden, and certainly the apparent inability of ‘In Memory of W.B. Yeats’ or ‘Musée des Beaux Arts’ to go out and build a road or school or provide people with access to clean water would appear to bear his thesis out. But esoteric financial service industries, say, are hardly less ethereal in their concerns, and often far more dangerous in their consequences. The romantic notion that authors need not worry themselves with material needs is far more fantastic than any of the fictions they might pen.
In the wake of COVID-19, the reality of who society depends on for support has been thrown into stark relief. As if to remind those who had apparently forgotten, the pandemic has demonstrated that the essential services of life do not come so much from the trader or hedge-fund manager, as the doctor, the cleaner, the teacher, the carer. Many writers – few of whom can afford to depend solely on the pen for a living – maintain similarly humble day jobs. The desire to write does not deliver some deus ex machina freeing people from the demands of day-to-day survival, any more than the desire to sell financial instruments to those without means to afford them avails bankers of bail-out packages.
These concerns are heightened for those who shoulder additional responsibilities, whether by dint of familial or sociocultural obligations, or not being able-bodied, or because of class, or other claims on one’s time, space, and attention (and writing, whatever its pleasures, demands all three). Even the base materials necessitated by the writing life – the ability to read and write – are not available to all. Australia’s literacy rate grows increasingly uneasy and variegated according to demarcations of class and postcode; among First Nations, it becomes uneasier still. When I was young, my mother described how, in childhood, she dreamt of the joy of being able to have a bookshelf filled with words. I learnt then that to read and write is an incalculable privilege.
In addition to material needs, there is also the question of connections and advocates for one’s work. Learning how to engage them can be difficult, particularly when it comes to the greatest advocate of all: oneself. They are the person who needs most to believe in the story and in their qualification to tell it. For many, the confidence this requires occurs in the face of great material and institutional challenge. In 1929, Virginia Woolf yearned for ‘a room of one’s own’, a clarion call that was considered radical for its time and in some ways remains so. Yet Alice Walker pointed out that Woolf’s room was an unattainable demand for those who, like eighteenth-century African-American poet Phillis Wheatley, could not lay claim even to their own bodies due to slavery. ‘In 1967 I wasn’t human,’ the Gamilaraay musician Thelma Plum sings – never mind a musician or writer.
Before she won the Windham Campbell, the world’s richest literary prize, along with the measure of financial independence it grants recipients, Yankunytjatjara poet Ali Cobby Eckermann slept in a caravan and had only $47 in the bank. Despite manufacturing the raw material for all sorts of industries which profit from their creation, writers work in conditions that remain precarious and frequently taken for granted. The audience for one’s writing will never see the baby crying beside the laptop; the elders to be taken care of; the family in need of money back home; the uncle sharing the space for a month; the three or four casual jobs being worked, without the securities and benefits enjoyed by full-time employees. The writer creates capital for others, but the capitalist process writes itself white. Its invisible sentence ought to be recognised, particularly when there is so much attention devoted to the relatively glamorous aspects of literary production: the book tours, the marketing write-ups, the academic conferences, the Instagram-ready writing ‘masterclasses’, and all those leather motorcycle jackets with Joan Didion’s face emblazoned across the back.
The loss of federal funding for several important creative organisations further highlights the myopia with which artistic labour is often viewed (as though art were solely the province of either the overwhelmingly privileged or overwhelmingly unwise). As Ben Eltham wrote for The Guardian, writers remain caught between the pincer grip of both conservative antipathy to arts funding and the belief that artists are not really deserving – that culture is not a real industry. The creative thirst may be slaked, a measure of financial independence attained; but not before having, of necessity, to navigate the endless boulders and ravines stippling the mountain of late capital.
Describing her working space and the challenges of writing and creation during an interview with Kill Your Darlings, Ellena Savage captured the nature of the situation:
I tend to think the material set-up is only as good to the artist as her psychic and social-historical set-up. I struggle against my conditioning as an Australian person to value certain narratives around financial success and artistic viability – we are trained to think that artwork is only created from financial prosperity, which is clearly a bourgeois narrative about art. I personally struggle against the idea that my work should strive to impress people who would otherwise belittle me. So my ideal set-up would be inside a world where the value of creativity was not assessed against the metrics of excellence, institutional legibility, or professional viability. It would be one where artists felt much freer to critique their societies, and did not feel compelled, out of the threat of poverty or social disgrace, to ‘professionalise’. I guess this setup would involve a cultural revolution! Or a lot of brave people breaking with taboos. Not to put ideas in anyone’s head.
Putting ideas in heads is one of the joys of literary creation. We need to help more people find the opportunity to do it.
Image: Leonid Pasternak, ‘The throes of creation’