Friday, 16 May 2008

Making money from writing 2

Continuing the response to the questions posed in the last post…(If you haven’t read it, just scroll down, otherwise you won’t know what the hell I’m going on about.)

If not [ie if you don’t think a writer can make enough to live on from writing alone] what do you think is a suitable second occupation for him?

I’m not going to go all feminist and take issue with that ‘for him’ as these questions were originally asked in the 1940s. As everybody knows, no women wrote books before 1960.

A suitable second occupation… I think both Matt and Tim have covered this adequately so I don’t need to rehash the same stuff. What I did think about was the person who has always wanted to write, who has the odd first or novel outline squirrelled away in a bottom drawer, but has developed a very lucratiave career meanwhile.
What does that person do – particularly if he or she has a mortgage and a family to support – when the urge to write begins to dominate their life? How easy is it for any family to downsize so that one member can fulfil his or her dream? Should there be evidence of talent before the family moves to a smaller house, stops going on holiday and starts subsisting on lentils? Or simply evidence of determination? Or desperation? Should the person be required to have burned the midnight oil in a garret to prove to him/herself and their family that this is a real and burning ambition without which they can no longer be happy?

I think this is an infinitely tougher situation than that which the prospective author finds him/herself at the beginning of their writing + subsidiary career. .

Do you think literature suffers from the diversion of a writer’s energy into other employments or is enriched by it?

Speaking personally, my writing suffers from the diversion of my energy, but all writers are different. I expect this is partly determined by whether the person concerned is introvert or extrovert. Extroverts get energy from being with people, therefore an occupation which involves spending the day with others may possibly help this kind of author. Introverts (I am one) expend energy in being with people and need solitude to build up their energies again, so spending all day interacting with other people would not leave people like me with much energy to write.

Do you think the state or any other institution should do more for writers?

Given that the state doesn’t support me in my self-employed status as a speech and language therapist, I’m not sure I see any reason why they should support my self-employed author status. Both are my choice, nobody’s forcing me to do either.

Given that books basically exist to entertain people (I’m being reductive, but if they fail to entertain then I don’t think people will want to read them and any other laudable aims of literature will, therefore, be irrelevant) if they succeed in that aim, then they will sell and make money. I’m always slightly at a loss to know in what sense novels which sell in very small numbers (like under 200) are ‘good’. How is a book which startlingly few people wish to read ‘good’? Are we genuinely saying that only a tiny, tiny proportion of the reading public has the judgement to determine whether a book is ‘good’ and that the vast numbers to whom this particular book does not appeal and who do not, therefore, read it are not only wrong but somehow deeply lowbrow and philistine?

People routinely denigrate authors like Dan Brown (don’t suppose he cares) and even the output of a whole publishing house in the case of Mills and Boon. ‘Oh, they’re rubbish’, people say, ‘I don’t know why anybody would want to read them.’
What ludicrously arrogant nonsense! These books are brilliant on their own terms. They tell page-turning stories which people want to read. I read the Da Vinci Code and enjoyed it. I don’t think it’s Dan Brown’s best book but it’s not a bad book. It’s well paced, the story is interesting, you want to find out what happens at the end. Which of those facts makes it a bad book? It may not have the most psychologically convincing characters ever – who cares? They entertain. Misery memoirs have horribly psychologically real characters and I don’t want to read beyond page one of any of them. Maybe Dan Brown’s prose style deosn’t make you gasp and re-read sentences to savour them – but then I don’t suppose he set out to write a prose masterpiece; he set out to write a thriller.

All of which is a long-winded way of saying, no I don’t think authors should be state subsidised. If people want to read your books, they will buy them. If they don’t then they won’t. If you want people to read your books, make them readable. It is possible to write beautiful prose in the service of a compelling story without compromising your artistic integrity – Owen Sheers, whose book I reviewed last week and whose work is, therefore, fresh in my mind, shows that this is true. I hope his book sells in the hundreds of thousands, it deserves to.

Are you satisfied with your own solution of the problem and have you any specific advice to give young people who wish to earn their living by writing?

I am astonishingly fortunate to have a partner who is prepared to support our family so that I can write but I am loath to advise young people to choose their life-partner on the basis of their earning capacity.

If a young person I knew wished to be a novelist I would give them the following advice.
Don’t. Not unless you absolutely must. If you think it’s the way to make money, you’re a badly-informed fool – no basis from which to write books. If you think it's a romantic, bohemian lifestyle, you've believed somebody else's publicity. It's neither.

If they were still determined then I would say this. Find yourself an undemanding job which will leave you time to write. Do not develop expensive tastes. Do not aspire to having holidays. Do not allow yourself to become interested in fashion of any kind. Find out where all the local second hand shops are. Develop a tendency towards resourcefulness and shun going out to eat. Cultivate a total disregard for society’s views on success. Write every day in a disciplined manner. Do not on any account wait for inspiration. If you want it to be your job, treat it like a job and have proper hours when you do it. Then you might just make it. But you have to be prepared for the fact that you probably won’t.

In the end, it has to be admitted that, should you have the astonishingly good fortune to find one, a supportive partner’s your best bet.


David Isaak said...

Nice post.

Though I have to note I haven't been able to read "The Da Vinci Code." And believe me, I've tried, just to see what all the fuss is about.

But usually I can cheerfully read some pretty bad writing--and I figure anything that has people reading serves the general good.

Tim Stretton said...

I like the old model where a writer would find a wealthy patron, perhaps at the court of enlightened monarch.

Any such patron reading this blog, please contact me...

Martin Edwards said...

This is a subject which has intrigued me for years. Suffice to say that after eight non-fiction books and twelve novels, I've still not given up the day job. And one of the reasons, though not the only one, is that if I was completely dependent on my writing for a living, it might lead me to make compromises on what and how I write, for the sake of money. At least with another source of income, I've retained the freedom to experiment and try to develop my writing, in a way that might not always be commercially worthwhile.