Writers and Money: Claire Fox, David Harsent, Derek Johns, Miranda Seymour, and contributions from Fay Weldon

No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money.

          Life of Johnson (Boswell), 1776.

A very different time and era for publishing, but surely the good doctor’s words still strike a chord with many writers today? After all, according to statistics produced by the Society of Authors in 2000, 75% of established, practising writers in the UK earn less than £20,000 a year from their writing. For writing to be a career, money is necessarily a factor; but the panel convened by PEN evinced widely differing attitudes to the subject during a lively event at the Adam Street Club this March.

The ‘critics culture’ and the acres of newsprint dedicated to reviews – how much does criticism damn or save books? * Is there a lack of imagination in the industry today, with publishers simply looking out for the next Harry Potter or another camera-friendly Zadie Smith or Hari Kunzru? * Does money have a corrupting influence on first-time novelists who hit the big time first time round? * Is commercial success a measure of value? * How about the image of the ‘writer in the garret’ – is there something noble about not earning a living from your writing, and suffering for your art in the time-honoured tradition? These were some of the questions discussed by the panel.

Fay Weldon

Fay Weldon

Fay Weldon’s advice, delivered verbatim by Deborah Moggach, was to “save save save and never spend”, the reason being that the writer is always the last concern in the publishing equation. She confessed, however, that she was urging the audience to ‘do as I say, not do as I do’. Her wry anecdotes taken from three generations of family of writers and are perhaps best summed up by her comment “To be rich and be a writer, you have to strike it lucky“. Does Weldon herself consider that she ever hit the jackpot? Alas she wasn’t present to answer the question, but with a career spanning almost four decades and a formidable output of over twenty novels, five collections of short stories, several children’s books, non-fiction books, magazine articles and a number of plays written for television, radio and the stage, one would think so. However, in her experience, writing is an income you can never count on, with lean periods interspersing the lucrative years.

David Harsent
David Harsent
David Harsent asserted that “all poets need day jobs”, and that the life of a freelance writer was nothing short of “ulcer-inducing”. In the past, he confessed, he would write whatever anyone put his way. “Poetry is either a fugitive from money or has been rescued by money,” he claimed, his particular form of ‘rescue’ perhaps represented by crime novels which had proved a more healthy way for Harsent to earn a living from writing.

Miranda Seymour
Miranda Seymour
Historical novelist and biographer Miranda Seymour told a salutary story: when rather younger than she is now, and not being represented by an agent, she was offered and paid the paltry sum of £200 for her first novel – a figure which delighted her at the time. Echoing Weldon, she said that with writing as a career you can never predict the future – careers go up and down with the public’s taste and societal trends, while your own fads and loves also conspire to ensure that the path of creative writing never did run smooth. However, on balance, Seymour gloried in the fact that “part of the fun of writing is the ‘hope’ factor – that in years to come I will still be imagining and writing and hoping“.

Derek Johns

Derek Johns
Derek Johns described himself as a “hero of the literary world”. The President of the Association of Authors’ Agents, modest to a fault, robustly asserted that the habit of reading is alive and well, citing the popularity of reading groups and the current vogue for TV programmes devoted to literature and books. Despite having built a career on the most literary of fiction, he stated that in terms of genres, if it works, it’s valid. Even The Da Vinci Code? “At least it’s a book, a story, that people read and enjoy” … ” I rather enjoyed it!” said Seymour, to a groan from David Harsent.

The relative merits, or otherwise, of The Da Vinci Code gave rise to the most animated exchanges of the evening. Are different genres of writing more ‘worthy’ than others, and should ‘worthiness’ then equate to a similarly worthy amount of recompense? Should the author of a ‘great’ work of literature, which takes its Nobel-prize-winner a decade to produce, with all its attendant erudition and years of care-worn wrought, automatically be rewarded with greater recompense than the author of the blockbuster who can produce easily digestible, page-turning, spin-off-creating thrillers twice a year? David Harsent certainly seemed to think so, yet he poured damnation on the “unhealthy, internecine world of competition and literary prizes”.

In the end they agreed to disagree, and Claire Fox expertly steered the evening to a close. Our sincere thanks to her and all the excellent panellists for such an entertaining and thought-provoking discussion.

You can read what Fay Weldon had to say on the subject here: Nothing Changes, Money

Report by Tanya Andrews

Originally posted with the url: www.englishpen.org/events/reportsonrecentevents/writersandmoney/

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