Franz Kafka lived in obscurity and died of the starvation caused by his tuberculosis. William Blake is buried in an unmarked pauper’s grave. Patrick Kavanagh used to boil eggs in the kettle for dinner. By the time Herman Melville passed away in 1891, his works were out of print and he was penniless.
The image of the struggling writer, beavering away in an icy attic room, is a familiar one but also, surely, a thing of the past? Nowadays, literary headlines tend to focus on the other side of the financial page: the ongoing multi-million-dollar saga of JK Rowling's Harry Potter franchise; the global popularity of Jeff Kinney's Wimpy Kid series; the blockbuster production line from James Patterson who, according to Forbes magazine, was worth $95 million (€82 million) in 2016 and who collaborated with Bill Clinton to produce the recently released The President Is Missing.
The latest report by the Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society in the UK, however, tells a rather different tale. The survey of 5,500 professional writers shows that median earnings have plummeted by 42 per cent since 2005, and are down 33 per cent since the last survey in 2013.
Based on a standard 35-hour week, the average full-time writer in the UK earns just €6.50 a hour – €3 less than the legal minimum wage for Irish adults. A professional writer is defined as someone who dedicates more than half their working hours to writing.
The figures inspired Philip Pullman, author of the His Dark Materials trilogy and president of the Society of Authors, to speak out, calling on publishers and online booksellers to pass on a greater slice of the literary cake to authors. "The word exploitation comes to mind," he said. "Many of us are being treated badly because some of those who bring our books to the public are acting without conscience and with no thought for the future of the ecology of the trade as a whole."
Pullman's ire is clearly aimed at, among others, the online retail giant Amazon, whose annual turnover since 2005 has doubled, clocking in at more than $177 billion in 2017. Irish publishers and writers operate in an ecosystem whose constituent numbers are much, much smaller, but is Pullman's comment about the sustainability of writing as a profession applicable to the Irish writers of the future?
Emma Flynn is living with her family in Kerry while putting the finishing touches to her debut novel. Earlier this year she gave up her administrative job with the publisher Gill Books, and headed to Romania to try out life as a writer. Why did she go to the other side of Europe? "I loved my job, but working in Dublin I was under so much pressure with rent that it just became this nine to five job, with no time for writing at all," she says.
“I decided to go somewhere extremely cheap, where I was able to really put the head down for six months and just get on with it. I wrote a lot of short stories, I have the back broken on a novel and I did a lot of articles and features as well; I wrote about the abortion referendum for Vox and others. Nearly everything I wrote was published or is going to be published over the next few months, so I saw that it was possible to make a living from writing.”
The UK survey suggests that in financial terms women writers fare worse than men, earning 75 per cent of what their male counterparts earn. Flynn says this may well be true – “I think women are maybe a little bit more likely to not push sometimes”. But she argues that on the plus side, the support given by fellow writers and publishers here is hugely helpful.
"There is a network of people who want to help younger writers, and who understand how hard it is. Sarah and Lisa at Tramp Press have been incredibly helpful to me. So have the journals, The Stinging Fly, Gorse and Banshee. The strong journal environment in Ireland gives you a platform to stand on."
Another writer just starting out on a career is Colin Walsh. He's based in Brussels – "I came over to study philosophy a few years ago, and my girlfriend is Belgian so that's why I'm still here" – where he has a day job with an organisation which campaigns for more renewable energy.
When he started writing in 2016, did the general doom and gloom in the books industry not put him off? “No, because you’re not doing it for external validation,” he says. “The rewards in terms of prestige or money are so marginal that if you were being motivated by that, you’d never write.”
Walsh won last year's Francis McManus short story prize which, he says, was a real-life game-changer. "I got an agent, I was invited by Anne Enright to read at the final event she did as the laureate for fiction, and I also ended up meeting a lot of different people on the Irish literary scene."
Walsh cites Kevin Barry as one of the few Irish writers who doesn't have to teach to supplement his income. "If you look at the economics of the thing, it doesn't really bode well – unless you're gonna be a major blockbuster writer like JK Rowling. In Ireland the Arts Council does a great deal for writers, which is something that is, I think, quite unique to Ireland."
Unlike Philip Pullman, Walsh doesn’t feel that publishers should be doing more to help their authors. “The days when publishers were the people with the money bags who could help starving artists are behind us, because the publishers are struggling just as much as the writers a lot of the time now,” he says.
Despite the uncertain financial future they face, these two young Irish writers are determined to finish their debut novels and to pursue careers in fiction. Which is good news for Irish readers: it looks as if the story of Irish fiction has a couple more chapters to go.