A recent interview with Irish author Donal Ryan, in which he revealed that he was returning to full-time employment, has challenged some long-held misconceptions about publishing and writers themselves. The comments section was full of your typical Irish begrudgery (although I'm sure they do begrudgery just as well elsewhere) but it was the sentiment behind them that struck me. While reading, I began to wonder if the root of people's anger was not at the fact that he was returning to a "cushy number", but that a talented, successful author could also be a civil servant?
Authors should be elusive, giving us no sense that they ever had a “regular” life before achieving (somewhat reluctantly) celebrity status. Seeing authors speak openly about their careers and mentioning that dirty word, money, doesn’t seem to fit with the air of mystique we normally like to associate with them. Even when an author changes genre, we think, what right have they to do that? Don’t they have enough as it is? There’s a sense of unfairness.
Writing is often referred to as a "calling", as though it is a vocation for the chosen few. Viewing the arts in this way does a great deal of harm, as it isolates the artist and alienates the audience
There’s also a kind of snobbery about it. We don’t want to think of our authors as normal people who go shopping for their kids’ shoes in Dunnes Stores or having, like, a job. Similar to the priesthood, once authors have been successfully published, it is as though they have been ordained and are revered for their “otherness”. I’m guilty of this myself. A few years ago I went to see Joanne Harris speaking at the Cúirt Literary Festival in Galway and I was surprised to see her arrive on stage in a denim jacket and jeans. I’m not sure what I expected her to be wearing (a magnificent cloak and a magic wand maybe?) but it struck me that I had put her up on some kind of pedestal, like she couldn’t just be a normal person in jeans and write bestsellers!
And then there is the lifestyle aspect. We either expect our authors to be very wealthy, like JK Rowling and Cecelia Ahern who make up roughly 1 per cent of the industry, or by contrast, the “artsy type” living a meagre existence on a shoe-string. We can’t seem to swallow the idea of writers being middle-class, with families and mortgages. It’s too... ordinary.
But the fact is that writers are ordinary people. With ordinary lives. I think the idea of the narcissistic, tortured artist, ripping up pages and drowning in bourbon has finally dissipated and been replaced by a more sobering, if less romanticised version, of what it means to be a writer. The backlash by fellow writers to John Banville's recent assertion that writers could not be good parents proved that times have changed. In particular, author Julian Gough wrote a very powerful piece on the detrimental effects of the "writing myth" that male authors in particular once aspired to. Nowadays, writers are pursuing their careers, but not to the exclusion of all else. I know authors who are farmers, carpenters, social workers, married, single, unemployed, young and old. The desire to write is an equal opportunities affliction.
Writing is often referred to as a “calling”, as though it is a vocation for the chosen few. However, viewing the arts in this way is doing a great deal of harm, as it isolates the artist and alienates the audience. Working in the creative field is unusual in that we are driven to create, regardless of the outcome. But is it sacrilegious to want to earn a living from our artistic endeavours? The sooner we start treating writing as a profession rather than an unpaid calling, the better.
Like all individuals who are self-employed, our income is unpredictable and the path ahead precarious. But unlike other professions, authors (up to now) have agreed to some unspoken contract that prevents them from discussing financial remuneration; keeping up the façade that we don’t do it for the money. This is of course a very vulnerable position to be in. In fact it was Joanne Harris who highlighted the practice of literary festivals not paying authors for their appearances and instead fobbing them off with the excuse that they would gain exposure. How can authors value themselves and their work if the industry itself won’t recognise their worth?
It is a privilege to be a writer and in order to become one, you must serve an apprenticeship, but does poverty always have to be a rite of passage? Or worse, a lifestyle choice?
Irish writers have been quietly supplementing their incomes for years, with residencies, bursaries and talks. Of course these grants are not open to indie authors such as myself, so I don't have the luxury of having my application rejected. A recent article by author Mia Gallagher showed the number of ways an author can try to beg, borrow or steal time to write. What it revealed is that authors have to become travelling minstrels, giving public readings, community workshops and talks just to keep their heads above water. While these kinds of cultural interactions are of great benefit to the author and the wider community, it's still taking time away from what should be the author's primary focus. The writing process takes time and time, as they say, is money.
So many well-loved and best-selling novels were written in poverty. JK Rowling herself famously wrote the Harry Potter series while on the dole. Cheryl Strayed, author of Wild, was $85,000 in debt while writing her novel. We love a good rags-to-riches story, but what about all of the authors writing in poverty who don’t hit the big-time? Yes, it is a privilege to be a writer and in order to become one, you must serve an apprenticeship, but does poverty always have to be a rite of passage? Or worse, a lifestyle choice?
Authors are real people – they eat, they wear clothes and they pay rent. So rather than dismissing writing as a viable option or criticising someone who is trying to make it work, shouldn’t we be focussing on how we fund the arts? Do we want the next generation to grow up thinking that writing is just a hobby?
When our children are very young, we teach them that they can be anything they want to be. Yet at some point, this wonderful sense of openness and opportunity changes. We ask them to pick courses that will lead to good job opportunities. We even have “feeder schools” for universities, which sound more like something out of a dystopian novel than an inclusive education system. The artistic talent you showed as a child is suddenly frowned upon as you edge ever closer to the first round of state exams. Facing into adulthood, we are told to put away childish things.
Yet, for so many of us, that hunger to create persists. I could be mistaken, but I feel that the anger directed at Ryan in the comments section stems from a deep longing or regret at not being given the opportunity to pursue their passion. And the very reason we are discouraged from following a creative path is because it doesn’t pay financially. As the detractors pointed out, we can’t all follow our dreams in the “real world”. As proven in the current proposals by the Arts Council to reform Aosdána and tighten the definition of what it means to be an artist, putting a price on creativity can be problematic at best, but clearly this is a national debate that needs to be had.
I live in the real world and I am a real writer, but unless and until we stop treating writing like a vocation and start demanding better pay and conditions from publishers as well as increased support from the Government, a career in the arts will remain more of an aspiration rather than a goal.