March 5, 2014

Publishing and poverty: have we reached the death of the author?


Will the death of one kind of author be replaced by the birth of a different kind?

Will the death of one kind of author be replaced by the birth of a different kind?

A piece by Robert McCrum in the Observer last weekend has been making waves for its portrait of authors’ lives today, and how “ever since the credit crunch of 2008 writers have been tightening belts, cutting back and, in extreme cases, staring into an abyss of penury.”

McCrum focused mainly on the novelist Rupert Thomson, who is being forced to abandon the office he hires in exchange for converting his attic into a “garret” to save money. Due to falling advances and physical book sales, combined with publishing’s move to digital, Thomson feels fearful about his future as a writer:

“I don’t buy anything. No clothes, no luxuries, nothing. I have no private income, no rich wife, no inheritance, no pension. I have nothing to look forward to. There’s no safety net at all.”

Of course, there have been criticisms about the assumption being made about what constitutes poverty, and how far our sympathies should run for individuals who choose a life of writing. As one Guardian comment has it:

“Like most of us Rupert Thomson has no private income, no rich wife, no inheritance. 
Unlike most of us he owns a house in South London, can afford a loft conversion, and is doing something he loves.”

But to me what’s most alarming about the article is how alone Thomson appears in his struggle, and it causes us to consider what we think a writer’s life should look like now, and how it might have changed.  There is no mention of a dedicated agent, author friends, or approachable editor; when an editor is mentioned, it’s part of an anecdote about how Thomson’s advances have dipped over the years. It’s almost as though Robert McCrum is the first person he’s seen for weeks. McCrum laments the end of a golden time:

To writers of my generation, who grew up in the age of Penguin books, vinyl records and the BBC, it’s as if a cultural ecology has been wiped out. For as long as most of us can remember, every would-be writer knew the landscape of the printed word. This Georgian square was home to publishing grandees (now retired). On that high street were the booksellers (now out of business). In those twisting back streets, you could expect to find literary agents working the margins with the injured innocence of pickpockets at a synod. It was a mutually dependent ecosystem.

It’s unfortunate that McCrum’s vision of a bye-gone time is so cringe-worthy, too close to the idea that publishing was better when it stayed in the hands of an upper-class elite with RP accents and Bloomsbury townhouses: “Like the class system, we thought, nothing would change. The most urgent deadline was lunch. How wrong we were.”

Where once being a writer was synonymous with being starving and impoverished, McCrum now suggests poverty is the fault of a publishing system that isn’t what it used to be. As he acknowledges,

After a period of prosperity and tranquillity for British fiction that ran for about a generation (circa 1980 to 2007), writers are now being confronted with the hardship of literary artists through the ages.

Then there is the question of whether authors should be silent, brooding figures on the edges of society, or social animals that tweet, blog and facebook their way from one book to another. The author Joanna Kavenna worries about:

“the surge in social media, the rise of Facebook, Twitter and the blogosphere, ie internet sites where anyone can put up “free content”, either for pleasure or self-promotion, or from a confused mixture of both instincts… being a writer stopped being the way it had been for ages – the way I expected it to be – and became something different.”

Kavenna’s concerns are fair enough – she would rather be writing than self-promoting – but it also hints at a refusal to acknowledge that the world has changed and that she can’t have both things at once: she wants to be a writer today, but she doesn’t want to live like one. She want her writing life to be “the way I expected it to be” but doesn’t explain what that means, instead leaving it up to us to assume some highly idealized vision of the writer.

Over on the Bookseller’s Future Book, Philip Jones challenged the landscape McCrum painted, describing his experience at the London Author Fair, “the first such author-centric event organised by marketing business Authoright”:

What most struck me though was the level of engagement from the authors, some published, some publishing, some just starting out. They came to learn, not barrack. Their world of eagerness, positivity, and energy, was an orbit away from McCrum’s doom-laden À la recherche du temps perdu.

But what did the authors really come to learn here? Their education seemed more to be about learning to market themselves than becoming better writers. Unless that’s what it means to be a good writer today.

No vision seems satisfactory, and with the decline of the old and the dawn of the wobbly new, a writer’s place seems highly insecure.


Zeljka Marosevic is the former managing director of Melville House UK.