BY Sandy Nairne in Opinion | 01 JAN 99
Featured in
Issue 44

The Price is Right

The cost of creativity

BY Sandy Nairne in Opinion | 01 JAN 99

What are writers (or artists) worth? Should they be rewarded beyond what they earn in a market economy? Do all good artists need some patronage at the beginning (or end) of their careers? These enduring issues lie behind The Cost of Letters (1998), a survey of authors based on questions first posed to writers by Cyril Connolly in a 1946 issue of the literary magazine, Horizon. The purpose of both questionnaires was to uncover the shortfall faced by 'serious' writers between the income from the sales of their works and what they needed to live on, and therefore to expose what was generated from other forms of employment. The inevitable question that followed was whether the state should help to bridge the gap.

Attitudes to state support varied wildly in both surveys. Many writers regard it as essential for the furtherance of early talent and the nurturing of artistically vital but less commercial work, but there are many (although fewer in 1998) who still regard any system as unfair, arbitrary, ineffective, or all three. Both surveys make clear that it is only with a combination of several books under the belt and a reputation as a writer of some importance that it is possible to make a modest living of perhaps £20,000 a year. But as with visual artists, few earn this solely from their art. £20,000 is only just over the average yearly income of those in employment in Britain. Even if it were achieved by many more artists or writers, it would hardly be a glorious advertisement for the 'success story' of the arts.

Sebastian Faulks makes his own calculation of what a writer needs to live on as £X+52A+2RT where 'X is the same as anyone else needs, A is the cost of the weekly alcohol supplement' and RT is the cost of return air tickets, which will help give the required 'imaginative push'. Lucy Ellmann asks teasingly 'What really happens to a writer given infinite access to SMOKED SALMON?'

Many of the writers proudly record their various day jobs (literary journalist, unpaid child-minder/parent, scullion, security guard, teacher, waitress, editor, priest, screen-writer, critic, bank clerk etc.) as well as registering what they might, in a moment of fantasy, regard as suitable second jobs (presenter of cookery programmes, gardener, lighthouse keeper, cab-driver, game keeper, lollipop person, airline pilot, gallery invigilator, or even Julian Barnes' poignant suggestion of the 18th-century conceit of employing a hermit). Whatever the fantasies here, it is left to Hanif Kureishi to make the point that 'writing is a business as well as an art' and that a great deal of time is taken up in talking with agents, publishers, translators, journalists and film producers. This is part of the work of being a writer, even if it is not part of the image.

Writers and artists will hardly be consoled by being in the vanguard of the post-industrial age in which no one will work at a single job or career. This future offers a world in which everyone becomes multi-skilled and patches together different kinds of jobs and sources of income, aiming for compatibility if not complementarity. But more than anything, the writers are unified in their desperation to get more time as the essential ingredient of continued success, an imperative which drives out any employment that is too demanding or time-consuming. Helen Dunmore's comment that 'it takes a rare individual to manage two professions' is widely endorsed. Of course any revelation, even if only partially honest, of the minute and complex calculations that writers or artists actually make in order to survive sits uneasily with the dominant mythology that they are driven to their work by an inner compulsion. Whether true or not, that mythology still emanates from the pages of the survey and is summarised by Robert Graves in his 1946 response: 'To be a poet is a condition rather than a profession'.

Considerable differences exist between artists and writers in the production and distribution of their work. Artists generally need studios, may have hefty material expenses and generally make their money from unique works, while writers have very low production costs but are highly dependent on the investment of publishers in printing and distributing multiple copies of their works. Although in both cases the question of 'self-image' intermingles with that of 'worth', ingenuity and self-reliance are clearly attributes necessary for survival. The artist's image is boosted in the visual arts by the existence of publicly subsidised galleries and museums. In literature, despite the good work of bookshops, there is no real equivalent, as specialist journals and magazines are crucial but less publicly assertive. It is significant that many of the writers call loudly for the proper funding and development of public libraries.

Recent data shows that the national productivity of the cultural industries is running ahead of the agricultural and mining sectors of the economy. This may be no surprise in an information-led economy in which, for example, the distribution and circulation of books appears to be one of the great beneficiaries of the wider use of the Internet. But if the general economic advancement of the broad cultural industries (including film, television, music and publishing) is a reality, we must ask why such success has not spread more evenly into the specialist areas of the arts that feed them, particularly to writers and artists. Such research has to be realistic - the first question asked in the survey was 'How much do you think a writer needs to live on?' The neatest response came from Dylan Thomas: 'I want a lot, but whether I need what I want is another question'. True for us all, perhaps.