Roving thoughts and provocations

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Does Money Make Us Write Better?

Musée du Louvre
Quentin Metsys: The Money Changer and His Wife

Let’s talk about money. In his history of world art, E.H. Gombrich mentions a Renaissance artist whose uneven work was a puzzle, until art historians discovered some of his accounts and compared incomes with images: paid less he worked carelessly; well-remunerated he excelled. So, given the decreasing income of writers over recent years—one thinks of the sharp drop in payments for freelance journalism and again in advances for most novelists, partly to do with a stagnant market for books, partly to do with the liveliness and piracy of the Internet—are we to expect a corresponding falling off in the quality of what we read? Can the connection really be that simple? On the other hand, can any craft possibly be immune from a relationship with money?

Asked to write blogs for other sites, some with much larger audiences, I chose to stay with the New York Review, partly out of an old loyalty and partly because they pay me better. Would I write worse if I wrote for a more popular site for less money? Or would I write better because I was excited by the larger number of people following the site? And would this larger public then lead to my making more money some other way, say, when I sold a book to an American publisher? And if that book did make more money further down the line, having used the blog as a loss leader, does that mean the next book would be better written? Or do I always write as well or as badly as I anyway do regardless of payment, so that these monetary transactions and the decisions that go with them affect my bank balance and anxiety levels, but not the quality of what I do?

Let’s try to get some sense of this. When they are starting out writers rarely make anything at all for what they do. I wrote seven novels over a period of six years before one was accepted for publication. Rejected by some twenty publishers that seventh eventually earned me an advance of £1,000 for world rights. Evidently, I wasn’t working for money. What then? Pleasure? I don’t think so; I remember I was on the point of giving up when that book was accepted. I’d had enough. However much I enjoyed trying to get the world into words, the rejections were disheartening; and the writing habit was keeping me from a “proper” career elsewhere.

I was writing, I think, in my early twenties, to prove to myself that I could write, that I could become part of the community of writers, and it seemed to me I could not myself be the final judge of that question. To prove I could write, that I could put together in words and interesting take on experience, I needed the confirmation of a publisher’s willingness to invest in me, and I needed readers, hopefully serious readers, and critics. For me, that is, a writer was not just someone who writes, but someone published, read and, yes, praised. Why I had set my heart on becoming that person remains unclear.

Today, of course, aspiring writers go to creative writing schools and so already have feedback from professionals. Many of them will self-publish short stories on line and receive comments from unknown readers through the web. Yet I notice on the few occasions when I have taught creative writing courses that this encouragement, professional or otherwise, is never enough. Students are glad to hear you think they can write, but they need, as I did, the confirmation of a publishing contract, which involves money. Not that they’re calculating how much money, not at this point. They’re thinking of a token of recognition—they want to exist, as writers.

Yet as soon as one has left the starting line, money matters. Of course it’s partly a question of making ends meet; but there must be few novelists who believe they will live entirely from their writing as soon as a first novel is published. No, the money is important aside from a question of need because it indicates how much the publisher is planning to invest in you, how much recognition they will afford you, how much they will push your book, getting you that attention you crave, and of course the level of the advance will tell you where you stand in relation to other authors. If the self-esteem that comes with “being a writer” can only be conferred when a publisher is willing to invest, it follows that the more they invest the more self-esteem they afford.

Is this a healthy state of affairs? Clearly we are far away from the minor Renaissance painter who coolly calibrates his efforts in relation to price, unflustered by concerns about his self-image or reputation in centuries to come. In his masterpiece Jakob von Gunten, Robert Walser has his young alter ego commiserate with his artist brother and question how a person can ever be at ease if his or her mental well-being depends on the critical judgment of others.

Paradoxically, then, almost the worst thing that can happen to writers, at least if it’s the quality of their work we’re thinking about, is to receive, immediately, all the money and recognition they want. At this point all other work, all other sane and sensible economic relation to society, is rapidly dropped and the said author now absolutely reliant on the world’s response to his or her books, and at the same time most likely surrounded by people who will be building their own careers on his or her triumphant success, all eager to reinforce intimations of grandeur. An older person, long familiar with the utter capriciousness of the world’s response to art, might deal with such an enviable situation with aplomb. For most of us it would be hard not to grow presumptuous and self-satisfied, or alternatively (but perhaps simultaneously) over-anxious to satisfy the expectations implied by six-figure payments. An interesting project, if any academic has the stomach to face the flak, would be to analyze the quality of the work of those young literary authors paid extravagant advances in the 1980s and 1990s; did their writing and flair, so far as these things can be judged, fall off along with the cash? For how long did the critical world remain in denial that their new darling was not producing the goods? Celebrity almost always outlives performance.

But if too much money can be damaging, dribs and drabs are not going to get the best out of a writer either. Our persistent romantic desire that the author, or at least his or her work, be somehow detached from the practicalities of money, together with the piety that insists that novels and poems be analyzed quite separately from the lives of their creators has meant that there have been very few studies of the relationship between a writer’s work and income. Randall Jarrell’s 1965 introduction to Christina Stead’s masterpiece, The Man Who Loved Children (1940), is a rare exception; seeking to recover Stead’s writing for a new generation, Jarrell suggested that the Australian writer’s failure to find a regular publisher—which he ascribed partly to her writing such wonderfully different novels, partly to her political position, and partly to her moving around so much from one country to another—eventually had a detrimental effect on her writing. Despite having written a dozen, highly-praised novels, she had no community of reference, no group of critics who felt obliged to track her development from one work to the next, and as a result poor sales, to the point that she was eventually obliged to take in typing work to survive. Her profound sense of frustration and disillusionment began to color the writing itself, making it shriller and more self-indulgent, something Jarrell feels would not have happened had her publishing circumstances been different.

The key idea here it seems to me is that of a community of reference. Writers can deal with a modest income if they feel they are writing toward a body of readers who are aware of their work and buy enough of it to keep the publisher happy. But the nature of contemporary globalization, with its tendency to unify markets for literature, is such that local literary communities are beginning to weaken, while the divide between those selling vast quantities of books worldwide and those selling very few and mainly on home territory is growing all the time.

It would be intriguing here to run a comparison of the incomes and work of writers like U. R. Ananthamurthy, an Indian who has continued to write in his native Kannada language and whose translated fiction, when you can get hold of it, has the all difficulty and rewards of the genuinely exotic, and the far more familiar Indians writing in English (Salman Rushdie, Vikram Seth, and others) who have used their energy and imagination to present a version of India to the West where exoticism is at once emphasized and made easy. Ananthamurthy, in his eighties, has worked steadily for decades, presumably on a fairly modest income; those more celebrated names, working in the glamor of huge advances and writing to the whole world rather than any particular community, find themselves constantly obliged to risk burnout in novels whose towering ambition might somehow justify their global reputation.

But for every Ananthamurthy there will be scores of local writers who did not find sufficient income to continue; for every Rushdie there will be hundreds whose reputation never reached that giddy orbit where a certain kind of literature can survive without the sustenance of a particular community of readers.

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