Monday, April 15, 2013

Well, why do we write?

It's been very interesting to read Rick's, John's and Hannah's posts in reaction to Amazon's latest scheme to bankrupt authors. I've been thinking about it a lot since my last post.

That old cynic, Samuel Johnson, said, 'No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.'  Shakespeare, the realist, didn't write plays while the Globe was closed during the Bubonic Plague – and he didn't make his money anyway from being a playwright. The standard payment for the rights to put on a play was around £6. He was paid better as an actor but most importantly, he was a shareholder in the company and the theatres they performed in.

I guess every writer, particularly before they're published, dreams of rags to riches success, when the world discovers their amazing genius.  For JK Rowling and EL James and SJ Watson, it happened.  (Should we all try using initials instead of first names?)  For the rest of us, not so much, and now as the slender rewards for writing dry up further there are some tough questions we have to ask ourselves.

We are hard-wired with the urge to tell a story. As far back as we can go in the history of literature, right back to the oral tradition of the bards and Homer, the ability has been prized by society. Now, with the means of transmission directly to hand everyone seems to be out to prove the old dictum that everyone has a book in them – my husband is inclined to add darkly, 'Yes, but not necessarily one that anyone would want to read.'

So there's no hope of holding publishers to ransom; if you don't want to write for a pittance, there's a line of people queueing up for the chance.

It's a strange thing, money. When I was a young teacher, I had a friend who was a merchant banker.  He had the sort of salary that could have bought our house once a year, but he was always moaning about it not being enough. He didn't actually have a particularly lavish lifestyle – well, he did, compared to us, but that wasn't saying much – and one day I asked him what on earth the money was for. He found it hard to explain but gradually it emerged that it wasn't really about actual cash at all – it was an index of success.

When I get a cheque from a publisher, it validates what I do. Someone else values my work and is prepared to gamble that others will too, in sufficient numbers. I can call myself a professional writer,  even if  I rely on my husband to put the jam on the rather dry piece of bread.

When payment is derisory and an advance non-existent, are we coming into the dodgy realm of vanity publishing? True, we don't actually pay the publishers – or do we? If we costed out our time, we are making them a payment in kind of hours and hours and hours of work – and no minimum wage.

What is it that makes us go on? I have the story-telling bug; I want others to read what I've written and I love the emails that tell me I've given pleasure. I love seeing the concrete book, there in my hands (though I don't feel the same about one that will be transmitted on screen). I love it when reviewers say nice things (and bleed when they don't). I love being asked to talk to people about my books, I love the people I meet because I'm a writer, I love the interesting committees and festivals. I'm afraid all that does seem a pretty good definition of vanity.

There are websites where people who download pirated copies of our books aggressively defend their 'right' to read out books free, as if doing us the favour of reading our words gives them entitlement.  General attitudes seem to be moving closer and closer to the same point.

At the moment I'm still being paid enough to make it worth it. If the point comes when all I'm offered is the glory of a book in print, will I go on? The terrible thing is, I probably will.


Toe Hallock said...

Ms. Templeton: Of course you'll go on. I've been writing since I was nine years old. Not counting my elementary school's newspaper, I've received rejection after rejection from publishers for over a period of six decades. I am obviously not a very good writer. But that doesn't mean I intend to quit trying. Maybe some day, some how, some editor will relate to what I'm attempting to get across to the reader. Yours truly, Toe.

Aline Templeton said...

I'm sure you're right, Toe - I wrote my first 'novel' aged six and it was thirty years before i got one into print! Hang in there, anyway, you never know. Good luck!