… and if so, what is the literary life?
‘Becoming’ writing—learning the oath of literary life (and its exceptions)
When I was about 15 in school at Wollongong Tech I began to think that I would like to ‘be a writer’. In particular, to be a short-story writer. When younger I had already been inspired by the magic of the imagination in Alice in Wonderland and during my first years of high school I was a constant reader and read ex-curriculum: O. Henry, Guy de Maupassant, Saki. I suppose Henry Lawson was in the curriculum. I had found my way to Edgar Allan Poe and Jack London. The English teacher encouraged me and I edited the school newspaper and wrote my first fiction for it.
In the third year of high school, the vocational guidance psychologist gave me a list of occupations from which I was to choose three. I studied it and said to him that ‘short-story writer’ wasn’t on the list and he said that it wasn’t an occupation, but I could add it if I liked. For my three choices I wrote short-story writer, army officer, and expressive dancer.
I am sure the psychologist thought, this is one mixed-up kid. I was mixed up but I was increasingly sure that I wanted to ‘be a writer’. From the newsagent in Wollongong I began to buy a magazine, the Freelancer, edited by two writers, Ruth Park and D’Arcy Niland, who, I was later to learn, were celebrated and living successfully, but erratically, from writing.
The magazine gave me a realistic idea of the writing economy and how to submit work for publication (I learned how to lay out a cover page and to number the pages of a manuscript and not to bother with a personal note). That year, when I submitted my first story to a magazine called A.M. (for Australian Monthly) edited by Cyril Pearl, I was dismayed. He rejected the story with an encouraging note but addressed me as ‘Dear Master Frank Moorhouse’ (‘master’ back then was a title used in writing letters to a male child). I did not know how he guessed my age. Maybe by the lined pages of my school exercise book.
During the next few years I read Park and Niland and was able to place them in the Australian literary scene and to decide that their approach to writing was to write for the market. Niland wrote a book titled Make Your Own Stories Sell. Somehow I realised that this approach was different to that of the writer I wanted to be, although I was fascinated by their talk of ‘cheques unexpectedly turning up in the letter box’.
At 17 I became a cadet journalist on the Sydney Daily Telegraph under the much respected legendary editor Brian Penton, who had also created a cadet training scheme for the newspaper (it was not the Daily Telegraph as it is today, owned by Rupert Murdoch).
Another cadet, John Cantwell, shared the same ideal of what leading the life of literary fiction meant, as distinct from journalism, and he and I tutored each other with recommended reading. We knew that Hemingway was superior to Steinbeck. We read the Russians. He and I read a page a day of Fowler’s Modern English Usage. We read the New Yorker writers and the literary magazines Paris Review, Partisan Review, Stand, Meanjin, Southerly, Westerly and Overland.
Cantwell and I also believed that a writer should get ‘experience’—we read the biographical notes on books, which said the author had worked breaking horses, harvested sugar cane, worked in a coal mine, and had been a seaman on a cargo ship. We had not at that point read Proust and were yet to discover that some writers had not sought these types of experience of ‘reality’ and still wrote great books. I still see ‘experience’—that is, putting myself into situations to observe them, for example, research-travel and war zones—to be part of my writing life. But more importantly, as I have worked on historical fiction, I have found the great resource of archival research.
John was killed in Vietnam when a jeep in which he and other journalists were travelling was ambushed by the Vietnamese enemy—he was probably seeking ‘experience’. He had been living in the United States and had begun publishing stories in US literary magazines and I had published in the Australian literary magazines. We both aspired to the Great Literary Tradition of fiction writing and all its affectations.
When I was about 19 I bought myself a three-quarter-length, belted-corduroy smoking jacket, which I saw as a ‘writers jacket’ although I did not smoke a pipe and did not, at this point in my life, have a ‘book-lined study’ in which to wear the jacket. Some years later in my twenties, and in a depressed state of mind, I took the jacket off and burned it in an open fire because I had not yet published a book (short stories in literary magazines were not enough). I said to Sandra, with whom I was living, that I didn’t deserve to wear a corduroy writers jacket until I had published a book and that it had made me feel like a phoney. I have never again ‘dressed’ as a writer, although there are some discernible patterns of dress among male writers at literary festivals—a real writer never wears a tie.
I grew up in a small Australian country town (two weekly newspapers but no public library) in a non-literary, business family. After Wollongong Tech, I spent my last two years at Nowra high school, finishing in 1955, still with a passion for the short story and the essay. What I find interesting is how a young man from an Australian country town could identify and aspire to belong to a way of life called ‘literary’—how I absorbed its values, methods and its oath: to be true to the literary life.
I was in my twenties when one day the new national daily newspaper the Australian noted a curious fact: that a short story by an unknown Australian, myself, had been yoked with a story by a New Yorker writer, Anatole Broyard (1920–1990), as the basis of an adult education course for steelworks apprentices in Newcastle, New South Wales. Another curiosity about the story was that the course was run by an outstanding English school teacher from my old high school, the late Clive Hamer, who, while he had not taught me, had influenced all of us at the school interested in reading and perhaps writing.
It was the first time I had ever been described as ‘a writer’ let alone had a story of mine set as a text to be studied; but it was the idea of an adult education course for apprentices that made it newsworthy for the Australian newspaper.
The Broyard story was ‘Sunday Dinner in Brooklyn’ and mine was titled ‘Walking Out’ (which had been published in Westerly, no. 4, 1964, and then in Futility and Other Animals, 1969). At the time I had not read Broyard but naturally I searched out his work and identified with it.
I suppose the rationale of the teaming of my story with Broyard’s was to reach the young apprentices with stories about kids who felt alienated from their parents’ homes, their life. I don’t know why Hamer should’ve assumed the apprentices were as alienated as the characters in the two stories. About 30 years were to pass before the name of Anatole Broyard came back into my life.
In 1989 my novel Forty-Seventeen was published by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich (New York)—the first of my books to be published in the United States. At the time of publication I had a call from Angela Carter in London, whom I had met once or twice. She said that she had been given the book to review for the New York Times Book Review and that she liked the book very much. She also said that the editor of the Book Review, Anatole Broyard, had been particularly enthusiastic about Forty-Seventeen. Carter’s page-three, full-page review of Forty-Seventeen (with photograph) was, of course, a benchmark in my writing life and, again, Broyard was involved. I feel this combination of events illustrates something about the nature of the writing way of life.
Having read a profile of Broyard in the New Yorker, I think I would have liked him. He was Afro-American but had spent much of his life ‘passing’ as white. The mention in the Australian and to be compared with an American writer by an academic was hungrily clutched to my sense of being a writer. I was later to discover that validation in the arts is a lifelong search and no number of prizes or reviews will deliver the ultimate deep assurance.
When I began writing, I didn’t know any ‘literary writers’—I never met Kenneth Slessor, who published my first short story in Southerly when I was 19—and made a pledge not to mix with a literary community until I had been published, ‘accepted’ on my merit alone. This pledge was easy to keep for years especially when working as a D-grade journalist on the Wagga Wagga Daily Advertiser, although the editor and the chief of staff of the Advertiser both read Southerly and one night called me in to show me the issue containing my story ‘The Young Girl and the American Sailor’—I had not yet seen it and did not know it had been accepted. I was no longer just a rather unreliable young journalist.
The Paris Review’s interviews with established writers taught many of us both the methodology (quill, pen or typewriter?) and the values of the literary life. We learned the importance of creative revision as opposed to spontaneity; whether it was important to travel or not to travel (I remember Tony Morphett, also a cadet journalist, later to become our leading television drama writer, drunkenly pledging never to go to London or New York or live abroad because it would corrupt his Australianness); what was the best time of day to write. For years, moving about, I learned that I did not need a special room, special paper, a special ambience, to write. Later, of course, I became more precious and the superstitions around the act of writing became more intricate. On my desk now I have a collection of ‘found’ feathers, found shells, and stones from my trekking—the makings of witchcraft. I enjoy my desk and library.
I began to mix with other young writers and, informally, we came, one by one, to form a colony of sorts in the Sydney suburb of Balmain. Similar informal groupings appeared in Melbourne’s Carlton, as they have in cities throughout world at least since the seventeenth century. By then most of us had had some success in fiction writing, film or serious journalism and I felt confident enough to mix with other writers. Some of the writers, filmmakers, actors and painters from that time were David Williamson, Murray Bail, Peter Carey, Bob Adamson, Michael Wilding, Vicki Viidikas, Nigel Roberts, Paddy McGuinness, Sue Woolfe, George Negus, Kate Grenville, Bruce Petty, Sandra Levy, Kit Guyatt, David Marr, Robyn Davidson, for a while Salman Rushdie—and after I left, Matthew Condon, Geraldine Brooks, Tony Horwitz, Christine Olsen and Carlotta, the famous drag entertainer.
The rules of this literary life included the need to protect what we saw as our authenticity from insensitive editorial intervention, not to be influenced by commercial incentives or fashions (except the fashions we were unknowingly creating), although we all quoted Samuel Johnson, who said ‘No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.’
I was paid for my first four short stories—Southerly, Westerly, Meanjin and Overland (once, its editor, Stephen Murray-Smith, doubled the payment for a story of mine because of its good reception—this has happened only once since). Of course, we all hoped for sufficient financial recognition—literary grants, publishers’ advances, prizes—to allow us to reach the dream of being able to write full time. Many did not achieve this or if they did, not for long, and had to combine their writing with another source of income. Some found they preferred this.
For some of us the literary life also required the adoption of an attitude or relationship to the state, to politics and to ‘the bourgeois life’. We quoted Cyril Connolly’s book Enemies of Promise: ‘there is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hallway’. A pram in the hallway: an enemy of the life of the arts, of a freewheeling life, free of the perceived materialistic values or conventional attitudes of the property-owning, conformist classes.
But many writers have written good books with a pram in the hallway. And a pram was just the beginning. Ultimately, some of the Balmain generation discovered that buying and selling property because of the sudden rise in Balmain house values, or at least owning one’s own dwelling free of mortgage, was a way to economic independence. I have no regrets about not going this way: I own no assets, apart from my library and my copyrights. This was a deliberate choice. There were also writers who shunned this way of life, were more reclusive, more conservative and, sometimes, loners.
Literary authorship is characterised by a special orientation to or relationship with society—different from that of, say, social scientists, journalists or scholars, it is sometimes described as an internal exile (an expression taken from the condition of some writers in the former Soviet Union). This does not mean that a writer does not work within a society or occupation, or live within a family—although time out of these social and personal structures is often considered important; sometimes writers feel they need reclusion or retreat.
The university is seen as something of a natural place for a writer. I am not so sure. This is especially true of the teaching of writing while wanting to write full time. This is fraught. While quite a few well-known fiction writers and poets have chosen this as a way to do their writing, it has never appealed to me, nor do I think I have the ability to teach. For a while the NSW government offered writer-in-residences at their national parks.
When I have had contact with universities in Australia and overseas as a writer in residence (usually only three months, although King’s College, Cambridge, was for a year) or as a fellow, I have heard about the genuine anxieties, agonies and frustrations of taking an academic teaching position as a pathway to leading the life of writing. Some, of course, see the teaching of writing, or English literature, as a vocation in itself rather than as a way of funding a writing life. Writing this way is sometimes described as an avocation or ‘a leisure pursuit’, but sometimes the avocation becomes a vocation. Sometimes the other occupation feeds the writing. Robert Frost wrote in his poem ‘Two Tramps in Mud Time’:
… My object in living is to unite
My avocation and my vocation …
Serious writing is demanding.
The American critic Lionel Trilling said that the primary function of literary writing, and all art, was ‘to liberate the individual from the tyranny of his culture … to permit him to stand beyond it in an autonomy of perception …’ It can also (but not always) experiment with language, form and genre.
Hemingway, who more than most writers took an interest in the methodology of fiction writing, advised that one should try to write 1000 words a day. But Hemingway revised those 1000 words a day many times—10 to 20 times—so it took, say, 10 days to write 1000 finished words at least. And there is the question of momentum in writing a novel. It demands that once started you continue until you finish the day, exhausted with a big bourbon in your hand, capable of very little else. Even when someone like me has, theoretically, all their time to write, it takes me about five years to write a novel.
In my book The Martini: A Memoir, I have a conversation with my American friend Voltz (loosely based on the American screen writer Steven Katz) about the making of the martini, which becomes a conversation about art.
‘Confidence in a bartender’, Voltz said, as we watched a theatrically enthusiastic bartender make our martini, ‘as we know, in art of making a martini or in art generally, is never enough.’
I said, ‘In art, sincerity is never enough.’
Voltz added, ‘Nor enthusiasm. Nor are sincerity and enthusiasm in combination enough for the making of art.’
I said, ‘Nor diligence.’
He said, ‘Not sincerity, not enthusiasm, not diligence, not con-scien-tiousness, not goodness of heart, or goodness of intentions—not any of these or all of these, in sum total, are sufficient for the making of art. Most of these are all necessary but not sufficient.’
I know people who have followed the artist’s oath of truth to their art, who have worked hard for many years, for a lifetime, but who have not achieved a readership or even publication. I spoke at the funeral last year of an academic anthropologist, Ian Beford, who neglected his academic career to spend years writing novels—his first was published by a mainstream publisher but the other novels were rejected and finally he self-published, the books never reviewed or distributed beyond his friends.
Literary writers who eschew sales as an ultimate validation live by the legends of those writers who were wrongly dismissed by critics, whose first book was rejected by 100 publishers, and cherish the belief that their talent will be recognised after death. It is also a characteristic of many literary writers to be ignorant of the economics of our vocation—some have a disdain for concerns with copyright, even publishing contracts or publicity.
I see literary authorship as the activity of writing that aspires to use and meet the intellect and the imagination at the highest level one can reach through a committed practice over a long period, usually a lifetime (although not necessarily as a full-time occupation—surveys show that about half of Australian writers do not wish to write full time), although the history of literature shows that the practice of serious writing can be begun at any time in life.
The Western literary tradition is concerned with artistry in communication, that is, the use of the power of language, its use with appropriateness, precision and beauty, in a compelling and entrancing way; it is audacious, it uses the tools of experience in its imaginative enquiry and, usually, it is not trammelled by the taboos of conventional society.
The serious literary author can arise from all genres of writing including those that are not conventionally thought of as offering that possibility. An example would be Izaak Walton on fishing, The Compleat Angler (1653). Stories for children, family histories, pornography, the detective novel, the romantic novel: all genres have produced great writing and the Australian Society of Authors includes many, many different types of writers. Yet when people talk of ‘writers’ these people are sometimes forgotten. We think only of the literary prize winners, the literary icons.
Publishers or serious literary writers sometimes talk about ‘the cook books and the gardening books and the how-to books’ in a humorous way. Some literary writers think these sorts of books exist only to make profits to subsidise the more serious writers, but they tell us how to make and design our lives, to travel well, to cook creatively, to garden creatively, to design our homes aesthetically, to raise children, to weave, to sew, to knit; all of which goes to make up the texture not only of the good and civilised life, but also of cultural variety and richness.
These books, these writers, are part of a great change in the contemporary Australian ways of pleasure and fulfilment—they help form the growing art of connoisseurship, by which I mean a sensual quest and an ongoing curiosity towards the world of experience. They also form the subsoil of literary writing: they are used by other writers as reference books—it takes many books to make
There are some things all writers confront. In the last 20 years there has been an increase in the size of marketing and publicity departments of the larger publishers but it has always been a part of publishing and the publicists and sales representatives are vital pivots in moving ‘the chain of conviction’—that is, the belief in the book in the publishing house—to the outside world of media, bookshops and, ultimately,
Writers since the nineteenth century, at least, have gone to the public as speakers or readers of their work. In 1905, Henry James ‘returned from his American trip worn and wrung. It had been a barnstorming wearing year, like a campaign candidate he had gone up and down the country, he had lectured to crowds, given interviews, submitted to seeing people …’ (Millicent Bell, Edith Wharton and Henry James, 1966). The literary writer does not accept the marketplace, or book sales, as the measure of the success of their mission. And nor does the readership rely on book sales as their test of an author—some readers avoid ‘bestsellers’.
A comparison of US bestsellers in the 1930s with books that were critical and or commercial successes at the time (that is, considered ‘important’ by critics) shows the following. About 8 per cent of books could be found in both the bestseller and critically ‘important’ lists. Fifty years later, about 25 per cent of the bestsellers were recognisable names with some of their work likely to be in print. Of the literary authors who were critically important at the time of their publication, more than 50 per cent showed up as recognisable names and in print at the time of the study.
At any given time there is a loose grouping considered to be ‘the important contemporary writers’—this group evolves from reviews, literary commentary, public discussion, conversation among readers, and from academic discourse—criticism, teaching. Above all, writers among themselves evaluate other writers, often somewhat perversely.
Among those who do this grouping, there is always a jostling for the right to anoint a new writer or to position writers in an ever-changing hierarchy—for control of the authority to make writers. For example, conservatives try to co-opt the ‘literary tradition’ and the left has its own pantheon—the desire to establish a canon. Sometimes they overlap, sometimes there is consensus, at least for decades or more. Political influences, ideological fashions, censorship, media crazes and publishing cults are part of this jostling, but it goes on in a self-correcting, critical way, and at its core has
Never before perhaps has there been so much evaluation of books—not only in traditional media, but especially on the internet—there are always people who assume the authority to compile lists of the ‘best books/authors’ of the culture, the century, the decade, the year.
The objective in all writing is to connect with an authentic readership (this may not happen quickly). Another characteristic of the literary author is the influence of the work on other writers and on other art forms because the literary author is sometimes working at the innovative edge either in thought or form and has a degree of originality either in form or coming from the personality of the author expressed through unusual style. How-ever, some important writers work within the recognisable conventions of form and genre.
And a successful book can produce a magic spell—just like that. Every beginner writer has in mind the legend of J.K. Rowling, a single mother working as a teacher and writing in a café with no tertiary writing training, who became a multi-millionaire in her mid thirties from her Harry Potter books. She did, however, study at a university—French—and did get a grant from the Scottish Arts Council to complete her first Potter book.
The Rowling phenomenon is confronting to those of us who sell nowhere near as many books as she does and find it difficult to survive in Australia (and throughout the English-speaking world) as fiction writers even with bona-fide readership, prizes and awards. Most writers set out to be Shakespeare—or Rowling—and then as our books are published and people react and the books are critically assessed, we find where we fall within the ever-changing, multifaceted branches of literary reputation and income.
Ultimately writers and readers accept that in writing there are many different categories of ‘success’. Some of these categories sound better in French: succès d’estime (reviews, scholarly interest); succès de commerce (sales); succès de scandale; succès de culte. Others include: to be named as a leading regional writer; ‘best of her generation’; best gay, best Greek-Australian; ‘our most interesting young writer’; best ‘emerging writer’; one of our ‘eminent’ writers; a ‘much loved’ writer; and as a serious writer with a small but devoted readership. There is nothing we can do to determine how we are evaluated at any given time.
It is a bona-fide, continuous, affined readership (not necessarily a large one) that the literary tradition seeks. And of course, some books remain as a valued part of the reading life of the society and ultimately go on, over a lifetime or longer, to outsell the sometimes ephemeral bestsellers of the day (although not all bestsellers are ephemeral and some are considered literary). As Milton put it in Paradise Lost, ‘Fit audience find, though few.’ But how few?
The four negotiations
I tell student writers that the literary writer has four ever-ongoing negotiations in their life by which they gain the privilege of a literary vocation, that is, the privilege to write what they want to write, in a way they wish to write it, and to spend most of their time doing it at their own pace.
These negotiations are with the public sector, which includes the Australia Council, universities and other funding bodies; with the commercial sector—publishers, magazines, film and other media; with private patrons—people who believe in your work (friends also become patrons); and finally, in your personal relationships—with partner, family, for income, time, space and negotiated absence, and for the resources to write. Relationship partners are the most important patrons of the arts in Australia and this is not always a just imposition, especially if your partner is also in the arts.
Bestseller status and international sales or film deals can give a literary writer years of a single, self-sustaining economic basis for writing, but even the writer who has a bestseller has an income flow that is not certain. The uncertainty continues, and early success is not always sustained—it is not always predictive of a calculable income over time.
The gift economy
The literary author is characterised, at least in early career although often throughout their life, by an indirect economic motivation, what has been identified as the ‘gift economy’. The young literary author (and even mature authors) setting out to write seriously, makes no attempt to calculate the return on the work. The book is begun without much idea of how long it is going to take or how much it will ‘cost’ to create in accounting terms, let alone in terms of life—in blood, sweat and tears. As Hemingway said, ‘There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.’
This is not wholly a romantic attitude. It is not possible for even an experienced publisher to clearly predict what a book will earn in the life of an author and least of all, in the life of the book (books go on earning for 70 years after the death of the writer). For the publisher it is a continuously speculative venture. For the writer too it is, unconsciously, also a speculative investment—often of their life.
By gift economy I mean the traditional, almost pre-economic recognition of the work of writers, which is distinct from the market-place transaction and is expressed through private and public patronage, prizes, fellowships and residencies. The term itself and the formulaic expression of the gift economy are adapted from anthropological studies of gift economies first described by the French scholar Marcel Mauss in 1924 and elaborated on in Lewis Hyde’s The Gift, Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property (1976).
Mauss describes the gift economy as ‘the obligation to give, the obligation to accept, the obligation to reciprocate’. It is an economic, moral, aesthetic and mythological custom existing in many societies. In contemporary society we have gift relationships in customs such as birthdays, Christmas, the honouring of visitors, retirement, farewells, the honouring of long or outstanding service, and the national honours system. It even appears in a ghostly way in the commercial economy, in ‘free gift’ offers in sales campaigns. In the medical world we have the ‘gift’ of blood and organ donors.
I see the gift relationship in the arts this way: it begins with an invitation by the community to young artists to present their work. The ‘invitation’ is, of course, informal—encouragement by teachers, mentors both formal and informal, friends, family and then by prize-winning and acceptance for publication. This invitation is followed by a second part of the formula, the obligation of the community to respond to the work, to receive it or reject it. Acceptance is shown by the way the society uses the work in all sorts of ways. It is manifested by many decisions by a diversity of people, prize committees, critics, publishers, magazine editors, agents and so on. Finally there arises the third part of the formula, the obligation of the community, once reception occurs, to reward the artist.
In this sense the statement ‘no-one asked you to be a writer/artist’ is wrong. As you go along as a young writer of serious imaginative work you are invited and encouraged (or not) and you do ultimately ‘become a writer’. You are in a sense ‘asked’ by a network of encouragements, tests and affirmations.
For a writer, the community’s obligation to reward comes, first, and now inadequately, through the copyright royalty system. More widely, the obligation to reward is often impeded by the absence of an economic cultural policy that would allow financial expression of this social obligation. Patronage, both private and public, is one way the community does attempt to reward (although it is also in the early stages part of the invitation—new writer grants, for example). This, too, is at present too erratic and unformulated. The real economy of writing is still not properly delineated, defined or rewarded.
It is sometimes forgotten that some publishers and magazine editors have a patronage impulse in their decisions—some publishers support writers because ‘they do beautiful work’ regardless of commercial considerations (well, almost); some magazine editors put work the way of imaginative writers as an act of support and homage. We also sometimes forget that writers often help other writers as best they can. Some of the legendary examples are charming.
The successful Edith Wharton secretly subsidised Henry James (aged 69), whose books were not selling well, by asking her publisher (who was also his publisher) secretly to transfer funds from her royalty account to pay for the advance on James’ next book—£8000—unbeknown to James.
In 1922 the Bloomsbury group of writers, artists and intellectuals devised a ‘Fellowship Fund’ to give T.S. Eliot income for five years to relieve him of the need to work in a bank—contributors gave five to ten pounds a year for five years in return for first editions of the books of the Hogarth Press (owned by some of the Bloomsbury group).
One of the most intricate private patronage schemes was when Catherine II of Russia heard that the French philosopher and writer Denis Diderot was in poverty and was about to sell his private library for money to live. She commissioned an agent in Paris to buy Diderot’s library, and then requested Diderot to keep the books in Paris until she required them, and to constitute himself her librarian, for which she would pay a yearly salary. For all their charm, these examples also illustrate the haphazard way many writers live and that some ways are not without their humiliations.
Indirect public funding
Some form of public funding will always remain necessary not only for the encouragement of new talent but also for mid-career and late-career talents—older writers sometimes also require ‘encouragement’ along with financial support.
The concept of social rights relating to the special nature of serious writing was absent until the introduction of public lending right (PLR) for payment to authors for the use of their books in public libraries (in 1974, through the initiative of Colin Simpson and the Australian Society of Authors); the reform of the Copyright Act to provide payment for multiple copying of their work and the establishment of the Copyright Agency Limited in 1986 through the initiative of Gus O’Donnell and the ASA; and education lending right in 2001 through the initiative of Libby Gleeson and the ASA for the use of their books in educational libraries.
The beauty of these payments is that they are directly tied to the use of the author’s work by the community: the ugliness is that the rates paid are decided by the government of the day and have depreciated over time. Most authors would be happier with the funding of writing if it depended less on schemes ultimately controlled by the government of the day and committees and was based instead on a legislated economic mechanism out of reach of those in power. These sorts of payments, by their nature, protect the author from political discrimination, the problems of peer review and from attacks by those opposed to public funding of the arts.
As Cathy Hunt says in Platform Paper 45 (2015), the public funding of the arts in Australia is fragile and we need ‘a new funding framework with government and philanthropic sector working together, new … forms of financing …’ Crowd funding and philanthropic private patronage should be encouraged by making the contributions tax deductable—a form of voluntary taxation.
Social use—hidden use
More needs to be done to define the economy of writing—to make the real economy of the book visible by measuring and compensating for the hidden or social use of the book. I use the term ‘social use’ to describe the wider value of the book in the daily life of a society beyond the first reading by the original buyer of the book. I sometimes think we should measure a writer’s merit by the number of times they or their books come up in a) conversation, b) in people’s thoughts and c) in people’s dreams. This is fantasy, but shows the very special nature of the book in the life of the society.
The royalty system has been for a long time an insufficient indicator of and payment for the use of the book, which may be paid for only once then used many times. Within a family a book may be read by more than one person, and there is the lending of books among friends, and so on. I would include in the invisible economy of the book the recycling of books, especially via the internet where millions of books are now available outside the royalty system through Google Books.
A writer will have his or her books privately lent and borrowed, discussed privately and in public, quoted, studied, reviewed, set for an exam, used as the basis for scholarly critical works, used as inspiration for other artworks (especially film), used as the basis for journalism, quoted, researched, referred to, translated. Maybe this ‘social property’ component of an author’s work could be captured by a cultural use index: surely this is actuarially and statistically possible? This index could be used to give an annual payment to writers. It would be a financial recognition of the economic significance of readership as distinct from sales in the economy of writing (as is done with newspapers and magazines where readership, as distinct from newsagent or subscription sales, is used as a measure of the advertising effectiveness of a newspaper or magazine).
I suggest the payment of a standard annual fee, again similar to PLR, to all writers to compensate for this general social use and to cover fair use and quotation-use of their work in other books, newspapers, magazines, in film and on radio (while occasionally payment is now made, most is covered by free fair-dealing interpretations of the Copyright Act).
The place we give the book as a culturally important artefact is evident in our strange economic arrangements for it—a treatment unlike other ‘products’. First, 70 years after the death of the author the work enters the public domain. Second, through compulsory licensing, setting in examinations and teaching by educational institutions and other uses can occur without the author’s consent (though, now, not without eventual payment by one mechanism or another). Third, the fair dealing provisions of the Copyright Act allow people to quote from and copy the author’s work for scholarship and research work without payment. Finally, the work is available to the community free of charge through the free library system.
The book is important because so much of the activity of the world and the other arts depends upon the book for knowledge and ideas, for the exploration of intricacy, and we depend upon the telling of stories for our personal growth through imaginative delight, enquiry and engagement and for our stability as a person and as a society.
This should have its reward, but the market will not do this by itself: the government has to assist in all this. As the late Donald Horne has said, ‘Governments are forever shaping the market, it is not shaped anymore by itself—it never was.’
Public funding: some ideas
In the absence of a cultural-use-index annual payment, I think government, through the Australia Council, has to face the question of longer term contracts for authors (perhaps for all the arts), or what could be seen as mid-career funding. Literary funding has to avoid becoming limited to the support of ‘new faces’. The Australia Council has successfully cultivated some writers from the beginning of their careers to mid-career through a mixed program of new writer grants, project grants, travel grants, residencies, and one-to-three-year fellowships.
And then? I would favour the Swedish scheme of tenured authors—as some academics gain tenure—but falling short of this I would argue for long-term (say, ten-year) renewable ‘national contracts’ for senior authors. Basically, it would be a matter of an applicant being able to tick a number of boxes, such as: books and essays and stories and poems published; a PLR score, that is, the number of their books in libraries, a CAL score—the number of times work is copied; overseas publication; and academic work done on the author’s work.
Such a scheme would secure writers in mid career who have demonstrated over 10 or 15 years the capacity to make a contribution to the national culture—to the life of letters by writing and editing books that engage general readers and stimulate critical discourse. It would define literary authorship as a vocational art in the national culture, a role comparable with that of tenured academics, judges and senior public servants; and it would relieve the Australia Council of annual or biannual assessment of these authors and the labour-intensive administration of short-term grants.
It could take some writers from project-based assessment to an assessment of them as committed, productive writers whose work is a demonstrably ongoing part of the national (and sometimes international) literary and general cultural discourse and allow writers to do mid-to-long-term planning of writing projects and personal affairs (housing loans, for example). It might also help compensate for the demographic dilemma created by a country the size of Australia: you can be successful as an author, selling to a respectable portion of this small population, and still be uneconomic.
I have called the scheme a ‘national contract’ because I see it as a contract between the senior author and the nation. It could also be seen as a national investment in writers who are making a demonstrable contribution not only through their primary work of the making of books, but also in education, in community participation and presenting Australia overseas through public diplomacy.
There are some notable examples of long-term patronage in the history of writing. After receiving a life pension, Dr Johnson produced his edition of Shakespeare, the four-volume Lives of the Poets, Prayers and Meditations, and published four political works and the book Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland.
Henrik Ibsen received a life pension from the Norwegian government in 1866 when he was 38. He went on to write Peer Gynt, A Doll’s House, An Enemy of the People, The Wild Duck and Hedda Gabler, among other plays. James Joyce received first an annual grant of £75 from the Royal Literary Fund then an annual £100 as a Civil List grant in 1916 at the age of 34 and went on to write Ulysses, perhaps the most famous twentieth-century novel in English, and Finnegans Wake among other works.
An out-of-copyright fund?
Australians have now been writing books for 200 years and 130 years of books written by them are now out of copyright, that is, publishers no longer have to pay a royalty on them to an author but do go on making profits from the publishing of these books.
I suggest that there could be a consideration of the establishment of a fund financed by an out-of-copyright royalty collected on those books still in print and being sold but out of copyright.
An out-of-copyright fund or Domaine public payant (as it is called in the few countries that have adopted it and as it was called in the Australian Copyright Council report on this proposal in 1985) is a scheme that would provide for the payment of royalties for the use of literary works in ‘the public domain’—that is, where copyright has expired—into a fund that in turn is used to provide financial assistance to living writers. This royalty could be applied towards the welfare and support of writers through superannuation and health schemes, research funding or the funding of an ‘arts or a literature bank’ that would provide financial loans for writing projects.
Book and writer statistics
The number of Australian titles per head of population has increased over the last 15 years, creating a rich variety of titles available to the reader. But the paradoxical effect of this has been to cut the readership pie more thinly, that is, the increase in titles has lowered in general the sales for each title as the books on offer, especially nonfiction, become more specialised and finely tuned to the readership. The price of books has fallen and the royalty payment to the author has been reduced by up to one-third. The increase in the number of titles has also stressed the infrastructure—the bookshop shelf space, reviewing space, marketing resources and so on.
For detailed statistical analysis of the world of writing I refer the reader to the work done over the years by economists David Throsby and associates for the Australia Council: David Throsby and Beverley Thompson, But what Do You Do for a Living (1994); Throsby and Virginia Hollister, Don’t Give up Your Day Job (2003); and Throsby and Anita Zednik, Do You really Expect to Be Paid (2010). The titles of the Australia Council reports are an executive summary of the writing world.
In 2014 the Department of Economics at Macquarie University, again with the participation of David Throsby, began a three-year study to examine the responses of Australian authors, publishers and readers to global changes in the publishing environment. The report will be released this year, but the fundamental economic statistics on writing and publishing are now widely known. For the literary writer (and for many book writers in general) it is this: most writers feel they do not have the time to write as they wish; they are forced to take other work; and they are mostly not paid enough for it to be a sustainable way of living. All this is borne out in the survey of Australian/Vogel Literary Award winners I conducted as part of this essay.
In recent years arts funding advocates have turned to economic arguments—even corporate speak—to justify public funding. Justin O’Conner, professor of communications and cultural economy at Monash Uni-ver-sity, wrote recently in the Conversation:
The release of new Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) data on the contribution of cultural and creative activities to the Australian economy represents an ever more sophisticated grasp of employment, contribution to Gross Domestic Product, Gross Value Added and various other economic indicators for this sector. It is the first time this data has been collected and reported by the ABS and it is to be welcomed.
But does it tell us anything new? Not much, I’d say.
First, it establishes the ‘cultural and creative sector’ at A$65.5 billion and 5.6% of GVA in 2008–09—a pretty respectable contributor to the Australian economy. (The contribution to GDP calculated on a satellite accounts basis is even more solid: A$86.7 billion.) …
But I’d suggest that the line of argumentation so dear to many in the creative industries lobby—that these are the industries of the future, driving innovation and global competitive advantage—has now run out of steam …
These industries deliver culture, meaning, pleasure, and knowledge about ourselves and the world in ways that are never going to be captured by GDP statistics.
How then do we defend the public funding of the arts?
Through all the world there goes one long cry from the heart of the artist: Give me a chance to do my best.
—Karen Blixen, Babette’s Feast and Other Anecdotes of Destiny
Literature is not a closed, self-reinforcing loop. It seeps through the society, as nutrients seep through the soil to nourish plants. In the community at large, while some books may not be widely read, they represent a secondary influence on the shaping of the society through reticulation by opinion leaders (with books, all enthusiastic readers are opinion leaders)—good books with small sales can bring about changes in our perceptions of reality: they deeply influence those people who come to influence us—public figures, journalists, commentators, comedians, teachers, mentors, friends, a stray remark by a stranger on a bus.
People come to know a writer’s ideas and work by routes other than reading the book—through the author’s public appearances, reviews, media interviews (especially ABC radio), by the author being quoted in the media or by other writers, of mention in the public talks of others. Reviews of books are ‘intellectual news’—news of our culture.
A survey of blogs and tweets would shows which books are being talked about and how. In numerous book clubs, works are discussed over a bottle of wine, although we don’t know just how many such book clubs there are. There is the amazing rise of book festivals: around 300,000 seats filled at the nearly 50 writers festivals in Australia, with attendances at the main festivals increasing year-on-year at about 10–20 per cent. They seem to suggest that there is a hunger for ideas and discussion. Writers festivals also are a way of identifying ‘interesting’ writers and are a form of validation.
During my writing life there has been a commitment by government at state and federal (and sometimes local) level to support the arts—until now. During the last election I published a protest about the cuts by the present federal government to all sectors of what I called the community of ideas and arts—the intellectual life—what was once known as science, scholarship and letters. But beyond governments, the assessment and selection of which writers deserve funding, one way or another, is done by an informal process involving publishers, critics, teachers, bookshops, prize judges and readers in thousands of conversations over time. It sometimes takes years for a reader to come to know of a book or an author and to read it. Despite all the publicity that I have had as a writer, and despite the fact that I have been publishing books for 50 years, I still have people buy my book at a literary festival and ask me to sign it, telling me that they had not heard of me before.
Western societies have believed for centuries that it is healthy—even necessary—for the culture to have a band of writers unattached to institutions, independent of the control of the state, and able to command resources to do their work. Connected with this idea of a band of independent writers is the nineteenth-century notion of art for art’s sake. Perhaps art for art’s sake is the imaginative equivalent of pure science, that is, to follow enquiry wherever it may lead. So with the notion of writing as a way of life, to write whatever it is the spirit dictates and for a writer to commit one’s life to it.
Serious fiction entertains the intelligence through storytelling and is concerned with the drama of ideas, the drama of philosophy and history and, centrally, the drama of the personality, the drama of the species. Literary authorship draws on intellectual research as well as personal observation as a source and as a testing of the beliefs of the author and of prevailing beliefs and ideologies of the society, untrammelled by other authority systems—to be untamed, to live by its own ethical system.
When Whitlam was in power he gave a renewed financial recognition to the arts and the ‘pursuit of excellence’. He tried to establish the arts as critical to the good society. I was friends with his private secretary, the late Richard Hall, and one day over lunch I asked him how Whitlam defended his expenditure on the arts in the party room. He laughed and agreed that there were what I now call arts-sceptics in the Labor Party.
Arts-sceptics are to be found among politicians of all parties, and scepticism is sometimes found among some literary theorists. Some are suspicious of the arts, fear them, have a prudish, puritanical distaste for them, support censorship and prosecution of artists and do not believe in arts funding. Over lunch, back then, Richard Hall shrugged and said, ‘ultimately arts patronage is an act of faith’.
The writing of this essay gradually became disturbingly existential and personal. In the 2007 film No Country for Old Men (based on the 2005 novel by Cormac McCarthy), Chigurh, a psychopath, is pointing a gun at an arrogant fix-it detective who has been sent to kill Chigurh and to recover stolen money. Chigurh outwits the detective and is now pointing a gun at him and is about to kill him. Chigurh chuckles at the final, fatal, point: ‘All right. Let me ask you something. If the rule you followed brought you to this, of what use was that rule?’
I quoted it not so long ago to a therapist and asked, if all the rules I have followed in my life as writer have led me to seeing a psychiatrist, were they the right rules? Of course, the rules were sound enough for me to seek help through my crisis and to return to writing and to living a good life. With the psychiatrist, I did not face the barrel of a gun, or at least I did face the barrel of a gun, but I did not pull the trigger.
My answer to Chigurh’s question depends on the time of day I ask it. If I ask the question while looking at my bank account for the coming months and knowing that, after 50 years of writing, I am going broke again and that I owe money, I do question my rules of living as a writer. I have had very good years financially. Whenever I received a big cheque, I followed my father’s rule of ‘investing it in the business’, that is, living and travelling in ways that would enhance my writing, leading a life that informed me about the world, the human condition.
While looking at my bank account, I remind myself that there is to be a TV series made using the Edith Trilogy, which could bring in sizeable income and that, this year, the Street Theatre is producing a play based on Cold Light, written by the brilliant Alana Valentine.
If I ask the question when looking at editions and translations of my books on the book shelf, and the DVDs of films made from my work, and the life I have led that allowed these to be written, I feel privileged. I have been able to live the writing life.
Last year I was invited to the Mumbai Literary Festival and DFAT sent me to India for two rich weeks. Last year I finished a novel and Random House commissioned a new book. I am working on a novel. Some students from a primary school in Germany wrote to me a handwritten letter asking me to write them a poem. Which I did.
I have been able to live the life of a writer with its emotional and other stresses and its rewards. Of course, some of my writer contemporaries have been more successful in the different ways of success that come to a writer—but I have had my successes and rewards.
I have benefited greatly from public funding in the form of fellowships, grants and periods as writer-in-residence, which I calculate have given me 17 years of full-time writing out of my 50 working years. Prizes probably gave me another two years. All my books—14 works of fiction and two of nonfiction—are still in print.
We fought censorship of our work and won. Still, it wasn’t so long ago that I needed to see a therapist about a sense of invalidation and to ask Chigurh’s question. I did have something of breakdown at the end of last year. I drink too much, but now I have had a fine week—I don’t think I am looking down the barrel of a gun. Yet.
The English poet Edmund Spenser (c. 1552–99) offered this inducement to those in power:
Provide therefore (ye Princes) whilst yet ye live,
that by the muses ye may befriended bee,
Which unto men eternitie do give;
It is the writers of the nation who determine how our ‘princes of power’ will be remembered and their lives recorded and described.
Note: Over the years I have discussed these matters in different places and different ways. No doubt I have visited some of the arguments and musings in this essay. I think they are worth saying again.