I recently had a conversation about the travails of a rather successful (in a non-blockbuster sort of way) author. He writes well, fluently and steadily and is published by good publishers to decent sales; large sales in a couple of instances. This he has been doing ever since he graduated about 20 years ago. His wife has a professional job: they are financially OK. It seems that he is finding it harder and harder to “make a living” from his writing these days. Aggregate sales are down, and publishers are more choosy and less inclined to lay out decent advances on royalties. He does book reviewing, public speaking, the occasional magazine piece and so on, the sorts of things all full-time authors now seem to have to strive for. He doesn’t want to go mass-market. His books are non-fiction, intellectually respectable without being intellectual; the sort of thing he, rather than his university professors, might read. He’s in a difficult situation as the mid-list continues to be squeezed.
Jeffrey Meyers, serial biographer, as he has been called by the University of California Alumni Association, has written a rather depressing piece in the “Freelance” column of the Times Literary Supplement of 2 October 2015. Seems he too isn’t doing as well as he believes he should. He has “brought out books with more than one hundred publishers” (wow) and is “certain . . . that it’s now much harder to get a contract”. He claims “if I wrote a biography in a year with an exiguous advance from a university press, I’d be working . . . for about a dollar an hour.” He fears publishers are no longer willing to publicize anything but prohibitive bestsellers; magazines have closed; journals don’t pay as much any more if at all; book review media are disappearing; bookstores are closing; invitations to lecture or appear on television have dried up. Despite all this discouragement he goes bravely on. “Writing every day has become a way of life and I’d much rather write than not write. I have freedom to do interesting work, by myself and for myself.” Mr Meyers isn’t complaining, and doesn’t suggest any remedies: he’s just reporting on the situation.
Grub Street has always been a tough neighborhood. We have just come through a period of exceptional prosperity for authors. Mr Meyers published his first article in 1965 and his first book in 1973. This has been a halcyon period. Of course there have been individual high earners before, Sir Walter Scott, George Eliot, Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, but toilers in the vineyards of literature were always remunerated more in job-satisfaction than in money. What happened in the post-WWII boom was that books of all sorts were suddenly in demand by an increasingly well-educated audience and the libraries that served them. We all prospered: authors, publishers, book manufacturers.
It’s easy to see why authors would be worried about these changed circumstances. Now that I have retired, I spend a good deal of my time playing at being a writer. It’s a delightful life, and one I’d sorely miss if I had to give it up and go back to the nine-to-five grind. Too bad I couldn’t have done this right from the beginning — well, no; I really wouldn’t have wanted to do that, nor of course did I have the talent even to think of it. Anyway, I couldn’t have taken the uncertainty of a non-salary job! But it was never even an option. The nearest to mentoring I ever got was having an exercise book thrown at my 15-year old head, accompanied by a roar of “Hollick, you’ll never write a decent sentence in your life”. As the bellower was an ex-scrum-half for Ireland, his words naturally carried a great deal of weight with me. My generation was schooled to obey and trust our teachers, whose primary job sometimes appeared to be to break us down, so that rebuilding-up could perhaps commence at some future date. Appropriately our school motto was “Dura virum nutrix”. However unsuited I may have been to it, the writer’s life does look attractive: you do just as much as you want, whenever you want to do it. This can involve research, which can take you as far as actually visiting a library. You get to read a lot: the better the better. And of course you need only do all this in subjects in which you are interested. No boring preparing budgets or projecting staffing needs. If you get fed up, you stop, and start something else. As Heine put it “man lebt so recht wie Gott in Frankreich”; and he’d have known.
The harsh reality is that the world just doesn’t owe authors a living. Their work, however much we the few may value it, isn’t vital to human survival. Sorry. We’d all agree that it would be a better world in which serious writing was seriously rewarded, but we seem now to be moving further and further from that Jerusalem. Unemployment among authors isn’t better or worse than the unemployment of steel workers. The closing of the Redcar works, throwing 30,000 onto the dole is a tragedy of a different order than the reduction of advances to mid-list authors. But just as cheap Chinese steel affects Yorkshire, so e-books, competing entertainment distractions, and self-publishing affect the world of authors. Parenthetically one might note a similar unemployment threat hanging over publishing staffs too. A serious writer probably has to choose either to continue doing what he/she has been doing, writing books which are good and stand a chance of being valued a hundred years from now, but doing it in relative poverty, or decide to change direction and try to go for the gold — write popular works aimed at Hollywood or the bestseller lists. Now of course there’s absolutely nothing wrong with doing this: it’s just not everyone who can do it well. We have been trained to sniff at the middlebrow, but as this Guardian piece suggests that’s just affectation.
George Gissing, who explored this tension between the meretricious and the meritorious in his great (and serious) novel New Grub Street (1891), was himself such a self-destructive pessimist that the opportunist Jasper Milvain naturally ends up with the girl and the gelt. The impoverished serious writer Edwin Reardon, in the shape of Gissing, is of course still being read a century later.