What do you do? I’m a writer. Yes, I know, but what’s your real job? How do you keep up with the mortgage? Writers have always existed in this hinterland where doing what they do in exchange for money is regarded by many as some sort of perversion of the art. Writers need, always, to be something else. Teachers, lorry drivers, cleaners, professors of medicine, members of parliament, bankers, accountants. T S Eliot - wasn’t he some sort of bank clerk? And D H Lawrence, in real life was he not a gamekeeper?
I suppose the Dylan Thomas myth of a life spent bumming drinks and borrowing never to repay has a lot to do with public perception of the art of letters. Poetry, obviously, has to be done for the love. Attaching money to it would sully the form. And novels? Well, you get paid if it’s a best seller, J K Rowling and all that. But if it’s just a new tale published by Seren then you won’t expect much, if anything, will you?
This is the big Welsh problem. We do it all for glory, many of us, for applause and fame and some petty cash to pay the petrol. Only rarely do we do it to pay our grocery bills. We’re a land of amateurs accepting bales of binder twine and frozen chickens instead of cheques. Can you do a reading for us? How much? Couple of pints and a free meal. Fine. All this needs to change.
I’m exaggerating, of course, but the scene sometimes feels like this. At Academi we run a Writers on Tour scheme which financially aids organisers who want to invite writers to read to their groups. The Welsh Books Council gives money to publishers to help them fund royalty payments. The BBC always pay when they use your stuff, so long as you remember to ask. But the levels are so low.
In his recently published and pretty hilarious autobiography Me: The Authorised Biography, Byron Rogers explains how he used to be paid as Prince Charles’s speech writers. He got £65 for an average speech, and then £125 if the thing was for a significant gathering. That pay scale was put in place by a civil servant. If it had been left to HRH then the implication is that money would not have changed hands at all. Words are so easy and belong to all of us. What else can they be but free.
The counter to all that is that if you pay peanuts then you get monkeys. Wales should do better. We have the talent. If we pay our writers properly then they might stay here.
How much do you get paid for doing this column? Well, enough.
An earlier version of this posting appeared at The Insider in the Western Mail of 12th September, 2009