Saturday, 21 August 2010

Professional Eventually

Ah money. It makes the world go round. But maybe not if you are writer. Truman Capote, I think it was him, was asked by a stranger what he did. I write, replied the great man. Good, that can be a lot of fun. But what’s your real job? “The profession of letters is the only one in which once can make no money without being ridiculous,” declared Jules Renard back in 1906. And out there among the wannabees, the beginners, the slowly rising and the retired late starters are a hundred Welsh literary creatives who do it mainly for the love and the fame. Pay money to poets? Why would anyone need to do that.

The problem, of course, is that Wales has come late to acquiring its professional literary class. Hard to grasp is the idea that writers and their products add considerably to society, help us understand ourselves, help us see where the past has been and where the future is going. That they allow us to discover how the spirit can soar and face us with the truths of life that dance music and beer often fail to deliver.

To do this, and to do it consistently and to do it well, requires a bit more from the author than simply love of literary fame. It’s not enough to want to be a writer. You need to have the talent and to have put in a bit of practice. You also need the space and support in which to work and a financial underpinning which will allow this to happen. Authors need to be professional. Good ones do.

And in Wales a number are. But we are a small nation with limited markets and finding the resource to keep all we need on the road is hard. Writers being paid for what they do is still misunderstood. What did D H Lawrence’s father say when his son reported on how much cash he’d received from writing The White Peacock – “Fifty pounds! An tha’s niver done a day’s hard work in they life.”

But then again the maker of the paper on which the book was printed got paid. So too did the printer and the binder and the delivery man who carried the stock to the bookshop. The bookseller took a cut, and so did the electricity worker powering the fire beside which the book was eventually read. Why should the creator of the work itself not also be recompensed?

There are still those out there who imagine that literature is entirely something authors can churn out in spare moments. They should get proper jobs – in factories, in hospitals, in schools. Who needs books, we’ve got TV, where paying scriptwriters is regarded, somehow, as being different. There’s a lesson here.

A version of this posting appeared as The Insider in the Western Mail of 21st August, 2010. #161

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