Monday, June 14, 2010

Because you're worth it?

An interesting double take on literary prizes.

Lionel Shriver’s 2005 novel We Need to Talk About Kevin has received the public vote as the most popular previous Orange Prize winner.  Nevertheless, she's very disparaging about the value of literary awards in this article in the Independent last week.

Even more to the point, she's hesitant about recommending a career as a writer, saying:
I'm very sympathetic to aspirant writers. It's very difficult and there are no guarantees that cream will ever rise to the top.
It'd be totally hypocritical to discourage people from joining my profession, which was good to me in the end, but I have qualms about being encouraging. The odds are stacked against you. I want to give people enough of an idea of the capriciousness of the industry.

Michele Roberts, one of the Orange prize judges, conducts a robust defense of literary awards in this article, also in the Indie.

But she too is relentlessly downbeat about the realities facing authors, saying:
Deciding to write means volunteering for poverty: 20 years ago, publishers might offer certain well-known writers six-figure advances on sales and could afford to be reasonably generous to some of the less well known. Those times are over.
Nowadays, many authors augment their meagre incomes from writing by taking on whatever freelance work they can get, or by teaching. A joyful acknowledgment that you write from a sense of vocation, driven by single-minded devotion to language, image-making, storytelling, co-exists with a sense of belt-tightening, an increase in the sheer bloody-mindedness necessary for survival as an artist. 

When I conduct workshops, I always have a section that I call 'managing expectations'.  On the one hand, I don't want to destroy dreams and hate the idea that someone might feel so discouraged to hear how high the odds are stacked against them that they feel there's no point in continuing to write. 

On t'other hand, I still get MSes for edit in which the covering letters state that the author 'just' wants to pay off their mortgage or take early retirement and write full time.  Clearly, it would be wrong of me not to balance their expectations with a reality check, however unwelcome that might be.

If someone decides that there's no point in writing on the grounds that there's such a minuscule chance of achieving fame and fortune, I suspect they were never truly committed in the first place. 
You can write and hold down an unrelated job. 
You can earn money by doing other related work.
You can grow your own veg and shop at Lidl.
There are ways to survive, if you're prepared to set your priorities accordingly.

Yes, there's a payoff.  Rent still has to be paid, food still has to be put on the table.  We seem to have returned to the concept of the starving artist in the garret boiling up old shoes to make soup.  Progress, eh?

But if you're prepared to accept the likelihood of poverty ...
... and you have the hide of a rhino ...
... and you realise that this road will be bumpy and you have to watch out for the potholes ...
... and have the energy to climb back out of those you fall in along the way ...

... I genuinely believe there can be no more rewarding way to live a life.  

Those highs when your writing takes wings ... when your characters take you in surprising directions ... when you slap yourself on the head, yelling, 'Of course!' ... when you sit back and reflect that you have created an entire world and populated it with an eclectic cast drawn from inside your own head ... when you fall in love with a particular phrase or image ...

Ah, there's nothing like it.

If the price to pay is eating pasta five nights a week and a minimal social life (apart from lit events - lots of them!) then so be it. I'm in. 

And anyway, there are still those amazing stories of people who make it to the big time, even though they are few and far between.

As the old lottery slogan used to say, 'It could be you!'

19 comments:

SueG said...

I love love love this post. Thanks, Debi!

Emma Darwin said...

All so true. I also find that even when aspiring writers are realistic about the difficulties of getting published in the first place, and how much (or rather how little) money they're likely to get for that debut novel, they nonetheless assume that once you're published, you'll go on being published. And, sadly, that's not the case. You'll always be a published writer as a qualification, as it were - for teaching, for example. And there are plenty of examples of writers who hit a barren patch, and then it all came right again. But getting published is one thing, and going on being published rather different, and gets harder all the time.

Debi said...

Sue - I knew this would speak to you.

Emma - too true. I have my moments of thinking I must be insane - but they're nothing compared to the hours/days/weeks when I count my blessings.

kathryn evans said...

This so touched a cord, great blog....

Debi said...

Welcome and thanks, Kathryn.

Clare Dudman said...

Yes, excellent post, Debi - all so true. It is a huge struggle all the time, and I really think that if I didn't somehow *need* to write (we all feel it, don't we - that sense of unease and irritability when we are not) we would never keep going.

Debi said...

Agreed, Clare. Most of the time it doesn't feel like a choice at all.

And huge congrats to you on your launch. I'm uplifted on your behalf!

Queenie said...

Fab post, with you all the way. Also agree with Emma's comment, and would add that even if an aspiring writer is lucky enough to land an agent, they can't assume they will definitely go on to get a book deal. No assumptions at any stage of the process seems to be the safest way to go.

Debi said...

Quite, Queenie. All we can do is travel the road and do our best to enjoy the journey.

elizabethashworth said...

I'd rather live on fresh air (or something very close to it) and be happy than be rich and not have the time to write.

Debi said...

Fresh air would be good, Elizabeth. But there's probably more nutritional value in pollution. Adds spice to the shoe soup.

Rachael Dunlop said...

I hate having my expectations managed, because they are always managed downwards!

Sage words,Debi. It's not that long since I was green and naive about the realities of the writer's life. There is a period of disillusionment, followed by the realisation that NOT writing is not an option, so you may as well just get on with it.

Although I wouldn't listen too much to Lionel Shriver. Great writer, but comes across as seriously unhinged in interviews!

Debi said...

Sage words, Rachael? Can we add them to the shoe soup?

Whisks said...

Love the idea of shoe soup - just the idea mind, not the actual soup! And with the added nutrients! Yes! There was that Indian chappie in the news a few weeks ago who hadn't eaten for 70 years so it's perfectly possible to live on fresh air. You gotta really want to, though :)

Debi said...

Hadn't heard about him, Whisks. Going a tad too far, I think. I can just about accept shoe soup but I'm not willing to compromise on chocolate. We all have our limits ...

Rachael Dunlop said...

Debi - can vegetarians eat shoe soup if the (scant) nutrition comes from leather shoes? Just a thought. Maybe just the sage, then. Woman cannot live on words alone.

Debi said...

As long as we don't run out of thyme ...

L'Aussie said...

I just want to know what's wrong with eating pasta five nights a week? Doesn't everyone?? Yum! All those carbs help you cope with rejection!

Debi said...

Welcome, L'Aussie. Interesting discussion on your blog BTW. Hope my response hasn't stirred up murderous instincts in your readers.