On writing for money

America, where writers are bigger, braver and tougher than we are, has just discovered how dependant it is on those unsung heroes tapping out words in the background. During the Great Writers Strike of 2008, the entertainment business, indeed the celebrity machine itself, has creaked wheezily to a halt. Smooth-talking chat show hosts, deprived of the source of their smooth talk, have had to be taken off the air. Their famous guests, no longer spoon-fed jokes and charm, have fallen silent. Award ceremonies have been cancelled: without words on the autocue, all the glitter and glamour which a Hollywood stylist can provide have been as nothing.

Would a writers’ strike have worked in Britain? Almost certainly not. Solidarity, in spite of the best efforts of the Society and the Writers Guild, is not something that comes naturally to us. We are in a rat-pit, fighting for survival. Everyone but the superstars, or the seriously deluded, is aware that, at the very moment that a writer nobly lays down his pen on behalf of others, some sharp-toothed little rival will be wriggling past to take his place.

For a British writers strike to work, it would have to be one of those long-term industrial disputes that were so in vogue during the 1970s. First there would be a ban on non-contracted work – writing blurbs, doing stupid interviews which we know are a waste of time. Ratchetting up the pressure, we might instigate a no-rewrite clause into our agreements.

Finally, we would have to take action where we are most powerful – in the text itself. A work-to-rule would place a limit on adjectives, adverbs or nouns that took more effort to select than the obvious boilerplate cliché. There would be a ruthless cut-back on similes, an outright ban on metaphors and all but the most functional descriptive passages.

Even that might backfire, with readers discovering that work written under strike conditions is actually an improvement on the fancier original. Writers might be accused of writing to rule when in fact they were doing their best.

But there is another reason, apart from professional competitiveness, why a strike would never work here. Most British writers are hopeless about money. Although, the press loves to publish stories about first novelists securing huge advances, presenting them rather as literary lottery winners, the idea that writing is essentially a hobby, with little connection to earning a living, is deeply embedded in the national psyche. An author who tells a publisher that he would love to write a book but simply cannot afford to for the advance being offered is likely to be greeted with bewildered incredulity.

Often the embarrassment that authors feel about money is used to their disadvantage. The BBC, for example, will only offer to pay writers asked to contribute an interview to a radio programme if they specifically ask for a fee, at which point the researcher will concede and, faintly shocked by the vulgarity of it all, ask for an address. The amount to be paid, which incidentally is decided by some mysterious process in the BBC contracts department, will invariably be piffling but is always worth asking for.

There is a small but important principle at stake. If, say, a national radio programme is using the knowledge and the idea of an author, it is downright bizarre for them to expect everyone in the process to be paid except for the expert who happens to be a writer. Because authors promote new books for nothing, and because local radio gets away with free interviews, the idea has found purchase in the media that authors should be happy to work for nothing since they get a bit of general, free publicity. This idea, cheerily promoted by publishers’ PR departments, is invariably nonsense.

A new author who hopes to earn a living from writing will need pretty quickly to overcome this natural financial queasiness. We are professionals. Payment is an essential part of the deal. A fee not only obliges others, from a well-paid features editor to a snotty, salaried researcher, to recognise that words and thoughts are assets but also works more subtly, impinging on that all-important self-image. Authors who give their words away too freely are thinking, and therefore possibly writing, like an amateur.

A leading children’s writer once startled me with the advice that only under very exceptional circumstances, should an author do a school visit unpaid. The point, he said, was not the money, which you could give to charity if you preferred, but the fact of payment. If a school or library does not have to dip into its funds in order to pay for an author visit, it will take the event less seriously. The author becomes another pair of hands, a cheery volunteer. At the time, I was an innocent beginner and this advice seemed unduly cynical, but I have had several opportunities to reflect how perceptive it was.

Money matters. It transforms what for millions of good-hearted amateurs is merely fun or therapy or a way of passing the time into something altogether more serious: a job. No one has made the argument that writers should be paid more brilliantly and funnily than the science fiction writer Harlan Ellison in an interview for the documentary Dreams with Sharp Teeth, an excerpt from which can be found on YouTube. “I sell my soul but at the highest rate,” he thunders at one point. “I don’t take a piss without getting paid for it.”

That’s the spirit. We need more of that kind of talk over here. Getting paid does not make a writer somehow less pure, less of an artist. If you find that idea embarrassing, you are probably in the wrong profession.

Spring 2008