Writers in Modern Wales are undervalued and unfairly treated,
just as writers have always been.
** This article first appeared in the New Welsh Review,
Winter 1999/2000 **
(but it’s still relevant)
“No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.”
Dr Samuel Johnson
“I’m just a Gower farm boy and I make bugger all
from my writing.”
“I don’t make money from my art.”
I’m not suggesting that Nigel Jenkins and Robert Minhinnick are blockheads, and that famous quote of Johnson’s may have been a little tongue in cheek, but it sums up the way many writers must feel when pumping away at their keyboards long after dark. Who can blame a writer for feeling like a blockhead, when, after weeks of effort on a short story or a poem the only recompense received is at best a few pounds, more often a couple of contributor’s copies.
Nigel Jenkins, by any measure is a highly regarded and critically acclaimed writer, having published several volumes of poetry; but even winning the Welsh Book of the Year award in 1996 doesn’t seem to have increased his capacity to earn a living directly from writing. Robert Minhinnick is also a very successful and acclaimed writer and has won many awards. He is currently the editor of Poetry Wales, which is a highly respected publication both inside and outside Wales.
Despite the vital contribution writers make, and have always made, to civilised society, they are still treated as if they were scroungers and layabouts. For thousands of years, various artists and politicians have tried to re-engineer the system of patronage and grants to support writers and other artists, yet we are still struggling to find solutions to funding crises. If it hasn’t worked for thousands of years, why should it work now? Perhaps it’s time to find some radical new way of funding writers and other artists.
As we progressed through the MA course at Trinity College, we were privileged to welcome many talented writers from all over Wales to our weekly sessions. The course directors, the adjunct writing staff and the guest writers shared their work and their critical comments with us. It was very disappointing then, when it became obvious during the academic year that most of the tutors and writers we were fortunate enough to be exposed to, did not receive anything other than a small part of their income from writing. This puzzled me at first, then angered me. I came to realise that while there is a huge multi-million pound, international market in literature, and other activities directly related to literature, the great majority of writers earn no more than a pittance from their pursuit of their chosen art form.
I originally intended to explore the whole spectrum of creative writing in my examination of why it is that writers in Wales are so very poorly paid for their perspiration. As I researched the subject I found that it was too vast to explore all I wanted to in depth, so I’ve had to limit the focus of this essay to literary writing, particularly poetry and short story writing.
The first question that came to mind was: “Why is it that writers in Wales are so poorly paid?”. When you consider the amount of money that is generated and spent in industries that depend on a supply of literary talent, it seems scandalous that writers have to scrape a living from the left over funds that various government and voluntary organisations allocate every year. Writers inadvertently support many thousands of bureaucrats and civil servants, because organisations are set up to allocate the meagre funds, and dole out handouts to writers. This puts writers in a position where they have to beg for money from society.
Nigel Jenkins again:
“Anyone who attempts to write for a living, or paint or act or make music, is made to feel as if they are engaged in a sophisticated form of begging. What they do is not ‘real work’ – the people who man the desks at the Arts Council are the real workers, with pensions to prove it.”
This is not a modern phenomenon of course, even in Ancient Rome, artists of all kinds depended on systems of patronage, of one sort or another.
“Typically, whether slave or free, the poet was dependent upon a patron, usually a socially prominent member of a distinguished family, who supported the poet in exchange for translations of Greek plays that could be performed at religious festivals, or for poems celebrating the glorious deeds and illustrious career of one or another member of the family.”
The situation may have improved a little today, writers are, (not obviously anyway), no longer treated as slaves but they still have to contend with complicated bureaucratic processes if they want to support themselves whilst writing. Now they have lottery funding, the Arts Councils and similar bodies to deal with. How much of a writer’s time is spent negotiating the maze of bureaucracy to try and secure a share of that small allocation of funds? Getting funding from these organisations is a lottery of nous and contacts in itself.
Writing is not an ephemeral activity, it is essential to the health of any society. Without literature, society as we know it would not exist. From the moment we are old enough to hear, our parents read stories to us. Everything we do is steeped in our rich literary tradition. Culture, including literature, is what sets us apart from the rest of the universe as unique human beings. The Welsh word for culture is diwylliant, which roughly translates as not wild. Where would we be without the literary efforts of our ancestors?
It is widely recognised that the arts, including literary art, have an indispensable role to play in the cohesion of society: “The Arts Council of Wales . . . recognises the value of the arts as intrinsic to the well-being of people and societies.” . TS Eliot, a prolific critic as well as a legendary poet also recognised the essential role that poetry plays in national well-being: “So, if you follow the influence of poetry . . . you will find it present everywhere. At least you will find it if the national culture is living and healthy.”
The Arts Council of Wales in their contribution to the pitch to secure European money for Objective 1 status for Mid and West Wales, emphasise the importance of the arts and culture to society. “. . . a strong contemporary and participatory arts and cultural environment contribute to the well being of society . . .”
Even the government acknowledges the role that a healthy culture plays in the quality of life of the citizens of this country: “The government recently published ‘quality of life’ indicators emphasising the importance of taking a wide view of development. The arts and cultural industries are major contributors to improvement in the quality of life . . .”
A healthy and vigorous culture is also recognised as vital to the economy: “Culture is not just an economic tool, but a vital pre-requisite for a fully-functioning, strong economy.”
So what is it that makes the remuneration that writers receive so poor? Is it because there are now so many people calling themselves writers that it is a buyers’ market? Is it because the quality of writing is so bad? Is it because there are not enough paying readers?
Why do writers have to feel like beggars? Is there an alternative way of supporting literature. Think of the millions of dollars generated by the film ‘Shakespeare in Love’, of the thousands of Shakespearean productions going on every day. Think of the constant references to the works of William Shakespeare in the media and in academia every hour. Yet, for the most part, because of course Shakespeare is long dead, all these thousands, even millions of people all over the world are earning some kind of income without having to pay royalties to the source of that income, that is William Shakespeare.
“He’s the man who pays the bills.” Dame Judy Dench.
It’s impossible to go back to the seventeenth century and recompense Shakespeare of course, but why not distribute some of the massive wealth that the Shakespeare phenomenon generates, back to the writers of today?
How about a royalty payment on all use of public domain literature for commercial or academic purposes (for Academia has become commercial too). That money can then be distributed to encourage and support new writing talent, so that the students and holo-filmmakers of the next millennium can benefit from great works of literature produced today.
Most writers ask little reward for their efforts, but when someone who writes coffee commercials can make a thousand times as much as a great poet then surely something is wrong in the way society values writers.
Meirwen Prys Jones, chief editor of prolific Welsh publishers Gomer Press, revealed some startling statistics when she visited our class. For example, a print run of a successful and critically acclaimed poet’s latest volume is very rarely more than 800, and many of these do not get sold. A poem published in an anthology attracts a nominal sum of about £10 and a short story about £30. Compare that to the British Gas call-out charge of £65, and that’s what you’ll pay just for the first forty-five minutes of a gas engineer’s time.
The poor remuneration of writers is not confined to Wales or to poets. All over the world writers and artists of all kinds are struggling to find adequate sources of funding. A quick search of the Internet revealed thousands of web-sites and user groups concerned with extracting money from various governmental and non-governmental bodies and organisations.
Even novelists, whom many regard as the high earners of literature fare little better:
“Most novelists do not support themselves through full-time fiction writing: teaching, reviewing, working in advertising or publishing – novelists skirt the periphery of writing if they can, but there are as many writers working outside these fields as there are resting actors serving tables.”
Of course it could be argued, especially in today’s free-market society, that a work of literature will succeed or fail depending on the realities of how many people actually buy it. However, here there may be problems associated with the marketing and distribution of books (a longer discussion of this is outside the scope of this essay). Nevertheless, it seems ridiculous that tiny print runs and minuscule sales are generally accepted as the norm. “Typical print run of just 800 for poetry books by critically acclaimed poets.”
It is even worse for many authors.
“Certain books by established writers have sales of less than one hundred. The writers themselves know this, although they don’t talk about it.”
Even Dylan Thomas, Wales’s most famous writer, faced a constant struggle to pay the bills: “Money was the awful, the almost insuperable problem, and it remained so, in varying degrees of intensity, until the day he died.”
In his desperate scramble to get enough money to support his family, Dylan virtually humiliated himself with constant pleas to friends and potential patrons so that he could continue writing:
“The desperate appeals to agents and publishers, the sad but ever more skilful begging letters to rich friends and acquaintances – and to poor ones, too – the hopes of some state grant constantly deferred, it makes for depressing and monotonous reading.”
Harri Webb, another great Welsh writer whose books sold in thousands rather than the usual hundreds made his living as a librarian for much of the time. Peter Finch, a poet and short story writer with a huge reputation, and a Web Site to match, ran the Oriel bookshop in Cardiff for many years before taking the control of the Welsh Academy as his day job. Even Menna Elfyn and Nigel Jenkins, two of the most celebrated poets in Wales, have to teach on the MA Creative Writing course in Trinity College, Carmarthen to supplement their income.
Some poets and writers are happy to support themselves by engaging in work other than pure creative writing, and I’m sure many of them would choose to continue working, even if they made enough money out of their writing. The point is that now, they don’t have the choice; there’s just not enough money in it.
Cambrensis, which proudly declares itself as The National Short Story Magazine of Wales has a print run of only 400 copies and doesn’t pay its contributors at all. Cambrensis is widely respected as a labour of love by its founder, Arthur Smith, but if that is what we have to offer as the national short story vehicle, then surely Welsh writing is grossly undervalued.
Despite the financial problems that most writers in Wales faced, and still face, there is a large group of people who manage to make a good living out of their efforts.
“It (The Arts and Cultural Sector) employs 1 in 40 of the population . . . It employs 27,000 people in Wales and is worth 1.1 billion to the Welsh economy each year.”
There appears to be a substantial amount of money available for the Arts in Wales.
“In 1997/98 the grant to the Arts Council of Wales from the Welsh Office was £14,549,000. In addition £104,000 was received from the Crafts Council. The National Lottery income from the Department of Culture, Media and Sport was £16,098,000.”
The commercial publishing companies are even cashing in on the new technology of the World Wide Web to enhance their income from literary works, Chadwyck-Healey are reputedly charging £4,500 for access to their Faber Poetry Library which contains the text of more than four thousand poems.
Despite the large amounts of money associated directly or indirectly with the arts, including literature, not very much of it finds its way to the writers’ and artists’ bank accounts, they have to depend on other activities to earn a living. Yet, while writers continue to struggle to survive, many thousands of jobs depend on their creative output. The Arts Council’s statement that “The cultural sector, more than any other sectors, is characterised by its reliance on creative people and ideas . . .”, seems to be stating the obvious, but it is indicative of society’s attitude to writers that it has to be said at all.
One of the guest speakers on our MA course, Mererid Hopwood, Head of the West Wales Office of the Arts Council of Wales acknowledged that “we need creative people to criticise and be academic about.” So, with so many people’s income depending on writers, whether living or dead, why is it that writers still have to hold out their begging bowls simply to pay the electricity bills?
As well as researching the subject of writers’ income within Wales, I conducted some research via e-mail to a number of members of poetry discussion groups on the Internet. Here is a small representative selection of the responses I received:
David Baratier, from Colombus, Ohio, USA receives less than one percent of his income from contributing to journals, this rises to five percent with book sales. He also takes part in readings and conferences and runs a press. These activities contribute another five percent to his income. Despite his advice to ‘not become a poet’ David Baratier has an impressive list of credits:
“Various pieces by David Baratier have appeared or are forthcoming in Denver Quarterly, Red Brick Review, Jacket, Phoebe, Quarter After Eight, Poet Lore, Slipstream, Riverwind, Poetry Motel, Poetry New York, Key Satch(el), and many others. He is also the founder and editor of Pavement Saw Press. _A Run of Letters_ was published in late 1998 from PNY (Poetry New York) Press. _The Fall Of Because_ Pudding House 1999. A prose novel will be released from Spuyten Dyvil in early 2000. He is the editor of Hands Collected: The Books of Simon Perchik to be released later this year.”
Douglas Barbour, who is a professor of English in Alberta, Canada has published ten books and five critical volumes and has also edited various anthologies. He confesses to making just ‘enough to buy a few CDs maybe’ from his creative writing efforts, including editorials, publishing, readings, workshops and reviewing. Douglas Barbour however is happy with his job as a university professor and thinks that: ‘Poets don’t make much, nor should they expect to.’(Ibid)
Joy Yourcenar, describes herself as a ‘Poet, Expat American living in Canada.’ Joy Yourcenar is very active on the Internet and conducts poetry workshops in schools, as well being an active participant in poetry readings. Despite her very active involvement in poetry, Joy states that she earns ‘a whopping 0.04%’(Ibid) of her income from creative writing. She has to depend on a disability pension, photography, teaching and copy editing for her main source of income. She also calculates that by the time she’s bought paper and supplies for her word processor and purchased various poetry chapbooks and publications, her active participation in the literary world, actually costs her much more than she earns from it.
Chris Emery describes himself as a ‘businessman. Currently working as Publishing Division Production Manager at the Cambridge University Press.’ He is an active participant in poetry readings and produces the publications, Folio and Salt, at Cambridge, he gets none of his income from his direct participation in creative writing. Chris Emery, like Douglas Barbour doesn’t think that poets should expect to make much money from their art: “I suppose I don’t believe that poets should earn their living from poetry. I do however believe that poets should be paid by publishers for their work.”
During the academic year, other writers who had made a financial success of their art visited us. These writers however, worked at the commercial end of the novel writing spectrum or in television. Whilst not denying that these writers have a considerable amount of talent, the work they produce does not, in general, contribute much to the literary tradition of our culture, and financially successful writers are in a very small minority of course.
We have still not solved the problem of funding for creative writers, even critically acclaimed writers, after thousands of years of literacy. Instead of recycling the same arguments and finding new ways of begging for money, why not consider some radical alternatives?
Politicians and civil servants are paid very good, pensionable salaries, and are not regarded as social parasites. These people are paid whether they are good or bad at their jobs, though of course, if they are consistently bad they are eventually sacked or voted out of office. I’m not proposing that poets and writers are paid for by the state in the same way, because this would imply some sort of government control of their creative output. The model I have in mind is more along the lines of the BBC. The BBC is a state-funded organisation that depends on an army of creative people to produce its output. These people are generally very well paid and some of them earn literally millions of pounds a year. There are frequent arguments about censorship of course, and they have to consider their audience at all times. Why then, not have a similar organisation to support non-commercial writers? The British Literary Corporation, or BLC. Such an organisation would pay writers to produce works of literary merit.
This raises many more questions, such as: How would the money be raised? Who would administer the BLC? How would the money be distributed? Who would decide what constituted literary merit.? A full discussion of the answers to these questions is outside the scope of this essay but I will offer these tentative suggestions for further discussion.
Royalties for performances, adaptations or publication of public domain works, like Shakespeare’s, could be paid into a central fund.
This could generate a huge amount of income. How many people earn a substantial living out of Shakespeare’s talent alone? As Dame Judy Dench said: “he’s the man who pays the bills.”9 The tourist industry associated with literary figures also generates millions of pounds every year. Perhaps some kind of literary tax would be appropriate.
Academic institutions could have an obligation to financially support writers, in return for some small commitments.
Every child in the country has to study literature for a number of years at school. There are also tens of thousands of students of literature in higher education. The jobs and the wealth that these students create is the result of (usually dead) writers’ sweat and talent. The commitments required of a writer could be the occasional visit or poetry reading. Writers, after all, are human beings, and it wouldn’t do most of them any good to be locked up in their studies twenty-four hours a day anyway.
Publications that make use of literature could pay a levy to be paid into the central fund.
Most publications draw on our literary heritage, but I’m referring specifically to publications that base substantial parts of their income on the availability of literary works, such as the review sections of newspapers, academic works and specialist magazines.
Broadcasters, publishers and local authorities could contribute to the fund.
Almost everything that is broadcast on radio or television has its origins in some writer’s efforts, whether it is a soap opera or a documentary about Samuel Beckett. Fiction publishers make all of their income from publishing works of literature and some of them make vast profits and are valued in countless millions of dollars on the stock markets.
The fund would have to be administered by peer-acknowledged academics, and an independent authority could assure quality.
This is probably the most problematic area. It will need very careful structuring to avoid as much conflict as possible, but there is no reason why a working system could not be devised. The structure of such an organisation would have to be designed to be completely accountable and independent. We already have various regulatory watchdogs that oversee the electricity, gas and telephone industries as a template, after all.
Successful writers could be obliged to subscribe to an organisation and the dues from that organisation could be used to support new writing.
Another tricky area, but why not? I’m sure that those lucky few wouldn’t mind giving a little bit back to the literary tradition that has been so kind to them. Even Jeffrey Archer had to learn to read.
In conclusion, there is a multi-million, multi-national industry that depends on the output of creative writers and other artists, yet writers are extremely undervalued in society and are made to feel like beggars. As is evidenced by some of the responses I got on the Internet, there are some writers, and poets in particular, who don’t think that they should make money from their art, but these tend to earn their living in comfortable, prestigious and well-paid jobs. Most writers and would-be writers have to endure the humiliation of seeking some kind of patronage, even if the nomenclature has changed. This situation has endured for thousands of years, despite successive attempts to change it. I know that my suggestions for future funding need much more careful research, but something radical has to be done if there is any chance of giving writers, the pecuniary, as well as the academic and the critical, credit that they deserve.