My favourite university tutor was a very talented poet, and passionate about writing both as a practitioner and a critic. She taught me a great deal about the power of the written word. She also once said to me – never write for a living. Never sell your work. And she remained true to her word. Her poems were published, but only by a group of her friends and admirers, who paid for a subscription run. Writing poetry was always something she did for love, not for money.
Of course poets in the main don’t make a lot of money, even when their work does well. I’m not a poet, though I consort with many, and therefore I know this to be true. Poets are very likely to have a day job and finance their love of writing through working nine till five. Some writers like days jobs closely connected with writing, such as teaching writing; others appreciate the creative freedom of having a job entirely unconnected with literature, composing haikus while shelf-stacking.
But it’s different for novelists. We do seem to have the expectation of making some money from doing what we love. Hell, why shouldn’t we? A novel takes a very long time to write – it’s not like knitting a scarf, more like building a house. Or rather, building a house, discovering halfway through the staircase is in the wrong place, destroying half of it, then rebuilding, having some surveyors in to look around, and they point out all sorts of extra work that needs doing, and then when it’s ready to go on the market, no one’s interested because times are hard etcetera etcetera.
Writing a novel is wonderful but also VERY hard work. Don’t we deserve a fair wage? Besides, what we produce is enjoyed by our consumers. I am VERY happy to pay to read a novel because I get so much pleasure from it. A really good novel – one I read over and over again – is truly priceless. If a person is prepared to pay for a meal out in a swish restaurant, for a holiday, for a night at the theatre, then a person ought to pay for reading a novel, either on paper or on a Kindle. And then surely the writer who provides the words should reap some profit?
And yet. Part of me does understand what my tutor really meant about not selling your work. The moment you make that decision – to approach the marketplace – you are asking the world to place a value on something that to you is beyond price. And if your sense of self is not secure, you will begin to see your work reflected back at you by others who don’t care about you. You will begin to think less of yourself as a writer. We’ve all had novels which are loved by enterprising editors but then are turned down by the suits who really don’t see how they can turn in a profit with them. You are a failure because your work won’t sell. Or rather, you are a failure because a notional number of readers won’t be tempted to read your book. But you don’t see that – you just think – my book’s been rejected – again!
There’s also a danger for the writer who gets preoccupied with sales. That constant checking of figures, reading the trade press for trends, getting eaten up with envy over the six figure advances of inferior writers, feeling there’s some sort of trick you’ve missed – all of this is toxic to the creative process. It eats in to the safe space we all need if we are to do our best work. We need money in order to write, but a preoccupation with money can destroy a writer.
It’s another of those paradoxes, isn’t it? To be a writer, you’ve got to be porously sensitive, but have skin as tough as a rhinoceros when those reviews come in. To be a writer, you’ve got to forget about your audience while remembering them. To write a good novel, you’ve got to stay close to the truth while taking liberties with it. To make a living as a writer, you’ve got not to care about making a living.