Stop Press: Is the Writer Dying?

March 28th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

According to a recent article in The Guardian newspaper, the writer, his income and his way of life are dying. Thanks to the double whammy of the 2008 market crash and a digital revolution in publishing that has eroded copyright revenue, the writers of today face a hostile market and a dwindling earnings pool.

Despite a twenty-five year period of stability from around 1980 to 2007, today, for both writers who are just starting out and those who’ve been in the game a few decades, the path to financial security is crumbling.

In the mid-nineties, Jean Winterson, one of the UK’s most respected writers, got a six-figure advance for her third novel that allowed her to buy a house in the country; today, she watches as her friends, also established writers, are dropped from their contracts. Today, big advances are scarce.

Rupert Thompson is the author of nine novels, and without doubt, an established writer. In 2007, his novel Death of a Murderer was shortlisted for the Costa Prize and his most recent novel, Secrecy, was called ‘chillingly brilliant’ by the Financial Times. He’s been compared to JG Ballard, Elmore Leonard, Mervyn Peake and even Kafka.

Now approaching 60, for the first time in decades, he’s contemplating a career change. In The Guardian’s piece, he said, ‘I don’t buy anything. No clothes, no luxuries, nothing. I have no private income, no rich wife, no inheritance, no pension. I have nothing to look forward to. There’s no safety net at all.’ Another established writer, the novelist, Paul Bailey, said, ‘[2010] was sheer hell.’

At the other end of the spectrum, younger writers are faced with the prospect of a market awash with free online content or on sale in Amazon’s bargain bin for just 0.99 cents. The majority supplement their income with freelance work but even here there are obstacles. Papers can’t afford to pay what they used to plus the rise of the Huffington Post model and blogging means that too many writers are prepared to work for free.

While the Internet consumes a huge amount of content, the globalization of the market means that a writer in India can produce work for a fifth of the price. The average annual income for a young writer is 5,000 to 10,000 euros. McDonalds’ trainees earn more.

But, writers of every generation have suffered a similar fate. It was said of Grub Streets’ residents in 18th-century London that: ‘They knew luxury, and they knew beggary, but they never knew comfort.’ When asked about the success that the author Jean Rhys enjoyed towards the end of her life, she famously said that it came too late. Despite marrying three times, she spent most of her adult life poor.

In the early twentieth century, while Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Joyce were bumming round Paris and living on their wits, American writers were pumping out pulp magazines. Published every week and bought for pennies by a loyal readership, these writers were paid pittance and expected to produce a minimum of 10,000 words a day.

But even in this hard-boiled world, writers, such as Raymond Chandler and Ray Bradbury managed to break free from the shackles of a measly paycheque and build solid, successful careers.

The truth is that throughout the ages, anyone foolish enough to pursue a career in the arts has had to figure out a way to finance the pursuit, accept that it isn’t going to be easy and that it might actually prove fruitless. In short, this is not a game for the weak-hearted.

One of the blessings that the Internet has bestowed upon the writer’s world is access to a large and supportive community. No longer must the writer feel alone while he beavers away at his attic desk; a few mouse clicks and he has access to thousands like him. Not to mention the fact that the Internet also provides him with an instant publishing platform and the opportunity to find paid work.

The explosion in online resources has been coupled with the introduction of numerous MA programmes and writers workshops. Those with a sincere interest in the craft have many options if they wish to hone their skills. There have never been more magazines and the number of literary prizes continues to grow.

George Sanders has just received £40,000 as winner of the Folio Prize for Literature, a new prize, which celebrates the best writing from around the world. On the 20th of March, the winner of the Premio Alfaguara de Novela will be announced. This prize celebrates the best writing in Spanish-speaking world and at $175,000 is the highest paying literary prize in the world.

There are many more such as the Man Booker Prize, The Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction, Miguel de Cervantes Prize, São Paulo Prize for Literature, Leipzig Book Fair Prize and the Nobel Prize. While not every writer will come close to winning these big prizes, alongside them are countless national and regional competitions.

The new writer may look at the industry today and worry that it doesn’t offer enough security but the truth is, the writing life never did. What’s really happening right now is that an age-old craft is undergoing a revolution; just as the music industry did with the advent of Napster thirteen years ago. The writer is not dead yet, but he has to be savvier and more talented than ever to survive.


Can Creative Writing Be Taught?

March 28th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

Last week, writer Hanif Kureishi caused a media storm in the UK when he said that creative writing courses are ‘a waste of time’ and that 99.9 percent of his students are without talent. He went on to say that a story is ‘a difficult thing to do and it’s a great skill to have. Can you teach that? I don’t think you can.’

Kureishi’s comment is made all the more stranger by the fact that he teaches creative writing at Kingston University, apparently ineffectually. In response to his statements, some of the UK’s leading writers and creative writing teachers joined the argument to prove that writing is a craft and like any craft, can be taught.

Philip Hensher is professor of creative writing at Bath Spa University. In 2003 he was included on Granta’s Best Young Writers List and his 2008 novel, The Northern Clemency, was nominated for the Man Booker Prize.

He says good writing is a mixture of the ‘calculated and the instinctual,’ and he is flabbergasted by Kureishi’s criticism of creative writing students. He says, ‘what lies, or ought to lie, beneath the growth of creative writing as a subject is the conviction that a good deal of the best writing derives from conscious craft, if not all of it.’

He acknowledges that bad creative classes exist and they’re typically the courses where students are not encouraged to constructively criticise each other’s work, which means they miss out on the valuable lesson of editing. As the writer C. J. Cherryh says, ‘it is perfectly okay to write garbage—as long as you edit brilliantly.’

In writer’s circles, it’s common knowledge that first and second drafts are typically ‘garbage,’ but it’s the craft of editing that turn them into potentially award-winning novels. The Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami writes at least five drafts of his novels, while British novelist, Jeanette Winterson, throws her work in the fire if she feels it’s not up to scratch.

Hensher points out that anyone who sits down to write a story will confront questions of technique and craft quite quickly. Though he admits that he is self-taught, today, when he looks at his first three novels, he can see that they lack an understanding of technique.

He says the explosion in the number of creative writing courses now available in universities and online is part of the changing publishing world that deprives even established writers of the chance to earn a decent living from writing alone.

So while it’s true that many writers have become teachers out of financial necessity, it’s unfair to think they’re not passing on hard-earned experience and invaluable tips on honing technique.

In Hensher’s classes he encourages his students to observe people, to watch their body language, how they build gesture into conversation. He says this exercise quickly teaches students that their vocabulary of gestures – ‘he shrugged, she grinned, he frowned, she shook her head, he rolled his eyes, she sighed – is totally inadequate.’

He also reviews works of classic and contemporary fiction and impresses on students how fundamental it is to be avid readers, and up to date with the current trends on the publishing world. This is critically important when students begin the process of trying to find a publisher, as they have to know where their own work fits in the market.

Winterson, who is professor of creative writing at the University of Manchester, takes the practice of reading one step further by encouraging her students to read texts that they don’t know or don’t like.

She says, ‘My classes use texts I am pretty sure [students] won’t know because I want them to see how wide is the world of books and thought and imagination. I am trying to reposition them in relation to, in response to, language.’ However, she advises that no one should take classes with a writer who hasn’t published a significant body of work.

Rachel Cusk is professor of writing at Kingston University and she aims to stop her students thinking in terms of persona. She gets her students to focus on the world of objects and encourages them to add an unusual object to their stories. She says, ‘the more alien [the object] is to their subjective processes the better.’

Joyce Carol Oates defends the integrity of writers on writing courses by saying, ‘students in graduate writing programmes are already seriously committed writers by the time they enrol for a workshop; prospective students must apply, and only a small number are selected.’ She describes her classes as ‘intensely focused editing sessions.’

Blake Morrison who teaches on the MA at Goldsmith’s University says that his classes focus on building techniques such as point of view and narrative pace. He says that ‘workshop exercises have the same end in sight – to help aspirant writers find the right form for the story they want to tell.’ And he believes that even students who don’t find acclaim as writers learn a valuable lesson: how to put ‘writing at the centre of their lives.’