The writer's lot is not a happy one. Photo: Getty
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Most writers’ pay doesn’t amount to a hill of budget baked beans – or even a decent-sized pot of jam

Nick Lezard's Down and Out column.

Great news: professional writers’ average pay has now reached levels that the award-winning children’s book author Mal Peet has called “abject”. That is, £11,000 per annum or so – and if you’re using the median average for all writers, it’s £4,000.

One would hope that this would clear the field a bit and remove some of the competition but, no, people persist in wanting to write. And one would have thought that the existence of below-the-line space online would have satisfied the primitive urges of those who like to think they can write but can’t, in the way that the walls of pub toilets used to be the preferred medium of expression for angry drunks with axes to grind – but, no, there are people out there who still think that “being a writer” is something to aspire to and to use as a description of what they do.

I’m in the fortunate position of earning more than that – touch wood – but I have no illusions as to the way things are going. Recently a friend of mine posted on a social media site a picture of the pot of jam she had received as her fee for taking part in the Telegraph’s Ways with Words festival. She placed it next to a wine glass for scale and either the glass was one of those oversize comedy presents your in-laws give you for Christmas, or – and as she is a woman of probity and good habits, I suspect this is more likely – it was a tiny pot of jam. Artisan jam, to be sure, but tiny jam. I said that if it had been a pot of honey, she could have used the old Frank Muir gag “I see you keep a bee” but even that small pleasure had been denied her.

I must say that I am glad that the organisers of literary festivals seem to have put me on some kind of blacklist. I remember going to Hay – some time before its current supremo, about whom I have yet to hear a kind word, took over – and thinking, first, this place is almost impossible to reach on public transport; and second, what a lovely town this must be when all these bell-ends have gone away.

I had, you must understand, just seen Jeffrey Archer in a huge tent addressing about 2,000 adoring ladies (and doing so, I must say, with consummate professionalism) and so was in something of a bad mood; but ever since then, I have entertained no illusions whatsoever about either Hay qua festival or any of those that would aspire to be something like it. “Woodstock of the mind”, my foot, I thought, when I heard it described thus by the Famous Author Bill Clinton, around the same time that the Famous Author Pervez Musharraf was being invited to speak there. And it was also about this time that people started having the bright idea of paying celebrities huge amounts and paying writers in jam, or cowpat, or kind words, or nothing.

These gloomy thoughts aren’t relieved in any way by the latest look at my bank balance. A run of good fortune has been replaced by a dry spell; the parable of the seven years of famine alternating with the seven years of plenty is the one that always springs to mind, except with the word “weeks” replacing “years” and the word “plenty” being replaced with: “Doing just about OK – you know, being able to go to a restaurant once or twice a week, nothing fancy, and certainly not anything in the line of being able to afford a holiday.” Right now, it’s back to baked beans on toast and making sure that these are the beans with the price already printed on the tin and so not subject to the usual outrageous mark-up at the corner shop.

Meanwhile, I have to think of something to do to get out of this mess. I suppose that as the only thing I can do that anyone would want to pay me for is write, I had better start doing more of it.

The other day, I picked up my first book (which got only one review and none of you bastards bought), flicked through it and thought: “That’s not at all bad.” Believe me, I know when something I’ve written is below par. And how much did it earn me? After the advance, babkas.

Then again, the publisher who rashly commissioned that book is taking me to lunch in about half an hour. Maybe he has some good news. Maybe he doesn’t. (He is, however, good company, perhaps because he is serene in the knowledge that he is on the right side of the publisher/writer fence.) These days, the only restaurants that leave tiny pots of jam on the table belong to hotels. All the rest of the jam has been given away to writers. 

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 16 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Our Island Story

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In defence of orientalism, the case against Twenty20, and why Ken should watch Son of Saul

My week, from Age Concern to anti-semitism.

Returning late from a party I never much wanted to go to, I leap up and down in the middle of the Harrow Road in the hope of flagging down a taxi, but the drivers don’t notice me. Either they’re haring down the fast lane or they’re too preoccupied cursing Uber to one another on their mobile phones. My father drove a black cab, so I have a deep loyalty to them. But there’s nothing like being left stranded in NW10 in the dead of night to make one reconsider one’s options. I just wish Uber wasn’t called Uber.

Just not cricket

Tired and irritable, I spend the next day watching sport on television – snooker, darts, cricket, anything I can find. But I won’t be following the Indian Premier League’s Twenty20 cricket again. It’s greedy, cynical, over-sponsored and naff. Whenever somebody hits a boundary, cheerleaders in cast-off gym kit previously worn by fourth-form Roedean girls wave tinsel mops.

Matches go to the final over where they’re decided in a thrashathon of sixes hit by mercenaries wielding bats as wide as shovels. Why, in that case, don’t both teams just play a final over each and dispense with the previous 19? I can’t wait for the elegant ennui of a five-day Test match.

Stop! Culture police!

I go to the Delacroix exhibition at the National Gallery to shake off the sensation of all-consuming kitsch. Immediately I realise I have always confused Delacroix with someone else but I can’t decide who. Maybe Jacques-Louis David. The show convincingly argues that Delacroix influenced every artist who came after him except Jeff Koons, who in that case must have been influenced by David. It’s turbulent, moody work, some of the best of it, again to my surprise, being religious painting with the religion taken out. Christ’s followers lamenting his death don’t appear to be expecting miracles. This is a man they loved, cruelly executed. The colours are the colours of insupportable grief.

I love the show but wish the curators hadn’t felt they must apologise for Delacroix finding the North Africans he painted “exotic”. Cultural studies jargon screams from the wall. You can hear the lecturer inveighing against the “appropriating colonial gaze” – John Berger and Edward Said taking all the fun out of marvelling at what’s foreign and desirable. I find myself wondering where they’d stand on the Roedean cheer-leaders of Mumbai.

Taking leave of the senses

My wife drags me to a play at Age Concern’s headquarters in Bloomsbury. When I see where she’s taking me I wonder if she plans to leave me there. The play is called Don’t Leave Me Now and is written by Brian Daniels. It is, to keep it simple, about the effects of dementia on the families and lovers of sufferers. I am not, in all honesty, expecting a good time. It is a reading only, the actors sitting in a long line like a board of examiners, and the audience hunched forward in the attitude of the professionally caring.  My wife is a therapist so this is her world.

Here, unlike in my study, an educated empathy prevails and no one is furious. I fear that art is going to get lost in good intention. But the play turns out to be subtly powerful, sympathetic and sharp, sad and funny; and hearing it read engages me as seeing it performed might not have done. Spared the spectacle of actors throwing their bodies around and singing about their dreams against a backdrop painted by a lesser, Les Mis version of Delacroix, you can concentrate on the words. And where dementia is the villain, words are priceless.

Mixing with the proles

In Bloomsbury again the next day for a bank holiday design and craft fair at Mary Ward House. I have a soft spot for craft fairs, having helped run a craft shop once, and I feel a kinship with the designers sitting bored behind their stalls, answering inane questions about kilns and receiving empty compliments. But it’s the venue that steals the show, a lovely Arts and Crafts house, founded in the 1890s by the novelist Mary Ward with the intention of enabling the wealthy and educated to live among the poor and introduce them to the consolations of beauty and knowledge. We’d call that patronising. We’re wrong. It’s a high ideal, to ease the burden of poverty and ignorance and, in Ward’s words, save us from “the darker, coarser temptations of our human road”.

An Oscar-winning argument for Zionism

Speaking of which, I am unable to empty my mind of Ken Livingstone and his apologists as I sit in the cinema and watch the just-released Academy Award-winning Son of Saul, a devastating film about one prisoner’s attempt to hold on to a vestige of humanity in a Nazi death camp. If you think you know of hell from Dante or Michelangelo, think again. The inferno bodied forth in Son of Saul is no theological apportioning of justice or deserts. It is the evisceration of meaning, the negation of every grand illusion about itself mankind has ever harboured. There has been a fashion, lately, to invoke Gaza as proof that the Holocaust is a lesson that Jews failed to learn – as though one cruelty drives out another, as though suffering is forfeit, and as though we, the observers, must choose between horrors.

I defy even Livingstone to watch this film, in which the Jews, once gassed, become “pieces” – Stücke – and not grasp the overwhelming case for a Jewish place of refuge. Zionism pre-dated the camps, and its fulfilment, if we can call it that, came too late for those millions reduced to the grey powder mountains the Sonderkommandos were tasked with sweeping away. It diminishes one’s sympathy for the Palestinian cause not a jot to recognise the arguments, in a world of dehumanising hate, for Zionism. Indeed, not to recognise those arguments is to embrace the moral insentience whose murderous consequence Son of Saul confronts with numbed horror. 

This article first appeared in the 05 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The longest hatred