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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Back to the future – mankind’s new ideas that aren’t new at all

Rethink: the Surprising History of New Ideas by Steven Poole reviewed.

When Steven Poole writes a book review, he likes to lie to himself. His only conscious decision is to jot down a few notes as the deadline approaches. There is no pressure to think deep thoughts, he tells himself, or to reach the required word count. Then invariably, in a few hours, he has written the entire review. This happens time and again. No matter how many times he convinces himself he is merely jotting and thinking, the result is a finished article.

Human beings are extraordinarily good at deceiving themselves and possibly never more so than when they think that they have had a new idea, as Poole makes clear in this fascinating compendium of new ideas that aren’t new at all. He digs deep into subjects as various as cosmology, economics, health care and bioethics to show that, as the writer of Ecclesiastes put it (long before Poole), “There is nothing new under the sun.” This is demonstrated in the re-emergence of ideas such as therapeutic psychedelic drugs, inherited traits that aren’t programmed into the genome, cognitive behavioural therapy, getting our protein from insects, and the multiverse.

Poole explores these propositions deftly enough, but they are not what interest him here. Rather, his subject is the way that we have seen them all before. He ties together what he concedes is a “highly selective snapshot of the looping evolution of ideas” with the observation that: “Any culture that thinks the past is irrelevant is one in which future invention threatens to stall.” Originality, he argues, is overrated.

The book might be something of a downer for those who like to gaze at “progress” with wide-eyed admiration. The starkest takeaway is that we are clearly hopeless at putting good ideas to work. In his discussion of artificial intelligence, for instance, Poole mentions the emerging idea of a universal basic income, which is likely to become a necessary innovation as robots take over many of the least demanding tasks of the human workforce. Yet he traces it back to 1796, when Thomas Paine first published his pamphlet Agrarian Justice.

Maybe this tells us something about the limits of the brain. It has always innovated, thought through its situations and created solutions. But those solutions can only be drawn from a limited pool of possibilities. Hence we get the same ideas occurring ­inside human skulls for millennia and they are not always presented any better for the passing of time. Richard Dawkins and his ilk provide a salient example, as Poole points out: “Virtually none of the debating points in the great new atheism struggles of the 21st century . . . would have been unfamiliar to medieval monks, who by and large conducted the argument on a more sophisticated and humane level.”

So, perhaps we should start to ask ourselves why so many proposed solutions remain unimplemented after what seem to be thousand-year development programmes. It is only through such reflection on our own thinking that we will overcome our barriers to progress.

Sometimes the barriers are mere prejudice or self-interest. After the Second World War, Grace Hopper, a computer scientist in the US navy, created a language that allowed a computer to be programmed in English, French or German. “Her managers were aghast,” Poole writes. It was “an American computer built in blue-belt Pennsylvania” – so it simply had to be programmed in English. “Hopper had to promise management that from then on the program would only accept English input.”

It is worth noting that Hopper was also a victim of postwar sexism. In 1960 she and several other women participated in a project to create COBOL, the computing language. Critics said there was no way that such a “female-dominated process” could end in anything worthwhile. Those critics were
wrong. By the turn of the century, 80 per cent of computer coding was written in COBOL. But this is another unlearned lesson. A survey in 2013 showed that women make up just 11 per cent of software developers. A swath of the population is missing from one of our most creative endeavours. And we are missing out on quality. Industry experiments show that women generally write better code. Unfortunately, the gatekeepers only accept it as better when they don’t know it was written by a woman.

Solving the technology industry’s gender problems will be a complex undertaking. Yet it is easy to resolve some long-standing difficulties. Take that old idea of providing a universal basic income. It appears to be a complex economic issue but experimental projects show that the answer can be as simple as giving money to the poor.

We know this because the non-profit organisation GiveDirectly has done it. It distributed a basic income to an entire community and the “innovation” has proved remarkably effective in providing the means for people to lift themselves out of poverty. Projects in Kenya, Brazil and Uganda have made the same discovery. As Poole notes, even the Economist, that “bastion of free-market economics”, was surprised and impressed. It said of the scheme: “Giving money directly to poor people works surprisingly well.” You can almost hear the exclamation “Who knew?” – and the slapping sound of history’s facepalm.

Michael Brooks’s books include “At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise” (Profile)

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt