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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Putin's vote-winning trick? He makes power personal

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular. Yet President Putin is immune to voter's discontent.

A week before Russia’s parliamentary elections, the central square in Ekaterinburg – the fourth-largest city in Russia, a thousand miles east of Moscow – was packed with people, huddling close on a wet September night. They faced a stage decorated with a poster imploring the crowd to vote for “ours”, meaning United Russia, Vladimir Putin’s political party.

Yet it wasn’t politics for which thousands of people had braved the rain – it was music. During the perestroika and glasnost years of post-Soviet openness, Ekaterinburg was the cradle of the Russian rock scene. The home-grown bands Nautilus Pompilius, Chaif and Agata Kristi sang about freedom and change. Thus, this free concert to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the legendary Sverdlovsk Rock Club was bound to draw a crowd, and United Russia latched on to that.

A message from Dmitry Medvedev, the United Russia leader, praising local rock bands for their bravery “in those days when freedom was in deficit”, was read to the assembled fans. If freedom was a powerful word thirty years ago it has little impact on Russians today. Turnout in the election on 18 September was less than 50 per cent (and only 41.5 per cent in the Ekaterinburg region), a sign of the general political apathy. Before they went to the polls, it was hard to find anyone who was enthusiastic about voting.

“Why should I bother with voting? The result is clear: United Russia will, as always, win,” says Vyacheslav Bakhtin, who owns a small construction company in Ekaterinburg. He added: “Elections are the last thing on my mind. My business has been suffering for the last two years. We couldn’t even afford to go on a family vacation this summer.”

The Russian economy is struggling because of low oil prices, trade embargoes and geopolitical concerns. There have been public spending cuts, and the free float of the rouble led to currency devaluation and high inflation (7 per cent in August). Unemployment is rising and the base interest rate is 10.5 per cent.

There are many reasons for Russians to want a change in government, yet it appears that people do not see the link between their daily struggles and Putin’s policies.

Anna Mikhailova has recently returned from a tour of the Golden Ring of Russia (a circuit of medieval cities to the north-east of Moscow), where there is a stark contrast between the restored onion-domed churches and the crumbling villages.

“People live in poverty in crammed kummunalki [Soviet-style communal flats with several families sharing one kitchen and bathroom],” she tells me. “But they still talk about Putin the Saviour, standing up for Mother Russia.”

Apart from United Russia, 13 parties were judged eligible to stand, but the range of choice was an illusion. Olga, who requested anonymity for her own safety, explained. “We have one party – United Russia – a few pseudo-opposition parties, the Communists, the LDPR and Fair Russia who support Putin’s cause, and a bunch of nobodies that people don’t care about.”

Indeed, Gennady Zyuganov, who has led the Communist Party since 1993, campaigned under the slogan “Ten Stalinist punches against capitalism”. But although he criticised Medvedev, he didn’t touch Putin. The populist leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), Vladimir Zhirinovsky, another political dinosaur, actively endorses Putin’s foreign policy.

If there is discontent among voters, Putin is immune to it. On the eve of the elections, United Russia’s popularity slid to just 30 per cent of total respondents in one poll, though it scored 50 per cent among those who said they were definitely going to vote. Medvedev’s own approval rating fell to 48 per cent. His message to the elderly that state pensions wouldn’t increase, and his advice to teachers to get jobs in the private sector if they weren’t happy with their state salaries, might have had something to do with it. Yet Putin’s popularity remained consistently high, at 82 per cent, according to independent pollsters the Levada Centre.

Alexey Volkov, a 40-year-old business manager, says he voted for the Communists. “I voted against United Russia, the apparatchiks stifling the president,” he explains. “Putin, on the other hand, is the best ruler since Alexander III [Russia’s emperor at the end of the 19th century].”

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular and considered ineffective by the Russian people. Over the past 16 years, presidential power has expanded hugely. Since Russia adopted its new constitution in 1993, successive presidents have introduced legislation to stretch the office’s authority. In his first term as president, Putin acquired 219 new rights and duties, and as his successor Medvedev enjoyed an additional 114 responsibilities. These range from educational appointments to federal government decisions.

As predicted, United Russia topped the ballot with 54 per cent of the vote. Putin’s party claimed 343 of the 450 seats (up from 238 in 2011). The same four parties will form the Duma. The Yabloko and PARNAS parties, seen by voters as a token gesture of protest against the Kremlin, gained negligible support, with 2 per cent and 0.7 per cent, respectively.

It is ultimately Putin’s victory. In the eyes of the majority, he has restored Russia’s strength abroad, revived the defence industry and army, and reinvigorated the country with patriotism. The latter was accomplished via manipulation of the media, which has reinstated the West as the enemy and focused attention on foreign affairs at the expense of the social and economic agenda at home.

Still, with the low turnout, only 26 per cent of eligible Russians voted for Putin’s party. Though that was enough to tighten the president’s grip on the Duma, nationwide the elections paint a picture of a dejected Russia just beginning to feel discontent with the status quo. It is not yet enough to unseat Putin, but as the old Russian saying goes: a drop of water can cut through stone.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times