Amazing though it may sound to anyone who does it for a living, writing books continues to be thought of as a glamorous occupation by many people, up there with being a pop star or running an Internet business. One indication of the glamorous image of writers is the appetite of film companies for bringing the lives of writers to the screen, the latest and most unlikely candidate yet for this treatment being James Joyce, in a production starring Ewan McGregor and Jude Law, scheduled for next spring.
From a distance, it’s easy to understand why one might look enviously on a writing life. Writers are part of that tiny section of the community who earn their living by doing what they want to do rather than what an employer orders them to do. They can get up late in the day; they are the ultimate entrepreneurs, following their own calling and moulding their products according to a personal vision. Almost alone in advanced capitalist society, they are able to see themselves reflected in what they have produced.
Writing also answers the profound human need for self-expression. We can be ourselves on a page as we are rarely allowed to be ourselves in society. A book is a distillation of our sporadic minds, a record of its most vital manifestations. Writing is largely made up of rewriting, during which original thoughts – bare, inarticulate strands – are enriched and nuanced over time. They may thereby appear on a page according to the logic and aesthetic order they demand, as opposed to suffering the distortion effected by conversation, with its limits on the corrections or additions one can make before enraging even the most patient companion.
Then there is the glamour of the writer’s traditional vices, alcohol and sex, which are, in literary mythology, understood to feed the creative well-springs. Whereas the rest of us are taught to be embarrassed about our drunkenness and marital breakdowns, for writers these are the natural accompaniments to creativity. Genius is given licence.
The reality of the writing life is far more prosaic. Books have been produced despite alcohol and sex, not because of them. “The writer must live soberly like a bourgeois,” wrote Flaubert.
But even that can be hard. Poverty and literature have a shamefully long joint history. The list of major authors whose lives were blighted by financial anxieties contradicts any comfortable assumptions of a link between artistic merit and economic reward. In part, the difficulty of making even a modest living from one’s pen stems from the extraordinarily large number of books that an author is obliged to sell. To earn £20,000, an author whose book retails for £10 would – at a typical royalty rate of 10 per cent – have to sell 20,000 copies. Most serious works sell no more than 5,000-6,000.
Then there is the difficulty of remaining productive over long periods. Few writers are able to turn out a decent book a year: three or four years is more typically necessary, and even this rate is unlikely to go on over an entire working life. An element of chance lurks behind the birth of masterpieces, which aggravates financial anxieties: it is one thing to be poor and convinced of the worth of one’s work, but far harder to combine poverty with an awareness that a book isn’t going well.
Writing is unfortunately rather less generous towards mediocrity than other professions. A mediocre solicitor can do useful work and enjoy a comfortable salary and the respect of the community. So may a mediocre hairdresser, radio producer or travel agent. The mediocre writer, on the other hand – and few writers can entirely escape the suspicion that this is what they are – risks a fate both more poverty-stricken and full of self-loathing. Which is not helped by the degree of schadenfreude others tend to feel at writers’ troubles; it seems as though many people aspire to literary works enough to be rather cheered by the spectacle of writers who have run aground.
To escape the poverty and attendant anxieties, writers have always had to look outside for help. Until the middle of the 18th century this meant a patron – an aristocrat or prosperous merchant – who would dispense lodgings, dinners, introductions and cash in exchange for flattering dedications. Hobbes, Dryden, Pope, Fielding, Smollett and Gibbon were among the many beneficiaries of the system. But it wasn’t perfect. Macaulay judged that it led to a degrading “traffic in praise” and left a writer “in morals something between a panderer and a beggar”. In a letter to the Earl of Chesterfield (who had refused him help at a vulnerable point in his career), Samuel Johnson remarked bitterly: “Is not a patron, My Lord, one who looks with unconcern on a man struggling for life in the water and when he has reached ground encumbers him with help?” The birth of a mass readership towards the end of the 18th century signalled the end of the patronage system, which was replaced by the writer’s modern reliance on book sales, supplemented by a number of other income trickles: newspapers, broadcasting and academia. But it is never enough.
Financial anxieties are, according to Cyril Connolly, the greatest obstacle to good writing: “What ruins young writers is over- production. The need for money is what causes over-production; therefore writers must have private incomes.” Even in 1938 that would have sounded flip and snobbish. In Enemies of Promise Connolly had another idea: “I should like to see a custom introduced of readers who are pleased with a book sending the author some small cash token: anything between half-a-crown and a hundred pounds [£2,000 in 1999]. Authors would then receive what their publishers give them as a flat rate and their “tips” from grateful readers in addition.”
Even with these tips, there are other problems with writing, chief among them isolation. Writers lose their social skills over the years: forced into an office, they become like rabbits trapped in car headlights. It is striking just how few writers have serious second careers. Despite the wise idea that one might write and, for instance, be a doctor or insurance salesman, few writers actually do anything besides write. Much of the problem lies in the difficulty of finding work that complements a writing life. A second occupation may benefit writing but too often it merely threatens to supplant it completely. Most jobs require hours that make writing impossible; John Stuart Mill would today have a hard time finding anything as congenial as his five mornings a week at the East India Company. Work at the BBC or within academia – once standard options for writers – has become impossibly competitive and consequently no more secure than writing itself. In this context, one can see why, though it may not be ideal, journalism remains one of the more realistic ways to pay for one’s writing.
Then again, there is generally a consensus that writing is not a career but a vocation, about as rewarding and perilous as climbing Everest. A young man once asked Andre Gide if he should become a writer. “Only if you must,” replied the great man wearily – which continues to be the wisest way to regard this most unglamorous of human obsessions.