When author Richard Flanagan finished his latest novel, relative poverty forced him to contemplate getting a job in the mines in northern Australia. His Booker Prize win has spared him a life underground for the time being, but he did not waste the opportunity to acknowledge in his speech that â€œwriting is a hard life for so many writers.â€
And itâ€™s only getting worse, as Elizabeth Renzetti wrote wrote recently in these pages. Twelve thousand dollars â€“ thatâ€™s the figure the Writersâ€™ Union of Canada estimates as the average annual income writers make from their writing in this country. I remember what itâ€™s like to live on $12,000. You live in a shabby apartment furnished with hand-me-downs from your parents and garbage-picked gems, you allot $25 a week for food and you wear a borrowed dress when youâ€™re invited to a gala fundraising dinner for writers at a fancy hotel. You take the subway there. If you are in your late 20s, as I was then, itâ€™s fine, you make do because you are doing what you love and most people donâ€™t have that extraordinary privilege.
You donâ€™t squander that privilege. You work your ass off. And hopefully youâ€™re rewarded for that effort. It worked for me, as it did for many writers of my generation, perhaps the last for whom it was possible to live off their writing. In Britain, writersâ€™ incomes have fallen by 30 per cent in the past eight years, collapsing to what one Guardian headline called â€œabjectâ€ levels.
So many writers I know are looking back at this point in mid-life and saying, â€œI had a good run.â€ A good run saw us earn increasingly bigger if still modest advances. (Yes, $75,000 sounds like a lot, but when it takes five years to complete a book and your agent is taking a cut of 15 per cent, youâ€™re still below the poverty line if this is your sole source of income.) Publishers were once able to invest in a career, with income from bestsellers offsetting the less sensational works in a catalogue. Now, every book has to be a winner. If you fail to earn out your advance through sales, your next advance will be lower, or perhaps, as has become increasingly the case among my mid-career contemporaries, you will lose your publishing home.
Writing seems to have become one of the few careers where the more experienced and proficient you become over the years, the less you are compensated. And the humiliations of this are great. It does become difficult to uphold belief in the worth of your work. And since this is work intrinsically tied to oneâ€™s sense of self, it becomes difficult to uphold a sense of self-worth. It takes ego and adrenalin to work in solitude, through years of confusion and uncertainty, in the writing of a book. If you donâ€™t believe in it, no one else will. Of course, there is reward in art for artâ€™s sake, but few can sustain morale, motivation or mortgage on an income of private aesthetic fulfilment.