The image of the penniless writer struggling in a garret is a powerful and seductive one. But is it true? And is poverty a necessary spur to creativity?
Fifty-two years ago Cyril Connolly attempted to answer these questions by asking his contemporaries. Now the exercise has been repeated, with a selection of today’s writers asked the same six questions. Their answers are revealed in The Cost of Letters, published on 1 May, 1998. The questions set by Connolly covered levels of income, the importance of subsidy, and ways of escaping the literary poverty trap.
The nearest the two generations of writers come to a consensus is in answer to Connolly’s first question, “How much does a writer need to live on?” Nearly all agree that the answer should be, according to Julian Barnes, “The same as everyone else, that’s to say, anything from a monkish five thousand pounds p.a. to a well-healed professional’s one hundred thousand pounds”. But there are qualifications. In 1946 these included money for, as Dylan Thomas put it, “luxurious necessities”. “I want a lot, but whether I need what I want is another question,” he wrote. Today’s writers echo his artistry. “It depends on temperament, social expectation, drug use, number of children and so on,” writes Barnes.
A L Kennedy points out the necessary, non-deductible expenses connected with the work, which might include “eye-catching frocks, designer jackets, cocaine and alcohol”. But it is left to Hilary Mantel to make the case for excess: “In the ideal world, all published writers would be as rich as Croesus. They could then indulge in dissipation and eccentricity on a scale the public has a right to expect”. Asked whether a “serious writer” could earn a living wage by writing, and if so, how, Connolly, and today’s questioners met a more varied response. “I am not sure I know any serious writers. I do not like to think how they earn their living,” writes Mantel.
While writers from both ages suggest writing more commercially, or waiting for Hollywood to knock on the door, Melvyn Bragg gives the simple answer to the question “How do they do it?”: “The public wants to buy their books in sufficient quantities”.
But should literary endeavour fail to provide a writer with sufficient income, what, asked Connolly, would be a suitable second occupation? Connolly’s own answer was succinct: “A rich wife,” he wrote. John Betjeman had his own view: “I would like to live on a small country branch line... at all costs avoid an advertising agency where you will either have to write lies or embellish facts in which you are not interested; such work is of the devil. Journalism is a better way out for weak characters, such as I am, who are slaves to nicotine and drink”. Fay Weldon, however, disagrees with Betjeman over advertising. She writes: “Advertising seems preferable to journalism. The writer out of journalism finds the leap from selling product to selling ideas comparatively easy”.
Of today’s authors in Britain, Jenny Diski cites lighthouse keeper as her preferred option, with a secondary line in “monk/nun gate keeper, game keeper, poacher, kept woman/man, lollipop person. Otherwise it looks as if comedian, movie star and supermodel are the best career bets at the moment”.
But does the art suffer when a writer focuses on other activities, asked Connolly? Opinions were divided, with some arguing for the need to have contact with society in order to inform the art. But Michael Holroyd argued that “we have a perfectly good grasp of the world”. The only profession encouraged to seek concurrent employment, he wrote, was MP’s, “They do this, they tell us, not for the money but to gain information”.
Finally, Connolly asked, are you satisfied with your solution to the problem, and what advice do you have for young writers? Few were content with their solution, although many acknowledged their good fortune. “Every morning as I sit down at my desk I can’t quite believe how lucky I am not to have to go to an office and to told to do something dull by a man in a suit”, wrote Dalrymple. As advice to young writers, Michael Holroyd was brutally honest. “Why should I help what may be a talented rival into an already over-crowded market place?” In response to the same question, Will Self raised the notion of the Bergson Grant: “Henry Bergson - you will recall - offered the eminently sensible solution to this apparent ‘problem’: young writers should be offered bursaries on the strict understanding that they undertook not to write anything at all”. Hilary Mantel offers practical advice: “There must be sufficient money for champagne to cheer up friends whose work is rejected, and for postage stamps to return unwanted manuscripts”.
Some things have improved for writers. The respondents were each given
a two hundred pound book token.
(Dan Glaister is a critic and freelance writer)
from Postscript, Summer 1998: 13-14.