Skip to main content

26th October 2014

Poverty as bleak as our threatened literary outlook.

Joe Evans discusses poverty and other essentials for the modern writer

“Stop the press!”… “No seriously stop the press! It turns out writing just isn’t financially viable anymore.” Figures this year published in the Observer revealed that average wages for full time writers in the United Kingdom have reached a new low.

Nestled comfortably (or rather sat on the floor of a freezing flat because the meter needs topping up) below the Rowntree Foundations minimum income standard, this strikes a blow to our apparently culturally simulative society.

With higher and easier incomes to be made elsewhere it would seem the question is, where is the incentive to write? Luckily I have some, and financial reward isn’t my goal.

So, on filling in the Rowntree Foundations brilliantly titled ‘do you earn enough?’ questionnaire (a question that to me suggests not knowing the answer is in itself an answer) the vast majority of working writers will be told they need more money to survive. The median income for a writer in 2013 being revealed as £11000 p/a highlights the deceptive nature of the literary industry.

The world of writing seems clouded by celebrity, with household names such as J.K. Rowling and Dan Brown accumulating massive personal fortunes through their generally average publications. It is true that lesser-known writers can stumble into this world. Zadie Smith, a Man Booker winner, reportedly received a £250000 advance on the unwaveringly brilliant debut White Teeth, however for most, figures like this are unthinkable.

The world of the working writer it would seem then is one spent fighting impossible odds.

It will of course be argued, by the moronic corners of society, that “a writer must starve for his art.” While this is a romantic image, it is the twenty-first century and it turns out recent humanitarian research will tell you, poverty pisses people off.

While it is true that greats like George Orwell struggled to earn £3 a week from his journalism in the 1930s, it is now 2014. We shouldn’t impose poverty on people who contribute genuinely exceptional work and demonstrate immeasurable skill. Or, in ‘civilised Britain’, impose poverty on anyone really. Writers need to eat, and even John Milton’s considerably successful muse couldn’t help fill his gut.

Author and journalist Damian Barr’s contribution to the argument is telling: “It depresses me that even the crappiest footballer is paid more than our finest literary novelists.” Clearly we (the collective we; because it’s our society and our role to cultivate it) have a lack of comprehension of what constitutes ‘skill’. The marketing director from whose demented psyche the ever-riveting ‘Compare the Meerkat’ was born was last year paid, based again on averages, £68245. Susan Hill, author of the stunning The Woman in Black which spawned a multimillion-pound movie featuring Daniel Radcliffe (I told you we can’t comprehend skill), is, according to her tweets, “still broke.”

During his time as Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove will have earned a basic wage of £67060 p/a. All this while forcing education of the arts further into the mire and championing ‘practical skills’ such as Maths and Science. High-paid governmental figures suppressing the education that inspires future artistic output only serves to further alienate the world of the working writer from that of anyone able to earn and prosper.

While the friendly face of diverse education Michael Gove is no longer in the role, I hold little hope for the arts under his successor, Nicky Morgan. While only time will tell in terms of results, as a former Jurisprudence student with a background in mergers and acquisitions I can’t help but feel the arts are once again in totally unengaged and uninspiring hands.

When it comes to fruition that a writer can earn less money than a waiter* (average pay £11930 p/a) it is no surprise that active pursuit of unashamed financial gain is becoming more prominent.

In the previously mentioned Observer article, literary agent Jonny Geller attempted to calm the storm stating that financial gain can still be attained from writing however only from “projects that are pretty certain to work.” He goes on to say that he advises the writers he represents to “stay flexible” in order to adapt to what is selling.

How depressing an outlook has the industry appropriated that an agent will openly state that he encourages his clients to write not what they feel important but what will turn a profit? This outlook will merely serve to saturate the literary scene with what a readership is told they want.

Apparently what the readership want is 50 Shades of Grey, which sold 5.3 million copies in the UK. Hands up who wants another bestseller like that one? As happened to the music industry, expression or experimentation will become buzzwords in boardroom meetings on the agenda of which is how to artificially reflect them.

The issue highlighted here though is not the greed of our authors. Will Self drew to attention, in a feature for the Guardian, that the number of British writers who are able to comfortably earn a living from writing could easily be fit in “a back bedroom.” The issue is that the treatment of writers has forced them into methods of survival and that these methods of survival serve to starve the literary evolution of our artists.

Writing, and to an extent even reading, are still shamefully considered frivolous pursuits. They don’t provide instant gratification, they don’t directly further a reader’s (or apparently a writer’s) finances, and books aren’t easily consumed. All of these things make them unpopular in a society of quickly palatable information and disposable commodities. This is the cause to the effect that is undervalued writers.

Writing simply doesn’t fit the twenty-first century template for what is ‘useful’ and by this logic it stands to reason that a marketing executive should earn more. Christ, how depressing.

*DISCLAIMER: This is in no way a slight at waiting as a professional. It is a far more noble pursuit than that of a Marketing Director. One delivers what is ordered and then allows you to consume in your own time. The other delivers what nobody in human history has ordered and forces it down your throat. I’ll allow you to decipher that insinuation.

More Coverage

Colour and community: How a Fallowfield gardening project is making the community blossom

Native flowers, wild grasses and garden herbs — community group ‘Fallowfield Tree Bases’ are planting more than new bulbs but rather sowing the seeds for a more vibrant and collaborative neighbourhood.

Activist Peter Singer speaks out on student protests and veganism

Animal rights activist Peter Singer sits down with the Mancunion to discuss a need for greater student activism and non-violent protests despite their controversy

How Mayfield Park is turning an abandoned space into a Mancunian heartland

Mayfield Park is quickly turning a once abandoned space into a core, green part of Manchester’s urban life. But how did the site’s developers turn a once disregarded lot into a natural Mancunian paradise?

How helping an older neighbour had given me much more than a chance to volunteer

As we grow older, we grow more detached from the world, often without choice. However, Manchester tackles issues of isolation and the generational gap with its community programmes, sparking life back into the retirement years.