Monday 29 April 2013

Should writers be paid?

‘No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money,’ said Dr Johnson, but he could be a blockhead himself at times. It happens all the time. Most writers (poets, novelists) do most of their writing for no money. Some publish for no money – allowing their stories or poems to appear in magazines or newspapers without payment (on the grounds or excuse of ‘publicity’), or their work is put into print by the growing number of publishers who offer no advances.*

This is why payment for writers is a trickier issue than payment for plumbers, sheep-shearers and bankers. I don’t need a new book in the same way I need my blocked pipe mended. Stop paying sheep-shearers and they’ll down tools; writers, on the other hand, will continue to to write whether they’re paid or not.

For secondary writing (journalism, translation) and related work (readings, teaching) the situation is different, because these activities can be more clearly defined as jobs and are within the supply-and-demand marketplace. Organisations such as the Society of Authors and the NUJ publish recommended rates for author readings, editing, leading workshops, etc. They are not enforceable.

A few things from last week seem connected. (A) A Facebook thread initiated by an author who’d been invited to give a reading but told that because the reading was organised by a charity there’d be no payment (though tickets to the reading were being sold, not offered free). (B) A talk on Friday with a poet who’d been invited to read at a festival and asked to name a fee; who was then told a sad story and so offered to read for free and pay the train fare too; who a few days before the reading was told that 20% of any money from sales of books (books bought by the author from her publisher at 30% discount) would have to go to the venue in which the reading was to take place.

(C) A talk on Saturday night with an author, published mainstream here and abroad, who argued that authors by right should receive a living, or more-than-living, income, and that this should be determined by market forces. But, I said, there are so many authors, and so few of them selling in quantity … Because of the inefficiency of publishers, she countered; and yes, too many authors, so let’s get rid of lots of them. As for CBe, if I’m not making a decent profit then not only is it a failure but I’m aiding and abetting the system that denies authors their right to make a living from their writing. She was fierce, and I liked her, but this was at a party, with distractions and interruptions and drink.

(D) Sunday, drifting on the Guardian website, I happened upon this nugget: ‘When the banking crisis happened, the notion that we could trust everything to markets seemed to have run its course. The most surprising outcome was that we wanted to try to restore the same trust as quickly as possible.’ Yes, very much so. Way back in early 2009 I wrote (and published with CBe under the name Jack Robinson) a short book titled Recessional that was fuelled equally by anger (at the bankers and the politicians) and despair (that no way forward was being presented – this was before the Occupy movement – other than tightening the regulations** on the pre-existing and still continuing financial system). I still have both feelings.***

The man behind the Guardian nugget is Michael Sanden, a political philosopher whose recent book, The Moral Limits of Markets, I haven’t read but may do (paperbacked in May). His line (soundbite alert) is that we’ve moved from a market economy into a market society – in which values are replaced by prices, in which everything (kidneys, lungs, health-care, education, policing, literature, you name it) is for sale, in which oppositional or ameliorating initiatives subscribe to the same overall climate (children being paid to read books), and that maybe we should stand back and take a hard look. The implication being that it doesn’t have to be like this.

I’ll backtrack. The authors in (A) and (B): given that they have something (talent, reputation, achieved work) that someone else is asking them to exhibit, should they do this for free (thereby aiding and abetting, etc) or should they stick out for payment? This is their choice to make, and given that in both cases if they stick out for money they’ll probably be disinvited and replaced by someone else who is willing to read for free, it’s not much of a choice: read for free or don’t read. Market forces.

For most writers, the choice is the same: write for free or don’t write. Should writers be paid? Hell yes. But for as long as we ‘trust everything to markets’, it’s unlikely that more than a few writers will be paid. Meanwhile, many countries put writers in prison; the UK doesn’t. And in its pure form writing remains (like reading, walking, loving) resistant to incorporation into the market society – which is almost an argument for writers not being paid.

* Advances, surely, were originally sums of money advanced by publishers to authors to allow them a reasonable time without other income to write commissioned books. They became bargaining chips or auction bids. Publishers now not offering them are not necessarily doing a bad thing: the original concept is outdated, and there’s no good reason for them to sign up to the new one. (For the record – what record? – CBe does pay its authors small advances, usually £200; but then CBe is an old-fashioned kind of outfit.)

** Make a rule, people find ways around it. Tighten that rule, ditto. Tax avoidance and evasion, drugs laws – one side gets ahead, the other side overtakes. This is how regulation works.

*** Episode B, above, included talk about we do with anger. Aesthetically – watch any angry person – it’s not good. It’s associated with youth: Angry Young Men. I really do not want to move straight from that category to the one of Grumpy Old Men.

Thursday 25 April 2013

Faits divers

I’ve been to-ing and fro-ing a lot this week (The Five Simple Machines ran out of stock at the warehouse; for the reprint, the printer had to order in more paper for the yellow endsheets and then got ill and then the first batch was printed with the frontispiece in black-and-white, not colour*) – mostly on the Tube, lugging a family-size suitcase with boxes of books from west to east London, and alternating my reading between the free newspapers that get left in Tube carriages and the above book.

Two short pieces from last Wednesday’s Metro:

A drink-driving nurse has been jailed for five years after she killed a teenage cyclist – and drove off with his bike stuck to the front of her car. The 67-year-old, of Knedlington, East Yorkshire, had downed wine and gin and tonic, Hull crown court heard on Monday.

Mystery surrounds the sudden appearance of 56 sheep in a village. The animals are being looked after by villagers in Chiddingly, East Sussex, after fears they were dumped.

And two from Novels in Three Lines:

Scheid, of Dunkirk, fired three times at his wife. Since he missed every shot, he decided to aim at his mother-in-law, and connected.

After finding a suspect device on his doorstep, Friquet, a printer in Aubusson, filed a complaint against persons unknown.

Félix Fénéon (1861–1944) was a French anarchist, art critic, War Office clerk and magazine editor (he was the first French publisher of James Joyce). His book – translated by Luc Sante, published by NYRB - includes more than a thousand items of the above type which he contributed anonymously to the newspaper Le Matin in 1906. The French call these things faits divers; ‘They cover,’ says Luc Sante in his introduction, ‘the same subjects as the rest of the paper – crime, politics, ceremony, catastophe – but their individual narratives are compressed into a single frame, like photographs.’ They are journalism; as written by Fénéon – a very conscious stylist, acutely aware of the shape of each sentence – they are also a form of modernist literature. (And very much the type of thing CB editions goes for: see Markson and Robinson.)

Roland Barthes wrote an essay on the form. Between 2011 and earlier this year, the novelist Teju Cole wrote around a thousand faits divers (re-christened ‘Small Fates’) based on material he found in newspapers in Lagos; he posted many of them on Twitter, and he writes about the form here.

* All sorted now. Please carry on buying the book. If you’d like to come to Daunt Books in Holland Park, London W11, on 9 May to hear Todd McEwen reading from the book, email me (

Sunday 21 April 2013

‘The moment when . . .’

In the year before Gilbert Adair died (in December 2011), we talked about a book proposal he’d sent to his editor at Faber. One of the provisional titles was ‘The Middle of Nowhere’ – alluding to a moment in the book when the train in which the writer is travelling stops exactly there: the landscape offers no clue as to location, no one offers information as to how long the train will be stopped, even the time of day is indeterminate. The book is made up of other such moments: of the dozen in the draft proposal, I’ll offer just two here, as I feel that really they are still Gilbert’s property: ‘The moment you realise absolutely no one is going to laugh at the joke you’re telling’, ‘The moment when, phoning a bank or utility service, and following all kinds of recorded instructions, you hear a real human voice’.

In the proposed book, each moment was to be described (savoured, teased out) in a single extended paragraph of Gilbert Adair’s exquisite prose. Faber turned down the idea. I loved it, and sent Gilbert a list of some of my own suggested moments. Here are some of them. Many have in common the experience of embarrassment – a thing the English do well and on which the Francophile Gilbert Adair would have written wonderfully.

The moment when, after just telling an author how much you liked his book, you realise you’ve just been addressing the author of an entirely other book

The moment when, driving up the sliproad to the M3 en route to a long weekend in Devon, you suddenly can’t remember turning off the gas when you took the coffee pot off the cooker

The moment when, while knowing another drink would not be a good idea, you also know you’re going to have one anyway

The moment when, after several years during which you’ve vaguely wondered why a friend never comes round to visit and have presumed he’s just too busy, he tells you that he can’t bear being in your house

The moment when, after enjoying a piece of music by a composer you love, the radio presenter thanks you for listening to such-and-such by another composer entirely, whom you’ve always disliked

The moment you realise you’re older than you thought, and hurry on

The moment when, getting on the Tube for a journey of at least ten stops, you realise you should have gone for a pee earlier

The moment when, having avoided being knocked over by a bus by a matter of millimetres, you realise that could so easily have been the end, but wasn’t

The moment when, arriving at some social occasion you had presumed to be quite formal, you realise you are dressed completely wrong

The moment when some official tells you that you can’t do something, and although the rule is utterly fatuous and maybe even the official knows this too, you know there is no point in arguing

The moment when, while stuck in a traffic jam on the way to some social event you sincerely want to attend, you realise that by the time you arrive only the drunks and the laggards will be there

The moment you look at a photograph of yourself (which others say is good) and cannot bear to look again

The moment you learn that an idiot you were at school with is now not only earning ten times your income but is married to a beautiful and intelligent woman

The moment when, having slammed the door and gone out to buy cigarettes and a pint of milk, you realise you have left your house keys on your desk

The moment when, without any serious expectation and certainly without any calculated manoeuvres, you find yourself alone with the most attractive person at the party

The moment you’re informed you’re on a shortlist for some prize but you know you’re not going to win, you’re just there for the sake of the spectator sport

The moment, after wandering into some church where you are charmed by the music and ritual and incense and the whole shebang, when you are greeted by the priest who naturally assumes you share his belief in his god

The moment when you realise that a conversation at the next table you cannot help but overhear is really a lot more interesting than the conversation you are engaged in at your own table

The moment when, expecting the arrival of your lover or long-lost friend, the doorbell rings and you open the door to the man who’s come to read the electricity meter

The moment you are given a present and told you must open it now, in the presence of the giver

The moment when sitting on the loo and having just evacuated, you realise there’s no toilet paper

Monday 15 April 2013

Jeffrey Archer offers me a slice of his birthday cake

Today, to the London Book Fair, which is a disorientating experience. I mean this literally: the further I went in, the more I lost any sense of direction, of knowing which way to turn to get to Hall 2, the exit, the toilets, the place (H150: such eloquence; I also have an interest in U640) where I’m supposed to be meeting someone. (I’m told that gambling casinos are specifically designed to have this effect, to entice punters to lay out more money as they search in vain for the exit.) It resembles a vast airport departures lounge, except for this: though there are tens of thousands of books, no one is buying them, in the sense that you buy a book in a bookshop, let alone reading them; they are there only for display. Nor is anyone actually departing for anywhere. Everyone (except for the stray authors, translators, the people who actually write the stuff, who look very out of place) is dressed for the office. Random events take place. Jeffrey Archer offers me a slice of his birthday cake. He wants to get rid of it, he doesn’t want to take it home, he says as much. I pass. A few yards away, Gabriel Josipovici and Boyd Tonkin are talking about the shortlist for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize: Gabriel is talking straightforwardly but I shy away when he makes general statements, however true, because in this context they come across as mission statements, the prevailing genre. Next along, Mark Lawson is asking Lionel Shriver about the autobiographical background to her new novel: the thing she dislikes about these publicity things, she says, is that the focus is on her and it should be on the book (which isn’t published till next month; and she’s not exactly shy about appearing on TV and me-me journalism: ‘popcorn at 10.30pm on the dot’, she wrote last year in a Guardian series in which writers ‘reveal the minutiae of their daily routines’, dental flossing too).

Outside, the steps are crowded with smokers: a little disaffection here, publicity and rights assistants in very tight skirts discussing office politics and the stress of their jobs. Overheard: ‘But that’s no way to run a publishing company.’ Taxis are waved in and out by a man dressed for an Arctic blizzard. The sun is shining.

Thursday 11 April 2013

This is not a desk job

Yesterday to the Royal College of Art, lugging books, to hear Todd McEwen (The Five Simple Machines) talking on Cary Grant’s suit in North by Northwest. Students do not buy books. Then to meet a man with a book in a pub, then joined by Tony Lurcock and on (still lugging books) to the Finnish Institute for Tony’s talk on his No Particular Hurry. Middle-aged Finns and semi-Finns do buy books. Late supper. Today to printer to collect boxes of books, then lug them over to Central Books in Hackney Wick (above, taken from the overground station). Then to Southbank to see CW, then bar with A and Todd, then lug 1,500 book fair flyers to Poetry London for mailing out with their next issue. Tomorrow to the Albion Beatnik bookshop in Oxford for party for Tony Lurcock’s book. My father (the man in the rear-view mirror in the photo on the website home page) always wanted to be farmer, tramping the fields; today I felt like an urban version of this.

Monday 1 April 2013

The floating bookshop

Word on the Water is a 1920s Dutch barge whose interior is fitted out as a bookshop, inclusive of children’s area. There’s a woodburning stove and two resident cats. It’s one of those things you want there to be, and here it is.

It plies the Regent’s Canal in London; moored this week by Victoria Park in Hackney, it will probably move next to Broadway Market and then to Angel, Camden, Paddington . . . It’s been a long winter, and little book-buying takes place until the temperature rises above 8 degrees – any colder than that, and people walk by to keep warm, don’t pause to browse. Mulled wine has featured over the past months, but as the weather improves the repertoire expands: singers, musicians, sword-swallowers, etc. Poets, even. For three weeks in the summer the barge will be part of London’s floating market (the top pic shows the boat at last year’s market).

To date the stock has been mostly second-hand, but of a kind more varied and more interesting than that of your average charity shop. Paddy is interested in stocking more new books, and doing more book launches (for once that word seems appropriate), and from this Easter weekend the barge is stocking a selection of new CBe titles. You can check the location of Word on the Water on its Facebook page or Twitter (@wordonthewater).