Monday, July 15, 2013

On not making a living

For me writing remains, at a profound level, significantly about not having a career.

(Alison Croggon)

So this is the time of the year when I pick a fight with Simon Wilson. Although ‘fight’ isn’t quite the right word, and besides I had honestly decided not to – after he wrote that silly essay of his on writers who waste time tweeting instead of submitting great work to his magazine – seeing as Ashleigh Young had drafted a perfect response, and so much more gracious than mine would have been. But then Wilson wrote back, and now suddenly my shoes are full of little stones that need picking out one by one.

A peasant. I refuse to tell you where this is from.

With all the talk we do about the present and future of the creative industries, I’m constantly amazed at how tenuous a grasp so many respected commentators seem to have of how they work. Writing for the Guardian last month, Suzanne Moore stated the following:
My children have been brought up in a world where they have to compete with those who will work for free. It is only a matter of time until we will all be asked to do the same. And I refuse.
This makes intuitive sense, doesn’t it? And we all know about the abuse of the institution of the internship. But can we really envisage a world in which the entirety of the media operates like The Huffington Post, cycling through an endless supply of unpaid labourers, without there being at the other end someone who will pay for creative work? And if we credit this scenario, do we really think that the solution is for individual writers to refuse to work for free, to withdraw that labour?

This shallow and demoralising apocalypticism is an all-too-regular feature of such debates, and it’s not surprising that Moore appeals in her piece to Jaron Lanier, a keen and astute observer of cultural phenomena who yet at times appears oblivious to the very existence of economics and politics. Thus he is quoted second-hand stating ‘that the internet may destroy the middle classes’. The internet. Not business, or capital. Just the technology, abstracted from society. As if such a thing even existed.

More mundanely, the reality is that exploitation in the creative industries (and everywhere else) existed well before the internet, and that new technologies have furnished capitalists, as they always do, with a new and broader set of tools with which to carry it out. The outcome of this tension – between technologies that allow to disseminate creative works in new ways, the desire of creators to find a public for their work and earn a living, and the interests pressing to extract a greater profit from the industry – is by no means pre-determined, but what is certain is that there will never be legitimate grounds to turn back and declare that ‘the internet has destroyed the middle classes’. Computer networks have no agency. Equally, insisting that people have a moral obligation to opt out (‘I refuse’) ignores the systemic nature of this struggle, which requires a collective – therefore political – solution. Quite simply (although it’s far from a simple task), workers need to show solidarity and organise. ‘Twas ever thus.

Which takes me, laboriously as ever, to Simon Wilson’s latest homily. But first, a disclaimer: I was asked to write book reviews for Metro on two occasions. The first time, I was a bit tardy in replying and by the time I did the book editor had found someone else; the second time, I turned down the assignment due to a conflict of interest that probably only existed in my head. I did conduct a brief interview for the magazine last year, for which I received no credit (this I accept was a honest mistake) but also no compensation*. I suppose it was silly of me to assume that there would be a budget line for such a relatively small job. I should have checked. This is also to say that while I’m certainly not one of the ‘top writers’ that Wilson calls to task, I do a fair amount of writing and I’m open to working for a mainstream magazine, given the right conditions and remuneration.

(* I've since been informed that the magazine's policy is to pay for such work.)

Briefly, then: if the first iteration of Wilson’s argument was that ‘top writers’ are too busy tweeting to produce the kind of bold and challenging work that he’d be happy to publish in Metro, the second one – even more strangely – is that working for money is nothing less than a duty which those same writers are neglecting. Why, asks Wilson, oh why
some of our best writers choose not to be paid for their work, by posting online or publishing in small independent outlets, when they could submit to a publication that will pay them?
Elegantly, this is the inverse of Suzanne Moore’s argument: we should not only refuse to work for free, but always and only work for money. If we don’t, implies Wilson, this will hurt the good businesses that are still willing to pay for quality writing. In fact, discerning readers and writers are in this together:
Culturally engaged, educated, participating members of society do not read, watch, listen and most of all, buy, the cultural forms for which they are the core market. It’s not the fault of the Philistines. They never bought any of this stuff or cared about it anyway. It’s us. We don’t support it the way we used to. There are lots of reasons for this, but one of them is that we can all get so much really good free stuff online – we can all feel connected to the debate without having to pay for it – that we value the old forms much less. One small example: I write a polemic in Metro lambasting writers for not submitting long-form feature ideas to the magazine, and it gets a quiet response. We post it online, and it creates a great flurry of comments – on Twitter.

There are many things happening in that paragraph, and not all of them are bad. It’s true that people who used to support the publications that carried quality writing have partly stopped doing so (case in point: I’m no longer a subscriber to The Listener). Many of us can vouch for the very reason that Wilson adduces: there’s so much we can read online for free. But it’s not that we are stingy: it’s that much of what’s written online is better. To take Ashleigh Young’s points a little further: one of the best essays of the decade, on the national event of the decade, was written on a blog; the best columnist in the country is a blogger; the best political commentary (as opposed to reporting) is to be found online, on sites too numerous to mention. Poetry, fiction and creative non-fiction thrive on the New Zealand web. While they are sometimes not as polished or technically accomplished, or the product of what Wilson would likely regard as our ‘top writers’, I would strongly argue that these kinds of online writing are consistently bolder, hence more relevant, than what one reads in print.

(Lest this claim is turned into a strawman: there are, of course, exceptions going both ways. But my single main complaint is this: that in spite of the book pages and the talent available to our mainstream magazines, together they give the picture of a country with little or no intellectual ferment, that runs on self-satisfaction, as if metaphorically stuck on page 94 of The Listener, listening to Bill Ralston drone on about 'life'. Whilst, with all its flaws, the country that one can piece together from the blogs and the independent journals and magazines is, if absolutely nothing else, alive. It's also a great deal more diverse.)

As a nation and as a culture, we have two problems: to produce and disseminate bold and relevant writing; and to sustain an industry the remunerates the best and most committed writers. But it’s very important to understand that these are two separate problems. To suggest that writers are leaving good money on the table because they are ‘satisfied with tweeting’ is grotesque. Wilson would be much better advised to turn the question inwards: seeing as I am in the enviable position of possessing a budget, why is it that I can’t attract the best writing in the country? How can I reach out to the writers that would rather ‘write online, or for independent publications’? Is it possible that my idea of what constitutes a ‘top writer’ is flawed? I just hired Matthew fucking Hooton, whose mediocre opinions these days can't be accessed in any more than twelve other publications as well as on the radio. Why didn’t I spend a week on the phone with Scott Hamilton instead, begging him to become one of my star columnists? And why am I not wearing any pants?

Really, though: those I outlined above are two separate problems. 1,500 words ago, I was going to make the post about that; about how we forgo the money sometimes, or some of the money, in exchange for the freedom to experiment with form; for the immediacy of the feedback; for the ear of a sensitive editor who doesn’t berate us for tweeting; or because we don’t know how to make that transition (in which case you should offer us guidance); or because we see the mindless dross that paid writers put out, especially in that godawful genre that is the New Zealand column, for no other reason that you, the editors (although Metro in this is better than most, to be fair), have little or no expectations of the people who fill those particular roles; or because we know that freelance rates haven’t increased in twenty years, and so we figured from the start that this wasn’t going to be a viable career, and so we carved out a space some other way, and now we are fond of that space, of the things it allows us to do.

For the most part what writers want, if they are serious about writing, is to find ways to do more of the writing they want. Becoming professionals isn’t the only way. It may not even be the best way. Not in all conditions. Not at all costs.

Alison Croggon’s beautiful essay on not having a career, to which the title of mine is a homage, is offered in lieu of a closing paragraph.

Edit: In between my writing this and my publishing this, the very good folks at Pantograph Punch have also waded in, and I neglected to mention it. Do read the piece though.

Speaking of good magazines, the Winter issue of Overland is out and it's very good.