How much?

Ian Hamilton

  • Guide to Literary Prizes, 1998 edited by Huw Molseed
    Book Trust, 38 pp, £3.99, May 1998, ISBN 0 85353 475 6
  • The Cost of Letters: A Survey of Literary Living Standards edited by Andrew Holgate and Honor Wilson-Fletcher
    W Magazine, 208 pp, £2.00, May 1998, ISBN 0 9527405 9 1

One of the most amusing – or, if you prefer it, one of the most heartwarming – episodes in the history of early Modernism centres on Ezra Pound’s attempt to ‘liberate’ T.S. Eliot from his clerk’s job at Lloyds Bank. In 1921, Pound started up a fund called Bel Esprit and set about trying to persuade 30 subscribers to fork out ten pounds each: £300 p.a. would, he believed, enable Eliot to forsake his regular employment – employment which, as Pound saw it, represented ‘the greatest waste in ang. sax. letters at the moment’.

In the course of Pound’s undertaking, there were several comic moments, and none more so than when he began to talk about extending the scope of Bel Esprit: ‘It doesn’t stop with Eliot,’ he trumpeted. ‘He is merely the first. It is the restart of civilisation.’ William Carlos Williams, working fairly happily as a doctor in New Jersey, was to be Pound’s second escapee. Marianne Moore might be his third. At one stage, he envisaged annual liberations – assuming, of course, that a sufficient supply of stifled talent was available. The authors for whom these fervent plans were being laid would, Pound was convinced, be deeply grateful.

In 1921, though, Pound’s main concern was Eliot. By freeing Eliot, he would strike a major blow for European culture. To this end, he began firing off belligerent circulars. The line was: put your money where your mouth is. ‘Must restart civilisation: people who say they care, DON’t care unless they care to the extent of £5 in the spring and £5 in the autumn, ridiculous to say they do, if they won’t run to that, can’t expect a civilisation or grumble if they don’t.’

As for Eliot’s feelings on the matter: the whole thing threatened to become more of an embarrassment than a release. Although he certainly disliked his job, he was not so sure about giving it up on the basis of a single year’s subscription. For him, the garret option was unappealing: ‘I cannot accept one bedroom as being liberty in comparison with my present life,’ he said. For £600 a year he might consider going freelance, but even on that he would be nervous.

Eliot’s bank salary at this time was in the region of £300 a year. We can perhaps assume therefore that his real doubts were to do with Ezra’s staying power, or with the staying power of Bel Esprit’s subscribers. Year One would be fine but what about Years Two and Three? Pound talked of five-year plans but was this merely talk? And there was another complication. Even as Pound toiled on his behalf, Eliot was seeking backers for a magazine he hoped to found: the Criterion (or the London Review, as he at one point thought to call it). Pound’s lobbying for Bel Esprit could easily get in the way of these fund-raising efforts. Pound, who had mixed but mostly hostile feelings towards his friend’s plans (after all, magazines were what he, Pound, did), was baffled and annoyed by Eliot’s reluctance to be bullied into freedom.

The Bel Esprit scheme fizzled out, and Eliot stayed on at the bank. Not everyone in the literary world shared Pound’s passionate conviction that artists ought to be protected from the need to make ends meet. Arnold Bennett, for example, did not believe ‘that this kind of appeal can be logically justified. According to my gospel, the first duty of a man is to earn his living; he must be an artist afterwards.’

Nowadays, when the topic of subsidised literature comes up, we are likely to hear much the same two points of view expressed: the Pound-view and the Bennett-view. Bennetts will contend that artists are not owed a living: indeed, their art might well benefit from contact with some low-brow life experience. Pounds, on the other hand, will speak of such contact as contamination. In their gospel, artists are not ordinary people – and is it not usually well-heeled second-raters who belittle the impoverished first-rate?

Somewhere in the middle of all this we find the writer. For him or her, such arguments will always be two-sided. On the one hand, writers want to earn a living from their writings. On the other, they are pretty sure they can’t. Which is worse, though: to muddle through somehow, pursued by duns, or to go grovelling for hand-outs? Subsidies rarely come unattended by some measure of personal embarrassment. There are usually forms to be filled, confessions to be made, samples of work in progress to be set before committees – committees, quite often, made up of fellow writers. ‘Why should I vote for X?’ such arbiters might say. ‘He’s no more broke than I am and is certainly less gifted. And did he not scathingly review my second book?’

For some writers, being embarrassed is not so bad as being broke, which in itself can be embarrassing. The Arts Council is not, I fancy, short of applicants for its various bursaries and grants. At the same time, though, most writers would probably rather win a prize than put in for state hand-outs. And happily there is no shortage of book prizes to be had. According to the Book Trust’s Guide, over a hundred such awards are out there to be vied for, with prize money totalling just under half a million pounds. And this figure does not include prizes which are paid in ecus, Irish pounds or US dollars. Nor does it take notice of pawnable baubles such as golden daggers, bookends, medals and the like.

The Guide to Literary Prizes, 1998 is not just about the Bookers and the Whitbreads. Most of the prizes listed here I ‘d never heard of: and some of these, it must be said, are fairly hefty. Indeed, a versatile wordsmith could, by canny targeting, rack up a decent sum. Not only that: he could also find himself lured into challenging new genres, new subjects and new styles. What about ‘an outstanding contribution to mountain literature’ (£2000)? Or ‘a book that most imaginatively promotes the understanding of conservation of the natural environment’ (£5000)? Or a work ‘which reflects the essential qualities of the work of Catherine Cookson’ (£10,000)? Or even ‘a distinguished contribution to folklore studies’ (£50 and an engraved goblet)? Could one book (give or take a few adjustments) win all four of these awards? Perhaps, perhaps. If it did, the author would surely be capable of adding to the tally by dreaming up a few ‘stimulating, original and progressive ideas on management studies’ (£5000).

And that would be well over 20k , for starters. And 20k p.a., according to The Cost of Letters, is what most writers these days think of as a living wage. ‘How much do you think a writer needs to live on?’ is the question that’s been put by the surveyists (Waterstone’s bookshops in association with the Arts Council) to over forty current writers and, as we might expect, most of the answers are as waffly as can be: ‘It’s impossible to say.’ ‘The same as everyone else.’ ‘How long is a piece of string?’ ‘An adequate sufficiency.’ ‘It all depends’ – on numbers of dependants, nature of drug habit, taste for foreign travel, and so on.

Now and again, though, some figures do get aired and 20 grand a year seems to be the favoured target. Beryl Bainbridge owns up to making £35,000 and Michael Holroyd regards £70,000 as a decent haul. Will Self can manage on anything between £40,000 and £80,000. At the bottom end of the scale there are poets who would happily settle for a regular 12 grand. Writers with film and mass-media connections – Hanif Kureishi, for example – don ‘t of course tell us what they earn. And since the survey confines itself to so-called serious writers, there are no Jeffrey Archers to cheapen the proceedings.

The £20,000 p.a. average is in line with the results of a similar survey done in 1946 by the magazine Horizon. The Horizon survey, in fact, serves as a model for this new investigation. In 1946, George Orwell, Stephen Spender, Herbert Read and Julian Maclaren-Ross each testified that he could manage on £1000 a year net. V.S. Pritchett needed a bit more. Elizabeth Bowen raised a few eyebrows at the time by confessing that ‘I would like to have £3500 a year net’ and Cyril Connolly, who organised Horizon’s survey, opted for ‘five pounds a day’ – £100 a day today: ‘If he is to enjoy leisure and privacy, marry, buy books, travel and entertain friends, a writer needs upwards of five pounds a day net. If he is prepared to die young of syphilis for the sake of an adjective he can make do on under.’

Nobody in the 1998 symposium attempts to echo Connolly’s louche self-indulgence (Sebastian Faulks attractively comes close, with his preferred target of £X + 52A + 2RT: ‘A’ stands for alcohol intake, ‘RT’ for return tickets to somewhere very far away). The tone nowadays is solemn when it is not spiky. With the 1946 survey you sometimes get the feeling that the participants are viewing the whole business as a symptom of Cyrilism: there is an effort to achieve the correct mix of gravitas and whimsy. Thus Stephen Spender, asked about ‘a suitable second occupation’ for a ‘serious writer’ whose book income is not enough to live on, offers a small slice of genial self-parody: ‘One’s best relationship with one’s colleagues is for them to think of one as slightly mad but full of good will. Be a cog and allow oneself to be gently ground between the heads of departments. Reassure people by allowing them to think that one is distinguished without one’s ever menacing their own positions.’ Orwell suggests that working as a bank clerk might be a stimulating second job. Connolly himself advises ‘a rich wife’.

Perhaps today’s serious writers are more used to having surveyists poke into their purses. Most of the scribes assembled here are hardened grant applicants and multiple prize-winners. In 1946, a question like ‘Do you think the state or any other institution should do more for writers?’ was bound to carry with it some threat of writers’ unions, government control of free expression, and so on. Orwell’s reply was as one would expect: ‘the less truck a writer has with the state, or any other org-anised body, the better for him and his work. There are invariably strings tied to any kind of organised patronage.’ Nowadays, after however many years we’ve been through of bewildered state munificence, the greater fear seems to be that money will go to the wrong writers, or to too many writers, encouraging a general sloppiness. As Jonathan Coe says, ‘it’s no surprise that the few meagre Arts Council grants are often handed out to writers who never go on to fulfil whatever promise was recognised.’ And Don Paterson: ‘It’s still easier to get money for that hypertext-poetry-with-throat-singing-and-freeform-macramé project than for anything sensible.’ Today’s mood is perhaps best expressed by Hugo Williams. His answer to ‘should the state do more for writers?’ is: ‘Yes for me, no for everyone else . . . In other words no . . . today young writers are almost by definition award-winners. I certainly had my whack, for doing practically nothing.’

In 1946, on this matter of state subsidies, there was more fear of indolence than of sloppiness: writers might be encouraged to write less – a possibility not viewed with horror these days. In the Horizon survey, Cecil Day-Lewis – when asked to name his target – reached for the hair-shirt. He wanted an income ‘small enough not to encourage laziness or dilettantism . . . say £150 to £300 a year’. And Simon Armitage, in 1998, seems to agree that now and then a bit of poverty can keep a writer on his toes. ‘At some points in my life it’s suited me to be skint,’ he says. ‘Poetry is connected with the root conditions of being alive, and one aspect of that is survival.’

Armitage at one time worked as a probation officer: a useful second job, it might be thought, for poets short on subject-matter. Armitage half-agrees: ‘I don’t think driving around Manchester looking at babies with cigarette burns on their arms is any more or less real than writing at a desk.’ At the same time, though, ‘events at work became incidents within poems, and the language of convicts, solicitors and medics did find its way into the writing.’

In 1946, John Betjeman said that his ideal second occupation would be ‘station-master on a small country branch line (single track)’. And when writers now are questioned about second jobs, a similar wistfulness descends. Julian Barnes probably speaks for most of his colleagues when he talks of work that’s ‘overpaid’ and ‘under-stretching’. Some would settle for much less. Beryl Bainbridge would not mind working in ‘Marks and Sparks’’ Lucy Ellmann is prepared to consider ‘waitressing and prostitution’’ Penelope Lively is hoping to be offered a job as writer-in-residence on an oil-rig and Hilary Mantel thinks she could handle a stint of ‘collecting supermarket trolleys from far-flung parking bays’ (and adds: ‘Do not worry that you are depriving some sad moron of employment. That sad moron will soon have tied up a multi-million book-film deal in the US’). Blake Morrison, perhaps we ought to note, once reckoned he could hack it as a gigolo – well, who’s to say? Other favourites: gardener, nightporter, postman, lollipop person, lighthouse keeper. It’s noticeable that scarcely anyone wants to work ‘with other people’.

According to several participants, the worst possible second job is literary journalist. On this option, much snootiness is expressed. And it is taken for granted that book-reviewing work is easy to come by. Maybe it is, but I ‘m not sure how many of this lot I ‘d employ, were I to be editing a paper. It also seems to be thought that literary journalism is more lucrative than the kind of writing these questionees already do: novels, short stories and so forth. In reality, to get £20,000 a year, or anything like it, from reviewing books, you would need to write about eighty thousand words a year, on fifty or so different subjects, and – probably – for half a dozen different editors. Guess what literary journalists dream of when they are asked (not that they ever are) about ‘second occupations’? But then, as Hanif Kureishi here opines, reviewing cannot provide ‘the satisfactions of a runaway imagination’. Nor, one might say, the pile-ups.

Pomposities aside, The Cost of Letters makes for an entertaining read. I ‘m not sure what it will achieve but presumably that’s not the point. After all, people always want to know what other people earn. And at £2, this book is a lot cheaper than most books. Was it subsidised? Each of the contributors, we learn, was given £200-worth of book-tokens as a ‘fee’. How many of them would have rather – much rather, that’s to say – been paid in cash? Well, one of them, at least. Simon Armitage concludes his meditations with the following ungracious thought: ‘I ‘m still baffled by the number of people who expect writers to do something for nothing. I don’t know if it was intended as an irony, but payment for this very article is £200 of Waterstone’s book-tokens, and most writers I know need another 200-quids-worth of books in the house like they need another hole in their arse.’ A bit much, don’t you think? Why doesn’t Armitage want to buy some of the works of his fellow participants, and hope that they buy his: from Waterstones, of course? Doesn’t he care about the State of Literature? Come to think of it, though, how many books would he get for that two hundred? Ten; 15? It’s not enough.