Except for the lucky few, the rewards for writing are meagre, if not non-existent. As a money-making enterprise, writing makes no sense. According to the UK’s official graduate careers website, prospects.ac.uk (a depressing but entirely reliable source, to which I direct my own eager students when they come to me for advice before wisely becoming arts administrators, baristas, or hedge-fund managers), the annual average income for professional writers aged 25-34 from writing alone is – well, what do you think? £10,000? £20,000? £30,000? Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. You are so so wrong. According to the most recent figures, the annual average income for professional writers is £5000, less than a third of the national average, and about the price of a second-hand Vauxhall Zafira with 100,000 miles on the clock. (My entire last year’s income from writing paid for a second-hand Vauxhall Zafira with 100,000 miles on the clock.) Face facts. Wake up and smell the Tesco Everyday Value Coffee Granules, which at 57p for a 100g jar is my current beverage of choice; you won’t find cheaper outside Costco, which is where you’ll be shopping if you decide to follow your dream of becoming the next David Foster Wallace – who did have to work, incidentally, like the rest of us. (At Pomona College, Foster Wallace’s ‘Prose Fiction’ class consisted entirely of getting students to read mass-market bestsellers.) Why are there no great novelists any more, critics often wail, as they hark back to a golden age of exquisite sentences and profound moral depths. There are no great novelists any more for the same reason there are no longer any sugar plantations in the Caribbean, cotton mills in Manchester, parlour-maids, benefactors or self-martyring subservient spouses: times have changed. Writing – particularly the writing of novels – requires the twin privileges of time and money, and if you haven’t got them you are almost certainly doomed to failure, ground down by the exigencies of the day job, and the second and the third jobs, and the inevitable complications of family life, or the inevitable complications of the lack of a family life, and the lure of alternative employment. Ignore your inner urges. No man but a blockhead etc. Do anything else.
Iain Banks was not a blockhead. He was one of the few winners in one of the world’s oldest and most respected winner-takes-all systems. So now that the obituaries have been written and the tributes paid, how might the rest of us claim our inheritance? What can we quarry from The Quarry? Here, simply, and with the deepest respect, is ‘A Personal Guide to the Bankable Banks: Ten Top Tips for Banksability’.
First, he wrote a lot. About a book a year, 28 novels in a 29-year working life, plus the non-fiction Raw Spirit: In Search of the Perfect Dram (2004), and the usual amount of short stories, introductions, articles and ephemera. He began with The Wasp Factory in 1984, and never stopped. His final novel, The Quarry, was almost complete by the time he received his cancer diagnosis in March this year. He died on 9 June. ‘On the morning of 4 March,’ he said in a final interview in the Guardian,
I thought everything was hunky-dory except I had a sore back and my skin looked a bit funny. By the evening of the fourth I’d been told I had only a few months to live. By that time I’d written 90 per cent of the novel; 87,000 words out of 97,000. Luckily, even though I’d done my words for the day, I’d taken a laptop into the hospital in Kirkcaldy.
Just read that again. He took his laptop to the hospital on the day of his diagnosis, and started writing. Wannabes, dabblers, hobbyists, Sunday painters and Starbucks-scribblers, take note.