Last Saturday, I did my first reading/panel discussion at an arts festival. As I understand it from those more experienced in the writerly game, appearances such as this take up a key chunk of a novelist’s life – and from the looks of a very interesting Twitter discussion I happened to see a few days later among some big names in the field, it’s not an area that’s free of controversy. So I thought it’d be worth a quick post recording my own thoughts on it.
The thing I was taking part in was New Writing Day, one of the big draws in the York Festival of Ideas, now in its second year. I was taking part in one of three New Writers panels, which were happening alongside creative writing workshops run by the Faber Academy, and a couple of big-name talks by playwright Richard Bean and writer/academic Marina Warner. On my panel were debut novelists Essie Fox (author of Orion’s Victorian gothic thriller The Somnambulist http://www.essiefox.com/) and Kathleen MacMahon, author of Little Brown’s much-touted love story This Is How It Ends http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2012/may/10/this-is-how-ends-kathleen-macmahon). I decided I wanted to be there for the whole day. I was eager to soak up the atmosphere, stalk Richard Bean and get him to talk to me (he’s basically my favourite living playwright) and meet my fellow panelists and other new writers Chibundo Onuzo, Noo Sara Wiwa, Katherine Rundell, Adharanand Finn and Oliver Balch.
Observation #1: I had a cracking time, all in all. It was beautifully planned and expertly organized. I went to a series of readings and discussions that discussed topics as wide-ranging as: the relationship between place and composition; travel writing’s place in Nigerian politics; how your ‘story’ – that is, your personal life – might influence whether an agent takes you on; the difficulties of writing authoritatively about a culture that is not your own; the politics of commissioning plays at the Royal Court and the National Theatre; the rigours of researching fiction; and the relationship between visualization and language. In private, I got to discuss with my fellow writers – warm, witty, scarily intelligent individuals, all of them – a series of slightly more sensitive subjects. Including: what happens when your publisher wants to pitch you a way you don’t like; the wisdom of reading your own reviews; the necessity or fallacy of being on Twitter; the sobering opinion that “You won’t sell any books at these events. Don’t worry, you get used to it.”
Observation #2: I learned a lot. Not only in the aforementioned private discussions, but in my panel itself, which was chaired by academic / biographer / travel writer Geoff Wall and had an eager and informed audience of about 25 people. As alphabetical order governed our arrangement, I read from my book first. I said hello, then rather quickly and anxiously read out a slightly truncated version of Rites‘s first narrative chunk, which I had assumed would be the best bit to share. My fellow panelists did things a bit differently. Essie started with a conversational introduction, explaining which images/objects had inspired her to start writing, before also reading a chunk of her first chapter. Kathleen, as many other writers that day had done, dipped freely in and out of her book, reading a bit about each of the main characters while explaining something about each of them off the cuff. Both seemed spontaneous, elegant and colloquial, whereas I felt that in comparison my reading was a bit stiff and formal. Both Essie and Kathleen are slightly more seasoned New Writers than I (their books had been out for a little while), and I felt watching them as if I could really learn something here – that as long as writers are doing these events, an element of performance is important, and I’d better get good at it. It may be that the extract I selected was the best bit (it certainly unashamedly manipulates the listener’s curiosity) but I should at least consider some others, try a few things to see how they work.
One thing I flatter myself I did get right though: Essie, Kathleen and I had done a book swap in advance, with the result that we had actually all read each others’ work and were able to comment directly on what each other were saying and ask questions about what had interested us most. I did feel this gave our panel an added dimension of cross-writer engagement, even affection, compared to the others I saw that day, where the discussion was rather tightly controlled by the Chair. So that is something I’ll be keen to do wherever possible in the future.
Observation #3? It was exhausting. Utterly exhausting.
I was very surprised by that. I mean, I go to these things for fun, as an audience member. This is paradise for a reading/writing geek such as myself – hanging around sipping coffee, talking to big names in the field, pondering their remarks and challenging them with questions, flicking through the lovely books at the lovely bookstand. But no – it was utterly exhausting. So much so that by 5.30pm I had to miss the Marina Warner lecture (and I LOVE HER) to go home and collapse on the sofa for an hour in front of Tonight’s The Night With John Barrowman, just to ensure that I could make the speakers’ dinner later. The next day, I felt utterly knocked out. Drained, hollow, slightly depressed even though I thought it had gone well. This wasn’t like me. I’m a robust individual used to working long days. What was going on?
Perhaps it was something to do with switching roles all day – with rushing from one thing to another with barely a minute in between, being audience member, fellow writer, audience member, fellow writer, WRITER, fellow writer. With constantly having to have an insightful comment at the ready (without being able to say “It’s not my area”, the saviour of the conference delegate, because generalist writing is everyone’s area, isn’t it?). With constantly being anxious about whether people will turn up to your panel. Not to mention having to constantly be apologetic (“I can’t buy your book today… my stipend doesn’t come through until Friday…”) Whichever of the above, I thought it notable – and probably proof that this exhaustion is not unusual – that I was the only New Writer there in attendance all day. Everyone else either went home after their session or arrived at lunchtime for the afternoon panels. Like I said, more seasoned: clearly they have figured this out already.
With this in mind, I was interested to see the novelist Linda Grant conducting a discussion on Twitter about writers who don’t get paid for events. Now, let me get one thing straight: this is NOT a complaint or even a gesture towards one about not being paid for this particular panel. To the contrary, as a brand new, green-as-grass writer I felt it was a privilege to take part, and in true student style was utterly delighted with the lovely dinner and refreshments I received into the bargain. But, because of this sense of exhaustion that surprised me so much, I was very interested in what more established writers (who must have done hundreds of these things) have to say about the fact that they are often still expected, following Orange Prize and Booker nominations and goodness knows what else, to do what is unquestionably a very hard day’s work for free.
Linda Grant (Orange Prize-winner, Booker-shortlisted) kicked the conversation off with the following series of tweets: “How many of my fellow writers here willing to do events for no fee? I just drew a permanent line under this practise. Apart from bookshops which are active in selling books on my behalf.” Several fellow writers immediately jumped in to support her decision – Val McDermid (bestselling crime writer, almost 30 books under her belt) replied, “Am in complete agreement with you. I’m sure audiences have no idea we’re often the ones not being paid…. I often donate my fee back to the festival. But that’s my choice. The labourer is worthy of her hire. Writers need to eat too.” She later drew a clearer line between what she considered ‘work’ for a writer and what she didn’t: “If you’re a professional writer, you shd be writing. Or thinking. Not taking 2 days out 4 unpaid gig… Even if the readers are lovely and make you feel good and the cake is delicious. This is our job.” Other respondents worried about the self-fulfilling prophecy element of working for free: Laura Marcus (journalist and broadcaster) opined, ” If you work for free, that’s the exact value placed on your work”. The mysterious @LitBonfire (novelist and poet apparently… I have no idea who they are but their heavyweight follower list indicates someone quite interesting) stated bluntly, “No fee, no me” and pointed out drily, “It’s strange how often the people who want you to do things for nothing are themselves on salary.” Leo Benedictus (new-ish author of The Afterparty), on the other hand, was pro-pro bono, with an interesting free market twist: “I do some events for free, because I value the practice, and I enjoy it. When the demand for me rises, I’ll restrict supply….We need readers more than they need us. Until we’re Hilary Mantel, it is a great compliment to be given their time.” Grant challenged him: “Do you think the Stones are told, There’s no fee but it will be good exposure for you?” He retorted, “The Stones don’t need exposure, and multitudes will pay to watch them. When these apply to me, my policy will change.” One of Grant’s last tweets on the subject made me laugh, but also flagged up poignantly how dismissively people in the writing field are treated even at the top of their game: “Was asked to travel to Manchester for no fee or travel expenses. Offered bed on sofa shared with ‘our friendly family dog’… I am terrifed of animals.”