Festivals and the Family Dog

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.”

 This exchange interested me so much because it seemed to tap into the heart of the question of what a writer is in Britain today (unfortunately I can’t quote all the tweets). What is their relationship to their readers, publishers, potential readers and the organizers of literary events? What are their rights? What are their obligations? Are they performers as well as producers of text? Do they have a right to complain about the small, sad amounts of money they (sometimes) make from their incredibly hard work? Or should they accept that being able to write and publish and have anyone read your work is a luxury and a privilege, and they should do it for free? What are the knock-on effects of this? Would we rather have writers stand up for their rights to be treated as professionals and an impoverished cultural landscape (because I’m under no illusions that the organizers of literary events are rolling in cash themselves), or else have superb writers consigned to the sofa with the family dog?
I confess I haven’t made up my mind about all this yet in any definitive fashion. Rather like Benedictus (though without such a determined supply/demand framework) I hazily view established writers as a class apart from newbies like myself. While I’m grateful for any opportunity for ‘exposure’, it rather shocks me that they are expected to operate under the same conditions even after a lifetime of professional success. As several participants in the Twitter conversation pointed out, the vast majority of professionals would laugh in your face if you asked them to give you a service for free “for the exposure”. What makes writers so different?

5 thoughts on “Festivals and the Family Dog

  1. Hi Sophie – great post.

    I think you’re right about this going to the heart of what writers are for. That’s certainly the heart of my opinions on the subject. I can never quite escape the fact that I write fiction because I feel like it – something I should think I share with roughly 100% of novelists – yet this is not generally the reason plumbers plumb, and that distinction matters. You can’t just choose what you want to make a living doing, and then blame society if it doesn’t come to pass.

    We are hobbyists, is what I’m saying. We manage to sell our books because some people want to buy them, but (especially at the literary end) we are not deliberately making things the market wants, nor trying to do humanity a favour. If our intentions were so noble, writing novels is an oddly tendentious way to realise them.

    Calling ourselves writers doesn’t make us special, not until we’ve proven otherwise. So we don’t deserve any more money than people want to give us – be that from publishers, prizes, readers, or whoever. And certainly not from the tiny budgets for events, which aren’t even what we do best! (And which many of us do badly.)

    This is meant to be a counsel of hope, though. I find it very freeing just to think, Sod it! The only point of doing this is to enjoy myself, so I’m not going to write anything or do anything that doesn’t please me. So if an event sounds fun, and not too inconvenient, I try to do it even if it doesn’t pay. I also feel, perhaps wrongly, that this policy helps me to make more interesting books, and I hope it may inoculate me from later disappointment. Although these are early days…

    Good luck with the book!


    • Hi Leo, thanks so much for this thoughtful response. I take your point, and like you I think I’ll generally be pretty happy to do events for free (if people want me to!) for the forseeable future. It’s true that I personally consider writing to be a far more fulfilling job than plumbing (though I’m not sure we should assume all plumbers feel that way – the only one I’ve ever met, the dad of my friend, absolutely loved his job). I loved your ‘counsel of hope’ – we do need to focus on the pleasures of writing as well as the pains, and writers have a tendency to be a bit melodramatic about their ‘craft’ (or I know I do…)

      I do think, however, that writers provide a valuable service to the general public, although I certainly don’t want to get into the hubristic territory of describing our work as “doing humanity a favour”. It’s always a problem when talking about the public value of writing that conceptions of this value vacillate wildly between individuals – personally I feel that reading literature can make you a better and more interesting person, give you comfort, support and entertainment and enrich your life far more than many other things provided by the state, so I’d like to see more government support of writers (e.g. my publisher was enabled to publish my novel by Arts Council funding). However, I appreciate not everyone feels this way – and it certainly doesn’t look like we’ll get this on a large scale any time soon – so I suppose the idea that we can only expect to be paid what the general public will pay us is the natural conclusion. I’m with you there.

      The problem that then suggests itself to me is perhaps one of access. The fact is that writers need to pay the rent like everyone else, so obviously if they’re not being paid for their writing they need to do something else at the same time, and that means they certainly can’t write as quickly and perhaps can’t write as well, and therefore they produce less. I suppose I just worry that the more it becomes a standard acceptance that writers should do everything for free, the more we risk writing becoming a profession for the elite – those with rich parents/ spouses, inherited assets etc. Anyone with huge amounts of debt to pay off, relatives to support and a multitude of other problems won’t have as good a crack at it. And that must lead to an impoverishment of the literary landscape, surely? It’s a rather tenuous connection but I’m put in mind of the debates surrounding the introduction of a salary for MPs in 1911. There was the idea that it was a disinterested thing that people should do for free as a public service – but of course this excluded anyone who needed to make a living from standing and representing that community.

      This is, obviously, straying rather a long way from the debate about literary festivals/library events – I’m not saying these institutions are the answer to the problem I’m trying to outline. I’m more interested in the ideas of either state funding, or developments in e-publishing helping authors to get a bigger slice of the pie than the 7-15% they currently get from sales (do avid readers realize this I wonder?) But the debate Linda started felt like a really good way into debating these issues. Thanks so much for engaging with them here!

      Thanks for the good luck… and I’ll look forward to reading The Afterparty.


  2. Pingback: the left room» Blog Archive » why i don’t usually charge for events

  3. There were many responses to this debate on Twitter and I’m very flattered to have had one of my comments picked out for inclusion in this blog. Many thanks for that.

    If you write for a living (as I do) you simply can’t afford to do it for nothing. I’m not a hobbyist. Few writers are – save for those with other means such as a job, a legacy, a pension or a partner willing to support them.

    There is a world of difference between writing done for free and that which is paid for. Professionals write to length and fill our filings with facts. World of difference between paid for content and that which is freely offered, though I accept the irony as this is being offered for free.

    As a reader (which all writers should be of course) I’d rather read writing that’s been paid for than that which hasn’t.

    • Hi Laura, just got round to looking at this properly as I’ve been away – at another festival as it happens, this time in Hebden Bridge. Thanks for the comment, I think the reader/consumer perspective is particularly interesting. Free Trade Writing??

      I was also interested by your comment “Professionals write to length and fill our filings with facts”. I wonder if you think there’s a valid distinction between journalistic and creative writing, and if you think the former is particularly worthy of payment? Because one of Leo’s points seemed to be that creative writing is fun and therefore we shouldn’t expect to be paid for it, and I suppose you might be understood to gesture towards something similar here with the facts remark. But of course there are a wide range of writing experiences in both fields – I imagine some people love writing journalism and will do it for nothing (for example there’s a great local media startup in York called One&Other, whose contributors all currently work for free). Whereas creative writing can be a horrible, almost painful experience – see George Orwell: “Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.”

      Thanks for engaging in the debate anyway!


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