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Turning fiction writing into a privilege

A poor person on Twitter unintentionally got me answering back where normally I would bite my tongue. Some of it was the day: between anti-Semitism, a heat wave, various ailments and stuff (much stuff, but all of it private and family and not appropriate for here). Some of it was, however, a genuine annoyance at a statement that was made.

The tweeter told writers to support a type of publication. To subscribe to review publications and literary journals. Apparently they were targeting their tweet at writers who don’t and should.

I apologised and backed down and promptly worked out that I still have an issue with the command. Several issues, in fact.

The first is not with the tweeter, but with the environment the tweeter is a part of and the assumptions that fed into the tweet. The one that assumes that a statement like that can be made about people in any industry without supportive data about what people in that industry do. If the tweet had linked to a table that showed that writers didn’t support literary journals, there would have been a leg to stand on. A single leg only, but a leg.

The underlying assumption made by a general statement exhorting any group of people to do a particular thing is that they’re not doing it. As a group. Data pointing out that a subset do it helps that group identify that it’s not a general accusation, and that it’s not about them if it actually isn’t about them.

Poor wording unsubstantiated by the material that would have let those of us who aren’t the target know that we aren’t the target is not what made me respond. This was Twitter. We all do things like this on Twitter. If I’d complained about that, it would be a case of pot and kettle.

What made me annoyed is that this was the umpteenth time a member of the public has told me as a writer what I have to spend my money on. I’ve been told that if I don’t support this industry body, this journal, this wonderful project on the other side of the world, this political thingie, this anthology, this fundraiser for charity, I will be failing as a writer. Not all of them say it so directly, but enough do. The others imply, gently, that I’m currently doing less than my public duty.

Who and what determines the public duty as a writer? And why do so many people assume that spending money we don’t have on something that someone else thinks important is so critical to the well-being of society?

Let’s start with the second question. The first may have to wait until another time.

Writers support literature. Writers support culture. That’s the assumption.

It’s got a lot of truth in it, as an assumption. It falls down, however, in the nature of the assumed support. As people within the writing industry often point out, writers don’t get paid in the same way as, say, accountants. It’s so hard to make money reach fiction writers as a rule, that new writers have to be told not to pay to be published. “The money should go towards the writer,” they’re told.

We give work away for free (me, this piece, now, though I admit that people who want more essays by me can join me on Patreon, most of my essays are not for money for so many reasons). We donate copies of books to this cause or that, and our services to this cause or that. All that is par for the course. It’s not sufficient, it seems, for we have to do more. We’re exhorted to do more.

One big problem with the assumption that writers are essential to keeping the Arts afloat through being responsible for the survival of literary journal sand their ilk through subscribing rather than by submitting pieces to them or being a part of the discussion around them or by being reviewed or any of the other ways we already participate is that when one adds an emotional “thou must” financial support aspect to the game it becomes a wealthy person’s game. (And I shall leave that sentence as it is, however tempting it is to edit it into readable blocks – sometimes we need impossible sentences.)

This is related to the ‘who determines’ I mentioned above. When the determination of a writer’s duty is through moral obligation more than by hourly rates of pay and type of work, we start living in a different world to many others. It’s not about the quality of work, the hours spent, the pay received, the negotiated benefits: it’s about the specific benefit to society. It turns fiction into a job for those who are sufficiently prosperous not to need to live from it.

With that prosperity comes a different type of obligation, one where it’s perfectly normal to spend more money on supporting an industry than the income one earns within that industry. Writing is for the gentry, not workers.

I am a member of seven industry bodies, because they fit my work. If I had more money, there are several more I really need to join. Yet I’ve been told that my authority as a writer is suspect because I’m not a member of these other organisations. I buy subscriptions to journals when I can (which is not nearly often enough), and I mentor, I support new artists and help established ones get through difficult periods. I teach. I edit. I write. And my actual creative writing brings in a much smaller income than my teaching and my editing and my non-fiction. Yet it is as a creative writer I’m expected to shoulder that extra burden of public duty. It is as a creative writer I’m instructed to do more, because it’s the right thing to do. The right thing takes money. Writing is for the gentry, not workers.

This is – probably entirely unintentionally – creating a class system. My choice of language above was not unintentional.

Writers who have the money to pay for these things through other income (day jobs, supportive partners) are doing the right thing. Writers who don’t, are not. It’s important that the tweeter let me off the hook because I support who I can when I can, not because of my income. The actual income of a writer is not relevant when creative writing is considered a luxury to be undertaken by those who can. Writing fiction is seldom considered a regular job.

There are other jobs that are also not regular jobs. We’re all part of a social change, where some critical areas are expected to carry particular burdens. I need to talk more about this somewhere, sometime. Right now, there’s one key element of that change that belongs here.

Australia is in a mess. One of the ways that mess is being articulated is by people who think they see a way out telling others “If you do this, we’ll be better off.” If we can all support literary magazines we would be better off. It’s true. These people are pointing out things that would work.

Why isn’t this uniformly a good thing to do then? To ask writers to shoulder the critical support means that the literary criticism is more important than what we do as writers ie our writing. It actually makes the mess worse. It pushes us just that much closer to a society where only the privileged may create professionally.

Yet another angle is that the assumption is that the critical magazines are more important than our livelihood. Yes, I said this before, but this time it has a different meaning. It means ‘cultural cringe.’ Australian creators are being returned to the bad old days when what we do is not important. We’re moving back into a cultural framework when being an Australian writer is terribly important for the support they give others but is probably not doing anything worth noting themselves.

I keep wanting to say to all these people who have wonderful ideas of how I should spend my money in support of others, to first of all buy enough of my books so that I have that money. This is not allowable in this world. Cultural cringe says “people must discover your work mysteriously – it’s not like the Big Names, about whom we’re informed by Those Who Matter.” This is the Australia I grew up in, and I don’t like to see it returning.

What’s ironic about all this is that I count as friends some wonderful people who write for literary magazines. They never play this kind of game, for their vision of Australian culture is complex and profound and includes my writing and the writing of others and lays the burden of supporting literature on wider populations.

None of the critical literary pundits I’ve spoken to (as friends or casually) have ever told me I have to support this or that magazine. They’ll point out articles I need to read. They’ll share ideas. We’ll argue about the ideas in my novels or in the fiction of someone else. They’ll say “If you’re writing a novel about gender, did you see that article in…?” When enough people send me towards enough articles in a particular magazine, I’ll save and save and save and take out a subscription, for it will be entirely undeniable that I need to read every single issue.

A general exhortation says more, while it says less.

I have even more sympathy for the tweeter than I did when I responded to the tweet in such an ill-advised fashion, therefore. Not only did they get an annoyed Gillian making puerile statements in their direction, they caused this rant. It was good for me, however, for it means I can get back to writing my novel and researching my non-fiction and leading the life I lead.

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