There’s a big nugget of truth in Doctor Johnson’s axiom that ‘no man but a blockhead ever wrote, other than for money’.
On the other hand, I have a couple of yellowing quotes pinned to the wall above the table that my battle-scarred laptop occupies. Both are from George Orwell, and this is the other one: ‘All writers are vain, selfish and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives lies a mystery. Writing a book is a long, exhausting struggle, like a bout of some painful illness.’
A chance remark set me thinking and I’m not even sure where I heard it. It was along the lines that it was terribly saddening to realize that writers don’t write for the love of it, but for money, and that when crime writers (and presumably, authors of bodice-rippers, literary fiction writers, purveyors of erotica and those who produce novels or ‘autobiographies’ with celebrity names on the covers) congregate around the bar the talk is not of elegant plot twists, neat turns of the screw, stoking the fires of tension – instead it’s all about money. The conversation is of sales figures, the iniquities of Amazon, the myriad shortcomings of publishers, the toil of trying to chisel a few extra quid out of the publisher’s accounts department (who keep the company chequebook presumably in a coal cellar deep beneath their offices, locked, barred and clearly marked ‘Nuclear Waste – Do Not Open Before 2068’).
Saying that, it should be remembered that these are fiction writers, people who make stuff up for a living, so maybe not every word should be treated as the unvarnished truth.
But it’s the same anywhere with any profession. Trawlermen may talk about big trips and bad weather when they encounter each other ashore, but the talk invariably swings back to the lousy markets and the merchants who screw down the fish prices at auction. As a journalist, I found that other hacks talk about editors who parcel out a publisher’s money as if it were their own – but carefully keep it to themselves if they can tap into the favours of a generous features editor.
What was striking was the assumption that writers are something different from ordinary people. It’s a poorly-kept secret, but writers generally are ordinary people, well, for the most part, anyway. That’s if you count making (or trying to make) a living out of sitting in a room on your own with a word processor for hours on end and swearing a lot, while alternating this with staring into space while the kettle boils yet again.
So why do writers write? If the truth be told, most of us don’t do it purely for the money. If it was only about the cash, most of us would be writing copy for advertising agencies, or have retrained as plumbers. If it was just the money that was important, I’d have stayed on the trawlers.
The reality is that relatively few writers are able to make a full-time living out of it. It’s a not generally known fact, but you have to shift books by the ton to make a modest living. Those happy few who do sell by the ton are in the minority. A startlingly small percentage are able to earn a living from their book sales alone, while the majority have a ‘proper’ job of some kind that pays the gas bill, feeds the kids, buys cat food, etc. I think we’ve established that most of us don’t do it for the money alone. I’m sure that even Stephen King and Dan Brown didn’t think to themselves ‘I’ll write a bestseller and start coining it in a few years’ as they started out.
Writing tends to be a highly personal business. We do this alone, most of us. The money side of it is something that we all have in common, so when colleagues in the same field meet over a beer to three, guess what they talk about? You guessed it.
Working in an obscure backwater of journalism does push one towards the Doctor Johnson end of the scale, and it’s important to keep a sense of proportion in that kind of environment. The robust attitude that the editor can do what he or she likes with copy as long as it’s been paid for is far from being unhealthy, and somewhere between George Orwell and Samuel Johnson lies the truth of it. Most of us are driven in one way or another to do this, and while it’s not the shekels piling up that are generally the impetus to embark on it, it’s crucial to keeping it going.
I guess that for most of us what it comes down to is that writers write because we get a huge kick out of it, because we are driven to it, or else because we either can’t do anything else or have forgotten the skills that kept us employed in the distant past. I know which category I fall into, but I’m not telling… But we sell stories to live, and there’s some clear ground there between the two, whatever you might think if you happen to overhear a couple of impoverished crime writers in a bar somewhere bemoaning their lot.