It’s pretty miserable being a writer now, let’s face it. We are more likely to win the lottery than score a big fat Rowling-esque bestseller. The days of making money – actual money – for our hard work are sadly gone and the publishing industry of yore has now taken on a folklore-ish quality. What, people used to write books and support their families with the royalties? How deliciously quaint.
And poets? Don’t even fucking bother.
Now, let’s not rose-tint our glasses too much; writing a bestseller a couple of decades ago was no easy thing – you still needed talent, a good story, a publisher with a strong marketing department, a dollop of luck and a bucket of perseverance. There were lots of great writers who struggled for years to get published and probably countless others who never even managed that. But for those committed and talented few, it was doable. You wrote your great story, it eventually got published, maybe you were lined up for a few book signings and interviews and then you wrote another book. Even if your book didn’t make the bestseller list, it was still reasonable to expect that you could make enough to pay a few bills, assuming you weren’t a really shitty writer. At the worst, maybe you could make enough to go on a nice holiday to Butlins.
Back then, it was OK to dream.
A Trajectory of My Broken Dreams
2002: I’m going to write an absolute cracker of a debut novel and it will hit the bestseller list smack in the balls and everyone will read it and love me and all those dickheads from High School will think, ‘Oh wow, why did we spend so much time making fun of her, she is clearly superior to us and also very fuckable these days.’ I will make millions and own a house with a swimming pool. Though my novel will have money-making mainstream appeal it will also be edgy and literary enough to impress the la-dee-dah high-brows and the underground crowd.
2004: Jeez – whose dick you gotta suck to get a literary agent round here? OK, let’s try again. I’m going to write my second novel and it won’t hit the bestseller list straight away; it’ll be a creeper. It’ll gather cult status through word-of-mouth and I will be hailed as the queer Irvine Welsh. My third novel will get me a ridiculous advance and boom! House with swimming pool. Furthermore, I’ll be hounded by gorgeous lesbians with Alex Parks hair (because 2004) and get a reputation for being something of a lezzy Lothario (a Lezzario) and my drink problem will be made all sexy and mysterious by the media; I’ll be papped downing whisky at six in the morning, looking moody and emaciated and people will flock to buy my first editions because they just know I’ll be dead by age twenty-seven.
2005: Fuck this. Clearly the literary agents don’t see raw originality when it’s stuffed under their noses. I’m too much of a risk; they only want safe writers and saggy-titted old white women who wear brooches and peddle cliched family sagas. My gift is just too pure. It is all the fault of the publishing industry and not a reflection of my skills as a writer, that much is for certain.
I’m going to night school to do science A-levels so I can get onto a nursing degree. I’m done.
2006: Who am I kidding? I’m an artist, not a scientist. I’m going to apply to do a creative writing degree. I will fund it by working in a care home because I am an iconoclastic working-class hero and I ain’t gonna get trapped in no rat race, no way man. I’m probably never going to write a bestseller, let’s face it, but I might one day make enough money to pay the bills and give up the care job (dementia is awf). Either way, being a published writer is bound to get me some snizz.
2008: OK. I see the state of the publishing industry. It’s very unlikely that I’ll ever make enough money to sustain me. I’ll stick with the care job, though I will only work part-time so that I can still do plenty of writing because a bitch needs her hobbies. All my tutors think I’m great so I’m bound to get published by Canongate soon.
2010: I’m bound to get published by Seren or Honno or Parthian soon. You hear such bad things about the big publishing houses and they must be so impersonal. Who needs ’em? A small Welsh indie press will do just fine.
2011: Fuck them! Fuck them all! Do they know who they’re rejecting? I’m going to do an MPhil in creative writing so at least I’ll have a teaching career to fall back on. Is it considered unethical to have tumultuous red-hot affairs with one’s mature students?
2012: I need a PhD to teach creative writing at university? Can the goal posts stop moving already? Sod this, I’m going to have a baby instead.
2013: Well it took them a year to get back to me but Honno have bitten the bait. A two-book deal is nothing to sniff at and I can use the advance to buy a good bra from Marksies and a bicycle off Gumtree. Maybe this is the start for me. Finally. Maybe I’ll bang out a cult classic in a couple of years and it’ll spread through word-of-mouth and make me enough money to – no. Stop. Don’t dream, you’ll jinx it.
2016: What? I’ve got to write a fucking blog and join Twitter and do all this other bollocks just to increase my chances of making a tenner in royalties? I’ve got to do all this in the precious hours my daughter is in nursery instead of working on my epic magical realism stream-of-consciousness cult classic motherfucking masterpiece?
Oh wait – I get to write about myself at length?
I had an epiphany recently. I have a lot of epiphanies, most of them drunk but some sober. This one was sober.
As a writer I have nothing. I have no real chance of making a living, no decent prospects, my career is actually just a hobby and where once the idea of teaching creative writing was a snooty fall back plan (Oh, I suppose I’ll gift my service to the top universities), now it’s an unattainable dream. As a writer I have nothing.
I have nothing to lose.
Isn’t that an awesomely liberating idea?
There is nothing at stake.
I know it might look like I’m trying to sprinkle some sugar on the shit here, but think about it. If you have nothing to lose then you can take risks. You can be brave with your writing. No one’s going to publish it anyway. It’s not going to make money anyway. So why not have some fun with this story or poem? Why not try new things? Why not be true to your ideals?
This could be an era that results in some amazing literature. We’ve already got the recession, austerity and the Death Eaters in power, all vital ingredients for an epoch rich in creative expression. Take advantage of this. Write fearlessly, even recklessly (unless you are new to writing in which case it’s best to learn the rules before you break them). You don’t have a publisher breathing down your neck about your unlikable protagonist, you don’t have a mortgage that relies upon the commercial success of your latest novel.
You have nothing.
Make the most of it.