Thursday, 14 December 2017

Letter to a Young Writer


22 November 2017

Brian John

The deliberations of the Assembly Culture Committee on the support mechanisms for literature and publishing in Wales have brought into focus the extraordinary degree to which the act of writing is subsidised in Wales.  There are widely differing views on whether this represents a sensible use of scarce resources.  I have been moved to pen a short epistle to somebody called Becca.

Dear Becca

So you want to be a writer?  In Wales?  I crave your indulgence, and I hope that you’ll wish to read what follows.

I have some advice for you.  Why should you wish to pay attention?  Well,  I’ve been writing and publishing things in Wales for more than 50 years, and have greatly enjoyed the experience.  I have 92 books to my name, including many published by the London publishing houses. My books don’t sell by the millions, but many of them have sold tens of thousands, and I count myself as a successful writer who has made a modest living and who knows the ways of the publishing world.  I still get a thrill when the first copy of a new book arrives in the post.

It’s a good time to be a writer in Wales.  For a start, there is abundant cash available (courtesy of the taxpayer) for writers' bursaries and in the form of publishing grants.  There is mentoring as well.  You can tap into the system to help you to get your book written, and all being well your publisher can publish it without having to carry any commercial risk.  Since the money is there, you will be stupid if you don't try to get your hands on some of it.  And if you get your £3,000 (or whatever) you can tell the world that the bursary has “bought you writing time” and that you feel empowered and validated as a bona fide author.  You’ll get a nice rosy glow.

Then there is the support provided by those who will tell you, on all sides, that you are an artist who should be valued by Welsh society.  There is a mutual admiration society out there, and crowds of people who want you to join.  Wales prides itself on its vibrant literary culture, does it not?  Artists in Wales who work with words, as we all know, must write from the heart, regardless of commercial considerations, and say whatever they are moved to say about the human condition.  They should suffer and persist in the face of endless adversity; but a bursary helps, of course, to make the misery easier to bear. As in all of the creative arts, most artists fall by the wayside, but every now and then a superstar emerges, and the advocates of the subsidy system say that it is thus vindicated. This knowledge helps to drive you on, with encouragement on all sides.  But beware.

Forgive me for saying so, but you are probably not an artist at all.  You are probably an apprentice.  If you start writing now, and do reasonably well by finding a constituency and writing things that your readers enjoy, you might become a journeyman.  You should start earning money from book sales.  Persist, and you might become a craftsman and even a master craftsman. After many years of writing and selling books, you will probably still not be an artist.  That accolade is normally reserved for some of those who are dead, or who happen to speak with such unique voices that people want their books before they are published, or maybe before they are written.  

Think carefully about your own status and aspirations.  When I started as a writer, nobody "bought time" for me.  I paid for it myself, burnt midnight oil, and made hard choices.  The things I wrote were aimed at particular constituencies, and published at full commercial risk, after great deliberation, without any grant aid at any stage of the process.  Some books were more successful than others, but not one of them was ever remaindered or pulped.  Most of the really successful writers in Wales have followed the same risky but ultimately satisfying route. 

So beware of vanity.  If you insist on writing what is in your head or your heart, with no regard for what the book-buying public actually wants, no matter what your talent may be, you are a vanity writer.  Join the club. Hop aboard the gravy train. Wales is full of people like you, writing and publishing books that hardly anybody wants or reads.  If your book sells 500 copies it will be doing well. The publisher will not worry, since the cost of production is paid for by the taxpayer.  I am not the first person to have noticed that there is a nationally-sanctioned vanity publishing industry out there, on a vast scale, producing hundreds of titles each year in both Welsh and English.  Success is measured by the number of titles published, and how “professional” they look. This costs the taxpayer millions of pounds a year.  Money well spent?  What do you think?

Take it from me.  The only valid measure of your worth as a writer is a commercial one.  You are the creator of a product, and if you think that the world must have that product, even if it does not want it, are you not being just a little arrogant? Measured book sales are the only things that validate you as a writer.  Not books distributed, books given away, books reviewed or given as prizes, or books adopted for university courses — but books SOLD.  

It may take many years for your book sales to reach the thousands, but if you are talented, determined, and persistent, you’ll get there.  Then you will have a solid following and a real constituency. People will ring you up, write to you, shake your hand at signing sessions, and thank you with tears in their eyes for transporting them to other worlds and making their lives better.  At that stage, you will have an emotional as well as a commercial contract with your readers — and that is the ultimate pleasure of a writer’s life.

One last thought.  If you can’t write without making sacrifices, and without grant aid, you should think very seriously about doing something else instead. For a literary scene which is based largely on a subsidy culture, as it is in Wales, is not vibrant at all.  It is moribund, forcing writers into a dependency culture which is both demoralising and demeaning. It’s wonderful to see your first book in print, but dispiriting when you discover than nobody wants to buy it.   The writers who sit on the streets with their begging bowls are “helped” by  paid officials who distribute largesse which comes from the taxpayer, and who determine which writers will be promoted and which will be ignored.  And who are these bureaucrats?  Why, probably people who have never written anything successful in their lives.

Take my advice.  Write if you must, but beware of siren voices and carrots dangled from sticks.  The voices may soon be silenced, and the carrots taken away.




Dave said...

Excellent blog post! Well said my man. In order to have a level playing field so the reading public can decide who the 'good' writers are I suggest we do away with all public grants and bursaries and just let writers write. Maybe Literature Wales could produce a 'league table' of how many books have actually been sold - then we'd see who the real artists are!

BRIAN JOHN said...

Thank you Dave. Yes, I agree that levels of book sales from subsidised writers should be on the public record. Literature Wales refused to give me the info when I asked a few weeks ago -- because they did not have it. That was amazing, since it was and is the most obvious way of measuring cost-effectiveness. I have suggested that they should get the figures. I am now awaiting their reply........

BRIAN JOHN said...

This was submitted to a well-known Welsh literary journal for publication, but instantly rejected on the grounds that the editor did not agree with the contents. So apparently the only things that are accepted are those that conform to the establishment view of things. Rocking the boat is not permitted, and neither is open debate. Welcome to the Stalinist world of Welsh literature. Sad, isn't it?