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Coffee House

Why English writers accept being treated like dirt

17 January 2016

1:49 PM

17 January 2016

1:49 PM

A few months ago, one of the organisers of the Oxford Literary Festival contacted me.

Hi Nick

I may be putting on a free speech event at Oxford Lit Festival 2-10 April 2016  and wondered if you’d be willing to take part?  It’s the usual festival deal.

As I have written a book on free speech, and banged on about it to the point of tedium (and beyond) in these pages, I was happy to go to Oxford and bang on some more.  I had one small query.

Should be able to. Does the ‘usual deal’ involve anything so vulgar as a fee?

Of course not. The very thought. Like the Huffington Post and newspapers hiring interns, the Oxford Literary Festival expects authors to work for nothing. My contact’s reply suggested that he was a high-minded aesthete who had not thought it worth his while to investigate the terms and conditions of his authors.

I think that they give you £100 but only if you had a book published in the last months to promote. Otherwise it’s the free lunch and travel expenses. Mind you, the lunch is very nice.

I pointed out that I hadn’t had a book published in the last few months, so Oxford was asking me to work for nothing.  I wouldn’t do it, I said, and emailed him a link to the Hollywood screen writer Harlan Ellison’s magnificent rant against Warner Brother’s trying to get him to work for nothing

They want everything for nothing. They wouldn’t go for five seconds without being paid. And they’ll bitch about how much they’re paid, and want more. I should do a freebie for Warner Brothers? What, is Warner Brothers out with an eye patch and a tin cup on the street? Fuck, no. They always want the writer to work for nothing. And the problem is that there’s too goddamned many writers who have no idea that they’re supposed to be paid every time they do something, they do it for nothing!

Ellison offered one reason why authors have accepted zero-payment contracts: they think that exposure will lead to recognition. ‘Look at me, I’m gonna be noticed!’ And with that exposure will come sales and commissions, maybe. And one day when they look back they will realise that all that free labour was  a sound investment.

Think about their position, and you should have sympathy for them. They have poured all they have into their book. It represents the best they can do, the proudest achievement of their lives in some cases. They find a publisher, a hard enough task in itself, as most manuscripts are never published. Their book appears, and more often than not, nothing happens. It is not reviewed or is barely reviewed. The only public recognition of its existence is the Amazon page, which they check, every hour like crazed obsessives, marking each tiny change in the sales ranking with elation, or more usually despair.

What dreams they had of finding a fortune vanish. As the literary journalist, Danuta Kean says, most readers have no idea how little money most authors make, and how desperate they are for any publicity.

[Alt-Text]


The worst literary festivals prey on their hope of recognition like conmen preying on lonely old ladies’ hopes of company. If only they could talk to potential readers, writers think. If only they could get them in a room, sit them down and persuade them to give their damn book a chance.

I speak from experience when I say that most authors don’t want fame or money (although both would be nice). After all that effort, they just want to be read. The organisers of literary festivals try to wriggle out of the charge that they are swindlers by saying that the author can always earn money by selling copies of their book after the talk. The organisers know full well that an author would have to shift a great many copies to make that one-sided deal worthwhile. To get those sales, the festival would have to give unknown authors a big venue and spend time and money promoting them. Most do neither.

But there is another factor at work beyond writers’ doomed hopes that ‘exposure’ will be their salvation. (Such a strange word to use in these circumstances, I’ve always thought, when people die of exposure.)

In English literary culture, and I suspect the literary cultures of many other countries, middle-class taboos play their part in keeping writers servile.

You may have noticed that I didn’t name and shame the man from the Oxford Literary Festival. That is because I know him, and like him, and don’t want to embarrass him. It takes an effort for me to think of him as the moral equivalent of a pickpocket or fraudster.

How can I when he was asking me to help him spread argument, new ideas, and dear old art itself? What kind of knuckle-dragging mercenary brute wants payment for the chance to join the mission civilisatrice?

As a well brought up Englishman, it has taken me years to overcome my instinctive nervousness at asking to be paid. It felt sordid, not the sort of thing nice people do. Certainly, when I raised the grubby subject of money, the festival organiser replied in the pained tones of a bishop who has just heard a fart ricochet around his cathedral. I agreed to work for nothing, then resented the festival organisers and despised myself for going along with them.

The old terms of trade are changing. Philip Pullman resigned from the Oxford Literary Festival this week, saying quite accurately that it paid it cleaners, designers, printers, administrators, publicists, taxi drivers, cooks, waiters, suppliers of marquees and toilets and electricity and food and drink.

 Only the authors, the very reason anyone buys a ticket in the first place, are expected to do it for nothing. Well, enough is enough.

I am pleased so many authors are now boycotting Oxford. Perhaps the upsurge of anger after years of compliance will change the way literary England does business. Maybe it will. I speak from experience when I say that the Bristol, Glasgow, Hay, Bath and Cambridge festivals all treat their writers properly.

If the system does not change, readers will suffer for a reason that cannot be repeated often enough. The expectation that workers will work for nothing is leading to the class cleansing of British culture. Everywhere you go, you hear culture managers saying they want ‘diversity’, while presiding over a culture that might have been designed to exclude the working and lower-middle classes. Whether you look at journalism, the arts, the BBC, photography, film, music, the stage, and literature, you see that those most likely to get a break are those whose parents are wealthy enough to subsidise them. The generalisation is not wholly true. Young people from modest backgrounds can still break through. But every year their struggle becomes a little harder. Every year, an artistic career becomes a little less viable to potentially talented writers and artists.

I don’t think it will soon be too apocalyptic to recall Thomas Grey’s lines about ‘mute inglorious Miltons’ lying in the grave, and think that England has not moved on since he wrote his elegy in a country churchyard in 1751.

It has taken me years to find the social courage to say this. And I accept that I appear a grasping vulgarian. But it remains the case that if you want a truly ‘diverse’ culture, where all talents are ‘celebrated’, you must insist on one point before any other: pay the bloody writer.

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