Anxiety about the e-future – and in particular who it is going to make redundant – seems suddenly to be bursting out of every corner of the media. There was David Byrne in the Guardian Saturday Review recently worrying that Spotify and Pandora are going to eliminate the income stream for new musicians. Will Self, reviewing film critic Mark Kermode’s new book in the same supplement, talked about the ‘Gutenberg minds’ like Kermode (and himself) who are in denial about how “our art forms and our criticisms of those art forms will soon belong only to the academy and the museum” – digital media are not only undermining the role of the professional critic but changing the whole nature of what criticism is. Then we have Dave Eggers’ new novel The Circle, a satire on the Google/Facebook/Aamazon/Apple takeover of everything and the tyranny of social media. Meanwhile, Jonathan Franzen rails against the media dumbing-down of serious discourse about anything, anywhere, as attention spans shrink to nano-tweet dimensions.
Well, me, I haven’t a clue. I’m tempted to say that this is all a bit drummed up and Greenfield-esque, and that I don’t see those traits in my kids, but then, they are my kids and cruelly deprived of iPads and iPhones, and in any case are only 3 and 8. To say any such thing is surely to invite my words to come back in ten years time and sneer at my naivety. I’ve not the slightest doubt that I’m in any case wedded to all kinds of moribund forms, from the album (of the long-playing variety) to the fully punctuated text to the over-stuffed bookshelf.
But not unrelated to this issue is Philip Hensher’s spat with an academic over his refusal to write an unpaid introduction to an academic text. Hensher’s claim that it is becoming harder for authors to make a living and to have any expectation of getting paid (or paid in any significant way) for much of what they have to do is at least partly a concern from the same stable as Byrne’s – that we now have a culture that is used to getting words, music and images for next to nothing, and there is no money left for the artists.
They’re not wrong. The question of literary festivals is one that many authors are becoming increasingly fed up about, as the Guardian article on Hensher acknowledges. Personally I almost always enjoy literary festivals, and will gladly do them if it’s feasible for my schedule. The Hay Festival, which Guy Walters grumbles about, is one of the best – always fun (if usually muddy), something the family can come to, and a week’s worth of complimentary tickets seems considerable compensation for the lack of a fee. (And yes, six bottles of wine – but at least they’re from Berry Bros, and many literary festivals don’t even offer that.) But I’m also conscious that for middling-to-lower-list writers like me, it is extremely hard to say no to these things even if we wanted to. There’s the fact that publishers would be ‘disappointed’ and probably in the end disgruntled. But more than anything, there’s the sad egotistic fear that failing to appear, or even to be invited, means that you’re slipping closer to the edge of the ‘literary community’. I suspect that this fear, more than anything, is what has allowed literary festivals to proliferate so astonishingly. Well, and the fact that I’m probably not alone in being very easily satisfied (which might be essentially the same as saying that if you’re not a big name, you’re not hard to flatter). Being put up in that lovely country house hotel in Cumbria and given an evening meal has always seemed to me perfectly adequate remuneration for talking at the Words by the Water Festival (ah, so kind of you to ask again, yes I’d love to…).
But the Cambridge professor calling Hensher “priggish and ungracious” for refusing to write for free is another matter. Hensher was in fact far more gracious in response than he had any reason to be. When I am regularly asked to give up a day’s work to travel to give a talk at some academic institution (“we will of course pay your travelling costs”), I generally consider it to be a reflection of the fact that (i) academic departments simply don’t have a budget for paying speakers, and (ii) academics can very easily forget that, whereas they draw their salary while attending conferences and delivering seminars, writers don’t have a salary except for (sometimes) when they write. And so I often go and do it anyway, if I like the folks who have invited me, and/or think it will be interesting. Let alone anything else, it is good to get out and meet people. Same with unpaid writing, of which I could do a fair bit if I agreed to: I’ll contribute an article to a special issue or edited volume if I feel it would be interesting to do so, but it is rare indeed that there will be any acknowledgement that, unlike an academic, I’d then be working for free. But for a writer to be called ‘ungracious’ for refusing an ‘invitation’ to do such unpaid work is pretty despicable.