Frustration spilled out on Facebook after a University of Cambridge professor of modern German and comparative culture, Andrew Webber, branded the acclaimed literary novelist Philip Hensher priggish and ungracious when the author refused to write an introduction to the academic's forthcoming guide to Berlin literature for free.
Hensher said: "He's written a [previous] book about writers in Berlin during the 20th century, but how does he think that today's writers make a living? It shows a total lack of support for how writers can live. I'm not just saying it for my sake: we're creating a world where we're making it impossible for writers to make a living."
Hensher, who was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize in 2008 for his novel The Northern Clemency, a portrait of Britain's social landscape through the Thatcher era, wrote his first two novels while working a day job, but said: "I always had an eye to when I would make a living from it."
"If people who claim to respect literature – professors of literature at Cambridge University – expect it, then I see no future for young authors. Why would you start on a career of it's not just impossible, but improper, to expect payment?"
What Andrew Webber seems to be forgetting is that he has a day job, and for those of us in that situation the rules may be different — in fact, surely the rules are different, but I’m just not sure precisely how.
Almost everyone understands that when you write a book (whether academic or popular) you’ll be paid royalties as a percentage of sales; almost everyone understands that when you write an academic article you won’t be paid at all except insofar as publication itself is a kind of currency that you may be able to exchange for tenure or promotion or a more attractive position elsewhere. And in any case doing such writing is part of the academic job description. This kind of publication rarely has certain and measurable value; but as a general proposition its value is clear — for academics. However, it’s completely unfair and unreasonable to expect non-academics to write for no money when they’re not getting anything else for it either: every professional writer should join in the Harlan Ellison Chorus: PAY THE WRITER.
That said, there are a great many fuzzy areas here, especially in relation to online writing, because every major outlet is constantly starved for new content — more content than almost any outlet can reasonably be expected to pay, or pay more than a pittance, for. Thus Slate’s Future Tense blog asked to re-post a post I wrote here — but of course did not offer to pay for it. I said yes, but should I have?
I didn't really expect to get anything out of it — I suppose a couple of people clicked over to this blog, but I think few common convictions are less supported by evidence than the one that says you get “publicity value” by “getting your name out there.” (No direct route from there to cash on the barrelhead.) But it didn’t seem as though it would be hurting anyone, so why not?
Well, one might argue that I can support the Ellison Principle (PAY THE WRITER) by insisting on being paid for everything I write, online and offline: if writers were to form more of a common front on this matter, then we could alter the expectations and get online outlets to see paying for writing as the norm.
But magazines and websites have limited resources, so if every writer insisted on getting paid then there’d be far less new content for them to post and publish — and few of us would be happy with that. And in any case, writers would never be able to achieve a uniform common front: there will always be people, especially younger, less established writers, who believe in the “get your name out there” argument and will act accordingly.
And here’s another complication: since I do have a day job and am not trying to make a living by my writing, maybe if I don’t ask for financial compensation I can liberate money for people who really need it. Or would I just be tempting editors to publish less stuff by full-time writers because they can get free content from me?
I CAN’T FIGURE THIS OUT. Help me, people.