Every so often, for the writer or artist or other creative individual, the thorny issue of payment for services rendered, will arise. In fact, it has arisen on this blog more than once! Most of us so called ‘creatives’ – i.e. people who in one way or another, make things up for a living – are quite willing to work for nothing, so long as they feel that the enterprise is worthwhile, and nobody else is making a killing. Will I write for a small literary magazine for nothing? Of course. Will I work for a large company for nothing? I don’t think so.
Somewhere on You Tube is a clip of film of a Hollywood writer called Harlan Ellison. It’s called Paying the Writer, and it is angry, funny, scurrilous: a tirade against the idea that writers should work for nothing ‘for the publicity’. I don’t mean promotional events – nobody expects to be paid for punting their own work. Even as I write that, I realised that actually, lots of people do expect to be paid for punting their own work – mostly celebrities, with a fair sprinkling of politicians. But if you are promoting my book or my play, I’m not going to quibble about coming along and talking about it and/or reading from it as excitingly as I possibly can for as long as you like - for free.
No, I mean those occasions when somebody from a major broadcasting organisation or newspaper phones you up and asks if you will devote a large chunk of your time and expertise to them – but they are very sorry, there is no money in the budget to pay you. Will you be credited for your work? Only indirectly. So will anybody know about you? Doubtful. In short, they are asking you to act as unpaid consultant for precisely zero benefit to yourself.
My other beef – while I’m in money mode – is fellowships. Once again, some clarification is needed. There is a school of thought – and there is a part of me that acknowledges it as true – which says that nobody should be paid just for being a writer or being an artist. Grants and bursaries should not be awarded, so the thinking goes. They are self indulgent and people should just be left to get on with it. This is a perfectly valid point of view, and I have writer and theatrical friends who adhere to it, never apply for any kind of public funding, and manage at least as well as those of us who do. Speaking personally, I’ve received occasional grants and bursaries over the years, and they have been in the nature of godsends, buying me time to finish work which would probably never have been completed without it. Niche projects may be worthwhile but aren’t always commercially viable, so it’s occasionally very helpful to be awarded some money towards buying the time involved – and believe me, most writers can make a little extra money go a very long way indeed.
There is another, even better option and that is the kind of fellowship which I’ve just (very regretfully) finished. The Royal Literary Fund pays writers for a fixed term, to spend one or two days per week in universities all over the UK, helping students with their academic writing. The host institution provides a room, IT support, and a friendly co-ordinator who acts as a facilitator. Essentially, the professional writer spends two days a week in the university, doing one-to-one appointments with students. It doesn’t involve copy editing or rewriting. What it does involve is what writers have to do all the time –teaching students to structure their work properly, to edit what they have written and to produce better, more coherent pieces of writing in a multitude of different academic disciplines. Most of us are amazed and moved by the improvement that this kind of teaching can generate, especially in adult returners to education, who may not have written anything for years. The RLF pay writers as self employed people and they pay only for the one or two days per week during which the writer is expected to be present in the university, with an additional few hours’ reading time at home. The money is good, but there is no sense in which the RLF claim to be paying for anything more than half a working week. The rest of the week is entirely the writer’s own, although in practice most of us try hard to use it for creative work.
Which leads me to my final beef of the week. The initial idea of a Writer’s Fellowship back in the late sixties and early seventies, was a good one. It involved a host of some kind – a library, a university, a council – sponsoring a writer for approximately forty hours per week, of which roughly half was to be spent on one-to-one advice sessions, a few workshops, school visits if appropriate, and a handful of other writerly jobs, while the sponsoring body would generously allow the writer to get on with his or her work for the rest of the week. The stipend was deemed to cover a full working week.
I don’t remember when it first occurred to me that something had gone wrong with this system – whether it was a change in my own perceptions, or whether it was simply that such fellowships had all too obviously ceased to keep up with professional wages. I do remember a friend complaining that while she was Writer in Residence for a region which had better remain nameless, she had written almost nothing of her own, because the work - which didn’t just involve workshops and advice sessions, but also demanded a large measure of what seemed very like ‘social work’ for which she didn’t consider herself really qualified - had expanded from twenty hours to fill the whole week and more. Quite apart from the increasingly therapeutic demands made of creative professionals – a whole other can of worms and something which I plan to write about at a later date – the main problem is that the payments for these fellowships are now too low. I’ve made a few comparisons over the years, but it was brought home to me recently by an advert for a fellowship where the stipend was £17,000. Sounds like a lot of money and for most writers, it is, indeed, a fortune. Digging deeper into the ad, however, revealed that the payment was for a full forty hour week, for a year, (i.e. not pro rata) with half the week to be spent on the writer’s own work and half on various admittedly interesting community projects. They were also looking for an experienced, and well published writer, not a beginner. At the same time, I was shown an advert for an arts lectureship in a Scottish university, based on a salary of around £40,000 per annum -and this wasn’t even a senior lectureship.
It struck me then – and I’m still of the same mind – that you can hardly blame the councils or other bodies involved for whittling down the fees, since times are hard for everyone. But hosting organisations can’t have it both ways. They are congratulating themselves on their selfless support of the arts, and reaping the positive publicity while only paying for the actual time devoted to the fellowship. I would have no problem whatsoever with this, if they came clean and said that was what they were doing. In the case of the RLF, it is a wholly admirable arrangement, supplying something the student body badly needs, while leaving the writer free to do whatever he or she wants with the remaining days of the week: usually a mixture of different sorts of writing. I have no idea why more sponsoring bodies don’t do this, instead of conspiring in the fiction that they are paying a seasoned professional for a full forty hour week. It would be more honest, they would get exactly what they were paying for, which would be fairer - and I reckon they would get more applications. Me for one! I can think of only two reasons why they wouldn’t do this. The first is that they want to cling on to the belief that they are giving something away for free. The second is that they want the possibility of gaining a little more than their pound of flesh. A writer ‘on call’ for forty hours a week, is a writer who is probably going to be accessible for more than twenty. But that couldn’t possibly be the reason. Could it?