A penny for your thoughts
A writer is invisible, a non-entity, a nobody without commercial value. A writer is one who purges themselves of what is good within in order to create something valuable without. It is what the writer creates that has value, not the creator.
Let’s free ourselves of the nobody, then, and publish our books without the name of the writer attached. The first job of an editor should be to strike a line across the name, to excise the meaningless. It is only the work that matters. The author’s name distracts and misleads, if it is noticed at all. And it fools the writer into believing that somehow what has been created reflects well on them, or more deceptively, belongs to them.
Once finished, once shared, a book is like a thought that has been spoken. It gains a life a life of its own, an identity that is free of the taint of parentage.
Books separated from their authors aren’t foundlings; they have as many parents as hands that open them. It is the authors who are orphans, abandoned by their creations. We cut the umbilical cord the moment we publish and find it is us who are cast adrift into loneliness and irrelevance. It is not into the arms of Barthes that we place our creations, to be re-shaped and moulded according to the whims of the reader. These childen spring to life fully formed, like Zeus from the head of Cronos. The text is there, sometimes a bit inscrutable but always immutable.
But it does beg the question: if we have no value; why should we be paid for our work? Work, most of us would admit, we would do anyway.
For all others, the very act of labour bestows value on them. Through their toil and effort alone they are accorded worth, even if the result is negligible or poorly priced. The creative is accorded no such honour. To chisel, to scribble, to daub, to scatter black dots of noise on imaginary lines is, at best, tolerated and humoured. It is only by the stature of our work that our labour is accorded dignity. Even in its exploitation there’s dignity accorded to all labour; to all except for that ephemeral labour of the imagination and soul which draws dignity only when it draws an audience.
The work is everything; the creator is nothing.
The act of creation, of writing, is hard but glorious; each perfect solution to a word not right, the correction of a phrase that jars, until we shape it to meld seamlessly into sense and rhythm, is a petite mort that exhilarates and exhausts. And the grande mort of the finished book, the explosion of fulfilment and emptiness, is worth all the pain and despair that has gone before. Then the book cuts free of the ties to its creator in a way more complete than even the most independent child could ever achieve.
So, deep down, we know that the celebrity author is a sleight of hand, a marketing frippery, no more than a designer label and just as illusory. There are only celebrity books.
How much, then, does a nobody get paid? Nothing? There are those who believe so, who argue that creative shouldn’t get paid at all, that ideas belong to all and should be freely given and that our digital age is part of the empowerment of ideas. Illegal downloading, they claim, is not theft. The true theft is keeping everyone from the creative’s work by the locked gate of payment.
Others have proposed that by not paying authors we’d raise the standard, and have better books; art produced free of the expectation of financial reward is purer or more original, so they say. Is Art more prone to corruption by money than other endeavours? Money may corrupt but poverty doesn’t sanctify.
We don’t need Seth Godin to state the bloody obvious that writers have no right to be paid for their work. Of course all writers have to pay their dues, put in the time and the hard work to make people want to pay us. But equally, readers do not have an automatic right to that effort. Where in the social contract is that right embedded?
It is perfectly logical to assume that over the next few years readers will feel less inclined to pay as the amateurisation of literature makes it harder to find the good stuff and we are saturated with dross. The balance will return, though. There’s no democratisation in Art, no matter how much the avid champions of the digital world wish so; the internet’s not a creative equivalent of the Industrial Revolution. Technology may bestow opportunity but it’s not a beneficent Paul Bunyan, distributing the seeds of creativity to all and sundry.
We’ve evolved a simple system of cap-in-hand for our writers. We create on spec, then offer our work without promise or without prejudice. We ask a price which balances the reader’s hope for the work against the risk that it will not live up to that hope. It’s not necessarily a fair price for our labour for very rarely does it bring in a reward that’s just right, neither niggardly nor extravagant. Most times, the porridge is too thin; once in a great while, it’s too rich. But thick or thin, the reward and risk to the reader remains the same, and the bargain holds true.
That bargain isn’t just between the writer and each reader. It is between each single reader and every other reader. Each reader who circumvents the bargain isn’t just cheating the writer but all the other readers who keep their word.
It seems to me a good way to reward the nobodies. A few pennies and a little risk. For something whose value may endure when only memory makes somebody out of a nobody.