Monday, 13 February 2012

Living through the gold rush

A bank clerk
On reflection, there are some perverse economic incentives going on in the fiction industry. I have a suspicion that creative writing MAs are producing a number of writers (maybe a dozen a year, if I were to stick my neck out) who get two book deals for low advances and are then folded back in to the creative writing education as a way of making ends meet, and then create more such writers and so on and so forth.

A review of Film School: The True Story of a Midwestern Family Man Who Went to the World’s Most Famous Film School, Fell Flat on His Face, Had a Stroke, and Sold a Television Series to CBS in the Los Angeles Review of Books sums it up nicely:
Today, while film schools remain seductive, they have dropped the grit and doubled down on the glamour; their sharp edges have been carefully filed off and their values have been kid-tested, mother-approved. The still prevailing myth of the film-student-as-rebel obscures the banal truth: These are highly profitable institutions, buttressed by a wildly irresponsible student loan system preying on thousands of starry-eyed individuals all vying for “their shot.”

To a degree (if you'll excuse the expression) the MAs and paid-for courses are replacing agents, or perhaps acting as feeders to such. I mean, why spend time and money getting some hopeful author ready for publication when they'll happily pay through the nose for the honour, and thank you effusively in the acknowledgements, what's more.
A postman

It's focused on "literary" writing up to now, but now there's the Crime Writing MA from City Uni and a year or so ago a similar course focusing on genre writing was launched at some Scottish uni, I forget which. So, the business model is spreading!

And it's not just universities, of course, as we now have The Faber Academy (which sounds like the sort of secondary school that Michael Gove favours) and Guardian Masterclasses standing ready to massage the egos of middle class types who perhaps feel a degree is a bit too gauche.

Everyone their thinks this is their big shot. You can assure yourself you're focused on craft and just doing if for yourself, but I found a lot I recognised in this review. When the reviewer (Jonathan Zimmerman) describes his own experience at film school he describes something quite close to how I felt at Goldsmiths:
Having been accepted to USC for the spring semester, I was waiting tables to pass the time and needed to make a conscious effort to engage my usually active cynicism. While my hands were juggling hot dishes and sorting cutlery, my mind was mostly in another time zone. For six months I lived in anticipation. USC was not an academic institution; it was a storage closet for my hopes and dreams, for my images of all I wanted to be and accomplish. For me, reality ended the moment my acceptance letter arrived in the mail.

My classmates, I found, also struggled to keep a grounded view of things. We had been handpicked to join the Lucases and Spielbergs of the world — the creative class. I tried to remind myself that I hadn’t accomplished anything yet, that this was only the first rung on a tall and perilous Jacob’s Ladder. But I couldn’t fight the feeling that, just by having been accepted to USC, I must be somehow special. Film schools are made up, almost entirely, of people who believe they are very, very special.
Another postman
For most of us our “shot” fails to hit the target or misfires completely. This is my experience of a creative writing degree. Coming out of that experience, real life is an almost crippling let down, a chain of polite refusals that each cements a little bit more that it's just not going to happen, like another brick in a tomb that's slowly being built around you.

Creative people will often speak of how they felt chosen or special, or cut out for something different (Grant Morrison is a classic example), but everyone's life has that same feeling of inevitability. I feel that too, I just don't have the success to validate that feeling.

A doctor
So, what next? After failure, what do you do? Like everyone else, I long to be a writer, but even in the face of abject failure I can't give up. I've got to do this, I don't know why, and so on I go. Fortunately the history of literature suggests that there's not single way to approach the literary life.

Pondering The Letters of T S Eliot vol 1, Lisa Levy points out that during his great creative period, which included writing Prufrock and Other Observations and The Wasteland, Eliot was working for Lloyds Bank. Far from living the silk-pyjama-ed life of the mind, he got up every day and sat behind a desk, doing something very boring and paying the bills.

Brilliantly, when offered a job as assistant editor Atheaneum by John Middleton Murry, Eliot writes to his about the advantages and disadvantages:
He passes over the advantages—more money, social prestige—quite quickly. But he is clear on the disadvantages: “4. The work might be more exhausting than the bank work; and would have no more relation to my own serious work than the bank work has. 5. I have lately been shifted into new and much more interesting work at the bank which is not routine but research – practically economics and am in fact a kind of bureau by myself.”
Oh, you get idea...
Eliot found his day job rewarding in itself and a restful pursuit that helped him focus on his “serious work”. Well, he didn't have a couple of kids on top of that, it's true, but it's a hopeful message nonetheless.

Eliot's not the only writer to resort to a day job. The article points out that William Carlos Williams was a doctor, and let's not forget that Kafka worked in insurance, Trollope worked for the Post Office, as did Charles Bukowski, and Philip K Dick shifted through a series of record shop jobs he could never quite hang on to.

In fact, when you look into it, the writers who can devote themselves to it full-time are either the lucky few who strike gold, the independently wealthy to start with, or the jolly hacks who turn out two books a year on whatever the latest fad might be (yesterday a doorstep fantasy, today a paranormal romance, tomorrow a Steig Larson style trilogy of thrillers).

Then there are the tutors. Well, the tutoring life is not for me, alas, even assuming anyone would be foolish enough to put me in such a position. The pickings are a bit meagre and I enjoy the luxury of a big house and children to fill it. Depending on which paper you read it's a luxury that only illegal immigrant benefit scroungers (Daily Mail) or fat cat bankers (Guardian) can afford, and I'm content to float around the periphery of the latter.

So, I'm not doing too bad. I can still write in the tiny shreds of day that remain to me after commerce and family are satisfied, and because it doesn't have to pay the bills I can write what I like. I'd love to be able to pay the bills writing what I like, and that might still happen some day, but if not, working and writing provides a degree of discipline and gives me a reason to keep at it.

(On the other hand, if you are a publisher with a hot and cold running wallet, do get in touch.)

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