FOR ART’S SAKE
THE CASE FOR PAYING ARTISTS A LITTLE RESPECT
Does the world need my stories? A multi-award-winning Australian writer once asked me that question, and I could only answer: ‘No.’ No-one needs my stories, in particular, and I certainly have no right, culturally or morally, to tell any of them to anyone. I’m just a writer, a storyteller with things to say, and for whatever the reasons might be, there are enough readers in the world wanting to hear those stories to have made writing them worthwhile beyond the telling of the tales.
Under challenge from loftier artists, or from the publishing industry, or from the public, I’ve tended to shrink away from defending my craft and retreat into what I do and know best: writing. I pull down the shutters and write it out. Why? What is driving me? I know why I write what I write: I mostly explore the contradictions of Australia and my own personal and family-historical experiences of it, in order to dig into truths of who we are; I follow threads of love and hope because I want to put bright things in the world; I also love playing in my mud-puddle of words and antique ephemera, losing my way in tangles of etymology and the workings of ancient household appliances. It’s a mix of serious intellectual endeavour, a hard-wired need to entertain, and pig-in-shit indulgence.
But when my audience is relatively modest and my bank account does not exactly reflect all the effort, why do I continue to write? The more I write, the less I can answer that question. Is it the blarney of my mother’s line, or the chutzpah of my father’s? Both maybe, but it seems less relevant the more I write, too. I’m fifty-two next week; I wrote my first complete piece of writing at twelve; after forty years then, ten published novels, some short stories and a whole career in editing and mentoring other writers, maybe I can call myself a writer? I don’t know. What is my worth?
In this time of corona chaos, a lot of artists are asking themselves this same question. There is no question that the present disruption has been devastating to the arts – every corner of it. A couple of publishers have pluckily reported increases in sales during lockdown (I’ve seen a rise in online sales for my own books too), but there seems little doubt that the fallout has only just begun. Some publishers won’t survive; some authors will see the career they thought they had suddenly change in trajectory; the whole shebang will contract again, almost certainly resulting in fewer opportunities all round for Australian authors. For actors and musicians, many have had the carpet brutally ripped from under them; some will lose their homes; some will lose their minds – from simply not being able to perform, not to mention the practicalities of life.
It’s all caused me to reflect on my nuts-and-bolts actual worth as an artist, and I’m surprised at what I’ve found. I’ve been a mostly independent artist for the past four years, so I have all the figures in front of me, but while I can see the numbers add up to reasonably impressive amounts, they represent much more in creative terms than they do in mere cash.
For starters, they represent many thousands of readers who have bought a copy of one or more of my books either for themselves or someone else, not including the thousands more who have borrowed one from a library.
Within the number-crunching, there is my editor, Alexandra Nahlous, who has nurtured and queried and corrected five of my manuscripts. There is my designer, Alissa Dinallo, whose beautiful images grace the covers of new books and reissued backlist titles. These two artists are highly respected industry specialists without whom many Australian books would not be what and where they are today. Then there’s my publishing consultant, Joel Naoum, who arranges the production and distribution of the books. None of these people need me – not by any stretch – but all of them are paid something because I write books. I also happen to promote their talents wherever I go, which is always a delight.
Then there are my local booksellers, BooksPlus in Bathurst, Collins in Orange and the Book Connection in Dubbo, with whom I have much more than a mere business relationship – we have fun promoting regional authors and each other’s work and services. No matter how it’s sliced or diced, sales of my books are a part of the Central West economy, supporting small business and the people it employs. Then there is the printer in Melbourne, and the people that printer employs – including the truck drivers who deliver the books across the country.
Then there are the special formats of my books, published through Read How You Want, in large print, dyslexic and braille formats. Not only does this mean the stories get into the hands of those who read differently, but again it means that someone is paid to reformat and distribute these titles.
Then there are the audiobook editions, and the publishers and production staff who put them together, and the actors who read them – seventeen in all so far, and three employed during this time of extreme crisis for actors. No, these actors will not be earning vast sums, but enough to keep careers going and spirits hardy. I’m enormously proud that two young actors with their stars just on the rise – Lucy Ansell and Laurence Boxhall – will read Walking in coming weeks for Bolinda Publishing.
And I can’t forget my agent, the inimitable Selwa Anthony, who might make peanuts from me but never wavers in her belief that stories made of love and the need to tell them will find a way – and are essential to getting us all through dire times.
I’m far from experiencing dire times in any financial sense. The Public Lending Rights payments I earn from the federal government each year are enough to justify writing the next book. But if this were my only source of income from writing, as it is for many, it’s not enough to live on – it will not pay the rent or put food on the table. It will not make more art.
Pushing artists into poverty and despair will mean that some artists won’t be heard from again – full stop. Not the famous ones, but those like me, and most artists are just like me: we have small but dedicated audiences; we bring joy and thought and wonder; and in our small but significant ways we increase good feeling in the community, we throw out life lines, and we contribute in cash terms to the lives of other artists and industry professionals. We are, as a job lot, pretty damn economically and socially essential.
Those who light up the dark for others deserve to be supported during their own dark times. But just who will be the first artists to be discouraged from continuing? They will be women, especially mothers and carers, Indigenous artists, working-class artists, those from all kinds of diverse backgrounds, those with a disability and regional artists – people who are less likely to be able to take time off work, take the financial risks or make the cold, hard cash sacrifices that creating art requires. People with important things to say.
But we deserve support all the time – not only when the proverbial hits the fan. We need support every ordinary day, to stave away feelings of worthlessness that can come at any time. In the world of acting, a recent survey showed almost half of all performers felt their mental health was ‘poor or average’; I don’t know what it is for writers, but I guess it would be about the same. Your identity is wrapped up in what you do for a living. If you’re an actor, you’re an actor whether you’re in work or not – you have those skills and that brave heart. If you’re a writer, you’re a writer whether or not you’ve signed a contract for that next book – you will write while your house is burning down around you. All artists have to be bloody tough to ride the highs and lows the way we do, but there is no culture presently in Australia that ever pats us on the back for our grit, or for all we give.
In my darkest times, the demon that has pushed me closest to turning suicidal ideation into reality is a lack of respect, a lack of acknowledgement of the hard work of my own brave heart. I often wonder how many artists our collective lack of respect has killed. We’re bludgers and ne’er do wells, dreamers and wankers; at times, we cop abuse and savagery from armchair critics, some of it searingly personal. We’re expected to grin and bear it, and we do. We’re expected to front up – for free – at all kinds of events, to charm, inspire, bring bums on seats. I do several freebies a year myself, whether we’ve had a bushfire or a pandemic or not. But we’re not worth supporting? Not in any special way?
Oh, but artists are supported by publishers, production houses, galleries and tribes of luvvies, aren’t they? No, they are not. Captains of the arts industry have no incentive to love artists or care about them individually – unless we can pull in big bucks, in which case these kinds of relationships based on cash and cache can be highly insecure anyway. But as a society – as people who benefit directly from the enjoyment and nourishment of the arts – we should care.
And this is why I think it’s time we looked at introducing a special income support for artists. It doesn’t need to be huge, and it would need to be means tested and supported by the artists’ bodies of work, but it is essential. I wouldn’t qualify for such a thing now myself, but I want to know it’s there should I need it in the future. I want it there right now for my fellow artists who are struggling. I want it there as a mark of respect for what we all do.
Look at what I have contributed – tiny fish that I am – and tell me the world doesn’t need my hard work or brave heart. Maybe the more meaningful question might be: would the world be better off without my stories? The answer to that must be: ‘No.’