The best pieces of writing I have read have been the most genuine ones; books or poems in which I can connect to something human, some recognisable quality in a character or description. This doesn’t necessarily mean that I can only enjoy realist writing. Even in fantasy genres you can express some real feeling and emotion, enough to move readers. This, in my eyes, is the point of writing and reading. To express something which another group of people would be able to identify with – provoking an emotive response to something which moves you. I think this is where we must then make the distinction between writing as a career or as a lifestyle.
The distinction between writing as a lifestyle or as a career is one that has interested me for a while. Should we aim to ‘be’ a writer, or should it just be something we do on a day to day basis, fully part of a wider life? That sounds like I’m demoting it to a hobby, but my intention is far from that. A career entails the need for financial support, which is of course reasonable. We need money to support ourselves and others; having a career as a writer then follows that you must be able to make money from writing. (Plainly obvious I know). There is nothing ‘wrong’ with this. I think it would be a dream to be able to write and get money for it; being paid to do what I do in my free time would be amazing. That’s why I chose English Literature as a degree (it certainly wasn’t for the employment prospects); I read and write for fun, so it makes sense to then fill my study time with what is also my favourite thing to do. I feel lucky to be in that position; a career in writing would be the natural next step.
However, I’m reluctant to pursue that. I think money complicates things – I need to pay bills, and what if I get married or have children? Then I wouldn’t just be providing for myself; I would have genuine responsibility to provide for a family. Undoubtedly, I would then have to write for money; this is obvious and perhaps even harmless. Yet, there is a reticence within me to do this. Surely there must be a ‘sell-out’ moment, where I must sacrifice some sort of artistic integrity in order to make money, to sell that next book or article? If I need the money, I’ll write what sells. Now, it may be that what sells is what I would want to write – that would be great. But that’s unlikely. Look at authors like Simon Scarrow and Bernard Cornwell – both excellent authors with great success in what they’ve written, I’ve enjoyed their books for years. In roughly 19 years, Bernard Cornwell released 24 books and Scarrow did 15 in 16 years. That is an impressive feat, the two sets of books are incredibly popular. They are also very similar; historical fiction. This genre seems to be extremely compatible with long series, suggesting that there is a formula of book which is successful. I am in no position to criticise either author; maybe if I ever get as successful I can. I am not suggesting they cannot qualify as artists, however it is clear they have identified a genre which will sell and make money. This suggests there may be a set of qualities which publishers look for which signify a commercial success. Technique, ability, tone, and style all come into play. But what if a publisher begins to dictate those things? Surely, we would lose some authenticity in the innocent attempt to be successful. Commercial writing must come at the price of some artistic uniqueness and originality; this is something no writer should be willing to do.
Writing for a career means you are far more susceptible to being drowned as an artist by calls from the fans and figures. You end up writing what people want, not what you want or set out to create. That is a sacrifice of integrity I think shouldn’t be made. If a career author must do this then writing shouldn’t be a career. Of course, there are exceptions with authors being largely successful for the merit of their work (and to an extent that is every successful author), so it can be done. But I really do believe that if more people have artistic pursuits as a lifestyle rather than a job, we would be the richer for it. Perhaps less time and resources would be available if another job was pursued, yet if writing becomes more authentic due to less external influence (from commercialisation and publishers) then I believe the sacrifice of time is fully reimbursed.
Perhaps it is easier for a poet to hold poetry within a lifestyle rather than as a career. A novelist must devote far much more time to their work than a poet; the length, depth, and nature of the piece of art is wholly different. But I think even a novelist must have lived a life before they can write and their work should speak of this. The cliché expression of ‘there is a book in everyone’ does hold true. Each day we live out a life worthy of an account. You can’t ‘enter’ writing as a career path. Writing must be an expression of a lived-in experience. The truest originality can only be found once you have had a set of experiences unique to your life. So yes, a poet could pursue poetry as a lifestyle far more easily than a novelist, but the idea of ‘starting’ a career in either isn’t one I buy into.
To demonstrate the danger of writing to a commercial criterion I will use one of the biggest criticisms of English as a subject. I’ve learnt that a modern complaint within the subject is directed towards the canon of English Literature. The works which are deemed as our greatest and most successful – what Schools and Universities have taught for centuries essentially. The criticism is that the canon is not representative of culture and life; that is far too middle class and white (and male). We are then exposed to a narrow portion of society and culture, missing swathes of great work. Only a tiny part of the literature studied within the discipline is translated from other languages – we grossly overlook non-English literature. Now I would argue that career writing similarly excludes vast parts of an experience of life. It is extremely difficult to ‘make it’ as a writer, thus a certain genre or style must have a greater success rate. There simply must be a commercially successful genre and style. However, if people who do other things write, then we see a great and colourful portrait of life. If bus drivers, doctors, nurses, bin men, plumbers, singers, cooks, teachers and cleaners wrote down their expression of the life they live then think of the lenses in which we could look through life. Sure, it doesn’t change what gets published, but it means that one day someone will read about how a cleaner saw the world, how they interacted with changes in economics and society and how they loved and hurt. What an amazing thing that would be; to see a puzzle of life being put together by the different parts of society. As a society, we could leave a treasure trove for future generations, giving an insight into life like never before through literature.
If this leaves you in doubt, watch a film called ‘Paterson’. It sums up perfectly what I am trying to articulate. A bus driver poet writes what he sees and experiences; he hears conversations, sees signs, and parts of the city and spends his life in monotony. But he turns it into something for greater than that through his poetry. I’m not doing a film review though – just go watch it. Each one of us have a unique glimpse into the same world; if writing was an expression of this rather than a means to an end, it could be spectacular. I will use a few authors as example; Khaled Hosseini practiced medicine, Salman Rushdie was a copywriter, Philip Larkin was a Librarian, George Orwell was a policeman in Burma and later lived in poverty in both Paris and London. Their works are all unique and capture completely different perspectives on life, giving us a rare opportunity to see things through different lenses. If we wrote (whether it be poetry, novels, articles etc) as a part of our lives then this vast variety of experience would be amplified. We should want to write down what we know and live, if success follows then great. If not; you’ve still done what you wanted to do all along – express something only you could.
I think our generation is far more at risk of commercialising art and writing. Everything is so instant, there a many more careers and opportunities for money. Of course, there is more competition than ever too. But, and I may be wrong, it feels as if this desire for the instant has come at the cost of some sort of patience (for want of a better word). We want success. I want to write and I want to be an author now; it’s almost too difficult to wait until I have something to write about. This could just be me – but it may also be symptomatic of our situation. Maybe if we were more prepared to wait (meaning seeing out a life instead of career writing) then the fruit of our patience would be spectacular.