Who is the Modern Writer?

Who is the Modern Writer?
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James Franco as Allen Ginsberg in Howl

So you want to be a writer? Picturing long, quiet days tapping away at a keyboard and sipping endless cups of tea? The odd walk in the park to clear your head? Weeks, months and years dedicated to writing and writing alone?

Well, you might have to adjust your expectations. After all, how much writing can you actually do? A writer is never just a writer anymore. What with publicity tours, signings, reading groups, book fairs, literary festivals and a whole host of other time-consuming activities, today’s writer has an awful lot on his plate. Not only is he very, very busy, he is also not necessarily a financial success (yet), so doing part-time jobs, writing book reviews and articles, and teaching creative writing all help keep the wolf from the door. Add the lure of social media to the mix and the growing need to establish some sort of authorial online presence in our increasingly crowded world, and you’re about as far away from the traditional image of a writer as you can get—which begs the question: does the modern writer have to be more adaptable than ever before?

To tackle this question, fifty or so people gathered one afternoon last weekend at the Senate House as part of the Bloomsbury Festival. There to shed some light on the issue were Joseph Brooker, Reader in Modern Literature at Birkbeck College; Lynne Truss, author of the punctuation guide Eats, Shoots and Leaves; John Sutherland, a columnist for the Guardian and author of Lives of the Novelists: A History of Fiction in 294 Lives; and Alex Preston, author of two novels—This Bleeding City and The Revelations.

What was obvious is that money is key. It always has been. While six-figure advances and hotly contested book auctions continue to hog literary headlines, our panel argued that the vast majority of authors simply don’t earn all that much and that many cannot support themselves by writing alone. What to do, then? Well, journalism is a natural fit—writing reviews and features can earn a budding writer the crust his as-yet-unpublished novel can’t. Lynne Truss went as far to describe the novelist as a dual person: the paid journalist and the unpaid novelist.

But is this really a new phenomenon? Haven’t writers always done a bit here and there to top up their earnings? Sutherland aptly pointed out that even in 1890 there were only about 200 writers who could live solely by their books. Hemingway was a travelling journalist; T. S. Elliot a bank clerk—a more mundane profession, maybe, but as Alex Preston pointed out, everything you do, no matter how dull, feeds into your writing. The picture that emerges is that there is nothing new about supplementing your royalties with a little work on the side.

There is, however, something different about the contemporary writer. Sutherland said that writers nowadays are operating in an industry that has changed more in the past ten years than it has in about a century, and the writer has to follow suit and keep up with its demands. The biggest game changer has been the explosion of digital media, which has reshaped the way we read and write and communicate, and as a consequence, how writers and readers interact, and what they expect of each other.

The internet is, of course, the engine behind this, for good or bad—a bit of both, according to the panellists. The distractions of the internet are notorious and the pull of social media inescapable, so much so that Preston paid homage to an app called Freedom, which allows you to unplug yourself from the internet for a set amount of time and actually get on with some writing. After all, at least a degree of sustained attention is needed to write. But the internet and social media can also be a wonderful tool for a writer. It can be a platform from which to talk about your work with an interested global audience. Writers can thrive online, forge links and establish strong followings; likewise, readers can wield impressive influence over other readers.

As often happens in discussions about the book industry, it’s easy to slide into doom-and-gloom musings on the future and the hardships authors face. Last weekend’s discussion was no exception, and the focus of the talk was sometimes lost in sweeping comments that didn’t add much, even if they were peppered with amusing anecdotes. But even through glasses that were far from rose-tinted, it was obvious that the writers on the panel love being writers. More importantly, they emphasised how important it is that they can engage with readers directly today, whether on Twitter or at a literary festival.

Being adaptable to change as a writer today means a lot of things. It means being prepared to do more than just nurture your literary creation; it means engaging with readers in an ever-changing context; it means creating a palpable presence online. In short (and in job-speak), it means being an efficient multitasker in an increasingly demanding but rewarding career. Writers have never just been writers; they’ve just had to become even more adept at being good at many more things than one. Truss and Preston made a very telling point: they estimated that the average author spends 25% of his working time writing, and the rest is taken up by all the other aspects of being a writer.

So, the point of all this talk? If you want to be a writer, you’d better brush up on your juggling skills. And enjoy yourself while you’re at it.

Bella Whittington

About Bella Bosworth

Bella Whittington reads and reviews a bit of everything, but is particularly interested in literary fiction, translations and short stories. After living in Spain for a year, she now works as an assistant editor for Transworld Publishers in London. She has also contributed to Thresholds, the University of Chichester's international short story forum, and the Harker.

Bella Whittington reads and reviews a bit of everything, but is particularly interested in literary fiction, translations and short stories. After living in Spain for a year, she now works as an assistant editor for Transworld Publishers in London. She has also contributed to Thresholds, the University of Chichester's international short story forum, and the Harker.

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