For anyone stumbling across this blog, sorry today’s entry is a bit type-dense. Normally we do knob jokes and LOLcat virals, honest.
This is a piece penned in frustration – never a good idea – but it’s a subject close to my heart. Last night I went to an event for writers, artists and directors, and got talking to some people who, like me, write for a living. It took a drink or two, but we had a very open conversation about the problem of actually earning a living from it.
I’ve learned not to be shocked by how little people make for doing something well. I’m sure we all have friends who have given up being nurses and teachers because they couldn’t make economic sense of their careers anymore. One of my friends has taken a job as a supermarket shelf-stacker because he can’t make ends meet as a writer. Which probably wouldn’t annoy me if he wasn’t so talented. In the UK, the average wage of a writer is £7,200 per annum.
The conversation coincided with my partner visiting the new BBC London offices – the word ‘cathedral’ sprang to mind, because it was generally agreed that their new building was the most insanely lavish artifice anyone had ever stepped inside. Setting aside the point that it’s taxpayer-funded, let’s recall how little money the BBC spends on outsourcing. One of the writers I spoke to admitted he could no longer afford to travel to the studio to provide the BBC with a 30-second soundbite for free. He’s had to balance interviews with his fares bill, and has given up.
But that’s what is expected of us. Like our universities when compared to their endowment-funded US counterparts, we are on our beam-ends. The arts, possibly because of their long and virtually invisible tradition in the British Isles, are regarded as something that should be provided gratis, like healthcare.
We’re back in a world where the neo-Victorian dilettante is the only one who can afford to write, because finely crafted prose is no longer valued (although I do think this is a passing fad connected to the erroneous idea that we can all create together online). And yet perhaps – just perhaps – the writer’s day is over, and we only require a kind of collective low hum of chat to amuse us while we work for others.
Closing Opportunities Instead of Opening Them
Balance this against lobbying efforts to shut down any websites that infringe copyright, and Republican-driven bills like the doomed SOPA, which resulted in the blacking out of Wikipedia and according to its sponsor was about pushing the legal boundaries and ‘addressing the problem of foreign thieves who steal and sell American products’.
These battles are never waged to protect and reward the creators of content, no matter how carefully the press releases are worded. They’re about protecting the very same businesses who fail to pay originators in the first place. Piracy occurs because the content companies never created a viable alternative, and everyone quickly got used to the idea of free content because businesses failed to turn pirates into consumers of their services.
Look what happened when the BBC created a weblink on their main site for Douglas Adams’s ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy’, a series of successful books which the Beeb basically appropriated because it had once made other versions. The site, H2G2, was user-driven and quickly became popular (I and many other writers provided content for it).
It became too popular. Fearing that it would somehow compete and draw users away from its main site, the BBC closed it down. Let’s say that again; they closed it down because it was overly successful.
I remember working on a BBC film to be theatrically released called ‘UTZ’, about a man who collected rare china, from the book by Bruce Chatwin. It was directed by George Sluizer just after he had made ‘The Vanishing’, and starred Brenda Fricker and Armin Mueller-Stahl. It was quite brilliant. The week before it was due to be released into cinemas across the country, the BBC’s viewing figures slipped, so they chucked it onto TV instead of releasing it, and it has never been seen again. This cold-feet attitude was driven by fear of competitive content.
Who Cares About The Arts?
All the effort that goes into fighting revenue loss could easily go into its legitimate creation. Instead, there’s a bizarre disparity between the hours we put in and the amount organisations take for our work, between the safe options they exercise and what they could achieve by widening choice. Writers have no power, and its unions are toothless – if we stop working now, who cares?
We have the lamest and least elected government in forty years, so who cares about the arts?
Who cares if television execs dump their remit to expand horizons and spend their time arguing about the perceived ‘threat’ of the internet?
Who cares if the only British film at Cannes is by a 76 year-old man? Who cares that theatres once packed with plays by Rattigan, Nichols, Stoppard and Bennett are now filled with Whitney Houston and Michael Jackson tribute shows? Who cares if the astonishing history of women writers from Emily Bronte to Virginia Woolf is replaced with chick-lit? (In America, who now reads Willa Cather when there’s Stephanie Meyer?) Who cares that London’s biggest sight is now Renzo Piano’s crass eyesore, the Shard? Who cares that there are hardly any black writers and artists? Who cares that the arts are just a network for dealmakers, insensible to discovering fresh talent?
Art is a right, not a privilege. The ability to reveal dreams and hopes, to reflect lives and families, to understand the nature of love and loss. When I was ten years old, I had to sit before a board of teachers to be accepted into a grammar school. The first question I was asked was; ‘What do we mean by exhilaration?’ I can’t imagine that question being asked of a ten year-old now.
The arts are something to be rewarded and esteemed, to engage in, to be supported, discussed, derided, loved, fought over and exhilarated by. Instead content is just something that gets in the firing line of business models, and it would be more convenient for everyone if it just went away.
This is not a new complaint, of course. There’s an old British comedy featuring a panel discussion called ‘Whither The Arts?’ that made the same point fifty years ago. The difference is that the arts have already withered, pushed back to what many think is their rightful place – a Victorian lady of means, seated at a writing table for her own amusement.