from BARDO

The stars are in our belly; the Milky Way our umbilicus.

Is it a consolation that the stuff of which we’re made

is star-stuff too?

– That wherever you go you can never fully disappear –

dispersal only: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen.

Tree, rain, coal, glow-worm, horse, gnat, rock.

Roselle Angwin

Saturday, 23 January 2016

working in the arts

Some of you will be aware that there's been a small kerfuffle (technical term) in the literary world. Philip Pullman, previously Patron of the Oxford Literary Festival sponsored, I believe, by The Times, feels that his engagement with OLF compromises his position as President of the Society of Authors, which champions authors' rights.

Wherein the conflict of interests, one might ask? The issue is that the big literary festivals – and for all I know the smaller ones too – don't pay their authors for their appearances, talks, workshops, readings, etc. (I don't know if this is true completely across the board, i.e. whether the big-name celebrity authors are in fact paid.)

The Society of Authors exists, of course, to promote such things as authors' rights. The Soc of A is currently campaigning for writers to be paid for appearing at a LitFest.

Pullman makes the point that at every step of the literary festival infrastructure salaries, fees, costs, wages are paid to everyone who participates in making the event happen (aside from the volunteers), from the programme managers down to the bar staff and marquee erectors. Everyone, that is, except for the people without whom a literary festival can't exist – the writers.

Too bloody right they should be paid. Why is it that, if we work at something that gives us pleasure (as well as hair-tearing pain, at times), we should be seen as privileged for that very fact, and therefore not need money? And if that's in the arts, where payment is small (average earnings of a full-time writer stand currently at around £11,000, with many, of course, existing on quite a lot less than that) and erratic at best anyway, all the more relevant that they are, and are seen to be, paid for the work they do.

As writers are fond of saying 'You wouldn't expect to book a plumber and then be surprised when s/he wanted to be paid; why an author?' 

At the risk of sounding horrendously worthy and virtuous, back in the days when I was the director of a small Dartmoor literary festival it never crossed my mind that my programmed writers would perform for free.

Between 1998 and 2004, I booked writers whose work, skill and vision I rated and whose ability to engage an audience or lead a workshop was excellent. They weren't top flight celebrities; instead, they were quiet lights in their own field of something generally more profound than celebrity culture.

At the time (as now, in fact) I was making my way in the world entirely through my writing and writing-related activities, entirely freelance. There were many times when I simply didn't know whether I was going to be able to pay the rent and bills at the end of the month; there were some times when I had to choose between paying the rent, buying food, or clothing my daughter. That is how it is if you refuse to compromise your vision and work in a vocation that is not valued in our current culture.

For nine months of each year during that period, I gave over most of my freelance working time to planning and programming that festival not knowing during several months of that time if I'd receive the grants essential to covering all the costs and paying me for my work too. I had virtually no other income, and no capital, savings, or financial help. As it happened, we (I say 'we' as I had the most fantastic team of volunteers helping me) always did.

But never once did it occur to me not to pay the visiting authors. I gambled on being able to pay them, if grants failed, by the takings on the door, realising that I'd have to do even more promotion than we already were. By the standards of those days, I (we) paid them well, too: between £150 and £200 each 'slot' for a reading of up to an hour, and/or a two hour workshop. In fact, that's pretty good by today's standards, too.

I was also naïve. I had no idea, then, that bigger festivals, such as Ways With Words in Dartington, sponsored by The Telegraph, didn't pay their authors. 

If I had known, it would have changed nothing. Too bloody right that authors need to be paid. Too bloody right that Pullman has brought that to our collective attention.

* LATER: a friend, co-founder and co-organiser of the Teignmouth Poetry Festival, reminded me that this (small) one, and the Torbay (small) one both pay their poets. Having read at both festivals myself I should have remembered that. Support the small festivals, people!

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