Last week, I came across this article in the Conversation on Booker Prize winner Eleanor Catto’s plan to use her winnings from the NZ Post Best Fiction and People’s Choice’s prizes to set up a new grant for writings dedicated to giving them time to read.
This struck a particular chord with me. Writers are always told to read widely and research their subjects thoroughly so as to assimilate and cultivate ideas, to mature and develop our thoughts and broaden our perspectives. Reading, even surfing the Internet, jumping from one linked site to another, grabbing ideas, even just sitting and observing the world about us, absorbing knowledge and customs and behaviours and styles and genres, it’s all part of the writing process even when we’re not writing a single word. And yet one always feels terribly guilty while doing so. It just seems so much like… well, leisure time. Fun time. (And let’s not beat around the bush here – it is fun.) But if I’m not actually using the time to write, if I’m not actually producing something, I can’t help but feel I’m actually just being idle and fooling around. (Coincidentally, this particular subject of constant guilt tripping whenever we take time out to engage in creative pursuits was something that was covered at the How to Be Creative workshop I took at this month’s School of Life Pop-Up in Perth, a temporary offshoot from the School of Life in Melbourne, but more on that workshop in another post!)
Eleanor Catto’s announcement has already raised a number of questions about the grant she proposes – for example, what kind of works would the winning applications read? One cynical commenter asked if there should be a set reading list of literary gems like Kafka and Dostoevsky. Notable works that any writer could benefit from, to be sure, but that then raises the question of what books are worthy books and what aren’t. Would books like romance novels and fast-paced thrillers be banned on the basis that they’re not ‘literary’ enough? Or comic books? And yet one can’t dismiss the fact that these genres, just like any other genre, have their own pedigree, their own merit and a pretty damn fine background of great quality writing at that. Just think of the Sandman series by Neil Gaiman, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind. On the same note, one might suggest Dan Brown books would be excluded based on the amount of negative criticism his bestsellers have generated on the quality of his writing. And yet, as author and former literary agent Nathan Bransford pointed out, Brown’s writing might have plenty of faults but what truly makes him stand out among all other writers is his ability to create gripping page-turners that no one ever put down until they had read the very last word on the very last page. And that, in itself, is a formidable skill worth mastering.
Personally, I think that forcing writers to choose books from some sort of preset list might go completely against the point of Catto setting up this grant in the first place, which is to allow writers a certain measure of creative freedom from the demands of our society for instant gratification, instant productivity, and instant financial and commercial success. Let’s not forget that writers are urged to read widely for a reason and who’s to say that a writer who’s been carefully hoarding their hard-earned pennies to buy carefully chosen titles of high artistic and literary merit shouldn’t be allowed to spend the money from a grant on some truly frivolous and silly books that might, after all, widen their perspective and perhaps help guide their writing in the future to something fun and fantastic? After all, everyone likes a little fun and fantastic in their stories too. It can’t all be dark, tortured, cynical misery. Creativity, after all, should uplift the soul and it’s hard to be uplifted when you’ve just been told that all good intentions lead to nothing and you might as well give up now because you’ve forgotten to tie your shoelace when you left the house and that one careless inaction will lead to a series of inadvertent events that will end in the destruction of everything and everyone you’ve ever loved and cared for.
It’s natural that people will bristle if they see what they think is the writer’s equivalent of a scientist being awarded a grant to research whether digital rectal massage can help cure a really bad case of the hiccups (this, by the way, is real. I’m not lying. Click here to read about this, plus other strange and seemingly pointless forms of academic research. You know you want to). But where does one draw the line between the ridiculous and the creative? Is there a line? How does one decide when creativity is sufficiently productive to merit time and money spent on its pursuit? Does creativity need to be productive?
“We’re very lucky in New Zealand to have a lot of public funding available for writers, but they generally require the writer to have a good idea about what they want to write, and how, before they apply. I think that this often doesn’t understand or serve the creative process, which is organic and dialectic; I also think it tends to reward people who are good at writing applications rather than, necessarily, people who are curious about and ambitious for the form in which they are writing. I’m also uncomfortable with the focus that it places on writing as production, with publication as the end goal, rather than on writing as enlightenment, with the reading as the first step.” – Eleanor Catto
There are plenty of people who are in favour of Catto’s proposal, though they have also expressed some doubt about the actual pragmatic benefits of such a grant (which brings us back to the above question – should creativity need to be productive? And if so, how do we measure this productivity?). Others still have wondered whether a grant of $3000 per chosen writer might seem rather insufficient – nothing more than a mere drop in an ocean. How much pragmatic output can we see from this? Which again brings us back to the question of whether we can measure time spent on creative pursuits through some sort of set mathematical formulae, as it were.
The entire debate also raises broader questions regarding the kind of support/obstacles today’s writers face. As Beth Driscoll points out at The Conversation, authors’ incomes have been dropping heaps over the past few years. Anyone who’s ever earnestly pursued a career in writing can tell you right now that one of the most common pieces of advice doled out to any aspiring writer is this: if you’re in it for the money, you might as well stop writing and shut your laptop down. Right. Now. Writing is a tough, dog eat dog business in which only a very small percentage makes enough to earn a comfortable living without having to work a day job whiles those who make as much as J.K. Rowling and the other big bestsellers form a still tinier percentage.
If we were to pay writers for their time spent researching, reading and developing ideas – that is, if we were to pay them, say, for the number of hours spent developing a product, does that mean the general public have a say in how many hours could be spend on one single product or the right to demand a certain number of dividends on a certain deadline? Even now there is a certain ire presented by readers who feel their beloved authors aren’t generating books fast enough to feed their insatiable appetites – names like Robin McKinley and George R. R. Martin come to mind. And yet if we love these authors’ work enough, perhaps we should be prepared to sit and wait for a couple of years or however long it takes for them to write a book of comparable calibre to their previous bestsellers because, well, that’s how they work and that’s how they churn out these works that we so dearly cherish?
For that matter, what effect would financial contracts that set inflexible deadlines have on the creativity mindset? Some authors might thrive on deadlines; others might find their inspiration and will to work hampered by time limits. Will we then have the author equivalent of a mass marketed pop singer created solely to churn out soulless, cookie-cutter albums as quickly as they can to satisfy a mass demand rather than any sort of criteria of quality?
I’m pretty enthusiastic about Catto’s grant. proposal. As Driscoll says, if nothing else, a grant for reading as a creative act also aids in creating further awareness and debate about what kind of support writers and other artists need to incubate their ideas and develop their work. It also challenges how we view and value creativity as a society – and that can only be a good thing.