Filthy Lucre?

There’s been some talk recently in writing circles about money and its role in an artistic life, fuelled (at least in part) by Donal Ryan‘s recent interview in which he admitted he has had to resume work as a civil servant in order to pay his bills, despite being an award-winning, successful novelist. It’s something that every person who writes and makes money from it has to think about and deal with, and something that very few of us talk about.


Money money money money… Mo-ney! Photo credit: SJ O’Hart

Well. Very few people talk about money at the best of times. But writers and artists, somehow, talk about it even less; as though money somehow taints the integrity of artistic work, or we like people to think we can subsist on good wishes and sunbeams. (Note: we can’t. Pay us, please!)

So, I thought I might address the issue as it pertains to my own life, at least a little.

Firstly, the issue of money is not straightforward. The idea of ‘making a living’ is not monolithic. Different people have different needs, different outgoings, different commitments, and these vary depending on: your housing situation, whether or not you have children, whether or not you need a car, whether you are in ill health or need ongoing medical support, and a host of other things. It also depends on what ‘enough’ means to you. Some people aren’t comfortable without a substantial cushion in the bank account, while others are happy if they have a month’s rent/mortgage and bills banked in case of a rainy day.

I have a simple life. My husband and I don’t smoke, we rarely drink, we don’t go out much and we haven’t had a holiday since our honeymoon. Despite this we manage to have plenty of fun, but we don’t need to spend a lot of money to have the lifestyle we want. Our main expenditure is books and the baby – and, since we use cloth nappies for the latter, that’s not even a huge source of spending any more – so we can get by on one salary, by and large. I am privileged, and I admit as much, to be married to a person with a job, which pays him a reasonable if not huge salary, and that this person is (and has been) willing to help me financially as much as possible. I’m also privileged insofar as I am in full health, at least as far as I am currently aware, and I don’t have any long-term or recurring medical expenses.

Having said that, I worked all my life from the age of fifteen, in a variety of jobs both full- and part-time, and when in 2012 I took a chance and left a job to give writing a go, I supported my end of our household for almost three years out of the money I had saved. I was nearing the bottom of my financial barrel, admittedly, when I signed my book deal – and that was the saving grace for us. By Irish standards, it was generous; it certainly gave me, and our family (by then, of three) a bit of breathing room.

However, it was news to me, until recently, that advances to writers in Ireland can be so low, and I find it wrong, simply put, that sometimes book deals are signed where the author receives no advance at all. I’m not suggesting that the country ‘owes artists a living’ – but art is important, particularly during turbulent times, and it should be recognised that it is also a job, which deserves payment, recognition and respect. I also understand that writers often need to work at other things to make ends meet, and when the time comes for me, I will do so, too. My advance won’t last forever and I may never earn royalties on a word I write, so I’ve made backup plans. For the moment my time is amply spent trying to fulfil my publishing contract and parent my child, and when things change, so will I. Again, this is a privilege I am happy to acknowledge.

Very few writers will earn enough to live on; without my husband’s income I freely and gratefully admit I wouldn’t be where I am. However, those of us who do write or create things which are consumed, used and enjoyed by society in general deserve to be paid for that work. Writers should always receive advances from their publishers. Society should provide grants and bursaries for visual artists, and these should be ringfenced – not slashed – in times of crisis. People from disadvantaged backgrounds should be given even greater access to the communal pot of funding. Should, should, should – and I realise I have no power to bring any of this into being, or ensure it happens consistently, and I also realise that most people don’t create art for financial gain – but it boils down to this: we need to value artists, in all the ways it’s possible to value a person and their work. Without art and culture, everyone suffers.

It’s in everyone’s interest to ensure that people can create, that they’re given the space and time to make art, that they’re respected and supported and paid appropriately, depending on the situation. Even if I weren’t in the position of earning a ‘living’, such as it is, from writing, I’d believe this to be true. How about you?

Do you have any thoughts on the thorny issue of paying artists for their work, and how best to manage it? I’d love to know your opinions.

4 thoughts on “Filthy Lucre?

  1. Kate Wally

    Such a thorny issue! I truly believe artists of all varieties should be paid for their work – period!

    But it’s complicated. Art is subjective. My mother and I were in an artisan’s cooperative today full of watercolours, prints and sketches. We had the same thoughts – some folk will get what they’re asking for their art and others won’t.

    “Some people just *have it*,” Mum said, “Whatever *it* is”

    Yet, that is only our opinion and undoubtedly they’ve all spent similar time on their art. If art were measured in effort – everyone would win. And if success could be assured, I’ve no doubt advances would be paid without a second thought. It’s a shame it is less about art and more about money.

    It seems you also need to be heard before you’re seen. And it’s hard. You can’t begin with crowd funding because no-one knows you exist. You struggle to exist because you don’t have the funds. Catch 22.

    Art is measured by many things, skill and dedication help but popularity and luck can play more of a part than we like to admit. Mum and I had no answers.

    I support artists whenever I can – as much as anything, I see myself in them. What else can we do?

    1. SJ O'Hart Post author

      Yes, I guess all we can do is support art both in financial terms and through a love for culture in general – lobbying against cuts, helping schools pay for author visits, raising money for libraries, whatever the case may be – and hope that it’s enough. I do agree not all artists are created equal and it’s hard to support art you don’t personally like; it’s important not to let the idea of art being a ‘waste of time’ and being without ‘value’ creep in, too. Art has vast value. Without it, what are we here for? I agree there are no good answers, and it is a very thorny issue – and I thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts with me, Kate. x

  2. Jan Hawke

    Supporting myself is occupying much of my waking hours just now so, as you haven’t had much response yet I’ll chime in. 🙂

    I too consider myself to be in a privileged position, despite health not being brilliant and my still getting accustomed to ‘widowhood’. I’ve taken early retirement and have a good enough pension to keep body and soul happy, so I’ve time to pursue a literary life without a book deal and minimal ‘compensation’ from online booksellers when people do buy my books, even if that means I only ever break even on publication costs.

    However, I’m in the throes of ‘future-proofing’ my house and environment for the time when my mobility becomes worse and just getting the house as spruced up and presentable in preparation for the time when I’ll have no energies to spare for such delights as interior decoration. However, I’ve spent all the proceeds of my late husband’s estate so am having to look at equity release to achieve the balance of my building projects. A pretty penny is being dangled for which I won’t have to bust a gut to pay off, or indeed not even pay the interest if I so choose. But, life can bite you in the bum as any writer knows, if only in the realms of fiction. So I’m seriously considering other sources of sustainable income in the form of going into paid editorial services and ‘personal appearances’ in the future, to get some pin money coming in that may or may not mean I have to get back onto the salary and tax-paying treadmill again…

    Part of the reason I took early retirement was because of mental health considerations in which the stress of being a square peg in the round job hole played a large part. This time around I’d be my own boss, and I’d being doing something I want to do, so hopefully the stars will shine on the enterprise and I’ll at least be creating good karma for other aspiring indie writers in the process, by providing something practical and affordable.
    Like you’re saying – you cut the garment according to the cloth available. It doesn’t have to be silk and satin all the time – other fibres have their own appeal and unique textural delights and can still make your tapestry glow and shine with colour and depth! 😉

    1. SJ O'Hart Post author

      Thanks, Jan. All I can say is I wish you the very best of good luck in all your future endeavours, and I hope your efforts to create good karma pay off for you, and for any writer lucky enough to encounter you! x


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