The Canadian Writers' Collective

Writing, and writerly tangents

Thursday, September 27, 2007

The Starving Artist as Capitalistic Archetype

by Tricia Dower

Colin was telling a friend about a talented young man he’d met who composes non-traditional classical music. “So, he’s chosen a life of poverty,” the friend remarked and I thought about how easily we accept the inevitability of that choice. Our values have been so co-opted by a bottom-line culture that we truly believe in the necessity of starving artists. They’re doing what they love, the reasoning goes, and that’s enough of a reward.

Four of the short-listed nominees for Britain’s ₤50,000 Man Booker prize have recorded pitiful sales of their books. (They could use that prize money.) Nigel Reynolds reported in an article in the September 9th Telegraph: “Indian author Indra Sinha [Animal’s People], had sold just 231 copies in the UK by mid-August, 10 days after its sales were supposedly given a major boost by being long-listed. Nicola Barker's Darkmans had sold only 499 copies. Anne Enright's The Gathering had fared a little better with sales of 834 sales, Mister Pip [by Lloyd Jones] had sales of 880 and … Pakistani author Mohsin Hamid's The Reluctant Fundamentalist broke the four-figure barrier, with 1,519 readers buying it.” Only one nominee, Ian McEwan, is having commercial success with his book, On Chesil Beach; it has sold over 100,000 copies. We can’t count on the marketplace to feed our literary greats.

On Tuesday night I attended a reading by faculty members of UVic’s Department of Writing and an impressive faculty it is. Reading from their own works were Lorna Crozier (Chair); Maureen Bradley (Drama, Screenwriting); Bill Gaston (Fiction, Drama, Screenwriting); Rosa Harris-Adler (Journalism, Creative Non-Fiction); Lorna Jackson (Fiction); David Leach (Journalism, Creative Non-Fiction); Tim Lilburn (Poetry); Joan MacLeod (Drama); and Lynne Van Luven (Journalism, Creative Non-Fiction). They joked about the wealth they were not accumulating through their writing, but they are lucky, nonetheless, to be teaching their art. Crozier opened the evening with an acknowledgment that many new students in the audience were there only because they had vaulted over their parents’ objections to their career choice.

Most parents want their kids to be financially self-sufficient, to be able to afford a home some day, have a few kids of their own. I wanted to be a social worker but my father said I was too soft; I’d give away all my money and end up broke, or murdered, or both. My first husband (I should be waving a martini around as I say that) wanted to be a phys-ed teacher but his father insisted he go into “business” because there wasn’t enough money in teaching. Our culture values money over calling, unless that calling is useful for making money — the more the better.

That’s unlikely to change anytime soon, so the best we can do is lend support to the starving artists around us. I’m intrigued by the concept of a Guaranteed Livable Income which would replace means-tested social benefits. It has some political support in a number of countries, including Canada and the United States, but that support is still small and ineffective. If GLI were implemented, those who are called to paint or sculpt or compose or write would not be committing to a life of poverty as a result or taking a job they hated to feed their artistic "habit."

Image of The Poor Poet by Carl Spitzweg, 1835, courtesy of The Web Gallery of Art. From the Gallery site: "Three versions of the Poor Poet are known. It is thought that Etenhuber (1720-82), a poet living in impoverished circumstances in Munich, was the model. Spitzweg shows the poet writing in bed to keep warm, for there is snow outside and he has no wood to heat the stove. But he seems unconcerned at his scant means and the leaking roof; with pen in mouth, he counts off the meter of his rhyme on his fingers."


Blogger Andrew Tibbetts said...

I love your piece, but mostly I love the image of you swinging your martini around talking about your husbands!

Thu Sep 27, 05:14:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger Antonios Maltezos said...

wow. Notice I didn't use the big w. Wow as in those sales figures are pathetic, as in I'm sure they'll slowly climb as word gets around, as in why keep hoping if you aren't the type of writer who should ever expect to get shortlisted for anything. A small w, as in why, why, why...

Fri Sep 28, 03:02:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger Antonios Maltezos said...

Btw, I agree with andrew about the martini image. Smashing!

Fri Sep 28, 03:03:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger tamara said...

Great piece, Tricia. The martini bit made me laugh, too.

I'm curious about the GLI idea; but I do wonder how many non-legit artists that would inspire. Some folks are opportunists (though less often are opportunists artists...or at least, if they do make money, our society immediately holds them suspect. Perhaps there could be an Opportunist index monitor for the GLI...)

Fri Sep 28, 03:42:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger Tricia Dower said...

Thanks Andrew, Tony, Tamara.

Yeah, Tony, those sales figures make you wonder how the rest of us could hope to sell much at all. And, heck, don't those writers have family and friends?

Tamara, a big problem with GLI and our current form of assistance is psychological: we fear that freeloaders will take advantage of us, that too many people will not want to work at anything. We value work that makes money and discount other types of work such as taking care of children, elderly parents, the disabled. Also, we would rather house the poor in prisons. And, I could go on but I won't. Maybe I'll write more later about how the proponents of GLI see it working.

Fri Sep 28, 04:16:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger Kathleen M. Jacobs said...

Great piece -- thanks!

Wed Dec 20, 12:43:00 pm GMT-5  

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