Three Good Articles

The Guardian has three good front-page articles worth your time today.  Phillip Pullman, author of The Golden Compass series of fantasy novels, laments the current poverty of most writers and argues that they should receive a more equitable share of the money their work generates.  Andrew Crofts suggests that if we really want to make a living at writing, we learn to write what other people want.  And Michelle Dean gives us some well-known examples to support my claim from the other day that George RR Martin is by no means the first writer to miss a deadline.

Dean’s article is slightly misleading.  Her examples are of authors who did not finish their work.  It cannot be said yet that Martin did not finish.  He missed a deadline, that is all.  He will finish, probably some time this year.

Harlan Ellison once called writers “the whores of the profession,” a slap at what he does so well, but also an implicit nod to the collaborative nature of publishing.  Writers and editors need each other, but both Pullman and Ellison have long championed fairer wages for the work writers do.  Fifty percent of royalties seems to me fair compensation for a text.  A good many writers, however, are so excited to see their work in print (or they have such poor agents) that they will settle for 25% or less, a decision which, though it is an individual one, hurts the entire profession.

Most writers are hard-working, very pleasant people, but in the matter of wages, they should be sons and daughters of bitches.  The entire industry of Hollywood owes the billions of dollars of its wealth to the hundreds of writers whose prior novels and stories the industry has been adapting since 1894.  In terms of developing its own original material, Hollywood is unquestionably the least creative place on the planet–and this criticism is coming from a man who likes movies.  Hollywood would be nothing without the writers who turn out the scripts every week for TV shows and films.  Yes, the actors make those words come alive (especially if the words are dead on arrival, as many of them are), but there has to be somebody creating those words in the first place.  And they should be paid fairly.

Publishing would fall to its knees tomorrow without the texts of writers to edit or see through the press.  I’ve done editing, and I’ll tell you, I don’t want to do it again.  It’s a thankless, low-paying, but necessary job.  Again, however, there wouldn’t be a need for editors without writers.  The good editor is worth her weight in gold; the bad ones manifest their badness in many ways.  Nearly all of them are struggling writers on the sly.  One good editor finally got his first novel published last year at the age of 65.  Good for him.

Crofts reflects on the value of ghostwriting.  I’ve not ghostwritten a novel, but I’ve ghostwritten many a letter and many an e-mail for my coworkers at work.  It’s a useful skill to have, and it’s valuable to gain some insight into what other people want.  The most successful writers–a group that includes those who are well-paid and those who write well–are those who understand that successful writing involves providing readers with material they actually want to read.


4 thoughts on “Three Good Articles

  1. ramonawray says:

    I agree with you about Hollywood feeding on the blood and sweat of writers, John. And yet, I believe there is also talent there. Take DiCaprio, for instance, and the new Revenant movie. I’ve seen only trailers so far, but the actor’s work in it is absolutely exceptional. I’ve also read that the conditions in which the movie was shot were barely human – on the edge of hypothermia, shooting only 90 min/day because the director only used natural light, which in northern Canada is scarce this time of year, having to eat – actually eat – raw bison liver (and poor DiCaprio is a vegetarian), and other such horrific details. He actually bled and sweated to bring this character to life, and aside from an iron work ethic, I believe talent was a part of the equation as well.

    But, yes, I agree that talent is rare in Hollywood.

    I’m not sure about the argument of writing to meet the demands of a readership. I understand it makes sense from a business point of view, but I thank God I’m not in a position where I have to accept it. I also believe that the idea is a tad dangerous. It is true that the audiences can exert pressure on the writers, but also true is that writers have the power to educate an audience. By demanding more, eventually one will get more, whereas complying with what it is expected leads to stagnation or even decline. I am horrified by the volume of self-published erotica titles, for example, which have flooded the market in the wake of that woman’s dreadful series (you know which one). New readers will pick up these books – to try, out of curiosity – every day, because they’re readily available and inexpensive. And new writers will continue to cater to this ever-growing crowd. But if the writers would elect not to write for this audience, wouldn’t the audience decrease – or better still, turn toward other, more meritorious titles?

    Lovely post. I hope you are well 🙂

  2. Thank you, Ramona–a very thoughtful response. My comment did not refer to a lack a talent in Hollywood, but rather to a lack of creativity. The studios constantly sponge off the writings of others instead of creating their own source material. That comment says nothing about the talent of the actors; indeed, as I point out, the talent of the actors often makes a mediocre script worthwhile (Edward Woodward, in the original TV series *The Equalizer*, often made an average story watchable; so did Denzel Washington in the movie). In fact, given what a lot of actors *can* do, I would argue that their talent is underused. Until Anne Hathaway sang during a recent Academy Awards show, I had no idea she had that talent (no, I had not seen *Les Mis* at that time.) And as my nephew has discovered in his quest for fame on Broadway, there are LOTS and LOTS of Americans who can sing and dance very well.

    Your admonition about writing for an audience, however, is well-taken, and I consider myself properly chastised. There’s a balance to be struck because, as you demonstrate, one can go too far in “giving the people what they want”. *Fifty Shades of Grey* and its ilk is one example; the *Twilight* series is another. A slavish adherence to what those writers have done is pandering. What I meant, however, and what I should have said, is that writers need to fulfill the reasonable expectations of an audience; play fair with them; write as well for them as possible; give them what they do not know they want. All of which is to say, the writer has to stay ahead of the audience imaginatively–a difficult task, which is often why writing is so hard.

    I am well, madam. I hope that you are the same. 🙂

    • ramonawray says:

      Then you must allow me to apologize, because I never intended to chastise you. I think my point of view is the result of an unusual education, perhaps coupled with the angst of this health threat I’m facing. I suppose I’m just at a point in my life when I suddenly realize that I’m not immortal (haha, yes, you may feel free to laugh) and that I probably will before I can read and properly reflect on many valuable books. Hence, this intransigence about worth and consequentiality.

      Incidentally, I would never presume to chastise you, sir 🙂

  3. You need have no worries about your worth and consequence: you are, and always have been, a woman of exceptional value. You will continue to be so. That proposition is beyond debate, so I shan’t mention it again.

    I live in the same house with my aging parents. Every day–almost every hour–I am reminded of the inevitable decline of the mind and body, and of my own mortality. It’s not something I enjoy thinking about; I would rather live.

    My heart is concerned for you, and I wish you well, more than I can express. I hope that there are treatments that would enable you to continue to live a long life and do the things you love to do. Everyone who has read your work knows exactly how talented you are, and we feel, through reading it, that we have come to know *you,* too, however presumptuous that may be on our parts. I say again, do not worry about your value in the world. That value is already assured. Your words, your talents, will continue to speak to us when, in the far-distant future, you no longer can.

    I need the chastisement of my readers. They correct me, and remind me that my voice is not the only one worth listening to. I pay attention to them, even when it appears I don’t.

    Should you wish to, you can reach me by e-mail: Persons of unusual education are welcome. 🙂

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