In the last 50 years the system of publishers' advances has supported writers such as Ian McEwan, Angela Carter, JM Coetzee, Joan Didion, Milan Kundera, Don DeLillo, Salman Rushdie, Norman Mailer, Philip Roth, Anita Shreve, Graham Greene, Muriel Spark and John Fowles. Authors do not live on royalties alone. To ask whether International Man Booker prizewinner Philip Roth could have written 24 novels and the award-winning American trilogy without advances is like asking if Michelangelo could have painted the Sistine Chapel without the patronage of Pope Julius II. The economic framework that supports artists is as important as the art itself; if you remove one from the other then things fall apart.Well. You know, I really don't give a damn about the death of the author. I've read one or two books by most of the people listed above. I may get to one or two more before I die, but I'm not fretting about the possibility of missing them. I certainly would never sink the rest of my reading life into reading all of the books of any of them. For one thing, most of the ones I've read are not all that good, and for another thing, for most novelists, when you've read one of their novels you've really read them all. After a couple hundred pages of prose, pretty much everyone takes to repeating himself. I don't know who the people are who “keep up” with the modern novel, but they must read thousands of pages of fiction per week. This doesn't strike me as a hunger for literature so much as a hunger for sedation.
We are now supposed to view with horror the fact that the system that sustained these writers, and kept them producing novel after novel after novel, is decaying. I really can't work up much. The novelist does not strike me as a major kind of artist, and the novelist is the only sort literary person that this system supported anyway.
And did this system ever work so splendidly, keeping the good writers in steady work? All my life I've known “failed novelists,” people working along, isolated and increasingly desperate, who couldn't “get their novels published,” and who took this to be the failure, not just of their books, but of their lives. I would guess that number of these men and women were novelists every bit as good as Morrison's list of makers. No one ever read their books, or ever will. Were they well-served by this system? Was it kind and humane to dangle the lure of professional authorship in front of these people? Everyone knew that novels were the only real literary form. And everybody knew that if you weren't published, you were nobody, and your stuff wasn't worth reading.
To my way of thinking, mainstream publishing was never good for writers. It never employed even a sizable fraction of the good ones. It promoted an idea of the “author” – meaning always and only, someone who writes a new novel every year or two for decades – that is limited and deadening. And it was incredibly centralized: the whole system orbited around a close, interlinked coterie of the graduates of a few universities, who had moved on (or, usually, back) to live one of the three capitals of literary English. They might adopt mascots from other places, exotics from the lower classes or from poor countries far away, but the power of selection remained firmly in their hands.
I'm not going to mourn that system. And I'm not going to miss the professionalization of writing, which is a much more recent development than Mr Morrison seems to realize. No, Shakespeare did not make a living wage from the publishing business. He made his money from producing plays, which he happened to write the scripts for. His “published” works, during his lifetime, were all pirated editions. He never made a penny from them. He thrived in an environment that was much more like the coming internet age that Morrison fears: an age in which intellectual property barely existed, and brought no income to anybody. He was not a professional writer; he was a professional producer. Like most of the best writers, he did a lot things, and did them very well. No one gave him purses of gold so that he could stop everything to brood and “focus on his writing.” He had plays to put on, properties to furbish, rehearsals to oversee. He had a life. That's why he had something to write about.
I do share one of Morrison's concerns. How will writers find leisure to write? But this is part of something larger: and it's not a literary issue, it's a labor issue. How will painters find time to paint? How will dancers find time to dance? How will anyone find leisure to do the things that make life worth living?
But this has nothing to do with the breakdown of the “professional author” system, which never employed more than a small fraction of literary writers. It has to do with wages dropping to levels at which one has to work most of one's waking hours just to sustain oneself. Having to work twenty hours a week at some crummy job never kept anyone from writing a great book or painting great paintings. But having to work fifty or sixty hours a week, or being unable to find any work, certainly will. That's the real disaster for the arts, and for all of us. In the Thatcher-and-Reagan world, we 99 percenters are either frantically busy or anxiously poor: swollen with economic desire or paralyzed by economic fear. That is something to worry about.
The fact that the dissemination of writing has become so cheap as to make it nearly free, that the classics are readily available, that the wealth of the literary world stands open to anyone who can afford an internet connection, is the most wonderful thing that has happened in my lifetime. It is a great good thing, and while I'm not surprised that the people who stood to profit by literary scarcity are complaining about it, I'm not about to join them. Today I will read some marvelous poems that a friend who lives off in the sticks of Kent sent me, and continue to review the manuscript of a terrific book on massage that another friend in Texas is preparing for publication. I wouldn't even know these people, if not for the internet. I would most likely never have seen the work of either of them, under the old dispensation. I'm willing to take the risk, in return, that I might miss Don DeLillo's 16th novel. I'll even forgo the $50,000 advance that Random House was poised to offer me to continue writing this blog.