It is true that writers are frequently asked to work for nothing. And often that invitation is accompanied by the promise of exposure, i.e. that if you take this job people will read your work or hear your name and, y’know – buy your books, and make you some money. And it is right that this rubs writers up the wrong way. Writers are right to argue that their work matters. Writing takes time, it takes effort, and it makes a difference. Often the people offering the work are getting paid, or have funds for other aspects of the project. There are loads of good reasons why a) it’s wrong to ask/expect writers to work for free, and why b) writers should be paid for their work.
But, often, when discussing or protesting this demeaning state of affairs with each other or online, writers say ‘you wouldn’t ask a plumber to work for exposure’. Sometimes the plumber is swapped out for somebody of another profession, but the plumber is the go-to.
When writers say that, I think they forget that people actually value what plumbers do. I don’t really mean that glibly; like, I’m not suggesting that writing doesn’t matter or that fiction (which is the kind of writing I mean right now) isn’t important. I think that it does and it is, respectively. What I am suggesting is, people need plumbers, but they don’t think they need writers. So when a writer says ‘you wouldn’t ask a plumber to work for exposure’, any non-writer listening thinks ‘well duh. What the fuck kind of comparison is that.’ I imagine they probably also think ‘stop whining’, or ‘I hope you don’t get paid, idiot’, or even ‘fuck writers’.
And I get it. We all should. When somebody’s water stops running, or a pipe springs a leak and a ceiling collapses, or a toilet overflows – I mean, in Maslow’s hierarchy these are foundation-level things. And, crucially, everybody thinks so.
Now I firmly believe that fiction (here synecdochal for art as a whole, really) is utterly fundamental for a healthy life, and belongs at the base of Maslow’s hierarchy. Art is as important for a healthy consciousness as food is for a healthy body. I think probably most writers and artists believe this too. That’s why the plumber comparison makes sense to them. But honestly – most people don’t think that. Most people rrreeeeaaallly don’t think that. The comparison sounds utterly delusional to most people. (I’m only talking about the UK here, btw). Lots of writers and artists hang around with each other and with publishers and editors and agents and reviewers and they party at conventions and exhibitions and they socialise with loads of people who love books, and who agree on the importance of books and art etc, and – what I’m getting at, I suppose – this shows, sometimes.
But my point is not that generally people don’t like reading. I think some people do like reading, a bit. My point is that people will never ever ever be as desperate for new fiction as they will be for a plumber when they’re up to their ankles in shit. If all writers downed pens forever, there’d still be plenty of books for those who wanted them. If all plumbers stopped working for good, we’d be fucked. The plumber argument is the opposite of convincing because it suggests that writers can’t see this. It sounds petulant and a bit weird. And snobby too, of course.
Should writers be paid for their work? Yes, of course. Contemporary fiction – diverse, contemporary voices translating their worlds and experiences into language – is vital. The reading of it is essential if you want to have a hope in hell of navigating your life in a hyperreal century, if you want to be able to empathise, if you want to be able to understand things from the perspective of somebody completely different to yourself, if you want deep, temporary escape, if you want to be able to train your imagination, if you want to be able to extrapolate the present into the future. And that’s just…I mean, there’s no limit to what a book can do. Fiction is magic in a very real sense. The words on the page can make your brain do all kinds of weird and brilliant and transformative stuff. The reading of fiction should be directly enabled by government funding and legislation (no joke – the government should provide every citizen with an annual book budget, and ideally a new public holiday dedicated to reading). Yes, writers should be paid, and paid well. But there are sensible, convincing arguments for this that feed up into a huge and urgent discussion about the role of art and culture in society. Those are the arguments that we need to make, that’s the discussion that we need to have. Let the plumber have a rest.