Fernando Sdrigotti

Literary Professionals and Other Mythical Creatures


Use Your Delusions

You must have seen it unfold on Twitter, or X, or whatever it’s called now: someone announces they are quitting a full-time job, to dedicate themselves to writing full-time – and by ‘writing’ they generally mean ‘writing fiction’. You’d expect that this glorification of precarity would prompt calls for an intervention; instead, these posts are regularly met with a chorus of sycophants celebrating the poster’s courage. I’m puzzled by the frequency with which these announcements occur. Either there are more delusional writers than I thought, or too many of them are lucky enough to have a partner in full-time employment, or a wealthy family member willing to settle the bills, until reality inexorably shows its ugly face, and a more realistic career move is deemed necessary.

If I sound bitter, it’s because I am. I’m not only bitter – I’m terribly envious of anyone taking this leap in the dark, however ill-conceived it might be. I’ve been writing for the past thirty years, seriously for the past twenty-five, and I’ve faced the same problem all this time: how to make money writing only the things I want to write, without ruining my life and that of my family. One hundred odd premium subscribers on Substack is the closest I’ve ever been from getting money regularly that way, and still I sometimes wake up in the middle of the night, covered in a cold sweat, worrying that I might be turning into something I hate. Am I corrupting something I love in order to make money? Am I a columnist? In all fairness I don’t think I should worry too much about this possibility, for if I didn’t have a portfolio of minor occupations that make me actual money I’d be living under a bridge. A factotum is what I am, not a columnist.

So maybe I should try taking the delusional path, see how this pans out. Return to social media, if only just to announce to my followers that I’m abandoning my many hustles, in order to concentrate full-time on writing. Receive the pats on the back, turning a blind eye to the strong possibility that those doing the patting want to see me fail. Then sit down and wait for the brown envelopes to start arriving. Until that happens, the illusion of greatness, the feeling of finally dodging an ordinary life, will be intoxicating.

Tiki Bar Blues

I had this mémoire involontaire the other night:

It’s the year 2000 and I’m playing my electro-acoustic guitar with the volume knob all the way down. I’m singing ‘Sacrifice’ by Elton John, making the lyrics up as I go along, while my friend Pablo pretends to play his keyboard (he’s just triggering midi tracks), and my buddy Alejandro improvises corny phrases here and there with a soprano sax. We are wearing Hawaiian shirts, for the gig is at a tiki bar. The money isn’t bad and we get to drink cocktails for free. But in my mind I have totally lost my integrity as a musician. ‘Sacrifice’ isn’t even the worst tune we play.

It was a long succession of harrowing paid gigs like this one that spoiled music for me. And I was obsessed with music! From the age of twelve onwards music was the only thing I cared about. I would spend my hours after school practising in my room, my weekends rehearsing with any of many bands, and then, when I ended up in music school, I’d spend eight to ten hours a day, every day, studying for my exams. For years music was the only thing in my life. But for all my love of it, I couldn’t endure the need to play stuff I hated to make a living. Making money from my own songs was out of the equation. The one thing that provided a regular and substantial income was being a primary school teacher, something that as a twenty-something year old was unthinkable. And that’s how I got myself on a plane and happily went to wash dishes in the kitchens of Ireland. My current hustles feel no different from washing dishes, except that they are better paid, thank god. And I managed to figure out that I could do these other things before I ruined writing trying to make money from it. So maybe I do have an answer to the problem of ‘how to make money writing only the things I want to write, without ruining my life and that of my family’. The answer is to do something else for cash.

The Author Online™ and The Trap of Professionalism

I need to thank social media for greatly reducing my to-be-read pile. These days it is customary to blame social media for our loss of focus but I don’t mean this. What I mean is that there is a large number of writers whose work I intentionally avoid because of their online verbosity. Their opinion-incontinence about every single world event, their tireless broadcasting of every everyday banality, their round-the-clock yapping about the minutiae of their clichéd writing lives, has put me off reading them – there’s such a thing as word inflation and these people are the verbal equivalent of the Argentine Central Bank and a banknote press. I like to call this species the Author Online™. I avoid their books like the plague. Even so, their online verborreah sometimes captures the literary zeitgeist better than the most eloquent of essays. The Author Online™ is a character that is very useful when it comes to understanding some of the delusions that writers suffer from today.

For example, some years ago I witnessed an Author Online™ having a mortifying tantrum on Twitter. The fit was motivated by a tax return. This Author Online™ had by then only published some things here and there, receiving the kind of symbolic pay some magazine editors imagine better than no pay at all. The accountant who was helping with the tax return suggested they didn’t bother declaring the pittance they had made writing that year, that they should treat writing as a hobby. This sent this Author Online™ into a rage, which, of course, means the Author Online™ penned a long thread on Twitter, or X, or whatever it was called then. What did the accountant mean that writing was a hobby? Didn’t the accountant understand that it’s almost impossible to make money writing fiction but that this doesn’t mean one isn’t trying? Didn’t the accountant know how serious this Author Online™ was about their Career™? This minor fit is to me symptomatic of the incongruence of thinking of writing as a profession, for the vast majority of us. A profession pays taxes. If something isn’t bringing in the money, then it’s something else.

There’s another incoherence associated with this fetishisation of professionalism: trapped between the professionalism imperative – a leftover from the Protestant work ethic and the process of self-identification through hard work – and the natural human desire to defy self-reification, the Author Online™ wants to be regarded as a key worker in an industry, and for this reason demands pay in exchange for labour, while on the other hand the Author Online™ also wants to be treated as something more special than a mere producer of cultural commodities. This results in inconsistencies such as the Author Online™ both rejecting non-pecuniary engagements – ‘if something doesn’t pay it’s not worth engaging with it, since writing is my work’ – and demanding that the cultural commodities that result from their labour be regarded as something other than commodities – books are more than just things, this line of thinking goes. As an example of this contradiction, an Author Online™ – another one – was not long ago lamenting online – where if not? – that their book wasn’t receiving the attention it deserved, after all the emotional work they’d put into it. It’s hard to imagine the same from another worker, say a carpenter – this impression that emotional investment alone justifies recognition of one’s labour.

And yet most carpenters pay taxes for their work. And if they don’t, they’ll call carpentry their ‘hobby’, without a second thought.

For Amateurism

In December 2022, the Society of Authors published a report detailing the earnings of writers in the UK. The report found that the median income for writers was £7,000 per annum (down from £12,330 in 2006). This number includes extremes like the Authors Online™ above and those who could be classed as bestsellers, plus anyone else in the middle, although the report doesn’t distinguish between these different categories, meaning that if we take into consideration the eye-watering earnings of a handful of lucky pens, the median for us – the riff-raff at the bottom – is considerably lower than the nominal £7k a year. The hard truth is that for most of us, putting words on a page won’t ever pay well, no matter how serious we might be about it. To insist on seeing writing as a profession, in blatant denial of how little money it makes, is both delusional and symptomatic of the LinkedInfication of everyday life – that very neoliberal desire to establish hierarchies between culture producers: the pros and the amateurs. This validation-seeking division is senseless, for what’s so wrong with amateurism? Some of the best books ever published were written by people who didn’t even consider themselves writers, or who wrote during the time left by a day job.

The idea of professionalism is frequently mobilised under the illusion that it can contribute to levelling the playing field, opening the door to those from disadvantaged backgrounds. This might be true in sports, where amateurism has historically been used as a gatekeeping device, to keep working class people away from gentlemanly spaces. But unlike literature, sports can pay very well when you are a professional, even a mediocre one. When it comes to writing, it might make more sense to look for the money elsewhere while listening to your accountant’s advice: treat it as a hobby.
Fernando Sdrigotti is a cultural critic and the author of Dysfunctional Males, Jolts, Shitstorm, We Are but Nothing, among other books.

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