Imagine asking a best-selling author for advice on your writing career and being told to get a real job first? Well, that’s essentially what happened on Twitter last week when Diana Gabaldon, author of the Outlander series, started a bit of a controversy with this tweet:
‘English Major = Want Fries With That? Pick something that will give you enough money to write what you want.’
Is this a healthy dose of reality, or a snub to English majors and fast food workers everywhere? Whether you agree with Gabaldon or not, it highlights the important relationship between women, economics and fiction writing. But does she have a point? Is becoming a writer just a pipe dream? The reserve of the well-off?
It’s no big revelation that authors have to find alternative employment in order to fund their writing. Recent reports in the Irish media have revealed that authors can earn as little as €0.40 per book, with many authors earning a paltry average of €1,500 a year. Gabaldon herself worked as a university professor until she was sure she could make a living from writing.
Too many would-be novelists are being pushed out of writing because it isn’t seen as a viable career choice and these figures do not help to improve matters. Like most of us, when we told our parents we wanted to be writers, the response was the same. There’s no money in writing. But does that mean we should give up altogether?
Gabaldon’s advice to an aspiring writer on choosing a suitable university major has raised more questions than answers. First of all, it implies that if you earn below a certain income level, you’ll never be able to write what you want. Secondly, she seems to be saying that a degree in English neither use nor ornament. And thirdly, it compounds the idea that writers should never expect to earn a living from writing. ‘Coming out’ as an aspiring writer is hard enough without established authors putting more obstacles in the way.
On the one hand, I guess you could say that she has refrained from sugaring the pill. Even with an English degree, there are no guarantees that you will have a successful writing career (or an income, as one doesn’t necessarily follow the other). Perhaps she is thinking of the practicalities this person will face; paying the rent, putting food on the table, paying for the car insurance.
But, isn’t it a bit of a generlisation, perpetuating the idea that an English degree can’t prepare you for a job in the real, capitalist world? Many graduates go on to work in the arts, administration, journalism, libraries, publishing and other areas of business that value critical thinking, copy-editing and communication skills.
It also begs the question, if an English degree can’t prepare you to become a writer, is there any degree that can? The person seeking advice on what major to pick said she wanted to pursue an English degree because of her love of reading. Isn’t that what all the great writers tell us to do, time and again? To read? You don’t necessarily need a degree to do that, but if you are fortunate enough to go to university, doesn’t it make sense to choose a course that you’re interested in?
The MA in Writing has become very popular in Irish universities and is the only course of its kind offering a qualification specifically aimed at aspiring writers. However, as author Joanne Harris points out, ‘Writing is one of the few professions where a person with no formal qualifications can succeed over someone with a doctorate.’
So does it really matter what you study at university, or if indeed you don’t go at all? Gabaldon isn’t the first writer to suggest that women should seek financial freedom to write fiction.
‘A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction’
This famous quote by Virginia Woolf is taken from her extended essay ‘A Room Of One’s Own published in 1929 (a must-read for any woman interested in writing, or just any woman!). Financial stability, in her eyes, is what denied women the freedom to pursue writing. Mobility between the classes was unheard of in those times, but as we apparently live in a meritocracy, should we really wait for the ideal circumstances to present themselves before we begin to write?
Historically, writing was the reserve of the upper and middle classes. They didn’t have to fret over royalties or earning out advances. Like artists, many of the household names we know today came from wealthy families who could afford to dalliance with the literary world. So there’s also a class issue here and one that commentators on Gabaldon’s timeline did not appreciate.
I don’t believe she intended to offend people working in the food service sector, but her comment does imply that someone flipping burgers won’t have the resources, the time or the space to write fiction. She’s drawing the conclusion that someone with money can write what they want and someone on minimum wage can’t. Are income, status and degrees really prerequisites to becoming a writer?
Again, author Joanne Harris responded to the twitter-storm with this observation: ‘There’s no such thing as a “fully-qualified writer”. You can study all kinds of things, but being creative isn’t one of them.’
And therein lies the rub. There is no way to become qualified in this profession. We’re on our own. We start out with this inkling to write. We’re not sure where it comes from, or even if we’ll be able to do it, but it’s there. Then we begin; discover the terror of the blank page. Then we move on to discover something even worse; a page filled with our rubbish writing. Then we realise we need help. We read books on writing, read books by other writers on how to write and eventually we produce another page and then another.
Before we’ve really learned what it is to walk, we’re running towards the nearest publisher, giving them the wonderful opportunity of publishing our work! And that’s when the realisation hits. The industry is a maze of closed doors and your knocking is barely audible over the din of other writers knocking on the same doors.
Virginia Woolf’s essay was written in a time when women were effectively locked out of the publishing world and while gender bias does still exist, women today are writing and getting their voices out there, regardless of means. There are many women today who are writing without rooms of their own. I see fellow authors writing in cars while waiting for the kids at the school gate.
They write in cafes, like JK Rowling did, while in receipt of welfare benefits (proving that you don’t have to be a woman of means to write what you want). They educate and inform themselves, they draw up their own reading lists and attend writing groups. Ideally, women shouldn’t have to write in poverty, yet it is often our circumstances that inspire us to write. Author of Wild, Cheryl Strayed (who, incidentally has a masters of Fine Arts in fiction) penned her book while $85,000 in credit card debt.
To be honest, it is women like this who inspire me to keep going. Women who have chosen to write despite of all the obstacles. Feminism has come so far in the last few decades and I think one of the most powerful messages for young girls is ‘If she can see it, she can be it.’ If a young girl sees a working class woman become an author, then she’ll believe that she can do it too.
Writing is a strange profession. As Cheryl Strayed says, ‘There’s no other job in the world where you get your master’s degree in that field and you’re like, Well, I might make zero or I might make $5 million!’ There is no career path that tells you, if you do A, you will get B. Nobody knows or understands what it is that makes a book a bestseller, but we all follow our own path to try and find out.
Like art, nobody really cares if you’re self-taught as long as they enjoy your painting. If you have talent, it will shine through, regardless. You don’t need a degree to be a writer, but if you are lucky enough to have the opportunity to go to university, doesn’t it make sense to study in the area you’re passionate about?
Instead of dismissing English as a pathway for writers, maybe we should be trying to influence the curriculum in a way that will prepare authors for the real world. And prepare the real world to support authors with an unpredictable income, by lobbying the government to provide practical ways for the welfare system to recognise the uncertain nature of a writer’s employment. The status of the artist needs to be recognised in every country and supported, if we want to make it a viable career option.
No matter what path you take, there’s no escaping the fact that being a writer requires an unpaid apprenticeship, where you practice and hone your craft. Regardless of gender, class or race (or age) writing is open to all of us who have the desire to tell a story and the commitment to tell it well. In her essay, Woolf asks what conditions are necessary for the creation of works of art? Conversely, I’m inspired by the works of art that have been created in the absence the necessary cond
Living on the West Coast of Ireland, which is not renowned for its sunny climate, Evie escapes from the inclement weather into a converted attic to write stories and dream about underfloor heating.
Inspired by her love of historical fiction, gothic mysteries and romantic comedies, Evie has crafted her own unique style of writing that is warm, engaging and full of humour. She is currently working on her third novel, when not hanging around Twitter @evgaughan.