In the spring I won the Higher Education Academy Student Essay Competition, which paid for my Kindle. Hurrah! Anyway, below, my winning essay on “What do English or Creative Writing have to say to an age of austerity?”
When the recession first bared its teeth a literary friend of mine was blasé. Writers are used to being poor, she said, what’s new? She was right. The age of austerity is simply the rest of the world getting a glimpse of life as lived by “lifetime English majors” (as Buddy Glass called us) and creative writers since – oh – just about forever. Writers ranging from George Orwell to Hunter S Thompson, Oscar Wilde to Mavis Gallant, have lived in – and written some of their most exquisite, lacerating prose on the subject of – abject poverty.
You will have to have another job, Italian novelist and poet Natalia Ginzburg noted matter-of-factly in her essay, My Vocation, a love-letter to the art of creative writing. Few writers are fortunate enough to be able to prove her wrong. Even when times were good for the rest of the world: when hedge funds grew into dense money-thickets and credit was easy, when house prices rose and investment portfolios swelled with promise, writers shared little of the bounty. There were – and are – exceptions, of course. Some writers sell enough to buy a house in the country, a few nab movie deals, or churn out novels regularly enough to enjoy life in a certain style. Once in a while, a six-figure publishing deal makes headlines. For most, though, the act of writing, even for publication, is so remote from any prospect of financial reward as to render money virtually meaningless. The best advice I can give you, a literary agent told my course-mates and I, is to marry someone with money. She was only half joking.
Writers take for granted that talent, education and dedication do not necessarily lead to material success. This particular reality has come as an ice-water shock, however, to those who followed the beaten path from A-levels to university assuming it would lead them right into a secure job in their chosen field. During the boom years this progression seemed irrefutable; like two-plus-two equalling four. All you had to do, in order to have a comfortable life, was learn something useful like business, banking, marketing, or management, and then sashay into a comfortable office, regular paid holidays and the eventual promise of a respectable three-bedroom semi somewhere on the commuter belt. When there were plenty of well-paid jobs available choosing to pursue English or creative writing was seen as at best frivolous, and at worst a dangerous brand of stubborn, self-defeating stupidity. Writers, like other artists, were asked: “Why don’t you get a proper job?” Now, there is no such thing as a “proper job”. Graduate unemployment is at a record high and it isn’t just humanities students who can’t find jobs. According to the BBC more electrical engineers are unemployed than are modern languages graduates, and fine arts is no worse a course, in terms of employment potential, than economics or civil engineering. The promise of the proper job turns out to be hollow.
Because English students and writers have never really participated in the collective fantasy of eternal satisfaction through consumption we are uniquely placed to help our stunned compatriots make necessary adjustments. Creative writers and English students don’t make calculations based on salary packages; we choose differently. We don’t talk about how much money we will be earning in five years, but about the novel we’re writing, our next article, or the screen-play we are going to adapt. Since we have no corporate ladder to climb, no water-cooler politicking to do, we spend our time reading, writing blogs, publishing journals, running workshops or teaching. We define ourselves by what we create in a world where the phrase “creative type” is commonly used as a pejorative. Compelled to question the petty orthodoxies about what we should or shouldn’t do with our lives, creative writers develop the habit of asking questions, of deciding for ourselves – day by day – who we are and how we want to live. “Freedom is a choice,” Hunter Thompson said, “You decide who you are by what you do.” Because writers have typically fallen outside of society’s casual assumptions about money and success we have learned the art of self-definition.
Writers have valuable truths to share in an age of austerity. We can encourage people to stop chasing illusive financial gains and focus on building a life around work they love. We are here to testify that creative work is a vital and satisfying life choice, not a privilege of rich dilettantes. Most of all, writers are proof that poverty is not fatal. We know from experience that there are many ways to take the sting out of a scant bank balance. Our leisure time is different: most writers don’t spend Saturday afternoons shopping, or own the latest flat-screen TV. Instead of going to restaurants we have friends round for dinner. We cultivate gardens, learn to sew or cook, take the time to bake home-made Christmas treats or make our own marmalade. We are familiar with frugality, with library cards, discount vouchers, charity shops, battered trainers and hand-made gifts. Rather than feel deprived, writers and “lifetime English majors” embrace the challenge of freedom and creativity, and can help show society that there is more to life than scrambling up the property ladder, or wearing the latest fashion. As Henry David Thoreau, a writer who knew a great deal about austerity, so beautifully articulated: “It is life nearest the bone where it is sweetest…. Superfluous wealth can buy superfluities only. Money is not required to buy one necessary of the soul.”