The Old Toad Work

I was reading an interview with George Orwell the other day in which he was asked whether it was desirable that a writer should have a second job, and if so, what sort of job should he have. Orwell (surprisingly to me) was hugely pessimistic about the prospects of any writer trying to earn an honest living from his work, even back in the Forties – and as he was very much against what he referred to as “the burden of an unearned income”, Orwell thought it was imperative that a writer should earn his or her keep in other ways. Orwell’s preference (again, to me surprising) was that writers should not have as their day jobs occupations of a literary or creative bent, since this would leave them too depleted at the end of the working day to write. Instead, he recommended work of a sort neither intellectually nor physically demanding – clerking at a bank or insurance firm, for instance.

It’s a conundrum, anyway. The romantic notion of the starving artist in a garret (itself debunked by Orwell in “Keep the Aspidistra Flying”) is dominant, and there’s even a certain sniffiness about the moonlight crew who work ordinary jobs from 9 till 5. Ideally, of course, writing would be a job sufficiently remunerative as to allow a reasonable amount of financial security. In Scandinavia, for example, state support for writers is miles ahead, although Orwell himself would probably have noted this with some disapproval, since a writer (in his opinion) should be first and foremost divorced from even the subconscious prompting to please his patron. In any event, it’s not even an option for a writer to sell out to the state in the UK, since the state is by and large uninterested.

What I would say about the idea of throwing caution to the wind and writing full-time is that, in my experience, it’s an option almost exclusively open to the middle/upper-classes. I know several working-class folk in other fields of the arts who have taken the plunge and are earning a crust through their art alone, but it’s usually in those arts where there is a certain amount of regular, well-remunerated work and/or “hackwork” available, such as music or photography. But nobody ever hires a poet to declaim at their wedding reception. Novelists don’t get far on “Britain’s Got Talent”. The lack of paid derivative work for writers means that, with very few exceptions, the only way to survive on a writer’s income is to supplement it with another; a job, a pension, a spouse’s work or a parent’s generosity. Financially, the average writer would do better on the dole.

Philip Larkin, who invented and was dominated by the idea of “the old toad, Work” was a librarian. So am I. The greatest poet of the 20th Century (Larkin, not me – that ship has sailed) told his inquirers that society valued his work as a librarian more than his work as a writer. It was broadly true, although Larkin was also the sort who couldn’t see green cheese go past him, nor an honest pound go unpocketed. But he, at least, like me, had a job which allowed him some latitude for writing in his spare time. How is a fast-food worker, or a cleaner, or a postman, or a bricklayer, expected to come home from work and sit down to write? It’s impossible – but we, as a society, need them to. If writing is to flourish again, we need readers and writers of every stripe, books about everything there can be books about. No, we can’t do much about the lack of money in writing, or about the exhausting drudge of minimum wage – but what we can do that would help is dispense with the discouraging fiction that “full-time writing” is a evidence of one’s genuine dedication to one’s art, rather than just an indication of a private income.