Writers: On a Quest for a Living Wage

November 12, 2015

I doubt if it is any easier for the majority of writers to make a decent income today than it was when I wrote this article about 27 years ago. I think it is probably more difficult now that new technology has turned everyone (or so they think) into writers.

In the fall of 1988, this is how I was described in the biography attached to the article: Tanya Lester is a Winnipeg based writer currently working on a book manuscript tentatively titled Six Women, Six Stories (note: its book title became Friends I Never Knew when gynergy books/Ragweed Press published it). Excerpts from her collection of short stories, Dreams and Tricksters, appear in Fireweed this summer. She is a member of Winnipeg Women and Words.

Here is the piece:

City Magazine

Fall, 1988

Writers: On a Quest for a Living Wage

by Tanya Lester

Morley Callaghan wrote in That Summer in Paris, the summer of 1929 when he boxed with Hemingway and tipped a glass or two with Fitzgerald: “Yet at that time, in the the world of that time, there was the certainty that loose money was close at hand, even if it was in someone else’s pocket. In New York the stock market always seemed to be going up. If you weren’t in on it, it was because you preferred the quest for new experience…Yet the Quarter was an aristocracy. A rich man had no distinction and no real power.”

Almost six decades later, Andreas Schroeder, author and Public Lending Rights Commission chair, was quoted in the Winnipeg Free Press as saying that the Canadian author’s average income is $2000 a year.

So over half a century after Callaghan spent his summer in Paris, the majority of Canadian writers are still “desperately poor” when it comes to economic returns from their chosen profession.

Callaghan’s summer of 1929 was followed by the 1930 stock market crash which reverberated over the winter in North America. The “loose money” he wrote about is no longer “close at hand.” Rather than being on a “quest for new experience”, today’s writers (and I include myself among them) are more likely to be on a quest for a living wage.

Of course, some people, including art critics and others who should know better, insist that we writers and particularly women writers are inspired to higher levels of creativity because we live on the economic edge.

Not so in my case. I find when I am broke I often have to interrupt my writing to get a casual job such as telephone soliciting. During these times, the writing I produce is minimal.

Poet Keith Louise Fulton dismisses this “romanticizing the treatment they (writers) are given by society” as an excuse to do nothing about the abusive treatment dealt to the artistic community. She believes poverty might encourage radical thought which can determine the type of writing someone does but nothing more.

During the last few years, the federal government in the personage of communications minister Flora MacDonald, has recognized the financial inequities faced by many of this country’s writers. To alleviate this problem, authors are being compensated for their work in two ways.

The first is the Public Lending Rights Commission. Now over two years into operation, the Commission issues annual cheques to writers who have books on circulation in the larger library systems. At the rate of $39 per book in the library stacks surveyed by the Commission, the annual stipend is not going to put writers on easy street but remember that $2000 a year average. While I don’t want to sound melodramatic, the $78 I received equals a week of nutritious food for my toddl;er and me. I’m not complaining. Neither are the majority of authors.

The other compensatory program hinges on the copyright bill expected to pass through the Canadian Senate soon. According to Kevin Longfield, former Manitobas branch president of the Canadian Author’s Association (CAA), the bill’s passage will mean large institutions, including universities whose personnel have been illegally photocopying books for years, will have to pay fees to the Department of Communications in order to continue this practice. In turn, these reprography fees will be distributed to Canadian authors. The CAA has lobbied for 40 years to right this wrong.

As much perseverance went into the establishment of the Public Lending Rights Commission. “There are writers still in middle age who never thought they’d live to see it happen; others won’t be surprised if a volcano or some lesser disaster forces a cancellation,” William French wrote in her Globe and Mail column on the eve of the Commission’s forst cheque ‘handout’.

I read this federal government recognition of the need to bolster writers’ incomes as a sign that writing about the possibility of our economic stability is no longer synonymous with authoring fairy tales. Neither is the idea of a guaranteed minimum or annual income. On this matter, George Woodcock wrote in his Strange Bedfellows: The State and the Arts in Canada: “I have often thought that nobody would benefit fmore from the guaranteed minimum income that has long been proposed and discussed than those who wish to develop themselves as artists and have the kind of dedication that would keep them working diligently provided they had just enough to keep body and soul together and buy their basic materials.”

Although short story writer Ellen Smythe is not holding her breath in anticipation of a guaranteed annual income, people in her situation who are apprentice writers could benefit from its implementation.

Each night after her two pre-schoolers go to bed, Smythe tries to write from 10:00 or 11:00 pm until 4:00 in the morning. What cuts into her writing time is the need to do drafting work in order to contribute to the family’s income. A guaranteed annual income might allow her to concentrate on her writing.

And why not? Most trades and professions allow their apprentices some kind of regular renumeration. Smythe has been writing for three years. Author Jake Macdonald believes the apprenticeship period for a writer is from six to eight years.

Related to this idea of a guaranteed annual income is one outlined in American author Marge Piercy’s futuristic novel, Woman on the Edge of Time. In her utopia, all people would be recognized as having artistic potential and would be encouraged to develop her or his creativity within an economically collective society. “Everybody needs beauty so everybody can make beauty,” said Keith Louise Fulton in agreement with this ideal. “Just like everybody needs to eat so can go about making food.”

While long term ideals are well worth working towards, there are also partial solutions easier to realize in the short term. For example, Jake Macdonald agrees with the Writer’s Union of Canada policy to push the government into the introduction of tax incentives to reward bookstore owners who stock Canadian authored books. He sees this boost to the national book industry as being similar to the Canadian content regulations for the music industry. “Bryan Adams and Corey Hart would be washing cars today if it wasn’t for the CRTC,” he said.

On the provincial level, Macdonald suggusts extending writer-in-residence programs into secondary schools. (They now exist in most universities and major public libraries). The writers would act as mentors to the sutdents who would develop an appreciation for Canadian literature.

Fulton, who is also Chair of Women’s Studies at the University of Manitoba and University of Winnipeg, believes professors should show an appreciation for their students’ writing. This will, in turn, encourage students to value others’ writing. Fulton points out that English departments exist “on the backs of writers” and should reciprocate whenever possible.

And if the universities exist “on the backs of writers” then so do newspapers, magazines and journals. Virtually since 1980 when I began to get published, I have refused to write non-fiction or fiction unless the editor has agreed to pay me. I think all writers should demand payment fairly early in their careers. Editors have to realize our value.

In the theatre, those who hold the purse strings have to be willing to take a gamble on Canadian plays. Playwright Maureen Hunter said a playrun on a mainstage like the Manitoba Theatre Centre nets $18,000 to $24,000 for its author. However, this country’s major theatres tend to produce “safe material” which is not Canadian.

And, there is nothing stopping the wealthy individual from offering to become a patron for a writer. In A Room of One’s Own,

Virginia Woolf wrote “a woman much have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction”. Woolf came into possession of both due to a yearly inheritance of 500 pounds left by her aunt.

Also, Fulton, Smythe and I agree a woman must have child care support available at writers’ conferences and retreats so she can afford to exchange ideas with her peers and more effectively produce her work — all benefits of these writers’ gatherings.

But getting back to the individual: You can improve a Canadian writer’s income each time you buy one of our books for yourself or as a gift, each time you ask a librarian to stock one of our books, each time you sign a petition or write a letter in support of our government lobbying and each time you talk to a politician about the importance of our well being.

For inspiration, I will leave you with something Keith Louise Fulton told me. “I used to say when I was younger that there should be an aesthetic strike for one week — for that’s all it would take,” Fulton said. “Everything that was beautiful would be blocked out…I feel so angry that creativity isn’t valued. What we perceive as beauty carries with it hope and love.”


Tanya Lester’s web site is http://www.teareading.wordpress.com  Also, go to her name at Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and Google. Check for her book titles are libraries.


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