Gifted amateurs

I caught up the other day with an article that appeared in last Saturday’s Guardian.  (N.B.  It always takes me most of the week to work through the weekend papers, which is why I only buy papers on Saturdays – Guardian, Telegraph and FT – while I can afford it, because the price keeps rising – currently £5.50!)

But back to the article: written by Ian Jack, it’s entitled “The age of the gifted amateur has returned”, with the telling subtitle “The woes of publishing make it easy to forget that Fielding, TS Eliot and others were part-timers”.

In view of my post yesterday about Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, the description might equally have applied to him, gifted certainly and amateur, almost definitely.

Jack’s basic premise is that

We are in the twilight years of a certain kind of paid employment: the business of inking words on paper, to be read by a large audience that is largely unknown to the author. The crisis in newspapers is especially acute. But neither is book publishing immune. Advances against royalties are tumbling, staff have been cut, publishers take far fewer risks. The recession offers only a small part of the explanation. The fact is that generations are now growing up with the idea that words should be read electronically for free – a new human right – which has grave consequences for the people paid to compose and edit them.

Jack equates the rise of reading and the expanding middle classes with the establishment of the “triangular foundations of the modern book trade – author, publisher, bookseller”.   He goes on to note that

A bestselling author could make a small fortune for his publisher: Byron for John Murray, Dickens for Chapman & Hall, the word of God for William Collins, who bought a country house and a steam yacht by selling 300,000 bibles a year.

The moment of “giving up the day job”  is often regarded as the lodestone of success in a writer’s career, but this is to ignore the reality of most writers, both past and present, who have had to keep themselves afloat with other paid employment, sometimes in academe or publishing, or sometimes in some completely extraneous job.

Jack notes – and, well yes, here I am publishing on the web – that “we can all be authors now and publish ourselves on the web.”

What you might call the moral and aesthetic case for writing – to think, imagine and describe and then communicate the result to an audience – can be satisfied online. It just doesn’t make any money. The age of the gifted amateur is surely about to return.

So, is this a good thing? I think that it definitely is – literary endeavour will be stronger and more genuine, the more flexible and open it is to outsiders.  This is particularly true of translation and translated literature: if we close down the potential openings for translated works, we will certainly be the poorer, culturally speaking.

About Lucy Byatt

I'm a translator, from Italian into English. I also teach Italian Renaissance history and write.
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