Thank god for my day job.
Early last year, one of my unpublished novels won a first-chapter competition. The main prize was editorial advice and the possibility of being introduced to agents. As any unpublished writer knows, trying to get the attention of an agent is like a shipwreck survivor trying to flag down a container ship on auto-pilot.
As the publishing industry consolidates into ever larger hyphenated corporate entities, it becomes more and more risk-averse, while the indies who do take the risks are micro-businesses that only publish a couple of books a year. My last agent said that fiction is very hard to place. Books she could’ve sold easily 20 years ago were brushed aside, if she had a reply at all. My last editor, ten years ago, likened mainstream publishing to climate catastrophe and recommended self-publishing.
Meanwhile, universities produce creative writing graduates whose chances of being conventionally published are negligible, while London-based publishers and agencies run their own courses, mentorships and consultancies. An industry has grown up around the increasing number of people who wish to get published, in face of decreasing opportunity. It goes without saying that to afford this advice, support and variously helpful (or not) teaching, you need a day job.
After winning the competition, over the course of the year, I did my best to follow the editorial advice handed down to me. Three new versions of the novel were emailed to London. The final verdict came two weeks before Christmas. The novel, for all its merits (and the verdict was not ungenerous) was deemed not commercially viable. Its ‘market position’ was dubious. In the nicest possible way, after a year of literary support, I was back on my own.
I was gutted, but also grateful: thank god for my day job.
Because I have a day job, I am still able, despite my unsuccessful vocation, to live a reasonable, if not luxurious, middle-class life. I can pay a mortgage and plan post-pandemic holidays, make the odd online impulse purchase mid-workday and jump in the occasional taxi, because I don’t own a car. I can also attend writers’ retreats (taken as annual leave), subscribe to writing magazines and pay for editorial advice, because agents don’t have time for feedback.
In a previous incarnation, as a freelancer living from invoice to invoice, I lived in hope that a publisher or at least a funding agency would recognise my talent and validate me financially. I hadn’t deliberately designed my life around the garret fantasy – that precarity is merely a stage on the way to artistic recognition and success that vindicates previous suffering – but I’d ended up in an unheated Edinburgh tenement as a result of various unworldly decisions and an excess of optimism. Over one unusually cold, snowed-in winter I carried an electrical convection heater with me from room to room, including the toilet, using the power outlet in the hall.
If I’d had a breakthrough success, my story, like JK Rowling’s alleged stints writing in the Edinburgh café because she couldn’t afford heating, would’ve made good copy.
FYI her brother-in-law owned the café.
No such vindication occurred for me. I didn’t have a partner to provide economic security while I earned top-up money teaching community writing courses or doing other literary piece-work. Not incidentally, this is also how many early career academics survive: casual teaching work, short-term contracts and a partner with a steady, often non-academic job.
Scholarly vocations, like creative vocations, are becoming the privilege of those with money behind them. Witness the number of popular history books published in the UK by people who ‘read’ history at Oxford or Cambridge and did a short stint on a London broadsheet or literary paper before becoming full-time writers, according to their book-jacket bios. These people were not stacking shelves at Tesco or working call centres to make the rent while writing their first books.
Without a financial buffer, dedicating serious time to creative or intellectual activity rather than regular paid work is inherently risky. Every year you spend not working in a standard job (itself a declining concept), you sacrifice pension, housing security, seniority.
Also, as you get older, it’s harder to get back on the work track. Although, as reported in a recent Guardian article, people will be expected to work into their 70s, their employability falls off in middle age. Some, after successful first, second or even third careers, can go into business or consultancy or slide comfortably in part-time roles; those who neglected the sensible career path or lack the entrepreneurial spirit don’t have such options.
The plight of people stuck in the precarious gig economy is a whole other topic, perhaps to be entitled, ‘Marx Had A Point: Let’s Have a Socioeconomic Revolution That Actually Works Rather Than Just Killing Lots of People’.
As an independent adult in mid-life who’d spent over a decade out of conventional work, I needed a proper job, one I could build a life on: a mortgage, so I don’t end up paying extortionate rent on my minimal state pension; a workplace pension plan to supplement the aforesaid; sick leave and holiday leave; the whole Cold War-era shebang of workers’ rights and benefits that I grew up taking for granted. (The erosion of all these postwar rights since the Berlin Wall came down and history ‘ended’ is no coincidence.) As you pass 40, these worldly matters become important. In this age of shrinking social care and widening economic inequality, old age poverty is real possibility for educated middle-class people who might have considered themselves immune from bottom-crashing indigence.
I landed my current day job after a year of postdoctoral unemployment and gutting uncertainty, and it saved my life. As well as the boring but essential material benefits, it provides a psychological buffer against literary disappointment. I’m still looking for an agent and creative vindication, but my separate worldly surface existence continues, undisturbed by artistic rejection. I no longer need to lug a plug-in heater like an oxygen tank around a rented flat and, if the plague finally abates in the new year, I can even book consolatory holidays.
Thank god for my day job.