Terence Blacker: The sad truth about writers and money

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The Independent Online

I was recently involved in a minor, wine-fuelled spat with a team of senior book publishers. I had revealed that I had been asked to appear in a brief discussion on national radio but had declined the invitation unless I were paid for my time. The view of the salaried publishers was that an author should be damned grateful for any publicity and that to quibble over a fee was demeaning. Since the sum involved was £50, they may have had a point.

It seems unlikely that Joan Collins, Fay Weldon and Salman Rushdie have had to scrabble quite so low in the media gutter, but each of them has recently contributed to the apparently never-ending debate about money and writing, purity and compromise.

The simplest case is that of Joan Collins. She is a literary hero, in whose honour a statuette should be commissioned to stand in the lobby of the Society of Authors or the Writers Guild. A few years ago, when glossy celebrity fiction was all the rage, and the arc of her own fame was at its highest point, the American publisher Random House commissioned a novel from her, paying an absurdly large advance. By the time she delivered a manuscript, neither the genre nor her own image was in such good shape, so, to its eternal shame, Random House tried to cancel the contract on the hilariously hypocritical grounds that the novel was not terribly well written. Collins, or Saint Joan as she should be called, took them to court and won.

Because publishers tend to have the last laugh in these matters – they don't like troublemakers – Saint Joan subsequently had some trouble getting published, but a new novel was due to appear this month under the imprint of a small, new publishing house. At the last moment, the publisher was revealed to be having severe financial difficulties. The launch of Saint Joan's latest work has had to be "postponed".

Doubtless, book trade types will have had a good chuckle about this, reflecting that authors should know their place when it comes to money. They will be less pleased with Fay Weldon. Attuned as ever to the mood of the times, Weldon has, like the British Library, comprehensives and the Royal Family, taken the private funding route. Her latest novel, The Bulgari Connection, is replete with lavish product placement for the jewellers Bulgari. According to those guardians of artistic purity, her American publishers, not to mention the great army of literary observers over here, Weldon has, simply by mentioning how lovely Bulgari jewellery is, and how charming the staff who sell it are, besmirched the purity of her fictional enterprise.

The sad truth is that anyone who has written for a living for some time, and has no private means, will have lost their purity some time ago. Much has been made of the fact that Weldon once worked in that ultimate knocking shop for writers, an advertising agency, but then so did Salman Rushdie.

The artistic integrity of Rushdie is on the record in his own words. "When I finished Midnight's Children, I simply ceased to be able to write advertisements," he boasted in 1985. More recently he told an interviewer that he was one life's outsiders. "Unbelonging is my artistic country now," was the way he put it.

Unbelonging, it turned out, was also known as Manhattan, while being an outsider involved leaving England, attending all the right fashion shows and parties with his new, lovely young girlfriend on his arm.

When his latest novel, for which he was paid an extremely healthy advance, appeared, its themes included leaving England, parties, Manhattan and the joys of having a lovely young girlfriend. Does that really make him a purer writer, less contaminated by the vulgar world of publicity and money, than Fay Weldon or Joan Collins? Somehow I doubt it.