Update: Ben Elthamon funding cuts

Balancing the Books

On the cover of the latest edition of Meanjin, the mournful head of Frank Moorhouse gazes back at readers. It is a sad and sorry business, his expression seems to say. A grand old man of Australian letters is broke. ‘Is writing a way of life?,’ Moorhouse enquires. I don’t think I’m spoiling it by revealing that for Moorhouse, financially at any rate, writing is not.

Moorhouse uses the opportunity of a long essay in a serious journal to survey the state of the working writer in Australia. He’s not afraid to detail his financial difficulties. ‘The writing of this essay gradually became disturbingly existential and personal,’ he writes. ‘After 50 years of writing, I am going broke again.’ With a grand flourish (and a long quote from Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men), Moorhouse questions ‘the rules I have followed in my life as writer.’ They haven’t led him to a good place.

Moorhouse’s lament is not inconsequential. It is no small comment on the parlous state of Australian letters that one of the nation’s major living novelists is broke. If Frank Moorhouse can’t make a living from it, who can? Readers can buy all of the sixteen books in Moorhouse’s back catalogue easily enough, even though not all of them would be easy to find in bookshops. He is old enough to have enjoyed the (probably apocryphal) fat times of literary publishing, back in the 1980s. He has won many prizes and fellowships. ‘I have had very good years financially,’ he admits. And yet somehow it hasn’t added up to financial security.

Moorhouse is surely right to point to the precarity of the serious novel writer in the contemporary literary marketplace. When economist David Throsby last surveyed the incomes of Australian artists, writers averaged the lowest incomes of any group he studied. According to robust figures collected by Throsby, in 2013-14 the average income ‘from practicing as an author’ was just $12,900 – well below the official 2014 poverty line for a single person of $22,160. ‘Income from another occupation related to writing’ provided another $14,300 on average, just lifting authors above subsistence level. Throsby’s stats show that the bulk of authors’ incomes in this country derives from occupations ‘unrelated to writing’: day jobs, in other words. Stock jokes about poets and garrets notwithstanding, writing books in this country does not, on average, provide authors with a living wage.

The predominant form of income for monograph writers in this country has generally been the publisher’s advance. The exact amount of these advances for particular books is a well-kept secret, but scuttlebutt suggests they currently average in the low single thousands for books published in Australia. Throsby’s data backs this up, putting the average advance earnings for a literary author at $3900. Royalties average an additional $4100; as authors know, a book must sell well to earn royalties over and above the advance. Taken together, royalties and advances average just $8000 annually for literary fiction. If we leave it to the marketplace to support working novelists, there won’t be too many paying the rent each month.

Source: Jan Zwar, David Throsby and Thomas Longden, Australian authors: Industry Brief No. 3: Authors’ Income, Macquarie University, 2015.

Some would wave away such complaints with a variation of ‘it was ever thus’. In fact, it wasn’t ever thus, as Moorhouse observes. There was a time when it was substantially more possible to be a writer in this country that it is today. That time was quite recently.

The Australia Council was founded on the idea of supporting local artists and building a national culture. The idea of paying artists an income for their artistic labour was central to the early conception of the agency advanced in the 1970s by Nugget Coombs and Gough Whitlam, its principal political sponsors. Neither were under any illusion that the unfettered free market would provide a living wage for artists. And the early years of the Australia Council reflected this commitment to supporting working artists. Fellowships and grants to individual artists, like painters, composers, poets, novelists and craftspeople, made up a much larger proportion of the agency’s funding mix.

But in the years since, the commitment to supporting individual creators has waned.

It’s no secret that the funding cuts delivered by George Brandis in 2015 threw the Australian arts sector into chaos. Brandis is gone but not forgotten, and the trail of wreckage he left is slowly being cleaned up. In March, his replacement Mitch Fifield announced the final ignominious end of Brandis’ dream of a national program for excellence in the arts. Approximately $60 million of funding will now be returned to the Australia Council, in a final admission of the absurd failure of the ‘excellence’ policy.

This denouement still leaves the Australia Council worse off in nominal terms than when the Coalition took office in September 2013. But the real hit has been taken by Australia Council grant pools. While major companies were protected, the austerity hit funding streams for solo artists and small groups hard. The priorities here – big organisations first, small organisations second, individual artists last – are a culmination of a decades-long trend.

The current carve-up of Australia Council funding distribution dictates that just one twelfth of all the agency’s funding goes to individuals and small groups. The rest is gobbled up by cultural organisations of all different shapes and sizes. The solo artist is far less likely to be subsidised than just about anyone working for an arts organisation. The situation is far worse now than it was in the golden years of the 1970s and 1980s.

Increasingly, prizes have taken the place of fellowships and public grants as the most high-profile form of support for working writers. There has been a proliferation of literary prizes in recent years, at both state and federal level. As Ivor Indyk has pointed out, ‘prize literature’ is now a discernable genre of its own, taken to represent a certain form of middlebrow writing that is accessible, appealing and safe.

Whether literary prizes are warping the sensibilities of authors is a heavily contested question. But there can be no doubt of the transformative effects of winning a major prize for the personal finances of an author. In a marketplace where it remains extremely difficult to get paid to write in a sustained and dedicated manner, prizes are the closest thing to a fellowship most Australian authors can aspire to.

The consequences of prize culture for the literary labor market are sobering. Prizes, by definition, are enjoyed only by the lucky minority. They mimic in miniature the broader contours of global artistic labour markets, which are openly characterised by cultural economists as tournaments. The winners take all, or nearly all, while the losers please themselves in penurious obscurity. It is no coincidence that sociologists are now studying the cultural industries as a template for the extreme inequalities of contemporary capitalism in general.

It’s the ghastly economics of the creative labour market, combined with the eclipse of the solo artist in Australian cultural life, that makes Moorhouse’s essay so timely. What can be done? In his article, Moorhouse raises the prospect of ten-year ‘“national contracts” for senior authors’, which would presumably be administered by the Australia Council. The idea is something akin to university tenure (itself a disappearing condition) for a select group of working artists.

Moorhouse’s goal for the program is refreshingly simple: it ‘would secure writers in mid-career who have demonstrated over 10 or 15 years the capacity to make a contribution to the national culture—to the life of letters …’ Nothing like this currently exists. The only thing vaguely similar is the highly competitive program of Australia Council Fellowships, which give $80,000 to a solo artist across two years. Last year, a skint Australia Council awarded just seven of them, only one of which went to a writer.

Something is clearly in the air, because a number of other artists and cultural policy figures have been turning over ideas about increased fellowships or similar programs for writers for some time. I’m one of them. I recently wrote a blog post on the topic based on a presentation I gave to academics at Monash University. My own scheme put forward the idea of a new small-to-medium organization that would directly fund literary fellowships. It could be resourced by a mix of private philanthropy and government subsidy. It would pay a rotating group of writers a fortnightly wage, with superannuation, for a fixed period of three or four years.

The merits of such a scheme remain to be debated, and I hope they are. Whether such a scheme should be its own charity or non-profit, or simply a program of the Australia Council (perhaps we need both), the takeaway point is to expand the provision of support to the working artist. Indeed, it could be argued that what’s really required is a major expansion of the federal fellowship program, growing it into the hundreds of fellowships over a period of several years. Such a scheme would be cheap, even in comparison to existing straitened circumstances: expanding the Australia Council Fellowships program to 300 positions offered annually would cost around $24 million a year, plus some administration – still less than a quarter of the annual funding distributed to the major organisations.

As Moorhouse reminds us, the artist is a figure who has manifestly been ignored in recent cultural policy debates, let alone broader economic and social policy. In the wake of the Brandis cuts, even the hitherto unorganised small-to-medium sector managed to hold protests and lobby against the changes. By contrast, there was comparatively little campaigning about the impact on working artists. A disorganised and competitive cultural labour force has essentially no voice or lobbying power. The cultural labour union, the Media Arts and Entertainment Alliance, is willing but weak.

In the end, what we’re getting at here is market failure. Atomised and immiserated, the cultural precariat has proved all easy to exploit. Large tech and media companies are happy to publish the work of unpaid writers, and when there’s so much good writing available for free, there’s little incentive for readers to pay up.

Given the prevailing interests of policymakers and media proprietors, you wouldn’t bet that an interest in the wellbeing of artists takes hold across the Australian political class. But Moorhouse’s Meanjin intervention is a useful start.

The renewal of the interest in direct subsidy to working artists comes in part through the recognition that current government policies about culture almost completely ignore the labour markets of cultural industries. As I’ve argued elsewhere, the reason to support artists and writers is simple and immediate: because culture is a good thing, and supporting people to make it will produce more of the good. But there is an emerging view amongst left-of-centre economic thinkers that investing in culture has benefits in macroeconomic terms too.

Put simply, investment in culture directs capital to a labour-intensive sector of the economy. In an industrialised world marked by low inflation, static employment growth and secular stagnation, directing investment towards industries that create jobs (as opposed to technologies that destroy them) makes quite a lot of sense. To quote US economist James K. Galbraith, ‘curing the jobs problem requires us specifically to identify needs—care, health, the environment, education, culture—and to create institutions that can serve them.’