Of Cheques and Balances

springLast spring, shortly after my story, “Borders”, was published in issue 299.2 of The North American Review, I received a cheque through the post as payment for the rights to use the work.

It’s an odd thing, being paid for writing stories. It’s the same when I get royalty statements from my publishers for my latest novel, released last November. I know that I don’t write for money, naturally, but at the same time I feel that I should get paid for what I do – or, that literature has a value that needs to be measured somehow, and one of those ways can be pecuniary.

But it shouldn’t be. Art exists to make us realise what it is to be human, not to make us a financial profit; the profit we make is primarily cultural, and this exchange is the payment that artists get. It takes time and effort to produce work, and that time and effort needs rewarding: some say that reward should be in cold, hard cash…

There are various reasons why I choose which publications to submit work to: it might be that the magazine is particularly well-respected, or is international in scope, or is connected to a particular publisher or target audience. More often than not it’s simply because I prefer the style, content and editorial nature of one publication over another. ‘I like the work in here,’ I say to myself, ‘and I want my work to be in it too.’ It’s that simple.

Note that not one of these reasons has anything to do with payment, or not financial payment, anyway. The rewards I get for having my work published are cultural and artistic. If I wanted to survive only on the money I get paid for writing then I’d be writing advertising copy or promotional blurb for a living – the writer who survives on their creative output is a rare beast indeed.

And that’s okay. In fact, it’s better than okay. It means that folk (such as me) write because they want to, and write what they want to, rather than trying to second- or third-guess the demands of the market. Isn’t that how art exists, and why? Or am I just incredibly old-fashioned about this? Yes, I’d love my latest novel to sell a million copies, win all the awards going, and for me to be pestered to option the film rights, but it’s not going to happen and I’m fine with that. That’s not why I wrote it.

Similarly, I didn’t write “Borders” just to get it published in The North American Review and cash that cheque. I wrote it because I thought I had something to say, quietly, about leaving and returning, about being allowed to choose how to live. Once the story was finished I then thought about having it published – this story was that rarest of exceptions, the one which gets accepted by the first publication you send it to, and I was and am thrilled and honoured by this. I got to see my story in print, in a very good, very old, well-respected, influential and consistently interesting magazine. Do I need any more payment than that?

In front of me now, because I’ve just dug it out from my desk, is that same check that was sent to me when the story was accepted. Since I live in the UK it’s hard to cash a cheque in US dollars. It’s not a big check, either. And with so many magazines struggling to survive it seems kind of inappropriate to take payment beyond free copies or a subscription.

And besides, that’s not why we write. I’ve got the check to look at, if I want to, to tell me that someone thought my work was worth paying for. As an incentive to keep writing, that’s pretty good. When the cheques and royalty statements start adding up to the thousands, I’ll start cashing them. Until then, that fact that publishers and editors are willing to pay me, merely by considering the work for publication, is payment enough, thanks.

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