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Monday, 18 June 2007

Perry had to point me to Peter Carey's latest piece because I've gotten lazy. But readers of yesterday's post will know why. I must get back into the habit of trawling the lit pages of broadsheets and magazines for the good oil.

Carey's article is good. He points to an issue we all face, to a greater or lesser degree. The professionalisation of 'authorship' follows trends in pretty much every discipline. Or so I think. I personally attribute this fact to the rise and rise of celebrity.

There may be other reasons for the popularity of celebrity, but what Carey says is timely. And I think Perry would agree (he didn't say so much in his post, but he's expressed misgivings before about creative writing programs).

Celebrity is part of the world of the writer, too, nowadays. More than ever before, possibly. Although we may wish to recall how Blake was (finally!) recognised by a group of young aesthetes in the second or third decade of the nineteenth century. They were his groupies. We also remember how Thomas De Quincey 'took up' with Wordsworth and Coleridge at their retreat by the Lakes.

Money and celebrity are changing the way people view a career as a writer, Carey seems to say. Or am I pulling a long bow? He's quite clear: "there is no worse place than New York to be a young writer" and "I can see the toll it takes to be a young unpublished writer in this town", he says.

His own experience, which led to such wonderful collections of stories as War Crimes (who reads early Carey any more?), well before Bliss brought him to wide attention:

Writing after work at the kitchen table, I was risking nothing except my sentences. No one knew I was there. There was no one to network with or suck up to.

And what sort of work was he doing? As an advertising copywriter, Carey was already involved in creativity, and must have known the feeling you get when your best idea is rejected by someone who writes boilerplate commercial correspondence and gets paid to do so.

Writers are saddled with debt, he says, to the tune of US$60,000, and who can support such a mountain of debt? In his own case, he says, such pressures did not exist. Perry says "he was probably fortunate in that he was nurtured in his early writing years by the Australian publishing industry, and wasn't cast aside after a couple of low-selling books". I tend to agree, but there's nothing in the world that's going to stop professionalisation. Leon Mayhew's The New Public and Jergen Habermas' The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere are lucid on this issue.

But just the very existence of such books is an indicator of how far the process has gone. Mayhew blames much on the success (he almost resents it) of science since the late nineteenth century. There's a PhD in a critique of his distaste for professional communicators (the subject of his book), but he is worth reading. I personally believe that it is better to have a professional class than the alternative: a nobility.

But what has this to do with writers? I think that the process will continue, and it is interesting to read Carey's piece for the insights it provides. Young, aspiring writers, it seems, become 'research assistants' to famous novelists. This seems much like, in the old days, how young artists would enter the atelier of an established painter, doing the bits that are easy, before the master comes along and adds the coup de grace: the face, perhaps, and maybe also the hands (the hardest bits to render well).

Are we going back to the future?

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