Monday 10 December 2018

Ryan gets real about the heroic life of the writer

Cartoon by Jim Cogan
Cartoon by Jim Cogan
Declan Lynch

Declan Lynch

There was a sad little anniversary last week, marking the day in 1966 when John McGahern lost his job as a teacher due to various "indecencies" in his novel The Dark.

Meanwhile, a couple of weeks ago in this paper, Donal Ryan explained to Niamh Horan that despite his success as a novelist, he is obliged to return to his job in the Workplace Relations Commission in order to have a realistic chance of paying his mortgage and generally making a living.

So this is how far we have come - we used to force our writers to leave the public service, now we force them to join it.

Then again, a few weeks before Christmas in this column, I was pointing out that there are more people in Ireland driving around in cars that they won in a competition on the Late Late Show, than there are authors making a living just from writing books.

And that a few basic calculations will tell you that even an author who sells a lot of books in this country, will not be making anything like he'd be getting for the same number of man-hours hosing down the latrines in a branch of McDonald's in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

So there has been understandable confusion in the response to this news about Donal Ryan - the immediate reaction is one of surprise that a writer of literary fiction who really has sold a lot of books, who has received relatively large advances, and who does an excellent public reading which is usually well-attended, still can't pay the mortgage. And yet if we are honest, how could he be anything but poor?

The man himself went through the grisly numbers, the essential lack of anything resembling financial security, the stress of this constant struggle for someone with a family to support.

So Ryan has done us a favour here, by reminding us that writing - at least if it's being done properly - is not really a suitable occupation for anyone who may have concerns about everyday distractions like being able to pay for food and drink and clothing and so forth.

I am reminded of the fact that when I was about 18, the writers who seemed closest to the ideal were people such as Norman Mailer, or Jack Kerouac, or Hunter S Thompson, or various French and Russian novelists - many of whom by any conventional analysis would be regarded as total madmen, and not necessarily in a good way.

Some of them may have made a few quid along the way - Mailer probably got rich for about five minutes but he was always able to find a way around that - but as a reader and an admirer of these people, probably the last thing on my mind was how they managed to fill their shopping trolleys on a Sunday.

They were beyond all that, theirs was the heroic life of the artist, it was of no concern of mine whether Dostoyevsky was able to build a bit of an extension on the proceeds of The Idiot.

Indeed, if writing good books - or just trying to write them - can be called a "job" in any sense, it is a form of voluntary work for which you can expect to get "paid" roughly in the same way that someone buying a EuroMillions ticket expects to get paid, albeit not necessarily in your lifetime.

And if somehow you can write good books which are also bestsellers, not just in Ireland, but everywhere in the world in which people have money, then you are a phenomenon so rare, the question arises as to whether the books are good at all, given their suspiciously high levels of popularity.

Otherwise even writers with high international reputations whose sales still fall short of your Dan Browns can be seen bumping up their lifestyles by occupying a "role" in a university or some such august institution which, though it may require very little work, is still taking up space in their heads that might otherwise be devoted to the books - no doubt some humorist has already suggested to Donal Ryan that being back in the civil service, at least now he will have more time to write.

So perhaps it is just in the nature of this deeply strange calling, that the less it resembles a regular way of making a living, the more it is likely to inspire.

I have often wondered, watching the Booker Prize being presented at a black-tie ceremony in London's opulent Guildhall, why any 18-year-old would particularly want to be one of those people - if you're just looking for a posh job, something in the Department of Foreign Affairs is probably more pleasant than the London publishing business.

John McGahern was eventually honoured by the Booker people, who found it delightful that he was some sort of actual farmer, that in order to keep himself alive he may even have worked on building sites in England, after Ireland had shown him the door. Always he had seemed oddly easy-going about his dismissal as a teacher, perhaps feeling that it helped his development as an artist, which was all he cared about really.

So when we look again at that change of attitude, from forcing them out of the public service to forcing them into it... maybe we had it right the first time.

'The Ponzi Man', a novel by Declan Lynch, published by Hachette Ireland, is out now in paperback

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