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Would Crikey pay Doris Lessing?

  • 22 November 2013

British writer and Nobel laureate Doris Lessing died this week at the age of 94. Although I didn't always agree with her, Lessing has been an important figure in my reading life. It's not just her writing I love. The way she lived her life could not be disentangled from how and what she wrote.

As a young woman in South Africa, Lessing abandoned her family, knowing she was not capable of lifelong domesticity. She ran away and engaged in Communist and anti-Apartheid activism, and wrote more than 50 novels. In The Golden Notebook, she wrote 'you simply don't get to be wise, mature, etc., unless you've been a raving cannibal for 30 years or so', which seems to accurately represent Lessing's lifestyle. When she won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2007, the Swedish Academy described Lessing as 'that epicist of the female experience, who with scepticism, fire and visionary power has subjected a divided civilisation to scrutiny'.

With the awareness of how many choices, and how many risks, people like Lessing take to make the work that they do, I wonder how the value of a life's work could be reduced to the objects they produce. There is a lifetime of human experience that goes into every expression, and this is true of all artists and commentators.

I think about this when considering the issue of whether writers should be paid for their work. Last week a letter circulated among freelance writers that called out Crikey's new online arts daily, The Daily Review, which despite being a commercial, advertising-driven enterprise, initially proposed no budget for its freelance contributors. The letter articulated that its authors would not contribute their work to the site without payment, and encouraged other writers to do the same.

I was happy to sign, in support of an industrial action which very simply articulated the contractual nature of a market exchange: if work is good enough to sell to advertisers, it's good enough to pay authors for.

The connection between Lessing's death and the Crikey letter is not obvious. It's just that Lessing's life speaks to the profound seriousness with which writers approach their work, the kinds of risks writers take. This seriousness causes a problem when cultural work is undervalued, or not valued at all.

As the object of literary production has slipped into an immaterial sphere (the internet), its value has become ever more difficult to discern. Books and