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Would Crikey pay Doris Lessing?


Cover of Doris Lessing's The Golden Notebook features a young woman in a nightgown sitting on the floor with a book and a cigaretteBritish 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 magazines, as material objects, do not constitute the bulk of literature today (the internet does), which will mean interesting and possibly radical things for intellectual property in the future.

But for now, writers and other creative workers have become the ultimate neoliberal workers: not only do they accept precarious working conditions (including work without pay), there is no workplace to picket when conditions aren't met by employers, and because they are in fierce competition with one another, they are required to trade on their name as a truly individuated entity. Unionisation goes against the nature of this individuated labour.

An article, like any creative or critical work, is the accumulation of a writer's lived experiences. This is true of all professional labour, yet for creatives, the risk of investing one's life promises very little monetary reward. Their labour is not easily commodified within a market economy. 

Beyond the workplace ethics of compensating labourers for their profitable work is a deeper issue: how can the sometimes immaterial outcomes of creative and intellectual labour find a value in the economy? Good work is in abundance, such that it holds little monetary value. Yet we still need it. Who, after all, would prefer to live in the world without the creative and intellectual labour they consume daily?

Creative labour requires dedicated and specified learning, and also taking risks that propel original imagination and deeper insight. Such a life doesn't necessarily entail abandoning one's family and moving in with the Communists; it can be lived from the pleather couches of a municipal library, or from within the careful interrogations of ethical and spiritual lives. Lessing writes that 'writing can't be a way of life, the important part of writing is living. You have to live in such a way that your writing emerges from it.'

Ellena Savage headshotEllena Savage has written about literature, feminism, and political culture for publications including Overland, Australian Book Review, Right Now, The Lifted Brow, and Farrago, which she co-edited in 2010. She tweets as @RarrSavage

Topic tags: Ellena Savage, Doris Lessing, Crikey, The Daily Review



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Existing comments

Sounds like you're a bit cheesed off that you're not getting your just deserts, Ellena. Well, you're not the only one: Mozart et. al. from beyond the grave might echo your plaint. One small problem is: who's to decide which artist deserves recognition, and to what degree? There's a lot of cr*p around masquerading as the genuine article, I think you'll agree. On the market, sellers put up their widgets and hope for customers. If there aren't any, regardless of seller personal enthusiasms and beliefs, well, that's life. It's a humbling experience, but that's not a bad thing. I wonder if artists, unlike other entrepreneurs, have grasped that the world doesn't owe them a living. Certainly centuries of state patronage hasn't helped them in this regard. From a fellow impoverished artist.

hh | 21 November 2013  

Thanks Ellena. And Eureka Street. What you said!

Ailsa | 22 November 2013  

This article goes to the core issue of our times, how today's exciting technology is transforming all aspects of society except our concept of values. It was summed up in Ellena's support for industrial action which she said "articulated the contractual nature of a market exchange". It is this concept that today's technology is challenging. Machines are replacing labour in producing the material needs of society which is requiring a new paradigm that discards past values . The one that was raised long ago by not only Marx also a certain Francis of Assisi. It is a vision that technology is demanding it's time has come. It is knocking on the door, it's time to let it in.

Reg Wilding | 22 November 2013  

I heard once that Doris Lessing, at a mature stage of her career, submitted to her regular publisher a manuscript under an assumed name, It was rejected, leading Lessing to conclude that her other work was being accepted on the basis of her reputation rather than its worth. Presumably, this experiment encouraged her to lift her game. Apocrypyhal or not, the story is a good illustration of the professionalism that should accompany good writing. It would be good if similar professionalism applied in the places where writers send their work,

David Stephens | 22 November 2013  

We’re told our creative artists should be grateful for any payment they receive, with public appreciation their chief reward. And despite some simple but enlightened Whitlam government reforms, few can feed their families on the work we most value them for. Now our journalists are being asked to head the same way. Hard times, say the bean-counters: little money to pay for local copy. Yet never have we needed excellent journalism more: scientific journalists to explain all that complex science to us; legally literate journalists to interpret serious legal issues and economic journalists to make sense to laymen of politico-economic theories which challenge our values. Science, law and economics are increasingly with us at the polling booth. We need guidance through the internet’s clouds of ill-informed and ill-considered comment and the rubble of inaccurate and half-baked information. We need skilled wordsmiths, the brightest and best, to guide us to the best stuff out there; to investigate and interpret a complicated world to all its disconnected and vulnerable citizens. Without them, we will become a country of the muddled and the misinformed. And they must be paid. Like it or not, our society measures those we value with money.

Libby Vorrath | 23 November 2013  

Sadly, the comment from "hh" is not only bitter towards artists, it lacks logic. "There's a lot of rubbish 'out there' masquerading as the 'real article'", he wrote. Yet even poor plumbers, restaurants, lawyers and so on, expect to be paid for their time and such expertise as they have. In any case, presumably "Crikey" wasn't looking for "rubbish" to publish, but, rather, good material and to use it in a medium where the publishers and those doing the computing work to support it were all expecting to be paid. The essential point here is the double standard and the fact that writers [artists, generally] are seen to be in a mendicant position and therefore able to be exploited. Yet this is happening in a "civilised" society which for centuries has sought to eliminate such exploitation. Thai is the essential point: not that it is s difficult market to sell in -- once the material is "bought", then it should be paid for.

John CARMODY | 03 February 2014  

Bravo! Love your work. Have read all your articles in Eureka and admire your intellect, courage, wit, humanity and emphasis on social justice issues. Literary, well written articles with a touch of sardonic humour! We are all worthy of our hire - and have a right to be paid. Full-time creativity like any other work, is a livelihood. Unionisation is possible!

Annabel | 04 March 2014  

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