A few weeks ago, when I was having lunch with some friends, one of them expressed a sentiment that stayed with me. “Writers are working-class now”, he said, or words to that effect. What he meant was the widespread slashing of journalists’ rates meant that a career which once promised a comfortable middle-class lifestyle was now about as remunerative as any number of low-paid office jobs.
Several writers, particularly novelists, will have read the above paragraph with a shrug. They may have little sympathy with journalists who are feeling the pinch, for they will never have known a time when they had excess income to be squeezed. In any case, perhaps this period of a few decades, where many writers have lived very well off their scribblings, is an anomalous one.
A couple of days after that lunch, I picked up a copy of Marx and Engel’s Communist Manifesto, which I have been slowly working my way through, and found the following section. “The low strata of the middle class”, I read, “all these sink gradually into the proletariat…partly because their specialized skill is rendered worthless by new methods of production.” (My italics.)
Marx and Engels wrote this in 1848, but it is just as relevant for writers (and, indeed, musicians) now: the Internet, that revolutionary new method of production, has with its rampant piracy apparently rendered worthless many hours of artistic toil. However, the Internet has done a curious thing. At the same time as it has vastly diminished financial returns, it has given writers a different kind of wealth: the wealth of reach.
I happen to love communication in all its forms – be it writing, speaking, performing or public relations – and I happen to be alive at a time when the tools of communication have never been more powerful. For that, I count myself wholly fortunate: if successful use of these tools represents “the new wealth”, then I have more of it every day. With the emergence in recent years of social media, it could be said that we are in “the Golden Age of contact”, where it is increasingly possible to get in touch with anyone anywhere who has an internet connection. (I wonder whether that Golden Age will turn out to be so golden after all, but that is a subject for another day.)
For now, though, I am still in the phase of marvelling that a piece of writing that I type at my desk and then publish on my blog can soar out around the world in seconds. This is a mundane miracle of which countless writers in the times before ours would have been envious, at the very least. I find myself responding to this miracle in feverish fashion, endlessly producing new work, as it has always been my dream to do nothing more than create more and better ways of expressing what I feel to be right and wrong in the world around us. I am delighted with this new wealth, and in it I greedily revel.