Bush Derangement Syndrome
Elsewhere (109)

The Humble Among Us

The perennial question among most creative people I know is not what to create, but how to create: how am I going to write this book/play/polemic and also pay the rent? It’s a tricky balance. Apart from a lucky few writers who get big advances or grants, most novelists cannot live off their work. They need a second (or even third) job to keep on writing.

This admission, by novelist Brigid Delaney in the Guardian, may prompt readers to wonder whether we have a surplus of such “creative people,” more than the market can support. More than is required. Certainly, the career prospects of being a novelist, playwright or unspecified creative person don’t sound terribly good:

Last year, the Sydney Morning Herald published a fairly depressing article on Australian writers’ income. It reported authors earn on average $11,000 a year – approximately one-sixth of average annual income. And these are the lucky writers – the ones getting published. 

And as we’ve seen, the situation is very similar in other areas of the arts. Again, I can’t help feeling there’s a message here about supply and demand, dreary things like that. Something to bear in mind when, say, leaving school or choosing your degree course. The glamour of the artistic and literary life is, I fear, beginning to look quite thin:

The question of where to live on such a low income while trying to write becomes crucial: in the middle of nowhere with cheap rent, or in the city where day jobs help pay for housing? Compromise clouds every decision.

And this simply will not do. You see, creative people, that’s people like Ms Delaney, must live in locales befitting their importance, not their budget. You, taxpayer, come hither. And bring your wallet. 

The city of Sydney recently tried to address the problem of artists being priced out by introducing six rent-subsidised studio spaces in Darlinghurst. Those chosen get a year-lease and pay reduced rent of $250 a week on a one-bedroom with work studio.

Creative people, being so creative, deserve nothing less than special treatment. I mean, you can’t expect a creative person to write at any old desk in any old room in any old part of town. What’s needed is a lifestyle at some other sucker’s expense. And so that garret has to be in a fashionable suburb or somewhere happening, where the creative vibrations are at their strongest and genius will surely follow. And that pad of choice has to come before the publishing deal and film rights and the swimming pool full of cash. Indeed, it has to materialise before the book itself, or any part thereof. How else can their brilliance flourish, as it most surely will, what with all that creativity. Our betters just need a little cake before they eat those damn vegetables. And possibly ice cream. Here’s some money that other, less glamorous people had to actually earn. You fabulous creature, you.

Despite Ms Delaney’s self-exalting tendency, we do get a brief flickering of realism: 

There is an economic rationalist argument against subsiding housing for artists. After all, these people have made a choice to be in a low-paying high-risk (in terms of success) industry. Why should people who have to clean hospital wards subsidise the housing of some hipster novelist?

Why indeed? That sounds pretty solid for a rationalist argument. What with the social justice and all. Perhaps a ‘but’ is coming.


There we go.

But without writers living in the city, we also risk missing out on that city’s stories being captured on the page. Who hasn’t read a contemporary novel set in Melbourne or Sydney (not that there are many of them) and thrilled with recognition at the places re-imagined, dense with other people’s interior lives? It’s how empathy develops.

Why, it’s practically our humanity at stake. As a member of our creative caste, Ms Delaney wants to capture the buzz and thrum of city life. She wants to inspire “recognition” and, above all, “empathy.” It’s just that she’d prefer not to empathise too much with those non-creative people. Say, by working for a living and paying her own bills. And who will write about those ordinary people and their non-artistic lives if we don’t encourage Ms Delaney and her peers to live way above their means, at our expense, in places they can’t afford? Places they can’t afford because what they create isn’t as vital to the public as they might wish. 

Ms Delaney’s rent-seeking may sound a tad self-flattering, a wee bit grandiose, but it’s hardly uncommon among her peers