When the writer Sara Baume won the €15,000 Davy Byrnes Short Story prize last summer, I had never heard of her. An online search led to her blog, and a rare sense of justice that this particular person had won such a remarkably large sum for a single short story. During 2012, Baume had kept an online account of her less-than-luxurious life as a writer. In October she wrote of learning to waitress: “which is what happens, kids be warned, when you chase a fine art degree with a masters in creative writing.” In March her car was towed for scrap, leaving her somewhat housebound. Two months earlier, “strapped for cash”, she wrote of digging vegetables, catching fish, gathering fuel and having made Christmas gifts “for reasons significantly less glamorous than art.”
Baume was 28 when she set aside two years to write her debut novel. Spill Simmer Falter Wither has just been published to early, critical acclaim. So her story has a happy ending. Or does it? Last month, she wrote in the Irish Times about returning to her old school and feeling “a bit of a fraud”. She got over 500 points in her Leaving Cert but is yet to earn a proper income from her chosen professions of artist and, or writer. “Had I applied myself so assiduously in any other field,” she wrote, “I like to think I’d be comfortably well off now, but this isn’t how it works in the arts.”
Baume plans to eke out the €15,000 on two years of “rent, groceries and petrol”, because in order to write (not waitress) she needs this money “just for living”. A two-book deal for literary fiction is no guarantee of income. This vision of the starving artist making sacrifices for their art is nothing new, but it has been pulled into sharper focus by the internet and our shifting ideas about paying for “content”, because content is what we now call all creative output disseminated in this way; and these days, apart from live performance, there’s very little that isn’t. Free online content includes reams of new writing, film, music, art and photography in particular.
When Baume writes, “society has made me feel foolish for devoting myself so fervently to a career so unlikely to earn me any money”, she seems almost embarrassed by the value she has placed on her work. Somewhere between the blogging, the photo sharing and the open music streaming, we’ve collectively amplified the idea that creative types who love what they do don’t deserve or need to get paid for it. Everyone is a content creator now, but true artists are those, like Baume, who intuitively understand what to give away (blog posts) and what to keep (short stories, full novel manuscripts), until someone, somewhere is willing to pay for them. The money may still not be enough, but for 21st century writers, photographers, music and film-makers deciding where to draw that line has turned out to be the real art.
A version of this column first appeared in The Sunday Times Ireland on 1 March 2015.