The other day, I received from my publisher my first royalties cheque. It was for sales for the first 8 months for my first book, “Not The Same Family”. It wasn’t for a lot of money. As a matter of fact, it was for next to no money.
Was I disappointed? Not really. Ok, to be honest, maybe just a wee bit. My publisher had prepared me. Literary fiction doesn’t sell well in Singapore. The book reading public is small. The book buying public is even smaller.
I read in the papers recently that the winner of the 2014 Singapore Literature Prize has sold all of 2200 copies since 2013. The book retails at S$20.20 at the bookshops. Booksellers typically get 40%. Writers’ royalties usually range from 5% to 10% of nett. You do the maths!
At the outset, aspiring writers have to be aware of the landscape. I was. I wasn’t going in for the money. Simply because there is no money in it! If it was money I wanted, I would have stuck with my paying job. Or struck out on some other endeavours. Certainly not writing.
According to Samuel Johnson, “No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money.” By that score, I guess I am a blockhead. But I also know that I am in good company. Here are what a few famed writers had to say on the matter:
James Salter : The cynics say that if you do not write for money you are a dabbler or a fool, but this is not true. To see one’s work in print is the real desire, to have it read. The remuneration is of less importance, no one was paid for the samizdat. Money is but one form of approval.
Gertrude Stein, when asked why she wrote, replied. ‘For praise.’
“For glory,” said Faulkner.
Ann Pachette: “We write because we wanted to do it more than anything else, and even when we hate it, there is nothing better.”
D L Doctorow (who passed just this week) : “Because I am good at it.”
And this may come as a surprise for some – for David Foster Wallace, it was the fun. “This process is complicated and confusing and scary and also hard work, but it turns out to be the best fun there is.”
I’d like to echo Doctorow, but I think that might come across as being immodest. Instead, I’ll just claim a variation of Wallace’s theme. It’s for the pleasure and the satisfaction; despite all the ups and downs and frequent frustrations, over the long term, writing grants me the most pleasure, and the greatest sense of satisfaction each time a piece is done.
It’s all about love and passion. Love for the written word. Passion to be engaged in the act of producing more of it. It’s about the sense of satisfaction which one can get from surveying what one has created and saying to oneself, “It is good!”
Writing for me is about responding to the stirrings in my heart. The alternative is to ignore the rumblings. Ignored long enough, the heartstrings would stop reverberating, which would be tantamount to the heart going dead. No longer would I feel alive. No sense of satisfaction at the end of each writing day, of having achieved something. Something of real value. Something I can be proud about. Something that stretches me, but also makes me feel I have been placed here on earth to do just that. It’s my raison d’etre. The writing may not be brilliant, it probably won’t win me any literary prize – not yet – but I know I’d done my best – for now.
It’s about the creative impulse, the urge to fashion something out of mere words. Something which articulates what the soul seeks to express. Something, hopefully, original, and beautiful, and lasting.
It’s about the stories which only I can tell, from my unique point of view, in my style, and in my voice. It’s about the thoughts which only I can articulate in the form I conceive of them. If I don’t put these down in words, they will just remain bits of disjointed bubbles in the recesses of my mind, unexpressed, untold, unread. Brewing, percolating, perhaps even fermenting, and may be fading, and eventually being buried in me, and with me. Perhaps it is part of an underlying wish for them to outlive me. If any of my writing is deemed any good at all, perhaps some of it will become part of my legacy.
With any luck, perhaps I might even, in time, make some money – real money – from writing. That would be a bonus. Not so much for me, but for my grandkids. They would finally have a chance of some inheritance.
But it’s never been about the money.