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Articles

Writing about WritersMapping the Field and Moving Forward

  • Stevie Marsden

…plus d’informations

  • Stevie Marsden
    University of Leicester

Couverture de L’écrivaine, l’écrivain en recherche : perceptions et approches, Volume 9, numéro 2, printemps 2018, Mémoires du livre

Corps de l’article

This article presents a selective literature review of existing academic, journalistic and non-fiction writing that has furthered the assessment of the writer and the occupation of writing in recent years. Debates surrounding the status and role of the writer, or author, have lingered in some form or another for centuries. John Logie has argued that such debates belong to a “two-millennium-long conversation” about the “diachronic tussle over how literary composers compose.”[1] Logie highlights a number of now well-known contributions to this conversation, including “Plato’s Ion; Sir Philip Sidney’s ‘An Apology for Poetry’ [1595]; Edward Young’s ‘Conjectures on Original Composition’ [1759]; T. S. Eliot’s ‘Tradition And the Individual Talent’ [1919]; and W. K. Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley’s ‘The Intentional Fallacy [1946].’”[2] Logie also includes Roland Barthes’ “The Death of the Author” (1967) and Michel Foucault’s “What Is an Author?” (1969), arguing that these essays in particular influenced more recent contributions such as “Helene Cixous’s ‘Castration or Decapitation’ [1981] and Nancy K. Miller’s ‘Changing the Subject: Authorship, Writing and the Reader’ [1986] (which opens with a sustained treatment of Barthes’s essays).”[3] While these historical analyses of the contexts of the writer’s life and authorial status are important, and have certainly established the foundation of critical theory reflecting on the writer/author, this article focuses predominantly on publications from the early 1980s to the present day, bringing together contemporary examinations of writers in order to survey the current state of this area of academic study and consider what further research may be considered in the future. This focus on the most recent contributions to the field is deliberate. Since this article is an overview of how writing is being examined and considered now, and proposes how we may want to research and discuss it in the future, concentrating on contemporary contributions to the field is most appropriate.

Before continuing to review existing research considering the role and status of the writer, it is first important to briefly explain the terminology that will be used throughout this article. This is important since the terms “author” and “writer” are often used interchangeably, despite having different definitions and connotations. There are two entries for “author” (one noun,[4] one verb[5]) in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), and one for “writer.”[6] As a noun, “author” denotes “a writer, and senses relating to literature,” more specifically, “the writer of a book or other work; a person whose occupation is writing books.”[7] Definitions for “writer,” on the other hand, focus on the act of writing as part of a specific job role. The leading definition of writer is, in comparison to that of “author,” pared-down to encompass the basic physical act of writing: “A person who can write; one who practises or performs writing; occasionally, one who writes in a specified manner.”[8] The second definition, “one whose business or occupation consists in writing; a functionary, officer, etc., who performs clerical or secretarial duties; a scribe, clerk, or law-writer,” emphasises what can be professional demand for writing. Both of these definitions remove any notion of creativity, reducing the writer to little more than an individual performing the act of writing.

Although the term “writer” appears to remove imaginative license from the person performing the act itself, in this article the word “writer” is favoured over “author” for two related reasons. The word ‘writer’ is preferred to avoid getting side-tracked by discussions on the kind of value judgments that may be associated with the ‘author’ or ‘authorship’ highlighted above. While the different types of literature discussed in this article will commonly favour one term over the other, and works will be cited according to the preferred terminologies, when discussing ideas original to this article the term “writer” will be used. Secondly, despite the fact that, as this literature review indicates, most studies on writing and writers have focused largely on writers of fiction in all its forms, this article argues that future studies should push the boundaries of how we define and discuss writers and the creative practice of writing. Existing research into the habits and role of writers, for instance, has often tried to separate the “creative” writer from the academic writer. Within the context of their literature review of analyses of the information habits of writers, Desrochers and Pecoskie define a writer as “a person whose written output is creative in nature, and produced outside of academia or the traditional news media realm.”[9] While this definition is preferred by Desrochers and Pecoskie for the purposes of their analysis, they recognise that a false presumption, according to which all other forms of creative writing are categorized as fiction writing, prevails.[10] Accordingly, Desrochers and Pecoskie maintain that writing should be considered an interdisciplinary topic:

It should hence stand as a premise (indeed perhaps even a truism) that “writing” and “writers” are interdisciplinary topics. The challenge is therefore to harness the contributions of other disciplinary approaches, methods, and reporting styles whilst setting boundaries within an immense body of research.[11]

Accordingly, this article will present a range of contributions of interdisciplinary studies on writing and writers and argues that more research is needed on the practices and nuances of different kinds of writing.

The main function of this review is to propose thematic nodes by which scholarship and writing about writers may be categorised, which, in turn, may aid comparative analyses of works within the same, or different, categories, or enable the identification of areas that are lacking in the field (some of which will be discussed in the final section of this article). There is a wealth of information about writers, in terms of academic research, journalistic enquiry or (auto)biographical reflections on the writer, yet they exist as disparate areas of investigation, when they should be considered as interrelated aspects of the same intellectual endeavour. This article argues that existing research and works about writers and writing commonly fall under four prominent themes, namely: Being a Writer;Reputation, Fame and Hierarchies;Psychoanalyses of the Writer; and Economies of Writing. Accordingly, this article is structured to consider each theme in turn. While the studies in this review will often concentrate on one of these themes, it is rare to find a discussion or analysis of writing that does not touch on all four of these themes in some way. The final section of this article, Future Research, will propose research questions or methodological approaches that have, until now, remained largely absent from studies of the writer and writing life, and suggests that these new areas of investigation are necessary to continue broadening the field of research about writing and furthering our understanding of the writer’s inspirations, motivations and work practices.

Thematic categories have been used as a means of structuring this selective literary review for three reasons. Firstly, in a practical sense, it simplifies bringing together different kinds of writing about writers into one cohesive review. Secondly, the use of these thematic categories intends to evoke a new way in which writing about writers and its related research can be considered in the future. More precisely, this selection and categorisation by theme aims to highlight the connections between the different kinds of writing about writers and persuasively communicate the importance of interdisciplinarity within this particular area of enquiry, which remains pertinent to a range of fields such as literary studies, publishing studies, sociology and digital humanities. Finally, the thematic categories (which are by no means definitive and should be viewed as something to develop and expand) offer stability and cohesion to what is currently a heterogeneous area of scholarship.

The texts that have been selected for discussion in this review are considered to be particularly influential and significant contributions to the scholarly field, or they are interesting examples of writing about, or by, writers within popular culture more generally. While this review aims to be comprehensive and inclusive in its approach, limitations are inevitable given the boundaries of the article form. However, this selective review is offered as a contribution to understandings of the field of writing about writers and as an instigation of new ways of classifying, analysing and pursuing writing about writers.

Being a Writer

Arguably the most prominent kind of writing about writers is that which is focused on being a writer. This genre of writing includes “How to” guides, which offer practical advice to aspiring writers on structure, style and plot such as William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White’s The Elements of Style (first published in 1920 and now in its fourth edition) or James Scott Bell’s Plot & Structure (originally published in 2004 and already in its fifth edition).[12] Such guides may also promise to break down the formula for writing a bestselling novel, such as Dean Koontz’s How to Write Bestselling Fiction (1981) and Donald Mass’s Writing the Breakout Novel (2001). Professional memoirs by writers, which pair autobiographical detail with guidance on writerly life, are also popular. These books offer a personal insight into the lives of well-known writers and their own emotional responses to the writing experience from rejection to publication. In one of the most well-known contributions to this particular area of writing about writers, Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft (1999), King notes that by age fourteen he had so many rejection slips that the nail he used to pin them to his bedroom wall could no longer hold them.[13] King’s book reflects a trend in this genre of writing. A number of books like this share the “on writing” moniker, or variations of it, including William Zinsser’s On Writing Well (1976), Sol Stein’s Stein On Writing (1995), John Darnton’s Writers on Writing (2002), which brings together a collection of essays originally published in The New York Times, and A. L. Kennedy’s On Writing (2013). Similarly, a section of a fan website dedicated to the writings and life of Don DeLillo titled “Don DeLillo on Writing,” shares extracts from correspondence, interviews and essays by DeLillo, including a letter DeLillo wrote in response to a reading group who read one of his novels.[14] The material on this webpage has been curated by the fan base and highlights DeLillo’s commentary about being a writer. In the context of writing and publications about writers, those two words, “on writing,” have come to signify self-referential critical musings from writers about their work and practices as writers.

This work contributes not only to the plethora of “how to” guides, which aim to offer practical advice to emerging writers, but, given the revealing nature of these professional memoirs, they also give the reader an insight into the personal life of a writer. Through these books, the writers’ experiences become part of their oeuvre while representing their journey to becoming a published writer. However, it is worth noting that many of these “on writing” exposés are about well-established, often bestselling and multi-award winning, writers. This gives these narratives of writing success an aura of legitimacy: they are ‘real’ stories about writers who have ‘made it’ (the complexities of what it means to be a writer who has ‘made it’ is explored in the scholarship discussed in the next section of this literature review).

More journalistic approaches to this area of writing about “being a writer” tend to focus on more sensational aspects of writerly life. Broadsheet newspapers are particularly interested in the lives of award-winning writers or writers who make controversial statements. For example, the Irish writer Colm Tóibín made a splash when he suggested he took “no pleasure” in writing in an interview in 2009.[15]The Guardian newspaper responded to this revelation by asking a number of writers, including A. L. Kennedy, Amit Chaudhuri, Will Self, Joyce Carol Oates and Geoff Dyer, if writing for a living was “a joy or a chore.”[16] The answers invariably reflected Tóibín’s original comments, although most of the writers responding to The Guardian’s prompt highlighted that the unpleasant aspects of writing came from the negative psychological impact of the job as opposed to it being inherently unpleasant, with the writer Hari Kunzru saying,

I get great pleasure from writing, but not always, or even usually. Writing a novel is largely an exercise in psychological discipline—trying to balance your project on your chin while negotiating a minefield of depression and freak-out.[17]

A few years later in 2011, The Guardian also published extracts of transcripts of writers discussing their work from the British Library Authors’ Lives Archives.[18] Much like the personal-cum-professional memoirs discussed earlier—with this article even repeating the “On writing” signature in the title—these interviews, which aimed to “reveal the secrets of [a writer’s] craft,” bare intimate details about the writers’ relationship with their work.[19] A number of writers comment on how they knew they wanted to write from a very early age. Howard Jacobson said, “I cannot remember a time when I didn’t want to be a writer, and specifically a novelist; I can’t remember ever wanting to be anything else.”[20] Likewise, P.D. James stated, “I knew from very early childhood I wanted to be a writer—never any doubt in my mind about that.”[21]

This interest in what motivates writers is not only reserved for well-known or ‘established’ writers. Discussions about being a writer have also emerged among online writing communities. For example, in 2010, the writer and founder of the online ebook publisher Smashwords, Mark Coker, asked his Twitter followers, “Why do you write?”, following the announcement of an online writing competition that asked entrants to write an essay in response to the prompt “why writers write.”[22] Writing in the Huffington Post, Coker shared the sixteen responses he received to the question. Some respondents noted that they write because “it hurts when I don’t” or that they “*need* to write.”[23] Others suggested it was an innate part of them: “I write because I can’t help it. It’s as much a reflex as breathing, and equally essential.”[24] Such material on “being a writer” perpetuates the notion that writing is an essential part of the writer’s identity. It is not just something they do to earn a living and are fortunate enough to be good at; it’s something they work hard at and feel compelled to do.

While there is significantly less academic research that examines this aspect of writing, there are a number of scholarly articles that deal with some of the practical elements of being a writer. For example, Desrochers and Pecoskie’s previously mentioned “Studying a Boundary-Defying Group: An Analytical Review of the Literature Surrounding the Information Habits of Writers,” provides a literature review of research pertaining to the “information behaviour of writers.” This paper highlights how, despite there being a general acknowledgement of the “pervasiveness of writing” in culture more widely, there is little discussion of the information habits of writers and their relationships with archives and libraries. Desrochers and Pecoskie argue that acquiring an understanding of the information habits of literary writers through empirical research will further understandings of the working lives of writers:

One would think that the creative process of writers should offer a plethora of opportunities for information specialists to intervene. This is particularly true given that the field of literary production is a world where few people achieve economic stability and recognition, but where many strive to find the pathway to success. Information-seeking, for the writer, might therefore be content- or career-driven.[25]

Taking this information studies approach, Desrochers and Pecoskie argue, adds a new dimension to existing scholarship on writers, which can be “fascinating, often beautiful, and eloquent, but not scientific.”[26] An example of this kind of “fascinating, often beautiful” writing about being a writer that is presented within an academic frame is Anna Kiernan’s paper “‘Mad Girl’s Love Song’: Reflections on routes into reading, writings and mentoring.”[27] In this reflective account of her own work as a writer and lecturer in creative writing, Kiernan analyses and explains her approach to writing through a number of publications and projects. The purpose of the paper is to highlight the interdisciplinarity of Kiernan’s work as a creator, critic and collaborator. Kiernan’s paper is particularly interesting since it would arguably sit comfortably alongside the professional memoirs and reflections discussed earlier in this section, but its publication in an academic journal and Kiernan’s status as a Senior Lecturer bolster this piece’s academic credentials.

Desrochers and Pecoskie’s suggestion that there remains an imbalance towards partisan, as opposed to research-led, writing about “being a writer” is reflected by the fact that this section considering existing scholarship and literature about writers is lacking in more academic, research-focused works. However, as the following sections of this review will illustrate, other areas of academic research focus on more empirical datasets to assist analyses of writing careers.

Reputation, Fame and Hierarchies

Despite the fact that Barthes’ seminal 1967 essay identified—indeed, called for—the death of the “Author-God” who infuses meaning and import into their work, leaving little room for reader analysis and interaction, a fascination with the writer as an untouchable luminary figure lingers.[28] As illustrated in the previous section, from bestselling personal-cum-professional memoirs, to interactions with millions of fans on social media and journalistic inquiries into their lives, writers remain a constant site of intrigue for readers, journalists and academics alike. However, what, exactly, are the mechanisms at play that support the development of long-lasting fame for writers?

A great deal of scholarship considers the role reviews and critical reception play in establishing and sustaining a writer’s fame and career and, as a consequence, their position within the literary canon and establishment. In his 1985 study of mid-19th century writers, Karl Erik Rosengren argued that “all criticism is carried out against the background of a shared frame of reference” and that “the literary frame of reference contains a hierarchy of fame, a ranking list of old and modern writers.”[29] Borrowing from Pierre Bourdieu’s concepts of the literary field of cultural production, Rosengren suggests that three leading forms of criticism—journalistic, essayistic and academic—are complicit in this “ranking” of writers. Of these three forms of critical discourse, journalistic (the “day-to-day reviewing of new literary books”) has “the lowest status” but has the advantage of being “the first gatekeeper to meet the literary work of art after publication.”[30] The purpose of Rosengren’s study is to assess the impact coverage of writers in journalistic criticism has on the trajectory and longevity of their fame. Using “the mentions technique,” Rosengren counts “mentions” of, including references and allusions to, writers in Swedish literature by reviewers in publications from 1876 to 1976. Rosengren believed that the endurance of the reputation of certain authors over this century, such as Ibsen, Tolstoy and Zola, indicates that “the power of the reviewers of the 1880s may have been considerable.”[31] This data, Rosengren argues, indicates that the reviewers of the 1880s led the way in establishing a hall of fame of leading European writers born in the late 19th century:

[The reviewers] may have had the power not only over their own literary frame of reference (and thereby, indirectly, over that of their contemporaries) but also over parts of the literary frame of reference of our times. Our hierarchy of fame is similar to theirs.[32]

While Rosengren’s dataset is historical in nature, his methodological approach—using reviews to quantify a writer’s success—is one that has been replicated by other, more contemporary studies. Using event history analysis, Kees van Rees and Jeroen Vermunt completed a similar quantitative study examining the “critical reception of eighteen [Dutch] writers of fiction who made their debut around 1975” up until 1991.[33] Van Rees and Vermunt argue that “authors of literary fiction who fail to attract the attention of reviewers are not likely to gain a literary reputation and their work is at risk of falling into oblivion within a short time.”[34]

Similarly, Nel van Dijk uses “critical attention in dailies and weeklies” as an indicator of “literary success” of middle-group writers “who belong neither to the top nor to the literary fringe.”[35] In her conclusion, van Dijk argues that alongside media coverage, a writer’s development of “literary sidelines” (additional jobs which are related to writing but do not necessarily centre on the writer’s writing, such as being an editor for a literary magazine or teaching creative writing), also contribute to their longevity and positive reputation, since not only is the writer remaining visible within the industry, but they can also become well-known within the industry, making “positive reviews of their work . . . more likely.”[36]

This notion that visibility is key to the longevity of a writer and their reputation echoes work by Lang and Lang in their analysis of the survival of artistic reputation. While Lang and Lang’s study focuses solely on the work of artists, they frame their discussion of reputation and longevity in terms of “collective memory,” persuasively arguing that “survival in the collective memory is closely tied to the survival of tangible objects that recall the deceased,” which, in the case of writers, would be their oeuvre.[37] Lang and Lang continue, arguing that the creation of these objects in the artist’s lifetime is crucial to a long-standing reputation and fame:

Nothing can substitute for the objects wrought by the artist’s own hand. Consequently, our arguments runs, what artists do in their own lifetime to facilitate the survival and future identification of their oeuvres is critical in determining whether, and how well, their names will be known to posterity.[38]

Taking a slightly different approach, in his article “Classification of Authors by Literary Prestige,” Marc Verboord expands on this notion that writers’ “prestige is dependent on how s/he is perceived by significant others.”[39] However, as opposed to focusing on reviews of a writer’s publications, Verboord argues that literary prizes also act as “value assignments” for winning writers.[40] Accordingly, in his study, Verboord measures literary prestige through a range of “indicators,” including “entries in literary encyclopaedias, the winning of literary prizes, the attention given in literary studies and the status of the publishing house,” formulating what he calls “the Institutional Literary Prestige (ILP) classification system.”[41] Like Rosengran, Van Rees and Vermunt, and van Dijk, Verboord focuses on the institutions that can affect a writer’s fame, reputation and position within the literary hierarchy. However, the problem with these studies is that they remove agency from the writer, considering their fame and reputation as being largely constructed by the reception their books receive upon publication.

In a more up-to-date study of literary fame and prestige, Joe Moran’s Star Authors: Literary Celebrity in America (2000) offers an overview of how the most famous writers function in contemporary American culture. Reiterating the studies discussed above, Moran highlights how,

Celebrity authors . . . tend to be (for example) those who are reviewed and discussed in the media at length, who win literary prizes, whose books are studied in universities and who are employed on talk shows as what one host . . . called “heavy furniture,” adding “the minor authority of the authorial” to the proceedings as a serious counterweight to the more lightweight celebrities on view.[42]

This, Moran argues, makes celebrity authors “‘crossover’ successes who emphasize both marketability and traditional cultural hierarchies.”[43] This is an important point because it exposes how Barthesian notions of the “Author-God” remain and influence how writers are viewed as the highest calibre within cultural hierarchies.

However, like scholars who came before him, Moran relies on an approach that fails to account for bestselling, and therefore famous, writers who are actually denounced by many critics (and some readers), writers who are commonly ignored by the media, or the emerging trend for writers to be active in the development of their own brand identities. As van Dijk notes, “when we look at the careers of literary authors we find enormous variation in regard to reputation,”[44] but “reputation” and “fame” are not, as some of these studies insinuate, always correlative. A good example of this is the record breaking bestselling, and now multi-millionaire, writer E. L. James. James’s first book, Fifty Shades of Grey (2011), the first erotic novel of a trilogy developed from fanfiction based on the Young Adult Twilight book series by Stephenie Meyer, reportedly became the best-selling book of all time in 2012.[45] This occured despite the fact that the novel was largely dismissed by critics.[46] James’s novel sold well and attracted a readership in spite of negative reviews and a lack of prestigious award wins, indicating that the institutional hierarchies of fame and prestige described by much of the scholarship in this area of writing about writers needs to be reconsidered.

Similarly, it is well known that women writers have historically been ignored or “edged out” of the literary canon, as Tuchman and Fortin have argued. Through an examination of the biographies of men and women writers included in the Dictionary of National Biography between 1885 and 1911, Tuchman and Fortin consider how “the actual accomplishments of male and female writers specializing in various genres contribute differently to their fame or recognition.”[47] From this study, Tuchman and Fortin come to the conclusion that “men accumulate fame in ways that encourage continued recognition in the future; women are less likely to do so, at least in part because of how critics may disparage their work.”[48] Postcolonial writers and writers of colour have also traditionally been excluded from recognised literary canons, which are commonly Anglo-American in nature. Sarah Brouillette has discussed the complexities of the status of postcolonial writers in the contemporary literary marketplace, noting that the “postcolonial author has emerged as a profoundly complicit and compromised figure whose authority rests, however uncomfortably, in the nature of his connection to the specificity of a given political location.”[49]

Finally, this area of research is evolving to consider new models that affect the development or writers’ reputation, fame and hierarchies. Recent studies have analysed how new publishing models and social media platforms are enabling publishers and writers to circumvent the usual gatekeepers that would ordinarily offer promotion. Carolan and Evain have noted that prosperous self-published writers, in a new form of “literary sideline,” “build up their profile and sometimes their content through blogging and through social networking websites.”[50] Through these online tools, writers can “build a fan base, create reader loyalty, communicate with the public and diffuse works electronically.”[51] Online networks are now critical to a writer’s success but, as Criswell and Canty have noted, it is difficult to use these platforms to market debut writers.[52] Furthermore, Miriam J. Johnson’s recent work considering the “citizen author” again emphasizes the importance of online networking and communities in the development of a writer’s reputation away from traditional gatekeepers since, as Johnson argues, “the citizen author disrupts the discourse of the book by challenging the hierarchy of the traditional publishing model.”[53]

As this overview of existing critical literature about the reputation, fame and hierarchical structures affecting writers shows, this is a particularly expansive and disjointed area of research. For many years, attention was placed largely on the influence of external factors upon a writer’s fame and reputation, and therefore their position within the wider hierarchies of literary, and popular, culture. However, as the final studies considered in this section illustrate, critical discourse appears to be moving away from the notion of the writer as being dependent on external influences to assure their fame and critical renown.

Psychoanalyses of the Writer

Besides the “how to” guides discussed in the first section of this article, psychoanalysis of writers and the act of writing is arguably the oldest area of academic research that contributes to understanding why, and how, writers write. One of the first texts in this area was Edmund Bergler’s The Writer and Psychoanalysis (1950). Bergler’s other psychoanalytical work focused largely on relationships and marriage, but in The Writer and Psychoanalysis, Bergler—who conceived the term “writer’s block”[54]—attempted to explore the creative mind of writers and how their sensibilities affected their work. A contemporaneous review of the book noted, “the implications of [Bergler’s study] obviously go beyond mere clinical treatment of authors themselves, but also attempts to establish a basis for understanding the problem of creativity in general.”[55] However, the review continued to suggest that Bergler’s analysis is based largely on generalisations and therefore fails to offer any substantial understanding of the way the writer’s brain works.[56]

In 1988, Brand and Leckie argued that the late 1970s and 1980s saw an upsurge in research and publications about the cognitive processes of writing.[57] However, they exemplify how much of the work that precedes their own analysis of the emotions of professional writers focused on the negative emotional or cognitive impact of writing on the individual, whereas their work aimed to highlight the positive emotional experiences of writing.[58] Brand and Leckie surveyed twenty-four writers from a range of writing professions, including English teachers, full-time fiction writers, freelance writers and non-fiction writers. The participants were surveyed before, during and following a period of scheduled writing. Brand and Leckie concluded that emotional responses to a writer’s work depended on a number of factors, including education level, age and whether the writer was “self-sponsored.”[59] Most notably, Brand and Leckie found that a participant’s sense of satisfaction related to positive feelings about writing more generally.[60]

This kind of cognitive psychoanalysis of writing and writer’s habits continued into the 1990s, with the publication of Ronald T. Kellogg’s The Psychology of Writing (1994), calling for the expansion of the field into creativity and “meaning making.”[61] Most importantly, Kellogg is quick to highlight the significance of the interdisciplinary nature of the study of writers: “The study of how people express their thoughts in written form brings together scholars from the humanities, education, and the social sciences,”[62] and this interdisciplinary approach is threaded throughout The Psychology of Writing. Kellogg’s text is a useful resource for assessments of particular elements of writing, and writers, in terms of cognitive psychology. For example, he breaks down the concept of “Motivation” for writers into particular categories: “Achievement Motivation,” “The Need to Write,” “Intrinsic Motivation,” and “Extrinsic Motivation,” which present an interesting framework by which to consider why writers write.[63]

Following Kellogg’s cue, more recent contributions to this area of research have placed more emphasis on the psychology of creativity and creative writing. Kaufman and Kaufman’s book The Psychology of Creative Writing (2009) brings together contributions on this subject under five leading chapter headings: “The Writer,” “The Text,” “The Process,” “The Development,” “The Education.” The chapters cover a range of writing forms and styles, including screenwriting,[64] comedy,[65] journalists,[66] collaborative writing[67] and genre writing.[68] As Kaufman and Kaufman highlight in their concluding chapter, many of the themes and ideas presented in the chapters of this collection not only overlap, but recur in scholarship about writers, such as commentary focusing on mental health and a writer’s personal experiences and the impact this can have on their careers,[69] the positive effects of creative writing[70] and the inherent relationship between writing and education.[71]

A surprising drawback with Kaufman and Kaufman’s book, given its title, is that it does little to try and explore or explain exactly what is meant by creative writing. The editors do not establish their definition of the term when introducing, or concluding, the book. Waitman and Plucker explore the meaning of the word in their chapter “Teaching Writing by Demythologizing Creativity,” stating,

During the last several decades, social scientists and others interested in studying creativity often designed and implemented studies that used a nebulous conception of creativity. . . . In response to the perceived lack of a standard definition of creativity, Plucker et al. (2004) offered the following definition: “Creativity is the interaction among aptitude, process, and environment by which an individual or group produces a perceptible product that is both novel and useful and defined within a social context[72]

This definition is a useful and interesting one to consider, but the fact that the editors do not frame this book within a definition of creativity indicates that contributors worked with their own understandings of creativity.

Other scholars have tried to reconcile understandings of creativity and psychology. Sarah Brouillette discusses the history of “The Psychology of Creativity” in Literature and the Creative Economy (2014).[73] In this chapter, Brouillette explains how the history of the psychoanalysis of creativity has become entwined with organizational psychology focused on the creative worker, in other words, someone who makes a living in the arts, such as a writer. One of the texts Brouillette references is Teresa Amabile’s Creativity in Context:Update to the Social Psychology of Creativity (1996), in which Amabile “supplements her lab research with case studies of writers’ biographies, in this case deriving psychological truths from her reading about the lives of Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, and Thomas Wolfe.”[74] Brouillette argues that Amabile’s work, along with other seminal texts in the field of creative and organizational psychoanalyses, are subsumed into wider debates surrounding creative labour, something that, as the final section of this article will illustrate, is an area of research about writers which is greatly undeveloped.

A final recent addition to the existing academic and critical psychoanalytic discourse concerning writers worthy of note is Helen Michael’s study, “How Writers Write: Exploring the Unconscious Fantasies of Writers.”[75] Through interviews, Michael examines the “unconscious fantasies” of writers, with the intention to “better understand the psychodynamics of productive writers.”[76] Like in the earlier work of Brand and Leckie, Kellogg, and Kaufman and Kaufman, Michael’s participants reiterate a sense of compulsion when writing: “For participants, writing is invested with power. It was referred to as being necessary, always there, a cure-all, keeping them sane, making them happy, and ultimately providing satisfaction.”[77] Michael’s data also echoes earlier studies that comment on the emotional investment and expenditure for writers. Although writing “provides safety” for some participants, the “drawbacks of emotional isolation” remain.[78] While Michael considers a number of issues that are not commonly discussed in psychoanalytical analyses of writers, such as the writer’s relationship with readers and their practises, she ends the article noting that her sample set was small and that “it could be productive to repeat the study using a larger, more balanced sample and more extensive interviewing.”[79] In these final remarks, Michael unwittingly highlights a more general problem with the existing psychoanalytic research on writers and writing. Although the existing scholarship has contributed greatly to forming understandings of the emotional and cognitive make-up of individuals who write, this foundation needs to be built upon. Larger and more diverse samples and datasets are not only required, but the means by which such data is gathered needs to be broadened. Interviews and surveys are valuable, but there is room for more auto/ethnographic studies of writers’ moods, with reflective journals being used to track a writer in real time. The final section of this article will expand upon these recommendations and propose research questions and other methodological approaches that may be beneficial to consider for future examinations of writers.

Economies of Writing

Money is one of the most fascinating, and potentially salacious, topics at the best of times, but it is even more so when it comes to writers. The common perception is that there is a strict binary when it comes to a writer’s economic status: they’re either a multi-millionaire bestseller, or more commonly, they are poor, failing to earn a living wage from their craft. Like many other kinds of artist, the earliest writers would seek patrons to support their work. Literary patronage has been part of the literary economy since Ancient Greece and Rome, and has been described as “a subcategory of a larger system of benefactions that was based loosely on principles of reciprocity, asymmetricality, and duration.”[80] While commonly viewed as a form of altruistic alms, it has been suggested that early literary patronage was a means of controlling what writing was created and promoted:

Some have understood literary patronage as a deliberate effort to guide literature and art and to produce propaganda through support of court poets in order to promote specific policies and ideology. But there is little concrete evidence in Rome of any such external interference of the regular occurrence of quid pro quo situations in which writers were paid money in return for a given work.[81]

The caveat attached to this speculation is interesting, since it ignores the fact that a patron’s act of selecting a particular writer over another is a form “interference” and effectively made patrons the early gatekeepers of literary outputs.

Less is known, however, about exactly how and what writers, or scribes, could earn for their skills. This is assuming, of course, they earned anything at all. Writing about the book trade of the ancient world, Stephen Greenblatt has noted that “though the book trade in the ancient world was entirely about copying, little information has survived about how the enterprise was organized.”[82] Greenblatt continues, speculating as to how the system of payment for scribes may have worked:

There were scribes in Athens . . . . Some were evidently paid for the beauty of their calligraphy; others were paid by the total number of lines written (there are line numbers recorded at the end of some surviving manuscripts). In neither case is the payment likely to have gone directly to the scribe: many, perhaps most, Greek scribes must have been slaves working for a publisher who owned or rented them.[83]

This patronage system, along with a subscription model that emerged in the late seventeenth century and declined in the early eighteenth century, lasted for centuries, only being disrupted with the improvement of industrial paper- and book-making.[84] Finkelstein and McCleery have succinctly described how changes to the production of books in the mid-early nineteenth century changed the marketplace, making it easier for writers to earn a steady income from their work:

Technology, business practices, and social formations created circumstances by which printed texts, manufactured more quickly and at increasingly cheaper costs, could be sold to a widening mass audience, generating larger profits for publishers and allowing individual authors to claim recurring profits from work produced. . . . A profession was born . . . we see an explosion across Western Europe in the number of people who begin to depend upon writing to generate an adequate annual income.[85]

This said, in recent years there has been a shift back to models of patronage for writers and artists. Online platforms like Patreon enable people to financially support artists, writers, musicians and other creative content providers. This system works by allowing patrons to “pledge a given amount of money every time some atomic unit of creativity is produced by a given artist.”[86] However, the status of what Finkelstein and McCleery call an “adequate annual income” continues to be a cause for debate.

In a 1946 issue of the arts and literary magazine Horizon, an article entitled “Questionnaire: The Cost of Letters” was published. An editorial comment from the magazine editor, Cyril Connolly, prefaced the article (which was made up of a series of questionnaires from a range of writers answering the same six questions) stating that the questionnaire was “an inquiry into the fundamental economic problem of contemporary writers.” [87] The six questions were:

  1. How much do you think a writer needs to live on?

  2. Do you think a serious writer can earn this sum by his writing, and if so, how?

  3. If not, what do you think is the most suitable second occupation for him?

  4. Do you think literature suffers from the diversion of a writer’s energy into other employments or is enriched by it?

  5. Do you think the State or any other institution should do more for writers?

  6. Are you satisfied with your own solution of the problem and have you any specific advice to give to young people who wish to earn their living by writing?[88]

Respondents to this questionnaire included: Robert Graves, who said that “novel writing is not an all-time job;”[89] George Orwell, who noted that he was “told that at most a few hundred people in Great Britain earn their living solely by writing books;”[90] and V. S. Pritchett, who argued that “the good creative writer will have to supplement his income from journalism, broadcasting . . . some other job—or private income.”[91] Such attention should be drawn to the content of this material for two reasons. Firstly, these are questions that will reappear, in some formation, throughout the materials discussed in this section, so it is important to highlight their earliest incarnations. Secondly, this 1946 questionnaire was reprinted and repeated with contemporary respondents in 1998.

In the 1998 volume, The Cost of Letters: A Survey of Literary Living Standards, the editors Andrew Holgate and Honor Wilson-Fletcher argue that, as “this survey of literary living standards makes abundantly clear, money—and, often, the lack of it—is intimately bound up with the whole process of writing.”[92] In the introduction, the writer Alain de Botton compares the “suggested per annum income for writers” in 1946 and 1998: the incomes range from £6,000 to £70,000 in 1946 (converted into equivalent 1998 currency) and from £20,000 to £80,000 (approximated) in 1998.[93] Similar figures were repeated in a Society of Authors survey published in 2000 and quoted by Claire Squires in Marketing Literature: The Making of Contemporary Writing in Britain (2007):

Writers were asked to give their “approximate total gross income arising directly from their freelance writing in the previous year.” The average overall figure was £16 000, with 75 per cent earning under £20 000 (under, in other words, the national average wage), and 46 per cent under £5 000.[94]

A comparable survey was completed by the Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society (ALCS) in 2007[95] and again in 2014.[96] This latter report received much in the way of media coverage, with The Guardian, The Bookseller and The Telegraph all drawing attention to the “abject” levels of income for writers[97] and the “huge inequality” in writer earnings.[98]

Indeed, economic disparity has become the leading conversation when it comes to the economies of writing in recent years. Yet, while trade surveys like those mentioned above aim to expose the realities of being a writer, the popular media largely remains focused on the highest earners. A Business Insider article published in 2016 documents “The 14 richest authors in the world in 2016” (crime writer James Patterson took the top spot with an estimated £71.3 million)[99] and an article in Forbes presented the top ten highest paid authors in 2017 (in which J. K. Rowling knocked Patterson off the top spot with an estimated income of $95 million).[100]

As noted at the start of this section, such data only reinforces the antagonistic economic binaries of contemporary writing about writers’ earnings. However, there are some more in-depth, reflective pieces available from writers who discuss the personal implications of making a living from writing. Scratch: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living (2017) is a collection of essays from writers, both established and emerging, revealing the intricacies of working as a full-time writer. For example, in an interview included in Scratch, the writer Cheryl Strayed explains how when she sold her first novel, Torch, for $25,000 in 2003, she spent much of the money paying off a $50,000 line of credit she had accrued while writing the book.[101] Likewise, Clayton Childress dedicates a chapter of his book Under the Cover: The Creation, Production, and Reception of a Novel (2017) to “Authorial Careers.” In the chapter, Childress offers a comprehensive analysis of the state of the marketplace for contemporary writers whilst presenting the subject of Under the Cover, Cornelia Nixon, as an example of a writer who “has never had to live off her advances or sales, as across her literary career she has worked as a professor of English.”[102] This point reflects what van Dijk refers to as ‘literary sidelines’ for writers sustaining their creative work with other kinds of work.[103]

Like all of the themes discussed in this article, Economies of Writing is ripe for further development: it is perhaps the one topic of all the themes discussed here that lacks rigorous critical examination, despite the prevalence of datasets provided by trade surveys that have sampled a substantial number of writers over many decades. This indicates a need for collaboration between trade bodies and researchers who wish to conduct further examinations into the economic status of writers today.

Future Research

The purpose of this literature review was to consider and review literature concerning the motivations and circumstances of writers. With a largely contemporary focus, this review argues that the majority of academic, journalistic or reflective writing about writers falls within four main categories: Being a Writer; Reputation, Fame and Hierarchies; Psychoanalyses of the Writer; and Economies of Writing. While it is impossible for this literature review to be completely comprehensive, it aims to illustrate the research and literature that currently exists within these categories and survey the contribution they make to our understandings of the writer in society today.

An essential characteristic of the research discussed herein is its interdisciplinary nature. Much of the critical discourse examined in this article comments on this and uses mixed methodological approaches, including surveys, statistical analyses, interviews, auto/biographical materials, and a number of different critical frameworks, with the most favoured being Bourdieusian sociological analyses of fields of cultural production. Indeed, the field would benefit from Brouillette’s argument for multi-method approaches in Literature and the Creative Economy: “an interdisciplinary approach, balanced between literary studies and social science work in geography, sociology, and psychology, is thus a necessary response to the interests of the writing in question.”[104]

However, future research into writers would benefit from an expansion of the range of critical frameworks and approaches used, particularly from social sciences, business studies (specifically work and employment studies) and cultural studies. There is an ever-growing area of research related to cultural work and creative labour which future studies of the writer would benefit from. As I have argued elsewhere, the publishing industry, and all of its related features, should be viewed as being part of the Cultural Economy and, as such, those who are trying to make a living working within this particular part of the Cultural Economy—publishers, editors, literary agents and, of course, writers—should be identified as cultural workers and their work as writers a form of creative labour.[105] In this context, cultural workers are defined as those who earn a living through cultural work, which has been defined as “the act of labour within the industrialized process of cultural production.”[106] Creative labour is understood in terms of what Hesmondhalgh and Baker have defined as “those jobs, centred on the activity of symbol-making.”[107] This context is particularly interesting when the current critical debates pertaining to cultural work are considered. Banks, Gill and Taylor have identified the following as key areas of debate within cultural studies scholarship about cultural work:

  • the precariousness of cultural work, including its contested availability and the uneven distribution of its internal and external rewards (among them, pay, working conditions, prospects and status);

  • the inequalities within the global cultural workforce and . . . the persistent over-representation of the already privileged (white, highlight educated, male);

  • the celebrated associations of cultural work with the aesthetic and a supposed life-work synthesis of . . . informality and sociality;

  • the accelerated invasion of cultural work into the previously separate or protected territories of leisure, and personal and intimate life.[108]

All of these issues relate, in some capacity, to the working life of a writer. Many of them are already being discussed in the existing critical and reflective literature about writers, but fail to position this argument within the wider context of existing debates within cultural studies. For example, the precarity of a writer’s work is most clearly evidenced in the scholarship relating to their economic status, yet the realities of the instability of this status is rarely discussed in a judicious way in academic literature.

Additionally, the last two points made from Banks, Gill and Taylor highlight the assumed view that a writer’s work is all-encompassing: they live to write and write to live. Yet this notion should be scrutinised in terms of work-life balances and the impact this can have on mental health, especially given that, as the Psychoanalyses of Writers section of this review proves, a writer’s psychological state is commonly discussed in academic writing. Miya Tokumitsu initiated consideration of this in Do What You Love and Other Lies About Success and Happiness (2015). In this book, Tokumitsu examines the notion of “work-as-love” and how this has become the central myth to contemporary neoliberal markets: “today, ideal work is the combined pursuit of pleasure and capital.”[109] The problem with this Do What You Love (DWYL) culture is that it commonly leads to the exploitation of workers who are told that if they are committed to pursuing a career they are passionate about, they should be willing to endure gaining experience in poorly paid, or unpaid, temporary or freelance roles with unreasonable working hours and few benefits. Tokumitsu uses examples from all areas of work, from yoga teachers to writers, to illustrate how this approach to this so-called “gig economy” leaves workers vulnerable:

Many of the jobs in the so-called gig economy, such as yoga instruction and free-lance writing, bear the veneer of pleasure, of earning money while doing enjoyable things. Kept offstage from the vision of flexible schedules . . . is the gruelling unpaid work that goes into facilitating these careers: pitching articles and books (and racking up rejections), . . . constantly marketing one’s services. For most freelancers, these efforts barely pay off.[110]

Tokumitsu’s work draws together many of the issues running through much of the existing scholarship relating to writers and their careers, offering a new critical framework from which to consider the role of the writer within the Cultural Economy more widely. Exploring our understandings of the status of writers in contemporary marketplaces is important, as it may aid developments in cultural policy that can help protect writers who are working in these precarious conditions.[111]

There are methodological approaches that may aid this kind of research, but that remain largely underused in critical analyses of writers. Autoethnographic and ethnographic studies of writers, like that of Kiernan discussed earlier, would add academic rigor to an area of writing about writers that is dominated by personal-cum-professional memoirs, which are generally written for mass-market audience. An example of how this kind of study may look is Doris E. Eikhof and C. York’s article “‘It's a tough drug to kick’: A woman's career in broadcasting” (2016). This article details the employment history of Charlotte York (a pseudonym), a woman who has worked in the UK’s creative industries as a broadcaster and writer for many years. Crucially, York’s account is outlined with a critical discussion of current scholarship and cultural policy related to how York reflects on her own employment.[112] Comparable studies of writers’ careers would be a valuable contribution to the existing scholarship discussed throughout this article.

However, as the final section of this literature review indicates, future examinations into the role, status and motivations of writers need also to consider how these issues are being affected by changes within the publishing industry and Cultural Economy more widely. Traditional models of industries, which have largely centred on writers, including journalism, publishing and academia, are changing. News and information websites are crowdsourcing their content, using user-generated content as opposed to that of staff journalists. Self-publication through digital platforms and networks is now a viable, easily accessed and cheap route to publication for writers, who can subvert the usual channels and gatekeepers to realise their work.[113] Scholarship questioning the impact digital developments have upon the writer and reframing the writer in relation to new terminologies like “e-writer” and “e-writing” is emerging, deftly exemplified in Kathleen Schreurs’ 2017 doctoral thesis “The E-Writing Experiences of Literary Authors.”[114] In her research, Schreurs presents eight case studies of literary authors and considers how “e-writing experiences . . . shape an author’s experiences.”[115]

Relatedly, a push towards online Open Access in academic publishing has meant that academic research and writing has the potential to reach wider audiences outside the academy and many institutions encourage academic staff to write for non-academic outlets to encourage wider impact and recognition for their work. However, due to the emphasis on data and methodology placed on academic writing which, for our purposes, is considered to be writing completed by those teaching and working in Higher Education Institutions and submitted to academic, peer-reviewed journals or recognised academic presses, it is rarely considered as a form of creative writing. Both Strange et al. (2016)[116] and Yoo (2017)[117] have commented on the tension between creative and academic writing identity. Strange et al.’s study considers the status of the creative writing practitioners within the academic setting, surveying 60 academic-creative writers about their motivations and expectations while practising as “career academics/creative practitioners.”[118] Yoo, on the other hand, articulates how the personal “desire to reclaim, to derive confidence in and to develop one’s voice is the beginning of coming into one’s own [academic] writing.”[119] Quoting Laurel Richardson (2002), Yoo argues that “‘personal narration, reflexivity, and contextualization’ are invaluable ways to conceptualise and relay meaningful and impactful research.”[120] Yoo’s work highlights how understandings of academic writing practices (particularly in the humanities and social sciences) may benefit from being viewed as being aligned with, as opposed to greatly differing from, creative writing. Journal articles set out to tell a story: the writers of academic journals aim to prove, or disprove, theories and ideas or showcase their point of view into matters related to their field. Academic books and journal articles most commonly have a beginning (introduction), middle (methodology and analyses) and end (findings and conclusion) and they are creative in the sense that a researcher is tasked with presenting original research to their reader in an interesting and engaging way. Accordingly, it would make sense for more future research into the identity of the writer to contemplate the status of the academic as writer.

Conclusion

The abundance of writing about writers—from how-to guides for aspiring writers to psychoanalyses of writing in practice—is evidence of how significant this particular area of intellectual inquiry is. The fact that academic research related to this area of study comes from several different, at times seemingly discordant, disciplines suggests that writing about writers and the practice of writing should not be viewed as a subsection of several disciplines, but rather as a distinct field of scholarship in its own right. The purpose of this article was to propose a means by which this field may be developed, discussed and supplemented in the future. Using thematic categories, or nodes, to categorise writing about writers means that the related texts of this ever-growing field of knowledge may be considered collectively as different perspectives (Being a Writer; Reputation, Fame and Hierarchies; Psychoanalyses of the Writerl; and Economies of Writing) of the same topic (writing about writers). Taking this method forward in the future will not only encourage and enable true interdisciplinarity in studies of the writer, but it will also support the triangulation of existing datasets and assessments, facilitating a profounder understanding of the writer in contemporary literary culture.

Parties annexes