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Literature and Money

Literature and Money

Publié le 17 juin 2024 Mis à jour le 17 juin 2024 Culture
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Literature and Money

Translated by Owen Good

 

Of course you can’t make a living from it. At least not in Hungary. A writer never lives off her writing. Or only with certain preconditions: personal wealth, privately owned flat(s)/house(s), the wealth of a partner (a spouse) or parents, profitable investments, from the comfort of the proverbial jackpot. Without these privileges, living on a wage, paying rent, you have to calculate the cost of any amount of time (potentially) spent writing. And which then converts to working time of course. Meanwhile, in turn, your free time or sleeping time that ought to be reserved for recharging one’s batteries slowly dwindle. It’s a continuous juggling act of hours, energy, and attention. Wouldn’t it be nice if existential conditions didn’t determine who was most likely to become a dropout, a career-abandoner, an eternal what-if.

Writing isn’t downgraded to a hobby because it wouldn’t fill twenty, thirty, forty hours, or more. But because it doesn’t pay. Which pertains to the fact that the work nature of artistic – and specifically literary – work continuing to remain unstable in our societies. One reason for this is that literary work (including, besides writing, all forms of editing) doesn’t fit into either the capitalist or (state-) socialist conceptual framework of work. And so the nature of its process remains for the best part unseen and unpaid, its results on other hand (books, readings, launches) wedge themselves into space-time with pomp and grandiosity. The writer receives honorariums for the results (not for the work). If she is lucky. Honorarium is a good word because it’s accurate. Meaning: a reward, a gift. Not a wage, not pay. But writing isn’t a casual gig, as a matter of fact in many cases it’s a permanent position that lasts for years.

In our country there has been no (trade) policy to address the above – essentially financial – conflict. In fact, it’s as though the problem didn’t exist. It’s clear that real solutions mean structural change. Rethinking. For example instead of/alongside the various award systems (grants, prizes, support, writers’ allowance etc.) the literary work itself could be paid fairly. The framework for which could be a basic income, special terms of employment, perhaps even concrete positions.

In this current moment becoming a writer and staying in Hungary as such depend on certain social privileges. The grim reality is that the so-called professional work: journalistic publications, speaking at events, book publications, perhaps editing, proofreading, literary translation, technical translation, proof-editing, or committee work typically offer pathetic, almost indiscernible sums. If it isn’t already pro bono. Which in many places is a self-evident expectation. That’s what the generation above us grew up in (true, in an entirely different socio-cultural and political environment), and we grew up in its aftermath. Now comes the depressing reckoning of our work’s value: the full remuneration for four to five years of writing work is between eighty and one hundred thousand, gross. No, not euros. Hungarian forints. That’s two hundred to two hundred and seventy euros. If even. (Naturally, there’s a chance that the average honorarium table looks very different for a bestselling author, but that again circles back to the dead-end of individual privileges.) Grants aren’t a realistic solution for this situation: I don’t know a fellow writer without the above-mentioned privileges who could even partially suspend or stop their breadwinning day job for the duration of a literary grant. Because from a self-sufficiency perspective – i.e. having to get by with a wage and rent/mortgage combo, plus inflation – these sums amount to mere pocket money. Even though in principle such awards and fellowships, typically competitive and requiring written applications, are designed to provide “relaxed working conditions”. But compared to what. And finally comes the problem of pride: applying for writer’s support and welfare benefits.

As long as the Hungarian writing community is so unequal and forced to exist with dynamics that the trade almost completely ignores, there can be no real emancipation. The few lucky ones will remain members of the elite. Where there is no real desire for any structural rethinking or reforms. There’s no recognition of the common crisis, no common stance. Even though since 1990 and the end of the state socialist regime there could have been a thousand ideas for new initiatives in taxation, health insurance, housing etc. to help those working in literature (too). Not through private dealings, as is standard practise in dictatorships and autocracies, but on a community level. Or for means of acknowledging the de facto work nature of literary work with a fair wage. Without a doubt it would be better and healthier to exist in a trade that, rather than granting or revoking privileges, looked out for the entire community and perhaps tried to help in the name of equal opportunities. Otherwise the gap will only widen.

All this has an impact on advocacy. It’s an axiom that only citizens with personal wealth can freely exercise their own civic rights and agency. Only they can engage in resistance and express dissent without risking their own skin. The more vulnerable can also resist of course, but there’s disproportionately more at stake. It’s kamikaze tactics. And strong communities can only be built by members who are empowered and liberated. Who have reclaimed their dignity. All of which (could) provide a foundation or a drive for solidarity. Detached from any creed or ideology, certainly from any political orientation. Purely for each other’s sake. In the spirit of genuine rather than token trade unionism. In those circumstances, the literary community would no longer be so shockingly at the mercy of political regimes, governments, and potentates.

God forbid: a free and respected profession.

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