There is a quote about acting that I think comes from Harrison Ford: ‘It’s the being famous I get paid for. The acting I would do for free.’ I often repeat an adapted version of this quotation at creative writing students: ‘A book advance is to compensate you for the horrors of being published. The writing you should do for free.’ Most of them look at me as if I am mad.
I can remember feeling that way about being published, that it was all that mattered, that a published author is somehow an entirely different species of homo sapiens from an unpublished one. It was autumn 1986, twenty-five years ago, that I arrived at the UEA campus, fresh-faced, dressed in black, armed only with a vast amount of wilful ambition that far outweighed my modicum of immature talent. I was delighted to have got my place on the course, as were my fellow students, but we were all there for one reason only. We were hoping it would transform us into published authors. Pretty soon, we learnt the sobering truth. The course would not transform us – it would merely provide a little support and guidance while we persisted with the arduous business of transforming ourselves.
One of our number, the Jordanian writer Fadia Faqir, got a publishing deal for her first novel, Nisanit, while still on the course. The rest of us finished our year every bit as unpublished as when we started, although we hoped our prose style had improved. The next success was Mark Illis, who got a two-book deal with Bloomsbury not long after completing the course. The most famous graduate of that year is Anne Enright, but even she didn’t publish her first book, a collection of short stories, until 1991 and although we all expected her to win the Man Booker Prize in about ten minutes flat it actually took her until 2007, the slow-coach. My first novel was published in 1995. Malcolm Bradbury was later kind enough to refer to our year as a vintage year, but I’m not sure he thought that at the time and we certainly didn’t.
When you are unpublished, being published (or produced, if you’re a playwright or screenwriter) often seems like, as one student of mine put it, ‘The dragon’s head on the plate.’ After I published my first novel, what I loved most was not feeling embarrassed any more when people asked me what I did. It took me about three years to stop simpering when I told them. But plenty of sobering realities await the author who has dreamed for many years about such success, not least economic ones. The average advance for a first novel at the moment is probably around £7,500. That’s for a novel that has taken years to write. The occasional bursts of publicity given to writers who trouser six-figure advances mask the sobering truth that, even when you are published or produced, chances are you will still have to supplement your income elsewhere: teaching, journalism, more lucrative forms of writing such as copy-writing. Publication also exposes you to public criticism in a way that can be incredibly painful. You think rejection letters are bad. You wait until they are expanded to 800 words and published in a national newspaper for all to see.
So, given that the rewards are so uncertain, why do so many people want to do it? Why did Fadia and Mark and Anne and I gather with six others in Malcolm Bradbury’s office all those years ago, each of us having made considerable personal sacrifices in order to attend the course? Why do the new writers in this anthology want to do it? I don’t know them personally but I’m going to hazard a guess. They know all about the pitfalls, but the act of creating a fictional world, be it in prose, drama or poetic form, is simply a wonderful, unmatchable privilege. I doubt whether any of the authors you are about to read here are deluded about the how hard being a professional writer or trying to be one can be – some of them may well have been at it for years. The money is rubbish, you remain plagued with self-doubt and are routinely mocked in public – but it’s a great job and I wouldn’t do anything else. There is a fine moment as a published or produced author, and I wish it for everyone in this anthology: it is when a complete stranger writes to you, out of blue, and says they enjoyed your work. To earn a living (sort of) by making that human connection, through the means of a story you have made up, is a rare pleasure.
So I hope all the writers included here enjoy this bit for what it is. Attending a course such as those at UEA is a sort of dragon’s head on a plate, as is publication in this anthology. Many writers become cynical when they are established, and although I understand that, it’s a temptation to be resisted. That’s one of the reasons why I continue to teach creative writing myself. It is good to be reminded that creating a world with words is a wonderful thing to do, whatever earthly rewards it may bring you. As this year’s batch of writers face the big bad world of the marketplace, they will – I hope – feel they have learned much at UEA, much about writing, much about their fellow students and much about themselves. But the most important thing they will have learned or had emphasised is something they probably knew already, that the important thing is the writing itself.