written for RSL and First Story discussion - January 23rd 2014
'Silver spoons: can you write without one?'
Can you write without a silver spoon? Literature and money are not the cosiest of bedfellows: there is nothing like wealth vs talent to instigate a devisive and defensive debate. For if a writer is born with a silver spoon in their mouth - born into wealth and advantage – then the snide implication is that they don’t appreciate their privilege, and that they have not worked for it. But the fact remains that wherever you come from, mansion or housing estate, writing comes from passion - and writing is bloody hard work. To have an idea for a book is easy; to sit down and write a good book, not so much. To persevere, to see it finished and published, is even harder still - and for that book to be a success, possibly the hardest thing of all.
On the other side of the tracks we have the romance of poverty, the starving artist cliché. We can easily picture our poet, drinking absinthe and writing by the light of her last candle, and we imagine that work then being something of great beauty and art. Why? Because she is closer to death, hungry and cold, she may be sitting in the gutter but from there she can see the stars. So we all know the JK Rowling story: how she was impoverished, nourished only by her passion and drive. She often speaks of her days of poverty without shame and claims her hunger was something she pushed against to propel her to where she is today.
Writers from all walks of life can now see their work published thanks to the way the internet has revolutionised the world of books. Recently my childhood memoir Springfield Road successfully reached its crowd funding target with Unbound Books, an exciting new publishing model that is flowering in the uncertain climate in book business. Unbound is all about books funded by the people, powered by the people, without a silver spoon in sight.
I find it strange to speak of social mobility without mentioning race and gender too. I’ll never know how different my writing career would have been if I’d had rich parents, because rich or poor, as a female writer and a woman of colour, I always knew it was going to be more of a challenge to try to break through. I never give up, possibly because the school of hard knocks made me a more determined writer, it certainly made Springfield Road a more substantial write.
Perhaps during this event we should be asking - Do we need silver spoons to have our work heard, to be read and reviewed and received equally - without the preface “black writer”, “female author”, “working-class writer” and the rest. I’m an idealist: I can visualise a day we learn to get along without these labels and lazy marketing tools. I think the labels distract from the actual work, the discipline and the guts required to live this writing life. Without hype and labels we could finally let the work breathe and speak for itself. We’d make space for lovers of books to climb inside a story, to discover the voice of an author and to hear the heartbeat in the writing for themselves.
Author and poet Salena Godden will be taking part in a debate - jointly hosted by The RSL and First Story - “Silver Spoons: can you write without one?” on Thursday 23rd January. Also on the panel - Northern stand-up poet Kate Fox, MP Alan Johnson, who was Home Secretary under Gordon Brown, and Man Booker nominee, author Stephen Kelman. The event will be chaired by Jonathan Dimbleby this Thursday at 7pm at the Radisson Blu Edwardian, 9-13 Bloomsbury Street, WC1. More info: www.firststory.org.uk