The December blog is written by the new Chair of the Society, Lindsey Davis.
I’ve been told I can write what I like – reminds me of when I was five and learning to read; the teacher said we didn’t have to copy letters from a book but, if we liked, we could make up our own sentences. I never got over that thrill.
So these are various thoughts about being appointed Chair of the Society. We all know it is a terrible time for publishing and although I have to keep reminding myself I have been hearing that for the past 20 years, I am very diffident about being in charge at such a moment. At the same time I’m an excited five-year-old again. I can feel a dangerous roll in the eye, like a maverick heifer thinking about tossing someone over a hedge. With the slightest encouragement I may not be a mild-mannered historical novelist but Red Lindy, the kind of old-fashioned fiery demagogue who will call a mass walkout, claiming ‘my members have spoken’…
But it can never be like that. Two reasons: first, although the Writers’ Guild of America has had some success with strikes, they are in a particular position where withholding their labour really affects film studios. Other writers don’t have an ‘employer’ to target like that. Fail to turn in our books and publishers either just move our publication date or we must pay back our advances. More importantly, I think serious confrontation goes against the essence of being a writer. In our work, fiction or non-fiction, we have to be persuaders. True, there will be occasions when readers may feel duty bound to tackle unreadable books they perceive as important, but in general we have to make the audience want to buy and read our stuff. So, I must be not Red but Charming. For two years. Will I make it?
Luckily the next big task in the Society is to revise our 1884 constitution, and that happens to suit me. Weird it may be, but I have bureaucracy in my veins. My first career was in the civil service, and included updating the Government Building Contracts Code - a big instruction book where large sums of money and public accountability could be at stake (this was in the Good Old Days when public accountability had not yet become something archaeologists unearth and label ‘unknown use; purely ritual significance?’); moreover, everyone hated contracts. The Code had to be absolutely clear, it had to be legally correct (it could be cited in litigation), and it had to be so user-friendly that people at all levels and in all disciplines would eagerly consult it. Dry yes, but superb training for a future author. My prose still benefits.
Incidentally, the other job that would one day impinge on my second career was that I arranged the contract documents for the geophysical survey of the enormous hole on the Euston Road, into which the new British Library would be put. Whenever I now visit the Library it gives me a unique metaphysical thrill…
I put it to you that the Society has managed to do an excellent job of representing members’ interests even with its role defined in 1884 terms. However, we should now produce a new Constitution to replace our antiquated Articles and Memorandum. It must ensure that the Society operates properly, that we conform to the law, and that we do what we were established to do: serve the needs of authors.
But that’s only the start. We need more than a mechanical translation into plain modern English. This is a time to blow away cobwebs. When you create a good official document you go right back to the reasons it is needed, what it is trying to achieve, what it should be trying to achieve. So we will be thinking about not just how the Society has operated, but how it ought to be run – not just now, but bearing in mind how long the original constitution lasted, perhaps for the next hundred and fifty years!
We want openness and democracy; for me, that is axiomatic. I always think of authors as liberal people and our Society must reflect that. We shall also sometimes need to draft with a light hand, in order to leave scope for developments and inventions in writing and publishing that we cannot currently even imagine.
Alongside this internal initiative I am looking forward to campaigning issues. We are all obsessed with e-books – of course we are, when even publishers admit e-books will represent the major part of their future profits. So, publisher darlings, why shouldn’t this represent the major part of authors’ profits too? Other key issues dear to my heart are attacks on intellectual property, threats to PLR and the closure of libraries. I belong to the fortunate generation who had free healthcare, free education and free libraries. In my bitter moments I can see just why trust fund politicians, with their smooth faces and bland morals*, are dismantling these things: we ended up too articulate and outspoken. We are being dangerous for too long as well, living too long and keeping ourselves lively as we nip about on our bus passes.
*oops, controversy; not Charming! (sorry; I’ll get the hang of it…)
Not nipping very much, in my case, for the joke is that I had to take on a personal trainer to cope with being Chair… Well, to work at all, in fact. Simon Whaley wrote an article in The Author (Autumn 2011) about the benefits of walking for physical and mental wellbeing, which I beg you all to heed. Sadly, I read it lying down, during long weeks of a catastrophic back pain flare-up, which I’m mentioning because it probably relates to being a writer.
Even Red Lindy at full throttle won’t get this categorised as the authors’ equivalent of industrial disease. It will easily be dismissed as an ‘occupational hazard’ or ‘hereditary factors’. Medical consultations can come to sound like dodgy retailers trying to avoid responsibility for poor workmanship by calling it ‘wear and tear’. Even so, I was surprised and pleased that my GP, a consultant and now my physiotherapist, took it seriously when I said ‘I am 62 but I work; women authors expect to do their best work in their eighties – so you must keep me mobile for another 20 years.’
As I feared, I have to keep mobile by constructing muscle to hold up the degenerating spine and pelvis. Even so, irreversible damage will affect me at work. I must limit computer time, can never speak for long standing up at a lectern, and at social events I may be spotted with a fold-up stool in the manner of a Roman magistrate (theirs were ivory, mine is titanium but I don’t have a slave to carry it). And perhaps work has already helped cause this. Is it coincidence that I was suddenly incapacitated after writing a big book, that I really enjoyed, now I was living alone and could work as long as I liked? I will have to do an exercise routine every day, for ever.
This is why I beg you all to follow Simon’s advice and walk. Then use an ergonomic chair and keyboard. Have foot-and-wrist rests. Take breaks. I found it helped to teach myself to use my computer mouse left-handed so I slumped the opposite way (took about three days to feel quite natural).
One bonus emerged, however. My physio is amazed that, unlike many of his clients, I diligently carry out the exercises. (Is Rob Cowan aware that as he does his Radio 3 programme, there are naked women lying on carpets contorted in buttock stretches?) I think it’s characteristic of our job. Writers take full responsibility for their work. So once a slob who just likes reading and writing does decide to act, she has unusual determination.
Another point surprised me: my physio said, ‘while you do the thirty second holds, you can be thinking up things to write.’ I wondered if my Agent had been having a quiet word with him. That bodes well for the next book. When I chaired the Crime Writers’ Association it was traditionally said that nobody could do this. I did. I even liked the end result. It’s important for trade union leaders to stick with the job, to remind them what they are agitating for.
And I still think, as I did when I was five, that making up your own sentences is just such an exciting thing to be allowed to do.
Chair of the Society of Authors
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