The Scarlet Letter

Many have commented on the crass, arrogant and patronising attitude of the HuffPo’s UK editor to those who provide much of his content (and thus pay his wages):

“…I’m proud to say that what we do is that we have 13,000 contributors in the UK, bloggers…we don’t pay them, but you know if I was paying someone to write something because I wanted it to get advertising pay, that’s not a real authentic way of presenting copy. So when somebody writes something for us, we know it’s real. We know they want to write it. It’s not been forced or paid for. I think that’s something to be proud of.

That quotation taken from Chuck Wendig’s blog on the matter, which is beautifully angry, and well worth reading (he crafts a great insult, too). Now, Stephen Hull, said editor, is going to illustrate the best rule for internet commentary I know: never say online what you wouldn’t say to the same person in a pub. After a couple of pints. Because they’d lamp you. I’d like to invite him for a drink (on him) so I can call him an old English king to his face. He can have a go, verbally or physically, if he thinks he’s hard enough. But …

The funny thing is, I understand exactly where he’s coming from. He’s right about purity of writing, but only in theory. In this very real virtual world he’s up ethics creek without a paddle. His argument might hold water if he a) published every submission received and b) made no money from them. But no. He selects what he publishes, presumably based on what will attract the most readers, thus maximising advertising revenue. Oops. Bail yourself out of that one. Hegel would be proud of you, Stephen.

But Stephen highlights, en passant, a serious issue: the writer’s scarlet letter. Stephen boasts of having ‘13,000 contributors in the UK, bloggers’, seemingly considering either everyone who has contributed or possibly submitted as a contributor. True but disingenuous. The word that scares is not the C-word but the B-word. Now Chuck’s a writer. It’s what he does. A lot. But this comment on his blog perturbed me:

‘Bloggers like yourself SHOULD get some compensation for pieces that they publish, but as long as they continue to submit pieces without that expectation, it is not likely to change.’

The commentator is right about expectation – there is a need for collective action on the part of us writers – but that’s not what perturbed. Nor was it the words ‘get some compensation’, as if we writers suffer in the execution of our profession (actually, he has a point) rather than have the right to adequate remuneration for work done. It was the words ‘Bloggers like yourself’. In these words lie the modern formulation of the A-word: amateur. In these words lie the roots of the attitude of incredulity when a 7-piece function band asks for a grand to play a two-hour set at a wedding. In those words lie the roots of the insistence in the cultural riches of this country that treats those who create it as an underclass. In those words lie the roots of the attitude that only the ‘great’ (by which I mean famous) artists are valid, when art and culture is an ecosystem. Thus the B-word is not only used inaccurately, reductively and partially, but pejoratively. For this commentator, a blogger is not a ‘real’ writer, possibly only virtually one, and is to be treated accordingly.

This is my experience, too. Many years ago a magazine published a crass, cynical, ignorant and just plain wrong op-ed on Francis Bacon by the chancellor of a private University (who once suggested fantasising about pretty students was a ‘perk of the job’). Encouraged by the late Lisa Jardine, I proposed a rebuttal, which they agreed to and posted in their online edition. I then noted in an email that we had neither agreed terms of publication nor a fee. They didn’t bother to reply. A few years later, I wrote a piece on Parkinson’s for them. Again, no fee. This piece was also edited, and badly, to make it more salacious. A third piece and I decided no more. Then all three vanished behind a paywall, meaning that readers had to pay for something acquired for free: things which I own. They were published in the ‘blog’ section. It was the paywall that really took the piss: I can’t even put it on my CV.

I wrote a piece for a national daily’s online edition. Nada.

I wrote a series for a magazine, a series the editor delighted in telling me was the first thing his flatmate read when the magazine was published. Zip.

Don’t get me wrong, the other hundred and something pieces of mine out there paid for wine, women and Wensleydale, but that merely proves my point. Even with a track record, the ‘exposure’ ploy is invoked all-too often. The problem is, of course, that as a writer you need readers. My last post was liked and shared but not one person requested the rest of the story. When you turn down an ‘exposure’ gig, someone else is ready, willing, but, let’s face it, probably less able (otherwise they’d have been asked first, right?) to provide copy.

Now, answer this question honestly: were this published in the Guardian, or even HuffPo, would you take it more seriously? Like it or not, readers need to get active. Unfortunately, the most active readers are writers.

It’s a vicious, vicious circle: the dog who, unexpectedly catching its own tail, begins to eat it. We ought to wear the B with pride, but it seems to have taken on a whole new meaning.

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