Can you afford to make art?

We talk a lot about how it is important for diverse voices to be heard in media and for marginalised communities to be represented in spaces they don’t have access to. We also talk a lot about how most cultural spaces are dominated by the privileged few and how their perspectives inevitably become the lens through which we see the condition of the marginalised. About how dominant classes hijack the causes of those who suffer oppression, get applauded for it, and the end result is just a prolonging of the status quo where they are at the top and nobody else is.

Take science fiction and fantasy for example. For a long time, it was mostly a White man’s medium. Space adventures, robot tales dominated the scene. Even the insistence on “hard” science fiction (SF that draws from real science instead of speculative science) is a function of the privilege of those who don’t have to contend with speculative social realities. Later, when SF dealing with social conditions faced by marginalised communities started to go mainstream in the West, the biggest pushback came from the privileged White boys who didn’t want SF to go woke / feminist / non-White.

Here in India, we often discuss the reasons behind speculative fiction not going mainstream. We ask why more people don’t read science fiction and fantasy. The questions are posed by writers of course (they need readers), but also by publishers (they need to sell more books), and fans (they need more friends).

But the glass ceiling for science fiction is not a function of whether people read science fiction or not. It’s somewhat more granular. The question “why are people not reading?” makes no sense unless we ask another, more pertinent question:

Who is actually writing?

Those who are writing are people who can afford to write. People who can take time out of their jobs and put some of it into writing. People who can afford to take a creative sabbatical and devote themselves to their creative projects. The problem with publishing is that it has too many stages, too many middlemen, and offers too little by way of returns in most cases. You can spend years working on a book, years more editing it, and even more years getting it published, and then make almost enough money to buy exactly one vada pav.

Print books are mostly a vanity metric for many people. They want to have a published book in print because others before them have done it. Problem is, even if they manage to get their book into print, they will still have to work at least one other job to sustain their writing.

Those who work full-time to sustain themselves are not the people who are “taking a break to write a book” or trying to “get a novel out” of them. These people can’t put time aside to flex their creative muscles. All their muscle power is going into feeding themselves somehow. And most importantly, these are the people whose voices will enrich literature. These are the voices you are looking for if you want diversity of voices in all literature, not just speculative fiction.

They don’t read because they can’t find themselves in the books we are trying to sell. They don’t write because nobody will publish them, and even if someone does, they will get too little out of it. Writing isn’t a job. We need to make it one.

But how do we do that?

I am a huge fan of digital-first or digital-only publishing. I love books, but believe that self-publishing online allows a lot of the voices that can’t get past gatekeepers (either because of lack of access or other reasons). For a long time, though the internet gave everyone the power to publish their work using free protocols such as HTTP, email, RSS feeds, and podcasts, it didn’t allow them to make money from their work.

Things are different now.

Paid newsletters are a thing now. So are micropayments and donations. The patron economy is booming. A lot of really original work can be found online being supported by fans and patrons. This work is free from format limitations - being sometimes a new thing no one has ever done and sometimes an old thing nobody has ever thought of in a new way.

This content does not come through the filter of “what the market wants”. It comes from “hey this is cool and great and useful” and it reaches those who literally ask for it without being told to do so by advertisements and algorithms. The new way is basically one based on relationships between artists who make stuff for their supporters and supporters who pay artists for it. It is also one where the artist gets most of the money their work generates and not the few paise that are left over after all the middlemen take their cut.

If ever there was a system that could sustain writers and artists from diverse backgrounds, this is it. And it needs all the encouragement it can get.

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