IN addition to making more money in their spare time, rich people may take up many other hobbies, for instance, skydiving, collecting expensive automobiles or setting up their own mini-zoo — or all at the same time.

But if some writers are to be believed, writing a novel or editing a classic may soon be added to the list of pastimes that rich people love to engage in when they have some spare time: The Guardian, published in its Dec 7 issue an article titled ‘Horribly low pay is pushing out my fellow authors — and yes, that really does matter’.

Written by novelist Joanne Harris, the article tells how lowly paid writers are. She fears that writing is “becoming a career for the elite few” and writers “are being paid less than half a living wage for their creative labour”. Her views were accorded well with some other writers and invoked some interesting reactions that appeared in the same newspaper a few days later.

For instance, Stephen Carver, one of those writers who responded to the article by Harris, wrote that his son was planning to become a writer like him but he and his wife were “trying to steer him towards a back-up profession that would keep him alive while he writes”.

It is nothing short of a shock for many writers living in this part of the world: this writer has always envied the authors in the West who, having written a popular novel, could supposedly live in the lap of luxury, whizzing by in their private jets to Switzerland whenever they felt like. But The Guardian’s articles have made me realise that even in the West writing can hardly put food on the table if you totally rely on it. Forget all those private jets and swanky automobiles!

It is a fact that writers of Urdu have almost always been worse off than their counterparts in the West. Nothing has been rarer than a writer of Urdu living on writing, I mean, writing alone, that is, without any regular job or without a side hustle to earn an extra income. Ghalib had notoriously been indebted and sought the patronage of King Bahadur Shah Zafar and, especially after the 1857 debacle, some nawabs. Iqbal had a career as a legal practitioner and only during his last years of life did he quit working as lawyer.

Urdu’s classical poets, such as Insha Allah Khan Insha, Mir Taqi Mir and Mirza Sauda, were employed by aristocracy and many had to migrate to Lucknow and seek the support from the nawabs once Delhi’s rulers were no more able to support them financially. Writing did not pay well in those days too, unless one was appointed as poet laureate like Zauq, for instance.

In more recent times, many prose writers, poets and intellectuals had had regular jobs, aside from their literary careers. Shaukat Siddiqi, for instance, worked as a journalist during the night and would write his remarkable novel Khuda Ki Basti during the day. More examples abound.

There have been just a few exceptions, of course. Vazeer Agha was one of them as he never had to do any job, but he had vast tracts of agricultural land in the suburbs of Sargodha and owning land is no crime, though he was sometimes unjustly derided for being a landlord. Mustansar Husain Tarar is known for not having to do anything for a living and he could devote his entire time and energy to writing, but, firstly, he is one of the most read and best-selling authors of Urdu and secondly, as rumour has it, he had inherited an ancestral business. The only true exception was Ibne Safi whose detective Urdu novels sold like proverbial hot cakes.

Aside from these few exceptions, most of the writers had to juggle their literary careers with regular jobs or modest businesses. It seems that even the writers in the west are suffering from the same fate and they feel that writing is for the rich and only well-off persons can afford to have a demanding activity like writing as a hobby. Perhaps common folks like you and me simply can’t afford to be a writer, after all.

Vanity publishing is not something new to Urdu either. But during the last two decades or so, much of Urdu publishing has become vanity or “semi-subsidised” publishing, wherein if a writer wishes to have their book published they are asked to either pay for the cost of printing or buy a certain number of copies once the work is printed.

Keeping in mind the ever-increasing price of paper and printing material, one feels only rich can afford to get a book published these days. So writing is fast becoming a rich person’s hobby.

drraufparekh@yahoo.com

Published in Dawn, December 19th, 2022

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