Summer 2021

What is valuable

By James McConnachie

All authors feel like giving up, sometimes. In the last year, though, I have heard more authors than usual saying they are going to do it. Or, if not that, then saying that they want to work but can’t. For some, strain and anxiety have smothered the spark, not least the strain of seeing income – from festivals, school visits and theatrical work, say – disappear. The SoA’s Authors’ Contingency Fund has helped many survive, but survival conditions are not often conducive to creativity.

For others, the issue is, or has been, isolation and lack of stimulation. Libraries and archives were shut – many still are, at the time of writing. Conversation became difficult, travel almost impossible. I am writing a book about Kanchenjunga. I had thought that at around this time I would be among the rhododendrons of the foothills.

I suspect though that what has most sapped authors’ creativity has been a lurking feeling of triviality or irrelevance. The idea that I would be disporting myself on a mountain in India feels preposterous right now, even though it would be literally my job. It can be hard to believe that what you are doing matters when the world, a country or your family is in a life-endangering crisis. My next-door neighbour is a consultant in an intensive-care unit. We sometimes ask each other how our days have been. I have less to say now than I used to.

But then my wife, who lectures in English and writes history, asked me what I would say if asked by a hostile government committee to defend the value of arts degrees. I got heated. What could be more valuable, I said, than seeking to understand what and how other people think? To know the past and the ways in which it is framed and exploited today? To read beneath the surface, filtering for motivation and context? These are critical skills in any boardroom and in any nation. And the UK would not long remain a world-leader in the production and export of arts-based intellectual property, I would add, if it did not offer arts degrees of world-leading quality.

Of course, I wasn’t just defending liberal arts degrees, I was thinking about authors, and the value of what we do. While social media churns the surface into froth, authors are in the depths, finding, filtering and processing, bringing what is valuable up, out and into the light. Of course, authors also offer solace and entertainment. Simple things. But as a nurse told me, you really need them, in a crisis.

This Summer issue of The Author asks some hard questions of the value of authors to universities, and of universities to authors. Alice Jolly tackles the issue of low pay on creative writing courses. Andrew Hankinson recommends writing your book as a PhD. Mark McCrum reflects on teaching memoir. Advice, in this issue, comes from Pen Vogler, who is deputy publicity director of Penguin Press and a fine food historian, and Max Hastings, journalist, bestselling military historian and, these days, excoriator-in-chief of the Prime Minister. Vogler tells us how to work well with publicists; Hastings urges us to write with the market in mind. Amrou Al-Kadhi considers the different writing mindsets required to write screenplays and books. Sally Gardner describes how she became a successful writer not in spite of dyslexia but because of it. We also offer the first in what will be an occasional series by and about the SoA’s own keyworkers, beginning with Senior Membership Administrator, the excellent Ruby Chopra.

James McConnachie | @j_mcconnachie

Cover artwork by Cat O'Neil

Cat O’Neil is an Edinburgh based illustrator. Cat graduated from ECA in 2011, and has worked as an illustrator in Hong Kong, London and France. Clients include The New York Times, The Washington Post, the Observer and more. | Instagram: @catoneil.illustration

In this issue


Higher education, lower wages – Alice Jolly on opportunity vs. exploitation

Under supervision – Andrew Hankinson investigates the creative writing PhD

Expect the unexpected – The joys and challenges of tutoring, by Mark McCrum

Q&A: Cat O’Neil – This edition’s cover artist



Journey of discovery – Using different writing brains, by Amrou Al-Kadhi

Carbon copy – Angus Phillips on the environmental impact of books

Privacy law: What does it mean post-Brexit? – By Amber Melville-Brown and Chloe Flascher



Q&A: William Boyd – Fickleness, fetishes and the whole-life novel

What do you do, exactly? – Pen Vogler on getting the best from your publicist

Earning a crust – Making a living, by Max Hastings

Letters taking flight – Sally Gardner on living and writing with dyslexia

Grub Street – Andrew Taylor’s quarterly digest



A day in the life of... Ruby Chopra – On the frontline of SoA membership

Keeping it local – Find out about some of our local groups

News – AuthorSHARE, elections & more

Spotlight: SoA groups and networks – Latest activities and updates

The Society of Authors’ Awards – The 2021 winners

Letters to the Editor

Welcome, new members

Services for authors