The double lives of writers

by Roanna Gonsalves

Photo by Saksham Gangwar

Most aspiring writers across the world face conflicting demands in the pursuit of a literary career. We must work to develop our skills as writers, get published, hope to achieve recognition from peers and from the literary establishment, gain a wider local and global readership, while at the same time trying to sustain ourselves financially usually from work other than writing fiction. In effect, we lead what the French sociologist Bernard Lahire calls a “double life” [1].


This mobility in and out of the field is such an ordinary aspect of writers’ lives that it is easily taken for granted, its significance easily missed. Yet, what it reveals is that the creators of contemporary Australian literature are unable to invest themselves wholly, to dedicate themselves completely, to the task of expressing a nation’s stories, in all their diversity and complexity.


The “double life” that writers lead, partly in and partly out of the literary field, keeping all kinds of day jobs, is necessary because, to use Lahire’s words, we are unable to “keep both feet in that field, but rather keep one foot outside: the money-making foot that allows the other one to ‘dance’”.


The two sides of this “double life” are not always complementary to each other, and are often in conflict with each other. The time and effort spent earning a living outside of the literary field takes away from the time and effort that must be spent developing one’s writing skills and producing work. This necessity of mobility in and out of the field significantly affects the practice of writers.


We think of ourselves as writers, deriving satisfaction, self-esteem and other forms of power from our self-image as writers. However, we are also waiters, petrol station attendants, mothers, fathers, teachers, admin assistants, cleaners, doctors, and accountants, deriving another sense of self, backed up with a pay cheque, from the day-jobbing hours we spend on this toil . The black-holed universe in our pause before we answer the question, “So what do you do?” is a consequence of this “double life” that we lead. We don’t have a straightforward answer that will balance the books.


The negotiation of these complexities is bound by a conflicted relationship with money: a desire for it, a disavowal of it, a refusal to be sullied by it, the impossibility of living without it. The aspiration of writers towards the perceived “sacredness” of the creative process must be tempered with the “profane” spectre of the need to earn a living. Writers must make varied, uneven, pragmatic investments in the literary and extra-literary aspects of our lives as we try to survive.


This conflicted and precarious relationship between writers and money is not specific to the experience of writers in Australia, of course, but is echoed throughout economies of the arts across the world, although inflected differently by the features of each different context. Hans Abbing notes that arts economies are “winner takes all” economies [2], where only a few earn spectacular sums of money while the majority of artists cannot earn enough to make a living.


In a significant if sobering series of five surveys of Australian artists across a range of art forms (including writers, visual artists, and composers) conducted over a thirty year period, David Throsby and his colleagues show that “ [h]alf of Australian artists in 2000-01 earned less than $7,300 from their creative practice before tax”. [3] Seven years later, this finding has been corroborated by a report on the state of the arts in Australia published by the Australia Council for the Arts, noting that in 2007-08 the median creative income of artists (across a range of art forms) was $7000.[4] These figures point to the precarious relationship between artistic work and money in Australia, especially when viewed in relation to the sum of $43,921 which the ABS set out as was the average annual wage in Australia in 2007-08.


The award-winning novelist Charlotte Wood, now Chair of Arts Practice (Literature) at the Australia Council for the Arts, in an interview with Susan Wyndham, said, ““Friends are staggered when I tell them a writer gets $2.50 on a $25 book… [w]hile the average Australian income is $57,000, only 4 per cent of writers make more than $50,000 a year and 70 per cent make less than $10,000” [5](Wyndham, 2014). Preliminary findings from the most recent survey of Australian authors conducted by David Throsby and his team reveal that the top 25 % of authors in Australia earned an average of only $9000 per year from their fiction [6].


This precarious economic situation seems to be mirrored in the UK, where a recent report notes that nearly 90 percent of authors earn their living from sources other than their writing, and the median earnings of authors is £4000 [7] with “the average professional author …now making well below the salary required to achieve the minimum acceptable living standard in the UK” as Alison Flood notes. [8] In the USA too, this economic precariousness has been noted by a recent survey conducted by the Authors Guild, which suggests that the median writing-related income of respondents surveyed decreased by 24 percent in the last five years to $8,000. [9]

It is not unusual for writers to take decades to finish a book, not because of laziness or lack of anything to say, but because they need to leave the field for long stretches of time to earn a living, before re-entering the field to engage with publishers and literary agents to get their work published. This fraught relationship between writers and the money they are able to earn from their fiction has received attention from numerous media commentators. See this piece by Laura Miller, and this piece by Ann Bauer who admits her writing career is sponsored by her husband.


But there are those with no husbands or inherited family money for whom leading a “double life” can have devastating consequences. Consider the systemic barriers faced by women and LGBTI communities, by non-white writers of all genders, immigrants who have no family or friends to depend on if they are unable to pay the rent, those with responsibilites as carers and parents, the fences faced by writers with disabilities. It is not hard to understand how the unfolding tapestry of Australian literature is often wefted with other occupations and is often unable to hold those who have little left in the tank after, not always metaphorically speaking, spending a day wiping a child’s vomit off the floor.


This unfolding tapestry of Australian literature then, the way we imagine ourselves as a nation, privileges those who themselves are privileged by race, class, gender, age, ability. There are many Australian stories not being told, as writers lead double lives, the stories of those who must rely on the money-making foot while the dancing foot is forced into slumber. They are too large for the loom.


As writers we are grateful and thrilled when we hear of the pleasure that readers derive from our work. Yet this gratefulness and thrill is often balanced with a searing awareness of the huge cost of the contest, the battle, with money in various ways, as we live a “double life”. This cost, a sense of “suffering linked to the discrepancy between an individual’s subjective definition of self (as a writer) and a large part of that individual’s objective life conditions”, as Lahire notes, is hidden amidst the recognition, renown, and prestige that accompanies publication and literary success.


When a book is bought and sold, it is the reader, yes, and often also the writer, who has paid a price.


[1] Lahire, Bernard. (2010). The Double Life of Writers. New Literary History, 41(2), 443-465

[2] Abbing, Hans. (2002). Why Are Artists Poor? The Exceptional Economy of the Arts. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press.

[3] See the following:

Throsby, David, & Hollister, Virginia. (2003). Don’t Give Up Your Day Job: An Economic Study of Professional Artists in Australia.

Throsby, David, & Zednik, Anita. (2010). Do You Really Expect To Get Paid?: An Economic Study of Professional Artists in Australia. from

Throsby, David, & Zednik, Anita. (2011). Multiple Job-holding and Artistic Careers: Some empirical evidence. Cultural Trends, 20(1), 9-24. doi: 10.1080/09548963.2011.54080

[4] Australia Council. (2015). Arts Nation: An Overview of Australian Arts, 2015 Edition. Sydney, Australia: Australia Council for the Arts.

[5] Wyndham, Susan. (2014). Government give and take to the struggling book industry.   Retrieved 16 December, 2014, from

[6] See Zwar, Jan. (2015). “‘It feels like much more of a global community’: Australian Authors on Their Peers, Readers, and the Changing Book Publishing Industry” (unpublished conference paper) presented at the Literary Studies Convention 7-11 July 2015 (AAL, ASAL and AULLA with the Faculty of Law, Humanities and the Arts, at the University of Wollongong)

[7] Gibson, Johanna, Johnson, Phillip, & Dimita, Gaetano. (2015). The Business of Being an Author. London: Queen Mary, University of London.

[8] Flood, Alison. (2014). Authors’ incomes collapse to “abject” levels, Tue 8 July 2014.   Retrieved 4 June, 2015, from

[9] Authors Guild. (2015). “AG Panel Explores Drop in Authors’ Earnings”.   Retrieved 7 Aug, 2015, from https://

Roanna Gonsalves is the author of The Permanent Resident a collection of short fiction published by UWAP in November 2016. Her series of radio documentaries entitled On the tip of a billion tongues, was commissioned and first broadcast by Earshot, ABC RN in November and December 2015. It is an acerbic socio-political portrayal of contemporary India through its multilingual writers. She received the Prime Minister’s Endeavour Award 2013, and is co-founder co-editor of Southern Crossings. She has a PhD from the University of New South Wales. For more information see