Critical and biographical information on Henry Reed, World War II British poet, critic, translator, and radio dramatist — author of "Naming of Parts"
Henry Reed, poet and radio dramatist
The Poetry of Henry Reed Homepage
Reed, Henry. "Questionnaire: The Cost of Letters." Horizon 14, no. 81 (September 1946): 139, 140, 162-164.


In this number, with an inquiry into the fundamental economic problem of contemporary writers, we continue the diagnosis of the disease of our culture which we christened 'Inflationary Decadence'.

The questionnaire which follows was sent out to a selection of writers of various types and ages. As nearly all the replies were too long we had to eliminate several by drawing lots and we apologize to writers who have thus suffered. For one reason or another about half a dozen of the most successful novelists whom we circulated could not reply, so that this point of view, so rewarding to others, is insufficiently represented. Besides the well-established, we have tried also to include some young writers who are just beginning to tackle the problem in all its enormity.

Naturally, many other factors besides the economic are responsible, some of which we hope to investigate in future numbers, but out of these varied replies the following picture emerges clearly: (1) writers do not wish to live more simply than members of any other profession; (2) the rewards of literature (as opposed to those of journalism) have not been increased to cover the added expense of living. Writers are, therefore, forced into secondary occupations which soon tend to become primary; (3) with the decline of private incomes and private patrons, the State must do more to help writers, preferably by indirect subsidy. This will not come to pass without much persuasion from the writers themselves, many of whom disapprove of the State and show no inclination to influence it.



1. How much do you think a writer needs to live on?
2. Do you think a serious writer can earn this sum by his writing, and if so, how?
3. If not, what do you think is the most suitable second occupation for him?
4. Do you think literature suffers from the diversion of a writer's energy into other employments or is enriched by it?
5. Do you think the State or any other institution should do more for writers?
6. Are you satisfied with your own solution of the problem and have you any specific advice to young people who wish to earn their living by writing?



I find it easier not to answer Question 1 first. Question 2: I believe that after three or four years of practice a writer who is willing to do subsidiary literary work should be able to keep himself by writing. The position of the poet and the novelist is much the same: both have to earn their leisure to write; I think it is best, for most writers, to earn it by subsidiary writing of a civilized type; this is often extremely helpful in loosening a writer's tongue. The avenues open are obvious: free-lance journalism (especially the 'good' provincial daily papers); commissioned reviewing (which should not be difficult to get, since reviewers are always drifting out of it); broadcasting, and writing for broadcasting. After a time it is wiser for a writer to confine this honorable hack-work to commissioned work. There is less risk and more money in it. I think it is bad for any writer to write down. I deplore the writer who, without enjoying it, writes low fiction (e.g. detective stories) or dance-lyrics in order to earn money. To do so is to give play to a cheap part of the mind (present in all writers, I suspect—cf. some of James's plays) of which a writer must, in fact, strive to rid himself. There is a danger—though clearly a decreasing one—in writing for films.

3. The trouble with most secondary jobs available to writers is that you often have to write as well in order to bring your income within bearable limits. The best job is teaching, because of its incomparable holidays. It is, however, a job very exhausting to the brain, the emotions, the throat and the legs; I have found that office-work is less tiring mentally and physically, but its hours often make work in the evening impossible. A university life is ostensibly ideal for writers; but here there is the grave disadvantage of your company; with angel-exceptions (some of whom I have met) the don is by nature prejudiced against the creative artist; in no profession is the belief more strongly held that all art ceased just before Mummy got married: there is a Freudian explanation of this, but it remains one of those obstinate psychological cloggings which get round the bend where the brush cannot reach. Its atmosphere savages the soul. A disadvantage of all secondary jobs is that they are apt to become primary. This induces in a writer self-pity and lethargy, both fatal.


4. You have but to look round to see how badly 'literature' suffers from the diversion of a writer's energy elsewhere. Very serious writers do not let their knowledge of outside milieux intrude unduly in their work; but minor writers are not very strong-minded about this. On the other hand, think what we should miss if Melville had never gone whaling, or Joyce Cary never been in the African Service; note, however, that they both digested these experiences before writing of them, and that they are great enough writers to order their recondite experiences into art.

5. I do believe emphatically in the value of State help, and help from other institutions who will be willing to risk no returns. But the funds should not be administered by the donating institution, least of all by the State. Artists—cf. the Soviet novelists and our own official War Artists—are only too ready to play the whore and the toady to any institutions which will pay them to do so. The universities, and particularly the provincial ones, should, I think, administer such funds; and as soon as practicable those who have benefited should help to choose future recipients. This brings me to Question 1. I think the three hundred pounds offered for one year by the Atlantic Awards is an admirable basic sum (it is, I believe, free of income tax). It is enough for various forms of existence, including, I venture to think, married life and possibly a fairly small child. £300 a year, however, still entails worry in the background; I think a youngish writer (i.e. younger than 35) can live fairly happily on £800 to £1000 a year.

6. I am quite content with my own 'solution'. I have a good deal of advice to offer. For writers without a private income, it is advisable to face the process of a possibly slow conversion to a position where they have to make fewer and fewer concessions for the sake of money: i.e. it is advisable for them to put up with the more reputable forms of hack-work till they need no longer do so. When they can, they should drop hack-work like hot bricks, however easy it has become. In any case, they should be very chary of the implications of each kind of hack-work: specifically, and without frivolity. I would advise all young writers not to take on regular novel-reviewing. It is one of the most exacting and lowering jobs in the world.

And poets: the poet must (but above all secretly) think of


himself as a potential Shakespeare, and not less than this; he will rarely find difficulty in excusing to himself his occasional failures. He must manage his relations with his novelist-colleagues very carefully. The novelist is always kind to the poet, but the income-difference is always there. How true it is that every novelist would prefer to have been a poet I am not sure; I rather doubt it. At any rate the poet feels among novelists like a poor tolerated relative who has the good looks of the family but nothing else. Try to avoid a stab of anger and jealousy at the thought that even a good novelist earns about fifty times as much from his novels as you do from your poetry. Finally, no writer should live too far below his income; avoid cheap or irregular meals; and if he stays on after a party, he should try to insist on a proper bed, not the floor, or the sofa.




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