The Methold Method

 

review by Stuart Glover

 

 

Writing as a Business
Ken Methold
ABC Books 2002
184 pp, AU$29.95
ISBN: 0 7333 1054 0

 

The hardest-working man in Australian writing has put out a book about how he does it. Unlike most 'how-to' writing books, there is no advice on managing point of view, voice, character development or any explanation of the irksome plot twists in some of Methold's thrillers. Instead Writing as a Business is a nuts and bolts account of the business of writing. Much of the book seems a refit of his earlier A-Z of Authorship, published through the Australian Society of Authors, but it is a book whose time has come.

Methold, from his position as Chair of the Australian Society of Authors (ASA) in the 1980s and as a member of the Queensland Government Arts Advisory Committee in the 1990s, has long condemned self-serving literary hierarchies. His 'Letter from Mt Isa' in the late 1980s, criticising the Literature Board's bias toward 'Balmain' writers, split the ASA. Tom Shapcott, long a defender of the Literature Board, took umbrage. There were many sallies and calls for resignation before the matter petered out. More than anyone else, Methold, in unfastening the ASA's from the Literature Board's interest in self-evident excellence, fostered a new cultural of literary professionalism.

In this he is expert. While Methold probably doesn't aspire to the Miles Franklin Award, he has had a productive writing career. In fifty years as a writer he has published over 30 educational texts, and seven novels. There have also been more than 20 major pieces for performance including radio plays, stage plays, animations, and a feature film. In the past ten years he has produced 40 or so television half hours. Mostly, he says he has opted to write educational books rather than another play or novel, because he asks whether 'the world really needs another third rate novel' (13).

Ten years on from the Mt Isa wars, Writing as a Business catches a wave of change in professional writing practices and in the way government and the academy view the writer. The knowledge economy, and its discourses, place the knowledge worker and the generation (and control) of intellectual property at the centre of the contemporary economic project. The writer, long an economically marginal figure, has been refurnished as the content creator, or the model input for the new economy. The freelancing career has become the portfolio career, where the writer repurposes intellectual property for substitutable platforms.

Methold resists the utopian strain, and digital metaphor, of the new economy narrative. The book focuses on income maximisation through good management of intellectual property, contracting, general business practice, and making market-focused choices. Methold is not optimistic about the career of the contemporary writer. The foreword to the volume gives an earnest account of the dim economics which limit writers' financial prospects. He does, however, reflect a shift in writers' economic practices and the institutional conditions of freelance practice. Methold, while adding the digital domain and the internet to the portfolio of contracting possibilities, does not see them as transformational. Wisely, this book is a recipe for avoiding penury, rather than guaranteeing fortune.

Within the scope of these aims the book succeeds in providing sensible advice. Its concentration on taxation, contracts, budgets and business basics is a welcome departure from the literary institutional focus of Irina Dunn's The Writer's Guide (Allen & Unwin 1999) - the nearest competitor. While a useful addition to any aspiring writer's bookshelf, sometimes, as with many self-help books, Writing as a Business panders to the remedial needs. Many established writers will find the information too basic, but perhaps this is justified by Methold's claim that 'writers are among the world's worst business people' (12).

Methold's introduction places the commercial and artistic goals of writers in opposition. For him, embracing one involves forsaking the other. Or, at best, a balance must be struck between these two goals. This seems simplistic. There is obviously a tradeable economy for high art products - such as literary novels - alongside the content industries which trade more mundane creative goods - such as educational textbooks. These categories are, of course, dangerous and contingent, but only reflect market differentiation, rather than market exclusion.

Methold solves this opposition in the same way that contemporary creative industry theory tends to. He evacuates from his theory of the writer as a manageable economic input, any concern with the aesthetic or social effects of writing production. The contemporary writer's task is no longer one of romantic interpretation and signification, but to plan, manage and deliver. The writer moves from being a quasi-spiritual aesthetic touchstone, to being a micro-enterprise. This shift is valuable: it provides authors with an economic and professional identity with which to contest the persistent romantic discourses of authorship. Method's aesthetic blindness and economic functionalism reconfigures the writer as a market-sensitive micro-enterprise, demanding the skills of any small business. It frees the writer from the garret, even if it ignores the commercialisable value of the romantic narratives surrounding the author. The book is a valuable if vexing contribution.

 

Stuart Glover lectures in writing and publishing at QUT. He was the founding Director of the Brisbane Writers Festival and of QPIX: Queensland Screen Development Centre.

 

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TEXT
Vol 7 No 2 October 2003
http://www.griffith.edu.au/school/art/text/
Editors: Nigel Krauth & Tess Brady
Text@griffith.edu.au