Cameron Colwell on: the Sydney Writers' Festival, art, labour and Hanya Yanagihara.

Hanya Yanagihara wrote all three-hundred thousand-something words of her Booker winner, A Little Life, in eighteen months. On hearing this number, at a seminar which opened the Sydney Writers' Festival, I was immediately beset with guilt: What had I done in the last eighteen months? Fumbled along at university, held two or three casual jobs, and made some progress on my novel, which clocks in, at the current draft, somewhere along the lines of a comparatively paltry ninety-thousand words. I felt guilty, like I was inadequate, notwithstanding the absurdity of comparing my 20 year-old writerly self to the winner of one of the most prestigious literary prizes in the world.

Hanya Yanagihara and Benjamin Law: Photo by Prudence Upton, Courtesy Sydney Writers' Festival

Only it didn’t take eighteen months to write A Little Life. According to one of the websites I looked around, the germination of the concept took Yanagihara twelve years, which is when she started collecting the photos which led to the idea which led to the novel.

What this has to do with the arts funding crisis, which is the subject of this article, is that it is very easy to romanticise where novels come from. Among other things, novels, and works of art in general, come from time and money — Elizabeth Flux very deftly pointed this out in this recent piece. One of the comments on arts funding I keep seeing is that good art comes from suffering: Perhaps the espousers of this idea have a mental picture of an artist burrowed away in a frosty attic somewhere, keeping warm with the glow of making art. Only, this idea is entirely detached from reality Ideas need time and space to cultivate. These are the commodities that artists fighting for arts grants are defending: While most of the slashed arts funding was spent on small-to-medium organisations, individual artist grants are still part of the old deal.

Like mental illness, poverty is something that people imagine to be necessary to be art, which actually makes it much, much harder. A Science journal report in 2013 reported that poverty puts such a strain on the brain that long-term planning becomes increasingly difficult. As summarised by the Psych Report,  The poor...are less capable not because of inherent traits, but because the very context of poverty imposes load and impedes cognitive capacity.”  I know this: Looking back over the timeline of my novel’s creation, the times where I was most productive were when I had the money to stop worrying about money, even if for only a week or two. For context, I'll add that my money woes were the fairly specific, temporary ones of a student, with the added burden of a disability called dyspraxia, which, due to difficulty with following instructions and fatigue problems, makes it difficult to hold down a single job.

Back to Yanagihara: Would she be able to, consciously or subconsciously, be able to draw out the abstractions which led to her masterpiece without any money? If she was not working at a publisher’s, but sitting about at home, wondering where her next meal was coming from, would we have A Little Life? I don’t think it’s likely.

What a lot of people arguing against arts funding forget is that artists do not appear out of nowhere: Margaret Atwood did not emerge from an ice-hole in the Canadian tundra, for instance, bearing The Handmaid’s Tale in one hand and The Robber Bride in the other.

Nor did Tim Winton coalesce from the sea-foam of a Western Australian beach, fully-formed and ready to write the Great Australian Bloke Novel. While the idea of writers appearing ex nihilo, their work brought forth into existence by sheer willpower, might be romantic, the truth is more complicated. Every great author has this in common: They ate and wept and shit and bled and one day, the elements conspired to put them in a mental and economic position where they had the time and energy to sit down somewhere and work.

I emphasise work because the term as applied to artists needs to be protected. Art is labor, but for that labor to be allowed to happen, certain conditions must be fulfilled. When governments take away arts funding, we take away the venues, such as literary magazines and individual grants, that allow for this art to happen.

What I want to remind people whenever I see comments by the aforementioned detractors about how ‘The Greats’ were never government funded, is that, well, all artists have found that money from somewhere. Often, it's as simple as knowing the right people. To take some examples from my own country, Sidney Nolan, who produced his iconic Ned Kelly paintings while being looked after in the home of his rich patrons, John and Sunday Reed. Patrick White, who benefited from that most ancient of arts funding systems, rich parents, when his father died, leaving behind an inheritance large enough to allow him the time to write. Finding money to make art, without government arts funding, is a crapshoot, and when we take that funding, we diminish ourselves. We hack away at an industry which, it feels pertinent to add, employs more people than construction and agriculture. We allow for the creation of an artistic ecosystem whose existence is dependent upon the whims of the free market, which is an artistic ecosystem which is only populated by those who are privileged enough to be there. 

This is an ideas piece, part of a series where writers discuss ideas around the craft of writing. To read more like this, click here:

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Cameron Colwell's picture

Cameron Colwell

Cameron Colwell is a writer, critic, and poet from Sydney, Australia. He has appeared on a panel at National Young Writers Festival, has had work published in The Writer's Quarterly, Heaps Gay, and The Star Observer, and was the 2013 winner of the Mavis Thorpe Clark award for a collection of short stories. His Twitter is @cameron___c and his work can be found at