Living by the pen

What is the cost of going on the payroll for a writer in Turkey? Kaya Genç weighs up the rewards and risks of working for a major paper, the trade-off between authorial freedom and institutional backing, and his simple solution for protecting free speech In April 2007 I was forced to make a decision which seemed important to me at the time.I was trying to make up my mind about whether I should work full time at Newsweek magazine’s Turkish edition. My attempts at convincing the magazine’s editor that I would be more valuable if I worked freelance had failed. His offer was a full time job. ‘I am not interested in hiring a freelancer, I want to pay you a proper wage,’ he said, clarifying his position. This would have been an easy choice had money been my sole concern. It was not. I cared for what I used to think at the time as my ‘authorial freedom’ and this was why I wanted to work as a freelancer.Write for Newsweek, earn money, buy time, and finish your novel, my inner voice said.But the editor reminded me that the category of freelance writers simply didn’t exist in Turkey. Freelance writers couldn’t earn enough money to pay their rent. They were not taken as seriously as their formally employed colleagues. If you wanted respect you needed to become part of your publication’s institutional structure. Simply feeding it from the sidelines wouldn’t do.You were either with them in the office getting paid, or against them in your living room not getting paid. With a handful of notable exceptions, the individual writer devoid of any institutional affiliations didn’t really exist in Turkey.So I reconsidered the situation and my decision became a no-brainer. I accepted the offer, moved into the office and started working.Only a few days had passed behind my new desk before I got a call from the editor of a Turkish literary magazine where I had been publishing essays and short stories for the past few years. The magazine had come to symbolise my pre-Newsweek existence. It paid its contributors little but provided them with a valued literary space.When I received the call that day I wondered whether the editor would ask for a new contribution or inform me about a fan letter.It turned out to be quite a different matter.’The state prosecutor has received a complaint about one of your short stories,’ he informed me in a nervous voice. ‘We went to a preliminary meeting with the prosecutor yesterday. You’ll need to visit him first thing tomorrow. This is serious business, Kaya. The plaintiff wants you to be tried in court.’In 2007 a political court case could very easily become a death warrant. Only a few months had passed since the assassination of Hrant Dink, an independent, Armenian journalist who was murdered by a gang of ultra-secular nationalists in central Istanbul after receiving a prison sentence. His assailants believed that Dink’s views were treacherous and decided to silence him.Dink was part of a group of writers whom the mainstream media had dubbed variously as ‘liberals‘, ‘renegades’ or ‘traitors’. At the time I couldn’t see the curious bond connecting all those authors. They were independent; writers who couldn’t rely on big institutions to protect them. They worked as editors or publishers or academics or columnists but in spirit they were all freelance.They were different from intellectuals who were closely affiliated with powerful institutions. When a writer from the latter group wrote an inflammatory piece about, say, the customs of Turkey’s Kurds, his newspaper would immediately pay the legal costs of the libel case that followed. In Turkish we define their situation with the expression, arkası sağlam, which means you’re well-connected: powerful people have your back. Because they were arkası sağlam people, those nationalist columnists could continue penning their articles without having to worry about their future.But if you were a freelancer with no real connection to a major institution and no wings to protect you, you would be made to pay the legal costs on your own. This was a nice tactic which served to destabilise the financial positions of freelancers, and keep them silent. In this country when a group of institutionalised intellectuals want to dominate the political discourse, the first thing they try to get rid of is the independent writer. This had long been the case: in 1932 after the launch of a magazine called Kadro (‘Cadre’), Turkey’s free thinkers were employed by the state. Their new status as defenders of the state apparatus and its reforms changed not only their intellectual careers but also that of Turkey’s left.By accepting Newsweek’s offer I felt as if I, too, had become an institutionalised intellectual. My independent wings had been severed. The freedom they had provided was no more. Of course, the severing had its advantages, too. My editor reassured me that the magazine would stand by me if a court case was indeed opened.This was good news. If the Turkish state decided to come after me, a news magazine would protect me. I took the dummy issue of the magazine, which had my name printed on one of its pages and headed to the offices of the state prosecutor. There I had the very unpleasant experience of having to defend a fictional story.The narrator of my story spoke ironically and so only the complete opposite of what he said could be attributed to me, I explained. My explanation was as curious as the situation that demanded it. The narrator of my story was an occidentialist who adored western civilisation beyond all measure. I said I was making fun of him by way of using him as my narrator. His voice was designed to outrage the reader. That someone had filed a complaint was proof of the story’s success.And, after all, wasn’t it a work of fiction? What the characters said represented their views, not mine.What the characters said in this particular story was intended to be ironic. My pontifications about the meaning of irony and its rhetorical use seemed to have convinced the prosecutor. He seemed to accept that I was simply a well-meaning young man who had been gravely misunderstood. As I left his office I felt as if I had talked shop with a literature professor rather than defended myself before a state prosecutor.A week passed.No word from the prosecutor.On Monday I learned that the prosecutor decided against opening a case. I felt relieved and yet I couldn’t really tell whether it was my rhetorical skills that had saved me from the wrath of the law. I sensed that something else might have played a role. As I thought more about the matter I became convinced that had I not brought along the copy of Newsweek which bore my name and that of the Washington Post company on its pages, the result might have been different. So the moral to draw from this episode was quite clear. I had been saved thanks to  my decision to stop freelancing.

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In countries like Turkey where the literary market offers you only a flimsy hope of living by your pen, being a professional author places you in a very curious position. The road to authorship, when you first enter it, feels like a dead end. Nobody seems to dream, let alone seriously consider, that making a living by one’s pen can become a person’s goal in life.  Consider, for example, how my generation of prospective Turkish writers had the traumatic experience of witnessing the older generation of authors being tried and then killed in broad daylight. Consider how we witnessed their fate as the Turkish state and ultra-secular nationalists came after them and bullied them and threatened them and forced them to flee their country and live in exile in fear of their lives.Consider how we witnessed them being bullied by political columnists who in desperate attempts to control them and force them into changing their views leaked details of their personal lives. I still remember how a newspaper columnist questioned a leading novelist’s sales figures, claiming that it was impossible for such an author to make a living by his pen: the implication was that the novelist’s popularity was a fabrication and that he was in pay of some shadowy institution in a western country.This was the lesson we were forced to learn: being an individual voice in this country would have the automatic result of labeling you as a traitor, a greedy liberal, an enemy of the holy state. Become anonymous and pen nasty articles about free thinking intellectuals, a voice seemed to tell us, destroy the reputations of those who dare start literary careers under their real names. The same voice said that the honourable craft of literature belonged to those who devoted their labours to national leaders or ideals or symbols without asking anything in return. Devotion and duty were the things that really mattered. Literature was a calling, writing was a duty, speaking the national tongue was an obligation. Why did we even ask to be paid for those patriotic acts?Selling your work to editors and publishers also had the sinister implication that words could be exchanged, that they had material value, that they could be used for something other than propaganda.Tragically, the first generation of republican authors accepted these views willingly. But things didn’t change much by the time I made my way into Turkey’s literary market. When people attempted to make a living writing essays and reviews following a path well-trodden by many in London and in New York, they were immediately branded as hacks or suspicious figures who paid too much attention to materialistic, instead of idealistic values.Again, the implication of this bullying was clear. The writing business belonged and should continue to belong to the wealthy —to those who never needed money. The elite had the right to write and speak; others were silenced through this moralistic mirror in which they were portrayed as greedy and decadent figures.There is no better way of showing your gratitude and appreciation for a writer’s work than paying them properly. For more than ninety years of republican history Turkish freelancers had been silenced either by state institutions which employed them or by the lack of a proper literary market. But as I look around and try to see how other authors from my generation are doing nowadays, I see how they no longer share the old state ideas which make freelance authors suspect in the eyes of the intellectual community. On the contrary, they are increasingly joining the ranks of independent writers. I know, from experience, that it won’t be state patronage or employment by special institutions that will save them from the cold realities of pessimism, poverty and prosecution. No, don’t make them part of the state apparatus or turn them into ideologues or employ them as editors: if you want those writers to succeed, just pay them. This is an edited version of Kaya Genç’s speech delivered for the International Authors Forum which met in Istanbul on 1st November 2013. The International Authors Forum is a forum for discussion, debate and collective action between authors’ organisations worldwide. Its focus is on protecting authors and ensuring that legislation, particularly in the area of copyright and related rights, enables authors to be paid fairly for the use of their work.  About the authorKaya Genç is a novelist and essayist from Istanbul. His work has appeared in the Paris Review Daily, the Guardian, the Financial Times, the London Review of Books blog, Salon, Guernica Magazine, Sight & Sound, the Millions, the White Review, the New Inquiry, the English PEN Atlas, the Rumpus, Index on Censorship, the Guardian Weekly, HTMLGIANT, Songlines, and Pank, among others. L’Avventura (Macera), his first novel, was published in 2008. Kaya has a PhD in English literature. He is the Istanbul correspondent of the Los Angeles Review of Books and is currently working on his second novel.

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