Silicon Valley is Wrecking Bohemian Dreams

1 Mar|Tom Hodgkinson

Michael Moritz, the tech billionaire who has promised to sponsor the Booker Prize. Photo by JD Lasica.

Silicon Valley has destroyed the creative middle classes over the last fifteen years and sponsoring the Booker Prize won’t make that right, says Tom Hodgkinson

It is really extraordinary how many very successful artists, writers and musicians I have talked to recently who are struggling financially. These are highly talented people who we’ve all heard of, outstanding men and women who have contributed fantastic work to the culture, people with best-selling books or records to their name and with international reputations. Some have been reduced to asking for handouts via Silicon Valley platforms like Patreon. Others do AirBnB to make extra cash and many take part-time teaching jobs they never wanted or simply live on potatoes. This is hardly surprising when the average writer’s income in the UK is now around £10,000 a year and in the US is less than £5,000. In an age when Silicon Valley has converted our creativity into a product on sale to advertisers, and which we give them for free, it’s increasingly difficult to lead an even vaguely bohemian life.

The news today is that Michael Moritz, one of the billionaires behind Sequoia Capital – the venture capital firm that has funded Silicon Valley’s greatest successes including Google, Youtube and a host of other money-making scams that have completely wrecked middle class incomes – is now trying to make himself feel better by sponsoring the Booker Prize. With a great show of generosity, Moritz said: “The Booker prizes are ways of spreading the word about the insights, discoveries, pleasures and joys that spring from great fiction.” It’s a bit like those medieval warlords who suddenly give the church a load of money on their deathbed so they can get into heaven. Moritz’s wealth is 2.5 million times the average writer’s annual income.

It just seems so unfair. I feel like saying to my children: “Study accountancy, become a lawyer, go into the city” – all the sensible paths through life which I loftily turned my nose up to when in my twenties. It is as Jaron Lanier predicted: there has been a massive hollowing out of the creative middle classes over the last fifteen years and a return of the money god.

Of course, money has always been a problem for creative people. I loved Samuel Beckett’s comment towards the end of his life: “It has been hell. I should have joined Guinness’s as father wanted.” And Dr Johnson wrote the following memorable lines in his poem “London”:

“There mark what ills the scholar’s life assail:
“Toil, envy, want, the patron and the jail.”

In those days, while it was possible for writers to scrabble some sort of living in the early version of Fleet Street, they also relied on patrons. In fact Johnson was lucky in that he was given a pension by the king of the equivalent of around £30,000 later in life. In his fifties he had money problems – despite having written the best-selling Dictionary, and had to move from his house in Gough Square to humbler lodgings. And he was one of the most successful writers of his day.

One of the only ways to be bohemian, as Huxley pointed out in his fiction, was to have a grandfather who sold a lot of beer (he was probably referring to the Guinness family). That would give you some kind of income. William Morris’s dad owned tin mines in Cornwall.

Some writers pursue business careers or scams to fund their outpourings. Voltaire made a fortune through some sort of lottery syndicate.

Despite all the problems, I would still recommend the creative or small entrepreneur sort of life because it offers freedom. I recently read Bob Dylan quoted as saying something like: “It’s not about money. If a man gets up in the morning and goes to bed at night and does what he wants in between, then he is a success.” Well said Bob. Just don’t think it is going to be easy.

SELECTED COMMENTS 

These comments were mailed to us at [email protected] after the above piece was sent as a newsletter. We like to publish a selection and reserve the right to edit them for clarity. Feel free to drop us a line with your views. Write to [email protected]

Simple Living
I have had none of the artistic capabilities I would have loved during my 70 years, nor a grandfather selling beer, but have cobbled together a living as a jobbing accountant so that I can live a simple life in a way Dylan would have approved. Please don’t forget those of us born with brains that work that way.
– Keith Blax

Busy Old World
It seems to me there are a lot more communicators of all kinds nowadays and a huge growth in the number of people who get up in the morning and go to bed at night, doing what they wish in between. It is hard to be a conventional journalist precisely because of all the other influencers and communication channels out there, compared to the old days of newspapers and magazines and books.
– Craig Sams

Friends in High Places
It is nice to think Huxley may have been referring to occultist and writer Aleister Crowley, who was not only heir to a large brewing fortune but also, some believe, turned him on to Mescaline.
– Michael Rook

Death of Diversity
So bloody true about Michael Moritz being a medieval warlord. I recently met a staff writer at the New Yorker (who has a healthy stipend from the family coffers). She told me that whenever people asked why there wasn’t more diversity on the staff of magazines like the New Yorker, she said words to the effect of, “only rich [read ‘white’] people can afford to work in magazine journalism now.” It’s all so sad.
– H. Hodson

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