In the Middle Ages, the historian Stephen Greenblatt says that writers made no money from book sales: they were supported by the patrons to whom they dedicated their books (leading, apparently, to some rather gushy dedications).
Without patronage, would Shakespeare have written his greatest works? Not bloody likely. Over the course of his career, the genius was financially supported by a number of aristocrats, including the Earl of Pembroke and the Earl of Southampton. Literary patronage has evolved. Although wealthy philanthropists still sign cheques, the state plays an increasingly significant role, dispensing grants and funding through cultural agencies to writers or the literary journals that publish them. Prizes have proliferated, often supported
by companies — the Man Group, for example, sponsors the £50 000 Man Booker Prize. There are fellowships and residencies for writers at universities and retreats.
All of this is far more common in the developed world (particularly the US, UK, and Canada) than it is in Asia, Africa, and South America. It’s also often skewed towards those who have had some degree of success already. You can be nominated for the Man Booker only if your book has been published in the UK, for example; a lot of other prizes and funding also are available only to published authors.
We’ve come a long way from the Middle Ages: books are bought and sold and, unless they’ve been pirated or purchased second-hand, writers get paid a portion of the proceeds. Some — such as Stephen King and JK Rowling — have even become extremely wealthy as a result. But because most writers — including many, many important ones — will never achieve the financial success that Rowling has, the need for patronage remains stronger than ever.
It’s the economy, stupid. The richer someone is, the more likely they’ll have the
time and space to write; they’ll be able to pay for the workshops or creative writing master’s (which is often where writers meet potential agents and publishers). So, if we want literature that is diverse and eclectic and vibrant;
if we want to encourage people who have been socioeconomically marginalised to write their stories, then we need to provide them with a financial leg-up.
In South Africa patronage does exist, but it’s mostly dispensed to the fine arts. South African companies, particularly financial brands (including FNB, Standard
Bank, and Sanlam), throw money at art prizes and art fairs, and own significant collections of contemporary art — perhaps because they want their customers to invest in art.
This has meant that there are far more artists in this country able to make a living from their art, while only a handful of writers can survive off their writing alone — and these are big names, such as Deon Meyer and Lauren Beukes, who are published overseas.
The Sunday Times Literary Awards, which is the biggest English-language prize in the country, gives a rather measly R100 000 each to a non-fiction and
a fiction winner. The kykNET-Rapport Boekprys, for non-fiction and fiction Afrikaans books, is marginally more generous, giving R200 000 for each.
Besides a handful of other small prizes, that’s about all the literary patronage
our country has. Aside from these prizes’ sponsors, I can’t think of a single major brand in the private sector offering meaningful support for the production of literature. That is a great pity. Novels, plays, and poetry are incredibly valuable: they have the power to foster empathy, connection, and questioning. In a country as bewildering and complex as South Africa, they help us make sense of our divided histories, and help us to imagine a common future.
We need writers from all backgrounds — but particularly those who have been disadvantaged — to be able to develop lifelong literary careers: a generation of voices whose works can bear witness to and be in conversation with the nation.
The buck stops here. These authors can emerge only with financial support, with fellowships and retreats and more prizes (not just for established writers, but for youngsters too). We need more people such as Miles Morland, the Brit whose foundation gives several scholarships that sustain African writers for a year while they work on a fiction or non-fiction writing project (20% of what they make from this project then goes back into the foundation). We need literary champions and we need them now. Brands, philanthropists, government: it’s time to step forward.