Wow. Fay Weldon, who died earlier this week at 91, did not mince words. As chair of the 1983 Booker Prize committee (which awarded top honors to JM Coetzee’s sublimely bleak Life and Times of Michael K) Weldon was given the mic at the awards ceremony, and took the opportunity to absolutely berate the UK publishing industry.
Delivering her speech to the most powerful people in the business, Weldon dropped the following bombs, which might as well be about contemporary American publishing. (A full account of the night can be found at The Booker Prize’s Substack.)
To the publishers, I would say this. We are the raw material of your trade. You do tend to forget it, you know. You forget that books need writers: that there are very few of us: that we are quite tough but perhaps not as tough as you think.
You use what is in our heads. You use us: the living us: and you don’t, quite frankly, look after your raw material very well. And as you turn into an industry, so must we turn into workers and organize. One hundred and twenty present and a handful of writers—I think you’d do without us altogether if you could.
Like Atlas, [writers] bear on their shoulders the entire literary world: all those who depend upon the writer for their income, the exercise of their own particular skills, their status and their very jobs.
I will ask you if in your dealings with authors you are really being fair, and honorable, and right? Or merely getting away with what you can? If you are not careful, you will kill the goose that lays your golden eggs.
And here’s one for all the Harper Collins publishing professionals on the picket line:
You underpay your editors, and your designers, and your production people. It means morale inside your houses is low: it means a job which should take a week takes a month.
Weldon wouldn’t attend another Booker event for at least a decade, and later lamented to The Guardian that, “It’s all got rather dull since. No one hits anyone.”
Video of the whole ceremony is very much worth watching (not least for a very young Salman Rushdie!).
(Featured photo courtesy The Book Prize.)