Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Thursday, 2 December 2010

Coming face to face with yourself


Art is coming face to face with yourself. – Jackson Pollock

Question: how do you measure your worth as a writer and is ‘worth’ the same as ‘value’ or ‘price’ or ‘cost’?

I’m feeling particularly worthless today. It happens. It’s been a while and it will pass. By the time I post this it will be well and truly past. By the time you read this probably two months will have elapsed. Will this post have appreciated with age like a good wine or is it starting to go off a bit like a lump of cheese. Is the whiff of self-indulgence getting a bit ripe? I can’t answer that. I’m sitting here two months in your past feeling a bit sorry for myself.

So what’s the difference between ‘worth’, ‘value’, ‘price’ and ‘cost’?

The easiest one for me is ‘worth’ – something is worth what someone is willing to pay. When I was collecting comics I remember coughing up £2 for a copy of Spider-Woman #2 because I needed it to complete my set. £2 was really too much to pay back then for a comic that retailed in the States for 35¢ but my need determined its worth to me. Of course if Marvel were selling the comic for 35¢ then it had to cost less than that to manufacture and distribute it. The price of 35¢ was simply what the market would bear. I think in the UK the retail price was 35p at the time. (Have you never noticed that before? The same item sold in the USA for 99¢ costs 99p here irrespective of where it was manufactured?)

What then about ‘value’? According to the political economist Henry George:

The value of a thing in any given time and place is the largest amount of exertion that anyone will render in exchange for it. But as men always seek to gratify their desires with the least exertion this is the lowest amount for which a similar thing can otherwise be obtained. – The Science of Political Economy, Chapter 8

So an item which cost £50 may be valued at £75 and priced at £100 but if all you can get is £60 then that’s what it’s worth. I know that’s a bit basic but I'm no economist and the simple fact is that there is a lot of overlap in the English language.

Ascertaining these amounts is easy when it comes to concrete things. You can look up the price of raw materials or components bought individually or in bulk, factor in shipping and labour costs and come up with prices that even leave you with a bit of ‘profit’ but what about a work of art? The current record price was paid for a work called No. 5, 1948 by Jackson Pollock which sold at $140,000,000 in 2006, (No._5,_1948 approx. $150,600,000 in CPI-adjusted 2010 US dollars). I wonder how much the raw materials cost. The painting was done on an 8' x 4' sheet of fibreboard. You can buy a sheet of MDF that size for about £27. How much paint do you think you might need to cover it? Say a litre? Oil paint costs about £5 for 200ml so what are we saying, £25 and maybe a couple of hour’s labour? Seriously how long does it take to dribble paint? So what you do think it’s worth? More than the sum of its parts? Yeah, sure, but not $140,000,000. That’s just silly money.

That’s the thing about art. There is only one No. 5, 1948. The image on this site is not it. It’s a teeny-tiny copy.

Teri Horton bought [a] paint-splattered canvas at a California junk shop for a joke. But the joke may be on the art world instead. The retired lorry driver paid $5 for the drip painting in 1991, bartering the price down from $7. Now a fingerprint on the painting has raised the possibility that it is in fact a masterpiece by Jackson Pollock, the world’s priciest artist.

If it is accepted as authentic, the picture would be worth $40 million to $50 million (up to £26.2 million). – The Sunday Times, November 8, 2006

It’s all about supply and demand. Pollock has supplied one painting and a lot of people want it. Fortunately for his estate some of those people are super rich.

But what about a poem? What’s a poem worth? Specifically what are my poems worth?

What’s the difference between ‘worthless’ and ‘priceless’? They sound as if they should mean the same thing rather than opposites. Here’s a poem from my poetry collection This Is Not About What You Think. You can buy the collection if you live in the UK for £5.99. There are 132 pages in the book which means that pro rata the poem will cost you about 4½p to own a copy of or you can read it here for free:

The Power of Love

Love is a straight line –
it gets right to the heart of things.

Love squared is expansive –
it covers a multitude of sins.

Love to the power of three is deep –
it takes time to explore.

Give me your hand
and don't be afraid.

Because I’m letting you read it here for free, doesn’t that mean it’s worthless? I wonder how the woman I wrote the poem for feels about it. It was the first time anyone had ever written a poem for her. I’d like to think she still thinks it’s priceless.

I’m as bad as the next man when it comes to looking for a bargain. The Scots have a reputation for being frugal at best and downright miserly at worst. There’s a reason Scrooge McDuck is a Scot. (Actually he’s a Glaswegian.) The fact is that most Glaswegians I’ve met are generous to a fault, me included. That said I’m also a practical man. I don’t have a huge income and we do count the pennies. When Carrie and I were both working we lived according to our means and very comfortable it was then. If we saw something we liked we bought it. But even then I would still shop around. You don’t throw money away even when you have it. At least I don’t. And now I don’t have it to throw away. Strangely enough I don’t miss it that much because I often bought things I didn’t really need. Now that’s the first question I ask and the answer usually is: Not as much as you think you do, son. Many people factor in employment – or at least employability – when it comes to self-esteem which is another word for an “evaluation or appraisal of one’s own worth.” The value of one’s worth. See what I mean about English confusing the issue.

Needless to say there are a number of differing definitions of ‘self-esteem’ – Wikipedia lists three – but it’s something that psychotherapist Nathaniel Branden says that caught my interest:

…self-esteem [is] an automatic and inevitable consequence of the sum of individuals' choices in using their consciousness.

In other words we have a say in what we think we’re worth but just because we believe something doesn’t make it true. Pollock famously was crippled by self-doubt. I wonder if knowing one day that a single painting on an old board would fetch $140,000,000 would have made any difference. But then that would be his ‘worth’ not his ‘self-worth’. Maybe he’d have been looking for $150,000,000 for it.

Putting a price on something is only a start. My wife says I sell my books too cheaply. She says that people might look suspiciously at them and assume because I’m not charging the same as others then somehow the product isn’t worth as much. I’m not sure that’s right. You can buy a page of Tolstoy for the same price as a page of JackiXP2e Collins. In fact you might even need to pay a bit more for the Collins. I used to work in a Dry Cleaners many moons ago. We also sold photographic supplies. Our own brand was actually made by Fujifilm but sold for half the price. Of course we didn’t tell the punters that but I can tell you what film I bought. (Actually that’s not true – I bought Ilford XP2.)

In an article on the Uncommon Knowledge site Mark Tyrrell lists nine things that are needed to form a solid foundation on which to build self-esteem:

  1. The need to give and receive attention
  2. Taking care of the mind-body connection
  3. The need for meaning, purpose and goals
  4. The need for a connection to something greater than ourselves
  5. The need for creativity and stimulation
  6. The need for intimacy and connection
  7. The need for a sense of control
  8. The need for status
  9. The need for a sense of safety and security

Granted, he says, “it is likely that at any one time, one or more of these may be slightly lacking in your life, without dire consequences. However, in the long-term, they must all be catered for one way or another.”

There are a few there that caught my interest because they really depend on external factors. #1 – receiving attention from others, #8 – status in the eyes of others, #4 – a connection with something outside ourselves. I could argue that more of them depend to some extent on external factors but you get the idea.

How do I know that my estimation of my own worth is right? Let’s say I want to sell my flat. I know what I paid for it and what flats in the area are selling for so why can’t I just do my sums and advertise the property for a fair price? Well I suppose in some places you can do just that but here we need to get independent valuers in to set a fair price. That doesn’t mean I’ll get that – I might get more or less – but that’s what the property will be deemed to be worth to the general public. Someone might want to live here desperately – not sure why but let’s run with that – and so be willing to pay two or three grand over the asking price. I actually think Carrie and I paid four grand over the asking price when we bought the place. But that was then.

jw Jeanette Winterson once created a kerfuffle when she was asked in 1992 to name the best novel of the year because she chose her own, Written on the Body. In a recent interview in The Guardian she admitted: "I was in those days all about the 'fuck you'. Fuck you for not recognising how great I am. I'll do it myself." She admits looking back that she went a bit OTT but up to a point I can see where she’d coming from. In fact I think every writer out there should have themselves on their own Top 10 Writers lists.

I am. (A little louder please.) I AM!

I write poetry the way I think it should be done, I write the poetry I want to read. I wish I could find another me out there so I could have different stuff to read that was like mine. Unfortunately Larkin’s dead and Brautigan and Pinter and Bukowski. I don’t actually think I have a Top Ten. I could probably stretch to seven including me.

Do I have the right to hold my writing in such esteem or am I being delusional? Hardly anyone knows me. I’ve won no major awards, no minor awards. I don’t have letters after my name and freely admit to not being well read. I’ve not even been published by a well-known publisher. Maybe what I need to do is wait, like Vincent van Gogh, until I’m dead. Death definitely helps sales. I’m surprised more artists don’t do it.

We started off this article with me feeling worthless and now I'm comparing myself to Van Gogh. A bit of a turnaround there, eh? No, I still feel worthless. I’m just trying to convince myself that I’m not. But I feel better after just writing 2000 words. What this is not is a plea for reassurance. My ego does not need stroking. If it was I’d have posted this two months ago. I just like to let people know that I’m like everyone else. I have moments of agonising self-loathing. There are times I hate every word I write. I wrote a poem this morning. I think it’s crap. I added about a dozen words to my novel yesterday and it’s just as well the thing was on a screen otherwise I might’ve ripped the page out and torn it up just for the sheer pleasure of tearing it up. I could’ve printed out a copy to tear up but the frugal Scot in me wouldn’t waste the paper and ink.

We’ll just have to see what tomorrow, and the next couple of months, bring.

P.S. A few hours after I wrote this I learned that Colin Will, a well-respected member of the Scottish poetry establishment, had posted a review of my new poetry book of which he had this to say:

This is a fine collection by a thoughtful, subtle and perceptive writer, and it deserves to be widely read.

What can I say? You can read the whole review here.

P.P.S. What with one thing and another it's been nearly four months since I wrote this post.


Gwil W said...

His entire wealth lay heaped together on a small copper tray: a conch, a little bell, a pitcher full of Ganges water, a pot of ghee, and the panchaprodip, the five-branched candlestick used in the ceremony of the offering of fire. Forty-three-year-old Hari Giri, a puny little man with pale skin and an enormous wart on his forehead, was the neighborhood pujari, the Hindu priest.

It's from The City of Joy by Dominique Lapierre and it has written in pencil inside the front cover; Penang 3 Aug 98 One of the best books we have seen on our journey. All our love, Alex.

I have no idea who these people are. The book has 528 pages and I paid 1 €uro for it, so that's about 5 pages for every 1 cent.

Must be worth it.

There's a 250 word review of your poetry book at Pulsar. It's free.

Kass said...

In my estimation, you are a truly fine and unique writer, especially when you write poetry.

But what is my appraisal worth?

martine said...

thoughtful and thought provoking as always, and you made me laugh with the comment about printing the page for the pleasure of tearing it up.

Jim Murdoch said...

I’m always fascinated by the poems reviewers choose to highlight, Gwilym. ‘You and I: A Poem About Identity’ is now, and will forever now be, “The Barry Poem”. The reason for the name change is that I let my boss read the poem just after it was written and from that day on she took complete ownership of it; it was her poem. At the time she was struggling to come to terms with her feelings for a guy called Barry and this expressed perfectly how she felt about him. In the end she married a completely different bloke but that’s life. In actuality the poem was written for a woman I was in the process of falling in love with who, within a few days of my writing this, also gave me up for a different bloke. So you can imagine how I feel about the poem which was written incidentally on the back on a paper bag on Byres Road because I’d left home without my trusty notebook, the one she bought me. I still have the notebook and the paper bag. Thank you for the wee review.

Kass, there are some things you simply can’t put a price on.

And, Martine, I canne help being a canny Scot. I even use the back of draft copies as scrap paper. I’d love to say I’m being green but I’m actually being mean.

Jim Murdoch said...

Incidentally, Gwilym, the poem in this article, 'The Power of Love' was written for the same woman.

Von said...

How time flies by!Happy Christmas!

Jim Murdoch said...

So it does, Von, and a Happy Xmas to you too. I have to say today I wish we were down there with you in all that heat. Even with the heating on my feet are frozen.

Dave King said...

I have never got the business of a work of art changing value because it is found to have been made by someone else. I distinguish between intrinsic value, which is not influenced by what someone will give for it, and its market value, which obviously is. To my mind - and with very few exceptions - a work of art is what it is, it is not who made it. I know all the arguments to the contrary. I've used them all in my time, but mostly trying to convince myself.

The comment on your collection was well deserved. I am off now to read the review.


Jim Murdoch said...

I’m much the same, Dave. I get it more with a piece of art, a one-off, but where I find value hardest to come to terms with are things like trading cards, something that’s only purpose is to be collected. A number of times, postage stamps have been the second-largest source of export revenues for the Faroes. That’s just silly.

I think when it comes to a work by a famous artist the value is in proportion to his or her work as a whole. They’re usually dead when the new piece is discovered and so there’s no more forthcoming which makes the find worth more than it probably deserves. How these values end up in tens of millions just baffles me though. Then again I feel the same about the transfer fees for footballers and the price of cheese these days.

Poet Hound said...


I love reading your long posts and I'm always happy to learn that other poets and writers have moments of self-doubt or months of dry spells like myself.
Keep posting those thoughtful and personal insights.

Rachel Fenton said...

"I used to work in a Dry Cleaners many moons ago. We also sold photographic supplies" - just had to highlight that - loved the unlikelyness of it!

$months is about the time I've been absent from your blog...

I don't believe you believe you feel worthless anymore than I believe I can plait bananas but doubts are doubts and they exist as much as any abstract can.

I paint, as I write: primarily for myself. If others like it, all good. So it's ok that my writing may be perceived as worthless as I wouldn't want to have to pay to read my own stuff.

Jim Murdoch said...

I think self-doubt is important to any writer, Paula. Like anything – alcohol, chocolate, daytime TV – it can become a problem. Doubt is one of those words that have certain connotations. It’s as if as soon as we’ve expressed doubt we’ve also judged and found wanting. Doubt brings something or someone into question and questions can be answered. I look at how long I’ve battled with this current novel and I sometimes doubt my ability to finish it but then I look back and remember how I felt during the writing of every other novel I’ve written and they all got finished. That’s no guarantee I’ll finish it but it’s not certain yet that I won’t and, to be totally honest, I’ve come too far now not to finish it.

And, Rachel, not sure what it’s like where you are but it was common here. The Munro/Kick chain was quite extensive and is still on the go. Here’s a photo of one of the shops but not the one I managed; it’s long gone. You’re right, I don’t think I’m worthless but a pat on the back every now and then does no harm (which is why it was nice to finish the post with Colin’s comment).

Ken Armstrong said...

You Are. Really.

(I'll be singing Neil Diamond all day now)

Anonymous said...

One of your best, Jim. And I'm not just saying that! So many personal resonances for us all.

Appraisal, evaluation, assessment, judgement - so many words in the English language for the measuring of worth, which must tell us something about those who devised it and whose first tongue it is. (And here I must, at some risk of vigorous dissent) include the Scots!) I enjoyed your usual balancing of wit and wisdom, Jim, and the forensic detail applied within your areas of investigation. An excellent poem too - with which I am familiar, having bought the book from which it's taken. (An excellent Christmas gift for all poetically-inclined family and friends!)

Jim Murdoch said...

Okay, Ken, you’ve completely lost me there.

And, Dick, thank you. Always nice to get a nod of appreciation from someone one respects. One of the reasons I decided to self-publish in the first place was I thought it would be a good way of finding out once and for all if I was actually a decent writer, and by decent I mean a writer that people were willing to part with money to hold a copy of his work in their hands. The results were mixed but there were enough honest responses that I felt vindicated. Okay, sales have not been great, although the novels have sold better than the poetry which I suppose was to be expected even though I think my poetry is my best work, but that was only to be expected seeing that I’ve barely left the confines of this flat for the past three years.

Despite the nagging self-doubt which I fully expect to dog me until the day I die I do believe in my writing. I believe it has the power to change lives, not in any great way but I have seen with my own eyes how my poems have helped certain aspects of people’s lives come into sharper focus. I once posted a poem on Zoetrope and a man I’ve never met wrote and thanked me for the piece which he had printed out and pinned on the cork notice board beside his desk. I had put into words something he had always believed but had never been able to find the words for even though he was also a writer; sometimes we are too close to problems to be able to describe them with any clarity.

Of course when I start talking that way I begin to feel guilty, guilty of arrogance or overconfidence at least. I’m not well known and probably never will be but that says more about my marked lack of marketing talents (which is where so many of us fall flat on our faces) than my ability as a writer.

Sangu Mandanna said...

There's such a true concept here. Art, writing, anything creative seems to be ultimately about confronting yourself and the parts of you you might not otherwise pay attention to. Truth in fiction is so important - no matter how fantastical or exaggerated or far-fetched you make your fiction, you have to have those essential truths to win your reader over. And those truths come from facing yourself, I think.

Jackson Pollock made an excellent point. Thanks for this, Jim!

Jim Murdoch said...

You're very welcome, Sangu.

Ken Armstrong said...

Yay, I finally lost you. 'Didn't think it was possible oh cultural guru.

Neil Diamond has a song - 'I am, I said'... um... that's about it. :)

Jim Murdoch said...

Ken, I've been lost for years. What you read online is an illusion.

Elisabeth said...

I'm late to this post, Jim, but it caught my eye, once more for the personal aspect. Obviously, judging by the number of comments, it caught other people's attention, too.

What is it about the blogosphere? We seem to love the struggle between self esteem and self loathing.

Your post here proves the point.

I heard an Australian writer who has published internationally. She writes fantasy stuff and is successful in her genre within the US.

She seemed such a dowdy, non assuming woman and told us during her talk that one of her primary difficulties vis a vis her American publishers is that she needed to develop more self confidence.

Australians by and large do not brag, or boast. Interesting that you quote from our own Jeanette Winterson in this regard. She may be the exception.

This fantasy writer told us that whenever her American editor came back with a suggestion she'd take it on so politely with good grace, and she'd constantly talk down her own ideas, but she has since learned that this is not the way they do it in America. There they state their case with confidence and conviction. Nothing shy abut American fantasy writers.

Of course this can't be true in every case, there have to be exceptions, but cultural differences apply when it comes to expressions of self esteem.

This is a terrific post, Jim, and one I thoroughly enjoyed, even four months after you have written it.

Jim Murdoch said...

Jeanette Winterson, Lis, is not Australian. She’s a Lancashire lass the same as my mum was. I’ve just finished a post talking about – in my layman’s way – collective self-esteem. What prompted this was my first outing to a gathering of writers in over thirty years and the feelings it generated in me. I’m not a social animal although I’m perfectly capable of being sociable but what struck me the most was how ill prepared I was to discuss my own writing. People asked me what kind of writer I was and my mind just went blank. I’m not any kind of writer – I’m me. So I found myself trying to explain all the different kinds of writing I’ve done and when I found myself jabbering backed off and said no more about myself for the rest of the evening. I’ll be better prepared next time. I don’t lack self-confidence per se but I do lack marketing skills, how to sell myself in sound bites.

Elisabeth said...

I wonder why I thought Jeanette W is Australian. Strange. I was convinced. I'm wrong I see. Thanks for putting me right, Jim.

Jim Murdoch said...

Lis, my wife thought Elton John was American until she came over here.

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