It’s a mixed blessing to have reached the end of the Graduate Certificate in Food Writing. It’s good for a number of reasons. For example, I don’t have any more assignment deadlines to meet or lectures to sit through, I’ve learned a lot about food writing, I got to know some other great foodie writing people and now I can add that qualification to my CV. But there’s a downside (isn’t there always?)
Now that I can confidently say I’m qualified as a food writer, it’s time to put my money where my mouth is (or earn some money instead of spending it). No more procrastinating. The studying related excuses won’t wash any more. Needless to say, I’ve still got lots to learn but the rest of it will have to come with experience, hopefully not all bitter. For a while now I’ve suspected my eagerness to throw myself into one course after another has been an avoidance tactic; a way of opting out of facing the ultimate challenge– getting my work out there.
It’s hardly as though I haven’t done the work. If you joined up all the assignments, essays, blog posts, articles, competition entries and the rest, the word count would have to be getting close to War and Peace proportions. And it’s not as though I’m quailing inside at the thought of rejection either. By now I’ve learned that comes with the territory and you just have to steel yourself. Well-meaning writing gurus tell us not to take it personally. “No” doesn’t mean you’re a failure. A black hole of silence following your every initiative to grab a publisher’s attention doesn’t mean you’re hopeless. All it means is your work is a hopeless failure. (I jest but only slightly.) It’s not you. It’s them. Those reams of glorious prose into which you’ve poured your very soul are just so much confetti blowing in the wind as far as they’re concerned. But forget them. They’re just fools, ignorant swine trampling your pearls beneath their muddy hooves. (Deep breath).
So, for me, it’s not the thought of hard work or fear of failure that needs to be overcome. It’s more a concern that the market has become so thoroughly saturated with aspiring writers all trying to carve out their own small niche, that it’s simply claustrophobic, that supply has far exceeded demand. Like Monty Python’s hapless Mr Creosote in The Meaning of Life, all it will take is just one more tiny food article and we’ll collectively explode all over the restaurant.
Opinions are divided about the public’s continuing appetite for food writing. Some suggest because consumers and providers have over-indulged to the point of bloat, the future is bleak. Others seem to think that after a good lie down and a cup of tea everyone will be back at the table mouths watering for more. There are plenty of commentators willing to weigh in on the debate, but no consensus.
In an article written in 2011, John Newton, a freelance writer, journalist and novelist, gives his views on the question, the most inspiring of which is his answer to “why food writing?” He says:
“Because food is essential to life and becoming a more and more complex subject politically, socially and environmentally.”
He suggests that for those looking to enter the field they should write, specifically about food. Self-evident perhaps, but he goes on to say he means more than the food we’re currently eating. There are many other food related issues as important, if not more so, than great ways to use lemons or the last restaurant you went to. Far from there being a dearth of subjects being done to death by everyone, there is in fact a wealth of choices, as I’m finding, and the more you venture off the beaten track, the more opportunities you’re likely to discover.
If you’re easily discouraged, don’t read Amanda Hesser’s 2012 article “Advice for Future Food Writers”. A well known US food writer, editor, cookbook author, founder of Food52 and one time food editor of The New York Times Magazine, she could be considered something of an expert on the employability of food writers. Despite her own pretty illustrious career, when asked for advice from those wanting to break into the field, she says:
“I can no longer responsibly recommend that you drop everything to try to become a food writer … it’s nearly impossible to make a living as a food writer, and I think it’s only going to get worse”.
In other words, unless making a living is not a priority (you just want to have fun, you have a sugar daddy/mummy or some such) don’t go there.
She does temper the harsh words later in the article by suggesting that “instead of torturing yourself with the rejection and struggle for respectable payment”, it might be wise to think outside the square. What she suggests is taking up other food related jobs, such as washing dishes, working on a farm, starting a network of small slaughterhouses (!), assisting a fisherman, etc., then writing about the experience. In my case this could be a version of “The Old Woman and the Sea”. Whatever floats your boat but from the perspective of the more mature aspiring writer, not really practical. Her other gems of wisdom include eat lots and write a blog, so here, at least, I’m on the right track.
Soon after this article appeared, John Birdsall penned a rebuttal in his article “Food Writing is Not Dead”. The melodramatic title was inspired by the storm in a Twitter cup aroused by Hesser’s article. Birdsall conceded Hesser was right in that food writing is hardly a lucrative career but went on to say that it never has been. While writers have always written about food, until recently the activity has never really been dignified with the title of “career”, let alone promised either fame or riches.
While Birdsall thinks Hesser is simply indulging in nostalgia for the good old days, he does agree with her on the need to be flexible and treat your “career” in an entrepreneurial way. Maybe not slaughterhouses and fishing boats, but thinking beyond the immediately obvious. Which is good advice for any field of endeavour.
Rachel Lebihan on her blog “The Food Sage” provides an insider’s view of the food media industry from an Australian perspective. As a food writer, restaurant reviewer and former editor at The Australian Financial Review, she’s well qualified to do so. In her post “Tapping out a future in food writing”, she claims it’s no more profitable a career choice in Australia than in the US. Full time food writing positions are apparently rare and presumably fiercely fought over. She also says, quite rightly, the concept of a job for life in any field has long since gone by the wayside. On the whole though, she’s less pessimistic than Hesser and despite the obstacles, sees a healthy future in food writing. Perhaps not a full-time career and perhaps not along well-trodden paths, but for those who are prepared to be innovative and seek out the less obvious opportunities, there is hope. While the Internet has spawned a massive upsurge in commentary about food, some informed, some not, it’s also a very democratic publishing realm and provides a launching pad for the enterprising to get their writing published by more conventional means.
All of that said and digested, whenever I go into a newsagent’s and see the vast array of food magazines and recipe books I can’t help but think the market for producing what goes into those publications isn’t going away any time soon and that surely there’s scope for a few more food writers.
Wishful thinking perhaps, but I like to think in any field there’s always room for newcomers and that it’s about more than just being in the right place at the right time (although that’s always part of it). In the meantime, as you might have noticed, the articles I’ve referred to here are two to three years old and it would be interesting to find out whether things have changed much in recent times. Maybe I’ll go and talk to a few food writers and find out.
by Anne Green