Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Freelancin' is basically patronage. I think the "Catherine Deveny Affair" has shown us that we are profoundly confused about the workplace status and rights of freelancers. Are they employees, with rights to the transparency and due process that employees should receive when disputes arise? I argue that they're not.

On her own website – oddly enough, these comments have vanished since I read them earlier this morning – Deveny talked about the industrial factors she felt were at play in her sacking. She talked about how she felt editor Paul Ramadge had her pegged as a 'difficult' employee; she detailed how various columns for The Age had been rejected and spiked with little explanation; she recounted how she'd agitated to be paid in line with other Age contributors, and she suspected that sexism was at play in all these events.

I know I'm not imagining I read this stuff earlier, but it's undeniably gone now. It's weird that Deveny would delete comments from her website when on today's op-ed on ABC's The Drum, she proudly wrote, "Miranda Devine has deleted her comments. I have not. I stand by my explanation."

But anyway, I didn't even want to get into the whole Deveny thing at length. I've watched it unfold, and I've read the extensive commentary about it and agreed with a bit of everything. I neither support nor condemn her. I simply think that she's wrong to have considered her position at The Age an employee-like position, when it was actually a position of patronage.

A while ago the ABC screened an enjoyably florid series about the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood called Desperate Romantics. What struck me most about it – and I realise it took dramatic licence – was the depiction of the manoeuvrings these painters had to pull off in order to fund their art, and how much they reminded me of the apparatus of freelance journalism.

They had to beg for money in letters – is that the equivalent of sending pleading emails to Accounts Payable about unpaid invoices? They had to be bold when approaching potential patrons such as John Ruskin – is that like pitching ideas to editors? The people who got ahead were the shameless, self-promoting, charismatic people who believed steadfastly in their own talent.

(Although I'm not sure I know any journos who'd bury the only copy of their book manuscript with their dead wife, as Dante Gabriel Rossetti did, and then feverishly exhume it later, after becoming convinced that a tame sparrow was in fact their wife's spirit giving them the thumbs-up for publication.)

But most of all, patronage is a capricious and precarious system, dependent on the whims of individual patrons. Although I always believe in sharing opportunities around (because work has often come to me that way) and I try to look out for my friends if they need to find new work, freelancin' is basically about luck, personal rapport, and seizing chances as they arise.

And because of this, I try to cop it sweet these days when I get knocked back for something (case in point: my now-notorious "story idea: massage robots" pitch email). Even though I might feel annoyed or humiliated, I always try again, because I do believe I'm a good writer and, y'know, I have to pay my rent, feed my cat, and ensure the continuity of my utilities, two reminder notices for which came in the mail today.

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