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The RSL and King’s College London are organising discussions on careers in literature. Edmund Gordon took part in the first

The audience was young, composed mainly of students and recent graduates, at this joint RSL/KCL event on 8 October – but given its practical focus on ‘careers in literature’, that much was to be expected. Perhaps more surprising was how well attended it was. Around 100 people filled the top-floor lecture theatre at King’s almost to capacity; in the current climate of economic gloom and technological upheaval, when a career in publishing or journalism must seem an even riskier prospect than usual, it was invigorating to find that so many were considering one.

A sense of positivity was notable among the panellists as well. Andrew O’Hagan chaired with energy and charm, introducing each speaker, picking up on certain points we made, and drawing anecdotes and advice from his own experience of two decades in the book world. The rest of us spoke for around ten minutes each. First up was Clare Alexander, who ran through her career to date: twenty years in publishing, latterly as publisher of Viking and editor-in-chief of Macmillan, before making the switch to agenting in 1998. She outlined the major differences between the two sides of the business, and detailed the qualities needed to succeed in each (agents, she suggested, had to be tough, while editors required a degree of patience). Becky Hardie, deputy publishing director of Chatto & Windus, spoke about the day-to-day working life of an editor, communicating her enjoyment of the job but warning that, due to the amount of reading it involves, it requires a wholehearted devotion to literature. Emily Ardizzone provided an insight into her work as an editorial assistant at Berg, highlighting some of the differences between academic and commercial publishers and describing the early stages of an editorial career. Joanna Ellis, Faber’s former marketing director and an associate director of the Literary Platform, talked about the changes being wrought on the industry by new media, and advised would-be editors to gain some understanding of these. Molly Rosenberg, a recent King’s graduate herself and now communications officer for the RSL, talked about the many internships she had gone through before securing a paid job, and advised the audience to prepare themselves for the same. I spoke last, and concentrated on literary journalism – describing the book reviewer’s life and how I (more or less accidentally) came to be living it, before advising anyone who wanted to start reviewing to harangue editors, and finally dispensing a couple of grand remarks about what makes a good review.

A few themes emerged: several of the speakers warned that anyone pursuing a literary career would be likely to earn less than their university peers; several pointed out that entry-level jobs in publishing were overwhelmingly clerical in nature; and several of us complained that reading for work had taken the innocence out of our relationship with books. But these were cavils, intended only to deter the faint of heart. It was clear that all of the panelists loved their work, and looking out at the audience it was easy to be optimistic about the future.

Edmund Gordon lectures on creative writing and life writing at King’s College London. He is working on a biography of Angela Carter.

RSL Review 2013