What is wrong, and why we can’t seem to fix it

Throughout most of my life I have been living under conservative governments, and the nicest way I can find to describe political conservatism is to say that it embodies the popular phrase ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’. However, as we all know there are many things wrong at present, and they need fixing. No amount of ignoring them will make them go away. This blog is about those awkward facts of world that won’t go away and which political conservatism won’t make go away either.

What I’m going to aim to do is post a blog once a week, on a Friday, so you can digest it over the weekend. The next week’s blog will either be the next in my series, or a discussion of issues that have arisen from the comments.

I’m going to have a very strict comments policy, comment will only be accepted if they are intelligent and polite contributions to discussion around the topic of the post. Everything else will be moderated.

If you find a blog here sympathetic, you might consider reading the blogs from the beginning, as they are supposed to be a more or less continuous argument.

Thursday, 27 October 2011

Grumble 7: Lack of good literature

I have already dealt with this theme, here and, briefly here.

Previously I have been arguing that literature was largely an excuse for modernity, buying in to its truths. There is no shortage of literature telling us to be ‘good people’ in the sense of Christian-virtuous, or secular humanist-virtuous, but very little showing us how to be virtuous in the sense I have been using it here (Grumble 6), that is using the Daoist de to move closer to the Way.

Here I’m going to talk about how people who are wanting to be authors encounter the publishing ‘industry’ (which like anything else with the suffix -industry, isn’t very good, think coal-industry, nuclear-ditto, sex-ditto, gambling-ditto, education-ditto, health-ditto &c).

A few years ago I was speaking to a local luminary, a novelist and poet, who said ‘everyone wants to write, no-one wants to read’; I thought instantly this is because the published work people are likely to encounter is not much good, including his own; the literary gatekeepers are not much good. Like the situation in many areas it’s partly a generational thing. Literary types, like this author, who are now in their 60s, grew up in an age of increasing government expenditure on the arts, benefitted from it, and now control it, being naturally reluctant to relinquish the shrinking pile of public funds (never large to begin with), to others.

The classic case of this is the Australia Council for the Arts. I don’t know what good this organisation does in other areas the other arts, but I do know that its main purpose in ‘literature’ seems to be to make sure that that the literature it patronises is of low quality. I was particularly amused to see recently that they were offering mentorship schemes to young poets, where the younger poet is guided by an older poet. The problem with this is that the older generation of poets in Australia are not very good, and it is difficult to see how younger poets’ work could be improved by their mentoring.

All this is not to indulge in the Romantic deification of the artist, writers aren’t necessarily good because they’re new or young, however, amongst younger writers and poets there may be better writers and poets than those we currently have and the advice and guidance of those older writers and poets is unlikely to lead to the younger ones improving. It is very rare to come across a truly ‘virtuous’ (in the sense used above) writer or poet and the chances that such a writer or poet could meet a similarly virtuous younger writer or poet and advise them fruitfully are just about nil in this day and age. Similarly with editors, I imagine that good editors are as rare as good poets and writers and to imagine that such editor might meet such writers and poets to produce high-quality work by their collaboration is quite fanciful. The sad truth is that writers are unlikely to meet great editors to improve their work, and great editors are unlikely to meet great writers to collaborate with.

Writers and poets of real integrity and virtue have to slog on alone, not because this is the lot of all artists and their ‘suffering’ will improve their art, but because there is precious little virtue (de) in the world at present, and if you have it, you’re likely to be alone, and this would apply to any area of life, not just writing.

You note in the above I have been assuming that valuable writing will be published mainly at public expense via subsidised publication (or in other niche publishing such as university presses). This is because mainstream publishing is quite valueless in the present (the ‘publishing’ industry is to publishing, you might say, as the ‘food industry’ is to food, or the ‘sex industry’ to sex). It is simply yet another exercise in modernistic over-production of poor quality products. Twenty years ago I read that over 100,000 books were published each year in English, this is obviously far too many and it’s difficult to think that more than a handful have any value whatsoever.

Perhaps the answer to dearth of literature lies in clever use of online collaborations, sharing of e-texts &c &c, by writers’ groups, though there is always a danger of any worthy group falling victim in our society to middle-class amateurish enthusiasm and capture by elderly and opinionated gatekeepers. Perhaps again once again citizens’ panels, as I have argued for elsewhere, are the answer. Such randomly-chosen panels could provide the necessary objective input to decisions about how to apportion public funds for publishing subsidies.

However, here as elsewhere, what we really need is a ‘virtuous’ populace. The potential audience for a volume of official verse by well-known official poet at present would be about 1000, the potential audience for a volume of poetry by good poet would be about 1000. It is important to note, however, that the two audiences would be mutually exclusive, the audience for the former volume would be official people of all kinds (the sort of people who like to listen to Bizet on Classic FM, for example), and the audience for the latter might include people of virtue.

If we had a virtuous society, then people would read and judge books by virtuous criteria, the over-production of crap books would cease, and the state would no longer need to subsidise publication of literature. However, of course, we cannot attain that state until our whole way of life reverts to sustainability in all areas. To imagine that we can have a society that is dysfunctional in most areas, but produces deathless literature, is ridiculous, as I noted before.

Next Week: 100 Great Books

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