Horace Engdahl of the Swedish Academy of Sciences has annoyed a lot of people with his comments that creative writing courses and writers’ grants are undermining the richness and imaginative range of today’s generation of writers. Writers, he thinks, have become institutionalised, and are locked into an unhealthy symbiosis with the literary institutions.
I’m concerned about the future of literature because of this ubiquity of the market. It implies the presence of a ‘counter-market’: a protected, profound literature, which knows how to translate emotions and experiences.
Engdahl has also aroused the ire of literary critics with his comments that literature criticism has deteriorated. We talk about books now as a commodity, he says, with every product discussed in the same way, marginalising what he calls ‘proper literature’.
We have some sympathy with Engdahl’s comments about writers’ grants, though ours is not a popular position with our writer friends. It’s only in very recent times that the idea of giving a writer a grant to write full-time has arisen. Writers have always worked at other jobs, and literature has certainly not suffered from it. Professional writers like Ruth Park and D’Arcy Niland turned their hand to all sorts of writing to make a living. P. D. James used to get up at 5 am to write before she went to work as a civil servant. We know writers who write educational text books and potboilers to finance their serious work. Writers are doctors, lawyers, taxi-drivers, civil servants, sex workers, and God knows what and we would argue, as Engdahl does, that this ‘feeds’ their work.
That’s not to say that good writing shouldn’t be supported. But wouldn’t it do more for the production of a steady stream of good writing if the money now given to individuals were used to support publication of good work? Here’s an interesting article by Jane Sullivan about the fact that many published authors have now become ‘midlist writers’ whose publishers don’t want to put their books out because they don’t sell well enough.
The strange thing is that “midlist” has become a term that describes practically every published writer. As the success of bestselling authors becomes bigger and bigger, their [the midlisters’ ] numbers become tinier and tinier. Once, the top-selling 20 per cent of books funded the rest: now, according to literary agent Jonny Geller, the divide is more like 4 per cent to 96 per cent. More and more, we are all reading the same books – which can’t be good for literature or for us readers.
Heaven knows, in Australia at least, there’s little enough money spent on promoting literature. What if it were used to finance the publication of books that aren’t expected to be best-sellers but are judged to be worthy of publication on their own merits? Books that can be judged by publishers solely on literary merit? There are small publishers who do this now, but they struggle, and the big publishers are really not interested. But how else are we going to ensure that there’s a future for good writing that doesn’t sell well, and so an encouragement to all committed writers to keep working at it?
What do you think? Is Horace just a grumpy old man, as Robert McCrum says?