Is a community of writers possible? This is not an
artistic but a philosophical question which is why Penniless Press will
publish philosophy along with art. The Scottish philosopher John MacMurray
"... the extreme individualism of the artist and the extreme individualisation of his object provide no basis for personal togetherness."
Art may require an extreme individuality of vision which makes artists as artists incapable of co-operation, but before we are artists we are men and women and our personal togetherness is more important than art. To put it in a way that sounds silly and obvious: life comes first and art after. Yet this isn't so silly or obvious when you consider the petty jealousies, the bitterness, the conceit and the bloated egos so often characteristic of the world of art. Penniless Press agrees with what Arnold Bennett has one of his characters say: "Art is a very small thing." But no less a marvellous thing for that.
Community first, art second. Personal togetherness first and let art be its servant. We are penniless and proud. Our values are the best of those of the bohemians: modesty of material means, friendship and lack of conventional ambition. As Georges Brassens says: "Les copains d'abord".
Penniless Press will try to make art serve community, friendship, personal togetherness. We welcome ideas but have no truck with ideology. We admire clarity like that of the poems by Fred Voss which appear in this issue and of the beautiful prose of Irving Howe, subject of an essay by Jim Burns.
Let our watchword be this from Clement Greenberg:
"... if you have to choose between life and happiness or art, remember always to choose life and happiness.''
In his final interview in London in 1993, Ken Saro-Wiwa argued that he could not work like a western writer. Western literature is principally for entertainment. It is obsessed with individual angst. It is part of a culture too comfortable to allow it to break out of this narrowness and inwardness in order to become part of the means of changing the world. He, on the other hand, could make no distinction between his writing and his activism, his campaign for justice for the Ogoni people and others like them, his fearless opposition to the goons who rule Nigeria, his accusations against the complacency of western governments and the racism of multi-nationals. He could not be, as Gunter Grass explains, a writer on the one hand and a citizen on the other. The need to change the world had become for Ken Saro-Wiwa too urgent for literature to be used as mere entertainment.
Yet literature is merely literature. It is neither politics nor religion. It seldom, if ever, changes the world dramatically. The oblique and imperceptible relation between literature and action makes it difficult for writers to believe that their work can make any difference. It is easier to be an entertainer. It is simpler to divorce writing from citizenship or to admit that at best they sometimes overlap. But there is one responsibility that all writers have at all times and in all places: to resist the degradation of language.
Dictators, tyrants, exploiters, oppressors great or small, in public life or in private, require a language twisted to their ends. When the Nigerian government complains, after having murdered Ken Saro-Wiwa and his fellow campaigners, of the "unfair" response of the Commonwealth nations, then the meaning of "fair" and "unfair" has been demolished. Those who uphold injustice, which is nothing more than making a special case for themselves, must debase language to their ends. The primary responsibility of writers is to resist such debasement, to ally the use of language to honesty in thought and feeling, however painful and costly such honesty may be.
If Ken Saro-Wiwa was right and western writers feel they live in a world so comfortable that there is nothing to write about but petty neuroses and trivial crises, it speaks of an enormous failure of imagination and a weary parochialism. Our comfort is an illusion. It is bought at the cost of genocide against peoples like the Ogoni. It is the comfort of the morally dissolute. In the west writers love to win prizes. But beyond the glamour and glitz and self-congratulation and petty resentments and jealousies of the literary awards lie the real prizes for which all responsible writers should strive: justice and freedom. Ken Saro-Wiwa gave his life for them. All we need sacrifice is our complacency.
Samuel Beckett once remarked that thinking of literature as a career is an idiocy. John Gross in his marvellous RISE AND FALL OF THE MAN OF LETTERS says that literature is not a discipline but an enthusiasm. What better way to think of literature than as an enthusiasm that has nothing to do with careerism? Yet whenever you read about a writer these days there seems to be an unhealthy concentration on prizes, awards, kudos. It's a shortcut for the lazy-minded of course; people who rush out to buy the latest Booker winner just because it's the Booker winner but who ignore much interesting writing because it isn't on a syllabus, or reviewed in the Sunday papers, or because its author has never been on television. Journalistic hype dominates more and more the way we are to think about writing and writers and the unfortunate thing is that the small presses, which exist for something else, fall into the same trap: they can't resist mentioning that this writer has won a Gregory, or that writer came runner-up in the National Poetry Competition. Poetry Competition ? Don't the words sit oddly together? Dylan Thomas was once asked, while touring America , who was the best poet writing in England . "Why." he replied, "is it a competition?" Of course it isn't, but too many writers think it is.
Of course, writers are only human and when there are prizes on offer, who can resist them? Get your poems in the prestigious journals, your novel published by a big house and reviewed in the right places, your play produced at the Royal Court and you might be in for fame and money. It is perfectly possible to be an honest writer and a success in commercial and worldly terms, but it is equally true that sometimes the price of honesty is failure in every respect except the artistic. On which university syllabus for example are you likely to find any of the novels of Alex Baron? Yet some of his work, FROM THE CITY FROM THE PLOUGH springs to mind, is every bit as good as, say, some of the highly-praised novels of Graham Greene whose POWER AND THE GLORY I studied in an academic setting many years ago. I wish I'd studied Alex Baron. When literature becomes dominated by an ethos of worldly success, it follows that many must be called but few admitted. If you want to sell literature like soap powder, you need a few big names the punters can recognise.
When John Ruskin published UNTO THIS LAST he refused to allow it to be advertised, for he thought advertising vulgar. It appeared in an edition of a thousand copies which ten years later had not sold out. Apollinaire's famous poem ZONE was first published in a magazine with a circulation of forty. When it appeared, all forty subscribers cancelled their subscriptions. Ruskin and Apollinaire are now, of course, world famous and no doubt someone has made plenty of money from their books, but there is something right about their attitude. It's the writing that matters. Forget the narcissism of prizes, money, fame, careerism (that blight of modern life in which an ostensible interest in something outside yourself turns out to be nothing but mean self-obsession), and get on with the work. Literature should be written for enthusiasts by enthusiasts, and when someone asks you about a writer, talk about the writing and ignore the prizes.
A few years ago, Harold Pinter admitted with regret that he had voted Tory in a fit of pique when a production at the National was halted because of a strike. We ought not to be surprised that leading cultural figures who proclaim their defence of human rights behave with self-regarding petulance. They often do. But we should get things in perspective: literature is important, but not more important than people's lives.
Socialism, common wisdom has it, is dead. It seems appropriate, therefore. to begin this issue with a defence of its virtues from one of the century's greatest intellectuals. Of course. Einstein is old hat, a sluggish. antediluvian mind out of keeping with the modern, enlightened celebration of the free market' Perhaps the geniuses who are leading us to the promised land of the social market or the market community or one nation of rich and poor and a lump in the middle or whatever it is, will soon turn their attentions to Unified Field Theory and offer us proof QED that Einstein is a redundant duffer distinctly Old Science. a fool with bad hair, poor dress sense and no appeal to the masses In the meantime, however, some of us may prefer to wallow in nostalgia and find in his astute little essay a diagnosis of our modern condition as pertinent now as when he wrote it in 1952
Individual and society. What shall be the relation between them? Who, in contemporary Britain. would admit to a delight in a ' naive, simple, and unsophisticated enjoyment of life"? And how strange that a man who produced a theory so sophisticated that hardly anyone understands it can celebrate these qualities Our life is dominated by a false sophistication. a purchased pseudo-sophistication and an opinionated ignorance which believes itself to be informed wisdom. Society, in which we should have some hope of finding ourselves stands opposed to us, refusing to accept our wish for naive, simple and unsophisticated enjoyment It demands that we submit to its injunctions to pursue wealth, status, success power and their trappings. It insists that the 'economic anarchy" of capitalism is the only means of producing wealth. It denies that there is any life beyond the pursuit of profit and competition to "deprive each other of the fruits of.. collective labor' It sets its impersonality against the irreducible fact of the personal nature of human life and makes the latter serve the former.
Public enterprise, in which thousands herd together in factories or offices, is called private, while the private lives of the rich and famous are put on public display. And when we have elected our leaders as Einstein points out, they are beholden to the economic power of conglomerates richer than many countries. Indeed, the richest individuals in the world command more wealth than some of the poorest nations. And the cure for our ills, we are expected to believe, is more of the same.
The age of ideology, apparently, is gone There remain merely pragmatic solutions. But what are we to be pragmatic about? Pragmatism about living with capitalism is ideology pragmatism which accepts the crippling of the lives of millions is not pragmatic at all. it is an abdication of moral striving Some seem to have been so blinded by the success of capitalism in producing and distributing consumer goods to the most fortunate that they no longer see its moral failings. Socialism provided a moral focus. Its failure forces us to rethink how to move beyond capitalism. Economic determinism is no answer. We are now locked into the economic determinism of capitalism. Einstein's solution seems quaint even to those who sympathise with it. The cynics will say he should have stuck to physics.
Science, as Einstein says, can only help so far. It can provide us with means but not ends. But it can also provide us with understanding. Look at how modern biology makes a mockery of racial theory for example genetic differences within races are far greater than those between them. Capitalism, we are told is human nature. Is this supposed to mean that natural selection has wired us for capitalism? Crazy Marx was wrong in his belief that the human mind is a tabula rasa upon which culture imprints whatever it likes. Just look at language, it is the innate restrictions of Universal Grammar that make the flexibility of language possible. I am choosing how I write this editorial. And we choose how we relate to one another too, but not out of an infinitely flexible nature We are born with needs capacities instincts. The question is what will we make of them what kind of society will we build from them? And here's a reckless assertion. human beings are wired for mutuality. If we were wired for selfishness, we would never have survived. If the earliest human beings had behaved like capitalists and fought one another for the means of life the species would have perished. Capitalism is an historical aberration kept alive by perversity and ignorance. Somewhere beyond it we will discover, like Einstein, to appreciate life as naive simple, unsophisticated enjoyment.
Literature engenders a surplus of itchy backs and the mutual scratching can drive you mad. Just pick up any copy of Poetry Review. Some of those spines must be raw. It happens everywhere of course. I use my carefully manicured nails lightly here and there, though at feast I can say that the marks on my shoulder blades weren't made by literary whores. in this edition I do a terrible thing: I publish myself at length. But only to assist a remarkable and hugely underrated talent. I dare to call John Murray a genius. If I'm proved wrong it won't be by much. On the other hand, there are those who say that a young female poet from Manchester deserves the same appellation, as there are those who say that if you don't rhyme you're not a poet, as there are those who say poetry is football and football as poetry. What I say is let the scratching stop and the literature come first.
If you make money from writing and you've got a reputation you need to make the right friends. As I don't and I haven't I can cultivate the right enemies. Literature needs writers who are prepared to go out on a limb, like John Murray. His work makes not a single concession to popular taste. it is intensely literary. But who would criticise football for being intensely sporty? It's also difficult. He likes language and has in his vocabulary words the average football fan might not normally chant on a Saturday. At random: sessile, anoia, metanoia, brindled, horripliation, poikilothermic, cachexic. He doesn't show off though. These words sit modestly and appropriately in his prose.
Money and reputation can be made from what is aesthetically third-rate, either by writing it or reviewing it. Dishonesty is almost a hallmark of much reviewing these day. Puffing inflates the egos but it leaves the literature where it is. And it's astonishing how some reviewers can tell you so much about themselves and so little about the book. But then, when writers aren't scratching one another's backs they're likely to be scratching one another's eyes out: there's only so much money and reputation to be had. But she isn't a genius and football isn't literature and if you want to write notices for Poetry Review, you'd better get to work with the emery-board.
The editor apologises for the late publication of this issue, occasioned by the unfathomable perversions of what the French quaintly misname ordinateurs and the brutal eviction of Penniless Press from its back-bedroom office to facilitate the flowering of a teenage personality. The magazine's relocation in a tiny corner of the conjugal chamber where literature must learn to coexist with lingerie, though congenial to the the editor's obsessions, is unpropitious for punctuality.
Some say there are too many writing poetry. Do they say also that too many play musical instruments or sport; too many sleep in comfortable beds and eat good meals; too many visit the theatre and are kind to their children? How can too many participate in a higher activity or strive for enrichment? We live in a culture of fences, of barriers and exclusivity whose assumption is that the higher activities, the better thoughts and feelings, the richer accomplishments are inappropriate for the majority. For the few, the works of Homer and Whitman. For the many, a tabloid newspaper. I see nothing in Homer or Whitman which should exclude the majority. On the contrary, I see much the majority could access and delight in. And what better response to Homer and Whitman than to write your own Illiad or Leaves of Grass? To attempt to write and to fail to come within a universe of the genius of a genius, is nevertheless to have striven. It is nevertheless to have learned: how great, rare and universal is the work of Homer and Whitman; how the nature we all carry can be given exquisite expression by a superior mind. To write inferior poetry is to understand the genius of the superior. And even the experience of writing the most inferior poem can open up within the mast modestly talented individual the narrow and difficult path that can lead to higher aspirations, better thoughts and feelings, a new behaviour. No attempt at writing is ever wasted, however inferior the outcome. As no attempt at playing music is ever wasted, however incompetent the performance. We should not encourage people to play music In the belief they may be Beethoven, but because we know they aren't. Beethoven is the musician we would all be had nature not been so niggardly in the distribution of talent. But to play one bar of the simplest tune is to be your own Beethoven. It is to enter the sea of music where we may only paddle while Beethoven could dive to the greatest depths. To paddle is better then to go through life in fear and ignorance of the sea. We should encourage people to write because we know they can never be Homer. But to write one line of simple poetry is to be your own Homer.
The angry and mean exclusivity which says too many write comes from the belief that only they should write whose accomplishment is great. But greatness is once a century. If only the great were published, our bookshops would be half-empty. Do we say that no-one should play a piano whose does not possess the gift of Kissin? Would any truly great artist wish to exclude others from the excitement and elevation of their art? All art is an act of generosity. All art is for all people. An art which wishes to fence itself in destroys itself. An artist always communicates, in his or her own experience, what touches on the experience of everyone. What is produced by the majority will always be inferior but you are much more likley to read Homer by discovering the Homer in yourself through your inferior verse than if you are told to put away your pen and paper. And those poets who tell the majority to stop writing should not be surprised if their books don't have an audience.
As for the plight of the inundated editor. I receive two thousand poems a year. Some from poor, excluded people. Poems scrawled on scraps of paper. Poems not even starting to be poems. But in these poor, miserable scratchings is there not the same hope that inspired Homer and Whitman? Is there not the pathetic hint of the grandeur that lay within Beethoven? The old man from London, lonely, unable to afford the return postage is he not striving for a better self, a better world in the barely legible snippets he sends me? Should I tell him to stop writing? I don't want to be associated with the exclusion of the many from the best that human culture has produced. Not nearly enough appreciate that poetry is for everyone. But there's plenty of sniffiness to convince them that it isn't. And I would be glad to be inundated.
In a culture of visibility, of spectacle, It's no surprise to find literature caught up in the struggle to displace substance and enthrone image. The retreat from objectivity so characteristic of a narcissistic culture, the attempt to replace all objective standards by mere subjective preference finds its disastrous expression when a highly visible writer can seriously argue that what distinguishes a good from a bad book is whether or not he likes it. If this is true, literature is dead. It lives by the acceptance of standards which go beyond personal preference. You don't have to like Jane Austen to see that she is a great writer. But what of the contention that if I happen not to like her work, then she is a writer of no importance? Philistinism. The regressive impulse behind the refusal of objective standards, the contention that there is no distinction between the world and myself, that whatever I like is good and whatever I dislike worthless leaves us with an empty culture which must hype itself to conceal its atrocious lack of reality.
This is prevalent even, appallingly, in the small presses. Philistinism hiding behind hype and passing itself off as culture is the dominant tone of a strain British literary life. Putatively serious young poetesses publishing trashy novels clearly intended to do nothing but heighten their profile and bring in money while serious novelists writing taxing work have their manuscripts turned down by every decent-sized press in the land, reveal the inversion of values which is reducing literature to the level of pop music. Accompanying this is the cowardly denial that it is happening, the pretence that all cultural products are equally valuable and that to make a distinction between The Spice Girls and Seamus Heaney is to be elitist and therefore both wrong and bad. This is the defeatist position of the thoroughgoing narcissist for whom all distinctions threaten a reduced sense of self and who wishes to avoid them through either a symbiotic blending with the world or a denial of any reality beyond the self. The paradox of this, of course, is precisely that selfhood is the recognition of distinction, of limits.
A marketing man seeking to sell you toothpaste will not offer a dispassionate analysis of its chemical content. More and more the hype that is employed to sell literature is creeping into criticism. This is not a matter of the age-old business of puffery but of a serious loss of orientation. It is encouraged by editors who spike honest reviews of hotwriters. Most reviews disguise the sense that any struggle is taking place in literature. This is what you would expect from a narcissistic orientation to culture: it is an undifferentiated mass of work within which you can orientate yourself only by personal preference. The reader who prefers Jeffrey Archer to Gunter Grass is not revealing an inferior literary sensibility , but merely doing the only thing available to any of us. To argue about the objective value of works of literature is to miss the point: they exist to please, to be consumed. I choose my toothpaste, you choose yours.
Allied to this is the revolt against criticism. To disable criticism is, of course, the narcissist's way of ensuring that his need to blend with the world or to deny it can never be challenged. But the demise of criticism leaves literature at the mercy of superficial judgements. Milan Kundera has attacked the dismissal of criticism on the grounds that without it ďa work is surrendered to completely arbitrary judgements and swift oblivion." This is the irony. Those who seek to emasculate the critic in the hope that in this way they can protect their work, ensure its ultimate neglect. Serious, dispassionate criticism is exactly what the modern literary sensibility despises. In the struggle of each against all for a little passing notoriety which is the contemporary literary world, the fear that one's work will not stand up to serious scrutiny haunts every writer. The traditional defence against such fear is attention to objective quality. The contemporary defence is a dismissal of posterity and a denigration of the objective.
It is this ability to value what goes beyond our subjectivity we are losing. The poet who sits quietly among books writing poems is destined to be neglected while the showman who knows how to attract media attention will be hyped, even if the work is dull. The end of the twentieth century has found an ingenious solution to the tragedy of the loss of objectivity: it celebrates it. What was tragic in the work of Paul Celan - a subjectivity under such imminent threat of disappearance that it could gain hardly any purchase on reality - has become a joke. We are all narcissists now, so we might as well enjoy it. Nothing could be more tragic than the loss of the sense of tragedy. But such paradoxes are lost on minds which seek instant gratification and a glib laugh, even at the gates of Armageddon.
Narcissus has a diminished fear of death, a blind optimism. If there is no reality beyond the self there is no need to fear the loss of self. This is the tone of some modern literature: things may be bad, but there's no point breaking your heart or troubling your mind. Pull back from significance. Pretend it will all go away. But it won't. Living for the moment ensures the death of the future. What will the future's intelligent inhabitants make of this curiously inward, reduced, self-deprecatory literature? The literature of Narcissus.
Peggy Ramsay thought Joe Orton the best writer sheíd handled. Why ? Because of his detachment. She was right. Detachment is what makes great literature and Orton had it. He claimed that going to prison was the decisive experience. Thereís some Orton mischief in there but at the same time itís true: the pain of the deprivation of freedom made him look at himself utterly dispassionately. Ortonís detachment is what some of our modern dramatists lack.
Orton was a great writer but a ruined man. Some of his behaviour was beyond excuse. He knew it. He refused hypocrisy. He knew he was ruined and he struck back at the values that had ruined him, especially sexual hypocrisy. In his life, he was a mess. In his work, he was a saint. Itís the work that matters.
Supposing we didnít know whoíd written What The Butler Saw; would it be any less a work of genius ? What I love about Orton is his writing. His activities in public lavatories are as sordid as any other beleaguered homosexualís in the early sixties. Alan Bennettís film makes too much of the life, as if thatís what made Orton a writer. No, what made him a writer was detachment, even from his own experience. Which is why heís so much better a writer than the self-indulgent Bennett.
So, in PP23 the work was detached from the writers, or from their names. At least a little bit. Though the names were listed. Thereís a rational objection: what if I like the work and want to read more ? Well, drop me a line and Iíll tell you who wrote what you like. Or visit the website where all work is attributed. Itís no big deal. Itís just seeing what happens to the writing when you let it stand alone. Personally, I like anonymity. I like my work to go out into the world, but I prefer to stay at home. Thereís a public persona called Alan Dent whoís known to be a ranting Marxist. If he writes a poem about eating porridge, donít be fooled: thereís politics in there somewhere. Itís for this reason and others that I sometimes publish under assumed names. People see the name not the writing.
Iíve never met Simon Armitage. Iím sure heís a nice bloke. Heís from the north. Heís down to earth. But I donít know him. Personally, I wish him well. I hope his marriage flourishes and his daughter is a little joy who grows into a big joy. How do I know he has a daughter ? Because I read it in a paper. I assume itís true. But his personal life is, frankly, none of my bloody business. Just like the personal lives of the folk across the road who never speak to me. I wish them well too. But Armitageís writing is public. I do know that, or some of it. Itís up for grabs. Itís part of our attempt to define ourselves through culture. Everything in that space can be challenged, debated, torn to pieces. Itís not personal. Literature is as objective as physics.
Who did the cave paintings at Lascaux ? Does the fact that we donít have a name diminish their power ? They are great art. Detached. Who wrote Sir Gawain ? Is it any less a poem because we donít know if he was married or had a daughter ?
Then we come to the question of selling. Itís that Alan Dent again. But the facts are the facts. Publishers are out to make money. If you want to make money, sell a commodity everyone wants. Make them want it. To publishers, a name is more important than good writing. Julie Walters publishes a novel and it gets reviewed in the Sunday papers. Thereís a guy up in Cumbria with an Old Testament beard and a flat cap who can write the arse off Ms Walters whose latest novel didnít. Do me a favour ! Letís get some detachment. Itís the writing that matters. Ms Walters canít write for toffee. As far as we know, Tolstoy couldnít act. Why not stay in your sphere ?
As a matter of fact, the guy up in Cumbria can write the arse off most of the novelists whose books are piled up in Waterstones. What should grab the headlines in the world of literature is good writing. But the young publishing execs laugh their socks off: Good writing ? Get real! This is about money !
Unfortunately itís also about ego. We all want praise. Even bits of praise do us good. When my wife tells me Iíve made a good job of cleaning the kitchen, my self-esteem rises. Magic. If you were shown photos of a thousand pairs of feet and asked to pick out those of your spouse, you couldnít do it. If you were shown ten thousand faces and asked to do the same, youíd find it easy. Why ? Because your brain has specific face-recognition neurons but no specific feet-recognition neurons. Natural selection sorted this out for obvious reasons. See the smiling face of someone you like and your brain lights up like Blackpool illuminations. The same happens when you get recognition, when your book is published, when itís reviewed, when it wins a prize, when itís for sale in all the shops. Everyone craves that good feeling. Thatís why the literary world is so murderous. People want their name in print because thatís where the good feeling comes from. Such is the delusion. The true good feeling actually comes from seeing your work in print and knowing itís accomplished and well-received by serious readers. But the neurons that fire up for that arenít the ones that make you feel self-important. My guess is that the artists who did the paintings at Lascaux knew how good they were. They knew theyíd be admired so long as eyes could see. Thatís satisfaction. The other feeling is empty pride.
Celebrity has invaded literature. A small press publisher wrote to me not long ago telling me excitedly that heíd ďgotĒ such-and-such a poet. A name. Are the poems any good ? What does it matter if the name will sell books ?
I like the idea of creating this tiny, tiny space where readers can encounter writing in its complete detachment. The writing must speak for itself. Finding out who wrote it, if you need to, can come after. But isnít it a joy to meet the writing naked ?
Astute readers will notice we no longer call ourselves a quarterly. The Trade Descriptions Act is what it is. We are law-abiding disreputable quasi-bohos. This is our second edition of 2007 and it probably wonít arrive on your mat till early 2008. But weíve launched our website and that gets more visitors than the average Anglican church so we can confidently claim weíre a little more popular than god. In any case, regularity of publication is important for commercial publications. Good writing and important ideas donít depend on adhering to a timetable. We hope our readers agree that our mag is worth waiting for, even if we are less reliable than Godot.
There are those who believe, of course, that godís fingerprints are all over the universe. We believe he wore gloves. He was still pretty careless though: what kind of idiot creates an eye with a blind spot ? And the human spine is barely, as they say in todayís nauseating jargon, fit for purpose. On the one hand, he seems to be a thoroughgoing determinist: a tiny change in the relative weights of sub-atomic particles and the universe wouldnít exist. Yet when he got to human beings, he had a brain-wave: free will. What a joker ! But he created good and he created evil and gave us the freedom to choose between them. This has kept the hangman and the dramatist busy for a few thousand years. But think of this: take a hundred very hungry people who donít know where the next crust is coming from, cast in front of them enough bread for seventy meagre appetites and what will happen ? Our free will, which gives rise to ethics, makes the experiment impossible, but we can think, we can imagine. They scramble and fight or even kill one another. The wretches ! Havenít they heard of the struggle of good against evil ? Why donít they exercise their free-will ? They may use their higher judgement, of course. A moral genius may arise amongst them and say: We have only enough bread for seventy, but letís share it so at least we all have something. They may take the advice. But theyíre more likely to reach for the cross or the rifle. The moral genius has been around a very long time and the rich still reign through violence. Now imagine the same hundred people comfortably housed in Reigate and fed at one anotherís well-laden tables. Cast enough bread for seventy before them and what happens ? They fill their glasses with Bollinger and say bollocks to the scraps. What ? The struggle of good against evil comes down to the provision of bread ! God really is a pillock.
Vulgar determinism is, of course, intellectually discredited. The vulgarians try to convince us that everything we are, every decision we make, every idea we have, even our precious sense of identity, depend on the firing of bits of jelly in our brains. And what determines how the bits of jelly fire ? Why, circumstances. If you wiggle your little finger, neurons fire in your motor cortex. Command neurons telling your little finger to wiggle. About three-quarters of a second before that, neurons fire in your pre-motor cortex. Not command neurons, so why ? Well, probably to give you a sense of agency, to make you feel that you are deciding to wiggle your little finger rather than having it wiggled for you. But if a wasp is about to hit you in the eye, or you stick your hand in boiling water, you wonít make any decision about blinking or pulling your hand away. So just what is the you that decides to wiggle the little finger ? Beats me, whatever that may be.
Flaubert liked the fact that god has made himself scarce. Heís not interested in celebrity. Heís done important work and doesnít need to strut. The writer should do the same: build the world and disappear. And donít forget the gloves. There are those, however, who donít like this. They think it deprives the forensic folk of work. They believe fingerprints are vital. Flaubert existed, of course, and we know all kinds of things about him like his frustration with the neurotic and self-dramatising Louise Colet and his horror at the thought of fatherhood. But there are no fingerprints on Madame Bovary. It might almost have been published anonymously. God Forbid !
What must be written must be written. Writers dream of being able to choose their subjects but necessity imposes all the same, the thing that made Flaubert complain about les affres du style and which sent him running after St Anthony and scribbling about Carthage. Madame Bovary, cíetait lui, but it was a subject he had to force himself to write about, or rather, his wise friends had to badger him into. Censors understand this. They forbid writing about what needs to be written about. Presumably, had Milton had sight of The Saturday Sport he might have amended Areopagitica, but not much. Miltonís high-minded assumption, of course, was that writers and publishers would exercise strict responsibility. After all, writing and publishing are responsible functions. What drives the inevitability of Paradise Lost is the urgent need to explain the ways of god to man, a need that springs from Miltonís compulsion to explain the ways of god to himself. Where lies the responsibility of the writer and publisher in our post-modern paradise ? Where the inevitability ? Apparently, the primary responsibility of a writer is to win prizes and that of a publisher to make money, for a writer without prizes is as ignored as a fat girl among teenage boys and a publisher not on the make is unlikely to be a publisher long. These two freaks, the ungarlanded writer and the profitless publisher survive on scraps, slink in dark corners, occasionally emerge into the light only to reviled by the cocktail party novelists and astronomical advance publishers (wouldnít it be sensible to distribute the astonishing largesse which brings first-time novelists deals which would keep a bus driver and family comfortable for thirty years, among dozens of writers so each might have something to get by on for a while, or is that pre-post-modern naivety, the old-fashioned belief that distribution should undo excess and each man (and woman) have enough ? Then, what is enough ? Poor old Grey Gowrie couldnít get by in London on a government ministerís petty income. A chap has to be seen in the right places. Eating in the Ivy isnít cheap. And thereís nothing worth living in for less than a couple of million. To the victors the spoils. Stop using your elbows and youíll be at the back of the queue. The metropolitan elite must have their fortunes or the sun will cease shining. (It rains an awful lot up here.) . What must be written these days seems slightly less urgent than Miltonís masterpieces but Einstein has already explained the ways of the universe to man, or at least to the half dozen who understand him, Karl Marx has explained the ways of history, though no-one believes him, Charles Darwin has explained the stunning variety of life-forms by two simple principles, though a lot of Americans think heís the anti-christ; perhaps thereís little left for creative writers to do. But thereís always something: the cat has been sick on the carpet or mumís won at the bingo or you just have to tell the world about your years as a teenage groupie. Everyone has a story to tell if only they can ferret it out. But poor old John Milton was seized by his, it took him by the throat and threw him around the room for a decade or two. He had no choice. It demanded to be written. Still, I wonder if his cat ever was sick on the floor and if he enjoyed a game of dominoes now and again ? Arenít we lucky to live in age that scoffs at a hierarchy of values ?
The laureateship, with its implication of laurels awarded by State and Crown, is an empty anachronism which, like all such forms, survives by claiming it can serve ends it isnít intended for. So the appointment of a female laureate is, if you read The Guardian, good news for women. How can an award bestowed by a family whose wealth, power and privilege depend on the hereditary principle, assist gender equality? How can association with a government which accepted, to the final detail, the self-justifications and excuses of the so called ďmasters of the universeĒ as they went about enriching themselves at the cost of our economic security, serve any kind of equality ? Most of the bankers who ruined us were men. Most women remain poorly paid and in lower level jobs. Feminism, which once recognised equality as the ground of its success, has taken on a free market form: so long as few women achieve success, status and wealth, the job is done. I would have thought a public renunciation of the post and of the royals and time-serving politicians who bestow it, could have done much more to advance the cause of equality in general and of women in particular. Yet even more disappointing is this, from Carol Duffyís Guardian acceptance article:
ďÖ.poetryÖÖmatters deeply to a huge and growing number of people in this country.Ē
Out of an adult population of thirty million, what could be thought of as huge ? Twenty million or so ? If twenty million Britons bought contemporary poetry, it would be reasonable to expect the most popular collections to sell a hundred thousand. Even Duffy, a set text, will be lucky to command that. Most collections sell fewer than five hundred. Most poets are unheard of. Poetry matters to hardly anyone as a voluntary activity. Tens of thousands of pupils and students are forced to read the stuff, but, as everyone knows, often with the result they never look at it again once theyíve got the certificate. Editing a little magazine gives a clear sense of how many people take a real interest in living poetry: Iíd say between three and five thousand. Not even 0.1 percent of the population. Poetry, as something taken an interest in outside the school or the academy is virtually dead. It matters to a very small group of enthusiasts. Nor does Adrian Mitchellís old adage explain: people donít ignore poetry because it ignores them but because it requires effort, is disturbing and clashes with the anti-imaginative narcissism of our culture. Later, Duffy descends simply to the level of an apparatchik:
ď..poetry is vital to the imagining of what Britain has been, what it is and what it might yet become.Ē
The kind of statement to the House you might expect from a newly-appointed poetry czar.
Duffy is apparently going to donate the £6,000 she receives to the Poetry Society for the establishment of a new poetry prize. She would do better to give a thousand a piece to six little mags. Gongs, crowns and prizes are little to do with literary value: they are about commercialism and winning the culture war. The mass imagination isnít formed by poetry, or any kind of serious literature, but by celebrity veneration and reality tv. If you went onto Oxford St today and stopped people at random, how many would have heard of John Skelton ? How many could name a poem by him ? Skelton lives and works in the imaginations of the few who take the trouble to read, who see value in the long-term, who have the courage to resist the present. This isnít as it should be but it is as it is. Ours is a culture of manufactured stupidity, which is exactly what you need to turn people into mindless consumers. Poetry should be sceptical, cynical and oppositional in such a culture. Conversations with the wind arenít quite what we need to win todayís cultural struggle. The forces of ignorance and reaction are winning. They will continue to win if we peddle illusions about huge numbers of people turning to poetry. If literature is to do its work in fighting the murder of imagination, we have to begin from where we are: beleaguered, struggling to survive, ignored by the majority. But no-one who says so will be poet laureate nor win prizes.
Kate Clanchy has just won the BBC National Short Story competition and £15,000. One of the judges was Will Young. If he can judge literature, why donít we ask Caryl Churchill to select the England football team ? The confusion of realms is stupid but it works in only one direction. Perhaps Young is a reader, but if I was looking for someone to explain why Maupassant is a real writer and Jeffrey Archer isnít, he wouldnít be the obvious choice. As for Kate Clanchy, sheís a very competent poet, but the story is disappointing: written in the ubiquitous and tedious historical present, itís more notes towards a story than a realised work of art. Chekhov and Richard Yates can rest easy.
Once again, here we are face to face with our cultureís refusal of a hierarchy of values, its distorted conception of democracy, its flaccid unwillingness to criticise popular taste, its elevation of vulgarity as the supreme value. It was Ortega y Gasset who argued that ďthe characteristic of our timeĒ is ďthat the vulgar proclaims and imposes the rights of vulgarityĒ. Our elected representatives now fall over themselves to show how au courant they are with The X Factor. This would be cowardly if the programme was merely idiotic, but it is craven given its cruelty. The reverse side of the elevation of the barely talented but hugely hyped to nightmarish fame and wealth, is the ritual humiliation of vulnerable people whose insane over-estimation of their capacities is testimony to the intrinsic fragility of contemporary identity. Yet to lambast such crass popular culture is to be thought of as ďundemocraticĒ: such is our debased definition of democracy. It is now taken to be an unthinking celebration of the lowest common denominator in all things. What the masses want is good. Except if they donít want troops in Afghanistan.
We are on the verge of entertainocracy. Entertainment, like consumerism, is a work discipline. Do your boring job to earn the money to buy goods you donít need or to pay over the odds to see your favourite multi-millionaire star in concert. Madonna is a capitalist in a g-string and the masses are inveigled to identify with the heroes who exploit them. It is the perfect illustration of humanityís self-exploitation.. Nor is it innocent and its critics kill-joys. It is corrupt to its core, cut-throat, manipulative, and driven by venality. Behind the pop stars, the film stars, the sports stars the glib comics, are the executives and shareholders: big money and the viciousness which tags along.
Writing in the Guardian recently Ian Jack praised the Beatles for their music which defeated repression. The BBC banned Alan Bush for thirty years. What did pop music do to stop that ? Whose is the greater music ? The HMV store in my town has a tiny classical music section and two floors devoted to pop culture of one kind or another. Repression ? Why does this matter ? Because mind is culturally created. What Christopher Lasch called ďthe spread of stupefactionĒ isnít accidental. Stupefied people are good consumers; even of literature when a distinction between the real thing and tat is obliterated; but just as junk food delivered by a free market leads to a crisis of obesity, so junk culture delivered in the same way leads to mental flabbiness. Is the alternative imposition ? We are encouraged to believe that if we interfere with the market and the individualís desire to do what they like, we are on the short route to dictatorship. On the contrary, the free market and political dictatorship are perfectly compatible, as China is demonstrating.
The loss of faith this entails is almost complete. The areas of resistance in our culture are tiny. At every turn, making the difficult choice is sneered at; not to comply with the mindlessness of commercial culture is viewed as deviant. The way this came about, the recognition by clever but cynical executives that the youths who tore up theatre seats as they listened to Bill Haley, were consumers with a bit of money to spend and the culture they responded to, a glib, manufactured product which could be turned out anew for each generation; and the consequent political idea that the masses could be made to identify with super-rich stars and by so doing valorise the capitalismís huge disparities of wealth have raised ignorance and lack of discrimination to badges of honour. The purpose of mass culture is precisely to sell people their ignorance. This is not the common folk at play because thatís too potentially subversive. This is the common folk being as thoroughly exploited and disciplined in their leisure as in their work.
Will Young not only judges major literary awards because heís a pop singer, he acts . A while ago he played Nick Lancaster in a production of The Vortex at the Royal Exchange, Manchester. When I wrote a review setting his limp performance against that of the excellent Diana Hardcastle, some of his fans threatened to sue me for slander. Not even the British libel laws permit that; but isnít there something disturbing about the incursion of that loss of perspective into serious art? People have always sent flowers when characters die in The Archers or Coronation St. That such a naÔve approach to art exists among millions is sad, but that serious art dallies with it for the sake of bums on seats is tragic. Of course, Caryl Churchill never will be invited to select the England squad: sport is much too serious. But art? Well any old celebrity can be a judge of that.