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Why we need a Royal College of Literature

Literature is one of the most overlooked artistic mediums in terms of its institutional support. Now is the time to change that.

Geoffrey Heptonstall
22 May 2014
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Flickr/Greh Fox

A while ago now, newly graduated, I had the luck to be involved in a new literary magazine financed with a generous Arts Council subsidy. We helped launch several careers. A future poet laureate was a contributor. A story published was adapted as a very successful film. Those were the days.

Then and later I received Arts Council bursaries. But without wishing to appear ungrateful, I said that it wasn’t money I required nearly as much as publication. However generous the Arts Council was to individual writers, Writing needed more subsidy. And that was not only because all artistic enterprises need all  the support they can find. Literature needed more because it was poorly served. What amount of the Arts Council’s budget was spent then on literature? I think it was less than 2%.

‘The problem is,’ I was told, ‘that other arts have a higher social profile.’

‘You mean,’ I replied, ‘there are no drinks in the interval of a novel?’

‘Exactly. But there’s more than that: it is no secret that writers are expected to absorb themselves into the education system.’

‘That is a very damning indictment of current attitudes.’

The Arts Council is only a player in a game whose rules are determined by others. It always faces difficult choices. As an organization it has its share of careerists and idealists. In the middle are the realists, like my candid conversationalist quoted above. He was accustomed to the protestations of writers tired of seeing Writing as a neglected art in the political world of public subsidy. There was little he could do. There was nothing he could say except to wish me luck.

The public perception is that writers make a lot of money. Every book is a best-seller. Writing for prestigious places is a mark of success. Cultural success, surely, translates into material wealth. The myth generates envy. The truth revealed would arouse contempt. Public attitudes are in part willed and in part incidental. The will is not there to support literature as other arts are supported.

On the other hand, there has been a significant growth in the teaching of Creative Writing as an area of study in its own right, rather than as an integral option in English Studies. This is surely a welcome development. We still lack a Royal College of Literature, but academies like UEA and Bath Spa are moving that way. Another development is the internet. It’s so much easier to set up an ezine than a print journal. The quality of many literary on-line journals is high. The internet has opened up publication for work of substance which otherwise would have remained in manuscript. And, as every editor knows, there is no shortage of would-be contributors.

Moving from broadcasting into publishing, I discovered to my astonishment how many people in the media aspired to authorship. The same thinking produces the book of the TV series. Print confers, so it is hoped, a sense of cultural legitimacy. (Actually it is content that does that.) In the shared, but unacknowledged, hierarchy the book, so far, has taken precedence in educated minds. An educated mind is book-centred. Written texts of sustained length and serious depth, whether they are books or other technologies, will remain the core of civilized thinking and feeling.

Whether there is the support within society for Writing is another matter. Yes, there has been a proliferation of reading groups. There is the expanding work of the Reader organization. So many people are reading and writing.

There is a community of Writing. Whether or not we are a fully literate society is another question. The concentrated act of reading is becoming more difficult in a distracted, deracinated culture of images and soundbites and tweets. The rapper will.i.am. stresses the importance of listening to ‘cultural music’ (good phrase, by the way). With that goes the importance of reading cultural literature: sentences not just words; paragraphs not just phrases; the recognition and avoidance of clichés and misused words.  It is also important to speak clearly.

So many people are reading and writing. And so many aren’t.  The problem is the attitude within society that these things don’t matter. Well, I mean, like, it's what’s iconic to you, innit? Well-intentioned liberals can mistake so easily the sub-literate muttering of a pseudo-underclass for authentic working-class speech. Listen to recordings of folk-literature. Hard lives were made easier by good humour, by story-telling and song. The influence on mainstream culture of folk-literature is perhaps deeper than is generally acknowledged. Tennyson writing poetry in his native Lincolnshire dialect is one example, but there are more subtle ones. Work like Shelagh Delaney’s film (from her short story) The White Bus is a masterpiece of understated observation. Stark reality is transformed by acute observation and resonant language into an evocation of the latent dreams of ordinary people. It is the difference between vital Writing and nostalgia and/or sentimentality. Shelagh Delaney’s realism was lyrical, a kind of ironic urban-pastoral, owing more to Cervantes than to Hindle Wakes.

Vitality in Writing is not dependant on a quest for the cutting-edge. It need not be ground-breaking. Art is not science perpetually discovering the unknown. Writing is not about novelty and sensation. It seeks to translate experience into metaphor. Behind the transcription of reality lies the other possibilities reality offers. At any given moment experience can change course. Writing explores the variety of possible changes.

That is not what society wishes to read. Imaginative possibilities are not required. The requirement is for identifiable reality. The requirement is for a literature to which the reader can connect (without exercising too much imagination). That narrows the field to a literature of self-interest. That is why so many novels on the  bookstalls are more or less identical: the same sort of book by the same sort of author. An idealized London, an idealized countryside or an idealized historical past recur monotonously.  In the centre is the idealized self, the you that you really are. This is about ME.

But it isn’t about me. The ‘I’ of fiction is generated from within the narrative. Its relation to the reader is tangential even when the surface alerts immediate recognition. The ‘I’ of the narrative seeks to engage a reader’s sympathy, a different engagement from self-absorbed interest. If fiction is successful it transcends gender and culture and history to speak to the reader’s humanity. ‘La Bovary c’est moi’ is an obvious truth and an obscure fancy. Knowing that Flaubert’s death-bed confession was as wise as it was foolish is necessary to the appreciation of his genius. What  matters, Nathalie Sarraute said, is to explore the rich life of the psyche. Recognizing the surface is only the beginning.

How can we say a work of literature resembles our life? Are we able to recognize ourselves in this way? Is it not some fantasy-self that we are encouraged to identify with? According to Hume our notion of self is a construct rationalizing a collection of fragmentary experiences. That may seem too raw and reductionist to be entirely true. But it contains a verity that our notion of self is articulated through the imagination: we are who we are because we have proposed it to be so.

Imagination, however, is not fantasy. Imagination enables us to improve the conditions of our lives. We may plan our future. With imagination we may work towards definite aims. Fiction plays its part in that sense of progress. The novel is the literature of the world speaking to itself . It’s not about me – it’s about others.

Reading is at once a private, personal act and a deeply social one. Dickensian is the word in regular use to describe Victorian poverty. It is Dickens who sets the scene, not Mayhew or Booth. The sociologists provide the details, but it is the imaginative descriptions of Dickens that dwell in the national psyche. There is in social life a conversation for which literature provides the record. If we lose that we lose the informal exchange that is community, so often spoken of, so rarely understood. A crowd gathering to hear music for a midsummer weekend is not a community. The exchange of ideas, feelings and values, an exchange sustained over a long period of time and within an intricate network of other lives is a community, and is sensed as such by its participants.

The question is why society is reluctant to acknowledge this? No, I am not suggesting there is a conspiracy. It is not an attitude secretly organized by sinister figures in the shadows. It’s a state of mind brought about the essential conservatism of existing interests. When Writing explores the changes that may happen it challenges existing conditions. There are salaries and pensions at stake. There is the ever-watchful milieu of influence and status in a state of unease. At any given moment experience can change course.

The hope is that it does change. Imaginative planning draws upon the pool of resources that enlarge individuals. A self-interested free-for-all diminishes the scope of possibilities. Imaginative planning will return to reconstruct experience from the ruins. Literature needs to be in there, providing the discourse for the social and moral architecture of the future. The need is for an interlingus capable of embracing all participants in society so that social transformations can be communicated.

It is worth noting that community was once synonymous with communication. ‘There can be no community between us,’ Victor Frankenstein says to his creature. This is some way from the hackneyed usages of terms potentially rich in creative meanings.

A community operates less formally than a society. It is less abstract, more identifiable. A community is peopled. Complainants indict the vague, impersonal force which is society, rather than the known and respected network that is a community. There are things to be lost – areas of informality and privacy - were society to integrate literature into the official social world. There is more to gain.

Let us suppose that The London Magazine, say, were to be given large premises in Charing Cross Road. There would be a permanent editorial and administrative staff. There would a bookshop with regular readings and performances. I am thinking of something equivalent to the Royal Opera House or the National Theatre. Or, perhaps, a better model would be the artists’ collective known as the Royal Academy.

Before you dismiss this as impossible, just remember there was a time when those institutions didn’t exist. They were founded out of existing organisations. But in part they were founded in defiance of existing attitudes and in the face of mockery. There was no law of Providence that said Fonteyn and Olivier and Hepworth should not spend their careers working hand-to-mouth in semi-derelict warehouses. There are those who prefer the warehouse, the empty space that can be filled with dreams. But society needs the official recognition of its arts, even those, or especially those, that retain the right to dissuade and dissent. 

Society is an abstraction that manifests itself through identifiable institutions. Our relation as citizens to institutions is necessarily ambiguous. We do not appreciate their impersonal nature, their complacent self-regard, their cronyism and nepotism, their innate resistance to criticism. But we can appreciate what an institution is capable of doing. The cultural initiatives tend to emerge from the marginal and informal. But society needs its channels for absorbing fresh responses. As things are there is an absent centre, a table where nobody sits.

We have seen the gradual encroachment of personality culture into literary matters. In recent years festivals actually for Writing, rather than ghosted memoirs, have challenged the drift into showbiz that has endangered literary festivals and awards as surely as it has infested politics and popular journalism. There is less money in Writing, but popular media cannot fulfil the required task of presenting Writing as serious discourse. Media speak the language of publicity. The central concern is the level of immediate popularity. The effects are for the most part transient. Media capital is not, primarily, cultural.

Writing’s capital is the talent of its writers. But it needs practical subsidy comparable with other arts, and appropriate to its needs. Just think what a few thousand pounds could do for small, struggling literary magazines. Compared to the millions spent elsewhere it is not much to ask, is it? I refer the reader back to my first paragraphs.

But I can hear the predictable responses from the shallows: ‘Now is not the time. This government is philistine. Optimism is naïve when there is so much despair.’ Et cetera.

Give it a rest. This familiar litany lacks substance. When the tide turns, cynical voices against will become sophisticated voices for. (‘We’ve been thinking of this for some time.’) The essential point might be missed yet again.

Literature is there not to console but to confront all the unacceptable things including despair. Cynicism is facile belief soured by experience. Literature provides the means of personal identity and community. Literature is the thread that weaves ideals and truths within civil society. Governments are naturally suspicious of writers. Now never will be the time. But now is the time to start. Now always will be the time. Always.


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