‘Prize-winning author’ is one of those publicity tags that doesn’t mean very much. There are a number of literary prizes. All the serious ones have prestige. Some really do put work forward to a readership in search of something more than the obvious and the bland. The Goldsmith’s Prize is one of those vital engines of public awareness for new fiction. A report in the Guardian by one of its judges, Blake Morrison, makes interesting reading. Some may take issue with Professor Morrison over the question of what constitutes ‘new’ in terms of fiction. The word has many meanings, none of which I need explore here because what really interests me at this time is the predominance of small presses in the shortlist. This point is stressed by Professor Morrison because the implications need to be considered.
Small presses, although they have few resources, will take risks that the great publishing houses have been reluctant to do for years. The time was when writers with pamphlet and magazine publication knew that something more was very possible. The time was when the likes of Paul Scott, a writer of stature himself, sought out rising talent. He and others actually approached unknown names who had written something they liked. ‘When you’re in London come and see me,’ they would say, and mean it. These days you are expected to email a synopsis and three chapters that might be glanced at before the standard rejection: ‘We don’t feel we could successfully launch your novel.’ A shoestring press, probably out of London and quite likely out of England, will read your manuscript and, just possibly, may publish it.
Without an agent, however, your chances are very remote. Of course there are an awful lot of people trying. Most manuscripts are perhaps extended acts of homage to existing works, rather than serious aspirations to publication. Finding an original voice proves so elusive. You must write wanting to fill a gap on the shelves. Telling the world how much you admire your favourite writer is not the route to getting your own work into print.
The problem now is – and has been for a generation – that original work by dedicated writers is being ignored by many of the channels of publication and communication intended to disseminate creative work. Commercial considerations are paramount, especially when there is so little public subsidy for literature. Narrow confines of self-interested commerce dictate that populist books flood the market. Celebrity entertainers and politicians [is there a difference?] are paid fortunes for ghosted memoirs and catchpenny television tie-ins. The gold embossed blurb says ‘Number One Bestseller’ in the remainder section. No doubt the accountants can write it off as a loss against tax without asking why so much was squandered on an advance to an unworthy author. It would have been cheaper and better to publish a good novel picked from the slush pile.
Fortunately there are serious mainstream publishers still, but they are fighting a corner that looks increasingly tight. I am thinking mainly of fiction, but not exclusively so. I spent four or five years working for a small, independent publisher of serious non-fiction. Manuscripts recommended often had to be returned because the money really and truly wasn’t there. Individual writers, myself included, can receive generous subsidy from official bodies but there is no general strategy to secure our literary culture’s future.
When I put this point to an arts funding body I was told [in prÃ©cis] the following; ‘You are absolutely right, but in this climate – or in any political climate – the chances of reconstituting the balance of funding are slim. For one thing, other arts enterprises would lose out. And it is no secret that writers are expected to absorb themselves into the education system.’
Society expects writers to accept as their lot publication or performance in the social margins, and to subsidise this by part-time lecturing at the local adult education centre. This is not the case with performing or fine art, but with writing it is the way things are. There is little protest from within the arts world generally because everyone must fight for their corner. Sympathy from the general public is not forthcoming because everyone thinks all writers lead privileged lives. Few speak up for writing as they would for other cultural and social matters.
Alone of all the arts, writing is expected to take its chance in the market-place although commerce is by definition philistine. Short-term profit, trivial concerns and material needs all see culture as a commodity. If a writer is any good he/she will find a publisher easily. If the book is any good it will sell.
The naivety of this view is painful. Market forces act against the reality of literature’s process. A work of literature may take years to establish itself in general consciousness. It is truly shocking to learn how few copies some well-regarded books sold in their first editions. The public sees only success and honour, too often the fruits of long labour, unfair rejection and frustrating indifference.
Because market forces do not work in writing’s favour, public subsidy is the natural alternative. Newly graduated, I was involved in a subsidised magazine. It sold well, but needed backing. It paid dividends. A story we ran became the basis of a successful film. We published a future poet laureate. Testimonies of this kind substantiate the need for the serious injection of public money into writing. The current position is to regard writing as a hobby which in a few cases makes for celebrity success. The right to print is being denied to work of merit.
The kind of subsidy offered to a number of Irish small presses might serve as an example to Ireland’s neighbour, the one that claims to have the fifth largest economy in the world and undoubtedly has itself a great literary history. And before anyone says writers in the past didn’t have subsidy, remember the fact of patronage or private money. These were the subsidies of a bygone age. Only a very few can rely on them now. Socially responsible publishing is the least we deserve, though it is the last thing we are going to get.
So do I seriously think this government is going to listen? Do I think any government is going to listen? The refusal to engage goes beyond one moment in history and any political party. Writing questions as others cannot. We look to writing for, as the Royal Court called a campaign, ‘Everyday Acts of Resistance’.
Writing can articulate this questioning as music or dance cannot. What is more, other arts have a visible presence in [subsidised] buildings. Writing huddles in out of the way bookshops perpetually threatened with closure. Why should society support those who are waiting to bite the hand that holds the money?
Because writing is the hand that feeds society’s conscience and consciousness. Writing examines life, the essential process of civilized awareness, the fuel of serious social discourse. Writing has the unacknowledged but leading role in society’s dynamic of change. Writing has power. It is writers who are remembered by their books in print when entrepreneurs are barely decipherable names on memorial stones.
Our society is motivated by an anti-culture of advantage and profit. ‘According to publicity,’ said John Berger, ‘to be sophisticated is to live beyond conflict.’ The personal and social tensions from which literature is created are anathema to publicity. There are only winners and losers. Winners take all and obliterate the losers in a game called life. Who but a loser would write with no certain expectation of being heard and almost no expectation of actually profiting by this mad endeavour? Who needs news that remains news when yesterday’s news is ancient history?
Actually, if you look at the day’s headlines (on any day) you’ll find that we need the wisdom and insight of well-chosen words. Literature provides the critical observations and subtle perceptions that a vainglorious publicity culture cannot. The alternative to fiction is not fact: it is fantasy. The alternative to well-chosen words is the election of sub-literate morons, and their vengeful allies in the media shredding the truth.
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This post was written by Geoffrey Heptonstall