Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Whose Literature is it anyway?

I imagine them sat in a room. It's probably a scene from a Carol Churchill play, a banquet perhaps, with dinner guests who could not possibly meet and talk at the same time. There's a few youngsters there. A Samuel Beckett, a James Joyce perhaps, firebrands. There's a bearded Lawrence, a chicken leg in his hand like a wand or a weapon. Fitzgerald, I like to think, is by the drinks cabinet. If Zelda is with him then they're deep in conversation, but chances are, if there are ladies present, Hemingway has already taken them into the hallway for a particularly intimate conversation. Proust, of course, has cried off, illness. Pound has gathered some poets around him, with only Eliot really involved in the group discussion, whilst Yeats might have joined Fitzgerald for a dram, and Lorca's probably checking what Hemingway's up to - it will be more fun out there. If Pirandello is conducting a drama out on the lawn, its probably to an audience of painters and musician. They are, of course, at Diaghilev's house and Eric Satie is playing the piano throughout. Lurking by the coalshed, an old man looks on, Knut Hamsun wishing that he'd had such a crowd to hang with in his day. Late in the evening they'll play literary games, perhaps that one "books you haven't read, but should have." But nobody's ashamed not to have read the classical greats; after all they are all keen on finding different models. Even Gertrude Stein, arriving late, bringing her austere presence to the party, who has read just about everything, is uninterested in what the past holds. She writes in her diary at the end of the evening something (I paraphrase) along the lines of "literature is ours, now." 

As cinderella amongst the funded arts, (lack of expensive buildings you see!), it is important that the Arts Council and other funders continue to include literature as a priority, but I'm not so sure about a consultation on a strategy for literature.  It's pretty clear that those writers and others mentioned in the above paragraphs had a strategy for literature; it didn't, I'm pretty sure, involved Galsworthy or "childrens literature" or literature-in-performance or diverse communities, or reading-in-schools or anything similar was part of the remit. I guess the Arts for social change is too embedded in our policy to change now; and I'm certainly not advocating a wholesale destruction of the few schemes that do exist for encouraging readers and enabling writers. Yet, literature itself cannot just be seen as the promotion of anything-in-a-book. A reminder that literature remains a potential powder-keg, rather than a warm comfortable bath, comes out of Martin Amis's latest rip, of J.M. Coetzee "having no talent". Here is one of very best writers talking about another of our very best, and saying "I read one and I thought, he's got no talent. But the denial of the pleasure principle has got a lot of followers." It's like when Proust and Joyce met at a party wearily agreed that they both knew who the other was, but that they'd not read the other. I'm kind of pleased that Amis hasn't read Coetzee - I don't think he'd learn anything useful from him; the other way round? Who knows...but it's timely reminder of the lie that literature is all one happy family. You can like a person's writing, but hate the person; and there's been many writers I've liked personally, whilst not being overwhelmed by the writing. Thankfully there are writers where you like both. If there is going to be a consultation on literature it should burn up all the well-meaning preconceptions that are listed in the consultation document and come back to the work.

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