I don’t often weigh in on the latest literary chattering points for fear of contributing to the very close-quarters farting contest I purport to detest. But the latest comments by Nobel judge Horace Engdahl really piss me off, so fuck it.
As the publishing world waits to hear who has won this year’s Nobel literature award, Engdahl has been mouthing off in an interview with French paper La Croix, saying that grants, bursaries and creative writing courses are damaging literature. (‘Creative writing courses are killing western literature, claims Nobel judge’) Here’s the part the Guardian quotes:
Even though I understand the temptation, I think it cuts writers off from society, and creates an unhealthy link with institutions. Previously, writers would work as taxi drivers, clerks, secretaries and waiters to make a living. Samuel Beckett and many others lived like this. It was hard – but they fed themselves, from a literary perspective.
It may shock you to learn that, as an adjunct professor of Scandinavian literature and member of the 18-seat Swedish Academy (who select the Nobel prize for literature), Engdahl lacks the enriching luxury of a full-time job in the service industry. Perhaps his doctoral thesis on Swedish romanticism would have benefited if his ‘unhealthy link’ with Stockholm university had been replaced by a 70 hour week of split shifts pulling pints for drunk pricks.
‘But ah,’ you slur through your sixth glass of cheap Cabernet Sauvignon, ‘Engdahl is an academic. He’s talking about writers.’
And you’re quite right. Heaven forfend that authors should be so crass as to earn a living wage from their work. This, of course, is the dreaded ‘professionalisation’ of contemporary literature that Engdahl fears.
When I finished school, I worked 60-80 hour weeks in a pub for a year. After that, I worked part-time through university with full-time stints in retail between semesters, then several years of full-time minimum wage call centre and data entry work before finally having a breakdown.
It was crushing and grim. It was hard to find time to write. I did not feel a glorious connection to society – I felt marooned and knackered and, eventually, suicidal. I produced very little work and what I did produce was utter dogshit.
Currently, I write and perform full-time. I don’t want to sound like a smug twat but it’s wonderful. I am happy and with all the time I save not wretchedly sobbing in airing cupboards or drinking myself into a stupor I am able to properly research things and spend hours writing each day. My work is much better, and my output is steadily improving.
Engdahl has not worked any of the jobs he names for at least half a century. His argument begins and ends with this: some great authors have had low-paid jobs. Therefore, to accept a post at a university or to – gasp – write full-time results in drab, insipid literature.
For a start, Samuel Beckett only did all those jobs he did because he had to – if Engdahl had done the slightest bit of research he would know that Beckett’s stints as a policeman, baseball player, waitress and Navy Seal were a result of the malfunctioning nuclear accelerator chamber in Stallion’s Gate, New Mexico, AKA the Quantum Leap Proj-
Hang on. Sorry, wrong Wikipedia page.
So yes, Samuel Beckett worked to support himself while he wrote (and also fought in the Second World War) until his plays were sufficiently successful that he could work full-time as a writer and theatre director.
Notice Engdahl does not provide anything so vulgar as evidence to support his asinine claims. Aside from the specious contention that an author popping onto campus once a week is somehow ‘cut off from society’ (by which he – presumably – means the clandestine world to which only waiters and taxi drivers are privy) he doesn’t name a single author he thinks guilty of this, and he doesn’t demonstrate that this is a modern problem.
Thinking up counter-examples – of authors who either worked at their craft full-time (quitting their previous day job as soon as they could support themselves through writing) or who worked in academia – is pathetically easy, because it’s more or less everyone you’ve ever loved, from Tolkien to (Nobel literature prize winner) William Golding to Ursula Le Guin.
As for grants – fuck you, Engdahl, you privileged wanker. Awards like The RSL Brookleaze Grants, which last year helped ‘a working mum with three young children’ afford a research trip for her novel, and bursaries which support students who want to study creative writing, are essential if we believe that literature benefits from opportunity and diversity.
I’ve written before about creative writing courses and why I loathe the lazy, anti-intellectual sideswipes commentators like to take at them, horrified at the idea that some literary skills might be communicable. That bleary old-guardists feel so terribly threatened by their alumni is a clear indicator of how phenomenally successful these courses have become.
It’s not enough to make generalisations about our literary culture – you have to be able to back up your assertions with proof. Instead of tossing out patronising canards about the romance of the garret, Engdahl could better use his position to highlight the horrendous institutional sexism that continues to blight our literary culture.
Just 13 of the 110 winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature – for example – have been female, including last year’s winner, Alice Munro. This is an imbalance repeated across literary and genre awards, and unless you think female authors have spent the last 100 years cranking out a significantly inferior product to their male counterparts, it’s a damning indictment of our skewed, insular awards culture in general.
Credit where it’s due: Engdahl does highlight the ‘literary riches we are seeing arise in Asia and Africa’ – which is still incredibly condescending, implying that over half the planet is finally now reaching cultural maturity and rising to join us, up in the rarefied air of the Western Canon. Whoops! Look out Europe, the colonies are starting to catch you up!
But at least he’s tacitly admitting that the Nobel has, historically, been hugely Eurocentric, and that readers – if they genuinely want something scintillating and engaging – ought to widen their palette and eat from a truly global buffet. British readers – myself included – are in for a succession of mind-expanding treats if we let go of our ingrained prejudices and read more novels in translation.
Please don’t misunderstand me: I wholeheartedly believe that our artistic culture is strongest when it embraces and promotes contributions from all sections of a society. Indeed, without such diversity, it cannot really be called culture at all. Our literary culture desperately needs to recognise its working class voices, its queer voices, more female authors, more authors of colour.
But this is distinct from an argument that authors do not deserve – if enough readers appreciate their output – to earn a living wage from their work, that writing full-time somehow enfeebles one’s creative practice, or that engagement with academia constitutes an estrangement from society.
I’m really glad that some talented authors share their skills with other people who have new voices and stories. I’m really glad that we have a creative culture that values thought and creativity, and institutions that help artistic and critical practice to flourish. Our goal should not be to drive artists out of academia, but to put measures in place – including, yes, grants and bursaries – that encourage writers from a far wider range of backgrounds to participate.
Unimaginative commentators have been bleating doomy prognostications about the dire state of Western Literature for centuries, and this irritating trend shows no sign of diminishing. Most readers simply ignore them – as I said at the beginning, this sort of bun-fight becomes very relative when you realise no one’s listening – but I do think it behoves us to call out glib twattery when we see it.
Engdahl is precisely the type of out-of-touch, tin-eared academic he attempts to decry. I speak from experience when I tell you that, bad as it is spending the best years of your life working a tedious minimum-wage job with no end in sight, far worse is having a wealthy ivory tower gobshite gush about how wonderfully authentic you are.
Piss off, Horace. Everybody hates a tourist.