This month’s post is from Sandy Chadwin:
SO I SAID I would do January’s blog and I had a bright idea about considering the issues arising from the Art Council’s report on the future of Literary Fiction which was released at the tail end of last year. The report says that it, literary fiction, is dying out and ponders whether subsidy might be the way of keeping it alive. This, of course, begs the question that literary fiction should be kept alive. After all, if no-one wants to read it then why should the taxpayer fund it? You may deduce, from that last sentence, where my sympathies lie in this matter. Will Self is on record as saying that he believes that literary fiction will end up becoming an esoteric hobby, like Morris dancing I suppose, with small amateur groups keeping it alive.
The problem, or at least one of the problems, in this discussion is that no-one seems to be entirely sure exactly what Literary Fiction is. Some presumed that it was fiction that was not consciously written to fall into one the established genres – crime, science fiction, romance and so on – but that was quickly disabused by those who said that such writing is actually ‘general fiction’. The closest I came to a definition was someone on the Guardian website who suggested that literary fiction was fiction that concentrated on character and style to the exclusion of all else which led me to a tetchy Kingsley Amis-esque harrumph that if that was indeed the case, then the sooner it died out the better. That peculiarly WASPish form of fiction is one that I am not sympathetic to.
And yet, and yet. I do strongly believe that the arts deserve and need public subsidy. And furthermore that such subsidy makes sound economic sense. When Newcastle City Council a few years back made the headline grabbing announcement that it was going to cut its arts budget to nil on the grounds such funding only benefitted middle class people, it was pointed out somewhat forcibly to them that every pound put into the arts by the taxpayer brings back £5 in tax revenue. It might also have been pointed out that if you want to get businesses to relocate to the north-east, while they may not actually go to the theatre or concert hall or poetry readings, most business people like to live somewhere where they could if they wanted to. The policy was, of course, quietly dropped and the council closed all but three of their libraries instead in what seemed to be an act of rather petty spite.
So where do I stand? Direct government payments to Will Self (the only novelist everyone seems to agree writes literary fiction) sticks in the craw. The novel has never been directly funded by patronage, which is all subsidy is. Poets, composers, painters and even playwrights have taken the penny from the obliging aristocracy and taking the Government’s penny is no different, but novelists never have. Well, Fay Weldon did that weird thing a while back when she wrote a novel sponsored by a jewellery company if memory serves, but it hasn’t seemed to take. Fiction has always had to stand on its own merits, like rock music in that way, another art form that has never been directly subsidised.
Ay, and there’s the rub. Directly subsidised. All the arts of all forms have benefitted immensely over the centuries from indirect subsidy and patronage through the provision of education and libraries and town and village halls where bands can play and actors act and writers read, from the provision of night classes where people can study and learn about the cubists and the modernists and the romantics or whatever there may be a demand for. So, rather than give Will Self £20 grand a year to keep him in similes, let’s keep Cullercoats Library open, let’s return to the old adult education system when you could, for about a tenner, sign up to learn Latin or all about the Bloomsbury Set. Let’s teach music in our schools and take the children on outings to the theatre and to the concert hall.
Yes, that’s a subsidy I can get behind.