I am not by nature a political animal. I have no party political instincts, dislike the whole fakery of politics in any form, and regard most politicians with a visceral distrust I find a little disturbing even to myself. Yet I know writing is a profoundly political activity. It concerns itself with human behaviour, its foibles, its history and its destiny. Our dark side has been exposed more times by writers than any other art form. That being said, most writing is just not good. Sturgeon’s law especially holds true of literature. So much of it is awful, derivative, conservative (in the sense of uncritically adhering to a body of historical values as opposed to conserving what is good from history), poorly constructed and lacking in depth of characterization. The notion of the cream rising to the top: rich, thick and guaranteed to make you sick, also comes to mind (a la Sam Beckett).
My view is that a real critical rigour is needed to address this problem, and its a serious problem – a rigour devoid of politics or vendettas or the kind of career building intellectually fashionable academic pettiness that makes one kind of writing in style and another passé. So much so called criticism is really one political or philosophical mind-set trying to take out someone on the opposing side of the political landscape, something funded or equally partisan. Without this criticism, this vigorous objective humanistic intellectualism around writing, we are looking at a deluge of blandness in future writing in which nothing of value will be said and even less worthwhile will be written. Ireland has produced some great writers. Most of them didn’t stay in Ireland. We need to foster a creative environment here, where so many come to imbibe the riches of our literature, where talent, from whatever section of this multicultural country it emerges, can evolve freely. Criticism is but one facet of this. You cannot put a value on writing but you can evaluate it. You can look at the structure, the story, the philosophy, the historical development of the form, the characterization and the development of the characters and the entire resolution of the story. But there is a problem with this approach. You cant do any of the above if you don’t understand the nature of writing. So the question is this: what is it that I am doing now, as I write this? What view do I have of the nature of writing itself?
The purpose of writing is to communicate what it means to live in the world. To live in the world is to describe human behaviour in the world, which brings one back to the political nature of writing itself, its capacity to analyse, explain, explore, elucidate, speculate and postulate possible futures for humanity. In other words writing is revolutionary in its essence. That being said writing is in danger of being either commercialized – viewed as merely a product with a value, something that holds a value based on how wealthy the author is, or ghettoized – viewed as the esoteric workings of a special interest group with a rather odd hobby. Its a cliché how many writers of genius who died penniless, and its equally a cliché how many people with means, who seek to vent their creative side on a poetry collection or a novel.
I don’t mean in the least to disrespect those who turn to writing as a kind of hobby. Its cool, but this isn’t in the least where the forefront of writing should be at. Its really not a hobby. Writing or art in general should be at the centre of the cultural and political discourse of a country. Its clearly not, and the reason why it is not is for many reasons. Firstly if you have a bunch of mercurial artists with a powerful media platform unleashing their critical and creative faculties, they pose a real and viable alternative to current political discourse. Better to have them tamed, give them money now and then, and ensure they are published in the smaller presses where they wont be read by too many people. There are of course a coterie of tame writers and distinguished artists who pose no real threat, may be wheeled onto various shows, write learned tomes and novels and articles, and will never step outside the party line. Secondly there is also a substantial deep rooted view that artists are pariahs on society (the ‘get yourself a real job’ argument). Writing is the most difficult of jobs, involving thousands of hours of labour to produce a finished piece. An academic can finish a PhD thesis with some chance of getting a teaching job somewhere. A writer can labour for years on a novel, or a poetry collection, or a play, get it published or produced, and well reviewed, but make nothing on it. As writers generally do not produce wealth (a small percentage do), have a tendency to self destruct (mostly due to being largely unsupported by society), and live rather dysfunctional lives (many have a panoply of addictions or psychological problems), they are viewed with disdain by the establishment. Many writers restrict their productivity by taking on full time work (some just have no option) than feel themselves to be a burden on their families and friends, an understandable move, but very bad for their creative output, and at times a serious loss to writing.
So this is a call to change things, and to put writing, all types of writing, back where it should be – front and centre of our culture. There is little appreciation seemingly of writing outside of it being a branch of the entertainment industry (‘Really, you write? That’s nice. And can you make a living on that?’), and this is a critical flaw in how we live and who we are at this time in our history. We are being drowned in propaganda and writers have the skill set to exercise a critical voice on our various cultural and historical trends.
I end with a personal story to underline how writers are viewed. I recently signed on the dole, or as they like to term it now, Jobseekers Allowance in the Orwellian sounding Dept. of Social Protection, where one speaks to very nice very courteous people behind steel and plexiglass screens surrounded by security cameras and security guards. There are no toilets and everywhere is locked down tighter than a drum. You take a ticket and you wait and everyone nearby can hear what you are saying, no matter how good your stage whisper happens to be (mine is not good as I am used to projecting my voice to largish groups). Its a horrible experience, and its meant to be a horrible experience. After all, if it were a nice experience, it is argued, it might be considered an incentive to stay on the dole, which is a ridiculous argument for something that is a right rather than a privilege.
My own tiny droplet of horror in this river of human degradation ended with an interview with grey man in a grey office who picked through my file asking me question after stupid question, told me I had spent too much money on an apartment, of lying to him, of wasting my life on a pointless pursuit (writing), and some rather unsavoury but explicit sexual innuendo about my private life. The gist of the conversation was that the only worthwhile art is that which makes money. The rest is a waste of time. This is the type of Psy Ops employed by these inspectors to influence behaviour, to undermine peoples self confidence during a difficult time (unemployment), and to get them to take any job so as to get them off the live register of unemployed. So many people experience this type of bureaucratic fascistic manipulation. I could write letters about my experience. I wont. But my point, I think, is well made anyhow by the grey man in the grey office.