PN Review Print and Online Poetry Magazine
Most Read... Rebecca WattsThe Cult of the Noble Amateur
(PN Review 239)
Mark FordLetters And So It Goes
Letters from Young Mr Grace
(aka John Ashbery)

(PN Review 239)
Henry Kingon Toby Martinez de las Rivas
(PN Review 244)
Eavan BolandA Lyric Voice at Bay
(PN Review 121)
Vahni CapildeoOn Judging Prizes, & Reading More than Six Really Good Books
(PN Review 237)
Tim Parksin conversation with Natalia Ginzburg
(PN Review 49)
Next Issue Subha Mukherji Dying and Living with De la Mare Carl Phillips Fall Colors and other poems Alex Wylie The Bureaucratic Sublime: on the secret joys of contemporary poetry Marilyn Hacker Montpeyroux Sonnets David Herman Memories of Raymond Williams
Poems Articles Interviews Reports Reviews Contributors
PNR 250 Poetry Archive Banner
PN Review New Issue
Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this item to editor@pnreview.co.uk

This item is taken from PN Review 60, Volume 14 Number 4, March - April 1988.

Letters
DEAR EDITORS: PNR 58 reminded its readers and writers about Public Lending Right. 'PLR is not, and was never imagined to be, a cure for the economic anomolies of contemporary authorship', wrote a supporter of the scheme in The Author in the summer of 1981. But if there was to be an Act for authors, that is precisely what it should have addressed itself to, and the defensive tone of the above suggests that the writer knew that was what serious authors sought.

The position is this: the government provides (from you and me) 2.75 million pounds a year for PLR, of which 12.5% goes on its administration. The Registrar earns 'at the level of Principal grade in the Civil Service', i.e. a great deal more than most authors of serious fiction. Authors are paid according to the number of times their books are borrowed, assessed by sampling public libraries all over the country and involving trained librarians in a chore their training might have been expected to spare them. The maximum an author may receive is £5,000, a figure paid out regularly to authors such as Catherine Cookson, Jeffrey Archer, Dick Francis and fifty others who produce similar material. Ten thousand authors receive less than £1,000 p.a. from PLR.

PLR is a subsidy that benefits those who least need the money, and promotes the third-rate. The vocal group behind the inauguration of the scheme maintained that they wished to put right an injustice: the long-held practice whereby a book bought by a public library attracts a single royalty but may be read by an unlimited number of people. And, in defence of a scheme that largely benefits authors of light entertainment, supporters claim PLR is 'democratic'.

More generous spirited authors may regard the fact that their book has been made available, through the public library system, to more than a single individual as an opportunity to contribute to the community, rather than an injustice to be corrected. As for the claim that PLR is 'democratic': an Act cannot be termed 'democratic' if it does not serve the common good. The reason why the market for easily assimilable and often corrosive pap is so much wider than that for serious literature is a function of social conditions that in no way serve the common good.

Inequities in society (and for a breakdown of these I direct readers to the Royal Commission on the Distribution of Income and Wealth) are reflected in reading habits. Accidents of birth, financial and social status and educational opportunities form tastes. What could be less democratic than an Act which, on the one hand positively encourages writing that tranquillizes those penalized by an unequal society - by offering an escape from the real and actual world - and, on the other singles out and rewards the authors financially for so doing?

PLR is profoundly political. By favouring the authors of distracting fantasy it is ensuring its public ignores the pursuits of self-knowledge, of sympathy for fellows, a purpose in life and an acknowledgment of its mystery. Our thoroughly materialistic society depends for its survival upon its citizens disregarding these pursuits: the segregation of money from morals is at its heart. Indifference towards literature and the artists who create it, and the promotion of distractions in the form of light entertainment are both the cause and the result of thinking that sustain the status quo.

Was it the failure of the Arts Council to address itself seriously to subsidising literature (other than poetry) that produced a sympathetic climate for PLR?

It may appear untimely to be advocating substantial subsidies for literature when so many are homeless, unemployed and living on the breadline. But anyone who believes in the value of literature has a gut feeling that it has a moral effect-one that would encourage all of us to face the pressing ills of society and do something to right them.

I hardly feel it necessary, writing in the pages of PNR, to defend my belief that a work of literature is a positive good that contributes not only to the fulfillment of the individual but to society as a whole. By enlarging and refining 'the repertory of feeling', by exposing reality, by creating order from chaos, literature achieves a civilising influence. And at no time in our history has the need for such an influence been more pressing.

In order to prepare the ground for subsidies for literature authors must be seen to reject PLR. Instead of accepting tips from PLR, authors of serious fiction and non-fiction should be lobbying their MPs to throw it out and replace it with an alternative that promotes excellence.
Elisabeth Russell Taylor

DEAR EDITORS: I welcome Adewale Maja-Pearce's rejoinder on the New York-London Axis and the issue of cultural condescension (PNR57), though I regret that - either through misunderstanding or misrepresentation - he contrives to attack me for misconceived reasons. Further explanation seems called for.

In my piece on the effects of the New York-London concentration of the cultural power that has accompanied the emergence of English as the major world language (PNR 54), I lamented some of the side-effects: (1) the high-handed attitudes still taken towards certain literatures (my example was Canadian literature); (2) the emergence of a World Literature Supermarket (i.e. the selection by New York-London editors of a line in literary products that can be satisfactorily and speedily re-processed for the English-speaking market); and (3) tyranny of the Axis function of legitimizing writers' reputations. These are not simple issues and I am glad of the opportunity to reply to points Mr Maja-Pearce raises.

(1) Mr Maja-Pearce apparently clings to an old and (I'd have hoped) discredited view that Canada produces only 'second-rate writers'; he argues that one Canadian writer was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1986, another was widely-reviewed, and anyway no Canadian has ever won the Nobel Prize. Leaving aside the doubtful status of the Nobel Prize as a seal of approval (perhaps Mr Maja-Pearce did not see George Steiner's excellent essay on the subject in the New York Times Book Review in 1983), this argument (if we can call it an argument) strikes me as deeply offensive and condescending. Mr Maja-Pearce invites us to be pleased because a tiny handful of Canadian writers now attract some attention from an equally tiny handful of judges and reviewers. But to take pleasure in this would be to accept as satisfactory a tokenist situation of the kind that black writers, women writers, and a large number of ethnic or geographical groups have rightly refused to accept. It would be like saying that African writing was catered for because Achebe, Soyinka and Tutuola are reviewed and awarded prizes. In other words, Mr Maja-Pearce's is precisely the kind of condescending attitude that my efforts, and those of many more, aim to combat. It is not a matter of reading second-rate books out of a sense of obligation, simply because they have been ignored: if Mr Maja-Pearce followed my criticism he would know that I do not believe in praising a bad book wherever it comes from, but (equally) I do believe that excellence deserves our attention. And it happens that in the last couple of years I have been impressed by a large amount of excellent writing I have read by Canadian authors, writing that British and American readers and reviewers still seem happy to ignore. When I interviewed Robertson Davies in May 1986 (the interview is forthcoming in the Journal of Commonwealth Literature) he quoted the secretary of a British drama company as saying, 'Mr Davies, you must realise that nobody is interested in Canada.' A handful of reviews and listings have not been enough to change this situation, and as long as views such as Mr Maja-Pearce's are held there is little hope that writers as excellent as Mavis Gallant, Carol Shields or Margaret Laurence (the list could be easily lengthened) will reach the audiences that lesser writers (such as Kingsley Amis or E. L. Doctorow, in my view) seem guaranteed.

(2) It strikes me that the World Literature Supermarket can only have a bad effect on the plurality and diversity of literature; to be clear on this I should emphasize that I do not in any sense object to New York and London houses making world literature available to wide English-speaking audiences, I merely wish (no doubt unrealistically) that the principles of choice could more often be extended beyond those titles that seem likeliest to sell. True altruism is rare (and for good financial reasons). It surprises me to find Mr Maja-Pearce asking, 'Why should British readers ferret out Thai poets if they don't want to?' In his role as reincarnation of the late Philip Larkin ('Foreign poets? No!'), Mr Maja-Pearce misses the point. No one wishes to force readers to consume foreign literature they have no interest in. But it seems essential that literature be available for those who are interested. While Mr Maja-Pearce's implicit emphasis on the values of national and provincial rootedness is thoroughly defensible, it strikes me that his willingness to keep frontiers closed is no more than another version of condescension, of the kind that believes there is no need to bother about the writing of other people(s). I myself have always believed that it is of immense value to read the literatures of other peoples and cultures: no one will dream of suggesting that only worthwhile finds will be made, but in among the mediocrity and dross there is always something wonderful and enhancing to be discovered - whether or not its author has won the Nobel Prize.

(3) The view that the New York-London axis increasingly and tyrannically has the function of legitimizing writers' inter-national reputations is by no means original to me; and I deplore this state of affairs. Of course I join Mr Maja-Pearce in feeling that Indian writers are right if they look first to their Indian readership, that Latin American writers find the Madrid-Buenos Aires axis of greater immediate importance, and so on. But it would be disingenuous to overlook the paramount position of the English language market in today's publishing world, and the power that accompanies that position. All the evidence suggests that Indian or Latin American writers (for example) are glad of US or British publication, and glad to reach the English-speaking audience on a wider level. But it suggests also that resentments cluster about this process. I do not know whether it is possible or even desirable to try to amend this development; all that I want to urge is the need for great alertness and awareness, and a willingness to reach opinions from observation and experience (as I did in my talk with Naowarat Pongpaibool, which Mr Maja-Pearce naturally was not present at). My own experience suggests that international contacts between individual writers are of the greatest value in counter-acting residual attitudes of condescension here.
Michael Hulse

DEAR EDITORS: The issues are indeed important, though Michael Hulse is evidently unable to grasp my argument. Let me restate what I said:

(1) The view that Canadian literature is 'second-rate' may or may not be an old one. I wouldn't know, and frankly I don't much care. It appears second-rate to me, which is the only view I'm interested in for this particular purpose. I'll be happy to argue the toss some time with Michael Hulse, though this is hardly the place.

(2) I never argued that the award of the Nobel Prize was to be taken as conferring a seal of approval, only that it seems to me interesting that the areas of the world Michael Hulse identifies as saturating the 'limited interest' available in Britain for Commonwealth literature-Nigeria, Australia, the West Indies - have either produced Nobel laureates or a strong contender. This may or may not be coincidental; either way it is interesting, and worth thinking about.

(3) I think it's great if Achebe, Soyinka and Tutuola are widely reviewed and read in Britain, but, after all, as Nigerian writers I would have thought that their first concern was to be reviewed and read in Nigeria. Anything else is a bonus. If, as Michael Hulse says, the Canadian novelist Robertson Davies complained to him that 'nobody is interested in Canada' I suppose we can take it that he didn't mean Canadians themselves. I mean, who is this 'nobody' that he is so eager to hear from? Incidentally, I personally don't think there's much to choose from between Margaret Laurence and Kingsley Amis: they both strike me as boring and irrelevant.

(4) Michael Hulse confuses the reader with the writer. I am as shocked as he is that Philip Larkin can be so dismissive of foreign poets. That was Larkin's loss, and explains why he was such a second-rate poet. All writers must read everything that comes to hand, regardless of where it is from: that is part of their job. The aspiring poet in English who does not read Derek Walcott is wasting his time. Readers, on the other hand, are not so obliged, and it seems to me entirely logical that British readers should be more interested in British literature. I can see no reason why this shouldn't be the case - unless Michael Hulse would force foreign literature down their throats like so much medicine which, in the long run, will do them good. The same, presumably, goes for the Nigerian reading public: next time I go to Nigeria I'll be sure to castigate the (Lagos) Daily Times for not carrying a major review of Kingsley Amis's last novel. Meanwhile, those adventurous readers who do want to sample the writing of different cultures are well served by British publishing houses and magazines. This is more than can be said for the reading public of most other countries.

(5) No, I was not present at Michael Hulse's interview with the Thai poet Naowarat Pongpaibool. So what? He was the one who dragged the poor man into the argument in the first place.

(6) Finally, 'the paramount position of the English language market in today's publishing world' is only the case for as long as Michael Hulse imagines that it is so. I remember at the recent poetry reading in the Albert Hall the Rumanian poet Marian Sorescu quoting figures for the sales of his books. I was impressed. As I said in my original article, why can't Michael Hulse permit other languages and other cultures the right to their own discrete existence?
Adewale Maja-Pearce

DEAR EDITORS: Undeniably there is a Madrid-Buenos Aires axis which is of greater urgency to writers in Spanish than any London-New York axis could be, and undeniably Indian writers are writing first and foremost for Indians but, for a writer to reach an international audience his works, if not written in English, must be translated and brought to press in a publishing center equipped to distribute them widely and bring them to critical attention. In his article, "The Axis" (PNR 54), Michael Hulse points out that only publication in London or New York can guarantee a writer that kind of recognition.

In his reply to this article, Adewale Maja-Pearce (PNR 57) accuses Michael Hulse of 'cultural condescension'. Surely this is a misreading. Maja-Pearce's response to Michael Hulse's plea for even greater internationalization is the parochial remark: why shouldn't British readers be primarily interested in British writers? Who ever asked them? If every publisher had this attitude, British readers would have no choice. Michael Hulse makes a special case for Canadian writers, whom he thinks have been unfairly ignored. Maja-Pearce airily dismisses Canadian writers with the observation, 'all the special pleading in the world can't turn second-rate writers into great ones'.

Writers whose language is a multinational one like Spanish have at least some chance of reaching a wider market than those writing in a uninational language such as Japanese or Italian. Even if the writer himself does not have his eye on international recognition, it cannot be denied that his countrymen take pride in the fact that his work is read beyond their national borders. Last year before the Nobel Prize for literature was awarded, there was a great deal of discussion in Japan about which of their three best-respected writers would win the prize. Would it be Shusaku Endo? Would it be Yasushi Inoue? Would it be Ibuse? It is unsettling to think how many reputations are a matter of sheer chance; there are certain excellent Japanese writers whose works are totally unknown outside of Japan simply because their works are not to the taste of the very few qualified people who are translating from Japanese into English. The same may be said of writers who are working in other little-known languages. To translate the work of another writer is a thankless task requiring great skill and great devotion. This endeavor is to be encouraged rather than belittled as just one step in 'the need to look for exoticism'. All of the translators of literature could stop right now and it might not make much difference to the lives of the writers of that literature. But the loss would be ours.
Roger Finch

DEAR EDITORS: I'm keeping this letter short and sharp, and I don't intend to get involved in any fancy intellectual arguments: your pages contain quite enough of those.

As someone who enjoys poetry, and whose life is very much bound up with poetry (as reader, writer, teacher and publisher) I'm just thankful that I discovered it at an early age, and know that many others can go a lifetime without that good fortune. So I was angered and depressed by the reactions of virtually all of your contributors to the 'Poetry Live' symposium (Vol. 14 No 2). This Festival was an attempt, however under-funded and disorganised, to communicate with the huge audience 'out there' with a latent interest in the art, but which is consistently ignored by our cosy academics and coteries. Some crudities in presentation may have occurred, but what needs stating categorically is that the attempt to reach those people is worth while.

It would have been far more relevant to the spirit of the occasion if you had printed the reactions of some individuals who had been brought to poetry for the first time by 'Poetry Live', rather than the Senior Commonroom snobbery of Sisson, Davie et al.
John Killick

This item is taken from PN Review 60, Volume 14 Number 4, March - April 1988.



Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this item to editor@pnreview.co.uk
Searching, please wait... animated waiting image