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This item is taken from PN Review 58, Volume 14 Number 2, November - December 1987.

Editorial
In PN Review 59 we will report on the 1987 International Congress of Intellectuals and Artists in Valencia this June, marking the fiftieth anniversary of the 1937 II Congress of Anti-Fascist Writers in Defense of Culture. We hope to carry a few of the addresses and an account of the themes that emerged. The organisers intended this to be an adjustment of the record, an act of memory and reparation. The term 'Congress' rather than 'Conference' or 'Symposium' guaranteed political content. Dialogue was at a premium. The legendary 1937 Congress was called to display intellectual consensus; the 1987 Congress criticized that consensus in the light of history. We were not gathering in a spirit of celebration.

The organisers may have intended consensus of a different kind, and I believe they did. Iberian and Latin American themes dominated, despite the international complexion of the guest-list and the variety of views represented. The definition of the Intellectual agitated many speakers. The character of artistic freedom exercised others. At one level we witnessed a vivid display of conflicting rhetorical styles, at another a conflict of cultures. Most fascinating was the confrontation between party representatives who spoke 'officially' for an ideology or a government, and those who spoke for themselves, many of them victims of repression and exile, ideological drop-outs.

The older writers had, most of them, been Marxist or Communist in their youth, during the Civil War, the years of Franco, in the Cuban struggles against Batista, or elsewhere. Each had suffered the misrepresentation that dogs the free spirit in Latin America and, to some extent, in Spain as well. Speaking out in Valencia they made common cause of their individual witness, rejecting the reductive dogmatisms which still invalidate the Left in Latin America and undermine the credibility of the radical Left in Spain.

In 1937 Julien Benda and others practised elaborate casuistry to bring themselves in line with the required consensus. In 1987 the leading writers were more resolute. There was a good deal of breast-beating, confiteor; but they turned not against their past motives so much as the deceptions and self-deceptions that marred their commitment at the time. 'What we wanted we wanted without innocence,' Octavio Paz said in a poem. And at the Congress: 'We came to help the oppressed, and ended up giving a hand to the hangman.'

On one subject writers seemed agreed: the market-place in the free world has its own forms of censorship and repression. What gets published, what stays in print, personalisation of the product, the low premium on radical originality, were evoked by writers as different as Octavio Paz, Mario Vargas Llosa and Jorge Semprun. Successful writers, too, suffer the attentions of marketing personnel and the conditioned expectations of a reading public which the publishing establishment addressed as consumers rather than common readers.

Comparing great to small, I was put in mind of Poetry Live, a marketing operation which raised hackles more than any promotion in recent times. After PN Review 56 we invited six poets to reflect on the effort, masterminded by Desmond Clarke who transformed the lacklustre position of Faber and Faber by marketing tactics during his period in Queen Square. Clarke challenged every publisher of poetry to sell books, to stop treating poetry as a poor cousin and treat it as a privileged member of the literary family.

As a publisher, I was sceptical of Poetry Live. I participated for the very poor reason that Carcanet's absence would serve our authors ill. I proposed PN Review be a forum for publishers to present their lists in order to give Poetry Live a critical focus.

When Peter Jay addressed to me his Open Letter, published in full in this issue, I invited other poets to contribute their response to Poetry Live. C.H. Sisson, Donald Davie, Ken Smith, Peter Riley and Eavan Boland, representing very different approaches, are included here. It troubled me that Peter Jay, as a publisher, seemed to reserve a poet's prerogative to purity; he almost made a virtue of not selling books. As a writer I share his misgivings. As an editor, I share his nostalgia for the happy privilege we both enjoyed as a result of Arts Council support for our operations. But I have been seduced by a desire to sell my poets in quantity and, without betraying the product, to make their books attractive to the public.

By offering readers a variety of responses to Poetry Live and to PN Review 56, I hope to air the issues involved in a vulgar promotion of poetry: is it treachery to the art, or is it a method of extending the actual readership (rather than the temporary market) for poetry? As an author and a publisher myself, I feel at once uneasy about and grateful for Desmond Clarke's initiative. It added not insubstantially to the unit sales of thirty of our poets. I believe it may have extended their committed readership.
MNS

This item is taken from PN Review 58, Volume 14 Number 2, November - December 1987.



Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this item to editor@pnreview.co.uk
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