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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 3, Volume 4 Number 3, April - June 1978.

C. H. Sisson/Editorial
WHAT USUALLY passes for the freedom of the writer, in this country, is the liberty to publish matter which a sufficient number of people can be found to regard as immoral, subversive, obscene or blasphemous, so far as any meaning can still be attached to those attenuated terms. Obviously this represents a solid interest for the writer, so far as the marketability of his wares is concerned. Just as the author who writes overtly as a Welshman, a Roman Catholic, or as a supporter of the Labour or Conservative parties, can do so with the knowledge that he will find a certain slightly unfair advantage, a preestablished receptivity in the appropriate quarters, so the writer who is anti- some institution, or accepted habit of thought, can calculate on the receptivity of those who are settled in their disposition to be anti- whatever he is against. The biggest commercial success will go to those who have a nose for the next step in obscenity or blasphemy; there will, by definition, be a large number of potential readers poised to take just this step. The mark of liberty, in these fields, is the hope that the writer might be stopped. This gives a cachet which it is increasingly difficult to obtain, in the western world, but which has, historically, proved a most valuable aid to the extension of sales. The position of the author of such a book as The Art of Being Ruled, 'not written for an audience already there, prepared to receive it', is of a different order of difficulty. That Wyndham Lewis was not far off the mark in this judgement of his book is perhaps proven by the fact that, fifty years later, it has not been reprinted.

The right to say things which are politically and morally offensive has more to do with politics and commerce than with literature. Dissident writers from Russia and eastern Europe, who come west, are likely to increase their public by the change: La Fontaine had to recant, before the Académie Française, because of the immorality of the Contes et Nouvelles, but the situation under Louis XIV did not prevent him from writing this work, nor did it prevent the work from acquiring a European fame. It is one of the legends of our time that the writer cannot breathe except under a government which allows a complete licence to publish. The fact that most of the great literature of the world has not been produced under these conditions should be encouraging to us, if we are sensitive to the shadows of tyranny closing over the twentieth century. Writers will need to be tough, of course, and not in too much of a hurry to publish, but neither of these limitations is wholly a bad thing. It does not do to think too much in terms of immediate reputation. One of the greatest and most influential prose writers of the twentieth century, Franz Kafka, saw the publication of none of his major works. Gottfried Benn passed the Second War as a doctor in the Reichswehr, in a sort of 'internal emigration', as he said, and survived afterwards in the ruins of Berlin; we are rewarded by his perception of a dark world, which would never have come our way if he had spent those years in the comfort of the United States. Johannes Bobrowski endured political reeducation at the hands of the Russians, and afterwards lived in East Berlin, with some signs of official favour, but managed to produce some good minor work.

It is no part of this review's scheme of things to try to make things more difficult for the writer. That can safely be left to the politicians, publicists, and others who busy themselves professionally with the public good. Our concern is the less popular one of giving circulation to good writing, and the discussion of ideas which get less than their share of exercise in other fora. Our problem is therefore with an audience which is not yet there or-less ambitiously-with one which is just beginning to appear, here and there, in a scattered way, but is not large enough to command the addresses of the most widely-known newspapers and periodicals. We stand, therefore, by definition, for a liberty which is not always as popular as liberty is supposed to be, in this country. It is, essentially, the liberty not to be preparing a coup d'état, but merely to carry on in spite of all who are concerned with the ebb and flow of political power, and whatever designs such people may have on us; writing and publishing what seems good to us, whether or not it offends current sensibilities, and even if it is so beside the point, from the publicist's point of view, that it does not rouse his jaded sensibilities at all; material usually not even obscene, some of it bent on understanding our inherited institutions rather than on the destruction of them. It takes all sorts to make a world.

There are difficulties in the way, not only of the publication, but of the production of serious writing for an audience which is still finding itself. How are the authors to live? Truth to tell, that has always been a problem, and has been solved in the most diverse ways. The ingenuity of some, in this field, has amounted to an exercise of genius in itself. We have lived so long, in the eighteenth, nineteenth and the present century, with the notion of writers earning their living by the pen (the pen, you observe; that attests the antiquity of the notion), that some people find it hard to believe that this may not always be a norm. Yet it would have gone ill with all but a few of the poets of the nineteenth century, if they had had no other means of subsistence, and, in our century, even with such ultimately best-selling novelists as Joyce. The situation is certainly no better now, except in the sense that the general provision against actual starvation is better than it was. On the other hand, the likelihood of picking up useful sums of money from newspapers or weekly journals, for literate contributions, is less than it was early in the century. The various grants and awards now available offer, at best, a respite. There are, of course, now as always, able and resourceful writers who manage to live by extraordinary efforts in reviewing, writing books invented by publishers rather than by themselves, and by activities for broadcasting and television. The exceptionally resourceful may survive, but it is not easy; or, if it becomes easy, it may be because the writer has, insensibly or cynically, given way to the pressures which those who work with the intention of pleasing a large audience are bound to encounter, to say only acceptable things: that is to say, of joining the great majority of talkers and scribblers who produce, like advertising copy-writers, for an audience which is already full-grown.

A resource which has been increasingly open to writers since the Second War-or increasingly until the recent pressures on public spending put a different complexion on the matter-has been in university teaching. This presents, one must suppose, the inconveniences of other jobs in the calls it makes on the writer's time-although, taken all the year round, it probably offers the nearest approach to a partial liberty which is to be had in exchange for a salary. There are, obviously, advantages in having in universities a number of teachers with critical and creative, as well as scholarly, talents. On the other hand, the ambiguity of the writer-academic's position brings dangers of its own. What is to be his orientation, when he writes? The distinction made in Sainte-Beuve's De la tradition en littérature, delivered as a lecture at the école normale, cannot entirely have lost its sense. 'The critic', he says,


if he does what he should ... is a sentry who is always awake and on the watch. And he does not merely challenge. Far from being like a pirate who is glad to see a wreck, he is more like a pilot who goes to the help of those who encounter a sudden storm as they go in or out of port. The teacher has lesser, or rather different, obligations; he has to show more reserve and dignity, and should not wander too far from the shrines it is his duty to show and serve.


In any case, there must be some conflict, and could easily be some confusion, between what is expected of the author and what is expected of the academic; the differences could affect performance in one field or the other, much as the difference in function between the original writer and the writer of advertising copy could make for difficulties. There is danger in the institutionalization of critical writing, which will happen to the extent that the expectations of the academic become the expectations of the critic. The danger must be even greater for those who profess to teach creative writing.

The threat of institutionalization does not come only from universities and other academies. It must come from such institutions as the Arts Council, beneficent in many cases, of course, but, through the pattern of their benefactions, obscurely but persistently suggesting norms which are bound to be put a little out of true by the politics of this kind of public expenditure. Once again, a few robust performers will survive in the system; but there are various forms of robustness, and various forms of survival. A different kind of threat is posed by the unionization of writers. There are strong motives for unionization if the writer is to be defended against overwhelming commercial interests. But then, the commercial interests are not only those of publishers and owners of periodicals. The writer wants to sell his wares at as high a price as he can, and in any combination the common interest of the majority of those who provide fodder for printers is bound to be overriding-and to have little to do with the concerns of the serious writer.

Amidst all these threats, what is the writer to do? Perhaps the first thing to say is, that there is no such person as 'the writer'; the term covers a diversity of functions. There is not even such a person as 'the poet'; there are a few people who write poems, and many more ... but honi soit qui mal y pense. And even if one could separate out the good from the bad-which is precisely what cannot be authoritatively done, among contemporaries-the company would be varied. It would include the well-known mathematician and footballer, Brian Higgins, who walked round London in a cold winter with his toes sticking out of his boots, as well as William Empson, from the age of twenty-five onwards usually a professor. Nor was there, in spite of persistent rumours to the contrary, ever a time in England when poets were people who made their livings by poetry. The disorder has its merits. Human variety, not smoothed out by common professional habits, is always a troublesome matter for those who are concerned with government, or with the selling of manufactures. Literature lives by it. To look for a solution of the economic difficulty by establishing a status for the poet or writer, may not end in disaster, because there will always be new comers who will seek to escape from it, but it will end up as one more political nuisance, rather than as a form of standard relief for hard-pressed minds.

This is not to say that social and political problems have no interest for those whose concern is with literature. These problems are important, but for the same reason that they are important to people at large. Eating and drinking and finding shelter, to say nothing of enjoying some freedom of movement and, on occasion, speaking one's mind, are not literary specialities. And, as Donald Davie says, in his admirable handbook to literacy just re-issued (Articulate Energy: An Inquiry into the Syntax of English Poetry, Routledge & Kegan Paul), 'For poetry to be great, it must reek of the human'; and this is the humanity of which it reeks. There is nothing special about the subject-matter of poetry, still less about the style of poets' lives. What is special about literature is the handling of the material, and, as to this, the starting-point has to be provided by the contemporary world, but the real source of instruction is the dead. So the survival of a high literacy, which is by no means to be taken for granted, of the scholarship which will back it, and of the forms of education which will point to it, are matters of more concern than whether a writer gets the rate for the job.

It has long been a weakness of 'intellectuals'-how hollowly the word now sounds!-to try to organize society to their liking. The Art of Being Ruled is just such an attempt, brilliant, suggestive, helpful to the individual writer or artist in finding his orientation, but having no real bearing on what might be done, as distinct from what we may have to endure. What might be done, by most of us, is little enough, and of the pastime of telling governments how to proceed, we hear rather more than does anybody any good. There are of course those who know just where the historical process is leading us. Good luck to them; they have been wrong before, they can be wrong again. So far as PNR has political concerns, they are of more modest character: to identify lines of thought-particularly those not given much of an airing elsewhere-which have a bearing on the survival of those elements in the English inheritance which give us a little elbow-room. 'The English inheritance'? There is nothing very sinister about the expression. It is certainly not intended as cover for some brand of reaction, because there is only one direction of movement, and that is forward (if not, necessarily, upwards). Our inheritance is simply a matter of fact, and there are worse things than the intrusion of fact into an area ordinarily overrun by ideas.

The facts of the English inheritance are numerous enough to choose from, and there is no exclusive merit in pointing to some of the institutions, of long survival, which might still serve a purpose. On the other hand, the remote ancestry of an inheritance is not, as some now vainly imagine, the mark of invalidity for present use. Nobody thinks of giving up shaking hands, or kissing, because our relatives, the chimpanzees, find these forms meaningful and, presumably, always did. It might be more respectable, scientifically, to think that courtesies so long practised might be better than anyone's current ideas. It is certainly the case with literature that the roots of more than words go deep in time, and that what, for its mere contemporary thinness, has least of the past in it is also likely to have little future. No literate person can suppose that 'Make it new' means, 'Spit on the old'.

The concern for liberty is no great novelty either, certainly not in England. Nor is the need for vigilance. It is certainly a delusion to think that potentially oppressive orthodoxies are always of the same colour. The writer who is more than a commercial hack will distrust armies with banners, and even more those with membership cards.

This item is taken from PN Review 3, Volume 4 Number 3, April - June 1978.



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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