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This item is taken from PN Review 195, Volume 37 Number 1, September - October 2010.

On 10 August, Alison Flood’s Guardian Book Blog asked, ‘Who are the most overrated contemporary writers in the world?’Anis Shivani, described on his web site as ‘an award winning fiction writer, poet, and critic, based in Houston, Texas’ who studied at Harvard, exposed fifteen such writers in the Huffington Post. He has a jaundiced opinion of reviewers, publishers and, clearly, of the reading public which allows itself to be cajoled from being readers into being a market. Helen Vendler? ‘America’s most banal critic’. Hundreds of people have responded with their pet hates. There is a lot of hatred out there.

This is in parvo the kind of hatred which, in other areas, issues in repressive bigotry, nowhere more alarmingly focused now than in New York City. The New York Times and the New Republic have reported ongoing arguments about a community centre which is being built near the site of the Twin Towers. This centre will include a mosque. Some Republicans rhetorically re-draw the map so that it seems the mosque is to be on the very site of 9/11, which they regard as ‘sacred’, though not so sacred as to exclude a strip club, the usual emporia of capitalism, and the money lenders who did so much to explode the American economy.

Mr Obama has reiterated the constitutional guarantees of religious tolerance. Atavistic conservatives, more and more like the tails on a Taliban coin, would uproot Islam in all its forms from the American polity. It is as though, in Britain, the excesses of the IRA had been visited on the Catholic Church because of the bombers’ religion. There are churches of many denominations and even, already, a mosque close by the enormous World Trade Centre site. But this new project is a useful focus for degrading American pluralism. The phobia, most colourfully articulated by Mrs Palin, that reads an extremist movement as a metonym for a whole culture, is of a piece with the racism, sexism, homophobia and the other irrational fears which yet manage to tolerate (often with silence) revelations flowing from American Catholic diocese. Resisting such unreason is not a task for the arts, yet they are enjoined by liberal spirits to take up arms.

Returning from large to smaller hatreds, when Anis Shivani provides statistics, his Jeremiad becomes less personal, more apocalyptic. He calculates that the 822 writing programmes in the United States will graduate over the next decade more than 60,000 writers. He does not break them out into categories, but a good (or bad) twenty per cent at least will be identified as poets on their transcripts.

The United Kingdom lags behind, but things move in the same direction. The discipline of creative writing is believed to be toxic by some, including the new Professor of Poetry at Oxford. This should not be an area for belief and disbelief but for proof and disproof. The workshop can be enabling to the writer. But there are dangers. First is the romantic belief that in a supportive context anyone can become a writer. This is true, but not necessarily an operative truth: no one can write who cannot also read, and read well. There is a political corollary, too: does the group’s general opinion have authority? It might, it might not: its questions are what matter. A second danger: the workshop can cause writers to

revise a draft to death. Less is not always more: the example of Pound’s editing, applied by Basil Bunting to Shakespeare’s sonnets, produced laughable results.

Robert Louis Stevenson’s Essays in the Art of Writing should be compulsory reading for every writer. ‘Nothing should be done in a hurry that can be done slowly,’ he says. Once these brakes are applied, he offers this advice.

It is no use to write a book and put it by for nine or even ninety years; for in the writing you will have partly convinced yourself; the delay must precede any beginning; and if you meditate a work of art, you should first long roll the subject under the tongue to make sure you like the flavour, before you brew a volume that shall taste of it from end to end; or if you propose to enter on the field of controversy, you should first have thought upon the question under all conditions, in health as well as in sickness, in sorrow as well as in joy. It is this nearness of examination necessary for any true and kind writing, that makes the practice of the art a prolonged and noble education for the writer.

Stevenson disagrees with Horace’s advice in the Ars Poetica about putting work away and aging it, like wine. Delay should precede, not succeed, composition.

In fundamentalist ideology and in the arts there are believers and disbelievers. So too in politics. One of the several precipitate decisions of the new government was taken, evidently with little consultation, by Jeremy Hunt, described improbably as the Culture Secretary. He announced that sixteen public bodies including the Film Council and the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council would be closed. The money these bodies disbursed would still flow, but through other – unnamed – channels. Mr Hunt was keen to be among the first to deliver the cuts his Chancellor was calling for. A true believer, he intended to shine and pass on from the Arts to a higher ministry. The arts are a soft target. Why should activities without a market base be subsidised from the public purse? What value is there in libraries? Mention the unmade bed, elephant dung, the Tate bricks and formaldehyde sheep and there is no case left to answer. Mr Hunt acted without caring much about the consequences of his vandalism.

Film Council chairman Tim Bevan said the announcement was ‘imposed without any consultation or evaluation’. Was it really prompted by ‘political expediency’? Is it politically expedient for a Conservative and Liberal coalition to do root and branch damage to the infrastructure of the arts? Soon cuts to Arts Council funding will be announced. Sir Andrew Motion, Chairman of the Museums, Archives and Libraries Council, said: ‘We know what’s going to happen tomorrow, we know what’s going to happen through the next few years.’ We have lived through ‘the last day of paradise before the dark day’.

There are well-mannered petitions, speeches and protests. But given the priorities of a punitive politics, what there isn’t much of, for the time being, is hope.

This item is taken from PN Review 195, Volume 37 Number 1, September - October 2010.

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