Horace Engdahl, the Nobel judge, is not the first nor will he be the last to romanticise the past. The idea of the impoverished writer finding solace and meaning in literature is undoubtedly an appealing one. Every writer, poet or playwright, reacts to their own experiences, with Dickens drawing on his childhood experiences of urban poverty and O’Neill basing his seminal work ‘A Long Day’s Journey Into Night’ on his own turbulent upbringing from a mentally unstable mother. The best literature is the most personal; there is no need to simulate emotion or suppose an appropriate reaction, a defining feature of poets such as Sylvia Plath. For Plath, poetry is an outlet, and one that gives the reader a cursory glance into her mind and all that come with it.
But, the ‘experience’ that Engdahl is referring to, the fact that writers should work several jobs, is not going to enhance their writing. This was something that writers of the past did out of necessity, not choice. It is all well and good saying that it can provide material for literary sources but how much inspiration can really be derived from scanning tins of beans for a 6 hour shift? If writers were to work multiple jobs as is suggested by Engdahl, how will they have time to write anything at all? We shouldn’t forget that writers DO have their own lives. They have families and partners and friends, which shouldn’t be neglected just because writing has become such an unsupported profession. In a society where teenagers are encouraged into science degrees at university for the job prospects alone and arts subjects are demonised as a waste of time and money, we do not need another reason for people to abandon their passion for pragmatic and logistical reasons. Instead of making the experience of authorship more authentic, Engdahl’s suggestion that if one wants to be a writer they will have to work multiple other menial jobs whilst they wait for a break that might never come, is instead more likely to drive people into joining the drones of accountants and secretaries. What we really do not want is for writing to be a career which is solely for the rich, those with trust funds and no financial hardship are exactly the antonym of the writers that Enghdal are idealising. If arts funding is cut, the sad necessity would be that the arts were cut off to the lower classes; a limitation of aspiration and cultural capital by social class.
Opponents to this view might go down the secondary school careers adviser route and claim that if you truly are passionate about writing, you will want to do it. You will find time, make sacrifices, and ultimately prioritise your writing. Yet, nobody is contesting the fact that this raw passion exists. What is being claimed is the fact that Creative Writing courses which provide funding for writers are detrimental. Funding is given to a variety of professions, from medical professionals to accountants to teachers, so why shouldn’t writers also benefit? Literary critics who claim that the British literature market has become too commercialised have this to blame- if the only guarantee of selling books is writing about holiday romances with French waiters and murders in the swimming pool then this reflects more on the culture of writing we have in the UK rather than on the writers. We need to create and promote a system in which writing is accessible to all, regardless of social class.
Granted that lessons on ‘making sure your story has a beginning, a middle and an end’ and punctuation would be a bit reductive – indeed they could be seen as stifling creativity – the important part of the scheme is the financial support given to writers. Perhaps a more valid scheme would be to create a system, akin to a research grant for fellows at university, where talented, upcoming authors are given a cash subsidy in return for their contribution to society. To make the system more financially sound, it would be worth employing the authors as research fellows in the emerging ‘Creative Writing’ departments at British Universities where they could be given a grant in return for teaching undergraduates.
In this day and age, it is simply not practical to write a seminal piece of literature in extreme poverty. Times have changed since Dickens’ scrawled ramblings on tatty manuscript paper. To even be considered for publication, a writer needs a typed manuscript and active email address. There needs to be more schemes to help aspiring writers, whether these be pragmatic (so for example how to format manuscripts) or merely pastoral. By trying to revert back to the old, golden days of literature, all we really risk is losing our best and most talented writers. The last thing that we all want is for literature to drop into obscurity, replaced by television and audio in our post-literate society. We should be encouraging literature and not halting its progress. If we don’t change with the times, literature won’t change with us; it will merely be eradicated.