There was an article in The Guardian yesterday about the slow death of Western literature from a Nobel judge’s perspective. According to the author of the article, Allison Flood:
“Western literature is being impoverished by financial support for writers and by creative writing programmes, according to a series of blistering comments from Swedish Academy member Horace Engdahl, speaking shortly before the winner of the Nobel prize for literature is awarded.”
Engdahl also criticizes the use of grants for writers. “Previously, writers would work as taxi drivers, clerks, secretaries and waiters to make a living. Samuel Beckett and many others lived like this. It was hard – but they fed themselves, from a literary perspective,” he said in an interview with French paper La Croix.
These comments have sparked loads of angry responses, especially on the Western side. But Engdahl brings up an interesting point. In America, there are many resources for writers. Our society tends to encourage its artists. That kind of courage to pursue dreams is what most of us would call the American Dream. Blazing forward as an individual with the guts to go after what we want (regardless of poverty and consequences) might be frowned upon in other places, but here it’s a celebrated quality. Those pursuing this dream have access to grants and courses galore to support them in their quest for creativity. As a writer, I can appreciate how this support makes a positive difference in many lives. There are writers out there who can’t afford to quit their jobs or take writing classes. Some of those writers have amazing talent. The world would benefit from the words of those writers. Without the grants, those writers might never get to share their literary prowess with the rest of us.
However, there is a down side to that support. Enabling writers to quit day jobs to spend time with a laptop can limit life experience. In times past, the writing community knew that the best way to write well was to spend time in the world, to learn about new and unique things, to watch people and their interactions. The best writers were those who truly understood people and had enough life experiences to make the writing interesting. Today, the viewpoint on this has shifted for many writers. We see more encouragement of shutting oneself off in a home office, banging away at the keyboard for hours alone. It’s true that you can’t write if you don’t show up, sit down, and type. But isn’t there a way to do that without shutting ourselves off from the world?
Personally, I feel that there needs to be a middle ground. We need life experiences to fuel the fire of our writing. Going out into the world, throwing ourselves into strange situations, and really paying attention to the lives around us are all necessary for interesting writing. But, as a person with pathetic self-discipline, I do need to shut myself off from the world to write sometimes. I’m easily distracted by conversations and tangents. While I can’t spend my life shut inside with my family (I’d probably go nuts anyway), I do need periods of time where I am cut off from others in order to keep my butt in the chair.
Is our society’s support of writers killing literature? By helping to give writers resources, are we limiting their life experiences? Will those missed experiences make a difference in Western literature? What do you think?
Read the full article in The Guardian here.