Saturday, 21 March 2015

Saturday Evenings: Stay In, Sit Up and Switch On

So, madam, sir, how happy were you yesterday? You read that right, Friday 20th March, how happy were you yesterday? I am not being nosy but apparently the United Nations branded the penultimate Friday of March the International Day of Happiness.

Woman in wheelchair on beach
Happy now?

I have no idea how this celebration came about but I have the sneaky suspicion that there is someone at this august organisation with too much time on their hands. I mean, what are you supposed to do on the International Day of Happiness? Laugh on your own at the bus stop? Make faces out of your kitchen window at passers-by? Knock on doors and leg it after? (actually I quite fancy doing that again. It brings back childhood memories).

Since this is my last column before my customary Easter break I’ll leave the space below for you to answer this question: what makes you happy and do we need a day to celebrate happiness? My own reply? Give me a chocolate Jesus anytime and you will immediately see a smile on my face.

See you in a month’s time.

Wednesday, 18 March 2015

Of Literature and Other Abstract Thoughts

If, like me, you buy or you are subscribed to The New Humanist, you, too, probably read a recent essay by Philip Pullman that appeared on the pages of the magazine. Under the title “Writing is despotism, but reading is democracy”, the best-selling author mixed cuckoos, philosophy, censorship and writers’ responsibility towards their readers. I might not be familiar with Pullman the fiction writer (my son is), but I have always been really keen on Pullman the essayist.

The title of Pullman’s piece is, of course, confrontational. Because that is what the better intellectual minds do; they provoke, and in the process they make us think. Pullman’s statement might come across as absolutist and dogmatic, but scrape the surface and you will find plenty to agree with. Equally, some of his ideas will leave you shaking your head.

I think Pullman is right when he avers that arts have other values (...) that can’t be measured in financial terms. In this case his use of Wilde’s theory of books not being either moral or immoral, only good or bad, is apposite. Similarly, the kernel of his argument, the writer’s despotism vs reader’s democracy is hard to disagree with prima facie. On writing a book (fiction, poetry, non-fiction, I am not being discriminatory here), the writer creates a private space between the reader and themselves. It is this intimate relationship that I seek when I take a book off my shelf and rest it on my lap, when I decide to delve in its pages, when I close myself off to the outside world. But whilst I buy the despotic nature of the author, I do not totally agree with the reader’s democratic character.

Who is the real victim, the writer or the reader? Or both?

We, readers, can be as brutal as any writer. We demand, that is our essence. This is even more so, when we follow a certain author. Like junkies, albeit of the literary type, we strap up our arm whilst cooking up the next volume of letters slowly on a leather-bound spoon. We fill up the syringe with each word, sentence and trope, until we finally sink it into our flesh. Yes, you might say that I have gone a bit too far with my metaphor or you could say that I have been watching too much Breaking Bad lately. About the latter, yes, I have, but I am merely catching up. Still the metaphor applies. Because if we are not happy with the product, if we feel let down, even cheated, we will not return to the same dealer. i.e. writer. So, no democracy, as in demos (common) and kratos (rule). “Reading is tyranny” could well have been the second part of Phillip’s essay title.

Of course, not all readers are the same, and in this respect you could well agree with Pullman’s use of the word “democracy”. Just as there are intolerant readers for whom a change of genre signifies a breakdown in their imaginary relationship with their favourite author, there are also readers who behave otherwise. The latter are the ones who understand development and evolution. Sometimes at the expense of structure, mind you. But the gains are far better than the losses.

What about the financial side of writing? Pullman touches on it briefly and, in my opinion, he is quite dismissive of it. I would not dare adopt the same approach. When I worked in the cultural and creative industries (CCIs was the handy acronym we used in those days), we always had to emphasise the revenue the arts generated in the wider economy. Without making that point it was nigh impossible to convince the movers and shakers of local authorities, funding bodies and community organisations that the print and design industry, for instance, had a value to the office of the Exchequer. Writing, sadly, falls into the category of jobs in which most people struggle to make ends meet. So, when someone says, to quote Pullman – who is already using a quote in his article – that “the arts are important because they bring in so many billion pounds to the economy”, s/he is not being money-minded, but trying to place the creative industries in the same context as the banking or manufacturing ones. Let us not forget that Britain is chiefly nowadays a “service” nation. What this means in reality is that the service sector is one of the industries leading the economic recovery.

Where I do fully agree with Philip is on what motivates a writer to pick up a pen or switch a computer/laptop on. It is that interaction with the medium in which the writer frees up her/his imagination that gives us the Dickens and the Munro. Forget about the relationship between author and reader, it is the engagement with language that constitutes the ultimate display of despotism, democracy and anarchy, all rolled into one. Despotism because our friend, l‘écrivain, exercises absolute authority. Democracy because very often this authority is undermined by a conglomerate made up of agents, editor, publishers and last, but not least, the public. And anarchy because writing, as an art form, is sometimes chaotic and unstructured and therefore it should ideally respond first and foremost to the writer and then to everyone else.

Read Philip Pullman’s essay and let me know what you think. Is writing despotic and reading democratic or is there space for overlapping?

© 2015

Next Post: “Saturday Evenings: Stay In, Sit Up and Switch On”, to be published on Saturday 21st March at 6pm (GMT)


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