What use is literature? Ralph Waldo Emerson thought that books made us free. Literature transcended the ordinary. Society bloomed. For years I agreed. This is how it was. In Wales the great writers spent a lifetime on their craft and produced masterpieces worthy of the name. Poetry sang. When we heard it we were enthralled, elevated, engaged, and excited. Sometimes we cheered. Often we were moved.
But somewhere along the line things have shifted. Writing as great art is no longer perceived as being sufficient in itself. Sufficient for the gaining of state aid, that is.
Since the Second World War we’ve been steadily pushing public money into our literary culture. For the benefit of the public at large we’ve been supporting it and its practitioners. Giving it the institutions it needs to enable it to be heard against the great clamour coming in over the border. This is Wales, after all, not England. In the schools and the universities, at WH Smiths and among the shelves at Waterstones it can be easy to forget.
But things morph.
To cope with the media age we have begun to turn writing into a branch of the entertainment industry. Success is now often determined by how many laughs the author gets or how many turn up to witness their on-stage in-person interview. The details of the author’s life have become more significant than the books.
We have also begun to develop literature as a social service. Its public good and the arguments for its continued financing can now depend on how many disaffected youth it keeps off the streets. On how often it aids social cohesion. On the quality of self-worth it delivers to its alienated practitioners. On how much the act of creative writing itself may aid good health and mental well-being. Anyone can join in, everyone can.
These are laudable aims and genuinely good reasons for devoting public resource to their achievement. But they are at an increasing distance from the production of quality, hard-core literature – in Welsh and in English - and those works’ enjoyment by the public at large.
As a nation are we to be defined by how many of our people have been to a creative writing class?
And as someone who has spent his career organising such ventures why am I now asking this question? Maybe it is because I believe we need both. The available-to-all practice of creative writing and the much rarer production of work of enduring quality. I am fearful that in these difficult financial times the former may be in danger of engulfing the latter. The process of writing as more important than the material written. But maybe that’s now how it is in the new millennium world.
An earlier version of this posting appeared as The Insider in The Western Mail. #178