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Short Cuts

1.. Whatever it is that the literature department of Arts Council England (ACE) is for, it can’t be for this: pulling the rug from under two organisations (the Poetry Book Society (PBS), the Poetry Trust) who for many years have helped make poetry books available to more readers than they’d otherwise get to, and from under the publishers Arc, Enitharmon and Flambard, whose work (translations, new writers and neglected older ones, local writing) is completely in accord with ACE stated priorities. ‘Disgusting,’ was a word used by the Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, in regard to the PBS cut, which along with the others was announced in late March 2011, and she’s right.

 

2. This is a mess come out of a mess, and the first mess is ACE itself. Go to the ACE website and you’ll find not just the mission statement stuff (‘Arts Council England works to get great art to everyone by championing, developing and investing in artistic experiences that enrich people’s lives’) and the topical stuff (‘a transformational Olympics opportunity’) and some literature priorities (‘We will prioritise those seeking to implement more sustainable business models’) and a press release on the recent funding decisions (‘The Arts Council has endeavoured to support and protect . . . poetry, new writers and literature in translation’), but enough downloadable material to seriously slow your laptop, including a 47-page ‘Review of research and literature to inform the Arts Council’s ten-year strategic framework’ whose five pages of references include a report on ‘UK Music Industry Greenhouse Gas Emissions for 2007’.

 

3. You could get lost in there. Once upon a time the Arts Council literature department was widely viewed as an exclusive gentlemen’s club; now everyone can get in but the extreme bureaucracy is baffling. Take the lift to the second floor, the doorman will say, go through the double doors on your left, take the second right, the first left and knock on the door marked ‘Excellence’.

 

4. Part of the fog is business-speak, which so horribly determines the ways in which all facets of public life are debated (the NHS, education, the police, politics itself): accountability, transparency, etc. Another foggy thing is that because ACE is dispensing public money, in doing so it has to nod to, and maybe even shake hands with or kiss the cheek of, government mantras (and topical priorities too, such as the Olympics). More multi-syllabled words: diversity, localism. And the mission statements – these by now, the ACE ones no different from the one on the white van stuck next to you in a traffic jam, are read in the same way that ads on TV are viewed, they’re just things people say.

 

5. No one say, please, that other meaningless formula, ‘political correctness gone mad’, because most things deemed politically correct probably are correct. The world of publishing, for example, is still deeply conservative, not only in its methods, but in its make-up – white, middle class, male, London-centred. Stirring that up cannot be bad, and arguably ACE can contribute to this. But add these things in, make them priorities even, and what can get lost in the literature department can be literature itself.

 

6. And common sense. Someone I recently spoke to was so glad to have got out of the ACE funding mechanism: all the consultants he had to spend the money on, all their bland advice, all the toeing the line and then the quietly forgetting about the whole exercise, the sweeping under the carpet. It’s odd how the more accountable, transparent, etc., things become, the more wastage is not just discovered but created. The process devours its own excretions.

 

7. ‘Literature’: a slippery thing, but you know, you really do, from a few sentences, a few lines: the rub of one word against another word, the turn of a phrase, a sentence coming out of the blue . . . And when the good writing arrives, I want to read it aloud or show it to others, which is the most basic form of publishing.

 

8. For the writing to reach more readers, and for readers to have a choice of which writing they want to read, there has to be an array, a disarray, of publishers. And in a profit-driven culture, publishers putting out good books that may never sell more than a few hundred, a thousand (fewer readers than watch Queens Park Rangers reserves on a rainy Wednesday night in November) may need some form of help, such as external funding. I’m not completely sure why that should be – we live in the West, the wealthier bit, the bit with more universal education, the bit with so much literature stacked up behind us that it’s hard to write a sentence without worrying that we might be quoting someone – but at present it seems to be so.

 

9. It’s possible that a public body whose national council members are appointed by the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport is simply the wrong place from which to expect support for literature. Tick-boxes have nothing to do with it. It’s possible that if the ACE literature department were to apply to itself for funding for literary endeavour, it too would be on the list unsuccessful applicants.

 

10. There was a night, many years ago, when I was coming home late from east London in a minicab, and after I’d had an argument with the driver and stepped out of the car in nowhere-land I began hitching. I was driven home in a Rolls-Royce. The driver worked for the Savoy Hotel as a part-time chauffeur; before that he’d been an editor at Penguin, who had made him redundant. I myself have twice been made redundant by mainstream publishers. Publishing is always precarious. There’s probably never been a time when a publisher’s reply to a query about sales hasn’t been a shrug and a muttering about ‘difficult trading conditions’. Right now, mainstream publishers have emerged from a period of blundering macho madness – new owners demanding unrealistic profit margins, star authors being sold and sold on like Premier League footballers – only to be confronted with e-books, Kindle, Google, piracy. And they have to do this while being lumbered with business and staffing structures laid down in the pre-digital era.

 

11. Add in the various other elements that make up the publishing world (mainstream, alternative, chainstores, the independent bookshops, discounts, Amazon, the Masonic lodge of literary editors who control what gets reviewed in the mainstream press, readers); add in the thing called the national deficit; add in the other arts supported by the Arts Council, many of which soak up far more money than literature – and this is the context in which small presses muddle along and ACE makes its decisions.

 

12. Almost by definition, very few of the smaller presses have all the skills needed – editorial, design, marketing and sales just for starters – for effective publishing. Some are good at one thing and terrible at others. Some are potentially good at many of them but don’t have the cash to exercise them. Some are lousy at all of them; just as there are a lot of bad poets around, there are bad publishers too. So decisions have to be made. And it’s true that decisions can be harder when money is tight: whereas before you could have this and that, now you can have this or that.

 

13. ‘Tough choices,’ as Dame Liz Forgan, chair of ACE, has said. But the recent ACE funding decisions were made by feeding data from the tick-boxes into a program and then applying a mathematical formula that no one really understands except the person who devised it. Rather in the way the covers of the Faber Finds books are designed by an algorithm, and they are hideous. No one – despite the accountability, etc., and despite my asking – has offered a better explanation.

 

14. There’s a minor character in War and Peace – I remember this from decades ago, as if I knew when I came across it that I’d need it at some time in the future to console myself – who offers this little quip: ‘Wherever there is judging, there is always injustice.’ Though when it happens, no such dull wisdom is any consolation at all.

 

15. Writing, of course, is not being cut. One of the present crazinesses is that while funding to some dedicated and experienced publishers of new talent is being cut, creative writing courses are multiplying and more and more writers are emerging, blinking, into daylight. (Another craziness, by the way, is that discounting forces up the price of books: if most of a book’s sales are going to be through Amazon and the chainstores, who will insist on selling at 40 per cent off, then to maintain its own income the publisher has to increase the cover price.) And this writing, some of it at least, will find its way into publication. A little (someone’s idea of ‘the new big thing’) directly into the mainstream. Some by self-publishing, which digital printing has made far more affordable than it used to be. Some on the net, dispensing with the whole idea of the book. And some, still, through the medium of small presses.

 

16. Because small presses are flexible. They are not accountable to shareholders or owners demanding instant high returns. Their overheads are minimal. They are run, most of them, by people who are mad – which may be a weakness commercially but is in fact their strength, because their madness is a form of obsession with good writing, which is where it all starts. Everything else – the design, the marketing stuff (and the blurbs and the bleeds and the AIs and the lead times and all the other jargon that makes publishing seem a thing of mystery: it isn’t) – is an extra and can be added on.

 

17. How do mad people and bureaucrats communicate? Warily. A matter of body language at least as much as anything spoken. There’s a mismatch between the small literary outfits and the big business that is ACE (one London and ten regional offices, 635 staff in 2007/8,  £1.3 billion to allocate 2008–11); between publishers and writers (who may be commercially naive but are often hugely cost-effective; many of them work for free, invoicing no one) and the people in offices (who may be devoted to literature but whose dedication is compromised by the tick-boxes and contradictory priorities). Finding a way of talking in which both parties can feel at ease may be like looking for the perfect woman, the impossible object, and then finding you’re inadequate when you get there, but it’s still worth doing.

 

18. The future tense. Booksellers – I mean proper ones, whose individual tastes are known and trusted by their regular customers – will start their own imprints; as will groups of writers coming out of the writing courses. The Arts Council will come to its senses and let the Olympics, anything to do with sport, dig into its own deep pockets. Independent presses, despite being an awkward bunch, will share more resources (readings, publicity, sales), so that for each new book not everything has to be reinvented from scratch. The Net Book Agreement, or a version of it, will be reinstated, restricting or even abolishing the practice of discounting and thereby allowing more independent bookshops and publishers to thrive (in the way they are able to do in France and Germany). Funding from non-government sources will become more generous; corporations will queue up to have their logos emblazoned not on banners outside the Tate Gallery, but on the covers of poetry books; I will marry the Earl of Southampton’s daughter, and we will have six children (all getting of money involves some compromise). Some of this is moonshine; some of it is already happening.

 

19. What have we learned from the ACE cuts? Not much. If we’ve learned anything it’s what we already knew: not to trust administrators. Just as we know not to trust anyone who argues for literature on the grounds that it contributes to the export market, or makes society a better place or you a better person (it doesn’t; but this is not what you go to literature for).

 

20. If you’d like to see a ten-metre tall model of Lady Godiva dressed in underwear designed by Zandra Rhodes, go to Coventry in July 2012. ACE has a budget of £7 million to spend on this and other commissions for the Cultural Olympiad; it has given another £5 million of Lottery money to the Legacy Trust ‘to support a diverse range of cultural and sporting initiatives throughout the UK associated with the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games’. Compared with these sums, the money ACE spends or doesn’t spend on funding poetry organisations is tiny; but still at the end of this episode what I’m left with is a feeling of waste. Not just of the knowledge and experience and dedication of those working in the organisations affected by the cuts, but of the time and effort of the well-intentioned administrators who made the cuts. And though the list of sins has been whittled down, waste is still one of them.

 

21. Meanwhile, literature will continue to be written (some of it by writers coming out of creative writing courses, some not). Meanwhile, some of this writing will continue to be published by small presses (some with benefit of external funding, some not). Meanwhile, three nuns will walk by on the pavement – I saw them today, in their sensible shoes and with their wimples fluttering behind them, laughing aloud, as as if no one had told them they were an extinct species. Meanwhile, on headed notepaper or in rooms with coffee and biscuits and bottled water on the table, conversations between ACE and literature organisations and other parties will continue. Such as those between ACE and local councils, who when discussing the funding of certain arts organisations are playing a game of ‘I will if you will’. ACE’s chief executive, Alan Davie, described these conversations on Front Row in May as ‘intelligent and mature, some of them’.



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