The Russian theme continues, but quite by chance. The slogan on this old Soviet poster says What are you doing to help reduce illiteracy? Join the Reduce Illiteracy Movement!
I’ve been invited to a meeting this coming week. As it happens I have a prior commitment, otherwise I’d sort of feel I should attend but sort of feel I didn’t want to. The purpose of the meeting is to discuss the relationship between the State and its writers. The invitation is loaded with expressions that make me very uncomfortable. ‘The Literature Sector’, for a start. Also ‘A National Strategy.’
A sector sounds like something people get herded into, which would make a Literature Sector an oxymoron, writers being essentially unherdable creatures. We’re more like chimpanzees than sheep. It’s a basic qualification for the job. As for National Strategies, well we know they tend to die a-borning. Human nature always gets in the way.
The gist of next week’s meeting is as follows. Writers are one of Ireland’s most valuable natural resources. We bring in money from overseas book sales (though in this house not so as you’d notice) and 55% of tourists polled say the country’s rich literary heritage is the main reason they’re visiting Ireland. I think someone’s been pulling the pollster’s leg. The main reason people come to Ireland is because it’s a beautiful, friendly country. Also there’s Guinness. And whiskey.
Ireland may be a more literate country than most but that’s not saying much. The reason bookshops and libraries are closing and writers are struggling to make a living is that the world has changed. People read less. They’d rather wait for the movie. Please don’t write and tell me that you personally are actually reading more. The very fact that you’re here, reading the blog post of a mid-list novelist, reveals that you are not a member of the herd. I’m grateful to have you. Long life to you. But let’s not pretend this is where most people are at.
It’s not surprising that people prefer to watch television or play a computer game. They’re both easier than reading or talking. Every pub in Dublin has an HD television so there goes the legendary Irish craic. Practically every home has television. What National Strategy could possibly counteract that? Some (very few) parents may decide to raise their children in a TV-free house, take them to the library and give them at least a fighting chance of developing a love of books. I applaud anyone who tries. I concede that the battle may already be lost.
As for us toilers at the coal face of literature, do we merit some kind of special consideration? The Irish Revenue already gives low-earning writers a tax break. Can we really demand more? Does earning chicken feed really stop people writing? I don’t think so. It takes rigor mortis to stop most writers. Are too few books being published? Probably quite the opposite. And are bursaries and grants good for a writer? They may help someone survive a thin patch but I suspect they may be habit-forming. Being kept isn’t a desirable situation for anyone. For a writer it might be deadly.
Nearly 500 words and I’m not much nearer to any answers. One thing I do know, the word ‘committee’ brings me out in hives. So perhaps just as well I have Other Business on Monday evening.