Of Hell and Handbaskets

I seem to be surrounded by depressing news today. I’ve just heard that the higher education budget is going to be cut by about 40%, although subjects like medicine and engineering will be ringfenced – which means, of course, that the arts and humanities will bear the brunt and see funding reduced by up to 100% in places. In consequence tuition fees are going to rise astronomically (from about £3,000 a year to over £7,000) and only the sons and daughters of very well-off parents will be able to even consider such courses. The subsequent sharp decline in student numbers will result in whole departments being closed, and probably the loss of a number of universities. Honestly, it’s going to be like the dissolution of the monasteries – had they been world-class centers of excellence where people worked very, very hard. The university world is so stunned at present that only a howl of plaintive facebook messages has so far risen from it, although I understand demonstrations are planned. To what point? Higher education is seen as a soft target, something most people are indifferent about and, in the case of arts and humanities, actively hostile towards. It’s a waste of time to study the culture in which we live, because you can’t make money out of it, it doesn’t seem to correspond to Progress, in the terms we have learned to assign to that word. Well, I’ll bet it seems like a good idea not to study our culture too closely at present. It’s not pretty.

And then over at Cornflower’s excellent site, there is a fascinating if disquieting discussion about what’s happening to authors in today’s messed-up publishing world. Authors are having a pretty horrible time of it at present, receiving less and less money for their work, finding themselves ignominiously dropped by publishers who just won’t return their calls, and seriously undervalued for the extremely difficult and soul-consuming work they do. There’s a couple of comments in that discussion that really struck me, one by a blogger who points out that being a writer is a nice job, and so other people (he insists this is not his opinion) have no sympathy to the terrible remuneration, the uncertainty, and so on. And another commenter says that since she is a reader enjoying a wide choice of cheap books currently, writers should shut up moaning because that good old Progress is happening in the right direction; the world does not owe authors a living.

I tend to believe that if the advantages of a situation happen to fall all in your favour, you should do your best to be gracious about it. That’s why we recoil in horror when we find that our favourite brand of coffee or pair of jeans is being produced by slave labour. It seems extraordinary to me that we should be part of a society that makes a huge fuss about human rights, about fairness and justice, unless the dread word competition is involved, in which case anything and everything is permitted. And the short-termism of the current situation horrifies me. Okay, so at present we benefit from a generation of writers who still believe in a set of outdated ideals (that we value literature, that you can make a living from writing), but our children will quickly wise up to the reality, and how many of them will choose to become writers? Only the next generation of blockbuster writers, and the sort of jobbing author who’ll be part of publishing factories, ghosting celebrity memoirs and writing up briefs from marketing surveys dictating the kind of books people ‘want’ to read. Only those sorts of writers will be able to have a career.

It’s all so dreadful that I find I’m tending to laugh about it. I mean, how could I have predicted that everything I have cared passionately about and trained rigorously in for half a lifetime would reach this point of cultural freefall? Honestly, looked at from the right angle, it’s funny. I expect my job will last a few years yet because I am such a negligible drain on the college purse, but after that, well, it will all depend on how the cuts affect student numbers. I had no idea when I was writing my book about teaching the arts at university that I would be writing about a practice that was soon to change out of all recognition. But I think I had better not hold out any hope of publishing it, or anything else, any time soon.

No, the only thing to do is to take heart in the importance of stories themselves. They’ve been necessary to us since we learned how to use language, and I don’t suppose that anything will really get in the way of that. Even if there is no public sanction attached to the writing or the study of literature, that won’t mean that people won’t want them, and there may still be ways as yet undreamed-of for these practices to retain their prestige in the cultural imagination. No, I don’t think the internet will prove to be the saviour of the arts, because everything that happens here is free, and what is free always becomes devalued in the end. But it’s a good place for discussion and invention and experimentation, all useful things. In the meantime I had better prepare a new way of earning a living. Anyone want their tarot cards read? It’s looking like my most useful skill.

[p.s. I am behind in answering my comments, because it’s term time here and I wanted to keep posting and reading other blogs, and you know something has to give. I will catch up tomorrow! I love your comments and value them all.]

19 thoughts on “Of Hell and Handbaskets

  1. Oh Litlove, this is so sad, and so wrong. Do you read tarot? I do reiki, just for family and close friends. Lately I’ve wondered if I ought to put up a shingle for it. But really I just want to write more books.

  2. Are we all depressed enough yet? Sometimes I really hate capitalism, but it seems the only way to protest is by shoving more of our personal money into projects and then getting shouted at for helping to keep a project afloat that isn’t a viable business. I really can’t bring myself to care if an author, or a publisher ‘can’t keep up’ now, if I want then to keep producing I’ll join any emergency funding project that will keep them going. But then I feel like the government is getting me to do just what it wants by funding what it should be committed to.

    I started ranting a bit here about football players wages for sitting on the bench and the great and not so great points in the comments at Cornflowers (thanks for the reminder to check back there by the way), but it was getting a bit out of hand. I was getting very annoyed about the buy indie, not chain comments over there, because it’s just not an option in economically under priviledged areas, shops like that do not exist in Wolverhampton, or Stourbridge. And that was rather over shadowing how much rightness I think there is over there re writers deserving a decent wage. There are a few authors working a strategy out that incorporates free, turning into exposure, turning into following and eventually sustained cash (for example, there’s a YA activits/author called Cory Doctrow) – but it’s a long process, with a lot of guessing and hoping involved, for small rewards and I can see why no one is keen on such instability about their livelihood.

    Commiserations on the university cuts – hope they don’t hit your position, although I suspect you’re very concerned about future students (can’t imagine being in their position).

  3. Budgets for education are being cut almost everywhere. Few economies are booming these days. I am surprised that a year’s education at Cambridge currently costs 3,000, though. That would be about $4800 for us, which is quite reasonable here. Nevertheless, doubling any amount of tuition is going to be prohibitive for many students. I hope your position will be safe, and I hate that the Arts are always the first to suffer.

  4. Pingback: This Week in My Classes: Worlds in Crisis–Mary Barton and P. D. James » Novel Readings - Notes on Literature and Criticism

  5. This seems to be tied to notions of entitlement and, unfortunately, an aspect of which I failed to address in my most recent post. [KNEW I should have waited to post that sucker!] People feel entitled to the works of others it seems. If written work is now on electronic devices then the prices should be cheaper or free. I can agree, somewhat, with the notions of cheaper, but the part people are leaving out is that the author is (well, some do) still working their fingers to the bone to communicate that which is in their brains and hearts. This doesn’t mean it is done solely for the audience’s pleasure, heaven help an artist who pursues their craft on that endeavor alone, but that it is through the drive and focus of that person that gives people something to read. What’s happening in the publishing industry is rather like what has occurred with the RIAA in the US. The companies make the money, leaving the artist to fight it out for themselves. I’m thinking self publishing might be the way to go at some point, but it would sure take a while for such a production oriented industry to progress to the point where it is commercially viable and advantageous to do so.

  6. 1. I am completely terrified at this point that I will not be able to afford to send my children to college because of the sky rocketing costs combined with the complete lack of appreciation for the liberal arts. When I went to college it was perfectly reasonable to study english and theater for a few years…now it’s considered horrific for a college student to do that.
    2. It’s true authors are becoming more and more undervalued, so much so it’s frightening. I have stories from friends who simply aren’t being paid after submitting work, who are promised one thing and end up with another…all of this leads me to believe that
    3. It is time for a revolution of sorts! There are very real conversations happening about the end of physical books coming in the near future – I can’t even imagine! And I do not want my children growing up in a world where languages and literature and theater and music aren’t valued. I’m not exactly sure what steps I can take to prevent this, but I am examining them all.

  7. yes, I love when you write about writing. Blog land is one of the few moments of the day when I can hang out with other writers. (day job, albeit tech writing, gets in the way of chillin’ with other writers.)

    Anyway, i loved this. I bemoan the many things written and shared here. Sorry so much of it is true. However, being story tellers by nature, we’ll evolve around these situations. We’ll create clandestine communities of real readers. The indie publishing world will thrive. We’ll find other intra-art ways to get our stuff out there without the de-valuing of it that the Internet and tweets and youtubes and all the other etceteras throw at us as challenges.

    I am horrified at the shrnking of the arts as taught and engendered in the colleges and universities and the US is pretty darn guilty of shockingly high education costs. (ridiculous).

    I sincerely hope you can stay in your position for as long as you want/ choose. I am one of those flag wavers (also a former teacher at secondary level) who believes deeply in excellent educators who love it and will do it. (I threw in the hat after 5 years to “go make money” in NYC.)

    The beauty and passion of writing will not collapse or fall apart. And the curiositiy of the crowd who presses closer around the campfire to hear the story will never ever fade, I don’t believe. It’s in our instinct, our memory, to listen to, and tell a story.

    Keep us posted.
    I’m gonna go read something now, something pithy, classic.

    PS thanks for writing on my blog about J Franzen’s girlfriend. You’re right – she just might “make it big” riding on his coattails, so to speak.

  8. I am ashamed of myself for complaining too often about the country I live in at present and start to understand why my partner left Britain. In Switzerland a good(!) higher education will cost you maybe 700£/year. We still have a class sytem it is just less obvious than it used to be.
    I do believe that in the end all this (including not valuing arts/writers) comes from a general lack of spirituality. It is the soul that is not valued.

  9. I work in HE too in the UK (IT/tech support) and to be honest everyone at my University is busy digging holes in the sand in which to stick their heads.

    Your comment about “dissolution of the monastries” is brilliant, and I intend to bandy it about at any meetings I end up at over the next couple of weeks and claim it as my own!

    In other news, I am halfway towards completing an arts degree with the intention of teaching Philosophy or Ancient History (my two academic loves) at degree level in a few years. This begs the question: why the hell am I doing this (and not least spending the small amount of money I have on this hope) when (at best) I will be sat in an empty lecture theatre talking to the mice and cobwebs while the few students who go to University in the future gravitate to courses which will provide lucrative employment (such as Business studies and law – just what the world needs: more lawyers and suits!)while arts and sciences are sidelined and dismantled.

    There is a word I’d like to use to describe what’s being done here, but I’m not allowed to use it (my wife always gets irate when I even suggest I know it) – but I’d like to suggest that the government responsible for the this are utter, utter [forbidden word]s.

    Chin up LL – at least we get the dignity of being the final few civilised people left before Britain descends into football, X-factor and barbarity.



  10. Yup. Where I work we do no sciences or engineering so stand to lose 100% of government funding. Your ‘dissolution of the monasteries’ image is indeed a wonderful one. And, yes, indeed, I find myself very glad indeed that I am so practices in turning to stories.

  11. The HE cuts are so dispiriting, I agree! We do so well to compete at all with US universities when our funding is such a thing of rags and patches. Yet Cambridge ousted Harvard recently to the number one spot (OK, it’s a spurious statistic, but I like it!):


    This despite our fee being £3,250 and theirs being $33,000. Now our fees will rise – to the detriment of poorer students, as others have said – but this will not offset the reduction in government grant support, so that we will be expected to do the same on less, even while the students pay more. How can we continue to compete in a world market without proper funding?

    (As for the world of publishing, don’t get me started!)

  12. So sorry to hear about the cuts. Is it all part of the budget balancing get rid of the deficit thing I’ve heard about in the news? The liberal arts are always the ones that get cut first because short-sighted government people don’t see any real world business application for it. Since being a well-rounded, thoughtful creative person doesn’t directly translate to making lots of money they assume the humanities are worthless. It is a sad, sad situation that has been shrinking humanities departments here for years. Sorry it’s hitting there so suddenly.

  13. I’ve been following the discussion on Cornflower’s site with great interest, but I’m afraid I’m not sure if it’s much the same here for US authors or not but imagine so. I do know there is a mystery writer who I have been waiting ages for to release her third book, but as Penguin dropped her it may be some time before I see it. Another writer ended up self publishing her next book, so I suppose it is also a problem for those midlist American authors as well. I buy as many books as I can–and am only too happy to do my part, but my funds only stretch so far too (so hopefully library borrowing helps them in some small way). Everybody is being squeezed and you wonder who if anyone is making a profit or getting paid really well. So sorry to hear about the education cuts–I have total sympathy–we’ve been dealing with them for years as I work in a state funded institution which means our money comes from taxpayers and the economy has been horrible here. If people are not spending we suffer–students particularly. My library has gone for years with a flat budget whilst the cost of materials skyrockets (literally) so every year cuts have to be made–in materials and personnel. It’s really hard and not at all a nice environment to be in so I am sorry you’re going to feel the same nasty crunch. Fingers crossed your job will be safe. It’s not a good time to be a student I think (or in area of Humanities in education).

  14. I’m glad to see you getting angry about this because it is shocking that the arts and humanities get to suffer every time there are budget cuts. And while I’m also shocked at the state of the publishing industry, I can’t help thinking that there’s a role here for niche publishing houses. Self-publishing tends to get a bad rap (and often justifiably) but I’m sure there are niche publishers out there who can take advantage of the online literary community and provide different publishing options.

    By the way, I liked JonW’s comment about civilisation versus ‘football, x-factor and barbarity’. Put it that way and we have a moral obligation to beat our Arts drums as often as we can.

    I also hope that your job is secure and that, as you say, the arts and humanities won’t become the exclusive preserve of the rich. And I really do hope that you publish your teaching at Cambridge / living with chronic fatigue book. (Or perhaps two books). All the best to you my friend.

  15. Oh, so sorry about the bad news. It’s hard to live with uncertainty and the feeling that one’s work isn’t valued. And the poor students who may not be able to afford an education. It’s really quite a mess. Good to look for cheer where we can, and seeing the internet as a source of good ideas and inspiration makes sense. It may not save anything, but it does give us a chance to spend time with the things we care about.

  16. Lilian – if only I could swap a tarot reading for a reiki session – that would be so cool! And it IS wrong, and depressing in all kinds of ways. But we must just keep writing, because the tide may turn and we will be ready for it when it does.

    Charlotte – you are booked in and I am ready! Some days I despair of what will happen to the arts, but then I tell myself it was ever thus through history. We just have to be strong (apart from the days when I am feeble!)

    Jodie – the problem at the moment is that there are so many losers, and not in a meritocratic way, but due to the tide of fashion. The thing is, free sets a really high barrier to consumption – people will read a lot of rubbish free stuff rather than pay for quality. And probably the poor areas of towns are soon going to be inhabited by anyone fool enough to attempt to create art. And on the other hand, I feel it’s really important for everyone, no matter how much they earn, to have access to great art. That’s what the libraries and the galleries are for. So the whole business is really tricky and complicated. But most of all, I feel that students who are clever enough for university education shouldn’t have to be born rich enough for it. And I do think authors should earn a decent wage for their work, without really having to work for years and years first on barely any money (I did that with my M.Phil and Ph.D and it was tough). But it will go the way it goes, regardless of what I think, alas.

    Grad – yup, we’ve kept fees as low as possible, and we have lots of bursaries and so on. We’ve worked incredibly hard to improve access to students from poorer backgrounds. And all for nothing it seems! Thank you for your sympathy – it is much appreciated!

    Kimberley – your post on entitlement was great! And yes, that is exactly the problem – I think we will pay for indulgences, but when it comes to something that might be good for us (and art always asks us to be wise) then it’s another story. I think if an author is good, produces a book that sells, then they should be paid a decent wage. Enough to write another book. That isn’t happening, I don’t think, for most people. It’s very polarised between the big stars and everyone else, as marketing promotes a few titles at the expense of the many. Well, it sucks! I think you are quite right that self publishing will start to be the only viable option for a lot of people, and that it will improve over time.

    Courtney – Yes! Yes! Yes! That is exactly how I feel. Exactly. As for your final point, I am thinking about that all the time. What can be done? I keep wondering about this blog and how I can use it for debate or promotion or teaching purposes… and I haven’t come to any conclusions yet, but if you or anyone has a good idea about how we could help, I am more than ready.

    Oh – I love the positivity of your comment. You’re right – the one thing creative people are, is adaptable. We’ll find a way round it somehow and we will keep promoting the arts and learning in the humanities, however we can. And people will want to keep studying and thinking about them regardless. This is ultimately why they get treated so badly – because our desire to keep writing and creating and thinking about the products of that process is so strong. It’s great to have you hang out here and I didn’t know you were once a teacher! I’m afraid making any money does involve doing something else, usually!

    Caroline – I completely agree with you that it’s the soul, spirituality that gets pushed aside. Many people would feel uncomfortable even discussing it (I once used the term ‘soul’ and was told – that’s rather old-fashioned, isn’t it?). And yet we have one, and a need to understand our lives that will remain as powerful as it ever was. I’m glad to know at least Switzerland is keeping its higher education fees down.

    Jon – I loved this comment. I’ll meet you on the barricades then – bring snacks! But seriously, I feel strangely heartened to think of you studying history and philosophy regardless, just because you love it. How wonderful is that? And boy, are we going to have some well educated mice by the time this is through. I hear you about ostrich-headed academics. I think they have been endangered species for so long, and had the stuffing kicked out of them so much, that this is all they know how to do. Not satisfactory, though. You are welcome to the monasteries comment – I am a sucker for being quoted (even without the quotation marks!). 🙂

  17. Jean – it seriously, seriously sucks, doesn’t it? Let me know what happens at your place. I’m interested to hear what everyone hopes to do. And I do find I still gain strength from stories, because so many of them describe having survived this and worse. It’s amazing how we don’t learn from the past, but equally amazing how solidarity in troubled times helps.

    Rosy – what a brilliant comment. I had NO IDEA Harvard was so expensive. Crikey, we pretty much ran the whole French department on that a year. We don’t have very much that’s world class in this country that we can be proud of – why does Oxbridge always have to be done down, or on the receiving end of bad will and snide remarks? We have put so much into improving access, it seems ludicrous to abandon all that now. And of course we’ll have to do the same on less – haven’t we always? Grrr.

    Stefanie – yes indeed it is all intended to balance the deficit. I want to know why the banks aren’t carrying a heavier can? I mean, they can pay back the huge loans the government gave them, whereas we have no chance of making extra money. Alas, the situation has been getting worse for ages. The budgets were cut every year I was a lecturer (10 in all) until we weren’t quite sure what we were running on. The past two years have seen our department desperately trying to reorganise all the courses to make them a bit cheaper. What will happen now, with cuts that make all the previous ones look negligible, I’m not quite sure. I used to joke we ought to open a creperie in one corner of the department – that’ll be the least of it!

    Danielle – the good news is that library borrowing does help a lot. I think the authors were saying that if their book is taken out 10 times, they get more money than if someone buys it. So take out all the books you possibly can! I aim to be more organised and to do something similar. My heart goes out to you in your library. I’ll bet you’ve been suffering from tight-fisted authorities. And it does make for a really unpleasant climate to work in. I keep thinking we’ll be left in peace sooner or later, but it hasn’t happened yet. Makes me dream of revolution. A revolution of academics and librarians and writers! Half of us could talk people to death and the others could shush them to death. It might even be fun.

    Pete – thank you and it’s wonderful to hear from you in Dafur. Do hope you are keeping well over there. I loved that comment too, and am more than ready to beat any drum. What should we do? There must be something, I keep feeling. It would be nice to publish my book, and I’d love that, but my little militant heart would love to see an upswing in the arts even more. I’m very interested in the possibility of niche publishing and also in seeing where self-publishing goes. I think you’re quite right and that they will become more important now.

    Dorothy – I know , I love the internet and then sometimes I worry about the message it spreads of everything being available for free. But then, it’s provided a very necessary home for poetry and for book reviews, which were not being well served by the newspapers. And I love it for allowing me to write posts here. So the question now is how best to use it for the purposes of promoting the arts? That’s what I keep thinking about. If you have any bright ideas, do let me know!

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