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.]