“God have pity,” wrote the American poet John Crowe Ransom, “on the poor sinner who must write with no dinner, no gravy and no grub, no pewter and no pub, no belly and no bowels, only consonants and vowels.”
His is the spectre of the writer as wretch, nourished and clothed by nothing more than an obsessive sense of calling. There are countless such individuals but none, we would like to think, on our own doorstep. Indeed, given the recent tsunami of attention that has washed over any new author with an address north of Yetholm, onlookers are more likely to imagine Scottish writers working from the deck of yacht than scrabbling for their bus fare down the back of a sofa.
If only it were so. Yet generally, writers in Scotland fare reasonably well. Michael Russell, in this issue, discusses the state of culture in Scotland in the wake of the publication of the Culture Commission. As he writes, “the expectations of government, and the relationship it establishes with artists, are vital”. It seems appropriate to ask, therefore, what, if any, part the state should play in a writer’s life, what it should expect in return, and what writers can gain, or lose, from its influence.
Of all the arts, the writer’s profession needs least material funding. Pen, paper, desk and chair are all it requires. It is a supremely uncollaborative art form, yet one that can also, pace TS Eliot or Anita Brookner or Norman MacCaig, be undertaken alongside another full-time occupation.
Only a remarkable few, however, can combine jobs with writing, and it is not reasonable to expect that any writer should. The question is, though, at what point should a writer expect the state to take a part in their work. No-one could accuse the Scottish state of either imposing any direct political pressure on what writers write, or of neglecting their interests. There are grants and subsidies and part-time jobs galore in their gift. Once a writer has stepped onto the merry-go-round of state funding, however, they might find it more artistically, or politically, restricting than they anticipated. Thus the support that was supposed to advance their career ends up holding them back.
With the exception of the lucrative Creative Scotland awards, writers’ grants are not sufficient to allow them to focus solely on their books. So, writers are forced into a financial jigsaw, supplementing these small sums with paid roles as, for instance, judges on Scottish Arts Council panels, or outreach workers in schools and communities. Increasingly noticeable is the inner circle of literary figures who are regularly offered such positions; or are sent on desirable British Council jaunts abroad. The more posts a writer accepts, the more, it seems, they will be offered. But at what cost to their work? And to their artistic detachment?
As a writer grows dependent on the state, not only is he or she caught up in a cycle of wearisome form-filling but there is a risk that their writing and opinions will be bleached by self-censorship. Very few have dared publicly to criticise state-funded literary bodies, even where that would be eminently justifiable. Their work or ideas may be anti-establishment, but they are almost never, one notes, actively agin the organisations that feed them.
That may be sensible, but it’s a little worrying too that such restraint is felt to be necessary. Scotland may not be a repressive or punitive political regime, but those who accept its hand-outs are fully aware that there’s a diplomatic line to be trodden if they are to remain within the circle of favour. As the new Literature Forum demonstrates, there is an astonishingly broad diversity of literary bodies at work in Scotland, the majority of them state aided. But what that forum also demonstrates is how much money is going to organisations, be it the Scottish Storytelling Centre, Book Trust Scotland, the Scottish Publishers’ Association, and so on, rather than directly into the accounts of writers.
A truly forward-thinking and confident state would act as wholly detached patron. It would offer its writers an annual income, free of strings or of commitments to perform or teach, which would be sufficient to fund
a tolerable standard of living. It would not take the form of an elite academy of worthies but of a comprehensive school, where different abilities are able and encouraged to mix. Until that day, however, writers are forced to choose between maintaining unimpeachable, and unrealistic, standards of integrity – i.e. accepting no state money whatsoever – and finding themselves with “no gravy and no grub”, and – perhaps worse – few friends in high places.