Wednesday, March 30, 2011

'Aesthetic' Cleansing, How the Marketplace Coddles, and a Speech by Philip Pullman.



Philip Pullman, author of the brilliant His Dark Materials trilogy, amongst other novels, gave this speech defending deep cuts to  (or more properly, a total change to the funding structure of)  libraries in Oxfordshire.

I'm excerpting it here [I've cut out most of the beginning, describing the particulars of the Oxfordshire situation--the full speech is here] because, in addition to being an inspiring discussion of libraries, I think he makes many points worth considering in the ongoing discussion of the funding (or lack of funding) of literary magazines which started with Michael Lista's column in the National Post. Laurie Fuhr, over at fillingstation.ca wrote a detailed, intelligent, impassioned, and spot-on rebuttal. It's here.

Pullman's discussion of 'market fundamentalism' is most à propos.

The notion that we could have a 'better' and more vital literary culture via the 'aesthetic cleansing' of the diversity of magazines is deeply flawed. I believe in biodiversity, and the development of a human culture beyond the most base instincts of natural market-driven selection. Some have argued that reducing the number of magazines might result in less redundancy.  Given that there are many systemic forces (the market, the nature of funding committees, university and other funding, the aesthetically stabilizing effects of the status quo, etc.), I don't know that that is necessarily the case at all. I don't think that it would be borne out by evolutionary or biological models, at least, not when one gets a broad view of biological systems. (Didn't we switch the terminology from 'food chains' to 'food webs' in order to account for a greater understanding of the complexity and interdependency of lifeforms?)

While I'm all in favour of encouraging magazines and publishers to always continue to strive, a radical cull based on numbers alone misses the point. Culture isn't based on quantity, but on quality. Each page isn't equally important to the culture. Take one page of  Kafka vs. one page of John Grisham. It's not the same, though John Grisham's numbers dwarf Kafka's. The Group of Seven vs. those poker playing dogs?

And, outside of the pressure of numbers, dominance, and the market, its likely that some new development, some significant refinement, some worthwhile insight will come from the smaller,  protected, and safe-to-explore world of the small magazine. ('Safe-to-explore' doesn't mean coddled -- the market can do that to its economically dominant members.

OK, so let's get to Pullman's speech: I'm beginning my excerpt after he's been discussing the system whereby communities and their services have to 'bid' for funding:

........And it always results in victory for one side and defeat for the other. It’s set up to do that. It’s imported the worst excesses of market fundamentalism into the one arena that used to be safe from them, the one part of our public and social life that used to be free of the commercial pressure to win or to lose, to survive or to die, which is the very essence of the religion of the market. Like all fundamentalists who get their clammy hands on the levers of political power, the market fanatics are going to kill off every humane, life-enhancing, generous, imaginative and decent corner of our public life. I think that little by little we’re waking up to the truth about the market fanatics and their creed. We’re coming to see that old Karl Marx had his finger on the heart of the matter when he pointed out that the market in the end will destroy everything we know, everything we thought was safe and solid. It is the most powerful solvent known to history. “Everything solid melts into air,” he said. “All that is holy is profaned.”

Market fundamentalism, this madness that’s infected the human race, is like a greedy ghost that haunts the boardrooms and council chambers and committee rooms from which the world is run these days.

In the world I know about, the world of books and publishing and bookselling, it used to be the case that a publisher would read a book and like it and publish it. They’d back their judgement on the quality of the book and their feeling about whether the author had more books in him or in her, and sometimes the book would sell lots of copies and sometimes it wouldn’t, but that didn’t much matter because they knew it took three or four books before an author really found his or her voice and got the attention of the public. And there were several successful publishers who knew that some of their authors would never sell a lot of copies, but they kept publishing them because they liked their work. It was a human occupation run by human beings. It was about books, and people were in publishing or bookselling because they believed that books were the expression of the human spirit, vessels of delight or of consolation or enlightenment.

Not any more, because the greedy ghost of market madness has got into the controlling heights of publishing. Publishers are run by money people now, not book people. The greedy ghost whispers into their ears: Why are you publishing that man? He doesn’t sell enough. Stop publishing him. Look at this list of last year’s books: over half of them weren’t bestsellers. This year you must only publish bestsellers. Why are you publishing this woman? She’ll only appeal to a small minority. Minorities are no good to us. We want to double the return we get on each book we publish.

So decisions are made for the wrong reasons. The human joy and pleasure goes out of it; books are published not because they’re good books but because they’re just like the books that are in the bestseller lists now, because the only measure is profit.

The greedy ghost is everywhere. That office block isn’t making enough money: tear it down and put up a block of flats. The flats aren’t making enough money: rip them apart and put up a hotel. The hotel isn’t making enough money: smash it to the ground and put up a multiplex cinema. The cinema isn’t making enough money: demolish it and put up a shopping mall.

“The greedy ghost understands profit all right. But that’s all he understands... He doesn’t understand libraries at all. That branch – how much money did it make last year? Why aren’t you charging higher fines? Why don’t you charge for library cards?”

The greedy ghost understands profit all right. But that’s all he understands. What he doesn’t understand is enterprises that don’t make a profit, because they’re not set up to do that but to do something different. He doesn’t understand libraries at all, for instance. That branch – how much money did it make last year? Why aren’t you charging higher fines? Why don’t you charge for library cards? Why don’t you charge for every catalogue search? Reserving books – you should charge a lot more for that. Those bookshelves over there – what’s on them? Philosophy? And how many people looked at them last week? Three? Empty those shelves and fill them up with celebrity memoirs.

That’s all the greedy ghost thinks libraries are for.

Now of course I’m not blaming Oxfordshire County Council for the entire collapse of social decency throughout the western world. Its powers are large, its authority is awe-inspiring, but not that awe-inspiring. The blame for our current situation goes further back and higher up even than the majestic office currently held by Mr Keith Mitchell. It even goes higher up and further back than the substantial, not to say monumental, figure of Eric Pickles. To find the true origin you’d have to go on a long journey back in time, and you might do worse than to make your first stop in Chicago, the home of the famous Chicago School of Economics, which argued for the unfettered freedom of the market and as little government as possible.

And you could go a little further back to the end of the nineteenth century and look at the ideas of “scientific management”, as it was called, the idea of Frederick Taylor that you could get more work out of an employee by splitting up his job into tiny parts and timing how long it took to do each one, and so on – the transformation of human craftsmanship into mechanical mass production.

And you could go on, further back in time, way back before recorded history. The ultimate source is probably the tendency in some of us, part of our psychological inheritance from our far-distant ancestors, the tendency to look for extreme solutions, absolute truths, abstract answers. All fanatics and fundamentalists share this tendency, which is so alien and unpleasing to the rest of us. The theory says they must do such-and-such, so they do it, never mind the human consequences, never mind the social cost, never mind the terrible damage to the fabric of everything decent and humane.

I’m afraid these fundamentalists of one sort or another will always be with us. We just have to keep them as far away as possible from the levers of power.

[Pullman finishes by speaking again about libraries. Though it doesn't directly apply to the magazine funding situation, it's worth quoting, also. It's to do with the nature of public discourse, public culture, and the belief in societal forces beyond the marketplace.]

...But I’ll finish by coming back to libraries. I want to say something  about my own relationship with libraries. Apparently Mr Mitchell thinks that we authors who defend libraries are only doing it because we have a vested interest – because we’re in it for the money. I thought the general custom of public discourse was to go through the substantial arguments before descending to personal abuse. If he’s doing it so early in the discussion, it’s a sure sign he hasn’t got much faith in the rest of his case.

No, Mr Mitchell, it isn’t for the money. I’m doing it for love.

I still remember the first library ticket I ever had. It must have been about 1957. My mother took me to the public library just off Battersea Park Road and enrolled me. I was thrilled. All those books, and I was allowed to borrow whichever I wanted! And I remember some of the first books I borrowed and fell in love with: the Moomin books by Tove Jansson; a French novel for children called A Hundred Million Francs; why did I like that? Why did I read it over and over again, and borrow it many times? I don’t know. But what a gift to give a child, this chance to discover that you can love a book and the characters in it, you can become their friend and share their adventures in your own imagination.

And the secrecy of it! The blessed privacy! No-one else can get in the way, no-one else can invade it, no-one else even knows what’s going on in that wonderful space that opens up between the reader and the book. That open democratic space full of thrills, full of excitement and fear, full of astonishment, where your own emotions and ideas are given back to you clarified, magnified, purified, valued. You’re a citizen of that great democratic space that opens up between you and the book. And the body that gave it to you is the public library. Can I possibly convey the magnitude of that gift?

Somewhere in Blackbird Leys, somewhere in Berinsfield, somewhere in Botley, somewhere in Benson or in Bampton, to name only the communities beginning with B whose libraries are going to be abolished, somewhere in each of them there is a child right now, there are children, just like me at that age in Battersea, children who only need to make that discovery to learn that they too are citizens of the republic of reading. Only the public library can give them that gift.

A little later, when we were living in north Wales, there was a mobile library that used to travel around the villages and came to us once a fortnight. I suppose I would have been about sixteen. One day I saw a novel whose cover intrigued me, so I took it out, knowing nothing of the author. It was called Balthazar, by Lawrence Durrell. The Alexandria Quartet – we’re back to Alexandria again – was very big at that time; highly praised, made much fuss of. It’s less highly regarded now, but I’m not in the habit of dissing what I once loved, and I fell for this book and the others, Justine, Mountolive, Clea, which I hastened to read after it. I adored these stories of wealthy cosmopolitan bohemian people having affairs and talking about life and art and things in that beautiful city. Another great gift from the public library.

“Then I came to Oxford as an undergraduate, and all the riches of the Bodleian Library were open to me. I didn’t dare go in. The library I used as a student was the old public library, round the back of this very building.”

Then I came to Oxford as an undergraduate, and all the riches of the Bodleian Library, one of the greatest libraries in the world, were open to me – theoretically. In practice I didn’t dare go in. I was intimidated by all that grandeur. I didn’t learn the ropes of the Bodleian till much later, when I was grown up. The library I used as a student was the old public library, round the back of this very building. If there’s anyone as old as I am here, you might remember it. One day I saw a book by someone I’d never heard of, Frances Yates, called Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition. I read it enthralled and amazed.It changed my life, or at least the intellectual direction in which I was going. It certainly changed the novel, my first, that I was tinkering with instead of studying for my final exams. Again, a life-changing discover, only possible because there was a big room with a lot of books and I was allowed to range wherever I liked and borrow any of them.

One final memory, this time from just a couple of years ago: I was trying to find out where all the rivers and streams ran in Oxford, for a book I’m writing called The Book of Dust. I went to the Central Library and there, with the help of a clever member of staff, I managed to find some old maps that showed me exactly what I wanted to know, and I photocopied them, and now they are pinned to my wall where I can see exactly what I want to know.

The public library, again. Yes, I’m writing a book, Mr Mitchell, and yes, I hope it’ll make some money. But I’m not praising the public library service for money. I love the public library service for what it did for me as a child and as a student and as an adult. I love it because its presence in a town or a city reminds us that there are things above profit, things that profit knows nothing about, things that have the power to baffle the greedy ghost of market fundamentalism, things that stand for civic decency and public respect for imagination and knowledge and the value of simple delight.

I love it for that, and so do the citizens of Summertown, Headington, Littlemore, Old Marston, Blackbird Leys, Neithrop, Adderbury, Bampton, Benson, Berinsfield, Botley, Charlbury, Chinnor, Deddington, Grove, Kennington, North Leigh, Sonning Common, Stonesfield, Woodcote.

And Battersea.

And Alexandria.

Leave the libraries alone. You don’t know the value of what you’re looking after. It is too precious to destroy.

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