(Yes, the rhyme is deliberate.) Well: is it Covid-19? Maybe it was, a bit. At first. People’s routines were upset, they felt anxious, under-stimulated, and possibly other things seemed more important. But what kind of excuses are those? Crap ones. More serious, possibly, is the furore over George Floyd’s death and racism in recent weeks. Not only has there been unrest in the US and the UK, which at times has seemed to threaten the very fabric of society, but also, black writers have been demanding a more prominent role. (I say black writers rather than ‘diverse writers’ because by far the most vocal writers have been black, and most of them seem to have been pointing specifically to under-representation by African-Americans (in the US) or Afro-British (in the UK). And publishers have been falling over themselves to apologise and assure them—and everyone who sympathises—that they can and will do better. That’s all well and good. All decent people agree that black lives matter, and I haven’t heard anyone expressing the opinion that the voices we hear should be less diverse.
However, it does seem as though identity is increasingly a criterion, and perhaps the chief criterion, for establishing oneself as a public voice. And while that may seem a good thing for minority writers, is it really? Because if they are published because of their skin colour (or sexual preference, or gender or religion or whatever) they automatically become a mouthpiece for that particular community, and are expected to write about it—generally in terms of how they have been victimised. So literature becomes largely journalism, a way of expressing passionately held opinions about social justice. That may serve some kind of social and political function, but is it art? You might argue that it can be. The French are always talking about art engage, which means politically committed art, which they tend to be very keen on. But preachy art is awfully boring. Even Tolstoy is boring when he preaches, and he’s a much better writer than most of us. Besides, what if you don’t belong to one of the under-represented minorities? What if you benefit from ‘white privilege’? You may agree, as a good liberal—almost all writers are that—that your ethnicity has had more than its fair share of the attention for too long, especially if you’re male and straight. Doubtless you will genuinely welcome seeing more diverse voices, if they’re good. Still, you may be wondering whether anyone wants to hear your voice any more. Are you simply old hat? Same old, same old? Why should anyone want to read a novel by you anyway? I’m pretty sure this is what a lot of writers are feeling.
Because what we value as a society now is no longer the spirituality of the art, as it was two hundred years ago. Spengler told us a hundred years ago that the West was in decline, that we were already in the phase of ‘civilisation’ which is characterised by materialism, intellectualism, analysis, repetition, and journalism rather than creativity. I don’t have time in this essay to discuss this in more detail, but I believe he was right. The problem is not that there are no more talented writers, but that society isn’t looking for them anymore. It wants writers who confirm its opinions—which have been formed on social media. It wants figureheads. Cool figures who have the correct opinions. Of course some of them will be clever. The best ones are. But not many of them are great artists. Where are the innovators, the great spirits who can vie with Tolstoy and Cervantes, Goethe and Dante and Shakespeare? Maybe they’re out there, working hard, and maybe we’ll hear from them. I hope so.
On the other hand, given the imbecility of our public discourse, in almost all the media, and even in our best universities, I’m not all that optimistic. Even so, I’m still writing. Is there any point? Who knows? In recent months I’ve taken up classical guitar again after a lapse of some fifty years, and am finding it immensely rewarding, although I only play for myself. The music of the Renaissance and baroque periods is to my ear far superior to that of our era. (And I speak as someone who has played rock and blues all his life, and has been in semi-professional bands.)
Forget Bach and Mozart. (Or by analogy, Shakespeare and Goethe.) Can I write at the level at Carcassi or Carulli or Aguado composed? Maybe not. But I’m trying.