For months, I’ve been contemplating giving up—not just this column, but writing. Altogether. I hope this won’t sound like a long whine, whinge, or worse—the dreaded ‘mansplaining.’ But for a long time, there has been no interest in my work from the industry, even though I’m fairly sure I write better than I did fifteen years ago, when there was a lot of interest. Some of that, I suspect, is because of the current ‘woke’ moment—what a ‘vile phrase’ that is, to quote the Bard. But I’ve moaned about that before so I won’t now.
It could also be because my writing simply isn’t engaging a new, different audience: one that is not only ‘woker’ (presumably, if we can trust the media), but one is that is doubtless younger, and suffers from a shorter attention span. When I taught ‘Creative Writing’ at an American university, a lot of my students were incapable of simply reading a book, or for that matter of simply writing. At the same time, they needed some kind of stimulus: usually rock music, but some of them actually watched videos as they wrote. No wonder they couldn’t ‘get into’ Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky. They wanted the non-stop action of a zombie movie, or better yet, a three-minute pop video.
Of course another possibility is simply that our civilisation is collapsing. No one is composing classical music any more, or even jazz, or even the more complex kind of rock. The few people still trying to paint and sculpt are mostly painting mere ideas, of a particularly sterile kind. We have become so analytical, so used to using the left hemispheres of our brains, that most of us hardly know what context is at all, or humour, or allusion. So is it surprising that the novels that still get published are nearly all screeds, thinly-disguised statements of doctrinal belief? Or that most of them are written in prose that wouldn’t challenge the average 14-year-old? (And a fourteen-year-old who spends her time on social media, at that.) No one believes anything. Girls just want to have fun. So do boys—if these primitive categories even mean anything anymore. They don’t have fun, in fact they can’t, really, because they’re so used to communicating with machines that their minds are becoming machine-like. They can’t relate to each other, to nature, to animals: they’re becoming robots and computers. Which is great for the people who want to programme them.
But not so great for culture and literature. A hundred years ago, the great writers of Mittel Europa—Mann, Musil, Broch, Zweig, Roth, Hasek—all realised that European culture (which included the Americas) was in danger, that millennial values were disintegrating, and that in the vacuum totalitarian systems would arise, because human beings can’t live without values. They were right, except that there was a brief time after the Second World War when it looked as if democracy was going to work, and culture would flourish again. But now we are seeing the same phenomenon, with forces on both the far left and the far right pushing for authoritarian rule, and trying to limit free speech. Incredibly enough, many of the intelligentsia are happy with that. I haven’t seen any fiction writers fighting for true diversity, not only of race, creed, sexuality and gender—which of course we need—but also of opinion. It’s assumed now that all right-thinking people have the same views. At least it’s assumed in polite circles, educated circles. No wonder the literature of this period is so lousy.
So I may just play the guitar from now on. In the world of music, people are genuinely open—no one cares what your background is, as long as you can play. You don’t have to be gay to play Benjamin Britten, or German to play Bach. Twenty years ago I thought there was little prejudice in the literary world too, but I was wrong. It’s bigoted. It’s lost interest in art, in fact—what interests the literary world is politics. Every book is an opportunity to proselytise. Every writer is an evangelist—or he needs to be silenced.
In my case, they may have succeeded.