Previous to the announcement of the 2014 Nobel Prize in Literature, the Guardian (after the French paper La Croix) reported a series of comments by Nobel judge Horace Enghdal—comments wherein Enghdal indicted the ‘professionalisation’ of grant-winning and otherwise ‘financed’ Western writers. I’ll follow the quotation choices of Guardian writer Alison Flood: ‘Even though I understand the temptation [of financial support], I think it cuts writers off from society, and creates an unhealthy link with institutions,’ Enghdal said. ‘Previously, writers would work as taxi drivers, clerks, secretaries and waiters to make a living. Samuel Beckett and many others lived like this. It was hard—but they fed themselves, from a literary perspective.’
It seems Enghdal is no stranger to firebrand status, having previously blasted the US’ literary ‘insulation’ and the general ‘commodification’ of literature. In 2004, Enghdal called the transgressive strains of novelists ‘educated in European and American universities’ potentially ‘fake’ and ‘strategic.’
It’s easy to toss off Enghdal’s statements as sourced by what Observer critic Robert McCrum called ‘an odd mixture of grumpy old man and Nordic romantic’; if nothing else, Enghdal certainly levels his statements from quite a pretty eyrie. Yet we ought not turn eyes from the purport of Enghdal’s concerns because we fancy ourselves specially Western or one of the Kinda Mighty Alternative. Remember, after all, that quite a cadre of Americans rallied around Bob Dylan to take the Nobel in 2013; and only a Dylan hagiographer could imagine he’s earned a spot in literature alongside Heaney, Shaw, Mann, Buck, O’Neill, Bunin, Hesse, Márquez, and Grazia Deledda.
As the Swede suggests, it is through confrontation with the world (a world?) that the mature thinker comes into possession of the tools that separate her from her nascent, juvenile sense of being—that thus make her fit to reflect in writing. When I remark to friends that I wouldn’t trade my ‘lower-middle class Long Island upbringing’ for another, I am in concert with Enghdal. I’m implying the trials of a small (but loving!) Christmas, of no-Coca-Cola, no-Jordans, once-a-year-restaurant-dinners made me into a certain kind of artist.
Therefore it isn’t just Enghdal I cross-examine when I conclude that, for every bit of good justification in his critique of institutional association or ‘leisurely’ writing, his scope of understanding how artists—how mindful people—‘experience’ is sadly narrow.
From a strictly quantitative perspective, Horace Enghdal’s suppositions suffer from a serious volume issue. If one envisions the whole of Western literature (that large, amorphous, pullulating, mutant, lurid, oft-putrescent thing) as a sphere, the number of full-time creative writing pupils receiving any significant ‘financial support’ is laughably low; it wouldn’t constitute a puddle in the curve. When I was a graduate student at Columbia’s School of the Arts, for example, not a single student in the entire writing division was fully reimbursed for tuition, much less given a living stipend. Adding this student number to those few writers fortunate enough to win the grants Enghdal mentions (which, by the way, could not support a bachelor for a year, and aren’t meant to) would provide perhaps a slaking quantity of drink in the sphere. At best, then, Enghdal diagnoses a socket malfunction in a fifty-foot juggernaut and then poses like a prophet, more concerned with catching sight than cogitating; the problems in Western literature writ large cannot be pinned on one-ninetieth the constituency of Western literature.
I would be remiss not to acknowledge that many grant-winners and creative writing students may, indeed, subsume the lion’s share of press about Western literature, lending still more credence to Enghdal’s concern about institutional nepotism. But apples, oranges: no wise person regards commercialism’s easy connection between notoriety and artistic substance as having any sand. Right?
The larger problem with Enghdal’s cursory critique is, I think, qualitative. In the first case, he frames the authorial life of American and European writers as too-obviously ‘tough’, rags-to-riches, even old-world masculinist: his short story of Western literature has got a troubling blue-collar patina. Look!—down in the rank streets, there are our writers, driving taxis; there’s our brilliant poet, slumming it among the Bartlebys as a clerk; our little women novelists got along type-type-typing as secretaries; and, wait, is that a philosopher slinging hash? There’s no Lowell here, friends, no Hemingway, no Shelley, no Fitzgerald, no banker Wallace Stevens. The fact that Enghdal doesn’t seem cognizant of this internal palliative is disconcerting, especially considering his own job as custodian of an art award.
In the second case, Enghdal seems to imply that one needs must be ‘occupied’—that is, doing something other than writing or writing on ‘grants,’ something other than studious leisure—for the majority of his life in order to write anything of merit. This is, strangely, one of the most derivative ‘Western’ ideas imaginable: that every free moment must be filled with money-making, family-tending, and estate-building in order to find valuation in the precious few moments left to create. And the third qualitative case follows directly: where, exactly, is the imaginative life in any of Enghdal’s theorizing? The imaginative life, whose corridors are hewn only by silence and study. I stand behind this point strongly: had I never left my flat these many years, had I been abandoned but to know Russia through Tolstoy, the shades of penury through Dickens, cruelty through Stanley Kowalski, passion through Wuthering Heights, disquiet through Riding, double-dealing through Zeus, woman through Woolf, magic through Sir Gawain and Zuleika Dobson; had I just Dickinson (Dickinson, without job as a server, without college degree, without children, without all the rote markers of a worthwhile life) to teach me how deep my being goes, I’d have got on rather well. The measure of an artist will never be his job tours, but—and I happily risk every charge of idealism here—time spent in reflection and fostering her life outside of all utility.
Hours and a garret are all that ever made or will make literature ‘in an ideal direction,’ mind. The taxi will idle, driverless.