There’s something almost quaint about all this history. For one, it’s almost impossible to imagine a time when writers would have been thought so supremely influential, so much so that governments expended so much time, effort and money to court them, openly and in secret. Back then, writers were magnetic, magic, mountains. Now, in our topsy-turvy era of plagiarists andhacks, where books are only as big and bright as nightlights, what writers command, in the eyes of political leaders, such respect, wield such power? It’s equally as impossible to imagine a geopolitics so black-and-white. All wars are, in some way, cultural, and the gloomy War on Terror explicitly, relentlessly, so. But it’s a culture war that takes place, as far as the general public is concerned, largely on Twitter and TV, not in the puny pages of poetry journals. Words are still power, of course, but words are not enough.
(Source: Spook Stories: All Writers Are Spies.)
The first thing that struck me while reading Sweet Tooth is that in Bengal at least, people still believe the CIA is funding all sorts of complete nonsense (like Mamata Banerjee. Obviously. Of course, she’s bankrolled by the CIA. Why else would Hilary Clinton visit her during the India trip? Duh!). Then I imagined getting a generous stipend from the government to be a novelist, like Tom Haley does in Sweet Tooth. China Mieville mentioned a similar idea — he calls it a “salary” — in the final keynote speech of the Edinburgh World Writers’ Conference. Guess what Tom does with the money? He and his girlfriend splurge, by eating stuff like oysters and champagne at restaurants and tipping generously. Bless. I read those bits and thought this is why the CIA or a conduit for the agency hasn’t approached me to edit a magazine — Peter Mathiessen, Stephen Spender and their generation ruined it for the rest of us by letting it be known just how unpredictable writers are as a tribe.
Reading “Spook Stories” also made me wonder about how writers are no longer “magnetic, magic mountains” (love that phrase). Why doesn’t the stuff that’s written now have even the promise of persuasion that people saw in literature in the 1970s, for example? Is it the way we write? Is it what we write? Is it that the readership has become duller? Is it all these factors, none of them? And should it even matter? Instead of visualising stickers that yell “BESTSELLER!” on the cover of a book and wondering what a mass of readership may think of the plot, should we focus on the story and its telling and nothing else? I’ve no idea. I just know that science fiction is more likely than the scenario in which writing on culture is considered of any importance in our society, which is why I’ve quoted that paragraph. It’s ironic, isn’t it, that it is in the age when so many writers are not dependent upon any person or agency and are as free agents as one can be (because there’s a living to be made from writing books), that writers seem to have the least respect. Or, at the very least, less respect than when they were elements of a propaganda machine.
Someone just told me that a page assigned for book reviews looks “too grey and text-heavy”. What a disaster — a text-heavy books page! Run for the hills!
All this aside, if someone (rich) gets suddenly idealistic and nostalgic and wants to sink money into a literary magazine similar to The Paris Review, we should talk.
And, underscoring what Jason McBride wrote about Twitter versus poetry journals, it seems the government is asking companies to develop “embedded technologies” that will enable blocking social media websites in specific states.