October 21, 2004

Beowulf-like or Dante-esque?

Here's a very interesting discussion from Neil Stephanson, who recently wrote a book, the third of a trilogy any of which I haven't yet read. It seems he recieved an irritating question at a conference and he was able to squeeze a little diamond from a churlish lump of coal. (Scroll down to question two.)

"Does it bother you that people like Jeffery Archer or Jackie Collins seem to get more respect for their writing than you ?"

Nowadays we have different ways of supporting artists. Some painters, for example, make a living selling their work to wealthy collectors. In other cases, musicians or artists will find appointments at universities or other cultural institutions. But in both such cases there is a kind of accountability at work.

A wealthy art collector who pays a lot of money for a painting does not like to see his money evaporate. He wants to feel some confidence that if he or an heir decides to sell the painting later, they'll be able to get an amount of money that is at least in the same ballpark. But that price is going to be set by the market---it depends on the perceived value of the painting in the art world. And that in turn is a function of how the artist is esteemed by critics and by other collectors. So art criticism does two things at once: it's culture, but it's also economics.

There is also a kind of accountability in the case of, say, a composer who has a faculty job at a university. The trustees of the university have got a fiduciary responsibility not to throw away money. It's not the same as hiring a laborer in factory, whose output can be easily reduced to dollars and cents. Rather, the trustees have to justify the composer's salary by pointing to intangibles. And one of those intangibles is the degree of respect accorded that composer by critics, musicians, and other experts in the field: how often his works are performed by symphony orchestras, for example.

The novel is a very new form of art. It was unthinkable until the invention of printing and impractical until a significant fraction of the population became literate. But when the conditions were right, it suddenly became huge. The great serialized novelists of the 19th Century were like rock stars or movie stars. The printing press and the apparatus of publishing had given these creators a means to bypass traditional arbiters and gatekeepers of culture and connect directly to a mass audience. And the economics worked out such that they didn't need to land a commission or find a patron in order to put bread on the table. The creators of those novels were therefore able to have a connection with a mass audience and a livelihood fundamentally different from other types of artists.

Nowadays, rock stars and movie stars are making all the money. But the publishing industry still works for some lucky novelists who find a way to establish a connection with a readership sufficiently large to put bread on their tables. It's conventional to refer to these as "commercial" novelists, but I hate that term, so I'm going to call them Beowulf writers.

But this is not true for a great many other writers who are every bit as talented and worthy of finding readers. And so, in addition, we have got an alternate system that makes it possible for those writers to pursue their careers and make their voices heard. Just as Renaissance princes supported writers like Dante because they felt it was the right thing to do, there are many affluent persons in modern society who, by making donations to cultural institutions like universities, support all sorts of artists, including writers. Usually they are called "literary" as opposed to "commercial" but I hate that term too, so I'm going to call them Dante writers. And this is what I mean when I speak of a bifurcated system.

Hmmm.... am I Beowulf-like or Dante-esque?

Well, I've never won a grant from the many I've applied for yet!

Posted by Dennis at October 21, 2004 9:21 AM

1 Comment

Dear Dennis, all very well but maybe we could combine some culture and economics by making a new series of monoprints like we did back in the nineteen hundreds when everything was if not better than at least safer?
I heard you were showing with a gallery in Haarlem. Are you travelling?
Rento B.

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