Time to take a breath

A report in the Guardian today shows a decline in literary fiction. There are some interesting points on how this will reduce the diversity of literature and that’s something that needs to be corrected. Kit de Waal’s point about how the time to write costs money hits home for me, I’m constantly trying to balance the wish to focus more time on writing with the need to keep a roof over my head. It’s true in poetry as well as fiction, there’s an invisible barrier erected by unpaid internships and residencies just as many writers who want to spend two years concentrating on a literary novel hit a brick wall. The result is that writers from many backgrounds and in a variety of circumstances are shut out and literature becomes more homogenous, and weighted towards those who can afford to take the time to write it. That in turn leads to a self-perpetuating definition of what literature is, and there it is - another wall stopping diverse voices getting in.

There aren’t any simple answers to this, but I’m very weary of those. If this year has been characterised by anything, it’s uninformed and polarised opinions, hot takes and hyperbole. I think that’s what needs to change. We need to look beyond poetry that is shareable on twitter or instagram or novels that generate headlines and movie adaptations and remember that art offers so much more than the instant gratification. I’ve read lines this year that send a shiver down my spine, but I’ve also re-read poems that present something new to me every time. That sort of work isn’t disposed to the instant culture we’re living in, it takes as much time to consume as it does to create.

As I’m writing this, I’m listening to Eminem’s new album and something that’s struck me about the online conversation about it is how polarised it is. The album is either “trash” or else it’s “fire”, and the verdict is instant. Artists are dismissed if they stay the same, and punished if they try something different, it seems. Heaven forbid they age and mature like a normal human. Personally, I’ve always admired Eminem’s verbal dexterity. He can pivot within a complex conceit like a metaphysical poet and exhibits real brilliance in his use of poetic devices such as enjambment. His work – controversial, challenging, witty and often vulgar – reminds me of Catullus. I don’t feel I can decide on a single listen of the album whether I like it – which is ultimately all anyone is qualified to decide.

What has Eminem got to do with literary fiction? Not much, maybe, but it’s related to what I wish for next year - that we all take a breath. If we want to revive literary fiction, or change the culture to allow more diverse voices, it starts with a pause before we react. Improving critical thinking and the accompanying conversation is just one piece of the puzzle, however. The elephant in the room is that art takes time and we need to recognise that yes, time is money. And on that, I will link Eminem to a discussion on diversity in literary fiction, particularly diversity of class, because we need to acknowledge the barriers that exist. As he says on his new album:

Pull ourselves up by our bootstraps
Where the fuck are the boots?