A blueprint for literature?

In partnership with Arts Council England, Creative and Cultural Skills (the ‘Sector Skills Council for the UK’s creative and cultural industries’) has published its Literature Blueprint. The signatories are Antonia Byatt (Director, Literature, Arts Council England) and Caroline Felton (Chief Executive, Creative & Cultural Skills). The report  is available on the organisation’s website, http://www.ccskills.org.uk.*

It is, frankly, a very poor publication. It is by turns vapid, banal, and shoddy. Its recommendations are full of vague positives. Apparently, we all need to ‘improve’, ‘enhance’ and, above all, ‘support’ things a great deal – though how these things are to be performed, measured, or financed is left far from clear.

In place of rigorous discussion, Blueprint for Literature offers generous helpings of apple pie. It recommends, for example, ‘encouraging leadership programmes to be as relevant [to what, one wonders] and accessible as possible’. (You mean you don’t think we should encourage programmes to be irrelevant and inaccessible? How enlightening!)

Byatt and Felton say they hope that this kind of thing will ‘inform [our] own strategic planning’. Really? One wonders what on earth one is supposed to do with such statements – just as one wonders what to do with the pictures that have been dropped into the report. There is, for example, a head-and-shoulders photograph of a woman (unidentified) behind a microphone. This, we are told, shows the ‘Wales Book of the Year Shortlist Launch 2009’. (So illuminating!). This is a report that verges on the phatic.

Difficult questions either pass unidentified or are evaded. Take, for example, the question of definition. Apparently, ‘The literature sector in the context of this publication refers to those individuals and organisations involved with literary creation in all its forms’. As if defining ‘literature’ in terms of ‘literary’ tells anybody anything. The phrase ‘in all its forms’ simply begs the question, which forms does the report consider to be literary and which ones does it not?

This is by no means a matter of semantic wrangling. Developments in online writing and in popular non-fiction writing raise interesting questions about what we mean by ‘literature’ today. The blurring of the line between literary and non-literary is important both as an outcome and a source of contemporary creativity – but in the bureaucratic greyness that shrouds this report, there is really no hope of getting to grips with developments of this kind. The document eschews hard thinking in favour of mentioning as many stakeholders as possible and hoping that will somehow suffice.

A blueprint, according to the OED, is a ‘photographic print representing [the] final stage of engineering or other plans’ or a ‘detailed plan to be done’. This document fails to provide anything of the sort. And why in any case we would need a such a thing for literature is never properly argued. Indeed, if the idea that there might even be a tension between the words ‘literature’ and ‘blueprint’ ever occurred to the reports’ authors, they’re not letting on.

The report’s language, which is closer to Stalin era five-year plans for tractor production than to the language that authors, editors, and so on use,  is simply inadequate to its purpose. The text tells us that:

To maintain the astonishing breadth of talent to which we have become accustomed, it is vital for the literature sector actively to pursue the development and maintenance of an appropriately skilled workforce, and to get all the support it needs in doing so. As such, while we have much to celebrate, this document focuses on any gaps in the current provision of workforce development and business support across the literature sector.

Well, yes, we can agree that it would help to have skilled authors. What exactly, beyond that, the text is seeking to say is difficult to ascertain. The clichés (‘all the support it needs’ and so on) kill any attempt at meaningful communication. What is certain about the workforce we will need to produce the literature of tomorrow is that it will need to know how to handle words very much better than this. If one of the students I work with had produced this, I would want to know what that ‘actively’ added – as opposed to ‘passively pursue’? – and what the ‘as such’ referred to. That authors who write like this can affect to give us a ‘literature blueprint’ is simply preposterous.

To the extent that any very clear strategy emerges from the miasma of the text, one can say that it is resolutely supply-side based. It claims to look at ‘any gaps’ – but only in ‘provision’. Perhaps that is inevitable for a report from a  sector skills council. This should not, however, obscure the fact that the most valuable ‘support’ that government could provide the literature sector would be to help more people to learn to read. It is a shame the resources squandered on this report were not devoted instead to promoting adult literacy. As it is, Byatt and Felton owe taxpayers an apology.

* URL: http://www.ccskills.org.uk/LinkClick.aspx?fileticket=DBn/nm51bZo=&tabid=103

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