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The Case for Public Funding of Literary Blogs and Book Reviewers

Comments on the Department of Canadian Heritage’s Redesign of the Canada Magazine Fund and the Publications Assistance Program

Dear Sir/Madam,

 

This essay/paper/post is written with the intention of convincing the federal government to significantly increase the $1million fund it currently provides to Literary Arts journals in Canada, and to allocate a substantial amount of this additional funding directly to those writers whose primary function it is to criticize and review novels, plays and poetry.

 

Part one will discuss the rationale behind funding initiatives which increase the reading of literature by Canadians. Part Two will answer those questions posed by Canadian  Heritage which apply directly to my argument in favour of increased funding of content.

 

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Part One

 

How reading literary works improves Society or…

 

If it weren’t for novels, people would still be ripping each other’s guts out…

 

In other words: a vibrant literary reading public is essential to the betterment of our homeland. Stop one and you stop the other. This essay will address the real danger that a declining literary reading habit poses to the health of Canadian democracy, and argue that greater support for literary critics, writers, reviewers and literary magazines is essential if this country is in future to produce anything more than a field of unengaged, short attention spanned, self absorbed, couch potatoes.

 

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Literature creates sympathy in the reader for other people. Sympathetic feeling for others is what underpins successful communities. Reading literature, it has recently been shown, also leads to active participation in society, participation that is crucial to the health of a democracy and the well being of its citizenry. In short, reading literature helps ensure that ‘peace, order and good government,’ values central to the Canadian experience, remain viable going into this new century.

 

First some history. Ancient history.

 

 

Despite their extraordinarily advanced civilization, the Romans inflicted brutal punishments on those who committed serious criminal offences: crucifixion, and death by fire, lions and tigers, it was thought, served admirably both as deterrents and demonstrations of imperial power. During the medieval and early modern periods, with similar ruling objectives, appallingly violent punishment was visited upon those foolhardy enough to oppose kings or subvert their realms. Hanging, drawing, and quartering was established in England during the reign of Edward l as standard punishment for treasonous behavior. Scotsman William Wallace was pulled to pieces in this manner. François Ravaillac, who assassinated Henry IV in 1610, and Robert-François Damiens, who tried to kill Louis XIV in 1757, both suffered grotesque public executions in Paris. Their bodies were ripped apart by horses pulling in four different directions.

 

 

Only by the late 18th century was barbaric, state-approved torture staunched, and replaced by imprisonment as the principal sanction for criminal activity. But this didn’t happen because judges of the age spontaneously opened up their hearts to a sudden flood of loving kindness. As Lynn Hunt, a professor of modern European history at the University of California, Los Angeles, and a distinguished expert on the history of human rights put it recently, "Torture ended because the traditional framework of pain and personhood fell apart to be replaced, bit by bit, by a new one in which individuals owned their bodies, had rights to their separateness…and recognized in other people the same passions, sentiment, and sympathies in themselves."

 

According to Hunt, the roots of the human rights movement are traceable to, among other sources, Greek Stoicism, Christian concepts of the soul, Protestant conscience, and Catholic perception of natural law. Why, then, did such interest in the so-called rights of man swell up in the late 1700s?

 
 

The American Revolution and later the French were as much a reaction against suppression of rights as any declaration in favour of them. These nation-founding and shaking events galvanized opinion worldwide in support of greater human rights. But, says Hunt, something else was at play. "Cultural practices," including those of reading novels, notably the epistolary works of Samuel Richard, "Pamela" in 1740 and  "Clarissa," in 1749, induced readers to empathize with ordinary people; forced them to see that these people, even servants like Pamela, the heroine of Richardson’s novel…had inner selves just like their own.Thomas Jefferson himself advocated the reading of his favorite novels as a form of moral education.

It has long been known that authors of any consequence must work sympathy into their texts. This understanding dates back to Homer, who depicted the humanity of the Trojans, his enemies, with the same pathos he did his fellow Greeks. Novel reading created a new kind of feeling, the recognition of shared psychological experience that comes from total engrossment in the lives of fictitious characters. These feelings translated into movements for cultural and social change.

 

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Fast forward two hundred years and witness a menace loosed on today’s literary reading culture. A sinister virus currently sucks the life out of commercial newspaper book review sections. During the past several years The Boston Globe, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in the United States, and most papers in Canada’s monopolized media-world, have cut space for book reviews, a forum originally designed to benefit the serious leisure reader. Less public discussion about books, coupled with a downward trend in leisure reading habits is bound to spell trouble for this country. Something needs to be done about it, and soon.

 

 

 

***

 

 

Survey/reports from the United States, such as the National Endowment for the Arts’ 2004 Reading at Risk report, tell us that we are experiencing a "huge cultural transformation" away from literature toward electronic media for entertainment and information. This shift impoverishes us by diminishing "irreplaceable forms of focused attention and contemplation that make complex communications and insights possible." It dilutes the relatively slow, resistant kind of reading that good literature cultivates.

 

 

In 2002, 46.7 percent of Americans read a literary book; in 1992, 54 percent had. Declines register in almost every demographic cross section — men, women, whites, African Americans, Hispanics, the highly educated and the uneducated — but the most pronounced are found in the age category. The overall rate of decline in reading literature between 1982 and 2002 was 18 percent. In the 18-24 year old age cohort, the decline was 28 percent. Similar trends are at play in Canada.

 

 

One could surmise that the drop in reading scores among the highly educated is due to less curricular emphasis on reading at the higher levels, but another plausible explanation, posited in the Report, is that adults are losing the habit of voluntary reading, a habit which, when practiced, sustains and reinforces literacy skills.

 

 

Two of the most interesting correlations found in the Reading at Risk survey were those between number of "books in the home" and literary reading rates, and literary reading and participation in arts and civic activities. The close relationship between reading scores and the availability of books in the house proves that students who live in homes where adults keep and visibly read books tend to score highest in reading skills.

 

 

Literary readers are well over three times as likely as non-readers to visit art museums and attend plays or musicals or classical or jazz concerts, and even more likely than non-readers to go out to the movies or listen to classical or jazz radio stations. And there’s more: literary readers are significantly more likely than non-readers to play sports, attend amateur or professional sporting events, participate in outdoor activities (e.g., camping, hiking, and canoeing), exercise at home or in a gym, and create art — photographs, paintings, or fiction.

 

 

Volunteering is the most directly "civic" activity tracked by the survey. Here the correlations are even more powerful. Literary readers and arts participants volunteer at more than twice the rate of those who do not read literature or participate in the arts. For example, half of all performing arts attendees volunteer or do charity work, compared to less than 20% of non-attendees. Those who read literature — short stories, poems, or novels — are almost three times as likely to volunteer as non-readers.

 

 

By every measure in the National Endowment for the Arts’ 2007 follow up report to Reading at Risk, To Read or Not to Read, literary readers lead more robust lifestyles than non-readers. These findings contradict commonly held assumptions that readers and arts participants are passive, isolated, or self absorbed. As novelist, literary critic, and popular theologian C.S. Lewis explains in a quote found in the survey report:

 

 

Literary experience heals the wound, without undermining the privilege, of individuality. There are mass emotions which heal the wound; but they destroy the privilege. In them our separate selves are pooled and we sink back into sub-individuality. But in reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like the night sky in the Greek poem, I see with a myriad eyes, but it is still I who see. Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action and in knowing, I transcend myself, and am never more myself than when I do.

 

 

Good literary readers become a thousand others, understand the outlook of others and transcend themselves in doing so. Perhaps it is because of this capacity for active empathy, that they contribute in concrete ways to civic and social improvement, to a degree simply impossible in others. To Read or not to Read concludes by saying that reading skills and early habits of leisure reading may come to occupy the same relationship to artistic, cultural, and civic progress as "basic science" skills have had to technical breakthroughs.

 

 

In addition to the fact that literate students usually do well in mathematics, and that high literacy levels are tied to high productivity and international competitiveness, arts, notably literary arts, play an irreplaceable role in producing both active citizens and healthy communities. Those who experience art or read literature are demonstrably more active in their communities than non- readers.

 

The future of reading rests on decisions Canadians will have to make each day as they face an ever expanding menu of leisure activities in which to engage. The essential message that these NEA findings deliver is that reading frequently for pleasure is behavior that must be cultivated with the same zeal, and valued to the same degree, that academic achievement, financial/ job performance, and global competitiveness are valued and sought after by our society’s institutions.

 

 

The price Canada pays for failing to read good literature frequently, is difficult to measure, more so than the price paid for simple illiteracy, innumeracy, and ignorance. But the cost is just as steep. An ill-read population brings cultural superficiality, ignorance of historical context, susceptibility to ideological illogicalities, and spiritual aimlessness upon itself.

 

 

If we are to sustain ourselves as a civilization, we need a healthy percentage of the populace reading literature and loving books. In order to increase literary reading among adults in Canada we must promote voluntary reading habits in grown-ups, as well as in children. We require this exercise at least as much if not more than they do.

 

 

The best way to do this, in addition to stimulating literary output, is to champion and encourage the writing of those books that people will want to bring into their homes. In other words, to make considered opinion about what constitutes good writing, more readily available. In fact, based on the findings of To Read of not to Read, National Endowment for the Arts Chairman Dana Gioia recommended precisely this: more coverage of books in popular culture: "I guarantee that if we could expand the coverage in the media, you’d immediately see people responding. People are looking for things to do that aren’t dumb. I don’t think that Americans are dumber than before, but I do believe our public culture is." Again, the same holds true in Canada.

 

 

As mentioned at the beginning of this essay, the private sector is failing us in this regard. Public sector intervention is required.

 

***

 

 

Part Two

 

Answers to questions posed by Canadian Heritage pertinent to the issue of funding literary journals and critics.

 

1. Where should the federal government target its investment in periodicals to create the greatest public benefit?

 

Based on the argument above: in order to create the greatest public benefit, the federal government should place its investment with those periodicals that both encourage the reading of novels, plays and poetry, and foster a love of books. Literary/arts journals in general and authors who write criticism and reviews of literary works and art in particular.

 

2. Are there areas or activities that no longer require support?

 

Although distribution and printing are important aspects of the publishing process, so is content creation. In fact, the latter is by far the more important consideration. As such, greater weight should be given to content when considering funding, less given to chopping down trees and expending energy shipping paper across the country.

 

3. Is the greatest need for support for distribution, support for creation of content, or support for another activity?

 

Creation of content constitutes the most important part of periodical production. Without well considered/written material everything else is a waste of money. The problem is akin to attracting good people into politics. Adequate monetary incentive must be offered in order to attract the best talent. Compensation for writing about Canadian literature, and literature in general, is pathetically low in this country. It’s a sad reflection of how little, imaginative writing is valued in our society. We need to pay good writers decent money in order to generate the kind of written conversation about books that will motivate Canadians to spend more of their leisure time reading literature.

 

4. What types of publication should receive funding under the proposed new program? What types should be excluded? Why?

 

Those publications that encourage the reading and production of novels, plays and poetry should receive funding. Those publications capable of generating ‘reasonable’ profits from the marketplace should not. One of government’s most important roles is to provide useful/essential services that the private sector fails to provide. See Part One of this submission for justification of why literary journals should receive funding.

 

5. Should magazines and non-daily newspapers that have high levels of content and low corresponding advertising revenues receive more public support? (i.e. using an ad-to-editorial ratio)

 

Absolutely. A similar point is made above. Because the private sector does not provide adequate coverage of literature and books in Canada, and because book publishers and other advertisers fail to support literary culture, it is incumbent upon government, for reasons stated in Part One, to step in to ensure that a vibrant reading environment lives and breathes in this country.

 

6. Should the proposed program be expanded to support Web-only publications? Or should we continue with the current practice in the CMF of supporting digital ventures only for print-based publishers?

 

Very much the former. Although print publications are highly desirable, and support should be maintained to ensure that they continue to exist, excellent commentary and literary criticism is available in the literary blogosphere. Funding for legitimate literary bloggers should be made available.

This money again, as with print publications, should be earmarked for the production of written reviews and literary criticism, and where warranted, the production of serious (not promotional puffery) audio and video programming.

 

7. Should the proposed program put a greater emphasis on appropriate compensation for writers and other creators? If yes, how could this be done?

 

I have already indicated that this should very much be the case. High quality content is essential if the government, assuming this is a priority, wishes to succeed in promoting a healthy culture of literary reading. The easiest way to do this is for the government to provide funding for the production of book reviews and literary criticism. For example, writers/literary critics would first have to meet certain requirements to ensure seriousness of intent. Once qualified, they would be retained to produce criticism which, at minimum, would have to be posting on their own websites, at maximum with high traffic print/broadcast outlets and/or online mediums. Payment would be contingent upon meeting these objectives.

 

Admittedly this, in a way, constitutes government getting into the business, and as such may not fit with the philosophy of the current ruling party. But, given the importance of healthy community and democracy to Canada, and the threat that declining levels of literary reading pose to this valued way of life, I cannot think of a more important, nor indeed a more effective place in which to spend public money, than in the funding of literary journals/websites and the writing of literary criticism.

 

Please adopt my recommendations.

 

Thank you.

 

Yours sincerely,

Nigel Beale.
 

 

 

 
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One Response to “The Case for Public Funding of Literary Blogs and Book Reviewers”

  1. Kathleen Molloy Says:

    Hello Nigel, I’ve given your proposal some thought and responded as follows on my blog:       kathleenmolloy.offo.ca
    I agree with your recommendations but doubt that this government likes books in the first place.
    Kathleen Molloy, author – Dining with Death
    http://www.diningwithdeath.ca

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