Those who doubt

December 9, 2010

Rubbish – photograph by Liz Mathews

‘Let those who doubt that literature not only submerges us in the dream of beauty and happiness but alerts us to every kind of oppression, ask themselves why all regimes determined to control the behaviour of citizens from cradle to grave fear it so much that they establish systems of censorship to repress it, and keep so wary an eye on independent writers.’

This pertinent admonition is from Mario Vargas Llosa’s acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize for Literature.  (More of it on The Guardian book page.)

Those who doubt that his world view has any great relevance to writers in Britain might consider the strange case of the Public Lending Right, about which I wrote so eulogistically back in February 2010, when my payment was due.  The PLR has escaped relatively lightly, so far, in the cuts; payment per loan drops from 6.29p to 6.25p, which is variously interpreted as a 3% or 1% reduction (as the Society of Authors point out, this is merely a mathematical excercise).  More laborious calculation brings forth the figure of a 6% (or 10%) cut in real terms over the next four years.  All the figures are available on the PLR’s own website, where even a non-mathematician can see that the annual budget available from which to make the payments is considerably less in each successive year.

The ‘Culture Team’, and the various politicians who implement these matters, take the line that everyone else is losing income and funding, so why should authors be any exception?  What they haven’t managed to justify, or even begin to explain, is why the pay-out organisation itself  – PLR – should be abolished and its work transferred to some other body.  The PLR has done its job for over 30 years, in Stockton-on-Tees, with a staff of nine people plus the Registrar.  They spend 10% of the total budget on running costs (maybe less, after recent savings) – and it’s obvious that no other body could do their complicated and specialist task so cheaply and efficiently.  The cost of transferring the job elsewhere would be enormous, and the organisations to which it might be sent – the Arts Council, or the British Library, are among the suggestions – have already suffered cuts of their own, and will be hard put to it to fulfill their previous obligations, without taking on onerous new duties.

Many writers’ organisations have, of course, taken up arms; the PLR is uniquely popular for its ethos of politeness and respect towards authors.  Although PLR is acknowledged as a legal right, it still needs administrating, as well as funding, so to attack the way in which it gets handed out is a fundamental threat to its actual existence.  This is an indirect but very effective way of making it even more difficult to be an author in the future. Writers’ representatives also gave evidence to the select committee of enquiry on the ‘Funding of Arts and Heritage’  on 7th December, where they emphasised, again, the tiny budget allocated to ‘Literature, the work of our writers, acknowledged throughout the world as our greatest art…’ (as Maureen Duffy described it in her speech to the All Party Parliamentary Writers’ Group).

Despite all the action, the petitions and the statements of clear sense, the outcome seems unlikely to be good.  There might be a stay of execution, if it’s publicly acknowledged as blatantly nonsensical to cut such a model organisation – but since there was, evidently, never any reason to consider PLR a quango whose abolition would save money, it must be presumed that there were other motives for deciding that it must go. Which brings even those who doubt, by a circular path, back to the observation that there is an ideological distrust of writers at work here, from a regime not unrelated to those who ‘fear [literature] so much that they establish systems of censorship to repress it and keep so wary an eye on independent writers.’

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