I was pleased to see the name Stewart Conn – at least I think it was Stewart Conn – on a list of 111 'leading' writers who have sent an open letter to selected newspapers calling on the Scottish government to protect public funding for the arts and literature. No one in my lifetime has done more for Scottish writers than Stewart Conn, who used his position of privilege at the BBC to support many of them financially, and also found time to write plays and poetry.
His surprising inclusion is, however, the only redeeming feature of the letter, and they couldn't even get that right. The list of signatories includes a Stuart Conn. I wondered at first if, in addition to Stewart Conn, we now boasted a Stuart of the same surname. But the only Stuart Conn I could find on the internet was a retired New Zealand rugby player. I doubt that he qualifies as a leading Scottish writer (though who knows?), so I am left to conclude that the organisers of the letter were so poorly informed of one of their own patrons – the most distinguished on the list – that the spelling of his name was beyond them.
Much else is beyond them, including the basic requirement that any letter in defence of literature should be well written.
Here are two sentences typical of the general style:
With more public support, writers can encourage diversity, inclusion and literacy, not to mention boosting Scotland’s economy.
Our books are an advertisement for Scotland, attracting tourists to visit the landmarks they’ve read about, and foreign students to come on summer schools here – not to mention the visitors who come especially for our festivals.
If a writer feels that something is not worth mentioning, it is best not to mention it – twice. 'Boosting Scotland’s economy' – a phrase straight from some low newspaper – is in the 'not to mention' class along with the scarcely-worth-mentioning 'visitors who come especially for our festivals.' If only our leading writers had somehow forgotten to mention 'landmarks they've read about.'
But sloppy prose is the least of it. The main objection to the letter is what it tells us about the approach of these writers to their own vocation. Clearly it is no longer enough that they do what they do solely as a creative response to some fresh insight into the human condition, or from the compulsion to tell a cracking tale, or even just for deep personal satisfaction and pots of money. There is no sign of any of that.
No. The purpose of writing in nationalist Scotland – the body politic to which the letter is really addressed – is to serve the interests of 'diversity and inclusion' (two of the laziest, least understood words in the language) and, more important still, to meet the urgent needs of our service economy.
Before Scottish writers think of anything else – plot, characterisation, atmosphere – they must remind themselves that they are in the product endorsement business and remember to include the 'landmarks' that will draw yet more Americans to the Highlands. A book is not merely a book any more. It now exists within a larger context, a patriotic one. It has been diminished to the status of a promotional tool of VisitScotland, 'an advertisement.' This suits the official agenda extremely well: literature as a branch of the tourist trade, innocuous, unchallenging, posing no threat to the established order.
Great literature is quite the opposite. But we are not talking here about great literature. We are talking about writing that serves some higher economic purpose and demands political patronage in return. The party that many if not most of the people on this list support – the party in power – may be contemplating a reduction in the amount of dosh available to writers. Even the politicians they have so assiduously courted and whose cause they have so passionately espoused cannot be wholly trusted. Shocking, isn't it?
Apart from the light it casts on the commercial motives behind modern Scottish writing, the letter is oddly self-centred. It claims to be an appeal on behalf of 'the arts and literature' but proceeds to say nothing about the arts. There is no subsequent mention – not even a 'not to mention' – of theatre, music, art, dance or film. For the practical purposes of this letter, the performing and visual arts might as well not exist.
Scotland's poor do merit an incidental reference. 'Of course there are difficult budget decisions to make in times of austerity...' Of course. And the chancellor of Scotland, or whatever he calls himself, might be forgiven for concluding that help for Scotland's starving writers is not one of his chief priorities, especially when he reads that J K Rowling – who is not one of the signatories – once received a grant from the Scottish Arts Council.
The letter ends by asking whether future generations will look back on the early 21st century and lament 'the absence of the next Muriel Spark, the next Robert Louis Stevenson, the next Edwin Morgan.' I am sure that Morgan did receive considerable public largesse in his time. I am less sure that Spark did. But it is little short of a miracle that RLS somehow completed, before his death at the age of 44, an impressive body of work without so much as a 'Get stuffed' from Creative Scotland.