Enemies of promise
“Whom the gods wish to destroy they first call promising.” That was Cyril Connolly in 1938, warning of the dangers threatening writers of the time. More specifically, in his ground-breaking part-memoir, part-critical volume Enemies of Promise, he listed over-production, the need for money, displacement activities (drink, drugs, sex and chatter), worldly success, and the ties of duty and domesticity.
So, 60 years later, what’s new? Writers continue to over-produce, with many novelists, for example, now under pressure to turn out yet another novel every 18 months. Or they are obliged to keep the pot boiling by putting together a coffee-table tome or an anthology dreamed up by the marketing department. Often this is the result of not enough return for literary effort. While writers have historically been condemned to a garret existence, in New Zealand the situation is exacerbated by the smallness of the market. Here, only a fortunate few can avoid the drudgery of a day job.
Displacement activities are of course as old as humanity itself, but in a literary sense they date back at least to Horace, famous for his restlessness. More recent culprits include Dr Johnson, Coleridge, Dylan Thomas, our own Maurice Duggan, and any of the rest of us with a weakness for gossip, the bottle, and the Box. As Connolly concluded, “There is but one crime; to escape from our talent”.
Worldly success brings with it at least two major evils: distraction from the task at hand, and inhibition. Rewarding as they may be, literary tours, festivals, and interviews are also time- and energy-consuming. We are all familiar with jet-lagged and slightly bemused international authors having to remind themselves that if it’s Tuesday it must be Auckland, and being hustled from interview to book-signing to reading. And if such success also comes too quickly, after a solitary novel, say, or collection of poems, the goose that passed the golden egg risks getting badly constipated, with the next book merely a shadow of the first or, in some cases, never appearing at all. Anthony Trollope clearly knew what he was talking about when he commented that “Success is a poison that should only be taken late in life, then only in small doses.”
And then there’s what Connolly called “the pram in the hall”. Sometimes hanging out the washing seems a more enticing proposition than that obstinate passage in your new play. And always the baby with colic will take precedence over those intractable lines in a current poem.
Today’s world, however, spawns further enemies of promise to writers, and just as deadly. These include the cult of personality, political correctness, and the weight of globalised popular culture. The cult of personality derives from the media need for a “story”. Too often, it seems, a talented writer will be seized on for non-literary reasons – such as their looks, their unusual background, or their studied eccentricity. While this might make good copy for journalists, it does nothing for the writer’s own development, their willingness to take risks, or indeed their capacity to be properly self-critical.
In a sense, political correctness is no new problem: writers have always had to work with one eye on the censor. But nowadays censorship tends to be rather more subtle. Most writers need no longer fear the heavy knock on the door in the early hours; instead their work is tacitly assessed (and if necessary suppressed) by literary gatekeepers, the academic thought police, editorial departments, and even the market itself.
Finally, we live in a world dominated by a monolithic and all-consuming popular culture. This is of course the popular culture that emanates from the United States, from which no part of the globe seems to be immune. Why bother to spend hours crafting a line or a sentence, when the greater part of the public craves the instant gratification of a Hollywood blockbuster, an airport thriller, or a video nasty – big bangs, big breasts, big bollocks, and all? In this disposable age, books are at best another throwaway commodity.
This is a problem that affects both the non-English-speaking world and other anglophone cultures like our own. Michael Billington in a recent Guardian article, speaking specifically about British theatre, deplored the “feverish obsession with everything American” and the danger of the United Kingdom “becoming the 51st state”. That danger is no less real for us. Our writers now have to contend not only with home-grown and internally generated distractions, but also with an externally imposed culture that cares nothing for literary quality and everything for the bottom line. Perhaps this constitutes the most threatening of all the enemies of promise.
Harry Ricketts & Bill Sewell