Thursday, 31 March 2011

ACE cuts & Accountability

Yesterday morning, countless small poetry organisations found out their arts council funding had been removed entirely, while many larger, more lucrative establishments awoke to a fully replenished pot. Faber, this country's financially dominent poetry publisher, with a rather healthy line in middlebrow fiction, were awarded £160,000 of public money, despite their investment in new poets being far too little, far too late (eight pricey pamphlets over the last two to three years, none of which were permitted a title). A thus far mild recession has been used as the cover for an ideological attack on the arts by a government committed to the interests of big business and rather gamely hoping that the rest of civilisation will sort itself out.

In terms of the process behind these developments, the arts council has characterised its actions as a series of "tough decisions". Actually, their tack seems rather straightforward. The smaller, more socially progressive, less publicly visible organisations have been dumped, while those with a claim to being big stonking cultural institutions have largely escaped unharmed. It's a conservative redistribution of funds for a Conservative government.

On reading some of the justifiably outraged responses to this situation, however, there's a faint whiff of entitlement that undermines the case against this savagery. This piece in the Evening Standard bemoans the arts council's predisposition to favour poorer, more ethnically diverse areas, where, one might imagine, the money is most needed and the results easiest to ignore by an artistic establishment still in thrall to the image of the fiercely intellectual, explosively bigoted, white, male pensmith:

"So, let's get this right, I said. If I took over an old theatre east of London and put on a play about the slave trade starring West Indian actors... She interrupted: 'You'd get more money than you'd need.'
An organisation that is supposed to finance the arts sees itself as having some higher, missionary purpose, reaching out into places where there is little cultural life. No matter that the people who live there may not want it or that in pursuit of their sociopolitical endeavour they ignore artistic excellence."

Artistic excellence, eh? I wonder who gets to decide what fulfils that criteria, and according to what model.

Meanwhile, in today's Independent viewspaper, ACE is rightly taken to task for cutting the funding to the Poetry Book Society. But despite having an obviously rightous case to make, John Walsh can't resist tossing out some suspicious-looking assertions:

"For nearly 60 years, the PBS's distinguished judges (Philip Larkin was chairman in the 1980s) have steered the nation's poetry-lovers towards the best stuff around ... The Poetry Book Society has for 57 years kept us up to speed about our finest home-grown poets, and rewarded them every year."

If there's one thing you don't do when rallying to an organisation's cause, it's inadvertently point out its failings. One of the PBS's main problems in recent years has been its stylistically stilted tastes and failure to embrace the fuller range of British poetry. This holds true for both its book club recommendations and the TS Eliot shortlist, which has cycled through many of the same big names whilst entirely ignoring the majority of publishers. The idea of a list which doesn't feature at least two or three Faber books, the rest being made up chiefly of Carcanet, Bloodaxe and Picador, apparently doesn't bear thinking about. After all, these presses stand for 'artistic excellence', to the point where one genuinely doubts that all or even most poetry books published every year in this country are so much as glanced at by those elected to pick the 'best'.

This may even have been a concern of ACE in arriving at their decision. An extremely pissed off George Szirtes insinuated as such in his blog post on the subject:

"The Arts Council sent out an observer who could not have done a better of job of stabbing the organisation in the back if she had been paid to do it. Her report was grudgingly complimentary but noted that she would not have had quite that shortlist ..."

Then he tellingly adds:

"... (as if it was any business of hers to comment on it, ignoring the fact that there were two Nobel Prize winners on same list) ..."

Ah! Naturally, the shortlist can't be questioned if it has Nobel Prize winners in it, certainly not by someone who Szirtes "wouldn't particularly trust to make any judgment on poetry".

Who would he trust to make judgements on poetry? Perhaps someone like Ruth Padel, the chair of the 2010 Forward Prize committee, who went on to give a glowing review of one of the shortlisted titles (Fiona Sampson's 'Rough Music') in a mainstream paper and subsequently made a prominent appearance in Poetry Review, which Sampson edits, all while the prize was still in play. Private Eye picked up on this and noted that "only in zany poetry world" could such blatant back-scratching go on.

Perhaps someone like Szirtes himself, who has just judged the National Poetry Competition. He's objective and he knows about poetry, right? Well, after putting the following point to him in response to this point on his blog -

"Actually, I think this is exactly the sort of area they should be sticking their noses in. Not to find an excuse to cut funding, which is the way they seem to have played it, but to introduce some kind of accountability to the process. Really, though, a comment along the lines of "I would have picked different" is piss-poor - I mean something more like a rigorous assessment of the diversity of the shortlist over a number of years, particularly in terms of publishers, women and minority groups. Sadly, I think they could well have made a case for the actual prize-giving being tunnel-visioned and conservative, and published their findings."

- I more-or-less immediately received the following pair of responses: 

"I was about to type something rude here for you, Jon. Please don't bother coming here again. From now on I shall be deleting your snide little comments."

"You have a bloody nerve to talk about accountability! You certainly know how to pick your language! Would you like to make a charge of unaccountability or improper conduct now in public?"

Now, the National Poetry Prize is supposedly judged anonymously, and I was highly commended in it last year. But all of a sudden, I feel very, very much like I picked the right year. What are the chances, honestly, of a judging panel with Szirtes on it ever considering anything by me for a prize again? You can call this crazy paranoia, if you wish - I've heard enough now from other people's experiences with Szirtes to consider this view a reasonable one. (edit: Just to make clear, I'm not suggesting here that I've heard any inside info hinting that Szirtes has been a corrupt judge - just tales of other people's personal experiences in dealing with him, the underlying point being: if this is how he reacts to confrontation, why is he inherently likely to be a more objective, even-handed judge than the ACE officer whom he feels has no business commenting on the merits of certain poetry?)

Of course, it's this threat that hangs in the air and dissuades younger or newer poets from being forthright about serious problems of credibility within the poetry world. How easy is it to have your name repeated in higher circles (those likely to find themselves recipients and judges of prizes) as one of those trouble-makers who is best entirely ignored, for the sake of maintaining the standard of 'artistic excellence'?

All of which is to come to this point: the cuts are abrupt and highly damaging, but some accountability has to be called for. That arts organisations are run in such a way as to continually depend on public money is regrettable, though in some cases, one has to concede, unavoidable. But whilst the removal of funding from the Poetry Book Society is a terrible thing, the threat of the removal of funding should have been there from the beginning in the case of any organisation that couldn't adequately demonstrate a serious commitment to that "higher, missionary purpose" so off-putting to the Standard's correspondent. At its lowest, that higher purpose should be impartiality, a test which so many poet-judges seem to mistake for having a fixed and narrow idea of what "artistic excellence" should look like. Instead of accusers being put to proof ("Show us the minutes of the clandestine meetings then! Go on!"), the burden should be on the other side to show the effort that has gone into reaching beyond personal tastes and concentric circles of acquaintances.

Making this a central criterium of funding - and transparently so - would have been hugely preferable to the razing of the least visible organisations. In poetry's case, that might mean someone occasionally saying, "This book did absolutely nothing for me, but I have to admit that it was extremely well written." Can you imagine a poet saying that? I genuinely wonder, based on the general standard of rhetoric in criticism, articles and judge's reports, how many are even capable of envisaging such a concept, since instead the general standard of judgment seems to be personal emotional response.

And yet I would say that editors like Neil Astley and Chris Hamilton-Emery do place an emphasis on inclusivity that whould fulfil such a criteria. In Bloodaxe's case, they fully deserve their relatively small amount of funding (Neil Astley once gave a very full and generous response on this blog to my suggestion that the money would be better off elsewhere), although staking their survival on its continuance is, I feel, a dangerous game. If we have to accept the situation we've been forced into by a government with sinister and wrong-headed priorities, then an infinitely better scenario would have been putting the various arts instituions on notice and giving them a chance to prepare for a world without funding. I suspect that many who think they can't survive without it could, given sufficient warning and an adequate reason, find a way to go on. At the same time, making them fight to be recognised as the most progressive and open-minded, as opposed to the most pompous and jewel-encrusted, can only be a good thing.

Oh, and for what it's worth, George Szirtes' 'Reel', which won the 2004 TS Eliot prize, is an excellent book, which I highly recommend.


George S said...

Well done, Jon. So would you like to make a long catalogue of those whose lives I have so blighted? I await it with bated breath. There are people I have fallen out with but they have never suffered anything in their poetry as a result. Would you like to give details of that? If you don't that is a smear and possibly a slander.

I have judged the Eliot once and don't expect to judge it again. Most entries to most competitions are anonymous and I have had no complaints from either competition.

I have not tried to smear you, so why should you try to smear me? Can't you see these organisations are fighting for their lives?

In any case, I remind you, you are slandering me by accusing me of taking biased judgments in public arenas - ie not playing fair in public competitions, and that potentially is quite serious.

I'll take a copy of this note and of your comments. I won't do anything. Don't be afraid, you are not being threatened.

In the case of your poetry, if I may make you a similar compliment, I think it's good. But in no way is it anywhere off the spectrum for mainstream.

Jon Stone said...

George, in reverse order: no, my poetry is not off the spectrum of the mainstream. Much of it is quite comfortably within the mainstream, and hugely influenced by many mainstream writers, including TS Eliot winners. I'm also a young, white male, so in theory, I should be entirely comfortable with the status quo as giving me the best shot at some success. The only reason I'm not is because I genuinely don't think it's fair.

"Don't be afraid, you are not being threatened."

To say this is one thing. Coming after the previous row of sentences, it seems rather like you want to have your cake and eat it.

As for slander, what exactly do you think I'm accusing you of? I think this post highlights two things -

1) I generally don't trust people to be fair-minded when they behave in the ways I've highlighted (this includes both your over-reaction to my opinions, and the Padel/Sampson exchanges). It's simple transposition - if someone can't see something is inappropriate in one circumstance, then how do they know when something is inappropriate in another?

2) I think the onus is on judges and organisations to demonstrate their even-handedness, not to hide behind a mantra of "You can't prove nothin'"

It's not good enough to simply demand that everyone cite their hard evidence or cease their 'slander'. If I think things look dodgy, I'm entitled to say I do, and explain why, and if that rationale appears shaky, then people don't have to believe me. It would be different if I were regarded as any kind of authority, but I hang my hat only on how well I make the point. Precisely no one is going to just go along with what I say against their better judgement.

True enough, you haven't attempted to 'smear' me - just made a series of ill-judged and contemptuous comments that should be beneath someone of your standing. I don't intend to say anything more on what I've been told that makes me feel it goes beyond the two of us getting off on the wrong foot - people reading this post can decide whether they want to attach any weight to hazy hearsay. I can only say, straight from me to you, that I would happily put our two acrimonious encounters down to problems with 'tone' on the internet, and emotions running high around the cuts, but for what I've subsequently been told.

David Floyd said...


I don't what to comment on individuals but I think it's a mistake to (possibly inadvertently) suggest that leading figures 'the poetry establishment' - a term I'm using because a better one isn't available - are either (a) objective or (b) fundamentally driven by personal grudges and hidden bias.

I don't either is likely to be very close to the truth.

Leading figures in UK poetry are clearly not the first bunch of people to be guilty of failing to find a universally accepted objective measure for the value of a particular art form. Not sure there's any point appearing to knock them for that.

Beyond that, I'm happy to simultaneously agree with your general critique of poetry establishment conservatism while believing that the vast majority of those involved are decent, well intentioned people who just happen to have some different tastes and ideas to me (and contribute much that we should be grateful for).

I think it would be counter-productive if positive suggestions about how the poetry scene could refresh itself - and more of the available support be channeled to a wider range of voices in writing, publishing and competition judging - are allowed to degenerate into personal attacks on current leading figures.

Jon Stone said...

George - as a PS, if it wasn't clear before, I make it clear now that the other input I've had is not related to any position you've held as a judge or selector. It relates to other people's personal experiences with you, which happens to add up, in my mind, to a picture of a lack of even-handedness that I feel justifies a fear - nothing more - that were you to find yourself reading my work for a competition, you would not be able to put aside your issues with me.

David - I don't mean to suggest (b) but I think perhaps my straying into that area needs to be read in the wider context of the post. George implicitly suggests with his remark in brackets that it isn't ACE's business (or, we can suppose, anyone else's) to assess the merits of a shortlist, that this is to be left to better qualified individuals such as, presumably, himself and Padel. My underlying point is that the behaviours I cite don't incline me to trust the judgments of these individuals on some sort of until-proven-otherwise basis, and that I think it can only be a good thing if there were an incentive for the establishment to actively demonstrate and strive for a continued lack of partiality, rather than to suggest it should be the automatic presumption (especially when funded by public money) until someone produces some sort of secret transcript.

I don't need to say that they are *particularly* susceptible to a lack of objectivity, only that they are not demonstrably *less* susceptible than someone else (say, an agent of ACE sent to, as George would have it, stab them in the back). But the standard of judging prestigious prizes whilst being funded by public money should demand a demonstration of less susceptibility to human failing, in my opinion, and there are ways to fulfil this quota. Let's hear from next year's judges which their favourite Shearsman book was, for instance, or a personal account of how firmly they kept in their minds the importance of carefully considering less mainstream books. That is not, in my mind, a particularly high standard of accountability; it's a reasonable one.

Jon Stone said...

Ah, one more thing. I'm perfectly happy to believe that the majority of leading figures are "decent, well intentioned people", including George Szirtes. Unfortunately, I think being decent and well intentioned on its own is extremely conducive to a lack of even-handedness. We, as decent, well-intentioned people, try to help those closest to us and selflessly promote our causes, to the point of aggressively defending them (both friends and causes) against those factors whose intervention may throw things out of balance.