Sunday, 17 October 2010

Ken Loach's Inadvertent Point: A Call for Literary Jesters

The revered British film and television director Ken Loach has a slightly rambling comment piece in yesterday's Guardian about the sorry state of the film industry in the UK. He points out the dominance of Hollywood productions at British cinemas, writing:

Just imagine, if you went into the library and the bookshelves were stacked with 63% to 80% American fiction, 15% to 30% half-American, half-British fiction, and then all the other writers in the whole world just 3%. Imagine that in the art galleries, in terms of pictures; imagine it in the theatres. You can't, it is inconceivable – and yet this is what we do to the cinema, which we think is a most beautiful art.

Sadly, of course, Ken Loach is wrong. Because in terms of literary production, the figures are worse than this. It is not inconceivable that all the other writers in the world would take up 3% of shelf-space. Because fiction accounts for far less than the commonly quoted 3% figure for books published in translation - only nobody's counting, officially. But judging by Chad Post's statistics at Three Percent, 356 books of translated fiction and poetry were published in the United States last year, excluding retranslations of classics. There are no figures for the UK.

What does this tell us? That Britain and the United States are culturally insular, that it is not just foreign film that raises little interest but foreign writing as well. Loach blames television, which he says "has become the enemy of creativity," with "a pyramid of producers, executive producers, commissioning editors, heads of department, assistant heads of department, and so on, that sits on top of the group of people doing the work and stifles the life out of them." The obvious analogy for writing would have to be corporate publishing, an industry - like any other - looking for safe profits.

Thankfully, we still have people like Ken Loach to raise their voices on behalf of the creative little people. He suggests, for instance, putting cinemas in the public hand to make sure they are "programmed by people who care about films." A difficult task in today's cut-ridden Britain, where the recent axing of the UK Film Council suggests this is unlikely to happen. In terms of international literature, however, my own hope blooms eternal: the Arts Council is still struggling on, providing funding for small publishers releasing translations.

Ken Loach wouldn't be Ken Loach if he didn't have a combative message to end his piece. I'd like to adopt it wholeheartedly as a motto for all those working with and interested in world literature in the UK - translators, editors, small publishers, critics, booksellers, bloggers, and all of us readers:

Those of us who work in television and film have a role to be critical, to be challenging, to be rude, to be disturbing, not to be part of the establishment. We need to keep our independence. We need to be mischievous. We need to be challenging. We shouldn't take no for an answer. If we aren't there as the court jester or as the people with the questions they don't want asked who will be?

1 comment:

X. Trapnel said...

There seems to be just a bit of tension in his call for I don't mean to troll, but isn't there a bit of tension between the call for film sorts to be combative, distubing, & especially independent, when his policy recommendations involve municipal control of programming. I suppose the UK's robust civil service / independent-but-gov't-funded tradition makes this less of an issue, but it's still striking to American eyes.

There are econ-theory reasons to think that strong copyright protections are part of what pushes up budgets and thus biases the film world towards Holywood megabudget extravaganzas (vs. low-budget films that need to rely on acting, script, and ideas, without marketing, stars, or effects). This bias leads directly to the current American hegemony, simply because, of the English-speaking lands, it's the one with the best-established system for agglomerating these huge productions. Network effects, &c.

Alas, I doubt we'll see any scaling down of copyright craziness in the name of cultural pluralism anytime soon.

I do think it's generally worth thinking about whether readers, writers, and even translaters are really better off with translation being an exclusive right of copyright holders, rather than a "fair use" as it was in the US till 1870 & the UK till (I think) 1911.

(Sigh. Back in Germany; unpleasantly confronted with how even 4 weeks away can atrophy a beginner's language skills. Tried starting Zeh's 'Corpus Delicti' last night, but I think I'm still closer to 'Tintenherz' level...)