What is the point of Colm Tóibín? Last year gaining headlines for his dismissal of genre fiction as un-literary, recently he and Anne Enright were to be found rejecting claims that writers should speak to “the politics of their time” in their work, and instead advocating for a position of rigorous non-commitment. “It’s the writer’s job”, they proffered in reply, “to look after their sentences.” The more culturally visible you are as a writer, the less politically answerable you become.
Of course among their many entitlements, Tóibín, a multi-award-winning member of the Royal Society of Literature, and Enright, a similarly accolade-harvesting professor of creative writing at UCD, have the right to form and express their own opinions – and indeed to write what (and as) they please. But this doesn’t mean that the prescriptive proclamations on the subject of literary production above should be accepted, reflexively, without criticism. If anything, the opposite is true.
Given their remarks, I’m curious to know how they would respond to a number of other related queries. For one: has there ever been a socially attuned writer, or politically engaged artist, who argues for the non-importance of aesthetic considerations to cultural creation? None other than Leon Trotsky asserted, in Literature and Revolution (1924), that “Art must make its own way and by its own means”, clarifying that while the social imperatives of revolutionary upheaval were potentially world-encompassing, “[the] form of art” remained “to a certain and very large degree independent” of such imperatives. “Please write about anything you can think of”, Trotsky encouraged his readers, while at the same cautioning against the arrogance of casting themselves (and the artworks they valued) as somehow aloof from history: “the artist who creates [literature] and the spectator who is enjoying it are not empty machines, one for creating form and the other for appreciating it. They are living people[.]” Trotsky’s argument is stimulating, and his literary style both passionate and refined – although, contra Tóibín and Enright, these qualities per se do not lessen the need to assess his politics (and more specifically, the decisions he made as commander of the Red Army) when he wrote the tract in question.
All this being said, it’s possible that our custodians of an apolitical, socially insulated Hiberno-English (if such a beast exists), these foremost members of the cult of linguistic self-solitude, would be more comfortable tinkering with the literary nuts and bolts of the charge. And so, to specifics. I wonder: are James Kelman’s searingly humane accounts of dignified lives in conflict with dehumanising social conditions less aesthetically complete for the political fire that fuels his approach? Should Audre Lorde’s lucid, soul-opening prose and vivid poetic distillations of pain and hope be held in contempt, treated with skepticism, for the fact that she wrote with a view to the institutions of silence and violence in her society, and not only from the facts of her personal experience? Are Ursula K. Le Guin’s incomparably vivid explorations of our multiverse – political and natural, real and imagined – so absorbing in spite of the philosophical anarchism and permeating anti-capitalism of her perspective, or at least partly because of these traits? And since when were the few authors who do manage to live – quite comfortably, in the case of Tóibín and Enright – on the proceeds of their writing, who are apparently recognised (and employed) wherever they go as prominent cultural figures, exempt from political commitment (beyond, that is, the promotional demands of their latest book tour)?
Rampaging though it may be, this last question actually strikes at the heart of the societal predicament that Tóibín’s and Enright’s comments expose. When did these writers (and at what juncture do writers in general) earn the right to ignore, disdain, absolve themselves from even acknowledging “the politics of their time”? The occasion for their remarks possibly offers some clues. Both writers were speaking in the wake of the announcement of their Rolex creative mentorships for the coming year, for which each will receive (according to the mentorship website) 100,000 Swiss francs from the luxury watch-and-jewellery giant – the same multinational that Human Rights Watch in 2018 red-flagged for refusing to disclose the human rights standards of its suppliers. Surely, you might ask, this is about as politically complicitous a position as any artist could hold? And yet it is in this context that both decided, not so much to sell out, as to buy in to the mystique: that writing not only can be apolitical (a staggeringly complacent claim to begin with), but that writers shouldn’t be bothered, in any sense, with their own relationship to the patterns and structures of power that define their moment.
Needless to say, but Tóibín’s and Enright’s stance is conservative, and painfully ironic, at best – if not outright disturbing. And the same may be said of the involvement of Colin Barrett in the whole affair: the wordsmith behind the mind-rending social and psychological dissections of Young Skins is to be one of the Rolex mentees, receiving up to 70,000 Swiss francs for his participation. In a world of endemic exploitation and escalating violence at every turn, it seems that these eminent litterateurs have adopted the (astoundingly cynical) attitude of their institutional patron. Ignore all that, says Rolex to its consuming public, just look at our diamonds. Forget all that, likewise say Ireland’s ever-recongealing literary elite to their audience and protegés, just look at our sentences, aren’t they nice?
By way of final response, the wisdom and example of Adrienne Rich may be of some assistance. “There is no simple formula for the relationship of art to justice,” she wrote after refusing America’s National Medal of the Arts in 1997, but “I know that art [means] nothing if it simply decorates the dinner table of power which holds it hostage” – a clause of our collective cultural contract that Tóibín, Enright, and Barrett seemingly neglected to consider.