This week at a reception in the literary lounge at the Banff Centre, a bunch of writers stood around doing what writers do best, apart from actually writing – drinking wine and bemoaning the future of literature.
Don’t besmirch it, people. This is our version of water-cooler companionship and, besides, ’twas ever thus. (Shelley and Coleridge weren’t known for playing squash in their spare time, were they?) And while such commiseration might sound defeatist to the uninitiated, it is, in fact, an important part of the literary psyche because a) times really are tough in the literary world and b) it makes us feel privately smug for having managed to cobble together a career in the so-called World of Letters despite a perceived ever-winnowing field of opportunity.
This feeling of nostalgic pessimism extends to every sector of the arts. I can attest to this because I went to a high school for the performing arts in Toronto in the 1990s. My first boyfriend was a classical violinist who would gather with friends for cigarettes after master classes on the steps of the Royal Conservatory and hum Chopin’s mournful Funeral March, so steeped were they the idea that the golden era of classical music was behind, rather than ahead of, them. My dancer friends were warned by their pointy, bun-headed teachers to prepare for a life of poverty, pain and, above all, obscurity. In my program, theatre, they drilled it into us that almost none of us would end up becoming working actors, not even those of us who had appeared in toothpaste commercials and mastered the art of “accessing our kernel of pain” in order to cry on cue.
This last point was true – certainly for me. I quit acting at 19, not because there weren’t any jobs or theatre schools, but because I realized I wasn’t much good at it and preferred reading plays to acting them out. Also, I reserved the right to get a bit fat if I felt like it without it impeding my livelihood. Similarly, most of the kids in my school did not become starving artists but slick lawyers, as I found out at my 10-year reunion a few years back.
Is this proof that our arts culture is in a state of perilous decline and that young people would be wise to trade in their creative dreams for degrees in computer science? On the contrary, it shows that a background in the arts can take you anywhere. As for the pessimism, creative types, like most people, tend to romanticize the past at the expense of the present and future. This sense that “the best days are behind us” is particularly seductive to my generation, a cohort steeped in the twin ideals of authenticity and early-adopterism. But the idea that nothing is of real cultural import after it has been discovered by the masses is not just bogus – it’s unoriginal. As Robert Graves observed in 1964, “The remarkable thing about Shakespeare is that he is really very good – in spite of all the people who say he is very good.”
This week, The New York Times reported that while shrinking home entertainment revenues have caused major cutbacks in the U.S. film industry, recessionary times have also driven up enrolment to film schools. The result? An arts glut of epic proportions. “The majority of students majoring in film and television will not be having careers in those professions,” said (in an e-mail) Stephen Ujlaki, the dean of Loyola Marymount’s School of Film and Television in an interview. “How about creating an environment which encourages creativity and risk-taking if you’re educating someone in the arts?”
The same could be said for the burgeoning academic field of creative writing in times when the publishing industry is shrinking or journalism schools churning out bright-eyed graduates into a media culture that is at best at a serious impasse, and at worst on the brink of disaster.
Robert Boynton, director of NYU’s literary reportage program and author of The New New Journalism, is familiar with the complaint that teaching a subject as seemingly rarefied as magazine writing is irresponsible in times of economic uncertainty. As luck would have it, he was also one of the writers drinking wine in the lounge in Banff (we are all here participating a month-long literary non-fiction residency). He listened to the collective grumbling, then pointed out an overlooked truth: The writing life (like any other creative path) has always been a tough, competitive slog – but in a time when people are consuming more culture than ever, new opportunities will invariably arise. “There’s never been such a hunger for interesting stuff to read,” he pointed out. “We just need to adjust to an evolving business model.” His personal prediction is that, in the wholly-digitalized future, journalism will be either very short and newsy or very long and literary – everything in the middle will disappear.
Similarly, today’s film graduates are looking to webisodes and experimental gaming as less traditional narrative forms that involve moving pictures.
As for all those teenage artsy-farts I went to high school with? As I mentioned, most took the sensible path and headed to Bay Street. But of those who didn’t, well, let’s see, one just opened a gallery, another is a professor of dance at Concordia, several are working actors, my old boyfriend is now a chamber musician in New York, another is a playwright, another an Oscar-nominated screenwriter and director. Most, if not all, of them have come through the Banff Centre, too.
Which is heartening news, even for a grumbling, wine-swilling writer like me.