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The Literary Agenda

Literature and the Public Good


The Literary Agenda

Literature and the

Public Good


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Rick Rylance 2016
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To my daughter Annie, with great love


Series Introduction

The Crisis in, the Threat to, the Plight of the Humanities: enter these
phrases in Googles search engine and there are 23 million results, in a
great fifty-year-long cry of distress, outrage, fear, and melancholy.
Grant, even, that every single anxiety and complaint in that catalogue
of woe is fully justifiedthe lack of public support for the arts, the
cutbacks in government funding for the humanities, the imminent
transformation of a literary and verbal culture by visual/virtual/digital
media, the decline of reading...And still, though it were all true, and
just because it might be, there would remain the problem of the
response itself. Too often theres recourse to the shrill moan of offended
piety or a defeatist withdrawal into professionalism.
The Literary Agenda is a series of short polemical monographs that
believes there is a great deal that needs to be said about the state of
literary education inside schools and universities and more fundamen-
tally about the importance of literature and of reading in the wider
world. The category of the literary has always been contentious.
What is clear, however, is how increasingly it is dismissed or is unrec-
ognised as a way of thinking or an arena for thought. It is sceptically
challenged from within, for example, by the sometimes rival claims of
cultural history, contextualized explanation, or media studies. It is
shaken from without by even greater pressures: by economic exigency
and the severe social attitudes that can follow from it; by technological
change that may leave the traditional forms of serious human commu-
nication looking merely antiquated. For just these reasons this is the
right time for renewal, to start reinvigorated work into the meaning
and value of literary reading for the sake of the future.
It is certainly no time to retreat within institutional walls. For all the
academic resistance to instrumentalism, to governmental measure-
ments of public impact and practical utility, literature exists in and
across society. The literary is not pure or specialized or self-confined;
it is not restricted to the practitioner in writing or the academic in
studying. It exists in the whole range of the world which is its subject-
matter: it consists in what non-writers actively receive from writings

viii Series Introduction

when, for example, they start to see the world more imaginatively as a
result of reading novels and begin to think more carefully about
human personality. It comes from literature making available much of
human life that would not otherwise be existent to thought or recog-
nizable as knowledge. If it is true that involvement in literature, so far
from being a minority aesthetic, represents a significant contribution
to the life of human thought, then that idea has to be argued at the
public level without succumbing to a hollow rhetoric or bowing to a
reductive world-view. Hence the effort of this series to take its place
between literature and the world. The double-sided commitment to
occupying that place and establishing its reality is the only agenda
here, without further prescription as to what should then be thought
or done within it.
What is at stake is not simply some defensive or apologetic justifi-
cation in the abstract. The case as to why literature matters in
theworld not only has to be argued conceptually and strongly tested
by thought, it should be given presence, performed and brought to life
in the way that literature itself does. That is why this series includes
the writers themselves, the novelists and poets, in order to try to
closethegap between the thinking of the artists and the thinking of
those who read and study them. It is why it also involves other kinds
of thinkersthe philosopher, the theologian, the psychologist, the
neuro-scientistexamining the role of literature within their own
lifes work and thought, and the effect of that work, in turn, upon liter-
ary thinking. This series admits and encourages personal voices in an
unpredictable variety of individual approach and expression, speaking
wherever possible across countries and disciplines and temperaments.
It aims for something more than intellectual assent: rather the literary
sense of what it is like to feel the thought, to embody an idea in a person,
to bring it to being in a narrative or in aid of adventurous reflection. If
the artists refer to their own works, if other thinkers return to ideas that
have marked much of their working life, that is not their vanity nor a
failure of originality. It is what the series has asked of them: to speak out
of what they know and care about, in whatever language can best serve
their most serious thinking, and without the necessity of trying to cover
every issue or meet every objection in each volume.
Philip Davis


Introduction: Platforms  1
1. Value Problems 9
I. A Theft 9
II. Costs and Benefits 11
III. Books and Benefits 21
IV. The Public Good 27
V. Who Reads? 30
VI. Screening Out? 32
VII. All the Instruments Agree... 40
2. Some Answers 55
I. Plato 55
II. Sir Philip Sidney 64
III. A Peacock and His Tail 70
IV. And After 80
3. Money 89
I. Revenues 90
II. Money 105
4. Goods 131
I. Three Types of Good 131
II. The Price of Literature 138
III. Old Misery 153
5. The Power of Empathy 163
I. Ambiguity and a Celebration 163
II. Hardship and Beyond 170
III. The Worlds of Others 179
IV. Being You 186

Acknowledgements 203
Bibliography 205
Index 219


At first I thought she might fall. Engrossed in her book and close to
aplatform edge, her eyes rove greedily over the central chapters of
Middlemarch at 7.00 a.m. on the London Tube. The book is close to her
face; she is oblivious to the roar of the arriving train which lies on the
other side of the silence of reading; her clothes billow. The train stops,
she wheels aboard in a practised way, the fate of Dorothea Brooke
and the others entirely absorbing her in the crush.
The next day, travelling later, I get a seat, rare in London. The chap
sitting next to me is reading. I glance sideways. He is reading Moby Dick,
and as deep in it as the sea. I look around the carriage. Of the sixteen
people in my section, nine are reading; four are sleeping, staring, or
fiddling with their luggage; two are playing games on their mobile
phones with twitchy intensity; and one (me) is looking at them all.
Nine of sixteen is 56 per cent, which is close enough to the average
proportion of British peopleabout two-thirdswho read books
regularly (see Chapter3). These nine are not all reading books, but
ofthose who are there is an interesting array of titles: three novels,
something called The Puzzle of Ethics, a book to teach oneself Russian,
something large whose title is obscured by the readers hand, and
another on a tablet device. You can see it is fiction from the page layout
but its too far away to see what it is. It is said that the textual anonym-
ity of screen readers allows people to read erotica like E. L. Jamess
Fifty Shades of Grey in public. This chap doesnt look the type. Two
others are reading free newspapers. One is doing what looks like late
homework. One of the non-readers gets out a magazine. The train
sways and rattles into a station. Someone gets on and settles deep into
an Ian McEwan, his earpieces hissing with ferocious music.

2 Literature and the Public Good

I look above their heads. Among ads for Internet dating sites, fast
food delivery, and strange and unnecessary medicines, are ones for
audio books: she is travelling with a killer...; his journey is full of
danger...; she is waiting to discover Mr Right...; Hes off to a
different galaxy.... Sometimes (always pleasing) there are Poems on
the Undergrounda set of striking and nicely designed posters for
passengers to contemplate. Launched in 1986, there are fewer now,
but they are still Golden in the heydays of his eyesa line from
Dylan Thomass Fern Hill, the one that happens to be before me.
Transport for London (Tf L), which runs the Tube, has taken to its
own poetry. Admonitory ditties with cartoonish line drawings sprinkle
trains and platforms telling one how to behave, what to do if you get
sick, and not to eat smelly food. One goes:
We really do not mean to chide
But try to move along inside,
So fellow travellers wont have to face
An invasion of their personal space.
The cartoon features a young woman so absorbed in her book she
blocks the aisle leaving passengers fuming behind her. Tf L is open to
Writing a poem, limerick or rhyme
Is a lovely way to pass the time.
If you havent a subject yet
May we suggest travel etiquette?
Tell us in verse whats wrong or right
And you could end-up on a poster site.
You may want to have a go at TFL.gov.uk/writeapoem. Its better
than consumer questionnaires.
The Tube has always been a congenial home for reading and writing.
Railway reading was boosted by the nineteenth- and twentieth-century
growth in more rapid commuting. This influenced genres (the growth
of the short story) and literary institutions. In their different ways
W. H. Smith and Penguin are said to have origins on train station
platforms. In recent times, Tf L sometimes distributes little pamphlets
for particular occasions like the centenary of the outbreak of the First
World War in 2014. The pamphlet, War Poems on the Underground, had
full text work by Owen, Sassoon, and others, and more recent verse.

Introduction: Platforms 3
You can pick it up for free from racks offering Tube maps and warnings
about planned engineering works. Tf L offers a free audio book on
their website, and 2015 was declared Summer of Penguin, celebrating
the publishers eightieth birthday with two free bite-size reading morsels,
perfect to enjoy on your commute.
I reach my destination. The station walls are thick with adverts for
novels hoping to be bestsellers. Over a year I observe how they change,
from beach reads as the summer approaches, to curling up with a rug
and a glass of wine as winter comes. Celebrity authors are always
popular: the new Philippa Gregory, Dan Brown, John le Carr, or
Hilary Mantel. So is anything endorsed by the Richard and Judy
Bookclub, filmed, or featured on TV. Eclectic endorsements, from
broadsheet reviews to Good Housekeeping, are prominent. These are large
posters, nearly as large as house doors. Some stations feature reading
more intensively than others and one might deduce the recreational
demography, maybe the educational history, of a district from the ads at
the local station. I see from one poster that the South Bank Centre, as
part of its London Literary Festival, is putting on a four-day reading of
Moby Dick by actors and writers in relay, something done earlier at the
Merseyside Maritime Museum. I should tell my neighbour on the train.
Rising up the escalator, the posters are smaller but still promote
reading matter. There are also adverts for other kinds of literary
event, particularly theatre. Theatrical posters are as ubiquitous as
spots of chewing gum. I notice four in a line: The Commitments (based
on Roddy Doyles novel); War Horse (based on Michael Morpurgos
novel); The Importance of Being Earnest; and several Shakespeares at the
Globe. I look across. On the downward-side are The Curious Incident of
the Dog in the Night-time (novel by Mark Haddon), a P. G. Wodehouse
spin-off, and The Woman in Black (novel by Susan Hill). There is a lot of
childrens theatre: Matilda, Hetty Feather, Wind in the Willows, Snowman,
Mary Poppinsall based on written texts, as are the musicals: Phantom
of the Opera, Les Misrables, Cats. One may want to distinguish between
Shakespeare and Aliens Love Underpants but the London Tube is an
environment saturated by literature. During the London Blitz of
19401, when Londoners sheltered underground, fifty-two lending
libraries were opened in the Tube.1
Poets write about it, of course, from early twentieth-century Imagist
poems, through T. S. Eliots East Coker, to Seamus Heaneys The

4 Literature and the Public Good

Underground, which reworks the Orpheus myth. There is fiction too,
and film. The sixties Counter Cultural writer and activist Alexander
Trocchi planned a poster magazine on rented advertisement panels
called The Moving Times. London Transport (as it then was) declined to
rent him the space, so Trocchi distributed it by hand.2 Peter Ackroyd
recounts a 2010 project called Alight Here which collected poems
about particular stations (p. 152). Commentators remark on the inter-
penetration of the solitary and the communal in reading on the Tube,
and the way it mixes social memory, as you travel through historic
locations, with introspection. John Lanchesters 2013 book on the
District Line (one of twelve Penguin volumes by distinguished writers,
each about a different line), states that there are 1.1 billion journeys on
the Tube each year and 3.5 million each day; 600,000 people travel
onthe network at any one time (which therefore has more people than
Glasgow, the UKs fourth biggest city); and, of these, he estimates,
875,000 (a quarter of the daily travelling population) read at least
twice daily.3 So publishers have a market to reach for. It is saidtruly
or not I dont knowthat publishers or their advertisers plant con-
spicuous readers in train carriages to flaunt a promoted book.
The Tf L accounts report that 169.5 million was earned from
advertising in 201415. It has 31,000 poster sites and, on 4 December
2015, a record 4,821,000 passengers travelled on the Tube in one day.
Advertising rates depend on many variables, including whether the ad
is placed on the train or the platform, in the booking hall or corridors,
in the lift or on the floor (as a floor graphic). It is a heavily segmented
provision. The location of the station is important (does it have inter-
secting lines for instance?), as is the station footfall where prices
discriminate between 512 million or over 12 million passengers
annually. Costs vary by the season, and whether the ads are paper
posters or moving screen (called illuminated galleries), to be found
on some escalators. How many ads are taken in a batch is influential,
as is the negotiating power of the handling agency. A typical cost for
posters at 2015 prices might be 67k for forty-eight sheets and 170k for
site rental. Panel adverts on trains cost 52k for four weeks. Advertising
in the top ten so-called Platinum Stations (mainly in central enter-
tainment districts) carry a premium. Oxford Circus, Londons busiest
station (which carries 100 million passengers a year and was closed
113 times in 2015 because of congestion) costs 265k a month for

Introduction: Platforms 5
displays on five ways and entrance domination. By contrast, adverts
on the Tyne and Wear Metro in north-east England cost 410k for
the same period. So there is gold in these escalators and poster sites.
(The price information was disclosed to me by an advertising insider,
incidentally, and is not citeable.)
A number of things are clear from this. That literature has a promi-
nent public presence; that it carries a significant economic signature; and
that it negotiates between the privacy and inwardness of an individuals
reading and the public formation in which it participates and on which
it draws. These will be central themesplatformsin this book.

Immersive reading is not a retreat from public life, nor its opponent.
There is no choice to be made on this, and this book opposes views
that require one to be an intrinsicist or an instrumentalist in how
one regards art. These are unnecessary and unhelpful alternatives.
The Victorian psychologist G. H. Lewes has a wonderfully telling
image for the way one thinks about the relation of mind to brain. One
does not needas so many of his contemporaries didto choose
between them, boosting mind to the glory of God and the human
race, or reducing mind to the after-effects of living matter. The two
are, Lewes says, like the convex and concave surfaces of a sphere. One
can discriminate between them, but not separate them.4 When one is
deeply immersed in a book on the London Tube, the world may roll
away mentally, but one is still in it, surrounded by the commerce of
the book trade. The opportunities for new reading are offered. Others
are busy in the same way. Sometimes strangers ask about your reading;
they would like to know about it too.
In much of the material presented in this book, literature is deeply
embedded and consequential. To my mind, seeing private experience
and public presence as hostile to each other, or unaccommodating, is
as untrue in argument as it is in fact. The case will be argued as we
proceed, but the often testy opposition of aesthetic values to utilitar-
ian ones is false, except as part of a rather elderly debate. I cannot see
why private enthusiasm and public benefit are mutually exclusive.
A work of literature exists in the mind of its reader with pleasure,
excitement, and joy; simultaneously it has public presence bringing
those things to others and staging continuously the great debates of

6 Literature and the Public Good

our or any era. Literature contributes to this, to individual nurturing
and well-being, and to prosperity both economic and cultural. It is
among the greatest of assets which we enjoy and which we depreciate
at our peril. It is a public good and a gift to the world.
What is a public good? Subtler answers to this question will be
discussed in Chapters 1 and 4. But for now we might note that both
words are challenging. The reading public, sometimes characterized
as marginal or elite, is in fact the majority of the population in the
UK. So reading and literature touch most of us, either directly through
our reading, or indirectly in ways described in Chapters 3 and 4.
Public is also opposed to private, and reading, especially literary
reading, can be characterized, not least by some of its champions, as
sensitive, inward, and withdrawn, a compensation for the rough and
inimical ways of the world. We will encounter some of this in what
follows, and, if one reflects on ones own experience, we can see truth
in it. Reading through childhood (as described in Chapter5) and into
older years, retains this authority, and I doubt it would carry its social
effects so powerfully without it. But private reading, though precious,
is not comprehensive as an account of the way literature functions in
our lives, any more than the literary text alone is sufficient without
understanding context and purpose. Public therefore includes the
range of engagements in which literature has presence in society, and
the open and necessary debate to which it contributes about what is
good or otherwise. Chapter 4 sets out other ways in which good
might be understood in this context, and I wont trespass upon it,
except to note that valuing good literaturethat is works in lan-
guage that quicken our hearts and minds, create beauty, and allow us
to rethink the worldcannot be other than essential for the books
argument, as for life.
This book has nothing so austere as a method, nor so grave as a
theory. It has a way of proceeding which, no doubt hubristically, I like
to compare to that of the great American anthropologist Clifford
Geertzs idea of thick description.5 I have therefore accumulated
material in some places to render the texture of current debate, pay-
ing attention to diverse sources, including those produced outside
mainstream academia in the so-called grey literature (research pro-
duced for specific purposes by policy units, think tanks, and the like)
and from an eclectic range of disciplines. Sometimes this can be

Introduction: Platforms 7
expressed as lists which, more than one friendly reader has remarked,
do accumulate. But I wanted to offer this sense of the thick presence
of literature and the unresolved complexity of reasoning in some of
the argument. If it is not to your taste, I encourage readers to acquire
skills developed by the late-nineteenth-century autodidact George
Acorn noted in Chapter5. Acorn was troubled by doctrinal literature
and it was necessary in self-defense to pick out the interesting
parts...a practice at which I became very dexterous. I feature some
close and detailed analysis of literary texts in the same spirit of thick-
ness. It would be odd in a book recommending the value of immersive
reading not to do so.
As noted, there is plentiful historical debate about the public benefit
of literature and of culture more generally. The sheer scale of this,
both now and over time, illustrates how important the issue is for us
and our society. It is not and never has been a matter of mere academic
debate, in that unnecessarily pejorative sense people use. Today, and
probably always, discussions are held by practitioners, policymakers,
and politicians daily, as well as ordinary people. They write papers
including, as I write, a seventy-page UK government publication, The
Culture White Paper Presented to Parliamentary by the Secretary of
State for Culture, Media & Sport by Command of Her Majesty6
and they argue about funding, priorities, and benefits. This book
pays selective attention to this over time, perhaps disproportionately
attending to recent deliberations at the expense of more lasting and
weighty figures such as Matthew Arnold who only smiles or scowls
from the wings. But space permits only so much, and Arnolds views,
and those of others of similar importance, will be known already to
most readers. I have tried to shuttle between recent debates and their
ancestors to give a sense of continuity as well as to illuminate the pres-
ent through the past.
The book is structured as follows: Chapter 1 discusses Value
Problems in reflections on the benefits of literature, while Chapter2
looks at selected responses to that problem over time. Chapters 3
and 4 examine the economics of literature, and the literary commu-
nitys complex attitude to this economic power. I argue that the
worth of theliterary economy has been under-appreciated and look
at literary responses to the financial crisis of 2008, the most urgent
and far-reaching of our time. Chapter 4 develops a more general

8 Literature and the Public Good

discussion of what we mean by a good. Chapter5 returns to the
reading of texts and how they shape our individual and collective
lives for the better.

I am aware that the London Tube is atypical in intensity, volume,
andsheer economic clout, as well as for demographic reasons. But, as
commentators always note, it has great metaphoric power. Writers
exploit this of course, as Heaney does in the poem mentioned above.
My observations of people reading were initially innocent of purpose,
but, as time and trains rolled on, reading on the Tube seemed com-
pelling not only as a metaphor but as a practice. That this practice
isbothpersonally immersive, but also immersed in public activity, is

1. Peter Ackroyd, London Under (London, Vintage, 2012), p. 171.
2. David Ashford, London Underground: A Cultural History (Liverpool, Liverpool University
Press, 2013), pp. 1456.
3. John Lanchester, What We Talk About When We Talk about the Tube: The District Line
(London, Penguin, 2013), pp.756, 82.
4. G. H. Lewes, Problems of Life and Mind: First Series: The Foundations of a Creed, 2 vols
(London, Trbner, 1874), vol. I, p. 112.
5. Clifford Geertz, Thick Description: Towards an Interpretative Theory of Culture
in The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays (London, Fontana, 1993), pp. 330.
6. https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/
509942/DCMS_The_Culture_White_Paper__1_.pdf (accessed 21/4/16).

Value Problems

I. A Theft
On the night of 1920 December 2011, thieves drove into Dulwich
Park in south London, unloaded their equipment, cut from its base
Barbara Hepworths 1970, seven-foot, bronze Two Forms (Divided
Circle), loaded it on their truck, and escaped. They left a concrete
plinth and two metal residues the size and shape of cow pats. Police
believe the sculpture was stolen for scrap and it has not been recovered.
Increasingly in the UK, thieves target public assets and facilities
sculptures, war memorials, manhole covers, railway lines, utility cables,
street signs, school and hospital equipment, church roofs, and arte-
facts such as crosses, crucifixes, and lecterns. These are sold as
antiques or, more usually, to feed the growing world demand for
basic metals. The police estimate that the thefts cost the UK around
700 million a year and, to give one indication, ecclesiastical insurance
claims rose by 50 per cent in 2011. Hepworths sculpture was insured
for half a million poundsway below its likely price at auctionbut
its scrap value was probably no more than a few hundred as scrap
bronze then fetched about 2.50 a kilo. The global economy came
that night to a poor London borough and took some metaland a
work of art.
The robbery received wide attention in the UK media and
prompted recollection of similar stories stretching back to a high-profile
theft in 2005 of a two-ton reclining figure by Henry Moore from a
Hertfordshire village. Its estimated meltdown value was 1,500,
which was subsequently confirmed to be its fate. It was traced from
Essex scrap dealer to Essex scrap dealer before ending up in Rotterdam.
Its art market value was somewhere in the region of 3 million.
A month later, a monumental Lynn Chadwick bronze (market value

10 Literature and the Public Good

around 300,000; scrap value about 1,000) was stolen from
Roehampton University. In July 2012, a Moore sundial, estimated to
be worth half a million pounds, was sold to a scrap dealer for 46.
The thoughtful dealer contacted the police and two men were jailed
for twelve months each. In October 2013, a Moore bronze was stolen
from an open-air site in Dumfries in Scotland and has not been recov-
ered. Such storieswith their human interest (desecrated war memo-
rials, plundered churches, and so forth)cause unease for many
Britons. As sampled through the press coverage, concerns include: the
trade-off between open amenities and security; the value of public
spaces for communities (the loss of the Hepworth, according to the
Friends of Dulwich Park, was like losing a finger); the molestation of
the public interest by private greedmore than one commentator
connected the Hepworth episode to the continuing banking crisis; the
importance of the public display of works of art for Britains sense of
community; and (at a more rarefied level) the relationship of art to its
material and economic forms. For many, the Dulwich theft was an
outrage against trust and sociability. For others, it prompted another
round of discussion of art and the public good.
Two days after the robbery, the novelist Philip Hensher described
the aesthetic value of Hepworths sculpture with eloquent feeling in
The Independent newspaper:
what I love most about the Two Forms (Divided Circle) is not the
bronze at all, but the holes. Other sculptors have specialised in
holes, but nothing is as radiant as the air that fills the gaps in a
Hepworthhere, two shining holes and a vertical empty line,
like light joining the heavens and the earth. And all around the
Hepworth, a shining aura. It gathers up the air around it, and
makes it blaze with energy.
The value of such objects therefore is non-material: You can value
the bronze in a Hepworth: you can weigh it up and cost it, and melt it
and turn it into widgets. But how are you going to price up the holes,
the gap, the shining aura?...There is no price to be placed on it....It
is just a gift from the sculptor to us, not worth anything. It just makes
our souls sing, thats all. For Hensher, Art, in the end, is more than a
copper alloy on a base, just as a poem is more than ink impressed on
to a paper, and a beautiful chair is more than wood and cloth. To put

Value Problems 11
a price on it is to humiliate it, whether in assessment of the value of
its substance, or costing up its aesthetic value....[t]he holes and the
gaps, the arranged air, the beauty that has no cost and no price
everything beyond the grasp of money is what matters.1
These are themes that will run through this book.

II. Costs and Benefits

The problem of how to assess aesthetic value and the personal and
social benefits it brings is perennial, but is particularly vexed in the
Western world just now. The self-questioning provoked by the eco-
nomic disaster of 2008 spurred criticism of materialist values and of
wealth as a goal in life. There is strong debate about the relationship
between private actions and the public interest, and revitalized discus-
sion of the responsibilities and expectations of individuals, agencies,
and corporations in public contexts. There is vivid argument in many
places about, among other things, spirituality in a secular age; respect
for values in public life and disrespect for the public good by private
selfishness; tolerance for different modes of life and beliefs; concern
about the modern role of established traditions and institutions;
unease about how we define quality of life; and uncertainty about
how priorities in public policy are determined.
These debates are of particular relevance to the topic of this book.
Should cultural policy, for instance, be determined by the needs of an
ailing economy? (This is a question complicated by the growing eco-
nomic power of the creative industries in the UK, nowat 7 per cent
of GDPrivalling sectors like financial services.) And there is debate
about how we fund costly public goods like education and research
when the benefits of these things, though notionally public, are often
realized as private advantage (such as enhanced career prospects and
lifetime earnings for successful students). In these discussions, artists,
culturalists, and humanists often feel hard-pressed and are vocal about
the apparently increasing dominion of practical science and instru-
mental policymaking. For many, it is alleged, society looks at a
Hepworth and sees only bronze (or at least an auctioneers catalogue)
where it should see space, air, and radiance.
The role of government, decision-makers, and policy planners in
these debates can be an uncomfortable one. Public cries for immediate

12 Literature and the Public Good

action on grave problems often arise prior to full understanding and
demand resources beyond capability. Priority-making is therefore
itself a priority. However, finding good guidance can be as complex as
the problem itself. It will involve the deliberation of political and other
sorts of values and processes; it will require standards of comparative
measurement; and it will call for evidence to demonstrate the advan-
tage of one course of action over another. Nobody paying attention to
current debates about how to revitalize the deteriorating economies
of numerous countries can be under any illusion that this is straight-
forward; nor that the value problem lies at its heart.
Meanwhile, people reach for ways of understanding their situations
and there seems a declining number who think the humanities have
much to say of practical interest. Popular-audience books on the
economics of the 2008 crisis by authors such as Paul Krugman, John
Lanchester, Robert Skidelski, and Joseph Stiglitz have boomed.2
Newspaper columnists recommend turning away from reading fiction
to reading books such as these. When the news is so apocalyptic, and
there is so much to understand, wrote Zoe Williams in The Guardian at
the back end of 2011 as the Hepworth was about to be pinched, it
feels more than frivolous to read about made-up people. It feels unpat-
riotic. Or to put it another way, it is like watching the telly when you
have homework.3 Suspicions that literature is mere fantasy, and a
guilty, unworthy, and unhelpful pleasure, are not unknown. Williamss
severance of hard fact from soft musing is symptomatic, and it is not
unrelated to the separation of material form from aesthetic aura in
the experience of artworks. Bronze trumps space.
This book will argue that these separations are neither necessary
nor true. But to work towards that conclusion we have to understand
something about the ways in which the criteria for priority-setting in
public policy are developed, and how data, information, and analysis
inform these decisions. For many, the techniques in use are not felt
congenial to the interests of art and culture, nor appropriate to their
The UK government references project decisions to the so-called
Treasury Green Book, a manual on Appraisal and Evaluation in
Central Government.4 It is a hard-nosed document founded on the
not-unreasonable assumption that project proposals should undergo
cost-benefit analysis. The method for conducting this analysis is,

Value Problems 13
owever, more contentious. It requires money values to be the com-
mon point of reference for all activity. This, it is claimed, ensures sound
financial decision-making, and establishes a common unit of compar-
ison between very unlike things such as a new battleship or support for
research in the arts and humanities, as a Treasury official once put it
to me. Her options were provocative and hypothetical, but the anec-
dote illustrates the need for equivalent comparison. The Green Book
requires analysis which quantifies in monetary terms as many of the
costs and benefits of a proposal, including items for which the market
does not provide a satisfactory measure of economic value (p. 4). It
accepts that factors outside market pricing are equally as important
as market impacts, and that determining these values is complex
(p.57). But it recommends the use of a battery of techniques described
in a thorough annex. These techniques are used across many different
domains (health, environment, transport, culture, etc.) and are
designed to generate a bottom line that can be compared. For cultural
projects, they include preference techniques. These calculate on the
basis of surveys, or by comparison with consumer behaviour in a
similar or related market (p. 57), what people would pay for some-
thing were it to be chargeable. A money value is therefore derived.5 It
is easy to see that we are at some distance from a close encounter with
an art object but (to construct a fanciful example) it might be possible
to calculate the value of Hepworths sculpture by aggregating the
value of the metal, a hypothetical sale value derived from interna-
tional art market prices, and some judgment of the social effects of
having or losing the sculpture in a public place derived from a prefer-
ence study. In fact, as this is a loss rather than a proposed acquisition,
the calculation would not be doneat least not by the British Treasury.
But some cultural economists, most impressively David Galenson at
the University of Chicago, use art market data in interesting analyses
of how canons of value are formed in art history.6
The tools of measurement referred to in the Green Book are
unlikely to set lips smacking among those primarily interested in aes-
thetics or the meaning and significance of artworks. And it excites
strong criticism. But it poses an important challenge to those making
the transition from personal, or even shared, convictions about aes-
thetic values to policy recommendations. Not all things are affordable
in political reality, and if one wants to make a case for arts funding, or

14 Literature and the Public Good

humanistic education, then bypassing this thinking is a disappointing
road. On the other hand, there is a risk that the values belonging more
naturally to the artsvividly evoked by Philip Hensherwill be com-
promised by the uninspiring process of instrumental calculation. This
is a not-infrequent double bind for arts advocates, or humanities
researchers asked to specify the impact of their work to justify fund-
ing. It is felt a disturbance of natural method and language (and some-
times free enquiry). Many fear that the baby vanishes with the
economic bathwater; others fear children will be unwashed. The
dilemma is sharpened in straightened economic times through proce-
dures such as zero-based budgeting: the assumption that one starts
afresh with nothing allocated or assumed, despite any past history of
favourable spending decisions or existing commitments, or historic
preferences. In such circumstances the need to build the case on first
principles takes a sharp and urgent form. Is the case to be made on
grounds of intrinsic merit or instrumental advantage?
The use of measurement data and justificatory requirements of
this kind are ubiquitous in public life and rile humanistic opinion.
When decision-makers demand value assurance, humanists see a
category mistake. The intrinsic value of art, or scholarly learning, or
abstract ideas, or faith beliefs, or ones inwardness with foreign lan-
guages, for example, are said to be good in themselves. They demon-
strate their worth by existing, and only incidentally through worldly
activity stimulated by them.
The rival view claims that instrumental consequences determine
value. The use to which a thing is put, and the benefits realized
thereby, disclose value, or fail to. The first view is often called categori-
cal, referring to the special nature of categories such as art or learning.
The second view is consequentialist in that value inheres in the conse-
quences of a thing and not the thing itself. Consequentialist propositions
are characteristic of utilitarian thinking whereby value judgements
are based on assessments of usefulness. In its crudest form, the greater
the quantity of utility derived, added arithmetically, the greater the
value. The figurehead of radical British nineteenth-century utilitari-
anism, Jeremy Bentham, notoriously asserted that the game of push-
pin was as valuable as poetry when one calculated the recreational
pleasure brought by both. He claimed to see no essential difference in
intrinsic properties.7 We are again gazing at bronze, not sculpture.

Value Problems 15
Conversely, it is difficult to conceive of pure intrinsic-ness, an ethe-
real quality never knowingly impacting on humans who experience it.
What would it be? A play never watched? A book never read? A pic-
ture under a veil? Silent music?
The conflict between categorical and consequentialist, intrinsic and
instrumental, opinion has been long and aggressive. (Chapter 2
describes the antagonism between utilitarianism and literary culture
during Britains nineteenth-century industrial and commercial expan-
sion.) However, in specific cases, it is difficult to determine where
claims about intrinsic worth end and instrumental properties appear.
Nor is it easy to determine which view should have weight on any
particular occasion. Philip Hensher describes with inspiring passion
his life-long response to Barbara Hepworths work in the article
quoted at the beginning of this chapter: I first glimpsed her work in
an introduction to modern art for children....It was just love at first
sight....Her forms went straight to my soul, and stayed there. You
cant explain, always, why you love what you love.... This is the out-
come of a particular human sensibility, with its particular needs,
wishes, and preferences, encountering a prized aesthetic object in joy-
ful appreciation. But interaction between subject and object produces
the response, not the object alone. These feelings, and the values
attached to them, are not transferred directly in the same way that,
say, ice produces cold or electricity a shock. Hepworths Two Forms
might be said to be the instrument of, or at least the vehicle for, the
pleasure and inspiration Hensher and others (including me) gain from
her work. In his poem Tintern Abbey (1798), Wordsworth wrote of
the the mighty world / Of eye and ear,both what they half create /
And what perceive (ll. 1057), and we are in something of the same
territory here.
The novelist Elizabeth Bowen describes a similar process in reading

the process of reading is reciprocal; the book is no more than a

formula, to be furnished out with images out of the readers
mind. At any age, the reader must come across: the child reader
is the most eager and quick to do so; he not only lends to the
story, he flings into the story the whole of his sensuous experi-
ence which from being limited is the more intense.8

16 Literature and the Public Good

It is therefore difficult to maintain that these values are somehow nat-
ural properties or emanations of an artwork. They are products of
particular people, at particular times, in particular circumstances,
doing a particular kind of thing. Conversely of course, as is often
pointed out, it is meaningless to talk about the instrumental conse-
quences of artworks if they have no intrinsic merit. An object about
which no one cares will produce no instrumental consequences and
certainly not those elevating affects claimed to be among the benefits
of art.
Somewhat repetitive, set-piece encounters between proponents of
intrinsic and instrumental values can make for lively punch-ups from
time to time, and of late this binary opposition has coloured discus-
sion of cultural and educational issues in the humanities, despite
measured efforts at moderating positions.9 Disagreements are regis-
tered in different vocabulariesmaterialists (or mechanists) versus
spiritualists; philistines versus connoisseurs; populists versus elitists,
and so on. But, the adversarial binary is the limiting and defining
condition. Taking the larger view, a number of questions are
First, how do we describe the nature and functioning of value in
complex situations? Second, how does a society come to know about
itself and know what is appropriate knowledge for the decisions to be
made? And, third, where is the source of authority to make these
decisions? Might it be through popular consultation? Or by profes-
sional groups who derive authority from historical expertise and cre-
dentials, although opponents allege they are elite groups with vested
interests? Even if one answers that expert groups are best placed to
make these decisions, it is unclear which should have the upper hand:
civil service mandarins? Ivory-tower academics? Self-interested arts
Meanwhile, the use of economistic techniques for assessing value
has been widely extended. Acknowledging imperfection has been part
of the process but usually to argue for further refinement. The report
produced in 2008 by three gurus of international economicsJoseph
Stiglitz, Amartya Sen, and Jean-Paul Fitoussito advise the French
government on these questions is characteristic of the approach.10
Blaming the financial crisis on the failure of current measurement
systems and standardized metrics, they recommend more extensive

Value Problems 17
data-gathering to enable better judgement. Data on social welfare
topics should sit alongside narrow measures of economic perfor-
mance such as GDP. Their influential report stimulated similar con-
clusions internationally and fed into valuable work by the United
Nations, described in Chapter5.
One high-profile outcome has been the so-called happiness index
in Britain, paralleling similar projects elsewhere which attempt to
ascertain the well-being of populations. The British survey was first
conducted by the Office of National Statistics (ONS) in 2011 with the
intention of gaining large amounts of qualitative data about how peo-
ple feel about their lives.11 The supposed science of happiness is con-
tentious and need not detain us (except to recognize that cultural
factors barely figure in the ONS surveys). But what is noteworthy is
that it is subject to the same disputes afflicting arguments about cul-
tural and artistic value; that is, that the techniques of measurement
are inappropriate to the nature of the object being measured.12 Karen
Scott, an advocate of well-being research whose recent book Measuring
Wellbeing (2012) is a lucid account of this little history, thinks that art-
works present an instructive limit case:
How do we measure the value of a painting? We might assess its
economic value, we might measure its physical size, we might
categorise the era it was painted in, the medium used, the type
of art, the nationality of the artist, the subject of the painting.
We might go on to consider the range of pigments used, the
compositional factors, the symbolic components. However by
looking only at this information, rather than the actual thing
itself, we could not possibly understand how these dimensions
relate to produce this painting. How could we tell if this paint-
ing was mediocre or a work of art?13
She argues that it is only by professional inspection of these matters,
and their correlation with accepted ways of judging, that such ques-
tions find answers.
These ideas have spread. Researchers in environmental protec-
tion, for instance, have sought evidence for the value of taken-for-
granted aspects of our environment such as open spaces, biodiversity,
tranquillity, and the beauty of landscapes. Inexpensive Progress?, a 2012
report commissioned by the Campaign to Protect Rural England, the

18 Literature and the Public Good

National Trust, and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds,
was provoked by concerns that revisions to the national planning
framework might allow building in green spaces. It argues that weight
should be given to the non-market values of land and related amen-
ities, and it uses the kinds of technique outlined in the Treasury
Green Book: Economic techniques, it states, can reveal the values
which people place on these public goods.14 Torbay in Devon
became the first British local authority to monetize the value of trees
growing in its administrative area. A value of 280 million was pro-
posed on the basis of factors like carbon cleansing, replacement cost,
wildlife protection, and amenity value to residents and visitors. There
are 800,000 trees in Torbay; their previous accounting value was a
notional 1.15
It may well be that initiatives such as these follow pragmatic path-
ways to produce evidence in forms thought persuasive in government.
But the approach is contagious. Similar methods are used in the US
and, increasingly, are extended to include art and culture.16 Counting
New Beans: Intrinsic Impact and the Value of Art is a locally developed and
locally published study of theatre and performance in the San
Francisco Bay Area. It addresses evaluation in ways that try to get
beyond audience figures, revenue raising, and ticket pricing: or,
indeed, assertions of the self-evident value of drama. Like many such
studies it uses qualitative as well as quantitative data gathered locally
and informed by practitioner opinion. Public preferences are impor-
tant; lobbying for funding is a reality; and a more rounded assessment
of value, escaping the intrinsic/instrumental cul-de-sac, is necessary
to understand the realities of drama and performance in public situa-
tions.17 Similarly, the US National Endowment for the Arts (NEA)
which supported the New Beans projectis, for the first time, awarding
grants for research into the value and impact of the arts with a view
to assessing their local or regional impacts. 2011 projects include: stud-
ies ofthe cognitive development of children participating in the arts;
assessment of factors that influence the economic sustainability of
arts organizations; studies of the influence of these organizations on
civic engagement, community-building, and social tolerance; and the
impact of the arts on neighbourhood prosperity.18 Another NEA study
demonstrated that literary reading strongly correlates other forms of
active civic participation including volunteering.19

Value Problems 19
On both sides of the Atlanticand in other parts of the world
comparable data gathering and analyses are used to understand the
social and economic dynamics of creative and cultural quarters in
cities. It is said that culture is underestimated and neglected in existing
work. The World Cities Culture Report, a two-year study commissioned by
the Mayor of London and published in 2014, quantifies and evaluates
the cultural muscle of twelve of the worlds great citiesBerlin,
Istanbul, Johannesburg, London, Mumbai, New York, Paris, Sao Paulo,
Shanghai, Singapore, Sydney, and Tokyoby measuring sixty cul-
tural indicators including literature. Its headline is that World Cities
are as important in culture as they are in finance or trade in terms of
impact on wealth creation, infrastructure management, and govern-
ance. It is also, it is argued, essential for positive global interchange,
including dealing with refractory diplomatic issues.20 Other studies
demonstrate related findings in metropolitan and regional contexts.21
It is striking that these publications are untroubled by debates over
intrinsic vs instrumental values; the former are assumed.
Still, there are important discriminations in relation to value prob-
lems even here. Mark Stern and Susan Seiferts eye-opening study of
the ways in which cultural quarters are regenerating depressed urban
environments in the city of Philadelphia distinguishes between the
impacts made by large capital projects, such as arts complexes or sig-
nature museums, and the low-rise, organic development of neigh-
bourhoods on the basis of their individual cultural assets.22 Both bring
benefits but also consequences. High-profile projects raise the image
of a place and bring civic and regional pride; they bring significant
inward investment, work to builders, contractors and service provid-
ers; they stimulate local businesses like restaurants, shops (including
book and arts shops), galleries, and other arts spaces; they provide
facilities for education; collaterally improve transport systems and
other local amenities; they clear up wastelands, occupy brown field
sites, and have a positive impact on crime and anti-social behaviour.
Along the way, they also attract some of the worlds greatest artists for
memorable performances, exhibitions, and events. On the down side,
as expensive buildings and organizations, they establish serial funding
dependencies (prejudicially these tend to be called subsidieseven
hand-outsrather than investments); they inflate local property prices
and drive out local businesses; they displace local populations unable

20 Literature and the Public Good

to afford what are now high-value neighbourhoods; and they change
the cultural and social mix, create difficult ratios between resident and
visitor populations, and alter the development of local amenities and
services by skewing demand and lowering the tax base.
By contrast, the Philadelphia projects described by Stern and Seifert
are self-organizing, require little or no capital investment and modest
recurrent grants, enable intense and stimulating networks of cultural
producers (who are also consumers), avoid displacing existing popula-
tions (indeed they encourage a rich ethnic and social mix conducive to
creativity), enhance local facilities and cultural assets, stabilize property
values, improve social amenities and buildings, enhance the physical
environment, support local businesses, sponsor community and civic
commitment which reduces crime and poor behaviour, encourage
social and personal ambition, and promote artistic innovation. They
alsothough on more modest scalebring in visitors and investment
on a regional basis.
It is not helpful, or even interesting, to see these two kinds of devel-
opment as rivals. (There are, among other things, considerable inter-
dependencies between the two modes, as studies such as that of
Liverpools year as European City of Culture in 2008 have shown.23)
But some can perceive a tension in terms of cultural value and can
distinguish between the kind of high art provided at prominent ven-
ues, and so-called ephemeral or experimental work thought more
characteristic of community ventures. Stern and Seifert remark that
wide, active engagement does change artistic practice: not long ago
poetry was viewed as a vocation for loners. Today, spoken word is a
performing art andin the case of the poetry slama competitive
sport (p. 266). I personally find it easy to be relaxed about this. But
some dont, and the matter can raise ancient ghosts concerning threats
to the canonical arts. Poetry slams and the like might produce popular
engagement and larger audiences, but (it is said) they produce inferior
quality and threaten the continuity of heritage, traditions, and excel-
lence. The debate about the relative merits of high vs popular art is
an itch that needs regular scratching in literary debate. It surfaces in
professional disputes (and irritable journalism) in discussions of what
kind of writing should be set on the syllabuses of public examinations,
and about using criteria of relevance which are said to compromise
standards. (The absurdity of this proposition can be seen by reversing

Value Problems 21
it: high standards should be irrelevant.) And then there is the old
debate between those who see literature as living, breathing, and
evolving practice, and those who see it in the framework of estab-
lished heritage. I find it difficult to see what the fuss is about.

III. Books and Benefits

Few, I imagine, contest the importance of creative activity in Britain
and other countries. The point is often celebrated. Cultural produc-
tion is an expanding part of economic activity in the West: it is Britains
fastest-growing economic sector and an area (design, research, higher
education, and popular music are others) in which the UK excels
globally. Its potential is of growing interest in the new economies of
China, India, Brazil, South Korea, Singapore, and others. It is also
clear that cultural activity plays a role in successfully functioning com-
munities in the worlds great cities, and is effective in regenerating
disadvantaged or deprived areas. Many accept without qualification
the proposition that cultural participation benefits a citizens sense of
belonging to the values that give character to a society, and that arts
and cultural activity bring advantages in education and health.
Internationally, Britains culture sustains its authority and the positive
regard of other countries,24 and provides channels for inter-nation
and inter-communal dialogue. And so on.
Literature makes a good showing in contributing to instrumental
good. Alongside its role in the continuity and creativity of overall cul-
tural life, a range of distinctive benefits follow from it. These give
substance to arguments for a practical or applied dimension to litera-
tures contribution to the public good. But before identifying them, it
is well to make the obvious clarification. These benefits are not the
entirety of the good that literature brings; nor is literature reducible to
them. And, while some of these benefits require the use of literary
language of a high order, the issue of literary value as such is not the
leading question. The case for literatures value must be made from all
its attributes and not reduced to singularities such as great art. I see
no contradictionindeed the opposite is the casebetween the crea-
tion of health benefits through reading (for example) and respect for
literature as an art form. The interdependence of instrumental and
intrinsic value is characteristic of all art, including literature. To take

22 Literature and the Public Good

an example from a different field: there is no tension between the aes-
thetic design of products produced by Apple computers and their
functionality. But aesthetic appeal does not exist in a remote aura: it is
a selling point, and is cashable (monetizable) in immediate ways.
Famously Steve Jobs, Apples driving force, commented that its in
Apple's DNA that technology alone is not enoughits technology
married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us
the result that makes our heart sing.25 (This, interestingly, is nearly the
same phrase as that used by Philip Hensher in praise of Barbara
Hepworth.) The point is true of literature: it has instrumental effects;
some of these are ascribable to specific aesthetic properties. But the
former does not diminish the latter any more than performing Macbeth
reduces its poetry.
Literature brings bulk benefits. The World Cities Culture Report noted
earlier demonstrates the scale of activity in writing and reading in
London and elsewhere: 802 bookshops in London (1,025 in Paris;
1,062 in Johannesburg; 1,322 in Shanghai...); 37 million library loans
annually (New York has 68 million; Tokyo 112 million); and Britains
publishing industry produced 151,969 new titles in 2010, third behind
the much larger US (302,410) and China (328,387). France, that most
literary and intellectual of nations, produces only half that amount
(74,788 titles), though Paris has 28 per cent more bookshops than
London (p. 43). This is the advantage of an anglophone world. Within
the UK, the governments Creative and Cultural Skills Council, part
of the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, estimated in a 2010
report that the literature sector in the UK produces 2.1 Billion
GVA for the UK economy every year, not including publishing which
has sales of over 4 billion annually.26 (GVAor Gross Value
Addedis a standard economic measure of the total value of goods
and services produced in a particular sector, region, or industry
annually, minus costs.) The extraordinary figure of 2.1 billion from
literature-related services is discussed, alongside revenues from pub-
lishing, in Chapter3.
Literature brings further benefits and there is interest just now in
health and social welfare. Studies correlate long-living and sustained
quality of life to reading and other forms of cultural participation.
Though it is easy to see that there are many mediating conditions (such
as affluence and education), the results are compelling.27 Specific studies

Value Problems 23
demonstrate positive effects for, for example, dementia sufferers,28
mental health, and overall well-being.29 Techniques of bibliotherapy
are growing in use,30 and there is international interest in using liter-
ary reading to help prisoners, criminal probationers, the chronically
unemployed, and others with serious circumstantial disadvantages
impairing personal and social functioning. As well as providing oppor-
tunities for non-readers to discover reading to build skills and self-
confidence, and to extend horizons and prospects, the Liverpool-based
Reader Organisation in the UK works with, among others, the crim-
inal justice system, the homeless, and the unemployed, frequently
working in partnership with hospitals, health trusts, and local councils
among some of societys most difficult and alienated individuals.31
Similar initiatives are found in the US. There is a scheme for the reha-
bilitation of prisoners and drug addicts called Changing Lives
Through Literature (CLTL) which has had a significant impact on
recidivism and boosted the prospects of prisoners and ex-prisoners in
various US states.32 Such initiatives have history. Jonathan Rose
records the use of Shakespeare in the 1910s with prisoners and those
just released. The intention was to establish a basis of common expe-
rience and common humanity which destroys any barrier erected by
social conventions and educational opportunities, according to one
instructor. More widely, the same approach was used by progressive
employers in workplaces, including Lyons Teashops and the confec-
tionary manufacturers Rowntree and Cadbury, a tradition continuing
in companies like Marks and Spencer today.33
The value of literature to communities is a recurrent theme on
both sides of the Atlantic, especially in deprived neighbourhoods. In
2010, The Reader Organisation recruited the actress Sonja Sohn, a
star of the TV series The Wire which depicts life in the Baltimore drug
ghettoes, to front an outreach programme called Rewired for Change
in Liverpools Croxteth district, a neighbourhood not wholly unlike
those in Baltimore. It used reading (and episodes of The Wire) to chal-
lenge young people in their life assumptions and to find, as Sohn put
it, a different lens. It featured a community production of that old
staple of urban gang violence, Romeo and Juliet.34 Also in 2010, the
British novelist Nick Hornby established his Ministry of Stories in
London, following a similar initiative by the American writer Dave
Eggers whose 826 Valencia in San Francisco was founded in 2002 to

24 Literature and the Public Good

develop writing and reading for 1118-year-olds. A similar project
bynovelist Roddy Doyle was established in Dublin.35 London has a
long-running Evening Standard newspaper campaign, Get London
Reading, which uses prominent London figures (actors, musicians,
and politicians among them) to promote reading to children to
develop skills and a means to gain perspective on personal experience.
In the West Country, Literature and Community Engagement is a
part-time degree course at the University of Bristol with strong links
into community organizations and libraries designed to develop
professional and vocational interests. The BBC has launched a 2016
campaign to get the nation reading in partnership with established
advocates in this area including The Reading Agency, BookTrust, the
National Literacy Trust and the Society of Chief Librarians.36
Meanwhile there is the ubiquitous book group movement.
Book groups are a worldwide phenomenon with total memberships
running into millions. Popular at present, they have long roots. The
US has an estimated half a million groups with a combined member-
ship of up to five million. The tradition began in the seventeenth
century as colonial settlers sought self-education. The UK has around
50,000 groups, some tracing their origins to the 1930s. In both coun-
tries groups flourished across the nineteenth and early-twentieth
centuries, serving different purposes in different localities, but most
had an educative intention.37 In the US, there was a close relationship
between these groups and the establishment of public libraries: both
movements, interestingly, led by women.38 From time to time there has
been formal aid, such as the American Great Books Foundation estab-
lished in 1947, or the boost from Oprah Winfreys syndicated Book
Club which started in 1996 and aimed to get the whole country read-
ing again.39 Facebook has a book club. London has a Book Club res-
taurant which features food, poetry, and ping-pong. Worldwide, there
are cafes and restaurants with bookshelves for browsing, borrowing, or
purchase which arrange discussions. In the UK, there is interaction
with the BBC, other broadcasters, and the public library service.
Support from publishers and booksellers, including Internet provision
by such as Amazon, are available: group discounts are offered, venues
occasionally provided, information, newsletters, and author inter-
views are distributed; sometimes study notes are bound into the end-
papers of the books themselves. In the US there are professional book

Value Problems 25
group leaders and consultancy services, including counsellors for
dysfunctional groups. But by and large book clubs are as local and
self-organizing as they are ubiquitous.
Book clubs can have an uninspiring reputation. They provided the
scenario for a successful UK Channel 4 sit-com in 2003 called The
Book Group, where reading seemed the least of the characters interests.
According to Richard Fords everyman narrator Frank Bascombe,
who reads V. S. Naipaul for the blind each week on New Jersey
Community Radio:

Its better to listen to Naipaul and me alone at home than to join

some dismal book club, where the members get drunk on pinot
grigio and go at each others throats about whether this or that
anti-hero reminds them of their ex-husband Herb.40

But Jenny Hartleys illuminating account, based on a survey of 350

groups in the UK, interviews with some, and correspondence with
others overseas, suggests various and more appealing reasons for their
popularity. For some there is simple sociability; for others (especially in
the US it is said) there is opportunity for psychological self-help as a
main motive. Some groups specialize (a particular genre, single author,
or literary period, for instance); others are entirely eclectic. Some
want to acquire holdings in the literary canon; a few do creative writ-
ing. Some like organizational formality with secretaries, elected chairs,
and the like, but most appear more organically bound. Geographical
proximity and neighbourliness are key elements.
Two consistent features stand out. The first is that reading is social:
it is reading with others. Reading is no longer a solitary affair, writes
one of Hartleys respondents (p. 125). Whatever the reading matter, it
is dialogue with others that is constitutive. In one sense this is an obvi-
ous point (if you enjoy reading alone you wont join a group), but it is
the nature of the thing to want to contemplate issues and questions
and establish conclusions by discussion, thereby creating community:
Reading in community, and reading for community in Hartleys neat
formulation (p. 138). An empirical study of language and interactions
in sixteen groups in the UK confirms this:
reading group discussion is not simply talk about reading (i.e.
about prior textual encounters). In interviews, group members

26 Literature and the Public Good

report that one of the things they enjoy is hearing the views
of others, and that this affects their own interpretations of
books (changing or perhaps reinforcing these). Analysis of
discussion shows a more complex process in which much
interpretative work in done on the hoof as members collab-
oratively co-construct textual interpretations within specific
contexts of reading.41

Reading, in these situations, is not just a social act but one of shared
The second point is related to this. Hartleys respondents relish a
distinctive property of literature which is ambiguity, plurality, and
uncertainty: we seem to enjoy something which involves a mystery, a
conundrum, some ambiguity and its possible interpretations, writes
one (p. 74). A respondent to an Arts Council survey, someone who
categorized him or herself as an occasional reader, makes the same
point: I prefer [reading in groups] because its again youre learning
from other people on something you might not have understood.
Somebody else would clarify for you or the way you see something
could be seen differently by someone else.42 Put in a different register,
reading groups develop what has been referred to as complexity
skills, comments Hartley, the ability to manage ambiguous situa-
tions where many events and trends are interlinked (she is quoting
a participant, p. 13). For reading groups, she writes perceptively,
the relationship between the book and the world is open (p. 135).
Whether their interest lies in unknown worlds, or in recognizing a
shared experience with different interpretations that might unsettle
or validate understanding, the act of working out and working
through what is indefinite, perhaps confusing, and uncertain is highly
prized. Literature seems to enable these readersoften suspicious of
academic formulationsto engage with complex interpretations,
values, and beliefs.
Research shows some understanding of the human needs behind this
preference. The American child development psychologist Maryanne
Wolf writes about the fundamental role reading plays in individual
cognitive development and the childs capacity to absorb and confront
complex problems. She focuses on the transition from empirical (con-
crete) to more multifaceted and abstract conceptions. Literature, she

Value Problems 27
argues, establishes a conceptually perfect holding ground for children
who are just leaving the more concrete style of cognitive processing.
Classic fantasy literatureLord of the Rings, Harry Potter, and the
Narnia stories for exampledevelop skills of metaphor, inference,
and analogy, because nothing is as it seems in these places.43 These
pass forward to adult life where our interpretative response to (for
example) the Bible, Middlemarch, or The Brothers Karamazov has a depth
that, as often as not, takes us in new directions from where the authors
thinking left us (p. 156). This explains something of why we can read
complex texts at different points in life with refreshed insight.
Conversely, the absence of these things limits growth. Wolf cites stud-
ies of book deprivation and word poverty in various parts of North
America which lead not only to social and workplace dysfunction, but
limited cultural, personal, and ethical engagement:
when syntactic forms are never encountered, there is less knowl-
edge about the relationship of events in a story. When story
forms are never known, there is less ability to infer and predict.
When cultural traditions and the feelings of others are never
experienced, there is less understanding of what other people
feel. (p. 102)
These things seem a particular gift of literature and part of its opera-
tion as a public good. This will be further explored in Chapter5.

IV. The Public Good

Instrumentally inclined analysis can make a forceful case for the
contribution of literature, and the arts more generally, to the public
good. But few would wish to end the argument there, not least because,
for many, it can lack the passionate, immersive engagements that liter-
ature brings. Alongside potentially quantifiable benefits to well-being
of a therapeutic or developmental kind, literature, and the arts generally,
give a more unformulated sense of emotional and spiritual prosperity,
and of the fertility of human experience. Though it is often expressed
in a vocabulary of affluence (richness) or satisfaction (nourishment),
itcan feel more like a surplus or a gift than a charge on public respon-
sibility, and it is one that is cumulative and transitive. Frequently shared
personal excitement is catching and enlarging, as reading group

28 Literature and the Public Good

experiences reveal, and its value should be neither disregarded nor
underestimated. Likewise the good as a term in debate is something
that is greater than remedy for social or personal difficulties. It ani-
mates ethical discussion and public policy, but also brings perspective
on what a society is about, how it finds its best purposes, and what is
existentially enriching about our lives.
Ideas of the public good accommodate instrumental benefits with
ease but these do not exhaust it. What is more, the public good is a
process, not an entity. It is historically variable, and being a transac-
tional matterthat is, it happens between peopleit is diverse in
operation rather than normative or categorical. It forms ideals, and its
effects are felt through inspiration and aspiration. It can guide best
conduct and, as such, may never be delivered to any particular formu-
lation. Like artworks themselves, it is therefore more than instrumen-
tal or intrinsic; it is also inspiring and developmental. Raymond
Williams, in his still illuminating The Long Revolution of 1961, distin-
guishes between learning as a body of materials that might be found
in a library, for example, and learning as a process which, by defini-
tion, is open-ended and revisable.44 The same might be said for the
realization of public goods or, for that matter, the benefits of litera-
ture. These are things we live by, rather than for.
Definitions of the public good by philosophers, social scientists, and
intellectual historians are variable. They also accrue in the high-
minded prose that decorates the value or mission statements of
public institutions and private corporations. The American Academy
of Arts and Sciences makes an annual Public Good Award for distin-
guished achievements by judges, librarians, academics, and the like.
Serving and realizing the public good is a shibboleth of justifications
for national higher education systems and international collabora-
tion.45 This ubiquity doesnt make such statements insincere: indeed it
may tell us something positive about value horizons. But uncertainty
remains about what is beneath the abstract rhetoric of civic responsi-
bility, common values, moral resource, institutional trust, and urgings
to purpose which can irritate as easily as inspire. By contrast, litera-
tures dense and complex record of experience, and its propensity to
reason through plurality and ambiguity, engages as it explores.
Issues of public trust are particularly keenly felt after the default by
the financial system and scepticism about the motives of politicians

Value Problems 29
and governments. Barbara Misztals study of Intellectuals and the Public
Good notes that public intellectuals who might recommend virtues like
disinterestedness, or adopt postures of critically distant outsider-ness,
can themselves be compromised by lives within organizations like uni-
versities or newspapers. She focuses on the sometime courage of indi-
viduals, but it is an increasing issue for modern intellectuals as Stefan
Collinis excellent study Absent Minds demonstrates.46 Craig Calhoun,
the distinguished American social scientist, has considered these issues
over many years and takes a different line influenced, not uncritically,
by Jrgen Habermas. The issue, he argues, is not a matter of individ-
ual authenticity. It is an issue of public discussion around what is
thought to be good. This is constituted by creating goods collectively
and, as far as possible, sharing them equitably. Goods in this sense are
matters of collective value and assumption and are created in citizens
conversations about what they hold to be good.47 As such, it will be
constitutively diverse and tolerant of plurality; it will go beyond tests
for rationality either critical or instrumental; and it may supersede
particular impacts in making things good.
A public, in any large contemporary society, is constituted
largely among strangers and among people differing in deep
and influential ways. The public good needs to be seen as
dynamic, as a project in which varied actors participate, speak-
ing through different cultural understandings, never altogether
agreeing on just what a public is, yet producing it continuously
if incompletely through their very discourse.48
This is congruent with the constitutive or emergent effects of literary
discussion in reading groups. Elizabeth Longs study of groups in
Texas found that reading was indeed geared towards negotiated
equipment for living in Kenneth Burkes phrase.49 Long comments:
What I want to stress here is neither the profundity nor scope of these
discursive categories [that emerge from reading group discussions],
but the dynamic and collective nature of their constitution.50 They
involve complex negotiations between styles of talking, heterogeneous
tastes and beliefs, and conflicting social perspectives.51
Judgements about how widespread and effective such literary dis-
cussions are in contributing to the public good will depend in part on
scale. And current debate has a good deal of foreboding about the

30 Literature and the Public Good

extent and quality of modern reading. This takes a number of forms.
There are worries about book and word poverty. There are issues
around what is seen as a culture increasingly inimical to humanistic
thinking. There is anxiety that habits of sustained reading are in
decline. And there is concern that the transition from a culture of print
to a culture of the screen is displacing literary reading. These issues
have different dynamics. We have touched on the first two already in
this chapter but not the last pair which often arrive together.

V. Who Reads?
There is much hand-wringing about the allegedly desperate state of
modern reading. Two reports by the American NEAReading at Risk
(2004) and To Read or Not to Read (2007)are cited to demonstrate a
crisis which the first of these reports identified and the second con-
firmed.52 The NEA issued a rallying cry in the face of a national
emergency: The National Endowment for the Arts calls upon public
agencies, cultural organizations, the press, and educators to take stock
of the sliding literary condition of our country. It is time to inspire a
nationwide renaissance of literary reading and bring the transforma-
tive power of literature into the lives of all citizens. Similar tones are
audible in the UK and distress about decline in reading has been
around seemingly forever (or at least since the mid- to late-nineteenth
century when anxieties about national literacy took their place along-
side worries about declining public taste).53 The fate of reading is con-
nected to social decline. The literary critic F. R. Leavis in the 1930s
was influential:
There seems every reason to believe that the average cultivated
person of a century ago was a very much more competent
reader than his modern representative. Not only does the mod-
ern dissipate himself upon so much more reading of all
kinds...[he] is exposed to a concourse of signals so bewildering
in their variety and number that, unless he is especially gifted or
especially favoured, he can hardly begin to discriminate. Here
we have the plight of culture in general.54
His wife and colleague, Q. D. Leavis, was of the same mind. In her
pioneering study of Fiction and the Reading Public in 1932, she concluded

Value Problems 31
that [t]he reading capacity of the general public...has never been so
low as at the present time.55 Somewhat later, Sven Birketts in Guttenberg
Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age (1994) thickened the
gloom. The bad was getting worse: Fewer and fewer people, it seems,
have the leisure or the inclination to undertake...serious read-
ing...Joyce, Woolf, Soyinka, not to mention the masters who preceded
them, will go unread, and the civilising energies of their prose will
circulate aimlessly between closed covers. The overall situation is
bleak and getting bleaker.56
Is reading really in such a parlous state? It is difficult to get consist-
ent or well-evidenced answers, but there is plenty of information that
suggests the opposite, or at least something different. There is the
impressive information in the World Cities Culture Report noted earlier.
One can put this alongside early reports of a swelling of interest in
literature internationally in the book-hungry, increasingly literate
economies of China and India. In China, it appears, the popularity of
so-called workplace fiction is rising. Not unlike the situation in indus-
trial Victorian Britain, these novels are a compound of entrepreneur-
ial how-to-do-it and thoughtful attempts to negotiate the yawning
generation gaps produced by accelerated economic growth for an
emerging and professionalizing middle class.57 In India, it is reported
that similar cultural negotiations are underway through fiction.
Apublishing boom will leave India as the largest English language
book-buying market in the world, it is said.58 Though much of this is
aimed at the quick-read market (and is adjusted for second language
speakers and the newly literate), it is not so entirely. Penguin (which is
expanding in both countries) is launching Penguin Classics in
Mandarin, Korean, and Portuguese.59 In the UK there is a similar
boom in publishing: the 150,000 books being published annually
(according to the World Cities Culture Report) are five or six times the
number published in 1970 with growth in sales aided by rapid and
efficient methods of electronic stock control and distribution. What
may be observable are fewer lines of demarcation between the higher,
middle, and lower brows of taste.
An ex-head buyer at Waterstones, the UKs largest book chain,
emphasizes that: In the last 10 years, the British book industry has
been selling more books. More people are reading than ever before,
though he concedes that the industry had over-produced the print

32 Literature and the Public Good

runs of serious-minded work for the old cultivated readership, as
book historian John Sutherland describes them.60 Arts Council
Englands 2009 report, The Future of Reading, also describes a flourish-
ing culture of reading which supports the picture painted by Hartleys
Reading Groups nearly a decade earlier. In the same year in the US, five
years after Reading at Risk, the NEA published Reading on the Rise: A New
Chapter in American Literacy that indicated significant growth across all
ages and ethnic groups for the first time in a quarter-century.61
AGallup poll in 2005 had shown that 47 per cent of Americans were
currently reading a book, a rise of 10 per cent from 1990. In 1957 is
was less than a quarter.62 Meanwhile, Ted Striphass excellent study,
The Late Age of Print: Everyday Book Culture From Consumerism to Control,
describes in telling detail the everydayness of American book culture
in, for example, Oprah Winfreys television book club and the rejuve-
nating benefits of Big-Box corporate bookstores on towns and neigh-
bourhoods with forward-looking cultural policies.

VI. Screening Out?

It was always tempting in the twentieth century to hitch narratives of
crisis and decline to the arrival of the electronic age and broadcasting
in general. That is a leitmotif of commentators such as Sven Birketts
(see sectionV of this chapter) and repeats a refrain heard many times.
Lately, these anxieties have been amplified by the arrival of e-books.
The e-book for literary reading has not long been with us. The first
devices were designed in 1999, and the game changer, Amazons
Kindle, released in 2007. Tablet devices, especially Apples iPad, are
now widely used for reading extended fiction. There has been debate
about the value of this, some pointing to alleged health, educational,
and other deficits associated with reading on screen (we will come to
these). But few doubt the difference made by digital and web technol-
ogies to the extent of modern reading. A 2009 US consumer review
that is, prior to the full market entry of tablets and e-readersby the
Global Information Industry Center at the University of California
estimated that the amount of reading undertaken by Americans had
increased over the last half century, reinforced by writing as the
Internets dominant mode.63 Research on the scholarly use of the
webalso notices increases in web-based reading, especially of scientific

Value Problems 33
articles. This is said to have changed style as well as mode of reading
as experts efficiently filter material for their purposes. Intriguingly, a
correlation is detected between the quantity of reading done in this
way and career success.64
Such developments are most conspicuous in the natural and medi-
cal sciences, but there are wider debates about the difference between
superficial and deep reading, data and information (or data and
meaning), and reading for selective purposes and reading for open
benefit. There are concerns about glut. The American neuroscientist
Daniel Levitin gained much publicity in 2015 for his book The
Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload; or, as
coverage in the London Times put it: your mobile phone is making you
stupid.65 According to Levitin, typical Americans consumed five times
as much information in 2011 as they did in 1986. These findings can
worry. Some detect a shift from ideographic reading (that is, reading
based on the qualities of a text and the ideas it generates) to nomo-
thetic reading, a data-driven form of reading (or information absorp-
tion) heavily reliant on empirical information.66 The former is more
typical of humanistic disciplines; the latter of the physical sciences.
This trend, it is said, is amplified by the possibilities of computer-
analysable big data, though this is also being explored by humanists.
Franco Moretti recommends distant reading, wherein large numbers
of texts are read by computer to reveal patterns in literary history or
the study of genre unobservable to human eyes.67 Clearly, this chal-
lenges traditional close reading executed through personal absorp-
tion in a text. As we shall see, this too worries some.
Others welcome the arrival of interactive technologies. These are
said to change reading from a solitary act, into a sort of communal
experience, say Mayer-Schnberger and Cuckier in Big Data:
ARevolution That Will Transform How We Live, Work and Think. These
authors point to Amazons innovations whereby reader preferences
can be shared with other readers, maybe for discussion, through
Kindles textual annotation facility. Likewise publishers can become
better informed about readers likes to improve the content and
structure of books.68 The potential for researching reader behaviour
also increases. Many resent this intrusion and the assumed surveil-
lance of their private preferences, though in fact no one needs to par-
ticipate. The American critic Kathleen Fitzpatrick is enthusiastic

34 Literature and the Public Good

about electronic communities among readers and writers. She believes
that technology frees us from print-based isolation.69 The potential for
social reading, as it has come to be called, is considered a public
good.70 Among the reading public, participants in, for example, the
websites Longform, Librarything, Shelfari, and Goodreads (which has
twelve million members) create and share their book collections
We are prone to alarms around technologies that challenge long-
established habits, though outcomes can be less menacing than sup-
posed. Despite scares, the amount of literary reading we do seems not
to be a well-evidenced source of alarm. The same might be said for
screen reading. E-book sales shot-up by triple-digit percentages from
level zero, and the heaviest growth has been in fiction. But this is in
disposable genre, romance, and airport novels. Buying an e-book
version of a once readthen forgotten novel looks sensible when
shelf space is limited. There doesnt, however, seem to have been sig-
nificant impact on literary fiction and, overall, e-reading remains a
minority practice. In Europe it represented just 2 per cent of reading
in 2012.72 Sales of Kindles and cognate devices peaked in the US in
the previous year, 2011,73 and US e-book sales began to tail off from
2013.74 Sales follow attitudes: a UK Reading Habits survey in 2015
showed that 71 per cent of respondents did not use e-books at all and
76 per cent preferred print compared to 10 per cent who preferred
e-books. Interestingly, however, many believe they will replace print in
the long run.75
UK industry data from 2015 presents an intriguing picture: e-book
sales dropped for the first time by 2.4 per cent, while print sales rose by
8.4 per cent. Sony discontinued its e-reader. Waterstones, the coun-
trys leading chain bookseller, reports 10 per cent growth in print sales
and stopped selling Kindles because sales were pitiful. Bookshelves
replaced e-reader display cabinets, and independent booksellers,
closing at an alarming rate over recent years, have rallied.76 Various
reasons are given: print books remain treasured possessions; people
like their touch and feel; they embody personal memories; they partic-
ipate easily in gift exchange; children (and parents) prefer them; design
and manufacturing have improved; they retain a craft aura digital
files cannot possess. Publishers and marketeers play to prints strengths
and readers respond.

Value Problems 35
In addition, retailers such as Amazon have withdrawn or reduced
promotional subsidies and e-book prices have risen. Claims in 2011
that Amazon downloads outpaced print sales revealed only the
impact of heavy discounting.77 In the US, e-books attracted scan-
dals about price-fixing and collusion between tech giants like Apple
and corporate publishers. These reached the federal courts.
Purchasers also worry that the book they think they own may be
withdrawn by untrustworthy corporates, as happened with Kindle
sales of George Orwell in 2009, something predictably described as
Big Brother.78 There is strong suspicion of increasing dominance
by companies like Amazon in the chain of production from
Amazons own imprint to the machine on which a book is read.
Finally, portable, read-anything-anywhere devices do break, and
machine dependency is unappealing to engrossed readers.
In the background are continuing debates about public good and
public interest issues. When corporates like Google offer to digitize
much of the worlds store of books in return for supervision of access,
there are concerns. This was highlighted by Robert Darnton when
Google proposed to digitize books in the US Library of Congress for
free.79 A UK version of this conflict of interests surfaced in 2010 in a
spat between the British Library and Rupert Murdochs News
International over access to old newspapers, including what are now
Murdoch titles. The Library thought they should be publicly available
without cost. Murdoch thought otherwise.80 Ease of access to reading
material is clearly a public good; control of access by vested interests
is clearly not.
The economics of publishing, and the literary economy more gen-
erally, is considered in detail in Chapter3. But meanwhile we might
note that the development of e-books has a predictable pattern: huge
growth from zero, plateau, and then slight decline as fascination flat-
tens and problems surface. No doubt the rhythm will continue.
Newspaper coverage of the rise and (slight) fall of the e-book reveals
a predictable appetite for crisis over real events. It took only three
years from predicting the-death-of-the-book-as-we-know-it to ask-
ing, in the words of a Times headline in October 2015, is it the end of
the story for ebooks? One doubts it.
E-books have supporters in the literary world. Some are gung-ho
like Jeff Gomez, an e-zealot and head of online sales for Penguin US.

36 Literature and the Public Good

He sees a mass democratization of literature through digital reading,
and caricatures tweedy publishers, fusty bookshops, crusty readers,
and a musty establishment of self-interested reviewers and commen-
tators.81 Others have simpler pleasures. The novelist Margaret
Drabble writes of her deep attachment to her e-reader whose possi-
bilities seem almost limitless for research and enquiry alongside
reading. She relishes the functions others find distracting, appreciates
its portability for one in her seventies, and notes benefits for the par-
tially sighted and those unused or uninterested in reading.82 The last
point is telling: it is possible that e-books may open reading for those
to whom it was previously closed, just as live cinema transmission of
theatre and opera appeals not only to existing enthusiasts but also to
cinema-goers. Technology enlarges audiences.
Writers can take a visionary stance. They see in the interactive and
multifunctional e-device a book of the future containing apps, interac-
tivity, visuals, and audio.83 The historian Ben Macintyre argues that
new technologies actually enrich the experience of language: the
ebook will not harm reading any more than photography damaged
the art of painting.84 Writers of multi-plotted fictions, especially cyber
and science fiction, relish multifunctionality.85 For Tom McCarthy, com-
puter devices reflect postmodern, cyber-saturated reality.86 Finally,
digital technology has changed how books are designed, stored, and
distributed. In print mode, they have reduced costs, accelerated pro-
duction, and enhanced quality. Opportunities for self- or niche-publi-
cation have increased and produce spectacular success when scaled up
by a conventional publisher.87 (E. L. Jamess erotic novels Fifty Shades of
Grey are the best-known example.) High-quality, specialist publications,
for example in photography, also benefit and, as noted, the print sales
upturn is partly ascribable to digital design. So far, writes Liz Jobey in
the Financial Times, digital technology has acted as an enabler, making
it possible for individuals to design and print their own books. The
attraction lies in the physical book-object itself.88 Elsewhere, for
Chinas burgeoning numbers of readers, stultifying state publishing
houses and political invigilation leads writers to the freedoms of the
Internet. Whether on screen or in print, the e-opportunities for literary
publication seem to increase.
But attitudes are hesitant. In 2014, Philip Hensher asked Have we
ever lived in a more wonderful age for readers? He noted growth in

Value Problems 37
new work, and increasing availability of older work as e-books can sell
at barmy prices (2.25 for 36 novels and other material by Arnold
Bennett, for instance). This ought to feel like a golden age, he wrote.
But it doesnt. It feels like the end of days for reading. His might
be the lucky generation, he writes, educated with skills and appe-
tite to read and enjoying an e-book bounty. But future readers will
have neither.89
Another British novelist, Will Self, took a similar view. Like Hensher,
Self is glum about future readers. The Internet and digital technology
are changing the literary culture, and he is not in the least bit pessi-
mistic about it (though he does his best to sound as though he is).
[O]ur societyand otherswill both preserve its storehouse of
knowledge and use digital media to develop new forms of under-
standing, including what it means to be literate.90 But the skills, mind-
set, and cultural awareness that serious readers of serious literature
acquire with print will vanish. [R]eading on screen is fundamentally
different from reading on paper, he writes, and just as solitary, silent,
focused reading is a function of the physical codex, so the digital text
will bring with it new forms of reading, learning, memory and even
consciousness. What will be lost are the immersive states characteris-
tic of print reading, when:
time, space, and all the workaday contingencies of their iden-
titysex, age, class, heritageare forgotten; the mind cleaves
to the page, matching it point-for-point; the mind is the text,
and in the act of reading it is you who are revealed to the imper-
sonal writer, quite as much as her imaginings and inventions are
rendered unto you.
This is eloquent, vaguely religious, and the condition may be recog-
nizable. But I cannot see why it is dependent on loss of the technol-
ogy of the codex. Second, it characterizes deep reading as a blessed
inwardness, a shedding of externalities. It is quasi-mystical; there is a
strange telepathy implicit in deep reading, he writes. By contrast,
screen reading is crassly social and commercial: The rise of reading
groups and online readers reviews represents the concomitant phe-
nomenon to the political parties use of focus groups to formulate
policy: literary worth is accorded to what the generality want and
digital readers have outsourced [their] mental operations to algorithms

38 Literature and the Public Good

owned by Sergey Brin [co-founder of Google] et al.... Such views are
not exclusively Western. Wang Meng, a novelist, poet, and critic, who
served as Chinese Minister of Culture in the 1980s, is also concerned.
Like Self, he worries that loss of indepth reading of classic writing,
or its rendering into television, damages future generations. Intensive
reading, a higher level of reading, he writes, occurs when people for-
get the world around them....We should pay great attention to the
ways of reading and over-simplification, too comfortable, too much
entertainment and over fragmentation are obviously disaster for peo-
ples spiritual life [sic]. Again, the move inward, the forgetfulness of
the world around, is striking.91
Discussions over e-books follow patterns familiar from earlier epi-
sodes when modernity threatened tradition. Distrust of new technol-
ogies, of new audiences, and of brash commercialization leads to
compensatory valorization of deep personal and spiritual experience,
a celebration of inwardness, and withdrawal from the everyday world.
The authenticity of the individual experience is contrasted with the
poverty of the generality (Self s word); fine writing and mundane
writing lose distinction; deep reading becomes superficial; something
is lost.
Arguments about the alleged psychological and cultural damage
caused by screen reading proliferate as fast as e-books themselves. The
BBC reports that a Harvard team finds that light-emitting screens
(which do not include the Kindle) disturb sleep and damage health.92
And there may be support for Hensher and Self. Psychologists suggest
that screen reading can be detrimental to memory and cognition.
Tiffany OCallaghan summarizes research showing that screen read-
ers are distracted by hyperlinks, other platforms, and advertising; that
this degrades performance and concentration through multitasking
and produces cognitive superficiality; and that it diminishes memory
by inculcating look it up habits of mind. She reports loss in ability to
follow argument and narrative, and that children who write by hand
rather than on screen appear better at handling, recalling, and manip-
ulating information.93 Earlier pieces in the US came to similar conclu-
sions.94 The authors of a piece in Science find that personal and social
memory is depleted by dependency on recalling where information is
found and not the information itself. Screen readers became depend-
ent on transactive memory (that is, external sources) rather than

Value Problems 39
embedded and personally valued capabilities. Further, they report,
screen readers were unable reliably to discriminate between trivial
and meaningful material in recall.95
A Norwegian-led project assessed these implications for reading
extended and complex texts such as literature. They found that screen
reading produced three cognitive deficits: dislocation in long text; loss
of appreciation of narrative and discomfort in handling it; and an
inability to be transported by reading and therefore develop empa-
thy (an important topic in Chapter5 of this book). They tested 145
American subjects in both print and screen conditions who read both
literary and factual (i.e. journalistic) material. They found that the
sensorimotor contingencies of screen reading (e.g. distractions or
navigational decisions) inhibited absorption and comprehension in
ways that were emotionally and cognitively negative when compared
to readers of print. Screen readers seemed to show less cognitive per-
spective taking and the authors worry about not only loss of empathy
and human understanding, but depleted vocabulary and comprehen-
sion skills.96 Naomi Baron cites research that studied the F-shaped
reading patterns typical in screen reading through eye-tracking tech-
nology. It was found that screen readers skim material with agility.
Afew lines were read carefully; readers then dropped down the text
with reduced attention, paused at some mid-point to check a few lines
more thoroughly, before dropping rapidly to the end. The profile
looks like a capital letter F (p. 43). She reports that around 90 per cent
of students voluntarily chose print when faced with reading lengthy or
complex text, not least to ensure undistracted concentration. Surveys
in the US, Japan, and Germany confirm this (pp. 8592).
The conclusions are contested. A New York-based team found no
significant difference when 90 individuals were tested for their
responses to screen and print reading, or literary and non-literary
comprehension. Although minor differences suggested marginally
better understanding from print, and increased mind-wandering
when reading on screen, these were not greatly significant.97 No
doubt it is too early to tell for sure, not least because e-reading is early
in both use and development. But it is interesting how debates about
value are structured in commentary on this issue, with a strong sense
of instinctive alarm and a fragile sense of tested realities. As regards
the public good, if there are significant educational, cognitive, and

40 Literature and the Public Good

memory-related deficits associated with screen reading, it will be
challenging to offset these against extended and easier access and
greater but perhaps more superficial sharing. For now, it seems, deep
reading remains the key value. But it is a far from certain emphasis
and can discourage consideration of the public presence of literature
by studied withdrawal into the text itself . In the final section we will
consider this in relation to three poems.

VII. All the Instruments Agree...

The subtitle is taken from W. H. Audens famous elegy for the poet
W.B. Yeats who died in 1939. Other lines from the poem have become
a touchstone for a certain attitude in literary commentary. Poetry,
Auden wrote in his tribute to Yeats,
makes nothing happen: it survives
In the valley of its making where executives
Would never want to tamper.98

Marjorie Garber, for example, in The Use and Abuse of Literature, quotes
some of this to reinforce her view that we do literature a real disser-
vice if we reduce it to knowledge or to use, to a problem to be solved.
If literature solves problems, it does so by...its ultimate refusal to be
applied or used, even for moral good.99 Garbers point celebrates
literatures uselessness in any pragmatic or instrumental sense, but
the point can be put negatively. As we saw earlier, the Guardian jour-
nalist Zoe Williams abandoned reading fiction because of its alleged
inability to engage responsibly with contemporary events. In Audens
terms, she left the valley of poetry for the land of the executives,
silently passing the checkpoint that separates the intrinsic from the
So what valueaside from its autotelic merit as a fine poem
might Audens In Memory of W. B. Yeats have? We might note that
Garber reduces use to problemsolving, thus shrinking the range.
But literature does provide direct responses to human predicaments.
Religious writing might comfort the misgivings of a person doubting
his or her faith perhaps. Or, in a famous example, literature provided
the Victorian philosopher and social critic John Stuart Mill with a way
of looking at the world that was an alternative to the narrow and

Value Problems 41
depressing utilitarianism in which he had been raised and whose
consequences were making him ill. He describes this in the chapter
ACrisis in my Mental History in his Autobiography. Discovering the
work of the English Romantic poets, especially Wordsworth, opened
up values of human love and sympathy, an enriching view of the nat-
ural environment, and a freerather than guiltyacknowledgement
of psychological, emotional, and intellectual perplexity. Henceforth,
he writes, the cultivation of the feelings became one of the cardinal
points in my ethical and philosophical creed. He sought out poetry
and whatever seemed capable of being instrumental [my emphasis] to
that object.100 In one sense, then, poetry did make something hap-
pen and contributed to solving a problem. Modern bibliotherapy,
though in quite a different way, follows this lead.
But this, too, doesnt quite answer the problem of value. Let us look
again at what Audens poem says. In Memory of W. B. Yeats is a
poem about the death of a great poet but also about the public pres-
ence of poetry which, Auden acknowledges with some sadness and
some resignation, becomes possessed by readers not writers:
The current of his feeling failed; he became his admirers.
Now he is scattered among a hundred cities
And wholly given over to unfamiliar affections

These admirers, of course, include Auden himself who ponders the

consequences of this.
In Memory of W. B. Yeats has three sections each written in a
different metre. There is a bleak first section recording Yeatss death
which leads Auden to consider his legacy as above. Poems last even if
the person doesnt; but in readers minds they are changed. There is
then a short, ten-line second section which contains the famous,
oft-cited lines quoted above about poetry making nothing happen:
this is clearly in some degree of tension with its possession by admirers
over hundreds of cities. Poems have clearly made something happen,
if only admiration. A third section provides a formal and ceremonial
tribute to Yeats, and to poets generally, in quatrains rhyming AABB.
The poem therefore has the standard generic shape of a formal elegy
(personal loss leading to public reflection) and mixes the topical (the
individuals death; the harsh winter weather; the coming political
crisis on the eve of the Second World War) with general reflections on

42 Literature and the Public Good

poetry and human needs in dark times. It is a poem about a dead and
brilliant poet and about its historical moment in 1939 when In the
nightmare of the dark / All the dogs of Europe bark. In a literal
sense, poetry makes nothing happen in that it cant revive a dead man,
nor alter the prospect of a terrifying future. On the other hand, it
becomes in itself a statement of need, and of a purpose for poetry.
The elegy to Yeats was Audens first poem published following, that
same year, his emigration to America for various reasons including avoid-
ance of the coming war, something for which he received a good deal of
public condemnation, not least by fellow Left-inclined writers such as
Orwell. As critics remark, the poem is therefore about a set of personal
issues and about trying to reshape an identity in new circumstances. It has
also been plausibly argued that the poem represents a watershed in
Audens career as a political poet and that henceforth he declined to
engage in any form of political debate: a sharp alteration from his earlier
profile as a writer of the Left.101 The poem asserts the value of poetry in
solemn tribute to Yeats and waves goodbye to Europe with foreboding.
But it is also haunted by a sense of loss and regret and an unsettled debate
on an issuethe public value of poetryover which he felt disquiet. The
second section, with its famous categorical pronouncement, was in fact
added later. It was not part of an original two-part poem first published
in the magazine The New Republic in March 1939. In its first version, the
poem did not make the proposition for which it is now best known.
Audens literary executor and distinguished commentator, Edward
Mendelson, describes a more complexand interestingsituation. He
argues that throughout much of the 1930s, when the political Auden
was prominent, two radically different versions of the power of art had
surreptitiously opposed each other and that his poems succeeded when
they took their energy from the struggle between these inner antagonists,
each with its allies in the world outside.102
The poem is intensely dialectical. Each of the three sections is,
internally, hauntingly fluent in mood, rhythm, and argument. But the
whole is discontinuous and rather edgy and restless as it shifts from
part to part. The air of questioning, even cross-examination, reveals
not only an unresolved personal predicament, but also the pros and
cons of poetry as a public art. Auden wrote a prose piece on Yeats,
also in the spring of 1939, which explicitly takes the form of speeches
between The Public Prosecutor and The Counsel for the Defence

Value Problems 43
on these matters.103 It is simply not the case that the poem presents a
clear, substantive proposition about arts lack of consequence. The
famous pronouncement is a moment in a dialectically intense poem
whose unsettled argument is registered through detail, technique, and
changing perspective. Its emotional authenticity breathes in these
skips and pauses in a way not unlike the function of the holes in a
Barbara Hepworth sculpture as noted by Philip Hensher. For exam-
ple, poetry in the makes nothing happen statement is then pictured
as a river, an active force flowing south from isolation. And in the
third section its ostensible incapacity to do anything is replaced by
imperative verbs and actions: Follow, poet, follow right.../ Still per-
suade us to rejoice; ...sing of human unsuccess / in a rapture of
distress; In the prison of his days / Teach the free man how to praise.
The water image begun with the poetic river resumes: In the deserts
of the heart / Let the healing fountain start. So poetry does indeed
have prospect of making things happen and it is helpful to recognize
that these things are public things, as a fountain is. The address of the
final section is formal and oratorical; the imperatives are set before an
audience; the pronoun is plural (persuade us to rejoice); the person-
alities are anonymous and representative.
Like mostperhaps allgreat works of literature, In Memory of
W. B. Yeats embodies qualities of human debate on serious issues and
deploys all of its extraordinary verbal resources to this end. But it is
important to recognize that the poem isnt a debating exercise. It is the
experiential power and unresolved, personal testing of important
ideas that give the poem its dialectical authenticity. It is also, on the
eve of some of the most testing times in modern history, a poem about
important things, about the transmission of culture and values
through (as the first part puts it) the guts of the living. Itself an act of
creation, its subject is not so much one poet but the heritage and dif-
fusion of art and creativity, and the way, in its own artistry, it offers
sustenance and reasons for survival. Six years later the Nobel Prize-
winning Lithuanian poet Czesaw Miosz addressed the war dead in
the devastated city of Warsaw in 1945 and asked: What is poetry
which does not save / Nations or people?.
That I wanted good poetry without knowing it,
That I discovered, late, its salutary aim,
In this and only this I find salvation.

44 Literature and the Public Good

They used to pour millet on graves or poppy seeds
To feed the dead who would come disguised as birds.
I put this book here for you, who once lived
So that you should visit us no more.104

This is not an exorcism. It is a testimony to the power of culture and

memory in civilizing human survival: this is the salutary aim of liter-
ature. A later prose piece movingly explains:
Right after the war, Kazimierz Wyyka [Polish historian, literary
critic and politician], trying to find a label for a certain genera-
tion, spoke of those who were infected with death. But man
forgets, even to the extent that he gradually begins to doubt the
reality of what he saw with his own eyes. He knows that this
forgetting is vile, yet if he were constantly thinking about that,
everything except this one matter would have no meaning for
him. That is why ethical poetry and prose arose on that hazy
borderline where one is already beginning to forget but one still
Typically, as here, debates about values in literature are exploratory
and contingent, and not categorical. Whatever it is that poetry does
or makes happenand doing nothing is not (as we say) an option
understanding it is not helped by confining responses to narrow
answers in a diminishing field of possibilities. What might be said to
happen as a result of literature is not a problem solved in any nar-
row sense. It is broad and generous, diffuse and constructive, com-
prehensive and inspiring. Its subject is a predicament explored and
shared and the message it delivers is one of powerful and trium-
phant creativity.
Audens elegy for Yeats, though a major anthology piece (and
benchmark in critical debate), has probably not penetrated deeply
into public consciousness. Another elegy of his, however, has done so.
Stop all the Clocks, movingly read over the coffin of a character in
the hit film Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994), became a major success.
Fresh popular reprints of it and related poems quickly appeared and
it featured in the entertainer Gryff Rhys Joness popular BBC anthol-
ogy of 1999, The Nations Favourite Twentieth-Century Poems. An Internet
search produces nearly four million results in 0.14 seconds. These

Value Problems 45
include rather earnest literary commentary and encyclopaedia entries
at one end of the spectrum, to loosely associated creative writing exer-
cises, TV shows, and musical renditions, at varying levels of success,
at the other. Stop all the Clocks is used widely at real funerals and is
part of the English inscription on a statue commemorating the deaths
of 39 people at the Heysel football stadium in Belgium during the
1985 European Cup Final between Liverpool and the Italian team
Juventus. It is also used as a motif, and sometimes site name, for vari-
ous self-help, counselling, and post-bereavement groups, andslightly
bizarrelyat weddings.
Clearly mass exposure does much to explain this popularity. But it
is worth speculating why poetry should be required at all on these
formal and serious occasions and what it is about this poem that so
readily lends itself to meeting peoples needs. Its fine language is not a
trivial answer, nor a petty concern. Something dignified, ceremonious,
and fitting is required at moments of solemn loss, and Clocks has
poignancy and resonance for many. But there is something else about
this poem that may be hidden from view. It was first written for Auden
and Christopher Isherwoods play The Ascent of F6 (1936), which,
though styled a tragedy, is really a piece of avant-garde burlesque. It
was adapted for performance by the cabaret singer Hedli Anderson
(the future wife of Audens poetic collaborator Louis MacNeice) by
Auden and the composer Benjamin Britten, where it was Number 3:
Funeral Blues of their Four Cabaret Songs (also 1936). John Fuller
describes it thus: The poem is a fair pastiche of the stoical lament and
flamboyant imagery of the traditional blues lyric and its hyperbole is
ironicthough he adds that in performance by Anderson and Britten
it gathered emotional power.106 Nonetheless the poem taken so sin-
cerely to the hearts of many people was, in origin, a piss-take.
Stop all the Clocks is not a mournful poem: that is its secret and,
Ithink, the key to its unusual power. It is celebratory; it mixes the cere-
monial with the whimsical, the exaggerated with the empty, the poign-
ant with the celebratory. The fact that it teeters on the brink of
over-stretching its playfulness is why it is felt to be so appropriate and
moving. The feelings it half creates and half responds to are not just
those of oppressive loss. There is joy, exuberance, even festival about the
poem, even as it marks a death. This is the creative heart of literature.

46 Literature and the Public Good

1. Philip Hensher, Why Didnt they Steal those Half-wits at St Pancras?, The Independent,
22 December 2011, http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/commentators/philip-
html (accessed 18/4/16). Two Forms (Divided Circle) can still be seen: there are six
other versions including ones in St Ives and Cambridge in the UK and Evanston,
Illinois in the US.
2. Paul Krugman, The Return of Depression Economics and the Crisis of 2008 (London,
Penguin, 2008) and End This Depression Now! (New York, Norton, 2012); John
Lanchester, Whoops! Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay (London, Penguin,
2010); Robert Skidelski, Keynes: The Return of the Master (London, Penguin, 2009);
Joseph Stiglitz, Freefall: America, Free Markets, and the Sinking of the World Economy (New
York, Norton, 2010). Lanchesters book is much the funniest.
3. Zoe Williams, No Time for NovelsShould we Ditch Fiction in Times of Crisis?,
The Guardian, 19 November 2011, www.theguardian.com/the guardian/2011/
nov/19/read-serious-books-zoe-williams. (accessed 5/12/11).
4. http://www.hm-treasury.gov.uk/data_greenbook_index.htm.
5. There is a useful evaluative commentary on these and other techniques in Dave
OBrien, Measuring the Value of Culture: A Report to the Department for Culture, Media and
Sport (DCMS, 2010), http://www.culture.gov.uk/publications/7660.aspx. Those
with a taste for this kind of thing might consult a supplementary discussion paper
which extends their range and number: Valuation Techniques for Social Cost-Benefit
Analysis: Stated Preferences, Revealed Preferences and Subjective Well-Being Approaches (July
2011), http://www.hm-treasury.gov.uk/data_greenbook_news.htm. This is the
so-called Magenta Book. The Foreword notes, in circular fashion, that the full
value of goods such as health, family and community stability, educational success,
and environmental assets cannot simply be inferred from market prices. But we
should not neglect such important social impacts in policy making. We therefore
look to economic techniques to help us elicit values for these goods (p. 5).
6. See, for example, David W. Galenson, Masterpieces and Markets: Why the Most
Famous Modern Paintings Are Not by American Artists, Historical Methods 35, 2
(2002), 6375. This is a sophisticated comparison of the conditions of original pro-
duction (and sale) of French high-modernist and American abstract expressionist
painting. It relates these to subsequent reputations in twentieth-century art history.
7. John Stuart Mill, Bentham in Mill on Bentham and Coleridge, ed. F. R. Leavis (London,
Chatto and Windus, 1971), p. 95. Mill misquotes, but does not misrepresent,
Benthams The Rationale of Reward (1830).
8. Elizabeth Bowen, Out of a Book (1946) in Collected Impressions (London, Longmans,
1950), p. 267.
9. See especially John Holden, Capturing Cultural Value: How Culture Has Become a Tool of
Government Policy (London, Demos, 2004) and Cultural Value and the Crisis of Legitimacy
(London, Demos, 2006); John Knell and Matthew Taylor, Arts Funding, Austerity and
the Big Society: Remaking the Case for the Arts (London, RSA, 2011); Kevin F. McCarthy
et al., Gifts of the Muse: Reframing the Debate about Benefits of the Arts (RAND Corporation,

Value Problems 47
2005); and Geoffrey Crossick and Patrycja Kaszynska, Understanding the Value of Arts
and Culture: The AHRC Cultural Value Project (AHRC, 2016), http://www.ahrc.ac.uk/
documents/publications/cultural-value-project-final-report/(accessed 28/3/16).
Interestingly two pieces coming from ostensibly opposed directions in fact con-
verge: Lisanne Gibson, In Defence of Instrumentality, Cultural Trends 17, 4 (2008),
24757 and Hasan Bakhshi et al., Measuring Intrinsic Value: How to Stop Worrying and
Love Economics (2009), http://www.labforculture.org/en/resources-for-research/
love-economics. It is striking how much of this debate is conducted in the so-called
grey literature; that is, the research produced largely outside academia by policy
agencies, think tanks and the like. Often written to tight timescales and to the
occasion, it tends to be more interested in implementation than reflection, and
impatient with ancient arguments.
10. www.stiglitz-sen-fitoussi.fr.
11. ONS, Measuring National Well-being, First Annual Report on Measuring National Well-being
(2012) http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20140721132900/http://ons.
12. A high-profile profile debate in The Guardian newspaper in July 2012 between
Richard Laycock, the economist champion of happiness science, and the philos-
opher Julian Baggini turned on exactly these points echoed in commentary follow-
ing release of the first tranche of ONS data later that month. (If Youre Happy
and You Know It..., The Guardian, 21 July 2012). See also Thomas Nagel, Who
Is Happy and When?, New York Review of Books, 4 December 2010.
13. Karen Scott, Measuring Wellbeing: Toward Sustainability (London, Routledge, 2012), p.7.
14. Vivid Economics, Inexpensive Progress? A Framework for Assessing the Costs and Benefits of
Planning Reform (Campaign to Protect Rural England, the National Trust, and the
Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, 2012), p. 22.
15. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-devon-16932798 (accessed 8/2/12).
There is serious academic work on Treenomics: see Susan Wachter and Grace
Wong, What Is a Tree Worth? Green-city Strategies, Signalling and Housing
Prices Real Estate Economics 36, 2 (2008), 21339.
16. There is also a burgeoning and increasingly influential literature on health and
well-being sometimes based on assessing Quality Adjusted Life Years (or QALYs).
See OBrien (note5).
17. Rebecca Ratzkin et al., eds, Counting New Beans: Intrinsic Impact and the Value of Art
(San Francisco, Theatre Bay Area, 2012).
18. https://www.arts.gov/news/2011/chairman-rocco-landesman-announces-latest-
national-endowment-arts-grants (accessed 22/6/16). See also the NEA 2012
symposium on the arts and economic growth, http://www.nea.gov/research/
19. NEA Research Division, Reading at Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America (2004),
https://www.arts.gov/sites/default/files/ReadingAtRisk.pdf (accessed 29/8/12).
20. http://www.worldcitiescultureforum.com/publications/world-cities-culture-
report-2014 (accessed 22/6/16).

48 Literature and the Public Good

21. There is a growing literature on these issues and Richard Florida, The Rise of the
Creative Class (New York, Basic Books, 2004) is often cited as a major, if not unchal-
lenged, innovator of much of this work. Stimulated by it, and of particular interest
for its fascinating detail, Elizabeth Currid, The Warhol Economy: How Fashion, Art, and
Music Drive New York City (Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2007) is an engag-
ing and informative empirical account.
22. Mark J. Stern and Susan C. Seifert, Cultural Clusters: The Implications of
Cultural Assets Agglomeration for Neighborhood Revitalization, Journal of
Planning Education and Research 29 (2010), 26279.
23. Beatriz Garcia et al., Impacts 08: European City of Culture Research Programme, http://
www.liv.ac.uk/impacts08 (accessed 18/4/16).
24. Kieron Culligan, John Dubber, Mona Lotten, As Others See Us: Culture Attraction and
Soft Power (British Council/Ipsos MORI, 2014), www.britishcouncil.org/sites/
default/files/as-others-see-us-report-v3.pdf; Christopher Hill and Sarah Beadle,
The Art of Attraction: Soft Power and the UKs Role in the World (British Academy, 2014),
http://www.britac.ac.uk/intl/softpower.cfm. The latest annual Portland interna-
tional index of soft power places the UK first: Jonathan McClory, The Soft Power 30:
A Global Ranking of Soft Power (Portland Communications, 2015), http://softpower30.
portland-communications.com/pdfs/the_soft_power_30.pdf (all accessed 18/4/16).
25. http://artshumanities.blogs.ie.edu/2011/09.
26. Creative and Cultural Skills, The Literature Blueprint: An Analysis of the Skills Needs of
the Literature Sector in the UK December 2010 (London, CCSC, 2010), http://blueprint-
files.s3.amazonaws.com/1321191693-CCSkills_Literature-Blueprint.pdf (accessed
27. J. M. Jacobs et al., Reading Daily Predicts Reduced Mortality among Men
from a Cohort of Community-dwelling 70-year-olds, Journals of Gerontology Series
B: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences 63 (2008), S73S80; Rebecca Gordon-Nesbitt,
Exploring the Longitudinal Relationship between Arts Engagement and Health (Arts for Health,
2016), http://www.artsforhealth.org/research/artsengagementandhealth/ (accessed
11/3/16). See also R. L. Staricoff, Can the Arts Have a Positive Effect on Health?
AReview of the Medical Literature (Arts Council of England, 2004). The review
gives substantial attention to the impacts of literary reading and creative writing.
28. Centre for Research into Reading, Information and Linguistic Systems, ALiterature-
based Intervention for Older People Living with Dementia (University of Liverpool,
2012), http://thereader.org.uk/get-into-reading/research. (accessed 29/8/12).
29. J. Billington et al., An Investigation into the Therapeutic Benefits of Reading in
Relation to Depression and Wellbeing, The Reader Organisation (2010). http://www.
people_living_with_dementia.pdf (accessed 22/6/16). See also the special Health
Issue of the journal The Reader 41 (Spring 2011).
30. S. Hodge et al., Reading between the Lines: The Experience of Taking Part in a
Community Reading Project, Journal of Medical Ethics 33 (2007), 1004; Blake
Morrison, Are Books the New Prozac?, Guardian Review, 5 January 2008; Jenny
Hartley, Reading Groups (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2001), p. 114.

Value Problems 49
31. There is a brief account of the organization in Philip Davis, Why Victorian Literature
Still Matters (Oxford, Wiley-Blackwell, 2008), pp. 1357.
32. http://cltl.umassd.edu/home-html.cfm; see also Anna Barker, Novel Sentences,
Guardian Society, 21 July 2010; and Hartley, Reading Groups, p. 38. There are UK
versions of this programme: see http://www.insidetime.org/articleview.asp?a=
671&c=connected_by_stories (Inside Time is the national UK newspaper for
33. Jonathan Rose, The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes (London, Yale
University Press, 2001), p. 81. For Marks and Spencer, see Hartley, pp. 1213.
34. Helen Carter, Wire Actor Is Brought to Books, Guardian Society, 4 August 2010.
35. http://www.ministryofstories.org; http://826valencia.org; Allegra Stratton, Nick
Hornby Opens Ministry of Stories to Get Britains Kids Writing Again, The Guardian,
18 November 2010; Frances Booth, Thirty Stories by Lunchtime, Education Guardian,
23 November 2010.
36. http://www.bbc.co.uk/mediacentre/latestnews/2015/get-reading (accessed
37. For this information, see Hartley. For a comparative study of similar groups in the
1930s, see Frank Earnest Hill and W. E. Williams, Radios Listening Groups: The United
States and Great Britain (New York, Columbia University Press, 1941). Jonathan Rose,
Intellectual Life; Ross McKibbin, Classes and Cultures: England 19181951 (Oxford,
Oxford University Press, 1998); and Christopher Hilliard, To Exercise our Talents: The
Democratization of Writing in Britain (London, Harvard University Press, 2006) offer
huge amounts of relevant material.
38. Hartley, p. 110.
39. Ted Striphas, The Late Age of Print: Everyday Book Culture from Consumerism to Control
(New York, Columbia University Press, 2009), p. 111.
40. Richard Ford, Let Me Be Frank with You (London, Bloomsbury, 2014), p. 47.
41. Joan Swann and Daniel Allington, Reading Groups and the Language of Literary
Texts: A Case Study in Social Reading, Language and Literature 18, 3 (2009), p. 253.
42. Creative Research for Arts Council England, The Future of Reading: A Public Value
Project (2009), p. 47, http://www.artscouncil.org.uk/what-we-do/research-and-
data/public-value-programme/the-public-value-of-reading (accessed 29/8/12).
43. Maryanne Wolf, Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain (New
York, Harper Perennial, 2008), p. 138.
44. Raymond Williams, The Long Revolution (London, Chatto & Windus, 1961), Part2, ch. 1.
45. For example, Scott London, Higher Education for the Public Good: A Report from the
National Leadership Dialogues (National Forum on Higher Education for the Public
Good, Ann Arbour, 2003).
46. Barbara Misztal, Intellectuals and the Public Good: Creativity and Civil Courage (Cambridge,
Cambridge University Press, 2007). Stefan Collini, Absent Minds: Intellectuals in
Britain (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2006), esp. Part5.
47. Craig Calhoun, Transformations of the Public Sphere (2009), http://publicsphere.
(accessed 29/4/16).

50 Literature and the Public Good

48. Craig Calhoun, The Public Good as a Social and Cultural Project in Woody
Powell and Lis Clemens, eds, Private Action for the Public Good (New Haven, Princeton
University Press, 1998), p. 24.
49. Kenneth Burke, Literature as Equipment for Living in The Philosophy of Literary
Form: Studies in Symbolic Action (New York, Vintage Books, 1941). For Burke this
allows readers to size up situations in various ways and in keeping with corre-
spondingly various attitudes (p. 262).
50. Elizabeth Long, Textual Interpretation as Collective Action in Jonathan Boyarin,
ed., The Ethnography of Reading (Berkeley, University of California Press, 1993), p.202.
51. Of course it would not be sensible to think that private reading does not supply
these benefits. Nor would it be helpful to assume all group reading is good. Alberto
Manguels marvellously elegant A History of Reading (London, Flamingo, 1997) con-
tains plenty of historical examples of prohibitive, restrictively supervised, coercive,
or censored reading.
52. Both available at http://www.nea.gov (accessed 29/8/12). The quotation from
Reading at Risk is from p. xiii.
53. Richard D. Altick, The English Common Reader: A Social History of the Mass Reading Public
18001900 (London, University of Chicago Press, 1957); Richard Hoggart, The
Uses of Literacy: Aspects of Working-class Life with Special Reference to Publications and
Entertainments (Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1958); Williams, The Growth of the
Reading Public in Long Revolution; David Vincent, Bread Knowledge and Freedom: A Study
of Nineteenth-Century Working Class Autobiography (London, Methuen, 1982), ch. 6;
Rose, Intellectual Life.
54. F. R. Leavis, Mass Civilization and Minority Culture (1930) in Education and the
University: A Sketch for an English School, 2nd edn (London, Chatto & Windus, 1948),
pp. 1578.
55. Q. D. Leavis, Fiction and the Reading Public (Harmondsworth, Peregrine, 1979),
p. 185.
56. Quoted in Hartley, p. 131.
57. John Sunyer, Chinas workplace novel: Where Self-help Meets Literature,
Financial Times, 12 May 2012.
58. Jason Burke, From Mills & Boon to Man Booker, a Reading Boom Is Sweeping
Indias Growing Middle Class, The Guardian, 4 March 2010.
59. David Teather, Digital Books? Just Another Page in the History of Publishing, The
Guardian, 30 July 2010.
60. Andy Beckett, You Cant Be Serious, Guardian Review, 16 May 2009.
61. Available at http://www.nea.gov/news/news09/readingonrise.html (accessed
62. David W. Moore, About Half Americans Reading a Book, http://www.gallup.
com/poll/16582/about-half-americans-reading-book (accessed 30/3/15). For
pithy commentary, see Alexis C. Madrigal, The Next Time Someone Says the
Internet Is Killing Reading Books, Show Them This Chart, The Atlantic, 6 April
2012, http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2012/04/the-next-time-
(accessed 18/4/16).

Value Problems 51
63. Roger E. Bohn and James E. Short, How Much Information? 2009 Report on American
Consumers (University of California San Diego, Global Information Industry
Center, 2009), p. 18.
64. Christine L. Borgman, Scholarship in the Digital Age: Information, Infrastructure, and the
Internet (London, MIT Press, 2010), pp. 15661.
65. Carol Midgley, Multitasking? Its a Myth. And your Phone? Its Making you
Stupid, The Times2, 27 January 2015.
66. Paul N. Edwards et al., Knowledge Infrastructures: Intellectual Frameworks and Research
Challenges (National Science Foundation and Sloan Foundation, University of
Michigan School of Information, 2012), http://pne.people.si.umich.edu/PDF/
Edwards_etal_2013_Knowledge_Infrastructures.pdf (accessed 19/2/16).
67. Franco Moretti, Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for Literary History (London,
Verso, 2005).
68. Viktor Mayer-Schnberger and Kenneth Cuckier, Big Data: A Revolution that Will
Transform How We Live, Work and Think (London, John Murray, 2013), p. 114.
69. Kathleen Fitzpatrick, Planned Obsolescence: Publishing, Technology, and the Future of the
Academy (New York, New York University Press, 2011), pp. 10520.
70. Erin E. Templeton, Open Thread Wednesday: Social Reading, Chronicle of Higher
Education, 24 July 2013. chronicle.com/blogs/profhacker/open-thread-wednes-
day-social-reading/51295 (accessed 14/11/13); Mark Mason, Youre Never Alone
with a Kindle, The Spectator, 14 June 2014, http://www.spectator.co.uk/features/
9229701/kindles-will-kill-off-the-bookish-loner-thank-god/ (accessed 25/4/16).
71. Naomi Baron, Words Onscreen: The Fate of Reading in a Digital World (Oxford, Oxford
University Press, 2015), p. 125.
72. Barney Jopson and Andrew Edgecliffe-Johnson, The Bookworm Turns, Financial
Times, 56 May 2012.
73. Lucy Holden, The Last Page: Is It the End of the Story for Ebooks?, The Times,
29 October 2015.
74. Baron, Words Onscreen, p. 208.
75. DJS Research, BookTrust Reading Habits Survey 2013 (London, BookTrust, 2014),
final-report-17-march-2014.pdf (accessed 4/10/15).
76. Holden, The Last Page?; Alison Flood, Ebook sales drop, Guardian Review,
6February 2016; Joanna Prior [President of the UK Publishers Association], UK
Publishing: 2016 and Beyond, http://www.publishers.org.uk/policy-and-news/
pa-blog/uk-publishing-2016-and-beyond (accessed 18/2/16).
77. Adam Gabbatt, Amazon Downloads Eclipse Print Book Sales, The Guardian,
20May 2011.
78. Bobby Johnson, Amazon Kindle Users Surprised by Big Brother Move, The
Guardian, 17 July 2009.
79. Robert Darnton, The Case for Books: Past, Present and Future (New York, Public Affairs,
2009) and Googles Loss: The Publics Gain, New York Review, 28 April 2011.
80. Dan Sabbagh. Murdoch v the British Library, Guardian Media, 7 June 2010.
81. Jeff Gomez, Print Is Dead: Books in our Digital Age (New York, Palgrave-Macmillan,

52 Literature and the Public Good

82. Margaret Drabble, On the Joy of Ebooks, Guardian Review, 24 May 2014.
83. Marcus du Sautoy, Into the Unknown, Guardian Review, 3 July 2010; Claire
Armitstead, From Frankenstein to Three Little Pigs, the Ebook Is Transforming
our Reading Experience, The Guardian, 5 May 2012.
84. Ben Macintyre, Qwerty is the Key to our Love of Language, The Times, 13
March 2012.
85. Iain Pears, Theres an App for That..., Guardian Review, 22 August 2015.
86. Tom McCarthy, James Joyce Would Be Working for Google, Guardian Review,
7 March 2015.
87. Andrew Rice, The 99c Best Seller, Time Magazine, 10 December 2012, pp.4451.
88. Liz Jobey, The Bigger Picture, FT Weekend Life and Arts, 1 March 2015.
89. Philip Hensher, End of Days for Reading?, The Guardian, 4 January 2014.
90. Will Self, The Fate of our Literary Culture Is Sealed, Guardian Review, 4 October
91. Wang Meng, Over-fragmentation of Reading Is a Disaster for Spiritual Life,
Culture and Influence, 1 October 2013, http://en.gmw.cn/2013-10/01/con-
tent_9023159.htm (accessed 21/8/14).
92. James Gallagher, E-books Damage Sleep and Health, Doctors Warn, BBC
News Website, 23 December 2014, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-
30574260.` (accessed 23/12/14).
93. Tiffany OCallaghan, Goodbye, Paper: What We Miss when We Read on
Screen, New Scientist 2993, 29 October 2014.
94. Ferris Jabr, The Reading Brain in the Digital Age: The Science of Paper versus
Screens, Scientific American, 11 April 2013, http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/
reading-paper-screens/?wt.mc=SA_Twitter-Share (accessed 24/4/16).
95. Betsy Sparrow, Jenny Liu, and Daniel M. Wegner, Google Effects on Memory:
Cognitive Consequences of Having Information at our Fingertips, Science 333,
6043 (2011), 7768.
96. Anne Mangen and Don Kuiken, Lost in an iPad: Narrative Engagement on
Paper and Tablet, Scientific Study of Literature 4, 2 (2014), 15077.
97. Sarah J. Margolin, Casey Driscoll, Michael J. Tolland, and Jennifer Little Kegler,
E-readers, Computer Screens, or Paper: Does Reading Comprehension Change
across Reading Platforms?, Applied Cognitive Psychology 27 (2013), 51219.
98. W. H. Auden, The English Auden: Poems, Essays and Dramatic Writings 19271939
(London, Faber, 1977), p. 242. Note: the version published in Collected Shorter Poems
(1966) has three verses omitted from the third section.
99. Marjorie Garber, The Use and Abuse of Literature (New York, Pantheon, 2011), pp.
100. John Stuart Mill, Autobiography, ed. Jack Stillinger (Oxford, Oxford University
Press, 1969), p. 86.
101. Humphrey Carpenter, W. H. Auden: A Biography (Oxford, Oxford University Press,
1981), pp. 2557.
102. Edward Mendelson, Later Auden (London, Faber and Faber, 1999), pp. 1314.
103. Auden, The Public v. the Late Mr William Butler Yeats in English Auden,

Value Problems 53
104. Czesaw Miosz, Dedication, New and Collected Poems 19312001, trans. Czesaw
Miosz and Robert Hass (London, Penguin, 2005), p. 77.
105. Czesaw Miosz, From Notebook in Proud to Be a Mammal: Essays on War, Faith and
Memory, trans. Catherine Leach, Bogdana Carpenter, and Madeline G. Levine
(London, Penguin, 2010), p. 290.
106. John Fuller, W. H. Auden: A Commentary (London, Faber and Faber, 1998), p. 280.

Some Answers

The debate about what art and literature may or may not produce in
terms of the public good or the public bad is, one imagines, as old as
paint or script. Original responses to ancient cave paintings may have
provoked the usual range of opinion. Did they elicit wonder?
Incredulity? Fear? Or an impatience about time-wasting, messing up
walls on which might hang utilities like skins, pots, spears, and kin-
dling? Were the beasts and figures in these pictures instructional (hunt
these creatures in that place?) or magical invocations? Were they sym-
bolic trophies, ceremonial thanks, or yearnings for plenty? Were they
map-like notations to order, classify, and manage the environment?
Were they expressions of aesthetic ingenuity and delight? Symbolic
community bonds? All of these are properties of art objects as
we know them now. They may have been annoying scribbles by
time-wasters for some. On the other hand, there is a theory that they
were tokens of species distinction: displays of advanced skill and brain
power to awe Neanderthals left in the evolutionary wake of Homo
sapiens. As such, they spurred the development of the brain and
human consciousness.1 The puzzle is rich. But as we shall see in
Chapter 5, it is unlikely that they were the products of feckless
Pleistocene doodling.
For most commentators, the written debate on these matters begins
with the Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle. Plato attacked art for
the harm it does (not, note, its instrumental uselessness), while Aristotle
defended it, and specifically literature, for intelligent recording and
exploration of, and guidance through, our human situation. I find
myself an instinctive Aristotelian in this argument, but it is worth con-
sidering Platos hostility in detail because it is not a piece of philistinism

56 Literature and the Public Good

and has been influential across the centuries. He lived in a prosperous
society, which was full of representational art, and which appears to
have been rather addicted to its production. The philosopher does not
seem to be particularly grumpy about this as a waste of resource, or
indeed about the quality of the artworks themselves. It is not, Plato
asserts, that art is wasteful, irrelevant, or incompetent. The problem,
in his view, is that it is injurious to human well-being and to the state.
It is in this sense a public bad. This is a different kind of negative
assessment than that associated with modern utilitarianism: though
interestingly it too bears on the question of use-value.
In book 10 of The Republic, written around 380 bc, Platos spokes-
man Socrates is in dialogue with a young interlocutor, Glaucon.
Socrates argues that there are several reasons why we should distrust
art and, as the chapter builds to conclusion and the denunciation
getsmore heated, why we should, with meagre exception, outlaw it
altogether. (Plato is primarily concerned with representational or
imitative art which includes the visual arts and literature.) The specific
charges are presented as follows but can be summarized as the view
that art is, as Socrates puts it, ruinous to understanding.2 This charge
has several elements which are both epistemological and affective.
First he says that what art creates is simply untrue. In Platos theory,
the truth of phenomena lies in a divine or ideal conception. This ideal
conception is then realized in use. However, what the arts represent is
this already debased ideal in use. His example is a bed: there is a con-
ception of a bed; one made by a carpenter materializing that concep-
tion; and then there is an artistic picture or description of the bed.
The object as figured in art therefore is thrice removed from the
truth (p. 662) and what is true of tangible objects is also true of
abstract conceptions: poetical individuals, beginning with Homer, are
only imitators; they copy images of virtue and the like, but the truth
they never reach (p. 666). The images thus portrayed are semblances
only, deluding children or simple persons (p. 663) and failing to do
full justice to the natural or essential parts of life.
In addition to being false, art objects are emotionally pernicious,
says Plato: they are self-indulgent and distracting and the pleasurable
feelings they provoke are shallow and contagious. Literary works in
particular are adept at representing negative emotions and capable of
neither nourishing nor capturing the better nature in each of us

Some Answers 57
(p.675). Thus they infect their audience and the public good: Few
persons ever reflect, as I should imagine, that from the evil of other
men something of evil is communicated to themselves (p. 675).
Literatures obsession with negative states of mind, and representations
of misfortune or villainy, is the heaviest count in our accusationthe
power that poetry has of harming even the good (p. 674). Plato there-
fore proposes refusing to admit him [the poet] into a well-ordered
State, because he awakens and nourishes and strengthens the feelings
and impairs the reason (p. 674). Thus philosophers remain firm
inour conviction that hymns to the gods and praises of famous men
are the only poetry which ought to be admitted (p. 676). A thin liter-
ature of praise to David Beckham and Duchess Kate awaits us in
Platos censorious instincts of course have been strongly criticized
over the centuries. Similarities to the propagandist cultural policies of
authoritarian regimes in the twentieth century (to go back no further)
are striking and it is doubtful whether a culture founded solely on
praising gods and famous men would be dynamic, fulfilling, or indeed
safe in a heterodox, multi-faith world. But there are points to recog-
nize here: literature does indeed seem to represent more than a fair
share of the dark side of human life. It is also easy to connect this line
of thinking to modern anxieties about, for example, the effects of
pornography, the representation of violence, distortions of social real-
ity by the media, or the promulgation of unfair or prejudiced ideas
generally. But the call for the extirpation of art suggests a very differ-
ent conception of culture and human perception, let alone the legiti-
mate functions of a democratic polity, than our own.
All human cognition is error-strewn; some of this is systemic and
has origins in both physiology and nurture; some of it is incidental
and circumstantial; some of it is deliberate in the sense that we want
to hide from unpleasant facts or wish to believe a certain view of
events (this is sometimes called a confirmation bias). We hear and see
what we wish to hear and see, and thus misapprehend, as Wordsworth
noted (see Chapter1), mingling our perceptions with our creations.
Plato acknowledges this, but attributes this vulnerability to works of
art indiscriminately. He compares our responses to art works to dis-
eases and material flaws such as mildew, rot, and rust (p. 679). He
compares it to the perceptual distortions found when we observe

58 Literature and the Public Good

objects immersed in water where the straight becomes crooked. As a
result, every sort of confusion is revealed within us; and this is that
weakness of the human mind on which the art of conjuring and of
deceiving...imposes (pp. 66970). Conjuring and deception are thus
(he claims) the natural province of works of art. Human beings, sub-
ject to them, are therefore vulnerable, untrustworthy, and more than
slightly idiotic.
Platos metaphors suggest there is an undistorted reality available to
understanding which is unmediated by circumstance or the processes
of human perception, and that this is healthy while the rest is morbid.
It is an absolutist view. There are more nuanced accounts. In Book 4
of The Prelude, for example, Wordsworth analyses the process of per-
ception in a painstaking metaphor that builds on Platos idea of visual
distortion under water. He imagines someone leaning over the side of
a boat looking down and seeing not only the shimmering water and
the drifting images of what lies below the surface, but also his own
reflection and that of the sky and wider environment above.
As one who hangs down-bending from the side
Of a slow-moving boat upon the breast
Of a still water, solacing himself
With such discoveries as his eye can make
Beneath him in the bottom of the deeps,
Sees many beauteous sightsweeds, fishes, flowers,
Grots, pebbles, roots of treesand fancies more,
Yet is often perplexed, and cannot part
The shadow from the substance, rocks and sky,
Mountains and clouds, from that which is indeed
The region, and the things which there abide
In their true dwelling; now is crossed by gleam
Of his own image, by a sunbeam now,
And motions that are sent he knows not whence,
Impediments that make his task more sweet;
Such pleasant office have we long pursued
Incumbent over the surface of past time
With like success.
(1805 version, Book 4, ll. 256ff)

This is a self-aware, deeply intelligent, and probing image of the

difficulties of perception and introspection; of how hard it is sometimes

Some Answers 59
to sort the past from the present in our memories, and to disentangle
conscious and unconscious presences. But the major point is that
complex analysis of this kind, created in a literary way by
Wordsworth, are acts of knowing not of deceiving. This knowledge
is not total, nor absolute. It is not permanent and sometimes not
even sufficient. Regularly it stresses complication and perplexity
(which can be exasperating). But it is good enough, as an active pro-
cess, to comprehend a human world in which, in a mature and self-
aware way, we know that such forces are present in our minds and
thoughts and are imminently disruptive; and that the life of complex
minds is intricate and sometimes obscure. Nonetheless, in the midst
of this, Wordsworth quietly insists, we can make rational, analytical
sense beyond the unsophisticated, binary vacillation between truth
and falsehood proposed by Plato. Human experience is fuller, richer,
more difficult, and more interesting than a world in which one thing
is truthful and other things are deviations. It is human and it is good
enough. One unique way of representing and comprehending this
kind of plural mindedness is to be found in literature, and this is a
not inconsiderable public good.
In Platos epistemological hierarchy the idea of a bed carries more
weight than its realization, and the making of the bed carries more
weight than its representation in art. Making an object, as a carpenter
makes a bed, provides better contact with reality than the fumbling of
arty minds offering third-hand experience. Plato writes that the excel-
lence or beauty or truth of every structure, animate or inanimate, and
of every action of man, is relative to the use for which nature or the
artist [meaning artisan] has intended them (p. 668). The user will
have knowledge, he continues, the imitator will not, and this carries
the epistemological day (pp. 66970). This concept of use is different
from that deployed by utilitarian thinkers who, as we saw in Chapter1,
primarily intend use to be a designator of experience value rather
than an epistemological guarantee. But it is easy to see that in both
cases there is scepticism about the good derived from art when judged
against useful practice.
Issues concerning the relationship between beauty and truth are
homeland territory for poets who sometimes celebrate it, and some-
times agonize about the insufficiency of the relationship. Keatss Ode
on a Grecian Urn (1819) is a famous case in point. The poem

60 Literature and the Public Good

c elebrates the imaginary worlds created in art (in this case in relief on
a sculpted urn) and the power of the human mind to invest in these
and be fulfilled by them. However, imaginary worlds have obvious
material limitations, and the poem ends by questioning the adequacy
of imaginary worlds to provide substance or consolation. The precise
meaning of the famous last two linesBeauty is truth, truth beauty
that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to knowis disputed,
not least because it is unclear how they should be punctuated and
therefore who says what and to whom.3 It is a typical sort of crux from
which literature generates semantic power in ways that ordinary
language users (and probably Platonists) can find exasperating.
Is this famous pronouncementincluding the apparent motto
Beauty is truth, truth beautydelivered by the urn (which the poem
describes as a friend to man) to be taken at face value as a take-away
message? Or, is the motto alone attributable to the urn while the rest
is spoken in a different (and more sceptical) way? Is that is all / Ye
know on earth, and all ye need to know intended to endorse the urns
perhaps somewhat glib declaration? Or is it intended to express a
rather sarcastic reservation that might be paraphrased as: it is all very
well for art to declare this sufficient; but humans have to live in a dif-
ferent world? This human world is also evoked in the final stanza. It
is one in which old age shall this generation waste and woe is plen-
tiful. In which case the poems apparent message is not celebratory,
but a reflection on the tragic gap between human experience and
beautiful ambition.
People who like clarity and tidiness do not like this kind of thing.
But the point is not that Keats is uncertain (though he is); still less that
he is incompetent in delivering a straightforward message. The poem
establishes itself rhetorically to deliver a message, but seems to be
unable to do so. It is as if one of Platos simple-minded people had
unexpectedly bumped into second thoughts. It is a property of litera-
ture to animate deliberate complexity in this way and express mean-
ings with multiple aspects, and this may be thought a human if not
necessarily a logical or philosophical good. In complex predicaments,
humans are frequently torn between alternatives and literature hon-
ours their complication rather than simple conclusions. Keatss poem
says that art worksthough gorgeous and stimulatingcan be aus-
tere and indifferent in contrast to human predicaments; and that their

Some Answers 61
consolations, though cherished, might be insufficient. They are,
indeed, cold pastorals in one of the poems many memorable
phrases. At the same time howeverlest the argument runs towards
the negativethey also nourish, enrich, and stimulate, at least for a
time and in part. By contrast, Platos world is severe. It entertains few
doubts and eliminates the human space of uncertainty and complex,
ambiguous, even paradoxical sensation. Socrates asks Glaucon to
consider situations in which a man is drawn in two opposite direc-
tions, to and from the same object (p. 672) and rules that the law
should guide resolution. Earlier, he asserts that the same faculty can-
not have contrary opinions at the same time about the same thing
(p.670). For him, this is epistemic confusion. But for Keatsalso con-
sidering issues of beauty and truththis is a reflection of an existen-
tially exposed, deeply-felt, and thereby rich human world. For him (as
for many writers) it is possible, right, and truthful to see the value in
contrasting points of view.
It is the particular strength of literature to evoke the human density
of such predicaments and the sometimes tormenting confusion of
existential problems. In The Republic, Plato has an argument for the
superiority of philosophy in the ancient quarrel between philosophy
and poetry (p. 677), which rests upon his assertion that philosophers
come to clear and superior judgement and therefore provide better
public value. The arts, he says, are false; they excite illegitimate hope;
indulge our emotions recklessly; and are pernicious to understanding.
Decisive law is preferable and therefore artists should be expelled from
his ideal state. This is philosophy with menaces, and seems to misap-
prehend, or at least misrepresent, the purposes and values of works of
art, their mode of existence, and the knowledge they provideat least
from a modern point of view. It is in the world of human uncertainty
that literature finds its value, and not that of an absolutist and draco-
nian polity. For this reason, especially in the twentieth century, art has
often been associated with non-doctrinal freedom. The French existen-
tial philosopher, novelist, and dramatist Jean-Paul Sartre, for example,
writing just after the Second World War and the Nazi occupation of
France (during which he fought for the Resistance), made freedom the
key element not just of the aims and ends of life, but of the highest
kind of literature said to be lifes fullest artistic expression. As a matter
of content, literary works naturally debate questions of freedom.

62 Literature and the Public Good

Butthey also demand of their readers a matching freedom of engage-
ment and debate: The book does not serve my freedom; it requires it,
he writes vividly.4 During the same post-war period, other major phi-
losophers of quite different and often-opposed schools, such as Karl
Popper in The Open Society and its Enemies (1945), also attacked Plato for
authoritarian and totalitarian leanings.
But there is a sting in the Platonic tale. There is, perhaps ironically,
an influential body of opinion that holds that Plato did not mean what
Socrates says. Instead, it is argued, this apparently straightforward
polemic against literature is itself full of literary effects. Major com-
mentators, such as the German philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer in
Plato and the Poets (1934), have depicted his intentions as primarily
dramatic, ironic, and heuristic. Plato, they argue, is staging a debate,
putting a position, stimulating reaction and reflectionall essential
literary characteristics, and ones of which Sartre might approve. For
Gadamer, specifically, Plato anticipates the now well-established tradi-
tion of writing which invites us to reflect on the present by imagining
a possible future state, either in a utopian or dystopian mode. Similarly,
for Keatss contemporary and admirer Shelleywhose considerably
different views on the political value of literature we will come to
shortlyPlato was in fact essentially a poet in his deployment of
language and verbal form and this should influence how we construe
his meaning.5 It is worth recalling that The Republic is, formally, a dia-
logue and that its argument is set in a dramatic situation. Indeed, the
book begins with Socrates accosted by his interlocutors. In the edition
cited here, the editor notes that the plot is a free rendering of a meet-
ing of the Assembly or a session of a court, although the actual setting
is a private home and he provides a summary of the Theatrical
Machinery of the Dialogues (p. 35).
In terms of dramatic action, The Republic is on the Beckettian rather
than Shakespearean end of things. But if it is a dramatic perfor-
mancebringing into play the normal repertoire of features expected
in literature, such as dialogic interaction, irony, and ambiguitythis
would imply that Socrates, the speaker of the words quoted above, isa
character to be scrutinized not endorsed. Therefore, as part of a dra-
matic role, his words axiomatically invite dissent. Thus, the prompt,
vacuous, and awe-struck agreements uttered throughout by Socrates
straight-man, Glaucon, rather than ringing endorsements, are the

Some Answers 63
mouthings of a sycophant providing pauses for breath in Socrates
monologue (Glaucons contributions can be summarized as True,
Very true, Certainly, and Yes). They may even, to stretch the
point, be subtle dramatic renditions of dependency behaviour in
intellectual bullying.
It is hard to know how one might verify or disprove the argument
that a work like The Republic is dramatic rather than propositional.
There is no contextual evidence to decide the matter either way, and
textual disputes of this kind are inevitably indefinite. So the dramatic
version can look like a get-out-of-gaol argument for those wanting to
defend a great thinker, but not endorse views considered unaccept-
able, a not unknown predicament in humanistic study and one that
animates many a seminar. If the dramatic version of The Republic is
credible, the epistemological, ethical, and political assertions about
literature and art made by Socrates are compromised by a form of
utterance that is in itself literary, and the value of the public good or
bad of literature is back in the balance. Thus (it can be argued) The
Republic is an anti-literary argument cunningly disarmed by its literary
formwhich might be thought in keeping with Sartres requirement
that literary works demand our freedom. It may also confirm for scep-
tics the prejudice that finds this kind of thing pointless in its woffly
Either way, we can confidently note that the topics introduced by
Plato have provided a historical point of reference across the centuries
and, if decisive conclusions are hard to establish, there is no lack in
the evidence of historical influence. For theological minds in the
medieval period, for instance, the argument that divine archetypes
underpin our perceptions as well as our ultimate being was undis-
puted, and the authority of the church was exercised with violence
to police heresies of free artistic and intellectual expression. The
non-dramatic version of Plato provided authority for views that
emphasized law, an obedient public culture, and draconian policies
righteous with divine sanction. Subsequent thought took close account
of this, and Stephen Greenblatts exciting account in The Swerve: How
the Renaissance Began is a rewarding evocation of the journey away from
this mindset and the appearance of the literary as a major riposte
todoctrinal views of the world.6 There may indeed be substance to
Bill Readingss deconstructionist quip that the eventual emergence of

64 Literature and the Public Good

literature as a unifying term is thus Platos fault, like so much else, since
it occurs as an explicit revaluation of Platonic criticism.7 Increasingly
Renaissance thinkers engaged with Plato and other ancient writers
from challenging directions. In Britain, Sir Philip Sidneys The Defence
of Poesy (c.1580) became an influential justification of the public good
of literature on humanistic rather than metaphysical grounds.

II. Sir Philip Sidney

Sidney (155486) was a cosmopolitan poet, intellectual, courtier, and
soldier (he died in combat) who is frequently regarded as representa-
tive of the new Renaissance humanism. The Defence of Poesy is seen as
typical of new directions in intellectual life. This includes fresh ways
of conceiving the positive and formative role of literature in a newly
dynamic society. Stemming, in Sidneys case, from a Protestant rather
than Catholic culture, and articulated in vernacular language rather
than in Latin, this new humanism emphasized the importance of
secular intellectual sources and is written with a fuller readership and
educational ambition in mind. In Sidneys own words, he is address-
ing not so the learned only can understand...but [to provide] food
for the tenderest stomachs. This became one of the main points in
the defence of literature, for literature was said to find both its subject
matter and its vocation in common experience: the poet is indeed the
right popular philosopher.8 Popular reach is one aspect of Sidneys
claim that what he calls poor poetry iswith due allowance to the
egalitarian paradox in the metaphorin fact of all sciences...the
monarch (p. 22). Science in this usage means no more than branch
of knowledge and Sidney uses it to refer to anything from astronomy
to history. (Science did not acquire its restricted, present-day, meaning,
now indelibly associated with lab coats, until the end of the nineteenth
century.) Sidney was writing in a world of expanding literacy and
print publication: one with the prospect of mass engagement and
influence. Even now, when so much has changed and fields of knowl-
edge have altered so radically, Sidneys argument for the centrality of
literature in popular education has purchase. In the UK, English
remains the largest of the Advanced Level disciplines in UK second-
ary education with just under 90,000 candidates annually, a number
maintained evenly year-on-year.9

Some Answers 65
Sidney articulates a number of arguments still central to litera-
tures justification of its contribution to the public good. In summary,
literature (or poesy) does the following. It preserves and transmits
the past and its achievementsboth intellectual and artisticto the
present. It is thus constitutive of cultural memory and a key vehicle
for expressing and storing knowledge: it is a treasure-house of
science (p. 5). It is also dynamic and develops this knowledge in new
ways and contexts, as we shall see shortly; it is a resource to be used
and extended. In addition, it is a foundation for education for it is
able both to teach and delight (p. 10). Sidney thus puts together an
important pairing in the pedagogy of the future. Not only does liter-
ature deliver knowledge (p. 4), it does so in ways that provide pleas-
ure, thereby extending reach and increasing accessibility through
appropriate delivery. (Now a piece of educational jargon, it is the
term used by Sidney himself.) It draws with charming sweetness the
wild, untamed wits to an admiration of knowledge (pp. 45). This,
we might note, reverses the Platonic assertion that poetry detracts
from truth and distracts those who hear it. Sidney rejects Platonic
assertions that literature sponsors idle distraction, cultivates pestilent
desires, and sponsors vice. Indeed, Sidney argues (pp. 33ff.), that
poetry strengthens virtue rather than diminishes or perverts it, a sig-
nificant gain for the public good. Thus, as with education generally,
so with moral development: ever-praiseworthy poesy is full of
virtue-breeding delightfulness (p. 53). It is worth noting the creative
linkage between moral development and pleasure. Unlike utilitarian
versions of the moral calculus, pleasure is not cold arithmetic but a
dynamic for moral growth and engagement.
For Sidney, literature has a progressive and developmental role. It
enlarges the individual, extends human capacity, encourages social
engagement and values, and inspires cultural growth through storage
and transmission. In this respect too Sidney departs from Platonic (or
Socratic) propositions. Like Plato, Sidney accepts that the world in
which we live is degraded from the ideal (as a Christian this is self-
evident to him). But the world is not degraded entirely. Indeed, our
knowledge of the divine is built through the better world we glimpse
in aspects of nature and human behaviour. Literatures job is to cap-
ture and celebrate these, not so much in Platos sense of praising
famous men (though Sidney too recognizes a need for heroes and

66 Literature and the Public Good

exemplars), but in the process of discovering virtue and beauty through
analytic descriptions of the created world and the relationships we
encounter within it. The imagination is crucial to this. Through it,
invigorated by literature, we extend acquaintance with the world and
the pleasure and wonder to be found there. Literature celebrates exist-
ence, moving us towards what may be and should be, and enables
readers to know that goodness whereunto they are movedwhich
being the noblest scope to which ever any learning was directed
(p.11). Poets need to be sophisticated and intelligent in their under-
standing of the world for us to recognize how human conduct and
moral action is grounded. Plato argued that literature harmfully
indulges high emotion at the expense of stoic calmness, but Sidney
maintains that all virtues, vices and passions so in their own natural
seats [should be] laid to view, that we seem not to hear of them,
butclearly to see through them (p. 17). This is a telling defence of
representational or imitative writing whose value is derived from its
power to reveal emotionally charged predicaments by seeing through
them. In so doing, we by knowledge lift up the mind from the dun-
geon of the body (p.13).
For Sidney, literatures practical knowledge and understanding of
individual behaviour has social ramifications. Understanding is only
valuable as a spur to action: the knowledge of a mans self, in the
ethic [sic] and political consideration, [lies] with the end of well-doing
and not of well-knowing only (p. 13). And the ending end of all
earthly learning [is] virtuous action (p. 13). Experience and not theo-
retical certainty is the keynote. Sidney argues that the representation
of human events reveals the form of goodness to be found within
(p.24). It is a touch equivocal just what Sidney means by this. The
form of goodness could be a rule, a law, or a maximmaybe of
neo-Platonic kindthat the reader of a literary work has to dig out,
like treasure, to reveal its solidity. But the texture of Sidneys account
is not of this character and moves us rather more in the direction of
the messy and sometime stricken indecision depicted by Keats (whose
poetic deliberations, it may be worth noting, strikingly lack any reli-
gious dimension at all, let alone any certainties). Both operate within
a world of thick description (in the words of the distinguished
American anthropologist Clifford Geertz) from which interpretative
insight is gradually, partially, hesitantly, but nonetheless methodically

Some Answers 67
gained. Tragedies, indecisions, changes of heart and mind, rep-
resentations of the entangled and unclear: this is the natural home of
literary representation and it is, Sidney contends, through this thick
description that understanding is revealed not as a nugget uncovered,
but a process analytically observed and described. It is the form of
goodness that arises, not its categorical or imperative substance.
This can be seen in Sidneys own poetry. Astrophel and Stella is a long
sequence of poems (108, mostly sonnets) composed, as far as we
candetermine, around the same time as The Defence of Poesy. It tells
the story of a highly charged love affair from the point of view of
Astrophels passion. It is a fluctuating dialogue between hope and
despair, desire and virtuous aspiration, and (unlike Platos Republic) it
has clear and vivid dramatic energies. It is also, in its unfolding, a
conscious debate about the meaning of good conduct, the form of
goodness, which might, through love, reconcile Astrophel to his fate.
At some moments, this can seem straightforward as early in poem 3:
Phrases and problems from my reach do grow,
And strange things cost too dear for my poor sprites.
How then? Even thus: in Stellas face I read,
What love and beauty be, then all my deed,
But copying is, what in her Nature writes.
(Poem 3, ll. 1014)10

Here problems of understanding, and with them the assorted

existential, cognitive, and ethical dilemmas he faces, seem able to be
simply resolved. Resign all to love and to Stella, as easy to read as a
book, an apotheosis of Beauty, a guide to conduct, a resolver of
irresolution, an opening to goodness. But the sequence as a whole,
being a love story, is not of course about simplicity. It is about trying
to understand, about debating hard and long, about intractable,
irresolvable things, about disruptive human desire and the celebra-
tions of passion. Poem 3 ends as above; but poem 4 recommences
with disquieting self-examination:
Virtue alas, now let me take some rest,
Thou setst a bate [discord] between my will and wit...
(Poem 4, ll. 12, p.124)

Discord rather than grateful resignation is now the mood.


68 Literature and the Public Good

And so the poem continues with its quandaries, impasses, and frus-
trations movingly evoked as private and individual dilemmas and acts
of conscience, but also as behaviour in a social and public context.
Our love lives are never the business of individuals alone. The poems
are as much about the discovery of valuesor right conductas they
are about personal passion. Their structure is one of restless inconclu-
sion; the mood is that of yearning; the very grain of the language

Virtue awake, Beauty but beauty is,

I may, I must, I can, I will, I do
Leave following that, which it is gain to miss.
Let her go: soft, but here she comes, go to,
Unkind, I love you not: O me, that eye
Doth make my heart give to my tongue the lie.
(Poem 47, ll. 914, p. 146)

This is superb. The second line quoted evokes an escalator of the

moral will from envisioning the possibility of choosing virtue over
desire (I may), through moral conviction (I must), through ecstatic
intention (I will), to resolution (I do). But resolve crashes to earth with
the ironic echo of the responses in the marriage vows (I do), the bath-
etic slip to the word leave in the next line, and the dramatic action
that follows. Intending to depart with Virtue triumphant, Astrophel
nonetheless remains glued to the floor as Stella enters, enrapturing
him once more. His glimpse of abstract and self-denying Virtue falls
away before desire: my heart give[s] to my tongue the lie. The poem
riddles the possibility of gaining through abstinence (gain to miss)
and the way passion or love (what might be the difference?, is an add-
itional puzzle), forces this paradoxical, irresolute gain to be itself
missed. The literary mode is clever, wry, detached though at the same
time personalized, deeply felt, and deftly ironic; it is humiliating and
humanly celebratory both.
Like Keats, neither Astrophel nor Sidney can resolve the relation-
ship between beauty and truth. Astrophel wants Virtue to replace
Beauty which in poem 47 quoted above is downgraded from absolute,
capitalized Beauty to beauty, a mortal and inconsequential form.
But the dramatic action re-entangles the relationship relentlessly as
human passion does. Astrophel likes to order these thoughts by thinking

Some Answers 69
that personal beauty yields to incorporeal Beauty, which in turn gives
way to public Virtue. But sexy, worldly beauty is powerful and this
is an unstable sequence. Human yearning and fascinated desire
undermine fragile Virtue, despite Astrophels moral determination.
However, though his resolve is compromised, this does not mean
thatit loses the form of goodness. Sidney creates an un-emphatic,
de-capitalized world of thick emotions. The upper-case words and
high ideas shape this mental world and give form to its values and
contours to the feelings. The capital letters and associated moral
imperatives retain place and orientation even when lapsed. This,
Sidney argues in The Defence, is natural, homeland territory for litera-
ture, in which virtue is discovered in its dense, human context in ways
not to be revealed by (as he puts it) the sullen gravity of moral philos-
ophers (p. 13). A thin paraphrase (to contrast with Geertzs thick
description) would not serve.
In a letter of 1578 to his friend the French scholar and diplomat
Hubert Languet, Sidney wrote: To what purpose should our minds
be directed to various kinds of knowledge unless there is opportunity
for putting it into practice so that public advantage may be the
result?11 The thought is echoed in The Defence itself where poetry is
said to have an obligation to distinguish itself by plain setting down
how it extendeth itself out of the limits of a mans own little world
to the government of families and maintaining of public societies
(p.14). The obligation to articulate and create public advantage is
crucial to Sidneys sense of literatures significance. For him, this is not
a question of narrow use-value (though value without use is for him a
contradiction); nor is it an issue of providing simple absolutes and
commandments as Platonists desired. It is instead a vexed and worldly
place negotiating between aspiration and heavy circumstance: The
final end is to lead and draw us to as high a perfection as our degen-
erate souls, made worse by their clayey lodgings, can be capable of ,
he writes in The Defence (p. 12). If this is true in an ethical and spiritual
sense, it is also true in a social sense. Literature enables individuals to
participate in civic life. In the 1580s, our current language of skills
and transferable competences was far from coinage, yet Sidney is
clear that immersion in literate culture and the possession of accom-
plished language skills empower a man (he was some way from think-
ing of such things as neutrally gendered). Eloquence, persuasive

70 Literature and the Public Good

communication, amplitude of mind, thoughtful exploration, and the
ability to be at home in a literate civilizationthese are among the
lifetime possessions enabled by literature. And they are things so uni-
versal that no learned nation doth despise it, nor barbarous nation is
without it (p. 30). Literature is not abstract high culture; it is a func-
tioning way of living in collective contexts.
The argument, though, is more adventurous than instrumental
attainment of cultural competences and career advantage. Sidneys
treatise reflects, and is constitutive of, a key moment in the advance-
ment of knowledge about the human situation in the European mind
and it represents a crucial moment in the development of Western
reason. This new version of reason rests not on abstract propositions,
nor deductive logic. It is neither finite nor purely inherited. It is excit-
ing, dynamic, speculative, haphazard, empirical, and discovered in
process. It is of the body and the passions; it is heart-ravishing knowl-
edge (p. 6); and it engages the high-flying liberty of conceit (p. 7),
that is, the speculative imagination. Unlike the knowledge offered by
historians (Sidney says) cultural, literary knowledge is not tied to what
is (p. 16), nor captived to the truth of a foolish world (p. 21). It has
an enlarging, experiential power and for those who came after him
this argumentthat literature enlarges minds for the general good
became crucial.

III. A Peacock and His Tail

From Sidney onwards there are, of course, many articulations of
literatures public role not given attention in this book. But for our
purposes, the crucial century, the one that formed our modern atti-
tudes and elaborated the key concepts of the social power of the
imagination and the potency of culture in making a society, is the
nineteenth. The writers of the Romantic period to c.1830 did much to
articulate the former, and the argument for the moral authority of the
imagination was later developed by Victorian writers such George
Eliot, wherein the ability to imagine other minds and other circum-
stances became a formative part of ethical development.
Like several of his contemporaries among the second generation of
major Romantic poets that included Keats and Byron, Percy Shelley
(17921822) died young, his work in crucial respects unfinished. His

Some Answers 71
poetry was conceived in reaction to the increasing conservatism of the
first generation of Romantic poets, such as Wordsworth and Coleridge,
as they aged.12 That first generation had done much to establish the
authority of the imagination as a radical spiritual, epistemological,
ethical, and thereby social agent. But, for their younger successors,
their far-reaching insights had atrophied with time. Shelleys essay
ADefence of Poetry (1821), written in reaction to the views of his
friend Thomas Love Peacock, reinvigorates these ideas.
Peacock worked at the East India Company which had governed
Britains trade with the Indian subcontinent and areas further east
since the time, more or less, of Sidney. His close colleague there was
James Mill, one of the leading utilitarian intellectuals of the day, and
recent author of an authoritative (though very dull) four-volume
History of British India (1818) and classic expositions of utilitarian polit-
ical economy (Elements of Political Economy, 1821) and psychology
(Analysis of the Phenomena of the Human Mind, 1829). James was the
father of John Stuart Mill (to whom we will come shortly) who also
joined the East India Company in 1823 and worked there for thir-
ty-five years (the monopoly was eventually dissolved in 1874). In 1820,
Peacock published a controversial essay on The Four Ages of Poetry
that clearly shows his utilitarian leanings. The title may suggest some-
thing traditional, but Peacocks essay is a highly charged polemic
about the decline of poetry.
According to Peacock, poetry (which as usual stands for literature as
whole) was once central to cultural life but has now become marginal,
even redundant. Not only, he asserts, are his poetic contemporaries
less competent than formerly, but reading and writing poetry are no
longer meaningful ways for people to spend intellectual time in the
early nineteenth century. The age demands something quite other:
The associations of daily life in an advanced state of society are
of very dry, methodical, unpoetical matters-of-fact; but there is
always a multitude of listless idlers, yawning for amusement,
and gaping for novelty: and the poet makes it his glory to be
foremost among their purveyors.13
Here is a quite different view of modernity and the role of literature,
one clearly aligned with Platos disdain for literatures distractions. For
Peacock, poetry like all other trades, takes its rise in the demand for

72 Literature and the Public Good

the commodity, and flourishes in proportion to the extent of the mar-
ket (p. 1) and the early nineteenth-century market for it is decadent.
He acknowledges that in ancient times a case might be made for
poems as depositories of all the knowledge of their age (p. 2). But
that role is superseded in the modern world and though poetry may
have once carried moral authority, nowadays it provides little more
than truisms and commonplace sentiment. In the bright new 1820s,
the demand is for useful truths (p. 2), and Pure reason and dispas-
sionate truth would be perfectly ridiculous in verse (p. 5). The gener-
ation of Wordsworth and Coleridge has produced the rant of
unregulated passion, the whining of exaggerated feeling, and the cant
of factitious sentiment (there are again echoes of Plato here). The
contemporary poet is a waster of his own time, and a robber of that
of others. His ethical and political opinions consist to the neglect of
some branch of useful study...merely of querulous, egotistical rhap-
sodies, to express the writers high dissatisfaction with the world
(p.10). It is a decadent product for decadent consumers, a marketized
grumble of dubious intent and barren purpose. Worse still, it is
While the historian and the philosopher are advancing in, and
accelerating the progress of knowledge, the poet is wallowing in
the rubbish of departed ignorance, and raking up the ashes of
dead savages to find gewgaws and rattles for the grown babies
of the age....A poet in our times is a semi-barbarian in a civi-
lized community. He lives in the days that are past. (p. 9)
The truly modern intellectual leaders are mathematicians, astron-
omers, chemists, moralists, metaphysicians, historians, politicians, and
political economists, who have built into the upper air of intelligence
a pyramid, from the summit of which they see the modern Parnassus
far beneath them (p. 11).
It is easy to see the utilitarian character of this. Poetry as a tradable
commodity, the stress on useful knowledge as a means to progress,
the denigration of idle luxury, the emphasis on matters-of-fact, the
championship of science and political economy, the self-conscious
and aggressive modernity, and the no-nonsense entitlement to the
future are all calculated to leave literature sprawling. All are charac-
teristics of militant utilitarianism and economic liberalism. Peacocks

Some Answers 73
emphasis on accelerating speed, the contrast of adult pursuits and
babyish toys, and the juxtaposition of piles of antique junk against
gracefully constructed pyramids (perhaps a touch fancifully poetic,
this) are all hallmarks of an era of hectic industrial expansion. We can
see here an early version of the calculus of the benefits of art outlined
in Chapter1. The result is a declaration of literatures obsolescence in
a civilization that has no time for such outmoded, pointless, and
anachronous distractions.
Shelleys response recasts Peacocks binary oppositions. Portraying
the human mind as distributed between Reason and the Imagination,
Shelley argues that the relationship between them is constitutive of
historical periods. Whichever is dominant defines the era. The 1820s
are a moment in that struggle. For Shelley, Reason represents the enu-
meration and separation of things into their instrumental functions,
while the Imagination is relational and evaluative. Though he is
defending poetry primarily, Shelley is careful not to confine the discus-
sion. Imagination in poetry is used in the most universal sense of the
word to indicate not just metrical composition but creativity in
general, be it found (for example) in other art forms or scientific inven-
tion.14 It is crucial for him that poetry as an activity is not segregated
because the principle of Imagination is one that humans bring to their
most creative activity. He has in view a style of mind, an approach to
phenomena, rather than specific tasks (such as writing poetry, or con-
ducting a scientific experiment, or any other creative enterprise). He
has in mind the whole effort of the creative intelligence, one that is a
matter of intuition and feeling as much as ratiocination. (This too
counters utilitarian thinking, which increasingly divided the mind into
discrete and non-relational psychological faculties and task-specific
operations.15) Like many of his Romantic contemporaries, Shelley
opposes finite and, as he would see it, mechanical applications of rea-
son championed on the grounds of their supposed utility (p. 500).
It is worth remarking that commentators frequently make connec-
tion between Shelleys essay and Sidneys Defence of Poesy. Indeed,
Shelley read Sidneys essay as he prepared to write his defence.16 For
Hugh Roberts, perhaps the best commentator on this aspect of Shelleys
work, Sidney provided his model and thereby also a way of engaging
with Plato.17 For both Shelley and Sidney, poetry is about intellectual
discovery beyond axiom or calculation. Its mode of communication is

74 Literature and the Public Good

protean and it works by evocation, narrative, and suggestion rather
than statements of fact or deduction. That poetic language is essen-
tially metaphorical is crucial, for metaphors express relationships,
sometimes in surprising ways and therefore stimulate new percep-
tions. A poets language is vitally metaphorical, Shelley writes, that
is, it marks the before unapprehended relations of things, and perpet-
uates their apprehension (p. 482). It is the circulation and (by readers
and later poets) recirculation of such ideas that individual and com-
munity consciousness is enlarged. Poets express the influence of soci-
ety or nature upon their own minds but this gathers a sort of
reduplication from that community (p. 482). This reciprocity is essen-
tial for the public good, and the process, he insists, is pleasurable in
ways that both motivate and enrich the experience. Shelley takes issue
with Peacock (and Plato) on this question. Peacocks account trivial-
izes the pleasure to be gained from poetry; he portrays it as the dis-
traction of the moment, just as Bentham later equated poetry with the
tap room game of push-pin (see Chapter 1). For Shelleyas for
Sidneythe pleasure produced by poetry is of a quite different kind.
Rightly or wrongly the utilitarians have a poor reputation when it
comes to pleasure and many of them appear to have regarded it as
countable like banknotes or beans. Dickenss Mr Gradgrind in Hard
Times (1854) has become the archetype of what was portrayed as dour,
calculating, unfeeling joylessness. For Shelley, however, pleasure is a
fuller, inspiring, and more all-encompassing force that is greater than
any particular manifestation. He distinguishes between sorts of pleas-
ure that are fleeting, selfish, and probably rather trivial, and those that
are durable, generous, and (in one of his favourite words) universal.
The latter plays a substantial part in a sense of grounded and authen-
tic personal well-being for individuals. Pleasure in such circumstances
is not a matter of passing sensations, but of something beyond and
above consciousness (p. 486). Individually enriching, deep in effect, it
gives weight and substance to our being and creates wisdom by
mixing it with delight. It thus establishes values transmitted across
generations: it is reserved for future generations to contemplate and
measure the mighty cause and effect in all the strength and splendour
of their union (p. 486). Social corruption, on the other hand, destroys
deep pleasure and threatens the security of individual identity. A society
unable to relish pleasure, and feel secure with it, is one atrophied in

Some Answers 75
imagination as well as impoverished in relationships. Pleasureless cul-
ture, Shelley says, is a paralyzing venom spreading through mind
and body, destroying the affections and the intellect. Literature, he
asserts, is a distinctive vehicle for a psychologically and ethically rich
society: Poetry ever communicates all the pleasure which men are
capable of receiving: it is ever still the light of life; the source of what-
ever of beautiful, or generous, or true can have place in an evil time
(p. 493). The poems of Homer, for example, are thus the column on
which succeeding civilisation has reposed (p. 486). This is not just
because they convey the record of human achievement (sometimes
called our heritage) but because they nurture the grounds of being
and the aspirations of all humans.
Such arguments are not so different from those recognized by Auden
and Miosz in the dark days of the Second World War as described at
the end of Chapter1. For these writers, the connection between works
of literature (or art generally), personal well-being, and the psychologi-
cal and cultural, let alone political health of a society, seems strong.
These are big claims, easier to sustain rhetorically than verify in detail.
However in our own era, correlations between tolerant and open soci-
eties and a productive cultural life are observableas, alas, are darker
reversals. The argument at this point frequently turns grand, and a
vocabulary bulky with words like civilization, fulfilment, refinement,
or progress drifts into sight. We may flinch a little at such words just
now, but, as the Canadian writer and journalist Adam Gopnik put it
in his 2011 Massey Lectures, Art is a way of expanding our reso-
nances, civilisation our way of resonating to those expansions.18 By
resonances he means those precious parts of our experience that draw
emotional and intellectual value and which enlarge our hearts and
minds from pinched existence. For him the crucial thing is the reci-
procity of the individual and the culturethe one creating and sus-
taining the other. That this constitutes a civilization is assumed. It is
difficult to think of a better word.
Shelleys proposition follows a similar line but the argument is
somewhat deeper. He asserts that love is key to social bonding and
reciprocal benefit, but love consists not of confirmation of ones exist-
ing identity, but of challenge and extension. It is a going out of our
own nature, and an identification of ourselves with the beautiful that
exists in thought, action, or person, not our own (p. 487; my emphasis).

76 Literature and the Public Good

Love does not confirm our certainties and the already-known, hum-
ming along in harmony. Goodness depends on acts of sympathy, per-
sonal extension, and imagination: the challenge of love as a social and
personal force lies not in replication, but in extending ones feelings
towards the different, thus enlarging social sympathy and extending
our potential. Poetry makes the different evident, Shelley argues; it
allows us to find it, be absorbed in it, come to understand it, and to
challenge our inhibited, personal worlds. This is how poetry prospers
as a moral agent, not by scheme or precept, but [i]t awakens and
enlarges the mind by rendering it the receptacle of a thousand unap-
prehended connections of thought. Poetry lifts the hidden veil from
the hidden beauty of the world, and makes familiar objects be as if
they were not familiar (p. 487). This line of thought is more familiar
now. It is the cornerstone, for example, of the theatre of Berthold
Brecht, which strives to alienate us from existing habits of mind, and
of a line of modernist criticism that stresses defamiliarization of
already-known sensations and perceptions.19
The challenge of the unfamiliar, and the way it requires and excites
the imagination, is behind one of the most quoted phrases in the
essay, that the great instrument of moral good is the imagination
(p.488). There then comes the enlarged proposition that poets are,
in reality, the unacknowledged legislators of the World (p. 508).
Rhetorical as the proposition may seem, and though the metaphor of
legislation may be unhelpful, the logic is fine-grained. The phrase was
in fact taken from A Philosophical View of Reform, an essay by
Shelley of the previous year, where its political and legal register is
more appropriate.20 In literary terms, legislators suggests codifica-
tion, legal and parliamentary wrangling, and regulation, whereas
Shelleys thought is about setting goals and horizons whereby poetry
establishes the centre and circumference of knowledge (p. 503).
Literature stimulates what can possibly and what can desirably be
articulated to stretch personal and social sympathy in unconditioned
ways. The sky-high ambition sets a tone for the public good aspir-
ations of some of his successors, and is resonant today.21
We have concentrated so far on the resemblances between Shelleys
essay and that of Sidney. But it is worth taking the measure of their
differences too. One way of articulating these might be to say that
Sidneys essay is integrationist in spirit whereas Shelleys is idealistic.

Some Answers 77
Bythis I mean that Sidney, though he throws out one or two barbs, is
at home in the culture he is addressing. The tone is relaxed, conversa-
tional, intimate, playful, wry, and self-depreciating. It begins in this
way: When the right virtuous Edward Wotton and I were at the
Emperors court together, we gave ourselves to learn horsemanship of
John Pietro Pugliano, one that with great commendation had the
place of an esquire in his stable... (p. 3). The content of this is not
important for our purposes, but the manner of address and the regis-
ter in which it is conducted establishes a voice and a relationship to a
reader that survives long after the identity of the virtuous Edward or
the commendable Italian horseman is forgotten. This is a man talking
to familiars about familiar things: it is set in a location of some distinc-
tion (in fact the court of the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian II
atwhich Wotton was secretary to the Embassy; the equestrian coterie
is the now-celebrated Spanish Riding School of Vienna, just then
founded). Here, gentlemanly things are done between men of com-
mon interest. Sidneys purpose in beginning his essay in this way is to
establish a manner of approach, at once casual, accessible, and com-
panionable, but at the same time cosmopolitan, sophisticated, and
high-achieving. The ostensible point of the argument is to draw a
comparison between the way in which a distinguished horseman has
a language to describe and aggrandize the excellences of his craft, but
poor poetry, fallen into disrepute, does not. Thus, and not without a
hit at Italian boastfulness, Sidney takes on the modest defence of that
my unelected vocation (p. 4).
Shelley, by contrast, begins in the high intellectual manner with a
sentence (not here quoted in its entirety) of seven lines in length:
According to one mode of regarding those two classes of mental
action, which are called reason and imagination, the former may be
considered as mind contemplating the relations borne by one thought
to another, however produced; and the latter... (p. 480). It is a brave
sentence, generalizing but to the point and vivid in its way. It is not
unrepresentative of comparable pieces on similar topics by many
writers of his period. But it does make significant conceptual and syn-
tactical demands. The second sentence, with two untranslated words
in Greek, extends the demand and it too stretches to a seventh, closely
printed line. Horses for courses one might say, and each a thorough-
bred. But the differences are telling: whereas Sidney looks to integrate

78 Literature and the Public Good

his account within the culture in which he is working in a vernacular
voice appropriate to such topics as popular education, Shelley pro-
nounces, abstracts, and generalizes. In response to Peacocks knocka-
bout, populist utilitarianism he goes for the grand manner. No less
polemical, it is stretchingly abstract, theoretically austere, and grandly
idealist in pitch. Man is an instrument over which a series of external
and internal impressions are driven, like the alterations of an ever-
changing wind over an olian lyre, which move it by their motion to
ever-changing melody (p. 480); or: A poem is the very image of life
expressed in its eternal truth...the creation of actions according to
the unchangeable forms of human nature, as existing in the mind of
the creator, which is itself the image of all other minds (p. 485). These
are representative propositions containing key and characteristically
complex declarations. Underlying the imagery is a complex sense of
how external forces and internal propensities interact in minds that
are both active and receptive, and the belief that change and stability
are both characteristic of the human condition and are experienced
simultaneously. (The language registers both endless motion and
unchangeable forms and eternal truth.) It also suggests that sponta-
neous benefits (melodies rather than discords) arise from the interac-
tions of external forces and the internal reception of them, and there
is a characteristic blurring of the relationship between the mind of the
poet and the mind of everyone: the individual is identifiable with
thecollective or general.
Exuberantly occupying the intellectual high ground, language and
argument such as this sweeps the reader onwards in a way also to be
found in Shelleys exhilarating lyrics of this period such as Ode to the
West Wind, Ode to a Skylark, and the Ode to Liberty and, for
many readers, this has become the defining feature of both his style
and his mind. Many are averse: F. R. Leaviss notorious assertion that
Shelleys essential trait was a weak grasp upon the actual has been
echoed, not least by some readers new to the demands of his work. It
seems, Leavis claimed, that we lose in confused generations and per-
spectives the perception of thought that was the ostensible raison dtre
of the imagery.22 A Defence of Poetry was written somewhat to the
moment (its subtitle is: or Remarks Suggested by an Essay Entitled
The Four Ages of Poetry) and was, indeed, unfinished. So some
allowance can be made for imprecise expression. But Shelley was not

Some Answers 79
generally careless in such matters, and critics and editors such as
G.M. Matthews, Kelvin Everest, Donald Reiman, and Nora Crook
have demonstrated how closely Shelley integrated a close and
wide-ranging knowledge of contemporary science into, at superficial
glance, what appears a turbulent display of ideas and imagery that
carries the reader along (as Leavis alleged) only by loose and emo-
tional association.
But there is a larger issue at stake in these deliberations. A charac-
teristic feature of literature may be that propositions are exploratory
and multifaceted, seeking suggestive correlation rather than resolu-
tion. Thus Shelley can pursue connections between, for example, the
individual and the collective mind, or the relationship between change
and persistence, without concern to resolve the one into the other, or
clearly separate them as distinct objects of knowledge. Like many lit-
erary writers, Shelley perceives suggestive relationship rather than fast
distinctions. These effects are, in their way, not unlike complex, binary
propositions in physics such as the concepts of particle and wave, or
mass and energy: each term in these pairs is analytically, but not actu-
ally, separable, and the mind operates in the dialogue between them.
Shelleys writing creates the mobility of this kind of intellectual
The terms integrationist and idealist, used here to characterize a key
difference between Sidneys and Shelleys defences of poetry, may be
more helpful than the voguish opposition of instrumental to intrinsic.
Both Sidney and Shelley see strong reasons to defend literature on the
grounds of the social and personal benefits it brings, from recogniza-
bly instrumental goods such as popular education to horizon-setting
speculations for moral and social improvement and cultural ambition.
But their modes of engagement differ markedly. Shelleythough
from a not dissimilar social background to Sidneywrote his unfin-
ished essay in Italy in voluntary exile as a political radical. In his day,
he had few readers.
Sidney was an accomplished man-about-court, very much in the
swim of things, integrated with the main direction and ambitions of
the time. His Apology launches arguments that have become main-
stream. Literature is important because it organizes and transmits
heritage and cultural memory, and negotiates in the present with that
inheritance. It is an argument for a balanced, humane civilization,

80 Literature and the Public Good

aware of its origins and priorities and clear about its future. If the
language of advocacy is used, so is that of balanced irony, nuance,
and tone: urbane, poised, thoughtful, and at times self-depreciating.
It stresses amplitude of mind, an acceptance of the vicissitudes of
experience and carries a sense of an enlarged and readily available
community whose civility is cosmopolitan among the learned nations
(p. 30). By contrast, Shelley seems an outlier.
It is easy to be nostalgic about past ages and one is inevitably aware
of limitation as well as strength in Sidney. His vision of the public
culture is blind to gender and to the consequences of a thoughtless
categorization of nations into learned and barbarous, for instance.
One is also aware that its championship of education is limited in
reach and extent in the context of a largely illiterate population in late
sixteenth-century England. Nonetheless, speaking personally, I value
integrationist visions of culture, though these can only be of value
when conscious of their limits. They accept the rough, pragmatic dif-
ficulties and vicissitudes of how complex cultures operate and how
difficult it is to get clean perspectives on desire and experience. The
sky-reaching critique that comes from idealist voices too has value,
and it braces and inspires the pragmatism of the intergrationist. But
in the history of defences of the public good of literature since Shelley
it has been these idealizing voicessomewhat alienated, somewhat
critically adrift from mainstream societythat have dominated.

IV. And After

In the first decades of the twentieth century, in influential work by
T.SEliot, F. R. Leavis, and others, which did much to orientate mod-
ern criticism, there was a temptation to idealize the period of Sidney
and the English Renaissance by contrast with the industrial, mercan-
tile world into which we have fallen. As a poet, dramatist, publisher,
and critic of huge authority, Eliot spoke of a dissociation of sensibil-
ity, an impoverishment of mind, that followed the Renaissance. He
connected this to the one-sided development of instrumental and util-
itarian patterns of thought and behaviour consequent on the domin-
ion of commerce at the expense of more traditional patterns of
living.23 Leavis, from the 1930s, amplified this to a dogmatic historical
schema that celebrated the virtues of an agriculturally based, intensely

Some Answers 81
local community bulldozed by industrialization, technology, and an
instrumentalist polity. As described in Chapter1, Leavis devised a new
binary: the opposition of mass civilization (bad) with minority culture
(good). The latter, in his view, survived in literary works of great merit
and moral power which speak with authority to our spiritually bank-
rupt modern civilization. For Leavis, the idea of a cultured modern
civilization was a contradiction. The rot had penetrated too far. The
public good of literature was, therefore, to provide a compelling and
absolute moral voice, a salvage, and as such it occupied the fringes of
the modern wilderness. But in reading the greatest works of the great
tradition, Leavis and his followers believed, one could discover values
to guide good living in a depleted era.
Eliot and Leavis were far from isolated voices and drew on
entrenched attitudes derived from the anti-industrial hostility of much
literary writing in the post-Romantic period. So these formulations
come from an established pattern of thinking, one primarily based on
estrangement, and it travels close to the idealist rather than integra-
tionist position. The models for the public benefit of literature that
dominate the industrial era in nineteenth-century Britain are ones of
corrective recompense in face of cultural loss and endangerment. It is
essentially a deficit rather than benefit-based model, and the role of lit-
erature is assumed to be largely corrective and only thereby construc-
tive. One curious feature of this mode of argument is that the greater
the assessment of decline, the more enlarged the claims for literature
become. From being an integrated component of the culture it
becomes its defiant opponent. This can be observed early in Shelleys
generation and is perhaps articulated most clearly for the first time in
the work of the long-lived Victorian sage Thomas Carlyle (17951881),
born in the same year as Keats and whose work was shaped by the
German idealist philosophy of the Romantic period.
An aggressive anti-utilitarian (he was the dedicatee of Dickenss
Hard Times), Carlyle wrote extensively of the ills of an increasingly
mechanical society obsessed with wheel-and-pinion motives,
self-interests, checks, balances .
the clank of spinning jennies
and parliamentary majorities produced by gross, steam-engine
Utilitarianism which is a black malady and life-foe.24 He much
enjoyed punning on the cotton mill (home of the spinning jennies)
and the Mill family as the most prominent utilitarian intellectuals of

82 Literature and the Public Good

the day (Benthamism...grinding in the Philistine Mill, p. 252).
Carlyles arguments bear some resemblance to ones found in Sidney
and elsewhere. Literature is the repository of the past and the vehicle
for the transmission of ideas and culture to audiences confined not to
this parish or that, on this day or that, but to all men in all times and
all places (p. 240). In Books lies the soul of the whole Past Time [sic];
the articulate audible voice of the Past, when the body and material
substance has vanished like a dream (p. 240). This is pulpit prose and
accords with Carlyles messianic message. Books accomplish miracles
by persuading men. In an era of expanding population, enlarged lit-
eracy, and the power of the printing press (powered of course by
steam) they are the modern church, and the Man of Letters is a hero
because he possesses the power of spiritual persuasion and cultural
vitality. Newspapers, Pamphlets, Poems, Books, these are the real
working effective church of a modern country (pp. 2423). They are
also, in a mass society, our Parliament too (p. 244). But the Hero as a
Man of Letters is a threatened species in a world invaded by spinning
jennies. Though possessed of truth, this Hero is doomed to a lonely
journey and to travel without highway, companionless, through an
inorganic chaos,and to leave his own life and faculty lying there, as
a partial contribution towards pushing some highway through it
(p.249). Like much of the writing in this idiom, it is Janus-faced: a
celebrant of literature; a pessimist about its fortunes. (I also find it
intriguing that his metaphor draws on the sort of large engineering
project Victorian industrialists adored.)
Carlyle separates the spiritual from the material part of culture and
sets the two at loggerheads. Raymond Williams is surely right when he
reads this as a crucial moment in British history in which the public
presence of literature, and of culture more generally, alters profoundly.
Two changes are entailed: culture becomes identified not just with the
practice of arts and learning, it becomes at the same time a body of
values superior to the ordinary progress of society. Correspondingly,
culture comes to be defined as a separate entity and a critical idea.25
Thus a major move away from an integrationist perspective is accom-
plished for good or ill. Literature is celebrated, sometimes wildly and
with exaggeration, but its contribution to the public good is confined to
a critical function. One unfortunate consequence of this is that if liter-
ature removes itself from, as Williams puts it, the ordinary progress of

Some Answers 83
society (especially when it irritatingly claims superiority to it) then
societys relationship to it weakens accordingly. Despite Carlyles pro-
testations of general spiritual benefit, the social stock of the reader
declines. From the time of Carlyle, according to the excellent histo-
rian of reading Alberto Manguel, readers become objects of negative
attention: the prejudiced view persisted of the reader as an absent-
minded egghead, an absconder from the world, a day-dreamer with
glasses, mousing through a book in a secluded corner.26 Shelleys sup-
posed weak grasp upon the actual becomes a general affliction and
thereafter, one sometimes feels, the defence of the public good in
literary argument oscillates between the twin poles of exaggerated
heroics and utter irrelevance.
As noted, Carlyle enjoyed opportunities to homonymically link
cotton mills with the family of intellectual Mills. We have encoun-
tered John Stuart Mill already in Chapter1, and it is worth recollect-
ing that, though his intellectual origins lay in orthodox utilitarianism
(and none was more orthodox than his father) his personal and intel-
lectual experience was defined in reaction to it. In 1865, he was
elected Rector of the University of St Andrews and, as tradition
required, delivered an inaugural address two years later. His subject
was how university education might develop the perfection of our
nature (the Victorians remained encouragingly unembarrassed by
language flying as high as this).27 He recognized and valued the argu-
ment that art played a role in cultural transmission and the continuity
of the intellectual and cultural heritage; and he was firm that narrow
vocational education was not an appropriate mission for universities:
Their object is not to make skilful lawyers, or physicians, or engi-
neers, but capable and cultivated human beings (p. 3). Nor should
universities be much interested in religion or doctrine but, instead,
aim at the development of liberal education, an informed, all-round
engagement with all the great subjects of human interest (p. 10).
These should pay compelling attention to current as well as estab-
lished subjects. His ideal curriculum includes (in no order of priority)
science and scientific method, the human and social sciences (such as
psychologythen barely recognized as a discipline), languages and
literature, logic and philosophy, and history. A broad base of knowl-
edge, but above all an enquiring scepticism (which science is particu-
larly able to provide) and delight in free speculation (p. 36), should

84 Literature and the Public Good

be the goal to achieve the strengthening, exalting, purifying, and
beautifying of our common nature, and the fitting out of mankind
with the necessary mental implements for the work they have to per-
form through life (p. 6).
Here, language flies high once more, but his enemy is narrow
education both in terms of the development of individuals (to avoid
producing a poor, maimed, lopsided fragment of humanity (p. 6))
and the national talent pool. For Mill, all-round education increases
national capability and does not disperse it. He made the same kind
of argumentsand used much the same imagerytwo years later
in On the Subjection of Women (1869), his passionate advocacy of female
emancipation. Patriarchy, he argued there, not only deformed the
lives and characters of many women, it also halved the reservoir of
talented people. (The previous year, as MP for Westminster, Mill
was the first to introduce a bill to parliament to give women the
vote. He lost.)
What is particularly important for our purposes is the substantial
part of his lecture that Mill devoted to the importance of what he
called aesthetic education: the culture which comes through poetry
and art (p. 37). He challenged the growing sense that such activity
was petty and inconsequential, as in the pitiable view of reading
emerging in mid-nineteenth-century Britain and pithily characterized
by Alberto Manguel above. Mill writes:

The very words Fine Art called up a notion of frivolity, of

great pains expended on a rather trifling objecton something
which differed from the cheaper and commoner arts of produc-
ing pretty things, mainly by being more difficult, and by giving
fops an opportunity of pluming themselves on caring for it and
on being able to talk about it. This estimate extended in no
small degree, though not altogether, even to poetry; the queen
of arts, but in Great Britain, hardly included under the name. It
cannot exactly be said that poetry was little thought of; we were
proud of our Shakespeare and Milton, and in one period at
least of our history, that of Queen Anne, it was a high literary
distinction to be a poet; but poetry was hardly looked upon in
any serious light, or has having much value except as an
amusement or excitement, the superiority of which over others

Some Answers 85
principally consisted in being that of a more refined order of
minds. (p. 38)

Mill makes a number of arguments attached to this position. The first

is that art and poetry have an intellectual power that is of greater
significance and substance than mere amusements (such as Benthamite
pub games) or as emblems of social clat (a more refined order of
minds). The second is that the British character in the second half of
the nineteenth century suffers from cultural depletion and is too much
dominated by the interests of commercial money-getting business,
and religious Puritanism (p. 38). This produces narrowness of out-
look and behaviour by contrast with continental nations (who, he
claims with some idealizing envy, do not suffer such inhibitions
towards the arts). The third argument is that this narrowness stunts
not only cultural sensibilities, it also limits personality, ambition,
morality, politics, and the sense of the public good and public welfare;
in short it damages community life. The fourth argument (a familiar
one) is that there is a natural affinity between goodness and the culti-
vation of the Beautiful, when it is real cultivation (p. 41). (For the
Victorians natural affinity was a quasi-scientific term used for a nat-
ural compatibility between chemicals.)
Mill develops the debate shaped by Plato and Keats in Ode on a
Grecian Urn described above. For Mill, the Beautiful is greater than
the Good, for it includes the Good, and adds something to it: it is the
Good made perfect, and fitted with all the collateral perfections which
make it a finished and completed thing (p. 41). Beauty then sets the
horizons for our moral ambitions and our creativity. At the same time,
it stimulates our sense of the possible and our aspirations. It is among
the tasks of art not only to reflect our culture and to transmit its her-
itage (which Mill fully acknowledges) but also to make it better. It is a
clinching argument for Mill that this exercise of the higher faculties
(another characteristic Victorian term) is a public function of the
very highest value (p. 41). The world of now will shrivel without the
world of it was as well as it might be, it ought to be, or even what
if ?. Humans live in complex situations, encountering what exists but
imagining it to be otherwise: meeting difficulty and making the beau-
tiful. In this wayconverging with some of Shelleys key ideasit is
the creative imagination and our willingness to respond to beauty that

86 Literature and the Public Good

defines our prospects. And that, in Mills vision, is the third essential
element (alongside science and ethics) of a properly liberal education.
The aesthetic is not supplementary or compensatory; it is not a sad
and solitary practice on the edges of life; it is not a vision for the
notional hero walking alone. It is formative of what we are, and what
we do, and what we can do and be as a society. It is a common prop-
erty that holds us together. Herein lies its most important public good.
It is not a deficit model, wherein art compensates for other inadequa-
cies or failures, but one of developmental importance, integrated into
the fabric of society for the public good, just as Sidney supposed.

1. Robin Dunbar, The Human Story: A New History of Mankinds Evolution (London,
Faber, 2004). Anyone doubting the sophistication of pre-historical work might con-
sult Jill Cooks catalogue to the British Museums astonishing exhibition Ice Age Art:
The Arrival of the Modern Mind (London, The British Museum Press, 2013).
2. Plato, The Republic, trans. Benjamin Jowett in Scott Buchanan, ed., The Portable Plato
(Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1976), p. 658. Subsequent references are to this
3. These are explicated clearly by Miriam Allott in her edition: The Poems of John Keats
(London, Longman, 1970), pp. 5378.
4. Jean-Paul Sartre, What Is Literature? (1948), trans. Bernard Frechtman (London,
Methuen, 1950), p. 33.
5. P. B. Shelley, A Defence of Poetry (1821) in Donald H. Reiman and Sharon B.
Powers, eds, Shelleys Poetry and Prose (London, Norton, 1977), p. 484. Subsequent
references are to this edition.
6. Stephen Greenblatt, The Swerve: How the Renaissance Began (London, The Bodley
Head, 2011).
7. Bill Readings, The University in Ruins (London, Harvard University Press, 1996),
8. Sir Philip Sidney, Sidneys The Defence of Poesy and Selected Renaissance Literary Criticism,
ed. Gavin Alexander (London, Penguin, 2004), p. 18. Subsequent references are to
this edition.
9. Joint Council for Qualifications, June 2012 A-level results.
10. Sir Philip Sidney, Selected Poetry and Prose, ed. David Kalstone (London, New English
Library, 1970), p. 124. Subsequent references are to this edition.
11. Quoted by Geoffrey Shepherd, Introduction in Geoffrey Shepherd, ed., Sidney, An
Apology for Poetry or The Defence of Poesy (Manchester, Manchester University Press,
1973), p. 7.
12. Marilyn Butler, Romantics, Rebels and Reactionaries: English Literature and its Background
17601830 (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1981) remains an excellent exposition.

Some Answers 87
13. Thomas Love Peacock, The Four Ages of Poetry (1820), http://www.thomaslove
peacock.net/FourAges.html (accessed 2/2/12), p. 5. Subsequent references are
tothis source.
14. Shelley, Defence, p. 482. He explains later that what is called poetry, in a restricted
sense, has a common source with all forms of order and of beauty according to
which the materials of human life are susceptible of being arranged, and which is
poetry in an universal sense (p. 507). For the Romantic generation generally, this was
not a literary matter alone: see Richard Holmes, The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic
Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science (London, Harper Press, 2008).
15. Coleridges critique in Biographia Literaria (1817) is masterful; see Rick Rylance,
Victorian Psychology and British Culture 18501880 (Oxford, Oxford University Press,
2000), ch. 2.
16. Richard Holmes, Shelley the Pursuit (London, Quartet, 1976), p. 642.
17. Hugh Roberts, Shelley and the Chaos of History: A New Politics of Poetry (Pennsylvania,
Pennsylvania State University Press, 1997), p. 289. See also Kenneth Neill
Cameron, Shelley: The Golden Years (Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press,
1974), p. 196.
18. Adam Gopnik, Winter: Five Windows on the Season (London, Quercus, 2012), p. 48.
John Armstrongs In Search of Civilisation: Remaking a Tarnished Idea is a thoughtful
exploration (London, Allen Lane, 2009).
19. Berthold Brecht, Brecht on Theatre, eds. Marc Silberman, Steve Giles, and Tom Kuhn
(London, Bloomsbury Methuen Drama, 2015). Interestingly, Shelley comments
that the alienating severity of theatrical masks show these effects and that the
connexion [sic] of poetry and social good is more observable in the drama than in
whatever other form. (p. 492). For defamiliarization in modernist criticism, see
Viktor Shklovskys widely reprinted essay: Art as Technique (1917).
20. Holmes, Shelley the Pursuit, p. 642.
21. Shami Chakrabartis 2015 Reading Agency lecture On Liberty, Reading and Dissent
pays full acknowledgement to Shelley. Chakrabarti was director of the human rights
campaigngroup, Liberty. https://readingagency.org.uk/news/blog/shami-chakrabarti-
lecture-in-full-on-liberty-reading-and-dissent.html (accessed 19/4/16).
22. F. R. Leavis, Revaluation: Tradition and Development in English Poetry (Harmondsworth,
Peregrine, 1964), p. 172.
23. T. S. Eliot, The Metaphysical Poets in Selected Essays (London, Faber, 1951).
24. Thomas Carlyle, The Hero as a Man of Letters (1840, published in Heroes and
Hero Worship, 1841) in Alan Shelston, ed., Selected Writings (Harmondsworth,
Penguin, 1971), pp. 1501. Subsequent references are to this edition.
25. Raymond Williams, Culture and Society 17801950 (Harmondsworth, Penguin,
1963), pp. 967.
26. Alberto Manguel, A History of Reading (London, Flamingo, 1997), p. 301.
27. John Stuart Mill, Inaugural Address Delivered to the University of St Andrews 1867
in John M. Robson, ed., Collected Works of John Stuart Mill vol. XXI, pp. 23 (Toronto,
University of Toronto Press, 1984), http://oll.libertyfund.org/title/255/21681
(accessed 16/8/12). Subsequent references are to this source.


This chapter concerns the economics of literary production. It aims

to make clear that literature is a highly productive part of the expanding
creative economy and elucidates why. Some think of this as a public
good in itself, creating employment, proceeds, earnings, and tax revenue.
But the argument must go significantly further. Literature, I argue, is
a public matter with multiple aspects: a circulation of buying, reading,
exchanging, learning, reflecting, feeling, and discussing. This requires
a large infrastructure and considerable organizational, logistical, and
(in some areas) technical apparatus. In our societies, by and large, this
circulation is necessarily dependent upon the distribution of books as
merchandise. This is tempered in terms of the ways in which books
can, for example, become gifts (which nonetheless have to be bought)
or loans. And in the production of books, local and voluntary organi-
zations, community or small press publishers, forms of self- and so-called
vanity publication, andincreasinglythe use of the Internet also
complicate matters. But despite this honourable and valuable activity,
the core activity is the production and circulation of commodities
whereby reading matter, or other sorts of literary experience (live
performances or discussions, for example) are exchanged for money.
Alongside any profits, this creates and enables different sorts of returns,
affects, and benefits realized across society.
This chapter is therefore a reflection on how the public good in the
generation of labour and economic value establishes the basis for
books as the foundation of public goods of other kinds. Implicitly and
explicitly, the argument opposes what has settled into a staple of liter-
ary assumption whereby there is a fundamental antagonism between
the thing literature, and its associated values, and those connected to
trade, business, and commerce with their, it is assumed, instrumental
commitments, profit motives, and bottom line obsessions. In practice,

90 Literature and the Public Good

of course, this is a complex and sometimes contradictory situation
where clusters of cognate as well as opposed values gather. Motivations
in publishing, for example, or in the organization of literary or arts
festivals, are varied. So I venture a harder look at this: because, as
things are, without the commercial circulation of books, the value of
literature in other ways could not exist, requiring, as it does, a delivery
mechanism. To presume otherwise seems an act of strange denial
inan era where reading and writing manages to flourish on a scale
unprecedented in human history.

Estimates of the economic benefits derived from literature can be
substantial. In The Literature Blueprint (2010), the UKs Creative and
Cultural Skills Council, in collaboration with Arts Council England,
calculates the Gross Value Added (GVAsee Chapter1) of the litera-
ture sector in the UK to be 2.1 billion annually, excluding publishing.1
Such figures are always contestable, and at first sight this looks rather
unlikely, especially when the apparently crucial element, the production
and sale of books, is omitted. But, when one comes to think about it,
it is plausible that an aggregate derived from the total of services related
to the production and circulation of literature will be considerable,
keeping in mind that all activity carries some degree of economic
consequence. The following paragraph provides a long list (which
might be skimmed) of activity which could be included in the estima-
tion of economic footprints, supply and value chains, multipliers,
spillovers, and the like that give substance to this kind of calculation.
We should note that, based on official UK Office of National Statistics
(ONS) data, household consumption on the arts and culture generally
rose by over 60 per cent between 1997 and 2011.2
The literary system in its entirety currently includes (alongside pub-
lishers) this deliberately jumbled assortment of agencies and people:
educators, legal services, literary agents, venue and festival managers,
publicists, advertisers, broadcasters, critics, reviewers, commentators,
translators,3 multimedia specialists, screen writers, adaptors, com-
munity workers, performing artists, storytellers, bibliotherapists,
people organizing reading for the elderly, or those impaired in
sightorhearing, or those in prisons and hospitals. There are editors,

Money 91
copywriters, copy-editors (all often freelance), and printers; there are
teachers of creative writing, reading group organizers, skills agencies
such as The Writers Compass or Creative Choices. There are artistic
charities, libraries, bookshops (as both points of sale and as venues for
readings and discussions), book clubs, trade associations, arts funders,
cities of literature (Edinburgh and Norwich in the UK), photogra-
phers, image rights handlers for literary celebrities, sponsored literary
prizes, and laureates of various sorts. Exceptionally there are the movies
and TV; there can be theme parks (as for Harry Potter), or museums
for famous writers, or the literary tourist industry in Dickenss London,
Jane Austens Bath, the Bronts Haworth, or Shakespeares Stratford-
upon-Avon. Literature is amongst the cultural sectors credited by the
tourism organization VisitBritain for placing the UK among the top
three or four destinations for international travellers year-on-year
(CEBR, p. 55). There are national learned societies and local single-
author societies whose familiarity with the works of, say, Jane Austen
or the Bronts is formidable. There is the British Council, the
Society of Authors, the Poetry Society, the BookTrust, the Scottish
BookTrust, the Royal Society of Literature, PEN, the Arvon
Foundation, the Writers Guild of Great Britain, various sites of the
National Trust, the Reading Agency, the Reader Organisation, the
National Association for Literature Development, the National
Literacy Trust, Writers in Schools, New Writing North, Writing West
Midlands, Writing East Midlands, Writers Centre Norwich, Read
South West, the Scottish Storytelling Centre, Literature Forum
Scotland, Literature Forum Northern Ireland, Academithe Welsh
Literature Promotional Agencyetc. (I am sure you are getting the
drift.) Some specialize. There are groups focusing on women, for
example, or parents such as Crche Goes to Book Group, or the likes
of Spread the Word, which organizes facilities for black or Muslim
people in London, or religiously orientated groups of other faiths (the
Church of England can be conspicuous in this way in some parishes).
There are distributors, logistics people, and caterers (who, it is said,
make substantial profits from festivals and events). There are Agatha
Christie murder mystery weekends, dramatic productions of Jane
Austen novels and Shakespeare plays in college or National Trust
gardens, walks in the footsteps of great poets or around Dickenss
London, or Scotts Edinburgh, or Austens Bath. A pub I know in

92 Literature and the Public Good

London runs a Poetry Karaoke where people declaim rather than
sing badly. There is the BBC and other media companies making
adaptations and providing arts programmes and commentary. And
ofcourse there are writers.
The Blueprint calculates with some precision that there are 11,974
businesses and 81,100 individuals at work in this sector in the UK,
which I assume excludes corporations such as the BBC (p. 15). Most
are micro businesses, freelancers, or sole traders (93 per cent employ
fewer than five staff). Seventy-two per cent are writers of one kind or
another; 90 per cent are in England; and 37 per cent are in London.
These figures include only those professionally recognized in ONS
standard classifications. In addition, there are those who work part-
time as writers while finding their main income elsewhere, and there
is a major amateur and voluntary sector that also creates economic
effects. The Centre for Economics and Business Research (CEBR)
notes the substantial scale of the barely calculated amateur or volun-
tary activity in the arts and culture in Britain. Its report estimates
that around a fifth (20 per cent) of all activity in these domains is
amateur or voluntary (CEBR, p. 85). (Note that this represents all
activity in these areas, not just that relating to literature.) A 2008
study for the UKs Department of Culture Media and Sport (DCMS),
which examined literature alongside craft, dance, music, theatre, and
the visual arts, found 49,140 active groups with 5.9 million members
and a further 3.5 million serving as occasional helpers, volunteers, or
extras in England alone.4 This has spin-offs. The DCMS report sug-
gests that the amateur sector has an annual income of 543 million a
year, while the CEBR notes that the mutually beneficial interlocking
of amateur and professional sectors has implications for the career
ladder, as well as contributing to overall economic activity. For every
one FTE [Full Time Equivalent] position in the arts and culture
industry, they suggest, a further 2.5 volunteer FTE positions are
created (p. 22).
There is a very large public appetite for this work, and commercial
as well as voluntary and educational organizations respond. The
Guardian newspaper features large adverts for writing master classes,
In Conversations, and Reader Events organized by the newspaper
and other organizations. A flick through the magazine Writers Forum
(3.60 monthly), especially the classifieds in its Directory section and

Money 93
others advertisements, reveals a hinterland not only of self-help advice,
but of professional (i.e. commercial) agents, editors, courses, retreats,
advisors, proofreaders, and publishers of various types. The National
Association of Writers in Education (NAWE) calculated that there
were over 200 undergraduate courses, 100 MA courses, and 30 PhD
courses in creative writing in the UK in 2010. (Blueprint, p. 27) It is
often rightly said that the UK is a reading nation.5 But it is
increasingly a writing one too, and this stimulates economic effects
which aggregate substantially. Even a modest private writers
group, book club, or reading group requires purchase of texts, hos-
pitality, maybe the hire of a venue, transport, and publicity which
scales up. The DCMS report found that arts groups spend an
astonishing 93 million on hiring venues for meetings, performances,
and rehearsals annually.
In the UK these intersections might be exemplified by the proliferation
of literary festivals. When the Edinburgh International Book Festival
was launched in 1985, there were three such in the UK; in 2014 there
are over 350. In 2013, the Edinburgh Festival sold 60,000 books;
thesmaller Hay-on-Wye festival sold 35,000. Hay has a turnover of
4 million and makes a profit of 1 million.6 These festivals are, no
doubt, part of the general popularity of the so-called experience
economy in the last decade found in music, theatre, comedy, and
other live performances including literary readings.
Carl Wilkinson, writing in the Financial Times in the piece just cited,
reports that literary festivals bring together popular and commercial
aspects and seem to meet a need for person-to-person authenticity in
an over-recorded and over-packaged world. (Though, in fact, they can
themselves become intensively packaged and some are recorded for
broadcasting.) One does not need to specialize. Large festivals can be
eclectic jamborees: part music, part performance, part professional,
part amateur; some street art, a bit of fairground, some literature
(especially spoken word), some education, and a lot of carnival. For-
profit and not-for-profit activities coexist in these events and are
loosely woven together. For organizers and attendees alike, strongly
felt cultural or ideological commitments can sit alongside recognition
of (usually modest) commercial ambitions and the realities of secur-
ing funding. Some are enthusiastic about the importance of this to
theevolving literary culture. Wilkinsons interviewees comment on the

94 Literature and the Public Good

reduction in the numbers of bookshops in the UK, especially local
ones run by and for book lovers, and of serious-minded literary jour-
nalism in the mainstream press. Festivals have grown in popularity as
other outlets have reduced, so one might observe that reading in public
seems to have been relocated rather than curbed.
Matthew Clayton organizes the Free University of Glastonbury at
the hugeand profitableannual music festival in Somerset (which
sold 135,000 tickets at 210 each in 2014), as well as events at the
more local Brighton and Port Eliot festivals. He remarked to Wilkinson
that the literary elements of such events are driven by readers simply
wanting to talk about booksit is a genuinely grass-roots movement.
Anyone who cares about the future of the book should really be
celebrating that. The Royal Society of Arts Banbury Literary Live
festival in Oxfordshire is on another part of the spectrum. Aimed at
aiding the National Literacy Trusts campaign to promote reading
among youngsters, the one-day festival is targeted at families and
communities and aims to ignite a passion for literature. With modest
prices (2 for children, 3 for an adult, 6 for a family), it is sup-
ported by crowd-sourced funding.7 Warwickshire County Council
and Arts Council England support creative reading festivals in the
countys libraries.8 Storytelling festivals are ubiquitous across the US
and Europe, and UK organizations can join the Federation for
European Storytelling for an annual fee of 75 euros.
One can build the argument from another direction, from the text
upwards. A Shakespeare play is a textual masterpiece from any point
of view. When performed it creates a different, no less impressive impact
supplemented by staging, lighting, sets, gesture, on-stage excitement,
the stimulus of directorial interpretation, voice, music, the articula-
tion and resonance of the spoken poetry, the human chemistry of the
actors, and the contagious atmosphere of a human event taking place
among the emotions of other humans gathered together. All of these
might be described as qualities in some way intrinsic to the textual
artwork, though the distance from the page is becoming stretched.
Nonetheless, there are economic elements in all these experiences (the
cost of the book perhaps, or of the library copy if borrowed; the the-
atre ticket; travel to the venue; the salaries of the actors; the venues
electricity bill; the hire of costumes and sets; the cost of publicity; the
business given to printers for posters and programmes; etc.). These

Money 95
elements persist and often increase as the medium changes: they will
scale up appreciably if there is a film or TV version, orthinking of
Romeo and Juliet, for exampleif the play stimulates spin-offs or spill-
overs (to use the economic jargon) such as the hit movie Shakespeare in
Love (now become a play in London) and musical versions like West
Side Story. The same would be true of T. S. Eliots Old Possums Book of
Practical Cats (1939), and one or two other of his poems, which were
transformed into the musical Cats by Andrew Lloyd Webber in 1981.
Cats is still running worldwide and now includes TV film versions,
cruise ship versions, translations into twenty languages, DVDs, and
best-selling recordings of the music. In these cases, text swells and
enlarges its sphere, mutating on the way, and while doing so acquires
collateral gains and added characteristics. One is Old Possums
Practical Trust established by Eliots widow, Valerie, in 1990 from the
Cats proceeds with assets estimated at 14 million. It sponsors the
annual T. S. Eliot poetry prize which, like most literary prizes, simul-
taneously recognizes distinction as it promotes publishers books.
The theatres playing Romeo and Juliet sell associated branded goods;
Stratford-upon-Avon acquires a substantial hotel and restaurant
trade, builds chargeable car parks for visitors, and its shops sell quan-
tities of Bardic merchandise. Meanwhile Shakespeares play and
Eliots poems are part of the canon of English literature and the pro-
cess of canonization creates its own economic ripple. They may be set
on secondary school or college syllabi stimulating large sales, which in
turn produces books of commentary and interpretation, teaching
materials, author guides, and broadcasts. There is a salaried class of
people (including me) who are paid to trade in scholarship, interpre-
tation, and discussion, producing books that are then sold to students
who pay fees for teaching and maintenance of the educational infra-
structure, including the libraries that hold all these books. In this case
value is being extracted from what is sometimes called the extended
para-text: the material surrounding literary works such as works of
commentary and contextualization, but also notebooks, interviews,
drafts, authors letters, and other material sold, or held in archives
which can charge for services, and are themselves supported from
public, philanthropic, or charitable funds. Through biography, writ-
ers lives realize value, and their activities, and those of the scholars
who attend to them, are food for journalism creating reputational

96 Literature and the Public Good

value. It enhances the many other dimensions in which canonical
literature lives and breathes such, for example, as the market for first
editions of classic works or autograph letters. The canon creates value
of an economic sort as surely as it pinpoints value of an artistic sort.
The two are inseparable in the whole process of circulation. As critics
and commentators compile histories of great writers or national liter-
atures, and literary tipsters sell volumes guiding you to the best 100
books to read before you die, literature is unavoidably a reproducible,
worldly object, morphing through multiple forms with great speed,
persistence, ingenuity, and success.
It is not uncommon to detect a parsonical note in some responses
to this. Intelligent people can hold their noses at the spread of cultural
junk, or deplore the preference of the young for the film Romeo + Juliet
by Baz Luhrman over the writ of the Bard. But this is what culture
does as it lives in the life of our times and it carries economic power.
The economic as well as the cultural consequences of the circulation
of literature beyond the sales of books are profound and, if its current
extent surprises one, it should not do so. For it has generally been this
way. With the spread of education and literacy across the nineteenth
century, awareness of the expanding market was frequently in the
minds of writers, publishers, and pundits alike. Some, like Dickens,
developed lucrative reading tours based on the popularity of their
writing, campaigned vigorously for the enforcement of authorial cop-
yright as he saw his own work pirated before his eyes, and elaborated
sophisticated marketing strategies alongside the publication of their
novels. Dickens created his distinctive brand (The Inimitable!) and
promoted it. He became a vehicle as we now say. Instalments of his
novel Bleak House, for example, were accompanied by The Bleak
House Advertiser made up of adverts for all sorts of unrelated goods
including soap, electroplating, mustard, and cutlery.9 (Similar pages of
adverts can be found in early Penguins and other mass paperbacks,
twentieth-century Book Club editions, or even modern softcovers
from time to time.)
It should be kept in mind that the serial publication of long
Victorian novelsBleak House was published in twenty monthly parts
between March 1852 and September 1853not only part-created and
part-responded to a new readership, it maintained an audience over
months and years in ways not unlike those targeted by TV advertisers

Money 97
during serial dramas or soap operas. People successively returned to
The Inimitable as part of the Victorian experience economy (read-
ings, speeches, journalism, occasional theatre performances) or by
buying branded products (including the journals Dickens ran and
edited). The two became interestingly blended as copies of the latest
instalment of his novels were read aloud by locals in public places
(such as pubs, thereby stimulating sales of drink as modern karaoke is
said to do) to larger audiences without either the literacy skills or cash
to benefit from copies of their own.
Meanwhile, contemporaries of Dickens, as commentators of this
turn of mind always do, worried about threats to polite learning and
good taste, and about the obvious (to them) lack of competence in
dealing with these matters by those with immature or newly awak-
ened appetites for reading. Even sympathetic commentary revealingly
mixes exhilaration and consternation. Dickenss friend, the novelist
Wilkie Collins, writing in Dickenss journal Household Words in 1858,
reported with both excitement and trepidation the discovery of an
Unknown Publica monster audience of at least three millions!
for reading and literature. Walking about London, more especially in
the second and third rate neighbourhoods (like Dickensand often
with himCollins was a great urban rambler), he is captivated by the
scrappy unbound pages for sale in small stationers, tobacconists, and
the like. I left London and travelled about England, he writes, where
he found the same everywhere.
There they were in every town, large or small. I saw them in
fruit-shops, in oyster-shops, in cigar-shops, in lollypop-shops.
Villages evenpicturesque, strong-smelling villageswere not
free from them. Wherever the speculative daring of one man
could open a shop, and the human appetites and necessities of
his fellow-mortals could keep it from shutting up again, there, as
it appeared to me the unbound picture-quarto instantly entered,
set itself up obtrusively in the window, and insisted on being
looked at by everybody. Buy me, borrow me, stare at me, steal
medo anything, O inattentive stranger, except contemptuously
pass me by!10
Collins revels in the profusion created by the new reading community.
But his celebrationwritten largely for a middle-class readershipis

98 Literature and the Public Good

not without a touch of concern as he ogles the shop window ephemera.
Perhaps with the frown of the paterfamilias in mind, he earnestly
concludes that those socially and intellectually, in the rank above
them...[should] teach that public how to read properly. Working-
class readers often needed no advice. Jonathan Rose quotes the
Londoner Alfred Cox: [my] budding love of literature...I trace to an
enthusiastic reading of Penny Dreadfuls which, so far from leading
me into a life of crime, made me look for something better.11
Many were perfectly capable of teaching themselves not only how
to read, but also how to write, and provision of literary services
familiar to the modern literary economy accelerated. George Gissings
New Grub Street (1891), of which more in the next chapter, provides in
Whelpdale an early portrait of a literary advisor (read: agent) and
all-round entrepreneur in the new literary culture. Whelpdale has dis-
covered the potential of the quarter-educated; that is to say, the great
new generation that is being turned out by the Board schools, the
young men and women who can just read, but are incapable of sus-
tained attention.12 One of the novels pair of central characters, the
go-getting Milvain, muses on a splendid idea. Im going to advertise:
Novel-writing taught in ten lessons!. What do you make of that? No
swindle; not a bit of it. I am quite capable of giving the ordinary man
or woman ten very useful lessons (p. 216). It is notable that the
expanding literary constituency explicitly includes women.
More widely, Christopher Hilliards To Exercise our Talents: The
Democratization of Writing in Britain, alongside work by other historians,
documents the endeavours of those in the early to mid-twentieth cen-
tury whose route to these skills came without the advantage of polite
education. Hilliard tracks the growth of services supporting the pop-
ular explosion of literature, including commercial ones. (His first
chapter is entitled Middlemen, Markets and Literary Advice.13)
Flora Thompson, author of Lark Rise to Candleford among other works,
ran a postal writers group from 1925 to 1941 with her friend Mildred
Humble-Smith called The Peverel Society after a literary column
Thompson had written for the magazine The Catholic Fireside. Subscribers
received courses in verse and story writing and literary technique in
general for a fee of 7s 6d annually. The Club circulated contributors
work for (as we would now say) crowd-sourced comment. As her
biographer Richard Mabey remarks, it could be portrayed as an early

Money 99
experiment in modern social networking but one that grew directly from
Victorian educational, literary, and scientific correspondence clubs.14
As noted, this assessment of the penumbra of economic activity
that surrounds literature excludes book publishing. So what of that?
As is often remarked, the UK has a publishing industry of global sig-
nificance. UK publishers produce books on the same scale as the US
with only a fifth of the population, and they produce three and a half
times the number in France.15 They dominate the English language
market (which is arguably the worlds largest and most economically
important) in Europe and many other parts of the world, producing
in 2001 45 per cent of the books in English worldwide. The UK has
about one third of the total publishing output of the entire EU, and is
about a third as large again as its biggest rival, Germany.16
Publishers are major contributors to the runaway success of the
creative industries in the UK, most accounts placing publishing
among the top two or three sectors. The aggregate numbers are
impressive. As I write, the latest government calculations are that the
creative industries earn 84.1 billion annuallyor 5.2 per centof
the UK economy.17 Some estimates (partly depending on what is
included in this much fought over taxonomic battlefield) go even
higher.18 Based on official data, the GVA (see Chapter1) of the crea-
tive industries is growing at 15.6 per cent, compared to 5.4 per cent in
the overall economy. Exports increased by 16.1 per cent between 2007
and 2011 (compared to 11.5 per cent in the economy as a whole), of
which publishings share was 1.2 billion, increasing by 46 per cent
over those five years. Employmentat 1.68 million jobs (5.6 per cent
of the whole) in 2012is growing at 8.1 per cent, and in overall volume
the creative industries stand second only to real estate when compared
to other economic sectors including agriculture, manufacturing, con-
struction, total professional services, and government, health, and
education.19 The DCMS press release states that the creative indus-
tries now generate a staggering 8 million pounds an hour.20
Meanwhile the CEBR reports that the creative and cultural sector
generated 0.7 per cent (1.7 billion) of all the tax and national insur-
ance collected in the UK in 201011. According to the National
Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts (NESTA), the
commercial creative industries alone (there are other kinds in the
whole creative economy, including the public sector) bring 5 per cent

100 Literature and the Public Good

of employment, 10 per cent of GDP and 11 per cent of all UK
exports.21 As a sector, the creative economy is sometimes said to out-
strip other more loudly heralded business domains such as pharma-
ceuticals or energy.22
In the DCMS 2014 Economic Estimates, the GVA of UK book pub-
lishing is 9.7 million, a 5 per cent increase since 2008 achieved
during a recession. Though the data does not separate different kinds
of publishing (such as scientific, literary, technical, etc.), their defini-
tion does include Creative Occupations such as Authors, writers and
translators whose labour contributes to publishings achievements.
The CEBR report notes unusually high productivity per worker in the
publishing and creative sectors,23 while Ruth Towse points out that
publishing, unlike some other parts of the cultural and creative sector,
is largely unsubsidized and, by comparison with other countries, the
level of public investment in the literary infrastructure (e.g. libraries)
islow veering towards nothing in the case of bursaries or grants to
writers (Towse, pp. 4867, 506). It is difficult exactly to separate the
contribution by literature and publishing because the data do not
allow it. Research therefore usually takes an inclusive line. For exam-
ple, the CEBR study focuses on six art forms, including literature, but
notes that the ONS Annual Business Survey data, which is used in that
study, does not enable their impacts to be disaggregated.
So while literature makes a major contribution, it is difficult to settle
its impact precisely. Towse notes that 11 per cent of publishing output
in 2011 comprised adult fiction, a further 9 per cent being childrens
books (Towse, p. 489). Meanwhile 63 per cent of the UK population
read for pleasure (excluding newspapers, magazines, and comics) and
45 per cent bought one or more of novels, stories, or poems in 2005,
the year on which her data is based (Towse, p. 495). The reading and
producing of literature is an enormously popular activity, and has been
for a long time. The pollsters Gallup conducted recreational behaviour
surveys on a monthly basis in Britain from 1937. From time to time
they asked about reading. A majority of the UK populationjust
under two-thirds in the 1930s and rarely less than half thereafter
claimed to read on a regular basis.24 Reading became the third most
popular way of spending leisure time after gardening and knitting,
aided by better education, reductions in the length of the working day,
greater disposable income, more comfortable and spacious housing,

Money 101
and the near universal use of electric light. Despite competition from
other forms of (predominantly screen-based) recreation, the stability
between 1937 and 2005where on both dates nearly two-thirds of
the population are readersis striking. By comparison, reading in
Francegenerally thought to be a nation of litterateurs and intellec-
tuels par excellenceseems in relative decline. In France, book-buying
is falling; per capita expenditure on books is only 59 per cent of that in
the UK; the number of books bought is only 60 per cent of those
bought in the UK; and the number of books borrowed from libraries
only 75 per cent. This is so despite government measures to protect the
domestic publishing industry and bolster the public libraries (Towse,
pp. 496, 498).
The UK Publishers Association (PA) collects data on the British book
business annually. As I write, the latest edition reports a 4.3 billion
sector that grows to 10 billion if newspapers and magazines are
included. This is about the same size as film and TV combined and
twice the size of the music business.25 The long-term trends are
upwards in terms of overall growth, enhanced exports (up 4 per cent),
and adjustment to the growth of digital formats which have increased
35 per cent over five years. The President of the PA remarks a
steady accretion of value and that the use and deployment of digital
technologies has been rewarding and not threatening. The question
of whether publishing could survive in the online environment, which
always sounded strange, he writes, now looks utterly redundant.
Noting the importance of fiction sales, which have contributed sig-
nificantly to growth in the digital sector, he remarks that British
fiction continues to be enjoyed around the world and acts as a well
of inspiration to theatrical and film productions in the UK, US and
beyond, adding that the English language is perhaps our greatest
The PA stats record fiction sales separately and might be taken as a
proxy for literature as a whole, setting aside distinctions based on
assessments of quality or intrinsic worth and the exclusion of dra-
matic or poetic writing, as well as biography, critical commentary, and
the like. Between 2009 and 2013, total sales of fiction increased 6 per
cent during the recession. Within this there were sizeable adjustments
in the relationship between digital and print transactions: print declined
6.3 per cent during this period, and digital grew by 305 per cent from

102 Literature and the Public Good

a low base. Within digital, sales of fiction have grown faster than any
other category of book and continue to do so. Fiction comprises
39per cent of the digital market and, when digital and print are com-
bined, 18 per cent of overall revenues (p. 4). The trend is encouraging,
but in drawing conclusions one needs to be aware that increases or
declines in fiction sales can be exceptionally volatile and subject to
huge year-by-year variations produced by sudden, massive successes
like E. L. Jamess erotic bestselling trilogy Fifty Shades of Grey. This sold
100 million copies worldwide in 2012 and was translated into fifty-two
languages with corresponding profits across the value chain. (One of
the spin-offs in this case was a line in sex toys.) Naturally, when set
against this extraordinary peak, in the following year UK fiction sales
declined by 400 per cent as Fifty Shades fell away. (A similar phenome-
non occurred in the young adult fiction market following the runaway
success of Suzanne Collins Hunger Games trilogy or, earlier, Stephenie
Meyers Twilight series. The Harry Potter phenomenon is different
insofar as its appeal has been sustained.) Longer-term trend data are
more reliable than annual rises or falls.
As noted, between 2009 and 2013, sales of fiction published by UK
publishers rose 6 per cent. The total net invoice value over these five
years was 2.97 billion. Digital revenues increased from 4 million in
2009 to 200 million in 2013, but print also increased from 565
million to 599 million, peakingbecause of Fifty Shades of Greyat
680 million in 2012 (p. 27). Observing the long-term trends, the PA
report on fiction (pp. 2532) notes the establishment and further
potential of digital for the fiction market, the role of Amazon and
other web-based sellers in the cross-promotion of print and digital
sales (as well as other media, as when a book is filmed), re-engineering
of corporate book sales outlets (including chains like Waterstones and
W. H. Smith as well as supermarkets), the dominance of genre fiction
(especially crime and thrillers), and the continuing importance of lit-
erary fiction, including its ability to ride out sudden, Fifty Shades-type
fluctuations. The report notes the durability of Hilary Mantels Wolf
Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, as well as anything from authors like Ian
McEwan, whose Sweet Tooth was the second-bestselling literary paper-
back of 2013 after Bring Up the Bodies. The report worries about the
narrowing of the range of work on sale in corporate outlets and is
concerned that the reduction in independent bookshops will threaten

Money 103
the nursery development of new writers. It notes the increasing
importance of prizes, films, TV, the Richard and Judy Book Club, and
word of mouth on social media in driving sales. (Intriguingly social
media seem to drive print rather than digital sales.) It also notes the
unexpected success of John Williamss Stoner, an American novel first
published in 1965, whose revival is said to have been launched by a
radio recommendation from Ian McEwan.
Stoner (the fourth-bestselling literary fiction in 2013) highlights the
fact that the market is not confined to the only just written. Publishers
like bestsellers because they produce not only profits, but sudden ones,
thus avoiding standing costs relating to administration, complicated
bookkeeping, storage, and distribution. The backlist of older work
held by publishers delivers the meat and potatoes of fiction publishing
for many firms and has the ancillary virtue of keeping fine literature
in circulation. The Bible, the works of Shakespeare, Bunyans Pilgrims
Progress, Jane Austen and many others have, over time, outsold Fifty
Shades of Grey a million times over. Briefly in 1994, George Eliots
Middlemarch topped the fiction bestseller list in the UK on the strength
of a popular and skilful TV adaptation by the BBC.27 At the time,
there was some scoffing about classics in shopping trolleys (it was an
early moment in the selling of books in supermarkets), and scepticism
that those buying the novels 900 or so pages were really reading
them. Nonetheless it was, for literature, a good moment and a
reminder that classics, like the repressed, can return.28 One might
only think about the perennial appeal of Jane Austen, Dickens, or the
Bronts to think of this Middlemarch moment as representative rather
than eccentric. The proceeds every time school examination boards
set Animal Farm or 1984 must be worth having. And one might also
reflect on the contribution of scholarship to the maintenance of high-
value lists of classics by publishers like Penguin and Oxford University
Press (OUP). Backlist titles represent a significant portion of the
trade (as book people like to call it). But they sit outside the glare of
newspaper bestseller tables, which largely confine themselves to the
just published.
Three things therefore might be adduced from these data: the scale
and success of UK publishing, and the importance of fiction within it;
the continuing demand for fictional writing (we might observe that
this can serve as a proxy for the long-term popularity and health of

104 Literature and the Public Good

literary reading); and that publishers fiction lists contain the long lived
as well as the just written which is essential for continued, refreshed
circulation within the literary culture. One might further note that this
is a more dynamic thing than the slightly inert, custodial preservation
of a tradition or a heritage. One of the foremost tasks of art has
always been the creation of a demand which could be fully satisfied
only later, wrote the great German critic Walter Benjamin.29 In part,
he meant that the tastes of subsequent generations are created by the
innovative work of the present. He also meant that the future finds new
uses and possibilities for the work of the past. These might (amongst
other things) stimulate and inspire new creativity, develop new readers,
or they might present commercial opportunities. T. S. Eliot (presuma-
bly) never thought of a West End musical of Old Possums Book of
Practical Cats, still less that his disconcerting, ultra-modernist Preludes
and Rhapsody on a Winter Night might find their way into the hit
song Memory from the Cats musical. Nonetheless there is an evident
latency, a potential to be realized, in Old Possum, which may be related
to Eliots enthusiasm for the jazz of his hometown St Louis. Similarly,
Shakespearegenius though he wasis unlikely to have envisaged
that King Lear would feature on A level or university syllabi, and be
promoted as a means to prepare the minds of the young as recom-
mended by educationalists from Matthew Arnold to Michael Gove. He
is likely to have had a sense that the poetry and drama were pretty
damn good, and may have believed the thought to be profound; but
that is a different matter. New contexts generate new readers and new
ways of reading.
There is one last point to make before we leave the sales department.
The economist Jonathan Beck of Humboldt University in Berlin has
done interesting work on the ways in which works of fiction catch on
(or dont). He developed what he calls an empirical approach to word
of mouth in a Prize Paper for the Journal of Cultural Economics in
2007.30 Becks proposition, based on a small-scale but intensely exam-
ined sample of four novels, is as follows. That buyers of creative goods
are heterogeneous and not, as standard consumer economics assumes,
homogenous; that demand uncertainty is a key characteristic of
book buying and is not driven entirely by rational choice (Beck notes
the accumulation of those piles of unread books around ones bed-
side); that buying habits are to some extent contagious and depend on

Money 105
reputation, buzz, and word of mouth;31 that the buying curves of
these goods represented on a graph have marked hump-shaped pro-
files with sudden rises and falls, as in Fifty Shades-type bestsellers, for
example, which can be correlated to word of mouth; that, alongside
personal recommendation, there are organized conversations about
books that count as word of mouth for these purposes (traditional
reviewing in the press is one type, as are media book clubs like Oprah
Winfrey or Richard and Judy); and that face-to-face engagement in
high-street bookshops are crucial when compared with direct sales
from publishers which are more widely used in purchases of other
sorts of books such as technical ones. Beck is not at all concerned with
literary or other forms of intrinsic merit as a factor in this process,
except insofar as word of mouth recommendation is always on the
basis of some sense of quality.
There are principles to be found here for the view of literature for
which I am arguing in this book. That is, literature is a matter of social
interaction and not merely private use; it is heterogeneous in its forms,
uses, and relationships (including commercial ones), and this is healthy
in the long term. Literature lives a profuse and interesting life in our
society in which the past and present interlock powerfully. Finally, talk
about literature is constitutive of it, and of the literary community,
and is not incidental to it. Literature is a sociable form and under-
standing how it works for the public good involves recognizing the
ways in which it circulates and is distributed in what remains largely a
commercial society.

Despite continuing commercial success, and the personal fortunes
made by some writers, the literary community has not usually had much
of a good word to say about money. Literary works are populated by
fraudsters, gold-diggers, women lost on the marriage market, heart-
less capitalists, misers, usurers, corporate swindlers, dodgy bankers,
fraudsters, exploiters, debtors, con men (and women), wide boys (and
girls), the young and financially feckless, the old and parsimonious,
exploiters, loan sharks, the greedy, the mean, manipulative financial
predators, vulnerable financial prey, penny-pinchers, the arrogantly
wealthy, rich social bigots, and thieves. According to literary wisdom,

106 Literature and the Public Good

it seems, money warps the personality, stunts the feelings, sets false
ambitions, stimulates unworthy appetites, degrades the noble life, dis-
tracts (or ambushes) the well intentioned, and arms the snobbish,
malicious, manipulative, grasping, and rapacious. All of which is true
from Chaucer to Trollopes Melmotte (the fraudulent financier in The
Way we Live Now, 1875), Shylock to Dickenss Mr Merdle (the corporate
swindler in Little Dorrit, 18557); from Ezra Pound to Jay McInerney
and other satirists of corporate America. Indeed, it is to be found
from the beginning of the Western tradition. According to King
Creon in Sophocles Antigone, written around 441 bc, in Anne Carsons
recent, gutsy translation:
Moneys a nasty invention isnt it
It ruins cities and men
Turns good minds to bad
And has discovered every crime and misdemeanor known to human
The world of money is somehow alien to the world of letters. There
are some enthusiasts, such as the controversial Russian-born, American
novelist Ayn Rand, beloved of modern financiers, whose novels The
Fountainhead (1943) and Atlas Shrugged (1957) provided some intellectual
shape to the mission of globalized finance from the 1980s onwards.
(An edited collection of essays, The Virtue of Selfishness [1964] indicates
the line of thought: greed is good.) The kindly, just, and caring
employer, the generously wealthy, and the benevolent patron are of
course to be found, though the actual process of gaining this money
like that of work itselfis usually obscured in literature. The weight of
attention is largely the other way. In Audens In Memory of W. B. Yeats,
considered at the close of Chapter1, the world of letters represented
by the dead poet is opposed to the world of meddlesome executives
and brokers roaring like beasts on the floor of the Bourse (i.e. the
Paris stock exchange). This is a familiar framework wherein money
and art live apart. Some writers can be searchingly crafty in their use
of an opposition that usually contrasts filthy lucre to finer feelings, but
the structuring binary remains.33
Jane Austen was especially skilful in juxtaposing the worlds of love
and money for searching effect in ways not reconcilable to fluffy
promotion of the former. The famous opening sentence of Pride and

Money 107
Prejudice does this: It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single
man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. (The
universe collapses to bathos; materialism is contrasted with high-minded
truth; affection belongs to the same affective register as a fortune.)
Mansfield Park (1814) strikes the same note in its opening:
About thirty years ago, Miss Maria Ward of Huntingdon, with
only seven thousand pounds, had the good luck to captivate
Sir Thomas Bertram, of Mansfield Park, in the county of
Northampton, and to be thereby raised to the rank of a baronets
lady, with all the comforts and consequences of an handsome
house and large income. All Huntingdon exclaimed on the
greatness of the match, and her uncle, the lawyer, himself,
allowed her to be at least three thousand pounds short of any
equitable claim to it. She had two sisters to be benefited by her
The irony is incisive. A vocabulary of enthralment (captivate), and
enthusiasm (exclaimed) are undercut by complacency. Matrimony is
understood in the context of social advancement, overbearing the
desires of the heart in this public arrangement. This is a confined
space (All Huntingdon is not extensive); it makes precise calculation
(only seven thousand pounds, at least three thousand pounds short
of equitable claim); it braces a ventriloquized, slightly pompous,
high-principled language (equitable claim) against bargaining power;
and the deliberately ponderous tone mimics, with barely marked but
spikey irony, small-county habits of mind and feeling that think them-
selves sentimentally lofty (career of conjugal felicity comes a few
lines later), but are mainly the routine management of the affairs of
the estate rather than the heart. The play of the language, especially
through ironic juxtaposition of register, and imitation of the clichs
ofpolite utterance and sentiment, exposes the role of money and the
business-as-usual mindset of this society, as critics have frequently
remarked. What comes through is the complacency and self-satisfaction
of monied people which the novels central romancepoor girl, rich
boy (its a staple of the prose Romance in its Mills & Boon or Harlequin
mode)sets out to unsettle. Pointedly, throughout Austens fiction,
there is a not always resolvable relationship between a settlement
andsentiment; and the happy-ever-after destinations characteristic of

108 Literature and the Public Good

genre Romance are not only impeded by sentimental hiccups, but
surrounded by compromise and distress. This, of course, is common.
Often, the most searching works visibly preoccupied by money, like
Scott Fitzgeralds The Great Gatsby (1925), explore the moral ambigu-
ities when romance and moneymaking collide. In Gatsby, moral sleaze
beneath surface glamour is closely correlated with the size of the bank
balance. Wealth in literature can be merely assumed, but writers such
as these make it, and its consequences, legible.
Aside from the fact that money (or lack of it) observably does corrupt
people in life as well as in literature, it is not difficult to see why in
general the emphasis in the literary community should fall this way.
There is the instinctive preference for the intrinsic merits of works of
art above their more worldly presence explored in Chapter1. As we
saw in Chapter2, nineteenth-century writers often extended the argu-
ment to the whole social system, juxtaposing the world of culture
(good) with the world of commerce and landed money (bad). Thomas
Carlyle fulminated against the reduction of morality and social rela-
tionships to monetary exchange. In Chartism (1839), he put together
the bones of a phrase that has resonated: in one word, Cash Payment
[has] grown to be the universal sole nexus of man to man, whereas in
the past (he claims) it was something other than money.34 The Cash
Nexus became a potent label for everything shrivelled, destructive,
valueless, and obsessive in commercial society and literary writing
became its polar opposite. As for books themselves, Carlyle espoused
a form of philosophical dualism. For him, books are poor bits of
rag-paper with black ink on them compared to the thought of man:
the true thaumaturgic virtue.35 (Thaumaturgy refers to the performance
of miracles.) The materiality of books is set aside; the important stuff
lies in their spirit of miracle-making.
Much twentieth-century critical thinking also lined up this way and
turned from the material presence of literature, including its commer-
cial realities, with expressions of alarm and distaste. Q. D. Leavis, in
her Fiction and the Reading Public (1932), identifies dark forces behind
Carlyles bits of inky paper:
I have here isolated and shown the workings of a number of
tendencies which, having assumed the form of commercial and
economic machinery, are now so firmly established that they

Money 109
run on their own and whither they choose; they have assumed
such a monstrous impersonality that individual effort towards
controlling or checking them seems ridiculously futile. This is
probably the most terrifying feature of our civilisation.36
Carlyle at least offered hope based on transcendental disdain for com-
mercial machinery (poor bits of rag-paper with black ink on them)
and a faith in spiritual miracles. But for Leavis, commerce has mutated
into a monstrous, impersonal force more or less beyond opposition
except by the resistance of an armed and conscious minority. (The
resonance of that armed is rather chilling.)
In the 1930s this was far from an eccentric view, not only among
those, like Leavis, who might be thought to be cultural conservatives.
Walter Benjamin, in the 1936 essay cited above, quotes a long passage
from Aldous Huxley in 1934 deploring the great industry [that] has
been called into existence in order to supply these [literary] commod-
ities (Benjamin, Work of Art, p. 250). This mode of observation is
obviously not progressive, Benjamin remarks tartly. Nonetheless, in
their influential Dialectics of Enlightenment of 1947, Theodore Adorno
and Max Horkheimer, colleagues of Benjamins in the Frankfurt
School of left-inclined cultural theorists, coined the phrase culture
industries to denigrate the influence of commercial production on
culture, by which time they were living in the US. (Like most members
of the School they were scattered by the Nazis; Benjamin, trying to
escape, killed himself.) Another of the group, Herbert Marcuse, also
an migr to the US and later a champion of 1960s libertarianism,
asserted in 1937 that culture is a matter of spiritual values [and] is
constitutive of the affirmative value of culture, and that the integra-
tion of culture into the material life process is considered a sin against
the mind and the soul.37
These writers of the 1930s and 40s, like some nineteenth-century
forbears, saw the public role of literature and culture as corrective to
a society in thrall to mammon. Nonetheless, as Marcuses phrase the
affirmative value of culture makes evident, the idea that culture could
provide positive opposition invested it with critical power derived
from having something to say about how life might be lived. Some
recent thinkers are concerned that this progressive assertion has been
surrendered. For the American critic Barbara Herrnstein Smith, the

110 Literature and the Public Good

recoil from exchange, use, or instrumental values in modern debate
about the role of literature and art leaves a vacuum: the recurrent
impulse and effort to define aesthetic value by contradistinction to all
forms of utility or as the negatives of all other nameable sources of
interest or forms of valuehedonistic, practical, sentimental, orna-
mental, historical, ideological, and so forthis, in effect, to define it
out of existence; for when all such utilities in events, and other par-
ticular sources of value have been subtracted, nothing remains.38
Certainly there was, in the post-structuralist period of the last couple
of decades of the twentieth century, a campaigning and still lingering
wish to define literary value by the way it resisted convention and the
incorporative institutions of culture without positive terms (as the
phrase went). Its importance lay in its defiance of orthodoxy. For
Roland Barthes, avant-garde zero degree or white writing, or (in a
later formulation) pure Text (as distinct from the conventional
Work), offered a pure experience of language innocent of topic or
content. It thereby rescued language, and the reading mind, from the
tentacles of ideology, custom, genre, the institutions of literature, and
the publishing market.39
The thinking behind this position is complex, but for some time
literature has stood in estranged antipathy to the main modes of pro-
duction in Western societies. Without positive terms, it was inevitably
committed to deficit models of culture in its worldly mode, offset by
transcendental and idealized hopes for its true or liberated nature.
Herrnstein Smith comments:
The image of a type of communication that excludes all strat-
egy, instrumentality, (self-) interest, and, above all, the profit
motive, reflects what appears to be a more general recurrent
impulse to dream an escape beyond economy, to imagine some
special realm, or mode of value that is beyond economic
accounting, to create by invocation some place apart from
the market place...where there are no exchanges but only
gifts...(p. 112)
This place apart is constituted by an unrelenting binary: money,
commerce, technology, industry, production and consumption, work-
ers and consumers on the one side; culture, art, genius, creation and
appreciation, artists and connoisseurs on the other (p. 127). The

Money 111
British critic John Carey puts it more bluntly: in discussions of art, he
writes, the laws of economics seem to be magically suspended.40 Why
should this be?
Some historians have traced this line of thought to the post-Romantic
separation of the aesthetic and the economic in nineteenth-century
thinking. Richard Bronk worked in the financial and business worlds
of contemporary London, and came to the conclusion that modern
economic thought was distanced from the way markets actually work
in practice, a deficiency he attributes to this historical disconnection
of culture and economics. His book, The Romantic Economist: Imagination
in Economics, traces this failure of relationship, in particular the dogged
and unresolved argument between utilitarians and Romantics.41 Just
as culture in its reactive, post-Arnoldian form disconnected itself
from money, so mainstream economics has become indifferent to the
cultural and human circumstances in which money circulates and is
understood. Michael Hutter and David Throsby in Beyond Price, a col-
lection of essays and case studies on cultural and economic value from
different periods and places, make the same kind of argument. They
too look at two distinct kinds of valuation at work, each with its own
logic of operation. However, Far from being isolated from one
another, they argue, economic value shapes cultural valuation and
cultural valuation influences price (a topic to which we will return in
the next chapter).42
These argumentative rivalries had complex consequences. Patent
Inventions, Claire Pettitts excellent study of nineteenth-century intel-
lectual property debates, demonstrates the ways that legislative progress
was shaped by sincere (as well as obstructive) arguments about whether
literature should be considered the exclusive property of author and
publisher for purposes of profit, or gaining a living, depending on
your emphasis. But others argued that literature was something that
belonged as of right to that abstract thing the national culture or,
sometimes, the public for whom it brought about a good. Persistent
advocates for authorial copyright, like Dickens (who suffered particu-
larly from piracy in the US) and Wordsworth, put the case for authorial
rights. On the other side, it was argued that culture belonged to all.
They argued that the author should be paid up front by those seeking
to market the work (i.e. the publisher). Thereafter it belonged to the
generality, even though others sought profit through unauthorized

112 Literature and the Public Good

reproduction. Pettitt rightly detects a quarrel between the Romantic view,
which emphasized the writers precious originality and individuality
and which favoured copyright protection for authors, and the utilitar-
ian view that adopted a language of public usefulness and wealth
generation.43 Lately, this argument has revived in the digital and
Internet age where works are perfectly and infinitely reproducible at
nugatory cost to be delivered through a medium which appears to
bethough it isntfree.
It is hard to know where to balance the public good in this.
Supporters of authorial rights such as Wilkie Collins saw the consum-
erization of literature, supported by copyright, as something that
brought all-round benefits: for authors and their families there was an
income; readers had their pleasure and edification enhanced by effi-
cient publication and distribution; business was sustained; and public
culture was stocked by cheaper literature in middle-class households
which became more enlightened and better informed as a result
(Pettitt, p. 146). Conversely, others like John Ruskin (whose views we
will encounter more fully in Chapter4), thought that commercializa-
tion merely degraded art and thereby public culture. As Pettitt points
out, these debates were sharpened by the rise of the novel in a new,
market-orientated form and, in the 1860s especially, by arguments,
made by figures such as Matthew Arnold, over how the increasingly
literate population might be introduced to the national culture and to
literatures place within it.
The historic quarrel between literature and money rumbles on
today. In recent times, following corporate globalization and the twenty-
first-century financial crisis, money has been portrayed in literary works
in a somewhat different way: not so much as something possessed by
individuals which distorts values and relationships with others, but as
something with relentless, anonymous, abstract power, distanced from
ordinary control or even comprehension as it rampages round the
globe indifferent to local consequence. The frightening power of global
money in its modern form has stretched the intellectual powers to
comprehend its algorithms and devices; its public responsibilities are
vague and dispersed; and ethical language seems unable to get any
grip beyond disgust.
Moneys modern biographer, Felix Martin, traces a pattern that
became decisive from the second half of the nineteenth century as

Money 113
a consequence of large-scale catastrophes such as the Irish Famine
of 184551:
the traditional ethical dilemmas over monetary society had
magically disappeared. Foremost among these was the question
of the extent to which money should really be the co-ordinating
mechanism for social life. This question was rendered obsolete
by the new view of money as a thinga harmless fact of nature.
The new discipline of economics boldly claimed to reduce what
had once seemed vital questions of moral and political justice to
the mechanical application of objective scientific truths. The
complicity of this new world-view in ethical disaster was not lost
on all contemporary observers.44
In the world of global money, ordinary people can make few effective
choices and appear only to suffer consequences, just as, it is said,
financial institutions socialize risk (banks are too big to fail and need
taxpayer support) while privatizing gain.
Recent British writing has been quick to engage with this. Some
have focused on the modern gold rush to China and the Far East.
Fragrant Harbour (2002), John Lanchesters novel about modern Hong
Kong was written before the banking crisis of 2008. In it, money, often
with criminal origins and associations, has become a quasi-natural
force, powerful and uncaring, roaming the globe: Money is a typhoon,
and Britain has so far felt only its first faint breath. It [h]as a mind of
its own almost.45 Justin Cartwrights Look at it this Way (1990) was
another forerunner. After falling from grace after shady dealings in
Singapore, its central trader realizes that Money has an independent
life of its own. It exists in its own right. Sure it coagulated around
individuals the way white corpuscles flow towards wounds, but it
wasunlike its ownersindependent and immortal.46
Tash Aws Five Star Billionaire (2013), long-listed for the UK Booker
Prize, explores something of the same theme through the interlock-
ing experiences of five Malaysian migrants from different social
backgrounds to the boom city of Shanghai. One, Leong Yinghui,
avant-garde student turned successful business woman, reflects that
money is seductive: All the things she had once lovedart, music,
literaturenow seemed less solid, more dangerous in their fluidity
than business and finance: she found reassurance in the methodical

114 Literature and the Public Good

workings of money.47 As the plot turns out, she (like all the other
characters) is wrong in placing her confidence in this direction.
What seems solid proves slippery. But the point is the disorientation
engendered by the opposition of art to money, the polarized choice
in the search for values and identity. The focus of the novel is on this
bewilderment, its false choices, the influence of inheritance, and the
betrayals that go along with loot. In these novels, money is elemental,
fatal, irresistible, false, hallucinatory, awful.
Five Star Billionaire turns on the intangible, ever-present power of
money: always there, but not tangible except in its effects, something
like gravity. Another novel of the financial crisis, Sebastian Faulkss
AWeek in December (2009), shares this theme. Pointedly set in 2007 on
the eve of the 2008 crisis, one of its plot lines tracks a hedge fund
manager, John Veals, who sets out to destabilize a fictional bank, the
Allied Royal, which has extensive post-colonial investments. Veals
does so in full knowledge of the tsunami of consequences that will
follow in the developing world and in the UK (for example, amongst
pensioners), and for the banking system as a whole. But he doesnt
care. Such considerations are, as one of his confederates puts it,
troublesomely non-economic.48 The novel tracks the financial engi-
neering of this coup in intriguing detail, but its real concern lies in
the psychology of the financial community, how it is motivated not
simply by greed (they are already extremely rich) but by power,
self-assertion, and a kind of automatism: his heart beat only to mar-
ket movements....His life depended on it (p. 14). Vealss neglected,
incipiently alcoholic wife, Vanessa, thinks he is a breed of fanatic in
a group where a kind of functional automatism was the ideal state
of mind (p. 103).
Faulkss key point is, as Vanessa puts it, that bankers had detached
their activities from the real world. Instead of being a service
industry...banking became a closed system...a semi-virtual world...
unhitched from normal logic (p .102). Detached, screen-dependent,
careful to sustain emotional and intellectual distancethese are the
behavioural norms expressed personally, socially, and systemically
within global finance. Vanessa thinks that, for modern financiers, joy
lies in the magical self-sufficiency of the craft. Veals himself states that
it is largely fantasy finance (p. 129), and the novel describes in some
detail how the various schemes depend on the loosening of reference

Money 115
obligations. Veals gives a tutorial to a new employee on the way the
sub-prime mortgage market in the US became a trade of financial
products without collateral in the material world: They replicated the
original mortgage bond, but with one crucial difference. There was no
house. The only asset backing this synthetic bond was my side-bet
with the bank (p. 129). This becomes a trade of immaterial things.
Veals trades in credulity...naivety...stupidity (p. 148); or, from the
point of view of the successful deal-maker, credibility, market savvy,
and agile intelligence. The money doesnt exist, Veals maintains
(p.375). When Vanessa tries to picture Vealss cash it is in atorpid
pile: the millions, the tens of millions, the hundreds of millions, in
neat bundles, in their original bank packaging, the faces of George
Washington and Queen Elizabeth II staring into the void, sitting in a
vault somewhere in the dark, doing...Doing nothing but just being
there, promising to pay the bearer on demand...But what bearer?
What demand? And in what life on this planet or one yet to be discov-
ered? (pp. 26970). Money as a material thing is spookily inert. (It is
said that only 40 per cent of the money in circulation in the UK exists
as cash.) Its only vigour is attained through credit; it is both present
and absent in the everyday life of exchange: dominant but intangible.
Another character plaintively ponders:
somehow money had become the only thing that mattered.
When had this happened? When had educated people stopped
looking down on money and its acquisition? When had the
civilised man stopped viewing money as a means to various
enjoyable ends and started to view it as the end itself ? When
had respectable people given themselves over full-time to counting
zeroes? (p. 363)
Zero is a good motif: money is without substance, but is one part of
the binary that allows all else to happen.
The referential vacuum in which modern finance is pictured as
operating is paralleled in A Week in December by other kinds of activity
among the inhabitants of modern London. The ideologies of Islamic
jihad, virtual reality games, stalking and sexual obsession, pornography,
reality television, the adolescent use of drugs, the bubble inhabited
by highly paid footballers, and schizophrenic states of derangement
are carefully analogized as different modes of perceptual separation,

116 Literature and the Public Good

split out from any jointly held reality, bypassing commonly held values.
For John Veals, for instance, the distinction between legal and
ethical was of no concern to himor to anyone hed ever met
(p.69). He worries about financial regulators, not impacts beyond his
domain. At the close of the novel he stares out over London, his plot
coming to conclusion: I have mastered this world, thought John
Veals.... To me there is no mystery, no nuance and no complication;
I am a man alive to the spirit of his time, the one who hears the whispers
on the wind (p. 390).
And what of literature? Is that the same kind of fascinating escape
as TV, sport, or virtual life? Is it, too, solipsistic, auto-absorbing, and
escapist? One character Gabriel, an unsuccessful barrister (who is
quoted above bemoaning the reduction of the world to zeroes), thinks
not. Books he insists, bring you close to it [the real world] in a way
you could never manage in the course of the day...because they are
based in whats real (p. 197). It is difficult to assess this passage, partly
because the argument, in character, seems tentative and inept. But the
bigger argument is made by the novel itself: that what literature of this
kind does is to uncover modes of behaviour that would otherwise
remain obscure, and to make revealing connections between the ways
in which finance functions in a society as segmented by perception as
it is by wealth.
Lanchester picks up these threads in his post-banking crisis novel
Capital (2012). Like A Week in December and Five Star Billionaire, it fea-
tures the lives of a large but only incidentally connected cast and all
three novels make a point about modern community in the portrayal
of lives lived in parallel rather than convergence. It too tracks the fates
of migrants, drawn by the enormous inequalities of wealth between
countries of origin and arrival, like the Hungarian Matya:

Matya had an ambivalent relationship with the currents of

money on which much of London seemed to float. It was part
of the reason she was here: she had come to this big city, this
world city, to try her luck, and she would be lying if she said that
the idea of making money was no part of that luck. She wasnt
sure how to make money, exactly, but anyone with eyes could
see that it was everywhere in London, in the cars, the clothes,
the shops, the talk, the very air.49

Money 117
Like other characters, Matya doesnt understand money but she
feels its power and attraction. This part-estranged, part-enticed
bafflement is the characteristic structure of feeling in these novels
echoed by other characters in Capital, such as the Polish builder
Zbigniew: Money, money. Sometimes Zbigniew had to remind him-
self that that was the whole reason he was here in London earning
more than his father had ever earned in a whole year. His real life
was back home in Poland. This was a place he was in order to make
money (p. 256). Capital, like its literary ancestors Money (1984) and
London Fields (1989), Martin Amiss satires on Thatcherite Britain, or
stretching further back Dickens himself, is partly cast from tabloid
and media stereotypes: Polish builders, other East European gold
diggers, Asian shopkeepers, rich footballers, spivvy agents, shopa-
holic wives-who-lunch of men-who-work-in-the-city. In human terms,
money is a two-dimensional beast.
In Capital, money in all its formsprosperity, poverty, windfall,
crime, corruption, finance, businessis bewildering. No one under-
stands its workings; everyone feels its effects. Inert things, like property,
acquire power as prices spiral in the single London residential street
on which the novel focuses. Once houses were places where people
were happy to live...and living there was a busy and determined
attempt to do better, to make a good life for themselves and their
Now, however, the houses had become so valuable to people
who already lived in them, and so expensive for people who had
recently moved into them, that they had become central actors
in their own right. (p. 5)
Things become agents; dwellings are capital (in the monetary sense);
people are, like migrants, passing through them; it is property, and the
money it represents, that holds the keys to living.
The novel features Roger Yount, a broker in the City of London
dealing in currency speculation (i.e. money begetting money), who
loses his job in the 2008 crash (the novel dates itself precisely). He has
his anticipated crisis moment over values: He was done with the city
and with the City;...done with earning twenty or thirty times the
average familys annual income for doing things with money rather
than with people or things. He was done with London and money and

118 Literature and the Public Good

all that. It was time to do or make something (p. 573). The narrator
slyly notes that Roger was completely sincere in this conviction, even
though he wasnt quite sure what it meant. He continues: this just
wasnt enough to live by. You could not spend your entire span of life
in thrall to the code of stuff. There was no code of stuff. Stuff was just
stuff. You couldnt live by it or for it. Rogers new motto: stuff is not
enough (p. 575). But, as the vapid new motto suggests, this is not much
consolation, and the novel ends with irony and ambiguity as his stuff-
addicted, shopaholic wife remains incapable of change. The novels
last words are: all he could find himself thinking was: I can change,
Ican change, I promise I can change, change, change (p. 577). There
is irony in the unconvincing, desperately self-persuading repetitions.
Change, of course, is also minor coinage (his means have considera-
bly shrunk), and a demotic abbreviation of Exchange, the London
stock exchange. There is a moral desperation, a helplessness, which
has been a determining part of the mood following the financial crash
of 2008. Banks too big and too interconnected to fail; executives beyond
the reach of the law and, it is felt, common decency; threadbare
alternatives; politicians powerless to intervene with any consequence;
the public resigned to tolerating intolerable behaviour for fear of
something worse.
And what of art in this? The novel contains a portrait of a suc-
cessful performance artist named Smitty, whose works are lucrative,
anonymous, fly-by-night events. Smittycynical, arrogant, manipu-
lative, unheedingis fully aware of his commercial power and is fond
of lecturing others on the topic: Art was a business, which might not
be your favourite fact about it but it was a fact you were unwise to
ignore, he preaches to his assistant and factotum (p. 224). As his
assistant discerns: Smitty was always giving these sermons about how
the art world worked, how commodification worked, about how you
had to do something strange that people noticed it but that didnt
make it look like you were desperate to sell stuff (p. 570). You gotta
be a brand, man. Then you find some shit to flog, yeah? Thats the
way it works, declares Smitty himself (p. 82). His latest is in fact
called Bucket of Shit which had involved putting ten abandoned toilets
around the rubble [in Hackney, a gentrifying London district]only
instead of being filled with shit, the toilets had been full of cut flowers,

Money 119
crunched together and spray-painted to look like oversize turds.
He and his crew took photographs and sent press releases out by
email (p. 81). How Smitty generates his wealthhis business modelis
mysterious, like much else about money.
Smitty is central to the novel, whose overall plot revolves around a
similar though more sinister Dadaist prank. Presumably the character
is a riff on the elusive British graffiti artist Banksy, whose clever and
skilful anti-establishment murals are a popular success in the UK and
can attract high prices when occasionally, and sometimes controver-
sially, they come up for sale. For readers unaware of Banksys works,
they feature ingenious, acerbic, cartoon-like lampoons of familiar
images and themes in an activist manner. They are painted in public
spaces, sometimes at risk (for example the Segregation Wall in Gaza
separating Israelis from Palestinians). He plays jokes on the art gallery
public, for instance by placing adapted versions of old masters along-
side originals in venerable collections. (Examples include romantic
landscapes with military helicopters, portraits of the gentry with
custard pies in their faces, and Madonnas with iPod earpieces.) They
target authority figures: the police, the military, local authorities
(especially graffiti-removal squads), royalty, tourists, corporate logos,
religious icons, and official signage. (Graffiti artists must report to
reception before starting work reads one parody on a London Tube
train.) Art institutions get theirs too. In London, the Tate galleries and
Southbank Centre have received attention, which has posed interest-
ing issues about when a populist sarcasm on their exterior walls
becomes an artwork and therefore valuable now its artist is famous.
Under Banksys hand, old and new masters mutate amusingly (the
Mona Lisa shoulders a rocket launcher), and in one of his best jokes
Andy Warhols famous painting of a can of Campbells soupitself a
comment on modern consumerism and superficialitymorphs into a
Tesco Value discount tin. This was surreptitiously hung in the
Museum of Modern Art in New York for six days before it was
removed. A sea of people walked up, stared and moved on looking
confused and slightly cheated. I felt like a true modern artist, Banksy
comments.50 Naturally, he attacks money: the barons of big business
as he calls them (p. 97). Princess Dianas head is placed on 10 notes;
a mural of banknotes dribbles from a (real) ATM machine; and a little

120 Literature and the Public Good

poem is stencilled on a British Telecom street junction box beneath an
official sign POST NO BILLS:
Only when the last tree
Has been cut down
And the last river
Has dried to a trickle
Will man finally realise
That we cannot eat money
And reciting old proverbs
Makes you sound like a twat. (p. 121)

The politics of this are clearly agitator-anarchistic; the artistic lineage

is clearly Dadaist, surreal, absurdist, punk. One legacy is to be found
in the art of the Occupy movement that arose in direct protest at the
consequences of the 2008 financial crash. But there is a catch in the
purity of intent. Some of the street artists who rose to prominence in
the New York Occupation have since established successful and lucra-
tive careers.51 Graffiti artist David Choe painted the Facebook head-
quarters in 2007 and was rewarded with stock, which now makes him
worth about $200 million.52
Smittythe performance and installation artist and all-round art-
world legend (p. 79) (whose real name is Graham)is in some ways a
travesty of this. Banksys work has merit in craft, skill of execution,
wit, ingenuity, and (depending on preference) ideological purpose. An
invasion of the mundane public space by thought-provoking and
accomplished work (unlike the repetitive scribble of most graffiti)
is undoubtedly a major upgrading. But the paradox of Banksys
anti-establishment proclamations lies in their commercial muscle, and
there is a limit to the stretch that even so elastic a term as irony will
allow. The page of publishers credits to the edition I have been citing
(opposite which is a forbidding image of a stern policeman, no doubt
intended ironically) reads like this, in bold lettering: Copyright is
for losersTM. Though a good joke (copyright ensures authors are
not losers, as Dickens and others argued), this is somewhat contrary to
the anarchist spirit: TM means trademark. No doubt this too is ironic.
But this emboldened statement is followed by one in much smaller
font which clearly isnt: Against his better judgement Banksy has
asserted his right under the Copyright, Designs and Patent Act 1988
to be identified as the author of this work....This book is sold subject

Money 121
to the condition that it shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent,
sold, hired out, or otherwise circulated without the publishers prior
consent. Apart from the unconvincing and more or less meaningless
against his better judgement, this is normal legal text asserting rights
of intellectual property. In this case the publisher is the international
corporation, the Random House Group. Meanwhile, the Banksy phe-
nomenon is dependent on media exposure, the medias massive and
rapid power to shape value, corporately owned social media amplify-
ing these matters, and an ever-ready eagerness to discuss celebrity
controversy. Art makes money.
Some of the debate in art circles about Banksys work has gravi-
tated around these issues. It seems one can oppose money, and despise
the capitalist instruments of its creation and use, but be pulled into the
art market nonetheless and gather its bounty. Georgina Adam, the
Financial Timess art market correspondent, writes:

The Banksy market is complicated. The artist refuses to authen-

ticate his street works, saying they were never intended to be sold.
Last month in London, concierge company Sincura attempted
to sell seven murals removed from sites around Britain. They
were shown in a badly lit hotel basement and initially touted as
being for live auctionat prices from 100,000 to 500,000.
On his website Banksy condemned the sale as disgusting, and
Sincura then converted it into a silent auction, before saying
the works would go into a museum of street art instead. On its
website Sincura says it has sold 30m worth of art, but did not
respond to a request for more details.
Banksy is a law unto himself, says Frankie Shea, founder of
Moniker art fair and Moniker Projects, which specialise in street
art. He has no official gallery and now really only produces
[works for sale] on commission, so this only bolsters the secondary

On the face of it, this somewhat confusing episode sounds like an

unprincipled rip-off of public art, and indeed of Banksy himself,
though he benefits from the market. But Adams FT colleague, Peter
Aspden, makes the paradoxes more explicit. At the same time, the rep-
utable art dealer Sothebys organized another unauthorized Banksy
selling exhibition, curated by the artists ex-agent who compiled the

122 Literature and the Public Good

catalogue: Banksy: The Unauthorised Retrospective. Some of the works
were expected to sell for over 1 million each. Outrage sells, Aspden
notes. He continues: One of the prints on sale at Sothebys is
Morons: an illustration of an auction in which the crowd is bidding
for a piece of work that simply bears the words: I Cant Believe You
Morons Actually Buy This Shit. The work was originally produced
in response to the unexpectedly successful sale of some works by
Banksy at a previous sale at Sothebys.54 Somehow irony or even
sell-out are not adequate words to cover this state of affairs which
appears a convoluted muddle of merit, money, and manipulation in
the fabric of our cultural behaviour. As I write, one of the Top Deals
of the Week from Amazon is a set of Banksy Street Art Placemats
and Coasters. Protest easily becomes commoditized.
This sort of art is no doubt in an exceptional position because of
the peculiarities of the international market for art works. One cannot
imagine a similarly motivated, and equally skilled, agitator-poet enjoy-
ing such rewards, and agit-prop theatre is notoriously a hand-to-mouth,
short-lived occupation. But literature does have a role in these matters.
John Lanchester has written about this in his superb, magnificently
funny, non-fictional anatomy of the 2008 crisis Whoops! Why Everyone
Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay (2010). Lanchester comments on the
bewildered and fearful ignorance that confronted many in face of
the2008 crisis, and how this produced that helplessness and appre-
hension of powerlessness that is so much a part of the moment. One
way to reassert a degree of control, he argues, is to understand whats
happened. It gives us back a sense of agency.55 Our ignorance, he
thinks, is partly attributable to general economic illiteracy (including
his own when he began), and partly to the way that a certain version
of economic, or quasi-economic thinking has become dominant in
the mindset established over the last three decades. It is a kind of
reverse takeover, in which City values came to dominate the whole
ofBritish life (p. 188).
This is a theme of a good deal of factual as well as fictional writing
on the financial crisis. For the Financial Times correspondent Gillian
Tett in Fools Gold (2010), an account of the crisis focusing on the finan-
ciers J. P. Morgan, The story of the 2008 financial crisis is a story not
only of hubris, greed, and regulatory failure, but one of those deeply
troubling problems of social silence and technical silos.56 Among

Money 123
other things, these events provide a tough lesson on how ideological
conditioning creates the dissociation of consequences from actions in
massive (global, corporate) systems. As Tett observes: Financiers have
come to regard banking as a silo in its own right, detached from the
rest of society. They have become like the inhabitants of Platos cave,
who could see the shadows of outside reality flickering on the walls,
but rarely encountered that reality themselves (p. 299). Ignorance
even among insidersabout what was occurring and why is a central
thread in Michael Lewiss The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine
(2010) as well as fictional renditions such as Capital and Paul Murphys
The Mark and the Void (2015), a more tricksy narrative account of
Irelands financial collapse. In all cases, ignorance is buttressed by
aggressive assertions of free market rights, and a deep investment in
mystification. Its too much to expect the people who run big Wall
Street firms to speak plain English, since so much of their livelihood
depends on people believing that what they do cannot be translated
into plain English, Lewis observes acidly, quoting some particularly
hapless gibberish from the CEO of Morgan Stanley.57
Literary writers who represent the financial crisis help our learning.
In the educative function of literature for the public good, there may
be a comparison with Victorian writers revelation of social condi-
tions in urban slums or the double standards of life for women and
men. At such points literature has a role in creating a debate in public
life. Drama has had a part in this. The educative project developed by
Lanchester in Whoops!, and further explored fictionally, was shared.
Following the need to fathom incomprehensible but unignorable
events, the dramatist David Hare set himself the same task.
The Power of Yes, subtitled A Dramatist Seeks to Understand the
Financial Crisis and performed at the National Theatre in 2009,
starts from a position of bewilderment. It features The Author as a
character (obviously and explicitly Hare himself ) as he sets out to find
out what had happened.58 His quest takes him to interviews with rep-
resentative types and dramatized versions of real participants, such as
the financier and philanthropist George Soros and Alan Greenspan,
Chairman of the US Federal Reserve in the run-up to the crisis. It is
a topical investigative quest in documentary mode, similar to other
plays in this manner by Hare on the crisis in the UK railways (The
Permanent Way, 2003) and the Iraq war (Stuff Happens, 2004). Its aim is

124 Literature and the Public Good

enlightenment but it ends on the sameand distinctively literarynote
as many comparable works. Literature reveals, it does not legislate in
public life. The inescapable magnitude of the financial crisis and its
impacts, the sense of daunted powerlessness in face of them, the
haunting complicity many of us may feel as participants in these
social acts, introduces notes of compromise and irony. At the close,
Soros is being interviewed by The Author over dinner and reports
a conversation with Greenspan: I said, Yes, but Alan, the people
who end up paying the price are never the people who get the
benefits. They start to eat is the final, sardonic, mutually implicating
stage direction.
Produced in the same year, Lucy Prebbles hit play Enron, based on
the scandalous fraud at the giant US energy corporation in the 1990s,
has very different theatrical means. (Enron is part musical, part slap-
stick.) But it has the same exploratory and heuristic objectives: an
investigation of the gap that opens when, as one character puts it:
things start to get divorced from the underlying realities.59 It is a gap
of ignorance and forgetfulness, of going with the tide and pocketing
the cash, of deliberate obfuscation that the play seeks to expose. The
theatrical programme has a Glossary, written by Prebble, to explain
some of the arcane financial language. John Lanchesters latest book
is How to Speak Money (2014). It is also, in part, a glossary of the lan-
guage of global finance from A and B Shares to Zombie Banks.
Lanchester writes that the reason he wrote the book is primarily a
matter of language:
Theres a huge gap between the people who understand money
and economics and the rest of us. Some of the gap was created
deliberately, with the use of secrecy and obfuscation; but more
of it, I think, is to do with the fact that it was just easier that way,
easier for both sides. The money people didnt have to explain
what they were up to, and got to write their own rules, and did
very well out of the arrangement; as for the rest of us, the bril-
liant thing was we never had to think about economics. For a
long time, that felt like a win-win. But it doesnt any longer.60
This is an important point: writing about issues like this, either in
literary or explanatory mode, stops it being easy, and comfortable,
and acceptable. It performs therefore a civic duty. Though severe and

Money 125
unforgiving towards the money people, this is not merely a blame
game. Ignorance is bliss only for a short while; sooner or later com-
plicity gives way to catastrophe. Many of these writers are clear that,
in its public mission towards the public good, art is required. While
literary values in the abstract may scorn money, literature can expose
its tarnished presence.
The historic antipathy of literature and money will continue, for rea-
sons compelling from experience as well as deriving from inherited and
conditioned prejudice. Money can undoubtedly be a power for bad as
well as good in both the public and private realms. And literature, as
other art forms, willto the public goodrepresent, seek to under-
stand, reveal, and contest this. But a line of thought that takes moneys
alien forms as warrant for the detachment of art from its worldly mode
of existence is neither intellectually honest, nor helpful, nor credible if
we want to specify the good that it brings. Segregating it from the messy,
worldly business of the transmission and circulation of culture misrep-
resents how culture functions and how its delivery creates the public
good we value. It also distorts understanding of the lives, careers, and
aspirations of writers, and can tacitly imply that where commerce
enters, quality dives, as Ruskin, Leavis, and others maintain. James
Shapiros instructive book Contested Will describes how Shakespeares
reputation, and the frequently absurd disputes over whether he or some
other person really wrote his plays, comes down to a collision in the
minds of commentators between Shakespeare the high-minded poet
and Shakespeare the businessman and literary entrepreneur.61 The lat-
ter cannot be thought to contaminate the f ormer, it is asserted, so maybe
somebody else wrote all that good stuff. Much follows from the failure,
in cultural commentary, to see the two sides as, in manyperhaps
mostcases, complementary and not rivalrous.
In the closing words of his seminal essay The Study of Poetry in
1880, Matthew Arnoldthe high priest of disinterested culturehas
this to say on the threat to literature perceived by some in an era of
multitudes of common sorts of readers, and masses of a common
sort of literature sustained by a vast and profitable industry:

Even if good literature entirely lost currency with the world, it

would still be abundantly worth while to continue to enjoy it by
oneself. But it never will lose currency with the world, in spite of

126 Literature and the Public Good

monetary appearances; it never will lose supremacy. Currency
and supremacy are insured to it, not indeed by the worlds delib-
erate and conscious choice, but by something far deeper,by
the instinct of self-preservation in humanity.62
He might have added creative affirmation to self-preservation, but
this seems to me both sane andin the long run, a century and a
quarter laterto have been right. In the next chapter we will look in
more detail at the implications of Arnolds inventive play on the word
currency (amplified by the interesting choice of insured) expressive of
both contemporary importance and the unit of exchange. (Both cur-
rency and insured were used this way from the early eighteenth cen-
tury according to the OED.) Inevitably literature is complicit with
money. But perhaps we need a better word than complicitwith its
undertone of something submissive or nefariousto consider the impli-
cations and give a sharper sense of relationship to the public good.

1. Creative and Cultural Skills/Arts Council England, The Literature Blueprint: An Analysis
of the Skills Needs of the Literature Sector in the UK (London, 2010), p. 15. Subsequent
references are included in the text.
2. Centre for Economics and Business Research (CEBR), The Contribution of the Arts and
Culture to the National Economy: An Analysis of the Macroeconomic Contribution of the Arts and
Culture and of Some of their Indirect Contributions through Spillover Effects Felt in the Wider
Economy (London, 2013), p. 29. Subsequent page references are in the text.
3. Interestingly, there is a rising number of these servicing both overseas and domestic
readers. In an increasingly multicultural country there is demand for translation
within the UK as well as for export (Blueprint, p. 22).
4. Fiona Dodds, Andrew Graves, and Karen Taws, Our Creative Talent: The Voluntary and
Amateur Arts in England (DCMS, 2008), http://culturehive.co.uk/wp-content/
uploads/2013/04/Our-Creative-Talent.pdf. See also, H. Ramsden, J. Milling,
J.Phillimore, A. McCabe, H. Fyfe, and R. Simpson, The Role of Grass Roots Activities
in Communities: A Scoping Study (Third Sector Research Centre, 2011), http://www.
5. Arts and Humanities Research Council, Leading the World: The Economic Impact of UK
Arts and Humanities Research (AHRC, 2009), p. 7.
6. Carl Wilkinson, The Economics of Book Festivals, Financial Times, 30 May 2014.
7. http://www.literarylive.co.uk.
8. www.artscouncil.org.uk/50000-warwickshires-creative-reading-festivals (accessed

Money 127
9. Clare Pettitt, Patent Inventions: Intellectual Property and the Victorian Novel (Oxford,
Oxford University Press, 2004), p. 150.
10. [Wilkie Collins], The Unknown Public, Household Words 18 (21 August 1858).
In John Plunkett, Ana Parejo Vadillo, Regenia Gagnier, Angelique Richardson,
Rick Rylance, and Paul Young, eds, Victorian Literature: A Sourcebook (London,
Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), p. 217.
11. Jonathan Rose, Rereading the English Common Reader: A Preface to a History of
Audiences, Journal of the History of Ideas 53, 1 (1992), 59.
12. George Gissing, New Grub Street, ed. John Goode (Oxford, Oxford University Press,
1993), p. 460.
13. Christopher Hilliard, To Exercise our Talents: The Democratization of Writing in Britain
(London, Harvard University Press, 2006). Richard Alticks The English Common
Reader: A Social History of the Mass Reading Public 18001900 (London, University of
Chicago Press, 1957) is classic. Jonathan Rose, The Intellectual Life of the British
Working Class (London, Yale University Press, 2001) is a superb framing account.
Raymond Williamss chapter on The Growth of the Reading Public in The Long
Revolution (London, Chatto and Windus, 1961) remains a telling analysis.
14. Richard Mabey, Dreams of the Good Life: The Life of Flora Thompson and the Creation of
Lark Rise to Candleford (London, Allen Lane, 2014), pp. 1312.
15. Andr Schiffrin, The Business of Books: How International Conglomerates Took over
Publishing and Changed the Way We Read (London, Verso, 2001), p. 7.
16. Ruth Towse, A Textbook of Cultural Economics (Cambridge, Cambridge University
Press, 2010), pp. 4889. Subsequent page references are included in the text.
17. DCMS, Creative Industries Economic Estimates January 2016, https://www.gov.uk/
Industries_Economic_Estimates_-_January_2016.pdf (accessed 19/4/16).
18. The Council for Industry and Higher Education estimates 102 billion annually
GVA. Growing Value: BusinessUniversity Collaboration for the 21st Century (CIHE, 2012),
p. 21. The 2016 DCMS Estimates calculate that if those in creative occupations
outside the creative industries are included, the GVA rises to 133.3 billion.
19. DCMS, Creative Industries Economic Estimates January 2014: Statistical Release, https://www.
20. https://www.gov.uk/government/news/creative-industries-worth-8million-an-
21. CEBR, Contribution, p. 34; Hasan Bakhshi, Ian Hargreaves, and Juan Mateos-Garcia,
A Manifesto for the Creative Industries (NESTA, 2013).
22. CIHE, Growing Value, p. 21.
23. CEBR, Contribution, p. 2. Book publishing was 44 per cent higher than the national
average, and artistic creation (which includes writers) 21 per cent higher.
24. George H. Gallup, ed., The Gallup International Public Opinion Polls: Great Britain
19371975, 2 vols (New York, Random House, 1976). Data extrapolated from
periodic returns.
25. The Publishers Association, PA Statistics Yearbook 2013 (London, Publishers
Association, 2014), p. ix.

128 Literature and the Public Good

2 6. Nick Fowler, Annual Review, Statistics Yearbook, p. 1.
27. John Sutherland, Bestsellers: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford, Oxford University
Press, 2007), p. 28.
28. Though one should not regard these works as lying about like natural deposits.
John Sutherlands chapter on Marketing Middlemarch in Victorian Novelists and
Publishers (London, Athlone Press, 1976) reveals how carefully the great novel was
prepared for a buying public.
29. Walter Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (1936) in
Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn (London, Fontana, 1970), p. 239.
30. Jonathan Beck, The Sales Effect of Word of Mouth: A Model for Creative Goods
and Estimates for Novels, Journal of Cultural Economics 31 (2007), 513.
31. John Sutherland shrewdly remarks that the ability of the printing press to manufacture
books in instantaneous over-supply answered, and inflamed, a reciprocal appetite
in the consumerwhat one might call cultural impatience. The bestseller feeds
on mania: the I want it now urgency. Now means this minute: next week is too late.
Bestsellers, p. 24.
32. Sophokles, Antigone, trans. Anne Carson (London, Oberon Books, 2015), pp. 212.
33. Helen Small has an interesting discussion of this in her ever-thoughtful The Value of
the Humanities (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2013), esp. ch. 2.
34. Thomas Carlyle, Chartism, Selected Writings, ed. Alan Shelston (Harmondsworth,
Penguin, 1971), p. 193.
35. Carlyle, The Hero as Man of Letters, from Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in
History (1841) in Selected, p. 244.
36. Q. D. Leavis, Fiction and the Reading Public (Harmondsworth, Peregrine, 1979), p.213.
37. Herbert Marcuse, The Affirmative Value of Culture in Negations: Essays in Critical
Theory, trans. Jeremy J. Shapiro (London, Penguin, 1968), pp. 103, 130.
38. Barbara Herrnstein Smith, Contingencies of Value: Alternative Perspectives from Critical
Theory (Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press, 1988), pp. 1314. Subsequent
page references are included in the text.
39. See Rick Rylance, Roland Barthes (Hemel Hempstead, Harvester, 1994), chs. 1 and 3.
40. John Carey, What Good Are the Arts? (London, Faber & Faber, 2005), p. xi.
41. Richard Bronk, The Romantic Economist: Imagination in Economics (Cambridge,
Cambridge University Press, 2009).
42. Michael Hutter and David Throsby, eds, Beyond Price: Value in Culture, Economics, and
the Arts (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2008), p. 9.
43. Pettitt, Patent Inventions, p. 8. Subsequent page references are included in the text.
44. Felix Martin, Money: The Unauthorized Biography (London, Vintage, 2014), p. 150.
The argument is pursued in excruciating, global detail by Mike Davis, Late Victorian
Holocausts: El Nino Famines and the Making of the Third World (London, Verso, 2001).
45. John Lanchester, Fragrant Harbour (London, Faber, 2013), pp. 29, 193.
46. Justin Cartwight, Look at It This Way (London, Picador, 1991), p. 106.
47. Tash Aw, Five Star Billionaire (London, Fourth Estate, 2014), p. 242. Subsequent
page references are included in the text.
48. Sebastian Faulks, A Week in December (London, Vintage, 2010), p. 67. Subsequent
page references are included in the text.

Money 129
49. John Lanchester, Capital (London, Faber, 2013), p. 337. Subsequent page references
are included in the text.
50. Banksy, Wall and Piece (London, Century, 2006), p. 179. Subsequent page references
are included in the text.
51. Paul Mason, Does Occupy Signal the Death of Contemporary Art?, BBC News
Magazine, 30 April 2012, http://m.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-17872666 (accessed
52. Georgina Adam, Big Bucks: The Explosion of the Art Market in the Twenty-first Century
(London, Lund Humphreys, 2014), p. 70.
53. Georgina Adam, Saints and Street Rats, Financial Times, 78 June 2014, p. 18.
54. Peter Aspden, Filthy LucreOutrage Sells, Financial Times, 78 June 2014, p. 14.
55. John Lanchester, Whoops! Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay (London,
Penguin, 2010), p. xv.
56. Gillian Tett, Fools Gold: How Unrestrained Greed Corrupted a Dream, Shattered Global
Markets and Unleashed a Catastrophe (London, Abacus, 2010), p. xv. The book is much
better than its title.
57. Michael Lewis, The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine (London, Penguin, 2010),
p. 218.
58. David Hare, The Power of Yes: A Dramatist Seeks to Understand the Financial Crisis
(London, Faber & Faber, 2009), p. 3.
59. Lucy Prebble, Enron (London, Methuen Drama, 2009), p. 63.
60. John Lanchester, How to Speak Money: What the Money People Sayand What They
Really Mean (London, Faber, 2014), pp. xixii.
61. James Shapiro, Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? (London, Faber, 2010).
62. Matthew Arnold, The Study of Poetry, http://www.bartelby.com/28/5/html
from Essays: English and American. The Harvard Classics (accessed 17/8/14).


I. Three Types of Good

The word good can mean several things in this context. It can be a
positive evaluative category when used adjectively (a good book for
example); it can mean a public benefit (the public good itself is an
example); and it can be a commodity, as in a sale of goods or those
signs that read inward goods for delivery drivers.
As we have seen, this last resonance is sometimes not welcome in
literary debate but it is nonetheless unavoidable. When one buys a
good book, and, reading it, in some general way contributes to the
public good, one buys a commodity. As Louis Menand observes, in
one of the best discussions of this topic: A work of art is both an aes-
thetic object and a commercial good. That is not a contradiction
unless you have socialized to believe it must be.1 But the nature of
books as commodities is not standard. Unlike your car, or the white
goods in your kitchen, for example, books dont depreciate rapidly,
their utility exhausted with their machine parts. As commodities,
books are physically very durable and they have also an afterlife in the
mind, a resonance kept alive in talk and memory. Few people (one
would hope) discuss their fridges at such length. Books also participate
copiously in gift exchange and are freely provided, through public
libraries, on borrowing terms. The culture of their circulation tends to
be one of open exchange and this is a key characteristic of their exist-
ence as commodities. Sir Stanley Unwin, managing director at the
leading publishers Allen & Unwin, wrote with exasperation in 1926
that the average Englishmans idea is that a book is a thing one begs,
borrows, sometimes steals, but never buys except under compulsion.2
A Gallup survey of February 1940 found that 62 per cent of those
surveyed were currently reading a book. But it also found that only

132 Literature and the Public Good

15per cent of these bought new books. A further 20 per cent bought
them second-hand, while 44 per cent had them from libraries. One
fifth of the reading public said they simply borrowed them from each
other.3 Though expenditure on books has risen alongside rises in afflu-
ence and disposable income, I doubt the practices of exchange have
changed significantly. Ted Striphas notes the potency of the pass
along book culture in the US and cites a Gallup poll from the 1980s
that found that more than half [of book buyers] reported lending
orgiving them to friends and relatives, donating them to charity, or
selling them (p. 37).
To put this in more technical language, Regenia Gagnier observes
that the consumption of literature and other cultural products increases
with use, and this is unlike the declining marginal utility of most
goods.4 Gillian Doyle, an economist of the media, comments that
many cultural goods have the public good characteristic of not being
destroyed in the act of consumption [which] seems to, in some senses,
whittle away at the cornerstone upon which rules of economics are
basedscarcity.5 I agree. To my mind, a scarcity framework is
unhelpful in thinking about how books, as well as many other cultural
goods, circulate. Buying books is rarely a straightforward acquisition,
as Jonathan Beck noted at the close of section one of Chapter3 of
this book. In economists language, books are complementary and
not substitutive goods. One rarely wants more than one fridge; but
the number of books one acquires can sometimes only be limited by
availability of domestic space. There is also the fact that books, like
other cultural artefacts, are transmitted over time in the way a fridge
is not: there is an cross-temporal dimension in which we receive from
the past and transmit to the future. Economists call this a bequest
value and note that many people rate this highly when asked about
the value of the cultural infrastructure, or for that matter the natural
environment. It is a legacy to our children of which, in the minds of
many, we are the guardians.
Characteristics of durability, long shelf life, reuseability, incremen-
tal acquisition, cross-generational transmission, and participation in a
generous culture of free, or at least low-cost exchange are crucial to
understanding the nature of literature as a commodity. Ted Striphas,
in The Late Age of Print, makes a strong argument for the ways in which,
because they are commodities, books are able to participate strongly in

Goods 133
the everydayness of life. Being a commodity adds to the social functions
of books, it doesnt undermine them. The role of the bookshop in British
literary culture, for example, may have been under-appreciated and
certainly under-researched. This might be especially so in the case of
second-hand or specialist shops. Readers may be able to recognize the
way these institutions functioned as significantly more than retail out-
lets in their own discoveries of reading, culture, and ideas. The British
novelist Alan Sillitoe was born in 1928 into an impoverished family in
the English Midlands without access to books. He had no formal edu-
cation after age 14, but recalled how, after the Second World War, the
second-hand bookshop network in Nottingham enabled readers with
an appetite for talk about their reading to meet, and to expand their
worlds. He met his future wife there, the American poet Ruth Fainlight.
She found her way to this circle because it was the only place she
could find conversation about American writers and the new chal-
lenging existentialists, Sartre and Camus.6 In a more conventional
version, which in truth reads with a touch of nostalgia, the novelist
Julian Barnes, born later, in 1946, also in the Midlands, grew up
assuming that all homes contained books. But he pays fond tribute to
the local second-hand bookshop as it developed and communicated
literary experience. Here, he writes, books seemed to be valued, and
to form part of a continuing culture functioning as repositories of
deep knowledge of both the great and the forgotten.7 The period in
question is the late 1960s.
In other cases, for this generation, the relationship between the role
of bookshops in cultural networks and their operations as retailers
with a bottom line to manage was less clear-cut. In the heyday of late-
1960s London, the Indica bookshop was run, staffed, and frequented
by members of the counter-cultural underground and was a centre
for ideas associated with the movement. (It was named after a variety
of cannabis plant.) It stocked the relevant texts when few other shops
did, hosted a gallery, staged events, and generally invited people to
hang out. Its co-owner and manager Barry Miles later wrote: to me
the function of a bookshop was the propagation of ideas, and it had
a big influence. I had scores of people tell me how much Indica
changed their lives: they found books and magazines there that trans-
formed their ideas and gave them new perspectives on life. But there
was a problem: Many of them have also told me how they stole books

134 Literature and the Public Good

from Indica, liberating books as they called it, knowing that we
would never prosecute them if they were caught. It was thanks to
them that we finally had to go into liquidation.8 Its role model, the
City Lights Bookshop in New York had a similar ethos but thrived. It
took a tougher line. They had a sign that said: We will not call the
police for book thieves. But they may be publically shamed. An aspir-
ant thief had his pants removed to recover the books.9
There is in fact a category in economic thought known as public
goods. These are things that are frequently paid for from the public
purse or are to be found in the natural world, and are used by people
with no direct charge. Examples would be most roads, street lighting,
public education, the police force, the military, lighthouses, and a host
of public services (for example, libraries). In the jargon, they are
non-rivalrous (my use of a road does not prevent your use of it) and
non-excludable (nobody is excluded from using them). In many ways
they provide the fabric and infrastructure of social life, as well as the
conditions for economic activity of all kinds which are sometimes
taken for granted. The success of the UK publishing industry, for
example, depends on education for functional and cultural literacy
and roads for delivery.
When President Barack Obama justified the huge public invest-
ment programme in the US in the wake of the 2008 crisis, he was
mindful of powerful opposition from low-tax opinion in the US. He
cited the example of roads and bridges to make his case about struc-
tural interdependency and the casual forgetfulness of public goods:
if you were successful, somebody along the way gave you some
help....Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If youve got a busi-
ness you didnt build that [the transport infrastructure]. Somebody
else made that happen. He was speaking at a fire station (another
example).10 The argument highlights our dependency on public
goods. Other accounts are more metaphoric. Ideas and knowledge
are often considered public goodsfor example, the fruits of publicly
funded research. This knowledge becomes public and circulates in a
way that is generous and enlarging. Public goods also create addition-
ality (as the jargon has it) on which societies thrive. The dramatist
George Bernard Shaw is sometimes cited (though not footnoted) for
saying something along these lines: if you and I both have an apple
and we exchange we both still have one. Whereas if we both have an

Goods 135
idea and we exchange, we each have two ideas. In similar spirit,
Thomas Jefferson compared ideas to candle flames. Lighting another
persons candle does not extinguish ones own. Education is some-
times ideally described as being of this kind.
Literature has something of this quality and it is something that
unites the three senses of good in modern societies with which this
section began. A good bookesteemed, valued, worth recommend-
ing or studyingfeeds into a public goodcreating and transmitting
a shared culture and stimulating thought, ideas, and exchangeby
way of being an accessible good acquired through the various outlets
by which our society circulates its material things. Booksunless pro-
duced under Open Access or Creative Commons arrangementsare
not public goods in any strict sense, except perhaps as circulated
through libraries. They are protected (i.e. made exclusive) by copy-
right. But the myriad ways in which they are circulated after initial
purchase, including through loans and gifts, and the ways in which the
ideas, feelings, and responses they stimulate also circulate to some
degree independently of the material object, gives them something of
this character. Elizabeth Honig argues that what separates the gift
from the ordinary commodity is that it mainly concerns persons and
not objects.11 This is in part why Carlyle and others were able to
distinguish between the material thingink on rag paperand the
impact it has emotionally, spiritually, or in some other humanly affect-
ive way. It is also why, as we saw in Chapter3, the debate about copy-
right in nineteenth-century England was polarized between those
who argued for enforcement of the writers and publishers possession
of a legal right to the text, and the economic value it creates, and those
who argued that, once released, a book became, in effect, a reusable
public good.
Writers have always been conscious of the way literature can circu-
late independently of its material form. Ray Bradburys famous dys-
topian novel of 1953, Fahrenheit 451, imagines a future American
society that has embarked on a mass campaign of book burning. (The
title refers to the temperature at which Bradbury believed paper
ignites.) The novel was motivated by his concern over restrictions on
freedoms of speech, opinion, and expression provoked by the infa-
mous Cold War crusade against left-leaning artists and intellectuals in
the US led by Senator Joseph McCarthy. The point of the novel is not

136 Literature and the Public Good

just to warn against this kind of witch-hunt, but also to stress the
importance of reading to a societys health and prospects. It features
characters who have memorized whole books so that their ideas
and expression live beyond their material forms to help establish a
better future. Other responses to book burning (for example in Nazi
Germany) are citable, as are peoples extraordinary attachment to
books under conditions of fierce censorship. I once met a Chinese
man in Hong Kong who could recite whole chapters of Dickens in
English. He said that this was not unusual where he had lived in
Shanghai in the 1960s. A few ragged copies of Dickenss novels circu-
lated from hand to hand and were memorized for communal and
future use, dodging the scrutiny of Party officials. In acts such as read-
ing aloud domestically or at public readings, the oral forms of litera-
ture persist, which is a public good.12 As has been noted, not only was
Dickens himself a great reader of his own work, the serials of his
novels were read aloud in public venues for the benefit of those unable
to afford their own copy, or unable to read, or who simply enjoyed the
communal experience. One copy bought: many enjoy its secondary
use. In economic terms this is what is called a club good or com-
mon-pool good: a modification of public goods whereby a facility,
though privately owned, is collectively used through membership or
subscription. It remains therefore non-rivalrous, but is exclusivea
private gym, golf course, or other sporting facility might be examples,
as would subscription libraries, or the JSTOR facility in university
libraries.13 Subscription was, in fact, a not uncommon way of publish-
ing in the Victorian period, especially for low-demand or specialist
volumes. People would commit to purchase in advance, thus under-
writing the publishers risk. A list of high-profile subscribers gave the
added advantage of recommendation for further sales.
Over time, the ways in which literature has circulated have changed
radically, from the days of predominantly oral transmission, through
manuscript circulation, through the printing press, invented by Johannes
Guttenberg in the early fifteenth century, to modern modes of rapid,
high-volume distribution and the holding of considerable, easily
accessible stocks in libraries. It is of course changing again through
digital technologies and the Internet in ways that are difficult to foresee.
Some fear these might tend towards restriction of secondary circula-
tion (because your e-book is only licensed to your machine and cannot

Goods 137
be given away); alternatively, there might be free and open expansion
through extensive file-sharing. In China today, where there is a major
reading boom, massive networks of online prosumers have devel-
oped. These both produce and consume fictional writing in a virtual
community. Some of this is chargeable and earns significant amounts
for authors and service providers (the fantasy novelist Jiang Nan
earned an estimated 2.7 million in 2013).14 Some of it is not and
circulates freely, with uneven quality. But the whole is dynamic. The
novelist Mo Yan, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2012,
believes that the online community and the traditional literary com-
munity are synergistic, and he now publishes in both formats. Others
note that, because of the way the Chinese publishing industry is struc-
tured with heavy state control, the online, for-free writing community
is where the emerging generation gets its start.15
There is some informative reflection on the process whereby liter-
ature enters into public circulation. Raymond Williamss analysis in
Culture (1981) is especially illuminating. It is a dialogue of openness
and restriction. According to Williams, market culture, based on the
sale of printed books, freed up a culture of controlled circulation
under church and state. It brought professional independence and a
newly diverse and mobile cultural production and distribution.16 In
their turn, commodity forms introduce segmentation and other types
of less formal regulation between, for example, the saleable and less
saleable, the popular and elite (pp. 1067), or what are deemed the
useful and the artistic (p. 49). High culture can come under pres-
sure from market forces and profit-governed editorial control and
selection (p. 107). But this coexists with other modes of production,
such as artisanal, communal, or specialist, and it would therefore,
Williams notes, be untrue to say that market forms have inevitably
transformed all cultural production into a market-commodity type
(p. 50). Williamss account is just, but I would add that the distinc-
tions he finds between these categories of book and production are
far from clear-cut. In a complex, variable, and very messy set of pro-
cesses, the distribution of literature is dependent upon the highly
mediated circulation of books as goods, in the several senses of that
word. The political philosopher Quentin Skinner has pointed out
that the word commodity originally meant not goods for sale, but
convenience or benefit.17

138 Literature and the Public Good

II. The Price of Literature
Nonetheless, in a good deal of the writing about matters of quality
and the market in literature, there is a strong view that quality and
mass circulation are opposed. We have seen this in Q. D. Leavis and
others in the last chapter who held that commercial publication, with
commercial intentions, threatens art and the moral, spiritual, and
political values it is thought to embody. It is a line of thinking with
pedigree, and arguments, whereby more is thought to be the enemy of
the best, are common. The Victorian thinker John Ruskin thought
that mass-production was inimical to art even in the realm of decora-
tion. He was dismayed by the work on show at the worlds first great
international trade fair, the Great Exhibition of 1851 in London.
While many marvelled at the spectacle, and celebrated the ingenious
achievements, Ruskin worried that the sort of artefacts produced by
industrial processes were soulless, and lacked the hands of true artists
or craftsmen. He worried at this problem throughout his life and
advocated revivals of art-led design and craft skills. His best-known
formulation came two years after the Great Exhibition in a celebrated
passage on the Gothic in his book The Stones of Venice (1853). He has
three key arguments. First, mass-production makes humans into tools,
fragmenting their natures, instead of encouraging them to express
themselves and realize their potential; second, the quality of mass-
produced work is inferior, not least because it is in imperfections, variety,
and roughness, achieved through art and craft skills, that genuine
aesthetic quality and invention is realized (his example is mass- and
hand-produced glass); and third, it is in human-scale invention,
induced by confrontation with difficulty, that higher civilisation is
realized. The stakes therefore are high.18
These arguments have been widely supported and continue to be so.
Recently, the sociologist Richard Sennett, in his book on The Craftsmen,
has made a powerful case for the social capital realized through
inventive work processes, the development of communities of skill and
craft, and the importance of imagination and embodied skill in indi-
vidual well-being. These qualities, he argues, are inter-generational.
They enhance social cohesion through the sharing of skills and prac-
tices between people and across time, thereby extending altruism and
group consciousness. They produce existential enrichment through

Goods 139
deep engagement in the process of making. And they augment resil-
ience through the exercise of the imagination and the negotiation
ofresistance and ambiguity, thus encouraging individuals to realize
their potential.19
Clearly this has considerable merit. However, it should be said that
it need not imply an inevitable disparagement of design in manufac-
tured things (which can be excellent). Nor does it set a necessary limi-
tation on the potential of design in areas of production requiring
circulation of copies of a fine original, for example in fabrics, music,
or indeed literature. Fine books of splendid artistic achievement in
limited or unique editions do exist, but literature as a form is one that
thrives on extended readership. Though there are instances where
handcrafted books produce beautiful objects, the reading experience
is constituted by wide social circulation and the absorption and then
exchange via multiple, interdependent acts of individual consump-
tion. In some cases, the crafted quality of a book is essential to its
affects, but this does not negate the wider point. Illustrated versions of
works are an example as, perhaps less defensibly, are hand-tooled and
decorated showcase editions of classics. Publishers who produce
high-finish editions of, say, Coleridges Rhyme of the Ancient
Mariner illustrated by Gustav Dor or Mervyn Peake, know that
quality or appearance is at a premium. Tom Phillipss beautiful visual
commentary on his own translation of Dantes Inferno (1985), or his
rendition of W. H. Mallocks Victorian novel, A Human Document in
The Humument (1973), in which every page is embellished by Phillipss
graphic interventions, are notable popular successes. The Humument,
for example, has had four subsequent editions, several exhibitions,
and a maintained website.
These creationsit is difficult simply to call them booksrequire
publishers to invest in high production values and have a genuine care
for quality in a tradition of integrated text and image of which
William Blake is perhaps the best-known canonical example. In such
cases the make and look of a book is central to its meaning and pur-
pose and directly affects the experience of it. In 1965 the Japanese
photographer Kikuji Kawanda published probably the single most
influential book of images of Hiroshima twenty years to the day since
the nuclear bomb was dropped. Called The Map, the photographs are
in themselves startling, but it is the sequence that is memorable. Using

140 Literature and the Public Good

traditional Japanese skills, the books pages are folded so that they can
only be opened and experienced slowly; attention is thus forced to
dwell on the haunting images.20 An interesting further example is the
American writer Jonathan Safran Foers Tree of Codes (2010), a book
about charts, enigmas, gaps, and imponderable historical intersec-
tions and disconnections. The book is in close dialogue with the work
of Bruno Schultz, a Polish writer and artist who was killed in the
Holocaust. His The Street of Crocodiles (1934) literally grounds Foers
work. Tree of Codes is cut out very exactly, with machine precision, from
the English translation of Schultzs book, leaving pages that look
likeacts of censorship, which is, of course, appropriate to his fate in
aNazi death camp. Each page is stippled by word-, phrase-, or line-
length rectangular cuts allowing the reader to see through to subsequent
pages, preserving an impressionistic narrative of sorts, and allowing
the book to be read as a layered palimpsest. It has an arresting filigree
appearance and reading it in public (for example on the London
Tube) attracts a good deal of curiosity. In instances such as this, it is
difficult to see why machine manufacture has not enriched rather
than depreciated quality, nor quite how it has stunted the creators
imagination or intentions. Looking to the future, it is perfectly possible
to think that digital techniques may significantly enhance and extend
the possibilities of the book and literary writing. Graphic novels
maycurrently be a case in point, while the possibilities of 3D printing
or of e-books incorporating visual art or aural material are yet to
However, there are issues to consider. Tree of Codes is 134 pages long,
printed on one side of each sheet, and from the outside looks like a
fairly ordinary book. In the UK it costs 25 in paperback, maybe two
and a half times the price of an average literary novel of similar size.21
(The reprint of Kawandas The Map incidentally costs 250.) The
question of price is relevant because it negotiates between the domains
of craft production and commercial circulation, the formerin price
per itemusually costing quite significantly more than the latter
because of the time and attention invested and the fact that machines
have to be reconfigured, or even built from scratch, for unconven-
tional production. (Foer describes some of this in his Authors
Afterword.) So price and value are in complicated relationship, as
indeed they are for most other art or craft objects. In the case of

Goods 141
standard, mass-produced commodities such as refrigerators, the retail
variables are restricted: price is probably the most potent, alongside
quality, efficiency, and to some extent style, and these influence con-
sumer choice directly. The perception of value in relation to books or
art objects, however, is not so simple, and there are sometimes disqui-
eting, and sometimes amusing, examples of the confusions that beset
the matter. The dramatist John Osborne in his autobiography recalls
an episode when, as a child in 1941, his grandmother gave him a book
for Christmas. It cost the then not insubstantial sum of seven shillings
and sixpence. Osborne devoured it instantly, producing this reaction
from his grandmother: Dont tell me that youve read that book
already. Not right the way through. That book cost seven and six-
pence. She snatched it away from me. I was a selfish, greedy little
ingrate, who gobbled up expensive presents. Seven and sixpence,
she screamed and stuffed it into her shopping bag.22 All sorts of con-
fusions are to be found in this story, not least the conflation of retail
and experience values.
There are similar collocations to be found. The China Daily reports
that the Chinese governments ninth reading habits survey in 2013
revealed that, for respondents, the average acceptable price for a
book...is only 3.5 yuan ($0.56 [just over 50 pence in the UK]), not
enough to buy even a 1.5 liter bottle of water.23 This figure is even
lower than that revealed by the last survey in 2010. But this does not
mean that reading is regarded negatively: China, in fact, is in the
midst of a huge reading boom. What it does reveal is the legacy of
large subsidies for approved writing by state publishers making prices
purely nominal and establishing custom and expectation as to what
one might expect to pay (or rather not pay) for a book. This is ampli-
fied by the sudden, sprawling presence of free access on the Internet
and a culture of disregard for copyright. Only 41.8 per cent of
respondents in 2013 were prepared to pay anything at all for reading
online, for instance. It is a major predicament for the Chinese publish-
ing industry and international publishers exporting to China, though
unit price in this gigantic market is always balanced against huge
potential sales. Interestingly, because foreign writing carries supple-
mentary cultural status, Chinese buyers are to an extent more tolerant
of higher prices in this area of the market.24 But the general point is
clear: the price of a book is a reflection of contextual expectations.

142 Literature and the Public Good

Crude comparisons with other sorts of commodities to which quite
other forms of value estimation apply are part of the process and of
uncertain negotiation. Amongst other things, both Osbornes mem-
ory from wartime Britain and the Chinese survey reveal the flakey
correlation between commodity price and personal value for people
emerging from circumstances of some economic hardship and
awakening to the possibilities of literate culture.
The economist of culture Jason Potts puts this more positively:
The creative industries rely, to a greater extent than other socio-
economic activity, on word-of-mouth, taste, cultures, and popularity
such that individual choices are dominated by information feedbacks
over social networks rather than innate preferences and price signals.
Their inter-relationships are the mutual enterprise of creating values,
both symbolic and economic.25 For Richard Bronk: consumption is
as much about [John Stuart] Mills imaginative emotion, feelings of
self-worth, the pleasure of giving and the thrill of ...style as about
material advantage (p. 250). The two can be in tension, at least from
an economists point of view. David Throsby sets an interesting
thought experiment in asking if artistic value might be determined by
mechanisms akin to the derivation of price in neoclassical economic
theory: we might suggest that the cultural worth of an artistic
good...could be interpreted as formed from the negotiated process
akin to a simple market exchange. When a novel (say)
is made available to the public, consumers absorb, interpret
and evaluate the ideas contained in the work, discussing and
exchanging their assessment with others. In the end, if a con-
sensus is reached, the assessed artistic value of the work could
be interpreted as something like a cultural pricean exchange
value reached by negotiation amongst parties to a market
transaction, where the market is that for the cultural content
of the work.
We will see at page 150 that some do, indeed, believe that cultural
interpretation is much more like a market transaction than critical
loftiness would sometimes care to allow. But the assumptions here
(for instance, if a consensus is reached, or that there is free and
un-complex exchange of opinion on such matters, or that form and
content are neatly divisible) are implausible and the imaginary task looks

Goods 143
something of dead end. As Throsby drily observes, such a theory
may have intellectual appeal but it provides little comfort for the
empirical analyst. Nonetheless, he notes (though one may cavil at the
continued use of price for both phenomena) that creative artists in
fact supply a dual marketa physical market for the good, which
determines its economic price, and a market for ideas, which deter-
mines the goods cultural price.26
Volatilities between price and associated forms of value can be even
more dramatic in the case of visual art. Georgina Adams Big Bucks:
The Explosion of the Art Market in the Twenty-first Century is an excellent
guide to this in the contemporary world. Valuation in the contempo-
rary visual arts is much more closely correlated to market price than is
the case for works of literature because of the singularity of the prod-
uct, the value derived from being an original, the extreme wealth of
its buyers, and a powerful intermediary layer of art entrepreneurs and
agents known as art advisors who do much to raise prices, limit access,
and promote reputations.27 This has caught the eye of novelists concerned
with the early twenty-first-century mega-rich. Like John Lanchesters
Capital, with its satire on Banksy-style street art, Sebastian Faulkss
A Week in December hits at the art market and its scrambled concatena-
tion of commercial and aesthetic values. In both cases, visual art is
indicial of a bankrupt relationship between art values and the public
good: in the one case from aggressive populism, in the other from plu-
tocratic elitism. Faulks portrays Liam Hogg the richest English artist
of his time (this is presumably a hit at Damien Hirst and other celeb-
rity Young British Artists of the 1990s). In the novel, Hoggs current
work, Cash Cow, 2007, is for auction in a glitzy room of hyper-wealthy
socialites who are encouraged to bid for, in Faulkss rendering of the
press release, Arguably the most daring piece undertaken by a contem-
porary artist, Cash Cow is a mixed-media piece made from sterling bank
notes and lutetium, the rarest metal in the world....The materials
alone cost in excess of 4 million. I wanted to challenge peoples
preconceptions about art, says Liam Hogg. This vulgar baloney (the
last bit especially is the kind of thing one wearies of hearing in art-talk)
is on sale for 8 million and guests may spend no more than thirty
seconds each in front of this exhibit (p. 211).
In 2006, in the real world (if thats what one calls it), Damien Hirsts
For the Love of God, a platinum skull encrusted with 8,601 diamonds,

144 Literature and the Public Good

was on sale for 50 million. Potential buyers were filed past it at a
quick march under escort in a gallery in St Jamess in London.
Silkscreen versions of the image, encrusted with diamond dust, sold
for 10,000 each.28 The torsion in values is extreme. In 2012, a Hirst
retrospective at Tate Modern sold limited edition plastic skulls (with-
out diamonds) for 36,800 each. Interviewed, Hirst was circular, not
to say self-serving: Money is important and money can sometimes
obscure the art but ultimately the art has got to be more important
than the money or I wouldnt do it.29
Sometimes one can only laugh. The Times reports that Lot 128 at
Christies contemporary art sale in February 2015 featured The
Work by an American artist Darren Bader which will consist of
nothing more than a sum of money and a certificate. The lucky
buyer will receive the money by electronic transfer. According to the
artist, The Work is a test of the art market and art itself and he
denied it was a joke. Christies specialist in this domain explained it
thus: What youre buying is an idea. Its a trademark. [The buyer]
can keep the idea or they can trade it. Hes questioning the validity,
the value of the art market.30 Well, for sure, somebody is. What keeps
this afloat is primarily a question of investor economics. Will this
retain or enhance its value?31
The issue is widely recognized among economists of culture. David
Throsby notes that there is little direct correlation between price and
non-monetary value when it comes to art works. A precious painting
might be sold for a fortune as an object, but it is also an element in the
history of art [which] brings wide public good benefits to historians,
art lovers and the general public.32 In addition, we might observe,
there is a complicated correlation between market price and overall
economic value. For the shrewd buyer, price at auction may reflect a
smart investment calculation. Not only may its market value rise, but
the cost may be offset by, for example, reproduction image rights, fees
for loans, and the power of attraction to public exhibitions requiring
an entrance ticket. Though none of this detracts much from (or
increases) the value of the painting as a work of art, these are crucial
elements in the vivid economic life lived by art objects. Donna Tartts
wonderful novel The Goldfinch (2013) centres on a stolen seventeenth-
century painting that acts as financial collateral in drug and other
criminal dealings that cannot be processed through the legitimate

Goods 145
machinery of credit. The central character, an antiques dealer,
meditates that
in the antiques trade there was really no such thing as a correct
price. Objective valuelist valuewas meaningless. If a cus-
tomer came in clueless with money in hand (as most of them
did) it didnt matter what the books said, what the experts said,
what similar items at Christies had recently gone for. An
objectany objectwas worth whatever you could get some-
body to pay for it.33
The novel instructively braces this unscrupulous view against that of
his business partner, Hobie, who, as a restorer and craftsman (and
poor businessman), works in ways and to codes that would be hon-
oured by Ruskin and Richard Sennett.
The point is that mass-produced commodities, refrigerators for
example, mainly do one thing. In this case they keep stuff cold: there
is little point having one otherwise. Books (or other art objects) do
many things and one way of expressing this is in the variable and
negotiable relation between cost of production and market price. In
the gap between the cost of production of a commodity and the price
it can secure in a market lie many things. Onebut only oneis profit.
Others, in the case of art, are important human things: enthralment;
the sudden and non-negotiable apprehension of beauty; wonderment
at aesthetic merit; the love of skill and craft; the communion across
time of traditions; the recognition of continuity; the appreciation of
the astonishing, consummate endeavour of fellow humans; absorp-
tion in the human predicaments described; the recognition of differ-
ence in time and circumstance as well as resemblance; and the
nourishment of creative appetite and endeavour. All of these are con-
ducive to the human and public good. Alongside this of course there
is crass consumerism, lightweight entertainment, generic insincerity,
and the chase after the fast buck. But it is the elasticity of price, deter-
mined by factors other than the cost-price ratio, which allows this
fruitful inconsistency. The fact that books are an everyday commodity
circulating widely, unlike a piece sold on the art market, enables these
human mixtures and allows public good benefits to emerge in
abundance. When one receives a work of literature into ones life as a
purchase, loan, or gift, one is engaging all of these things.

146 Literature and the Public Good

So there is a complex relationship between the values embodied in
distinguished art works and the way they circulate in commercial con-
texts. Ruskin himself considered this, though he seems to have been
somewhat divided in his response. His ambivalences are not untypical
when issues of price become conflated with issues of quality. The
Political Economy of Art (1867), a revised version of lectures first given a
decade earlier in Manchester (the heartland of Britains Victorian
commercial and industrial revolution), reflects on the ways in which
art works circulate for the public good in commercial societies. The
argument once again turns around his distinction between mass man-
ufacture and craft or artistic production. He distinguishes between
two conceptions of wealth, the false and the true, aligning them with
these two sorts of making and, in the familiar opposition, with money on
the one hand and culture on the other. Good things accumulate around
culture; shallow consumerism is where money goes. Nonetheless, for
Ruskin, arts greatest power is found in public. Its moral energy
resides in its craft values and the aesthetic education it can provide
when it is at large. But the important point is that to achieve these
goals on any scale it must circulate by market mechanisms. The circu-
lation and distribution of art works, as he puts it elsewhere, is as
important to culture as blood is to the body. And in an equally inter-
esting metaphor, he compares wealth to electricity: its significance
liesin its power to perform work and not to be at rest. It is only in
production, preservation, and distribution that it has meaning.34 He
denigrates the acquisition of art works as commodities for cloistered
pleasure, and emphasizes an ecology (as we might now say) of private
ownership and public access.
In all this, price is crucial. Here, then, he writes, is the subtle bal-
ance which your economist has to strike: to accumulate as much art as
to be able to give the whole nation a supply of it, according to its need,
and yet to regulate its distribution so that there shall be no glut of it,
nor contempt.35 Price and regulation are the key terms. Artists should
be nurtured, and (he argues) prices supported to give them a living,
but competition on price also keeps artists diligent and honest and
improves quality by making them more industrious. At the same time,
keeping prices affordable brings art works within the reach of people
of moderate income, excite[s] the general interest of the nation in
them, increase[s] a thousandfold the demand for the commodity, and

Goods 147
therefore its wholesome and natural production (p. 133). This has
both moral and commercial bearings (p. 134). What is striking about
this is its reconciliation of perspectives: wholesome and natural pro-
duction is not distinguished from the distribution and purchase of
commercial commodities, and moral and commercial benefits are not
antagonistic, as they are in the more common form of the argument.
Ruskin (whose father incidentally was a financier) is sensitive to mar-
ket incentives, especially the significance of price, and he identifies
this as a means to obtain other values and qualities. Commodity prices
and moral impacts can be virtuously aligned.
But he can also argue in a contrary way. When he considers litera-
ture, he deplores the plague of cheap literature (p. 87) which jeop-
ardizes good writing, and how the rush to publication degrades
qualities of thought and language in what he calls the Economy of
Literature (pp. 2213). His solution to this is to push the price of
books up to stop the spread of the disease: I will even go so far as to
say, that we ought not to get books too cheaply. No book, I believe, is
ever worth half so much to its reader as one that has been coveted for
a year at a bookstall, and bought out of saved half-pence; and perhaps
a day or twos fasting. Thats the way to get at the cream of a book
(p.87). I dont think cream and fasting sit well together in this meta-
phor, and overall it seems to me that Ruskin is wishing to recommend
market virtues in the case of visual art, and to deny them in the case
of printed books. In the one case he caps prices for moral and aes-
thetic improvement; in the other, he pushes them up for the same
ostensible purpose. He seems to want his cream and eat it too. In fact,
price regulation has rarely worked for long in liberal economies.
Establishing it for cultural products does not appear a promising way
to run thingsas current Chinese attitudes to the tolerable price of
books seems to indicate. More winning, perhaps, is Arnolds shrewd,
more relaxed, and to some extent surprising invocation at the end of
The Study of Poetry noted at the end of Chapter3. He writes of the
precious currency of literature: potent and confident in its circulation,
leaving anxieties about quality to take care of themselves.
Circulation and access seems to me much more important matters
than being glum about declining quality. But it is interesting to observe
that these anxieties never seem too far away in discussions of this kind,
and that very often it is the question of price that excites interest.

148 Literature and the Public Good

Surprisingly, for a man of democratic and populist instincts, George
Orwells first reaction to the appearance of Penguin Books in 1936 was
negative. Penguins game-changing efforts to make good writing
accessible to a much larger reading population by publishing quality
books in paperback at sixpence rather than ten shillings and sixpence
(the average hardback price in 1936) worried him, as it did many in the
publishing and literary business. If price fell, Orwell warned, ten shil-
lings per book would be withdrawn from the trade and from authors
pockets. He seems not to have thought that sales would rise to offset
unit price reductions. He also worried that volume sales, dependent
upon middlebrow taste, would depreciate literary quality and aesthetic
adventure. Defending high prices for the public good is an odd thing,
but in its way it is not unlike the position of Q. D. Leavis a few years
earlier, though in a voice less extreme. Penguin Books are splendid
value for sixpence, Orwell wrote, so splendid that if the other publish-
ers had any sense they would combine against them and suppress
them. It is, of course, a great mistake to imagine cheap books are good
for the book trade.36 In fact, the great mistake was Orwells as Penguins
subsequent success opened not only a profitable revolution in publish-
ing but also a mission to spread quality writing and ideas across the
community.37 Seeking suppression, too, is an odd thing for the author
of Nineteen Eighty-Four to contemplate, however tongue in cheek.
It appears that, as publishing revolutions occur, anxieties cluster as
to value and quality, more and cheaper being aligned with loss. Ruskin
feared as a disease the same coming of cheap literature that excited
Dickens and Collins. In recent times fearful voices accompanied the
abolition of the Net Book Agreement (NBA) in the UK in the mid-
1990s. The NBA dated from 1900 and regulated the price of books
through the simple mechanism of publishers refusing to supply book-
sellers selling below the agreed price. This was declared illegal as a
restrictive commercial practice in 1997, though in fact it had already
been breached in reality. The outcome of abolition was that UK book
sales increased 30 per cent between 1995 and 2006 according to a
review by the governments Office of Fair Trading in 2008, not least
because of new entrants to the market such as supermarkets and
Internet retailers.38 More people bought and read more books without
any discernable shrinking of the totem of quality. As discussed in
Chapter 1, there have been Jeremiah voices in the debate between

Goods 149
print and e-books, not least because the discount pricing of e-books in
mass-market genre fiction has led to allegations of sacrifice of quality
in pursuit of establishing market presence and therefore a general
dumbing down (Striphas, pp. 216). In fact, as noted in Chapters 1 and
3, the Publishers Association reports strong synergy between print and
e-books. Interesting research remains to be done on pricing structures
and the way they influence the distribution of literature. E-books might
be a point of study; but so might the distribution of cut-price classics
by, for example, Wordsworth Editions.39 Penguin Books, it is said,
achieved commercial take off by being sold in the cut-price department
store Woolworths to the sound of the tutting of cultural commenta-
tors tongues. When set at affordable levels, the evidence seems to sug-
gest that the cheaper the book, the wider the readership, and therefore
the greater the quanta of potential public good. Width of readership is
not inimical to quality of reading or of writing.
Worries about threats to quality, and with it the oppositional values of
art, in market circumstances are understandable. The political philoso-
pher Russell Keat has written illuminatingly about the ways in which
narrow definitions of the market, and their inflation into hegemonic
rationales for all phenomena, confine and distort the rich and complex
activities that make our society a society at all. It is plurality of both
practice and explanation that keeps us healthy. Keat has in view the
over-extension of theories of the market, and associated metaphors, over
the past thirty years or so. In an excellent essay on Market Boundaries
and Human Goods from 2000, he is at pains to define legitimate bound-
aries in the context of complex societies which produce variable forms
of goods, from commodities to the maintenance of shared infrastruc-
ture, from vocational skills to intangibles such as mutuality, well-being,
and the social exercise of capacities such as imagination, love, convivial-
ity, and making meaning. These operate in different if overlapping
domains in which the market is only one of the many ways in which
societies organize, distribute, access, and share their abundance.40 In this
context, books might have the special characteristic of negotiating
between raw retail values, expressed as prices, and these other impacts of
human empowerment and realized potential. For Keat,

the problem was not whether the character and value of cul-
tural goods was undermined by their status as commodities, but

150 Literature and the Public Good

whether the market system might undermine the ability of cul-
tural institutions to operate effectively.41
In other words, it is not that books or other art objects are distributed
as commodities as such, it is the context and environment in which
they circulate that determines their usage and significance. These may
or may not benefit the public good, but the public good cannot hap-
pen without them.
Therefore it is not helpful to argue on the basis of binaries that
oppose money to quality, or austere critical judgement to the market-
place. After all, in a profession noted for its high-mindedness on mat-
ters cultural, it has been remarked, not without justice, that literary
criticism increasingly runs its own version of competition wherein the
business of the interpretation of literary texts becomes one to estab-
lish prestige and status and enable career and salary enhancement.
For the honourable many, this may not be so. But as a system in prac-
tice, it is hardly deniable. Barbara Herrnstein Smith puts it this way:
value judgments may themselves be considered commodities in the
community of professional evaluators who contribute to the wider
economy of knowledge and opinion. In reaction, she argues, some
humanists function as if they were

the priestly agents of any society who preside over the demarca-
tion of spheres of value, establish the classification of certain
objects as sacred, and protect them from the forces of nature
from the jungle, as we sometimes say, speaking of the opera-
tions of the market...or its most egregious and distinctive
agents, the merchant, trader, and banker.42

Whilst engaging in market-style behaviour, it is at least an indulgence

to pronounce with superiority upon it.
The influential French sociologist and cultural theorist Pierre
Bourdieu took a robust view of the realities of the quality versus mar-
ket argument in The Rules of Art (1992). Literature, he contends, is a
relatively autonomous universe with two aspects: merchandise and
signification. By merchandise he means writing for the mass market.
By signification he means those works that define and operate within
the sphere of cultural commentary and therefore deal in the circula-
tion of meanings, values, and judgments in ostensible guardianship of

Goods 151
the cultural heritage, aesthetic properties, and critical values. This
bifurcated domain means that publications are developed as specialized
products, with (at least in France) specialist publishing houses. One
seeks commercial gain. The other, he writes imitating the vocabulary
of the tribe, identifies pure works destined for symbolic appropriation.
By this he means they target the mandarin conversation about high
culture. The two domains, he writes, are in antagonistic co-existence
and mutually defining. The former pursues commercial objectives,
while the latter is founded on the obligatory recognition of the values
of disinterestedness and on the denigration of the economy for
purposes of the accumulation of symbolic capital.43 The one aims at
profit; the other at what Bourdieu called distinction, the social world
of superiority and elite standing sustaining careers and privileges of
various kinds.
Bourdieu notes that in order to consolidate this symbolic capital,
and support their status as experts, those working within the literary
field are obliged to deny that works of literature are products in a
market. For the symbolic capitalists, he writes with a flourish, it is the
specific logic of symbolic alchemy that maintains that investments will
not be recouped unless they are (or seem to be) operating at a loss in the
manner of a gift (p. 148). Symbolic capital is realized at the point mon-
etary capital is denied. As quoted above, Bourdieus deliberate casting
of symbolic interpretation as a matter of loss and gain, investment and
recuperation, isin a way not unlike Matthew Arnolds relaxed use
of the word currency at the end of The Study of Poetrydesigned
to establish resemblance, bringing alien spheres into recognition.
However high-minded the rhetoric on the symbolic side, investment
in symbolic distinction is a process of social rivalry and advantage-
gaining in which establishing a name is the capital of consecration;
this is obtained at the price of a constant and collective repression of
the properly economic interest (p. 148). Thus, apostles of quality
and high endeavour are in some degree of bad faith in the denial
ofeconomic interest; in reality, the two modes of cultural pro-
duction, pure art and commercial art, are linked by their very
opposition (p. 166).
Like Herrnstein Smith, Bourdieu sarcastically portrays the manda-
rins of symbolic capital as a self-serving, secular clerisy: work of art,
like religious goods or services, amulets or various sacraments, receives

152 Literature and the Public Good

value only from collective belief as collective misrecognition, collec-
tively produced and reproduced (p. 172). The social function of
so-called quality literature therefore is not a matter of some intrin-
sic merit, or for that matter of its affects on readers. It is the vehicle
whereby the distinction (in Bourdieus sense) of those who promote it
is badged and promoted. As we have seen, in the early nineteenth
century, Carlyle and others invested apparently sincere faith in
literatures spiritual crusade, its heroics, and its potential for the mirac-
ulous. Whatever one thinks of that aspiration, in Bourdieus version
it has dwindled to a dark parody: the workings of an intellectually
dishonest, self-promoting elite seeking its own advantage in denial of
its privilege.
Of course, like all binaries constructed to describe complex situa-
tions with multiple variables, this one distorts as it illuminates. Though
Bourdieu might deflate the reflex high-mindedness of the literary-
cum-academic profession, his version is locked in its own binary.
Commercial and cultural capital may require one another for
self-definition, but in reality they are porous domains. They do not, of
themselves, account for reader choices and behaviour, the variable
assessment of aesthetic merit, nor the actual uses of reading in a pub-
lic context. The polemical sociology of a mandarinate is not the same
thing as studying the actual behaviour of people when books circulate
and are read with, all the evidence suggest, greater and greater energy
and frequency. Rita Felski wisely observes that:
From a certain standpointthe standpoint of Pierre Bourdieu,
let us saythese images [of people reading] could well serve as
a clinching testimony of the class-bound stratification of aes-
thetic experience. Yet they are also tied together by a common
experience of enchantment, of total absorption in a text, of
intense and enigmatic pleasure. The experience of being wrapped
up in a novel or a filmwhether high or lowconfounds
our deepest held beliefs about the rationality and autonomy
The cultural economist Jason Potts notes that nowadays, in the context
of the enormous growth of the creative economy, culture should no
longer be regarded as a net welfare recipient, something transcenden-
tally worthy, but inherently unprofitable (p. 11). Cultural experiences,

Goods 153
including reading and talking about books, circulate at scale and with
velocity, and impact profoundly on peoples lives. They circulate
inplural forms: as commodities for purchase, as communicators of
values, as objects and occasions of debate, as forms of public under-
standing in inseparable ways. And they create and transmit what
Geoff Mulgan calls the growing importance of three types of public
good: democracy, knowledge, and connections, all of which ani-
mate a community.45 These are not incidental by-products. They
areindispensable aspects of literatures mode of public being. The
philosopher Charles Taylor seems to me right. In a classic statement
on Irreducibly Social Goods from 1990, Taylor argues two key
things.46 First, that culture is the place in which goods of all kinds
operate and which sets the terms of reference and possibility for a
society. Culture therefore is both an operational and fundamental
good simultaneously. It is the place where common understanding
negotiates value (pp. 1378). Second, ordinary life is where this hap-
pens and not in some higher activity, beyond ordinary life (p. 144).
The prestige of so-called higher goods is a fake prestige, the
over-evaluation of which leads to the social binaries described by
Pierre Bourdieu, at the expense of the more generous, open, accom-
modating, and ever-shifting humanism which literature celebrates
and embodies.

III. Old Misery

And whats the value of it all? asked Maud.
Probably from ten to twelve guineas, if I calculated.
I meant, what was the literary value of it? said his sister, with
Equal to that of the contents of a mouldy nut.
Gissing, New Grub Street, p. 181

George Gissings New Grub Street (1891) is an anatomy of the late

Victorian literary scene and is relevant to the concerns of this chapter.
The novel describes the writing of literature and its place in a market
environment grown increasingly competitive and entrepreneurial
because of the rise of new communications technologies and the
growth of a mass reading public (it is a familiar theme). The misery it

154 Literature and the Public Good

depicts is the misery of high-minded and disappointed artistic individu-
als of various sorts, both men and women, caught in its operations.
Its cast of characters represents types of the literary intelligentsia
ofthe day struggling to climb or stay aloft on the greasy pole of a
literary career.
It juxtaposes the careers of two friends: the modestly but genuinely
talented Edwin Reardon, a writer of the un-remunerative prose
equivalent of a book of slim verse, who believes in art, the high ideals
of Hellenic culture, and does not compromise with the requirements
of the literary marketplace. His opposite is Jasper Milvain: less tal-
ented but an astute and agile manager of his own career, an intense
networker, opportunist, adroit seizer of openings, and skilful spotter
of the main chance and the coming wave. Milvain rises; Reardon
sinks. Reardons art flounders, because, says Milvain, He cant supply
the market....Literature nowadays is a trade (p. 8). For Milvain,
Reardon is behind his age. Harking back to the eighteenth-century
Grub Street of Samuel Johnson, which became a shorthand for the
army of hacks in the undergrowth of literary culture, he notes that
our Grub Street of today is quite a different place: it is supplied with
telegraphic communication, it knows what literary fare is in demand
in every part of the world, its inhabitants are men of business, how-
ever seedy (p .9). Technology and globalization, the importance of
market research, speeded-up communications, and corporate intelli-
gence are not things of our times alone. Milvain has his finger on the
markets pulse, or at least its telegraphic key. Reardon, by contrast
with his faith in art, aesthetic integrity, intrinsic merit, and nostalgia
for Greeceis obsolete. In the plot, Milvain gets the money, the fame,
and the girl.
New Grub Street has a binary structure wherein contrasting elements
are held in tense opposition: the man of the past and the man of the
moment; the redundant aesthete and the careerist; the sensitive garret
dweller and the calculating networker; the man of principle and the
man of business; the isolate and the self-promoter; the failure and
the success; art and money; culture and trade; the refined and the
philistine; the craftsman and the journeyman; the pen and the tele-
graph; the modern and the antique. Sometimes the soul is juxtaposed
to what is considered by one character, the sympathetic Marian Yule,
to be machine life. Working as her selfish fathers unpaid secretary to

Goods 155
save his declining career, she is the prisoner of the unforgiving literary
production line: She was not a woman, but a mere machine for read-
ing and writing...exhausting herself in the manufacture of printed
stuff which no one ever pretended to be more than a commodity for
the days market (p. 107). She spots a newspaper advertisement:
headed Literary Machine: had it then been invented at last,
some automaton to supply the place of such poor creatures as
herself, to turn out books and articles? Alas! the machine was
only one for holding volumes conveniently....But surely before
long some Edison [recent inventor of the phonograph and elec-
tric light] would make the true automaton; the problem must be
comparatively such a simple one. Only to throw in a given num-
ber of old books, and have them reduced, blended, modernised
into a single one for todays consumption. (p. 107)
It is the Ruskinian nightmare: writing disengaged entirely from human
Running through the novel is moneyand poverty: I shall never
write for writings sake, only to make money, declares Milvain. All
my plans and efforts will have money in viewall. I shant allow any-
thing to come in the way of my material advancement (p. 120).
Reardon meanwhile is unable to adjust even slightly to meet commer-
cial needs in the composition of his latest work. That is an unpardon-
able sin!, he rants to his long-suffering wife, To make a trade of an
art! (p. 51). This provokes his wife, at the end of her tetherthe fam-
ily is impoverishedto leave him. If I had to choose between a glori-
ous reputation with poverty and a contemptible popularity with
wealth, she declares I would choose the latter, (p. 53). Catastrophe
follows, and they get neither. Consolingly, Readon maintains that
Homer did not write at so many pages a day, with the workhouse clock
clanging its admonition in his ear (p. 125). He rehearses these dogged
articles of faith through much of the book and becomes virtually com-
panionless. By contrast, cheery Milvain has another view of human
association: At present its a large part of my business to make acquaint-
ances...a man who has to live by miscellaneous writing couldnt get on
without a vast variety of acquaintances. Ones own brain will soon run
dry; a clever fellow knows how to use the brains of other people
(p.165). Or again, he links money and friendship: Tohave money is

156 Literature and the Public Good

becoming ofmore and more importance in a literary career; princi-
pally because to have money is to have friends...the chances are dead
against anyone who cant make private interest with influential peo-
ple; hiswork is simply overwhelmed by that of men who have better
opportunities (p. 29).
New Grub Street is cynical about literary career-making, of course.
But the context in which this is set is more ominous still. The London
depicted is a world of boxed, imprisoned identities, and has a struc-
ture of feeling typical of much of the literary naturalism of the
period. Raymond Williams, in Drama from Ibsen to Brecht, is illuminat-
ing. He observes that the new naturalistic drama of the periodsuch
as Ibsens A Dolls House, first performed in London two years before
the publication of New Grub Streetis set in closed rooms. These
enclosed spaces literally and emblematically reflect the confined and
often forsaken lives of those who inhabit them.47 The enclosed modes
of life are used to expose issues of domestic relations, gender, and
social mobility (or lack of it) as well as a brutal existential imprison-
ment. The predicaments of the characters in New Grub Street mirror
these entrapments. The garrets, the suburban house, the writers
study, the British Museum Reading Room, even the more affluent
drawing rooms in which the action occurs, all have this imprisoned
feel intensified by weather that is relentlessly cold, rainy, and above all
foggy. Outside the British Museum Reading Room, the fog grows
thicker and thicker, obstructing the view for the aforementioned
Margaret Yule:
Darker, darker. From the towering wall of volumes seemed to
emanate visible motes, intensifying the obscurity; in a moment
the book-lined, circumference of the room would be but a fea-
tureless prison.
But then flashed forth the sputtering whiteness of the electric
light, and its ceaseless hum was henceforth a new source of
headache. It reminded her of how little work she had done
today; she must; she must force herself to think of the task in
hand. A machine has no business to refuse its duty. (pp. 1078)
The flat style evokes the monochrome environment. Its a style main-
tained throughout, despite the entries into the consciousness of the
various characters (as in the quote above) who mainly shape their

Goods 157
thoughts in the same flat register. The binaries that structure the
book amplify this. There is no dialectic, little conversation except that
of conflict or the announcement of ambition. The characters declare
their views, and take their shocks and successes with even-paced
dejection or complacency living in this valley of the shadow of
books (p. 189).
New Grub Street rehearses themes that populate this chapter in sev-
eral respects. Resentment against literary machinery; supposed under-
valuation of creativity and art; suspicion of the business of literary
production; hostility to money and commercial production; and a
dispiriting sense that the world is coldly opposed to the finer things
represented by culture. This is what the world looks like from Reardon-
land. For Gissing (who experienced such moments himself ) it is part
of a representative, grinding social indifference and a deep-seated
contamination of relationships that, he suggested, was indicative of a
civilization losing its cultural bearings and heritage. Q. D. Leavis
therefore thought the novel proved her point about literatures
decline.48 Commentators align it with nineteenth-century thinkers like
Arnold and Carlyle, though in a more shabby-suited, leaky-shoed
way. All are said to despair of a world inexorably going to the dogs.
Criss-crossing New Grub Street is a social-Darwinist perspective that
appears glumly to accept that the fittest only will survive by adapting
(as Milvain recommends to Reardon) to the way the world is heading.
The novel was actually a success. Butgrimly maintaining the books
central thesisthe hard-up author had sold his copyright to his pub-
lisher for a single payment and they paid him not a penny more as
sales climbed and his reputation grew.
Whatever Gissings beliefs about all this, the novel itself is impris-
oned by its binary analysis. Milvain is unlovely, and his happy ending
is not without irony. But he is hardly deliberately wicked. Reardon, it
is clear, is significantly more destructive: he is stupid and selfish with
his wife, and hopeless and neglectful of his child. Stubborn in opinion;
inflexible in behaviour; self-obsessed to a degree perhaps exceeding
that of Milvain; he failsas writer and as a personand he dies. This
is not a good argument for art. As he breaks down, he lives in a world
of fanciful nonsense that is hard to dress up as a compelling concern
for High Culture, Art, or anything else of value except, perhaps,
pathos: I have lived in an ideal world that was not deceitful, a world

158 Literature and the Public Good

which seems to me, when I recall it, beyond the human sphere, bathed
in diviner light (p. 370). John Goode shrewdly observes that this can-
not represent a real alternative in that the values Reardon may claim
to embody are acknowledged to be lost, weak, and nostalgic.49 By so
readily inhabiting this pretence, defined by opposition to triumphant
worldliness, he acquiesces in the binary against which he protests, and
he finds his end with less than heroic submission.
Adrian Poole pursues the same line. He argues that New Grub Street
has too neat a pattern of winners and losers and a too peremptory
schism between the lost and the saved.50 This leads to inert conclu-
sions, particularly about the role of money: This then is the paradox
about money, that the pursuit of it must degrade, but the possession of
it is necessary for the sustenance of all moral and personal good
(p.155). This paradox is uncontrolled and disruptive and locks the
novel into a disappointingly traditional sight of its degradation.
The alternative is proposed by Reardons wife: the provocative
theory...that money can ennoble (p. 154). In this stand-off, we are
therefore no further forwards with the old quarrel, except the expo-
sure once again of the fraught and unforgiving relationship between
means and texts.
However there are other voices to be heard. Reardon imagines he
might have worked in an estate agents office in a restful alternative life
were it not for the distraction of literary ambition (p. 437). Another
clerk of the period, the real-life Thomas Burke, took a different view.
Trying to make a sideline career in Grub Street to pay for education,
concerts, and other things cultural, he was warned off pursuing this
line of work for a man with no connections. He was referred to New
Grub Street to chill his enthusiasm. But Burke found that, with no con-
nections at all, he could easily pick up an odd guinea placing a sketch
or a short story. Gissings complaints about literary hackwork utterly
baffled Burke, who found scribbling in garret a wonderful liberation
from the thrall of clerkdom (Rose, Intellectual Life, p. 418). But, then
again, he wasnt, I think, aspiring to write Art. Meanwhile, others of
the same era were more excited by discovery than stalled by circum-
stances and blame. Richard Hillyer (born around 1900), a cowmans
son from Northamptonshire, discovered his books through routes sim-
ilar to Alan Sillitoe, the second-hand stall, the enthusiastic teacher,
the odd magazine, and the anthology happened upon at the right

Goods 159
moment. His discovery was a four-volume compendium called Half
Hours with Best Authors. It opened treasures standing in the full tradi-
tion and waiting to be discovered, he writes in his autobiography
Country Boy (1966). It was literature itself, not talk about literature. It
made its own impact, spread the goods out in front of me, and let me
make my choice (Rose, Intellectual Life, p. 127). It is hard to believe that
he was not aware of the powerful variety of meanings contained in his
choice of goods to suggest the exhilaration of his breakthrough.

1. Louis Menand, The Marketplace of Ideas; Reform and Resistance in the American University
(London, Norton, 2010), p. 123.
2. Sir Stanley Unwin, The Truth About Publishing, 8th edn, rvsd by Philip Unwin
(London, George Allen & Unwin, 1976), p. 160.
3. George H. Gallup, ed., The Gallup International Public Opinion Polls: Great Britain
19371975, 2 vols (New York, Random House, 1976), vol. I, p. 31.
4. Regenia Gagnier, The Insatiability of Human Wants: Economics and Aesthetics in Market
Society (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2000), p. 10.
5. Gillian Doyle, Why Culture Attracts and Resists Economic Analysis, Journal of
Cultural Economics 34 (2010), 248.
6. Alan Sillitoe, Life Without Armour: An Autobiography (London, Flamingo, 1996),
7. Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending: My Life as a Bibliophile, Guardian Review,
30 June 2012.
8. Barry Miles, London Calling: A Countercultural History of London since 1945 (London,
Atlantic Books, 2010), p. 193.
9. Colin Robinson, I Was Young and Foolish...an Interview with Lawrence
Ferlinghetti, Guardian Review, 4 July 2015.
10. Anon, The Size of the State: A Big Beast to Tackle, The Economist, 28 July 2012,
11. Elizabeth Honig, Art, Honour, and Excellence in Early Modern Europe in
Michael Hutter and David Throsby, eds, Beyond Price: Value in Culture, Economics and
the Arts (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2008), pp. 89105.
12. Walter J. Ong, Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word (London, Routledge,
13. See Donald J. Waters, Preserving the Knowledge Commons in Charlotte Hess
and Elinor Ostrum, eds, Understanding Knowledge as a Commons: From Theory to Practice
(London, MIT Press, 2011), pp. 14567.
14. Sophie Rochester and Xin Lin, The Publishing Landscape in China: New and Emerging
Opportunities for British Writers (NESTA/AHRC/The Literary Platform, 2014), p. 3,
The_Publishing_Landscape_in_China_2015.pdf (accessed 19/4/16).

160 Literature and the Public Good

15. Mo Yan, Network Literature is a Part of Literature, Culture and Influence, 10
October 2013. en.gmw.cn/2013-10/10/content_9125756.htm; C. S.-M, Chinese
Online Literature: Voices in the Wilderness, The Economist, 24 March 2013,
(accessed 30/6/16).
16. Raymond Williams, Culture (London, Fontana, 1981), p. 99.
17. Quentin Skinner, The Idea of a Cultural Lexicon in Visions of Politics: Vol. 1:
Regarding Method (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2002), p. 169.
18. John Ruskin, The Nature of the Gothic in Clive Wilmer, ed., Unto This Last and
Other Writings (London, Penguin, 1985), pp. 847; 89; 901; 103.
19. Richard Sennett, The Craftsman (London, Penguin, 2009).
20. Kikuji Kawanda, The Map (1965, rpr. Tokyo, G Ha, 2005).
21. Jonathan Safran Foer, Tree of Codes (London, Visual Editions, 2010).
22. John Osborne, A Better Class of Person: An Autobiography 19291956 (London,
Penguin, 1982), p. 116.
23. Zhang Zhouxiang, Time for Chinese Media to Come of Age, China Daily,
7March 2014.
24. Rochester and Xin, The Publishing Landscape in China.
25. Jason Potts, Creative Industries and Economic Evolution (Cheltenham, Edward Elgar,
2011), p. 97.
26. David Throsby, The Economics of Cultural Policy (Cambridge, Cambridge University
Press, 2010), p. 21.
27. Georgina Adam, Big Bucks: The Explosion of the Art Market in the Twenty-first Century
(London, Lund Humphreys, 2014).
28. Robert Hewison, Cultural Capital: The Rise and Fall of Creative Britain (London, Verso,
2014), p. 151.
29. Mark Brown, Arts More Important than Cash, Says Hirst, The Guardian, 3 April
30. Jack Malvern, Christies Offers the Latest in Conceptual Art: A Lot of Money,
The Times, 27 January 2015.
31. See, in addition to Adam (note 27), Don Thompson, The $12 Million Stuffed Shark:
The Curious Economics of Contemporary Art and Auction Houses (London, Aurum, 2009);
Blake Gopnik, Why Does Art Cost so Effing Much?, Newsweek, 12 December
32. David Throsby, Economics and Culture (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press,
2001), p. 23.
33. Donna Tartt, The Goldfinch (London, Abacus, 2014), p. 512.
34. John Ruskin, Unto This Last: Four Essays on the Principles of Political Economy
in Wilmer, ed., Unto This Last and Other Writings, pp. 183, 181.
35. John Ruskin, The Political Economy of Art (London, Smith, Elder and Co., 1867),
36. George Orwell, Review of Penguin Books, New English Weekly, 5 March 1936 in
Sonia Orwell and Ian Angus, eds, Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George
Orwell: Volume 1: An Age Like This 19201940 (Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1970),

Goods 161
37. See Rick Rylance, Reading with a Mission: The Public Sphere of Penguin Books,
Critical Quarterly 47, 4 (Winter 2005), 4866.
38. An Evaluation of the Impact upon Productivity of Ending Resale Price Maintenance
on Books (Office of Fair Trading, 2008), p. 42, http://webarchive.nationalarchives.
oft981.pdf (accessed 4/10/14).
39. Alison Flood, Cheap Classics Boom as Rest of Book Trade Struggles, The
Guardian, 9 December 2011. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2011/dec/09/
cheap-classics-boom-book-trade-struggles (accessed 6/10/14).
40. Russell Keat, Market Boundaries and Human Goods in John Haldane, ed.,
Philosophy and Public Affairs (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2000),
41. Russell Keat, Cultural Goods and the Limits of the Market (London, Macmillan, 2000),
p. 5.
42. Barbara Herrnstein Smith, Contingencies of Value: Alternative Perspectives from Critical
Theory (Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press, 1988), pp. 101, 99, 129.
43. Pierre Bourdieu, The Rules of Art: Genesis and Structure in the Literary Field, trans. Susan
Emanuel (Cambridge, Polity, 1996), pp. 1412.
44. Rita Felski, The Uses of Literature (Oxford, Blackwell, 2008), p. 54.
45. Geoff Mulgan, The Art of Public Strategy: Mobilizing Power and Knowledge for the Common
Good (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2009), p. 255.
46. Charles Taylor, Irreducibly Social Goods in Philosophical Arguments (London,
Harvard University Press, 1995), pp. 12745.
47. Raymond Williams, Drama from Ibsen to Brecht (London, Chatto & Windus, 1968).
48. Q. D. Leavis, Gissing and the English Novel in Collected Essays. Volume Three: The
Novel of Religious Controversy (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1989),
49. John Goode, George Gissing: Ideology and Fiction (London, Vision Press, 1978),
50. Adrian Poole, Gissing in Context (London, Macmillan, 1975), p. 154.

The Power of Empathy

In September 2015, the New York Review of Books hosted a conversation

between Barack Obama and the novelist Marilynne Robinson.
Obama said:
When I think about my role as a citizen, setting aside being pres-
ident, and the most important set of understandings that Ibring
to that position as citizen, the most important stuff Ive learned
I think Ive learned from novels. It has to do with e mpathy. It has
to do with being comfortable that the world is complicated and
full of grays...And the notion that its possible to connect with
some[one] else even though they are very d ifferent from you.1
This chapter will pursue these themes.

I. Ambiguity and a Celebration

We ask for clarity and much in life requires it. But we also recognize
that complex conditions are riddled with unknowns and are often not
resolvable in clear or straightforward ways. High-level executive searches
ask for an ability to work in ambiguous and inconsistent environ-
ments; diplomats and statesmen and stateswomen recognize the value
of the wriggle room that arises from creative ambiguity when negoti-
ating settlement. The late French President Franois Mitterand is
reported to have said that you never leave ambiguity except at your
own expense. Politicians squirming to avoid straight answers lie at the
bathetic end of this spectrum. But sometimes solutions depend on
structured equivocation and creative manoeuvre. Negotiations pros-
per when parties accommodate the needs and insights of others. The
ability to recognize multiple perspectives is essential for the human
capacity to live among complexities.

164 Literature and the Public Good

Though ambiguity can suggest slipperiness, vacillation, fence-sitting,
and other uncomfortable postures; and though it can be allied to the
potentially harmful state of cognitive dissonance (the anxiety result-
ing from holding contradictory views or beliefs); and though persisting
uncertainty can compound functional difficulty; nonetheless, dexter-
ity in creating agreement is productive in the day-to-day management
of a life, childrens growth, conflict resolution, foreign policy, and
everyday discussion with people of strong conviction. In many of its
most crucial aspects the world is deeply and intractably ambiguous,
and thisthis chapter contendsis a natural heartland of literature.
Further, the ability to accommodate more than just one thought at a
time, to appreciate variety of perspective, and to put oneself in the
situations of others (or empathy), are crucial parts of the experience
of literature. Researchers for a BookTrust report on Attitudes to Reading
in 2014 asked Facebook respondents to name the books that had most
influenced their reading. Hattie chose Harper Lees To Kill a
Mockingbird, a novel dealing with race relations in the American South:
It impressed upon me to sit in someones shoes and walk around in
them. I know its a bit of a clich but its true.2 Literature provides
these shoes.
Structured ambiguity has long been recognized as a defining prop-
erty of the literary use of language, and it is well established that
exploratory openness of meaning is a key property of literature
(indeed, it is sometimes regarded as a signature of quality). D. H.
Lawrence, in many respects a man of fiercely dogmatic opinions,
advised in a famous aphorism that one should Never trust the teller,
trust the tale. In other words, it matters little what an author believes
in terms of attitudes or values; it is the literary articulation, with its
exploratory, recursive structure, that matters. (The idea of recursion
the property of structures to continuously review their own values and
operations and to change them as necessaryis an important idea to
which we will return in this chapter.) If the writer happens to have
views, continued Lawrence: The proper function of a critic is to save
the tale from the artist who created it.3
So what might a literary ambiguity look like? Critics might scrutinize
verbal equivocations, or the fluctuating suggestiveness of metaphor and
image, for cross-currents of meaning. Sometimes this leads to exasper-
atingly lightweight ingenuity that disengages verbal performance from

The Power of Empathy 165

issues of substance. But constitutive ambiguity is essentially a matter
of complexity of attitude, and it goes to the heart of what is rewarding
and beneficial about literary texts. Verbal details create eddies of
meaning which reflect the complexity of lives lived at important
moments. Ambiguity can rest on apparent paradox, or utterances in
which a statement undermines its own premise. Popular language
reflects this and, currently, there is relish for such statements: never say
never; Im prejudiced against prejudice; that was horrible, I loved it;
and so on. In using such expressions people are sometimes evasive (as
when sports or business people are locked in negotiations about a deal).
But they also express conflict when outlooks and feelings are complex
and courses of action are unclear. Statements may self-contradict, but
they are not therefore meaningless.
A literary paradox of this kind might confront this question: why
bother to write a poem about hopelessness? Here is one. It is by
Wilfred Owen and is called, simply, Futility:
Move him into the sun
Gently its touch awoke him once,
At home, whispering of fields unsown,
Always it awoke him, even in France,
Until this morning and this snow.
If anything might rouse him now
The kind old sun will know.
Think how it wakes the seeds
Woke, once the clays of a cold star.
Are limbs, so dear achieved, are sides
Full-nervedstill warmtoo hard to stir?
Was it for this the clay grew tall?
O what made fatuous sunbeams toil
To break earths sleep at all?

Written following the death of a comrade in the First World War where
Owen served as an officer until his own death in the same year, it ele-
gizes an anonymous friend by contrasts: life and death, warmth and
cold, waking and sleep, the movement of limbs and the frozen inertia
of a corpse, spring (sprouting seeds) and winter (deadly snow), growth
and decay, home and the battlefield, purpose and emptiness. This is its
structure of feeling to use Raymond Williamss celebrated term. The
problems posed are existential (life might be futile), political (whats the

166 Literature and the Public Good

purpose of this war?), and religious: the reference to clay growing tall
adopts a biblical motif about Creation whose end point, it turns out, is
blank annihilation. Whatever the question, the response is futility. It
is not a poem that affirms mans courage in appalling circumstances, or
celebrates a life dedicated to service or comradeship. Nor does it much
recognize a soldiers sacrifice. It is not, except latently, a poem with the
vigour of protest. Its tone is resigned. Though it conspicuously refuses
Christian or patriotic consolation, it is their irrelevance one notes not
passionate objection. Negatives and absences define this version of
futility, as perhaps they do all types. Its listless rhymes and half-rhymes,
its mournful syntax, its pedestrian o ff-the-peg imagery, its use of point-
edly vapid and sentimental clich (the kind old sun), as well as its
argument create and amplify its state of mind.
But if everything is futile, why bother writing a poem at all?
Futility sends ambiguous messages and is similar to other
conundrums in aesthetics, such as why we find horror exciting, or
tragedy uplifting. Futility says explicit things about existential
emptiness expressed as a crafted piece of creative and purposeful
endeavour, which is quite the opposite of futile. Its argument rests
on unanswered questions about human, evolutionary, political,
and metaphysical purpose and leaves them hanging in wearied
repudiation. But, in effect, the poem answers these questions posi-
tively by the very fact that it exists at all, and has been created. In
itself it is an assertion of human creativity and denial of futility.
The poem finds no compelling answers to questions about mean-
ing or ultimate purpose. But it creates an assertion of human
power and spirit of achievement. Its composed, creative order
those artfully mournful rhymes and weary syntaxdefies the
notional futility they render. It says, in effect: this corpse is not all
there is; this death is not all of life; this war is not the end of human
endeavour. This is partly a matter of tension between content and
form. But it is mainly testimony to the human power to feel more
than one thing at a time and to rescue creative purpose from ach-
ing loss. These Janus messagesfacing two ways simultaneously
are one mode of ambiguity. It is a discovery condition in that it
asks us to ponder opposing emotions, or to reflect on the mindset
of another. It is particular to literatureand perhaps all art
when pain or loss are in tension with beauty of expression or

The Power of Empathy 167

design. It uplifts as it negates. It extends as it narrows. It finds
alternatives as it concentrates. It grows as it ends.
The ramifications of this should not be underestimated. A recent
Lancet Commission on Culture and Health (The Lancet is among the
worlds oldest, most prominent, and authoritative medical journals)
observed, under a section headed Sick Societies, that:
In the Problems of the World, the UN summed up the world-wide
price of modernity. Asked to provide single words that corre-
sponded to the difficulties characteristic of various societal
domains, respondents painted a sorry picture. For culture, the
response was rootless; for politics, powerless; for economics,
jobless; and for the environment, futureless. When asked what
one word summed up the condition of the modern world, the
sentiment could not be more troubling: meaningless. Classical
social theory offers a term to describe this sense of futility. That
term is anomiean absence or decrease of ethical standards, a
kind of psychological as well as physiological weariness, disillu-
sionment, disappointment, psychic pain, and a tendency to grope
at random, which in turn brings on still other crises, until life itself
seems intolerable. It is a state not only common amongst many
groups and societies worldwide, but also pervasive in mid-career
health providers.4
This is a frightening passage. Wilfred Owen portrays a state of ano-
mie in the extreme conditions of war, but for many the conditions
reported by the UN are not so exceptional. As the Lancet Commission
demonstrates, they threaten confidence in the resilience of communi-
ties, cultures, societies, and individuals. Finding meaning amongst
demoralization and anomie is a live problem. We will return to the
UNs work on these matters later in the chapter. The recent UK
report for the BookTrust on Attitudes to Reading mentioned earlier
found that feelings of existential purpose, meaningfulness, sense of
personal satisfaction, and happiness were closely linked to reading in
a survey of 1,500 people from all walks of life using Office of National
Statistics standard measures of well-being. Predictably, there was an
inverse correlation for those suffering from severe deprivation accord-
ing to the Indices of Multiple Deprivation and the Income Deprivation Affecting
Children Index. These people reported low levels of purpose, hope, and

168 Literature and the Public Good

contentment alongside the lowest levels of reading and scant personal
histories of doing so from childhood. Levels of income and education
are key determinants. However, one striking finding was that these
correlations were not predictive. Some of the most passionate readers
also experienced the highest levels of deprivation (pp. 3743). We will
come to examples of this shortly.
The sceptical disposition of contemporary humanistic scholarship
can neglect the affirmations particular to art. It is prone to seek criti-
cal meanings and explore the confines of belief or ideology. It is eas-
ier (perhaps as a reflection of lives more secure than those surveyed in
the UN report) to probe philosophies. But crafted beauty motivates as
well as consoles as research on the social benefits of beauty in commu-
nities and the built environment shows.5 Beauty is a tribute to human
skill, sometimes achieved among circumstances of misery and diffi-
culty. It opens perspectives that appear closed; and expands the con-
strained life. There are many depictions of this in literature and many
testimonies to its affects.
The Irish novelist Edna OBrien has a wonderful, autobiographical
passage describing her first encounter with the work of James Joyce.
The personal context is her release from a pinched Catholic girlhood,
escaping her country origins in County Clare for urban Dublin where
she trained as a pharmacist in the 1940s. She was particularly taken
with the famous description in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man of a
Christmas dinner:
Reading it, I realised it could have been a Christmas dinner in
our house or many a house in Ireland, maybe not with the same
erudition but the same bitterness that split people and made
them spiteful and unforgiving. I bought it for fourpence and
carried it with me everywhere, including to pharmacy lectures,
so that I could read it at will and copy out the sentences, lumi-
nous and labyrinthine as they were. It was when I copied them
that I began to realise how great they were, the short, flawless
snatches of dialogue, lush descriptions of corpses and steers and
pigs and kine, of sea and sea stones, and then the extraordinary
ascensions, in which worlds within worlds unfolded.6
As with Wilfred Owen, it is the same dialogue between dismayed rec-
ognition of the life that is in front of one and expansion to something

The Power of Empathy 169

beyond: extraordinary ascensions, in which worlds within worlds
unfolded in her resonant phrase. There are several affirming elements:
recognizing lives as lived and shared through representation; delight in
wordcraft; and expansion of imagination through awareness of values
and modes of life that are not limiting, spiteful and unforgiving.
Above all, as in Owen, there is affirmation by achievement. These are
the benefits of literature as a public utterance in a community of
minds. Its good, therefore, is a public good.
Affirmative, creative pleasure, felt by creator and reader alike, can
be easier to observe in artistic contexts such as live music, where it is
recognizable in the bodies of performers and listeners. It is often a
collective celebration, a festivity, but it can be one of shared mourning
or lament. Either way, the act of sharing, in the context of creative
acts, is a confirmatory core of human existence and an intensely social
one. As we saw in previous chapters, it trails positive economic conse-
quences obtainable because humans want uplifting experience
together, whether through ritual or paid-for-at-the-gate. It is a striking
feature of the contemporary experience economy, so-called to distin-
guish it from recorded or mechanically delivered forms enjoyed with-
out live participation. Research by UK Music indicates that the
annual economic contribution of the music sector is 3.8 billion. (This
includes composition, rights, performance, recording, and associated
commercial activity.) Of this, live music contributes 1.2 billion in box
office receipts alone, and live music events were attended by 20 million
people in the UK in 2013. In fact, live performance in the UK now
comprises 49 per cent of the earnings of musicians.7
Written literature may not match this in scale, but the live experi-
ence of literature is growing and, if one thinks about it, literature has
a not inconsiderable presence. The popularity of readings and recit-
als, literature at festivals, and, of course, live drama are areas to note.
Poetry karaoke, poetry slams, and competitions are widespread. As
I write, The Peoples Republic of Poetry, A show about performing poetry
by us and by you by the West Yorkshire-based Firm of Poets (mem-
bership is fluid) is touring nineteen venues across the UK, and has
been a success at headline literary and other festivals including
Glastonbury. In the US, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA)
supports an annual Poetry Out Loud competition for teenagers now
in its seventh year.8 In the UK, the Poetry Archive has a Poetry by

170 Literature and the Public Good

Heart competition for reading poems aloud. Schools all over the
country enter, progressing through local, county, and regional events
to a national final. 2016 will be its fourth year.9 And there is the cross-
over importance of words-and-music for many artists, readers, and
listeners. In the UK alone, rap music, the work of Linton Kwesi
Johnson, John Cooper Clark, Jean Binta Breeze, and Kate Tempest,
acclaimed as both poets and musicians, are notable. The lyrics of Van
Morrison, Leonard Cohen, and others are published by high-end
publishers. Bob Dylan is canvassed (rightly in my view) for the Nobel
Prize for Literaturethough totemic arguments about whether he is
as good as Keats (whatever that meant) were once common. In these
modes, literature has a powerful, joyous presence central to contem-
porary culture and, historically, this is nothing new. Delight in lan-
guage and organized sound (see those jubilantly mouthing lyrics at
concerts), interest in sharing meaning; collective festivity: these are
ways of asserting and celebrating social humanity for the public good.

II. Hardship and Beyond

Hardship shapes minds and stimulates creative responses. There is a
famous passage in David Copperfield, Dickenss novel of 1850, some-
what abridged in the quotation that follows. In it the miserable boy,
mistreated by his stepfather, finds refuge in books. I believe I should
have been almost stupefied, Dickens writes as David in Chapter4,
but for one circumstance.

It was this. My father had left a small collection of books in a

little room upstairs, to which I had access (for it adjoined my
own) and which nobody else in our house ever troubled. From
that blessed little room, Roderick Random, Peregrine Pickle,
Humphrey Clinker, Tom Jones, The Vicar of Wakefield, Don
Quixote, Gil Blas, and Robinson Crusoe, came out, a glorious
host, to keep me company. They kept alive my fancy, and my
hope of something beyond that place and time.... It is curious
to me how I could ever have consoled myself under my small
troubles (which were great troubles to me), by impersonating my
favourite characters in themas I didand by putting Mr and
Miss Murdstone [his stepfather and his sister, his persecutors]

The Power of Empathy 171

into all the bad oneswhich I did too. I have been Tom Jones
(a child of Tom Jones, a harmless creature) for a week together.
I have sustained my own idea of Roderick Random for a month
at a stretch, I verily believe....This was my only and constant
comfort...reading as if for life.
The psychological dynamics are acutely observed, not just those of
needful escape and imaginative compensation, but also the forma-
tion and inhabiting of alternative worlds and personalities that
strengthen his being.10 J. K. Rowlings phenomenally successful Harry
Potter sequence can be understood in parallel. It too features an
abused boy who becomes a transformative agent in an imaginary
world. It is the engine of much childrens fiction and retains a some-
times faintly guilty (and comical) appeal among adults, as depicted in
James Thurbers The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1939), or Keith
Waterhouses popular novel Billy Liar (1959). The adult energies of
reading lie in such things.
What happens in David Copperfields boyhood experience is com-
plicated and important. Elizabeth Bowens brilliant essay of 1946
Out of a Book (already cited in Chapter1) looks back on her own
immersive childhood reading. Like Dickens, she records successively
being a character in every book I read and thereby I doubled the
meaning of everything that happened in my otherwise constricted
life. Books introduced me to, and magnified, desire and danger...the
characters in the books gave prototypes under which, for evermore, to
assemble all living people.11 Her mind discovers its potential through
imagination, exploring identities, amplifying experience, discovering
the worlds and minds of others. She is shaping her mental world, but
it is a social world and not simply a private and individual one. Some
psychologists describe this as the discovery of a Theory of Mind
(that is an ability to understand ones own experience and to reflect
upon the worlds of others). It is a crucial and distinctive part of being
human, and we will return to it. But for now it is worth following
Bowen further. She continues:
This did not by any means simplify people for me; it had the
reverse effect, and I was glad that it shouldthe characters
who came out of my childish reading to obsess me were the
incalculable ones, who always moved in a blur of potentialities.

172 Literature and the Public Good

It appeared that nobody who mattered was capable of being
explained. (pp. 2667)
This is a step beyond David Copperfield. Whereas his responses are
mainly reactive and in retreat, what Bowen is describing, in less dis-
tressed circumstances, is a search for complexity, a recognition that
the important things are tractable neither by simple explanation nor
typology. They exist (in a fine phrase) as a blur of potentialities.
This is the territory of ambiguity, complexity, and early empathy.
The experience is far from unique, nor particular to special talents.
The potential for self-understanding and affirmation, and discovery
of the worlds of others, is within the experience of many readers in
the Attitudes to Reading survey (p. 23).
Motifs in the passage from David Copperfield, and Bowens recollec-
tion, are to be found elsewhere, often among Dickenss contemporar-
ies: loneliness, the secret refuge, the uncertainties of a developing life,
exposure to adult cruelty, neglect, lack of understanding, translation
to elsewhere, and yearning for companionship with sometimes imma-
terial friends. This subtly phases into more outwardly orientated acts:
communing across lives and experiences, worldly enlargement in
space and time, and imaginative and intellectual expansion trans-
forming oppressive moments. These are powerfully rendered, for
example, in the opening of Charlotte Bronts Jane Eyre (1847) or
Maggie Tullivers yearning for an enlarged community of mind in
George Eliots The Mill on the Floss (1860). Themes of retreat, at once
sought as refuge and experienced as ostracism, are common; as is the
youngsters world in which the little becomes big, even overwhelming,
extraordinary ascensions, in which worlds within worlds unfolded, as
OBrien put it.
Jane Eyres absolute absorption in an illustration from Bewicks
book of British birds in Chapter1 of that novel is all the more star-
tling if one examines the seabird illustration by which she is entranced.
It is tiny, a matter of centimetres, whereas what comes through is on
geographic scale:
Folds of scarlet drapery shut in my view to the right hand; to
the left were the clear panes of glass, protecting, but not sepa-
rating me from the drear November day. At intervals, while
turning over the leaves of my book, I studied the aspect of that

The Power of Empathy 173

winter afternoon. Afar, it offered a pale blank of mist and
cloud; near a scene of wet lawn and storm-beat shrub, with
ceaseless rain sweeping away wildly before a long and lamenta-
ble blast.
I returned to my bookBewicks History of British Birds: the
letterpress thereof I cared little for, generally speaking; and yet
there were certain introductory pages that, child as I was, I could
not pass quite as a blank. They were those which treat of the
haunts of sea-fowl; of the solitary rocks and promontories by
them only inhabited; of the coast of Norway, studded with isles
from its southern extremity, the Lindeness, or Naze, to the North
CapeWhere the Northern Ocean, in vast whirls, boils round
the naked, melancholy isles of farthest Thule; and the Atlantic
surge pours in among the stormy Hebrides.
Nor could I pass unnoticed the suggestion of the bleak shores of
Lapland, Siberia, Spitzbergen, Nova Zembla, Iceland, Greenland,
with the vast sweep of the Arctic Zone, and those forlorn regions
of dreary space,that reservoir of frost and snow, where firm
fields of ice, the accumulation of centuries of winters, glazed in
Alpine heights above heights, surround the pole, and concentre the
multiplied rigours of extreme cold. Of these death-white realms
I formed an idea of my own: shadowy, like all the half-comprehended
notions that float dim through childrens brains, but strangely
impressive. The words in these introductory pages connected
themselves with the succeeding vignettes, and gave significance to
the rock standing up alone in a sea of billow and spray; to the bro-
ken boat stranded on a desolate coast; to the cold and ghastly moon
glancing through bars of cloud at a wreck justsinking.

This is a pathetic fallacy (the technique of depicting a state of mind

by representing an environment), but with a twist. This is an imagi-
nary environment, and the state of mind is a state of imagination: the
passage portrays massive absorption, and a dreadful thirst for alter-
ation though one touched by melodrama. It is a case of what Rita
Felski has described as enchantment, a condition of being so entirely
caught up in an aesthetic object that nothing else seems to matter.
Easily regarded as retreat from reality, or hiding from responsibility, in
fact enchantment is a state of engagement, one in which affirmation

174 Literature and the Public Good

of wonder is potentially enlivening, energizing, even ethical, encour-
aging a stance of openness and generosity to the world, Felski writes.12
It is also, of course, a reason for the pleasure of fiction, one without
which the enterprise would be null. Indeed, there is a line of thinking
in psychologyflow psychologywhich holds that depth of absorp-
tion is significant not only to personal well-being but positive achieve-
ment and enhanced performance. In sport, it is often called being in
the zone.13 It is the opposite momentum to that in Owens Futility
where energy has to be imported into a dead world.
In OBrien, Dickens, and Bront, refuge and discovery are crucial
motifs. But they are found among less obviously literary types. The
senior British politician Alan Johnson, who held several high offices of
state in the 1990s and 2000s, was raised in severe poverty in west
London. Orphaned at the age of twelve and raised by his sixteen-
year-old sister, his education ended at fifteen and he held low-status
retail jobs before becoming a postman. Thereafter he became involved
with the Union of Communication Workers, became a full-time offi-
cial, and moved into national politics in the Labour Party. His two
volumes of autobiography chart this progress.
Artistically receptive, he became an enthusiastic, amateur musi-
cian. He also discovered reading, a thread in many autobiographies
of working-class life such as those encountered in Jonathan Roses The
Intellectual Life of the British Working Class, or depicted by Alan Sillitoe
whose early circumstances were not unlike those of Johnson. Sillitoe
tells how he scavenged his precious reading from scraps of text and
hand-me-downs (see Chapter4). The experience is mirrored today: in
the bundles of cheap books bought at school fairs or car-boot sales
reported by respondents to the Attitudes to Reading survey (p. 36). In my
own case, I discovered reading through undiscriminating boxes of
books bought by my parents at jumble sales, as well as the local library
where I selected by interest and instinct and only much later thought
that one might read with either shape or system (though I enjoyed
discovering one could apply other criteria).
In This Boy: A Memoir of a Childhood, Johnson records his David
Copperfield moment, finding self-defining refuge in reading with, in
fact, David Copperfield. At the home of a more affluent friend he encoun-
ters a gracious, cosy front room [and] another source of wonder: a
beautiful glass-fronted bookcase. Later, to console him for the death

The Power of Empathy 175

of his mother, he is allowed by Mr Coxhis friends father and soon
to be a role modelto choose a book to read. I asked for David
Copperfield from his beautifully bound set of Dickens novels.
Thus Ham, Peggotty, Uriah Heep, Mr Micawber and Steerforth
became my friends, enrapturing and distracting me with their
adventures and bringing me a great deal of pleasure and
comfort in the difficult months to come. I couldnt wait to look
at the book. I immediately sat down in the armchair and
opened it. Dont forget to bring it back when youve finished
reading it, said Mr Cox over his shoulder as he locked the
book case up again. Not a gift, then, but a loan. It was a very
generous one, too. And thats how David Copperfield became the
first, and p
erhaps the last, book to escape from that sturdy
The generosity of a book enjoyed through an act of kindness is in
tension with the locked cabinet: the book communicates between
people (Mr Cox, Johnson, and Dickens himself ). But, in a familiar
ambiguity, it is also a private possession. This is a common negotia-
tion. In her memoir Bad Blood, Lorna Sage recollects her childhood
in her grandparents Flintshire parsonage. In rural areas, the parson-
age library could serve as a communal resource and books were bor-
rowed and exchanged. Sages grandfather painted out the titles on
the spines of his books to discourage parishioners from borrowing
them. She recollects his shelves as forbidding bars of dense black
ink.15 This is not merely a matter of literatures commodity form. It
is one of attitude. Raymond Williamss magnificent essay Culture is
Ordinary (1958) is a meditation, located in his own life, on learning
as a process and learning as a body of enclosed and restricted mate-
rials, in this case the chained-up treasures of the Hereford Cathedral
Subsequently, Johnson enlarged on the significance of David
Copperfield for him in a BBC radio programme.17 His reading reprised
themes already potent in his life: his mothers belief in the power of
books to bring social and personal benefit; her association of them
with social improvement; and her efforts to scavenge a modest library
of sorts from jumble sales, gifts, cast-offs, newspaper giveaways, free
book club editions and the like, just as Alan Sillitoe did. Johnson says

176 Literature and the Public Good

he negotiated bereavement in part through the deaths of Emly,
Steerforth, and Ham in the novel. The fiction taught him not only
how to share and handle grief but something about the transmission
of values and commitment to family.
The Copperfield experience, if we may so call it, spreads wide.
Jonathan Rose collects many instances. The future Labour MP
Manny Shinwell found his Dickens (and others, including Darwin and
the philosophers Kant and Spinoza) in East End rubbish tips and
tuppenny second-hand bookstalls. Among the class of 1906 Labour
MPs, Parliaments first large cohort of socialist MPs, Ruskin and
Dickens topped the list of influential writers.18 George Acorn, raised
in extreme poverty in Londons East End in the late nineteenth cen-
tury, scraped together 3 1/2d. to buy a used copy of David Copperfield.
His parents punished him for wasting money on a mere book, but he
read it to them:
And how we all loved it, and eventually, when we got to Little
Emly, how we all cried together at poor old Peggottys distress!
The tears united us, deep in misery as we were ourselves.
Dickens was a fairy musician to us, filling our minds with a
sweeter strain than the constant cry of hunger, or the howling
wind which often, taking advantage of an empty grate, pene-
trated into the room.19
Rose shrewdly remarks that this vignette is in itself suspiciously
Dickensian. But it matters little, he comments: the point is in the trans-
mitted experience. There is a fruitful topic for research in the intergener-
ational transfer of skills, knowledge, and awareness though family
reading. It is still powerful, as is shown in the Attitudes to Reading survey
(pp. 1011, 214). Rose notes that working-class autobiographers imi-
tated the forms of David Copperfield when writing up their lives
(Rereading, p. 601). In Acorns story, the motifs are familiar: the com-
munality of the experience of reading (the pronouns are all plural), the
consolation art brings to unhappiness and deprivation, learning of how
to handle bereavement, and the pull of a world beyond. Rose comments
that such experiences develop intellectual and expressive confidence,
and Dickenss influence encouraged working-class articulacy (Intellectual
Life, pp. 745, 114). A cotton worker, Joseph Burgess, for example, was

The Power of Empathy 177

so dismayed by Dickenss death he was moved to elegiac verse, and
from there to a career as poet and journalist (Rereading, p. 60).
This is relevant today. Work on reading in UK prisons, which house
a radically disproportionate number of illiterate or chronically
under-educated inmates, has demonstrated a revitalizing impact on
psychological and often functional deprivation by re-engaging prison-
ers with a world that is wider and experientially greater. It creates
self-respect: For one hour a month the walls of my confinement
crumble to dust and I feel respected. Not just by fellow inmates, but by
citizens from the wider community, members of the society into which
Ill one day be released, comments one prisoner (again sounding
rather Dickensian).20 Others stress functional rehabilitation: inde-
pendence and employability skills, especially soft skills employers
frequently demand: social skills, negotiation, listening, facilitating and
debate. There are also gains in intellectual and cultural confidence
and familiarity with wider society and the lives of others. Some gain
self-understanding. The research leader, Jenny Hartley, notes that we
have accumulated a lot of case study evidence that illustrates how
much reading has changed prisoners outlooks, fiction especially.
Novels are important because a lot of men dont read fiction. Reading
novels and autobiographies gets you right inside someone elses head
so develops empathy, something many offenders lack. Some groups
read classics: developing critical skills and gaining confidence to
express views are a big part of belonging to a prison reading group.
Its very empowering for prisoners to be asked their opinion and to
realise its of equal value to everyone elses, comments another
researcher and reading group leader.
The project is not unique. The Reader Organisation (see Chapter1)
reports similar findings, as does the Books Unlocked project run by
the National Literacy Trust.21 In addition to negotiating complex and
ambiguous situations, literature summons a new mode of life involv-
ing self-understanding, dignity, and placement in a society. This is not
new, nor peculiar to prisoners. Rose cites Edith Hall, a housemaid in
the 1920s, who owed it to Hardys Tess of the DUrbervilles: This book
made me feel human and even when my employers talked at me as
though I wasnt there, I felt I could take it; I knew I could be a person
in my own right (Rereading, p. 60). The poet and former prisoners

178 Literature and the Public Good

probation worker Simon Armitage, current Oxford Professor of
Poetry, remarks of his grandfather that he could
recite huge chunks of Shakespeare, to the point where he
seemed to have a quote for every given situation. Hed worked
in the mill, as a hospital porter and as a fireman, and was virtu-
ally self-taught in terms of literature. Sure, the quoting was
something of a party piece, but I also felt that he was processing
or validating his own life experiences.22
Of course reading is not always liberating. Immersive engagement
can distort expectations, encourage illusion, and expose the credulous
and vulnerable. Alongside the Copperfield experience there is a litera-
ture that charts the ways reading can distort as well as enlarge. It
includes Don Quixote and Madame Bovary. Cervantes novel portrays
delusional behaviour with moral aspiration; Flauberts the effect of
profound frustration, narrowness, and isolation. In both the impact of
reading is ambiguous. But the progress is complex. A later work,
Margaret Drabbles Jerusalem the Golden (1967), traces the progress of
its heroine, Clara Maugham, from a stifling childhood to 1960s
London. It records her early reading in familiar ways.
She also sought, of course, the more usual and natural means of
escape and fantasy, such as the watching of advertisements, the
reading of fiction, and the spinning of self-indulgent romances,
but her experience of life as a child was so narrow that she had no
way of telling the possible from the absurd. And even as a child
she wanted things to be possible. She read with avidity the cosy
adventures of wealthy children on farms and in smugglers caves
and country houses, but she found built into them a warning
against too much belief. .
Moreover, childrens stories and
advertisements never offered any true complication, and it was
complication, in the absence of conviction, that she was seeking.
As Elizabeth Bowen noted, mere distraction is eventually unfruitful.
What Clara searches for is enrichment through moral ambivalence,
discovering, for instance, the new contained and expressed in the
framework and the terms of the old. It is the ambivalent, the com-
plex, the uncertain, which became for her nothing less than

The Power of Empathy 179

III. The Worlds of Others
Complex fiction stimulates the growing mind, and one way it does so
is through awareness of others. The point is made by both Bowen
and Drabble: it is the intractable and unfamiliar that stimulates and
engages, that inspires the individual mind to puzzle the worlds of
others, and this is crucial not just as a stage in personal development
but in ones life in society. It is awareness of different minds and per-
sonalities, their quiddity and ambiguity, and the dialogue of sepa-
rateness and resemblance, that lies at the core of literatures social
benefit. Here is a commentary by the New Zealander novelist Eleanor
Catton on a character in her Booker Prize-winning novel of 2013,
The Luminaries:

Charlie Frost was no great observer of human nature, and as a

consequence, felt betrayed by others very frequently. The air of
cryptic strategy with which he most often spoke was not manu-
factured, though he was entirely sensible of its effects; it came,
rather, out of a fundamental blindness to all experiences exte-
rior to his own. Frost did not know how to listen to himself as if
he were somebody else; he did not know how to see the world
from another mans eyes; he did not know how to contemplate
another mans nature, except to compare it enviously or pitiably,
to his own. He was a private hedonist, perennially wrapped in
the cocoon of his own senses, mindful, always, of the things he
already possessed, and the things he had yet to gain; his subjec-
tivity was comprehensive, and complete. He was never forth-
right, and never declared his private motivations in a public
sphere, and for this he was usually perceived to be a highly
objective thinker, possessed of an impartial, equable mind.24

Charlie Frost lacks what we have referred to above as a Theory of

Mind. He suffers from what an earlier erathe 1860s in which the
novel is setcalled egotism. The point made about Frosts psycho-
logical and therefore moral blindness occurs regularly in George
Eliots fiction. Her novels tease out charactersand indeed whole
communitiesinability to look beyond their own horizons and
interests. Middlemarch finds parallel ways of exploring this, from the
towns reluctance to deal with strangers with different outlooks and

180 Literature and the Public Good

ambitions, to psychological egotists such as Edward Casaubon or
Rosamond Lydgate. The novel has searchingly elaborate language
for the ways we expect the world to conform to our perspective, and
Eliot uses complex visual perception to illustrate, as in Chapter21:
We are all of us born in moral stupidity, taking the world as an
udder to feed our supreme selves: Dorothea had early begun to
emerge from that stupidity, but yet it had been easier to her to
imagine how she would devote herself to Mr Casaubon, and
become wise and strong in his strength and wisdom, than to
conceive with that distinctness which is no longer reflection but
feelingand idea wrought back to the directness of sense, like
the solidity of objectsthat he had an equivalent centre of self,
whence the lights and shadows must always fall with a certain
This is characteristically ingenious. It twists in and out of an individ-
ual characters perspective (first a slightly arch and knowing narrator,
then Dorothea, and then her increasingly estranged husband
Casaubon); it brings together different psychological faculties rising in
sophistication (feeding, imagining, conceiving, reflecting, feeling, sens-
ing, perceiving); and it describes a process of incomplete becoming
(Dorothea has not yet completed her emotional, intellectual, and
moral journey). For Eliot, moral activity stems from the willingness of
people to set aside their interests and appreciate those of others. It is
not a matter of precept, but of the connection between cognitive and
ethical enlargement, and tolerance of perspective and uncertainty.
Her vision of literary realism is to steer readers towards seeing the
world anew from others points of view. Growth in knowledge and
morality arises when people see things differently or for the first time.
Prejudice shapes perception; perception alters prejudice.
Theory of Mind (or ToM for short in the psychological literature)
is a line of thinking about mental processes developed from the late
1970s. It is expressed as a theory of mind because we cannot know the
insides of the consciousness of others with exactness. But we can sup-
pose that most minds share common capabilities. We can assume,
first, that most minds make and understand representations of inter-
nal and external states; second, humans recognize that other humans
have consciousnesses similar to their own to some degree; third, they

The Power of Empathy 181

can communicate that consciousness; and fourth, we are expert in
sharing, with a natural interest in learning from the minds of others:
we send off signals, cues, and information that enable deduction and
extrapolation. Most people are interested in doing this for reasons
which include curiosity, comparability, learning, establishing frames
of reference for personal experience, and a wish to gain from others
things that enhance our own lives. Psychologists who study ToM are
often interested in autistic conditions, or more accurately the nature
of the limitations in intersubjective perception, emotional, and group
behaviour experienced by autistic individuals. (Autists are not alone in
this. Other sufferers include types of schizophrenic and those with
attention deficit disorders or alcohol- or drug-induced neurotoxicity.)
Often, those on the autistic spectrum struggle with the idea of fic-
tion itself and cannot respond in expected ways to stories, or indeed
to experience stories as anything other than literal truth. Some are
unable to appreciate perspective-taking (sometimes called mind
blindness) and find it difficult to situate themselves outside themselves
or take a third-person perspective. Others find difficulty with non-
literal statements and figures of speech such as metaphor.25 The atti-
tude to the lives of others that Eleanor Catton describes in relation to
Charlie Frost, or George Eliot in relation to us all, are versions of this.
Frost cannot read others minds, and has no interest in them; his views
and actions centre on his own desires; and he is startled when others
dont behave as expected. As such, Catton notes, he felt betrayed by
others very frequently which is one kind of consequence.
There is interest in ToM beyond clinicians. Evolutionary psycholo-
gists ponder why it is that humans should bother at all with the minds
of others when a narrow view might say that evolutionary advantage
could better be gained by uncluttered pursuit of personal interest.
Two New Zealanders, the psychologist Michael Corballis and the lit-
erary critic Brian Boyd, among others, have explored this territory
and argue that this perhaps species-defining human attribute is, in
fact, exactly for individual and collective evolutionary advantage.
Further, our ability to tell and receive stories about ourselves, our cir-
cumstances, and other people is a key manifestation of it.
Humans are intensely social. We overwhelmingly live in groups,
and our social arrangements are usually managed in ways to support
the general good. The evolutionary advantage for humans, the worlds

182 Literature and the Public Good

dominant species, arises from our ability to exploit the cognitive
niche we inhabit and enlarge. It is this that makes us successful in the
bio-environmental world. Not greatly but sufficiently endowed physi-
cally, we are lavishly favoured mentally, and have discovered ways of
enlarging these advantages through social living. Our intelligence is
driven by sociality and interaction. According to Corballis, we have
established a mode of living built on social cohesion, cooperation, and
efficient planning. It was a question of the survival of the smartest.26
What are these gifts?
Language is foremost among them, but one cannot separate this
capability from others. For Corballis, it is the recursive mind that
qualitatively differentiates the human mind from those of other spe-
cies. As noted at the start of this chapter, recursion includes (accord-
ing to Corballis) the ability to insert the thoughts of others into your
own thoughts and to insert past or future experiences into current
experience (Recursive Mind, p. vii). In other words, human minds are
multiply attentive and aware of patterns; and they are able to project
these forward on a what if ? basis. Our minds are adaptive and indef-
inite in extension. Their key qualities include: iterability (looking at
multiple versions), attention, judgement, feedback, selection, system
formation, pattern seeking, revisability, organization by ranked
importance, and sharing. To support this, memoryon which it all
dependsis flexible.
Researchers frequently divide human memory into episodic and
semantic (roughly, knowledge of what happened and assessment of
its significance). These types are interactive and entail self-knowing,
awareness of others, combinative potential (for pattern recognition,
for example), and projection into the future. Recursion, therefore, is
an ability to shuttle between current events, remembered events, and
forward projection and to tolerate and refine ambiguity. For Corballis
it has two fundamental modes: the ability to move back and forth in
time (what he calls mental time travel) and ToM, the ability to move
between ones own mind and those of others. This blends into fiction,
whereby we imagine events that have never occurred, or are not nec-
essarily planned for the future. This is a gift of language, for indeed
imagined events can have all the complexity and variability of lan-
guage itself . Corballis speculates that language emerged precisely to
convey this complexity, so that we can share our memories, plans and

The Power of Empathy 183

fictions in a self-reinforcing cycle whose purpose is evolutionary (and
social) adaptation (Recursive Mind, p. xiii). The word share is crucial in
this quotation.
Boyd is equally convinced. He, too, notes that memory, imagina-
tion, and simulation are adjacent. For him, social learning through
stories is crucial and may precede language (not all narrative requires
language, for example silent movies, mime, or dance).27 Either way,
stories arise from what he styles cognitive play. Humans, like other
animals, learn through play. Unlike other animals, however, humans
can structure their play into narratives and routines designed to
enhance skills and understanding beyond the present. This involves
linking experiences across time, exploring possibility, and interacting
with other minds (or ToM). None of this is part of the repertoire of
other species, chimpanzees, for example.28 Narrative, and art gener-
ally, have their origin in social exchange and discovery involving
pattern recognition and creation; the exploration of norms and possi-
bilities; and enhancement through innovation and creativity: The
high concentration of pattern that art delivers repeatedly engage and
activate individual brains and over time alter their wiring to modify
key human perceptual, cognitive, and expressive systems, especially in
terms of sight, hearing, movement, and social cognition. All of arts
other functions lead from this. (Origin of Stories, p. 86).
Stories, Corballis and Boyd argue, are ways of understanding self
and others and developing group identities. This is why they are so
ubiquitous in human behaviour. They allow us to exchange informa-
tion in efficient ways, nourish bonds of affection through exchange,
stimulate creativity, reinforce group codes, transmit histories, heritage
and memory, and develop and sustain ToM, thereby enabling moral
reciprocity, including prudential awareness of the interests of others:
threats they might pose, and advantages they might deliver. They
agree that storytelling is a major evolutionary force offering persisting
advantage for humans.
This sets a challenge to the weary rivalry between intrinsic and
instrumental views of art, because a good story will also be an effica-
cious one. Its beauty and execution stimulate pleasure from which
utility is derived (as Shelley also believed). Boyd and Corballis argue
that the binary that opposes the intrinsic to the instrumental presents
an evolutionary problem. Art, in fact, arises always and everywhere in

184 Literature and the Public Good

human societies, and across all generations, because it is valuable and
useful. Producing art is not superfluous, unnecessary, redundant, nor
an afterthought. It is embedded in the human process for better adap-
tation to the world. The fact that all societies have it, and that it costs
significant time, energy, skills, and resources, does not suggest that
costs consistently exceed benefits. From an evolutionary point of view,
Boyd writes, [i]f cognitive stimulation, social cohesion, and individ-
ual status were not already in place as the start of art, then a useless
creativity in itself would be insufficient to establish art as a behaviour.
From the point of view of story-making, the telling challenge to
instrumentalists and intrinsicists alike is: why, in a world of necessity,
[do] we choose to spend so much time caught up in stories that both
teller and told know never happened and never will?. How can we
explain our human compulsion to invent or enjoy stories we know to
be untrue? (Origin of Stories, pp. 123, 2, 69). Form follows purpose;
outcomes follow form.
Development through play and story is complex and can be eclec-
tic. The historian and critic Caroline Steedman has an illuminating
essay about a nine-year-old Punjabi girl called Amarjit adapting to a
new world in the UK. She shuttles between two languages, learning
her new one, English, while negotiating with and through her original
Punjabi. This is not a segregated process because the experience of
transition and migration is complex. It is a negotiation involving tra-
ditions, mindsets, cultural materials, and beliefs (new as well as famil-
iar) alongside the acquisition of language skills. What is remarkable in
Steedmans account is the description of how Amarjit uses narratives
from both sides of her experience to undertake this transition and
how this is integrated with sound, song, and other forms of creativity.
In this process stories are themselves hypotheses, as Steedman puts
it, and are used to explore her emerging identity.29 Her play, Steedman
writes, is a way of understanding the world without becoming
involved in it, a means of assimilating reality to the ego without the
need for accommodation (p. 91). (Her quotation is from the develop-
mental psychologist Jean Piaget.) Amarjit accomplishes this transfor-
mation (Steedmans word) on multiple levels: the practical acquisition
of English, delight in language and tale, and her negotiation between
her past and present. These coexist with acquiring knowledge of her
position as a female and an immigrant with economic, social, and

The Power of Empathy 185

ethnic disadvantages. Written in 1985, this study illuminates the prop-
ositions of Boyd and Corballis and resonates with fictional accounts
such as Jane Eyre discussed earlier.
If stories are evolutionary instruments, and do not depend on
truthfulness, what are their key properties? One would be meta-
representation. Boyd explains: We need to master not just event
representation, but also metarepresentation, the ways in which par-
ticular perspectives on events represent them as understood, antici-
pated, recollected, or imagined by someone, or portrayed by something,
in a particular way in a particular situation. (Origin of Stories, p. 175). In
other words, we tell stories because we can discriminate between the
actual and the made-up, and rely on our reader or listener to under-
stand the difference between fictionality and reportage. This, as mod-
ern criticism as well as autistic people often remark, is not an easy
matter. It requires sophisticated abilities to be alert to cues and signals,
comprehend conventions, and generalize accordingly.
A second key property would be reconfiguration. Stories are simul-
taneously about this particular event, these people, and that time. But
at the same time patterns and inferences transcend utterances. What
happened thenstory or eventcan be recursively reinserted into
other patterns or narratives without being locked into the original
cause or articulation. Indeed, pattern and variety are probably more
important than repetition because the ability to explore new variants,
combinations, and additions in open not closed configurations is con-
ducive to cognitive development (Origin of Stories, pp. 8790, 130).
The third condition concerns ToM. For Corballis, ToM is inher-
ently recursive, feeding back into the creation and recreation of an
expanding mental world (Recursive Mind, p. 133). Boyd goes further.
ToM gives the ability to acquire skills of learning from diversity, the
appreciation of perspective, and the development of moral agency.
The capacity to handle multiple perspectives, multiple orders of belief
and representation are crucial for living in social circumstances. One
of the key characteristics of ToM is that it allows us to handle the
human experience of ambiguity: Unlike animal calls, writes Corballis,
which consist of relatively fixed signals, language is intrinsically
ambiguous, and meaning must be inferred not only from what a per-
son says (or signs), but also from what one knows about that person and
what one shares with her (Recursive Mind, p. 129). For Boyd, because

186 Literature and the Public Good

evolution has shaped minds to leap to complex conclusions from slight
or ambiguous information, we can understand each others unpredict-
able behaviour (Origin of Stories, p. 133). For Corballis, a case in point
is our ability to recognize irony because ToM interactions place us in
the secure knowledge that the listener understands ones true intent
(Recursive Mind, p. 159). This has been empirically demonstrated by a
Japanese team of researchers.30

IV. Being You

We relish variety and diversity in narratives and reject the familiar,
clichd, or undercooked. Those stories provide little of cognitive
value, we feel, though they can reward other appetites as in the serial
consumption of genre fiction. Similarly, political or doctrinaire narra-
tives press home their views by repetition. Evangelical narratives, or
imperialist narratives, were familiar fare distributed through institu-
tions such as Sunday and day schools, or adult education classes, in
the UK in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Other
cultures codify matters differently and it is illuminating to consider the
different sorts of story that accumulate around historical events, for
example the Anglo-Chinese wars of the second half of the nineteenth
century. In China, these are regarded as an inaugural moment in
modern Chinese history, and are recorded as matters of chastening
defeat. There are books in China today with titles like A Century of
National Humiliation, A Dictionary of National Humiliation, A Simple Dictionary
of National Humiliation, The Indignation of National Humiliation, and so on.
This message is amplified in classrooms, museum exhibitions, films,
popular fiction, and media broadcasts aimed at boosting Chinese patri-
otism and appreciation of current government by heightening a sense
of foreign perfidy and aggression.31
On the British side, these events become stories of imperial justifi-
cation, again amplified through the popular press, fiction, stage shows,
waxworks, exhibitions (often featuring imperial loot), and movies. The
key features were that the Chinese were benighted and unchristian.
China was portrayed as an abject nation, waiting for rescue by the
modernizing West. This pedagogical imperialism, as Julia Lovell
describes it (p. 177), promulgated Britains imperial birthright as a
champion of free trade (in this case, mainly the drug trade) and its

The Power of Empathy 187

apostolic mission in the new world order. As so often, imperial ven-
tures borrowed the clothes of crusade. The Illustrated London News was
A large family of the human race, which for centuries has been
isolated from the rest, is now about to enter with them into
mutual intercourse. Vast hordes of populations, breaking
through the ignorance and superstition which has for ages
enveloped them, will now come out into the open day, and enjoy
the freedom of a more expanded civilisation, and enter upon
prospects immeasurably grander. (quoted in Lovell, p. 241)
The arguments are recognizable with reference to other wars and
locations. Fiction amplified journalistic commentary and ostensible
(though actually imaginary) reportage. Dickens was not alone in
indulging Chinese stereotypes in his journalism (glory of yellow jaun-
dice he remarked on Chinese exhibits at the Great Exhibition), while
his unfinished, last novel The Mystery of Edwin Drood featured a graph-
ically oriental opium den (Lovell, pp. 242, 2801).
The offensive stereotypes were, of course, visible to the Chinese,
and they recycled them for their own propaganda. But fiction more
mature than the cult of Fu Manchu and the Yellow Peril in the
West, or (correspondingly) the rapacious foreign devils of the Opium
War invasions in China, exposes the harm such typecasting brings.
Lao Shes Mr Ma and Son, originally published in Chinese in 1929,
narrates the experience of two settlers in London in the 1920s. The
elder Ma is persuaded to perform in a film:
The film that Alexander had persuaded Mr Ma to act in had
been written by one of Englands most celebrated literary fig-
ures. This gentleman was perfectly aware that the Chinese are a
civilised people, but to suit others attitudes and for the sake of
art, he nonetheless depicted the Chinese as cruel and sinister.
Had he not done so, he would have found it impossible to earn
peoples praise and approbation.32
The telling clause in this passage is for the sake of art (the film is
pointedly written by a celebrated literary figure), a justification which
can cover many abuses. However, the tragic facts of Lao Shes own life
are that, having experienced prejudice in London, he was persecuted

188 Literature and the Public Good

by Maos Red Guards after his return. It is likely that he took his own
life in 1966.
Such instances present a limit case for those, such as Boyd and
Corballis, who offer a benign account of the power of narrative for
communities. Communities, of course, exclude as well as include, dish
out retribution as well as express solidarity, and use stories as instru-
ments of abuse and manipulation as well as discovery and explora-
tion. The French analyst Christian Salmon has written an informative
jeremiad on the modern cult of storytelling marketing and storytell-
ing management by corporate organizations such as the World Bank,
Google, Apple, and Starbucks as well as by the military, political
spin-doctors, and their voter-hungry clients.33 Contrary to D. H.
Lawrence, the point of such tales is that they want you to trust the
teller. However, though this is common, what, in fact, people do with
doctrinaire or narrow-minded narratives (other than disregard them)
is less easy to specify. Some, no doubt, accept them at face value for
various reasons. Hearers might lack alternative perspectives or expe-
rience; stories might suit existing prejudices, or bolster insecure iden-
tities. They might have glamour. They might express (and recommend)
obedience to ruling regimes (no light matter in authoritarian societies).
Or they simply seem to make more sense than competing tales.
Often, though, individuals eclectically reassemble narratives for
their own purposes from whatever point of view seems personally rel-
evant. In so doing they may set aside doctrine. Storytelling manage-
ment, however widely promulgated and skilful, is not the same as
personal conviction. We have seen something of this in the lives and
minds of working-class readers like Alan Sillitoe or Alan Johnson,
who put together their assemblages as they could and needed to, and
there are illuminating studies of people in other times and circum-
stances piecing together world views from diverse and jumbled sources
without adherence to creed or dogma. One example would be
Amarjit, the Punjabi girl cited in Caroline Steedmans essay above.
Carlo Ginzbergs extraordinary study of the intellectual and spiritual
world of Menocchio, a sixteenth-century Italian miller prosecuted by
the Catholic Inquisition for his heresies, is another.34 Both are instruc-
tive about how unorthodox belief systems are lived and assembled.
Finally, Jonathan Rose quotes the same George Acorn whom we
encountered as the young man first chastised, then loved by his family

The Power of Empathy 189

for buying David Copperfield. Acorn describes his rebellion against doc-
trinaire reading. He resented:
the flood of goody-goody literature which was poured in upon
us. Kindly institutions sought to lead us into the right path by
giving endless tracts, or books in which the comparative pill of
religious teaching was clumsily coated by a mild story. It was
necessary in self-defense to pick out the interesting parts, which
to me at the time were certainly not those that led to the heros
conversion, or the heroines first prayer. (Rereading, p. 67)
Encountering George Eliots work, he became accomplished at skip-
ping the parts that moralized, or painted verbal scenery, a practice at
which I became very dexterous. It is not uncommon in China today,
away from formal occasions, to hear individuals offer similar senti-
ments about official narratives. We saw in Chapter4 how the growth
in Internet literature has reacted to the stultifying orthodoxy of offi-
cial publishing houses. Specific value preferences, however, are not the
point. It is the negotiation of perspective, the appetite to be better
informed, and the acquisition of openness of judgment from diverse
sources that are conducive to the public good.
Literary writers stress the importance of free play and enquiry in
art. The British novelist Howard Jacobson wrote recently of the
importance to storytelling of play as the means whereby we lose our-
selves from the mainland of the familiar and acceptable. The means,
too, whereby we lose ourselves in the act of creation, and find what we
had no idea we were looking for, and maybe sometimes wish we had
not found at all. This requires distraction as well as attention, not
distraction from what matters, he says, but from what doesntthe
false seriousness of belief systems, conviction, ideology, thinking what
its right to think.35 More widely, theorists of successful creative
economies stress the importance of tolerance, education, openness,
and innovative playfulness in economically productive creative clus-
ters and cities. Michael Corballis comments that these are properties
of developed ToM.36 They appear to carry a significant economic
If ToM is so important for the social function of literature, one
would expect empirical evidence. Though the field is early in develop-
ment, there is some. An interesting article by P. C. Fletcher et al. from

190 Literature and the Public Good

1995 demonstrates surprisingly clear-cut findings that ToM activity
is located in a circumscribed brain system in the left medial frontal
gyrus. What is especially interesting is that this is demonstrated in a
clever experiment using sets of stories a few lines long invented for the
purpose. In interpreting the narrative, one set required readers to
consider the states of mind of the characters and one didnt. ToM
responses were tested by follow up questions about the causes of the
action. What is impressive is not only the clear identification of ToM
in localizable brain activity, but also that this can be accessed through
fictional reading.37 Other studies develop this.38
Two New York psychologists recently described results from exper-
iments using several hundred adult subjects investigating the relation-
ship between reading literature and the growth of ToM. David Comer
Kidd and Emanuele Castano devised five experiments to test aptitude
for ToM under four conditions: reading literary fiction, reading pop-
ular fiction, reading non-fiction, and reading nothing. They tested for
both affective ToM and cognitive ToM (that is, the ability to detect
and understand others emotions, and the ability to make inferences
about others beliefs respectively). They also monitored variables such
as gender, age, and educational history. Their conclusion was that
Understanding others mental states is a crucial skill that enables the
complex social relationships that characterize human societies.
Further, Cultural practices...may function to promote and refine
interpersonal sensitivity throughout our lives. One such practice is
reading fiction.39
Subjects were asked to self-report on their reading (this was cross-
checked with an Author Recognition Test) and personal histories (e.g.
gender and education). They read short stories followed by tests to
determine sensitivity to facial expression (affective ToM) or false belief
(cognitive ToM). Subsequent experiments varied the stories (especially
testing for the impact of literary fiction and popular fiction), enquired
after pleasure in reading the material, and considered the personal
variables already mentioned. The literariness of the literary fiction
was determined from prize and competition outcomes and by an
expert advisory group. A working definition, drawn from the psy-
chologist Jerome Bruner, was used as a reference point to the effect
that literary fiction highlights implicit meaning, multiple perspectives,
and the consciousnesses of others. These features mimic those of

The Power of Empathy 191

ToM, the authors remark.40 Examples included work by Chekhov,
Don DeLillo, and Ta Obrecht.
The results are striking. They show that reading literary fiction does
lead to better performance in ToM tests of both kinds. Habitual read-
ing, self-reported natural empathy, and strong ToM test performance
were generally correlated. But difference in test performance between
those reading popular fiction and those reading literary fiction was
conspicuous. The authors do not think the reason lies in more com-
plex content. Although fiction may explicitly convey social values and
reduce the strangeness of others, the observed relation between famil-
iarity with fiction and ToM may be due to more subtle characteristics
of the text. That is fiction may change how, not just what, people
think about others (p. 377).
Our contention is that literary fiction...uniquely engages the
psychological processes needed to gain access to characters
subjective experiences. Just as in real life, the worlds of literary
fiction are replete with complicated individuals whose inner
lives are rarely easily discerned but warrant exploration. The
worlds of fiction, though, pose fewer risks than the real world,
and they present opportunities to consider the experiences of
others without facing the potentially threatening consequences
of that engagement. More critically, whereas many of our mun-
dane social experiences may be scripted by convention and
informed by stereotypes, those presented in literary fiction often
disrupt our expectations. Readers of literary fiction must draw
on more flexible interpretive resources to infer the feelings and
thoughts of characters. That is they must engage with ToM
processes. Contrary to literary fiction, popular fiction...tends
to portray the world and characters as internally consistent and
predictable. Therefore it may reaffirm readers expectations
and so not promote ToM. (p. 378)
I have quoted this at length because it is exceptionally clear. It identi-
fies the textual features particular to literature and makes clear that
complexity carries life advantage. It supports the conclusions of the
evolutionary psychologists, as well as the insights of novelists such as
Elizabeth Bowen. It stands as a compelling piece of evidence that
reading literature brings public benefit. They note that subjects report

192 Literature and the Public Good

less pleasure in reading literary fiction because of its demands. But
literary quality, and the cognitive and affective dividend it offers in
terms of ToM, was appreciated to offset the disadvantage.41 Multiple
perspectives, plural signification, and the challenges of unexpected-
ness and ambiguity are central to the experience. ToM is not skeletal
learning to a schema. Its density is essential. It is a recognizing, filling
out, and extension of our experience of self and others, as the critic
James Wood puts it (without reference to ToM), Fiction is a ceaseless
experiment with uncontrollable data. And again, the novel is a great
trader in the shares of the ordinary. It expands the instances of our
lives into scenes and details; it strives to run these instances at a rhythm
close to real time.42 Though Kidd and Castanos experiments have
good size for an individual study, they are too small to sustain large
inferences and need further development for secure conclusions. The
authors can only be confident about short-term gains in ToM abilities
on the basis of these results. Nonetheless they think that long-term
impacts, over years, are plausible. Others extend these conclusions in
bigger ways.
Steven Pinkers The Better Angels of our Nature: A History of Violence and
Humanity is a big (over 1,000 pages) and ambitious book. Its thesis is
that human-to-human violence has diminished astonishingly over
the centuries. We are both significantly less violent now (despite the
industrial-scale wars of the twentieth century) and have significantly
different attitudes to systematic violencesuch as torture, cruel pun-
ishment, and the likethan we did. Pinker claims that a Humanitarian
Revolution occurred around the middle of the eighteenth century.
Beginning in Europe, it spread outwards, its effects hastened by
snowballing global interdependencies and communications. It is an
optimistic vision which does not ignore the obvious challenges of
daily exposure to reports of violence worldwide and world wars
within living memory. His point is not that violence has ended, but
that in aggregate it has diminished to a transformative degree.
One crucial element in Pinkers Humanitarian Revolution con-
cerns the growth of reading and the intellectual transformations of the
Enlightenment. Data on the growth of book production, literacy, and read-
ing habits support the claim that something important did occur around
17501800, as other historians of reading confirm.43 Enlightenment
recoil against harsh judicial punishment, violence-encouraging attitudes

The Power of Empathy 193

to war, feud, and honour, and commercialized violence under slavery,
played their part, alongside the promotion of reason, social hope, uni-
versalism, and cosmopolitanism. But much of this was due to the
advance of reading, a technology for perspective taking, according
to Pinker. If one asks what created the growth in empathy and com-
passion observable in those years, Pinker says, a good candidate is the
expansion of literacy (Better Angels, pp. 211, 210).
The growth of writing and literacy strikes me as the best candi-
date for an exogenous change that helped set off the
Humanitarian Revolution. The pokey little world of village and
clan, accessible through the five senses and informed by a single
content provider, the church, gave way to a phantasmagoria of
people, places, cultures, and ideas. And for several reasons, the
expansion of peoples minds could have added a dose of
humanitarianism to their emotions and their beliefs. (p. 210)
Literary reading was a key element as can be anticipated. Fiction
develops facility in moving from self to others, and Pinker notes the
coeval growth of the novel in the UK in the eighteenth century.
Realistic fiction, he remarks, may expand readers circle of empathy
by seducing them into thinking and feeling like people very different
from themselves (p. 211). The reading psychology is crude (seduced
is unfortunate), but the mechanisms are similar to those already
Fictions spread awareness of social diversity and temporal and geo-
graphical difference; they describe other modes of experience; provide
access to other minds and multiplicity of perspective; introduce first-
person engagement even when dealing with different kinds of people;
encourage comparative generalization from individual or localized
experience; and develop the moral sense. Pinker describes this as a con-
sequence of the interchangeability of perspectives and the opportunity
the world supplies for positive-sum games (i.e. individuals can get
something out of being like this) (Better Angels, p. 220). He cites a famous
passage by George Eliot, from her essay The Natural History of
German Life (1856), in support: Art is the nearest thing to life; it is a
mode of amplifying experience and extending our contact with our
fellow men beyond the grounds of personal lot (Better Angels, pp. 71011).
In the following paragraph, Pinker berates the current generation of

194 Literature and the Public Good

literary scholars for failing to follow this lead and show that their sub-
ject matter is a force for progress in an era in which students and fund-
ing are staying away in droves (this last point is not as true as he asserts).
Among other literary observations, he notes the importance of the
development of eighteenth-century epistolary fiction; that is, novels
written as letters from one or more characters telling a story from their
inward point of view (celebrated examples are Samuel Richardsons
Pamela [1740] and Clarissa [1748]). Their importance, Pinker writes, is
that they expose the characters thoughts and feelings in real time rather
than describing them from the distancing perspective of a disembodied
narrator (Better Angels, p. 212). Pinker is not a literary critic working at
depth, but this is shrewd. It also explains something of the popularity of
David Copperfield which, though not epistolary, is a first-person narrative
conveying the same sense of immediate and immersive experience.
This is one reason it engaged the readers noted earlier. The effects are
resonant. We are all I to ourselves. But reading a first-person narrative
shuttles between the I of the reading self and that of the text, be it
David Copperfield, Pamela, Clarissa, or any other. As they read, r eaders
match and learn. This is ToM in ethical and social action. In reading
literature, we are being you.
The Better Angels of Our Nature is breathtakingly ambitious and that is
no bad thing. It marshals an astonishing range of material in a coher-
ent and stimulating way. What it says about the development of the
reading public, and its impact on an enlarged public mind, with its
changing sense of the public good, is plausible. Its attention to litera-
ture is in line with other propositions in this chapter and seems telling,
especially in relation to ToM. Indeed, he cites experimental evidence
that fiction can provoke more reader sympathy than fact-based narra-
tives, especially if written in the first person (Better Angels, p. 712).
Literature acts in immediate ways and is particular to this person or
that situation; it is, in this sense, personal and not general, and always
local (which is the point of the ToM proposition after all). But its
cumulative power is considerable and evolutionary psychologists have
done well to illuminate why it continues through millennia.

Stories of linear human progress are exposed to obvious challenge.
The worlds goods are not equally distributed and equity is not natural.

The Power of Empathy 195

Some parts of the world grossly over-consume; while too many con-
sume too little of basic necessities such as food, shelter, energy, and
water. Global inequalities are mirrored by chronic disparities within
nations in access to resources, opportunities, and social and cultural
Pinkers thesis has been criticized for what John Gray has called
sorcery of numbers, wherein particulars are displaced by aggregates
and epochal analysis obscures variation.44 (Though this, of course is
the disposition of most evolutionary thought.) Personally, I find
Pinkers Humanitarian Revolution compelling as a trajectory, though
it requires caveating. If progress exists, it is irregular and asymmetric
and needs to be judged in different places and situations under differ-
ent scales, using different baselines, and from different perspectives.
America and Afghanistan, Britain and Brazil, are obviously not the
samethough of course their fortunes are linkedand nor are
Wolverhampton and Westminster.
The United Nations is one body that monitors such things. The
UN Human Development Reports (HDRs) were established in
1990 by two economists, the Pakistani Mahbub ul Haq and the
Indian Nobel prizewinner Amartya Sen. Published annually, the
focus is different each year with a long-term goal to track the rela-
tionship between the well-being of people and the well-being of
nations. An indexthe Inequality-adjusted Human Development
Index (IHDI)is used for this purpose and covers 185 UN member
states (eight do not participate).45 Maintained on a regional basis, it
assesses relative life expectancy, literacy, levels of education, stand-
ards of living, and quality of life. It shows improvement or decline
over time, and the influence of specific place and circumstance.
A topic-based approach is sometimes adopted, such as the situation
of women (generally bad) or Arab Human Development (which
has ten volumes).
Chapter 1 of the first HDR in 1990 began:

People are the real wealth of a nation. The basic objective of

development is to create an enabling environment for people to
enjoy long, healthy and creative lives. This may appear to be a
simple truth. But it is often forgotten in the immediate concern
with the accumulation of commodities and financial wealth.46

196 Literature and the Public Good

Like Pinker, the HDRs take a broadly positive line on historical
development. They had their optimistic origins in the post-communist
liberalizations in Eastern Europe of the late 1980s, and in Southern
Africa especially.47 Nelson Mandela was released and Namibia
gained its independence in 1990 as regimes fell in Poland, East
Germany, the USSR, and elsewhere. Successive HDRs, including
Sustaining Human Progress (2014), conclude, on the whole, that varia-
ble and uneven progress is globally evident in areas such as primary
health, infant mortality, and the availability of education, especially
in developing nations. A consistent theme has been that this is
underestimated and undervalued internationally. Equally consist-
ently, the HDRs insist that income and human development are not
fatally correlated and that low income does not equal weak human
development. Instead, they argue, it is a question of directing
resources towards these ends and not, for example, towards military
The inaugural report in 1990 noted that the view that human
development can be promoted only at the expense of economic
growth poses a false tradeoff. It misstates the purpose of development
and underestimates the returns on investment in health and educa-
tion (p. 4). It calculated that private returns from primary education,
for example, are very high: 43 per cent in Africa, 31 per cent in Asia,
and 32 per cent in Latin America. Further, supplementary social
returns from female education are even higher in terms of reduced
fertility, lower population growth, better infant and family health,
improved nutrition, and so on. From the point of view of reading,
investment in female education is particularly telling. An Organisation
for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) report, Reading
for Change, like several others, highlights womens crucial role in devel-
oping a culture of reading and transmitting necessary skills and
engagement across generations.48 Nor is this peculiar to the develop-
ing world. In the UK, a 1969 study correlated engagement in reading
among men with, for example, house ownership and better salaries.
But the significant correlation in terms of childrens reading was with
the mothers education (Attitudes to Reading, p. 44). The overall argu-
ment is a familiar one in this book. Investment in public goods like
education brings major public and private dividends. It is investment,
not deadweight cost.

The Power of Empathy 197

What is human development? In the HDRs it

has two sides: the formation of human capabilitiessuch as

improved health, knowledge and skillsand the use people
make of their acquired capabilitiesfor leisure, productive
purposes or being active in cultural, social and political affairs.
If the scales of human development do not finely balance the
two sides, considerable human frustration may result. (p. 10)

The important sentence may be the under-emphatic last one. Human

development is envisaged not only as balancing lives, but social and
economic stimulus. The argument is that human development is eco-
nomically advantageous. Equally forceful is the insistence on the
importance of the creative and cultural parts of the project as sources
of human freedom, civil enrichment, political stability, social and eco-
nomic innovation, communal life, and creative human expression.
However, beneath that low-key word frustration lurks the spectre
highlighted by the Lancet Commission at the beginning of this chapter:
harrowing futility, enervating need, ontological and material poverty,
and social and personal despair worldwide.
This is neither the time nor place to discuss the structural transfor-
mations envisaged by the HDRs to enable human development. The
reports are critical of standard assumptions: Gross Domestic Product
(GDP) is not an adequate scale of measure because productivity is
necessary but not sufficient; human capital programmes distort more
rounded human development thus confusing means for ends; and
human welfare and basic needs approaches to international aid lose
sight of sustainable responses to deprivation.
What is important for current purposes is that HDR goals are cul-
tural as well as economic and political. They are compatible with the
purposes of literature for the public good argued for in this book.
The 2014 report, for example, emphasizes the importance of lan-
guage and cognitive skills. This is similar to the work of educational-
ists such as Maryanne Wolf, concerned about deficits in these respects
in the US and whose work uses literature for enhancement (see
Chapter 1). Indeed, the 2014 report features US data that links
vocabulary acquisition with good health, heightened economic per-
formance, enhanced civic engagement, and mitigation of gender

198 Literature and the Public Good

and other inequalities.49 Steven Pinker notes that the gains in achiev-
ing humanitarian goals in the second half of the twentieth century
coincide with an explosion in book publication and reading world-
wide (Better Angels, p. 575).
Reports by numerous independent agencies stress the importance
of culture, cultural skills, and cultural institutions to the enablement
of sustainable development. The 2004 HDR report, Cultural Liberty in
Todays Diverse World, emphasizes the importance of culture and cul-
tural exchange to civil and international interactions. It is a sane
assessment of relationships that have preoccupied much of this book,
including the importance of diverse and plural perspectives for per-
sonal and social growth. Particularly illuminating is an extended dis-
cussion of the international trade in cultural goods. It weighs an
argument for treating such goods as exceptional under the general
rules of trade on the grounds of protecting local tradition, against the
dangers of cultural nationalism and insular protectionism in a world
increasingly formed by multiple and complementary identities.50
The Global Innovation Index is an annual review of worldwide
capabilities related to stimulating growth through innovation. It is
conducted by, among others, Cornell University and the World
Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO). The most recent edition,
2015, emphasizes the cultural transformations and engagements that
are required and the way that so-called soft institutions are crucial to
developing innovative talent, creativity, social integration, and the
absorptive capacity of societies struggling to develop. The role and
significance of innovation goes well beyond the objective of economic
success, the Index concludes.51 Similarly, Reading for Change, an OECD
report of 2002, highlights deep engagement in reading at community
and family levels, and the importance of access to a wide variety of
types of reading, both fictional and non-fictional.
The importance of literacy beyond the acquisition of technical
skills is threaded through many of these reports. Literacy does not
guarantee social mobility and improvement in circumstances, but
illiteracy makes them impossible. International reports affirm this
self-evident truth. Literacy brings social and cultural participation
and essential development in human capabilities. It promotes eco-
nomic growth and it develops social welfare. Another UN body
UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural

The Power of Empathy 199

Organisation) stresses a plural notion of literacy to include com-
puter, media, health, ecological, cultural, spiritual, and emotional
literacies. In this enlarged sense, reading is crucial to creativity,
engagement, realization of potential, cultural and social compe-
tence, and cross-generational transmission of memory and values,
ideas and knowledge. A 2004 Position Paper, The Plurality of Literacy
and its Implications for Policies and Programmes, advocates the develop-
ment of a dynamic literate environment reflecting local circum-
stances and expressive of them. Amongst other things, it requires
freedom of expression, access to text, local content, engagement
with the publishing and digital communications industries, and
interaction with visual, musical, dance, storytelling, and theatrical
cultures.52 It is easy to see the direction of the argument. Technical
literacy is essential; functional literacy in the performance of tasks is
crucial; but to create social, personal, and economic benefit an
expansive literacy must reach beyond a stand-alone skill and become
a social practice contributing to broader purposes (p. 10). Developing
the power of empathy is essential. Its absence carries mighty conse-
quences: loss of mediation skills; loss of collaboration and intersub-
jective creativity and innovation; bankrupt communication; depletion
of communities and cultural bonding; failures in negotiation of key
values and their transmission; hollow relationships; nugatory ethics;
negative lives; futility.
What literature can and cant do in this global context should be
neither over- nor underestimated. In writing Futility, Wilfred Owen
did two things: he reported authentic experience for the public good
in aggravated times that needed to be known and said. And in a crea-
tive act he made an artefact of some beauty from a desperate predic-
ament. This is what literature does, with craft, complexity, intelligence,
and glorious creativity. It invites us to find what Elizabeth Bowen
called the blur of potentialities in our natures, and heightens our
talents in making and communicating cognitive acts of complexity,
understanding, and sophistication. It enhances the capabilities that
make us human and enable our societies to function. Over recent dec-
ades, in parts of the literary-critical mainstream, there has been an
inclination to berate literatures soft-centred liberal humanism, its
indulgence of the interior life, its prioritizing of art instead of social
force, its contamination by bourgeois values, and its substitution of

200 Literature and the Public Good

the small and domestic for the enormities of modern life. Perhaps
instead, following the lead of Pinker and the HDR, we should think
of a revised mission: a literary humanitarianism, spreading the grow-
ing public good of the world.

1. President Obama and Marilynne Robinson: A ConversationII, New York Review
of Books, 19 November 2015, http://www.nybooks.com/articles/2015/11/19/
president-obama-marilynne-robinson-conversation-2/ (accessed 20/4/16).
2. Rachael Levy, Sabine Little, Peter Clough, Cathy Nutbrown, Julia Bishop, Terry
Lamb, and Dylan Yamada-Rice, Attitudes to Reading and Writing and their Links with
Social Mobility 19142014 (London, BookTrust, 2014), p. 28, http://www.booktrust.
2014.pdf (accessed 16/10/15). Subsequent page references are included in the text.
3. D. H. Lawrence, Studies in Classic American Literature (1924, Harmondsworth,
Penguin, 1971), p. 2.
4. A. David Napier et al., Culture and Health: A Lancet Commission, The Lancet 384
(1 November 2014), 161920.
5. Ipsos-MORI, People and Places: Public Attitudes to Beauty. On Behalf of the Commission for
Architecture and the Built Environment (Ipsos-MORI, 2010), http://webarchive.national-
places.pdf (accessed 27/6/15); Adrian Harvey and Caroline Julian, A Community
Right to Beauty: Giving Communities the Power to Shape, Enhance and Create Beautiful Places,
Developments and Spaces (Res Publica, July 2015), http://www.respublica.org.uk/wp-
content/uploads/2015/07/Right-to-Beauty-Final-1.pdf (accessed 16/10/15). See
also Ben Rogers, On Beauty, RSA Journal (Autumn 2010), pp. 269.
6. Edna OBrien, Country Girl: A Memoir (London, Faber, 2013), p. 96.
7. UK Music, Measuring Music (London, UK Music, 2014), pp. 4, 20, 18, 24.
8. Eleanor Billington, A Love Letter to Poetry Out Loud, https://www.arts.gov/
art-works/2015/love-letter-poetry-out-loud (accessed 22/6/16).
9. http://www.poetrybyheart.org.uk (accessed 28/6/15).
10. Martha Nussbaums essay Reading for Life is a searching discussion of the wider
implications of experiences such as that of David Copperfield. In Loves Knowledge:
Essays on Philosophy and Literature (New York, Oxford University Press, 1992),
11. Elizabeth Bowen, Out of a Book, Collected Impressions (London, Longmans, Green
and Co., 1950), p. 266.
12. Rita Felski, Uses of Literature (Oxford, Blackwell, 2008), pp. 54, 58.
13. Mihly Cskszentmihlyi, Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention
(New York, Harper Perennial, 1997).
14. Alan Johnson, This Boy: A Memoir of a Childhood (London, Corgi, 2014), pp. 59, 229.
15. Lorna Sage, Bad Blood (London, Fourth Estate, 2000), p. 10. For a positive portrait
of the function of the rectory library of the period, see Geoffrey Grigson, Crest on
the Silver: An Autobiography (London, The Cresset Press, 1950).

The Power of Empathy 201

16. Raymond Williams, Resources of Hope: Culture, Democracy, Socialism, ed. Robin Gable
(London, Verso, 1989), pp. 318.
17. Alan Johnson, The Essay, BBC Radio 3, 20 January 2014.
18. Jonathan Rose, Rereading the English Common Reader: A Preface to a History of
Audiences, Journal of the History of Ideas 53, 1 (1992), 556. Subsequent page refer-
ences are included in the text.
19. Rose, Intellectual Life, p. 111. Subsequent page references are included in the text.
20. Prison Reading Groups Grow Thanks to AHRC Funding, http://www.ahrc.ac.uk/
News-and-Events/Features/Pages/Prison-reading-groups.aspx (accessed 27/6/15).
See also Jenny Hartley and Sarah Turvey, Prison Reading Groups: What books do
behind bars (2013): http://www.roehampton.ac.uk/News/Prison-Reading-
Groups-What-Books-Can-Do-Behind-Bars/ (accessed 30/6/16), and Ros Coward,
Wandsworth jail reading group: Here they dont have prisoners, The Guardian,
15 January 2013: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2013/jan/15/wand-
sworth-prison-reading-group (accessed 30/6/16).
21. http://www.literacytrust.org.uk/books_unlocked (accessed 15/9/15).
22. Simon Armitage, Poetry Should Be Subversive, The Guardian, 13 June 2012.
23. Margaret Drabble, Jerusalem the Golden (London, Penguin, 2011), pp. 28, 30.
24. Eleanor Catton, The Luminaries (London, Granta, 2013), pp. 1901.
25. Francesca G. E. Happ, Understanding Minds and Metaphors: Insights from the Study
of Figurative Language in Autism, Metaphor and Symbolic Activity 10 (1995), 27595.
26. Michael C. Corballis, The Recursive Mind: The Origins of Human Language, Thought, and
Civilisation (Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2011), p. 194. Subsequent page
references are included in the text.
27. Brian Boyd, On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction (London, Harvard
University Press, 2009), pp. 1578. Subsequent page references are included in the text.
28. The origins of ToM are often referenced to David Premack and Guy Woodruffs
paper Does the Chimpanzee Have a Theory of Mind?, Behavioural and Brain
Sciences 1 (1978), 51526. See also Corballis, Recursive Mind, ch. 3.
29. Caroline Steedman, Amarjits Song in Past Tenses: Essays on Writing, Autobiography
and History (London, Rivers Oram Press, 1992), p. 93.
30. Midori Shibata, Akira Toyomura, Hiroaki Itoh, and Jun-ichi Abe, Neural
Substrates of Irony Comprehension: A Functional MRI Study, Brain Research 1308
(2010), 11423.
31. Robert Bickers, The Scramble for China: Foreign Devils in the Qing Empire 18321914
(London, Penguin, 2011), pp. 5, 376; Julia Lovell, The Opium War: Drugs, Dreams and
the Making of China (London, Picador, 2011), pp. 89, 31415, 32930, 344, 392.
32. Lao She, Mr Ma and Son, trans. William Dolby (Melbourne, Penguin Australia,
2013), p. 313.
33. Christian Salmon, Storytelling: Bewitching the Modern Mind, trans. David Macey
(London, Verso, 2010).
34. Carlo Ginzberg, The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth-Century Miller,
trans. John and Anne Tedeschi (Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980).
35. Howard Jacobson, The Art of Distraction, The Guardian, 20 June 2015.
36. Michael C. Corballis, The Wandering Mind: What the Brain Does When Youre Not Looking
(Chicago, Chicago University Press, 2015), p. 73.

202 Literature and the Public Good

37. P. C. Fletcher, F. Happ, U. Frith, S. C. Baker, R. J. Dolan, R. S. J. Frackowiak, and
C. D. Frith, Other Minds in the Brain: A Functional Imaging Study of Theory of
Mind in Story Comprehension, Cognition 57 (1995), 10928.
38. Andrew Elfenbein, Cognitive Science and the History of Reading, PMLA 121, 2
(2006), 484502; Raymond A. Mar and Keith Oatley, The Function of Fiction Is
the Abstraction and Simulation of Social Experience, Perspectives on Psychological
Science 3, 3 (2008), 17392; Raymond A. Mar, The Neural Bases of Social Cognition
and Story Comprehension, Annual Review of Psychology 62 (2011), 10334.
39. David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano, Reading Literary Fiction Improves
Theory of Mind, Science 342 (18 October 2013), 377. Subsequent page references
are included in the text.
40. Dan Hurley, Does Reading Make You Smarter?, Guardian Review, 15 January
41. See also Noreen OSullivan, Philip Davis, Josie Billington, Victoria Gonzalez-Diaz,
and Rhiannon Corcoran, Shall I Compare Thee: The Neural Basis of Literary
Awareness, and its Benefits to Cognition, Cortex 73 (2015), 14457.
42. James Wood, The Nearest Thing to Life (London, Jonathan Cape, 2015), pp. 12, 15.
43. Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of our Nature: A History of Violence and Humanity
(London, Penguin, 2012). The relevant data are to be found at pp. 2089.
Subsequent page references are included in the text. Supporting accounts are sum-
marized by Jonathan Rose, Rereading, pp. 48 and 51.
44. John Gray, The Sorcery of Numbers, Guardian Review, 14 March 2015.
45. http://hdr.undp.org/en (accessed 22/8/15).
46. United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), Human Development Report
1990, p. 9, http://hdr.undp.org/sites/default/files/reports/219/hdr_1990_en_
complete_nostats.pdf (accessed 22/8/15).
47. Human Rights and Human Development (the 2000 Report), http://hdr.undp.org/sites/
default/files/reports/261/hdr_2000_en.pdf (accessed 22/8/15).
48. OECD, Reading for Change: Performance and Engagement Across Countries (Paris, OECD,
2002). (Executive Summary, pp. 16, 20).
49. UNDP, Human Development Report 2014: Sustaining Human Progress: Reducing
Vulnerabilities and Building Resilience, p. 61, http://hdr.undp.org/sites/default/files/
hdr1report-en-1.pdf (accessed 22/8/15).
50. UNDP, Human Development Report 2004: Cultural Liberty in Todays Diverse World,
pdf (accessed 22/8/15).
51. Soumitra Dutta, Bruno Levein, and Sacha Wunsch-Vincent, eds, The Global
Innovation Index 2015: Effective Innovation Policies for Development (Fontainebleu, Ithaca,
and Geneva, 2015), p. xx.
52. UNESCO, The Plurality of Literacy and its Implications for Policies and Programmes (Paris,
UNESCO, 2004). See also UNESCO, Education for All: Literacy for Life. A Global
Monitoring Report (Paris, UNESCO, 2005).

I learned much of what I have to say in this book during my six-year spell as
Chief Executive of the UKs Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC)
and my simultaneous four-year period as Chair of Research Councils UK
(RCUK). I would like to thank the colleagues I worked with at all the Research
Councils, as well supportive members of the AHRC Governing Council, for
a wonderfully stimulating and productive period. I met many people during
those years: academics, researchers, university managers, civil servants, politi-
cians, and creative people of all kinds who enlarged my perspective. All fed
into the thinking behind this book one way or another.
Some individuals contributed much, reading my drafts, discussing issues, or
just being stimulating and critical in general. There are many of these, and
one or two may even be surprised to be mentioned. But sometimes ideas
develop when no particular aim is in view, and formative and refreshing
remarks and opinions do stick and later have fructifying virtue (as Wordsworth
said). Others generously let me pick their brains about specific topics, some-
times repeatedly. So, particular thanks to the following: Julia Aaronson, Hasan
Bakhshi, Deborah Bull, Stefan Collini, Geoff Crossick, Jan Dalley, the late
and much missed Simon Dentith, David Docherty, David Eastwood, Kelvin
Everest, Hilary Fraser, Ian Hargreaves, John Holden, Lena Isayev, Doug Kell,
Chris Kirkham, Andrew McRae, Graham Raikes, Graeme Reid, Jenny
Richards, Judy Simons, Adrian Smith, Steve Smith, Andrew Thompson,
Greg Walker, Nigel Wheale, and Alan Wilson. I am especially grateful to
those kind individuals who read drafts so attentively, encouragingly, and
improvingly: Lena Isayev, Hilary Fraser, and Andrew Thompson. I owe
particular thanks to Philip Davis, General Editor of the Literary Agenda
series, for inviting me to be involved and for being encouraging throughout.
He, too, was a deft reader of the developing text. Jacqueline Norton at Oxford
University Press has, as ever, been supportive and engaged.
One final point to note. The book contains full notes and references and a
thorough bibliography. This is partly a matter of scholarly good housekeep-
ing, but also because I make reference to a number of materials that are not
in the mainstream of English studies, or are drawn from disciplines outside
English. I hope it is useful for these materials to be so assembled. I have
provided Internet links for many.
Rick Rylance
London, April 2016

204 Acknowledgements

Copyright acknowledgements
Czeslaw Milosz Dedication [excerpt of seven lines] from NEW AND
COLLECTED POEMS: 19312001. Copyright (c) 1988, 1991, 1995, 2001
by Czeslaw Milosz Royalties, Inc. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins
Publishers and Penguin Modern Classics.
Every effort has been made to trace and contact copyright holders prior to
publication. If notified, the publisher will be pleased to rectify any omissions
at the earliest opportunity.

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Ackroyd, Peter 4 Austen, Jane 1078

Acorn, George 7, 176, 1889 Mansfield Park107
Adam, Georgina 121, 143 Pride and Prejudice1067
Adorno, Theodor 109 autism181
advertising 2, 3, 45 Aw, Tash, Five Star Billionaire
aesthetic and the economic, 11314, 116
separation of 111
aesthetic values backlist103
assessment11 Bader, Darren, The Work 144
cost-benefit analysis 1314, 15 banking crisis seeeconomic crisis
and instrumental values, Banksy11922
interdependence of 22 Barnes, Julian 133
and utilitarian values 5 Barthes, Roland 110
Alight Here project 4 BBC24
Amazon24 beauty
Banksy122 social benefits of 168
cross-promotions102 and truth, relationship between
e-book prices 35 5960, 61
Kindle 32, 33, 34, 35 Beck, Jonathan 1045, 132
suspicions about 35 Benjamin, Walter 104, 109
ambiguity 26, 16370, 1856 Bennett, Arnold 37
Amis, Martin Bentham, Jeremy 14, 74
London Fields117 bequest value 132
Money117 bibliotherapy 23, 41
Anglo-Chinese wars 1867 Birketts, Sven 31, 32
anomie167 Blake, William 139
Apple22 Book Group, The (sit-com) 25
e-book pricing 35 book groups/clubs 246
iPad32 bookshops1334
Aristotle55 Books Unlocked project 177
Armitage, Simon 178 BookTrust 24, 164, 167
Arnold, Matthew 7, 104, 112, 1256 Bourdieu, Pierre 1502, 153
currency of literature 147, 151 Bowen, Elizabeth 15, 1712, 178,
and Gissings New Grub Street157 179, 191, 199
Arts Council England 32, 90 Boyd, Brian 181, 1834, 1856, 188
artworks, theft of 910 Bradbury, Ray, Fahrenheit 451
Auden, W. H. 75 1356
In Memory of W. B. Yeats 40, Brecht, Bertolt 76
413, 44, 106 British Library 35
Stop all the Clocks 445 Bronk, Richard 111, 142

220 Index
Bront, Charlotte 174 cognitive dissonance 164
Jane Eyre 1723, 185 Coleridge, Samuel Taylor 71, 72
Bruner, Jerome 190 Rhyme of the Ancient
Burgess, Joseph 1767 Mariner139
Burke, Kenneth 29 Collini, Stefan 29
Burke, Thomas 158 Collins, Suzanne, Hunger Games
Cadbury23 Collins, Wilkie 978, 112, 148
Calhoun, Craig 29 complementary goods, books as 132
Carey, John 111 consequentialist opinion 14, 15
Carlyle, Thomas 813, 135, 152 copyright 11112, 1201, 135
Chartism1089 disregard for 141
and Gissings New Grub Street157 Gissings New Grub Street157
Cartwright, Justin, Look at it this Corballis, Michael 181, 1823, 185,
Way113 186, 188, 189
Castano, Emanuele 1902 cost-benefit analysis 1221
categorical opinion 14, 15 Counting New Beans: Intrinsic Impact
Cats 95, 104 and the Value of Art18
Catton, Eleanor, The Luminaries Cox, Alfred 98
179, 181 Creative and Cultural Skills Council
cave paintings 55 22, 90
Centre for Economics and Business creative industries, economic power
Research (CEBR) 92, 99, 100 of 11
Cervantes, Miguel de, Don criminal probationers 23
Quixote178 criticism, literary 150, 164
Chadwick, Lynn 910 cultural memory 65, 79
Changing Lives Through Literature cultural participation 21, 22
(CLTL)23 cultural policy 11, 1214
China cultural production 21
Anglo-Chinese wars 1867
Internet36 Dante Alighieri, Inferno139
official narratives, reactions Darnton, Robert 35
against189 dementia sufferers 23
online prosumers 137 Department of Culture, Media and
pricing of books 1412, 147 Sport (DCMS) 22, 92, 99, 100
stereotypes187 deprivation 1678, 1708
workplace fiction 31 Dickens, Charles 967, 106, 117
Choe, Davie 120 Bleak House96
City Lights Bookshop, New Chinese stereotypes 187
York134 copyright 111, 120
close reading 33 David Copperfield 1701, 172,
cognition 1746, 178, 194
errors57 Hard Times 74, 81
and screen reading 389 influence1767
cognitive development 267 memorized works 136

Index 221
The Mystery of Edwin Drood187 enchantment1734
price of literature 148 English A-level 64
public readings of works 136 Enlightenment1923
digital market seee-books environmental value 1718
digital printing techniques 140 epistolary fiction 194
digitizing of books 35 Evening Standard24
distant reading 33 exchange of books 1312
Dor, Gustav 139 experience economy 93, 97, 169
Doyle, Roddy 24
Drabble, Margaret 36, 179 Facebook24
Jerusalem the Golden178 Fainlight, Ruth 133
Dylan, Bob 170 Faulks, Sebastian, A Week in
December 11416, 143
e-books 32, 33, 3440 Felski, Rita 152, 1734
pricing149 female education, returns from 196
revenues1012 financial crisis seeeconomic crisis
secondary circulation 1367 Firm of Poets 169
visual art and aural material 140 Fitoussi, Jean-Paul 1617
economic crisis Fitzgerald, F. Scott, The Great
causes16 Gatsby108
factual writing 1223 Fitzpatrick, Kathleen 334
in literature 112, 11415, Flaubert, Gustave, Madame
11718, 1234 Bovary178
Occupy movement 120 flow psychology 174
popular-audience books on the 12 Foer, Jonathan Safran, Tree of
questions posed by the 11 Codes140
economistic techniques for value Ford, Richard 25
assessment16 freedom 612, 63
education, returns from 196
Eggers, Dave 23 Gadamer, Hans-Georg 62
Eliot, George 70, 179, 189 Gagnier, Regenia 132
Middlemarch 103, 17980 Galenson, David 13
The Mill on the Floss172 Garber, Marjorie 40
The Natural History of German Geertz, Clifford 6, 66
Life193 Get London Reading
Eliot, T. S. 80 campaign24
East Coker 3 Ginzberg, Carlo 188
Old Possums Book of Practical Gissing, George, New Grub Street98,
Cats 95, 104 1538
empathy199 Global Innovation Index 198
ambiguity164 Gomez, Jeff 356
hardship 172, 177 Google35
Humanitarian Revolution 193 Gopnik, Adam 75
Obama on 163 Gove, Michael 104
and screen reading 39 graphic novels 140

222 Index
Great Exhibition 138 India, reading in 31
Greenblatt, Stephen 63 Indica bookshop, London 1334
Gross Value Added (GVA) of information technology 3240
literature sector 22, 90, 99, 100 innovation198
instrumentalism 5, 14
Habermas, Jrgen 29 cost-benefit analysis 14, 16, 19
happiness index 17 and intrinsic-ness, conflict
Haq, Mahbub ul 195 between 15, 16, 1834
hardship 1678, 1708 and intrinsic-ness,
Hardy, Thomas, Tess of the interdependence of 212
dUrbervilles177 limitations27
Hare, David public good 28
The Permanent Way123 interactive technologies 33
The Power of Yes1234 Internet
Stuff Happens123 book retailing 148
Hartley, Jenny 256, 32, 177 free access 141
health benefits of literature 234 web-based reading 323, 36
health disadvantages of screen intrinsic-ness 5, 15
reading38 cost-benefit analysis 14, 16, 19
Heaney, Seamus, The and instrumentalism, conflict
Underground 34, 8 between 15, 16, 1834
Hensher, Philip and instrumentalism,
e-books 367, 38 interdependence of 212
on Hepworth 1011, 14, 15,
22, 43 Jacobson, Howard 189
Hepworth, Barbara 11, 15, 22 James, E. L., Fifty Shades of Grey
Two Forms (Divided Circle) 9, 10, trilogy 36, 102, 105
15, 43 Jefferson, Thomas 135
Herrnstein Smith, Barbara 10910, Jiang Nan 137
150, 151 Jobs, Steve 22
Hilliard, Christopher 98 Johnson, Alan 1746, 188
Hillyer, Richard 1589 Joyce, James, Portrait of the Artist as a
Hirst, Damien 143 Young Man1689
For the Love of God1434
Homer 75, 155 Kawanda, Kikuji, The Map13940
Horkheimer, Max 109 Keat, Russell 14950
Hornby, Nick 23 Keats, John 66, 68
Human Development Reports Ode on a Grecian Urn 5961, 85
(HDRs), UN 1958, 200 Kidd, David Comer 1902
Humanitarian Revolution 1924, Kindle 32, 33, 34, 35
Huxley, Aldous 109 Lao She, Mr Ma and Son1878
Lancet Commission167
Ibsen, Henrik, A Dolls House156 Lanchester, John 4, 12
ideographic reading 33 Capital 11619, 120, 123, 143

Index 223
Fragrant Harbour113 Marks and Spencer 23
How to Speak Money124 Martin, Felix 11213
Whoops! 122, 123 mass-production 138, 145
Lawrence, D. H. 164, 188 Mayer-Schnberger, Viktor 33
Leavis, F. R. 30, 78, 79, 801 McCarthy, Joseph 135
Leavis, Q. D. 301, 1089, 125, McCarthy, Tom 36
138, 148, 157 McEwan, Ian 103
Lee, Harper, To Kill a Sweet Tooth102
Mockingbird164 memory 389, 1823
Levitin, Daniel 33 cultural 65, 79
Lewes, G. H. 5 Menand, Louis 131
libraries24 Mendelson, Edward 42
in London Blitz 3 mental health 23
use of 131, 132 metarepresentation185
literary criticism 150, 164 Meyer, Stephenie, Twilight series 102
literary festivals 934 Miles, Barry 1334
live music 169 Mill, James 71
Liverpool 20, 23 Mill, John Stuart 401, 71, 836, 142
London Miosz, Czesaw 434, 75
Book Club restaurant 24 mind blindness 181
bookshops1334 Ministry of Stories 23
Get London Reading Misztal, Barbara 29
campaign24 Mitterand, Franois 163
Ministry of Stories 23 money8990
Tube seeLondon Tube in literature 10526
London Tube revenues90105
advertising on the 2, 3, 45 Moore, Henry 9, 10
passenger numbers 4 Moretti, Franco 33
poems about the 34 Mo Yan 137
poems displayed/distributed on Mulgan, Geoff 153
the23 Murdoch, Rupert 35
reading on the 1, 2, 4, 5, 8 Murphy, Paul 123
longevity22 music169
Lovell, Julia 1867
Lyons Teashops 23 National Endowment for Science,
Technology and the Arts
Mabey, Richard 989 (NESTA)99
Macintyre, Ben 36 National Endowment for the Arts
Mallock, W. H., A Human (NEA, USA) 18, 30, 32, 169
Document139 National Literacy Trust 24, 94, 177
Manguel, Alberto 83, 84 Net Book Agreement (NBA),
Mantel, Hilary abolition of 148
Bring Up the Bodies102 new books, purchase of 131, 132
Wolf Hall102 News International 35
Marcuse, Herbert 109 nomothetic reading 33

224 Index
OBrien, Edna 1689, 172, 174 Prebble, Lucy, Enron124
Obama, Barack 134, 163 preference techniques in cost-benefit
OCallaghan, Tiffany 38 analysis13
Occupy movement 120 price of literature 13853
Office of National Statistics (ONS) primary education, returns
Annual Business Survey100 from196
happiness and well-being 17, 167 prisoners 23, 177
household consumption of the public good, defining 6, 28, 134
arts and culture 90 Publishers Association (PA) 101,
Organization for Economic 1023, 149
Cooperation and Development publishing industry
(OECD), Reading for Change198 revenues99104
Orwell, George 35, 42, 148
Osborne, John 141, 142 quality of life 22
Owen, Wilfred, Futility 1657,
168, 169, 174, 199 railway reading 14
see alsoLondon Tube
Peacock, Thomas Love 713, 74, 78 Rand, Ayn
Penguin Books Atlas Shrugged106
Classics31 The Fountainhead106
e-books35 Reader Organisation 23, 177
Orwell148 readers 302, 1001
price of books 148, 149 Reading Agency, The 24
railway reading 2 reading groups 29
perceptual distortions 579 recursion 164, 1823, 185
Pettitt, Claire 11112 revenues 22, 90105
Peverel Society 989 Richard and Judy Book Club 105
Philadelphia1920 Robinson, Marilynne 163
Phillips, Tom Rose, Jonathan 23, 98, 174, 1767,
Dantes Inferno, translation of 139 188
The Humument139 Rowling, J. K., Harry Potter
Pinker, Steven 1924, 195, 196, series 102, 171
198, 200 Rowntree23
Plato 5564, 85 Royal Society of Arts 94
and Peacock 71, 72 Ruskin, John
and Shelley 74 commercialization 112, 125, 138,
and Sidney 65, 67, 73 145, 146
Poems from the Underground 2 influence176
Poetry Archive 16970 price of art and literature 1467,
Poetry by Heart 148
poetry slams 20 Sage, Lorna 175
policy, cultural 11, 1214 Salmon, Christian 188
Popper, Karl 62 San Francisco 18, 234
Potts, Jason 142, 152 Sartre, Jean-Paul 612, 63

Index 225
scarcity framework 132 storytelling festivals 94
Schultz, Bruno, The Street of Striphas, Ted 32, 132
Crocodiles140 supermarket book sales 103, 148
screen reading seee-books; web- Sutherland, John 32
based reading
second-hand books 1312, 133 tablets32
Seifert, Susan 1920 see alsoe-books
Self, Will 378 Tartt, Donna, The Goldfinch1445
self-publication36 Taylor, Charles 153
Sen, Amartya 1617, 195 technology3240
Sennett, Richard 1389, 145 theatre advertising 3
Shakespeare, William 23 theft of artworks 910
authorship disputes 125 Theory of Mind (ToM) 171,
King Lear104 17986, 18992, 194
Romeo and Juliet 23, 95, 96 thick description 67, 667
Shapiro, James 125 Thomas, Dylan, Fern Hill 2
Shaw, George Bernard 134 Thompson, Flora 989
Shelley, Percy Bysshe 701, 83, Throsby, David 111, 1423, 144
85, 183 Thurber, James, The Secret Life of
A Defence of Poetry 71, 7380 Walter Mitty 171
Ode to a Skylark 78 Torbay, Devon 18
Ode to Liberty 78 tourism91
Ode to the West Wind 78 Towse, Ruth 100
A Philosophical View of Transport for London (TfL) 23, 4
Reform76 Treasury Green Book 1213, 18
and Plato 62 Trocchi, Alexander, The Moving
Shinwell, Manny 176 Times4
short stories 2 Trollope, Anthony 106
Sidney, Sir Philip 82 trust, public 289
Astrophel and Stella679 truth and beauty, relationship
The Defence of Poesy 647, 6970, between 5960, 61
734, 768, 7980 Tube seeLondon Tube
Sillitoe, Alan 133, 158, 174, 175, 188
Skinner, Quentin 137 UNESCO1989
social media 103 United Nations (UN)
social reading 34 Human Development Reports
social welfare benefits of (HDRs) 1958, 200
literature223 Inequality-adjusted Human
Society of Chief Librarians 24 Development Index (IHDI) 195
Sohn, Sonja 23 Problems of the World167
Sony e-reader 34 United States of America
Sophocles, Antigone106 book groups 245
Steedman, Caroline 1845, 188 bookshops134
Stern, Mark 1920 Changing Lives Through
Stiglitz, Joseph 1617 Literature (CLTL) 23

226 Index
United States of America (cont.) Wang Meng 38
e-books 34, 35 Waterhouse, Keith, Billy Liar171
language and cognitive skills, Waterstones 34, 102
deficits in 197 web-based reading 323, 36
Library of Congress books, welfare benefits of literature 223
proposed digitization of 35 well-being 17, 23
National Endowment for the Arts W. H. Smith 2, 102
(NEA) 18, 30, 32, 169 Williams, John, Stoner103
pass along book culture 132 Williams, Raymond 28, 823, 137,
Philadelphia1920 156, 165, 175
public investment Williams, Zoe 12, 40
programme134 Winfrey, Oprah 24, 32, 105
readers32 Wolf, Maryanne 267, 197
San Francisco 18, 234 Wood, James 192
web-based reading 32 word of mouth 1045
Unwin, Sir Stanley 131 Wordsworth, William 41, 57, 71, 72
utilitarianism1415 copyright111
aesthetic values 5 The Prelude589
Carlyle81 Tintern Abbey 15
Eliot80 Wordsworth Editions 149
Mill 41, 71, 83 workplace fiction 31
moral calculus 65 World Cities Culture Report, The19,
Peacock 71, 72, 78 22, 31
Plato 56, 59
pleasure74 Yeats, W. B., Audens In Memory of
and Romanticism, argument W. B. Yeats 40, 413, 44, 106
between 111, 112
Shelley73 zero-based budgeting 14