Sunday, November 15, 2009

Bonafide hustler, making my name: Liveblogging In Praise of Commercial Culture

Chapter 2: The Market For the Written Word

Okay, so first, the prose style gets a little better once Cowen has a narrative to hold onto. I wouldn't say he holds interest as well as Malcolm Gladwell, for example, but neither of them is Joan Didion. Which is to say, neither is a prose stylist who uses that style successfully to convey a deeper understanding of the world around us. Gladwell is a prose stylist, but he's a little too flip with his philosophizing, trying to draw conclusions because he can. Cowen has some understanding of the big picture, but he can't use his writing to add an aesthetic dimension to his argument.

It helps that Cowen is talking, in this section, about a little-explored aspect of literary history, specifically the economic pressures of publishing in the British Enlightenment. We might have read works (by Swift or Pope) that deal with those economic issues or were written because of them, but that specific context sometimes doesn't even make the footnotes.

So this chapter is about Samuel Johnson, one of the first people to make their living solely through writing, versus Swift and Pope, among others, who believed that "fame" was the sole reason to write and that the government should choose who was talented.

And Cowen is willing to tackle Swift and Pope and bring to light their most troubling ideas. Though his arguments that Swift was a vehement establishment figure who believed in the healing benefits of central power does not seem to jive with Swift's basic misanthropy. I think he misreads at least some of Swift's work. As much as the Houyhnhnms in Gulliver's Travels might represent some sort of ideal, I don't think that even Swift expects us to totally accept them. I think there is some significance in the fact that our narrator (who has difficulty in detecting irony or recognizing the way other societies generally reflect his) ends the book currying the favor of his own farm animals. And "A Modest Proposal" is as much an indictment of central planning refusing to recognize the realities on the ground as it is of anti-Catholic sentiment.

And there are hints of other problems with capitalism as supporter of the arts that this chapter suggests. For one, Cowen expresses disappointment at Johnson taking a government pension at the end of his career. But given how Johnson hustled to provide himself a living for much of his life, is it really a surprise that he would desire a reliable source of income.

Because Cowen's idea of why capitalism is good for the arts relies heavily on creative destruction. Artists will become less popular, lose their edge and give way to new forms and new artists. Which I think is great for the arts.

But it sucks for the artists. Once the skill has faded and the passion has ebbed, an artist still requires sustenance. As this economic downturn (and previous recessions and depressions) proved, even very smart, skilled businessmen stink at long-term planning. Even as it regards their own personal finances.

Creative destruction doesn't care what you did for the last twenty years. It cares about what is happening today and tomorrow. It's like Alec Baldwin's character in "Glengarry Glen Ross", it doesn't care if you're a good father or a nice guy. Or a talented artist.

So Samuel Johnson takes a pension. He's a man that's dealt with awful depression and grinding poverty for years. What's Tyler Cowen's advice for one of the greater essayists of English literature? That he should have kept being talented and never felt that exhaustion in his bones?That he should never have gotten old? That he should have died before he became old?

I'm not saying we should get rid of capitalism. It's like the old saw about democracy. It's the worst system, except for all the other systems.

But a capitalist who loves artists or a capitalist who loves people needs to come to grips with the way capitalism shows no mercy to the weak and the old. And they need to suggest what we can do, instead of shrugging and muttering something about charity and the private sector.