The Death of the Literary Patron

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    During a recent drive-by of the Saatchi Gallery, in Duke of York Square, I found myself pondering the good fortune of such artists as Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin for having enjoyed the patronage of the eponymous founder of that venue. While Charles Saatchi may now be more notorious for his mastery of the chokehold in fashionable London restaurants, there was a time when his name conjured visions of the art world and the, now no longer particularly youthful, Young British Artists. This led me to a con­sideration of who the literary equivalents of the age might be, and I found myself unable to produce a single name. The closest I could come was someone like the late Felix Dennis, a successful publishing entrepreneur with a penchant for poetry. However, Dennis’s financial championship of poetry readings primarily applied to his own work, during recitations of which he would usually provide free wine. I went once during the first year of my PhD and found that the performance, coupled with the liquid refresh­ment, somewhat trumped the poetry itself. However, I don’t wish to say anything to fracture the happy concept of wine and poetry, provided gratis; I rather wish that more rich publishers would follow where Dennis led.

    Another thought I had was of the wonderful Shakespeare & Co bookshop on the banks of the Seine in Paris, where struggling young writers are still allowed to stay for free while they work on their latest project, provided they book in and extract themselves from their beds in the upstairs portion of the shop before it opens for business. Both of these constitute excellent ways of supporting the arts but they remain a far cry from the salons of nineteenth century France, or the financial championship of such individu­als as Lady Augusta Gregory and Lady Ottoline Morrell. The decline of the tradition of aristocracy championing intellect appears to have left both the poorer for it.

    Lady Ottoline was, herself, the chronicler of the so-called Bloomsbury Group, an environment she both inhabited and made possible. Morrell, who numbered among her lovers Bertrand Russell and Henry Lamb, once described herself as a ‘magnet for egoists’. Yet one could, with no less truth, invert the observation and opine that it was egoists whom she found eternally magnetic. In the greenhouse of her encouragement and largesse, such writers as Lawrence, Eliot, Huxley and Strachey flourished and, it is fair to mention, so too did pictorial artists like Mark Gertler and Dora Carrington. The point is that what Morrell fostered was more than just tal­ent, it was a social environment saturated with bohemian glamour, which orbited herself and her home, Garsington, and irradiated both with a kind of subversive splendour. I do not at all mean to suggest that Morrell was a charlatan with no capacity to appreciate literature; only, perhaps, that the mode of life educed by the creative meant as much to her as the work they generated.

    As for Lady Gregory, her advocacy of Yeats seems to have been born large­ly out of a shared passion for aspects of Irish nationalism, be those literary or political. She was herself a student of Irish mythology, which so gor­geously and frequently features in the poetry of Yeats. When Yeats turned his hand to an elegy upon the death of her son and penned, ‘In Memory of Major Robert Gregory’, she recoiled from the subject matter, for reasons perhaps not wholly confined to the sting of personal tragedy. Yeats’s treat­ment of R. Gregory was, if anything, almost too flattering (‘Our Sydney and our perfect man’), a mode of expression that harmonizes with the often saccharine extravagance of the diction of the genre. Perhaps Lady Gregory obscurely recognized that Yeats’s poem about the great Irish hero Cuchu­lain entering the afterlife, “Cuchulain Comforted”, had more of truth and insight in its surprising negativity than all the reckless plaudits applied to her late son?

    The common ground, however, appears to be that there was a time when literary patronage served to afford the givers the means of enriching their lifestyles, their causes, or both. It is a benefit that seems to have waned in the face of the ruthless march of the last hundred years, since the fact of being a writer, and by extension of patronizing one, no longer wields the glamour it once did. As observed, with an amusing lack of irony, in Woody Allen’s new movie, Café Society, ‘You wouldn’t have heard of me. I’m a writer’.

    Contributing to the above is the fact that the possibilities for self-exhibition are not what they once were. The days of mesmerizing an entire salon of the great and the interesting with a reading, or even of holding court at Garsington, are well and truly behind us. Today, half the signings in Barnes and Noble seem to be for celebrity chefs or retired footballers, and the ris­ing tide of Kindles and iPads makes the future of the book as a physical object increasingly uncertain. One could argue that the starving writers of today are hardly any worse off than they once were. T.S. Eliot, after all, de­spite enjoying weekends at Garsington, retained a bank job for eight years before shifting into publishing, and neither day job diluted the potency of his poetic output. Philip Larkin, with a kind of numbing obstinacy, contin­ued his role as Librarian for Hull University for much of his life, glumly categorizing it as his ‘vocation’, while poetry was relegated to the status of ‘profession’. It may be that this kind of drearily methodical mode of pro­crastination provides the necessary periods of fallowness that render crea­tivity possible. This, however, does not explain the modern day absence of the literary patron, it only serves to cheer us up a little as we face the empty air that they once filled.

    What is clear is that there seems to have been a seismic shift towards a favouring of the visual, or that which proves most easy to display, among what we might very loosely term the ‘artistically inclined’. Patrons of the visual arts still exist in relative profusion, but the portion of the limelight that was formerly allotted to the recipients of the support of literary-minded people seems to have relocated itself to the stars of the silver screen. These days, individuals are far more likely to attend a movie star having a clumsy stab at Hamlet in the West End than a book reading from an up-and-coming young author (another example of mutually assured poverty). It is ironic to consider the fact that movie stars are, of course, dependent on the material provided by these invisible craftsmen for their own irradiation. The shining ambassadors of Hollywood would not look half so good if they were forced to be silent. It is an irony that was not lost on the actors who expressed solidarity with the 2007-2008 Writers Guild of America Strike.

    So the question remains, is there anything to be done about supporting literature in the face of this shift in financial focus? My suggestion would be another kind of patronage, the kind in which successful, solvent authors seek out youthful talent and attempt to provide it with some portion of their own limelight. At this stage in the history of literature, the epistolary novel is already dead and, in the face of the dwindling attention span of a generation too used to immediate gratification, the future of the novel itself appears increasingly bleak. I would call upon the great writers of this age to do whatever it is they can to help and promote those who still wish to make a small, though hopefully potent, contribution to our waning history. But then, of course, I would say that — I’m a ‘starving writer’.


    Serena Godsen-Hood is a freelance writer with a PhD from Durham University. She completed a BA at Yale University in the United States in 2008. She now resides in Chicago.