Lamplight on the darkened path

May 7, 2017 at 4:04 am | Posted in capitalism, creativity, Democracy, Living creatively, media negativity, public squalour | Leave a comment
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A Bigger Prize and The Short Goodbye

In Sickness, in Health and in Jail by Mel Jacobs

‘The world breaks everyone, and afterwards some are stronger in the broken places.’ Hemingway said that, and Mel Jacobs quotes him in the front of her poignant memoir, In Sickness, in Health and in Jail (Allen & Unwin, 2016). The author describes the shock, social stigma and logistical nightmares involved when her husband went to jail for two years after breaching the rules concerning his online hunting weapons business.

It was being uncharacteristically slack with a couple of technicalities (which were, granted, against the law, but seemed so minor in the scheme of things) that landed a decent, normally highly moral, small business guy in jail. A pity that the justice system doesn’t use such finely honed powers of legal scrutiny on anyone in finance or banking, I thought, since at the same time I was reading Elisabeth Wynhausen’s riveting The Short Goodbye (Melbourne University Press, 2011) about the global financial crisis.

Almost no one in finance or banking – no matter how illegal, unethical or immoral, no matter how many millions of lives they’ve ruined – will have to endure the appalling conditions of Australian prisons described in Jacobs’ book, and it’s exactly the same in the UK and Europe and the US. As Wynhausen states:

‘Even as unemployment around the globe soared, the financial institutions responsible sped from the wreckage they had left in their wake, to grab whatever they could get their hands on. After nine big Wall Street banks … were bailed out with US$175 billion from American taxpayers under the program President Bush signed into being, though President Obama would cop the flak for it, they handed out nearly US$33 billion in bonuses. (p. 189)

How big is a billion?

Those were the author’s well-justified italics. A reminder of how to conceptualise a figure as big as a billion: ‘Without doing the calculation, guess how long a million seconds is. Now, try to guess the same for a billion seconds. Ready? A million seconds is less than twelve days; a billion is almost 32 years.’ (Lanchester, 2010, p. 2)

This is why when billions are mentioned in the media (with the exception of the US Defense budget) it is usually $1.5 billion or $2 billion or so, shocking enough figures when we think about what is really involved in a billion.

(I discussed this way of imagining the otherwise incomprehensibly vast number in my 10 Feb. 2016 blog post, ‘62 people are as wealthy as half the world’. [By now that figure is eight. Yes. Eight people own as much wealth as half the world.])

It’s the same story everywhere, leading to the private affluence and public squalour that inevitably result from the neo-liberal economic values that dominate the world. In 1961 US President Eisenhower warned against the expansion of the military-industrial complex that was gaining increasing power and wealth. No one heeded that warning and this is exactly what happened.

Ronald Reagan in the US and Margaret Thatcher in the UK enabled it and the neo-liberal economic ideology it thrives on to flourish, then most governments of most countries continued that ideology, resulting in ever-increasing polarisation of the rich and poor and the colossal transfer of money meant for the public good (education, health, transport, protection of our air, water and food, public libraries) into a few private hands.

Rising to creative success in benighted times

In her book, Writing in an Age of Silence (Verso, 2007) prolific detective novelist Sara Paretsky – see – ponders the depressing turn that her native country has taken. To say that things have not improved since then might qualify as the understatement of that decade since this book was published.

‘Somehow, in the last two decades, Americans have decided that it is outrageous to pay taxes to support the common good. As a result, we have repeatedly cut library budgets, until today libraries have about a third of the money to buy books that they did twenty years ago.’ (Paretsky, 2007, p. 119)

Paretsky also observes that when media multinationals bought up publishers, they took management away from the book people and put it in the hands of the accountants and marketers. It was the same here. In the late-1990s the Australian Society of Authors – – published a bar graph showing how publishers had taken most money away from editorial areas and poured it into accounting, marketing and advertising.

An English academic involved in children’s book publishing was visiting the Humanities Research Centre, ANU, in the late 1990s, and he told me an amusing story: one of the giant corporations who bought up many small publishers had done precisely the above and were surprised when they lost money. They had put the accountants in charge and told them to make big profits. The accountants said, ‘Well, that’s easy; just publish only best-sellers.’

If anyone could have predicted what would be a best-seller (a notoriously difficult proposition) it would be those editors they had just sacked!

Paretsky tells us that the publisher Harper Collins is now part of the Murdoch empire and how they dumped 100 writers, just cancelled their contracts. ‘Writers of longstanding, with ten or even twenty published works to their names, with sales that made profit for their companies, can’t find a publisher today.’ (p. 117)

I haven’t found a publisher for my fiction but my rejection letters are becoming increasingly positive. Don’t laugh! – My interpretation is that success is getting closer.

The above grim facts about lack of justice in our world and the seemingly impossible fight for success amidst the skewed values of neo-liberal economics might indicate reasonable grounds for deep depression. Certainly my brain tells me this. But depression is being numb to possibility and my heart sings a different tune. I want to reinforce that music with books like Sarah Lewis’ The Rise: Creativity, the gift of failure, and the search for mastery (Simon & Schuster, 2014). This book is a stirring synthesis of history, biography and psychology, presenting illuminating case studies in science and the arts to help us see failure as the start of infinite possibility.

Finding the invincible summer within

We’ve all heard statistics like these: Gone with the Wind was rejected 38 times; Stephen King’s Carrie 30 times; Harry Potter 12; Jonathan Livingston Seagull 140 times; and even Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight 14 times. These examples come from Rod Judkins’ The Art of Creative Thinking (Sceptre, 2015), which has a similar uplifting thesis to The Rise but a narrower focus. Judkins tells us that every time a manuscript was rejected, these authors reworked it, improved it and sent it out again. He writes, ‘Overcoming the adversity of rejection opened up avenues of personal discovery that enabled them to uncover the nature of their true selves.’ (p. 241) Judkin quotes Céline: ‘I think all great innovations are built on rejections.’ (p. 243)

My favourite quotation from this book is from Albert Camus: ‘In the depths of winter I finally learned there was in me an invincible summer.’

In an unjust world we must find the wellspring of creativity that is in us all. Making time to do what we love is crucial. Spending less time on current affairs frees up time, energy and mental space plus give us a healthier perspective. Studies have repeatedly shown that the more news people watch, the more unrealistic is their assessment of the risk of negative things happening to them.

Listen to the enterprising and hilarious Tim Smit on this on Richard Fidler’s ‘Conversations’ 24 March 2017 – – Smit loathes the media because ‘their job is to observe from the outside as they corrode society every way they can,’ digging up every negative story they can find and making up others. ‘The result is that people read and listen to it and get a totally false sense of the negativity and danger of their lives. The fact is that we’re living in a time of miracles. There have been more scientific advances in the last 17 years than in the whole history of humankind. The media has poisoned public dialogue.’

Limiting our exposure to contemporary media gives us more time to read inspiring books that even in dark times lift our hearts, books like Sarah Lewis’ The Rise and Margaret Heffernan’s A Bigger Prize: Why competition isn’t everything and how we do better, which has remarkable and statistical(!) evidence in every field for justified optimism about our working lives and the planet. (See my blog mentioning this beautiful book in my 29 December 2015 post, ‘Cheerfulness is an achievement: favourite books of 2015’.) Heffernan – see – does great TED Talks too.

Sara Paretsky expresses something about what books can offer us in Writing in an Age of Silence: ‘Because my own great comfort comes from other writers’ words, my hope is that my stories may also bring readers some solace in the night, provide some lamplight on the darkened path.’ (p. 137)



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