OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAYou’ll sometimes read in small press magazines the heartfelt cry that if everyone who submitted to the magazine bought one copy, the problems of circulation would be solved.

Back in the nineteen seventies, when I briefly ran a small poetry magazine, that was the bleat of the Indie proprietor-editor.

We’ve got used to a publishing model where a few write, and a myriad read. In earlier generations it wasn’t that clear-cut. Few may have written, but far fewer read, and even a century after the development of steam presses churning out copy for the masses, a successful literary author might be expected, might need to, subsidize the publication of his work, rather than draw an income from it.

Since World War Two we in the UK have had Arts Council subsidy on what clearly is perceived as being as economically unviable in much the same way. What has changed is that different notions of what should be supported, and how, are in place – notions that are in the minds of Civil Servants, rather than Patrons. There’s an interesting discussion of this towards the end of ‘War Like A Wasp’, Andrew Sinclair’s 1989 study of Fitzrovia in the Forties.

More people write nowadays– or at least o it seems –than ever before, and the internet has made it, quite suddenly, economically viable to write, and to be published, without needing subsidy, or a vast readership. The high input, high output, mass market, celebrity publishing model is under threat. Suddenly the role of the ‘gateguards’ – a term I first heard in this context whilst doing my M.Litt – is brought into sharp focus, and into question.

The gateguards keep the mob out (or in, depending on where you think the mob is). They keep up standards – an interesting idea in the Arts, where one generation’s rubbish might be another’s gems, going forwards, or back! They delineate norms, perhaps even prescribe them, and in the internet publishing age, may be regarded as obsolete. This is a disaster, some would have us believe.

The commercial model, even with its subsidies – which render it a spurious sort of commerce – has led to an assumption that more is better. A writer who sells a million books must be better than one who sells a hundred, all things being equal. Translate this into another form, and we get the baked bean and the white sliced loaf as the pinnacle of the culinary art; the home-made, hand-made, artisan loaf or delicacy as the nadir.

We like to believe that a great writer is a rarity, and that might be the case; but the very, very good, and the very good, and the good, and the competent, might they be, in fact, the norm?

What if, as Philip K.Dick exhorted us to ask – well, Wow! What if! to be precise – there was a very, very good writer in every ten thousand of us? What if, one among every thousand? Wow! What if, among every hundred? What if, every tribe – of 75 to 150 before it splits – produced a couple?

What if, in fact, like singing, writing, or its sibling, story-making were an inherent part of being human, and not some scarce, arcane skill that the few practise for the benefit of the many? What if it were a cultural activity that we might all engage in, with pleasure and reward, something that the many put their efforts and resources into, rather than the few taking a harvest out of?

There’s an old Chinese saying – or was it from the Black Country? – that ‘The Gateguards are richly accoutred, and well fed: they will fight long and hard to preserve their empty keeps.’

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