Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Being Rein Lang’s Bitch

A lot of art is boring read the tshirt that I stumbled across in a secondhand shop. I immediately imagined wearing it to gallery openings. But it was size “S”, so small only a child could have worn it.

When Kendergate broke, I thought of that tshirt and realized I could have presented it to Kaur on his first day at work. It’s his mantra on a tshirt, if he really did say Culture is boring shit. But I realized that if the tshirt didn’t fit me, then it would have had no chance of fitting a muscled Kaur. But maybe he could have held it up for a photo in the manner of a star football player who has just signed with a new club?

When Kaur got the editor’s job, I felt some pangs of jealousy. Why hadn’t Rein Lang called me? I mean, I wouldn’t mind the job. I might have agreed to be Lang’s editorial bitch, his kukk, his petuh with a pen.

Because what writer would not mind a steady paycheck once in a while? You can feed me all the Freedom House reports you want, but having personally seen the thickness of the divide between the editorial and publishing sides, the so called separation of church and state, I am not disillusioned. My rose-colored glasses were long ago crushed under the heel of a jackboot.

Personally, I believe that culture doesn’t have to be boring shit, though I suspect anything funded by the government does have to be boring shit. At least it has to eventually become it. This is the law of dancing to the tune of the one who paid the band.

At my most skeptical I wonder what are the opportunities for a reader to find great stimulation in any of the dozen publications funded by SA Kultuurileht – Sirp, Akadeemia, Diplomaatia, Keel ja Kirjandus, Kunst.ee, Looming, Loomingu Raamatukogu, Muusika, Teater.Muusika.Kino, Täheke, Vikerkaar, ja Õpetajate Leht.

If I’m to believe what I read in the newspaper then editors of some of these publications are crying out for strategic direction from the board, a board which is painted as a political tool. Even if everyone could work toward the same goal, or even just get along, I wonder if bureaucracy can possibly enable writing worth reading.

As Rein Lang’s bitch I would have expected a warm spot for a livable wage that would allow me to tinker with other projects (my “art,” let’s call it). Give me my little piece of the state’s 7.7 billion euro budget, seven hundred euros or so per month. Give me a ten-year old computer, free parking, all the drip coffee I can drink, and allow me to disappear to junkets and trainings as often as I can get them. And let me take off work anytime I have a runny nose, or when it’s the season to help grandma make apple juice. There is something to be said for that lifestyle.

At one point I had imagined a cartoon which might have run in a newspaper: Rein Lang bigger than life with a prison shiv in his hands. On the shiv’s blade is written “SA Kultuurileht.” Lang is protecting his turf, spinning and slashing at the encroaching editors of his twelve publications. The text in his speech bubble: You're all my bitches now!

But it didn’t work out that way. Literally everybody just said fuck it and walked away. (Dombrovskis, too, though he was unwilling, at least publicly, to connect it to Sirp.)

When Lang resigned, I worried about Kaur. Surgeons are prima donnas by nature, and I accepted that one would not begin carving up a publication without his own anesthesiologist by his side. But I figured, in Lang’s absence, that Kaur’s dream team would all get the axe as soon as there was an open competition for the editor-in-chief’s job. Those poor bastards, I thought, they gave up whatever warm place they had for what would likely turn out to be a four-month gig to be publicly dissected under the scratched loop of a hypersensitive intelligentsia.

Writing isn’t a great “job” in any sense, and many successful western writers I know openly advise their kids to grow up to be lawyers or accountants. And for Estonian writers who shun the taxpayer’s money, life in the private sector of such a small market is much less lucrative than in the west. In Estonia, your bestseller and two euros will get you a cup of coffee.

I stand in awe of Estonian editors who are able to fill magazines and newspapers with stories, since what they’re able to pay is attractive mostly to those who write for god and country, or to those who write because their mothers will cut the article out and put it on the fridge.

When editors can pay from zero to a couple of hundred euros (at best) for a story, the editor-writer relationship trades on an ugly currency: personal favors. It creates a world where a freelancer cannot earn a decent living, and writers make ends meet by running guns, cooking meth, or writing for advertising agencies.

Speaking purely as a reader, I was excited by Kaur’s appointment. I like the idea that such an unapologetic shit-stirrer would take the helm of a magazine. Any magazine.

The fact is that a good magazine editor doesn’t go looking to administrative bodies to find direction. He doesn’t build his content based on consensus. A good magazine is led by the editor. Kaur seemed to indicate the willingness to take that responsibility and the heaps of abuse that go with it.

(Yes, I’m aware some say it was all an elaborate prank, meant only to kick sand in the eyes of intellectual establishment. I have no way of knowing, but I can still like the idea of Kaur as editor.)

Did Kaur have the academic and literary credentials for Sirp? What should those credentials be? (Do I have them?) Estonians do seem obsessed with higher education, though I tend to think that if you can write you can write. But don’t misunderstand me: a diploma does have value to a writer. For one thing, he can wipe his ass with it if times get tough.

I was at the R-Kiosk in Viru Keskus at nine a.m. on the Friday when Kaur’s first Sirp came out. Alas, they were sold out, and so instead of reading Sirp I meandered upstairs to Rahva Raamat where I purchased Mihkel Mutt’s Kooparahvas Läheb Ajalukku.

I bought myself a morning whiskey and cracked Mutt’s book.

And I found Estonia’s entire cast of characters there in Mutt’s cave: the intelligentsia, artists, the businessmen, the politicians . . . and they were all mulling over my question.

“But aren't the Party and the government our sponsors?” asked a doubting voice.

“Are you crazy?! They fucking hate us.”

Over at the Rahva Raamat checkout, I noticed an Estonian cultural icon raising a fuss because they did not stock a coffee table book he wanted about the six breeds of hairless cats. I recognized him as one of the intellectuals who had taped his mouth shut and posed for Eesti Ekspress.

At that point, I would have liked to raise my glass to wish Kaur luck. But since there was no one left to drink to, I just drank.

And that’s of course what we readers are left with: to just go drink. That, and to grapple with the question raised by Mikk Salu in Postimees on November 29:

“Who'll answer the questions about what we want – more readability and higher circulation where we invest more in marketing. Or do we want quality and put the money into paying writers?"

Who’ll answer? We’ll answer. We the readers. And maybe this is Mikk’s real question: Is there any one of those twelve Kultuurileht publications that are so damned good you really look forward to its arrival in your mailbox? Any of them that you’re willing to wake up early for and rush to R-kiosk? Or would you prefer to just sleep in?


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