A Week in Books: Let's have punitive taxes on trash

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The Independent Culture

The newculture secretary, Tessa Jowell, will find plenty of hefty headaches in those red boxes, from the non-existent national sports stadium to the stubbornly still-existent Dome. So it's improbable that she will spend many late nights on the proposal mooted this week by Salman Rushdie: that writers and other creative artists should be exempt from income tax, on the recent Irish model. One can imagine, all too well, Gordon Brown's response.

This week, Rushdie addressed his Utopian plea to the minister now responsible for the arts, Tessa Blackstone. ("All arts ministers must now be called Tessa," he noted.) He was handing out the 15 annual awards of £7,000 each that Arts Council gives writers in order to buy them time to complete a work in progress. Rushdie himself benefited from one of these blessed bursaries in the early 1980s, before the part-time copywriter had published Midnight's Children (on an advance of £1,200). The beneficiaries for 2001 include the novelists Louise Doughty, Anna Davis and Stewart Home, and two outstanding fresh prospects in poetry: Pascale Petit and Colette Bryce.

Rushdie made his plea for the Irish-style tax-break in the course of a sturdy defence of British fiction against Andrew Marr, whose judging of non-fiction for the Samuel Johnson Prize had led him to proclaim (for the millionth time) the near-death of the novel. The writer swept aside the BBC political editor as "a journalist looking for attention during a boring election campaign". Literary fiction, he said, was in "an extremely healthy state" at present. Yet many fine writers remained, as per usual, broke. Hence the call for privileged treatment from the Revenue.

The problem with the Irish bounty, or any more piecemeal gesture, will always lie in definitions of "creativity". Here the Marr camp can play their ace. For excellent non-fiction merits more credit than lousy fiction, any day. By what conceivable artistic yardstick is a master of reportage such as Ryszard Kapuscinski, whom we interviewed last week, a less "creative" figure than rich but mediocre mass-market novelists such as Mr ­ and Ms ­ (name your own culprits)? One might, indeed, even argue that the chief justification for a long career spent in the profitable shallows of trash fiction is that the author's taxes will eventually pay for a fleet of new ambulances, or a couple of day-care centres: private vices, public virtues. Perhaps we really need a board of worthies who will decide to levy lower than average taxes on some writers ­ and higher on others. Then all fictional efforts by Sun pundits could be subject to that semi-mythical Wilsonian rate from the Sixties: 98 per cent.