Sense and sensibility: on literary taste

The modern spectacle of literary prizes and festivals – ‘modern’, because the great writers of the past who may now find their names gracing one or another such prize themselves received few in their own time – provoked Ivor Indyk’s recent appeal in the Sydney Review of Books to scrap them altogether, with suggestions on how to use the money to ‘enrich the literary environment, and raise the bar on literary achievement’.

There is, in a sense, hardly anyone better placed in the landscape of Australian letters to point out the proverbial elephant in the room. Professor Indyk, publisher of a press in the vanguard of innovative and quality literary writing, whose writers regularly make shortlists or take the winner’s trophy in major Australian prizes, deservingly so, is honest enough to admit the silly nature of the enterprise, and ‘the thousands of dollars in entry fees [he has] to pay each year to support the administration of prizes that more and more frequently go to authors who are neither challenging or innovative.’ Until, one presumes, by a stroke of luck or the great fortitude shown by the jury for a change, just one such challenging or innovative title is judged the winner.

But the trouble is that challenging or innovative fiction in itself offers no guarantee of quality. Much of it can be as tedious as most of the fiction that oozes ‘appeal’, but perhaps this has more to do with the insipidity of our times than the themes and techniques one brings to bear on their material.

Of course, Indyk’s exasperation with the farcical goings-on behind the conferral of literature awards and the necessarily compromised nature of the final choice is neither incorrect nor novel. Exactly three decades ago, the American writer William H Gass lamented about the situation in the context of the Pulitzer Prize in a long polemical piece for the New York Times titled, ‘Prizes, Surprises and Consolation Prizes’. It makes for entertaining reading. Gass is firmly on Indyk’s side and his scathing wit and wizardry of metaphor add force and flourish:

It is not a serious novelist’s nightmare (the possibility is so absurd); nevertheless, suppose you fancied yourself a serious novelist (a writer, as they say, of the first rank), and a wire were delivered in your dream. . . that you, Julia Peterkin, or you, Marjorie Rawlings, or you, Allen Drury or Michael Shaara or Alison Lurie, had been awarded the Pulitzer Prize in fiction for 1929 or ‘39 or ‘60 or ‘75 or ‘85. Well, what a pleasant supposition: to receive a prize, a famous one at that, with considerable prestige and the presumption of increased sales as well as other benefits. Why should such a compliment to your art be denied; why should the thought be unlikely, the award embarrassing, the fact nightmarish? Because the Pulitzer Prize in fiction takes dead aim at mediocrity and almost never misses; the prize is simply not given to work of the first rank, rarely even to the second; and if you believed yourself to be a writer of that eminence, you are now assured of being over the hill – not a sturdy mountain flower but a little wilted lily of the valley.

Nearer our time, in the 2008 piece ‘Tears, tiffs and triumphs’, where the Guardian sought responses from past judges of the (Man) Booker Prize as to how the winner each year was chosen, the critic James Wood laid bare the absurdity of the process:

After serving on the 1994 Booker prize committee, I made a pledge never to judge a big fiction prize again, and I have so far honoured it. We were a congenial group, and our chairman was not a former politician or bureaucrat but a distinguished literary critic (John Bayley); our meetings were friendly, and surely no less or more argumentative than those of other years. But the absurdity of the process was soon apparent: it is almost impossible to persuade someone else of the quality or poverty of a selected novel (a useful lesson in the limits of literary criticism). In practice, judge A blathers on about his favourite novel for five minutes, and then judge B blathers on about her favourite novel for five minutes, and nothing changes: no one switches sides. That is when the horse-trading begins. . . .  That is how our shortlist was patched together, and it is how our winner was chosen. It is how every shortlist is chosen, whether the premises are as explicit or not. . . .

Tim Parks went a step further recently when he declared the Nobel Prize itself stupid: ‘why do people take the Nobel Prize seriously when it’s obviously stupid? It’s obviously stupid. An idiot could demonstrate it. The question that’s not interesting is why is it stupid. The question is, why do people continue to take it?’

Gass may squirm at the Pulitzer, but one supposes might still find in his heart the courage to travel to Stockholm (he was on the punters’ list for a number of years). Indyk’s appeal, though wider in scope, may not admittedly run as far as the Swedish shores. Which makes one wonder about the true meaning of words like ‘middlebrow’ and ‘literary achievement’? Parks assertion notwithstanding, the Swedes do get the ‘literary achievement’ bit more times right than wrong, once you have looked away from the glaring omissions: Joyce, Proust, Kafka, Borges. Then, too, the distinguished committee members have the great arbiter of time on their side since the Nobel works more as a lifetime achievement prize than a reward for trailblazing individual works arriving hot off the press.

Naturally, nobody with a reasonable amount of literary education can fault the main argument of these estimable critics: that the quotidian is celebrated while the masters are silently passed over. Not so different was it in the time of Thomas Browne. And it may be helpful to remember that no less an eminence than André Gide rejected the manuscript of Swann’s Way. The history of literature is replete with such mistakes and missed opportunities. When today so many good writers struggle even to find a publisher, when the grandees of big publishing are mostly busy promoting the next novel with ‘appeal’, when those in the business of fostering culture are firmly established in the muddle of the middlebrow, and when, with prose-bleary eyes, they try to thrust the burden of their jobs onto the sensible reader, abolishing prizes can scarcely be an insurance against future ills. When the market is inundated with such ‘appealing’ works, is it at all surprising that they nudge the ‘literary’ off the podium?

Art, as everyone knows, is a necessarily subjective business: what is achievement for you, may be middlebrow for me, while what I find absorbing you may not care to read. For instance, there is a kind of British critic (the type is universal really) for whom Rushdie and Marquez are the lodestars of the literary firmament, just as there are publishers still counting their blessings to have discovered a Hilary Mantel or Kazuo Ishiguro. But for some of us, the magic of Rushdie or Marquez may have started to wear thin, and we may privately regret that our own favourites are slowly being consigned to oblivion.

What has all along been in contention is the old-fashioned term ‘taste’, which, in our flattened world, I would gladly replace with the less hierarchical ‘sensibility’. For on the great works of the past we all may have a broad unanimity, but for the constantly unfolding contemporaneous the path is bound to be treacherous. It is a paradox of literature – indeed all art – that it simultaneously aspires to be both elitist and democratic. To take one or the other out of the equation is to undermine its very essence.

‘[Prizes] don’t do much for authors on the whole,’ notes Indyk, while acknowledging at the same time that ‘they may be the last bastion, in this world, for the literary recognition that is withheld by the marketplace. He continues, ‘Apart from the Miles Franklin and the CBCA Awards, they don’t do a lot for publishers either.’

I am neither an award-winning author nor a publisher so I am happy to be persuaded by Indyk on both these points. All literature aspires toward poetry, I recall reading long ago. This is now true in economic terms as well. High-end literary fiction, the kind Indyk would like rewarded, doesn’t sell, I would guess, much more than good poetry. If, therefore, a writer of just such a work were to win a major prize – it does happen after all – it can create a domino effect in terms of sales and readership, bringing at long last the much deserved recognition that may grow and, with luck, endure for generations. How else to hear their calm or stormy voice over your weekly literary din, when the number of published books are on the rise, and the space for discussion and reviews fast shrinking? I sometimes wonder whether I would rather not have the chance to discover a good writer, previously unknown, even at the cost of trawling (glancing, more likely) through long dull award listings? Or maybe I am being needlessly contrarian, and good books eventually find a way to their readers.

Even so, increasingly, writers of quality are also teachers of writing, seeking academic appointments or fellowships, which are in themselves not any less closely contested. And here the prestige that comes with the awards is of some significance (who, after all, in the time-starved world of the modern academy, would not readily believe the eminent juries about the qualities of a given work?). Awards, even shortlists, function as the base on which the superstructure of a writing career is built nowadays. (I am not defending the practice but merely pointing the obvious.) And in this respect shouldn’t the highbrow stand at least an equal chance alongside the ‘appealing’ middlebrow? For however different their aims they are subject to the same corporatised environment. It compromises the nobility of the enterprise for sure, but then what literature is created without one or another compromise? As James Wood notes in his concluding remarks to the Guardian:

[P]rizes have become a form of reviewing: it is prize-lists that select what people read, prize-lists that make literary careers. Bookshops order novels based on the prizes they have won or been shortlisted for. Nowadays, a whole month before the shortlist is announced, scores of novelists are effectively told that their books have not been the “big books” of the year, because they are not to be found on the longlist. Soon, no doubt, we will have the long-longlist, and the long-long longlist. Some wonderful books win the Booker, of course, just as the flypaper occasionally catches some really large flies. But it means – or should mean – nothing in literary terms.

This is hardly news anymore, and the hysteria in the world of big publishing is frankly reaching absurd levels. The Man Booker Prize announces its longlist of thirteen novels. In the words of the chair of the jury, ‘the longlist could have been twice as long’, but, tough luck, there were only so many open spots to fill. The latest Franzen, Ishiguro, Atwood, even dear old Harper Lee fail to make the cut. Their publishers are not amused. Soon, however, there is some relief. Courtesy The Independent, an alternative Man Booker Longlist arrives on the heels of the original which gives the ignored publishers something to cheer, and in turn offers the reader more of the finest in fiction for the year 2015.

Prizes may have originated in cultural or philanthropic ideals, but, like everything else, were soon co-opted by the market for its own narrow money-spinning ends. Today a majority of them function as components of the well-oiled publicity machines of conglomerate businesses. But they are now failing to take the merciless logic of the market forward, and as soon as the tipping point is reached, the market will not hesitate to dispense with them. Two recent events point toward this trend: first, the merger (takeover) of the International Foreign Fiction Prize with (by) the Man Booker International Prize (hence, one prize less); and, second, the failure of the Folio Prize, launched amid much fanfare two years ago (yet another finest in fiction!), to retain its sponsor beyond the initial term of two years.

The problem, then, is of a slightly different order. In an increasingly complex and specialised world, literature and the other arts embrace technical and avant-garde tools to cut their way into the deeply entangled conundrums of modern life. But ensnared in the wiles of neoliberal capitalistic anxieties and dominated by ubiquitous information technology apparatuses that take up vast quantities of human time and energies in wasteful, spirit-numbing activities, the circle (and the attention) of even ordinary readers, to say nothing of dedicated and thoughtful ones, is, alas, shrinking. As Justin Clemens pointedly argues in a recent piece for the Australian Humanities Review:

[A]ll economic and financial practices are now integrally informatic, and as such necessarily expropriative, even if by means of the alibi of new forms of voluntary servitude: one must pay in a number of ways in order to accomplish the slightest action. The separation between economy and language has now been sealed by new media—at the concomitant cost of separating humans from their own language-use, the feature long considered by philosophy to be their essence. If almost all inherited elements of human communication have now been decisively reconfigured by the new technologies, this is on the basis of essentially technical, trans-human routines of ‘information-as-code’ not ‘language-as-symbolic-exchange’. In other words, human language-use has itself become a subset of informatics, not a constitutive horizon of understanding.

Literature is the art form most dependent on ‘language-as-symbolic-exchange’, and consequently suffers the worst fate in the age of ‘information-as-code’. No amount of reprinting of Australian classics or hosting touring program, or the establishment of ‘literature houses’ in metropolitan and regional centres (not sure what their scope and functions would be) will be, in my opinion, sufficient to resolve the crisis. For one, I would have thought, all these noble initiatives were already in place. To enhance their scale would surely benefit more writers, but may eventually fall short of the ambition of lasting cultural enrichment. And who is to say that the cult of the middlebrow, which isn’t an Australian indulgence alone, will not once more find residence in these humanistic agendas, for capitalistic power and prejudice are known to crystallise fairly quickly around new initiatives.

It may, therefore, be helpful to complement the aid offered to writers with schemes and funding to build a sizeable and dedicated – even militant – cadre of readers throughout the country, more enrollments and scholarships for students at all levels in the humanities, more creative freedom and less bureaucracy in the functioning of universities and institutions. For in the present times, to write or read attentively is itself a political act, putting a pause in the slow, ceaseless grind of the millstone of capital, and opening one, even if briefly, to the full force of sentience.

Like Indyk, I cannot overemphasise the significance of greater intercourse between Australian mainstream and Indigenous literatures. This is not just a political necessity but an aesthetic one. A majority of the local Anglophone literature looks to Britain or the United States for its models, when it may well profit from its own old world heart. Ancient cultures had ways of ordering knowledge in myths that have been lost to the modern mind. To regain this skill and to employ it in making newer works may have the potential of transforming Australian literature from among the youngest to one of the oldest in the world.

Aashish Kaul

Aashish Kaul completed his doctoral studies at the University of Sydney​​. He is the author of A Dream of Horses & Other Stories (2014) and The Queen’s Play (2015).

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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