Foster
Type
Polemic
Category
Reading
Writing

Stupid cultures: on our obsession with Literature

I need to apologise – this is another piece on the death of the novel. On the death of the novel, but also on a fractured, stupefied publishing industry. More than that, it’s a piece on the decline in the public’s investment in literature as a cultural phenomenon.

But before I begin, it could be useful to try to offer a definition of what I mean by ‘literature’ here. Zadie Smith characterises it simply as writing that engages with the culture – as opposed to that which doesn’t. It’s the kind of writing which Mark de Silva, in an essay for 3:AM Magazine, calls ‘art fiction’ – as opposed to ‘leisure fiction’. I am talking about writing that challenges, that is more than entertainment, that makes demands of its reader. Which isn’t to say literature can’t be easy or entertaining or without demands entirely … You know when the punchline to a joke needs explaining? It seems we have arrived at an equivalently awkward stage in the history of literature.

In an interview with Verbivoracious Press, Croatian writer Dubravka Ugrešić says: ‘When a book becomes a product, we are no longer talking literature, but about sales and trade’. Bundled in with the idea that the novel is dead is the notion of commerciality. It seems silly to say, but Don Quixote cannot die. Nor can Crime and Punishment or The Waves. Many terrible novels are very real, very physical objects without any sort of life to take. What can certainly die, however, is the novel-as-consumer good. This, it seems to me, is everybody’s secret worry. Those on the side of the debate who argue literature is not dead, or anywhere near it, very often have a vested interest in it not dying. In the erection of Dymocks book towers and in banal reviews appearing in weekend newspapers and in waterside festivals continuing forever and ever.

Without intending to appear disingenuous, I’m not going to quote book sales figures. Instead, I’m going to list some markers which I interpret as being indicative of publishing’s vital signs: government funding to the arts continues to fall; humanities departments are shrinking; newspaper book pages have disappeared; the two largest publishing houses merged to have more leverage with online vendors; on and offline literary squabbles result in little more than further fractiousness; people on my morning commute are reading fewer books than ever before; and here we are still discussing the novel’s deadness. These are not the signs of a robust industry. Also, making demands of culture can seem laughably obtuse at the best of times – I wonder if the Trumps and the Brexits will soon prove too big and too serious a distraction for anyone to really give two shits about any of this.

But there are still readers and writers, and new publishing venues continue to materialise. The fabled democratising force of the internet means anybody can write, publish, promote and discuss literature. This isn’t not true – after all, here we are on the internet. Here I am writing something and having it published on a website, there you are reading it. The desire for community, too, has not gone away. But giving everybody on earth access to Facebook is not, as it turns out, democratic. Democracy only works if children are taught what a democracy is and why they need to play a role in it. I digress. If the state of things is such that reader-writer-publishers are primarily writing for other reader-writer-publishers to the perceived detriment of an industry, then that’s the state of things. This smallness is something we can embrace. Bear with me while I begin to defend the current, weakened position of literature.

‘I don’t think serious fiction is written for a few people’, US writer Percival Everett says in an interview in BOMB. ‘I think we live in a stupid culture that won’t educate its people to read these things. It would be a much more interesting place if it would.’ Mainstream, anti-evolution standards and narrow ideals of what literature is – and therefore can be – are what got us here. Tim Parks explores the restrictive nature of globalisation on literature in the essay, ‘The Dull New Global Novel‘; ironically, serious fiction is the space in which writers have the most freedom. A clean break from existing standards opens up both the possibility for a rewriting of these standards and a reorientation of how book-objects are pitched to a readership.

Ilana Masad’s opinion piece in the Guardian, ‘Are small (UK) publishers doing all the hard work for the big ones?‘, looks at the prevalence of independent presses publishing award-winning fiction, like 2016 Man Booker winner The Sellout by Paul Beatty and the multiple award winning A Girl is a Half-formed Thing by Eimear McBride, with these writers then being picked up by major publishers. (Did the headline writer read The Sellout? ‘A long time ago, my father taught me that whenever you see a question on the cover of a news magazine, the answer is always “No”.’ I digress.) Masad states: ‘The big publishers swoop in and profit from the hard work and risk-taking of the small presses.’ This is sort of true – Masad uses most of the piece to demonstrate this. She goes on to say it’s actually a good deal, at least for the writer: ‘It means everyone makes more money from the art and a wider audience is reached.’ Which is a nice idea. But earlier in the piece Masad mentions, ‘the capitalist nature of big publishing and the doom-and-gloom forecasts’. Presumably – she doesn’t elaborate – she means a broken, shrinking publishing industry and long term predictions for what is a slow, analogue product competing in a swift, digital entertainment landscape.

Small presses were curious about what a novel can be long before any awards came their way. So this is less about small presses doing more than it is about big publishers doing less than ever. Major publishers are giving writers a chance, but only if they have struck sales gold before, one of the gold-striking metrics being awards. But there are only so many literary awards, and the writers being picked up for their stylistic unorthodoxy are few. How long before that number ticks down to zero?

I need to stop myself here, before I get tangled too tightly. Masad also measures success by award wins and nominations. This needs to end. I agree, more people reading Beatty is no bad thing, but literature is not a sporting contest. Awards are subjective acts of recognition. Reiterating that a book has won an award is recognition of the recognition. That’s it. Using awards as metrics is one method of actively piloting literature nose-first into the ground.

In his 1957 essay ‘On Some Obsolete Notions’, Alain Robbe-Grillet wrote about how the language of criticism even then represented an idea of the novel, ‘a ready-made idea, which everyone admits without argument, hence a dead idea’. Three years earlier, in the essay ‘Pre-Novels’, Roland Barthes wrote: ‘The ideal novel – the innocent novel – is now impossible’. Yet major publishers carry on today as if it were not only possible but very nearly the only possibility. Do readers want homogeneity? Are they – and writers, and publishers – not interested in evolution and possibility? I refuse to believe it, but what I believe doesn’t matter: the approach is killing literary culture. Any further downsizing will not be victimless. Less than writers, who, at least locally, are already earning incomes so low as to require different degrees of supplementing, it’s likely the publishing office staff who will suffer most. Far from being arbiters, and already earning unenviable salaries, their loss will be felt as it is they who are propping up the industry. As such, those enthusiastic about literature are going to have to do more for less. This small mob is going to have to muster passion and energy to make even small things happen. We all need to become literary activists. Again, maybe locally, this is already the way of things – the next step is wholesale acknowledgement of it.

Crucial to a shrunken yet successful literary culture is education and accessibility. Literature is not for the few, but the idea that its value is implicit is void. Indeed, the industry is built on the naively solipsistic notion that everyone already knows that literature is important and it’s not going anywhere. Continuing to act this way is another reason that it is in this commercially unenviable position. Helpfully, Ugrešić has a resolution here too – literary apprenticeships:

I think that the notion of a literary work ethic is extremely important, especially today when practically anybody can write, produce, and distribute his or her own work. This work ethic presupposes knowledge and a deep respect toward – and compassion for – your ancestors and contemporaries, toward your trade. It also assumes a deep awareness of what one is doing, why one is doing what one is doing, what the sense of the work is, what it brings to the cultural context, what it brings to the reader, and so on.

At the centre of any discussion about accessibility must be the humble drive to make reading words easy, because God knows it gets complicated. Accessibility includes affordability: affordable books, cheap, DRM-free ebooks and festivals with an emphasis on the reading community. These are controllable and achievable. Access to writing is the simplest way to encourage and nurture an interest in literature and its possibilities.

I hope I’ve been clear: I am suggesting not that the gates to literature be bolted, but rather that a shrinking industry is opened up with the ultimate goal of liberating it. Go small to go big, you might say – if you need to say. ‘Maybe one day there will no longer be Literature,’ Ugrešić writes on her website’s homepage. ‘Instead there will be literary web sites. Like those stars, still shining but long dead, the web sites will testify to the existence of past writers.’ For now, literature remains. We know the value of it and recognise its importance as a cultural phenomenon. Whether we like it or not, it’s up to us to ensure that more than the memory of literature persists.

 

Image: ‘My Other Car Is A Pynchon Novel’ / Evan P Cordes

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

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Tristan Foster is a writer from Sydney. He is an editor at 3:AM Magazine.

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Comments

  1. These are thoughts I’ve fostered since we entered the 21st century. I’m a fan of the Moderns…the great authors and novels they produced, the publishers’ seeking them out, the stories of the publishers regeneration and their stories, the art,every expression of art and how the world events and cultures influenced and was reflected in every genre.

    I’ve been trying to figure out where is literature and where do we stand. I follow developments of world, national,art…events and I still don’t know where we stand in the writing arts.

    I enjoyed your comments and insights on this subject. Good read.

  2. Hi, nice to find another editor from the excellent 3:AM magazine. I just note the difference — to me, a gulf — between Zadie Smith’s definition and your own idea of writing “that challenges, that is more than entertainment, that makes demands of its reader.” For me, Smith is entertainment, and cultural engagement is not the most interesting purpose of novels. Part of the problem in public discourse is this sort of elision.

    • Fair enough, James – I use her definition not to describe her work but to illustrate the slipperiness of the term (a slipperiness which may actually be a good thing) “literature”. I do also think her definition is a compelling one – even if it’s flawed or you think her work falls into the lesser of the two categories she describes.

      Thanks for reading.

      T

  3. A brilliant essay, and I came here via a link on Literary Hub in New York. Bravo, Tristan. I reprinted yr essay on my blog in Taiwan here, with my fave sentences and grafs in bold and red ink. This needs to be read widely in world capitals.

    http://cli-fi-books.blogspot.tw/2017/02/i-need-to-apologize-this-is-another.html

    I especially like this: ”If the state of things is such that reader-writer-publishers are primarily writing for other reader-writer-publishers to the perceived detriment of an industry, then that’s the state of things.”

    And this: ”Three years earlier, in the essay ‘Pre-Novels’, Roland Barthes wrote: ‘The ideal novel – the innocent novel – is now impossible’.

    Yet major publishers carry on today as if it were not only possible but very nearly the only possibility.

    Do readers want homogeneity? Are they – and writers, and publishers – not interested in evolution and possibility?

    I refuse to believe it, but what I believe doesn’t matter: the approach is killing literary culture.

    Any further downsizing will not be victimless.”

  4. I am uneasy about ‘stupid’. That sounds like the liberals again. They still can’t understand how they have pissed people off so badly that everybody went and voted for Brexit and Trump.

    I am also uneasy about blaming the publishing industry. Writers incomes have fallen. Employment in publishing has fallen. You have a two-tier workforce. Just as you have in every other industry right now. They just don’t make writers wear different coloured jumpsuits at conferences.

    Publishing may be special. The pressures it is under are the same as any other industry.The results – driving out costs by casualising the workforce – are exactly the same.

    Novels are not as important as they were. Novelists are not public intellectuals any more. Hollywood actors are public intellectuals. Weird but true.

    I am wary of the concept of literature. I went to a posh university. I think literature is organised snobbery.

    One problem is the lack of an alternative readership. I think there was one. I think it was a readership for humanism, and I think it was coextensive with the bohemians, both of which are problematic. But it was there.

    Another is that self-publishing is potentially the most liberating thing that has happened to writers since Gutenberg and no-one has noticed. People want to use it to do the same as the legacy publishers, only worse.

    Try harder.

    • Will do, Andrew.

      Also, the “stupid culture” thing is from Percival Everett’s quote about his belief novels aren’t for a small minority – an elite, if you will. I highly recommend reading the interview, if not an Everett novel – he’s a lot of fun.

  5. Thanks. It’s good to see people are starting to acknowledge that the literature will never die, that people will always read and write, and that flailing to prop up anachronistic and redundant publishing industry structure is not the death of literature – just as torrenting and the absurd attempts to police the sharing of music (as if music was something people don’t share) is not the end of music. There is a change, for better or worse – we’ll figure it out. It’s a shame for people who finally managed to get paid to work in a field they love, but most of us never had such luck anyway. With the proliferation of small publishers enabled by the internet (through online community and low cost small print runs), conventional publishing is actually much better now, for the moment, than it was twenty years ago, when there were only giants and photocopiers.

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