Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Literary Snobbishness

To complain about a lingering literary snobbishness around the Booker might seem pointless; and given some of its less than overwhelming choices in recent years, I'm not sure it even matters. The novel was never the snobbish one in the literary family. It was born over the other side of the blanket, the progeny of journalists, chancers and even, God forbid, women. If it became respectable in the late 19th century it was still peopled by writers who'd not gone to university; who'd had their education in the fields around Haworth or the pubs around Fleet Street rather than Oxford and Cambridge.

That at some point the novel became the "tour de force" that we like to think of it - and perhaps supplanted poetry, the essay and drama as the jewel in our literary crown - didn't particularly make it respectable. After all, what had begun as a "romance", as "a novel" entertainment, was now (and for a long time had been) capable of being amongst the greatest art - yet technically a novel was any prose story pushed between covers, whether a Mrs. Oliphant or a George Eliot, a Mills & Boon or Midnight's Children. The French have long had their literary prizes (and other kinds of prizes) with a keen sense of where those books fit in the culture. The Booker grew out of corporate sponsorship; a desire to recognise the Commonwealth as something more than an outmoded concept; and possibly a desire to reward the respectable, at a time, the late 60s, when the world was changing.

Its remained its middle-browness as a prize of course, and I'm always amazed by the breadth of British literary culture - where we have these touchstones, like the Booker, the Queen's Medal for Literature, the Poet Laureate, the TLS and LRB, and then have these many layers of literary culture under and around. Like the class system these aristocratic pursuits seem to almost exist in another world - and when an upstart Australian (DBC Pierre) arrives at the party there's something of a collective shudder. So even though its for the "best books of the year" there's always a sense that it is an establishment sense of this.

After last year's "page turners" (which weren't particularly page-turning, from my reading of them, Patrick DeWitt aside) we've a more patrician head of the judges this year, Peter Stothard. Its something of course isn't it? That these men of letters exist. I've been immersed in literature for 30 years or more and not really come across him till now, though that's probably a triumph to his integrity - after all I love the TLS at its best, though I'd rarely consider it a reliable source for reviews of  fiction or poetry. In an otherwise illuminating interview in the Independent he blows it all by complaining that Book Bloggers are harming literature. Hard to know what he's saying, as it seems to be about a critical culture that is no longer there on the web; but it somehow all about friends puffing their friends books. (Not that that has ever happened in the mainstream press at all!) Its of course more nuanced that criticising blogs - what he's doing is criticising a "mass of unargued opinion." Whilst that might be true of Amazon reviews for instance, its almost the opposite of what you find from the book blogs. Whether its a collective effort like Bookmunch, where books routinely disappoint careful reviewers, or philosophical heavyweights like Stephen Michelmore or John Self, or literary magazines like 3AM, or (dare I say it) this blog, there's always seemed an independence about book blogging that is far more trustworthy than the Guardian's usual suspects approach to reviewing.

All I'd ask is that the Booker, one day soon, actually invites a book blogger to be one of its judges - after all we've had politicians, civil servants and actors alongside the more literary folks, but if I'm not mistaken, they've yet to invite (or be accepted by) a blogger. Then perhaps we'll stop getting this kind of reactionary snobbishness from a literary establishment that is rarely relevant outside their (admirable) day jobs.

One final point - Stothard admits that he's only seen something like six films in his life. This is astonishing in the extreme. His point - that "the great works of art have to renew the language in which they're written" is one I wholly agree with, but I'd argue that over the last fifty years (or longer) its as likely to be the movies "Chinatown" and "The Godfather" that have done that, as Graham Greene and Angela Carter. Are we here again seeing the distinctiion between a high art and a low art? Hard to know - and he's chaired an interesting looking list that has admirably lifted up some of that literary underground to the top table. Whether, like the servants in Downton Abbey, those will be let in more regularly, remains to be seen.

(I've just noticed the Guardian has done a piece on this and has asked a couple of Bloggers for their POV. Read it here.) 


Dan Holloway said...

the worst part of it for me was his assertion that literature needed to be open to the new - from a man in charge of the TLS, one of the most reactionary, backward publications in existence

Art Durkee said...

When I read Storhard's remarks, my first response was to guffaw that it was bollocks.

His patrician viewpoint very much reminds one of the denizens of Rome guarding the city walls against the invasion of the barbarians. I'm certain he fancies himself a literary gatekeeper, one whose taste is more true than those of the unwashed masses.

He's wrong, of course.