Books: Essay

The Piazza and the Car Park

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The genius of market activism is that it doesn’t reject the terminology of literary value; it disinherits and revivifies it, making it a powerful code

Literary Activism: Perspectives | Edited by Amit Chaudhuri | Oxford University Press | Rs 595 | Pages 376

A DECADE IS A long time in the life of a culture, and much changed during the 1980s. But arguably far more changed, and changed unthinkably, between 1989 and 1993. The American writer Benjamin Kunkel, founder-editor of the journal n+1, said in an interview published in 2014:

“… I’m now old enough to remember when the Cold War just seemed like a permanent geological feature of the world. And then it just vanished. Then people would talk about how Japan was going to be a wealthier economy than the United States in 10 years. It would have seemed totally insane that there was going to be a black president and that gay people were going to get married…”

Kunkel is telling us how difficult it was, and always is, to predict the outcomes that we now take so for granted that we no longer even think about them; no longer, experientially, perceive a discontinuity. But perhaps he’s also telling us how hard it is to remember—actually to feel the nearness and veracity of a time when it would have seemed “insane” to make those predictions… So it is almost impossible now to remember—as it was impossible then to predict the fall of the Berlin Wall and the advent of President Obama—that poetry was the literary genre to which the greatest prestige accrued until the mid- 1980s; that one might have spent an afternoon talking with an acquaintance about the rhythm of a writer’s sentences (in my specific instance, the novelist I have in mind is James Kelman, the acquaintance an English graduate student in Oxford whose name I have now forgotten). In the same way, it’s hard to recall that we didn’t think of success in writing mainly in relation to the market, and in relation to a particular genre, the novel, and to a specific incarnation of that genre, the first novel, possibly until 1993, when A Suitable Boy was published, or maybe a year earlier, when Donna Tartt’s The Secret History appeared…

In Oxford, I recall a dimly lit car park next to the cinema on George Street that was finally turned into a fake piazza in which a market now congregates on Wednesdays. I find it difficult to recall the car park except theoretically. But I know very well that it was there. I have to rely on a moral variant of voluntary memory, on a willed excavation, to bring it back. This excavation— this ethical variation of voluntary memory—is increasingly important to those of us who have lived through a bygone epoch into this one. Without it, we accept the timelessness, the given-ness, of whatever is equivalent to the piazza in our present- day existence. In other words, voluntary memory—or that form of excavation—must take us towards what from our point of view is plausible, but essentially unthinkable: not just the past’s ignorance of its own future, as in Kunkel’s anecdote about a world presided upon by the Cold War and unable to conceive of its own contingency, but the past studied from the vantage- point of a present in which we know the Cold War to be a historical fact, but unthinkable. To truly attest today to the existence of the car park, or our habits of reading before the free market, is, to use Kunkel’s word, “insane”: or uncanny. We presume, immediately upon taking on new habits, that those habits are inborn reflexes. We are shocked to hear that poets were central to the culture; that writers once deliberately distanced themselves from material success. The past, as we reacquaint ourselves with these unthinkable facts, begins to look like that rare thing: compelling science fiction—utterly new, and unsettling. Our excavation is perhaps all the more important because we have been inhabiting, for 25 years, an epoch or a world in which there has been really no contesting order, no alternative economic or political model. Only through a moral variant of voluntary memory might we, who belong to a particular generation, intuit a different order and logic which isn’t really recoverable, and which challenges the present one—the piazza—simply by exposing its contingency, its constructedness.

What are the features, since the 1990s, of the piazza that have almost obliterated our memory of the car park, making us doubt if it existed? Let’s enumerate, quickly and crassly, some of the obvious developments in literary culture, focusing on publishing and dissemination, and the ways in which they converged with a rewriting of the literary. Let me restrict myself to Britain, my primary location during that time, taking the developments there to be in some senses paradigmatic. For one thing, most British publishing houses, as we know, were acquired by three or four German and French conglomerates, leading to a version, in publishing, of the Blairite consensus: a sort of faithful mimicking of the absence of true oppositionality in British politics following the creation of New Labour in the image of the Thatcherite Tory party. Bookshop chains such as Dillons and Waterstone’s emerged, at first heterogeneous in terms of their individual outlets, then becoming merged and increasingly centralised. As many of us also know, the Net Book Agreement collapsed—that is, the agreement that had protected books from being sold under an agreed minimum price. Offers and price reductions not only became possible, they became the context for what determined shelf space and, thus, what was read. The books on price reductions and three-for-the-price-of-two offers were those that had been deemed commercial by marketing executives—the new, unacknowledged bosses of the editors and publishers—and bookshop chains, the new, unacknowledged bosses of the marketing executives.

What we were presented with, then, was a stylised hierarchy in which the author, at its bottom, was, like a monarch in a parliamentary democracy, celebrated or reviled—because, as with the monarchy, there was no real agreement on whether the author was really necessary—and in which even publishers and agents played stellar roles only within accommodations predetermined by marketing men and bookshop-chain bureaucrats. This is not to say that agents or publishers didn’t believe in unlikely or unpromising books. The shift lay here: they believed in them in the cause of their untapped market potential. However, with the creation of a new marketing category, “literary fiction”, market potential would only be expressed in terms of aesthetic excellence. Almost no publisher would say, in their press release: “We believe this novel is going to sell tens of thousands of copies.” They would say, instead: “We believe this novel puts the writer in the ranks of VS Naipaul and Salman Rushdie,” a literary formulation based upon analogies and juxtapositions that made perfect sense to the public. Belief is a sacred constituent of radical departures in literature and publishing: so it appeared, by a slight adjustment of language, as if the literary were being invested in.

Here was a commercial strategy that would not speak its name, except in the context of a new kind of literary populism: “More and more people are reading books.” At the top of the hierarchy was the figure the marketing men scrambled to obey: the reader. The word “reader” possessed a mix of registers: it evoked the old world of humanistic individualism that had ensconced the act of reading, while, at once, it embraced the new, transformative populism. This populism worked so well in culture precisely because it didn’t dispense with the language of the old humanism even though it rejected almost everything it had stood for; it simply embraced that language and used it on its own terms.

The book is severed from oeuvre and literary tradition, as if it existed only in the moment. The history that creates a literary work is dispensed with

…What was the academy doing at this point? By the late 1980s, critical theory and its mutations—including postcolonial theory, which would take on the responsibility of defining and discussing the increasingly important literature of Empire— had begun to make incursions into Oxbridge and other universities. The departments of English, by now, looked with some prejudice upon value and the symbols of value, such as the canon; problematised or disowned terms such as “classic” and “masterpiece”; often ascribed a positive political value to orality, which it conflated with non-Western culture, and a negative one to inscription or “good writing”, which it identified with the European Enlightenment. Some of this was overdue and necessary.

Meanwhile, publishers robustly adopted the language of value—to do with the “masterpiece” and “classic” and “great writer”—that had fallen out of use in its old location, fashioning it in their own terms. And these were terms that academics essentially accepted. They critiqued literary value in their own domain, but they were unopposed to it when it was transferred to the marketplace. Part of the reason for this was the language of the market and the language of the publishing industry were (like the language of New Labour) populist during a time of anti-elitism. Part of this had to do with the fact that publishers adopted complex semantic registers. For example: from the 1990s onwards, publishers insisted there was no reason that literary novels couldn’t sell. This was an irrefutable populist message disguising a significant commercial development. What publishers meant was that, in the new mainstream category of “literary fiction”, only literary novels that sold well would be deemed valid literary novels. Academics neither exposed this semantic conflict nor challenged the way literary value had been reconfigured. When, in response to political changes in the intellectual landscape, they extended the old canon and began to teach contemporary writers, or novelists from the former colonies, they largely chose as their texts novels whose position had been already decided by the market and its instruments, such as certain literary prizes.

Experts, critics, and academics took on, then, the role of service-providers in the public sphere. This dawned on me in 2005, when I was spending a couple of months with my family in Cambridge. Watching TV in the evening, possibly Channel 4, we chanced upon a programme on “The 10 best British film directors”; the list had been created on the basis of votes from viewers. As with all such contemporary exercises, it was an odd compilation, displaying the blithe disregard for history so essential to the market’s radicalism. Chaplin had either been left out or occupied a pretty low rung; Kenneth Branagh might have been at the top. Each choice was discussed by a group of film critics and experts (such as Derek Malcolm) who, in another age, would have had the final say. Here, they neither interrogated the choices nor the legitimacy of the list; they solemnly weighed the results. Respect and a species of survival skills were their hallmark. If Channel 4 viewers had come up with a completely different list, it would have been accorded the same seriousness by the experts. They were here to perform a specific function. The programme made me realise that it’s not that the market doesn’t want the expert or the intellectual; it simply wants them on its own terms. The arbiter of taste and culture, the expert— whether they’re a film critic, or a celebrity chef, or a Professor of English judging the Booker Prize—is a service-provider. The circumstances—such as the “public” vote that had gone towards the list, or the six months in which the Booker judge reads 150 novels (two novels nominated by each publishing house) in order to choose the best literary novel of the year—will invariably be absurd from one point of view, and revolutionary and renovating from the point of view of the market. The expert, in a limited and predetermined way, is a requisite for this renovation. The genius of market activism lies in the fact that, unlike critical theory, it doesn’t reject the terminology of literary value; it disinherits and revivifies it, and uses it as a very particular and powerful code. This accounts for its resilience…

Let’s have a look at how the Booker Prize morphed from a prize judged by novelists into a fundamental device for “market activism” in the 1990s, with juries comprising politicians and comedians. The off-kilter agitation caused by the Booker was, even by the late 1980s, not so much related to the excitement of the literary, which has to do with the strangeness of poetic language (or as Housman put it, “If a line of poetry strays into my memory, my skin bristles so that the razor ceases to act”), as it was an effect of a hyper-excited environment. The principal way in which the Booker achieved this was by confirming, and allowing itself to be informed by, the market’s most value-generating characteristics: volatility and random rewards. The market never promised equitable gain and wealth for all; what it said was: “Anyone can get rich.” The distance between equitable gain (the idea that everyone can be rich) and the guarantee, “anyone can get rich”, seems at first a matter of semantics, and non-existent; but it is very real and is reproduced exactly by the distance between the reader in the 1970s and the “reader” in the time of market activism. In the age of full-blown capitalism, anyone can get rich through the market, and, also, anyone can get poor; and these occurrences are disconnected from anachronistic ideas of merit and justice. In this disconnection lies the magic of the free market, its ebullience and emancipation. So the Booker Prize implicitly proclaims: “Anyone can win.” As long as the work in contention is a novel and is in English, both qualifications embedded in, and representing, the globalised world, we can peel away the superfluous dermatological layers of literariness by agreeing that the essay, the story, and poetry are ineligible and superfluous. “Anyone can win” suggests a revolutionary opening-up typical of the language of market activism. As the Booker’s constituency—for some time now, a worldwide one—accepts the fact that anyone can win, there is, ritually, a degree of volatility about the construction, announcement, and reception of the shortlist—of late, even the longlist— which captures the agitation that propels market activism. Famous writers and critically acclaimed books are often ignored; at least one unknown novelist is thrown into the limelight; one putatively mediocre novel is chosen. The book is severed from oeuvre and literary tradition, as if it existed only in the moment; the history, development, and cross-referencing that creates a literary work is correctively dispensed with.

Since the history of so-called “new literatures” such as the Indian novel in English is tied up thoroughly (especially since Midnight’s Children) with the Booker Prize and the manner in which it endorses novels, we subsist on a sense that the lineage of the Indian English novel is an exemplary anthology of single works, rather than a tradition of cross-referencing, borrowing, and reciprocity. The random mix on the shortlist and the incursion of first-time novelists as shortlisted authors, often even as winners, might echo the sort of championing that drew attention to new or marginal writing; while it is actually enlivened by the volatility of market activism. Each year there’s the ritual outcry from critics and journalists that the judges have missed out on some meritorious works. This outcry is not a critique of the Booker; it’s germane to its workings and an integral component of its activism. The culminatory outcry comes when the winner is announced; the result is occasionally shocking. Again, this phase, of disbelief and outrage, is an indispensable part of the Booker’s celebration—its confirmation— of the market’s metamorphic capacities; the prize would be diminished without it. This randomness should be distinguished from the perversity of the Nobel, where a little-known committee crowns a body of work marked by the old-fashioned quality of “greatness”, or rewards a writer for what’s construed to be political reasons. The Nobel’s arbitrariness is bureaucratic, its randomness a reliable function of bureaucracy.

Partly the Booker goes periodically to first novels or to unknown writers because its form of activism dispenses with the linear histories and body-of-work narratives that conventionally define literary histories and prizes such as the Nobel; it responds to the market’s compression and shrinking of time, its jettisoning of pedigree in favour of an open-ended moment: the transformative “now” of the market, in which anything can happen, and everything is changing. The fact that Indian writing in English since Midnight’s Children has been handcuffed to the Booker means that it exists in this perpetual now, that its history is periodically obliterated and recreated each time an Indian gets the prize, leading Indian newspapers to proclaim every few years: “Indian writing has come of age.” The first novel of this type, published in the 1990s, came to embody this compressed timeframe in which speculation occurs, fortunes are lost and made, radical transformation effected. Publishers who contributed significantly to market activism appropriated this sub-genre and, by often calling books that were yet to be published “masterpieces” (the publisher Philip Gwyn Jones’s pre- publication statement about The God of Small Things, “a masterpiece fallen out of the sky fully formed”, comes to mind), made pronouncements in terms of the market’s compression of time, its subtle reframing of context and linearity, its insistence on the miraculous. The word “masterpiece” itself became a predictive category, connected to the market’s bullishness and optimism, rather than a retrospective endorsement. When a publisher proclaims today: “The new novel we’re publishing in the autumn is a masterpiece,” they mean: “We think it will sell 50,000 copies.” No novel that’s expected to sell 500 copies is deemed a “masterpiece” by a contemporary mainstream publisher. Gwyn Jones’s statement about Arundhati Roy’s first novel needs, then, to be read as a prediction rather than an assessment, and a prediction made in the domain of a bullish marketplace. On the other hand, the Booker’s retrospective accolades—“Which book would have won in 1939?”—again disrupt conventional histories and aim to bring past texts into the “now” of the market’s activism.

The most striking instance of a publishing house and author inhabiting this “now” through a literary concept that once represented historical time is the publication of the musician Morrissey’s first book, Autobiography, in 2013 as a Penguin Classic, the rubric evidently an authorial prerequisite. In 1992, Vikram Seth undertook a pioneering form of market activism by interviewing literary agents in order to decide who would be best equipped to auction A Suitable Boy to UK publishers. Notwithstanding Seth’s commercial and critical success with The Golden Gate, he had only written his first (prose) novel. Meetings between authors and agents usually take place on fairly equal footing, with the weight of authority slightly on the side of the more powerful party. Seth’s unprecedented style shifted the balance in the interests of the novel’s commercial success and the sort of advance on royalties he thought it deserved. Morrissey’s pre-publication mindset, two decades later, represents an evolution. No overt mention is made of figures or of the advance; it’s the standard of the “classic” that’s at stake. It’s as if Morrissey grasps the reification of literary concepts in the “now” of the marketplace. Once, critics spoke ironically of the “stocks and shares” in a writer’s books being high or low with reference to their critical reputation; today, the same statement is made without irony and with a straightforward literalism. As part of this reification, however, certain words—such as “classic”—become ironical, and come close to signifying a guarantee that needs to be fiercely bargained for. That Morrissey’s hunch was right was proved by Autobiography climbing immediately to number one on the bestsellers’ chart upon publication. It would surely be the one Penguin “classic” to have had such an entry and such a run.

This, then, is what the piazza began to look like by the mid-1990s. We may have been bemused by what was unfolding in the first two years, but by the third year we believed it had always been like this. We had no memory of the car park.

(This is an edited extract from an essay by Amit Chaudhuri in Literary Activism: Perspectives, ed. Chaudhuri | Oxford University Press | Rs 595 | Pages 376)