Sunday, July 01, 2007

A Sunday afternoon ramble around the ramparts of authority

I hadn't taken much note of Andrew Keen's The Cult of the Amateur. From the reviews and blogs, I had assumed the book was just another liberal apologia for turning back the tide of democracy. It's been on the fast track to the top of review pages and radio shows like Nick Cohen, Melanie Philips, Clive James and Christopher Hitchens in recent months. Hence his appearance on Radio 3's Arts podcast last week, which is where I heard his creepy, Clive Barkeresque mid-Atlantic drawl. I had assumed right. But I don't wish to counter his arguments. One need only read James Marcus' "tiny codicil" to his LA Times review to realise the book contains more than lazy assumptions.

Marcus himself is an argument against Keen. Do readers afford authority to his blog because he also writes for the LA Times; does the blog diminish the authority of the LA Times? Keen's book is a product of this two-way question of authority. He wants to raise it for digital media only because he's content with the authority that has already buried the question. The book's subtitle (which Marcus calls "faintly hysterical") is revealing: "How the Democratization of the Digital World Is Assaulting Our Economy, Our Culture, and Our Values". It reminds me of those newspaper liberals putting on a serious face and asking: "Should we bomb Iran?". As if the decision had anything to do with us. The use of the word is there to corral readers into a false community. As if "culture" was in our possession. What would it mean for it not to be in our possession? Answer: the kind of anxiety Keen is keen to feed and exploit.

Narrowing the focus to literary culture, most books corral without raising their voice. A book gains authority through its mere bookness. But all writing appropriates authority. The trick it allows is generally overlooked, taken for granted. In everyday life, this is necessary. We don't sit around discussing newspaper articles as newspaper articles. We discuss the subject. We discuss the article's relation to an issue of reality. We might even question its veracity. But when a novel is celebrated, there is a curious vaccum. If we celebrate it for its existence as a novel - by definition, a literary book, existing solely as itself - what exactly are we celebrating? One can leap for the subject matter - post-apocalyptic USA for example - and praise it for insights into current social and political issues. But this isn't why anyone reads a novel. It's always a sop to social progress and education. Nabokov rightly called such readings "childish". Then there's celebrating it for being "a thumping good read", keeping the reader from enduring the real world for a few precious and harmless hours. But so would sleeping, having a bath or watching Pirates of the Caribbean 3. So why put a novel on a cultural pedestal? Instead we might tell how we luxuriated in the precision and beauty of the novel's prose. But is this anymore culturally-refined than a fresh pillow, the fragrance of apricot creme or Keira Knightley's bone structure? What is it that gives a novel a unique cultural authority?

No wonder genre fans are perplexed at the way brilliantly-orchestrated detective novels or horror tales or SF tetralogies fail to win the attention and respect given to Man Booker or Pulitzer winners. Last week, Matthew Cheney made a despairing attack on those who blame the failure on cultural commissars. He argues that there is no "literary establishment" keeping SF in its place; there is no "literary elite" scheming to promote Cormac McCarthy without giving similar credit to speculative fiction; there is no "literati" and it doesn't "dictate what books are in and out of the literary canon". All true but, by the same token, literature doesn't exist either. The paranoia behind the claims of Cheney's essay writer is evidence of a faith in the literary that is unable to appreciate its uncertain status. I'm sure the same "literary establishment" shares that faith, otherwise it wouldn't promote as "literary" deeply conservative writers. There really isn't a great deal of difference between genre writers and those who write sentences like "Between Edward and Florence, nothing happened quickly". Supreme confidence in the form is present in both. Literary fiction, the real thing, is full of doubt and ambivalence yet still manages to find a way to move forward.

Ellis Sharp is right to guess that I was unaware of the interview with the author of the sentence quoted above. In it he expresses gratitude to various US authors like Roth, Mailer and Bellow for showing "formal ambition, real sense of engagement, not cramped by modernism, really democratic in outlook" [sic] as opposed to Europe which "was still stifled by modernism, a rather detached form of elitist writing". It's always wonderful to discover writers who set one free. It's odd then that his own novels have remained so detached and stifling.

It's got to be a genuine freedom of course. One can't jettison doubt like an emigrant on Ellis Island leaving Europe behind. It has to be more like the freedom of Artur Sammler. Bellow is a great example of finding a way between the crippling self-consciousness of the exile and the promise of animal freedom, without denying either - a great modernist in other words. McEwan's contrast is as deceptive as his liberalism. Significantly, he doesn't name the detached elitists of Europe. Could he mean the great modernists still writing when he was studying at UEA: Nabokov, Bernhard and Beckett? One wonders if he was talking to a European journalist he'd say something different; praise the dazzling lucidity of Handke for example (see the rear cover of the UK hardback of Absence). The triumph of European modernism was to find a way to speak after the cataclysms of the 20th Century. The threat of being stifled was very high. It's no surprise that some took refuge in detachment. But you've got to do the filtering yourself, create your own personal canon, become your own literary establishment, form your own literary elite and then help others to do the same. It sets you free. There isn't much sense of community though, unless you count the internet.

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous1:05 am

    You're bookmarked officially. If this is what keeps you from a Shelfari group, I'm glad. I look forward to reading more.



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