Who holds the power?

Literary reputations are made and broken by a self-appointed clique of bien pensant liberal intellectuals

Books Columns

The first question that any young person bent on a career in the world of light literature will want to see answered is this: where does the power lie? I don’t mean the power to make a commercial success out of books, for this was long ago ceded by the publishing industry to a  formidable line-up of opportunists and blood-suckers — first, in the 1980s, to agents, then, in the 1990s, to the high street chains and finally, in the early years of the present century, to the Amazon vampires.

No, I refer to the much more subtly exercised power to make and break reputations, put particular titles and their authors on the literary map and disseminate via newspapers, magazines and the internet the tantalising abstraction known as “taste”. Thirty years ago there was a genuine literary establishment in the UK. You could see its members in action at Sunday Times books parties, at the soirées A.S. Byatt used to convene at her house in Putney or backstage at the Cheltenham Literary Festival. A loose agglomeration of dons, senior novelists, high-grade publicity merchants and book trade grey eminences, it was not obviously corrupt — very little in domestic literature is.

All the same, it took its cue from that legendary book-world fixer Sir Edmund Gosse (1848-1929), who, when once asked how he rated the work of some up-and-coming youngster replied, with a gracious shake of his head, that he had “not yet been invited to take an interest in him”. Believe me, you trifled with it at your peril. An absolutely representative figure from this era might be the late Sir Malcolm Bradbury (1932-2000) above, the extent of whose bygone influence, here in a world where “culture” sometimes seems to have shattered into a thousand fragments, seems scarcely believable. A best-selling novelist, a senior critic, a founder of the University of East Anglia Creative Writing MA, a TV screenwriter, prize judger, anthologist, mentor to half a dozen Booker winners and consummate sharp operator, Bradbury makes Sir Edmund look like the merest amateur (significantly enough, he also did his very best for literature and the people involved in it).  And yet the world through which both of them marched has changed beyond recognition.

Who calls the shots in 2020? Certainly, there are still influential critics around, but the days in which Arnold Bennett could sell out an edition of somebody’s first novel by way of an approving sentence or two in his Evening Standard column are nearly a century gone. Rising up to supplant them are two (comparatively) new cultural industries — literary festivals, whose attendances have gone through the roof in the past couple of decades, and creative writing degree courses. The latter release thousands of aspiring writers onto the marketplace each year and their tutors, most of them published writers themselves, constitute the interface between students and the wider industry.

So, the new establishment tends to consist of top-rung degree course administrators and their progeny, festival talent-pickers (n.b. the meteoric career of Hay founder Peter Florance, who chaired last year’s Booker), agents, editors and reviewers with links to this burgeoning but remarkably self-enclosed (and self-policed) world.

Naturally, it has its house magazines — the London Review of Books, the Guardian Saturday Review, the New Statesman — in which the same names and the same attitudes consistently prevail. As for the ideological shadings on display, it is, for example, resolutely secular, left-leaning and cosmopolitan, and regards anyone who voted Leave in 2016 and Conservative in 2019 as not just politically misguided but morally degenerate into the bargain. A Brexiteer or a Johnson supporter cannot produce good art: it is simple as that.

But what about those who can? A list of “OK writers” (a phrase minted by Stephen Potter back in the 1950s and as relevant now as it was in the days of the Angry Young Men) championed by the new establishment might include Ian McEwan, Zadie Smith, Mary Beard, Anne Enright and Carol Ann Duffy.

Jolly good they are too, although it could be argued that several of them — McEwan, for example, who in a recent Guardian interview cheerfully admitted that he didn’t know anyone who had voted Leave — might be better off expanding their social range to include people who, mysteriously, don’t share their opinions.

Want to join the new establishment yourself? A good way to begin is to present yourself at one of the many writers’ centres that are springing up all over the place these days, where a combination of Arts Council sponsorship, local authority participation and interest from the nearest university’s creative writing department guarantees OK names and salubrious material.

Here you will be able to meet a distinguished collection of movers and shakers, observe the activities of a group of stratospherically hip young people and, ideally, listen to Ali Smith — about the most absolutely OK writer in the country at the moment — talk about the novelist’s role in society or storytelling and myth.

Go on! What are you waiting for?

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