The new establishment

Who will subvert today’s anti-establishment?


This article is taken from the February 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Thirty years ago, when the Secret Author was but a young shaver wandering wide-eyed along the approach roads to Grub Street, people used to be very exercised by an entity known as the “literary establishment”.

In the manner of Bloomsbury, half a century before, nobody was ever quite able to define this tantalising abstract. Like most establishments throughout history it was thought to be corrupt, conniving, conservative, elitist and exclusionary, bent on promoting the careers of its favourite children and anxious to slam the door in the face of promising new talent that declined to abide by its rules.

The power it exercised was, naturally, indirect. Some of it resided in institutions (the Royal Society of Literature, say, or the Society of Authors); some of it could be seen gently diffusing from newspapers and magazines (the Times Literary Supplement, the London Review of Books).

To academic figureheads — John Carey, for example, then functioning as the Merton Professor of English Literature at Oxford, or Malcolm Bradbury, who ran the University of East Anglia creative writing school — could be added grand book world eminences, such at the late Martyn Goff who superintended the workings of the Booker Prize for upwards of three decades.

Once all these component parts were put together, the result could be an extraordinarily potent amalgam of influence, intrigue and organisational heft.

The Society of Authors has been riven by rows about identity politics

If anything could be said to sum up how this agglomeration of quiet words and stealthy interfering worked in practice, it would be the Secret Author’s memory of having lunch with Martyn Goff at this time and practically marvelling at the trails of associative glory that seemed to follow in his wake. Or it might be listening to Dame Harriet Harvey Wood, then in charge of the British Council’s literature department, remarking that one of her principal tasks was to answer the telephone to Sir William Golding, listen to whatever holiday plans he had in mind and determine whether some official engagement could be built around them.

This is not a complaint about Martyn Goff or Dame Harriet, who did their very best for the organisations they served and were sorely missed once they had ceased to serve them. Yet who are their equivalents three decades later? If there is a literary establishment here in 2023 what shape does it take, what values does it uphold and how does it put them into practice?

To look at one or two of the great book-world institutions of the modern age is instantly to register a profound change. The Royal Society of Literature (where the Secret Author once listened impressionably to elderly ladies reminiscing about their dealings with Virginia and Vanessa) sends emails to its fellows proudly informing them that its management team is female and queer-led and keen on recruiting staff from the global majority. The Society of Authors, meanwhile, has been riven by rows about identity politics and a series of inflammatory tweets sent out by its major domo, Joanne Harris.

The same tide of reforming zeal has swept over the TLS. Does Mr Rupert Murdoch, its proprietor, ever cast an eye over the weekly magazine whose losses he continues to subsidise?

If he did, he would discover a publication packed out with reviews of books about the shameful legacy of British Imperialism, the iniquities of the Conservative government or the miseries inflicted on the US body politic by the Republican Party. In fact, more or less the whole paper is diametrically opposed to most of what Mr Murdoch holds dear, and it’s a mark of the old boy’s charity — or myopia — that he never seems to demur.

Who is to do the subverting?

It would be invidious to name and shame some of the modern equivalents of Martyn Goff and Dame Harriet — and indeed, given that everyone involved is acting on the highest principles, there is no shame to be exposed.

All that has happened is that in the intervening years a number of institutions, periodicals and individuals — that used to be a byword for stuffiness, staidness and inbred conservatism — now take their opinions from the op-ed pages of the Guardian.

What was once an establishment has become a kind of anti-establishment working out of its predecessor’s offices. An anti-establishment, more to the point, which is no less conniving and exclusive than all that went before, in which the same fashionable names recur and the same fashionable smugness is everywhere on display.

Naturally, all this cries out for subversion. Who is to do the subverting? The Secret Author, as a supporter of the Labour Party, would prefer that subversion came from the left.

As this is clearly not going to happen, any assault on our new literary establishment will have to come from the right. To put it another way, one might not actually want to read a pro-Brexit novel, and the final product might not be terribly good, but people should still be entitled to write them. Every orthodoxy stifles in the end.

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