Dot.com Lite

by Andrew Crumey

Irish Pages (Vol.1 No.2), pp241-5 (2002/3)


How are literary reputations constructed? Granta magazine's recent listing, "The Best of Young British Novelists", is a case in point. When the exercise was first tried in 1983, it was against a background dominated by middle-aged or elderly writers such as Golding, Greene and Burgess. That a line-up of proven authors under 40 could include the likes of Julian Barnes, Martin Amis and Ian McEwan was seen as remarkable, and a sign that times were changing. But already in 1993, when Granta made a second list, the cult of youth had become wearying. And by January 2003, when the latest round-up was announced, cynicism had set in. Were these meant to be writers of real achievement, or young hopefuls? The boundaries, it seems, have become so blurred - by publishers and the media - that promise now equals achievement: predictions of literary success are a self-fulfilling prophecy. Reputations, it appears, are now manufactured in advance by publicists, and all the media need do is amplify the "buzz" surrounding the latest new name. I intend to question the accuracy of this assumption, arguing that glamorous young authors are hardly a new phenomenon.

My own perception is tempered by two factors. First is that I myself was originally picked to be on Granta's 2003 list, until I pointed out that at 41 I was too old to be eligible, so my place went to someone else. This amusing episode made me all the more aware of the sheer arbitrariness of the venture, and also of its ultimate harmlessness. Secondly, though, as a newspaper literary editor, I recognise that if literature is indeed going to the dogs then there is no use pointing an accusing finger at someone else. Every culture gets the literature it deserves: we editors are all responsible.

A similar point was made by Marcel Proust. Great artists, he remarked in A la recherche du temps perdu, create the posterity by which they are judged. Proust was acutely aware that anyone seeking a reputation must begin with some DIY. His promotional tactics included bribing a reviewer with a gift of a silver cigarette case. Already in Proust's day, the value of PR was fully recognised. David Lodge, in an essay in Consciousness and the Novel, considers Dickens the first celebrity author. Dickens wedded literature and journalism as a means of reaching a mass audience, and his reading tours were legendary. Yet we can see features of modern literary celebrity in even earlier writers. Byron - the prototypical overnight success - won fame from the sale of six hundred copies of Don Juan. It was the right six hundred people who bought that highly expensive first edition: aristocratic book collectors who dictated literary taste in the same way that later collectors such as Duveen or Saatchi would steer the art market.

Byron came from the elite who read him, in contrast to Rousseau, who broke into Parisian salon life thanks to a prize-winning essay that established his credentials as a philosophe with attitude. Eccentric dress and extreme ideas ensured Rousseau was already a well-known figure in elite circles when his novel La nouvelle Heloise was published, becoming the biggest-selling literary work of the eighteenth century. In Byron and Rousseau we have the Romantic image of the author, still with us today: youthful, controversial and sexually attractive. (Rousseau was no Adonis, yet received voluminous fan mail from female readers). It was Rousseau, moreover, who invented the confessional memoir, helping to elevate psychology and personal experience to the level they assumed in nineteenth- and twentieth-century literature. Around the same time, the 25-year-old Goethe produced, in The Sorrows of Young Werther, the archetypal novel of youthful angst (it sparked copycat suicides); and in Walter Scott, celebrity authorship reached its most dizzying heights, with Edinburgh acquiring Waverley railway station and a rocket-ship memorial encrusted with statues of Scott's characters.

So even when Proust began to write, the celebrity author - preferably young and handsome - was already a cultural cliche. Yet despite all Proust's efforts at self-promotion, success came late, and only with a prize (the Goncourt). This is still the accepted hallmark of true literary achievement: being "Booker winning", "Booker shortlisted", or even (in the last couple of years) "Booker longlisted" provides a ready-made stamp of authority.

Byron and Rousseau illustrate another route to fame: notoriety. Both were considered sexually scandalous, resulting in acres of outraged commentary. Succes de scandale likewise came to Flaubert and Baudelaire, both just 36 when they fell foul of the law and became essential anti-establishment reading. James Joyce, D.H. Lawrence and Vladimir Nabokov are among many literary authors whose mass readership was lured by the whiff of obscenity.

Lawrence furthermore shows the power of literary elites in shaping opinion: his canonical status, established almost single-handedly by F.R. Leavis, was barely questioned in subsequent decades. As a book-jacket puff, "Writer of the Great Tradition" is perhaps not so very far from "one of Granta's best young British novelists". Either is a convenient way of enabling booksellers, journalists and the general public to form an opinion about the author's worth without ever having to read the book in question.

Books, after all, demand a far greater investment of time than a new film or art exhibition; so in literature, reliance on received opinion is always far greater. Any novelist who can garner the kind of empty praise that fills our newspapers, bookshops and airwaves with words like "acclaimed" and "renowned" is firmly placed on the first rung of fame's ladder. At the top of that ladder lie the "classics" - and who reads them?

This is a crucial difference between the Romantic era and the Postmodern one. When Sainte-Beuve sought to define the term "classic" in the nineteenth century, he could echo Plutarch's faith in the "test of time". Whatever lasts must have been well made to begin with. But even E.M. Forster, in Aspects of the Novel, could see the circularity of this argument. The only reason for Walter Scott's continuing fame, he said, was that people remembered reading him in childhood. The classics, in other words, are whatever we are made to read at school.

Our education system has changed a great deal since Forster's day. For today's younger generation, the "classics" include few novelists before George Orwell. The subject has to be "relevant" and "fun", which means focussing on books that directly reflect young peoples' experience. It was no surprise to find that when a Scottish newspaper recently did a straw poll on "the greatest novel of all time", its youngish contributors came up with things like Lanark and The Wasp Factory, while Don Quixote languished far down the ratings. The school and university reading lists are themselves influenced by the media, so that we have a new circularity defining the literary canon. This circle serves the same purpose as always: reassuring people of the validity of their tastes.

Many in the book world are surprisingly insecure with regard to their own judgment. In the case of publishers, one can hardly blame them: their own money is at risk, and they have every right to want to back a winner. For the critic, vanity alone is at stake. Finding one's opinion to be contrary to every other newspaper reviewer is an experience some find distressing. Better to state the "right" opinion, and to be first in print with it. The recent competition between newspapers over priority in reviewing new novels by Donna Tartt and Zadie Smith was a particularly absurd illustration of this tendency.

The same paranoia lies behind the media's taste for creating "movements". Publishers are only too happy to collude in such obvious marketing ploys. The mid-nineties, for instance, saw the manufacture of "the new Scottish writing", centred on Irvine Welsh, whose Trainspotting was given unprecedented promotion within the media prior to its launch at the Edinburgh Book Festival. The book (initially "tipped" for the Booker shortlist) was eventually taken up by a wider audience; publishers were eager to break into the same market, and the press sought any angle they could think of. The results included the Children of Albion Rovers anthology that did much to revive Canongate; and a New York Times article about the "drug-fuelled" writers of Edinburgh's dark underbelly, penned by an American journalist who met Welsh, Alan Warner and a few hangers-on in a pub.

For writers, such literary "schools" are a mixed blessing. While the unknown and under-talented can bathe in collective glory, the more successful usually want to jettison excess baggage at the earliest opportunity. And while Matt Thorne's "New Puritans" managed to grab themselves some exposure ahead of publication of their manifesto-driven anthology, the absence of any except Toby Litt from the Granta list was seen by many as setting the final seal on a publicity venture that had backfired. The mutual validation of opinion that steers literary taste is exactly the same effect that drives financial markets. Proust may have lived in an age of gilt-edged stocks, but we are in shakier times, where bubbles swell and burst. Literary reputations are based on investment of faith, and the value of such investments can go down as well as up. The Granta list contains two novelists whose debuts are yet to be published, and who will appear on the literary scene with a "Best of Young British" tag around their necks like a quality-assurance mark. Or else it may turn out to be more of an albatross. An increasingly cynical public, glutted with the fifteen-minute fame of reality TV-show contestants, has no need to offer writers much in the way of brand loyalty. The Bridget Jones generation soon becomes the something-else generation.

This uncertainty is one reason for the media and publishing world's growing fixation with young first-time writers. Another is the change in the publishing houses themselves, increasingly dominated by young staff who - like everyone else - are apt to change jobs, and feel no particular loyalty to their employer. Authors find themselves moving from publisher to publisher, as their fortunes rise or fall: a consequence of changes in working practices generally, with the vanishing of the job-for-life. You really are as good as your latest book.

With such a short-term attitude, debut writers are a good investment. They come with no track record except, typically, as book reviewer or newspaper columnist. They are as hypothetically wonderful as a dot.com. And if their bubble bursts, another writer just like them is waiting at the door.

As an indication of how this change in culture came about, it is worth considering remarks made by Italo Calvino in his newly translated collection of autobiographical essays, Hermit in Paris. On one level, Calvino's career illustrates that when it comes to getting a break as a writer, little has changed. In his early twenties, Calvino was given a job at the Einaudi publishing house after Cesare Pavese was impressed by one of his short stories. Pavese encouraged Calvino to write a novel (largely as a way of getting him out of the office), and Einaudi promoted it with bookshop posters showing the young author looking suitably moody. The book sold well, and Calvino - with the backing of one of Italy's best known postwar novelists - was on his way. He was, in other words, the sort of publishing-world insider so frequently despised today.

On the other hand, when Calvino visited the US in 1959, partly in order to sniff out new American talent for Einaudi, he saw the shape of things to come. In his diary of the period, Calvino notes with surprise that bookshop staff know nothing about books; he says they might as well be selling ties. He meets people who have done degrees in creative writing, or are making a living from teaching it. And he frequently encounters journalists and pundits keen to establish the pecking order of contemporary writers, offering tips on who to watch. The Beat Poets (he meets Ferlinghetti and others) are all the rage - though a list he is given of the "most important writers of the new generation" compares rather dismally with Granta's class of '83: it includes Roth, Malamud and Grace Paley, but few others still known today. Reputations, we are reminded, are apt to deflate as soon as someone stops puffing.

As well as noting the curious innovation of electric hand-driers in public toilets, Calvino also remarks that Salinger is already "by now a kind of classic". Time has since erased the "kind of". The change in our concept of classic fiction and hence of literary tradition has gone hand in hand with the Americanisation of global culture. What Calvino saw in 1959 is everywhere now. It all looked very strange to him: to us it is depressingly familiar.