Here’s a not widely discussed fact. Some of the established publishers we now recognise were set up in part as elaborate tax dodging ruses by wealthy people whose real business interests were elsewhere. A little publishing house could run at a loss and still help make a profit by reducing the tax bill. And if you could give your wife an advance for her little novel…or your friends wife…or possibly your mistress…well all the better.
Extreme examples perhaps. But it’s an unfortunate truth that for most of its history the novel has been the plaything of the rich. And while great writers aren’t often born from wealth, middling ones more than often are, and the ranks of the publishing profession are dominated by people with at least a little wealth behind them. As the publishing industry has professionalised, and as society as a whole has become more meritocratic, access has widened considerably. But it’s still dominated by people from a small number of universities, and hence a rather narrow background.
The great leveller in this equation is the internet. Without blogs and social media I can say with certainty I would never have had any of the opportunities to write and publish that I have had so far. So it’s hard for me to interpret the attack by Peter Stothard, chair of that bastion of literary snobbery the Booker prize, on blogging as harmful to literature, as anything more than an entitled whinge. Stothard’s rhetoric is so one sided and ignorant that we might suspect he is out to troll the blogosphere as a publicity exercise for an award that barely generates any significant publicity beyond the book world itself. The Booker increasingly relies on the book bloggers it is attacking to generate any buzz at all. But however calculated the trolling, it reflects a real agenda.
The meat of Stothard’s argument – that blogging is drowning out the voices of professional literary critics – is demonstrable nonsense. Critics who understand how to communicate in the new social media sphere are more influential than ever – I’d put forward Lev Grossman as a prime example of a critic who straddles old and new. The noise generated by the internet means we need effective signal boosting from curators of all kinds, a role critics are ideally suited to fill. But that role has also diversified. Neil Gaiman is a more influential taste maker than any single critic. The roles of writer, editor and critic are increasingly different hats worn by the same people.
None of this is communicated in Stothard’s argument. Likely because Stothard is simply blind to it. And perhaps wilfully so. The literature he sees under threat is a lovely walled garden, for those privileged few allowed to play in it. The online literary world is a vast complex jungle that demands an entirely different mindset from all those navigating it. Stothard is used to a world where a small handful of people could dictate the agenda for everyone else. Now literature is diversifying, becoming thousands of interrelated conversations that no one person or powerful clique can control. That jungle is more competitive and perhaps less friendly than the old literary world, but it is much more open to anyone with the drive to be a part of it. The critics who succeed in that jungle will be the ones worth hearing, not the ones who rely on an entitled background.