Monday, 12 September 2005

Publishing vs. Literature from Winston to Zadie

Zadie Smith, pictured here, recently enjoyed two privileges rarely afforded a poet (Margaret Atwood perhaps being the exception): she was nominated for a Booker Prize; and almost simultaneously was misquoted at length across the length and breadth of the British media as saying that, to paraphrase, (living in) London is now crap, and writing isn't a very intellectually demanding craft, unlike, say, philosophy where one has to actually think fully new thoughts.

Poets, of course, have their own prizes, but few arrest the attention like those dedicated to prose; and few poets finds their alleged complaints recorded and broadcast like rolling news from Iraq.

Why is this?

There are complicated, aesthetic answers, some of which can be traced back to Longinus. But a simple point can be made here.

We now live in a world of "publishing" not "literature". By literature, I mean, a literate interest in the written word, and by extension, the best words written down in the best ways. The world of publishing we live in has all the vices of any market-trade, without some of the virtues that people who sell, say, legumes, at least possess (humility, honesty and rough good humour tempered by the seasons).

To narrow in: publishing sells "authors" not, per se, "writing". It is true, books are sold, and books are written. But publishing needs a story, and the story is increasingly about celebrity. Publishing is also about profit, Hollywood spin-offs, and deals made at book fairs to translate into 12 languages. Sadly, poetry lends itself poorly to translation, Hollywood formats, and large profit margins. Therefore, as publishing increasingly shapes and determines how the public thinks of writers, books and the world of written words, a very limited - and exceptionally ignorant - sense of the scope and range of contemporary writing emerges in the public sphere.

One might ask, why should it matter, if Joe Blogs doesn't know about the subtle developments in poetry coming from Norwich, Iowa or Toronto? Well, indeed, perhaps if the problem of lack of appreciation of the wider and more complex story of writing could be limited to the public, damage would be minimized (though sales of course would continue to favour famous books by famous people).

But the publishing world view has now colonized the minds of even the bright young things who write prose, and also many of the agents, editors and publishers who might otherwise pay more - and proper - attention - to literature in all its guises - as opposed to its most palpably mainstream, commercial genres (popular fiction).

This is to say, if one were the world's best under-35 poet, and one wandered in the valleys of Islington, Hoxton, Clerkenwell, Soho or Primrose Hill (not to mention other fashionable areas like Marylebone), one could float past the great and good celebrity novelists and they would barely bother to nod. They would, as Hemingway would have said, cut you.

Poets are now regularly cut - cut from the private as well as public conversation that British society is having about art, literature, and itself.

The damage being done is calculable: everyone is becoming less articulate, and less thoughtful. Poetry, at its outer reaches, is the foremost crucible for testing language. Poetry is where language meets thought, and works the relationship out. Poetry, in fact, is exactly what Zadie Smith was misquoted as saying novels aren't anymore: poetry is smart, challenging, and profound.

Pity almost no one sells, buys, or reads it anymore. I partially blame the world of 21st century publishing, and its many printer's devils.
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