I might well be reading too much into this but at the last literature festival I went to I got a serious ticking off. “Excuse me! You can’t stand there! You’re in the way of celebrities!”
Alas, between me and the shelves of books that I wanted to look at there was Harry Hill’s glistening head, 200 punters clutching his ‘Ulysses’-rivalling tome ‘Harry Hill’s TV Burp’ and an irate assistant from a certain high street bookshop that’s put numerous independents out of business and now only sells what an HQ marketing twonk decides will shift units from the 3-4-2 tables. My crime, it seems, was wanting to buy some books: my mistake was that ‘literature’ might involve something a tad more interesting than Cherie Blair’s excruciating confessional.
To be honest, it’s partly my fault. In the 80s, when I was a student and a university could still make front-page news if one of its junior lecturers got outed as a structuralist (i.e. they wore a leather jacket, used words like ‘deconstruction’ and quoted French people), ‘literature’ meant something quite specific: it was books by dead white men that took more than 20 minutes to read. Nobody went into bookshops unless they had to and the library was the last redoubt of the scoundrel (who usually wore an Oxfam corduroy jacket). This was clearly wrong, and so anyone with more than half a brain cell or something other than a career in management consultancy in mind started badgering English departments from Inverness to Brighton to let students write essays about books by people who were alive, weren’t necessarily white and were quite often female. It all seemed terribly right-on and a much-needed blow for cultural democracy.
What nobody counted on, of course, was that, thanks to this campaign for what lefties used to call ‘pluralism’, the girth of this newly democratic idea of ‘literature’ would slowly and steadily expand to the point at which you could shove anything at all inside its saggy waistband. That TV tie-ins (mostly produced by white middle-class folk) would shoulder-charges books that are actually worth reading off the bookshop shelves; that so-called literature festivals would become nothing but junkets for momentary celebrities and journalists stapling together their daily spew into 80,000-word miscellanies; and that, were it not for Amazon, it would be almost impossible to buy anything book-shaped that wasn’t written by Michael Palin, JK Rowling or Gordon Ramsay.
And the reason for this descent into scarcely comprehensible prose and books with more pictures (or recipes or downhome philosophy) than sense? Well, not some kind of universal dumbing down certainly. Rather it’s due to the discovery by corporate booksellers, probably in the early 90s, that the stuff they were accustomed to flog as trash in ‘dump bins’ (say, whatever happened to the 99p dump bin?) could be relocated to tables, branded ‘bestsellers’ and sold for £19.99 a time - with a considerably bigger profit. As in eastern Europe, the coming of democracy turned out to be an open invitation for unchecked capitalism to fuck things up. Like an old East Berliner suffering from ostalgie, you can’t help but walk through a bookshop or a literature festival now without feeling that something essential’s been lost.
So what to do? Well, one suggestion I’d make (other than only buying books from charity shops and the internet on the strength of what your mates have told you) is to go to literature festivals and ask every line-up of so-called ‘authors’ (the Hills and Blairs and Ramsays of this world) some rudimentary technical questions - the kind of thing that even GCSE classes in creative writing dismiss before they start churning out their duplicate Carver short stories - and see how they get on. What, for example, is Harry Hill’s relationship with his narratorial voice? And how has Cherie Blair approached the problem of self-authentication inherent in post-modernist life-writing? The telling thing, of course, is that these semi-literate dorks will try to answer your questions. The genuine writers will simply tell you to sling your hook.
This was originally published in Venue magazine, February 2010