Since when was a newspaper strictly a mercantilist tool?

No one has yet appeared on this site to object to more than one of us remarking that The Guardian has been behaving as if it’s just a business, with no purpose other than to make a profit.

Does no one remember that it’s a newspaper still supposedly charged with the responsibilities of The Fourth Estate?

Here’s Thomas Carlyle, writing in 1841 (if the Wikipedia date is accurate):

Burke said there were Three Estates in Parliament; but, in the Reporters’ Gallery yonder, there sat a Fourth Estate more important far than they all. It is not a figure of speech, or a witty saying; it is a literal fact,–very momentous to us in these times. Literature is our Parliament too. Printing [. . .] is equivalent to Democracy [. . .]. Whoever can speak, speaking now to the whole nation, becomes a power, a branch of government, with inalienable weight in law-making, in all acts of authority. It matters not what rank he has, what revenues or garnitures. [my emphases]

The Guardian’s adherence to its charter is monitored by the Scott Trust. This body is supposed to ensure that the paper retains its editorial independence, and it doesn’t absolve it of a duty to show a profit on its operations. The trust’s job is:

[t]o secure the financial and editorial independence of The Guardian in perpetuity: as a quality national newspaper without party affiliation; remaining faithful to liberal tradition; as a profit-seeking enterprise managed in an efficient and cost-effective manner.

But in the area that interests us, books, should that mean censoring or discouraging criticism of the exclusively money-oriented book publishing industry – as The Guardian has been doing? And being seemingly oblivious of the abysmal consequences for our culture of allying itself with it, as in George Steiner‘s lament here?

Yesterday, the GU books blog posted yet another coy defence of publishing’s transformation into a mercantilist tool unconcerned with literary quality – which is increasingly treated as a sort of joke, or a ludicrous form of preciousness.

Jean Hannah Edelstein writes entertainingly enough, here, but her conclusion, in which her tone turns serious, is craven — to say the least:

Erica Heller is making the cardinal mistake – as many of the left-leaning intellectual elite who write really good books are apt to do –that the publishing industry are gatekeepers of high culture, that having work published should be an honour granted only to the most gifted writers. This despite the fact that such a model would cause the publishing industry to collapse entirely, because they wouldn’t have any money at all. Of the 411,000 books that were published in the US last year, probably very few, if any, were as groundbreaking and influential as Catch-22, but that doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t have been published. I cringe to admit it, but I’m starting to see how left-leaning snobbery like this makes people like Palin refer to places outside New York as “Real America”. [my highlighting]

Jean Hannah’s merry war dance and flailing tomahawk are directed at a pathetic straw man, as she knows perfectly well. No one with half a gram of grey matter is arguing, as she claims, that only ‘the most gifted writers’ should be allowed to publish books (how would one measure talent, for a start?). The trouble is, the industry has been steadily adjusting its modus operandi to put no creative effort or imagination into selling books other than those written by ghost writers on behalf of celebrities — or by easily marketable writers, for many of whom literary aspirations don’t even rank second or third on the list of what matters most.

Yesterday, BaronCharlus said in this spot – not approvingly, as I read him, but with an air of weary resignation:

I’m not sure publishing has ever been much more than commerce and, if it was, it was a rarefied industry for those with private incomes,

But should that also be true of what was once seen as a leading liberal newspaper? Should pleasing book publishers mean deleting comments critical of that industry by bloggers, on The Guardian’s arts site – without apology or explanation? . . . and publishing an endless stream of articles to assist the agendas of powerful book merchants?

And surely publishing, for that matter, could never rightly be treated as just another business when it has always — implicitly — been crucial to the preservation, enrichment, elevation and advancement of our culture?

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20 Comments

Filed under Book publishing, Censorship, The Guardian

20 responses to “Since when was a newspaper strictly a mercantilist tool?

  1. BaronCharlus

    Hi Wordn,

    I think your Fourth Estate argument is a good one and it would be a craven stooge who argued in favour of the Guardian prioritising the commercial interests of publishers.

    The issues, including your wonderful image of Edelstein with tomahawk, don’t seem clear-cut to me, however. The way I understand it, sales of celebrity memoirs etc. are, currently, ‘how’ literature gets published. ‘How I Kicked the Ball Good’ by A. Ghost generates the income so that beautifully-written magical-realist books about coming to terms with stuff in the last days of the Prussian wars can sell 800 copies and get a nomination somewhere.

    The quote of mine you use above (for which thanks) is neither weary or approving (okay, maybe a bit weary) but intended as a statement of how I believe things are. It’s only through commerce (ie identifcation of and action to supply a market) that most work reaches us at all. Had there not been a market for reading copies of Shakespeare’s plays at the time he was working no one after the last performance would probably ever have been aware of them. Most of Sophocles’s work, as I understand it, is no longer extant. Had there been a sustained market for those works over the centuries, we might still have them. I don’t think those publishing Shakespeare’s work thought they was preserving art. It was a side-effect of commerce.

    My personal belief is that great work comes from the tension and conflict created when two opposites collide, commerce/art, satire/censorship, vision/budget, etc. Give one side the upper hand – the artist too much leeway, the publisher too much say over what will be published (or, as you say, promoted, the two are the same these days) and you get indulgence on the one hand or an arid photocopy of something recently popular on the other.

    If you’re arguing that the latter condition currently obtains then I think you’re right.

    These days, any author can put their work up, exactly as they want it, online. So why aren’t authors abandoning the publishers in joyful herds to deliver their untainted visions to the Great Screen? Because there’s no money in it, I suspect, and little chance of reaching a wide readership. And I think most aspiring writers, even those with high literary aspirations, will have started page one with a little vision of an object with a dust-jacket sitting in a shop window somewhere with their name on it. That may change in a generation; no one – least of all the ativistic publishing industry – knows how we’re going to be reading our books in the future, but for now literary publishing is affected by commerce because, in part, most authors’ aspiriations are commercial.

    If any of that makes any sense…

    Off now to continue work on my own humble offering, the Chesil Code.

  2. (from wordnerd7)

    Mon cher Baron, and everyone else, it seems as if the mention of the Scott Trust was le dernier straw. Both my minute comments posting links to this site were deleted in not quite an hour on the GU site this morning. . . If you’re interested in future posts here, do _please_ bookmark this page . . .

    Now how, in good conscience, is The Guardian going to rail about repressive regimes when it refuses to discuss its own censorship policy with bloggers in public — and wipes out mere links to critics?

    . . . I promise you a proper answer later. For the moment, I’m afraid I’m too busy — uncontrollable giggling being hard work:

    === ‘How I Kicked the Ball Good’ by A. Ghost generates the income so that beautifully-written magical-realist books about coming to terms with stuff in the last days of the Prussian wars can sell 800 copies and get a nomination somewhere. ===

    On a less serious note, I hope you’ve found my little palate-cleanser — https://acacciatura.wordpress.com/2008/11/21/a-poet-of-the-silver-screen/

  3. Wordy,

    You obviously hit a nerve. Which only makes me think that they are not able to easily dismiss your your well reasoned and researched arguments. They are susceptible to them.

    I ifnd there is something similar and more obvious going on in the Word of Mouth blog. They have great foodwriters and cooks and the Editor Susan is approachable, but you do get the feeling that blogs are just a career step for people onto something more palpable – or pulpable.

    There blatent cross promotions and links are a giveaway.

    But if the Guardian-Observer has 25 million people using its website a month, more than any (?) other website in the UK, then the question is what is the readership of the blogs?

    We already know that we have a rather influential constituency when Booker judges fly off the handle and poets come visiting.

    And what is the potential audience? I think it’s much bigger than the paper readership.

    They need to refocus their young teams and understand that the blogs are not a means to an end, but an end in themselves and that people who are willing to go out on a limb and try and be cogent about what they think – the posters – are rare finds. They should cultivate us. Some of the best and most entertaining purple patches of the Guardian site have been the POTW threads with all of us going slightly out of control. Or some of the fights on the religious threads.

    Silly boo boos. They are on to a good thing, don’t they know it?

  4. wordnerd7

    My thoughts exactly, ISA, and underlined after this 10 day-long experiment:

    ===We already know that we have a rather influential constituency when Booker judges fly off the handle and poets come visiting.

    And what is the potential audience? I think it’s much bigger than the paper readership.

    They need to refocus their young teams and understand that the blogs are not a means to an end, but an end in themselves and that people who are willing to go out on a limb and try and be cogent about what they think – the posters – are rare finds. They should cultivate us. ===

    . . . Do you know that Brahmins used to pour hot oil into the ears of untouchables who dared to listen to them recite their sacred texts? . . . Made no difference in the end, did it? There are untouchables in the Indian government now, and have been for decades . . . Again and again, people with access to the levers of power think themselves gods. Again and again, they end up — eventually — with enough egg on their faces to make an omelette for a small army. Yet they persist in their obtuseness.

    . . . How are you all so sure that it’s ‘young teams’ wielding the censor’s axe?

  5. BaronCharlus

    There you go, Wordn,

    You’re definitely being censored (assuming your ‘moderated’ post wasn’t just off-topic swearing). I think Isa’s right, you’re being heeded.

    You’ve raised an issue worth paying attention to. Thanks.

    My mum used to pour hot oil into my ear, and she’s from the priest caste (my grandfather was a CofE Canon). Helped with the earwax, though.

    And I really, really do know how to spell atavistic. Truly.

  6. wordnerd7

    @BC,

    === The issues, [. . .] don’t seem clear-cut to me, however. The way I understand it, sales of celebrity memoirs etc. are, currently, ‘how’ literature gets published.===

    === . . . no one – [. . .] knows how we’re going to be reading our books in the future, but for now literary publishing is affected by commerce because, in part, most authors’ aspiriations are commercial. ===

    Let’s say that a disease is raging. We don’t have a cure for it yet, but we do understand most of its causes. The worst mistake, as I see it, would be to pretend that it doesn’t exist, deny its severity and insidiousness, and put a snake oil salesman’s gloss on its vile symptoms.

    . . .So, yes, as you say, publishers today apparently lack the imagination to know how to sell anything other than re-filtered celebrity bilge, or the most crass genre pulp (by which I don’t mean something like a A Perfect Spy, a superb novel pretending to be genre literature). . . . We’re all waiting to see how the new technologies do – or don’t — reconfigure time and space for anyone trying to unite texts with their perfect readers . . .

    In the meanwhile, I’d prefer to stay focused on solving the problems – to stick to describing the various pathologies accurately, studying them minutely, and experimenting with ways of reversing them. That’s how solutions usually emerge, in my experience – but then I am only one nerd and a thoroughly insignificant one at that, . . . almost too tired to think at present . . . so why should anyone agree with me?

    Now, for my rivers of perspiration over that reply, . . . would you please consider putting me at the top of your list of correspondents being awarded galleys of The Chesil Code?

    === My mum used to pour hot oil into my ear, and she’s from the priest caste (my grandfather was a CofE Canon). ===

    So her father was a younger son for whom they had to find a vicarage, but then she married an eldest son . . . so that you can now ennoble this eccentric perch in the ether .. . Phew. What a history, Comrade Baron.

  7. BaronCharlus

    @Wordn,

    I absolutely, certainly, don’t think you’re wrong. My only point is that I suspect things have always been this way.

    Ben Jonson deplored his audiences and blamed the failure of his plays on their taste for gaudly thrills over more intellectual fare, Chaucer and Cervantes have a pop at escapist, badly-written chivalric fare and its (to them) inexplicable popularity. The tension has always been there. I love your idea of ‘uniting the text with its perfect reader’.

    I loathe the celebrity memoirs and repackaged pulp stuff that clogs the shelves. But I’m also not convinced that lit-fic, simply by virtue of having literary aspirations, is always necessarily better written or more worthy. Smug elitism, for me, is as odious as snake-eyed populism. A neglected author hammering away in a scorned genre can be another generation’s hero (Greene, Lovecraft, Cleland, Shakespeare). It’s wise to cite Le Carre but, reading Smiley’s People last year it did strike me that he absolutely uses the conventions of genre to tell a genre story. So I must disagree with you there. I feel Le Carre is a very, very good genre writer with respect for the genre’s possibilities and requirements and is not pretending to be anything (although you may have more evidence on this than I do).

    I think you’re right to keep an eye on the GU’s policy/actions. I’ve bookmarked this page. You’re a splendid host.

    This is a great conversation, for which thanks. It’s good to hammer out one’s ideas in the company of those who care and can disagree with eloquence.

    Okay, that was a facetious comment of mine about the oil in the ear (you sound a bit irritated by it, couldn’t quite gauge your tone). It just reminded me of my childhood, that’s all.

    Have a great weekend.

  8. BaronCharlus

    ps

    ‘Only one nerd…too tired to think at present’.

    I don’t know where you live but if you’re in London, it’s a rather nice day. I recommend a stroll in your nearest park.

    When the Chesil Code is ready, you will be the first to read it…

  9. wordnerd7

    === you sound a bit irritated by it, couldn’t quite gauge your tone ===

    Of course not, Baron — how could I be, after your splendid posts? It just struck me as funny that I’ve been calling my fellow-bloggers ‘comrades’ — which I’ve always thought a lovely word, to whose meaning Karl and his followers added a strange twist. . . And it seemed funny to have a titled nobleman among you.(You should see what’s been done with my own screen name.)

    I have barely to begun to make my case about the special awfulness of contemporary publishing, and suspect that the job will need to be done in installments over several weeks.

    Thank you for those very kind words and your promise about your Code, but I’m only as good a host as the rest of you are guests — and couldn’t be more pleased with my first visitors.

    A bootlegged copy of a fascinating recording by 3p4 has reached me and I’m wondering about putting it up for others to listen to. . . 3p4, are you still reading here?

  10. seanmurray

    Comrade wordy:

    Good to see you with your own site at last. Always thought you’d make a marvelous host/ess.

    Re the Baron’s ‘These days, any author can put their work up, exactly as they want it, online. So why aren’t authors abandoning the publishers in joyful herds to deliver their untainted visions to the Great Screen? Because there’s no money in it, I suspect, and little chance of reaching a wide readership.’:

    The year Anne Enright won the Booker, the sales of almost all the nominees were under 1000 prior to their nomination. And these were among the novels that the mainstream publishers had given *most* promotion.

    With judicious posting of links to one’s fiction site, it is possible to generate 1000 visits a week. Now, I take cynicalsteve (RIP)’s point that few of these visitors actually read anything, but if only 10% do, that could mean 5000 readers a year.

    And regarding money, I can’t see how writers selling under 1000 copies a year are going to make decent money — certainly nowhere near enough to justify the artistic compromises modern agents demand. Very, very few lit fiction debuts get advances of over 50K — and try offering 50k for three years’ work on a building site.

    The mainstream UK publishing houses are putting out very few lit fiction debuts — one per season in some cases. Imagine a major record label putting out one debut album per season — it would be fair to regard the industry it belonged to as dead or dying, would it not?

    Death or the internet*: those are UK lit fiction’s options.

    * in combination with stuff like lit club nights. The various online tribes must establish offline networks and events that challenge/obliterate those musty old establishment festivals and conferences. The occasional orgy might be nice.

    Regarding GU:

    I quit posting there last winter because it had ceased to be the funniest site on the net. Spring and summer ’07 it had some serious comic talents and I used to hear folk offline discussing the latest outrages. Whether their traffic has gone up or not, it is a long time since I’ve heard anyone mention GU offline. I still don’t understand why they didn’t set up an open thread where we could all do what the hell we pleased and leave the other threads to the twee and sludgy.

    Best of luck with this place.

  11. wordnerd7

    Comrade Seanest,

    My chalice runneth over. . & thank you for such a splendid post. It’s a particular delight to welcome the first person to address me on any blog, ever (Gu; books; in the heyday he’s just described so well) after I squeaked a short comment and fought a ferocious urge to turn and run (or what I typically do in off-blog life).

    Who _is_ this formidable, butch-sounding but kind, sharp and very funny Marion Cadenza, I wondered. . . & how interesting to find someone clearly of Italian immigrant stock with such a subtle command of both literary language and the vernacular . . . though I wasn’t sure it was Oirish she was speaking, exactly.

    . . . @Baron, I hope you’ll continue this conversation about publishing with Sean . . . I’ll be returning to it myself, as I’ve said more than once. But I couldn’t get any signal at all for half a day, until a few minutes ago, & am not sure when this slender (extra-low strength) wireless channel will disappear.

    I’ll only say now how much I appreciate Sean’s outstanding practicality, eg.:

    === The occasional orgy might be nice.===

    Then, . . . === I used to hear folk offline discussing the latest outrages. ===

    If only you could tell us _where_.

    === I still don’t understand why they didn’t set up an open thread where we could all do what the hell we pleased ===

    Billy Mills borrowed this idea of yours, and his PosterPomes is by far the biggest Gu books blogsuccess, week-in, week-out – nothing else he’s done comes within galaxies of it, as I’m sure he’ll agree.

    === Best of luck with this place. ===

    . . . I suspect that that wish is going to need frequent visits from Marion to come true . . :), but grand merci. . . .

  12. re: the GU blogs. I’m wondering whether people are expecting too much of them and from them.

    Bear with me as I tortuously try to give a parallel.

    Being a percussionist in my younger years ( approaching deafness has put a stop to 95% of my playing but I digress ) I used to play in a community brass band up in Manchester over 20 years ago. People brought arrangements and the range of music was pretty broad ( but also the sort of stuff you’d expect from a community brass band with socialist leanings ). It was great fun to do.

    But if you’re an experienced player it gets pretty wearing after a while as you’re in amongst learners and hobby-ists So what happened was that smaller groups split off and played more intricate, demanding music whilst the bigger band carried on offering the same menu of tunes to those who were beginners or just enjoyed playing and socialising with others – the music being of secondary importance.

    For me the GU blog is just the same and there’s little point complaining that it’s lost its mojo. It hasn’t – isn’t it just that it can’t offer development in a satisfying way? All it can offer is a bunch of opinions jostling for attention. Those who complain have outgrown it and surely that’s the way it should be.That’s why these other satellite blogs are in existence???? I am tiring debating the merits of contemporary art with various people on the Jonathan Jones visual arts blogs. You just end up saying the same thing. But that’s me not the blog which is offering up what it’s always done since I started posting comments whenever that was.

    I’m not a writer so this medium is not a vital one for me so that’s possibly why I don’t feel it’s an avenue that’s closing down. Its just that a “democracy” of opinion has inbuilt limitations.

  13. 3p4

    i just browsed this thread again and saw that i missed the mario in cadenza reference first time around,,had no resonance then,,but now it does after reading the loveydoveythreadyweady

    that mario was really a delight to read,,

  14. 3p4

    @scary

    Its just that a “democracy” of opinion has inbuilt limitations.””””””””””

    on the macro scale its called the establishment
    ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
    That’s why these other satellite blogs are in existence””””””””

    in the microscale thats called the avant garde

    the tension between them is evolution,, no really,,
    ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
    the avant garde is creative,,the establishment is not
    ‘success’ is, ironically ,the process of moving from one to the other,,wheels fall off

  15. wordnerd7

    @3p4 . . . attention a bit fragmented at present . . . who are you quoting there, and from what blog?

    I don’t disagree with what I think you’re saying, . . . except for maybe putting ‘most’ before your mention of the avant garde.

  16. wordnerd7

    sorry, @3p4 . . . that was @alarming a bit upthread, but two and a half weeks ago — which may as well be two years ago, on the innnnerrrrnet.

    And I was agreeing with you saying,

    === the avant garde is [most] creative,,the establishment is not
    ’success’ is, ironically ,the process of moving from one to the other,,wheels fall off ===

    . . . with my qualification between [ ]. Some established artists can be as creative as the avant-garde.

  17. 3p4

    my qualification between “”

    under coat is applied with a broad brush,,fine strokes come later,,

    ps dont feel respondual obligatories,, see long thingys re ‘good host’

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