Dear Robert McCrum,
With the greatest respect, you people are hopeless, you really are. I mean, firstly, you — for arguing complacently that some small cabal or mafia of the talented and lucky always dominates a country’s literary community: always has; always will. And I mean Philip Hensher, scolding the world for the, frankly, unlamented – except by other members of the club – death of newspaper book reviewing.
Of course you’re technically right, in the narrow terms you’ve chosen. But you’re looking through the wrong end of the telescope — and backwards. In the technological displacement that has us all talking to each other on these backlit typing slates, your justifications are quite simply irrelevant.
You and Philip H. write as if it’s ‘all about us.’ Actually, it’s all about all the people not you – and outside your little elect. What we’d far prefer to see, from you, is not defensive navel-gazing but a marvelling at the first chance in human history, for everyone else to have their thoughts read and appreciated by millions. . . I note that today, in the comments section of your blog, you finally mention that ‘one of the very good things about the IT revolution is that almost anyone can be a publisher these days,’ – but then why wasn’t this acknowledged in your post above the line?
Remember that this was the possibility honoured in the concept of the Fourth Estate recently discussed in this space. The same fabulous potential guided the work of the 20th century’s best-known editor-hero, Max Perkins.
Because of a generation gap, our most mentally agile literary scholar-philosopher, George Steiner — writing about the excitement of coming into contact, in New York, with sharp minds outside his branch of the literary establishment — doesn’t seem to realise that he could easily be describing the best debates in the blogosphere. Never mind that there isn’t a single mention of any form of the word blog in a passage claiming that he’s profoundly computer-illiterate – although PC, laptop, texting, Internet, processor and surfing are sprinkled into it gingerly. In an essay comparing élite educational traditions in Europe and the U.S., he says:
I have never had more demanding, original students than those in my evening classes at New York university. The multiracial mix around the table, of women and men from the most diverse social backgrounds, of both young and old, of the retired and of those in various professions, made for an implosive cast. The joy of discovery – ‘Dostoevsky is simply wonderful!’ – of intellectual and emotional surprise, the resistance to the merely official and magisterial, the raw vehemence of debate, illustrated the best of the American story. I would pitch some of these students and auditors against any elite. Even that which made a doctoral seminar at Stanford and certain tutorials at Cambridge occasions on which I learned far more than I could aspire to teach. Even when compared with my more or less continuous seminar in comparative literature and intellectual history over a quarter of a century at the university of Geneva or an unforgettable audience in Girona.
What’s interesting is that Steiner makes this point in a piece you can read as a lamentation for the collapse of literary and educational standards – for the dismal fact that for culture, egalitarianism has largely meant levelling down, not up.
But for this, he blames a literary and intellectual community kowtowing to commercial interests deeply uninterested in aesthetic or artistic excellence. He states unequivocally that the media have become pathetic slaves of mammon.
I have thrown out all newspaper recommendations of the ‘best books’ of the year 2008 as fast as my hands would let me. As my fellow bloggers point out ad nauseam, we are tired of following such advice, only to find that we’ve wasted our time on over-praised, shallow productions of someone in, or related to, your beloved élite. That’s another problem you haven’t addressed: in looking out for each other, you’ve failed to do your job as honest literary filters and encouragers of sparkling and original talent.
Please don’t try justifying this status quo ever again. Why don’t you and Philip Hensher start your own blogs, cross-link to some of ours, out here – and, like James Wood, start talking to us where we live in the ether, and not just from the kind of spot Americans call a ‘bully pulpit’?
Let’s talk about the issues that really need discussing, to save what’s left of literary culture. For instance: how can readers of literary fiction be linked to the books they are most likely to enjoy now that the consensus about what constitutes great writing has broken down, and no one country or culture can set the criteria? How can we replace the arrogant, inexperienced know-alls vetting non-fiction proposals in today’s book business, with a gatekeeping system that balances the inter-disciplinary insight and toil that lie behind most important new ideas with the trend for all forms of knowledge to get increasingly specialised and intricate? . . . How can we stop commerce from running literature and controlling the dissemination of ideas and facts?
My criticisms here aren’t remotely personal. You seem modest, affable and immensely likeable – from what I’ve read by and about you over the years. I admired the fine shading and subtlety in your recent profiles of V.S. Naipaul and Philip Roth. As for Philip Hensher, I actually recommended a couple of comments supporting him in arguments on the Guardian site about the last Booker prize. I couldn’t bring myself to write a post because the editors of that blog continue to ignore our complaints about being drowned in articles about literary prizes.
I assume that they find it cosy and comfortable to have their heads so close to their dainty ostrich feet.
With all good wishes,