Friday, November 19, 2010

Thinking Not Allowed

Well, here is perhaps the most depressing sign yet of the dumbing down of our literary culture by those in charge of its wellbeing, and of their utter patronisation of readers. According to an article in Wednesday's Independent, Costa judge Jonathan Ruppin, who is the web editor at Foyles bookshop, stated that it was not a strong year for fiction this year, adding that the omission of Howard Jacobson and David Mitchell from the shortlist was due to the fact that 'their work was too cerebral to recommend to the masses'.

And there we have it, folks: out-and-out proof that in this brave new world of ours, intellect is seen as weakness and something to be kept well away from us, the 'masses'.

Thanks to Lynne Hatwell via Facebook


Kathleen Jones said...

I totally agree Elizabeth. The 'biography' list at the Galaxy Awards made me spit blood.

Jane Eagland said...

I totally agree. But isn't this at heart the result of the commercialization of publishing as everything else: mass-market= more money...

Anonymous said...

Random thoughts in reply:

Costa is populist prize, not looking for highbrow or intellectual stuff anyway.

Cerebral isn't the same as intellectual necessarily. Stories that live too much in the head -that are too much about ideas and theories and philosophies, and/or which are too reflective and contain too much talk about chatacters are a drag for most readers. Of course they are.

Classic writers we universally admire were rarely 'cerebral' or even particularly intellectual. And when they were, they were good storytellers first, intellectuals second.

Good to get away from the 'Hampstead Novel' effect of so many competitions- winners chosen by a coterie judgeship that doesn't represent a more general readership. (horrid term judgeship, sorry)

Nobody wants dumbing down in fiction, but an avoidance of over brainy or over reflective writing doesn't automatically signify that.

Elizabeth Baines said...

Anon: I don't object to prizes for populism, particularly if the point is to make known potentially popular books that haven't in fact become known. But it's worrying when all prizes start to chase the commercial imperative, which does seem to be happening, and literary merit is in danger of being no longer a yardstick in our culture.

Perhaps you could explain the distinction you make between 'cerebral' and 'intellectual', since the OED defines 'cerebral' as 'of or pertaining to the brain; appealing to the intellect rather than to the emotions'. I guess from the rest of your comment you mean by it OVER-intellectual, and I couldn't agree more that all great books should appeal to the emotions first and the intellect second. However, no great book is written WITHOUT a fine intellect (so I disagree with you there), and what worries me is that Rappin's comment stands for an anti-intellectualism that does indeed pave the way for a dumbing down.

I have to say that as far as I know, it's a long time since the unfashionable Hampstead novel (ie a novel about middle-class marital angst in Hampstead) won a prize, and when the booksellers who control the market become prize judges then what do we have but a commercial coterie?

Anonymous said...

what worries me is that Rappin's comment stands for an anti-intellectualism that does indeed pave the way for a dumbing down. - I just challenge the idea that generally speaking intellectualism has any place in fiction at all, either in its writing or its appreciation. I mean, fiction is an an entertainment, first and foremost. For some, a minority, (some might say a heretofore controlling minority) that entertainment might be found in intellectual elements, and good grief there's enough of that sort of fiction about for those who want to hunt it out, but the majority should be spared the tastes of the few, surely.
I think it's a given that fiction reflects society, doesn't create it.
Isn't Jacobson's latest a pretty classic 'Hampstead novel' in the broad sense?
Who, honestly, can bear more than two pages of Banville?
No, no great book is written without a fine intellect but that's not the same as writing a book with overwhelmingly intellectual concerns.

Elizabeth Baines said...

Well, as I said previously I agree that successful fiction appeals primarily on the emotional level. But there is room surely for thought/thinking: good literature can make us think (by moving us in the first place). It's for this reason that I disagree with you that literature can only reflect society and act as 'entertainment'.

Satire is highly entertaining (it makes us laugh) but has strong intellectual/ideas underpinning. But I have noticed that satire is sadly out of fashion in literature, and as far as I'm concerned that's a sign of dumbing down.

I can't comment on Jacobson's and Mitchell's novels because I haven't read them, but I would say from reading Mitchell's previous work that he's a very good story-teller.

Elizabeth Baines said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

I agree about the lack of satire; but is that because satire is not getting published or not getting written? I don't know.

I do think there's a slight disconnect in the area of what might be called highbrow fiction which arguably never used to exist, which is that there's a concern with being seen to be highbrow, to be thought of as highbrow in a way that is inorganic and dissociated from storytelling itself, a self-consciousness amongst the deLillo's, the Roths, the Amises(sp??), which perhaps you don't see in the Hemingways, Mailers (at his best) and Greenes (at his best), and certainly not in Faulkner or Twain or Dickens. This is pure conjecture of course, just a 'feeling' on my part, and not really based on research or careful consideration, but I think it's an idea shared by many people.

There's a knee-jerk reaction you see quite a lot that publishing is going down the pan, serious fiction doesn't have a chance, commercial interests squash out the kind of writing which might properly reflect and maturely deal with the issues of this extraordinary society/world we find ourselves caught up in, and there's a lot of truth in that. But I think all these populist books do a lot of good too, even the celeb bio's, because they bring non-readers into reading - surely one in every hundred person who has never read a book before will enjoy the pleasure and move move on to more sophisticated things. Even if it's one a thousand, that's still good for books. And the other thing is money: publishers do still print books that don't make money, or only a little money, and that activity is serviced by profits from the populist products.

I know all this has been said before.

Elizabeth Baines said...

Well, yes, as I say I have no objection to populist literature and I'm certainly no enemy of entertainment - quite the contrary.

But speaking from my own experience as a writer I'd say that there is indeed a pressure from publishers and broadcasters to steer away from anything else. In particular, having once found that my satirical radio plays were more than welcomed on Radio 4, I began to be asked to 'cut out the irony' and do 'heart-warming' instead.

I am also one of those many writers who can now testify to the new experience of having been told that their novels are very good indeed, very moving and involving and yet 'not quite commercial enough' and therefore not publishable, an experience we didn't have earlier on in our careers. One editor told me that once upon a time she would have had no problem accepting the book she was now regretfully having to turn down due to commercial restraints. And this is not heavyweight intellectual stuff we're talking about, by any means (as I say I agree with you that story is paramount).

It was certainly true that at one time publishing firms subsidised the more 'literary' work with the commercial books, but I think it's generally agreed that this is becoming less and less the case with the big publishing houses. On the other hand, small independent publishers like my own, Salt, are stepping in to pick up the slack, but they don't have the financial muscle the big boys have to buy their way into the bookshop chains - or even the big prizes which now ask for a commitment of enormous sums if a book is long or shortlisted.

Elizabeth Baines said...

In fact, I recommend that you read this post on Nicola Morgan's blog, that makes no bones about telling it like it really is now.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting blog, and fascinating to hear 1st hand from Nicola and yourself that there is active pressure being put on writers to change what they write.

Intresting too that after her hatchet job on her own work Nicola says:

Suprisingly, with my reader's hat on, I rather like what I'm left with... It's fast-paced, exciting and fun. If I was a young reader, I hope I'd like it. After all, I want my readers to enjoy themselves above all. So, maybe there's no compromise - it's just a different way of writing. It might even be better.

It's the readership that's changing isn't it? Tastes are changing. Personal politics are changing. People have less time, basically, and they have a tougher time too, at work and at home. So they want quick, easy, happy/scary/funny/romantic hits from their reading.

Aren't the publishers just passing on to the authors what the readers tell them through sales?

Elizabeth Baines said...

Yes, indeed, I think they are. However, what happens if they ONLY react to market pressures? Do we lose important things, or not? That's the question.

Anonymous said...


I know when I was sixteen or seventeen (and this was before the internet) I hunted out all kinds of writing that wasn't up front and publicised in the bookshop marketplace as it were; and books were actually much much less easily available in the pre-Waterstones era. What I mean is that there's an awful lot of interesting stuff about now for the person who wants to really seek it. And then just look at Salt, and similar outfits, getting a lot of great stuff on the shelves. And the (very) recent growth in the popularity of short fiction, that's rather wonderful too.

I just feel that when I walk into even a big chain bookshop now compared to even fifteen years ago, it feels like a wonderland of variety and diversity. And then if you actually go to a pukka independent, the range of idiosyncratic, cosmopolitan, heartfelt, political, niche fiction seems so great I couldn't imagine ever being truly up to date as a reader ever again...

Am I being too optimistic?

Elizabeth Baines said...

Not sure. I don't think there's nearly the range in Waterstone's that there was ten years ago...