Who decides what we read?

When I was studying English Lit at varsity, we did a module discussing the criteria that makes a novel ‘literary’. On the whole it seemed like a great intellectual conundrum (translation: bunch of bullshit) that sent me and my class mates on a mental goose chase. After listening to, and reading, a whole bunch of philosophical mumbo-jumbo, we concluded…(drum roll please)… precisely nothing. I even managed to spew out a few thousand words on ‘precisely nothing’ and receive a decent mark for my spewings. What defines ‘literariness’… indeed, what does define literariness?

We decided that there is ‘something’ that makes Mills & Boon rubbish and James Joyce’s Ulysses one of the greatest examples of literary genius. And I’m not talking about the obvious; coherent sentences (that are well spelled and articulately punctuated), character development and plot formulation. I’m talking about a ‘something’ – the ‘X-Factor’ if you will – that separates ‘the great’ from ‘the average’. There must be an objective bench mark – surely? That said; when art is concerned, subjectivity is implacably unrelenting in persuasion.

Stemming from this oh-so-vague observation is the question; “who decides?” Who decides what is great. Who tells us what is of literary worth and what is not?

Much like the infamous big brother who always watches, there is an equally enigmatic literary establishment that always judges, and decides literary canon. Or so we think. My fellow scholars and I agreed that this ‘great establishment’ is sadly; old-fashioned, narrow-minded and, well, bo-o-ring – usually arguing against the literary value of anything that broaches the perimeters of popular fiction. And, of course, science fiction, fantasy and – dare I say it – horror are big fat no-nos in the world of the über intellectual. (As it so happens; when I was studying, there was a raging debate going on within the faulty, which had to decide whether to include a science fiction module in the Honours curriculum.) The likes of Stephen King, Chuck Palahniuk and Terry Pratchett are bemoaned by ‘the deciders’ rather than lauded for bridging the gap between literature and popular fiction. Why? Because these authors, these genres, challenge literary canon.

But back to the question; who is this so-called establishment? What presumable experts are sufficiently qualified to place a value on what is, in essence, art? The answer can be found in a superbly cheeky article written by Geoff Dyer, published in The Guardian. Dyer argues that there is no such thing as a literary establishment – he refers to it as a ‘mythic beast’ – and suggests that the reason he is privy to such information is because he is in fact a member of said establishment.

“What!?” you say.

Dyer writes:

“Unpicking things more closely, the establishment presumably comprises literary agencies and publishing houses, some of whom have more sway than others. In London these publishers would include Jonathan Cape and Faber; in New York, Knopf and FSG. At a human level there are the editors at these houses, and the literary editors of papers and periodicals (some of which wield more of what my late Italian publisher termed “power-clout” than others), who decide which books to review and who to ask to review them. Then there are the people who get asked to sit on prize-giving panels, who decide which books to honour, and academics within the English departments at universities who decide which books to teach and canonise. Hang on, I feel sure I’m forgetting at least one other important category of person. Ah, right, stupid me … the writers!”

But most importantly, Dyer claims that the mythic beast of which he speaks is not impregnable. This so-called literary establishment “consists of people lamenting not only the bias, misjudgments and stupidity of other people who are part of it but – as we have seen – its very existence.” What an annoying irony: a bunch of gurus telling us what to read but simultaneously refuting the hierarchical nature of their opinion.

To deconstruct the argument; said establishment is a fiction created by a collective mental amalgamation of perceived critical opinion. So, it’s all in our (apparently insecure, conspiratorially-minded) heads. Really?

Art defies hierarchy – in spite of its technicalities and undeniable objective merit, it is emotive in creation and emotive in observation, and thus never conclusive in definition. According to Dyer, the words of the establishment are “the sounds of people who care about books talking to and about other people who care about books. There is no such thing as the literary establishment. I know this because I am part of it.”

So, taken from the horse’s mouth, there is no establishment.

Or is there?

Other posts you might like: