Thursday, October 16, 2014

Literary Parochialism and its Discontents

It will come as no news that UK structures of power are deeply averse to diversity (see here and here, just as examples) but a recent set of literary events have prompted me to examine both the issue and its consequences on culture, its production and circulation. The Exhibit B mess at the Barbican, when the protesters felt unheard while the 'establishment' closed ranks and few of the issues raised were addressed is possibly the starkest recent reminder of the parochialism in the the country's cultural establishment.  But I know the literary world best and I want to discuss that more closely.

Ten years of living in London and being actively engaged in writing and publishing means I have grown increasingly familiar with the literary 'establishment' - and here I mean the publishers, agents, editors, reviewers, etc. rather than academics (the latter require a whole other blog post). With few exceptions, literature doesn't pay, and it is necessary to note that most of the people involved in literary production and circulation are not only passionate but deeply committed.  Many are wonderful people (and I am fortunate to count many of my friends among them).

I say the above to make a simple point: on an individual level, the city's literary establishment is made up of wonderful human beings. On a structural, collective level however, there is another story.

It will come as no surprise  to most that Britain's literary establishment is as lacking in diversity as its academia, press, and various other fields (intriguingly, the much reviled City is also most diverse, perhaps as a result of focussing on profits, especially in a globalised world). A publisher recently described reviewers as results of 'public schools and some crack comprehensives.' He may as well have been talking of just about any part of the British literary world - with possible, and with caveats, exception of writers themselves.  It is this 'establishment' - made up of a very narrow group of people - not only impacts literary production, circulation and consumption as well as the larger issues of formation of 'taste', and assignation of cultural 'value.'

And this is where the narrow demographic that makes up this 'elite' becomes problematic. Race, gender, class, all contribute to our world-view. In case of literature (and cultural production in general), if most of the arbiters of taste and value - including the decisionmakers for books that are published, reviewed, win literary prizes - are drawn from a tiny homogenous group in society, we end up with a parochial mindset. So same sort of books are prized, same narratives are privileged, and indeed, same kind of authors lauded. A corollary of this is that passively, unconsciously - if not actively - alternative, 'different' voices are shut out. A closed communication loop is thus set up between a narrow group of people choosing the books they want to publish, others like them reviewing them, and even further more similar (if not the same) people serving on juries that reward them with recognition/prizes/cash/any and combinations of these.

One could argue that this has always been so (and I have heard these arguments made in earnest); that literature (or art, or theatre) has always been 'elite' arenas. One may also question if this matters at all. I would argue - and not only for personal reasons - that it does. A closed, homogenous group is self-affirming, parochial, incapable of change, and indeed eventually self-destructive.

In practice this means, for example, the inability to read, appreciate, or even be interested in literatures that do not reaffirm the entrenched (dominant) parochial world view. So books that are seen as 'different' are often only superficially so, and instead of challenging the parochialism, tend to reaffirm them. The lack of diversity of backgrounds, experiences, world views, and opinions mean that there is little or no challenge to the perpetual self-affirming feedback loop. This means even when a book is nominally different - presenting, for example, a working class, or non-white, or queer perspective, it is still selected, judged, viewed from a narrow and parochial lens. Difference or 'challenging' often becomes a question of form rather than content, providing a comfortable illusion of intellectual risk-taking without any real danger. This also means that even 'different' narratives are filtered to affirm the established ethos instead of challenging them. In such cases, superficial difference is seen as enough and anything more is considered discomfiting, alien, even confrontational (or my favourite, 'too strange'). Over time this creates a situation where comforting, familiar work is prized and anything challenging is either blocked, ignored, or left out. And indeed, this is where British literature and literary establishment stands in 2014.

Of course most of this is due to structural inertia. It is easier to read or publish or review material that reaffirms our own beliefs. Reading that challenges - intellectually or worse, ethically - is uncomfortable business. And more importantly, it is hard work! It is easier and more comfortable to stick to what we already know.

There is a real world price to be paid for this parochialism as this feedback loop excises cultural production from real world concerns. In a globalised and interconnected world, there is real economic, political, even military cost to such deliberate ignorance. A society that shuts out most of its people from representation in, and production and consumption of culture, will find itself increasingly unable to examine or understand itself. Such a society will be incapable of not only recognising internal and external threats and risks to itself.  This society will also find itself incapable of examining or reflecting on not only the changes that may be necessary but also the transformations that are forced upon it by circumstance and history.

This refusal to engage with difference and discomfort also has serious cultural consequences. It creates a stale, staid conservative culture that is neither capable of growth nor change. It also steeps itself in nostalgia, in endless replication and repetition of supposedly valuable form while sacrificing substance. And finally, it stops engaging with the very society that sustains, nourishes and at the end consumes the cultural products that are created.

There is also a practical, even commercial angle to this. This literary/cultural parochialism also limits both sales and potential markets due to a seemingly endless replication of an ever narrowing set of narratives, viewpoints and world views. Regardless of UKIP-style nostalgia, Britain has irrevocably changed - demographically and culturally, and this change urgently needs to be reflected in the narratives and cultural production.  In many ways, one can argue, that this contemporary Britain is already producing and consuming culture even if it is shut out of the art, literary or cultural 'establishments.'  One could even make the case that perhaps the most exciting, challenging literature, art, theatre is emerging from places that hidden, and even far beyond the reach of the 'establishment.' But this would only be one side of the picture. Ignoring, refusing, actively or passively shutting out narratives, cultural products, world views that engage with the larger society, means fewer books are sold and read, both internally and externally. Moreover the arbiters of 'taste' remain in their fossilised glory, ever more irrelevant to the culture and society beyond.

This also means diminishing influence both within Britain and abroad. Internally, this means fewer readers engaging with a 'culture' that appears remote because does not include their concerns, anxieties, or stories.  Instead they are finding narratives in texts from countries across the globe (made accessible by the Amazon behemoth). Abroad, it means a loss of soft power (which Britain has exercised very well, especially through its literary production) and thus a diminishing of diplomatic, political, cultural, and eventually economic influence.

Of course, none of the arguments above are particularly new and there is little doubt that diversity matters. Few, even in publishing, would argue against it. The problem - however - is of inertia, of a passive and parochial literary elite that appear to prefer pulling up the drawbridge instead of engaging with the world beyond.  Frankly, even after ten years, I can see no way of persuading them to venture beyond their blissfully ignorant comfort zone.