July 30, 2014

The "Literary Cultural District" and the Art of Rent -- Part 1

When the fix is in, the fix is in: On Wednesday, June 25, the Boston City Council voted unanimously in favor of the Literary Cultural District proposal submitted by a coalition of local organizations led by the Grub Street writing center and its director, Eve Bridburg. This came after a second hearing for the district that was almost as poorly publicized as the first. Now the application has been kicked up to the Massachusetts Cultural Council to determine if it meets the state’s guidelines. In the meantime Grub Street has been on a mini publicity blitz, with Bridburg’s hype man, Larry Lindner, crowing that the district could be a reality as early as September of this year.

Does that mean Grub Street will be returning half of the 2-year planning grant it received from the state in the Fall of 2013? (42,500 taxpayer bucks for a project repeatedly billed as “revenue neutral.”) Somehow I think not, but at this point such straightforward theft is one of the less sleazy aspects of this case. As a writer – and a just as a rational, ethical human being – I’m more offended by their serial abuse of an infinitely more precious currency: language. For example, in the latest wave of uncritical, rah-rah articles about the project, city councilor Ayanna Pressley is quoted applauding the district because it will “incentivize foot traffic” in the area. Any writer worth her salt will be deeply revolted by this kind of thing, as she would’ve by Eve Bridburg’s classic from an earlier interview, “We’re thinking about branding the work that everybody is doing.” Worst of all is that “Literary Cultural District Coordinator” Larry Lindner is back to claiming that Boston is in the midst of “a literary renaissance.” During the city council process a chastened, or at least more cautious, Grub Street had downgraded their momentous cultural rebirth to a still hugely overstated “resurgence.” It’s a sure sign they feel the wind in their sails that they’ve now returned to the brazen ad-speak – or what, in simpler times, was known as lying – of “renaissance.”

The single note of caution sounded in the recent spate of press reports was over the district’s walkability – a requirement of the MCC guidelines. And if we look at the crude map that Grub Street released, it is indeed a sizeable chunk of downtown real estate.

But that’s what it’s really been about all along, isn’t it – real estate? The urban policy of cultural districts was first created for the very purpose of “revitalizing” – code word for gentrifying – economically depressed neighborhoods in cities ravaged by de-industrialization and other vagaries of a market economy. Take a look at this 1998 “Americans for the Arts” report, Cultural Districts: The Arts as a Strategy for Revitalizing Our Cities, sponsored by a group of urban mayors, business associations, and arts administrators. By that time, the report states, there were already 90 cities in the US that had founded or planned such districts. Examine the language used to describe the function of cultural districts in these two excerpts:

Now for some basic math: what happens to a neighborhood when the tax base is “expanded,” property values “enhanced,” local businesses “complemented,” and more “well educated employees” and tourists roll in? It should be clear to all persons of good will and plain dealing that behind the bullshit euphemisms we’re talking about jacking up rents, racist redlining by other means, and cultural homogenization – in other words, gentrification.

The experience of Pittsburgh, summarized in the Americans for the Arts report, gives us a more or less typical example of the forces and motivations behind the founding of a cultural district:

The first paragraph blithely asserts that the district will “link the interests and activities of historic preservation groups, arts organizations and downtown developers” as if these interests somehow more or less harmonized in the first place, with the further assumption that arts organizations do indeed represent the needs of artists and urban communities (in fact, arts organizations often represent the interests of urban elites before those of artists and ordinary citizens). But in the next paragraph it clearly emerges that the primary motivation for the district came from the big urban developers themselves. Cultivation of the arts is spoken of in terms of revenue generation, number of events and tickets sold (the Pittsburgh example is primarily a theater district), with everything subordinated to the ultimate goal of economic success in market terms. As long as someone’s basking in the benjamins, it just stands to reason that “quality of life” is going up for the whole “community”!

What’s instructive in these examples is how little it has to do with art and culture. Cultural districts are not the spontaneous or organic outgrowths of city dwellers and culture producers’ collective efforts to remake their surroundings at the grassroots level; they are the deliberate creations of real estate developers and investors, urban politicians (who get their campaign bucks from the developers, not from poor artists!), and bureaucrats from various nonprofits. Arts and culture are an instrumentality, a means to an end, rather than an end in itself. This is what it means when you hear supporters of the Literary Cultural District using words like “leveraging,” “branding,” and “incentivizing” – it’s not just crappy word choice. In their minds, a thriving culture is one that generates dollars, even though they will invariably frame this as an “everyone wins” scenario.

If that’s your definition of culture, then these districts should be fine with you. In fact they’re now so prevalent that they’ve even begun establishing something like a trade association of their own, the Global Cultural Districts Network. Click through their website and then get back to me about what kind of "cultural" vibe they’re giving off.

Call me crazy, but to me it looks a little . . . corporate.

Of course someone might reasonably remark, gazing at the LCD map and tracing a finger from Beacon Hill over to Newbury Street, that the area happens to be a tad . . . gentrified already, yes? To which the most accurate rejoinder would be, Yes and No. It’s true that much of the area appears fully developed commercially and “vital” enough not to indicate an urgent remedy of “revitalization.” But there remain hundreds of units of affordable/subsidized housing both within the district itself and quite near its borders, as well as enclaves – particularly Chinatown – where working class families still hang on. The Literary Cultural District has a profit-oriented rationale for taking both types of urban terrain into its capacious borders, and I’ll be addressing each in greater depth in Parts 2 and 3 of this post.

In the meantime, since you’ll be hearing more and more about how great the district will be for writers, check out the findings of this quantitative study of cultural districts!

May 13, 2014

Three Strikes Against the Literary Cultural District Public Hearing

A "community driven" effort.

The Grub Street stage production of The Literary Cultural District Public Hearing has come and gone after a single performance at Boston Public Library’s Rabb Lecture Hall. The one-act farce, co-produced by the Arts & Culture Committee of the Boston City Council, was written by Eve Bridburg and directed by Michelle Wu. Playing the Stage Manager, newcomer Larry Lindner turned in a harried, defensive performance – clearly someone with professional credentials was needed in this part – while Christopher Castellani and Henriette Lazaridis Power appeared listless and dispirited in their supporting roles as The Writer and The Audio-Book. This left it up to Ayanna Pressley, in her key role as The Politician, to pick up the slack, which she did admirably. Pressley’s ambitious interpretation gave us one of those public officials who really know the ABCs of their profession – Always Be Campaigning. But even her nimble and rolling delivery couldn’t rescue a production that seemed sabotaged from the start by its haplessly scattershot script, as if Ms Bridburg had all along envisioned nothing more than a one-night engagement in an almost empty hall . . .

A bit of theater: It’s no exaggeration to say that the May 6 public hearing for the Literary Cultural District was never meant to be more than that. This is why the project’s chief organizer, Grub Street, did nothing to publicize it. Or more precisely, the publicity was as much a mere formality as the hearing itself was supposed to be. Five hours before it was scheduled to start, Grub Street condescended to mention it with a terse Facebook post and a tweet.

Grub Street director Eve Bridburg defended her decision on Facebook, claiming, “Back in April, we notified more than 50 media outlets and 74 other literary and civic organizations. We hope to get a great turnout.” If this is true, then she was grievously let down by these 124 organizations because not a single one of them made so much as a peep about the hearing either. Nor did any of the other organizations of the LCD coalition, such as The Drum or the Boston Book Festival. The only public notifications were the ones that were mandatory – the official City Council posting and the BPL listing.

Grub Street didn’t even avail itself of its own extensive email list. They could easily have included an item about the hearing in the weekly newsletter, the Grub Street Rag, or they could have emailed a separate notification, as they also do from time to time. Evidently their professed desire for a “great turnout” was not especially ardent.

The Rabb Lecture Hall at the Boston Public Library can accommodate 350 people, but for the LCD hearing it was “filled” to only a tenth of its capacity, around 30-35 people. And that’s being charitable, as this number includes those who had to be there, such as the city workers operating the video and sound equipment, plus a couple of party crashers – myself and my co-conspirator, Catherine – who only knew about the hearing because they had gone looking for it (my testimony here). Most of the rest of those present were invitees, lined up beforehand by Grub Street to chime in according to the pre-approved script.

The irregularities continued once the meeting got under way. Arts & Culture Committee chair Michelle Wu might have wielded the gavel, but it was her colleague, Ayanna Pressley, who was both the meeting’s official sponsor and its presiding spirit. Councilor Pressley opened the proceedings by commending the “robust coalition” that was “leading the charge” for the LCD, while also pointing out to the echoing chamber and 320 empty seats that the effort was “community driven.”

The irregularity here is that Councilor Pressley also happens to occupy a seat on Grub Street’s “Literary Council.” Moreover, she’s a very recent addition to that group, appearing for the first time in the Spring of 2013 – in other words when the discussions for the LCD had to have been already under way in order to secure the $42,5000 “planning grant” that they received from the Massachusetts Cultural Council (MCC) in Fall 2013.1 Out of the 38 individuals on the Literary Board, Councilor Pressley is the only one with no professional connection to the literary world; the others are mostly writers, with some agents and editors. I applaud Grub’s decision to have different voices, perspectives, and backgrounds represented on the Literary Board, including even “extra-literary” perspectives – but why then only this single one, and with this particular timing?

A politician fallen among bad company.

I don’t have access to the answers, of course, and therefore will only observe that it at least gives the appearance of possible corruption and conflict of interest, of a quid pro quo in which the city councilor is gifted an honorific and a line on her CV in return for helping to lubricate the legislative process for certain projects.2 Councilor Pressley is routinely spoken of as a future star in our political firmament, destined for higher office. A ceremonial seat on a literary board of merely advisory capacity may not seem like much, but it is indeed something – culture nowadays is a form of capital, and cultural capital confers prestige for a certain sector of voters, and, much more crucially, of donors.

Now for strike three, which wasn’t really brought home to me until the testimony of Dan Currie. His perspective is significant because he served on the working team putting together the application that will shortly be submitted by the LCD coalition to the Massachusetts Cultural Council. Currie’s remarks were highly critical of the coalition’s leadership – its “Executive Partners” as they have dubbed themselves – and called for a process that was more transparent, open, and inclusive than what he had seen so far.

Dan Currie speaks with some authority here, because he was instrumental in shepherding an earlier Boston literary site through the official process to become a city landmark. It’s thanks to his efforts that we now have an Edgar Allan Poe walking tour, a Poe Square at Boylston and Charles Streets, and soon a public statue of Poe Returning to Boston that actually looks dynamic, interesting, and flat-out cool instead of like the usual bronzed dogshit. Yet a monument of presumably more conventional cut had been the first choice of the project’s other leaders; it was only because Currie had insisted on a more democratic process, soliciting greater public participation and feedback than the officially required minimum, that a genuinely popular result was achieved.

By contrast, the LCD coalition’s “Executive Partners” are doing the opposite, barely fulfilling even the letter of the law, let alone its spirit. This is especially the case when it comes to their third strike: the scandalous decision to not release a list of the district’s “assets” for public scrutiny and discussion before the application is submitted to the Massachusetts Cultural Council. “Assets” is the MCC’s unlovely and revealingly commercial term for the sites and properties that are supposed to anchor a proposed cultural district – cultural attractions, of course, but also business venues that might be associated, however tangentially, with the cultural theme. In the Literary Cultural District’s case, such “assets” would include specifically literary landmarks such as the Thoreau, Alcott, and Hawthorne residences on Pinckney Street, but also businesses such as hotels, bars, and restaurants with any vaguely literary connection (Malcolm Lowry barfed here!), and of course organizations like Grub Street itself.

Instead, all that was revealed at the public hearing was an empty map. The borders delineated a quite large swath of Boston real estate, from downtown in the east to Copley Square and beyond in the west, and from Beacon Hill in the north to Washington Street in the south – with an elbow poking into the rapidly gentrifying Chinatown. There were no markers for any literary sites on the map, no key, and no list. The whole rationale for creating this district in the first place was missing, excluded from consideration.

"The district" -- literary & cultural TBA

Of all the irregularities, this was definitely the weirdest. The excuse for it, related by the visibly nervous Larry Lindner, was that there wasn’t time to get  “bogged down” in “details” or tied up in endless debates about which sites should or shouldn’t be included in the district (yes, Larry, democracy can be messy and inconvenient). Moreover, Lindner further stammered, the list could change any time, sites could be added at any point, and even the boundaries of the map itself could change, so it didn’t really matter right now, did it?

In her closing remarks Councilor Pressley came to Lindner’s aid by affirming that this was going to be a “nimble and rolling process” and then repeating it several times to make sure we all got it: “a nimble and rolling process, a nimble and rolling process . . .” Although intended to reassure, it raises the question of just who is getting rolled here.

Councilor Pressley also thanked Councilor Wu for “expediting” the scheduling of the hearing itself. Along with Lindner’s anxiety about getting “bogged down,” this contributed to the impression that the process is being rushed for some undisclosed reason. Originally (in 2013) the Grub-led coalition had been awarded a two-year planning grant, with talk that the district itself might be unveiled “sometime in 2015.” Now we’re being told that the christening might take place before the end of this year.

Why the rush? What is being kept from the public? And what is being committed in the name of writers, who have a responsibility to be good stewards of the language, and speak the truth?  

Three strikes against the LCD public hearing:

Strike 1:  Not publicized

Strike 2:  Not impartial

Strike 3:  Not informed

You’re out!


1 The Massachusetts Cultural Council (MCC) is the state agency that, among other things, administers cultural districts within the Commonwealth.

2 This is additionally ironic when we remember Ayanna Pressley’s vote to expel Chuck Turner from the city council in 2010. Turner, member of the Green-Rainbow Party and a longtime Boston activist, was about as close as we might have come to a genuine ‘people’s’ representative in city government in our time – that is, until he was framed by the FBI for allegedly accepting gifts in return for political favors.

May 7, 2014

Brand in Boston

Below is the testimony I delivered from the podium at the City of Boston's public hearing on the establishment of a "Literary Cultural District." I'll give a full report on the hearing in a subsequent post. Special thanks to the individual who gave me the idea for this post's title.

We’ve been hearing a lot lately from the spokespeople for the Literary Cultural District about “branding” and “leveraging.” For example, the Boston Globe piece from last October spoke of the proposed district as a “branded zone,” while in a more recent Publisher’s Weekly article, Grub Street Director Eve Bridburg has said, “We’re thinking about branding the work that everybody is doing.”

Well, I’m here today with the modest proposal that Boston’s writers be branded as well. The marking of individual animals has long been regarded as integral to good herd management; it is a time-honored way for this Athens of America to increase shareholder equity in its stock of writers.

The branding of writers can even become a beloved annual festival just like the Boston Book Festival and Muse & the Marketplace. We can hold it right on the Common, in the growing shadow of new luxury developments like Millennium Tower.

Branding has come a long way since the days of the old west when you’d just thrust a red-hot poker into the haunches of a lassoed, bellowing steer. Now there are plenty of other techniques to choose from, including freeze branding, electrical branding, ear notching, tattooing inside the lip, and even implanted microchips. Each way has its advantages and drawbacks.

First, however, the design itself must be chosen by the coalition’s democratically-elected Executive Partners. I suggest a “G” for GrubStreet (or Gentrification) plus a dollar sign. Just remember that the simpler the design the less painful it is for the livestock.

Next of course it must be decided where on the body the writer will bear the brand. Ideally brands should be easily seen and readable from over 50 feet, so this suggests the face as the prime real estate. Here is where “leveraging” could come in, as a way of lifting and holding the writer’s head steady during this painful but necessary process.

Whatever way is chosen for them by the Executive Partners, Boston’s writers are certain to greet it with instant, clamorous acclaim; the only downside is the stampede they’ll risk starting to be first in line. 

Thank you.

Boston writers assembling for the annual LCD branding ritual

March 26, 2014

Destination Culture (Break the Value Chains!)

We haven’t been hearing much about the Literary Cultural District from its boosters lately, but a few Grub Street website updates and scattered tweets here and there suggest that work, or whatever you’d call it, is progressing where it matters most when it comes to issues of public life in urban spaces – behind the scenes. Grub Director Eve Bridburg has been busy massaging the local pols, while more quotidian tasks like being interviewed by BU communications majors have been offloaded onto Larry Lindner, a local journalist tapped by Bridburg to be the bearer of that awkward “Literary Cultural District Coordinator” job title.

Michelle Wu & Ayanna Pressley are both Boston City Councilors at Large; Catherine Peterson is an arts administrator.

Oh, there will no doubt be a public hearing at some point – some point far along the road when the local plutocrats, business owners, politicians, nonprofit bureaucrats, and arts and culture administrators (with a backing chorus of the complicit, the compliant, and the clueless – i.e. “writers”) are all on board and the whole affair is a locked-down, sewn-up, air-tight, across-the-board fait accompli. In the meantime, we need to do what we can with our own far more meager resources.

Here for your edification are two brief passages that illuminate different aspects of the “cultural district” phenomenon. The first is from Sharon Zukin’s Naked City: The Death & Life of Authentic Urban Places (Oxford UP: 2009). Zukin is best known for her early, pioneering work on gentrification, Loft Living (1982), but she has remained a critic of the way neoliberal capitalism reshapes urban spaces for the purposes of profit. In this passage Zukin specifically addresses “Destination Culture” – her name for the cultural district as a strategy for urban redevelopment – and, using the example of SoHo, she outlines 3 stages that end up producing a shopping-mall sameness in city after city.

For the past few decades Destination Culture has offered a general model of a city’s new beginnings in postindustrial production and leisure consumption. It suits real estate developers who seek to encourage the high value of urban land, especially in the center, by converting it to high-rent uses and appeals to a younger generation who trend toward an aesthetic rather than a political view of social life. Cities invest in different forms of Destination Culture, most often building spaces of consumption for shopping, museum hopping, or entertainment, but also building spaces of production such as artists’ studios, live-work lofts, and cultural hubs. With media buzz and rising rents, these spaces shift the city, one neighborhood at a time, from traditional manufacturing to arts and crafts production, and then to cultural display, design, and consumption, testing the market for higher rents and creating ‘new’ space for more intensive uses. Like The Gates [a Christo and Jeanne-Claude installation in Central Park, 2005], all forms of Destination Culture are judged according to their financial results. In the end upscale development triumphs over authenticity, whether that is the authenticity of origins or of new beginnings.
SoHo’s recent transformation illustrates this process. In the 1970s the legalization of loft living for artists in SoHo created a space of city-sponsored, though not publicly financed, cultural production. At that time nearly all street-level spaces, the neighborhood’s storefronts and first-floor lofts, were used by small manufacturers and suppliers that catered to them. By 1980, a few years after the artists’ district was formed, most of these spaces were still used by factories or factory suppliers, but almost as many housed art galleries. The district attracted an enormous amount of media attention in lifestyle magazines and art world journals and in ‘New York’ movies as well. Foot traffic swelled. By 1990 art galleries dominated the storefronts, joined by new, individually owned boutiques and professional services, while manufacturing visibly waned. SoHo was now known as an artists’ district, but it was also becoming an interesting place to shop for new art, trendy clothing, and fine imported cheese. By 2000 art galleries began to be outnumbered by boutiques, and chain stores of every sort planted themselves on Broadway, near the subway stations, as well as on the side streets. Only five years later, with rents dramatically rising, chain stores outnumbered boutiques two to one, a small number of art galleries remained, and factories had all but disappeared. An elderly landlord who bought a building on Broadway in 1966 and is now replacing one of his longtime tenants, a well-known modern dance company, with an expansion of Banana Republic, says of the rents that chain stores are wiling to pay, “The sky’s the limit, what they offer me.”
By 2005 SoHo was no longer an artists’ district; it was an urban shopping mall. There were low-priced quasi-discount clothing stores such as H&M, the high-end designer fashion stores such as Chanel, and almost everything in between. For that matter, SoHo offered few brands of clothing, jewelry, or shoes that could not be found Uptown on Fifth or Madison Avenue or in most other big cities around the world. [. . .]
In the 1970s no one expected artists’ lofts in old factory buildings to become the ‘wienie’ as Walt Disney called the attraction that lures customers to an amusement park, that would make SoHo a cultural destination. So compelling a vision of renewal did the artists’ district become, though, that the same sequence of events – the conversion of unused or underpriced industrial buildings into live-work spaces for artists, with local government support, followed by the emergence of a market for cafés, boutiques, and bars developed by new cultural entrepreneurs, leading in turn to higher rents, chain stores, and luxury housing – became a model of Destination Culture, a model that soon spread to cities around the world.

As I was reading this passage I remembered one of my favorite quotes from the Boston Globe article that breathlessly broke the Literary Cultural District story back in October 2013:

“I see it as a Broadway for writers,” said Henriette Lazaridis Power, editor of the Drum. “The way Broadway is a loosely defined geographic area of New York and everyone knows that’s where you go to find theater, this is a place where people who want to take in writing in the forms of events will go, and writers will find resources there.”

Broadway! Times Square! That’s actually a perfect (and hilariously revealing) comparison – an urban neighborhood that has been completely and utterly Disneyfied, transformed into one of those shopping malls identified by Sharon Zukin, where nothing of any authentic culture or character remains, and where you can see Cats and Les Mis. Seriously, how many working dramatists do you think would go there for "resources," or even theater? 

The Zukin passage gives us an example of how cultural districts appear to someone who hasn’t drunk the developer Kool-Aid. But now let’s descend into the sausage factory and see how it looks to the producers instead of the consumers and critics. 

Did you know there was already a textbook out on the subject of cultural districts? Yes, Cultural Quarters: Principles and Practice, by Simon Roodhouse, a book for students who want to become . . . not artists or writers or what we tend to think of as producers of culture, but bureaucrats – urban planners, policy makers, middle managers in city government and arts and culture administrators in the nonprofit sector. I offer this extended quote because I think it’s important to get beyond all the hype and boosterism we’ve been fed so far ("literary renaissance!" "a Broadway for writers!") and take a look at how the real operators think about “culture.”

The contraposition between the two developmental views of culture may be traced back to their implicit functional role: culture as a (macro-)sector of the economy amongst others or culture as a basic developmental asset, its economic dimension being a part of the whole picture. The key issue becomes how deeply interconnected it is with most or all of the other economic sectors, and to what extent such interconnection contributes to enhancing the local economy’s overall vitality, competitiveness, and so on.
Typically, cultural activities tend to be organized into clusters, and interestingly the two alternative views just introduced act as the main clustering factors. In the traditional, value-added, macro-sector-centered view, the driving force behind cultural clusters is vertical integration, i.e. the spatial aggregation of players operating at various stages of the same value chain. In this case, cultural clusters cannot but be clusters of activities all directly pertaining to the cultural and creative fields, characterized by more or less rich and articulated input-output relationships and by various levels of economies of scale, scope, and agglomeration. Alternatively, the system-wide (developmental) view focuses upon horizontal integration, i.e. the strategic complimentarity amongst players operating in different value chains, so that the driving force between spatial aggregation becomes the common need to take advantage of the indirect social and economic effects of cultural activity on a variety of different levels such as access to innovative thinking, social animation, urban atmosphere, and so on.

So now let me ask all the writers out there who’ve been enthusiastically cheerleading this Literary Cultural District project: Are you more a “culture as macro-sector” type, or do you lean to the “cultural as basic development asset” side of things? What about it, lit lovers, book people, and Grub Street scribes, whaddaya say? How do you like your value chains, vertical or horizontal?

March 9, 2014

"Literary Fiction" is Genre Fiction

This is from 2011, but well worth highlighting again as the ignorance it addresses remains in full force. It's two posts by M. John Harrison from his blog.

john mullan, clapham & the no-fuck vampire novel

Literary fiction as described here is the fiction of a generation which discovered “good” novels via B-format in 1980. It is a fiction so very clearly generic that when I read John Mullan’s description of it (complete with successful business model, strict boundary conditions and committed fanbase which won’t read anything else) as not genre fiction, I weep with laughter at the sheer depth of his self-deception. Still, by the usual Freudian processes he has said what he really means, & that’s a step forward. The sooner literary fiction recognises & accepts its generic identity, the sooner it can get help. One of the more obvious results of generification is that–as with gentrification–blandness sets in, whether you’re knocking out no-fuck vampire romances or contributing to the high-performing post-Austen industry. Mullan’s genre is a generation old & already deep into predictability. There are ways out of this. The more established genres can show literary fiction how to set up the processes of perpetual lightweight detournment that have enabled them to keep churning away generation on generation, despite a restrictive audience & no economic wiggle-room. One of the benefits is that you need not lose your core content. Indeed, by definition, you mustn’t. So the good news is that, along with its liberal humanist programme, the Clapham arm of literary fiction can continue its project of watering down the linguistic fluency and technical agility of its genuinely interesting precursors from the oh-so-distant past of literature (that great age of Picador, King Penguin, and the Virago Modern Classic, which saw not just the invention of women writers but of magic realism & the euronovel too); while the hipster arm gets a bamboo chip & lemon grass latte & tries out its new neighbourhood app.

on both yr houses

Judging by their responses I think some readers might have missed the sarcasm in my post on John Mullan’s Guardian piece.
For me one of the sharper delights of the piece is its implication that along with “literary fiction”, literature itself began in the 1980s. As some below-the-liners at the Guardian comment, it seems shortsighted–especially on the part of someone whose academic specialism is the early history of the novel–to associate “literary fiction” not with actual literature but with a rebranding exercise from the Thatcher era.
Mullan’s snobbery is canonically based. He loves 18th & 19th Century fiction. Yet here he contributes marketing effort to a product that is shallow & trendy, as well as, at times, wafer-thin in terms of its own models and ambitions. His Guardianpiece is written into media time–gossip time–in which deep literary history is what your mum read when she was your age.
I’m not claiming that, just because literary fiction as described by John Mullan can be shown to have the features of a genre, some other genre therefore deserves to be the princess of everything; only that literary fiction as described by John Mullan (“What is literary fiction? It is not genre fiction.”) can be shown to have the exact features of a genre. It can be shown to have a successful business model, strict boundary conditions & a committed fanbase which doesn’t read anything else (except very occasionally and for something it calls “guilty pleasure”).
It is interesting to visit the Cheltenham Festival, literary fiction’s equivalent of the annual British Science Fiction Convention, & observe these parameters & constraints in operation. How is it that when conventional behaviour supports crime fiction, fantasy, romantic fiction or science fiction, it is a laughable, even disturbing thing; yet when it supports a certain kind of reader, in pretty, comfortable conditions, with nice food & wine, in a pretty English setting, it is a fine, celebratory thing ?
Don’t feel you need to answer that. The point is not intended to be divisive anyway, but inclusive:
If science fiction and “literary fiction” so clearly share the social, structural & economic qualities of a genre or marketing category–a clear & obvious commodification–is it any wonder that both so often represent the very worst of what writing has to offer ? The effect of “literary fiction” on literature has been as destructive as the effect of the sf & fantasy genres on the fiction of the imagination. It has reduced surface to a kind of Farrow & Ball blandness, experiment to some clever jokes & humanity to charm. It’s the fictional equivalent of John Lewis.
A few books to read if you are offended by the deep ordinariness of both literary fiction & science fiction: The Journal of Albion Moonlight by Kenneth Patchen,Ice by Anna Kavan, Manhattan Transfer by John dos Passos, Concrete Island by JG Ballard, The Erasers by Alain Robbe Grillet, The Naked Lunch by William Burroughs. & if you really can’t get the contemporary litfic monkey off your back, at least read The Bridge of the Golden Horn by Emine Sevgi Ozdamar or get yourself some Aleksandar Hemon.