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Published:June 27th, 2011 11:26 EST

How Can We Find Good Literature in a Crass Commercial Culture?

By Djelloul (Del) Marbrook (Editor/Mentor)

Is the Internet changing our thinking about literature?

Critical conventions, like tombstones, weather slowly. But I think the worldwide web is throwing some operatic weather at them:

  • This is a great book, but can he top it?
  • The trouble with this artist is she changed styles too often.
  • He wrote only one great poem.
  • His books never sold very well.
  • Everybody says he`s a great poet, but does anybody read him?
  • He didn`t receive much critical attention.
  • Wonderful writing, but there`s no plot.
  • The best-seller list represents the best.
  • A poet`s best work is written in youth. Why, because Amy Lowell says so?
  • His first book did not meet with much success. 
  • Strip commerce from the equation and define success.

I could go on. My list of such shibboleths is long and cranky. The first question raised by the list is, Who says? I leave that for another day. The point I`d like to make today is that these hand-me-down ideas strike me as profoundly crass and adolescent. They reflect a regressive win-lose society that regards its every venture as a race to commercial success as if that were the only kind of success worth considering. Such a society, ensnared as it is in its commercial obsessions, cannot live up to its own highest ideals.

Why, for example, should some literary journals that purport to concern themselves with the whole of American literature appear, judging by the pictures of the authors, to be youth-oriented? Answer: the young constitute the rising market, but it doesn`t suit the journals` pretensions to be honest about this.

The idea of the critic unfettered by commerce, like the idea of journalists immune to advertiser pressure, is a self-serving myth that had some validity in the days when newspapers were family-owned and owners often found newsroom idealism as handy as it was sometimes inconvenient. If this were not so the daily press would daily tell us who profits from war and how they profit. Think about that the next time you glance at a full-page Lockheed or Boeing advertisement. A great deal of editorial silence has been purchased with that expensive advertisement and that is as much its purpose as selling exorbitant hardware. After all, nobody pays millions for an airplane because it was advertised in a newspaper.

Who gives a damn, except the critic, that a poet wrote 1,500 poems in his lifetime and only one of them has been anthologized? I leave anthologies for another day; they have their commercial and political aspects, too. Received critical notions, such as the ones I`ve listed, relieve the critic of the burden of going out on a limb to fully explore the work at hand. It`s not unlike pack journalism. For example, there is an inarguably just cause "say the evil of Saddam Hussein "and so the proper response is war, a blunt instrument described as a scalpel by propagandists. But surely that leap of logic or illogic should be examined. Surely there are other responses to explore. But who explores them? Not the White House and not the press, and if not the press, how else are more imaginative voices heard? A peaceful approach to an outrage is not as profitable as a warlike response, and it requires a great deal more intellect. That intellect was not lacking when the White House stampeded us into Iraq, but what was lacking was the press`s will to find and explore it.

Take style: who says it`s undesirable for an artist to change styles, to say nothing of the fact that it`s a palpably bogus criterion in the first place? It`s said because it has been said before, and the more it goes uncontested the more it`s taken as a given, one of those received chestnuts that Gustave Flaubert warned us against. Criticism becomes cliché as fast as its object.

When considered in this context, much literary criticism is hackneyed. It`s fairly rare that someone like Harold Bloom comes along to reexamine a poet like Hart Crane free of the critical claptrap in which the literary establishment once buried Crane. And it takes champions like Claire Harman to turn a new page on the marginalized Sylvia Townsend Warner.

Our current conventions are rooted in the genteel pace of other centuries, but with the Internet accelerating our pace of communication and overtaking events they are beginning to crumble. They were from the start stagecraft. They posit a society that measures achievement in sales. That very society is being called into question on the Internet, and so it`s natural that its preconceptions should wobble in their orbits, too. The notion is being contested that democracy is synonymous with free markets, and the more this premise is contested the more our taste-making establishment will be challenged. It`s already happening, witness Anis Shivani`s recent critique in The Huffington Post of the MFA industry.

The press keeps saying, because it must keep saying something, that we don`t know what kind of government will emerge in Egypt or Tunisia or anywhere else where young people are talking to each other on Facebook. This is a bad thing? Have they ever known what would emerge from Washington`s back rooms, or how Washington would define its interests? Did the press know what would emerge from the prolonged folly of our war on drugs? Is the press even asking day to day how this costly fiasco impacts on our ability to finance our operations?

What the Arab demonstrators know "and what we`re not hearing "is that global capitalism is screwing them. And that is so much for them to know, and so much for our elite to plug its ears against, that we go on pretending that their desires are inchoate and unreliable. Unreliable for whom? The corporate elite picking their pockets and dictating what kind of future they should have "or have not? Bear with me, I`m not straying as far from my target as you might think. If these people are challenging a commercial culture that they distrust, it is more than likely that the conventions of that society, the critical apparatus of that society, will come under fire, too. Moreover "and here is another area where much silence has been bought "the Arab demonstrators are steeped in a religious morality that is far more hostile to usury than Christianity and they see Western capitalism as rapaciously usurious. This cannot have been lost on the demonstrators in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrein, Yemen and now Syria, but it is most certainly a discussion our corporatists wish to avoid.

The critics and curators and historians I`m talking about, the ones whose conventions I`m poking, they may have to empty out their bag of tricks on the table and let a new society in the making take a closer look.

Will a newer, less childish, less docile society accept the idea that a man is a minor poet because he wrote only one good poem? Will it even accept that he wrote only one good poem? Will it ask how that was decided? Will it accept the curator`s word that an artist changed her styles too often or will it admire the artist`s restlessness and curiosity? Will it regard the best-seller list as anything more than a commercial gimmick hyped as a gauge of merit to dress up its more crass role?

Must our society be polarized into winners and losers, the winners represented by the right, the losers by the left? Isn`t there much more to us than that? And whose prerogative is it to define losers and winners for us? I certainly don`t regard the homeless as losers, nor the disabled veteran, nor the marginalized poet, nor the struggling immigrant. And I`m not prepared to declare a predatory suit on Wall Street a winner. Nor do I see how as a Christian I can accept the idea of a society parsed into winners and losers, and yet I am aware that many avowed Christians have managed that feat.

We`ve had the gumption but we`ve never had the wherewithal to take on the assumptions of our taste-makers. Now we do. The Internet is the game-changer. Let me hit this anvil from another angle. Every small press and small press author soon learns that covers are crucial. Writers quickly learn that the reputation of the press attaches to the book and that a mediocre review in a prestigious review is worth far more than a rave on a blog. But just as these recognitions are coming into focus the playing field and the game itself begin to change.

If the Internet is democratizing publishing, if it`s rattling the taste-making elite, which has always rested as much on venue and vehicle as intellectual excellence, then the critical conventions I`ve questioned can be re-examined. Our culture has been largely but not uniformly content with the idea that certain publishers, certain magazines and journals are so high-minded, so aesthetically rigorous and attuned to excellence that they can be trusted to dictate the terms by which our cultural life is defined. The idea was rooted in a time unable to foresee the Internet`s savage egalitarianism.

Now we`ll see if the arbiter class of the 20th Century can survive the rigors of the new century. Only by extraordinary intellectual heroism, after all, can the arbiter class extricate itself from the predator class. And what I see so far is evidence, albeit scant and inconclusive, that we`re redefining our culture with the help of the Internet. When Tunisians had unexpectedly kicked out their oppressive government they scrawled their thanks on city walls to Facebook, not Francophone or Arabophone newspapers or journals the world over, and certainly not our press. This isn`t just an oddity, it`s literally the handwriting on the wall. The conventional media did not provide them with the intellectual or political means to achieve their ends. It`s fair to ask, I think, whether our conventional media are providing us with the very best we`re creating amongst us or with a highly redacted limited edition that caters to a plethora of special interests. It`s fair to ask whether our media are corporate propagandists intent on limiting our vision and the means needed to realize any vision. We posit as a society that our media monitor special interests, but they are owned and operated by special interests. Can our suppositions hold in the fierce spotlight of the web? Intellectual guerrilla warfare has never been more possible than it is now, and all the fatuous OMGs and LOLs on the web notwithstanding, establishments everywhere are under intellectual assault.

It`s no accident that when The New York Times reviews the books of a clutch of small poetry presses it chooses presses which were once deemed small but now have considerable name recognition and advertising budgets. Are they publishing the best poetry? Often, yes. Invariably, no. The pity is not the fact, it`s rather that the fact is not well understood and therefore merit and money are often confused.

These critics, after all, are engaged in commerce, and pay-to-play rules apply. Under the circumstances, it`s always possible that works of considerable merit will fall between the cracks, sometimes finding no publisher, sometimes finding shoestring publishers, and more often falling to critical neglect. That said, it`s also true that works of great merit published by important presses are often neglected or damned with faint praise. Given these issues, the very nature of egalitarianism comes into question. For example, is it egalitarian to say a work of art succeeds because it`s popular and sells well? Or is it egalitarian to say none of that matters, what matters is that it has a chance to breathe and be heard and seen.

Chris Anderson, editor of Wired and author of The Long Tail, touches on this conundrum in that influential book. Until the Internet it was conventional wisdom that a book had about three months to make its mark or sink into obscurity but now the Internet, and the chance it provides to keep on flogging a book, gives books long tails, an indefinite opportunity to come to a broad audience`s attention.

And none of this even touches on the fact that many influential, important books have never had big audiences.

There are good critics and bad critics, and the best critics have bad days, falling back on flawed algorithms and arguable criteria. There is, moreover, the plain fact that the noblest print journals in the world cannot pay for sufficient space to report all that is admirable; they must pick and choose.

Who says that bulk and volume are measures of genius? Why shouldn`t one great poem stand up against a thousand mediocre poems? Who says a writer must top his most recent triumph? Why is a page-turner superior to a four-page description of a bedspread? Who has the authority to describe a page-turner?

Is a page that is intellectually incendiary by this definition inferior to a page of stick-figure bloodshed and mayhem? And at the end of the day aren`t some of the toniest critiques merely hifalutin iterations of pop culture?

A sophisticated reader of any review or journal will be as mindful of its advertising content as its editorial hole, " because the argument that the editors are immune to advertising pressure does not stand up to scrutiny. An advertiser who consistently spends money in a journal wants something for that money. The argument that what he gets is exposure to the journal`s readership is clever by half; he also wants editorial attention. He may, on occasion, even want silence. Lockheed, for example, would hardly want The Washington Post to dwell on how handsomely it profits from war, nor would those banks that are too big to fail.

In the newspaper business the wall between the newsroom and the business office, always porous, has all but collapsed. The advertiser has much more clout than he had twenty or thirty years ago. The result is a deterioration of editorial standards, the discrediting of idealism as naïve. Newspapers used to tolerate a certain amount of idealism in order to afford themselves with the best and brightest. Today they feel they can`t afford such tolerance, partly because their revenues are falling precipitously, partly because their corporate masters are a lot greedier than were the families that used to own our newspapers.

Are the most famous names in publishing giving us the very best, or is it a sampler of the very best? Can the famous magazines and journals be trusted to lead us to the very best or only a selection of the best or an elite with certain membership requirements? Can the very idea of membership, of circles within circles, survive the savage egalitarianism of the digital era? Should it?

And after we address these questions to ourselves "certainly the arbiters don`t want to hear them "there are even more crucial questions. How much egalitarianism can a great culture stand? When does democratization lead to mediocrity? Do we need a arbiter-elite? If so, is ours too small, too captive, too self-serving? If I had answers to these questions, you would be well advised to distrust me. I simply rejoice that the Internet encourages them.

Djelloul Marbrook is a retired newspaperman. His second book of poems, Brushstrokes and Glances, was published by Deerbrook Editions on December 20, 2010. His first book of poems, Far From Algiers, won the Stan and Tom Wick Poetry Prize from Kent State University in 2007 and was published in 2008. It won the International Book Award in 2010. His novella, Artemisia`s Wolf, will be published by Prakash Books of India in December. His novella, Saraceno, was recently published as an e-book. His story, Artists Hill, adapted from the second novel of an unpublished trilogy, won the Literal Latté first prize in fiction in 2008. The pioneering e-book publisher, Online Originals (UK), published his novella, Alice MIller`s Room, in 1999.

Del`s book, Far From Algiers: http://upress.kent.edu/books/Marbrook_D.htm

New review of Far from Algiers: http://www.rattle.com/blog/2009/05/far-from-algiers-by-djelloul-marbrook/

Artists Hill, Literal Latté`s fiction first prize: http://www.literal-latte.com/author/djelloulmarbrook/

His blog: http://www.djelloulmarbrook.com

His mother`s art: http://www.juanitaguccione.com

His aunt`s art: http://www.irenericepereira.com