Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Alberto Manguel vs the philistines

In the same issue of Geist that has Stephen Henighan’s bizarre take on the Gillers, Alberto Manguel has a column in the form of an open letter to novelist George Szanto, apologizing on behalf of our crude and vulgar culture for not valuing him more. (Szanto is apparently having a hard time finding a publisher for his new novel.)

For a long time, Manguel has been revered as a specimen of all-but-extinct breed, the man of letters. Certainly in Canada, where such a species never flourished, editors fall over themselves to offer up column inches for him to fill with the warm, cask-aged tones of capital-C Culture.

It is not to dispute Manguel’s intelligence, the fact that he is astonishingly well-read, or that he is utterly sincere in his devotion to art and literature to say that he drives me right fucking nuts. Manguel’s voice is that of the slippered classes – calm and dispassionate, preferring reflection to fevered inquiry or debate; firmly “spiritual” without being, you know, religious; always favouring the colourfully exotic to the homely homegrown or the unnervingly foreign. Manguel, however involuntarily, is the champion of the kind of writing and culture that Q.D. Leavis classified in Fiction and the Reading Public as being a kind of middlebrow daydream, the kind of writing that eschews all thoughts of genuine transcendence or painful self-awareness for vague dreams of being “slightly better.” Slightly richer (though slightly less concerned with money and material things), living in a slightly more interesting city/country/hemisphere, slightly more knowledegable about art and history and wine, slightly better-read, slightly more attuned to amusing ironies, and slightly more alarmed by signs of creeping philistinism.

Creeping philistinism is the theme of Manguel’s column. Creeping philistinism – or maybe that’s rampant philistinism – is the reason Szanto’s book has not found a home, according to Manguel. Publishers, he reveals, are now turning down books by writer-friends of his “for anything but literary reasons.”

I can sympathize, and it’s obviously true. Even publishers that are not looking for outright moneymakers are looking for books that “fit” – with a tone, a subconscious set of aesthetics, or merely a sense of what a book should and should not do. (The problem is in determining whether or not 'twas ever thus – I lean toward "pretty much, yes.")

Manguel goes further to castigate the general culture for being ignorant, firstly, of literature outside of English.
Having once been the keen discoverers of Kafka, Camus, Sartre, Unamuno, Neruda, Dürrenmatt (in the first half of the twentieth century, for instance), English-speaking readers locked themselves into something worse than an imperial mentality, since at least the Empire forced them to look outside England: a state of stolid contentment.
And so we're stuck reading bangers-and-mash-eaters like Borges, Marquez, Günter Grass, Heinrich Boll, Italo Calvino, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Primo Levi, Roland Barthes, Thomas Bernhard, Michel Houllebecq, Haruki Murakami, Gil Courtemanche, and even Tolstoy, whose Anna Karenina was an Oprah pick...
Readers and writers in English today know practically nothing of what is taking place in the cultures of the rest of the world. Step into a bookstore in Bogotá or Rotterdam, Lyons or Bremen, and you can see what writers from other countries are doing. Ask in Liverpool, Vancouver or Los Angeles who António Lobo Antunes or Cees Nooteboom are (two of the greatest living authors, the first Portuguese, the second Dutch) and you will be met with a blank stare. But such a question would probably not be asked, because English-speaking readers have became prisoners of their own language, living off whatever the publishing industry chooses to feed them.
Um, António Lobo Antunes? Cees Nooteboom? Manguel has obviously travelled a lot more than I have, but I still get the feeling that if I walked into a bookstore in, say, Bogotá and ask to be shown to the Cees Nooteboom section, I would be met with a similarly blank stare. I'm assuming Manguel reads both Portuguese and Dutch, and therefore is qualified to bestow "greatest living authors" honours. This goes back to the preference for the exotic – Manguel is of the school of thought that holds that literature's primary duty is to reveal how others live. But what about showing us to ourselves? How is any author "great" if his work says nothing to us, even across the gulf of translation? (And no, I'm not arguing that readers are better off staying within their own language, though many other very intelligents critics have made this very assertion.)

(Added: this also puts Manguel firmly on the side of those who believe that literary greatness is self-evident and requires no argument or evidence or re-evaluation; it's a kind of visible glow that authors take on and never lose – if we can't see it, then we're no better than illiterates. What if you've read their work, and made every effort to understand every allusion, uncurl every local irony, and been patient through every bit of alien-seeming indulgence or opacity, and you still don't like it? What then? Are you a lost cause?)

From hereon in the generalizations get truly sweeping:
Even the literature written in English has become, by and large, watered down to canteen fare. Of course there are many exceptions, and great writers are writing superb literature all the while, but they work in an atmosphere of intellectual numbness.
And we’re all hypnotized by television, and music today is just noise, and no one knows how to make a proper risotto anymore, etc, etc… In what decade was this an original thought? (By the way, I’m not sure I’ve ever been in a canteen, but I’m guessing the fare available in one is not characterized by its excessive water content.)
Bloomsbury, the publishers who once boasted Nadine Gordimer and Margaret Atwood on their list (though those now “safe” modern classics are still published by them), bring out Jane Austen and Charles Dickens in editions for an illiterate audience with cute introductions by bestselling “chick-lit” novelists such as Meg Cabot, of The Princess Diaries fame. Cabot writes: “OK, so I’ll admit it: I saw the movie first . . . But, as I had discovered from reading Peter Benchley’s book Jaws, sometimes there are scenes in the book that aren’t in the movie . . . The movies always leave something out. Which is what makes Pride and Prejudice such a joy to read over and over. Because you can make up your own movie about it—in your head.”
Ok, that is pretty stupid. (I had the same thought when I read Jaws, the novel – of course, I was about 14 at the time....)
There used to be a time when publishers (though traditionally reviled by writers) were educated, literary people with a love for books. If they made money from their authors—and several did—it was more a question of happy chance than ruthless method.
Whenever someone starts suggesting that “things were better when,” I almost always assume the truth is closer to “things were better in certain limited ways when” (not to mention “things were better for me when,” though, to be fair, I don’t think that’s what Manguel is doing here.) Manguel posits a golden age of the gentleman-publisher, when books were evaluated on literary terms alone, and money was the furthest thing from everybody’s thoughts. From my admittedly limited reading, this sounds semi-true at best. Yes, there were a number of highly educated, literary minded editors with a passion for the printed word – just as there are now – but these individuals were far outnumbered by money-minded, dour, intellectually uncurious publishers who saw books as a business, period.

The problem with Manguel’s thesis is that, even as capitalism has become savvier and more entrenched and more self-aware (and therefore more devious and subtle), it has also inadvertently engendered a greater diversity and broader range of work than was ever possible back in the first half of the twentieth century. (After all, there weren't a whole lot of bestselling English-language authors around with last names like "Manguel" sixty or seventy years ago.) The fact that a publisher like Soft Skull can get the attention and acclaim it does, and that something like McSweeneys can be taken semi-seriously as a publishing concern, suggests that things are not quite as dire as Manguel might think. From my own perspective, Canada is filled with small, narrowly focused regional, ethnic, and ideological presses that punch far above their weight in terms of national attention and sales. Thanks to advances in technology and distribution, it has become relatively simple to set yourself up as a publisher. That more people don’t is more a reflection of the work and time involved, not the fact that we are all smothered by corporate media.

What Manguel is really saying is that the largest publishers have become more timid and money-minded, which is hard to dispute. Many veteran authors are finding themselves outside the gates. The same thing has been happening in music for the past few decades, and what has been happening there, and what is starting to happen in publishing, is that many of these veterans are starting to accept, however grudgingly, that their livelihoods lie outside the corporate model. Just about any veteran author can get published with a smaller, independent press. The biggest difference is money, and it's not supposed to about that, is it?

(An interesting side point: Manguel spends much of his column railing against the evil multinational publishers, but guess who puts out Manguel’s own work? Not that I condemn him for it – take the money and run, Alberto, and I say that quite sincerely. However, you would think this slight inconsistency would serve to make Manguel’s generalizations slightly less sweeping. After all, if companies like Random House have lost all interest in literary works, what are they doing continuing to publish Manguel?)

The thing is, I agree with much of what Manguel is saying. And I give full credit to a magazine like Geist for giving Manguel (and Henighan) a regular forum for their take on literature and publishing. I absolutely agree that readers are smarter and more game than publishers give them credit for. What Manguel doesn't understand is that his approach to literature – soothing, levelling, exoticizing, anational, with a bit of tut-tutting about the philistines to make us feel a little guilty for liking trash – is exactly what most mainstream publishers want. It provides the aroma of culture and learning without the effort. It flatters the well-off and educated and fits in perfectly with publishers' marketing of books as a lifestyle accessory.

What readers need is to break free of both publishing hype and the middlebrow fantasies of people like Manguel. They need the courage to trust their own instincts, and they need intelligent, honest, and entertaining criticism that helps them build that courage, as well as a critical vocabulary with which they can express their tastes and discoveries – similar to the critical vocabulary about film that many people absorb through casually reading dozens of movie reviews every day.

The last thing they need is someone telling them to feel guilty about not spending their time reading obscure Portuguese novelists.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Alberto Manguel can kiss my saggy superfox ass. I'm tired of him and all of his ilk and I look foward to the day when he and Margaret Atwood come over to my house to watch girl on girl porno with me.

But you? I like. My family loves you,Nathan Prufock. You are our idea of smart and fine.

xxxSusan D.