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September 17, 2017

Half a century ago, a competition for a first book of poems, to be judged by W.H. Auden and Stephen Spender, for which the prize was publication by a leading New York publisher, attracted several thousand submissions. The book by the winning poet was duly published to much publicity, received prominent reviews and was much talked about. The publisher could not have devised a more attention-grabbing promotion strategy without going to the expense of advertising. It was assumed that the thousands of poets who did not win the prize would be curious to see the work of the winner and would buy the book. Not at all. The winning book sold a few hundred copies and the thousands of losing poets, like the losers of a lottery, had no interest in the jackpot winner.

I’m often reminded of that episode when I check my email a few days after my column appears in Books & Authors, for almost invariably there is one from someone who has an unpublished novel and solicits my help to find him or her a publisher. Sometimes the request is for me to read the novel attached as a document, or to look it up on the person’s website and to advise the writer on how to improve it, as if there were some secret I knew that would transform it to make it acceptable to a publisher. On a couple of occasions when I’ve looked at the work, it’s been clear that — like those poets who didn’t win the competition — these writers want to be read, but their work shows that they themselves have done very little, if any, serious reading; most likely what has inspired them has been seeing that a writer from South Asia has acquired fame in the West and not that reading, say, Georges Perec or Joyce Carol Oates has filled them with an ache to emulate those extraordinary writers, assuming they have even heard of them.

Here, I must insert an aside: almost as if to provide me with evidence of what I’ve just written, a day after I began writing this I received, unsolicited, a novel from someone seeking my advice, as if I could give it a papal blessing and slip him an indulgence to get him admitted to a paradisiacal random house. Forget about Perec and Oates; this writer seemed not even to have heard of the traditional masters such as Honoré de Balzac and Leo Tolstoy, and clearly belonged to that puritanical sect that zealously keeps its ignorant habit unmarked by a well-read design. It is an ignorance which is cultivated by some of our successful contemporaries as a sort of democratic medal of honour, for by another coincidence, the very weekend I was looking at this person’s novel, a well-regarded writer was quoted in the Sunday paper as saying that she found it difficult to read Marcel Proust, had never even finished the first volume and seemed to imply that any attempt to do so would be a waste of time. A statement like that coming from a successful writer confirms the self-esteem of the ignorant and fills them with a sense of liberation from a painful duty to read anything at all. It does not occur to anyone that for a writer to dismiss Proust is like a scientist suggesting that new physics can be done while remaining totally ignorant of Albert Einstein.

Flannery O’Connor said in her lecture, ‘The Nature and Aim of Fiction’, “I know well enough that very few people who are supposedly interested in writing are interested in writing well. They are interested in publishing something, and if possible in making a ‘killing’. ... They are interested in seeing their names at the top of something printed, it matters not what.”

Ezra Pound restated Flaubert’s formula more directly in his essay, ‘How to Read’: “The art of popular success lies simply in never putting more on any one page than the most ordinary reader can lick off it in his normally rapid, half-attentive skim-over.”

Gustave Flaubert lamented that literary merit did not account for success, and wrote in a letter, “A writer can go far if he combines a certain talent for dramatisation and a facility for speaking everybody’s language, with the art of exploiting the passions of the day, the concerns of the moment.” Ezra Pound restated Flaubert’s formula more directly in his essay, ‘How to Read’: “The art of popular success lies simply in never putting more on any one page than the most ordinary reader can lick off it in his normally rapid, half-attentive skim-over.”

That formula, incidentally, is all the advice anyone needs whose only ambition is to be published. Forget that O’Connor, Flaubert and Pound were forcefully attacking a Grub Street mentality that was only interested in the thoughtless manufacture of a sellable product, for that is indeed the formula employed by much of the fiction published nowadays.

Now, in the other arts there is clearly a distinction between a work aimed at a popular audience and one created with no audience in mind, but which emerges from the imagination of an artist deeply immersed in that art. For example, in cinematic art, the distinction between a Bollywood film aimed at a mass audience and so formulated as not to challenge the brain of the dumbest simpleton in the audience, and a film created by Satyajit Ray with its focus on stylistic originality that can be appreciated only by an audience with some previous experience of that art. In painting, there’s a similar, instantly obvious distinction between the pretty, decorative pictures on sale by the thousand at art fairs and a work, say, such as Francis Bacon’s ‘Triptych’, to appreciate which requires the viewer to have some knowledge of 20th century art.

In the novel, however, that distinction has evaporated; or, if it is observed at all, it is to place the dismissive label, ‘literary fiction’, on anything that does not follow the popular formula. In the last 30 years, creative writing courses at universities offering a Master of Fine Arts degree have sprung up like evangelical churches where the university’s reputation is enhanced by the number of its graduates finding a publisher for their work, and that inevitably puts a pressure on the professors to preach the popular formula the loudest, as if they were televangelists at a mega-church.

Furthermore, book reviews, which used to be written by perceptive critics such as Cyril Connolly and Edmund Wilson, who in their own books had demonstrated the intellectual depth of their knowledge on which their taste had developed, are now mostly assigned to writers who seem to be familiar only with recently published work. The marketplace gloats over the profits that result from cheapening the quality to increase a product’s appeal to the widest possible public — and all for what? To serve capitalism that, like any religion with its self-conviction of being unassailably correct, offers the heaven of an opulent bank account to its unquestioning adherents. The formula promising the paradise of being a published writer is available to all, like a lottery ticket.

The columnist is a poet, novelist and literary critic. His works include the novel The Murder of Aziz Khan and a collection of short fictions, Veronica and the Góngora Passion. He is Professor emeritus at the University of Texas

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, September 17th, 2017