diary d j taylor
Whatever Happened to the Establishment? Even today, in a world where literary culture can seem as fragmented and diffuse as leaves strewn across an autumnal lawn, pundits still talk animatedly about ‘the literary establishment’. Twenty years ago, if asked to pronounce on this tantalising abstract and the identities of the people who might be supposed to belong to it, I could have come up with a plausible set of names: the Merton Professor of English Literature at the University of Oxford; the literary editor of the Sunday Times; grand book-world panjandrums such as Malcolm Bradbury and A S Byatt; a biographer or two… You could see them gathered together at literary parties, and the effect on any newcomer to the scene could be deeply intimidating. I can remember, aged about thirty, walking into the Random House boardroom. A publisher seized my hand, gestured to the elderly couple on either side of her and murmured, ‘David, may I introduce you to Sir Victor Pritchett and Dame Iris Murdoch?’ I nearly fainted on the spot.
notice – John Carey, let us say, performing one of his eviscerations in the Sunday Times – is a big event, and most of the books featured in the national press are not so much reviewed as merely endorsed. Twenty years ago the young writer worried about getting bad reviews (as an example of quite how bad they could be, I should say that I was once accused of writing a novel that was ‘as much use as a one-legged man in a butt-kicking competition’). These days he or she worries about getting reviewed at all.
These days, alas, if asked to identify the members of the literary establishment, I wouldn’t have a clue. No disrespect to the holder of that exacting office, but I have no idea who the current Merton Professor is. Andrew Holgate, the literary editor of the Sunday Times, does his very best for the boxes of books flung weekly in front of him, but you doubt that he would want to be described as belonging to the establishment, literary or otherwise. Bradbury has been dead these eighteen years and it would be hard to think of a contemporary literature don who operates in quite so many fields or wields quite so much power. Meanwhile, the kind of literary parties at which Malcolm, Antonia, Iris and all the other titans of my youth used to luxuriate while timorous wannabes looked on have more or less ceased to exist.
It is not, here in 2018, that literature doesn’t still have its controlling forces; it is just that they no longer sit in newspaper offices or Oxbridge common rooms. You have a suspicion that today’s literary establishment, if such a thing exists, consists of creative writing tutors at new universities, grant-awarding bodies and festival convenors. Only the other day I was invited to attend the launch of the National Centre for Writing (sponsors: the University of East Anglia, Norwich City Council, the Arts Council), with the promise of drinking fizzy wine and listening to a talk by Ali Smith. This looked like a perfect example of the new arrangements in action. I didn’t go.
As for the power that the old literary establishment possessed, much of it was thought to reside in the world of book reviewing. Back in the 1990s I had several acquaintances, most of them living outside London, who genuinely believed that what got reviewed in national newspapers and weekly magazines was the result of half a dozen book-world eminences meeting in a smokefilled room to apportion favours to their friends and line up hatchet jobs for provincial upstarts they disliked. These days book reviewing – largely as a consequence of the pressures on space – has, with certain notable exceptions, grown piecemeal and anodyne. A bad
If you were a member of the old-style literary establishment back in the bad old days of Professor Bradbury et al, it was at least possible to make a living out of it. In the late 1980s – a boom time for arts journalism, with new newspapers and acres of pages to fill – a top-notcher of the trade who wrote for three or four newspapers and took on any commission offered could make £15,000 a year. As for the conditions that prevail in the cashstrapped world of the 21st century, not long ago I found myself talking to James Marriott, the deputy books editor of The Times. Marriott, busy researching a grim-sounding feature on ‘the cost of letters’, wanted some details of the kind of payment freelance writers can expect these days for the tasks they undertake.
I could tell, as the conversation wound on, that Marriott was startled. In fact, by about halfway through our chat, he had become narrowly antistrophic. I would relate just how much the Daily X paid for a thousand words and he would reply, in somewhat shocked tones, ‘But you can’t live on that!’ No more you can. A couple of years ago, when I published a book that dwelt on, among other topics, just how precarious the freelance literary life had become, the man who reviewed it for the Independent on Sunday spent a fair part of the piece complaining that, given the amount of time it had taken him to read the book and write the review, the whole exercise was a loss leader. It was difficult to disagree. By and large you write a piece of literary journalism these days not to make any money out of it but to advertise your talents, show the world that you still exist or convince your mother that you haven’t entirely wasted your life. On the other hand, the first cheque I ever received for a piece of writing – prize money I won in a New Statesman competition – was for £1. As Anthony Powell used to remark about restaurant food or wine bottles of dubious provenance, it could all be a great deal worse.
Naturally, the idea of a literary establishment – white, male, superior and patrician – featured heavily in the row that followed Lionel Shriver’s Spectator article mocking a recent Penguin Random House diversity initiative. Of the many disapproving articles in liberal newspapers, by far the funniest came from Hanif Kureishi, who had a whale of a time in The Guardian fulminating about Oxbridge elites, their ‘lackeys’ and their determination to exclude minorities from the party. Well, I was scrabbling for a foothold on the literary world’s overcrowded north face in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the time Kureishi made his debut, and I can tell you that the literary establishment back then had no greater pet. r july 2018 | Literary Review 5