Notes from a debased litscene

terrorvisionIs it me or has the literary world become the last bastion of the cult of celebrity? Over the last decade the currency of fame has fallen faster than pound sterling but in the highbrow literary sphere famous people are still treated with unblinking reverence. Publishers blow huge advances on ghostwritten autobios that no one reads. We’ve got Will Young judging the National Short Story Prize, and Alan Titchmarsh has launched a TV competition to find the ‘People’s Author’ (Jesus fucking Christ). The format is similar to the Pulp Idol competition, which some of you may remember, and which is in its second year. This is how it goes:

The competition, to be televised on The Alan Titchmarsh Show on ITV1, will be staged in a similar manner to the People’s Gardener. There will be 16 finalists, who will appear in four heats – on 5th October, 19th October, 2nd November and 16th November – in front of a panel of judges.

In the heats the contestants will pitch their story to the judges. Each heat will have a winner, decided by the panel, who will then go forward to a grand final on the 30th November, from which the overall winner will be decided by a public vote.

The prize will be a book contract from the Orion Publishing Group[.]

In The World According to Garp, Garp’s wife Helen describes literary paraphernalia – journalism, debates, interviews, anything that distracts you from the stories – as ‘fucking around in the garden’. This contest gives a whole new meaning to that dismissive phrase.

It’s easy to indulge in inverse snobbery. If Cheryl Cole can demonstrate a knowledge of and passion for contemporary fiction, then great, she can be a book judge. But contests like this simply turn aspiring writers into performing seals.

At the high end things don’t seem much better. A bemused Sebastian Faulks reports from a London literary shindig:

Few annual events are more bizarre than the Galaxy British Book Awards dinner, which was held last weekend at the Grosvenor House in London. The evening is for handing out cash-free prizes (a bronze pen nib statuette stands in for a cheque) to writers in various categories as voted by an ‘academy’ of writers and book trade people. However, the people who spent longest on stage were as follows: Richard Madeley and Judy Finnegan, Ant and Dec, Jo Brand, Alan Davies, Ben Miller, Jack Dee, Dara O’Briain, Ronni Ancona and Jerry Springer.

That must be the British TV Awards, you’re thinking; the old fool’s written ‘Book’ by mistake. Oddly enough, not. This really is how British publishing celebrates itself – in the reflected light of the cathode ray tube. How did this weird miscegenation come about?

Last year, the bestseller lists were dominated by TV spin-off books or memoirs by, among others, Dawn French, Michael Parkinson and Paul O’Grady. Fair enough. Before that, the influence on sales of the ‘book club’ selections on Richard and Judy’s television chat show had persuaded the organisers that R and J should host the awards. Well, OK. And all the names listed above were not only giving out prizes this year but are producing books themselves; that’s how they qualified as prize-givers.

‘Symbiosis’ is how one publisher described it, but from my seat among the chocolate buttons provided by the sponsors, this did not look like mutual dependence – it looked as though one organism had pretty much swallowed the other. This was a TV festival with one or two authors.

He goes on to claim that the evening is carefully stage managed so that writers don’t express their justified contempt by talking all over the celebrity judges:

The awards are now fewer in number and speedier in delivery in an attempt to curb the rebellious tendency. They are also given out early in the evening before the gigantic quantities of wine can start to inflame. This worked pretty well and was helped by some good jokes from the TV comics as we were whisked along, keeping a step ahead of trouble.

Why is it that the literary world is so deferential to famous nonentities when the concept of celebrity is ridiculed in every other area of public life?

I can think of two possible reasons for this:

1) Corporate publishing has so little regard for its audience, and so little confidence in the product it’s selling, that it feels the need to bring in famous names to catch the attention of the fickle proletariat;

2) Mainstream writers are so dull and pretentious that they cannot be relied upon to generate lively debate and conversation at public events.

Neither of these points give grounds for optimism. But Faulks goes on to say that disillusionment with the state of things can drive literature underground, and ‘when literature is driven underground, it takes on a new life.’

God knows the underground has its own problems but there are some great fiction nights emerging, provided by my comrades at 3:AM down in London, and No Point up in Manchester. More and more writers are launching books at this kind of night, and the growing success of independent publishers like Canongate and Tindal Street means that progress is not reliant on celebrity buy-in.

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