11 July 2006

Literary Capital

Seems like a good time for us all to have a look at this review essay by Louis Menand, which appeared in The New Yorker at the end of last year.


Literature’s global economy.
Issue of 2005-12-26 and 2006-01-02
Posted 2005-12-19

In 1987, “Paco’s Story,” by Larry Heinemann, won the National Book Award for Fiction. The acclaim that greeted this selection was less than universal, and the reason—no fault of Heinemann’s—is that 1987 was also the year of Toni Morrison’s “Beloved.” Morrison’s novel was a finalist for the award, and it had been widely regarded as the favorite. We can assume that she was disappointed, and we know that her friends were, because, after “Beloved” also failed to win the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction (which went to Philip Roth’s “The Counterlife”), forty-eight of them published a statement in the Times Book Review. “Despite the international stature of Toni Morrison,” they complained, “she has yet to receive the national recognition that her five major works of fiction entirely deserve: she has yet to receive the keystone honors of the National Book Award or the Pulitzer Prize. We, the undersigned blackcritics and black writers, here assert ourselves against such oversight and harmfulwhimsy. The legitimate need for our own critical voice in relation to our own literature can no longer be denied.” A few months later, “Beloved” won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Five years after that, Morrison was awarded the Nobel Prize.

James English has a lot to say about this episode in “The Economy of Prestige” (Harvard; $29.95), his ingenious analysis of the history and social function of cultural prizes and awards. He thinks that Morrison’s champions crossed a tacitly accepted and well-established line when they printed their protest in the Times. The transgression was not the complaint that the award had been given to the wrong writer. That criticism is as old as literary prizes themselves. When the first Nobel Prize in Literature went to Sully Prudhomme, in 1901, the choice was regarded as a scandal, since Leo Tolstoy happened to be alive. The Swedish Academy was so unnerved by the public criticism it received that its members made a point of passing over Tolstoy for the rest of his life—just to show, apparently, that they knew what they were doing the first time around—honoring instead such immortals as Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson, José Echegaray, Henryk Sienkiewicz, Giosuè Carducci, Rudolf Eucken, and Selma Lagerlöf. When you have prizes for art, you will always have people complaining that prizes are just politics, or that they reward in-group popularity or commercial success, or that they are pointless and offensive because art is not a competition. English believes that contempt for prizes is not harmful to the prize system; that, on the contrary, contempt for prizes is what the system is all about. “This threat of scandal,” as he puts it, “is constitutive of the cultural prize.” His theory is that when people make these objections to the nature of prizes they are helping to sustain a collective belief that true art has nothing to do with things like politics, money, in-group tastes, and beating out the other guy. As long as we want to believe that creative achievement is special, that a work of art is not just one more commodity seeking to aggrandize itself in the marketplace at the expense of other works of art, we need prizes so that we can complain about how stupid they are. In this respect, it is at least as important that the prize go to the wrong person as that it go to the right one. No one thinks that Tolstoy was less than a great writer because he failed to win the Nobel. The failure to win the Nobel has become, in the end, a mark of his greatness.

The Nobel Prize in Literature was the first of the major modern cultural prizes. It was soon followed by the Prix Goncourt (first awarded in 1903) and the Pulitzer Prizes (conceived in 1904, first awarded in 1917). The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences started handing out its prizes in 1929; the Emmys began in 1949, the Grammys in 1959. Since the nineteen-seventies, English says, there has been an explosion of new cultural prizes and awards. There are now more movie awards given out every year—about nine thousand—than there are new movies, and the number of literary prizes is climbing much faster than the number of books published. When a prominent figure in the cultural world—a benefactor or a distinguished critic or professor—dies, the friends and family often establish a memorial prize in his or her name. (As English points out, the friends and family often have no conception of how much even a minor award costs to administer. The price of administration, in fact, usually far outstrips the value of the prize itself. The Van Cliburn International Piano Competition costs more than three million dollars a year to run; the winners receive twenty thousand dollars.) This doesn’t mean that everyone gets a ribbon. In the awards economy, the rich tend to get richer. Michael Jackson has been given more than two hundred and forty awards in his career. Steven Spielberg has ninety. “The Return of the King,” the third movie in the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, won seventy-nine prizes. English estimates that among poets John Ashbery is the leader, with at least forty-five prizes and awards. John Updike sets the pace for novelists, with thirty-nine.

English interprets the rise of the prize as part of the “struggle for power to produce value, which means power to confer value on that which does not intrinsically possess it.” In an information, or “symbolic,” economy, in other words, the goods themselves are physically worthless: they are mere print on a page or code on a disk. What makes them valuable is the recognition that they are valuable. This recognition is not automatic and intuitive; it has to be constructed. A work of art has to circulate through a sub-economy of exchange operated by a large and growing class of middlemen: publishers, curators, producers, publicists, philanthropists, foundation officers, critics, professors, and so on. The prize system, with its own cadre of career administrators and judges, is one of the ways in which value gets “added on” to a work. Of course, we like to think that the recognition of artistic excellence is intuitive. We don’t like to think of cultural value as something that requires middlemen—people who are not artists themselves—in order to emerge. We prefer to believe that truly good literature or music or film announces itself. Which is another reason that we need prizes: so that we can insist that we don’t really need them.

In English’s view, therefore, Morrison’s friends and admirers violated the protocols of prize-bashing not because they publicly criticized the choice of the National Book Award judges but because they acknowledged that the award really matters, that it is (in their words) a “keystone honor” that helps to validate a book and establish its author. Their statement pointed out, in the frankest terms, that there is a literary marketplace, and that power and authority—“cultural capital,” to use the term that English borrows from the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu—accrue to those who succeed in it. Art does not receive its reward in Heaven; it is one of the things that belong to Caesar.

English speculates that this willingness to speak without embarrassment about the significance of prizes and awards, and about the whole economy of cultural production and consumption, may, paradoxically, signal the demise of the prize system. “As we lose our ability or our willingness to see the prize as a fundamentally scandalous institution”—scandalous because art ought to have nothing to do with winning and losing—“there is bound to be a period of painful contraction in the awards industry,” he says. “Faced with the withdrawal of what has been by far their richest and most reliable source of publicity, prizes may after so many years of uncontainable expansion at last show some signs of fatigue.”

Another indication that the prize system may not be working as it once did, English suggests, is that it is no longer cool to refuse an award. Once, Jean-Paul Sartre could turn down the Nobel Prize (which he did in 1964) and see a nice jump in the price of his stock as a result. Marlon Brando and Woody Allen enhanced their reputations as artists by their disrespect for the Oscars. (Of course, they had to win the thing first for the disrespect to have any value.) Today, the principled refusal of an award looks not just ungracious; it looks phony. Hollywood movies are a business—no kidding. If you’re not above accepting money for acting in them, how can you pretend to be above participating in the awards ceremonies that the industry uses to sell them? According to English’s theory, though, someone has to refuse to participate—someone has to insist that moviemaking is its own reward, that it is not about competition or material gain—for movies to retain their value in the symbolic economy.

One of the richest of the stories that English tells about the circulation of cultural goods is the saga of “The Bone People.” The book was published in New Zealand in February, 1984, by Spiral Collective, a nonprofit feminist press run by three women in Wellington. Its author, Keri Hulme, had published poems and short stories, but “The Bone People” was her first novel. It had been rejected by every major publishing house to which it was submitted; English describes it as “a long and somewhat perverse mixture of genres, styles, and languages, sloppily edited and riddled with typographic errors—by no means an obvious winner in the marketplace.” Still, two print runs of two thousand copies both sold out. Then, in the summer of 1984, “The Bone People” won two awards. The first was the New Zealand Book Award for Fiction, a leading book prize in New Zealand but of little note internationally. The jury, English says, was impressed by the novel’s “fusion of Anglo (‘Pakeha’) and indigenous (Maori) elements within a dreamlike narrative of trauma and recovery as a kind of national allegory.” Though Hulme herself is only one-eighth Maori, and was reared and educated in Anglophone society, “The Bone People” was consequently branded as “Maori fiction.” And it was under this description that it won its second prize of 1984, the Pegasus Prize for Maori Literature.

The Pegasus is an instrument of ExxonMobil. It was founded, in 1977, in order to promote international awareness of marginalized literary cultures, and it circulates among countries in which ExxonMobil has subsidiaries—a neat example, as English says, of “glocalization,” the official respect for (or colonization of) local cultural ecologies that is one of the contemporary features of international business. In 1984, New Zealand was the lucky host of the Pegasus, and “The Bone People” was the beneficiary. On cue, the choice was attacked on the ground that Hulme was not a real Maori. This was exactly the scandal needed to get the book onto the international stage, and, in 1985, after it was published in Britain, by Hodder & Stoughton, it won the most prestigious literary prize in England, the Booker. It was thus elevated to the canon of what is now called world literature. It is the “Maori novel,” and, English says,

"it is taught as such in contemporary world literature and postcolonial survey classes; it is discussed by journalists and scholars of world literature in articles and at conferences (one bibliography lists more than a hundred articles); most tellingly, perhaps, it remains in print in the United States and the United Kingdom some twenty years after its original publication, while other novels from the same period, including virtually all of the others that won the New Zealand Book Award, have long since disappeared from the international marketplace. It is not as a New Zealand novel that 'The Bone People' has become a classic, but, as declared on or inside the cover of every paperback edition since the late 1980s, as a world-certified, globally consecrated Maori novel."

English’s point is not that “The Bone People” is inauthentic. In his scheme, after all, accusations of inauthenticity are crucial to the successful functioning of the cultural economy: they shore up our faith that there is such a thing as authenticity. When people complained that “The Bone People” was not a genuine Maori novel, they were saying, in effect, that there is, or could be, a genuine Maori novel, and that they, and not functionaries in some multinational corporation’s public-relations apparat, were the ones in the proper position to recognize it as such. What the story of “The Bone People” reveals is that, whether or not a work of “indigenous” literature is the product of pure indigenes, if it is to achieve international recognition as world literature it must carry certain markers. For one thing, it cannot be identified as national literature. A book by a New Zealand writer would be unlikely to make it into the world-literature canon. The Pegasus Prize was for a work of Maori literature. Once, nationality was something that an ambitious writer hoped to transcend. A novelist aspired to recognition not as a New Zealand writer or a Nigerian writer but as, simply, a writer. Now nationality is transcended downward. Recognition comes from having one’s work identified with a marginalized or “endangered” community within the larger national or global polity—with Ibo culture (rather than Nigerian), or Maori (rather than New Zealand).

Although there are some minor differences, English’s discussion of this development parallels Pascale Casanova’s in her rather brilliant book “The World Republic of Letters” (translated from the French by M. B. DeBevoise; Harvard; $35). Casanova is also writing about the system in which books circulate in the competition for recognition. The standard practice is to understand works of literature as products of a national tradition, as examples of French literature or American literature; Casanova’s argument is that, on the contrary, the system has always been global. As she puts it, literatures are “not a pure emanation of national identity; they are constructed through literary rivalries, which are always denied, and struggles, which are always international.”

Casanova thinks that every ambitious writer aspires to be recognized for meeting the standards of the metropole. In her book, the metropole is Paris, the eternal center of the literary universe (she is, after all, French); but it might be London or New York as well. “Paris” is the place where art and literature are always truly modern and up to date, and the rest of the world measures its lateness by that meridian. For centuries, meeting the standard of Paris meant escaping the provincialism of one’s own culture—the constraints imposed by the Church, or the state, or the Party, which all want literature to serve their interests—and making art for the sake of art. James Joyce and Samuel Beckett, Gertrude Stein and Richard Wright, Milan Kundera and Danilo Ki‰ all went to Paris in order to escape the fate of being national writers. They assimilated, not to Frenchness (as Casanova points out, Joyce and Beckett, although they lived in Paris for much of their lives, had no interest in French literary life) but to the universal modern idea of the artist. Now, she thinks, the strategy for acceptance has shifted from assimilation to differentiation, and differentiation means not being modern.

The challenge now is to combine elements of non-metropolitan indigenousness with elements that metropolitan readers recognize as “literary.” A subnational novel, such as “The Bone People,” must be what English calls “world-readable.” The judges of the Booker Prize probably didn’t know the difference between Maoris and Mallomars, but they knew, instinctively, how a work of “Maori fiction” should look. It should be a hybrid of postmodernist heteroglossia (multiple and high-low discursive registers, mixed genres, stories within stories) and pre-modernist narrative (conventional morality, the simulation of an oral story-telling tradition). Between them, English and Casanova list the features of the world-literature prototype: a trauma-and-recovery story, with magic-realist elements, involving abuse and family dysfunction, that arrives at resolution by the invocation of spiritual or holistic verities. If you add in a high level of technical and intellectual sophistication, this is a pretty accurate generic description of a novel by Toni Morrison.

“The Economy of Prestige” and “The World Republic of Letters” are not debunking exercises. They are simply efforts to understand literature sociologically. “Caxtons are mechanical birds with many wings,” says the Martian, about books, in Craig Raine’s famous poem, “and some are treasured for their markings.” The Martian doesn’t know why the markings between the covers labelled “Beloved” are more treasured, or represent more cultural capital, than the markings inside the covers labelled “Paco’s Story.” The Martian sees only that human beings attach high value to some of these otherwise identical and interchangeable objects and low value to others, and he/she attempts, by analyzing the system in which the objects are produced, circulated, and consumed, to figure out how this happens. From the Martian point of view, it certainly looks like a competition, because the value of “Beloved” is determined by all the things that make it different from “Paco’s Story.” It’s a relational system: the value of a cultural good is relative to the value of every other cultural good. That most of us on planet Earth deny that competition has anything to do with the esteem that we, as individuals, confer on a particular book or painting or song or movie does not mean that the Martian is wrong. Our denial is just one more thing that needs to be explained. The Martian is experiencing literature from the other side of the looking glass.

Of course, as English and Casanova would agree, books are read on this side of the looking glass. We are ourselves products of the culture whose products we consume, and we can’t help taking it, for the most part, on its own terms. Still, their very strong books belong to a general challenge to the usual practices of literary pedagogy. Literature departments are almost always organized by language and country, but Casanova’s book gives us many reasons to doubt whether this captures the way literature really works. She has an excellent account, for example, of the international influence of Faulkner—once his novels had been translated into French. He was, as she describes him, the first of the glocal writers, an acknowledged model for the Colombian Gabriel García Márquez, the Peruvian Mario Vargas Llosa, the Algerian Rachid Boudjedra, and the Spaniard Juan Benet, not to mention the African-American Toni Morrison. Faulkner was the novelist of the American South who demonstrated to novelists of the global South how to represent a marginal community in an advanced literary style, a style that could gain the respect of “Paris.” English’s and Casanova’s books also challenge the conventional “shock of recognition” idea of influence, which imagines literary history as one soul speaking to another across time and space. The soul may speak, but the international context is the reason it is heard. The appeal that Faulkner had for García Márquez had everything to do with the place that Faulkner occupied in the global literary system, and with the place that García Márquez occupied as well.

Literature is conventionally taught as a person-to-person aesthetic experience: the writer (or the poem) addressing the reader. Teachers cut out English’s middlemen, the people who got the poem from the writer to us, apparently confirming his point that we have to deny the economics of cultural value in order to preserve the aesthetics. But, once we’re outside the classroom, how rigidly are these conventions adhered to? How many people today really imagine “art” as a privileged category, exempt from the machinations of the marketplace? The literary marketplace has always been a theme of literature: “Tristram Shandy” reflects on its own status as a cultural good; Aristophanes’ “The Clouds” is a satire on literary competition. Since the nineteen-sixties, the constructed nature of the art experience has been one of advanced art’s principal preoccupations. Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s-soup-can paintings are all about art as commodity. The frenzy of prize-creation in the nineteen-seventies and eighties that English describes may have been a panicky middlebrow reaction against the demystification of culture that was already well under way, or it may have been a symptom and agent of that demystification. It is difficult to see it as a reinforcement of the ideal of autonomous art. That ideal disappeared a long time ago. The Martians have already landed.