Glittering Prizes

There was a program on BBC4 about fiction writers and their changing relationship with marketing and publicity. The show was moderated by an English Professor – someone whose name escapes me – and was aired to coincide with the selection of the Booker Prize winner. It took a brief historical view, starting with the notion of literature as an upper class domain and then continued to the ‘angry young men’ of the fifties and on to the commercialisation of contemporary novels. Its theme, if there was one, had to do with the replacement of the writer over the book. The writer became the personality – the book became the product. But I’m not so sure this wasn’t always the case. Books and writing don’t exist in isolation from the creator. The authors always come with books even if we didn’t know their names. The change in emphasis had to do with marketing on a wider level and the expansion of the medium. It’s not that there hadn’t been publicity before, it’s just that it worked in different ways. It was quieter – there was a network of recommendations. The bookshops took it upon themselves to know about the books being published and could pass on information to their customers. But certain writers were in fashion and those were the ones who were read.

I think the difference today is that the writer has become enmeshed in the cult of personality and fame that goes along with all in the communications industries. Whether one is a writer, actor or musician, there is an interesting crossover where fame becomes the defining characteristic. Once that has been established it doesn’t matter anymore which vehicle is used – a musician can be a writer or a singer can be an actor. It’s the personality that is being marketed. The form really doesn’t matter.

But there are other aspects of art that weren’t considered at all in this show. They have to do with the nature of art as political and social expression. This type of art goes far beyond the personality who is often subsumed by the process and just becomes a representative or vehicle for its transmission. It’s rare that this kind of art is taken up in the commercial realm. And when it does there are certain contradictions that are difficult to resolve. I am thinking of John Berger who won the Booker prize in the 1970s and used the event as an opportunity to condemn the corporation that founded it, but accepted the prize none the less – though he gave half his winnings to the Black Panthers.

I had a friend who once said that culture was a tapestry and each work – each poem, painting, novel and picture – was a component that was woven in. Institutions and individuals may try to establish what that tapestry consists of but they will ultimately fail. Neither prizes nor guns can delimit or obliterate the voices of those who choose to sing their songs.

23 October 2002