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This item is taken from PN Review 188, Volume 35 Number 6, July - August 2009.

A substantial portion of the population writes or intends to write, and not only for pleasure. People who were once satisfied to inscribe commonplace books with a graceful verse now expect public recognition. In Lives of Uneducated Poets (1836) Robert Southey commented on early evidence of this phenomenon: ‘Bad poetry - (if it be harmless in its intent and tendency) - can do no harm, unless it passes for good, becomes fashionable, and so tends to deprave still further a vitiated public taste, and still further to debase a corrupted language.’ He adds, ‘Bad criticism is a much worse thing, because a much more injurious one, both to the self-satisfied writer and the assentient reader; not to mention that without the assistance of bad criticism, bad poetry would but seldom make its way.’

He comes up with this formulation: ‘The mediocres have long been a numerous and an increasing race, and they must necessarily multiply with the progress of civilization.’ There is nothing inherently wrong with this: ‘It would be difficult to say wherefore it should be treated as an offence against the public, to publish verses which no one is obliged either to purchase or to read.’ There are dangers: the mediocres compete with one another, and Grub Street becomes a battleground: bad writers turn into ‘malevolent critics, just as weak wine turns to vinegar’. Or they might become agents or editors, professors or publishers.

The hunger for recognition as a good in itself, the questionable dignity of ‘being a poet’, regardless of the poor financial return, is relatively modern. John Mullan, in A Secret History of English Literature, reminds us that, in fiction, during the last thirty years of the eighteenth century more than two thirds of novels were published anonymously. Modern poets have evolved from these relatively recent ancestors, to adjust to a milieu that has decidedly changed. What mattered in an age when anonymity was a tenable resource was the book: could that fantastic new novel Erewhon be by Bulwer Lytton, do you think? The author of Cranford is quite undoubtedly a clergyman. P.B. Shelley, Scott surmised, had written Frankenstein. Out of puzzlement and misattribution came engaged reviews and readers. Flaubert in his Dictionary of Accepted Ideas remarks, ‘One should “know the great authors”; no need to know their names.’ And in Bouvard et Pécuchet: ‘the author erases his work by shining too much light on himself’. Already Roland Barthes is in the wings.

What matters to a good reader is achieved works, but how can a writer bring that work to - I resist the word - market, without drawing attention to the hawker, without personalising? ‘Originality’ is found less often in the tale than in the teller. The ‘symbols of security’ an editor, hobbled by a marketing department, looks for can take a dozen forms, from ‘unique selling points’ to ‘fashionable’ or ‘relevant’ labelling. A writer’s story - the story of the writer, that is - does the trick. Literary criteria matter at the outset, but other criteria soon kick in. ‘What one has to sell first,’ a bestselling author told a student group, ‘is oneself’ - as though the words ‘sell’ and ‘self’ were cognate.

Between writer and reader a number of traditional filters are already in place. First is the advocate. Jane Austen’s father sent off one of her manuscripts and compared her enthusiastically to Fanny Burney; D.H. Lawrence’s girlfriend took his poems and stories to Ford Madox Ford at the English Review. Established writers sometimes advocate the work of their juniors to agents, publishers or literary editors. A primary filter is the agent (though poets with agents are few since the rewards are meagre), then the publisher (with editorial, marketing and sales functions) and bookseller.

Given the abundance of ‘product’, the filters change in nature, quality and effect. Some poetry publishers hardly edit: they receive the author’s file and produce the book, concentrating their energies on the cover. Sales and marketing departments become moderators; so the agent edits, or puts the manuscript out for editing. Bookselling is changing. The level playing field of Amazon means a self-published book can have as much ‘presence’ as one from a major publisher. And the reader, conditioned by the priorities of journalism and marketing, has inevitably changed.

What new filters help the writer, good or mediocre, to surface among the narrow population of readers? The selectivity of the good writing programmes can indicate to an editor that someone with a professional eye has seen quality and nurtured the writer. Or writers can make their own publishing luck without too much damage to their self-respect by, for example: writing Amazon reviews to flex critical muscles and develop a style and presence; contributing to the better web-zines, which are hungry for copy and widely read; blogging; creating a website; using Facebook and YouTube creatively. These seemingly ephemeral activities are, paradoxically, durable in their presence and contribute to the now depleted traditional culture of reception. The creation and extension of presence through the new media can lead towards - or can in some instances be - publication, as the pages of this magazine often suggest, and can promote continuity of readership. The culture of reception has changed, not necessarily for the worse.

Ironically, the ‘disposable media’, informal, easy to access, are the very place in which a kind of permanence can be found. Books and journals go out of print, but the chapters of a book I posted on a website ten years ago are still read and responded to. The vehemence of accolades and scrutinies, the speed with which new readers are invited to forget not only the informing tradition but also yesterday’s phenomenon, are features of a journalistic economy of ‘disposables’ with inbuilt obsolescence in the arts quite as much as in white goods. But on the web, yesterday’s review and the review from a decade ago are offered up by Google in an equal spirit: we judge for ourselves more keenly than in the print media. The indiscriminateness of the web, because it makes us choose, encourages discrimination, not the reverse. Some writers are happier there than in hard print. Southey might have pitched camp there. (That is where we most easily discover him today.) The mediocres are there in force; but against their drabness how brightly the outstanding stands out.

Material from this editorial appeared in The Author

This item is taken from PN Review 188, Volume 35 Number 6, July - August 2009.

Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this item to
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