A couple of prominent commentators have made this argument recently about American culture at large. The musician David Byrne lamented, in a book of essays, that his recent albums would once have been considered modest successes but now no longer earn him enough to sustain his musical project. That’s David Byrne – he’s a great and famous artist. Just no Lady Gaga. The book Blockbusters: Hit-making, Risk-taking, and the Big Business of Entertainment, by business writer Anita Elberse, argues that the days of the long tail are over in the United States. It makes more sense, she claims, for entertainment giants to plow as much money as they can into guaranteed hits than to cultivate new talent. “Because people are inherently social,” she writes cheerily, “they generally find value in reading the same books and watching the same television shows and movies that others do.”
Well, the same appears to be true of publishing, even in this country. There are big winners and there are losers – the middle ground is eroding. Publishers are publishing less, not more. Everybody awaits the fall’s big literary-prize nominations with a make-us-or-break-us terror. Every second-tier author spends an hour every day in the dismal abjection of self-promotion – on Facebook, to an audience of 50 fellow authors who couldn’t care less who just got a nice review in the Raccoonville Sentinel. This practice sells absolutely no books; increases one’s “profile” by not one centimetre; and serves only to increase one’s humiliation at not being in the first tier, where one doesn’t have to do that.
Novelists have been complaining, privately at least, about the new castes in the literary hierarchy. This happens every year now, in the fall, the uneasiness – after the brief spurt of media attention that goes to the nominees and winners of the three major Canadian literary prizes, the Scotiabank Giller, the Governor-General’s, and the Rogers Writers’ Trust. The argument is that the prizes enable the media to single out a few books for promotion, and no other books get to cross the divide into public consciousness. And, say the spurned writers, this fact guides the publishers in their acquisitions. Editors stand accused of seeking out possible prize-winners (i.e. “big books”) rather than indulging their own tastes. This leads, it is said, to a homogenized literary landscape and no place at all for the weird and uncategorizable.
But even if this is true, what can one possibly do about it? Abolish the prizes? No one would suggest this – and even the critics of prize culture understand that the prizes were created by genuine lovers of literature with nothing but the best intentions, and that rewarding good writers financially is good, even necessary, in a small country without a huge market.
It’s not, I think, the fault of the literary prizes that the caste system exists. Nor of the vilified “media” who must cover these major events. It’s the lack of other venues for the discussion and promotion of books that closes down the options. There were, in the nineties, several Canadian television programs on the arts. There were even whole TV shows about books alone. Not one of these remains. There were radio shows that novel-readers listened to. There were budgets for book tours; there were hotel rooms in Waterloo and Moncton. In every year that I myself have published a book there have been fewer invitations and less travel. Now, winning a prize is really one’s only shot at reaching a national level of awareness.
Look on the bright side: Poverty can be good for art. At least it won’t inspire you to write Fifty Shades of Grey.