The West assists, with a rather diffuse anxiety, in the alienation of its literary culture. In mega bookstores, whose large surfaces have practically made true booksellers disappear, one can find a large number of what could be called TV-books; volumes designed to sell in large quantities and not to last, because it is economically preferable for their editors that they disappear before next season”s “big hits”. This type of editorial production is not new. It exists since the very beginning of book trading, but it had never been supported to such an extent by big companies and retail stores.
This phenomenon also performs an almost magical substitution process, because the TV-books that cover the whole range of genres, from science to poetry, from the novel to the philosophical treaty, allow a handful of media celebrities to transform themselves into the scientists, the novelists, the philosophers, or the poets of the moment.
These books illustrate a form of editorial production that, like with scriptwriters, directors, or reporters, uses the author like a technician whose text will be formatted by a team of editors, based on a previously determined structure and style. Built on this model, the author would be replaceable and, for this same reason, could easily be transformed into an anonymous professional.
These production practices reverse the traditional order of factors of the literary culture. The writer is placed in a secondary position and the true authority resides in the one that hires and wants to market a product designed in an extra-literary way. The literary culture is threatened by the expansion of this practice that has been able to colonize genres that until recently enjoyed autonomy.
This season`s unquestionable best-seller in Spain is La catedral del mar, a long historical novel about medieval Barcelona that, according to the advertisement on its cover, has sold more than a million copies. Piles of volumes of this insignificant novel rise everywhere. At the same time, the works of many winners of the Cervantes or the Prince of Asturias prizes are hard to find in bookstores. If this is the case for those who have received the highest recognitions, which is the bitter destination of countless important writers that, for many reasons, have not achieved such levels of success?
The determining factors of the languor of the literate culture respond to a new situation. It is not, like it has previously been, because of the counter-power exercised by illiteracy (although, in its functional version, it keeps growing). Almost all members of Western societies are educated and a very large sector has access to college education. The problem is that nowadays it is possible to graduate and exercise a profession, even successfully, without having to read, without valuing books or the thought that was put into creating them.
At least one generation has already co-existed with the concept of downloading. In any given part of the world, an identical copy of text, music or film can be downloaded onto one`s computer without any apparent effort or cost. The popularity of programs such as e-mule has made the acquisition of these materials surpass by far the possibility of consuming them. These materials will hardly be read, but they will remain stored, and this circumstance creates the illusion of its consumption and use. Ironically, as a result of a perverse logic, hyper-consumerism becomes non-consumerism. The book stops being a receptacle for words, and more than merchandise, it becomes a collectible object.
In his memoir about Hungary, Sándor Márai describes the beginnings of this new situation: “Books spread as fast as an epidemic (like their readers and authors), and the mass book was no more than an auxiliary instrument for the mass human being, like vitamins, the radio, or the automobile. Everybody had books, but very few waited for an answer in them.” The truth is that it only takes one generation for the literary culture, as with any other social practice of humanity, to lose its ability to reproduce. This is not a new phenomenon, because it has already occurred in marginal cultures whose institutions lacked the depth necessary to resist. The West will meet the same fate while it waits for things to change; developing dangerous and inoperative nationalisms or boasting of a politically correct pseudo-thinking. In both cases, it is not more than wishful thinking.
In The Branch of Hell on Earth, the posthumous collection of articles edited after his exile from Hitler`s Germany, Joseph Roth exhibits an exemplary lucidity. In one of his columns he affirms: “There is not a mental disorder more difficult to correct than collective spiritual snobbery.” This is the case, actually, of those who imagine themselves beyond history. Bush, Bedusconi, Aznar, or Putin seem to be happy in board meetings. They are not forced to think of the gun when culture is mentioned, they can simply remain quiet, and that silence is shared by more Europeans every day.
The culture of spectacle substitutes what before was simply culture. It begins to be urgent to be anachronistic in order to continue being part of the modem age or to avoid giving in. Roth dramatically expressed this dilemma in the beginnings of a conflict that destroyed a continent: “Is a nation that votes for an effigy who has never read a book in his life as head of State really that far from burning books?”
In his article dedicated to the work of Australian journalist, John Pilger, published in El País on February 17, 2007, the British writer John Berger is categorical: “All the words used today to justify what the powers that be are trying to impose on the world are false.” The critical function of thought cannot transform the world, but it can face its discourse. Words used by those in power are an illusion; empty expressions that are feared and difficult to deny. Thought opposes this politically useful hegemonic vacuity.
Just a few months ago, journalist Anna Polikovskaya was murdered in Moscow. Many indications point to the Kremlin that did not appreciate her questioning of war in Chechnya. In Turkey, the writer Hrant Dink, who had openly denounced the historical reality of the Armenian holocaust, was also murdered. There is a law in that country that prohibits any mention of this fact, and the policemen who guarded the young murderer photographed themselves with him, in front of a Turkish flag in police headquarters, because they considered him to be a hero.
The Nobel Prize winner of 2006, the also Turkish Orhan Pamuk, recently had to abandon his country for the same reasons. Various Islamic countries, among them Saudi Arabia and Iran, censor and pursue Internet contents. China has even developed computer espionage programs that block and track “sensitive words”. Soon, this technology, implemented in complicity with Google, will be for sale.
These crass restrictions are easy to detect and respond to logical and traditional practices. However, the fact that the work of dozens of authors is marginalized or some missing in western bookstores constitutes a disturbing fact, whose “flippancy” with regard to the above-mentioned should not be minimized, precisely for being framed in another type of legality: in this case not that of the single party, but that of the single market. Thought is threatened by designer books and it seems that the free market is just another form of ideological oppression.
Artists and writer
University of Puerto Rico Rio Piedras
Author: Proyectos FPH
Published: September 27, 2010.
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