Few Thoughts on the Condition of Literature
in the Age of the Market
Grgorinic & Ognjen Raden
the literary scene, and that might just be the case with North America, but
there are indications it’s not very different anywhere else, one meets the
odds stacked up high against a newcomer. Instead of help or support one
encounters only bleak or dark divinations for the downward spiraling course
contemporary literature appears to be on. These sorts of “encouragements”
come from those already established, more or less, who seem to be protecting
their position at the expanse of their very domain, stunting the growth of the
entire field of literature in order to preserve it as their own property.
who owns the literature today? Or better yet, whom does it belong to? Does
literature belong to those who produce it, or does it belong to those who
consume it? Recently the consumers of literature seem to have given up on it,
but under more careful inspection it appears that it is so only because those
who are producing it have given up on it as well.
far as acknowledgement goes there are two kinds of literature, that which
receives some sort of acknowledgement, and the other that is shunned, ignored,
left out from any discourse. The literature that meets any reception can further
be divided into one that belongs to the market, and one that belongs to the
academic community. In past there might have existed different classification,
the one that set literature as an art in opposition or contrast to literature as
a product, but such a division seems outdated enough, because that literature,
literature as art, has fallen out of the picture, has indeed disappeared into
the category of that which is not perceived as literature at all.
All what had remained, literature as a product, got divided between the market
and the Academia.
The clearest evidence of this is visible in the fact that almost all poetry is considered non-marketable, and thus has fallen under the domain of academic scrutiny, while at the same time almost all prose has been co-opted by the market. Of course, there exists poetry that does not meet or goes against academic standards, as there is enough prose which is equally un-marketable, but it is the fact that such literature does not exist in the same way a falling tree makes no sound unless there is someone who will witness its fall.
whom does literature belong to? Our contention is that it does not belong to
those who produce it any more, same as it does not belong to those who consume
it. It belongs to those who market it, the publishers, the booksellers; it
belongs to those who live of it, the reviewers, the professors. It is they who
have abducted the literature, made it their own. It is they who have thrown the
author and the reader out of the relationship, or better yet reduced them to
abstractions that figure only in calculations of market analyses or equations of
literary history and theory.
author still creates, but only that which will generate profit or academic
acclaim. The author might choose something completely different, but in that
case the author will actively create – nothing, since of all forms of art,
literature has the most unfortunate feature of not being finished until it is
rendered presentable through the process of publication and critical acceptance.
other words, where a painter is done with his painting with the last stroke of
the brush, and is free to hang the work even on a wall of a public restroom, and
where a musician is free to play any tune in front of that same restroom;
literature, self-published literature, is free to serve as – toilet paper –
and is regarded as little better than toilet paper, by the money-making
peddlers, and by the academic scrutinizers.
its highest form literature was equally a source of artistic truth as it was a
source of information, a source of ideas and ideology, source of education, of
moral guidance and even a source of entertainment. This has greatly changed in
the last fifty years through introduction of new media, but more importantly,
through the process of separating literature from those it originally belonged
to. Under the excuse of freedom of choice, literature had been cut up,
butchered, like meat in a shop, neatly packaged into slices, minced, precooked,
wrapped in plastic and offered in shining refrigerators under labels,
categorized and processed to satisfy specific needs of picky readers.
Contemporary bookstore resembles modern democracy, each book has its genre,
form, label, readership, age group, subject group, the result of which is
stratification of books equaling the stratification of the society.
Wherever there is division, there is also hierarchy and hierarchy in
literary production is responsible for trapping the readers within their
classes. Once viewed merely as a product, a work of literature no longer serves
its purpose, a book as a product is designed to keep people in their place,
within the confines of their class, status and frame of mind.
enough to compare what is sold under literature to who is actually reading
today. According to “Reading at Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in
America” conducted by National Endowment for the Arts, published in June of
2004. the total population of readers in US is roughly 96 million people which
equals the number of readers from the year of 1982. It is a 10 percent decline
in reading or a loss of 20 million potential readers. According to NEA
statistics the average American reader is white (77 million), female (59
million), age between 35 and 54 (41 million), with finished high school or some
college (54 million) with family income of more than 50 000 dollars (46
million). Or in other words, a reader most likely not to seek literature which
inspires any change, a reader seeking affirmation for what he or she is, a
reader comfortable in his or her place, looking only to enhance that comfort.
The largest group of readers are middle-aged women who, taking in account the
widest possible range of interests, are still equally disinterested in change.
There will be no revolution (of any kind including esthetical), nor any talk of
revolution in that class simply because they are addicted to comfort either due
to their age, status or lack of motivation.
by answering the question Who are the readers? one answers the question What
is the literature like? and consequently, Who are the writers?
The main problem with the contemporary reader is that he/she wants to possess knowledge without putting in the effort of acquiring it, or even before acquiring it. It is a paradox that marks all literature that sells. People simply don’t want to find out anything new. That what is bound to get their attention is something they feel they already know everything about. Whatever the trace of new in literature might be it is flushed out for the benefit of the reader. Literature is no longer allowed to be provocative, too deep or too sharp emotions are to be dulled or rooted, any puzzling idea is to be extracted, innovative proposals or concepts are banned by the manufacturer. Commercial publishing additionally feed such behavior by categorizing books, they become an equivalent of a precooked meal – beef or pork, mystery or fantasy - despite some more or less brave exceptions contemporary genre fiction is as nutritious as a TV dinner.
ability to perceive has been contaminated by television, the field of literature
has been soiled by the spreading effect of dominant visual culture. And while
other art forms can cohabitate with it, more or less successfully, literature is
losing battle for the attention of the final recipient.
attention span of the audience is combined with images and ideas that don’t
cause conflict – the reader must read only about what he/she has seen, or
heard of, resulting in the complete blind trust in the picture brought by the
utter, even irreversible scorn and mistrust for the word.
classes, workers, people of lower economical standard abandoned literature
completely simply because literature abandoned them completely. They are
returning the favor by planting themselves in front of a television set.
students, young adults have been chartered and occupied as the exclusive
territory of the entertainment industry, with education not working on their
behalf, but rather being the agent in further lowering of the standards.
historical perspective it is quite obvious how this decline had come around. The
time of the 1950s seems to have been the very first and the very last time of
literacy – not only in US, but worldwide. People enjoyed full power and full
benefit of the written word for but a very short time. It is at that time that a
progressive, philosophically and thematically fresh literature found a receptive
large population of readers. This was the result of first half of the 20th
century when the rise in general literacy equaled and responded to the
development of challenging literature. The world of the 1950s felt secure enough
to read the most advanced literary work of the 1920s and 1930s. In a way it was
a peak where material security met with ideological progressiveness. It was also
a point where culture in traditional sense ceased to exist. It was after that
that it came under the control of the market. What we want to suggest is that
especially American culture was not ready or able to deal with the changes that
took place in the world, changes such as women winning their right to work and
participate in the society independently, people of color claiming their right
to equality and lower classes being elevated to all-encompassing middle class.
These were the challenges culture was not able to respond to, but these
challenges were quite easily and successfully met by the market. So in order to
survive, culture was sold to the highest bidder.
is through struggle for human and civil rights that black people of America won
their right to participate in the culture, but only to find out that there was
nothing to participate in. By wining its way out of slavery and out of
segregation black culture joined the mainstream going down the drain of a
culture condemned to the dark night of the image. Reliance on the image and the
sound, more than on the word or thought had a devastating effect upon the
culture. People are no longer capable of understanding the meaning, to conceal
that fact they are ready to say that there is no meaning to be found anymore, or
they’ll say that everything might mean anything, but never anything in
particular. It is through the struggle for the class equality that the American
working class won their right to participate in the culture, only to find out
there is nothing to participate in.
what is considered to be American culture owes its existence exclusively to the
dogma that culture does not belong to everyone, and that not everyone has a
right to create culture. So while the culture was clean of color, while it was
pure of residual class element, it was promoted and preserved. The moment it got
boarded by color and low class it was abandoned by its proponents and patrons,
and whoever wanted to stay had to deal with a sinking ship. Rats fled first.
what had remained of American culture got salvaged, cut up for scrap iron, used
for the production of a more profitable means of mass ideology transportation.
Anti-intellectualism got elevated to the highest of pedestals, the stone tablets
of Moses got pulled out to the light of day so that television can carve an
amendment on them with a safety pin, or an ice-pick: DO NOT THINK.
barons of industry found out there is money in making people stupid. Stall-boys
of the Academy followed suit by introducing “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” to
in the age of advanced capitalism is an unfortunate baby dropped by the
silk-skinned hands of the masters who no longer deem profitable or prestigious
to hold it, and not caught in the rough calloused palms of the servants who are
not yet accustomed to care for it. The baby, the culture, thus hits the floor,
develops deformities growing maybe by itself, the way baby alligators grow by
themselves in the city sewage when flushed down the toilet.
literature follows the rest of contemporary, if not popular culture, leaving out
meaning and competing with the image by bare form. More that any other form of
art literature is an art of thought, and while music and
visual arts can evoke a thought, an idea, only literature can say it –
providing there is someone who will listen. First feature of literature lost was
its function as a source of information. Printed media, radio, television and
finally the Internet made sure of that. Soon, in combination with entertainment
and advertising industry those media became the predominant sources of ideology.
Educational and moral functions followed, or were put aside by new, prevailing
ideologies. That what was left got further cleaved into halves, two remaining
functions got separated, polarized, came into opposition of one to another.
Brought under the wing of industry popular literature became even more dissected
and theoreticians of writing seem to have conceded to the proposition that there
is nothing new to be expressed in literature. Since the readers have been
discouraged to use literature as a source of new ideas those who produce it have
begun to regard it in the same light – yes, the idea has remained, but it is
being put into a form rather than into a content which results in most of modern
literature being empty – empty of ideas, and empty of emotions.
literature, on the other hand, is almost exclusively interested in exploitation
of emotion, in the process of which it works on reinforcing the same convenient,
marketable, socially acceptable stereotypes.
situation thus produced resembles a new form of slavery – the word has been
taken from the people, it doesn’t belong to them anymore and it is arguable if
it ever had.
reader has no historical perspective on a work of literature, he/she is more
likely to be taken by it as a whole, without giving in to urge to open it up to
learn and judge how it functions.
readers, or consumers of literature, have greater knowledge than the average
reader, so their interest in literature is different than that of an average
reader. They don’t view a work of art in its totality, but are more interested
in evaluating its innovativeness in only certain segments. Since a work of
literature is alive, as any work of art, it cannot survive academic approach.
is an important part of culture, almost as important as invention – only today
forgetting seems to have become a predominant culture mode, particularly in
popular culture, while historical approach has remained the exclusive domain of
the Academia. The problem of the historical approach is evident in the fact
that, for example, the work of Ralph Ellison will never be evaluated in the same
manner or the same extent as the work of William Shakespeare. If what is wrong
with popular culture is the fact that it cannot or will not hold to anything
long enough for its value to be proved or disapproved, the problem with Academia
is that it is inherently incapable of letting go, of keeping things in
perspective. It, the Academia, suffers from what seems to be a reversed optical
illusion where things appear to be bigger further they are from us, further in
the past that is. Nothing can break the subjectivity of a member of Academia,
although he will swear of his objectivity on a stack of Encyclopedias. He will
say that the greatest American novel of all times is, for example, Herman
Melville’s “Moby Dick” without realizing that the very statement negates
the existence of American novel. Of course, there is no possible empirical
method of making sure that “Moby Dick” is indeed as great as the rumor has
it, simply because claim of its greatness relies only upon a consensus in which
“science” gives way to a democratic process even more flawed and malleable
than the one producing modern day imperialism. And the reason why no other work
of literature after Herman Melville has any chance of usurping the place his
novel holds in this great American literary competition is simply because all
authors who had followed him, and keep following, have no admissible excuse for
not reading “Moby Dick”. If they read it, it must be what makes their own
work good, if they tried to get away as far as possible from the grooves its
wagon left in the dirt, it must have shaped their writing even deeper, and even
if they had successfully avoided it, it was still available, and the mere
availability of Melville lessens their work.
that Academia is obsessed with what was first, the same way popular culture is
obsessed with what is the latest. In between there is an unbearable,
ever-growing void. Contemporary culture is that vacuum created between the two
points in perspective on time – in other words it is nonexistent as a living
thing, with all the air sucked out there are just hard particles in absence of
fluidity that would serve as a conduit, connecting them in a living, life giving
lies in the root of this problem is the fact that the readers got sold out, or
sold down the river, firstly by authors, who exchanged their responsibility for
the comfort of non-conflict, who instead of continuing to open new spaces
conceded to fencing in their public by the barbed wire of predictable, pleasant,
soothing idea. It’s a satin-padded prison cell, that which goes under
literature today, a concentration camp disguised as a picnic sight, the painted
sun never sets, the plastic grass never wilts and the bright, blinding light of
electrical bulbs both offers warmth and freezes a person in an utter
intellectual inertia. The market knows no mercy. None is to be found in academic
laboratories either, where the other, “higher” literature is willingly
subjected to inhuman experiments devised to prove nothing save the superiority
of the scientist over the subject matter.
reader got sold out, the link between the reader and the author got broken, the
reader got sold out, and neither the market, the publisher, the reviewer, or the
academic community, the theoretician, the historian were ever fostering the
inclination to act as the agent, the representative, the champion for the
reader. The author sold the reader down the river to have his picture on the
television, to have his name mentioned in a lecture, the author abandoned his
very existence to instantly become a part of history, and to become a part of
that elusive ever new, the latest, one that will come immediately after now, it,
the “thing”. In that the author sold out the present down the river, the
only time a living entity can exist in, by forfeiting the moment, the author’s
choice got reduced to him either becoming petrified in past, or evaporating in
the very next “thing”.
 The use of language of economy is deliberate since the discourse of economy seems to have remained as the only universal channel of communication. Terms such as ownership, production, belonging can be misinterpreted by only a few, whereas the use of language such as creation, communication, exchange of information are likely to be modified by the person who encounters them. Additional and more important reason for use of the terminology of economy is that it leaves no doubt as to what is the current position of literature in the society, which is a position of constant misuse, objectification and commodification.
 By now, it should be clear that what we are concerned with is the degenerative discourse on literature which has remained the only public discourse. It – the literature, in the way it was or in the way it should be – is observed from the perspective that is merely a product of the present time. It seems to be the consensus of the moment that literature is something separate from art. Since all the artistic norms have been broken or ignored in what is predominantly considered to be literature today, it is no longer “appropriate” to discuss work of literature as a work of art. Abandoning arguments of artistic value and importance the whole discussion of literature has been reduced to “grocery talk”.
 Is literature merely an art of language or is it an art of thought? This is a problem no other art form faces, and while theoretically it is conceivable that a word can become divorced from its meaning, it is hard to accept that any product of human endeavor is without meaning. Even rejecting meaning adds meaning to the very process. Even if meaning in the form of denotation and connotation are abandoned, there is still meaning as a sense, the rationale; no form of art, no human creation can divorce itself from intention, because without intention it does not exist, it is not complete. The dreaded question forced on any piece of writing is: What purpose does it serve? Would a poem with no meaning have a purpose, or would it be created with the intention of it not being the one serving a purpose, but transferring the service of purpose onto the recipient. Would a poem with no meaning give purpose to the reader, would that purpose be that the reader serves the purpose and serves the poem? And if that would be its true meaning, its true purpose, wouldn’t that be a meaning equal to any other, wouldn’t that be a purpose, one that the poem would necessarily serve? Is the meaning of the work of art only the one that is infused in its conception, or is it the added one? And who really cares what the author says once the work is done and out?