A great writer not only writes great work, but also, more fundamentally and importantly, changes our sense of what great work is, and even charts a new role for the writer in society.
Tag Archives for cultural capital
American Dirt II
The recent and ongoing controversy over Jeanine Cummins’s American Dirt concerns the politics of literary representation and taste, publishing and canonization. Why should a non-Mexican author whose grasp of the detail of Mexican culture is sometimes precarious be rewarded with both financial capital (with a seven-figure advance) and cultural capital from the arbiters of literary value and media prominence (Stephen King, Oprah Winfrey, and so on) for a text that distorts Mexican reality by serving up gringo fantasies of the country’s trauma and pain?
These are important issues, and the critique posed to the book (and more broadly to the media and publishing business) is timely and significant. But amidst all the fuss it seems to have escaped most people’s attention that the novel’s heroine, Lydia Quixano Pérez, is, before she is forced to flee the threat of narco violence, herself a bookseller. Moreover, her relationship with the antagonist, a narco boss named Javier Crespo Fuentes, is structured through their common appreciation for the written word. As such, this is a text that in some ways anticipates some of the criticism it has received, and that outlines its own vision (which may equally be subject to critique) of the role of literature in depicting or mediating social antagonism.
Lydia sells everything. As a bookseller, we are told, she is well aware of the basic tension between what the market wants and literary value. But she tries to maintain some kind of personal integrity (however unseen or invisible) by stocking her store not only with “books she wasn’t crazy about but knew she would sell” (let alone the para-literary ephemera of “notecards, pens, calendars” and so on) but also with “books that she loved” (24). This latter category includes “her best-loved secret treasures, gems that had blown open her mind and changed her life [. . .] that she stocked anyway, not because she expected she’d ever sell them, but simply because it made her happy to know they were there” (25). She sells books, in other words, as though they were any other commodity, but within this mechanism of merchandising she quietly insists on the presence of a stubborn countervailing logic, a sort of silent protest against the market.
In other words, Lydia somewhat quixotically (against her own interests of profitability and commercial success), clings to other measures of literary value and purpose that are not reducible simply to exchange. As the novel explains: “Now and again when a book moved her, when a book opened a previously undiscovered window in her mind and forever altered her perception of the world, she would add it to those secret ranks.” Yet her efforts go unrecognized, unappreciated by a public that cares more for the best-sellers and notecards: “In the ten years she’d been doing this, only twice had Lydia experienced the pleasure of a customer approaching her counter with one of those books in hand, unsolicited” (25). Still, she persists.
There is already enough here of the fantastic: Lydia’s habit is obviously enough a compensatory device that enables and obliquely justifies the work in which she is mainly engaged as a bookseller, which is precisely that of the commodification and trivialization of the aesthetic project. It functions something like ideology, though at no point is Lydia deluded about the quality of the goods that she is mostly purveying. But there are also at least two other fantasies encapsulated here: either that one day there might arrive another reader appreciative or worthy of this other set of texts, this restricted canon; or, implicitly, that a book might turn up that would somehow transcend this divide by both “open[ing] previously undiscovered window[s],” altering our “perception of the world” and selling in quantity to the public at large.
Within the novel, it is that first fantasy that (briefly) comes true. A customer enters Lydia’s shop and picks not one but two of her secret list of non-marketable titles. She is dazzled and seduced by this unheralded event, and invites him to linger or return to discuss the books further, though he immediately warns that “sometimes the experience of reading can be corrupted by too many opinions” (26). Yet the source of the corruption here is elsewhere. We soon learn that this ideally receptive reader, one in a thousand or a million, is the feared capo of the cartel that has recently taken over the city. And it is he, Javier Crespo, who is responsible for the massacre of Lydia’s extended family with which the book opens. So much for the civilizing power of literature!
But is not American Dirt itself, at least as packaged and advertised for our consumption, an instance of the second fantasy, of the best-selling book that might also “open [our] mind and change[ our] life”? Of the book that would combine critical and commercial success as so few other texts have? (It is telling that a later communication between Lydia and Javier comes via the pages of Gabriel García Márquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera, one of the few that might be said to have achieved this same “magical” feat.) Hence the extraordinary blurbs from figures such as Sandra Cisneros: “It’s the great world novel!” Hence the choice to feature it in Oprah’s Book Club. This is a novel that aspires to combine the accessibility and readability of the thriller with the transformative aesthetic power associated (again, however fantastically) with high art.
But hence also the controversy. It is not hard, after all, to puncture such fantasies. If it had aimed for just one or the other goal (either a thriller for the masses or enlightenment for a limited readership), it would not have attracted such attention. But attention it has, and the book’s critics are keen to point to the tension between its success already as a commodity (that million-dollar-plus advance; the forthcoming movie deal) and the high-minded ambitions to which the text implicitly or explicitly aspires (“But then, I thought, If you’re a person who has the capacity to be a bridge, why not be a bridge?” ). No wonder Cummins has received such grief. Who does she think she is? Not that some of her justifications or protestations have helped her case much. After all, when it comes to fantasy, it is easier for an author’s characters to be eloquent than for an author to be so.
As for the real value, if any, of American Dirt–not that it is up to the critic to determine this, and such judgments are the least important and most banal of critical interventions–it is surely not that it depicts the “truth” of contemporary Mexico. But how could it? It may, however, reveal something, even despite itself, about the reasons why we might ever imagine that a literary text could or would disclose such truths. Like many other similar texts, it may tell us far more about its readers, and their hopes, fears, and desires, and about the impact that they envisage reading can or should have, for better or for worse, on themselves and the world around them.
But for those contrasting the work of going elsewhere and experiencing otherness with simply reading about such alterity, Javier Crespo already has a warning: “Books are cheaper than traveling, but they’re also more dangerous” (24).
Margaret Thatcher, Scholarship Girl
I was only nine when Margaret Thatcher came to power in May 1979, but I was among the first beneficiaries of her largesse. For one of her government’s earliest acts was to create the “Assisted Places” scheme, by which public funds were used to provide private education to a privileged few. As a result, under the Tories the state paid for my attendance at one of the country’s most academically elite secondary schools, which currently charges £10,545 a year in fees. As an added bonus, it even paid for my bus pass, with which I could roam the city. So much for “rolling back the frontiers of the state.” Thatcher was happy to use public money not only to subsidize private enterprises, such as the school, but also to lavish it on individuals such as myself if they were reckoned to be suitably deserving. At the same time, the 1980 Education Act cut funds to schools (and pupils) in the public sector.
Thatcher had first made her name as Education Secretary, so her interest in the issue was unsurprising. Long before she became the “iron lady,” she was Thatcher the “milk snatcher” when, in 1971, she undid the 1946 Free Milk Act and removed the right to free school milk from children over the age of seven. Consistently, then, she was against the principles of universal provision enshrined in the Welfare State. But again, she was not against state spending per se. She was in favor of what in today’s buzzword would be called “targeted” spending: the few would benefit at the expense of the many. But note that the “few” in question here were not those who were already elite: the point is that this is a form of class engineering; the “able” or “deserving” few were to be pulled from their surroundings and given a ladder to join the elite. Better: the effect of the Assisted Places scheme was to give those who were culturally but not economically privileged (the children of teachers, single parents, or in my case the clergy) the chance to entrench or even improve their middle-class status on a working-class salary. Only 7% of those who benefitted from the scheme were children of manual laborers.
And yet (ironically for someone who, as Education Secretary, created more comprehensive schools than anyone before or since) Thatcher did effectively reintroduce the category of the “scholarship boy” (or girl). This is the person that Pierre Bourdieu would call an “oblate”: who identifies with the educational institution rather than with his or her class, because it is the institution that has enabled him or her to gain or maintain their class position. The scholarship subverts class loyalty without subverting class. It enables class mobility apparently under the guise of “merit” alone, but on terms structured by entrenched hierarchies of both economic and cultural capital. It is social mobility without social change. Or as Raymond Williams long ago put it, what he called “the ladder version of society” both “weakens the principle of common benefit, which ought to be an absolute value” and also “sweetens the poison of hierarchy, in particular by offering the hierarchy of merit as a thing different in kind from the hierarchy of money or of birth” (Culture and Society 331). And yet it is precisely this vision of so-called “meritocracy” that the Labour government that eventually succeeded that of Thatcher (and her epigones) fully embraced–even though, in another apparent irony, one of its first acts on gaining power in 1997 was to abolish the Assisted Places scheme.
But the ideology of merit cannot so easily dispel the reality of class. Thatcher, a scholarship girl herself who famously made her way from a flat above a grocer’s shop in Grantham to Oxford and then married into money, always suffered from the condescension of those whose privilege could come to seem natural precisely because it was not so obviously dependent on any one institution. In some ways this woman who was so keen on asking whether a putative ally was “one of us” was always keenly aware that she was not “one of them,” if by “them” we mean both the grandees whose control of the Conservative Party she had so surprisingly usurped and indeed the men (and women) on the Labour benches whose sense of belonging was so much more secure. Thatcher was constantly derided for her provincialism and/or suburban allegiances, whether they were expressed in her choice of clothes (Marks and Spencer blouses!) or her accent and voice (hence the elocution lessons). In short, she stood out for her lack of cultural capital, her perceived inauthenticity; for the fact that she was neither to the manor nor the miner born. And it was precisely on this basis that she could articulate her populist revolt: against the “Establishment”; against the post-war consensus that had seemed to exclude an entire class of those who no longer believed in class, who felt their dreams of social mobility frustrated by entrenched privilege.
At root, however, she no longer thought (if she ever had done) that the educational system was sufficient to make real her dream of a world in which there were merely “men and women.” She preferred council house sales and privatization, the vision of a property- and share-owing democracy, as a more efficient vehicle to change the “society” that she wouldn’t or couldn’t bring herself to believe in. No wonder that the New Left, many of whom were scholarship boys and girls themselves (from Richard Hoggart to Stuart Hall), not-so-secretly admired and envied her ability to articulate what they saw as a “hegemonic” bloc that waged war (almost) as much against the elite as against organized labor. It helped that the establishment obligingly played into her hands: by snubbing her nomination for an honorary degree, for instance, Oxford University no doubt boosted Thatcher’s credibility among the many who never had a chance to go to Oxford in the first place, if not among her own front bench who were (as always) almost exclusively Oxford and Cambridge men themselves.
So Thatcher’s class war was double-sided, as populist insurgencies have to be: she was ruthless on the poor and the working class, but she was also serious, I think, about confronting those she had come to know, but never to like, as a scholarship girl at Kesteven and Grantham Girls’ School, Somerville College, Oxford, and ultimately in the House of Commons. No wonder she was never particularly keen on the House of Lords, either as Prime Minister (when her government frequently suffered defeat in the upper house) or as Baroness Thatcher, of Kesteven in the County of Lincolnshire.
But in the end it was the grandees who brought her down. It was after all Geoffrey Howe (not Arthur Scargill) who, with his resignation speech, put the nail in her political coffin and forced her to resign. And perhaps here we also see her greatest political failure more generally. By the time New Labour came to power, its leaders had taken on the mantra of meritocracy but also effortlessly felt at home with the guardians of cultural capital. None more so than the Right Honourable Anthony Blair (Fettes and St Johns College, Oxford). And after a brief hiccup in the personages of John Major and William Hague, the current Tory party, stuffed with members of the Bullingdon Club, has returned to form. Which is why it’s hard to imagine another Margaret Thatcher coming along any time soon: now that the chances for scholarships have disappeared, in part because the idea of the school or university as “ladder” rather than simply requirement has effectively disappeared, an entire structure of feeling has gone with it, too. Among those who can imagine themselves rich and can read the right magazines to appear cultured, deference is the order of the day; among those who know that they have been excluded more viciously than ever, thanks largely to the legacy of Thatcherism’s attack on universal provision, the only reasonable affect left is anger.
Meanwhile, my old school claims now to offer “need-blind” admissions, boasting of a war-chest it has accumulated from constant fund-raising and appeals, often to former pupils like me. A few years ago its website used to feature a list of the postcodes from which its pupils came (and the numbers in each case), as a testament to the wide geographical swathe of Northwest Britain from which it could recruit. But I pointed out that the list was drastically skewed to the leafy suburbs of affluent South Manchester: over a hundred pupils commuted in from each of SK8, WA14, and above all (my own former postcode) WA15. I suggested then that the test of a truly need-blind admission policy would be if there were proportionately equal representation from the postcodes (and so the dilapidated council estates) that immediately surround the school itself, located in the inner suburbs: M12, M13, M14, and M15; at the time, there were no pupils at all from M12 or M15, and only a handful from M13 or M14. I said I would contribute money for their appeal when there were as many children admitted from M14 as from WA14. Strangely, that list of pupils by postcode has now disappeared from the school’s site.
Beyond the fact that they make for a rather more attractive package, the many illustrations in the Norton edition of Seamus Heaney’s Beowulf translation rightly turn our attention to the poem’s obsession with things, with physical objects.
On every other page, facing the text itself, are bowls, ships, goblets, shields, arrows, helmets, jewelry, chainmail and the like, all lovingly photographed for our visual pleasure. The pictures neatly reflect and resonate with the poem’s own concern with objects that are sometimes so distinctive that they even earn a name for themselves–such as Hrunting, the weapon lent to Beowulf before his fateful encounter with the monster Grendel’s frightful mother. Hrunting is described as “a rare and ancient sword,” an “iron blade” whose “ill-boding patterns had been tempered in blood” (1458, 1459-60). It fits well with the warrior’s “mighty, hand-forged, fine-webbed mail” and his “glittering helmet [. . .] of beaten gold, / princely headgear hooped and hasped / by a weapon-smith who had worked wonders” (1444, 1448, and 1150-52).
In the gift-exchange economy of Dark Ages Europe, heroic deeds and political alliances lead to the accumulation of still more stuff. Once Beowulf has slain the monster and his mother, a grateful King Hrothgar promises that “for as long as I rule this far-flung land / treasures will change hands and each side will treat / the other with gifts” (1859-61). And good as his word, he showers the young prince and his men with artifacts of the highest quality so that by the time Beowulf heads for home he is “glorious in his gold regalia” and their ship is “cargoed with treasure, horses and war-gear” (1881, 1897).
Beowulf has already himself presented Hrothgar with a thing of considerable value: not merely the service he rendered in ridding the land of its demons, but also the hilt from a sword that he had grabbed during the melée in the mother’s watery refuge. If anything this “relic of old times” is even more impressive and fascinating than Hrunting, with its “rare smithwork” and its “rune-marking correctly incised” and its engravings in gold that tell the story of “how war first came into the world / and the flood destroyed the tribe of giants” (1688, 1679, 1695, 1689-90). This is an object that can be read to reveal something of days long gone by. The weapon’s adornment is more than mere decoration or ostentatious display; it recounts the history that makes the weapon necessary in the first place.
Likewise the hoard guarded by the dragon in the later sections of the poem also comes from an epoch long before the time when the action the narrative describes takes place. It is buried by the last survivor of a once-great civilization who realizes that, with the community that gives it meaning gone, “his joy / in the treasure would be brief” (2240-41). Interring “all the goods and golden ware / worth preserving” this last survivor consigns them to the earth, from which the raw material had originally been taken: “It was mined from you first / [. . .] I am left with nobody / to bear a sword or burnish plated goblets, / put a sheen on the cup” (2248, 2252-54).
In pre-capitalist societies, treasure is not fully fungible. It doesn’t circulate with ease–only as the result of either heroic action or as pillage of war. When the community founders, the meaning it confers wavers and is soon lost. Indeed, when Beowulf in turn dies, he has nobody to whom he can bequeath his armour. With his funeral, his treasure will be consumed as “his royal pyre / will melt no small amount of gold: / heaped there in a hoard” (3010-12).
All that is left is the rather more precarious medium of speech and song, the lament of the woman mourner who cries out in “a wild litany of nightmare and lament” (3152-53). And of course the poem, Beowulf: passed down orally for a couple of centuries before it is transcribed somewhere around 1000AD, whose one manuscript copy is almost itself consumed by fire in 1731, and which now survives, a precious object in its own right, in the British Museum. As the Museum website explains, “the manuscript remains incredibly fragile, and can be handled only with the utmost care.”
Fortunately, mass production and the publishing industry ensure that the text and this beautiful book now circulate freely, if at a fairly hefty price. A New York Times bestseller and sumptuously illustrated edition, this is a coffee-table book of distinction. No doubt more displayed and admired than read, it shows that cultural capital and presumed status still adhere to and are conveyed by objects as stubbornly today as in feudal Britain.
I’m about a quarter of the way through Read’s book. It does have some virtues, not least in retelling some of the early history of British Hispanism. Those were very much the days of the gentleman amateur, a continuation of the eighteenth-century “grand tour.” Apparently the founding editor’s contribution to the first issue of the Bulletin of Spanish Studies (in 1923) was entitled “Literary Pilgrimages in Spain” (20). I buy Read’s argument that, at least in these heady days before the Spanish Civil War, the Northern Hispanist found in Spain “an organic, pre-individual, pre-capitalist community, comparable to the ‘merrie England’ of contemporary English critics such as F. R. Leavis, but in the case of Spain, refreshingly real, surviving, that is, into the 20th Century” (20).
Two points, however:
First, if academics are always torn between two fantasies, either of their vital importance as the new “unacknowledged legislators” of the world, or of their marginality and insignificance, mere spectators of the real theatre of power, Read insistently plumps for the first illusion over the other. His particular inflection is a Marxism of a fairly vulgar variety. Hispanism is endlessly found to act in the service of either capital or the state, often both. “Thrown into relief,” for instance, “is Hispanism’s ideological role in the (re)production of the whole social order” (14). Indeed he even presents the possibility that the fate of social reproduction is at stake in the choice of syllabus in specific courses: “the control of the content of Golden Age courses served the purposes of a conservative elite, anxious to defend the prevailing relations of production, just as surely as the superannuation of those courses is related to the need to expand the forces of production” (27). Moreover, the influence of the humble junior lecturer expanded far beyond the confines of national boundaries: “the traditional Hispanist . . . served the middle class in its capitalist exploitation of Third World Countries” (28). And in rather predictable vulgar Marxist fashion, the fact that the professoriat refuse to realize their true role in global oppression is the coup de grace of outraged critical dissection: “Needless to say,” Read strangely feels the need to say about the above founder of the Bulletin of Spanish Studies, “it escaped his attention that the capitalist extraction of surplus value from workers involves a form of legalized robbery, that the freedom of these workers is constantly infringed by cut-throat managers, and that dominant classes have, throughout history, enjoyed a fuller life at the expense of those who serve them” (36).
Yes, there are moments when Read’s excoriation of Hispanism invokes the second academic illusion, when he wishes to suggest that his forbears and colleagues were so dismal that they weren’t even able to ensure the continuation of legalized robbery on the part of the British bourgeoisie. At these points, Hispanism turns out to be a “quietly conservative, marginal discipline” (26). Indeed, Read even contemplates the possibility that the Humanities in general may inadvertently resist capital expansion: “Their knowledge, over the ages, has generally been ‘useless,’ to the extent of holding back the development of the forces of production” (52). But the scare quotes around the word “useless” here indicate, I think, not so much that Read contests prevailing utilitarianism, as that he is reluctant to relinquish the notion that Hispanism must still somehow be a vital link in the chains of capitalist imperialism.
Second, Read’s book is, well, embarrassing. Interleaved with his analyses of Hispanism as an institution are a series of autobiographical essays. One of these compares his own career with that of Paul Julian Smith (professor at Cambridge and probably the most prominent figure in contemporary British Hispanism). I haven’t reached that chapter yet, but even the thought of it makes me wince. (Apparently Read writes about himself in the third person; which if anything makes it even worse.) It is very clear that Read has been advised multiple times to tone down his book, revise it, and make it less personal, less confessional, less full of.. well, of ressentiment. Read glosses Richard’s Hoggart’s famous description of the “scholarship boy” as characterized by “an unusual self-consciousness and tendency to self-dramatization” (38). This description seems to fit Read to a T. (Read, however, will claim that he is not even a scholarship boy, as he failed his eleven plus.) The book’s acknowledgements refer to the fact that one of its constituent essays was essentially rejected by the Journal of Hispanic Cultural Studies, and also to the fact that the book as a whole “was submitted to Liverpool University Press, and held by it for several years, before being rejected on the grounds that the Press suddenly found itself ‘over-committed'” (i). Further, the book’s preface reports the reaction of a series of friends and colleagues who had read the manuscript: Michael Sprinker “was significantly guarded in his response” (iv) while other colleagues “obviously felt that I had gone over the top in terms of political rhetoric and ad hominem criticism. More painfully, others failed to respond at all, as if embarrassed by the whole enterprise” (v). Frankly, no wonder.
So what to say about such a book that a) is not clearly (and even more excruciatingly) anticipated within its own pages and b) is not, indeed, a class condemnation of the scholarship boy for not fitting in, for being gauche, for not living up to the decorum of academic convention?