Two pieces published within days by Alison Flood in the Books section of The Guardian catch my attention. I’m wondering here how they connect –I think they do. The first one announces that “Most writers earn less than £600 a year, survey reveals” (https://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/jan/17/writers-earn-less-than-600-a-year); the second reports that “Writers attack ‘overrated’ Anglo-American literature at Jaipur festival” (https://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/jan/20/writers-attack-overrated-american-literature-jaipur-festival). Not much to connect them at first sight, you might think. They are, though, twin aspects of the same issue: how to make your literary voice heard in a seemingly open but actually hierarchical global market.
The article on the poverty-stricken writers, refers to both “traditionally and self-published” authors: 54% of the former and almost 80% of the latter earn less than $1,000 (£600) a year. I’m confused about how print and online publishing overlap with these categories. The grandly called ‘Digital Book World and Writer’s Digest Author Survey’, covered 9,000 writers (possibly all in English) –more than 65% calling themselves “aspiring authors”. The survey authors clarify that only the top 2% authors can be safely called professional. These include the tiny, tiny percentage making a fortune based on global sales… and luring all the others. The overnight success of a handful of self-publishing luminaries is also pulling ever more writers into the market. The survey authors believe we should celebrate that today “five to 10 times as many people are paying bills with their craft today as there was just a few years ago.” Taking as a reference the 9,000, today only 180 of them are full-time professionals in comparison to between 36 and 18 a few years ago. Suppose this refers to the UK, with 63 million people, or even only to Ireland, with 6 million. I don’t quite see much to celebrate…
The other article reports Xiaolu Guo’s harsh critique of how English-language “mainstream” spoils reading tastes. Guo is Chinese/British, and “one of Granta’s best of young British novelists.” She dislikes in particular US Literature, which she called “massively overrated” to the face of US top novelist Jonathan Franzen. This was within a session on ‘the global novel’, whatever that might be. Gao complains against the reign of plot-driven narrative, and how this tends to flatten all stories into quite similar novels, leaving no room for lyricism and “all the alternative things.” For Indian/American Jhumpa Lahiri the problem with American Literature is that it lacks the healthy infusion of other literatures through translation. Guo agrees. Franzen shows a polite concern with the “homogenisation of global culture” (meaning US-dominated corporate publishing business).
His other remark links the two articles. Even supposing everything could be translated automatically, no reader would be able to cope with the flood. “In a funny way,” he says “you’d think there’d be greater diversity in what is read, but I worry that the trend in a more global literary marketplace is even more towards a kind of star system and a vast sea of people who can’t find an audience.” We come thus full circle – the tiny group of millionaire writers at the top of the survey are, I’m sure, producers of English-language mainstream novels. Most readers, unable to find what they might enjoy in a sea of 9,000 writers, chose the top 180 or, more likely, the top 18. Possibly not even the top 18 writers, but the top 18 mainstream novels of the season. If they’re American 17 will be American, if they’re European, 8 will be American.
I know the argument is a bit fuzzy but now that the internet has created a truly global foundation for the liberation of Literature from publishing restrictions, we still have to cope with two serious problems: language barriers (which favour English), and the readers’ tendency to choose for safety (which favours the mainstream). The bigger the market, the smaller the chances to become a professional writer… for more than two novels. For readers, the tragedy is that possibly most of the books that we’d love to discover bypass us, either because they’re in a language we cannot access or because we never even learn they exist.
Gao, of course, ironically represents those who cannot understand that the ideal market for literary innovation is a market as tiny as possible for a select group of readers, whether they read poetical literary novels or hard SF. Globalization means they needn’t be in the same place, and might be a relatively much bigger group than if they were in just one nation. But her implicit dream that if you suppressed mainstream US literature, the world would be a wonderful intercultural forum, a truly democratic global world, is simply not realistic. She herself, by the way, writes in English. Her other language is Chinese. Not exactly the best possible position to understand how it feels to be really marginal in our global world.
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