How to win at literature

This essay was first published in Issue 3 of the Brixton Review of Books in September 2018.

On the evening of 5th July 2018, carefully selected guests filtered into Buckingham Palace for dinner with Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall. You might say that the invitation list had started to be compiled fifty years previously. There were ten authors present, oddly biased towards the first half of the alphabet: Julian Barnes, Paul Beatty, Peter Carey, Eleanor Catton, Kiran Desai, David Grossman, Alan Hollinghurst, Howard Jacobson, Marlon James, V.S. Naipaul and Ben Okri. These gathered men, and two women, had won at literature.

The impending death of literature has been proclaimed so many times now that it might be best to refrain from further comment until the head is fully severed from the shoulders. The truth is that what we now call ‘literary fiction’ – a publishers’ term almost unrecognised until the 1970s – was always a pretty tough sell. As Tom Maschler put it in 1971, when he was director of Jonathan Cape: ‘Given the relative lack of interest in serious books among the British reading public (and alas, also among many booksellers) we depend on at least one or two bestsellers a year to subsidise out programme as a whole.’ He wasn’t lying. Then Cape chairman Michael Howard admitted that, at the time of Ian Fleming’s death in 1964, sales of the Bond books ‘accounted for a proportion of Cape’s income which corresponded closely to the total profit’. They were worried, too, about ‘the future of the dwindling band of private companies in the face of takeovers by large commercial corporations and American interests, and the powerful agglomerations of competing groups’.

One idea they had was to find a sympathetic company to band together with, and eventually in 1969, after two years discussion, they would go into partnership with Chatto & Windus (which had itself merged Leonard Woolf’s Hogarth Press in 1945). As Chatto poet Jennifer Couroucli put it,

Chatto’s is merging with Jonathan Cape –

Better to marry than burn, 

Better to wed than give in to rape

By a tempting Big Business concern.

But Tom Maschler had one other idea to shore up business. He wanted to found a literary prize on the model of France’s Prix Goncourt, a prize of prizes that would help propel sales for the kind of literary novels published by Cape. What he needed most was a backer with serious money.

Before he had died, Michael Howard noted, Ian Fleming had arranged the ‘transfer of his copyrights to a complex web of trusts, and to his private company, Glidrose Productions, of which in 1964 he sold control to Booker Brothers for one hundred thousand pounds. Tax free, that sum seemed to Ian a good deal, but as an investment it proved cheap for Booker Brothers.’ Tax shelter schemes looked particularly attractive during Harold Wilson’s Labour government, but even so Bookers did get a good deal: buying up other copyrights, including those of Agatha Christie, their Author Services division made profits of £100,000 in 1968, four times that by mid-seventies.

It was a slightly odd offshoot of the company, which had been founded by George and Richard Booker in 1835 as a shipping company and quickly got into the sugar business in British Guiana. At its peak, the company owned over three quarters of all trading interests in the country, leading some to refer to the country as ‘Booker’s Guiana’. By the time Sir Jock Campbell first visited in 1934, he said, ‘I was as appalled as I was fascinated by the sugar industry. The workers were treated as chattels. I was told either I did not understand or that “they are a different sort of people”.’When he became chairman in 1952, he worked hard to correct some of these historical wrongs, offering free housing and loans to the workers, as well as medical and pension plans. It was the least he could do, really – by the mid-sixties sugar still employed half the country’s labour force. But much as Guiana needed them, Bookers began diversifying to make sure their fate did not rest on Guiana, particularly once it gained independence in 1966. And so, strange as it might seem, Bookers became one of the only companies, publishers included, that believed there was money to be made in the book industry.

When Tom Maschler approached Charles Tyrell, he and the other Booker execs might well have pointed out that Britain had a number of prizes already: the John Llewellyn Rhys Memorial Prize (1942), the Somerset Maugham (1946), the W H Smith (1959), Guardian Prize (1965), Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize (1965), Silver Pen (1968). But while some of them were prestigious, and in books one respects one’s elders, none could deliver the drama, nor the sales boost, of the Prix Goncourt. The idea was to make this Booker Prize not only the biggest literary prize in the English language, but to make it an event, to engage the public and even perhaps to persuade them that a book might be both literary and worth reading.

Because they conceived the project in those all-encompassing terms, the stated criterion for the winner was studiedly vague: the little trophy of a silver lady holding a bowl would go to ‘the best full-length novel in the opinion of the judges’. Early on, Maschler later said, ‘It seemed to me most desirable that there should be as much speculation as possible prior to the final announcement’, and they tweaked the rules to this end, publishing the shortlist separately a few weeks before the winner was announced, and arranging for the prize to be awarded in the autumn when the public buys most of its books – in fact, to be eligible in 1971, a book had to be published between 1st September and 15th November, though they later changed the rules to include books published across the year. From the start, the publisher would be obliged to advertise the winner to the tune of £500, which would have the effect of boosting the prize as well as the book. They also tried to introduce a ‘personality’ and a ‘book trade person’ into the judging panel, at a time when literature was still seen as the antithesis of popularity. Terence Kilmartin of the Observer strongly disapproved: ‘I have a feeling that these two categories of person are included in order to ensure that the book selected for the prize is a good commercial proposition. In the past this would certainly have excluded a large number of writers who have made a serious contribution to English Literature.’ A.W. Parsons, Literary Editor of the Daily Mail, wrote, ‘I cannot quite see the logic of including a “personality” in the panel. What about a librarian?’ Anthony Thwaite of the New Statesman went further, writing that ‘a serious literary panel should be made up of serious literary people, so that I can’t see the wisdom of having a “personality” and a “book-trade person”. Wouldn’t it be better to have four or five well-read people, whose judgement one respects?’

From the start, it seemed that the prize would be dogged by controversy. The 1971 judge Malcolm Muggeridge resigned from the jury, writing that the books ‘seem to me to be mere pornography in the worst sense of the word, and to lack any literary qualities or distinction which could possibly compensate for the unsavouriness of their contents,’ and after his departure a dispute broke out between judge John Fowles and the chair, John Gross, over the eligibility of V.S. Naipaul’s In a Free State, compounded by the fact that both Gross and fellow judge Antonia Fraser were friends with Naipaul, and also by an unofficial phone call from Tom Maschler to chip in with his own opinion on the matter. In the end they had a blind postal vote, and the book was voted eligible by three votes to two (Saul Bellow also thought Naipaul ineligible and, of the rest, said that only ‘five percent were interesting’). Thankfully the dispute didn’t make the news, though there was real controversy in 1972, when the winner John Berger denounced Booker Brothers as a ‘colonialist enterprise built on the backs of black plantation workers’, to angry heckles from the assembled guests in the Café Royal, and announced that he was giving half his prize money to the Black Panthers. The press turned up quickly, having been tipped off by Berger’s publisher, and the speech was widely reported. Maschler later wondered ‘why Berger did not either decline the prize altogether or give all the money to the Black Panthers’.But what might have seemed a disaster for the prize turned out to be an unexpected windfall: there were fifty press clippings about the prize in 1971, and two hundred in 1972.

Maschler writes that ‘the turning point for the Booker came in 1980. That year two heavyweights [William Golding and Anthony Burgess] were in competition and this resulted in a great deal of speculation’. Indeed, that was the decade that confirmed the Booker as the publishing event of the year. At its inception the prize had been worth £5,000; by 1989 it was worth £20,000 (partly to fight off an enormous bequest for a new prize from the reclusive novelist Betty Trask).Ron Pollard of Ladbrokes opened a book on the shortlist in 1984. The prize even began to be televised, to numerous complaints. Fay Weldon, who had beenchair of judges in 1983, wrote to organiser Martyn Goff after the event:‘My concern remains for the writer’s (and indeed Booker’s) rather rapidly diminishing dignity in the face of the TV cameras… If the moral base of the Prize is corrected, everything will fall gracefully into place. Though the winner can sensibly be announced at the Dinner, the short-listed authors and publishers must know who it is beforehand and accept or refuse the invitation in that awareness. Salman Rushtie [sic] said to me with some passion last Wednesday, “If I haven’t won it, what am I doing here? Tell me!” and I couldn’t. Because he is quite right: the whole accumulated frisson of the Prize seems to depend upon the humiliation of those who fail to win it, rather than on the satisfaction of those who do.’ But the press clippings were up 50 percent on the year before, and the TV cameras stayed.

Weldon’s second letter,to Michael Harris Caine, the chairman of Booker McConnell, makes for interesting reading:

‘In literature, as in any other field, if people can leave the making of decisions to anyone else, they’ll leap at the chance. I would hate to see a situation arising in say, five or ten years’ time, when if a writer happened not to win a prize, he or she was not taken seriously… Writing is increasingly a profession, not a surplus of literary animation taken publishable form. Novelists, even good ones, see themselves as having careers. “Let’s set out to win the Whitbread with this one!” Can’t you hear some editor saying it, steering theme, character and plot prizewards?’

Ten years later, Weldon attended a Booker Prize dinner as a guest. The honourable chairman of Booker came up to her and told her, ‘It is not by any wish of mine that you are here tonight.’

That would have been the year that Roddy Doyle won for Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, which sold just over 200,000 hardbacks by end of 1993. The next year, the paperback sold 355,000, grossing £2.1m in sales. If it had once seemed that literary quality had nothing to do with sales potential, some people were now beginning to wonder whether they need be mutually exclusive. Indeed, publishing was becoming big business. A 1993 Virago edition of Virginia Woolf’s Orlandosold 17,000 copies, exceeding the book’s world sales for the four years after its original publication. By that time, Cape and Chatto had been bought out by the American conglomerate Random House, which itself would be eaten by the Bertelsmann Group, which would later merge with Penguin. Maschler considered this conglomeration a ‘betrayal’.

The Booker Prize also found its centre of gravity drifting somewhere into the sea after shifting sponsorship in 2002 to the Man Group, a company founded 235 years ago as a sugar broker (what else) and which, despite still covering 16 percent of cross-border sugar trade in 1997, now describes its business as ‘technology-empowered active investment management focused on delivering performance and client portfolio solutions’. The Financial Times describes it as ‘the world’s largest publicly traded active management group’, and it has significant business in America. (Booker, meanwhile, has been eaten by Tesco for £4bn.) It was perhaps inevitable that the prize would be opened up to American writers, given how little else the sponsors demand of their prize – in fact, it is amazing that they didn’t do it sooner: Martyn Goff was saying back in the mid-eighties that ‘we have always wanted more interest in America’. It is too early to tell whether this rule change will hamper British or Commonwealth authors, but after fifty years we have enough historical biases to be getting on with.

Since 1969, 33 men and 16 women have won the prize – won at literature, in a world where those who don’t win prizes aren’t taken seriously. Jonathan Cape is the publisher with the highest number of winning titles (8), and the most shortlistings (31), all the more impressive if you count Chatto’s 3 wins and 18 shortlistings. By my count, imprints under the Penguin Random House group have won 19 of the previous 49 prizes, and have been shortlisted 103 times. Since 2014, when the prize opened to American writers, two have won the prize; four of the other winners hail from Australia, three from India, three from Canada, two from South Africa, two from New Zealand. If anyone is looking for a trend, a far greater number of authors – Kingsley Amis, Anita Brookner, Nadine Gordimer, Ian McEwan, Kazuo Ishiguro, David Storey, Salman Rushdie – were published by Tom Maschler. The shortlist for 2018 makes it a one-in-three chance that the winner will be American, a one-in-three chance that the winner will be a Cape author, and a one-in-six chance of being a current Jonathan Cape editor.

In the late sixties, there had been two pressing concerns for Jonathan Cape. The first was to avoid falling into close orbit with big business, particularly of the kind that was already taking hold in America. The second was to boost the sales of the high quality writing that Cape itself published by founding a high profile prize. But despite succeeding spectacularly in the latter, they had no way of avoiding the former, for Cape found that those authors on their list who didn’t win The Prize struggled to sell much as they ever had. Now, Jonathan Cape has become the model for a literary list nested in a larger conglomerate, whose first duty is to win the prizes, and the Booker Prize above all. Which, since the values of the prize were first articulated by the director of Jonathan Cape, should not be so very hard to do.

 

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The Cable Guy: a swansong for privacy

Imagine it’s 1996. The Iraq War is a thing of the distant past and you’ll never have to hear the name George Bush again. Leonardo DiCaprio is still twenty years away from his Oscar. Will Smith is still the name of a character played by Will Smith in the Fresh Prince of Bel Air. Tom Cruise is yet to star in Magnolia as the charismatic leader of a cult convinced by his own meaningless affirmations, let alone become that man in real life.

Now imagine it’s not just 1996, but you’re Jim Carrey. Everybody loves you. You are dumb, and dumber. You shot to fame as Ace Ventura by literally talking out of your arse. Your troubled birth from a prosthetic rhino’s vagina has already made an indelible impression on a nine year old British kid called Alex Christofi. You have just been offered Hollywood’s first ever $20 million paycheque.

The character is not a detective, nor a cop, nor a lawyer, nor a salaryman in possession of a cursed Viking demon mask. He is the ’90s equivalent of a broadband installation professional. He is clingy and enthusiastic about karaoke.

This year in history, you are the most wanted man in Hollywood. You can pick any part in any film you want. And of all the films you are offered, you choose The Cable Guy.

But you say yes on two conditions:

1. We turn this screwball comedy into a parable of the slide of consumer capitalism into basic privacy violations, which the public will come to tolerate as a kind of devil’s handjob in return for the promise of free content, little realising that content itself will soon be devalued and we will acclimatise and come to require less and less reimbursement for the exact same privacy violations.

2. I get to speak with a lisp.

Ben Stiller directed the film, and has a cameo as a guy who murdered his identical twin (also played by Ben Stiller). Matthew Broderick plays the straight man so well you could almost forget he is in it, even though he is technically the main character. It’s like watching the word ‘normcore’ assume human form – he doesn’t quite seem like a real person, more like a set of pillows and clothes arranged in a bed to trick your parents when you run away from home. The supporting cast includes a recycled extra from Waterworld called Jack Black and the smuggest film debut ever from an actor calling himself Owen Wilson, who is later quasi-sexually abused with a hand dryer.

Despite the cast, the film scores exactly 6.0/10 on IMDB, making it one of the few films in the history of cinema that is, by popular vote, neither good enough nor bad enough to be worth watching. On its release, the New York Times said The Cable Guy ‘offers the shocking sight of a volatile comic talent in free fall.’ It went further, to say that ‘there’s no fun in watching Carrey covering his face with chicken skin.’ However, Newsweek hit the nail on the head, if only accidentally, when it called Carrey’s character ‘a demonic and omnipotent Dennis the Menace.’

Because we have a word for what Carrey’s character is now. He either wants to be your best friend or your worst enemy. He hides behind pseudonyms. He quotes people without attribution, he thinks women are something you buy and, crucially, he is obsessed with what people in the 90s quaintly called ‘the information superhighway’. The cable guy is the world’s first troll.

Here’s what Carrey says when he’s standing on a giant satellite dish for those who prefer their visual metaphors to hurt: ‘Soon every American home will integrate their television, phone and computer. You’ll be able to visit the Louvre on one channel, or watch female mud wrestling on another. You can do your shopping at home, or play Mortal Kombat with a friend from Vietnam. There’s no end to the possibilities!’ Here is a man clinging to a utopian ideal of keeping multiple tabs open so that he can convince himself he’s not really watching porn because he’s also, simultaneously, looking up museum opening times. It’s that sort of insight that makes this film a pre-Matrix Oracle. He even points out that ‘free cable is the ultimate aphrodisiac,’ or as we would put it nowadays, Netflix and chill.

But let’s say it all gets a bit much and you want out. Well, that’s not really how this whole thing works. The cable guy insinuates himself with your girlfriend and your family home; he makes secret recordings of you; he hacks your office network and gets you fired; he makes every car alarm in the car park go off; he holds compromising pictures of you in flagrante delicto; he has you arrested for receiving stolen goods that he put in your flat. And you know what? He doesn’t even work for the cable company.

What did you do to deserve this? You’re just Matthew Broderick the pillow boy. But you let the free content cross your threshold, and now a troll is fucking all your shit up.

This is the gift they have given us, a swansong from the last days of privacy, Judd Apatow, Ben Stiller, Jim Carrey and Matthew Broderick, some of the finest political commentators of their generation. Their message is this: any technology is only as trustworthy as the creepiest person who knows how to use it. As the troll himself points out, ‘The trouble with real life is, there’s no danger music.’

This piece was originally read at The Wrong Quarterly‘s event, ‘Remarks on Unremarkable Films of the 90s’, alongside Will Eaves, Heidi O’Loughlan, Nell Frizzell, May-Lan Tan and Ned Beauman.

The Pixar Guide to Wellbeing

On its release in America, Inside Out had the biggest opening weekend for any original film in box office history, sailing easily past Avatar’s $77m to an incredible $91m. It’s already Pixar’s eighth consecutive film to have taken over $500m worldwide, and we’ve only just had the opening weekend here in the UK, where it took £7.35m. If some were beginning to worry that the studio had gone the way of Disney, following five years of prequels, sequels and the critically mixed reception to their fairy tale, Brave, this new film has proven that Pixar is still capable of the funny, surprising and layered storytelling that made its name. But the secret ingredient of this film’s success? Sadness.

Inside Out follows 11-year-old Riley and the five emotions – joy, fear, anger, disgust and sadness – that live in the control room of her head. When Riley’s family moves away from her childhood home in Minnesota to San Francisco, she loses sight of the core memories that tell her who she is, prompting Joy and Sadness to go on a journey deep into her mind to get them back. The topography grates: having to catch the Train of Thought home because Honesty Island has crumbled sounds like the worst allegory since Pilgrim’s Progress, if you think about it too hard. But as Ed Catmull, Pixar’s co-founder and president, wrote in his book Creativity Inc., ‘If you give a good idea to a mediocre team, they will screw it up. If you give a mediocre idea to a brilliant team, they will either fix it or throw it away and come up with something better,’ and in the hands of Pixar’s story artists, the landscape of Riley’s mind becomes the battleground for a new way of looking at wellbeing.

It’s one of Pixar’s funniest films, the jokes coming thick and fast throughout the film (‘There’s inductive reasoning, there’s déjà vu, there’s language processing, there’s déjà vu, there’s critical thinking, there’s déjà vu…’). Perhaps the best gag is watching the maintenance workers hoover up long term memories like phone numbers (‘We don’t need these! They’re in her phone’), leaving only the names of a couple of US presidents and the ditty to a chewing gum advert.

Riley’s main problems – growing up, and moving away from her childhood home – are identical to those of Pixar’s first feature film, Toy Story. In the latter, Andy’s fear and distress is played out by the toys, the whole story enacting the kind of imaginary play we might expect to see in a child’s psychological evaluation, with Woody and Buzz vying as male role models (the implication being that the family is downsizing following a divorce). When Inside Out treats the same topic, the adventure is the emotional journey itself: will Joy reign over Riley’s head once again?

Up to now, Joy has called the shots in Riley’s mental HQ, and she keeps life on track by being relentlessly positive, looking for the bright side in everything and telling the others to ‘think positive’. When Sadness starts to intrude on the controls, Joy’s response is to draw a chalk circle on the ground and tell her to stand inside it. But when things go really wrong for Riley, it’s not because Sadness has taken the helm and won’t let go. Instead, the colour drains out of the console, and it stops responding to any of the emotions. As sufferers of depression attest, the problem is not overwhelming feeling but the inability to feel.

Inside Out SadnessThis is where Sadness comes in. When we get a glimpse into Riley’s mother’s head at the dinner table, we can see her own Sadness is in charge of operations, and that’s why, even though yellow Joy is generally in charge of Riley’s HQ, she has Sadness’s blue hair and aura. Perhaps worried that Riley might take after her, Riley’s mother wants her to be a ‘happy girl’, but as things go from bad to worse, the pressure to be happy begins to seem like the real problem. Indeed, recent studies by social psychologist Dr Brock Bastian and others confirm that negativity is often our most useful companion when times are tough – it helps us anticipate problems, find solutions and empathise with others when things are going badly. It’s not negative emotions that are bad for us, but the suppression of them, especially when they are healthy, functional responses to difficult situations.

Pixar have never shied away from presenting everything that life can throw at you. Perhaps the most famous example is in the montage of Carl and Ellie’s life together at the start of Up, which, taken alone, stands as perhaps the greatest short film of all time, not just for its miracle of condensation, but for the emotional impact of their childlessness, which has reduced audiences of all ages to tears. (Careful viewers may even spot scenes from this sequence in the great bowling-ball alleys of Riley’s long term memory.) Equally, on the death of Riley’s imaginary friend, who sacrifices himself to save Joy, the cinema erupted with the sound of children crying, which is just as well because I think a number of the adults were sniffing too. The whole audience left the cinema elated.

In this latest film, Pixar are not just putting us through the mill. They’re showing us that, somewhat paradoxically, the way to be really happy is to experience a whole range of emotions. When Riley is born, there is only Joy, standing in front of a laughter button, but as Riley grows older, she is joined by Anger, Disgust, Fear and Sadness. When life gets really tough, Sadness is not the antagonist she first appears, but the unsung hero. That’s the real lesson: Joy might be fun to hang around, but wellbeing is a team effort.

Article first published by Prospect Magazine