What is the political function of literary culture? What kind of establishment do mainstream cultural institutions create and protect? What characterizes the overlap between the publishing industry and the academy? These questions, always relevant but often sidelined, have coalesced more visibly than usual over the past month as canonization has occupied headlines: the awarding of the 2019 Nobel Prize for Literature to Peter Handke, an apologist for Slobodan Miloševic, the former Yugoslav Prime Minister charged with war crimes; the controversial splitting of the Booker Prize between Bernardine Evaristo and Margaret Atwood; and the death of the Western canon’s most committed defender, Harold Bloom.
Bloom, a self-declared elitist, wrote in The Western Canon (1994) that aesthetic values are innately opposed to ‘the overdeterminations of race, class and gender’: he considered any movement that reads with social context or political purpose to belong to ‘the school of resentment’. Almost every obituary that followed his death lionized and reified his genius for controversy: the fact he taught at Yale University until the week before his death; his dismissal of diversity; his mode of teaching that, in a Paris Review article from 1991 he described, quoting Ralph Waldo Emerson, as ‘never tuition but only provocation’. It was on Twitter, mostly, that the rest of the picture was filled in: Bloom was accused repeatedly of sexually harassing and bullying his students – famously by Naomi Wolf in a 2004 New York magazine article, and by many anonymous survivors since – of making racist and sexist remarks, of boasting repeatedly that the institution was too scared to fire him.
This mode of teaching is not, as many have argued and will continue to argue until the last tenured alleged sex offender, separable from a belief in the superiority of a white, male, western literary tradition: the system protects itself. One function of literary prizes is the affirmation of such a status quo. Responding to the backlash that followed Handke’s Nobel Prize – prompted by his denial of the Bosnian genocide – the author positioned himself in just such a canonical lineage: ‘It’s only questions like how does the world react. Reactions to reactions to reactions. I am a writer, I come from Tolstoy, from Homer, from Cervantes. Leave me in peace and don’t ask me questions like that.’ The identity politics of whiteness, here, function as a claim to neutrality, to objectivity: literary ‘value’ transcends its context.
Yet, whilst major prizes are mostly dominated by books released by large and well-funded publishers such as Cape, Faber & Faber and Penguin, they contain within them the potential for canon creation and disruption. A case in point is Evaristo’s Booker Prize victory with the electric, experimental Girl, Woman, Other about 12 Black British womxn that, in her own words, ‘was my way of addressing our invisibility and also exploring our heterogeneity’. Combining poetry and prose in her accounts of the lives of characters who range in age between 19 and 93, she pays close and empathetic attention to the interlinking strands of class, sexuality and gender. Despite the splitting of the prize, Evaristo – the first black woman to win, though this hasn’t stopped bookshops around the country prioritizing Atwood in their Booker displays – has used the opportunity to elevate the voices of other black writers, as well as to caution against mistaking the whims of the market for real and lasting change: ‘The revolution, or rather what we might think of as this countercultural moment where those previously without a platform are having their say, has already been commodified’.
This is nothing new. In 2018, the American poet and academic Juliana Spahr published Du Bois’s Telegram, a book that emphasizes the complex ways in which state interests have changed and, in some cases, shaped the literature of American modernity. The book takes its title from a telegram W.E.B. Du Bois – sociologist, historian, novelist, civil-rights activist and Pan-Africanist – sent to the Présence Africaine Congress of Black Writers and Artists in Paris in 1956. Denied a passport by the US government, Du Bois wrote: ‘Any Negro-American who travels abroad today must either not discuss race conditions in the United States or say the sort of thing which our State Department wishes the world to believe.’ The point is not that avant-garde literature cannot be a subversive social strategy but rather that, under capitalism and under the auspices of the state, the co-option of radical literature can function as a neutralizing force.
Over the course of the book, Spahr takes Du Bois seriously in her exploration of the ‘vexed and uneven relationship between literature and politics’, particularly the CIA funding of the arts during the Cold War and their selective support of certain African American writers, whilst restricting the travel of others, in order to claim there was no racism in the US. Crucial to this is the complication of the distinction between political and ‘apolitical’ art. In Spahr’s view, assertions that literature has the potential to be politically productive often lack ‘analysis of the structural issues: literature’s stubborn relationship to and reliance on the state, the impact of private foundations, of higher education, of a highly centralized multinational publishing industry and a localized, decentralized small press culture’. Those who mock the optimism of the claim for political literature, however, are not interested in these structural conditions. Rather, they wish to assert that politics ‘makes for bad literature, makes propaganda, all the while ignoring the constant use of “apolitical” literature as propaganda through US cultural diplomacy’.
Although it may seem paradoxical, a belief in the possibility of an apolitical approach to literature lies at the heart of the ‘polemics’ on which literary critics like Bloom built their reputations. The increasing commodification of higher education, the implementation of anti-terrorism recruitment policies such as Prevent, the systemic underfunding of the humanities (coupled with the rise in student recruitment and institutional pressure to adopt a market and prize-focused curriculum in creative-writing courses), and the right-wing furore over the fictional ‘free-speech crisis’ on campuses over the past two decades has solidified the relationship between state and university in both the US and the UK, whilst threatening the mechanisms underpinning the study of literature in universities. It certainly makes it harder to experiment. Yet, the answer – if we heed Spahr’s warning – lies not in an affirmation of the political that occurs solely through these institutions. It would be a mistake to count on the radical protecting itself from the forces that seek to commodify it.
Main image: Peter Handke, 2019. Courtesy: Getty Images/AFP; photograph: Alain Jocard
Helen Charman is writing a PhD about maternity at the University of Cambridge. She teaches English Literature to undergraduates, creative writing at the Poetry School, and primary school literacy in Hackney. Her poetry can be found in Carcanet’s New Poetries VII and her pamphlet, Support, support, came out with Offord Road Books in 2018. Her critical writing can be found in The White Review, The Baffler, King's Review and the LRB blog.