'The important thing is the unspoken assumption that this establishment – whatever it is – is a bad thing'
I'm going to be talking here about the literary establishment. You know who I mean. Don't you? Well, even if you don't, you certainly know what I mean. You don't? Come to think of it, neither do I. It's one of those expressions and concepts whose rhetorical potency and convenience derive, imprecisely, from the fact that no one stops to think whether it means anything at all – any more than a squash player pauses to consider why there's a wall at the back of the court.
Here is a classic example, from a book of criticism published in 1986, in which we learn that "the literary establishment does not see its confusion" – about the status of the writer John Berger – "in these terms". The author of these lines detects a whiff of conspiracy without being able to say with any certainty – as is the case with all the best conspiracies – who the conspirators are or, for that matter, exactly what form the conspiracy takes or what it is intended to achieve. I say this with more than usual certainty because the author of these lines was my 27-year-old self.
Bringing things up to date, Jonathan Coe was one of a number of writers invited to pick their books of the year in these pages. He prefixed his choices by praising the Booker judges who "chose a diverse and challenging shortlist and then, having royally offended the literary establishment by excluding so many of their current favourites … "
Again, who and what, in an admittedly off-the-cuff aside, did Coe have in mind? He didn't mean himself, presumably, because that would have made no sense, though to be asked to contribute to these lists could be a sign of establishment membership. In fairness to Coe, although he won the Samuel Johnson prize for a lobbying biography of BS Johnson (who, as Coe puts it in the entirely on-the-cuff context of the book's introduction, "was always angry, and hurt, and unhappy at his treatment by the literary establishment"), he has since retired from book reviewing and critical reputation-making to concentrate on his own fiction (which could be taken as proof that someone has succeeded in ascending/absconding to the loftiest perches of the literary establishment). The important thing is the unspoken assumption that this literary establishment – whatever it is – is a bad thing.
For the rest of the article