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Who needs cultural gatekeepers anyway?

Australian literary culture and its
post-digital anxieties

Ours is a very particular moment in cultural and media history. Traditional ‘gatekeepers’ of ideas and culture are being disintermediated as we transition away from hierarchical forms of cultural organization to a system that is in some ways more open, where old approaches are in crisis and under siege. And where new approaches are emerging alongside rearguard actions that hope to keep traditional structures in place.

Obviously, this transition affects all aspects of political and cultural life but so far as literary culture is concerned, to talk meaningfully about this transition requires the use of two languages: the language of literary criticism and that of digital media studies. It’s no longer possible to talk about literary culture without engaging with digital media theory.

One thing that more sophisticated branches of digital media studies do is think beyond the transition from ‘old’ to ‘new’ media and beyond the technological determinism and mythologizing that generally goes with digital talk. Instead, it’s more useful to talk about ‘post-digital’ media, a term that seeks to describe ‘the messy and paradoxical condition of art and media after digital technology revolutions’, that ‘neither recognizes the distinction between “old” and “new” media, nor ideological affirmation of the one or the other’ (Andersen, Cox, and Papadopolous 2014). Ours is a hybrid space where culture is defined by media contradictions.

Perhaps the most useful way of talking about literary culture, still popular despite being dated, is Pierre Bourdieu’s notion of the literary field; in particular his work on cultural mediation and the question of who gets to arbitrate matters of taste. Bourdieu’s ‘literary field’, I think, is a bit like Jürgen Habermas’s ‘public sphere’. The specific circumstances in which both theories were dreamed up existed, perhaps, for a brief moment but their metaphors remain useful guiding concepts.

My argument, roughly, is that this is a moment of Grand Disintermediation whereby traditional mediators are everywhere being bypassed and new actors have emerged and now problematise and destabilise the very idea of the literary field. This moment contains great possibilities and dilemmas that are definitive of not only literary culture but democratic culture more broadly.

Let me start by talking about Australian literary gatekeeping as it was around twenty years ago. Back then it was possible to talk about cliques of dominant mediators who fiercely guarded the gate to the grassy top paddock of Australian literary culture. They had some very bad habits: circular reviewing, mutual puffery, windbaggery, the championing of favourites and routine dismissal of the unfavoured and unfamiliar.

These were precisely the sorts of ‘cultural intermediaries’ Bourdieu talks about: a ‘petit bourgeoisie’ corps of cultural capital dealers who provided guidance in the consumption of symbolic goods and services, and who in many cases were close to other intermediaries such as literary agents, publishers and editors, broadsheet-newspaper literary editors, and personalities in the broadcast media, who took it upon themselves, in their various ways, to defend what Bourdieu describes as the autonomous end of the literary sphere, where literary production is valorised as an end in itself.

Now, gatekeeping is never a straightforward affair. This grassy top paddock and its custodians were under constant siege by insurrectionists such as women writers, Indigenous writers, multicultural writers, popular fiction writers, genre writers, and their supporters. One spectacularly brutal moment of cultural gatekeeping when this system was at its peak in the 1990s involved multicultural writing, in which a whole corpus of work was dismissed as little more than the pet project of special interests. Another was the systematic dismissal of ‘grunge’ fiction.

But these gatekeepers were able to maintain power over events, in particular through their occupation of the high cultural ground of newspaper book review pages.

Now, of course, things are different. Newspaper literary sections have lost audiences and prestige at a time of declining circulation, standardisation and increased copysharing (Nolan and Ricketson 2013). A thundering review from an established critic no longer has the power it once had and newspaper book sections have shrunk considerably and look set to disappear altogether.

Publishers, too, no longer act as defenders of ‘cultural mission’ publishing in the ways they once did and by most accounts large publishers publish less literature. As Emmett Stinson (2016) has found, literary publishing is increasingly the provenance of smaller publishers willing to focus on areas that for large publishers no longer deliver the sustained profits they demand. The recent downgrading of literary fiction publishing in the Penguin imprint of Penguin-Random House vindicates his argument and one that I made over a decade ago about the ‘decline of the literary paradigm’ among large Australian publishers.

Nor do universities function as institutions of consecration in the way that they once did. Literary departments, along with the humanities more generally, are feeling the managerial pressures visited on ‘non-counting’ disciplines (English 2010) that privilege qualitative over quantitative research.

Traditional literary gatekeepers now live a kind of half-life; representatives of a zombie culture: the walking dead. The power to consecrate cultural texts, now, rests in the hands of readers, algorithms and big data, in recommendation engines, book blogs and vlogs, hashtags, podcasts, on-line bookstore reviews, self-publishing portals, podcasts, literary portals, and Goodreads reviews.

What these platforms have in common is that they foreground readers, a group that was never really the focus of publisher attention — booksellers were the primary customer — and whose activities were mostly unknown until online media ensured they could no longer be ignored. And who are now networked such that ‘social reading’ has made publicly visible and sociable a form of leisure long considered paradigmatically private.

Online media now plays a considerable role in popularising texts and provides new pathways to literary reception. But as the term post-digital suggests, this isn’t a straightforward changing of the guard. Pathways to reception have increased but none are authoritative. A small number of large gates have given way to a proliferation of openings, even breaches.

Whereas traditional agents of literary reception served to valorise the status of literature itself — in traditional literary gatekeeping culture even negative commentary maintains the status of the field — reviewers on Amazon and Goodreads, readers engaged in booktalk on Twitter, Facebook or bookblogs, or self-publishers, in general  show little respect for the ‘literary values’ that traditional mediators sought to defend and little commitment to contextualising any given literary work within the broader cultural practices and dispositions of what John Frow has called the ‘literary frame’.

A good example of this is Goodreads reviews for Helen Garner’s This House of Grief (2014). Many of these seek to replicate the form of the traditional book review. At the same time, such reviews aspire to middlebrow rather than highbrow literary culture; they emphasise personal reactions rather than worrying about trying to position the book or Garner within the literary field (Driscoll 2014). As one reviewer puts it: ‘Fuckyeah this book’.

Social reading platforms, rather than reinforce traditional literary values, tend to encourage readers to rank texts using mechanisms such as star-based rating systems, mimicking the ranking systems of movies and hotels, with their note of the popular.

This changes things.

This transformation isn’t simply a matter of degree but is a matter of kind. Such practices don’t simply seek to expand the literary field but cut across its very reasons for being and burst it open. Rather than speak of a ‘literary field’ a better metaphor might be to think of literary culture as a once more-or-less self-contained field where the gates have been broken and the fences are down; a space more Mad Max than top paddock.

As I’ve argued elsewhere, the real struggle, now, isn’t over who belongs where in the literary field but over the field itself:

Ours is an increasingly borderless literary culture in which traditional sites of consecration function not so much as centres of power as outposts in the badlands of the formerly literary. The presiding greeting in this fractured, deterritorialised, post-literary space is not ‘how are you one of us?’ so much as ‘who goes there?’. (Davis, 2017)

A battle is taking place; a border war over who can be designated as legitimate agents in the literary field, what the literary consists of and the terms in which literature should be discussed. Tied up in this are issues of social difference and equality. Social reading makes public domains of leisure formerly demarcated as private and invisibilised, such as, for example, those often female readers sometimes dismissed as ‘middlebrow’. As DeNel Rehberg Sedo has argued, ‘The emergence of the “middlebrow” has become a symbol of the conflict between elite tastemakers and an expanding group of increasingly better-educated and independent-minded readers’. These social reading practices, as Tully Barnett  has said, recall reading practices that predate the ideological supremacy of what Elizabeth Long has described as the masculinist ideal of the ‘solitary reader’. They have also helped make more visible long-marginalised genres such as romance, crime and science fiction.

This new terrain, then, is wider, more open, more inclusive, though its practices aren’t unproblematic. Readers of colour or working-class readers don’t get much space in talk of social reading. Another issue is the commodification of reading and of readers, who provide free labour for digital platforms, and the ‘enclosure’ by markets of once private forms of leisure.

But still, something has shifted in the culture and a considerable number of readers have seen their long-hidden practices and repressed claims to play a role in the making of culture, made public.

As in every battle there are rearguard actions. These, perhaps paradoxically, also take place online. For example, among the new agents of literary tastemaking are online literary reviews such as the Los Angeles Review of Books, created in direct response to the impact of digital media on newspaper review pages:

The Los Angeles Review of Books magazine was created in part as a response to the disappearance of the traditional newspaper book review supplement, and, with it, the art of lively, intelligent long-form writing on recent publications in every genre, ranging from fiction to politics.

This publication, the Sydney Review of Books, cites a similar motivation: ‘Concerns about the reduced space for serious cultural criticism in the mainstream media prompted the establishment of the Sydney Review of Books’. A version of this struggle also plays out on literary sites such as The Quarterly Conversation, the Hong Kong Review of Books, the Millions, N+1, or Literary Hub. All represent, in their own ways, an attempt to build the dyke higher. All work hard to establish themselves as bastions of self-conscious literary seriousness in the digital networked space. All are in one way or another redolent of print literary culture: text heavy, mostly without multimedia, notable for their self-consciously erudite, literary tone, wielding hapless irony against a rising tide of digitally networked pop culture: ‘The 20 best literary adaptations to watch on Netflix tonight: On the off-chance you’re tired of reading’. Or, more bluntly, ‘Kazuo Ishiguro and the inescapable perils of the internet’.

Soon after it was first published I began reading the SRB’s appealingly forensic Critic Watch column, which has often been entertaining and valuably corrosive. But at the same time a comment made in the column back in 2013, the first year of the SRB, stuck with me:

We confront a billowing cloud of opinion. There are, no doubt, acute and sensitive readers within this cloud, and the subject of reviewing in the blogging world requires careful delineation and discrimination. Seen as a whole, however – and this is the view taken by the publishers – the overwhelmingly tendency is to opinions without responsibility, in which judgements assume the tone of assertions of self-worth and identity. Lacking self-awareness but big on naive honesty, it is no wonder that the cloud can be commercially manipulated. This subtle infusion of the commercial into the domain of literary judgement makes cash-for-comment or product placements in films look like clumsy prototypes.

What struck me was the juxtaposition of the literary and ‘the cloud’ and the assertion of degraded culture that went with it.

All these sites represent a form of the anti-digital within the digital; an act of literary rescue from behind enemy lines. They’re a good example of Mark Deuze’s comment about digital remediation and the online remaking of old forms anew:

Remediation can be countered by tradition, where tradition can be seen as the perceived safety or sense of security in sameness, similarity, routines, and deeply entrenched patterns of organization.

It would be easy to dismiss this self-consciously literary practice as a kind of snobbishness and desire to reclaim the past from the marauding denizens of ‘the cloud’. But also, I think, a little too easy.

Instead I want raise what I think is a serious question about this hybrid moment of border wars when all traditional mediators are under harsh scrutiny. My question is, what does this transition mean for what was once called ‘intellectual life’ more generally? By this I mean, what does it mean for an expert class, immersed in certain kinds of thinking about cultural, economic, political, democratic and social processes, who have long functioned as a managerial class who manage democracy? What role do managerial elites now play?

This diminution of the role of traditional gatekeepers comes precisely at a moment when experts and elites are under attack everywhere. British justice secretary Michael Gove’s now famous attempt to justify #Brexit with the comment that ‘People in this country have had enough of experts’, exemplifies a climate in which scientists, lawmakers, journalists, academics, economists, and the work they do to mediate democratic practice, are dismissed as so much annoying expert opinion — or else reduced to the strictures of market logic, which is a related nullifying move.

In effect we are witnessing the disintermediation of experts in all fields and the proliferation of misinformation: post-truth; fake news; conspiracy theories; and rank populism.

Postmodernity came late and smacked us in the back of the head.

My question is, did we need elites after all? After all, elites perform specialized functions. They have specialized knowledge and expertise and a proper arms-length approach to processes.

Attempts to shore up literary culture and the forms of anxiety about expert culture that underpin such attempts, I think, aren’t just a throwback; they are symptomatic of a more deeply felt democratic anxiety about the role of elites and expert culture. They point to a connection between post-digital literary practice and post-digital democratic practice.

There has always been a tension between managerial elite culture and ‘the people’ in representative democracy since ‘the people’ don’t have the power of direct representation — which is a power that populists such as Donald Trump or Pauline Hanson seek to reclaim. But the post-digital media environment has helped make ‘the people’ more visible and more vocal and more knowledgeable. And encouraged direct representation and the overthrow of those stuffy experts.

We’re seeing a change not only in literary and democratic culture but in the very notion of the ‘public’ itself, which puts us in entirely new literary and democratic territory.

Those who belong to this expert culture of mediators, not least writers, face a stark choice. One option is to try to keep old forms in play. This might serve a purpose, helping to keep things in a holding pattern but it’s a largely preservationist project that involves, I think, trying to keep a certain faded notion of modernity alive by creating new enclaves for its comfortably recognisable forms of cultural practice, with their hidden signs to outsiders: keep out; we are too smart for you; you are not wanted here.

Rather than seek to recreate modernity the greater challenge is to reinvent intellectual practice, consistent with the changes that the post-digital environment creates for democratic culture. Rather than replicate and remediate the traditions and cultures we recognise, those of us with certain forms of expertise, even certain sensibilities, might instead carve out a new role for expert culture. What is the role of expert knowledge now? What is the relationship between those who have such knowledge and the broader public in a post-digital environment where access to information and knowledge is easier than it has ever been?

And what new forms of writing might express these cultures; what new stories, what new narratives might unfold to explain this moment of unprecedented transition: these, I think, are our current urgent questions.

This essay was first presented as part of Provocations, a new public forum initiated by the J.M. Coetzee Centre for Creative Culture at the University of Adelaide tackling controversies in the arts and humanities.  The theme of the first series was ‘Who Shot the Albatross?: Gate-keeping in Australian culture’.

Works cited:

Barnett T (2014) Social reading: the Kindle’s social highlighting function and emerging reading practices. (accessed 20 September 2016).
Davis M (2017) Who are the new gatekeepers? Literary mediation and post-digital publishing. In: Mannion A, Weber M, and Day K (eds) Publishing means business: Australian perspectives. Melbourne: Monash University Publishing, pp. 129–151.
Long E (2003) Book Clubs: Women and the Uses of Reading in Everyday Life. 1 edition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Rehberg Sedo D (2002) Predictions of life after Oprah: a glimpse at the power of book club readers. Publishing Research Quarterly 18(3): 11–22.
Rehberg Sedo D (2003) Readers in reading groups an online survey of face-to-face and virtual book clubs. Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies 9(1): 66–90. DOI: 10.1177/135485650300900105.
Rehberg Sedo D (2010) Twentieth and twenty-first-century literary communities. (accessed 31 March 2017).
Stinson E (2016) Small Publishers and the Emerging Network of Australian Literary Prosumption. Australian Humanities Review (59): 23–43.