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Choice Between Freedom and Command: Literary Autonomy and the Mechanics of Choice


The issues raised in the concept of our panel, while thoroughly mapping the blind alley down which literature has found itself in the world of market and information technologies, reach at the same time far beyond literary matters. My first thought was about the social experiment attempted 2 years ago by the Washington Post - when virtuoso Joshua Bell was asked to play on his Stradivarius in the Washington, DC subway during rush hour as an anonymous busker . The purpose of the experiment was to check the hierarchy of the contemporary American values - to see how many people would stop on their way to work, to indulge themselves in the best free concert they might ever hear in their lifetime. The results proved shocking: during some 40 min of play, Josh Bell won, out of 1097 passersby recorded by the hidden cameras, 7 who stopped to listen, and 27 who dropped coins into his violin-case. The other 1070 marched by without giving any notice: they simply didn’t hear (none of those 40 interviewed later in the day, when asked if they had noticed anything unusual in the subway that morning, remembered the musician).

When I first read this account in the Washigton Post, and watched the video on the web (the latter strongly recommended to everyone who believes Huxley and Orwell belong to history, or finds Ben Elton’s recent remake of 1984 amusing rather than gruesome), I took it as no less than a requiem for a human sensitivity. Bach’s masterfully played Chaccona resonating in a heart-rending loneliness in the rush hour subway struck me as a bell tolling for all arts - since in our civilization it is art, and art alone, which bears what one may call an institutional responsibility for l’education sentimentale. In whatever company I have since told the story, typically, the reaction of intellectuals follows my own pattern: they lament over the plight of high culture in the world dumbed by commercials (also, some plunge into speculations about how many people a musician of the same class would have gathered in their own country, the score being always to the America’s disgrace). Yet, whenever my target group includes one of the professionals who think they know how the world runs - a law student from Vienna, a bank manager from London, an art-dealer from Kyiv – I immediately recieve the same matter-of-fact explanation of Joshua Bell’s failure: “Wrong marketing!”

Marketing comes as a key word. For who would doubt that the same Josh Bell performing in the subway surrounded by TV cameras, under a huge Carnegie Hall poster advertising his grandeur (and listing regular ticket prices for his concerts!), would have soon gathered a crowd big enough to call for the police to disperse the crush? The truth is, it is no longer the quality that decides about the success of a work of art with the audience – it is marketing, right or wrong. Once taken out of its legitimate market space, like from an illuminated windowcase, art becomes as good as nonexistent. We have all become marketable – and woe to those of us who have not.

Being myself one of the “brand names” in my country’s literature, I know only too well that of all the qualities which make us marketable the quality of our work is no longer the first priority. Being “a famous writer” is not exactly about being a writer - it is about being famous. Of all the journalists calling me for a political comment, the public activists knocking on my door for my signature in support of their actions, the glossy magazine editors asking for my picture for the country’s “top 10 women”, “top 100 VIPs”, or some other “top” list which they happen to feature, few, I am aware, have made it through more than one of my books. (I am notorious for my complex language, and am usually regarded as an author for the eggheads.) Still, my books sell at a rate, unreasonably high for high-brow literature - my recent one, a voluminous, 650-page literary study on women’s heresies, sold some 20 000 copies in 15 months. Were it published under a pseudonym, the outcome, I am afraid, would have been closer to that of Josh Bell’s in the Washington, DC subway. Most people buy the book because I am “famous”, which, according to the critics, stands for “scandalous”, “provocative”, “controversial”, or even “a witch”: the characteristics which seem to have the foremost power to win a woman writer the reputation of a contemporary classic. Being “a brand name” means that, before anything, you sell your personality. If you are lucky, by this you build a framework, a windowcase in which your work becomes visible.

That literary work by itself, be it even a masterpiece, is powerless, unless surrounded with the shining halo of the author’s publicity (how wrong proved Barthes’s prophesies on the death of the author!), can be proved by a simple fact that in the 20 th cent. Ukraine has witnessed better women writers than me, who, nevertheless, were never remembered as “classics”, and are by now almost forgotten. Those literary mothers of mine were not lucky in marketing. Which is to say, their personal stories never amounted to media myths - a conditio sine qua non for a writer in the age, stamp ed, after Umberto Eco, with “the loss of privacy”. Who on earth is going to read some dead ladies, unless they were in their time famous as great lovers and man-eaters – aka “witches”?

When projecting the problem on the international stage, where the game is ruled by English – a linguistic hard currency for the global village – I keep asking myself: what if the book which can change my life has already been written by some kindred spirit in, say, Albanian, Malay, or Swahili? My chances to ever come across it are close to nil. On the international stage every author’s publicity depends on that of his/her country. Who is going to read some guy with an unpronounceable name, if his country never appears in the top news features, unless for reports on natural disasters and human misery?

As Max Frisch observed, people do not really celebrate a talent - they celebrate success. If being celebrated is what a talented writer wants, s/he gets inevitably trapped within a conflict of loyalties. Talent, as we all remember from Kant, is the capacity to establish the rules of one’s own, which is why it always takes time to be accepted. The idea of such suspended acceptance is totally alien to the today’s culture of immediate gratification. Success, on the other hand, is most easily won by complying with the rules already existing. The choice is always ours: whether to be faithful to our talent, that is, to insist on what we feel we should tell, and accept all the incoming risks - or to play it safe, obeying what communists used to call “social command”, and what consumerist society dubs, more mildly, as “the pressures of the market”. The latter, however, could be quite totalitarian as well. In my archive I keep a letter from an American agent who, some years ago, got interested in my work and offered me his services under the condition that I should change my style. His instructions read like a briefing on creative writing for people with attention deficit disorder: writing in shorter sentences, avoiding digressions, sticking to no more than one idea per paragraph, etc. At least European agents remain less straightforward while trying to direct your work - even though none of them would these days be any happier with Ulysses, A la recherche du temps perdue or Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften. There is simply no room left in contemporary literary infrastructure for such works to be produced. As compared to 20 years ago, when bestsellers’ lists were not yet all trash and used to include Marquez and Kundera, the size of the windowcase in which “serious” literature is spotlighted dramatically narrowed. The rules of the game have been taken over by audiovisual culture, or, more precisely, by showbiz.

For literature this presents particularly grave a challenge, as there is nothing as incompatible with the very nature of writing as showbiz. Writing is by definition a reclusive occupation. It requires privacy. When you work on a novel, you have to depart from your life to create a parallel world out of your memory. For this you need a full command over all your mental resources, and it is this very command that is commonly associated with the writer’s freedom. No matter how lavishly we might expose to the public our views,our biography, our social skills, or whatever other “digital parts” of our personality, the most creative part of ourselves should always stay protected from publicity. As soon as we break this rule and let the rackety crowd of agents, editors, and critics blend with our inner voice, which keeps us driving through the text, we are in trouble; that is when the true “death of the author” begins.

I have witnessed some exemplary cases among my colleages. A., a once successful novelist, spent years on reading tours to stay in the spotlight, while his writings in the meantime wilted into a tedious recycl ing of “success reports” to the press. Today he tours with a rock band as a singer, in which capacity he is rather pathetic, yet young people still attend his performances to see “the singing classic” - a curiosity similar to the bearded ladies of the bygone sideshow. More gruesome is the case of B., an American poet who committed a suicide, as his best friend wrote me, “for the publicity”: B. was known to have dreamed about an obituary in the major newspapers, and complained about not getting enough column inches in the New York Times. Whenever I feel tempted to sacrifice some of my writer’s identity for the sake of being better validated on the market, I think of those two who have died in the spotlight like Roman gladiators – one physically, another spiritually – and say to myself: Beware!