Sunday, July 13, 2014

Insider trading in the publishing industry, by Sophie Fitzpatrick

Who's Afraid of the Booker Prize?
Who’s Afraid of the Booker Prize? a novel has as its protagonist a thirty-something male called Alistair Wye, forced to attend on professional relationships in the narrow context of London and its publishing culture. Happily, I am outside that parochial little enclave, but have gleaned something of it through Peter Cowlam’s carefully honed prose. Central to that culture is the mutual destruction of public reputation, an extinction conceived as the slow strangulation of the writer’s soul. The particular soul here is a writer’s with a line into B-movie tie-ups. All other executions are committed gradually, over time, and that makes it difficult to determine who is the murderer, who is the murderee (to recycle that literary infelicity). Perhaps it doesn’t matter, when the point is the drama and not the drama’s outcome. This is certainly so for Wye, amanuensis to star literary figure Marshall Zob, who can’t seem to win the one prize he thinks should crown all other attainments (the Man Booker, to which we may now have to add the Folio). In his formal manifestation, and in terms of the stultifying British class system he operates in, Wye’s social ancestry is found in the English butler, a servile being with a good grasp and overview of everything – for Wye the literary blow or hand job, indeed any other conflation, fellation, or whatever venality public success has called for.

On the face of it, Wye is so much wiser than the cultured prigs he serves, albeit equivocally. He is shrewd and thinks tactically. His antagonist and boss Zob is but the illusion of cultured liberalism. Underneath the pretence he is uncomfortably aware that this is all a veneer, a mere marketing ploy, though it does have the benefit of stroking his sexual appetites. His one-time tutor and advocate, Dr Andrew Glaze, is deluded enough to have given his protégé the gloss of literary kudos. A series of letters that has passed between them is the monetary yardstick of their relationship, Zob deciding to flog off that material into the marketplace once his mentor has had the decency to shuffle off his coil. Wye couldn’t care much about that, and continues to dream his dreams of getaway, of high-performance cars and speedy escape.

He knows how the farce he is put upon to oversee will end. Yet he floats, amused, at a level somewhere above its ‘social decay’, a phenomenon he is closely witness to. His reflections are the satirist’s, skewed and unsentimental. The only feminists he ever seems to have encountered are career-minded solipsists (bar one, who, in a theatrical sense, is an angel). Speed and technology and contempt for the literati are the holy triad in the only art movement he is able to tolerate. The women are whorish (bar one, who, in a theatrical sense, etc.), but it’s the men who lose face or in one case have the decency to die. They are defeated, and their defeat is devoid of meaning. Now all Wye has to do is chronicle their fall in his diary, a sardonic narrative scrupulously attended to, and one expertly infolded into the letters and postcards he is tasked to catalogue, those missives penned by the faceless Zob and the dead Andrew Glaze.

It’s all a sad exercise in intellectual dishonesty and the mania for celebrity, and, depressingly, is most probably an accurate reflection of the life and writing times of a little place called London.

Sophie Fitzpatrick is a translator from Sydney, Australia, currently working in Singapore. She has an ancestral interest in Scottish independence.

Who’s Afraid of the Booker Prize? is published by CentreHouse Press, paperback, 261 pp, £9.99. See all purchase options here.

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