March 19, 2012

Can anyone be part of the literary establishment?


“There is no such thing as the literary establishment. I know this because I am part of it,” writes Geoff Dyer in a Guardian essay. But why not just try and define what we mean by “establishment” since we’ve all used the term? (Including, as quoted in the essay, a 27-year-old Geoff Dyer). In London at least, Dyer thinks the imagined establishment:

would resemble an Edwardian board of aesthetic censors presided over by a stern TS Eliot-type figure inherently hostile to innovation (the irony, of course, is that Eliot was the greatest revolutionary in modern poetry) and keeping a perpetually wary eye on the likes of a Terry Eagleton or a James Kelman. It is often said to be London-centric, dominated by white males who had the privilege of attending the ancient universities of Oxford and Cambridge.

The reality? In Dyer’s view, there’s not much to point at aside from the obvious players (the prestigious publishers, the review editors, the well-connected writers and agents), all of which are basically concentrated in New York and London. How do you join?

Membership is not fixed, it changes all the time as new voices and minds emerge and old brains lapse into silence and senility. It is not politically aligned, though it tends to be left-liberal leaning and predominantly atheistic. Beyond that, I don’t detect anything monolithic or impregnable about this literary establishment except a belief in the importance of spelling and punctuation.


Kelly Burdick is the executive editor of Melville House.