UK paperback

The goods

Hitchens keeps on truckin’

In this week’s TLS, Christopher Hitchens reviews the latest volume of memoirs from Clive James, chiasmus fanatic. (I am not so much constructing a review – pause for smirk – as reviewing a construct.) Hitchens approves of James’s characterisation of the literary world:

[H]is book is an excellent guide to the vagaries of Grub Street, which was always a concept rather than a place, and could be read with genuine profit by any anxious tyro. Those who resent the clubbiness and chummery of the old guard, and wish to become a new guard, must learn that “the only road to the top [is] the one on which the goods are delivered”.

“The only road to the top is the one on which the goods are delivered.” Ingenious as this motoring metaphor is, it has one small problem: as a description of the world we live in, it is patently false. Unless, that is, one is working with an extremely forgiving notion of what counts as “the goods” – a far more forgiving notion than, one supposes, either James or Hitchens actually holds. If, on the other hand, we insist on reserving “the goods” to mean things of some excellence (however defined), it’s plain that making things of some excellence is not the only way to the “top”, or the empyrean heights of celebrity to which Clive James or Christopher Hitchens have attained. I leave a fuller accounting of non-excellent famous people as an exercise for the reader.

I must admit to being weirdly troubled by this image of literary labour as delivering the goods on the road to the top, which gets curioser the more you think about it. Who is the person at the misty summit, the “top” to which the road leads? Is it a kind of literary hermit-god in a bearskin loincloth, wild-bearded and myopic from all his reading? Are there some vans or trucks that break down on the steep, windy mountain roads, thus depriving the hermit of some books that he would have pronounced were, indeed, “the goods”, if he had ever had a chance to read (or smell) them?

And what of the writers themselves? I must say that I never imagine myself at work as someone delivering stuff (whether “the goods” or not) on a road, even in a shiny virtual 18-wheeler on the information superhighway. Has literature become no more than a branch of Fed-Ex? Courier companies, or even the humble Post Office, do not usually deliver “goods” that have not been explicitly ordered and purchased. Are writers to be thought of now as merely fulfilling orders?

It’s true that some of us are lucky enough to be commissioned to write things, but a commission is not a blueprint, and an editor never knows exactly what she’ll get (often, of course, to her subsequent chagrin). And then, of course, there are those writers who write first, and think of selling later, if at all. Serenely untroubled by thoughts of customers or lorry logistics, they write as they please. They do not “deliver the goods” on any “road”, whether it leads to “the top” or anywhere else.

That writing can nonetheless be thought of as “delivering the goods” is only a small symptom of the contemporary application of commercial metaphors to all forms of life. Of course, there exists such a thing as a publishing industry, and it may even be true that no man except a blockhead ever wrote except for money. But that still doesn’t mean writing is a service industry delivering standardized packages, and not everyone is obsessed with the bottom line, or the road to the top.

  1. 1  k  November 22, 2006, 11:52 am 

    The same Anglo drawl and impervious superiority, but Amis and Hitchens are still separate beings.

  2. 2  Steven  November 22, 2006, 1:22 pm 

    That is very true: thanks for the correction. Strange that my fingers automatically translated Christopher Hitchens into Martin Amis, though I’m not sure which way the insult, if any, works.

  3. 3  Rojo  November 23, 2006, 9:28 pm 

    “I leave a fuller accounting of non-excellent famous people as an exercise for the reader.”

    Ooh! Ooh! I’ll start!

    1) Charo
    2) George W. Bush
    3) Oprah
    4) Kevin Federline
    5) Rob Schneider

    Ok, that’s all from me.

    Unfortunately, my job as a writer, forging synopses of books for a catalogue that goes to university libraries, very much resembles “a service industry delivering standardized packages.” But on a brighter note, in my batch of books to review last week was Unspeak. I had been considering going to the bookstore to get it after discovering your blog a few weeks ago, but it came to me. Anyway, it got a favorable, if standardized, treatment for the catalogue.

  4. 4  copernicus  November 30, 2006, 2:50 am 

    Like your stuff generally, and been reading it for years, but the opinion of which you’ve delivered yourself here wouldn’t pass your own tests were it delivered by someone you, well, didn’t like.

    “Ingenious as this motoring metaphor is, it has one small problem: as a description of the world we live in, it is patently false.”

    But that’s just it, mate. It doesn’t purport to be any such thing and it is to unspeak it to use it to argue from the particular to the general.

    Whether or not you think these old duffers should catch themselves on re the spurious clash of civilisations or whatever, Clive James’ assessment of how to achieve material success within the Grub street millieu is perfectly valid and nothing if not based on experience.

    And your characterisation of “delivering the goods” is pretty shameful and misrepresentative of what James intended. The Grub street writers of the era in question, James, Amis, Hitchens, Barnes, were certainly talented and more than merely producers of bland filler. What James meant by delivering the goods was the disciplined production of quality prose week in, week out.

    Seems like a reasonable recipe for making a living at writing to me.

    There was nothing more to it than that.

  5. 5  Steven  November 30, 2006, 10:01 am 

    Hi Copernicus,
    Well, I’ve been grubbing around myself in what’s left of the Street for a good while now, and it doesn’t strike me as true of this tiny milieu either.

  6. 6  copernicus  November 30, 2006, 6:45 pm 

    Terrible excuse.

    I’m not saying that Clive’s hilariarse protestations of the self-deprecating persuasion don’t become more than a little irritating after one forks out another twenty of the euros in one’s paltry, low-level functionary paypacket because one thinks he’s quite good really, but he is “reasonably” self-made and genuinely talented and, as such, entitled to make his limited claim without castigated for having the misfortune to have been reviewed by his old mucker, Chitchens.

    If you really wanted to have a go at him, you could point out that in making it, he’s eliding what I think are perhaps his genuine beliefs out of a misguided sense that, given the imperfectibility of man, the bourgeois society Grub street upholds is the best of all possible worlds in which all is for the best.

    If he’s just shitting himself over the Muslims, at least he hasn’t become the emesis-spouting Christopher.

    Maybe the current denizens of Grub street suck so many balls, but I still like the cream of its former journeymen.

  7. 7  Steven  November 30, 2006, 7:03 pm 

    Thanks for letting me know what I could do, but I’ve already had a go at him elsewhere by reviewing the same book, which I found much less likeable than its predecessors.

  8. 8  copernicus  November 30, 2006, 8:43 pm 


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