The Middle Ground
That Shakespeherian Rag examines the dominance of middle-brow culture, VS Naipaul, the larger publishing houses and the market:
Gone are the days when Jack McClelland would publish a seminal Canadian novel like Leonard Cohen’s Beautiful Losers even though he confessed to being baffled by it. In a 1965 letter to Cohen, McClelland wrote, “[E]ven though I can’t pretend to understand the goddamn book, I do congratulate you. It’s a wild and incredible effort.” McClelland took a chance on a book that he didn’t fully comprehend, but in which he detected the spark of greatness. Forty-three years later, Beautiful Losers remains in print.
Would Leonard Cohen fare so well today? An argument to the contrary could be made. Yet Beautiful Losers is a great book precisely because of its iconoclasm and idiosyncrasies, because of its wildness and its sheer uncontainability. Naipaul was probably wrong in suggesting that great authors don’t exist today, but they do appear to have a more difficult time gaining access to the machinery of publishing and to securing a readership once they have vaulted that hurdle. The more publishers retreat to the middle ground, the more they are consigning our culture to the wasteland of mediocrity and complacency. And it need not be said that a complacent culture is a moribund culture.