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The Anthologist, Nicholson Baker
Paul Graham, Alchian and Allen, the Gutenberg Parenthesis, and the problem for modern poets
Who are the real artists these days?
At some point you have to set aside snobbery and what you think is culture and recognise that any random episode of Friends is probably better, more uplifting for the human spirit, than ninety-nine percent of the poetry or drama or fiction or history every published. Think of that. Of course yes, Tolstoy and of course yes, Keats and blah blah and yes indeed of course yes. But we’re living in an age that has a tremendous richness of invention. And some of the most inventive people get no recognition at all. They get tons of money but no recognition as artists. Which is probably much healthier for them and better for their art.
A lot of the reviewers focussed on this book as a novel about poetry. People like Simon Schama wrote schmaltzy (or lukewarm) reviews all about the rhyming, and the poetry and the quotes from Auden and blah blah of course yes indeed of course.
And it is an excellent book about poetry that rhymes. But that passage, and by implication some other good chunk of the book, is really about artists more generally and what counts as art today.
It reminds me of nothing more strongly than Paul Graham.
Graham is a hacker, an internet entrepreneur, a essayist, and the founder of Y-Combinator, an innovative VC firm. He funded things like Airbnb when it started, wrote a programming language, and is a philosopher of the internet.
Graham also went to art school in Florence, which he writes about in Hackers and Painters. Tech (and its associated industries) is so badly misunderstood by most intelligent people that a book like that ought to be more popular. Graham talks a lot about how hackers are much more like creative people (painters and writers) than they are like technical people, contra the stereotype among dismissive literary types.
As Nichsolon Baker said, ‘we’re living in an age that has a tremendous richness of invention.’
The new world started a long time ago
Now, by implication, that means poets and so forth and are getting less relevant. As the world becomes more digital, more online, more internet, what we call creativity changes. Just like Gutenberg made novelists possible, hacking makes these new creatives possible. That’s what Baker has picked up on in the quote at the top. Techies are the new poets.
There’s an essay somewhere (maybe by C.V. Wedgwood) about how no-one realised at the time that the invention of radio, and all the other technologies that arrived around the start of the twentieth century, created a chasm with the past equivalent to the invention of the printing press. Literary writers are among the most intransigent on this point. They refuse to understand that traditional writing has lost its primacy.
That’s sort of what this book is about. It’s a literary eulogy. But it’s not soppy and self-righteous and pompous about poetry. It’s fucking hilarious. In a section about writers who took speed, and how it made their poetry worse, (yes, Auden, we’re looking at you), Baker cracks wise that, 'Sartre took speed and wrote Being and Nothingness which is a giant smoke generator of abstraction.'
And that brings us to the Gutenberg Parenthesis
This is the idea that the last five hundred years, dominated by books, are an anomaly and that the internet is taking us back to a culture that existed before books. Inside the Gutenberg Parenthesis we are concerned with the ideas of original individuals, and with a clear distinction between high and low (Friends vs free verse). Outside the parenthesis, we are concerned with collective creations and are comfortable with a more holistic view.
The last fifty years have seen the rise of post-modernism (a philosophy that de-individualises western culture), the blurring of the distinction between high and low culture (people now happily mix many forms of culture with much less sense of one or the other being better or worse), and the mass migration of cultural forms onto the internet, where collaborative, imitative creations are huge.
Plagiarism is a big topic for the Gutenberg Parenthesis. Inside the parenthesis, we hate plagiarism. Copying from someone else’s book is taboo. Today, some forms of plagiarism are seen as more creative. Hackers work together, like Elizabethan playwrights, they aren’t the solo drama queens of the Romantic imagination. There are big arguments about whether copyright should be relaxed. Fake news is everywhere and is somewhat accepted.
You can even explain Donald Trump like this. Bruno Maçães wrote in the New York Times recently that Trump’s evasions of reality ‘are a feature, not a bug.’
In the traditional way to think about freedom, we want to limit or even eliminate obstacles to individual choice, but ultimately we must deal with reality. Mr. Trump’s example is to take it an extra step: Why not be free from reality as well? Indeed, this may be the ultimate goal of contemporary America: a society that is pure fantasy life, free from reality.
Maçães even thinks that the legacy of Trumpism will not be a policy platform but ‘fantasy politics’. This is the same as the artistic shift from composition to performance, from the integrity of the individual work to the collaborative creative process. (Trumpism after all is an ensemble act.) As Tom Pettitt says,
the difference between the world within the Gutenberg Parenthesis and the world without (be it before or after) is in the first instance the significance accorded to the composition of a given work as opposed to its performance, and in the second instance the degree to which either process involves the introduction of material from other works/performances.
And this is a major point of comic anxiety in The Anthologist. Being an original poet is very hard at this point in history. But it’s also Scarcely Worth the Trouble (as Dorothy Parker wrote in the title to her complicated poem Rondeau Redoublé). A group of writers can produce an episode of Friends which is unoriginal and generic (they plagiarised Seinfeld all the time) and low grade (according to people in the parenthesis), and that same crappy episode will massively outperform almost every piece of original poetry written in the same period.
So, why is poetry so supposedly undervalued?
The relative price of poetry and the Alchian and Allen theorem
That paragraph I quoted at the top is essentially applying the Alchian and Allen theorem to explain why mediocre poets exist in such a state of tormented poverty.
This theorem says that when you have two goods, one expensive, one cheap, and the price of both goes up by the same amount, people consume more of the expensive one.
So, take two apples. Apple one costs 50p, apple two costs £1. Now, we add an apple tax of 30p. So the apples are 80p and £1.30.
Before the tax, apple two was twice the price: 100% more expensive. After the tax it’s only about 60% more expensive. It becomes relatively more affordable.
This applies to forms of culture. Going to the movies is expensive and difficult relative to watching Netflix. Cinemas got relatively less affordable after online streaming took off, so now they are struggling. Why drive and pay £12 when you can stay home and watch all month long for the same price or less?
Poetry has this problem, but not in terms of price, in terms of accessibility. As Tyler Cowen says, the benefit of things like YouTube comes from 'high upfront “investment in context” costs'. I like reading poetry because I have already read a lot of it. You might enjoy something else, like advanced chess, or the Kardashians.
There would be as much point in me watching an advanced, innovative chess match as there would in you reading Jorie Graham, having never read a poem before. This is a big feature of the parenthesis: all those competing forms of culture, all seen as equally good.
This is the same as the apples. If you pick up a book of modern poetry, odds are you won’t know what in the blue heck is going on and move on to something else. Poetry is accessible when it rhymes and is understandable, like Auden (sometimes), the Elizabethans (god bless them), and people like Herrick and Frost. When it gets modern and fragmentary and obtuse, it may as well be a niche chess match.
As an example, The Anthologist is essentially a competition with James Fenton’s wonderful book An Introduction to English Poetry (US link), which I first read at school and have read a number of times since. If you haven’t read that, you get slightly less out of Baker’s book than I did. And that applies to all the other books he mentions.
How to be part of the literati
Remember, this is all relative to what else you might be doing. Baker’s book is still a wonderful read for anyone who knows anything about poetry or who wants to but doesn’t yet. I would give it to a young person starting out reading literature ahead of any other book I know about. It was published in 2009 so it’s a simultaneous introduction to the history of poetry and modern (American) fiction.
But it’s also a sly dig at the literati who don’t realise what’s going on in the world and who just thing a lot of rich people in San Francisco are making social apps to share silly content on.
It’s a hidden commentary on the state of literature. There’s so much wonderful value to be had from reading and writing literature. It is a marvellous thing. But it is not the only thing. And the world is changing.
Poets who do not keep up will be more and more like the exhausted cinema chains than like Netflix. The ones who do keep up may get recognition, as per Baker’s quote, but they are no longer competing in the same game to be the touchstone of their age, the voice of the zeitgeist.
There are simply too many other creative forms now: video games, TikTok, websites, software. Whatever it is, it takes someone creative to make it. And that creativity is more vibrant and meaningful than the creativity of many poets.
So you can love this book for three reasons.
First, it is an original, accessible introduction to English poetry, serving as an anthology of fragments as well as a guide to what to read and how to understand it. The idea of the four beat line is so obviously true once you read it, like all great insights. (Side note: The Oxford Book of Fragments doesn’t exist, but it should.)
Second, it is a brilliant novel, narrated by a man who is a failure by his own standards, a mediocre poet who cannot even write the introduction to an anthology he has compiled. Every page has two or three sharp, engaging phrases you would never hear anywhere else. I will be ordering more of Baker’s books.
Third, it’s a compelling satire of modern poetry. Yes, there are too many poets, who are not that good, who don’t have much of an audience, and it’s indicative of an art form that is losing ground to new technology. The poetry industry has not realised that coders and sitcom writers and silicon valley are artists now as well. Nicholson Baker gets it.
Sadly, the reviews suggest that he was more or less alone in his insights. Baker deliberately uses the character of a failure to show us why poetry is losing its relevance. (Ironic that more of them didn’t pick that up.)
It’s a quick 256 pages, made me laugh more than once, and has added at least two books to my Amazon wish list (Auden and Isherwood’s anthology of Elizabethan poetry, and James Fenton’s anthology of love poems).
So please, please do read this charming, funny, interesting, educational, literary book. But also read Paul Graham.
p.s. One writer who gets all this is Helen de Witt. Read more about her here.
p.p.s To understand why people do still read poetry, or do anything else complicated, I recommend Agnes Callard’s theory of aspiration.
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