September 08, 2015

It's the Branding, Stupid

The rogue poet who managed to smuggle one of his poems into an (apparently) prestigious anthology simply by adopting the name Yi Fen-Chou reminds me of the fascinating case of Rahila Khan. The New Criterion article in which Theodore Dalrymple first alerted me to this story seems to have disappeared from the internet, which is unfortunate because he tells it in extensive detail and much better than I could hope to. Nevertheless, as I summarized at the time:

a Church of England vicar gets his book published by a for-women-only specialty division of a publishing house by managing to leave the impression that he is a young, female Muslim of Indian origin. The hoax is discovered, and the book is "disappeared." And the world "loses" a minor literary masterpiece.


If Theodore Dalrymple's version is to be believed, the vicar's downfall begins when he agrees to meet a literary agent, exposing his true identity for the first time. Up to that point, he had managed to avoid ever meeting or speaking with anyone involved in his publishing world - that can't have been easy, and would have involved quite a bit of fancy footwork.


I have no idea whether Dalrymple's praise for Down the Road, Worlds Away is warranted, and it's unlikely that I'll ever find out as the book is apparently in limbo, having been erased, pulped, and excised from the literary record. His essay/review did make me want to read it, however. In the process he makes some interesting points about identity, politics, and identity politics.

In fact, I did manage to acquire the book a few years back, snagging one of the rare copies that popped up on ABE books for less than a zillion dollars. And my verdict is, the stories in this slim volume are of unquestionably high literary merit, snapshots of the Asian immigrant communities to which the Reverend Toby Forward ministered depicted with quite remarkable economy, intimacy, and empathy, and moreover with an impressive talent for selecting the simple arresting detail that obliquely symbolizes the characters' existential dilemmas while having the good sense to avoid wrecking it by belaboring it with undue embellishment. In a world where content mattered as much as branding, this book would (and by rights should, in any world) have had at least a fighting chance swimming among all the other less economical, intimate, and empathetic fish with nowhere near the same gift for selecting simple, arresting, existential dilemma symbolizing details and refraining from over-embellishing them.

But, like the poetry anthology's editor Sherman Alexie -- I mean, like him sort of -- if I'm honest I have to admit that branding is important to me, too, if in an inverse kind of way. I mean, if it weren't for the story outlined above, let's face it, this is not the type of thing I tend to be all that interested in. Without the hoax, and more importantly, without its function as an ironic emblem of all the stuff I always complain about anyway (identity politics, the politicization of everything, the dumbing down and abandonment of civilization, how much nicer it might be to live in a world that wasn't so absurdly stupid, etc.) -- without that, I'd never know or care about the Rev. Toby Forward's Rahila Khan's Down the Road, Worlds Away. And that's a shame, precisely the same kind of shame I complain about with regard to all those other terrible Philistinic people, and it's just as much my fault. I should read more widely, with less prejudice, but I don't and never will to any great degree I'm sure.

Now, I could be wrong, but it seems to me that outside of the people whose poems are selected for it and their immediate families, the readership of a 2015 anthology of the "best American poetry" has to be vanishingly small, smaller even than the readership for short stories like those of the Reverend Toby Forward. Being selected is itself the simultaneous minimum and maximum that a poem like “The Bees, the Flowers, Jesus, Ancient Tigers, Poseidon, Adam and Eve” can hope to expect in the way of attention, readership, market share, cultural impact and all that. Its author has at least won himself far more attention than his work would otherwise warrant by making himself briefly notorious. (And judging from the excerpts quoted in the Slate article linked above, it sure isn't my cup of tea, if indeed I even have a cup of tea when it comes to that type of thing.) Its practical value, in other words, is 100% branding, zero % content. Its practical purpose is to serve as part of a mush of poetry-like clumps of printed text that allows a publisher to sell hunks of paper to libraries with a straight face. But this is merely an extreme illustration of a more general dynamic with regard to the business of literature and culture. Whether we like it or not, the branding is still most, if not all of it. The content is there to make it look more or less like a book from a distance, while the author's bio and self-promotional social media strategy determine the degree to which it will be lauded or denounced by a readership that includes only a small sub-category of people who ever actually get around to reading the damn thing. Your book is a mere marker in a vapid game of 140 character cultural one-upmanship, played by people who care passionately about something or other, but whatever that may happen to be, it's not your book. I mean, it's that kind of marker if you're lucky.

Or so I think in my most cynical moments. Which are most of them. But while you join me in lamenting the sorry state of civilization and literary culture, you could do worse than pouring yourself a large whisky and settling down for an evening's reading with Down the Road, Worlds Away. If you can find one.

Posted by Dr. Frank at September 8, 2015 04:29 PM