September 11, 2012

This is my 4th favourite blog post

I’ve recently had a new book chapter published –‘ List-culture and literary taste in a time of endless choice’ in From Codex to Hypertext: Reading at the Turn of the Twenty-First Century, edited by Anouk Lang of Strathclyde University. The book gathers contributions to a conference in 2008 – Beyond the Book – at which scholars from a range of disciplines, together with librarians and policy makers discussed the new reading practices that are emerging in the light of new technologies and changes to the broader literary landscape.

My chapter reflects on the ‘list’ – a perennial staple of cultural journalism as a mediating ‘technology’ in the judgment of authority and value – and not one that is just confined to the field of reading. A recent example of the kind of phenomenon I was considering is provided by the relegation of Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane from its position as ‘the greatest film ever made’, according to the BFI’s decennial surveyof critics and its replacement with Hitchcock’s Vertigo. Vertigo was second in the list in 2002 but not even in the top 10 in the 1972 poll; Citizen Kane has been top since 1962 - but wasn’t even in the top 10 in 1952. Given that neither of these films have changed since their releases - 1941 for Kane and 1958 for Vertigo – how can one now be ‘better’ than the other, after being ‘worse’, sometimes significantly so, for so many years? The answer is of course that the films don’t change, but that cultural value is a dynamic thing. The criteria of judgment of, in this case, serious film critics aren't fixed. Lists of this kind act can, then, act as intriguing indicators of the shifting sands of cultural authority.

In the chapter I explore the relationships between different kinds of authority evident in the ‘great books’ lists of the turn of the twentieth century (produced by writers such as Arnold Bennett in 1909 and John Cowper Powys in 1916), the bestseller chart which rose to prominence with the consolidation of the cultural industries in the mid-twentieth century, the list as popular poll – exemplified by the BBC’s The Big Read initiative - and the most recent iteration of list-culture – the listmania feature of Amazon, through which readers post lists of their favourite books for the benefit of other browsers. These different types of lists share an overriding aim to navigate readers through the abundant choices that the ‘industrial’ production of literature provides them with. The early twentieth century lists were proposed as a kind of practical ‘canon’, guiding readers towards the kinds of books they ought to read and away from those which might be salacious or radical. By the late twentieth century this patrician element of list-culture was less evident, replaced with a more apparently democratic republic of taste in which the authority of ‘serious’ critics competed with the often subtle promotional tools of publishing industry (literary prizes, TV book clubs) in managing readers’ choices. And in the early twenty-first century, on-line lists, complemented by the algorithms of retailers like Amazon, mean that readers can find what they want through like-minded readers (‘customers who bought this also bought…’) without recourse to any obvious ‘authority’ at all.

There are some revealing tensions in this story. Critics of various kinds dismiss popular lists in particular as trivializing or commercializing culture – and there are elements of the list which can re-cast cultural judgment as a crude form of competition. What they also do, though, is open up the kinds of dialogue and debate which John Frow refers to as the ‘circulating energies of culture’ – the seemingly irrational pleasures of liking and disliking, and sharing your likes and dislikes with others, which are a fundamental part of the fun of cultural consumption. This is clearly a challenge to established forms of cultural authority – though one that is, in my view, broadly to be welcomed.

You can read a review of the book in the Columbia Journalism Review here, and follow my research on academia.edu.


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