In a capitalist society both culture and creativity are commodified. Is this a problem?
Maybe it’s a bit weighty of a topic for you. It’s certainly something that consumes my thoughts for large spells of time but to wean you in to it gently, I’ll start this stage of the cultural revolution with an exemplar.
Let me ask you to consider another question, and forgive me if you think I’m patronising you because the answer seems so obvious!
If an author wants the most people possible to read his work (and most do) what should he/she do to achieve this?
Simple answer: Make the book available as easily as possible to the widest number of people at the cheapest possible price.
Ignoring the fact that even if you make a book available for free on every current ‘platform’ you aren’t guaranteeing readers - you can lead the reader to the book but you can’t make them read after all – it does seem a bit of a no-brainer that you do what you can to make the book available if you want people to read it.
In a capitalist world of course you have to add on ‘make it appealing’ which takes us down a whole new path of commodification – I will not dwell on this here but return to it at a later date. The point I am trying to make is that if you want people to read books you should price them sensibly and make them easily available.
So. Hold that thought. I wanted to read a book. The process starts:
I have very limited funds and a ‘budget’ for book-buying of £10 a month. Yet I read probably 10 books a month at least including work and pleasure related texts. So where possible I try to find the books I want to read for free. I can rarely get the kind of books I want to read free online (though some use of Project Guthenberg and the online library can bear fruit). When I fail online I try to access the books I’m interested in free via libraries – I have maintained some academic online library privileges over the past decade (mainly by taking a wide range of Open University courses) and more recently the National Library of Scotland has opened up much of its digital archive. But plenty remains stuck behind the academic paywall. I am a life ‘friend’ of an academic library but they won’t let me access their digital collection. So, sometimes, I have to resort to buying books.
I’ve been trying to get hold of a copy of R.D.S.Jack’s ‘Myths and the Mythmaker’ for five years. It was published in 2010 but it took me 2 years to find out it even existed (I was busy with other authors and Barrie had slipped off my radar for a time). Perhaps I didn’t try as hard as I might have in 2012– f the eye-watering price of £70 put me off – especially combined with a review that said most of the ground was covered in ‘The Road to Neverland’ (never trust reviews, it’s simply not true!) But since the death late last year of the author R.D.S.Jack who was perhaps Barrie’s greatest living advocate, I have felt increasingly uneasy about who will now carry the torch for Barrie into the future. There is some ‘interest’ in him from a range of quarters, but forgive my cynicism, most of them seem to be trying to shoe-horn Barrie into their own areas of research (feminism, modernism etc) and that does him a great dis-service. Barrie has been kicked enough over the centuries by the ignorant, the lazy and those with an axe to grind. He deserves much, much better.
So I turned again to an attempt to purchase the book. Result:
Myths and the Mythmaker: A Literary Account of J.M. Barrie's Formative Years. (SCROLL: Scottish Cultural Review of Language & Literature)
12 Nov 2010
by R. D. S. Jack
Eligible for FREE UK Delivery
Only 1 left in stock - order soon.
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£43.95used & new(9 offers)
(In America it comes in at more than $100!!!)
The publishers are cited as Rodopi, now owned by Brill – whom Google reveals to be large academic publishers of some repute. Their reputation suggests highwayman to me!
And allergic as I am to highway robbery, I felt I had to try to go down the cheaper route ( I use the word ‘cheap’ with something of a sneer.) I discovered I could get a ‘used like new’ one for £45. To me that’s still an obscene amount of money to pay for a book. I could eat for more than a week for that. I would need to eat less well for a number of weeks in order to pay for it.
I didn’t buy it. I went online. I hunted it down via my online library access. After failing in 3 of my 4 possible options, I hit pay dirt. I was able to break through the paywall and offered the choice to read it online or download for a maximum of 21 days. All well and good. I started reading it online. I hate reading online. I downloaded it. I pretty quickly realised that this is a beezer of a book. One that I would need to refer to time and again. It’s an absolutely vital book for anyone with an interest in Barrie. (Mental note to self, write review on Amazon site to that effect!).
And so, I ‘just clicked’ and bought it at £45. I held back my ire at the capitalist economic models of ‘supply and demand’ and smug comments of the cultural elitists who claim ‘the value of anything is the price anyone is willing to pay’ still ring in my ears. Let me make it clear, I have no reservations regarding the quality or value of the book (priceless) but it still really irks me to have to pay that sort of money. It’s a perfect example of the price of culture. It’s a salutary lesson and it is disgusting that a book so central to our Scottish cultural and literary heritage should be hidden from the general reader. But this is the price of a capitalist, hierarchical, elitist ‘canonical’ structure.
And guess what. That’s kind of the point that Jack makes in the book. (okay he doesn’t mention capitalism but the rest is more or less consistent with his views.)
Does that give you any idea why it is that you just can’t read this book unless you are an academic or pretty well heeled?
Might I suggest there are three obvious reasons why a publisher would put out a book at a ridiculous price (given that there’s no way it can cost them this to publish – or if so, they shouldn’t be in business because Deveron Press can do it a lot cheaper – time to change the business model Brill!). The reasons are:
1) Naked Greed.
2) They don’t want people to read it.
3) They don’t think you should read it.
I suggest it’s a combination of all three reasons. The publishers know the ‘academic’ market will bear the cost. It’s just the other end of the ‘Amazon free’ spectrum. Books are seen as ‘product’ in a ‘marketplace’, so while Brill clearly work on the basis that if you feign exclusivity you can hike up the price, Amazon work on the spread betting principle of hoovering up the odd penny/dime on every single purchase that goes through their site. We are simply cultural sheep disguised as consumers, waiting to be skinned one way or the other.
So. Motive 1: Greed. Motive 3: they don’t want you to read it. There appears to be something of a ‘social cultural contract’ within the elite that says that as long as you are a) rich or b) part of academia and therefore by definition an intellecutal (?) you can gain access suggests that capitalism is at the heart of our academic model. I for one, have issues with this. It’s not enough to offer people ‘free’ tuition at higher education level (you’ll note this is only for undergraduate study not postgraduate study, that is a truly rarified intellectual arena – until which stage you are not considered ‘appropriate’ as a reader of books such as those published by the Scottish Cultural Review of Language and Literature. Unfair, I hear you cry. Undergrads can read those books too. Yes they can. If they are encouraged to. I have this nasty wee ‘impish’ voice in me that suggests that in Scottish academia it is the undergrads who help keep the postgrads and ‘true’ academics in their jobs – the classic hierarchical pyramid structure is alive and well in academia and this trickles down to Scots culture in general ( I will develop this point another time). For now I simply call them out. Shame on you publishers. Shame on you editorial boards (I know, you are simply soldiers following orders) and shame on you the Scottish Cultural Review of Language and Literature. I suggest all the above mentioned ‘they’s’ do not want you to know what Jack thinks about Barrie or Scottish Literature and culture. I suggest that his work doesn’t fit into their created dominant narrative and they don’t want you to read beyond the ‘canon’.
This is the rather unpleasant side effect of the formerly stated motive 2. Even if ‘they’ think that Jack’s book is a good book for ‘them’ to read and write about, somehow ‘they’ don’t think that ‘you’ or ‘I’ or any of us outwith the hallowed halls of academe should have it made available to read. Are we too wee, too poor and too stupid? Did you never realise how political an issue culture is? Or how significant a role publishing and reading plays in our culture?
It seems that our academic establishments and cultural bodies are in danger of selling us a Scotland where the general reader is not considered either capable of understanding or interested in engaging in Scots culture. Give us T2 Trainspotting and leave us to wallow eh? No offence Irvine Welsh, but I personally have more interest in the work of J.M.Barrie – and I’m not afraid to say it.
So what of the ‘book’ itself? Here is the promotional blurb:
J.M. Barrie's critical reputation is unusually problematic. Originally viewed as a genius to rank with Shaw and Wilde, Barrie soon fell victim to damaging psychological theories about his life and his patriotism. The few critics who have commented on Barrie have colluded with dominant myths about a figure who, like his most famous creation, never grew up, who abandoned Scotland and made light of his own people when serious social analyses of the nation's condition were called for, and who scorned the opportunities of University learning when at Edinburgh. Myths and the Mythmaker attempts to challenge these myths and offer a just revaluation of Barrie's genius. Through closely focused textual analyses, it dispels the popular images of Barrie as "escapist" writer and immature, mother-fixated artist. It seeks to replace the narrow prose canon on which the "Oedipal" and "Kailyard" myths are based with a thorough account of his Victorian apprenticeship. New research into Barrie's early work and criticism show the enduring influence of his Edinburgh education on his creative writing, his academic articles, and his own complex views on artistic genius.
This is exactly the kind of book I want to read – and it doesn’t disappoint. I’ve read the downloaded version and I am hanging by the post box waiting for the delivery of my gold-plated paperback copy due for delivery by the time this month’s Gateway goes out. You haven’t heard the last of this book, or of Barrie, from the Orraman believe me!
Oh, the good news is that for those of you who would now like to read some Barrie, even if you can’t afford to read about Barrie) and who are not averse to ereaders – you can pick up the COMPLETE J.M.BARRIE from Delphi Classics HERE for under a fiver. That’s 54 texts for about 9pence each.
Might I suggest that if you want to join the cultural revolution, you start by reading the books they DON’T want you to read, rather than flocking to the ones they are pushing in your face on a daily basis – whatever the price.
Let me end with a 'rif' on what is a currently popular/populist 'theme': Choose Books. Choose cultural freedom. Don’t allow anyone to tell you that Scotland is a pish, crap place where our cultural identity is revealed in any number of Trainspotting Generations. Sure Trainspotting has its place. I’m not suggesting we sanitise our view of our culture and ourselves. I’m just suggesting we don’t allow ourselves to be degraded by a cultural elite for whom we are so much cultural canon-fodder. When undergraduates are ‘taught’ Trainspotting’ over the works of J.M.Barrie I have to question quite where our cultural ‘head’ is at.
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