New Series on The Literary Field Kaleidoscope for World Book Day: A Review of Tim Parks’ “Where I’m Reading From” in Monthly Instalments

It is World Book Day today (only the English celebrate it in March) and a highly suitable occasion for us to launch a new monthly series: a chapter-by-chapter review of Tim Parks’ essay collection Where I’m Reading From. The Changing World of Books. He first published his collection in 2014, the paperback edition came out in 2015 (Vintage/Penguin Random House) and all the essays are based on Parks’ contributions to The New York Review of Books. Because it wouldn’t do justice to his argument if I simply reviewed them all in a single review, I will “write back” to him in individual review essays which we will publish on the website every month. Readers are invited to return their own comments, opening up the possibility for a multivocal debate about the world of books and how it is fareing under neoliberal, globalised capitalism.

Asking the Big Questions

In his Introduction to Where I’m Reading From, Tim Parks begins by asking the big questions: what does it mean to write? What does it mean to read? He argues that conditions in the (Anglophone) literary field have changed to such an extent that is necessary to look at reading, writing, and publishing with fresh eyes. Does one write for money, a career, recognition, to change the world, for therapy, for entertainment? And do we read for educational purposes, for “being with it” (with whom?), to confirm what we think anyway, or the opposite, to be challenged?

Global Books in A Globalised Culture

Under the impact of high-speed globalisation and digitalisation, with English-language books only a klick or two away, with the changes wrought by digitalisation, there is a danger of perceiving the world of books as monolingual and unified, cultural differences seem to be decreasing and books are starting to look the same, as Parks argues. He certainly has a point when you look at Anglophone publishing, at least at its conglomerate face. And the same goes for many literary prizes, the last important “national” of which has recently been opened to American writers, to considerable protest from British authors and critics (The Man Booker). Film adaptations of novels cater to an international Anglophone audience, people watch TV series with little regard for the national context of its setting, publishing trends such as Jamie Oliver, Harry Potter, “hygge” Skandi culture, crime fiction, celebrity children’s books, to name but a few of the most recent fads, can be found on book tables across the Western world and writers of fiction are fond of mobile characters and plots who/which  move from Europe to the US to Australia to Asia and back again with ease.

Boring Books Talk

Parks is also right in complaining about the predictability of what he calls book talk. Statements during festivals, in podcasts, radio and TV interviews, and in reviews sound very similar. Book jackets are one of my particular bones of contention. Quotations are always endorsements that sound as if the book in question is competing with Shakespeare and Goethe, and the adjectives reviewers use are always the same. No one seems to be able to write a critical review anymore, and that does not only happen because friends and colleagues don’t like slagging off what their counterparts have produced. Even professional reviewers fall for kitsch, global pudding-style stereotypes and feel-good novels with nothing much to say other than making the reader feel comforted. Parks argues that this is a result of the competition between books and other cultural media and that little space is accorded to books in newspapers and reviews. That may be true – but is that the reason why dedicated books pages in The Guardian, The Observer, and The Independent seem to be reviewing either bestsellers or middlebrow novels only? And why are the digital versions of the books pages only about a) lists of titles/summer reads b) biographical author information and c) some kind of touchy-feely readers’ experience? You can still find the in-depth interview, analysis, critical account of the world of books – but you have to know it is there, and look for it.

Literary Prizes as Marketing Tools

Parks is also scathing about literary prizes – they have become not just a useful marketing tool for publishers, and a guide for readers, but a must-have precondition for success. Rather than being a writer immersed in a particular community, and being nurtured in this role, writers have to be seen to have won a prize with global appeal. Publicity is all, substance is less important. Many people in the literary field will agree with him – news about the jury and its shenanigans, or the ceremony, or who didn’t get nominated, and the sales figures of course seem to have become more important than the criteria for choosing certain books over others (some of these are admittedly awful themselves, such as “accessibility” used for the Women’s Prize for Fiction), let alone the texts themselves. The Noble Prize and its current demise seems to be a case in point.

Is Literary Scholarship Really Impenetrable?

Where I tend to disagree with Tim Parks is his analysis of literary scholarship. He claims it is still largely impenetrable, if slightly less so, after the theory wars of the 1970s and 1980s have ended. He thinks its jargon is tired, its tenor tinged by nostalgia for literary myths which never existed anyway. Since publishers need to make money, “greatness” is used as a marketing tool rather than as a rare epithet used for special cases. An inflated use of “great” and other excessively positive adjectives is indeed something one can observe. And literary scholarship, since it has to defend its status, of course makes use of scientistic jargon to uphold its place faced with the competition from the natural sciences. They, by the way, use jargon which is every bit as impenetrable. And isn’t Parks nostalgic for a bygone age of pragmatic English literary scholarship before the advent of French theory? I don’t think theory is the problem, incidentally, and would claim for myself that I don’t use jargon in my literary scholarship, although it is informed by literary, cultural, social, and historiographic theory. The problem lies rather in the question for whom and by whom and for what reason literary scholarship is produced in the first place. Just like any other writer (and reader), one should ask the big questions which Tim Parks poses at the beginning of his introduction: why am I writing, for whom, and to what effect? Am I able to transcend social, geographical, educational boundaries with my writing, depending on the publishing context of course, or am I happy to stay within my little world of white, middle-class, left-leaning literary scholars?

Do Books Change Anything?

The biggest question of all is, of course, do books change anything? I think they do and that’s why I am passionate about them, and increasingly annoyed at their anodyne sameness. Perhaps a creative writer and literary scholar and teacher like Tim Parks is more prone to despondency than someone who doesn’t aspire to creative writing. I can remain hopeful that there are writers out there who resist marketing trends, their publishers’ pressure to produce happy endings, who don’t do home stories, aren’t particularly interested in prizes, like regional culture better than global trends, and do their own thing. It is surely getting harder to stick to such a regime, but it isn’t impossible. And although there may be too much of literature, since everyone is thought to have a book in them, or at least: a self-help guide, a craft book, or a memoir – does that really matter? Isn’t it a good thing to have a lot to choose from? The problem might ultimately lie rather in the way choice is limited in spite of the abundance of books being published. A question of diversity rather than mass production.

But let’s give Tim Parks the last word on this, for the time being at least, before taking his essay “Do We Need Stories” apart in the next instalment:

Perhaps in the end it’s just ridiculous, the high opinion we have of books, of literature. Perhaps it’s just a collective spell of self-regard, self-congratulation, the way the jurors of the literary prize are so damn pleased with themselves when they invite their new hero to the podium. Do books, after all, change anything? For all their proverbial liberalism, have they made the world more liberal? Or have they offered the fig leaf that allows us to go on as we were, liberal in our reading and conservative in our living. Perhaps art is more part of the problem than the solution; we may be going to hell, but look how well we write about it, look at our paintings and operas and tragedies.

It is not, after all, that we have to worry about the survival of literature. There’s never been so much of it. But maybe it’s time that the beast carried a health warning. (4)

Tim Parks, Where I’m Reading From. The Changing World of Books, London: Vintage Penguin/Random House 2015 (2014), 255 pp, RRP 9.99 GDP

Tim Parks has a website and can be found here: (link to website, last access 23 April 2018)

The next instalment of the multi-part review will be published in May…