Why literary values are more important than ever in a digital age

Why literary values are more important than ever in a digital age

"Some writing is bad."

In her introductory keynote to What's Your Story?, The Literary Consultancy's twentieth anniversary symposium held at the Free Word centre last Friday, TLC founder Becky Swift did not pull her punches.

Back in 1996, TLC represented the vanguard of the now-flourishing author services market, providing manuscript assesment and editorial advice to writers who found themselves rejected by the industry but with no idea as to why, or how they might bridge the gulf between their own creativity and the commercial imperatives of a bestseller-centric market. 

Becky Swift. Image: Elixabete López

TLC has always had a strong sense of mission in supporting marginalised voices - the company offers bursaries for talented writers from diverse and low-income backgrounds - but Swift is determined to avoid offering "cruel" false hope in the knowledge that, although everyone has a valuable story to tell, far fewer have the skill and stamina to turn that story into a successful book, or the impulse to write into a career.

And although she initially welcomed the proilferation of digitally-powered self-publishing, which "felt like a potentially radical moment in the history of publishing", she now wonders whether this 'revolution' has truly enriched and expanded the industry, or just seen its limitations and frustrations play out on a grander scale.

In many ways, the debate comes down to value: how we value books and what sort of books we value. The term 'literary values' may drip with connotations of North-West-London, middle-class-white-male-academic elitism, but the question of whether writers, readers and publishers still possess a shared set of literary values - and if so, what those values are - remains hugely invigorating, not least because it is so damn difficult to grapple with. 

Jon Cook. Image: Elixabete López

In a discussion on this very topic, moderator UEA Professor of Literature Jon Cook offered the idea that literary values may have become defunct because we are witnessing "the death of the literary world". Fifty Shades of Grey jokes aside, his point was that the 'literary world' and its concomitant values are a historical construction that emerged from the Renaissance, as charted in Pascale Casanova's The World Republic of Letters. And although that world has adapted and broadened along with the people who professionally make, read and write books over the centuries, that pool of people has always remained relatively restricted and therefore cohesive - until now.

So are we instead seeing a plurality of literary worlds, with a plurality of literary values? Are the fans in a niche sci-fi forum better able to articulate what makes a good near-future steampunk thriller than the centralised 'establishment'? One tribe of readers and writers might value escapist entertainment more highly than stylistic elegance, another might value creativity with form above coherence of plot, and using digital platforms, these tribes can gather around what they most love. 

Or are we witnessing the triumph of the wisdom of crowds? By this model, literary value is defined by what most people in a certain network think is valuable to buy. But, as one attendee pointed out, our technology is not neutral. The recommendations served by platforms such as Google, Amazon and Facebook do not present some objective universal ideal, but exist in discrete filter bubbles influenced by advertisers and internal politics. Algorithms are not innocent.

Image: Elixabete López

Then there's the observation that skills in technology, marketing and self-promotion can be as, if not more, important in helping a book rise to the top of the digital slush pile. So are literary values now inextricable with a clever turn of tweet? Or is an ability to express yourself well in code becoming a literary value in itself?

And if literary values are forever tied to their social context, might it be more relevant to award the Man Booker to a flawed but powerful novel from a Midwestern-dwelling Muslim immigrant than a virtuoso performance from a well-known master of the craft?

There are, of course, no easy answers. But at What's Your Story? the question was worth asking, because of - not despite - the high emotions and deep divisions it unmasked. As Cook concluded, values are not a fixed set of criteria - instead they emerge in the debate's conflicts and gaps. It's a conversation that Swift has championed for twenty years, it's more relevant than ever, and it belongs to everyone.

So what are your literary values? Tell us @TheFutureBook using the hashtag #tlc20.