Home / Opinion / Literature festivals, authors, and the creative economy

The Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF), which is underway in the pink city, has been a trailblazer, sparking a stampede of literature festivals in its wake, with no less than 70 of them springing up across India and South Asia. And interestingly, most of them have managed to secure some form of corporate and government support.

The JLF, for instance, has enjoyed the support of the Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR), the public diplomacy division of the ministry of external affairs, and the ministry of culture. Its sponsors include a veritable who’s who of the corporate world, not to mention the cultural diplomacy wings of various countries, such as the British Council, Alliance Francaise, and the American Center. The Bangalore Literature Festival (BLF), another big stop in India’s lit-fest circuit, also boasts of state and corporate partners.

What is it about lit-fests that have made them such popular sites for the happy convergence of literature, private capital, and the state as they stage a seductive spectacle of culture, tourism, and the simultaneous production and consumption of both?

Sarah Brouillette’s Literature and the Creative Economy, published in late 2014, provides some answers. It painstakingly assembles the socio-political context for this recent bonhomie (the JLF became an annual event from 2006 onward) between literature and its traditional adversary, the utility-driven world of commerce.

This bonhomie is indeed recent because the literary sensibility, especially on its modernist perch, has always defined itself in opposition to this adversary. The modernists wore literature’s supreme uselessness as a badge of honour, preferring to wait forever for Godot than stoop to justify literature on the basis of its economic or other utility, or to suggest that it suck up to the market. Lit-fests sit uncomfortably in this ethos.

Autonomy and the market

At the same time, it is also true that, with the odd exception, writer-artists have never completely cut themselves off from the market, if only because under capitalism, it is the market that mediates their access to an audience.

Yet literature’s insistence on its ontological autonomy from the logic of the market goes back to its foundational insistence on the autonomy of the literary-expressive-authorial self from all forces other than its own creative energies.

It is this autonomy from the imperatives of the market that has allowed literature and authorship to accrue cultural weight. At the same time, this self-avowed independence has also been at the heart of the divide between so-called elite or ‘literary’ literature/culture and mass or pulp literature/culture. While the former promised symbolic capital to its producers and consumers, the latter was seen as a straightforward commodity that bestowed riches and fame on its profitable purveyors while proffering, to its literate consumers, the joys of consumption unadulterated by potentially destabilizing political content.

But in India, festival-centric literary gatherings have been determinedly mass events. The JLF, for instance, takes enormous pride in being a ‘free entry’ event. This massification, and the breaking down of the divide between high-brow and low-brow literary culture has been accompanied by two phenomena.

One, lit-fests in India have consciously sought to normalize—often in the face of attempts to the contrary by the very writers showcased by them—a clean break between literature and politics conceived as an ethical responsibility.

Two, literature festivals have served as tools to integrate literature and literary labour into the instrumental logic of the neo-liberal economy. They do this by closing the gap between literary creativity and market-conscious creativity, and using the former to define a normative model of the self for the cultural producers operating in the neoliberal knowledge economy—an economy that values creativity solely in terms of its efficacy in generating intellectual property.

Brouillette, who teaches English at Carleton University, Canada, presents an interesting thesis that connects the dots between what has come to be called the creative economy—of which literature festivals and branded authorial identities are a part—and this new model of selfhood promoted by neo-liberalism.

The creative self and the search for meaning

Put simply, the author-artist, who defines herself through creative work, sees work as a performance that expresses her inner self, undertakes projects for their own sake rather than for monetary gain, and is willing to expose herself to risk and insecurity in order to remain true to this inner journey of self-actualization via creative work, is the model self that the denizens of the post-industrial society should aspire to, given that in this society, there shall be no such thing as stable employment but only self-driven, self-managing entrepreneurs of the self who take responsibility for their own fulfillment and happiness. Now, the contradiction here is that one is directed to be loyal to this authentic, creative market-indifferent, artistic-literary self precisely to produce cultural goods that are sustainable in the market.

While Brouillette’s book is focussed more on the UK, and dwells at length on the role played by the creative economy in urban renewal-linked real estate projects, it also does a brilliant job of tracing the uses the notion of the individualistic-artistic-self has been put to—starting from its origins in the bohemia of 19th century Europe, where it symbolized a protest against bourgeois values, to its final incorporation into the selfsame bourgeois ethos via humanist sociology, management theory, and organizational psychology. In a genealogical tour de force, she examines the impact of works such as Richard Florida’s The Rise of the Creative Class, and of figures such as the psychologist Abraham Maslow, management guru Tom Peters, and the theorist of creativity, Frank Barron.

Today, for example, it is a matter of common sense for most white collar workers to expect meaning in their work. It was not always so. But now there is hardly a corporate executive or journalist or engineer who doesn’t dream of quitting her unfulfilling job and doing something on her own. Something different, something that they can define themselves through rather than be alienated by.

Neo-liberalism has been quick to latch on to this pervasive sense of alienation. In a daring reversal, it offers insecurity itself as the antidote to this alienation, positing an appetite for risk as a signifier of strength that the entrepreneurial self must tap into. This then dovetails nicely into its standard attack on the state’s welfare provisions, whose redistributive function—which might seem warranted to some in the face of rising global inequality—is presented as defusing the individual’s drive and risk-taking initiative.

So in a span of less than two centuries, the Baudelairian rejection of bourgeois security in the name of art for art’s sake, literary modernism’s critique of bureaucratic capitalism, and the sixties countercultural embrace of self-discovery as life’s singular project, have all culminated in the neo-liberal project of finding a suitable ideological cover to replace secure employment with flexible, project-based, coming together and post-project dispersal of knowledge workers who will embrace risk, insecurity, flux, and continuous re-skilling etc as part of the incessant fashioning and re-fashioning of the self-as-brand—much as branded commodities such as an iPhone or the Windows software keep reinventing themselves into improved versions of their earlier avatars to stay relevant and market-worthy.

So today, when we buy a book, we buy not the book but the author who has become a saleable commodity or brand. To give an obvious example, how often do we hear someone say that she has five Murakamis, two Zadie Smiths, and nine Agatha Christies in her library? Lit-fests, along with prizes, play an important role in this transformation of creative or literary laborers into saleable brands and commodities. An author’s work today does not end with the writing of a book – it extends to the construction of her self-as-authorial-brand via public appearances, networking labour, winning of prizes, etc.

From this perspective, a lit-fest is actually the purest form of literary consumption possible – purer even than reading a book, for it is not an author’s work but the author herself that you consume at a lit-fest. This fast food mode of literary consumption that does not require the work of reading that a more serious literary interaction in the form of, say, a conference or seminar might require, is part of the seductive appeal of lit-fests.

Coupling creativity to innovation

And yet, if literature still has any value beyond its exchange value as a cultural commodity, it lies in its capacity to interrogate its own co-option even as it is being co-opted. It is in this narrow dialectical space that Brouillette finally sees literature and literary discourse seeking a way toward recuperating their subversive autonomy. She uses select literary texts – among others, Monica Ali’s In The Kitchen, Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger, and Gautam Malkani’s Londonstani – to explore the operation of this dialectic between the assumed autonomy of the creative/literary/entrepreneurial self, and its necessary subjection to the law of the market.

One aspect inherent to this dialectic, which Brouillette spends some time elucidating, is the high value placed on creativity and innovation in the neo-liberal scheme of things. Unlike what it meant in the bohemian-romantic context when it first attained currency as a cultural asset, today creativity denotes the capacity to bring ideas to market. And innovation, which is a buzzword these days, is the name of the process whereby creativity takes original ideas to market – it signifies the ability to commodify the creative self by externalizing it in forms amenable to market circulation.

This is a radical contrast to the modernist notion of literary or artistic creativity whose value resided in its very indifference to, and autonomy from, market imperatives (this was also why the state had culture ministries to support literary and cultural products that the market was not expected to).

Ultimately, the role of culture, and cultural products such as literature festivals, is to “slay" what the British politician Tessa Jowell termed the “poverty of aspiration". Anyone who has ever attended a lit-fest could not have a missed someone or the other quizzing authors, either formally or informally, on how to become authors themselves. This is no accident. Literature festivals exist to activate in people the desire for authorhood.

At last year’s BLF, for instance, I was witness to a highly popular programme called Lit Mart. It basically entailed readers-turned-aspiring authors pitching their manuscripts or book ideas to a panel of literary agents and commissioning editors, much like an entrepreneur making a pitch to a venture capitalist. This session drew a massive response, testifying to the growing importance of creativity and authorship as values that people draw on as they fashion their identities through work.

It is worth adding that authorship here signifies not only the writing of books but also, more pertinently, the symbolic authoring and conscious ownership of one’s own authentic self (repressed in the repetitive monotony of a job) anchored in an inner core of creativity. The only catch here—there is always a catch, as Joseph Heller took pains to point out—is that the self authored by tapping into this authentic, creative inner core must emerge as a saleable identity, capable of circulating as a commodity among other commodities of the creative economy. To borrow from Tom Peters, it’s either Brand You or nothing.

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