A long time ago, almost before the Internet was invented, I once saw a well-known television presenter buying a top-shelf magazine. I was in a newsagent just off Oxford Street in London, queuing to buy bottled water, stamps, biros and cigarettes before going back to the British Library and noticed, ahead of me, a man on tip-toes reaching for a magazine which was not Apiculture Quarterly, Eschatology Today or The Review of Contemporary Wallpapers. It was not even, as I recall, the kind of publication not kept at eye-level in which John Updike or Norman Mailer would occasionally contribut9e a threnody to their flagging concupiscence. It was a sweaty June day, and the air smelt of exhaust fumes. I remember thinking, crikey, you don’t often see someone actually and in broad daylight buying a, and then thought, blimey, though the man buying that one-handed read is none other than TV’s —-
But the purpose of this sermon is not to castigate. These were the days before the population of the country could be divided into those that were celebrities, those that had been celebrities and those that wanted to be celebrities. Anonymity had not gone out of fashion. I was as struck by having seen a person I knew but did not know as with the fact that the person in question was witnessed in the act of purchasing a sample of that most plangent and cringeling of genres, “British Erotica”.
I was reminded of the TV presenter and his top-shelf acquisition throughout my chairing duties at the Aye Write festival. I don’t, at some deep level, understand book festivals. Why pay £7 to hear an author reading an extract from their book, when for £10 you get the whole book and read it for yourself? If you want to hear writers talking about their craft, inspiration, hobbies or romantic misadventures, then there are plenty radio programmes and television shows on which authors, in their own voices, say things. Some people evidently attend in the hope that the writer will somehow reveal How Literature Gets Done, yet if I had to hazard a definition for literature, it would probably be “the writing for which there is no trick”.
I’ve tentatively concluded that what audiences are seeking is the aura. Walter Benjamin, to whom I turn in times of need, posited the aura in his essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. When you can buy a postcard of the Mona Lisa outside the Louvre, why pay to go in and gaze on the original? Benjamin’s essay, oddly, avoids discussing literature, the form of art most dependent on mechanical reproduction. The book being mass-produced and readily available, the aura inheres in the person of the author. It is to the author, not the book, that we seek exclusive access. Book events resemble nothing more than religious rituals: the reverential silence, the reading of the text, the exposition and elucidation, the supplications, the hieratic writer raised on a dais with an intercessory acolyte between the congregation and the sacerdotal figure – and finally the collection plate and a handshake.
The startle of seeing a well-known TV presenter caught red-handed but not red-faced with a scuddie book is a fine way of evaporating the aura. Without the constructed event, it’s just a middle-aged bloke wishing he had the correct change and hoping the callow youth behind him isn’t smirking. Authors, I can reliably inform you, often do very everyday, anonymous things: they drink takeaway coffee, pay gas bills, buy magazines. But in the context of a festival, they are transformed into celebrity and celebrant. The collective will of an audience beseeches them, “turn not thy face from us”.
It is our error to confuse the artificer with the artefact. It is the written not the writer that truly gives us the impassive and empathic acceptance of art, that is perpetually open to us, that acknowledges our commonality. It is art that does not wince from us. In an etiolated way, that is maybe even what the television presenter sought in pornography.