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russell smith: on culture

Here's a new buzzword you hear in literary circles: gatekeeper. It's used pejoratively, in discussions of contemporary publishing and criticism. Gatekeepers means crusty old publishing houses that can't keep up with the digital world, or bespectacled MA-holding critics who dismiss the popular. Modern means free: free and fast publishing, free discussion among laypeople – indeed even the distinction between laypeople and experts is seen to be a hindrance in a world of instant communication.

A truly modern literary landscape would, in this utopian theory, be free: That is, we could all publish in digital form anything we wanted and this would create a landscape of endless choice for readers and, as an adjunct, an unfiltered and democratic constant conversation about those choices. It would be a landscape of small niches, yes, but it would offer greater variety, so it would be, economically speaking, shallow but very wide. We wouldn't have a few great books chosen for us by a small, out-of-touch group of McGill-educated white people. In theory, that would mean a more contemporary and representative national (or, better yet, non-national) literature.

So you don't want gatekeepers. I was once called a gatekeeper in a graduate-student paper for criticizing the choices made by Oprah Winfrey for her book club. My condescension apparently is typical of literary critics: They want to restrict your access to literature, and they resent it when untrained outsiders come in and open up the game because it diminishes their emperor's-new-clothes authority. They want you to think it requires special training to appreciate literature when it doesn't.

Well, if you put it that way, it does sound like kind of a bad thing.

But of course that's not quite how I see it. There is a societal value to snarky snobs. We need snarky snobs, we love them, we look to them with interest even if we're not going to slavishly follow their proclamations: We want at least to know what the snarky snob position is. And of course no snarky snobs think of themselves as gatekeepers, they never think that they are trying to prevent the appreciation of any kind of art; they think quite the opposite, that they are opening up a world of knowledge to those who have not been given it. They think of themselves as generous sharers of expertise, like the guys on TV who show you how to make motorcycles or fish for striped bass. No, you don't need special training to read novels, but you might want to hear about what the specially trained end up appreciating.

Of course we look to critics to have obscure knowledge and possibly non-mainstream tastes: that's not gatekeeping, that's a parallel discussion. It's a presentation of another position – Oprah already has a very large position; you can't miss it. I bet if you were looking for the best fountain pen you'd be very curious to know what obscure Swiss family firm is recommended by the serious fountain-pen geeks on their obsessive hand-made-fountain-pen website. The fountain-pen geeks are delighted you're interested in pens at all, but they can't help scoffing at your reliable old Parker. It's not that they mean to be rude, it's just that they're enthusiastic about the subject.

As to the idea of publishers as hidebound gatekeepers of old-fashioned literature, well, that image is most often propagated by people who are having difficulty getting published. They think their work is being ignored because it's groundbreaking. This is rarely the case. It's true that commercial publishers are just as reluctant as ever to take a risk on the avant-garde or the shocking; nothing new there. They've never liked doing that. But literature in this country in particular has become much more varied in the last 20 years, and is no longer dominated by rural or Protestant themes. The small publishers still take risks on daring forms or themes. And publishers are eager to increase their sales by appealing to hitherto unknown or untapped audiences. Believe me, all they talk about is how to adapt to the new times.

So you can think of a publisher as a nasty gatekeeper, or as someone who is going to pay your distribution and marketing costs for you. I will continue to think the role of the educated critic is to pull the gates of art wide open.