Even today, in a world where literary culture can seem as fragmented and diffuse as leaves strewn across an autumnal lawn, pundits still talk animatedly about ‘the literary establishment’. Twenty years ago, if asked to pronounce on this tantalising abstract and the identities of the people who might be supposed to belong to it, I could have come up with a plausible set of names: the Merton Professor of English Literature at the University of Oxford; the literary editor of the Sunday Times; grand book-world panjandrums such as Malcolm Bradbury and A S Byatt; a biographer or two… You could see them gathered together at literary parties, and the effect on any newcomer to the scene could be deeply intimidating. I can remember, aged about thirty, walking into the Random House boardroom. A publisher seized my hand, gestured to the elderly couple on either side of her and murmured, ‘David, may I introduce you to Sir Victor Pritchett and Dame Iris Murdoch?’ I nearly fainted on the spot.
These days, alas, if asked to identify the members of the literary establishment, I wouldn’t have a clue. No disrespect to the holder of that exacting office, but I have no idea who the current Merton Professor is. Andrew Holgate, the literary editor of the Sunday Times, does his very best for the boxes of books flung weekly in front of him, but you doubt that he would want to be described as belonging to the establishment, literary or otherwise. Bradbury has been dead these eighteen years and it would be hard to think of a contemporary literature don who operates in quite so many fields or wields quite so much power. Meanwhile, the kind of literary parties at which Malcolm, Antonia, Iris and all the other titans of my youth used to luxuriate while timorous wannabes looked on have more or less ceased to exist.
It is not, here in 2018, that literature doesn’t still have its controlling forces; it is just that they no longer sit in newspaper offices or Oxbridge common rooms. You have a suspicion that today’s literary establishment,