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Conférence plénière du XLVe Congrès de la SAES

Iain Pears
p. 313-320

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Le conseil de rédaction d’Anglophonia / Caliban est tout particulièrement reconnaissant à Iain Pears d’avoir bien voulu autoriser la publication dans notre revue de la belle conférence qu’il a donnée le 14 mai 2005 dans le cadre du Congrès de la SAES dont il était l’invité d’honneur.

1I was asked to talk to this conference, I think, because the organisers considered I might be one of the few popular novelists who could contemplate something entitled Texte(s) contexte(s) hors-texte(s) without going weak at the knees. It may be they anticipated a talk about the writer’s art, and possibly wanted some account of the differences between writing as an academic and writing as a novelist, but I fear they are going to be somewhat disappointed: I am singularly unreflective about what I do, and how I do it, and am often totally unaware of correspondences and references that others see in my books. Of my three most recent ones, reviewers and commentators have picked up allusions to Kurosawa and Walter Scott, to Hawthorne and Oscar Wilde, and have compared me—on the same day—favourably to William Faulkner and unfavourably to Jeffrey Archer. I mention these because at the time I wrote the books, I knew nothing at all about any of the works which had apparently so greatly influenced me. Whatever references and allusions there are generally manage to get in without any conscious aid from me. It may be that those influences are there, but other people are clearly better at explaining why than I am.

2In fact, my one possible qualification for being here at all is that I have produced academic work as well as novels, and still inhabit a sort of nether-world between the two. I can, therefore, make some general comments, useful or not, about the way the commercial and the academic interact and influence each other, and how that interaction has changed in recent years. My comments, of course, apply overwhelmingly to the British context, and it may be that there are few similarities with the way things are in France. In that case you can take what I say as a sort of postcard from a foreign land, bearing in mind at the same time that one of the joys of being a writer of fiction is the liberty that gives you to pass comment without any requirement either to justify or prove the validity of what you are saying.

3That is one difference between the two activities; another lies in the fundamental relationship between writer and audience. Academic work presumes that the reader needs or is required to read what is produced, and is therefore willing to make some effort to extract what lies inside. Novels have to be written from the presumption that there is almost infinite competition for the reader’s attention, which will be irrevocably lost unless the reading is made as easy as possible. This produces a different emphasis: however well written it might be, a work of history or literary criticism is useless unless the facts are accurate and the interpretation worthwhile. With a novel, historical or otherwise, the facts can be as accurate as you please, but that will serve for nought if the reader falls asleep on page two. The title of this conference itself indicates the difference: it signals that this is not for the public; it is a sort of keep out sign indicating that what goes on inside this auditorium is not for general consumption. From a purely populist viewpoint, had you wanted to maximise your ticket sales, it would have been better to have entitled it something like "l’éducation anglaise." The popular author has to invite rather than sow panic. He must bear in mind, in England at least, that readers (and, it must be added, editors and reviewers) cannot abide too many ideas, and if you do insist on including some, they have to be presented so carefully that no-one will notice they are there. As a senior editor of a major publisher once remarked to me, "we can’t sell books with ideas in."

4This sets up one of the fundamentals of the relationship between the academic and the popular worlds. It is a circular, never-ended association, a positive gulfstream of perpetually reinforcing influences, which is all the more obvious in the case of someone who writes the heavily history-laden novels that I like to produce. A writer like me draws heavily on academic work—I have variously employed books that analyse 17th century science, late-antique religion, medieval theology and so on. Often the texts I draw on are are up to quarter of a century old, but I can write away sublimely confident that it will be all news to the vast majority of readers, most of whom will not be au fait with even venerable theories about the relationship between class and science or the sociology of Christianisation in late antique Gaul. What I do, therefore, could be characterised as parasitic on the academic community. It does the hard work, I turn those labours into profitable entertainment, performing the double-edged service of popularising and at the same time, inevitably, vulgarising by virtue of the fact that my primary job is to entertain, not to inform.

5The flow continues, of course, because what novelists do ultimately becomes the raw material for those who study literature. Whole departments subsist on taking novelists far more seriously than they truly deserve, which is a very bizarre experience when that novelist is still alive. To become the subject of a thesis is about as close as you can get to reading your own obituary. Fortunately, writers of theses are generally true to the motto of not speaking ill of the dead, and as far as I can see, tend to be far more generous in spirit than the average reviewer, although their tendency actually to read the books they are writing about is a novel and disconcerting experience.

6Thus far, the relationship between one and the other is straight-forward, and well explored; there is very little need to dwell on something everyone in this room knows all too well. But there is another level of interrelationship which is less well examined and in which I consider myself to be something of an expert due to my quite ambiguous position half-in and half-out of the world of scholarship. That is the emotional and political influences which ebb and flow as the world changes.

7Above all there is the mutual influence that operates on a personal level; as I live surrounded by academics, the concerns and attitudes of one inevitably affect the other. In one sense this is entirely beneficial; the much greater rigour, indeed finickitiness of scholars is a useful corrective to the increasingly blasé attitude of commercial publishing; I have concluded that academics are virtually the only people left in the world who can still read a text. By that I don’t mean simply read it, but absorb it, see the connections, understand and analyse the structure and make useful comments on it. Editors at publishers in London no longer can, and many do not even try; they are too busy with their PowerPoint presentations. The strongest influence on my books from the academic world has lain less in the wholesale borrowing of ideas, important though this has been, but rather in the far more rigorous way in which texts are taken to pieces, criticised and put back together again.

8Going in the other direction, the effect has been more ambiguous. My positive contribution to those who pay me any attention at all is to repeat time and again the virtues of the fundamental criterion of all commercial writing, be it books or journalism, which is that the less work the reader is required to do, the more benevolently inclined he will be to the author. This means, of course, that the author has been put in the extra labour to make what he says as direct as possible. For the most part, academese, all those excluding code-words, can be jettisoned without any loss of profundity. But sometimes it cannot. I am a great enthusiast for the incomprehensible article when it is hard to understand for a good reason; when the author is struggling to express new ideas and concepts and is presenting them to readers unprepared for them. Often, however, the author is merely subcontracting the work of understanding to the reader, making them untangle his thought processes. The risk of that is to lose more control of the meaning than is strictly necessary, resulting in misunderstanding or irritation. Whatever the outcome, the gap between academic work and the outside world is accentuated, which brings dangers that are now beginning to manifest themselves.

9It may be that the world is changing faster than before, or that I am beginning to suffer from the nostalgia that is such a frequent characteristic of old age, but the balance seems to have changed dramatically in recent years, and not entirely in a comfortable fashion. The pattern used to be that scholarship in the humanities had a profound influence on the outside world, but in ways that were often so diffuse, and so delayed, that it was scarcely noticed. The most obvious example in recent years has been the rise of "the linguistic turn" and everything that implies. Pretty much everything associated with this has its origins in academic work that began well over a century ago, but it was only really in the 1980s that the potential of linguistic analysis, semiotics and all the rest of it filtered through in simplified form to the world outside. Now everybody is an intertextual, ironic deconstructionist, without even realising it. Advertising could scarcely exist and certainly could not be understood without an instinctive grasp of the tools and techniques developed by linguistic philosophers. Children’s cartoons seem to be nothing more than a sustained burst of ironic self-referencing.

10British politics currently provides the most perfect example of the depth of this infiltration; when it becomes clear that our prime minister simply does not accept that there is any value difference at all between fact and desired opinion, and holds that belief in the existence of Iraqi weapons is of equal evidential weight to their actual reality, you wonder whether you are listening to some bizarre parody of the worst excesses of deconstructionism. Trying to explain to a newspaper editor that a faked photograph is really not quite as good as a genuine one, has become equally difficult. External reality has been abolished, or at least downgraded to being no better than personal opinion, which makes the recent invasion of Iraq the first war to be facilitated by post-modern theory. A small but notable achievement. Not that anyone will get much in the way of thanks for this triumph; linguistic theorists and the like are still derided for producing incomprehensible gibberish, even by those they have most influenced.

11In other areas, it used to be that academic work formed the political and social agenda, and in the last generation the ideas of Marcuse, Ε Ρ Thompson, Derrida, Foucault, Lacan, Barthes were of immense influence, not only for the ideas they advanced but because of their ability to link them to the political moment, and provide a rallying point for those who wished to query the ascendancy of American ideology without knowing how to do so. However daft some of the ideas, their importance lay in their mere existence, as an indication that another way of thinking might perhaps exist, that when Margaret Thatcher said "there is no alternative," there was someone out there replying that you did not have to believe her. When Derrida lectured in Los Angeles on one occasion, he addressed a vast and enthusiastic audience, most of whom wouldn’t have understood a word he was saying even had he been talking in English. It didn’t matter, because that wasn’t the point. It was the stimulus of the alternative which was important, the provision of a focal point around which dissidence could coalesce.

12What is notable about this is how often the “real world” lagged behind the academic, so much so that it should be possible to predict the popular fads of a decade hence by examining closely the preoccupations of academics today. Just as the ideas of post-structuralism only began to infiltrate public discourse when their dominance was beginning to be queried by academics, so in other fields there has also been a delay in take-up; one example is that of micro-history, pioneered by the likes of Carlo Ginzburg from the early 1970s which, when suitably simplified, took off commercially—in England and the US at least—only in the 1990s. Just as professional historians were casting doubt on the usefulness of the micro-historical approach, the shelves of bookshops were awash with short books on longitude, cod, salt, potassium, tulips, the Oxford English Dictionary, lighthouses, all of which topics, we were assured on the front cover, changed the world, with the implication that reading about such things would give a better insight into that changing world that the usual forms of social and political history these works banished to the second-hand book shops. Meanwhile, professional historians it seems are revisiting the longue durée, the macro-historical, and moving back to those same ostensibly old fashioned topics. If you want a runaway bestseller in eight years time, then I recommend writing a book on diplomacy, the great game of nations, men being manly, something with a vast sweeping theme, preferably spread over many centuries. With a bit of luck, professional historians will have done most of the legwork by then anyway.

13All that notwithstanding, the relationship between academia and the world it inhabits has changed dramatically of late. The great intellectuals have died, and for the first time in well over a century they have not been replaced. My generation has proven to be a lesser breed, and it may be that the world-straddling philosophical giant that France in particular excelled in producing, those colossi who could project complex ideas across the globe and have an impact both inside and outside the academic milieu, is finally extinct. The balance has shifted; instead of the world of scholarship influencing the outside with only limited counter-impact, the outside world now seems intent on taking violent revenge. In Britain at least, the language of business, the aspirations of commerce, the ideology of managerialism have invaded, and seem to be meeting with little in the way of coherent response.

14A few years ago I was invited to a seminar at University College, London, to talk about my novel set in the 17th century to a group of graduate students. I assumed that I would be criticised for my many inaccuracies, castigated for my simplifications. Not a bit of it; instead I was met with a generalised, wistful desire that they, too, could write something that might sell, and inquiries about whether I thought the novel would be useful for making undergraduates interested in the period. The reply—that I do not see why anyone would write for the market if they could write what they wanted, and that any student who needs a novel to generate interest in the 17th century might be better employed learning to be an accountant—did not meet with a wholly positive response.

15I found their questions a little disturbing until I remembered the context. When you get the Minister of Education querying publicly why the state should pay for people to study history as there is no value added in terms of resulting economic growth, when academics are pressured to produce vision statements and business plans, when funding depends on research assessments that are beginning to use computerised searches to check how often an article is cited, when departments have to make courses nice and simple to attract students or face closure, or have their post-graduate funding determined not by the quality of the research but by how quickly it is produced, and when all of these forces are tied into an overarching structure of financial penalties and rewards, then concern about such things becomes very much more understandable.

16The problem, of course, is that just because a book is read does not make it valuable—except in commercial terms; and just because a book has a small readership does not mean it is without importance—except in commercial terms. That such concerns now arise indicate that a new language and a new method of thought has taken hold. This change can create problems, and is increasingly doing so. While it is not absolutely the case that good research can never be popular, it is true often enough to make the best-selling academic work notable as an exception. It is a dilemma increasingly faced by many of my friends who on the one hand are absolutely committed to the ideal of scholarship, but at the same time wish—and indeed are being forced—to demonstrate that they are "relevant to the needs of the modern world" to use the catch phrase so beloved of our current crop of politicians.

17The conundrum is obvious: it is hard to satisfy two very different constituencies at once and ultimately a choice must be made. For graduate students, there is no such difficulty. If they want a job in a university, then they have to satisfy those who hand out the jobs. There could be no greater disaster for a young aspiring academic than to produce a runaway best-seller. What is needed at that stage is a meticulous, finely argued, detailed monograph, preferably published by a university press, to demonstrate high seriousness and command of the techniques of research. But once the job is assured, the temptations begin, and very seductive they are. Occasionally, academic authors do have commercial success by chance, but the danger is that they come to desire it and plan for it. Then the hunt begins for the good topic, rather than the valuable one; something that will sell, rather than something that will advance whatever field you are working in. The review in the Times written by someone who knows nothing of your subject becomes more important than the opinion of the colleague in the scholarly journal. The way is clear to do what I do, which is to entertain rather than instruct, to steer clear of important topics because there is no market for them. And then the world is turned topsy-turvy, and instead of academic research forming the outside world, it becomes instead formed by it. It becomes a follower, rather than a leader, responding to the market rather than determining it.

18What is at risk is the fundamental nature of scholarship as traditionally understood, because once scholars try to argue back in the language of relevance and cost-benefit analysis they are doomed. There is no convincing way to demonstrate that the study of Voltaire or Milton or Anglo-Saxon land tenure is of any use whatsoever once the argument is defined in such a fashion. The utilitarian assault—of measured inputs and outputs—is one which guarantees defeat if battle is accepted on those terms. It progresses more slowly or more quickly from country to country, no doubt, and I fear my own is an unfortunate pioneer in deploying hazy notions of accountability and transparency, of access and relevance, of competitive bidding and market share as a means of bringing academic work under bureaucratic control, but I have the feeling that those areas of Europe as yet unaffected will shortly feel the same pressures.

19As an example of an interaction between the two worlds which is mediated by language this can scarcely be beaten, of course. A language evolved in one part of the university system, that of the business school, is picked up by politicians and aimed back at those same universities to coerce them into obedience. In Britain this process was very obvious: the government of Margaret Thatcher, which elevated managerialism to the status of revealed religion, detested the universities as the essence of everything wrong with the country and as one of the main seats of intellectual opposition to her policies. This mutual dislike crystallised around the very public—and in retrospect rather unwise—decision by Oxford to deny her an honorary degree. The government response was in effect to nationalise, turn the screws on the financing and set up controls over how that money was used. All nominally for the purposes of ensuring value for taxpayer’s money, all justified by desire for efficiency, and all expressed in the language of business, although speaking as someone who has worked for a fair number of companies, I have never understood how anyone can ever confuse business with efficiency.

20All very well; telling other people what to do has always been the job of government. What was more surprising was the lack of real opposition. A few years ago I wrote a book called the Dream of Scipio, one section of which concerned a collaborator in France in World War II. The nature of collaboration is difficult to grasp if, like the British and the Americans, you have never been invaded. Generally speaking, the Anglo-Saxon world sees the France of the period as composed of a few heroes and many cowards. We tend to be absolutely sure that, given the same circumstances, we would head for the hills, rifle in hand, and fight the good fight. What is left out to permit this cheerful assumption are the awkward details, like what would happen to your family, whether you would in fact even know which end of the rifle the bullet comes out of, and the problem that most people are naturally inclined to do what they are told and keep their heads down in times of trouble.

21So conceptualising the mindset of the collaborator was difficult, not least because I wanted to make my central character sympathetic rather than portray him as a craven malevolent. I wanted the reader to identify with him and his choices, rather than with another character who joins the resistance at some cost to those around him. How do good, decent people become collaborators? I was at a loss about how to portray this, until I hit on the example of the English university. There was the classic model of how it is done, and in restrospect, the assault on the universities that began in the 1980s and has continued ever since, can be seen as a text-book example which should be taught in every school of government. It also provided an ideal model for translating the experiences of the 1940’s into a narrative that could be all too easily understood now.

22Firstly nothing is done directly; rather change is introduced slowly, piece by piece, regulation by regulation so there is no gigantic single outrage that manages to mobilise even the most supine. Secondly you get the supervised to supervise themselves; the most enthusiastic assessors have been other academics wishing to teach their colleagues a lesson or carve out a niche to protect their own careers. Or you persuade with threats: you had better do this or someone else will and they will be much less sympathetic.

23And finally you exploit a weakness of morale; just as many French in 1940 thought at some level that defeat was inevitable and even deserved, so many academics in English universities doubted the validity of what they did. The collapse of the literary canon, the relativisation of history, however interesting and exciting in theoretical terms, however useful as a critical tool, however productive in terms of new ideas and ways of interpreting, was too complex and was too easily caricatured in a profoundly anti-intellectual culture as word games played at public expense. The main defensive wall that the humanities had hidden behind for a century or more, which was of the university as a guardian and transmitter of culture and civilisation, was undermined. Allied to the Faustian bargain the sciences have made with corporations, exchanging autonomy for funding, then the case for independent research and critical thought as its own justification has come under assault as never before.

24A defence which challenged this new language has scarcely been advanced in the past two decades; no-one in England that I am aware of has made any headway by suggesting that the purpose of the humanities in particular is to teach people to think, and that might be all the justification it needs. That the state not only should pay for it, but is lucky it has the chance to do so. That free critical thought is the greatest jewel in civilisation’s crown, not something to be eradicated on grounds of efficiency, or measured for its contribution to productivity growth.

25The language of business, the desire for short-term and measurable gain, has proven far more potent than the alternative which rests its case on long-term, intangible benefit. It is a classic case of incommensurable discourses, in which one must succumb to the other. So far the battle has been one-sided; all defences have struggled to find some justification in that alien tongue which in fact guarantees defeat; heads of universities deliver speeches where all the jargon of business is deployed and the English language is tortured to the point of incomprehensibility to demonstrate their managerial credentials. Vice-Chancellors, with a perfectly straight face, describe their universities as "knowledge delivery solutions." Authoritarian and centralised administrative structures are set up to ape best business practice.

26It all sounds faintly ridiculous, even embarrassing, but that is the point. We are dealing with symbols here, the meanings behind the texts. The purpose of all these vision statements and quantified business plans or commitments to transparency agendas is not to run things any better, or to communicate any information; it is to submit visibly and in public to the superior power of a different language and the dominant mode of thought it encapsulates. It is as if a whole bureaucracy has absorbed Foucault, but used his work on language, on discipline and punish, more as a blueprint for how to do it, rather than as a warning of what to avoid. Of such things is intertextuality truly made, perhaps, and in such ways do the worlds of the commercial and the academic interact. Suspended between the two are my books, preoccupied with knowledge and authority, hinging on the impact of unintended consequences—and returning time and again to the problem of how the individual should react to a situation he can understand but cannot change.

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Bibliographical reference

Iain Pears, « Conférence plénière du XLVe Congrès de la SAES », Caliban, 19 | 2006, 313-320.

Electronic reference

Iain Pears, « Conférence plénière du XLVe Congrès de la SAES », Caliban [Online], 19 | 2006, Online since 13 December 2016, connection on 17 February 2020. URL : ; DOI :

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About the author

Iain Pears

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Licence Creative Commons
Caliban – French Journal of English Studies est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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