The Institution of the Claqueur
Those who read Honore de Balzac’s Lost Illusions might be surprised to encounter in it the employment of the claqueur — the professional clapper, hired to applaud. Having invested heavily in a play it was the logical business decision for the producer to buy some insurance for its success — to not trust the material to win a standing ovation from the audience but to have plants among it whose uproarious applause will hopefully prove infectious, get the rest clapping, and convince them that after all it was a great play and they should see it again and tell everyone else to do so also-and these were the people who did the job.
As it went in theaters so did it go elsewhere in the media of the time, as with publishing, Balzac making it clear that in the “theatre of literature,” in which the public “sees unexpected or well-deserved success, and applauds,” the audience and the world at large are oblivious to the setting of the stage for that success — which include its own “claqueurs hired to applaud.”
In this as in so much else the writers of that earlier day, the great Balzac by no means list, were infinitely more honest than those of our own, who never breathe a word about the seamier side of their business as it takes “claquing” to heights scarcely dreamed of by the sleazy publishers we see in Balzac’s Human Comedy, with places on the bestseller list all but up for sale.
Indeed, the importance of the claqueur in our time is underlined by what has happened in book publishing since the technological rush of the late ’00s democratized its most fundamental element, namely the mechanism for commercial production and distribution of a work of fiction. Thanks to services like Amazon’s it became the case that anyone could take a digital copy of their manuscript and, at no cost, convert it into the template of a print and e-book within days available at retail outlets all around the world. And a great many people did just that.
But the idea that this kind of self-publishing would really revolutionize the publishing business never really worked out, because even if the apparatus for physically producing copies of a book, and distributing them, was opened to all, production and distribution is only part of what a publisher provides an author in practice.
There is also the matter of getting the reader to look at what is now offered to them.
But was that not also democratized? What about the Internet? Book bloggers? Social media?
Alas, anyone who thought that could compete with the budgets that buy ad space in the New York Times and commercials on TV and fund book tours, and land reviews and interviews in high-profile publications and other forums, learned otherwise. (And of course the going got rougher, not easier, as, in the name of defending the public from “fake news,” Big Tech favored “authoritative sources” at the expense of the less authoritative, and suppressed efforts at self-promotion for anyone who did not buy an ad, to the disadvantage of the self-published writer with zero dollars to spare on such.)
The more astute learned, too, about what else the publishers can command that the self-published generally cannot — respectful consideration from opinion-makers. Those with a big publisher behind them, even if they were not a Somebody before, are a Somebody now by virtue of having the patronage of one of the Big Five, and their book treated as a book by a Somebody — which is a far different thing from a book by a Nobody, which, regardless of what it may contain, gets treated as a book by a Nobody. Innumerable stupid and easily manipulated prejudices play their part — but along with them so do the quid pro quos that, even when they have not personally received payoff in “quid” form, reduce the critic to claqueur. After all, Jay Sherman may have been a knowledgeable and tough-minded critic of the cinema — but he had to answer to network chief Duke Phillips, who regarded it as a critic’s duty to “rate movies from good to excellent,” and, you may also remember, squeezed out of him an obscenely overgenerous two-and-a-half star rating for the atrocity against film that was his remake of The Dirty Dozen. (By contrast a self-published book worthy of five stars would be very lucky indeed to get the two-and-a-half.)
In short, even as the means of publication were opened to vastly more people than had ever enjoyed access to them in history, the means of publicity were ever more the purview of “the big battalions,” who made the most of their advantage — which was quite enough to head off any prospect of self-published writers elbowing the Establishment folks aside to become the new rulers of the domain.
Originally published at https://raritania.blogspot.com.