Thursday, November 18, 2004

The lost boys (and girls)

Yesterday's booktrade.info provided a link to an interesting article in the Independent by Tom Boncza-Tomaszewski (hereinafter to be known as Tom).

Like most newspaper articles, this one was designed to do no more, I suspect, than distract the weary commuter from the discomforts of the cattle truck in which he makes his daily way to work; and as such it no doubt worked pretty well. Tom's article was not, in other words, intended to be a final statement of the whole truth about everything, as in, perhaps, the works of St Thomas Aquinas.

I make this point because I disagree with Tom about a number of things. But I do not want what follows in this post to be regarded as criticism of Tom's position, much less a personal attack. I choose to mention his article only because it provides a useful background against which to highlight some different ideas of my own.

Tom notes that some of the most prominent literary names of the 1960s are now completely forgotten. Well yes. Indeed. And hardly surprising, if I may say so. I myself was around in the 1960s, reading newspapers and books, and it was about that time when I began to notice a distinct discrepancy between what the learned literary journals were saying, on the one hand, and my own experience as a reader, on the other.

Quite often I would come across some writer who was regarded as a close associate of God by Cyril Connolly and Philip Toynbee, only to find, when I read his work, that on the whole I much preferred Ian Fleming.

Ah yes, you say. But that is because you are a moron and a vulgarian. And a vulgarian I certainly am -- time has proved that. But time has also proved that, whatever else I may lack, it is not IQ. So I would venture to suggest, on the basis of this limited sample, that young readers would be unwise, at any point in history, to place too much reliance on the judgements of the experts of the day. All too often the giants of literature who are identified by the experts of the day prove to be (a) unreadable by normal people even in their year of publication, and (b) soon forgotten, even in circles with exquisitely refined taste.

Another piece of Tom: 'Much of the best writing in this country is probably not even getting published any more.' I agree, in the sense that it is not published by the traditional mainstream book publishers. Where I disagree, I suspect, with Tom is in defining 'the best'. He clearly identifies the best as that which comes from the literary-fiction stable. Whereas I would define the best as something like 'fitness for purpose'. In other words, there are science-fiction books which prove highly entertaining to sci-fi fans, thrillers which entertain the thrillable, and so forth. The problem is, of course, that there are some excellent writers in all these genres who can't get much of a look-in in today's new improved publishing world.

Tom quotes Leo Hollis, who has some experience at the coal-face of publishing: 'Selling books is the point of publishing, it has no other reason to exist.' And this is absolutely true. I have no problem with the concept of publishing as a commercial enterprise; none whatever. The problem is, as I have pointed out before, that modern publishers (UK in particular) are fairly bloody hopeless at running commercial enterprises.

There are all sorts of reasons for this commercial ineptitude, of which the following are just a few: the relatively small size of even the biggest publishers; lack of capital; absence of training; naivety; nepotism.

Another publisher quoted by Tom: 'Major publishers can't be bothered with stuff they consider small-fry.' This sentence is presented as if it described a shocking and immoral state of affairs. But why should major publishers be bothered with small fry? They are only concerned with books which are likely to sell in large numbers; and so they should be.

At this point you may well advance an argument which I was rather fond of myself until recently. Ah, you will say, but if publishers don't bother with small fry, then eventually they will run out of big fry, because the big fry will have nowhere to learn their trade.

This was a valid point even as recently as ten years ago. And it has taken me most of that ten years to wake up to something which has changed things. And that something is the medium on which you are reading this message: namely the internet.

The advent of the internet/web/net has, to state the obvious, changed everything. And, in tandem with that, we have changes in printing technology, which have enormously reduced the cost of printing and publishing, even in traditional book form. The combination of these two developments means that young (or emerging) writing talents need never lack a platform on which to present their work. (See yesterday's post for more on this.) Of course they won't make much money; but I would argue that it is absurd for a writer to expect to make any serious money. When it happens, it happens mainly by accident -- or, in the case of big firms, through the expenditure of a huge advertising budget.

In general terms, Tom's article bemoans the way in which really fine writers of the past tend to disappear from view. He is chiefly concerned with literary fiction, but the same danger exists in every other genre. And it is indeed a pity if fine writing -- of whatever kind -- is lost sight of. But the world has changed, folks!

Once upon a time it would have been economically impossible, for all but eccentric millionaires, to republish the work of almost-forgotten whodunit writers, or early specialists in bug-eyed monsters, or the teenage work of Barbara Cartland. But now, all is changed. Enthusiasts, fans, weirdos and nut-cases of all sorts can bring out their favourites from the past and parade them for everyone's attention: either in ebook form, or in print-on-demand paperback.

If you doubt that, take a look at the long lists of reprints of the obscure and overlooked which are being presented by such firms as Renaissance and Wildside Press. (My current favourite is Arthur B. Reeve's Constance Dunlap, a 1914 classic which combines both detection and romance; and just think, you would never have heard of it had you not read this blog.) And there are plenty more highly individual and enterprising small presses like these two. Long, as I may have said before, and quite recently, may they flourish.

2 comments:

kingfelix said...

Knowing Tom, I suspect that his position is complicated by 1) his fondness for the obscure, and 2) his essentially populist wish for books that are quirky or bizarre to be enjoyed by the widest audience and not confined to a few.

As he is highly web-savvy, I doubt that it's the impact of the internet's power to revive texts as HTML that is the concern, rather a passion for paper, blurb, and binding, to hold the work in your hand as the author and publisher presented it to the world, and wonderment at how you can go from mass produced works and public acclaim to 60 years later, struggling to find more than a handful of copies.

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