Thursday, December 09, 2004

The McCall Smith production line

From time to time, as you may have noticed, I have expressed a general preference for commercial fiction as against the literary stuff. And on 18 May I made the point that Alexander McCall Smith looked like being ‘one of the most ruthlessly commercial writers to have appeared on the scene for some time. Giving the readers what they want, with knobs on.’ (See my post of 6 August for a discussion of the origin of the phrase ‘with knobs on’.)

The Ottakar’s Christmas catalogue tends to confirm my view of Professor McCall Smith as a highly commercial author: he has a whole page to himself, containing five separate offers, as follows:

In the No 1 Ladies Detective Agency series, the first five volumes are available in paperback, and Ottakar’s are offering three for the price of two.

The sixth volume in the No 1 series can be had in hardback at £10.99.

The 2½ Pillars of Wisdom contains the whole of the Von Igelfeld trilogy, i.e. three books effectively for the price of one (paperback).

Then there’s The Sunday Philosophy Club, which introduces McCall Smith’s new female detective, Isabel Dalhousie of Edinburgh (hardback).

And, finally, you can buy the paperback edition of last year’s The Girl Who Married a Lion.

Please note that nearly all these books of McCall Smith’s are notable for being quite short. For example, each book in the Von Igelfeld trilogy was originally published separately, and they ran to 144 pages apiece. Several of the No 1 series come in at 224 pages. The Girl Who Married a Lion is 208. And so on.

Why is this significant?

Well, I have long held the view, and have doubtless expressed it here, that the smart writer is the one who writes little and often. In the first place, if you haven’t hit the reader with some powerful emotions in 60,000 words, you sure as hell aren’t going to do it by ploughing on to 120,000. And in the second place, by writing two shorter books instead of one bloody great long one you obviously stand a better chance of increasing your royalty income. Especially if you’re any good. Because the delighted reader, having found one satisfactory book, immediately goes looking for the rest of your oeuvre.

Compare McCall Smith’s prolific output with that of Louis de Bernieres: ten years between Captain Corelli and the next one; and Tom Wolfe, who had an eleven-year year gap after Bonfire of the Vanities. Simple arithmetic surely tells us that, other things being equal, the writer who gives the fans a couple of books a year is going to generate greater revenue. Think Josephine Cox.

Of course, there are those who feel themselves to be well above such sordid considerations as earning money. Because they write Literature. Their work is Art. And it’s Art because they Express Themselves. They write only when the Muse strikes, and they are uninfluenced by the thought of cash. Until, of course, it comes time to seek a subsidy from the Arts Council. Then they’re the first in line.

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