For some reason which I do not entirely understand, the UK newspaper The Guardian seems to be more interested in books than many of its peers. From time to time they produce some really quite useful articles. Here are a couple, drawn to my attention by booktrade.info.
First, Robert McCrum on the modern novel. Now that there are so many people writing novels, he asks, why aren't the damn things getting any better?
McCrum is writing, it seems, largely from the point of view of someone who is interested in the literary novel, rather than any more obviously commercial genre, but he reckons that in any given year there are perhaps 50 or 100 novels published in the English-speaking world which are any good. The rest are -- ahem -- less than inspiring.
I don't altogether agree with this, for a variety of reasons. First, I think the standard of fiction can reasonably be said to be rising. Modern novels are, I think, often more professional and competent than those produced fifty years ago -- see my comments on the Dan Synge article, below. And if you count the good stuff being written in science fiction and crime -- two areas that I happen to know something about -- then there are comfortably more than 100 novels a year that I would want to read. Let's put it that way. And that's without even counting books in genres that I don't often venture into, such as romance.
However, McCrum is right, I think, to criticise the very inbred and incestuous nature of much of modern fiction, particularly on the literary side. There are far too many people about who think that you can plunge straight from studying Eng. Lit. at university into a career as a novelist without actually doing any living of a life in between. One of my recent correspondents suggested that she would need to be about fifty years old before she could tackle a certain kind of novel, and I think she's right.
Anyone who is thinking of writing a novel, or is a heavy reader of them, should see what McCrum has to say.
The second Guardian article is by Dan Synge, and it concerns the collecting of old paperbacks -- generally known in their day as pulp fiction.
The production of pulp fiction in paperback form in the UK, some fifty years ago, is the subject of a fascinating book by Steve Holland entitled The Mushroom Jungle. I discussed it at some length in my posts of 28 October and 29 October last year, so I will not repeat myself here. Suffice it so say, with reference to Robert McCrum's article discussed above, that some of the books which were then published in England were strong contenders for the prize of worst book ever written.
Some of the people who collect those books do so not just for the covers but for the painful pleasure of reading a book which is irredeemably awful in every respect. The people who wrote them worked at great speed, hammering away at a typewriter for eight or ten hours a day, six days a week. Sometimes they didn't even read through what they had written. They worked to very tight length limits, and so when they found themselves with a story to finish in one and a half pages, they resorted to amazing short cuts to wrap the story up.
So you see what I mean when I say that the standard of fiction can, in some respects, be said to have risen over the last fifty years.
Finally, one collector draws attention to another of the virtues of the fifty-year-old material. 'Back in the old days,' he says, 'these books were 120 pages and they had a beginning, middle and end. That was it. Who needs 700 pages of crap you can't even fit in a coat pocket?'