Sunday, May 28, 2006

McCrums of Comfort

I've read it twice now and I'm still not entirely sure what Robert McCrum is getting at in today's Observer.The Tart of Fiction found it a bit more comprehensible - basically that if it aint hyped you don't get attention. "Once, British novelists were under-paid and overworked. Now, with glittering prizes, huge advances, endless festivals and immediate celebrity, they've never had it so good," reads the headline. Which may be true, but for how many? And can we name names? I think there's a truth here that its not healthy for our writers, like our musicians, to be commercially "fully formed." To give a few examples, certainly Zadie Smith's 2nd novel was an awkward mix of the nice, lively American writing she was now reading, and "White Teeth's" sitcom sketches; which probably neither pleased herself or her audience - yet marketable commodity or not, I think she's shown in "On Beauty" that she's no more or less than a good, contemporary middle class establishment writer, with all that that implies, both good and bad. Perhaps the big advance culture for some other writers is damaging; but for whom exactly? I think anyone who read Richard Mason's "The Drowning People", a much-hyped big advance novel of a few years ago, would think good luck to him, and more fool the publisher and agent who hyped him as the best Oxford writer since Amis or some such thing. Clearly there's always an interest in first novel's, but its surely rare that they are a writer's best. In his trashing of the hype around Gautam Malkani's "Londonstani", McCrum is surely being part of the same "machine" that creates all this hyperbole in the first place, saying that "everything about its short life has been a disaster." Well, if you can call a big advance; blanket reviews; and 165 on Amazon.co.uk a disaster. If the book's any good, I'm sure it will survive it; and if not, well, he's hopefully been told to invest the money wisely. It's a while since the Guardian put a batch of "first novelists" on its cover, and I'd be interested to know if it gave as much - or any publicity to their follow ups? There's probably some truth in the idea that the "celebrity" culture for writers isn't particularly good for them, but the non-celebrity culture of most of the writers I know, isn't particularly good for them either. Better to be tempted at Hay, then temping for Hays. The problem comes - I think - when being a "celebrity writer" makes everyone consider them a good writer. Tony Parsons could never do a book reading again and it wouldn't help him write a good novel - whilst it might do a few literary types good to get out of the house more. I'm wondering what McCrum, usually quite perceptive on the industry, is wanting. I think he senses that the internet may yet have its day. Yet, he's not, as far as I know, signed up any literary bloggers as Observer reviewers. There are several points I think I've teased out of this article: that celebrity is becoming an end in itself for writers; that we're in dire need of a critical culture that can push and shape the contemporary novel; and that though the Booker sometimes gets it right, its part of a prize culture, that may cause some brilliant blooms, but which sucks the earth dry below it. I'd quibble with his view that books are "better printed, better designed and and better marketed" than ever before - the modern English paperback is mostly a shockingly throwaway item (with the pound doing so well against the dollar, splash out on the US edition, you'll rarely be disappointed), with only rarely (Julian Barnes' last novel for instance), a sense of elegance to the design. I think, possibly, he's just not found any decent books recently - no surprise with the culture he's describing - perhaps the Observer could lead the way, hunting down those small presses, and yes, those blogs, that are not purely - if at all - about money and marketing.

4 comments:

roger said...

Hi, I spotted the article and was equally bemused. In fact, I ran a short piece on my own blog.

Fiction Bitch said...

Yeah, there was some lack of clarity, and I found I had to read it 'from a distance' as it were, to try and get the gist. But the point he's making about big advances is this, I think, and one which the lit mag MsLexia dealt with in the last issue: if an author gets a big advance, as the Londonstani guy did, then the novel absolutely has to be a huge success, ie like sell a million, so that the advance is earned back. If the author fails to do this, then however much he might be a success in critical terms and even sales, no way will the publisher bother with his second novel, cos they'll look at the computer point-of-sale record and see that they lost money on his last. As McCrum says, Londonstani is now being airbrushed from the records and this will be why. This is also why publishers are always now looking for the Next New Thing, ie first-time novelists: they have no poor sales record since they have none at all, and have the pie-in-the-sky potential to be best-sellers. It's why I am always saying that in this cultural climate every new literary sensation is a has-been in the making. And believe me, it's harder being a has-been that a novelist who hasn't yet to make it to publication - I know from personal experience!!!!

Fiction Bitch said...

Sorry - what I meant to write was 'harder being a has-been THAN a novelist who HAS yet to make it to publication'. So hot under the collar, see...

Bournemouth Runner said...

I have a friend who is exactly the same predicament. First book rush of publicity, second book distinct lack of interest from his publishers...