Monday, December 31, 2007

Dangerous Books for Boys

The Guardian's round up of the 100 bestsellers of 2007 is a dispiriting list in one sense, scant on literary fiction, and with both the mega sellers of recent years (J.K. Rowling) and the standard bearers of popular fiction being high sellers. The remarkable power of the Richard and Judy book club acts almost as an A&R department for fiction (mainly fiction), whilst celebrity books from everyone from Russell Grant to Peter Kay to Nigella Lawson to Jeremy Clarkson also do well. But there's a couple of things, behind the figures, that are worth commenting on. Given the sheer piles of rubbish that dominate the bookshop shelves - "toilet books" as we used to call them, combined with a mass of celebrity books - fiction dominates the list. Also, I'm beginning to think that the real dangerous books for boys - to take that bestselling title literally - is fiction for men; of which there is surprisingly little. I commented a few weeks ago about being unable to find a decent book at WH Smiths for a train journey, and looking at this list what is clear is that pretty much the only books selling to and for men are detective thrillers (to women as well, of course) and non-fiction. Bill Bryson, Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Dawkins are the writers du jour for the male half of the population it seems. I think the publishers are clearly missing some kind of trick here. In the 70s, presses like Virago and the Women's Press were developed both to rescue fallen female authors from history's dustbin, but also to respond to an audience of women who were not being particularly well served by the publishing industry. I'd say its pretty clear that the same industry is providing a disservice to men these days. The high water mark of "High Fidelity" and "Trainspotting" for instance, just brought on a subgenre of "endorsed by Hornby/Welch" books that had none of the brio of those originals. If men aren't particularly drawn to female authors (though I would draw most men to Nicola Barker, for instance, and say, "read her"), then its the male writers who are failing to engage, and publishing seems able to find one offs like "Vernon God Little", far easier than it can nurture a writer or two who could be as prolific as Burgess, Amis senior, Mailer or DeLillo. More writers like (but not "like" since they are all their own men) Will Self, David Peace and David Mitchell in other words - writers not afraid to change and experiment from book to book, but with a sensibility that might just appeal to that other half of society currently avoiding Jeremy Clarkson's mullet.


max said...
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Dave King said...

I am in almost complete accord with what you write, though I think I may be changing my mind about Richard and Judy. May be. Are they not at least introducing what I would call semi-literate works to people who might otherwise not find their way to them? And once you're into semi-literate stuff... who knows where you might go from there!

Adrian Slatcher said...

I've no problem with Richard and Judy, either. I've long been a fan of A.M. Homes and her remarkable last novel benefitted from it being on the shortlist. I am a bit puzzled about why they have been so influential though. It makes you wonder how come the BBC have never had a successful or influential book show.