Monday, November 29, 2010

Readers - You've Never Had it So Good

I jolted upright on the train reading Robert McCrum's column this week. Over the last year his two most familiar tropes have been about e-books and literary generations, and it was all doom and gloom. Yet something's cheered him up this week. Just read this -:

"The world of pulling itself together....Even in hard times, there is always a literary marketplace, and this one remains extraordinarily robust. So I, for one, do not repine. From some points of view there is a literary bonanza going on. You may not like it, but it is indisputable."

Literary culture is not teetering on the brink of the abyss, as any regular reader of his column might have thought, but is actually doing okay, thank you. If even a literary insider is now optimistic about the future - and particularly e-books as being an opportunity rather than a threat - then maybe there has been a sea change lately. It might just be a flash in the pan of course; just as there was never much of a market for paid downloads before there were enough broadband connections in average homes to turn MP3 downloads into a consumer product, the availability of iPads, iPhones and now, the just-over-£100 new Kindle means there is finally a market for e-books, that includes the average book buyer. Whether publishers, agents or writers will cope with the £2.99 e-book is another matter, of course!

"Its hardly been a vintage year for prose," he writes, clearly not as impressed by Jonathan Frantzen as the majority of his Guardian colleagues. (And distinct from Blake Morrison's assertion that it has been "a very good year for books"). Yet, I'm puzzled by his wondering about a next generation of writers "to follow Zadie Smith and Hari Kunzru." If he's looking for 20-somethings writing novels there are plenty around; but surely Smith and Kunzru are the very writers we should be looking at to write the good novels of this millennium? Yet Smith seems to have withdrawn into the comfort of essays, and I know Kunzru more from his TV appearances and pronouncements than his novels. I'd argue that there have been some signs of a new generation of novelists this year, writers like Tom McCarthy, David Peace, David Mitchell and Jon McGregor, who are, several books in, coming into their stride - never mind the continuing excellence of someone like the ever-underrated Nicola Barker or Magnus Mills. Perhaps none of these books has had a "White Teeth"/"Brick Lane" style ubiquity, but maybe that in itself is a new generational thing. Subsequent books by writers like Kunzru, Ali and Adam Thirlwell have not created the buzz of their debuts - though one doesn't discount them from doing so, as I have a feeling that the writer left to work his or her way to the next plateau through a number of books, is the writer we want to wait for.

What's pleased me about this year, as well as having my own poems published for the first time, is the profusion of small presses doing interesting things and producing lovely editions. That, and the continuing vibrancy of the literary scene, both in Manchester and elsewhere, means that I'm far from wringing my hands about what McEwan or whoever is going to do next, but interested in the small pleasures that seem to be spilling out on an almost weekly basis. If there's something of a conservatism at the heart of much contemporary writing, I'm confident that it's also temporary. Readers, look hard enough, and you'll find you've never had it so good.

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