A Week in Books

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The Independent Culture
One of them is the late but immortal King of rock'n'roll, the most famous entertainer in the world even 28 years after his death, and still an automatic chart-topper. The other is a highly literary Spanish debut novelist without a solitary previous hit to his credit and no "name" to speak of in the UK. Which of these two characters, and art-forms, best represents popular culture in Britain today? Well, look at the numbers.

Elvis Presley first reached number one in the singles chart this January with a re-release of "Jailhouse Rock". To take that slot, he sold 21,262 copies in a week, at pounds 4.99 or so. In the same week, Carlos Ruiz Zafon's The Shadow of the Wind struggled to number three in the book charts, a compilation that undershoots actual sales by a significant margin as it overlooks a few major outlets. To take that slot, Zafon sold 24,704 copies in a week, at pounds 9.99, a figure more or less repeated over the subsequent seven days. I never thought I could write that "books are the new rock'n'roll" without inwardly shrieking with embarrassment. This looks like the right moment to do so.

When will the alleged "populists" who control the allocation of time and space in mass media - and especially on television - start to respect the genuine popularity of reading? To be fair, a few already do. Zafon's sudden spike resulted from his novel's choice for the Richard & Judy book club on Channel 4. Immediately after, Audrey Niffenegger's The Time Traveler's Wife, another far-from-pulpy novel to benefit from the R&J effect, sold almost 45,000 in a week. Now the couple's magic sofa has prompted a virtuous circle of competition for viewer-friendly books coverage, with Jeremy Vine's Page Turners programme due to launch on BBC1 in April.

Media geeks may object that my rhetorical comparison ignores the fact that the revived "Jailhouse Rock" became the lowest-selling number one in the history of the charts. I would retort that, in many weeks, half a dozen books outperform the top-rated single. The geeks will fire back by saying that punters now download for free (or at least cheaply and legally) rather than buy singles or even albums. And so sales charts can only capture a fraction of the activity and enthusiasm in pop. Touche! Free downloads have existed in the world of books for 150 years. They come from things called public libraries.

Richard & Judy or Jeremy Vine aside, it's still the case that, however enduring their appeal, books have to fight far harder than other cultural forms for even a smidgeon of televised attention. No TV cameras saw Andrea Levy - an attractive, accessible and interesting victor if ever there was one - win the Whitbread award last week.

On the credit side, an item about Ian McEwan's Saturday - from the excellent Razia Iqbal - made the principal BBC evening news this Monday. This was not because it grabbed a gong or stirred a quarrel or triggered a fatwa, but simply because a world-ranking novelist had brought out a landmark work. More, please.

Elsewhere in the BBC, the new Culture Show - although a welcome signal of intent from the Roly Keating regime at BBC2 - still sometimes fumbles when it comes to books. It will happily take a scalpel to the likes of Charles Saatchi but stroke and coddle a formulaic crime-writer such as Martina Cole as if she were Margaret Atwood. As so often, such would-be crowd-pleasing gestures betray a curious lack of confidence.

The truth is that the mass market is moving upmarket. Richard & Judy may have turned a spotlight on to this shift, but it has been evident for years as the effects of expanded higher education reconfigure British culture. Only the book-averse "popular" media have yet to notice, but they must - or else the dowdy fate of ITV1 beckons. Like the man said: it's now or never.

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