A Week in Books: Duped by the mandolin's seductive sound

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The Independent Culture
"THE MILLION-copy bestseller", yells the jacket on the latest reprint of Captain Corelli's Mandolin (Vintage, pounds 5.99). A trifle previous, perhaps, since the latest figures showed the ubiquitous commuter's companion on sales of 995,000. At any rate, the Louis de Bernieres blockbuster has helped to fuel some smug punditry about the upwardly-mobile drift of the book charts. More will follow in the wake of the late Laureate's Whitbread victory this week, as Ted Hughes has lately outsold the likes of Terry Pratchett and Maeve Binchy. (Then again, Birthday Letters on its current form might well walk away with the Eurovision Song Contest, or even the Cheltenham Gold Cup.)

It's true enough that a handful of classy titles now profit from the kind of marketing barrage that once served only pulp and glitz. Liberally sprinkled with the likes of Cold Mountain, Memoirs of a Geisha or The God of Small Things, the fiction Top Tens of the late 1990s do appear to have undergone a rapid evolutionary spurt. A decade or so ago, the equivalent lists would freeze in the tacky grip of Jackie (Collins), Jilly (Cooper), Freddy (Forsythe), and their friends. These days, such aristocrats of the airport racks will often undersell their "literary" rivals by a mile.

So far, so flattering - to readers, retailers and publishers alike. Yet it takes a trunk of cash to make a star - especially at the top end of the market. Even Captain Corelli, that fabled word-of-mouth success, enjoyed more PR attention than its legend would suggest. The pizzazz that can catapult a complex novelist to peaks of fame will cost enough to ensure that other good writers languish in a deeper obscurity than ever. In publishing, the differentials that divide the pampered elite from the rest have widened oceanically. Matthew 25:29 springs to mind: "Unto every one that hath shall be given...". So a host of gifted authors in the hard-pressed so-called "midlist" now find themselves not so much published as simply printed. There's no such thing as a free publication lunch, and the perceived second division will always pick up the tab.

At least plenty of novelists still find a home of sorts. Many species of non-fiction authors face not just neglect but extinction. Eliminate the journeyman biographies, the modish memoirs, the moonlighting scientists, the Cooked-up kiss-and-tells, and the non-fiction prospects for early 1999 look pitifully thin.

I have been savouring an exquisite set of essays and narratives by the American nature writer Barry Lopez, About This Life (Harvill, pounds 12). This peerless stylist records reflective journeys across tundra or tropic that stand in relation to Bill Bryson's jolly trips roughly as Messiaen does to Madonna. A balanced culture needs both, of course - but dozens of chequebooks wave for the Brysons while only a few brave souls (in this case, Christopher MacLehose at Harvill) dare bid for the Lopezes.

Non-fiction writing of this grace and grandeur now looks as rare, and as threatened, as the wolves or bears Lopez so lyrically pursues. However sweet that chart-topping mandolin sounds, we need - more than ever - to hear different tunes.

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