BOOK REVIEW / Small presses brought to book: 'Harpole & Foxberrow, General Publishers' - J L Carr: Quince Tree Press, 4.95 pounds

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HERE is a novel written for those to whom the word 'books' suggests not big bucks, nor Bucks Fizz at launch parties, but books: objects that include intriguing items like ISBN numbers, copyright signs and dedications; products of a process involving an invisible host of printers, proofreaders, sales reps, binders, translators and typographers; Herculean labours that end with dusty covers on an inaccessible shelf in the last run-down bookshop of a provincial town.

It affects to be the history of a publishing house purchased by George Harpole and Emma Foxberrow for the sum of pounds 7,863. Since the price includes a cheaply rented house, paddock and orchard, this sounds like a bit of a bargain. But then again the backlist bequeathed by the previous owner, 'Harold Blow, Jobbing Printer' (with a book as faux-naf as this there's no knowing if the double entendre is intentional), is pretty meagre, to say the least. He's suspected of having written most of the titles himself, under pseudonyms that sound vaguely reminiscent of authors on more exalted lists (Iris Austen, Jeffrey Amis), and his only real sellers are Foxe's Book of British Martyrs (there's always a market for martyrdom, particularly if accompanied by gory woodcuts) and a book called The Glory Glory Days, which sounds exactly like J L Carr's own How Steeply Sinderby Wanderers Won the FA Cup.

Searching for a means not to go bust, Harpole & Foxberrow turn to local authors who can be national successes - and find three of them, all teachers. Edwin Shutlanger offers a hellfire satire which relocates the Gospels in modern England, and lands himself at the centre of an ecclesiastical and then tabloid controversy ('Headmaster Says Brits Brainless'). James Alfred Pintle, maths teacher, becomes a cult figure with his ploddingly cerebral Arithmetical Situations after an Eng Lit academic deifies him in the TLS as founder of a minimalist school of fictive narration. Most dramatic of all is the success of Grace Tollemache, who under Emma's direction is transformed from a teacher who has done 17 Mills & Boon titles on the side (the plot summaries of these are wonderfully done) into a Serious Writer, winner of the Big Britlit, the most prestigious fiction prize.

This should be Harpole & Foxberrow's great moment. But at regular intervals they have been receiving and cavalierly ignoring demands from the Procurator-General that titles of all their works be submitted, free of charge, to the Universities of Oxford, Cambridge, Edinburgh, Aberystwyth and Dublin. The minister overseeing the British Copyright Seizure Act decides an example must be set, and a small impecunious publisher be the victim. A court case looms. Will ruin follow?

Some of this sounds arch, or plain silly, and some of it is. But the plot is chiefly an excuse to allow Carr to draw on his own experiences as a small publisher and to have some gentle fun at the expense of bigger publishers, authorial egos and above all bookshops. The best scene describes Harpole's doomed efforts to persuade provincial booksellers to stock his standard poets series. The winningness of the book is its sure command of failure.

It is an old-fashioned novel, but in the way Tristram Shandy is old-fashioned, a mix of tradition and tricksiness. The rural setting and provincial characters are the sort you find in J L Carr's best-known book, the deeply pastoral A Month in the Country. But the era is that of Mrs Thatcher, and the look of the novel - printed by Carr himself, and including a handwritten foreword, woodcuts, memos, finals demands and verse quotations in italics - is pleasingly post- modernist and rum.

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