A WEEK IN BOOKS

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The Independent Culture
When I joined the Evening Standard as literary editor some years ago, I was for a time puzzled by the newspaper's readership profile: cartoons and showbiz interviews clearly yelled "downmarket''; but the quality of the features and leaders suggested a constituency on nodding terms with tertiary education. Nobody, however, had any clear perspective on the paper's metropolitan audience. So what kind of books should I be reviewing for their benefit? "Look at the Hamish Hamilton catalogue,'' I was told, "And you won't go far wrong. Those are our kind of books. Stuff for the clever middlebrow''.

Now, after 64 years of catering for the Clever Middlebrow - publishing, among others, Nancy Mitford, J D Salinger and Truman Capote, and later, Peter Ackroyd, Ed McBain, William Boyd, Richard Ellman's biography of Wilde and the strip cartoons of Raymond Briggs - this most congenial and multifarious of imprints is to expire, wound down to virtual extinction by its holding company, Viking Penguin.

In February, they laid off Karen Geary, Hamilton's gimlet-eyed marketing diva, and merged the publicity department with that of Viking Books, a move that should have struck terror into the constituent parts of umpteen publishing conglomerates. Then last Wednesday they announced the redundancy of Andrew Franklin, HH's adrenalinated, schoolboyish managing director, and announced that, while the firm's autumn titles would be published as scheduled (and the house would continue to exist "in name''), its most distinguished writers - John Updike, Paul Theroux - would be moved over to Viking. Incensed, Franklin came to a meeting of Viking bigwigs and announced that he'd written to all his authors telling them their publisher had just closed down. Consternation ensued. It was like Toby Young anouncing the closure of the Modern Review without telling his partner.

It is a plain tragedy that such an attractive cultural factory as Hamish Hamilton should find itself suffering this Death of a Thousand Cuts, but there is more to the story than simple nostalgia; for it represents an unfortunate trend in conglomerate publishing. It suggests that eclecticism has had it. If you veer, like Hamish Hamilton, between classy fiction one minute and Peter Mayle populist whimsy the next, other companies under the same corporate umbrella - but "dedicated" to classy fiction or populist whimsy - will soon wonder why they should not co-opt them, in the interests of "horizontal integration''. By this logic, imprints are not important, only types of book matter. Publisher X should publish only medieval thrillers, publisher Y only French social history. It would mean a publishing world whose houses had no blend of interests and consequently no character. Stand by for more integrations when Penguin announces 50-60 further redundancies next week.

John Walsh

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