A Week in Books: Literary extras

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The Independent Culture

Here's an entry for the next of those dictionaries of "unexplained phenomena" that publishers put out from time to time. This one involves the mysterious ways of writers and publishers themselves. HarperCollins has just launched a new brand for paperback reprints, Harper Perennial. Some of these titles come with a separate "PS" section at the back: a 15-page digest of interviews, features and miscellaneous add-ons, very like a literary version of the post-credits bells and whistles that punters now expect whenever they buy a DVD.

These "PS" appendages include the author's listing of all-time favourite books. Turn to George Monbiot's The Age of Consent, for example, and you'll find the radical political thinker raving about Adam Thorpe's accomplished but not exactly famous novel from 1992, Ulverton, "a difficult, intricate and beautiful book" tracing the history of a village over 350 years. Also among the first batch of Perennial "PS" titles is Katie Hickman's Courtesans; the historian of 19th-century grandes horizontales shares with us her own literary top 10, in which, right after Proust's novel (1) and Woolf's diaries (2), comes... Ulverton by Adam Thorpe.

Spooky. Let's turn to a third "PS" section, which follows Adam Nicolson's account of the making of the King James Bible, Power and Glory. No Ulverton in his top 10, I was relieved to see. Next to Nicolson's chart stands one of those minimalist interviews that newspapers and magazines now love. One question runs: "Which book do you wish you had written?" His answer: "Ulverton by Adam Thorpe." Time to open The X-Files, perhaps...

We don't, however, need any telepathic talents to discover why serious paperbacks should now arrive with a bootful of commentary and analysis attached. Part of the "PS" formula depends on the perceived demands of the booming reading-group market. New, or newish, books always benefit from a sociable buzz of debate and discussion around them. If thousands of book groups, literary festivals, chat shows à la Richard and Judy, radio magazines and the print media (including, from today, The Independent) all strive to involve readers in an active engagement with current literature, why shouldn't publishers shoehorn some of the relevant material into soft covers themselves?

Most of the "PS" features read like competent journalism: useful, interesting, but seldom eye-opening. Some selections do push the envelope a little: the photos of Douglas Coupland's strange sculptures after Hey Nostradamus!, for example. (Coupland may not choose Ulverton, but - almost as astonishing - he cites Margaret Drabble's The Ice Age as his favourite novel.) Readers, I suspect, will appreciate even the briefest author interview or most laconic list. We rightly want to have an extended conversation with and through a book; and reading remains the least passive, most democratic of all cultural pursuits. If the "PS" gimmick can trigger a few more of those conversations, it will have done its job.

On a less idealistic plane, serious backlist imprints need all the support they can muster to survive in an ever-tougher marketplace. "Literary" paperbacks, such as the "PS" stable, struggle to hang on to their value and visibility in a retail environment that tends to sweep them quickly into those ubiquitous, and iniquitous, "three-for-two" promotions. Many excellent books now live too fast and die too young. We should welcome any initiatives that serve to keep them on the road.

In the meantime, David Gilbert - who takes over next week as CEO of the Waterstone's chain - ought to think again about the accursed three-for-two offers that litter stores, devalue books and do such damage to publishers' fragile backlists. That should be his second task. His first, of course, must be to read Adam Thorpe's Ulverton and try to fathom its uncanny occult powers.