A Week in Books: Old favourites and future stars

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The Independent Culture

This week's award for Spending Money to State the Bleedin' Obvious must go to the Orange Prize. It commissioned research which seems to prove that most men won't buy novels unless they have some subtle, enigmatic title such as (let us say) SAS Super-Stud. Deplorable as this might be, it only goes to show that the branding of books works. Consumers do respond to signals about genre and theme, even if men may react in the more Pavlovian way. Publishers, however, don't agree that female readers always have minds of their own - hence the glut of identikit girls-about-town novels, each decked out in its own emetic shade and bringing to mind a rack of Top Shop tank-tops c.1982.

This week's award for Spending Money to State the Bleedin' Obvious must go to the Orange Prize. It commissioned research which seems to prove that most men won't buy novels unless they have some subtle, enigmatic title such as (let us say) SAS Super-Stud. Deplorable as this might be, it only goes to show that the branding of books works. Consumers do respond to signals about genre and theme, even if men may react in the more Pavlovian way. Publishers, however, don't agree that female readers always have minds of their own - hence the glut of identikit girls-about-town novels, each decked out in its own emetic shade and bringing to mind a rack of Top Shop tank-tops c.1982.

The truth is that most readers, whatever their biological design, need a bit of assistance before they stray from familiar fictional paths. Samplers and anthologies can help to introduce new authors, which is one reason to welcome the annual appearance of the Vintage/ British Council volume of New Writing (Vintage, £7.99). Last year, editors Lawrence Norfolk and Tibor Fischer managed a major coup, with a large chunk of David Mitchell's great début, Ghostwritten.

This time, the odd editorial couple of A L Kennedy and John Fowles delivers a rich spread of famous names and bold newcomers. In the former class, Julia O'Faolain, William Boyd and Anita Desai have fine stories. Crossing the literary tracks, Simon Armitage tries Kafka-esque fiction and Louis de Berniÿres offers some versified London monologues (with a nod to The Waste Land). A strong crop of essayists features Richard Holmes, Robert Crawford, Robert Irwin and (this time as a guest) Lawrence Norfolk.

Among novel extracts, nothing quite equalled the impact of Ghostwritten. Still, I much enjoyed some promising slices from new works about growing up: Trezza Azzopardi among Cardiff's Italians; Michiel Heyns in an Afrikaner town; Neil Stewart at a posh Scottish school. Back with storytellers, Jonathan Treitel (Japanese hunters in Wyoming), Neil Ferguson (asylum-seeker students in London) and Abdulrazak Gurnah (the Muslims of East Africa) also impressed; as did a mid-life cardiac crisis recounted by Jonathan Wilson. The notes reveal Wilson to be a Boston-based professor now at work on a memoir entitled NW10. NW10? That's Neasden. I can hardly wait.

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