A Week in Books: Punctuation and the rise of Profile Books

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Most of the time, the Goddess of Publishing behaves like the hard-faced harridan she really is. Occasionally, though, she comes over all fairy-godmother-ish and sprinkles stardust over some humble Cinders of the literary world. Exactly that happened to the novelist and columnist Lynne Truss in the run-up to last Christmas. Almost overnight, everybody had to possess a copy of her "zero tolerance approach to punctuation", Eats, Shoots & Leaves, and to bang on about the joys of the semi-colon as if it were the Atkins diet. You can supply your own bad puns, no doubt.

British sales of ESL have reached a million. It still stands proudly, not to say pedantically, atop the non-fiction lists. Its fame spreads far and wide. Earlier this year, in the shrewdly-stocked Landmark bookshop in Calcutta, I noticed it near the head of the in-store chart. And it even packs a political punch. Truss ends by showing that a "yob's comma" helped rumble the Blair government, when an academic spotted that the first "dodgy dossier" on Iraq had reproduced a PhD thesis - infelicities and all.

The book's fairy-godmother effect extended from author to publisher. Thanks to ESL, Profile Books - the enterprising indie house started by Penguin refugee Andrew Franklin - looks less like a maverick's dream than standard-bearer for a resurgent, non-corporate regiment of smaller publishers. It's tempting to overplay the folk-tale element here. Profile has made other clever decisions: it publishes The Economist's range of reference volumes, and even took over a business list from Murdoch's HarperCollins. Meanwhile, its current-affairs stable includes thoroughbreds such as Francis Fukuyama and Germaine Greer.

Now, thanks to Profile, recent readers of Truss can discover the origins of the witty, piquant and (yes) precise style that made ESL such a treat. Next week, the firm will reissue all four of her previous books as £7.99 paperbacks. They are a collection of delicious columns on the single life, Making the Cat Laugh, and three polished comic novels: Going Loco, Tennyson's Gift and With One Lousy Free Packet of Seed.

I suspect that Tennyson's Gift, a perky but perceptive re-animation of the poet and other mid-Victorian artistic lions, counts as the best and boldest. (Imagine Tom Stoppard tangling with AS Byatt.) But I adore With One Lousy Free Packet of Seed, and its pitiless depiction of the decline and fall of a musty old magazine, "Come into the Garden". Few novels have stirred up the sociopathic backwaters of British journalism quite so smartly. The parodies of dumb celebrity features alone would justify the price: "Me and my Shed"; "My Perfect Weekend"; "My TV Dinner", and - I'm afraid - "What I'm Reading".

Truss used to toil on the long-defunct Listener; some readers might sniff a hint or two of clé in her roman. All I can say - having been on the staff of a journal of similar pedigree, and similar precariousness - is that it all sounds horribly familar, down to the people who find out where you work and respond thus: "'Blimey', they said, shaking their heads in disbelief, 'my Nan used to read that; is it really still going?'". Besides, how can anyone resist a novel in which a dotty hack is sectioned under the Mental Health Act while pleading that "You can't do this this to me... I am a contributor to the Times Literary Supplement"?

While you cheer this glorious disinterment, spare a thought for the many other talented mid-listers who never ran into the fairy godmother of cult renown. Their life's work may well continue to languish out of print. And if the bitch-goddess of bookish fame is feeling charitable again soon, I can give her a little - or, sadly, not so little - list.

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