Boyd Tonkin: Digital guests at the literary feast

The week in books

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

The arrogance and ignorance of the militant digerati know no bounds. This week comes news of a venture called Boxfiction, which plans to supply online serial fiction in short installments for digital platforms. Brandishing one of those statistical "surveys" that never give details of their methods, this latest band of hypesters claim that "41 per cent" (of whom, when, where and in response to which loaded, leading question?) "agreed that novels were intimidating, too much effort, hard to finish, or difficult to put down and pick up again". The answer? TV-length episodes, since "fast-paced, punchy scenes, vivid characters, great dialogue, cliff-hangers and the anticipation of multiple series were all cited as advantages that the TV series format held over traditional long-form fiction". You have to feel sorry for these guys. They really don't appear to know that television borrowed all those devices from fiction, nor that Dickens (among others) did it all in the 1830s.

Given that such start-ups in electronic publishing either detest literature or know nothing about it (both, maybe), houses which host real writers should be thinking more robustly about the artistic – as well as financial – potential of our not-so-new technologies, especially for the shorter narrative forms. Commissioning for e-editions opens a new route to new readers. Penguin has just launched a digital-only series of brief works, Penguin Shorts. Priced at £1.99, they cover fiction, history, memoirs and even an abbreviated recipe book: Felicity Cloake's nicely timed Perfect Christmas Day. You don't need to love every title: I remained resistant to the charms of Toby Young's How to set up a Free School, with its weird adolescent glee at finding a head for his own West London outfit who "had the X Factor. With his three-piece suit and fob watch, he looked like a headmaster from central casting". You wanted this, Mr Gove?

Apart from that, I devoured the lot with pleasure – even if, as a "long-form" dinosaur, these bites did leave me hungry for a bigger helping. Helen Dunmore and Anita Brookner offer stories, Protection and At the Hairdresser's, that neatly showcase their strengths and (for newcomers) might serve as a taster for the novels. Two histories of "great battles", Saul David on Isandlwana and Colin Smith and John Bierman on El Alamein, will appeal to the army of commuting suits whom I always spot deep in their well-thumbed (but bulky) Antony Beevors. Elif Shafak's The Happiness of Blond People draws on the Turkish bestseller's own itinerant biography to argue, gently but persuasively, against the straitjacket of "identity politics" and in favour of a cosmopolitan sense of the self with "several homes". And Colm Tóibín's memoir of an Irish childhood and youth, A Guest at the Feast, has all the quiet mastery we expect from him. It will surely migrate into print before too long.

However, immersion in a series promoted as digital exclusives had one curious effect on me. I noticed how many of the narratives touched on precious memories of reading, and saluted the magic of the printed volume. Recounting a writer's apprenticeship, Tóibín goes back to the slowly-liberalising Ireland of the 1960s, and the forbidden copies of Edna O'Brien, John McGahern and John Updike he finds on top of his mother's wardrobe. When he wins a book token, in 1971, he buys works by Kafka, Sartre and Hemingway, and meets with the disapproval (but, by then, not the censorship) of priests. Elif Shafak, only child of a globe-trotting diplomat, takes refuge in Storyland, "a place that was free", and peopled by characters – Oliver Twist, Jean Valjean, Anna Karenina – far more "real" than those around her.

Anita Brookner's self-sufficient heroine now finds solace in the "old books", those "stories with a moral and a resolution". Helen Dunmore's aloof magazine editor, self-exiled in Devon, is a print junkie who caresses his latest numbers, "moist with newness, smelling of ink and promise". Actual or imaginary, these folk relish and cherish the physical acts and objects, with all their rituals of intimacy, involved in reading printed works. For the "digital natives" of the future, how differently will they feel about beloved books that never had any tangible existence? Will books be loved at all? We don't yet know. That chapter remains to be written.

Handing down stiff sentences

Reformed robber, writer and raconteur, Noel "Razor" Smith feeds his years of (armed) crime and (heavy) punishment into eye-opening memoirs that puncture the delusions of all sides in the criminal-justice debate. On Monday 12 December, he will be talking with Will Self about his book Rusty Gun – which deals with his rehabilitation via the "foreign land" of jail - at The Idler Academy, London W2 (tel: 020-7221 5908). Let's hope that a few politicians can join them, check in their ideological weapons at the door, and learn about the reality of life inside (apart, of course, from those various Westminster swindlers of the public who have already done just that...).

Poetry caught in the hedge

Do poets have much tenderer consciences than novelists? This week both Alice Oswald and John Kinsella have withdrawn from the shortlist of the TS Eliot Prize thanks to its sponsorship – via the Poetry Book Society, the prize managers – by a hedge-fund company, Aurum. Now, the Man Group, a much heftier hedge firm, has bankrolled the Booker for a decade with – it seems - hardly any protest from the shortlisted novelists. (When Booker itself backed the prize, John Berger - winner for G. in 1972 – did attack its Caribbean sugar interests.) Bear in mind that the Eliot prize only needs extra support thanks to the Arts Council axe that fell on the PBS grant. But remember too that, far from being antagonistic, some major poets have shown a curious affinity with financial services: Eliot himself at Lloyd's Bank; Roy Fuller as director of the Woolwich; Wallace Stevens (the vice-president) at the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company. Stevens turned down a job at Harvard because it would have meant quitting the board.