Boyd Tonkin: Haring after the romance of reality

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Any glance at an end-of-year bestsellers list will indicate that humankind – or at least, the British book-buying public – cannot bear very much reality. Superstar cookbooks and celebrity memoirs aside (both, arguably, varieties of the romantic novel), fact routinely trails a long way behind fiction among the books that sell in floods rather than trickles.

Does this apparent aversion to the truth stem from indifference? Hardly. Sprinkle a challenging non-fiction subject with the stardust of a high-profile broadcast presenter, and advanced astrophysics (Brian Cox), comparative archaeology (Neil MacGregor), trans-oceanic history (Simon Schama) or popular philosophy (Alain de Botton) may storm the charts. A widespread appetite for the book that can convert grand ideas and great events into gripping narratives endures. Yet many publishers, stung into caution by harsh conditions, appear less and less willing to support, shelter and promote it. Look at the rejections undergone, before Chatto & Windus took it (Hamish Hamilton also made an offer), by Edmund De Waal's The Hare with Amber Eyes: adored by readers and critics, and now winner of the Costa Biography Award.

Hence the value of any scheme that allows independent authors of factual narrative to know that what they do deserves reward beyond the zigzags of the marketplace. Since the 1980s, the Society of Authors has, through the Authors' Foundation and K Blundell awards, distributed funds to published writers to enable them to research and complete a current work in progress. Everybody enjoys the chance to play Santa Claus, and last year I had two opportunities to glue on the figurative beard and rummage in the Society of Authors' goodies sack. Under the omniscient eye of our chair Sir Michael Holroyd, I and my fellow-assessors for 2010 (Lisa Hilton, Alan Jenkins and Candia McWilliam) surveyed the applications for these grants.

Novels are now eligible, but in practice a large majority of awards go to non-fiction proposals. They are not intended to relieve hardship (the Royal Literary Fund does that job), nor to pay writers a wage. Instead, in individual chunks that generally range between £1,000 and £3,000, they fund the travel, cover the expenses and – crucially – buy the time to ensure that a promising project comes to fruition. Recent recipients whose books went on to win warm praise include Sarah Bakewell (How To Live), Matthew Cobb (The Resistance), Frances Stonor Saunders (The Woman Who Shot Mussolini), Jeremy Lewis (Shades of Greene), Lisa Appignanesi (Mad, Bad and Sad), and Angela Thirlwell for her biography of Ford Madox Brown and his circle, Into the Frame. Over two sessions, we gave a total sum in the region of £100,000 to around 50 of their successors. Yes, it did feel good. But once the ho-ho-hos had faded, some sadness – and some sourness - remained. For alarming trends came into view.

Everyone in the book world understands that advances for any proposal that does not have "bestseller" stamped all over it have slumped. Indeed they have – sometimes drastically, and even for many authors with a fine record of achievement. Worse, writers who trail clouds of critical glory may now find that even past acclaim and past awards will not open the purse of risk-averse publishers. In several instances, they had been asked to submit a completed manuscript before a contract could even be considered. In effect, this prudence shifts the entire research-and-development cost of complex literary ventures onto authors.

A large proportion of our applicants were freelances with no academic or other salaries. They had sometimes quit their jobs – or planned to quit their jobs – in order to pursue a labour of love. None hoped to get rich, or even to get by, from their writing alone.

Apart from a couple of blatant examples of cheek and chutzpah in pursuit of a fun time (and chapeau bas to them), all aimed to deepen and diffuse knowledge in a selfless, even self-sacrificial, spirit. And they had developed strong ideas in just those areas – biography, history, literature, social research, popular science – where a good book read at the right time can not simply enrich a weekend or embellish a holiday but change a mind, or a life. Yet, sadly, many publishers now seem to treat these intellectual treasures as commercial toxins, safe only when decontaminated by the underpaid – or unpaid – labour of their authors. Given this growing suspicion of the power of the true tale, how many Hares with Amber Eyes will, in the future, slip clean away?

Honours for the broader view

Whether you regard the honours system as a bizarre imperial throwback or a just recognition for outstanding service, it seems preferable that the gongs should go to those who have earned them. The world of books collected a chestful of merited medals at the new year. Dame Antonia Fraser (as she now is) has down the decades worked for the well-being of authors in general. Christopher MacLehose, champion of international publishing, picks up a CBE, with an OBE for ex-Cape editor Ellah Allfrey, now at Granta, and an honorary MBE for Becky Ayebia of Ayebia Clarke – two other publishers who have brought a wider, richer world of writing onto British shelves.

Next act in the family tragedy

Late last year I heard Fatima Bhutto speak in London about the bloody trail of political murder that for 30 years has pursued her family and their associates in Pakistan. On Tuesday that melancholy path grew longer when, in Islamabad, a guard killed Salman Taseer – governor of Punjab province, friend of the Bhuttos, and an outspoken enemy of Islamist extremism who had just denounced a death sentence passed on a Christian woman under the country's blasphemy laws. Yet everything, and everyone, within the wider Bhutto clan is mired in fierce controversy. The slain governor was no exception. In 1980, Taseer had a child with a well-known Indian journalist. He is the writer Aatish Taseer. In the memoir-travelogue Stranger to History, Aatish paints a lost son's hurt and angry picture of the absent father he hardly knew. Now Taseer senior, with all his courage and his flaws, has fallen victim to the fatal family saga that is Pakistani politics. That unremitting tragedy continues.