Boyd Tonkin: Marathon authors run for their lives

The week in books

Do novelists deserve medals – or any special recognition – for meritorious long service? On Tuesday, Philip Roth received (in absentia) the Man Booker International Prize, awarded for a career's-worth of work. Bold and successful innovation, not brute longevity, secured for the 78-year-old from Connecticut woods a £60,000 cheque from the two judges left standing after Carmen Callil – another of the evening's absentees – had resigned in anger. Rick Gekoski's encomium, as chair of the judging panel, dissected Roth's achievement in some detail. Yet he also gave the novelist a bow for the sheer stamina that Kingsley Amis, a very different sort of writer, might have saluted with the honour of the KBO (Keep Buggering On). Measuring the half-century gap between Goodbye, Columbus in 1959 and Nemesis in 2010, Gekoski asked, "What other writer has written words of such quality separated by so many years?"

He spoke in Inigo Jones's Banqueting House in Whitehall, under the ceilings that Rubens painted for Charles 1 in 1635. Rubens, by the way, qualified as a master-painter in 1598 and worked through to his death in 1640 – not a bad stretch for the 17th century. For story-tellers before the age of the fiction industry, which fired up its engines in the 18th, we have no way of telling how long their artistic flame would burn. Yarn-spinners at the court of Harun al-Rashid in Baghdad might have cast their spell for decades, or perhaps failed the Scheherazade test of audience satisfaction after a flat night or two.

Once modern publishing got under way, it became possible for novelists – and other writers – to sustain a name and fame from fervid youth to meditative age. The 19th-century age of the bearded sage witnessed the first clutch of long-distance literary celebrities. Victor Hugo's novels span the (almost) half century between Bug-Jargal in 1826 and Ninety-Three in 1874. As a poet and playwright, his publishing record embraces a full six decades, from 1822 to 1882. For sustained high notes, Tolstoy anticipates Roth: his semi-autobiographical Childhood appeared in 1852, and he finished the wonderful Hadji Murad (if you haven't read it, do so now) in the first years of the 20th century. First bushy, then beardless, Henry James embarked on his first stories in the early 1860s. At his death in 1916, he left behind unfinished fictions in notoriously knotty prose.

If you write from within a major power with a sturdy and expanding book business, then a Roth-size arc of career looks, if not commonplace, then far from unique. True, genius may flicker, energy dwindle and style simplify. But many doyens of fiction (unlike lyric poets or pure mathematicians) seem to enjoy a rejuvenating gene – when the circumstances permit. Their voices nourished and amplified by post-war affluence and US cultural reach, Roth's own great contemporaries kept on long, and strong. Saul Bellow published novels between 1944 (Dangling Man) and 2000 (Ravelstein); Gore Vidal from 1946 (Williwaw) to 2000 (The Golden Age); Norman Mailer, just missing a 60-year run, from 1948 (The Naked and the Dead) to 2007 (The Castle in the Forest).

No one doubts their prowess. But historical luck also plays its part in such long voyages. Blessed is the author who – like Vidal – can keep a grasp so firm and so enduring on his national life that Republican presidential hopeful Michele Bachmann can cite his revisionist novel of the American Revolution, Burr, as the liberal outrage that drove her into patriotic politics. It has been many years since any US public figure paid such a heartfelt tribute to fiction.

Mere survival earns no credit. A bad novel by an octogenarian wastes just as much time as drivel from a late-teenage debutant. But genuine talents who stick to the keyboard can reward readers with a pair of broad perspectives: long views over both the unfolding landscape of a human life, through all its stages; and over the evolution of a culture, with the ever-shifting ways that it will imagine its present, past and future. In the years to come, with the stable institutions of publishing swept away on a digital tide, will fiction still offer careers of a Tolstoyan - or Rothian - duration and dignity? I hope so. Still, the "how" question remains.

On the sea of words in Southend

It's proving a sweet summer for lovers of the floating word. After Philip Marsden's captivating cruise through Falmouth's past (see p.22), Southend is due to host Britain's first festival dedicated to the literature of the sea. Curated by Lemn Sissay and Rachel Lichtenstein, Shorelines takes place at the Essex resort's Chalkwell Park from 15-17 July. An open-air production of The Tempest and adaptations of Coleridge (the Ancient Mariner) and Hemingway (The Old Man and the Sea) join author events crewed by (among others) Iain Sinclair, Robert Macfarlane and Roma Tearne (above), as well as China's Yang Lian and Iceland's Sjön. Details: www.metalculture.com

A new dawn lit by old values

Last-minute hitches averted, the sale of Waterstone's went through on Wednesday, after shareholders had approved the chain's £53m. purchase from HMV by Alexander Mamut's A&NN Group. Like a bookish version of the unassuming hero in a Jimmy Stewart film, the incoming MD James Daunt told staff the sort of home truths that – under the dismal, unlamented stewardship of the utterly inept HMV – once counted as the rankest heresy: "I believe we are at our best when focused on books and bookselling. It is my intention to put these elements back at every level of the business." Even more cheering, Mamut himself heralded a fresh – or rather, a classic - model of non-corporate bookselling. He signalled "an approach which is progressively tailored to the particular demands of local communities". How many communities, though? Waterstone's 300-plus stores, quite a few badly sited, cannot all thrive in this new dawn. If Daunt must enforce cuts, he should make them swift and clean.

b.tonkin@independent.co.uk

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