Boyd Tonkin: Morrissey gets what he wants, and Penguin Classics sinks in the Ship Canal

The Week in Books

This they don't teach you at business school. How do you wreck overnight the reputation of a global brand that, since 1946, has built up its worldwide trust on the basis of consistent excellence, expert selection and a commitment to pick and sell only the very best? Easy, really. You chuck 67 years of editorial rigour and learning out of the corporate window and kowtow to the whims of a petulant pop icon.

Penguin will next week publish the first edition of Morrissey's Autobiography – which almost no one outside the company has yet read, let alone formed a fashion-proof judgment about – as a Penguin Classic in the familiar black livery. Well. "The Queen is dead," sang the quixotic melancholiac of Davyhulme, so long ago. Penguin Classics, as a noble idea of affordable, accessible enlightenment, has certainly died this month. The verdict has to be suicide.

"Such a little thing, such a little thing," to cite the man himself, "but the difference it made was grave." Or, more obviously, "You just haven't earned it yet, baby,/ You just haven't earned it son." I have relished the quiffed warbler's lyrics since the early days of The Smiths (before fanboy David Cameron took to them). I have paid hard cash to hear Morrissey distil the anguish of a million lonely bedrooms in landmark songs that augur well for a top-notch testament. Moreover, I have defended Penguin's Modern Classics list when it pushed the boundaries of the canon to embrace work by the dub poet Linton Kwesi Johnson. Should Penguin ever be able to buy their rights, that series would provide a perfect home for lyrics by, say, Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen.

This isn't about redefinition of the "classic", though, but abject surrender. Penguin has with breath-stopping cynicism flogged its crown jewel - a precious place on the roster of the world's most enduring literary works – to the moody maverick. Reportedly, he insisted on the honour as a deal-breaker. It makes those rock-star dressing-room demands, for bowls of blue Smarties or pails of pink Cristal, look unduly modest.

Morrissey merely asked for a niche beside (let's just stick to the Ms) Montaigne, More, Milton, Marlowe, Melville, Machiavelli and Michelangelo. Nice try. "So for once in my life/ let me get what I want…" That he did seems to indicate that Penguin Books – now merged with Random House – has, after 78 blessed years of blending literary authority with popular appeal, ceased to care for anything beyond its bottom line. However strong the book, Penguin's meek capitulation means that it has sold its most cherished brand down the river - or, perhaps, the Manchester Ship Canal.

Penguin Classics began in 1946 with EV Rieu's prose version of Homer's Odyssey, translated during his wartime service as an act of faith in a brighter future of inspiration and education for all. It went on to sell three million copies. How long before Morrissey matches that? Since then, the Classics catalogue has evolved with postwar tastes. Women's writing, non-Western canons, science, travel and (yes) memoirs: all have justifiably stretched the categories of the time-tested book. Until now, though, you couldn't just buy or blag yourself a spot. The singer-songwriter who denounced Margaret Thatcher so vehemently has shown that firepower in the marketplace can blast away every vestige of professional judgment.

Given his songs' flair for phrase, atmosphere and story, Autobiography may well shine within its genre. But even if it doesn't, that black jacket will still lend it an unearned aura. The imprint has been tainted, arguably beyond repair. In "Reader, Meet Author", Morrissey in his tough-guy pose sang that "Books don't save them, books aren't Stanley knives". Penguin Classics once embodied the opposite point of view. No longer. The list has taken a Stanley knife to its own throat.

Threads of hope: voices from the real Greece

Victoria Hislop, whose Greek-set novels The Island and The Thread have topped so many charts, has always given generously back to the country that inspired her bestsellers. On 19 October, she will take a key role in the Southbank Centre's "Greece is the Word!" day, created by broadcaster and critic Rosie Goldsmith as an artistic antidote to crisis-dominated coverage. Hislop will talk to a pair of fine Greek novelists, Alexis Stamatis and Ioanna Karystiani, and later read her own work, with music too (southbankcentre.co.uk).

Tables turned for the foxy lady

I have followed Sarah Hall's career with a cheerleader's enthusiasm ever since, in the hills of Sri Lanka, I judged the sadly defunct Commonwealth Writers Prize that rewarded the Cumbrian-born author for her superb debut, Haweswater. In recent years, her eerie and unsettling short stories have come to the fore; the 2012 collection The Beautiful Indifference picked up awards.

For Hall, "The short form feels wholly suitable for my literary preoccupations and style," which include "the haunted, the sexual, the unspeakable". Now her "Mrs Fox" has won the BBC National Short Story Award, worth £15,000. Its spooky, sensual lady-into-fox metamorphosis nods to David Garnett's classic 1922 novella, while Hall makes the transition entirely her own. Comma Press, admirable Manchester-based short-fiction specialist, will soon publish a volume of the shortlisted stories.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'

film
Arts and Entertainment
<p><strong>2008</strong></p>
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>

film
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book

books
Arts and Entertainment
Panic! In The Disco's Brendon Urie performs on stage

music
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Radio 4's Today programme host Evan Davis has been announced as the new face of Newsnight

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams performing on the Main Stage at the Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park, north London

music
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Mathison returns to the field in the fourth season of Showtime's Homeland

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Crowds soak up the atmosphere at Latitude Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Meyne Wyatt and Caren Pistorus arrive for the AACTA Aawrds in Sydney, Australia

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rick Astley's original music video for 'Never Gonna Give You Up' has been removed from YouTube

music
Arts and Entertainment
Quentin Blake's 'Artists on the beach'

Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beach

art
Arts and Entertainment
MusicFans were left disappointed after technical issues
Arts and Entertainment
'Girl with a Pearl Earring' by Johannes Vermeer, c. 1665
artWhat is it about the period that so enthrals novelists?
Arts and Entertainment
Into the woods: The Merry Wives of Windsor at Petersfield
theatreOpen-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

    Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

    The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

    Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

    Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
    German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

    Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

    Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
    BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

    BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

    The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
    Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

    Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

    Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
    Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

    Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

    Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
    How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

    Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

    Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
    10 best reed diffusers

    Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

    Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

    Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

    There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
    Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

    Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

    It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little
    Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

    Screwing your way to the top?

    Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
    Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

    Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

    Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

    The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

    Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
    US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

    Meet the US Army's shooting star

    Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform