Boyd Tonkin: Morrissey gets what he wants, and Penguin Classics sinks in the Ship Canal
The Week in Books
Boyd Tonkin is Literary Editor at The Independent. An award-winning journalist, he was formerly Social Policy Editor of the New Statesman and has broadcast extensively for BBC arts and current affairs programmes. He has judged the Booker Prize, the Whitbread biography award, the Commonwealth Writers Prize and the David Cohen Prize for a lifetime's achievement in literature.
Friday 11 October 2013
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.
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