Boyd Tonkin on Rushdie: "Will fiction boom in the gloom again?'

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The Independent Culture

To no one's great surprise, Midnight's Children has won the online public vote to pick the 40th-anniversary "Best of the Booker".

The bookies stopped taking bets on Salman Rushdie's climate-shifting comic historical epic – the novel that launched a post-colonial carnival of fiction from Halifax to Hyderabad. It took 36 per cent of the votes cast. While no exact ranking for the shortlist has emerged, it seems fair to assume that JM Coetzee's Disgrace also polled strongly. As a Booker judge when Coetzee prevailed in 1999, I'm pleased that our bleakly brilliant choice has taken its place as one of the truly enduring novels of its time.

With a turnout of only 7801, this was hardly Big Brother. But Ion Trewin, the Man Booker prize administrator, felt surprised and heartened by the tilt towards youth in the age profile of voters: 20 per cent were 24 or younger, and 47 per cent under 35. The bulge in younger participants looks, as he says, "very encouraging for everybody who wants serious fiction to be appreciated". It may also have helped Rushdie (below), whose novel is as canonical as Middlemarch.

Already the winner of the "Booker of Bookers" in 1993, Midnight's Children now boasts a brace of anniversary triumphs under its capacious belt. This is apt, since its success (along with the titanic battle between Anthony Burgess and William Golding in 1980) transformed the contest from a coterie parlour-game to a mass-appeal spectacle. Rushdie's victory marked, with a flourish, a changing of the literary guard.

As a fresh wave of financial fear rolls in, remember that the literary-fiction boom of the early 1980s, which he helped steer, took place against a backdrop of recession, anger and anxiety. Yes, this period also saw the ascent of the serious novelist as media star and the focus of marketing stunts. Still, the talent spike was real: Rushdie, McEwan, Amis junior, Barker, Barnes, Ishiguro and others made high-level British fiction a growth industry - and an export asset. In these years of Thatcherite hard pounding, Tim Waterstone brought his benign revolution to high-street bookselling while innovative new publishers such as Bloomsbury and Serpent's Tail gambled, and won.

So: do bad times breed good books? More frugal spending patterns can benefit small discretionary purchases over larger ones: a £10 book rather than a £100 meal. Less tangibly, a more sober social mood may nurture creators who aim high. In retrospect, the trough of the Thatcher slump looks like a recent peak across the arts. Literature aside, Channel 4 launched in 1982; the Leighs and Bleasdales sparkled on screen.

This time, ambitious authors who want to buck recession will have to harness all the wizardry of the net to reach new readers, foment debate and (not least) sell books. It will be tough, but feasible. Prizes and PR draped Midnight's Children in a tinsel wrap, but under the glitz it managed – like every landmark novel – to voice a new world in a new way. The world still turns, and churns; the brightest writers still capture its unruly energies. Would it be such a paradox if, once again, hard times mean high times for fiction?

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