Boyd Tonkin: Remember the art behind the apps
The week in books
Boyd Tonkin is Senior Writer and a columnist at The Independent. An award-winning journalist, he was formerly Literary Editor at The Independent, and before that Social Policy Editor and then Books Editor at the New Statesman magazine. He has broadcast extensively for BBC arts and current affairs programmes and has judged the Booker Prize, the Whitbread biography award, the Commonwealth Writers Prize and the David Cohen Prize. In 2001, he re-founded the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize for literature in translation, and serves on its judging panel every year.
Friday 30 December 2011
In 1982 a prolific writer of children's fiction travelled up to London from his home in rural Devon to attend the Whitbread book awards. His latest title, already well received, was expected to win in its category. It didn't. After a disconsolate return journey, he had a call the next day from a friend and neighbour – another author. The neighbour, a poet, made some stoical and soothing remarks about the sheer lottery of literary prizes and suggested the pair go fishing. And so Ted Hughes and Michael Morpurgo did. As for Morpurgo's War Horse, thwarted at the Whitbread long ago, its spectacular afterlife across new media and audiences will take another turn in two weeks' time with the release of Steven Spielberg's film.
Books, and their authors, survive and evolve in ways that no one can plausibly predict at the moment of publication. At this time of year, it's always instructive to look ahead at forthcoming movies and register again how deep a debt the screen still owes the page. The Hollywood take on Stieg Larsson's Girl with the Dragon Tattoo has arrived, with not only War Horse in the offing but the George Clooney vehicle The Descendants (a novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings), swiftly followed by The Woman in Black (from Susan Hill's ghost story and stage hit) and The Woman in the Fifth (originally by Douglas Kennedy). And so the year will roll on with the accustomed stream of adaptations, to culminate in two mouth-watering versions of Booker winners: Deepa Mehta's film of Rushdie's Midnight's Children, and Ang Lee's of Martel's Life of Pi.
Hardly any of these precious global properties began life earmarked for successs. In book form, most tiptoed hesitantly into an indifferent world, sustained only by the talent of their makers and the faith of discerning publishers or agents. Larsson had already died by the time that the first Millennium novel appeared in Sweden in 2005. Rushdie, at the birth of Midnight's Children, had put his name only to an overwrought debut, Grimus. Life of Pi looked like an eccentric folly from a little-known maverick. Even War Horse, although much loved from the off, had fluffed its golden chance in the book-award stakes.
To underline the long-haul resilience and adaptability of good books may sound like labouring the obvious. Not, however, if you have spent the day immersed in the latest prognostications of book-industry professionals. Of course, they all drone on unstoppably about digital developments and the next moves in electronic publishing. Beyond the swiftly-mutating technology, with which they really do need to keep abreast, book folk know that they can win jobs, promotions and general kudos by seizing a prime position in the digital vanguard.
But this techno-fetishism has a glaring downside. You will listen in vain for any recognition from the industry's trend-setters of the true value of authors' vision and imagination, rather than of the price, or performance, of the latest gizmos that carry their works. In an era of technological turmoil, you might have thought that publishers would grasp the need to act as nurturing homes for literary creativity while the platforms for its distribution change so fast. Instead, they bang on about gadgetry with all the eloquence of a teenage temp in Currys, but without the slightest nod to the individual skill and style on which this vast hi-tech edifice will rest. No wonder that so many authors are now asking whether they should make use of the digital revolution to go it alone and cut out the middlemen.
Not once in the most recent round of book-trade soothsaying did I catch the faintest note of humility in the face of the creative flame that fuels every corner of this business. The cherished successors to War Horse, to Midnight's Children, to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, will occupy a place on our pages, screens, tablets, e-readers, smart phones and so on because authors have reached out to touch us as they always have, whatever the intermediary device. If publishers want to remain within this magic circle, then they could do worse than resolve that 2012 should be the year that they remember to respect the art behind the apps.
Digital sagas, past and future
Across print and electronic formats, Amazon's bestselling title in 2011 was Walter Isaacson's biography of the late Steve Jobs (right). Not much of a surprise, perhaps. Less predictably, the life of the Apple guru also surged to the top – or very near the top – of the book charts in Spain, France and the Netherlands during the run-up to Christmas. Jobs's renown as a visionary genius tends to overcome doubts about the business models he espoused. Not so, thus far, for Amazon's chief Jeff Bezos. And 2012 will see him embroiled in epic battles over Amazon's role and remit – not least in continental Europe. How high will his reputation stand come the next new year?
Scrooge starves the shelves
Against stiff competiton, this year's prize for the most purely Scrooge-like behaviour among cost-cutting library authorities goes by acclamation to Redbridge council in east London. Via the Vision agency, a "charitable leisure trust" which now manages the borough's libraries, the council made 15 library staff redundant on the Tuesday before Christmas. Some are senior figures with many years of service. In yet another spin on one of the familiar stories of 2011, it turns out that the payroll savings involved – of around half a million pounds – will more or less match the cost of upgrading a central library in Ilford. Redbridge does not actually plan to shut down any of its 13 branches. But – protestors take note – budget cuts can leave library provision much enfeebled without councils having to risk the media embarrassment of boarded-up buildings. Thanks to the Ilford Recorder for this salutary, if sadly unseasonable, Essex tale. The name of the reporter, by the way, was Tim Dickens.
Game of Thrones
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