Boyd Tonkin: This Booker batch heralds a future beyond the print-versus-digital divide
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 26 July 2013
A fortnight ago, in these pages, novelist Andrés Neuman paid tribute to his friend Roberto Bolaño in an essay to mark the 10th anniversary of the Chilean-born writer's death. Over that posthumous decade, plenty of English-language authors have registered admiration – even awe – in the face of Bolaño's tumultuous, cornucopian, multi-dimensional fiction. Yet few have yet channelled its qualities as directly as they have in the case of another early departure who left behind an ever-lengthening shadow: WG Sebald.
Until now. This week's Man Booker long-list includes Richard House's four-volume The Kills: his crime thriller-cum-Iraq War epic-cum-investigation into narrative, violence and global power. Without Bolaño as a pathfinder (as House has explained), the scope and sweep of The Kills would scarcely be conceivable. House's quartet - just out in a handsome print edition – also sports a publishing trajectory that makes one wonder about the technological moves Bolaño might have made had he lived. A "digital-first" project, The Kills began as separate e-books between February and May. These electronic editions add multi-media content that, according to the publisher, "takes you beyond the boundaries of the book" via original videos (www.thekills.co.uk).
Would Bolaño have opted for the multi-media route, or insisted that words themselves transport you "beyond the boundaries of the book"? In any case, House's long-listing coincides with a reprise of The Kills as a chunky, traditional Picador hardback. This weighty artefact shows that, though digital-first fiction may compete for the old-school prizes, it might be a year or two before digital-only works get the Booker judges' nod.
A second long-listed title reveals other new directions for the book. Canongate published Ruth Ozeki's A Tale for the Time Being in four different editions at the same time: hardback (a kind of deconstructed, lightweight assemblage, like a Japanese kominka house), paperback, e-book, and audio version for iTunes. This multiform fluidity matches the drift of Ozeki's story: about a Japanese girl's diary that floats over the Pacific and so instigates a culture-crossing network of yarns in the vein of Haruki Murakami or his sort-of-disciple, David Mitchell.
With House and Ozeki alike, the morphology of publication fits the content of the books. Both explore the mysteries of storytelling and the fractured, fissured nature of our knowledge of other people and the world. We should welcome this firm evidence that the smart publishing of intelligent fiction now means a great deal more than a crude binary divide between near-identical print and digital versions. The future ecology of authorship - or the best possible future - ought to feel more interesting than that. Some books will stick to print as their natural home. Some will orbit through cyberspace and never fall to earth. Many of the brightest writers and publishers will customise platforms and formats to suit each work.
Among these two novels' competitors for a shortlist place will be Jim Crace's Harvest: his rapturously written fable of the old rural ways supplanted by the modern pursuit of "Profit, Progress, Enterprise". Crace never specifies the era of his story but all the signs point to that period in English life when a literate, print-based culture slowly overwhelmed the oral world of verbal customs and agreements. That written order yielded many fruits, among them the printed novel itself. Now a new media landscape, as mixed in its crops as we wish, beckons writers and readers. What do we want it to grow? Beyond the usual sound and fury, this year's Man Booker harvest ought to prompt some open-minded debate about the lie of the post-Gutenberg land.
Hooked on classics: Burton the bibliomaniac
"Home is where the books are," said Richard Burton. The great actor's rampant bibliophilia didn't, alas, get much of an airing in William Ivory's BBC4 biopic, Burton and Taylor. Hooked on classics, he loved Everyman's Library. So Liz bought him the entire 1000 volumes for the library at his house in Switzerland. She also once gave him three sets of the Oxford English Dictionary for different homes – one of them their yacht, Kalizma. Which other floating fantasy owned by A-listers has ever had an OED on board?
On the list, but not on the shelves
One curiosity of this year's Man Booker long-list is the number of titles still awaiting publication. Apart from Richard House's The Kills (see above), in print this week after e-book outings, readers have not yet seen the nominated novels by Alison MacLeod (Unexploded), Eleanor Catton (The Luminaries), Charlotte Mendelson (Almost English), Jhumpa Lahiri (The Lowland) and Eve Harris (The Marrying of Chani Kaufman). Four of these were scheduled for September, though publishers may bring them forward. And those of us involved in the new-born Folio Prize have a banquet of Booker absentees to consider as we choose our nominations: Nadeem Aslam, David Peace, JM Coetzee, Michelle de Kretser, Rupert Thomson, Margaret Atwood, Jonathan Coe, among many others. The Man Booker still counts for a lot, but it's by no means the only game in town.
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