Boyd Tonkin: Time to gather the daring books of May
The Week In Books
Friday 01 May 2009
As night follows day and a juicy book deal follows a crowd-pleasing triumph on a TV talent show, so critics of publishing follies will always accuse the industry of hype. True, even in these skinflint days, bargain-basement writing will attract de luxe publicity if the firm has paid enough to panic about recouping the cost. Yet, this spring, the book business in Britain stands open to exactly the opposite charge. Have you spotted the billboard ads, the excited chat-show discussions, the online teasers and commercial-break slots alerting readers to a Miracle May for fiction? Of course not: they don't exist, and neither could they ever unless publishers opt to smarten up their act and hang together – instead of hanging separately, as they otherwise will.
Contrary to the smug predictions that books will always ride out a recession, sales have dropped during the current crunch. New figures for 2008 in Britain already reveal a small fall of 1.6 per cent in the value of the market – with much worse expected this year. Rolling statistics, which take account of the first quarter of 2009, show a decline of more than 3 per cent. However, pain will be unevenly spread. Well-promoted genre fiction may hold its expensively-coiffed head above the choppy waters, while publishers of ideas-driven non-fiction tell me that tough times seem to have whetted the national appetite for hard thinking.
Every side agrees that one sector above all will suffer a steep downturn: so-called "literary" fiction, however you define that term. But, right on cue for this season of maximum gloom, the next four weeks or so will see a reinvigorating shower of new works from many of the best loved or most promising novelist in Britain and beyond.
If ever there were a moment for publishers to sink their petty rivalries and mount a united-front campaign, this must is it. From AS Byatt (The Children's Book), Kazuo Ishiguro (Nocturnes) and Amanda Craig (Hearts and Minds) through Hilary Mantel (Wolf Hall), Colm Tóibín (Brooklyn) and Monica Ali (In the Kitchen) to Anne Michaels (The Winter Vault), Tash Aw (Map of the Invisible World), Iain Pears (Stone's Fall) and Jake Arnott (The Devil's Paintbrush), the breadth of May's spring spread should make any sane business salivate. Then, in the first days of June, two more novels arrive which might outpeform even this month of marvels: Sarah Waters' The Little Stranger and Carlos Ruiz Záfon's The Angel's Game.
The point is not to proclaim that each of these titles ranks as a modern masterpiece. Rather, their clustered nativity at least proves that ambitious fiction from beyond the rigid commercial categories can make a collective splash. Fatally, no one in the industry will ever think of staging a shared push to celebrate this blossoming. Chain retailers have their own seasonal agendas, while publishers will make a fuss of their own precious babies while striving to cut their competitors' throats.
Only at the non-conglomerate end of the business has the co-operative penny dropped. The Independent Alliance, which brings together ten of the country's most distinguished imprints (such as Faber, Canongate, Profile, Granta and Atlantic), has pioneered joint action on sales and marketing to raise the visibility and impact of their books. Authors and readers should hope that non-aligned bookstores can also act for the general good. The titles I have cited - plus a few more, ideally from the shortlist of the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize - might make an alluring enough display when topped with some suitbably upbeat corny slogan ("Pick yourself a book in May: the month when fine fiction flowers").
At any rate, such a non-partisan jamboree might pass the time cheerfully while the entire trade pines for its September salvation in the guise of Dan Brown's long-awaited return, The Lost Symbol. For Britain's beggar-my-neighbour book people, this year is shaping up to look more like the lost plot.
P.S.By the time you read this, Carol Ann Duffy may well have been confirmed as the new Poet Laureate. After a near-miss a decade ago, when Andrew Motion got the nod, she will assume the post better prepared than any other national poet in literary history. In her 2007 children's collection The Hat, the title poem presents the progress of English verse as it jumps over centuries of inspiration from head to head, mouth to mouth. "Whose head, whose head, whose will I settle on next?" Now the bardic cap fits her; she will wear it well. And how satisfying to see a natural rebel, maverick and mischief-maker ready to take on a role that undue pomposity can kill stone dead. As that celebrated non-laureate, WH Auden, wrote in 1932: "Private faces in public places/ Are wiser and nicer/ Than public faces in private places".
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