The lost boys (and girls)

Some of Tom Boncza-Tomaszewski's favourite writers are slipping slowly into oblivion. In a literary landscape dotted only with juggernauts, the outlook for the quirky is grim

It's a dismal afternoon and I've ended up searching for lost authors on the internet: writers who once had flourishing careers, but who now face extinction. Like many things that occur online, it's a kind of sordid game, depressing even; but it's addictive. I type an author's name into a search field: Marlowe, Gabriel. He cropped up in a memoir I was reading; a mysterious figure who had a critical and commercial success in the mid-1930s with his first novel, I Am Your Brother, a tale of someone who finds he may have a brother hidden in the attic above his studio, fed offal and fairy stories once a day by their mother. I like the sound of it, and but I'm primarily interested in how many copies of it still exist: how much Marlowe there is left in the world.

It's a dismal afternoon and I've ended up searching for lost authors on the internet: writers who once had flourishing careers, but who now face extinction. Like many things that occur online, it's a kind of sordid game, depressing even; but it's addictive. I type an author's name into a search field: Marlowe, Gabriel. He cropped up in a memoir I was reading; a mysterious figure who had a critical and commercial success in the mid-1930s with his first novel, I Am Your Brother, a tale of someone who finds he may have a brother hidden in the attic above his studio, fed offal and fairy stories once a day by their mother. I like the sound of it, and but I'm primarily interested in how many copies of it still exist: how much Marlowe there is left in the world.

I click a button. At this point the website scans the inventory of every secondhand dealer around the world. Generally, however obscure I think an author is, I then receive a long list of the author's work. But - oh dear, Gabriel. I see a single book selling for nearly £400 at a shop in the USA.

The game is entirely Jonathan Coe's fault. "It was fascinating to read through the books pages of the newspapers of the 1960s while researching the Johnson book," he recently told me, referring to his biography of the almost lost author B S Johnson, "and discover that some of the most prominent literary names of that era are now completely forgotten. How many of them were geniuses, I wonder?" I began to have bad dreams: the weirder authors I like all vanishing in horrible ways. Boris Vian getting sucked up a trumpet; Christine Brooke-Rose being deconstructed. Waking feverishly one night, Konstantin Vaginov having been sat on by a satyr, I began my internet game.

Now it's a habit, made all the worse by some other things Coe had to say. Serious authors, he told me, all want to produce work good enough to outlast the time in which they wrote it. "Most editors still feel the same way, but sadly the sales and marketing people who pull many editors' strings these days have a completely different set of values; the result is that much of the best writing in this country is probably not even getting published any more. It doesn't even have the chance to be forgotten! I'm convinced that my own first novel, The Accidental Woman, if submitted now would not get published." Coe is becoming one of Britain's most successful writers of intelligent fiction, so this is a seriously worrying proposition.

I decide to speak to Stuart Kelly, author of The Book of Lost Books, due from Penguin next year. "Literary reputations are predictably precarious," he tells me. "Although one might remember that Iris Murdoch and Muriel Spark were both shortlisted for the inaugural Booker Prize in 1969, memory has been less kind to Barry England, GM Williams and even the first winner, PH Newby." But what about Jonathan Coe's take on the relationship between editors and sales and marketing people? For a moment he's positive: "Penguin Modern Classics did do a good job with some writers I treasure: Alfau, Bataille, Gobbrowicz, Musil, Nigel Dennis, even a volume of Thomas Bernhard." Then the conversation turns to bookshop chains. "Backlist titles, even for big sellers like Peter Carey, are non-existent. The classics sections have been etiolated year on year - I remember when it was a whole wall, not a dismal, waist-high shelf."

I need to find someone who understands how publishing works from an insider's point of view. Leo Hollis has worked as an editor at Fourth Estate and Viking Penguin. He says: "Books disappear because they do not sell and that is for two reasons: they are no good or they are no longer of the times. Selling books is the point of publishing, it has no other reason to exist - it is not an industry set up as a cultural arbiter, former or advocate. No texts are sacred if they do not sell." This is bad news. Most of the authors I like probably don't sell enough copies to pay for a plastic bag to take one of their books home in. But what about new writers? "A budding writer needs to thank his lucky stars that those who went before him are now heading to the remainder shop or the pulper." Thanking Leo, I decide to visit Methven's, a large independent bookshop, to cheer myself up.

Inside, Paul Gray talks knowledgeably to me about literature and bookselling. He tells me that about two-thirds of people coming into the shop haven't decided what book they want to buy and often ask for recommendations. Unfortunately, "the industry tends to go from publishing lots of interesting new books to lots and lots of books that follow them," he says. "It'll probably be a few years now before we get anything interesting again." I ask him why publishers aren't more adventurous. "Publishers are the people you'd expect to follow trends - there's a slight feeling that literary agents should be the ones who should have some integrity. If they have two or three exceptionally well-selling authors they should be willing to take risks on less commercial ones." In addition to Penguin Modern Classics, Paul suggests I take a look at Hesperus Press, or a small independent press like Pomona, who republished Ray Gosling's Sum Total this summer.

Alessandro Gallenzi at Hesperus, publisher of texts that have lain forgotten for years in libraries across Europe, is defiant: "Our policy is to publish solely on literary merit. There is, of course, a place for marketing and publicity, and that place is besides a quality book. One of the publishing industry's toughest challenges is to identify accurately, and to make available, great contemporary books by - what shall we call them? - the Living Lost. And yes, Hesperus is going to launch a new fiction list next year - not to discover the next bestseller, but to promote real literary excellence, in the same way as we do with the classics."

Pomona's Mark Hodkinson has a similar attitude: "Great books disappear because no one cares enough. It's nothing to do with quality but everything to do with profit. In short, major publishers can't be bothered with stuff they consider small-fry. They all want juggernauts when we could have lots of Minis, or push-bikes even." But it isn't just publishers he's unhappy with. "Generally I think the working practice of agents is under onslaught. In the absence of 'proper' books written by 'proper' writers that have previously under-written their profession, they have had to turn to either celebrity cash-ins or quasi-screenplays which they can sell immediately off the page to television of film companies."

Simon Trewin works at PFD, one of the biggest literary agencies. He agrees that in the current publishing climate, many currently successful authors might have been lost. Customer reviews on the Amazon web site for Louis de Bernières' first novel, The War of Don Emmanuel's Nether Parts, show that many people discovered it after reading Captain Correlli's Mandolin - his fourth. So why the pressure on editors to choose books that sell straight away? Simon explains: "If you go in with a sales rep to a bookshop, the first thing they do is look up an author's track record and if they've taken four copies of the author's last book and they've sold two, the likelihood is they won't take any of the next one." You can't be sentimental about books, he tells me, but you do have to stand by authors they think deserve to be published.

He introduces me to a colleague, Caroline Dawnay, one of the most senior agents at PFD who represents many well-known authors and several estates, including those of Hilaire Belloc and Nancy Mitford. She tells me about her struggle to get the Pakistani writer Bapsi Sidhwa, author of three novels including 1988's The Ice-Candy-Man, back into print. "I'm finding it very frustrating that somebody so good isn't available; moreover that she's not available in schools." Sidhwa features in Colm Tóibín and Carmen Callil's The Modern Library: 200 Best Novels in English Since 1950, where her work is described as "a brilliant evocation of the prowling roots of religious intolerance".

"It comes down to market forces in the end. If books are kept in print and nobody's buying them, it's a problem." I ask her how she sees her role as an agent. "For me it's the good writing which is absolutely crucial and therefore when I do find it, I'm inclined to spend more time just because I feel passionate about it. For example, five years ago I read an issue of the TLS which was dedicated to matters Arabic - it was before 9/11, well before. I spent nearly two years trying to find English language copies of the writers who were named by a number of academics as the greatest living novelists in Arabic." One of these was Tayeb Salih, whom she now represents.

So much more than a book disappears when an author is lost. The efforts people like Caroline Dawnay put into their work can, over time, shape political opinion and cultural attitudes. It's what Virago tried to do in the 1970s with writers such as Antonia White, and one of the reasons why imprints like Hesperus, Penguin Classics and Pomona are so important today.

Everybody seems agreed that market forces dictate what is getting published. Unlike most other kinds of artist, authors have to rely on businesses if enough people are going to experience their work. Market forces can, however, be hard to interpret. It's easy to see why promoting a book is so important, but less simple, for example, to assess the effect inexpert booksellers can have on shaping demand.

With publishing houses being parts of larger corporations, shareholders' interests are bound to take precedence over those of readers. In this context, if a book sells, it's got to be good. The trick an editor has to perform is to convince the corporate powers that a book might be good. The truth is a very human one: some booksellers, agents and publishers have more confidence than others and perhaps it's only their nerve which prevents authors from being lost.

I check Gabriel Marlowe again - he's still there, one step from nowhere.

FIVE FORGOTTEN GEMS

Thru (1975)

by Christine Brooke-Rose

Poetry borne on the wings of Derrida: a novel about the theory of the novel, and perhaps only intended for those wonderful people truly obsessed by such things.

The Woman With the Flying Head and Other Stories (1997)

by Yumiko Kurahashi

This anthology, drawn from previous collections like Creepy Little Stories (1985), combines gender politics with mathematics, Japanese folk tales and aliens.

Crisis Cottage (1956)

by Geoffrey Willans

Willans, author of the Molesworth books, was one of our greatest comic writers; his flawed "grown up" novels are all touched by genius.

L'Ecume des Jours (Froth on The Daydream) (1947)

by Boris Vian

A heart-breaking love story and a satire on celebrity - a surreal classic by a painfully undervalued author.

Cardinal Polatuo (1965)

by Stefan Themerson

An account of Appollinaire's anonymous father which includes a Freudian Dictionary of Traumatic Signs to explain the Cardinal's obscene dreams.

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