This is how it used to work: you wrote a book, people read it, it made you a star. Not any more. Writers are making their reputations before they've published a word

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Can a publisher predetermine the critical reception of a book? This March, you are sure to hear, sooner or later, of The Debt to Pleasure, by John Lanchester, easily the most hyped novelistic debut since Vikram Seth's A Suitable Boy. Lanchester's book has been pre-emptively applauded as "the publishing event of the year" and as "the most brilliant and original novel to appear by an English author for a decade" - not by the critics, but by his own publishers, Picador. In case, that is too muted for the book-reading audience, Picador has also predicted that the novel will take its place alongside the "great international bestsellers: Patrick Susskind's Perfume, Donna Tartt's The Secret History and Peter Hoeg's Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow".

Structured as a kind of elaborate cookbook, The Debt to Pleasure is narrated by the fastidiously fatigued Tarquin Winot, gourmet, aesthete and murderer. There is a sumptuousness and Nabokovion hauteur about the prose, but also an oppressive knowingness of tone that doesn't always ring true. Still, the hype appears to be working. The Debt has been sold to publishers in Canada, Germany, Italy, Spain, Japan, Sweden and Brazil. Lanchester has become a rich man without selling a single copy of his book. And one could happily write off its success as no more than cunning marketing were it not for a strange phenomenon.

At the Frankfurt Book Fair last October, Picador held a party at which Lanchester congenially received his admirers - Japanese translators, Italian scouts, Polish scribblers. After the event, the fair resounded to the sound of his name - but people seemed to be speaking about the book exclusively in the terms prescribed by the publisher. Comparisons were being made - as though they were original thoughts - with Donna Tartt and Patrick Suskind. More than once I heard the book described as "the publishing event of the year". And back in England, the same phrase began to appear in previews of spring fiction...

What it seems Picador has done with its cleverly calculated campaign is nothing less than try to control the terms on which the novel will be assessed, to pre-arrange future interpretations of one of its titles. It's quite a concept, the publisher-as-critic: very postmodernist.

Hype in the mid-Nineties is a matter of pre-arranging fame. In 1812, Lord Byron could write, "I awoke one morning and found myself famous,'' after the first two cantos of his sprawling narrative poem ''Childe Harold's Pilgrimage'' were received with rapture on their publication. In 1996, publishers are so skilled and assiduous at creating an aura of pre- publication expectation that writers can achieve a kind of fame long before they have published anything at all.

Jon Riley, who bought The Debt for Picador, concedes that there's a danger that the hype may, in the end, work against it. ''I think people are rightly suspicious of publishers' pre-publication celebrations,'' he says. ''But you only get the chance every so often in your life to make the claims we've been making about John's novel and get away with it. I'm encouraged that other people are using the same kind of language as we are about the book, even though they don't have a vested interest in it.''

Tim Adams, literary editor of a national Sunday paper, says, ''Although I feel we are always going to be susceptible to hype, I am suspicious when a publisher starts to talk up a book. They are under pressure to produce one new sensation each season, and, of course, you can't expect to do that. Publishers also seem obsessed with finding new young writers - the next big thing - when I think they would be better served investing in some of their more established names.'' What does he think of the Lanchester? ''Oh, it fully justifies the hype: it's an exceptional novel.''

Another way in which publishers can guarantee interest in a first novel is to pay a lot of money for it. Evelyn Waugh gave this advice to an aspiring writer: ''Reviews matter very little in the case of a novel. The important thing is to make people talk about it. You can do this by forcing your way into the newspapers in some other way.'' Two young writers who have broken free from the ghetto of the book pages are Martin Bedford and James Hawes, both of whom made front page news when their novels Acts of Revision and A White Merc with Fins were bought by Transworld and Cape for large bucks.

A lecturer at Swansea University, Hawes has written an excitable, hectic debut about an indolent graduate who dreams of robbing an establishment he calls ''Michael Winner's Private Bank''. As with the Lanchester, the book is receiving the full treatment. ''I photocopied White Merc 25 times as soon as I'd bought the book,'' says publisher Dan Franklin, ''because you have to get everybody in the office saying it's great, even editors from other divisions.''

The reason for this excitement is mostly money. ''If a publisher has paid a lot for a book, then he is going to promote it,'' says the agent and publisher Christopher Sinclair-Stevenson. ''It's so difficult to get anyone interested in a first novel that, when you publish one you believe in, you must try to get everyone behind you. If you continually tell your sales and marketing departments that you've bought a masterpiece, they eventually believe you.''

Ursula MacKenzie, publishing director of Transworld, points out that the only way to create interest and expectation in novels for which the promotional budget is small is to decorate the jacket with encomia. Among the most vigorously puffed debuts of the moment are Catherine Fox's Angels and Men, over which fellow Penguin authors Barbara Trapido and Pat Barker expressed great enthusiasm; and David Huggins's The Big Kiss, on whose jacket the names of Will Self, Stephen Frears and Stephen Fry are daubed like slogans. That Self and Fry are also among the most prolific puffers in town may not diminish the force of their recommendations.

MacKenzie says: ''We often send out our first novels to writers and celebrities to see if we can get some good quotes. Sometimes this is the only way you can help a first novelist. We did this with Kate Atkinson's [Whitbread- winning] Behind the Scenes at the Museum, for which we were lucky enough to get a fabulous quote from Margaret Forster which we put on the front of the proof. We were also lucky that Kate's novel has a breadth of appeal; I don't think you can say the same about the Lanchester."

As for Lanchester himself, he is acutely conscious of the burden of expectation that's been placed on him. "It's like I've been dragged slowly up to the top of a roller coaster,'' he told the Bookseller in a recent interview, "and now I'm about to be let go...''

Comments