Leading Article: A flowering of fine words driven by the dictates of the public

Click to follow
SOMETHING INTERESTING is happening in our cultural life. Welcome to dumbing up. As the book industry holds its fairs and festivals in Frankfurt and (starting today) in Cheltenham, it is in better shape than ever. It is always easy to deride the mass-market blockbusters, especially when they are written by millionaire mayoral candidates. But what is striking, even about the best-seller lists, is how much intelligent life is there. Bridget Jones, the unexpected publishing phenomenon of last year, may be about apparently trivial things, but it is a knowing and parodic treatment that speaks intelligently of the modern condition.

After all, you read her here first. Recent years have seen a string of unexpected brainy best-sellers, including books about higher mathematics, Longitude, a history of 18th-century chronometry, and The God of Small Things, an ambitious first novel by an unknown Indian author. Now the books of Jose Saramago will sell by the lorry-load, because the Swedish academicians have awarded him the Nobel Prize for Literature, a sort of global Booker. Nothing lowbrow about him, and (if we may boast again) winner of The Independent's Foreign Fiction Award five years ago.

What is more significant, though, is what is happening lower down the lists. We are witnessing a flowering of literary fiction and serious non- fiction, which is available to a wider audience than ever. What is most heartening is that it is being driven from below, by new retailers responding to demand from the public, giving us pleasant surroundings in which to drink coffee, read the papers and browse through a wide range of books. Tim Waterstone was the first to spot the trend, and the success of his chain has paved the way for Books Etc, et cetera. Now we have book superstores, such as Waterstone's in Glasgow, and Borders (owner of Books Etc) in Oxford Circus, and the extraordinary success of book-selling through the Internet.

Even WH Smith, which once threatened to slide back to its neonatal state as a station newsagent, is dumbing up. It is marking the 150th anniversary of its first stall, which sold newspapers, rugs, candles and books on Euston station in 1848, with a "celebration" of serious literature, yet another poll of famous authors' favourite books and a big expansion of its range of books.

As for the Net Book Agreement, the anti-competitive price-fixing arrangement, nobody has noticed its demise. Gloomy predictions that its abolition would destroy small publishers and small bookshops have been swept aside by the depth and specialist reach of new technology.

The pessimistic vision of the future, of book retailing being reduced to a rack of best-sellers in supermarkets and card shops, has been confounded by consumer demand - and by the ability of technology to meet it. First, computerised stock control allowed bookshops to hold fewer books and stock wider ranges. Then mail order and Internet shopping allowed publishers to ransack their backlists, while new printing technology made short print runs profitable.

The result of these market forces is dumbing up. Now that we can safely speak to an audience that knows the difference between an irony and a paradox, we can delight in the unexpected contradictions of the flight to quality. It is paradoxical indeed that while television, highly regulated and dominated by a state broadcaster, is rapidly dumbing down, the unregulated private sector is driving books upmarket. This is one of the reasons for being optimistic about digital television.

The rise and rise of the intelligent books market is cause for celebration. To the sour cynics who scoffed at the expansion of higher education and asked what all these polytechnic graduates were going to do, we now have the answer: they buy books. They read them. They may not become better people, but that was never the point. Good books are no longer confined to a secret garden occupied by self-conscious intellectuals, while the rest of the population chew the cud of thrillers and romances. The effect of opening the garden gates has been to increase the intelligence of our national conversation. Among all the literary prizes, that is the prize really worth having.