BOOK REVIEW / Fat books in a world that wants to be slim

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The Independent Online
THE NEW year message from Britain's publishers is that they are cutting back. Several larger firms have announced that they are shrinking their lists by up to a quarter. This was widely supposed to be happening already, but in 1992 publishers' sails (if not sales) were anything but trimmed: 78,835 new titles were put forward, a 16 per cent increase over 1991.

It has become common to refer to this as 'overproduction', and to cite the fact that Britain produces more books than the United States, for a population only a fifth the size. That anyone other than publishers' shareholders should see this as a problem is puzzling. Readers, certainly, should be thrilled to have a book trade, even one grimacing over low sales, so energetic and various.

Besides, the unhappy story of falling sales and mountainous returns is contradicted by reports from booksellers, who keep announcing buoyant results. So maybe it is only the publishers of novels, poetry and biography who are getting that sinking feeling; perhaps those corners unhaunted by criticism and publicity - the Mind, Body and Spirit section, the how-to-make-a-million-and still-watch- TV books - are thriving.

In any event, if publishers really want to slim down, there is no shortage of fresh advice, in their own lists for 1993, on how to do it. There's even something called The Made to Measure Cookbook, though who can say what exactly the book is designed to fit? Actually, it measures 258 by 215 millimetres, so will probably slip neatly into a microwave.

Luckily, the publishers don't seem to be taking their diet too seriously. Anyone wanting to spend the first half of 1993 reading nothing but new books will have a wide choice, and a good time. There are dozens of original or highly original novels, which is not saying much, since there is also one 'completely original' work, as well as a new Henry Miller who is, as we know, 'one of the most original' writers of the century.

But it would be a pleasure to wallow in the forthcoming fictions of, for instance, John Updike, Louis Begley, Jackie Collins, Shena Mackay, John Banville, Ed McBain, Armistead Maupin, Penelope Lively, John le Carre, Ismael Kadare and Ben Okri (with the sequel to his Booker- winning The Famished Road). This is a varied enough group, by any standards - and we haven't even mentioned Vikram Seth (an expensive, much-vaunted and, at 1,300 pages, anything but slim signing), Robert Ludlum, Catherine Cookson, Christa Wolf, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Peter Taylor, Barbara Taylor Bradford, and a new spliced-together fragment by James Joyce called Finn's Hotel, which will get the Joyceans going. Oh, and guess what: Scruples II, by Judith Krantz.

All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy has already won astonishing praise in the US ('a genuine miracle in prose') and will probably do so here. He is perhaps the least well-known famous writer in the West, but this might be about to change. Roberto Calasso is an Italian novelist of whom great things are hoped: two of his titles will be published in Britain this year. The Truth about the Savolta Case by Eduardo Mendoza, a stormy narration of events at a Barcelona armaments factory in 1917, has been voted by El Pais the best Spanish novel of the last 15 years. Finally, there's a spirited-sounding novel by Roddy Doyle (who wrote The Commitments). The new one is called Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha - and sounds absolutely dreadful ha ha ha.

The biography machine continues to run at full throttle: there will be lives of Mrs Gaskell, Jean Genet, Nixon, Freya Stark, Daphne du Maurier, Tennyson, Philip Larkin, Georges Perec, Malcolm Lowry and E M Forster - and, you can be sure, many, many others, including a fistful on Hemingway: the Paris Years. And of course there is - what a brilliant idea - a definitive book about someone called Marilyn Monroe, with many hitherto unpublished photographs]]]

The autobiographical urge has also fallen on Helen Suzman, Peter Hall, Barbara Castle and Boy George. But perhaps the most exciting memoirs will be those composed by people to whom amazing things have happened, such as Boris Yeltsin, or the sailors who clung to the wreckage of their trimaran in the South Pacific for 119 days (Capsized). It's a pretty good bet that John McCarthy and Jill Morrell's story (Some Other Rainbow) won't go unnoticed, but Roger Cooper's account of his own long incarcaration in Tehran's Evin jail has, to put it mildly, a less mushy title: it is named after the sentence he was given, Death Plus Ten Years.

People say that no one writes essays any more, but this year there are plenty of straight-from-the-hip thoughts from fine writers. If you don't feel like Cynthia Ozick's literary essays (What Henry James Knew), or another collection of Stephen Jay Gould's incomparable slices of evolutionary life (Eight Little Piggies), perhaps you'll turn to Umberto Eco's pleasantries, Edward Said's stern critique of cultural imperialism, Samir al Khalil's equally stern analysis of fashionable Arab West-beating, or the fierce American reflections of Andre Dubus.

There are any number of scary apocalyptic scene-setters, of which the coolest and most learned might be Paul Kennedy's Preparing for the 21st Century. The best short cut will almost certainly be Ronald Dworkin's The Meaning of Life and Death. Go ahead: read it. It would be nice to know, you must admit - and the joke is, he might not be joking.

There will be, in the coming months, a fairly noisy advertising campaign on behalf of the top 20 young British novelists. And there will be a rather quieter launch of Central European Classics, edited by Timothy Garton Ash. There will be two sobering pieces of reporting: David Grossman is busy interviewing Palestinians (Sleeping on a Wire) and Tony Parker has been winding his sympathetic tape recorder in front of the people of Belfast (May the Lord in his Mercy).

There will be three books about the same Russian serial murderer (Ivan the Terrible), but there is only one Alan the Terrible, so we shall have to wait and see whether the diaries of Alan Clark (in June) will set hearts a-fluttering among the nation's arms dealers. There are two books called Raven, and two called Complexity, so be careful.

There's a book about American lawns, with the hard-to-credit claim that there are 20 million acres of mown grass in the US. There's a new, non-fiction Tom Clancy, in which the author of a fine sub- aqua gripper (The Hunt for Red October) for some reason explores 'communication, navigation, weaponry and noise suppression'. And here comes the first tasteless Gulf war thriller about zapped Iraqis. There will be lots of this, and plenty of that, and plenty won't be much cop, but lots will be riveting. Who's complaining?