Thomas Sutcliffe: Snakes alive! I hope this gimmick doesn't take off

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The Independent Online

I got a review copy through the post the other day, accompanied as usual by an excited publisher's blurb. This one led with the phrase "Never mind the hype", which is invariably a sign that a skip-load of hype is about to be fly-tipped on your driveway. And so it proved here, although there was a twist.

In what was described as a "ground-breaking research project", John Murray had sent early proofs of Michael Cox's novel The Meaning of Night to 600 members of the general public. Exactly why this was described as "research" isn't entirely clear to me. Murray were already committed to publishing the novel, so it wasn't as if they were asking their sample bookworms to serve as literary gatekeepers.

What they really wanted was infectious enthusiasm - and their panel didn't let them down. "Dickens meets the Da Vinci code" wrote a reader described as "Female, aged 55-64, Camberley, Surrey" while "S.Rowe, aged 25-34, Wigton, Cumbria" unleashed a thesaurus entry of approbation: "Fantastic, awesome, first-rate, marvellous, sensational, wonderful, superb, stunning, impressive and amazing". Come on, S Rowe, make your mind up.

The thinking must be that these encomia have a value that the usual jacket puffs won't. The fellow-author might be log rolling, the professional reviewer might be subject to metropolitan bias, but these ordinary readers in Prestatyn and Belfast are somehow unimpeachable. Perhaps Murray hopes that Richard and Judy might be jostled into featuring the book in their reading club - or simply that they will prime the pump for a genuine word-of-mouth success - but whatever the case, the central idea here is that a culture built on public response is somehow more direct and honest than one imposed from above.

A similar idea is at play in the release of Snakes on a Plane, which bypassed the critics altogether, so confident was it that it didn't need the tailwind of professional recommendation (or even critical notoriety). Indeed Snakes on a Plane - already a byword for pure high-concept Hollywood pulp - took its enlistment of public taste one step further. The script had been turned down by 30 studios before a mention in a blog provoked an internet flurry of pastiche and comment, which then fed into the making of the movie itself. Lines of dialogue suggested as a parodic joke were incorporated into the final film. This is scarcely unheard of in Hollywood, where test screenings have long blurred the distinction between creators and consumers. But how long before a publisher takes John Murray's marketing innovation to the next level for books too - inviting a readers' panel to advise on plot lines and publication?

There are precedents for this in real literature, of course, most famously Dickens's rewriting of the last chapter of Great Expectations, which bowed to popular taste. But, however democratic and attentive to consumer power the trend might be, I can't help hoping that it remains an exceptional gimmick rather than becoming the rule. Because that old repudiation of elitism - "I don't know much about culture, but I know what I like" - is logically reversible. To know what you like, in short, is not to know much about culture, which depends on the awkward and the rebarbative for its vigour. The public can give you a bestseller and a box-office hit, but they can't give you the book and the film that changes public taste, and those are what really matter.

Modern life has too many distractions

Perhaps Iain Banks was just playing to the crowd when he told an Edinburgh Book Festival crowd that he'd lost three months writing time to the computer game Civilization - but if not the scale of his delinquency (and his candour) was impressive. In the end, Banks, left, says he actually had to physically break the game's discs in order to get some work done. Of course, writers have always found ways to postpone the confrontation between an anxious imagination and the accusing blankness of the empty page - but modern writers have it particularly bad in that their writing pad is also a cornucopia of distractions. Nineteenth century writers may have frittered and dodged - but at least the paper itself wasn't sitting there saying "Oh, come on ... just one quick game of Solitaire". In fact the computer is so murderously good at killing time that it's a wonder novels still get finished at all.

* The reflex anti-Bush gags about the President's intelligence have always struck me as rather lazy and dull - a life-ring for a floundering stand-up. Even so I blinked a bit when I saw that Camus's The Stranger was on the President's holiday reading list, and had apparently provoked a debate about existentialism with his new press secretary. Indeed I thought it was a gag, given mordant edge by the fact that Camus's novel revolves around the motiveless murder of an Arab. How will this information play in Baghdad I wonder? Or in Idaho, where the reading of fancy-pants French novels is not a conventional badge of manhood. But I hope the President found the book tough going, and that its take on the irrationality of human impulse gave him at least momentary pause. If there's anything his administration needs it's a bit less certainty.