Boyd Tonkin: The ice-pick that pierces publishing's weak and soporific heart

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The Independent Online

Anglo-American publishing likes to pretend that it's a free-thinking, open-minded arena of creation and discussion where taboos have no place and only talent counts.

Anglo-American publishing likes to pretend that it's a free-thinking, open-minded arena of creation and discussion where taboos have no place and only talent counts.

Total humbug. Within fiction in particular, commercial pressures and a soft ideological conformism have joined forces to limit what can be said, and who can say it, to a degree that would impress an ayatollah.

Take a "difficult", low-selling, cliché-busting woman novelist who cares deeply about the excellence of her prose. She fails to stick with a subject but turns a beady eye on one controversial theme after another - such as botched Western "help" for Africa in the excellent Game Control (1994). To cap it all, this leftish but heretical American expat insists on calling herself Lionel.

Then the dangerous - and childless - maverick dares to write a high-school massacre novel. It deals not with acceptable grief, healing and touchy-feely community values but with a selfish, ruthlessly intelligent prima donna who hates motherhood generally and her own creepy, malevolent kid in particular.

We Need To Talk About Kevin turns out to be an awesomely smart, stylish and pitiless achievement. As Lisa Gee wrote in The Independent's review, it "forces the reader to confront assumptions about love and parenting, about how and why we apportion blame, about crime and punishment, forgiveness and redemption".

So does the book business beat a path to Shriver's door? On the contrary. She could hardly get arrested, let alone published. Even her agent hated the novel. And the big firms would always prefer another dose of brainless, happy-ever-after chick-lit or lad-lit.

Franz Kafka once wrote that a book should be the ice-pick that breaks open the frozen seas inside us, because the books that make us happy we could write ourselves. With We Need To Talk About Kevin, Shriver has wielded Kafka's axe with devastating force.

So all honour to the Orange judges for striking a blow in favour of energising literature against soporific pap.

Serpent's Tail, her creative and far-sighted British publisher, also commands respect for choosing to go where the conglomerates feared to tread. Run by the inimitable Pete Ayrton, Serpent's Tail can now boast both the Nobel laureate - Elfriede Jelinek - and the Orange victor on its list.

That tells you much about Ayrton's vision and taste, but even more about the sheer timidity and ignorance of much corporate fiction publishing in Britain.

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