Every two years for the past 12, I have published a novel. Not a strategy, just the way it's fallen out. I was a late starter, but I don't think I've been trying, consciously anyway, to catch up; though it could be that what you don't do in your twenties you will need to do later on. Certainly I began to fear, with every passing birthday, that I wasn't after all going to make it as a novelist, unless you could be a novelist without actually writing a novel. I kept a mental list of how great writers of the past were doing at the same age. Lawrence published his first novel when he was 26, so he didn't help when I got to 27. Henry James's Watch and Ward was serialised when he was 28 and Scott Fitzgerald published The Great Gatsby at 29, so they too were dispiriting once I passed 30.
George Eliot and Joseph Conrad kept hope alive. George Eliot was 39 when Scenes of Clerical Life came out, but as that wasn't a novel proper I only needed to start counting seriously from Adam Bede, published when she was 40. I got a decade of consolation out of that. And a further lifeline when I calculated she was 52 before she brought out Middlemarch. Fifty-two! I had bags of time. As for Conrad – if I turned a blind eye to Lord Jim and Heart of Darkness, he was nearly 50 when he published his first incontestably great work, Nostromo. Offset against that, though, was the fact that English wasn't his native language. How many years do you deduct for that?
We live longer now, so I have less reason to congratulate myself on being alive, barring accident, to see a 12th novel published. But at 40, with nothing to show but a half share in a book on Shakespeare, I never thought I'd get to one, let alone a dozen. You can value novels too highly; I was so dazzled by novelists that I didn't believe myself worthy to be one. For years, I'd lie on my bed in different locations of disappointment reading the spines of novels on my shelves and speaking aloud the names of their authors – Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Ford Madox Ford, Gustave Flaubert, Miguel de Cervantes – convinced that my name simply didn't have the ring – the music, the gravitas – that theirs did. All questions of genius aside, my monicker was just wrong.
Now, every couple of years – always, it seems, about this time – I buckle up for publication and the responsibilities that go with it. You don't have to religiously do the festivals, but I have a market-trader background and understand that if you want your wares to sell you have to sell them. I also like turning up in Edinburgh when the flags are flying, or Hay-on-Wye when the tents are pitched and the duckboards out. I exaggerate only a little when I say I see these festivals as medieval tourneys and myself as a sort of Lancelot of the page, come to woo – well, whoever, when it comes to prose, is wooable.
There is, I confess, some contradiction this year in my looking forward to reading to festival audiences from a novel which – though a comedy – is not flattering about the condition of reading in our culture. According to my hero, Guy Ableman – readers of this column won't be slow to detect a joke against macho in that name – the book is over, kaput, had it. I won't rehearse his arguments here. And they are his, not mine, though of course I wouldn't be bothering with him if I didn't, for all his preposterousness, think he sometimes has a point. A novelist himself – a failed novelist, naturally, since there's no fun in writing about successes – he is not exactly an uninterested party. Failures have a stake in failure, as his wife understands. "He thinks everything's fucked," she says, "because the world suits him that way. A fucked world explains Guy Ableman to Guy Ableman."
But no one who cares about reading as a civilising activity can fail to be alarmed by the closures of libraries and bookshops, the decline of "whole book" teaching in schools, the capitulation of the printed book to its electronic in-law (not necessarily a disaster in itself, but we await the long-term consequences and already we can say it takes the "touch" out of reading), the spectacle, in the electronic media, of immoderate and uneducated opinion passing itself off as judgement, the Potterisation of a substantial percentage of the reading public for whom "page-turning" is the only criterion – it isn't that Fifty Shades of Grey feeds fantasy that bothers me (such works are always with us: guns for the chaps, tight breeches for the ladies), it's people from whom you expect discernment saying the badness of the writing is immaterial – in other words, an all-round disrespect for seriousness.
There I will be, anyway, lamenting the passing of reading to audiences many of whom will have come a long way because reading is their passion. Yes, there is a paradox here. Literary festivals go on being zestfully attended. New events in London such as Book Slam, the Literary Salon at Shoreditch and 5 x 15 are attracting rhapsodic younger crowds to what are virtually literary nightclubs. Great fun they are to read at, too. And, in the meantime, just about every living English novelist you have ever heard of has a new book out. Is this what decline looks like?
Your guess is as good as mine, but what if the "literary event" is poised to take over from actually reading a book, and what if the feverish output is the final paroxysm before decease? I'm looking forward to entertaining audiences with that thought. That's the other paradox: pessimism is exhilarating.
Howard Jacobson's new novel, 'Zoo Time', is published on 6 September by Bloomsbury
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