New genre: check-out prose

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The Independent Online
It's a bit hard to swallow, if you believe in the perfectability of man, that the only thing that's kept us from literary barbarism all these years is the Net Book Agreement. Isn't there some quality of mind in the marketplace, some ambition of imagination even in the most hardened marketing manager, that we can look to for the sustenance of letters, no matter what trade protections are or are not in place?

Apparently not. Only observe America, which has no Net Book Agreement, and where the tyranny of the bestseller (discounted, naturally) is such that everyone you see reading is reading the same book, because that's all every bookshop and kiosk is selling. I exaggerate? All right, the same six books. All of them trash. I exaggerate? All right, five of them trash.

And what's the recommendation that sells these same six books? The fact that they are already selling. Selling and therefore reduced and therefore selling. A bestseller is a bestseller because it is a bestseller. The sole reason for reading it is that many people are buying it. Thus does the commerce of fiction become its content.

On hearing that HarperCollins, Random House and Penguin had pulled out of the Net Book Agreement, Tony Campbell, trading director of Asda announced that this was "great news for our shoppers, who have voted with their feet", and made them a pledge. "We guarantee that the books we sell will always be the lowest on the market." Out of the mouths of babes and trading directors.

That readers have nothing better than sales figures or their feet to go on when they come to choose a book, and so might as well shop for it at Asda, is partly the fault of a timorous intellectual community. Our good writers shrink from contest with the bad, hide themselves away, take satisfaction in the receipt of obscure prizes and fellowships, and become mesmorised by that popular success which they fear will never, and maybe should never, be theirs.

And we are still all so starry-eyed about reading, neo-Victorians as we are, that it feels illiberal to argue that much of what passes for reading is nothing but print-induced torpor. As a consequence, we lack aesthetic discourse, an ethical and philosophical language for the discussion of that social evil of mass obedience we call popular reading. Tony Campbell of Asda is braver than most of us. He can't wait to call the "lowest" the "lowest".

Well, we have our chance now if it really is to be a fight to the death for space. Let those writers who don't write "low" address readers in the future, instead of one another. And let the campaign of ridicule begin against that merchandise which, after all, rightly belongs in the bargain baskets of supermarkets.

The writer's latest book, `Roots Schmoots' is published by Penguin and available from all good bookshops, undiscounted.