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Boyd Tonkin: In the era of mass free publishing, we need taste-makers more than ever


Boyd Tonkin
Thursday 26 July 2012 17:03 BST

Critical gate-keepers, editors, curators, arbiters, judges – all those sifters and assessors so abused in the pseudo-democracy of the online self-publishing age: come back, there is nothing to forgive. In fact, we could do with many more of you.

A few months ago, I wrote an appreciative review of Tan Twan Eng's exquisite second novel The Garden of Evening Mists. It gloomily argued: "That a novel of this linguistic refinement and searching intelligence should come from a tiny Newcastle imprint tells us a lot about the vulgarity of corporate publishing today."

That's the glass-half-empty position. On the other hand, even if the conglomerates had failed to nurture a writer of his calibre, a small independent outfit – Myrmidon Editions – had exercised better taste. Now Tan has justly won a place on the Man Booker long-list.

Beyond the usual roll-call of famous absentees (some reasonably overlooked; at least a couple not), this year's prize long-list revives a fine Booker tradition. It switches the spotlight onto good fiction promoted by niche, boutique and kitchen-table publishers. Along with Tan, both Deborah Levy's Swimming Home (And Other Stories) and Alison Moore's The Lighthouse (Salt) find a place in the final dozen. None of the three pocket-size indies on the list exists to flatter the populist free-for-all in publishing that attracts so much lazy approval these days. Quite the reverse.

In poetry and (more recently) fiction, Salt has always applied the most exacting standards. As for the subscription-based newcomer And Other Stories, its model points the way towards a future for quality fiction. Most of its books so far have been translations. Recent highlights include Carlos Gamerro's post- Falklands fantasia The Islands, and Oleg Zaionchkovsky's Moscow satire Happiness is Possible. Online discussion among the publisher's broad community of supporters can sway the choice of titles. Subscribers certainly have a voice, but a voice that joins a chorus of informed and involved stakeholders.

So, yes, new media can help to open up the channels of assessment and selection – but in a form that lifts rather depresses the level of editorial decision-making. The gate-keepers may multiply, but the process of judgment matters as much as ever. To enlist the jargon of political theory, a venture such as And Other Stories depends on a deliberative model of choice, not a plebiscitary one. Even with an online tribe of reader-editors, curating a list means more than just weighing the votes.

In a healthy publishing landscape, such collaborative editing should still leave room for strong-minded indies who publish a few books a year simply because a couple of committed individuals love them. Whether one mind or many makes the choice, what matters is that they pick the brightest and boldest in their field rather than drift with the current and follow the herd. This isn't "elitism" but exactly the contrary: a respect for your readers, and a determination that they should not have to waste time by wading through industrial volumes of rubbish.

Once publishers have done a proper job, then so should the professional critics. That includes prize juries. This week it emerged that, even in the trough of a double-dip recession, 18 candidates have bid to take over from Orange as sponsors of the prize that used to carry its name. In a time of low-cost, zero-editing online publication, as hundreds of thousands of would-be novelists fling their literary babies out into the digital void, the arbiters of taste face a heavier workload than ever.

As the stampede to succeed Orange shows, the perceived value of their role will rise rather than fall. At every stage on the publishing highway, the keepers of the gate will still stand guard. And rightly so.

Colombia flies the flag for literature

On Colombia's national day, its London embassy marked the award 30 years ago of the Nobel Prize to Gabriel Garcia Marquez. In his speech the ambassador, Mauricio Rodriguez Munera, had no hesitation in calling the novelist "the greatest Colombian". How long is it since we would have heard such a title easily bestowed on a living British author – Charles Dickens in the 1860s? And how many events have UK embassies ever held to honour three recent Nobel laureates: VS Naipaul, Harold Pinter and Doris Lessing?

Pay those taxes: Zadie tells us why

Among notable Man Booker omissions this year, I feel saddest about Zadie Smith. Her novel NW (due in a few weeks' time) represents a new development in an astonishing career, still only a dozen years old. Never mind. It (and she) will triumph elsewhere. In the meantime, Smith continues to grow as a public intellectual whose eloquent marriage of head and heart can generate a language of conscience that today's politicians can only envy. The New York Review of Books carries a wonderful essay by her in defence not only of the public libraries of her Willesden childhood, but of the enabling state that taught, inspired and healed her. "To steal another writer's title: England made me. It has never been hard for me to pay my taxes because I understand it to be the repaying of a large, in fact, an almost incalculable, debt." HMRC should send this out with every tax return.

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