Top novelist feels pressure to 'dumb down'

Arts Correspondent,Arifa Akbar
Tuesday 07 October 2008 00:00 BST

Margaret Drabble, one of Britain's leading novelists and biographers, believes her publishers are pushing her to "dumb down" her work to appeal to a larger readership.

At a meeting of alumni in her old Cambridge University college, Newnham, Dame Margaret suggested that she felt pressure from Penguin, to "rebrand" her fiction, The Independent has been told. At the discussion, alongside the novelist Sarah Dunant, she said: "I have had a weird feeling that I'm being dumbed down by my publishers and it's interesting there's an agenda of how it should be in the marketplace."

Dame Margaret, 69, who takes over as chair of The Society of Authors, added: "I'm amazed they are even trying it on."

Few would doubt Dame Margaret's position in today's literary firmament. In a career spanning more than 40 years, she has written 17 novels and seven works of non-fiction as well as earning a CBE. Dame Margaret, who turned up to discuss the state of literary culture with Ms Dunant, revealed to Ms Dunant she had had a tense conversation with her publishers: "She [Dame Margaret] ... expressed the view that her publishers wanted to remarket her in some way, that there was some need not to let the work just stand on its own.

"My impression... was that there was a certain amount of trepidation in putting this to her (from her publishers). She had given them short shrift. She felt that at this moment in [one's] career, who could need to be remarketed or repackaged?" Ms Dunant said. Ms Dunant said Ms Drabble was annoyed that publishing houses to market authors as "semi-celebrities".

"There is also... anxiety over the whole role of prizes in this. We have more prizes than ever before. Who are they really for? Are they to celebrate the writer and the work or is this another arm of marketing in the books trade? Looking at publishing ... it has been saturated with the notion of the creation of celebrity as a marketing opportunity ... There has to be a box, a place they can put you. I just find it annoying but it doesn't stop me from writing exactly what I wish to write. This conversation between Margaret Drabble and myself was part of the larger observation that everything needs to be packaged, that writers cannot be who they are," she said.

Later, Dame Margaret told TheIndependent she understood that her publishers were under pressure to market her books but added: "I do feel publishers are under very strong pressure to sell books rather than encourage long-term readers. They have not asked me to dumb down ... but I have a feeling there's a problem. I write literary novels but I can sense my publishers have difficulty in selling me as a genre ... whether in literary fiction, or women's fiction or shopping fiction. They don't quite know whether I'm highbrow or literary," she said.

Ms Dunant said that Dame Margaret felt passionately about aspects of celebrity branding. "She feels strongly about the notion of celebrity. I said to her 'you were very successful very young. Was that lovely or was it difficult?' and she said it was lovely because it wasn't like this then.' The notion of celebrity comes partly with ownership of your work, as if people take shares in you. There's very little wriggling room for artistic change and endeavour," she said.

Penguin was unavailable for comment last night.

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