Books Columns

Beyond unthrilled by all the hype

When a new major title by a big cheese arrives, expect a tidal wave of rolled logs

This article is taken from the April 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

The world was very young when the Secret Author published his first novel. Mrs Thatcher was in Downing Street, there were five “quality” Sunday newspapers, university creative writing departments had barely been heard of and, wonderfully, it was still possible to make a living out of book reviewing. The volume in question sold just over a thousand copies, attracted half-a-dozen reviews, some of them in magazines that no longer exist (does anyone remember Books and Bookmen, I wonder?) and went into paperback. Everyone, not least the proud author, was modestly pleased.

In those far-off days, no great fuss was made of debut works. Publishers used to issue them in batches of four or five a season, see if any of them caught on and not shed too many tears over the negligible sums squandered on the failures.

Modern marketing techniques came late to publishing, but when they did they hit with a vengeance

Funding was meagre, and the Secret Author’s advance, once the agent’s fees had been deducted, was enough to pay the rent on his flat for about four months. In cases where the firm responsible was even more niggardly about publicity or even getting the books out to the literary editors, there was a standing joke. Your novel hadn’t been published, neophytes were informed; it had been privished.

Modern marketing techniques came late to publishing, but when they did they hit with a vengeance. There had always been hype — even in the 1930s critics were complaining about the Sunday reviewers who declared that if the work under review didn’t make you sing with joy, then your soul was dead — but it tended to confine itself to a select band of individual books and authors. Parties, “events” and general razzmatazz were not only considered vulgar; they were a waste of money too. The Sixties maverick Anthony Blond once claimed that if you invited literary editors to a sherry party they would only have too much to drink and leave their copy of the book being promoted in a taxi on the way back to the office.

Here in 2021 a very different set of rules applies. Few books in the mainstream publishing scene creep out of the warehouse without anyone noticing. On the contrary, they come garlanded with puffs, the promise of “spend” (i.e. marketing money) and all-round enthusiasm.

This tendency is especially noticeable in the arts preview pages of newspapers in the dead early January season. The i, for example, recently served up a list of no fewer than 75 selections, and was (ironically) congratulated by the TLS diarist for being able to digest and confidently pronounce on such a prodigious number of books in so short a space of time.

And this is just the smaller fry. When it comes to a major title by a big cheese, then a tidal wave of rolled logs starts to splash through the national press. How, to particularise, did the Guardian treat the arrival of Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light, the final volume in the trilogy begun by Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies, in the week or two before it hit the shelves last March?

Well, they began with a mammoth interview of the great lady by Alex Clark, solicited a page-full of admiring quotes by celebrity fans and then offered their readers a coupon that would enable them to buy the book at half price.

The eventual appearance of a two-page “Book of the week” review, in which Alexandra Harris reckoned that “this is a masterpiece that will keep yielding its riches, changing as its readers change, going forward with us into the future”, was entirely superfluous, for you just knew that anyone who had dared to file a negative notice would have been thrown out into the street.

Few books in the mainstream publishing scene creep out of the warehouse without anyone noticing

Among other impressionable encomiasts, the Daily Telegraph’s Sarah Perry admitted to having wept as she turned the final page, while even the TLS’s usually austere Edmund Gordon went on about dazzling new lights cast on the tarnished mirror of the past.

None of which is to disparage Ms Mantel, her zealous publicists or even the people charged with reviewing the darling work. After all, livings have to be made and the more novels like The Mirror and the Light there are on the bookshelves, the less space remains for rubbish.

The only drawback to this flood of congratulation is that a certain kind of reader sees through it, diagnoses a put-up job and turns horribly sceptical. If I read on Twitter that a certain well-known author, given a copy of a novel by her slightly less successful young friend, reckons herself “beyond thrilled” then my automatic assumption is that both judgment and book are worthless.

Publishers would sell more copies of their books if they were honest about them. Looking back at that antediluvian world of Books and Bookmen, the Sunday Correspondent and £500 advances, you might think that there were worse fates than to be privished. You might also spare a thought for all those independent presses for whom “publicity” means not much more than a complimentary bookmark.

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