Round-up: what do these books tell us about literary culture in 2021?
As the old adage does not quite have it, you wait all year for a book about contemporary literary culture to come along, and then three arrive at once. Not that the new books by Nicholas Royle, Rick Gekoski and Chris Paling are, on the face of it, especially similar to one another. Royle’s is a memoir about his obsession with collecting Picador paperbacks, Gekoski has written a book about some of his exploits in the field of rare book dealing, and Paling has published a journal about both his struggles as a “mid-list novelist” (there is no lower category, he notes) and a rather nasty bout of ill-health. Yet all three share some vital DNA, in that they, perhaps inadvertently, cumulatively represent a collective eulogy for a dying profession in which artistry and a love of literature have been slowly edged out by hard-nosed commercial concerns.
Royle’s book is the most straightforward of the trio. Beautifully produced by the independent publisher Salt to have the authentic feel of the black-and-white Picador paperbacks of the Eighties and Nineties, Royle’s narrative is relatively modest. He has collected these inexpensive but stylish editions of literature for many years, and offers an idiosyncratic and enjoyable tour of the bookshops that he patronises, the characters that he encounters and, of course, the books themselves. Picador paperbacks tend to cost only a few pounds, so his hobby is not an expensive one, but Royle manages to make the vanishing world of the second-hand bookshops – and, in his scrupulously even-handed account, their charity rivals – seem like an enticing and almost romantic place to be in.
The rare book dealer Rick Gekoski, however, moves in rather more rarefied strata. His world, which is entertainingly chronicled in Guarded by Dragons, is one in which impossibly rare first editions trade hands for ludicrously high amounts of money, and where original manuscripts by legendary writers are sold at auction for seven-figure sums. Gekoski is on first-name terms with many of these figures, but is often unimpressed by them. Both John Fowles and William Golding, whose archives he catalogued and helped sell, are distant and grand figures whose antipathy towards Gekoski is flavoured with anti-semitism, and there are many other score-settling anecdotes and walk-on appearances by bookdealers, writers and archivists. One imagines that Constable’s lawyers read this manuscript with more than usual care.
Yet Gekoski also writes candidly about his weariness with his profession. When one has bought and sold a couple of first editions of The Waste Land or Ulysses, there is no particular thrill to acquiring it again, even if it will realise an even fatter profit when it is sold once more. He conveys the joylessness of an arid, rather bleak world in which the mega-wealthy turn these books into commodities, to be traded for profit every few years. Even the most fascinating and rare of items will pop up with the predictability of death and taxes, briefly appearing in a London or New York auction house before disappearing into a temperature-controlled library once again.
Someone whose books are unlikely to find themselves in oligarch’s collections is the novelist and screenwriter Chris Paling, whose journal A Very Nice Rejection Letter chronicles his creative and financial struggles and a particularly brutal instance of hospitalisation. Paling at one point refers to the radio sitcom Ed Reardon’s Week, about an increasingly hapless middle-aged novelist, and suggests that it acts less as comedy and more straightforward reportage as far as his own career is concerned. Anyone familiar with both will find a surprising number of similarities between the two, not least Paling’s character of the Promising Young Director who shows interest in adapting one of his screenplays for film, only for the project to be derailed amidst Paling’s struggle to maintain his artistic integrity in the face of rewrites.
I was never entirely sure how funny A Very Nice Rejection Letter was supposed to be. It is frequently hilarious, and Paling is undeniably a skilled writer, but I felt that much of the comedy came from the Pooter-esque distance between his own perception of his worth and the increasingly cool reception that he receives from his publishers. At one point, a new editor becomes excited by his manuscript, and Paling allows himself to believe that he will be returning to relevance and that his once-cherished reputation as “a literary stealth bomber” will be enhanced. He is quickly disabused of this when he is informed that the advance offered will be £1000, something that he is so appalled by that he immediately instructs his agent to ask if a zero (or two) has been left off the publisher’s offer.
The book at least ends relatively happily, with some meta-literary commentary on the sale of A Very Nice Rejection Letter itself, but the impression that I took away from both Gekoski and Paling’s books was of men in late middle age who were looking back on former glories with nostalgia, while simultaneously regarding the modern world with justified distaste. As Lord Rochester once wrote, “past joys have more than paid what I endure”, but what Gekoski, Paling or Royle can only hint at, rather than explicitly suggest, is that the era of the middle-class white male literary novelist has come to an end, shunted off into irrelevance by changing social mores and book purchasing habits.
These men might all enjoy a certain degree of standing in the literary world – even if Paling’s evocation of a group of writers assembling in a pub once a month to bitch about agents and publishers and refusing to buy anyone else a drink is a bit New Grub Street for comfort – but all of them know that, if they were attempting to begin their careers now, they would find it nigh-on impossible even to get noticed. Some may see this as a necessary, even welcome, corrective towards decades of male dominance of the profession, whereas others might bemoan the increasingly woke direction in which publishing has headed.
Either way, these entertaining, beautifully written and deeply personal books may represent the end of a literary tradition that has lasted since the 19th century, which can only be regrettable from both a historical and a social perspective.
Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print
Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10Subscribe