When the hype becomes the story
As Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light is released this week, Alexander Larman examines the over-excitement of high-profile releases
Unless you have been self-isolated with the coronavirus over the past few weeks, it has been impossible to escape the hype that has accompanied the imminent publication of Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light, the final instalment in her trilogy of novels about Henry VIII’s most powerful minister Thomas Cromwell. It has been a considerable time coming (its predecessor, Bring Up The Bodies, appeared in 2012) and notice of its publication was not offered through the usual channels of a press release, an author interview on the Today programme or the like, but instead with an imposing-looking billboard appearing in Leicester Square in May last year, exhorting the curious ‘So now get up’. It was formally announced the following day, and the excitement has persisted ever since.
Now, with the book finally coming to our high streets and online emporia this week, the dam of anticipation has broken. I learnt while walking past my local Waterstone’s earlier that, if I buy a copy of The Mirror and the Light, I will receive a complimentary Hilary Mantel gift card. Even as I wondered what this would involve – a signed portrait of Dame Hilary looking regal, perhaps? – my attention was drawn via social media to yet another laudatory review. Stephanie Merritt wrote in The Observer that ‘it feels redundant to state that The Mirror and the Light is a masterpiece’ and lauds the trilogy as ‘the greatest English novels of this century’. And Robbie Millen, the frequently caustic literary editor of The Times, praised the book as ‘an extraordinary act of historical imagination’. The implication is clear. If you do not read it, your life will be a poorer, shabbier one as a result, and you will be rightly excluded from any decent intellectual society.
Not everyone has been quite as willing to accept that the book is a totemic work of genius. Millen also drew attention to its staggering length – 875 pages! – as he noted that ‘Detail accumulates, joining forces with digressions and asides, to slow the pace of the story to snail speed…like Henry VIII, bloat has set in.’ His fellow reviewer Peter Kemp, writing in the Sunday Times, was harsher still, describing the book as ‘a painfully slow read’, and concluded that the novel was ‘more a phenomenon of amassed information and tireless enthusiasm than triumphant creativity.’ It remains to be seen whether posterity comes to regard Kemp’s or Merritt’s verdict as the more accurate one, or if the truth lies somewhere in between.
The implication is clear. If you do not read it, your life will be a poorer, shabbier one as a result
Yet the intrinsic merits of the book do not matter. It is the most hotly anticipated publication of 2020, and will undoubtedly sell a vast number of copies. There is even a documentary airing on BBC2 at peak time a couple of days after publication, Hilary Mantel – Return to Wolf Hall, which promises ‘exclusive and extensive access to one of the world’s greatest living writers’. Documentarians followed Mantel for six months while she was completing the book, which is undeniably a comprehensive feat, but, given the largely undramatic nature of most writers’ lives, it seems excessive. Even if the eventual film does not feature endless scenes of watching her furrow her brow and wasting time on social media while she should be typing, one can guess at what it will involve: scenes of her wandering round libraries and archives, talking to historians and a lot of earnest discussion about what the novels have attempted to achieve. Those of us who would prefer to see something of the seamier side of the writing life – arguments over advances and bitching about other authors, for instance – are likely to be disappointed.
As someone who had to stop watching the BBC adaptation of Wolf Hall because I was overcome with hysterics when I realised that the dynamic between Damian Lewis as Henry VIII and Mark Rylance as Cromwell was essentially the same as Ralph and Ted in The Fast Show, I am not necessarily the ideal reader for The Mirror and the Light. Nonetheless, like most historical writers, I am glad that Mantel’s success has brought about an opportunity for history to be brought out of the classroom and the lecture theatre and translated into people’s lives and everyday discussions. If nothing else, Cromwell is now a universally recognised figure, albeit via the prism of a novelist’s art, and anyone with any interest in the Tudor period will be able to find that their enthusiasms are now shared by far more people than hitherto.
However, this literary and historical boost is distinct from the real motivation behind the tidal waves of hype that the book is currently surfing upon, and that is because balance sheets demand it must be that vital thing, a publishing phenomenon. The previous example of this was the publication in September 2019 of The Testaments, Margaret Atwood’s long-awaited sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale. Atwood, a brilliant novelist of considerable achievements, had the grace to look mildly embarrassed at some of the more eye-catching examples of the publicist’s art. At the book’s premiere event at midnight, she was surrounded by silent red robe-clad women, a reference to the ‘handmaidens’ of her books, and her expression of faint discomfort implied that she might have been more comfortable with the more traditional launch accoutrements of a publisher’s speech, a few glasses of tepid white wine and the hope that the stacks of literature before her might all be sold on the night.
If Mantel and Atwood’s books are Event Publishing at its most ostentatious, then those coordinating the publicity around them have learnt from precedent. The Harry Potter series of books had increasingly elaborate and ornate campaigns, especially after the film adaptations began in 2001. By the time that Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows appeared in 2007, their publisher Bloomsbury had invested tens of millions in promotion, which included JK Rowling launching the book at the Natural History Museum in a nocturnal event. They need not have bothered; stories about apparent leaks and fervent speculation as to the fate of much-loved characters dominated the press for weeks before the book came out. Still, as it has sold untold millions of copies, with 11 million sales in the first 24 hours of publication in the US and UK alone, nobody was complaining that their investment had gone awry.
Over-excitement at the release of something high profile is no new phenomenon. Those over 30 will probably remember the hysteria with which the release of Oasis’s third album Be Here Now was greeted in 1997. As the critic John Harris put it, ‘To find an album that had attracted gushing notices in such profusion, one had to go back thirty years, to the release of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.’ Many music critics had been wrong-footed by the public acclamation for (What’s The Story) Morning Glory, and so they were determined not to be embarrassed again. However, the album was a colossal dud, the end of the Britpop era in musical form, and many writers were deeply embarrassed later when it became clear that their lofty accolades bore no relation to the all-but-unlistenable record that was released. Even its creator Noel Gallagher would describe it as ‘fucking shit’ and, when confronted by overenthusiastic fans praising his songs, would retort ‘Mate, look, I wrote the fucking thing. I know how much effort I put into it. It wasn’t that much.’
One cannot imagine Hilary Mantel having a similar conversation with her admirers in the street. Any novel that takes eight years to write is likely to be an extremely thoughtful and considered piece of work, and whether or not it is her masterpiece, its success will be good for the publishing industry. Bestselling books subsidise smaller, riskier ventures, after all. But as an admirer of Mantel’s less grandiloquent earlier work, including Fludd and An Experiment in Love, I can only hope that the undoubted freedom that her Wolf Hall trilogy will offer her emboldens her to do something different next.
Just as admirers of the director David Lean may regret that he gave up making such delicate films as Brief Encounter in favour of grandiose epics – Lawrence of Arabia and Dr Zhivago and the like –many could wish that Mantel’s next book will be smaller in scale and size. It may not be accompanied by Waterstones gift cards or in-depth documentaries, but, without the devastating tsunami of expectation swamping its publication, it may even be – and I know that this verges on sacrilege for many, so I will whisper it – a greater achievement still.
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