Because you can't have depths without surfaces.
Linda Grant, thinking about clothes, books and other matters.

Thursday, 17 January 2008

The world is all that is the case


The dire record of mainstream British publishers (not to mention the US, but that's a separate story) in publishing foreign fiction is exposed by this piece by Joan Smith in the Guardian today on the funding cuts to small presses like Arcadia which go out of their way to find foreign fiction which has been rejected by everyone else, as being uncommercial. I have been on the receiving end of this philistinism from the English-speaking world by American publishers whose rejection letters rave about my work but then say, in sorrow, it is 'too British.'

So with alacrity I co-signed the letter together with 500 other writers, including Doris Lessing, Alan Hollinghurst, James Kelman, Graham Swift and Lady Antonia Fraser, complaining about Arcadia's 25 per cent cut in Arts Council funding. Joan writes:

Believe me, there is no other way for such writers to get published in this country. The dreadful state of mainstream publishing is an open secret; profit and celebrity are what drives the industry, and marketing departments don't see either in a promising young Polish or Croatian novelist. Earlier this week, one of the country's most distinguished publishers told me he had snapped up a Swedish crime novel, which has been a runaway best-seller in Scandinavia, after it was turned down by just about every mainstream house in London.

This kind of risk-taking is almost unknown in commercial publishing these days. Mainstream houses are more interested in publishing Russell Brand and Jeremy Clarkson than confirming Britain's role at the heart of an expanded Europe by bringing the best European fiction to British readers.

It's precisely that narrow, philistine view of culture that's been confirmed by the Arts Council's drastic cuts to small publishers. That's why so many of us are up in arms, trying to save the government from a catastrophe that is entirely of its own making.

5 comments:

Toby Wollin said...

In the US, I think that one major determining factor for this is the growth of the book mega-chains like Barnes and Noble, Borders, Waldenbooks, etc. to the detriment of the privately-owned book sellers. Unless you are in a major city, the only book seller you have access to (either physically or over the internet) are one of these people. They are the Wal-marts of books (and let's not forget that Wal-mart also sells books and dictates heavily to publishers)and their orders to publishers dictate what gets published. This has encouraged horrific garbage out there (I blame the entire "chick lit" movement on this) and has lessened the tendency of the buyers at the chains to take on anything that is small, new, risky, or intellectual.

Tessa Pugh said...

Dear Thoughtful Dresser, can you please tell me where "the world is all that is the case" comes from? Is it a quote? The reason I ask is that my (deceased) uncle put it in one of his paintings (before they got really weird) and I have never understood what it meant. It didn't occur to me that it could have been a quote until now. Thank you very much.
Tessa

Linda Grant said...

It's Wittgenstein

fromneardc said...

Yes, Wittgenstein on a fashion blog. This might be the first time that's ever happened!

Vernunft said...

"In the US, I think that one major determining factor for this is the growth of the book mega-chains like Barnes and Noble, Borders, Waldenbooks, etc. to the detriment of the privately-owned book sellers. Unless you are in a major city, the only book seller you have access to (either physically or over the internet) are one of these people. They are the Wal-marts of books (and let's not forget that Wal-mart also sells books and dictates heavily to publishers)and their orders to publishers dictate what gets published. This has encouraged horrific garbage out there (I blame the entire 'chick lit' movement on this) and has lessened the tendency of the buyers at the chains to take on anything that is small, new, risky, or intellectual."

This is entirely misguided. The nature of the retail level is far less important than consumer preferences. Indeed, you hint at this when you say that the chains' orders to publishers dictate what is published. But this is always the case. What retails well (that is, what consumers prefer) will shape production, because publishers want to publish things they can sell. The things that sell are things retailers order. Retailers order things their consumers want. It's consumer preferences, not horizontal consolidation in the book market, that's driving publication of trash (if there is more trash published).

The economies of scale possible with consolidation in the retail market actually makes it efficient to distribute more varieties of books. It's quite possible that more obscure stuff gets published, because the retail distribution networks are profitable enough to encourage both retailers and publishers to enter new markets. Small booksellers, like the small dealers and worthy men, are less efficient - that's why they lose out. If you're saying that good books are only possible when there is some lost value (in the form of less efficient retail distribution), then the game is not worth the candle.

You're wrong that only major cities have these small dealers and worthy men, of course. They are independent booksellers all over. Thus, if you really want inefficiency, you can always get it to appease your misguided conscience.

Publishers are publishing in every field all the time. Why? Because the internet allows anyone, anywhere to buy books from anyone else. The local market power of the large bookstores that you decry doesn't exist except in your imagination. Amazon exists; private sellers exist. I can get A Commentary to Wittgenstein's Tractatus from any number of people online. I'm not stuck with what my local store has. Indeed, no one's been stuck for a long, long time.

Blame consumer preferences for bad publication. And open your eyes and see that there are a lot of good books being published now.