Writers, booksellers and publishers are already exploiting the wizardry in the latest IT revolution
Now that the Great Panic of 2000-2010, the world of print’s freak-out at the threat of digital, is subsiding, at least in the world of books, we can begin to discern the shape of the future and enumerate the potentially positive aspects of this historic paradigm shift.
Make no mistake: as in every previous IT revolution, there will be (already is) a creative dividend. For instance, the print boom of 1590-1610 liberated Shakespeare and his successors, from Jonson to Donne, and sponsored an explosion of ephemeral publications, the inky compost that would nurture the best of the Jacobeans. Similarly, in Edwardian London, new media shaped the careers of Joseph Conrad, Arthur Conan Doyle, Henry James, and countless others. Heart of Darkness was first published as a magazine serial.
I’ve no doubt that, with the benefit of hindsight, literary historians will note that the first decade of the 21st century witnessed some equally profound shape-shifting in several familiar genres.
Take biography, for example. Life-writing has traditionally focused on the exploration of the single, outstanding individual. Such books, written in the shadow of Boswell’s Life of Johnson, will always be a staple of most publishers’ lists, although not as automatically as heretofore. George Eliot would not object. Biographers, she said, are “a disease of English literature”.
Lately, however, a new kind of biography has been slouching into view. There is, in fact, a mini-boom in multiple lives, books that explore the adventitious connections between assorted near-contemporaries. A distinguished example is Michael Holroyd’s A Book of Secrets, an enthralling study of the passionate interactions among Virginia Woolf, Violet Trefusis and Vita Sackville-West. In an arresting manoeuvre, Holroyd actually puts himself (the “elusive biographer”) into his narrative.
So does the Australian biographer Evelyn Juers, whose exceptional House of Exile takes the lives of Heinrich and Thomas Mann (and their wives) and develops a quasi-fictional narrative that links Woolf (again), Bertold Brecht and Walter Benjamin.
Both Holroyd and Juers are doing something radical and innovative that redefines their chosen genre. Further down the food-chain, I note that Tim Jeal has returned to some old territory in his forthcoming study of Livingstone and Stanley, Explorers of the Nile.
In good new fiction, for which a fundamental originality must be the prerequisite, there will always be innovations. Here, too, new print technology has had a role. Perhaps the biggest change in contemporary storytelling has been the rise of the manga novel. The Observer has played its part in this, as sponsor of an annual prize for a graphic short story. Is it fanciful to see the episodic structure of David Nicholl’s bestseller One Day as unconsciously reflecting the influence of manga, or possibly television ?
And then there is the new vogue for sci-fi, a genre recently said to be defunct. When you find a writer of Salman Rushdie’s stature choosing to explore the potential of the genre you have the distinct possibility of a memorable crossover.
Actually, there’s hardly a mainstream genre (fiction, history, children’s books, poetry) that’s not undergoing significant change, attributable to the liberation of the new technology, from ebook to Kindle: poets developing apps, JK Rowling linking Harry Potter to cyberspace, would-be novelists launching their work as ebooks.
As omnivores, contemporary readers have become adept at switching from high to low culture at the click of a mouse, moving from codex to ebook to audio. This is the shape of the future: a bonanza of print on many platforms. All that remains to be settled – the $64,000 question – is: what should be the economic terms of trade? How do we reconcile the gospel of “free” with an obligation to reward the artist?
It’s too soon to evaluate the significance of all this. Sailors on the high seas are the last people to give a reliable forecast, even when they have the most intimate experience of the weather. The book world has been through a perfect storm of economic, technological and cultural change. It will be the creative community that enjoys the benefits. How that happens is probably the most fascinating question facing writers, booksellers and publishers today.
Is that really your title? You Cnut be serious…
Do book titles matter? Opinions vary and there’s no doubt that titles absorb a lot of pre-publication anxiety. Still, we are bound to ask: would The Great Gatsby be the 20th-century American classic if, as Fitzgerald suggested, it had been titled “Trimalchio in West Egg” or “The High-Bouncing Lover”? There have certainly been some narrow escapes. Gone With the Wind began as “Baa Baa Black Sheep”. One word titles (Shame; Money; Disgrace; Ulysses) often do well. But lesser writers, such as historians, should tread carefully. MK Lawson is about to publish a biography of a famous Angblo‑Danish monarch that might benefit from a rethink. His title? Cnut: England’s Viking King. Somehow, I don’t see WH Smith putting that one in the front window.
Mao takes top prize – but not without a fight
The Samuel Johnson, usually the most benign of literary prizes, blew the vuvuzela of controversy twice over last Thursday. Chaired by the serene and bonhomous figure of Ben (“Operation Mincemeat”) Macintyre, the panel awarded its glittering trophy to a blistering account of the Great Leap Forward – Mao’s Great Famine by Frank Dikotter (Bloomsbury) – barely a chopstick’s throw from the Chinese embassy on Portland Place. Not content with teasing the paranoia of the People’s Republic, Macintyre merrily reported this result as the upshot of “a terrible fight” between his fellow judges. Sadly for the gossips, the panel wore Chinese smiles, and gave nothing away, at least while the cameras of the BBC’s Culture Show were rolling.