I don’t approve of reviewing terrible books; The William McGonagalls of the world have always been with us, and press space is at such a premium that I usually make sure I’m recommending something good rather than complaining about lousy writing. But over the last few years a pattern has emerged whereby a poorly written book has become a huge worldwide success.
The most obvious starting candidate was ‘The Da Vinci Code’, but even Dan Brown’s adventure had a redeeming quality; A Dickensian determination to keep the reader turning the pages, with short chapters, recaps and simple actions filled with fast-reward puzzles. I didn’t dislike it – in the seventies ‘Jonathan Livingston Seagull’ became a bestseller, for God’s sake – although what was an utterly unoriginal pulp thriller came to assume a bizarre level of importance after the Vatican became the publishers’ stooge by pronouncing sentence upon it.
This season, ‘Fifty Shades Of Grey’ (never a more apt title) was forced into the public consciousness by a PR machine seeing easy cash in selling the Mills & Boon sex-kinks of repackaged fan fiction to suburban non-readers for whom sex with a light on is the height of erotic experimentation.
Then there’s the ubiquitous ‘Before I Go To Sleep’ by SJ Watson, a Groundhog Day of vague inept writing that someone dosed with horse tranquilliser could follow without concentrating. Now, I wish Mr Watson well, and am thrilled he has sold her novel to 42 countries, because his editors clearly understand something I’ve failed to grasp; that some people will read a farrago of lazily observed, repetitious cliches and take pleasure in it.
My issue is not with the writers, who after huge amounts of publicity come to believe that, like rock stars, they are interesting. The point here is that bad novels are not chosen by the reading public. Readers are not generally stupid – for a start they want to read, and develop discernment. But publishing is subject to the law of economics and ‘differentiated branding’, so it falls to the editor and his/her professional readers to decide which books will get a big publicity spend thrown at them.
For much of the 20th century, publishing houses were run by those who actively sought out excellence and presented it to the public. Inevitably the industry fell into bad habits, like all others subject to the economics of mass production. Perhaps there’s nothing and no-one to blame except the economy, which we now know doesn’t actually work. The problem is self-perpetuating – if ‘Twilight’ is a hit, why not publish more?
A question, then; if the public buys whatever is the most promoted, when it comes to books why not promote the most excellent? The public will still find ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ and that will reach its own market level. Put the money into Hilary Mantel’s astonishing sequel to ‘Wolf Hall’, ‘Bring Up The Bodies’. Is it such heresy to suggest the promotion of something above the bottom line and the lowest common denominator?