High Culture, Low Culture
….the recent talk of books and football brings us on to the next point several of you raised yesterday, viz, that you can read Proust and also read Viz. But conformity is pushed onto us in the world of books too.
There’s a distinctly middle-class feel to many literary festivals (Cheltenham is probably the most obvious example) that promotes gentle unthreatening reading, and while there’s nothing at all wrong with that I wonder why there isn’t an edgier festival too. The SF, fantasy and horror genres have all been deeply damaged by being co-opted into the mainstream. The experimental novel has, as far as I can see, vanished altogether.
I can’t remember who said it, so I’ll have to paraphrase; ‘Take the thing your critics hate most about your first book and build your entire career on it.’ How else will we create something original and idiosyncratic?
My Kindle reading list is not much different from my iPhone music mix; it features seasoned performers and undisciplined first-timers. Robert Harris’s Cicero trilogy gives us an intelligent, thoughtful mainstream author at the top of his game, Kate Atkinson does the same although she can be a little remote, Jane Harper is a terrific new crime writer. But pick up recommendations for a handful of self-published debuts and you sometimes find a flawed diamond (only flawed because they haven’t been through the editorial process).
With the limited success of Amazon’s reading programme in the UK it may be that the omnivorous corporation will stop trying to remove the author from the reader/publisher equation (they’ve been trying to destroy the traditional author-publisher relationship for years now), but they’ve made it hard to find new authors. What’s important now is the little strap-line attached to the title and the ‘Look Inside!’ sample pages.
I get depressed when I go to certain bookstores and see them performing the equivalent of fan service, proving exactly what you’d expect to see in a bookstore. Of course stock the popular, but add some surprises into the mix too. I can’t be angry with WH Smith because they simply supply casual travellers with something to do on a train journey, but I remember funny thing;
Back in the seventies WH Smith asked me to create an ad campaign for them featuring writers who were famous in another medium (this is the oldest trick of book festivals too – ‘Get Alan Titchmarsh!’ – ‘Get Mary Beard!’). The only person to turn them down flat was Joyce Grenfell, who told me that in her opinion Smiths could have raised the reading levels of millions but chose to dumb them down.
But when you think about it, many UK authors who seem mainstream really aren’t at all. Edward St Aubyn, shamelessly and unapologetically upper-middle class and intelligent, is capable of the most surreal flights of fancy, despite having a hit BBC show, and Kate Atkinson’s obsession with alternative timelines can make her novels far from straightforward.
My next independent novel will be ‘a fantasia on British themes’, according to my agent. My problem is that I haven’t yet found a mainstream hook that will bring in unsuspecting readers.
The bottom line on high culture/ low culture? If it’s written interestingly, I’ll read it. I once read a Pulitzer prize-winning article on repairing racing cars that enthralled me even though I have zero affinity with the subject. It’s all in the words you use.