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Lit Fest or Insider Trading? post 1
comment by caxtonsmuse    Mar 17, 2008
Books are all, yet I confess I don’t have as much time as I used to for author readings in and around the capital. The last one I attended was several weeks ago, in the Muswell Hill Bookshop, when the poet Owen Sheers read from his new collection. Of course, the actual business linked with these affairs takes place after the entertainments, when authors and editors, impresarios and literary entrepreneurs, meet up in the pub. Their discussion is never the book, whatever the book may be. It is usually to do with the size of Author A’s latest advance, as opposed to Author B’s.

I personally remain an Author X, having carefully considered, then as carefully rejected, the tortuous path of novelist, in what all the writers’ manuals term ‘a difficult and highly competitive industry’. Yet why should it be so?

I perhaps learned the answer to that question on one very drunken occasion (not that I myself am ever intoxicated) during a recent literary festival, whose high-profile name, and newspaper book-page sponsorship, my friends in the legal department urge me not to mention. Suffice it to say the setting was bucolic, with lawned quads, ancient flagstones, and a quaint old clock face ornamenting a castellated tower.

One never quite knows what sort of pressure is brought to bear by representatives of the immediate population, once it finds itself, annually, party to this kind of national jamboree (even international). In this instance a poky little conference room, a long and not very obvious hike from the main enterprise, had been set aside for a programme of readings by some half a dozen anonymous local authors – a historian, a poet, a sci-fi fantasist, a would-be biographer (an expert on Otto Klemperer), and a rather withered senior citizen with thirty or so non-produced screenplays to his name. Oh, and a political activist.

Now I say 'political'. To be precise, there was more of the arts manifesto in the tract he delivered, reminiscent of an age of Futurism, or the Vorticism that followed, where the real issue was powerful artistic minds, bound by the culture of a belle époque, and thereby condemned to mental and spiritual incarceration. That sad prospect cannot change when the rest of society will not shake off its conservatism.

I listened attentively, my notebook at the ready, which was more than a little polite, since the speaker had evidently spent several hours in the bar before his assault on the lectern. That, when it came – all a little unsteady – found itself accompanied by the drunk man’s usual deliberation, in his case in the way he smoothed the creases from his lecture notes. He was a careworn-looking forty-something, with a straw coiffure a nostalgic re-enactment of the 1970s, a flushed face, and a regional accent slurring through all the imprecision his long association with the bottle had engendered (over how many years, who knows?).

I was I think supposed to understand that the prevailing artistic milieu hadn’t changed that much in the century or so since the poet Marinetti, and that arts polymath Wyndham Lewis – two men at odds with their times, but motivated to seize the initiative and implement change. According to our local author – a man symbolically jettisoned to the outer reaches of the literary festival he was speaking at – there are definite parallels in our own era. However, the problem now is the power of the media, and a propaganda that enshrines everything according to its opposite.

For example, the real vanity publishing (and I suspect our lecturer is himself stung by the stigma of that endeavour) is in fact practised by a handful of brand-name authors, whose advances are enormous, and whose talent is minuscule – well-born men and women who could never achieve their illustrious careers in the absence of that cronyism the vast majority of authors, however gifted, can never hope to penetrate. I am prudent enough not to reproduce the long list of prize-winning authors cited as evidence of this proposition. However, a few more ‘facts’ I do impart. 1) Most of the books sold on this basis never recover the sums in sales figures originally paid to their authors. 2) Their books aren’t just remaindered – they’re pulped. 3) That of course gives rise to important environmental issues (though that’s another political debate).

There’s a very unpleasant corollary of this – whatever you’d call it – a rigged marketplace. It’s not simply that the whole thing resides in the hands of a powerful commercial elite (which in the final analysis is just another force for conservatism). The fact that it cannot on this basis pay its way means more credible writers must sit and suffer while truckloads of celebrity memoirs are sold to the masses, from just about every possible retail outlet. It seems there’s no time or consideration for anything else.

I’m afraid I wasn’t able to stay for the conclusion. Herein possibly there’s something in what he said, as now it was past time for my return to the heart of the festival, where I had been furnished with a ticket to hear what that well-known author Roy Hattersley had got to say, the event I was paid to report on.
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