Book lovers will enjoy this trip down memory lane with Robert McCrum (left), who stepped down as literary editor of the Observer this month after 10 years on the job. McCrum, who has written about the English language (The Story of English) and a biography of PG Wodehouse (PG Wodehouse: A Life), writes about the changes in the publishing world. He joined the Observer in 1996, when publishing was still “a world of ink and paper; of cigarettes, coffee and strong drink”, and he is bowing out after seeing in the Kindle.
McCrum writes about how book blogs are growing in importance as newspapers shrink or altogether eliminate book reviews. And, of course, he notes the changing of the guard on the literary landscape: Norman Mailer, Joseph Heller, Iris Murdoch, Thom Gunn, Kurt Vonnegut, Ted Hughes were very much alive when he came in; now they are gone, replaced by a generation of writers: Zadie Smith, Hari Kunzru, Monica Ali and Kiran Desai are among the writers he mentions. A host of writers from non-English-speaking countries are among the most acclaimed writers in English today.
Malcolm Gladwell and The Tipping Point
McCrum’s article offers valuable insights into the changes in the market. Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point, for example, was “almost a flop”, says McCrum, published to mixed reviews in 2000 but “saved by word of mouth”. McCrum writes:
After a dismal launch, and as a desperate last resort, Gladwell persuaded his American publisher to sponsor a US-wide lecture tour. Only then did the book ‘tip’. Eventually, it would become a literary success of its time, turn its author into a pop cultural guru and spend seven years on the New York Times bestseller list. This was one of those pivotal moments that illustrates the story of this decade.
Personally, I was rather disappointed with the book, which no doubt marks me as an old fogey. The book seemed too plain, without any intellectual excitement, to me, brought up on generations of wordsmiths from GK Chesterton (with whom McCrum starts the article) to Tom Wolfe. With advancing age, I now prefer the prose of Naipaul, Vikram Seth and Jhumpa Lahiri, though I still appreciate the stylistic feats of Martin Amis and Salman Rushdie; but Gladwell, even for a New Yorker writer, is too understated for me. But The Tipping Point reflects this dot-com society, I guess, when things catch on suddenly out of the blue.
JK Rowling and Harry Potter
JK Rowling is a case in point. McCrum recalls Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone had been published with a tiny first printing of 500 in 1997 to modest but enthusiastic reviews, swiftly followed by Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, but such was the word-of-mouth success of the series that when Bloomsbury released Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire at 6am on a Saturday morning in July 2000, people queued overnight for a copy of the book. McCrum says:
This was not driven by celebrity hype or massive discounting (this was Hatchards, not Asda) or bestsellerism, but by readers’ passionate desire to get the next instalment…
Rowling never failed to grasp that her job was to tell a story. In the countdown to the launch of the final volume, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, one London bookshop teased its readers with a huge window display: How Will It End?
My feeling, as I wrote in the summer of 2000, remains that this was ‘a commercial blockbuster with knobs on, storytelling of a high order but not to be spoken of in the same breath as CS Lewis. Not that Rowling will give two snitches: she will be laughing all the way to the bank.’
Successful writers like Rowling and Zadie Smith can earn fortunes because there is a global market for their books. Amazon.com, Oprah, Man Booker and other book prizes and festivals all sustain this global market, notes McCrum.
But is popular culture sinking to a new low?
Two ghosted books by Katie Price — the former model Jordan — outsold the entire Man Booker shortlist this year, says McCrum.
McCrum ends with reflections on the Kindle and the virtual library on the World Wide Web. He concludes:
Readers and writers may now experience the liberation of literature in ways that Caxton never dreamed of. The word, written and spoken, remains at the heart of our culture, but it’s no longer watched by a Praetorian Guard of elite gatekeepers. It has been handed back whence it came, from the few to the many.
This, perhaps, explains the paradox that despite more book activity than ever, the book itself seems less central than before. Actually, what I have described are the birth pangs of a golden age. The market for the printed book is now global; the opportunities for the digital book are almost unimaginable. To be a writer in the English language today is to be one of the luckiest people alive.