FROM THE PULPIT
K ATHRYN H UGHES
W HATUSEDTO be called ‘the publishing year’ has pretty much dissolved into fifty-two weeks that look and sound the same. Books come out all year round now, even in January and August, which used to be as quiet and still as the grave. Key biographies by heavyweight authors these days make their appearance in spring, when the shops are crammed with Easter eggs. Look, for instance, at the timing of the publication of Hilary Spurling’s life of Matisse: the first volume came out in autumn 1998, but the second, The Conquest of Colour, was published in March this year, when there was still snow on the ground. In much the same way, Julian Barnes’s breakthrough book of 1984, Flaubert’s Parrot, was a muffler-wearing October title, while his latest novel, Arthur & George, arrived wearing its swimming trunks this July. The reasons for this are several. One publisher explained to me that bringing a book out during the less crowded spring months gives it a good chance of breaking into the bestseller lists, which would be impossible if it were up against the TV tie-ins and cookery books of autumn. The very fact that the book is in the charts then becomes part of its particular ‘story’, creating a useful new narrative for the publicity department to play with. But another reason for the relative decline in autumn’s importance must surely be that publishers have been obliged to acknowledge that readers read in ways which are quite different from those implied by the old publishing year, with its dead calm at Christmas and its crucial, dizzying October. They do not, for a start, automatically buy a book when it first comes out, like excited children staying up until midnight for the new Harry Potter. They may want to know first what their friends or book club think about it before deciding whether to invest their time and money in this particular reading experience. Or they may delay until their birthday or Christmas, when someone, inevitably, will present them with book tokens and an apologetic shrug. Alternatively, they could be waiting for their two-week summer break, the only time in a scurrying year that they actually get enough leisure to sit down and read more than a cereal packet. And then consider the way that readers are most likely to acquire their books. No longer do they necessarily linger in Hatchards, browse in Ottakar’s or engage in the delicious sport of delayed gratification by ordering a slightly obscure title through their local retailer. Instead, they buy books online at two o’clock in the morning, or else they stuff them in their shopping trolley with the Pinot Noir as they hurtle around Tesco on a Sunday
The Importance of Autumn
morning. Or, finally, if they’re thrifty (and committed readers really need to be, with most new books going for more than £20), they’ll put their name down for the one library copy or wait for the paperback in nine months’ time. What all this means is that autumn in the book world is no longer the phenomenon it once was. As recently as ten years ago you knew that something big
would soon be happening when, in mid-August, the bound proofs of the big new biographies and literary novels arrived on your desk. To see them – even in such a flappy, unwieldy form – gave you a tingle and made your stomach lurch with excitement. The previous few weeks would have been dreary, a desert of bad romantic fiction (this was in the days before chick lit), books about killer sharks, and diet manuals. Going to the bookshop was a bit like wandering around a department store just before they get the winter coats in, when all that’s available to spend your money on is soiled bras and size 3 1/2 shoes. Then, with the first thud of the big Jiffy bags, came the sense that intellectual life was picking up again and that you would soon be back in business as a committed reader and professional critic. (In fact, one of the big problems as a freelancer used to be how to get through the lean summer months when literary editors stopped calling with commissions and, in your darkest fantasies, you imagined them lazing on a beach in the South of France while you were obliged, through lack of funds, to linger in an increasingly desiccated London.) So by mid-August the air felt fresher, and there was a definite spring in your step as you headed off to the local sorting office to retrieve yet one more promising parcel. Inside the envelope would be a book that looked and felt important. If it was a biography, it would be of someone so famous that they could be recognised instantly without the need for one of those cumbersome subtitles that have since become so fashionable – ‘the story of the woman who discovered the secret of anthracite and changed the course of history for ever’. If it was a literary novel it would be by someone whom you had read with an intense and almost religious fervour since you were fifteen and first really got the hang of what books were all about. Even better, tucked inside the book there might be a press release which declared, at the bottom, ‘Julian Barnes is available for interview.’ What greater comfort could there be than knowing that, even though it was still technically high summer, Julian Barnes himself must already be back in North London, sharpening his pencils and gearing up for the rigours of the coming season.
LITERARY REVIEW September 2005