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What's the Point of the London Book Fair?

12/04/2016 15:31

All this week (12-14 April) publishers and agents will rub shoulders and egos at the London Book Fair. This annual PR stunt will probably only make the headlines if some teenage wunderkind gets a six-figure advance for some nonsense, possibly involving a zebra with Munchausen's who decides to get a job. Except of course he or she (almost certainly a she - publishers do like good-looking chicks) won't receive anything like six figures - and after vanishing without trace will be replaced by the big thing, possibly in a Burka.

If you're interested in British fiction set in the here and now, contemporary publishing has never seemed less relevant. Every new book seems to be set overseas, or in the past, or concerns a "rewilding" (so many bloody rewildings...) Where are the angry novels describing our angry, surreal streets? The world of take-away pizza, failed MOTs, tax deadlines, beggars, 99p shops, and above all this slowly-building antagonism towards people of other cultures?

It's almost as if writers are afraid to describe the realities of modern Britain: except that isn't the case. Writers aren't afraid of anything. We bare our souls, lay ourselves out for you to spit and piss on. All we get in return is contempt, scorn, angry Tweets and an annual salary way below the living wage.

So where does the blame lie? In the complacent self-sustaining world of publishing, where agents and publishers alike employ young, middle class interns to weed out the chaff and find the next big thing. Except of course most of these readers, being young and middle class, haven't actually got a clue about good writing OR the real world, and so instead of suggesting someone take a look at a book whose protagonist, for instance, may not share their liberal values, get all excited about yet another rewilding. It's hilarious, in a way, that those who run publishers and agents actually believe these kids know more about writing than writers.
Six years ago, I wrote an article in which I asked why there were no British state of nation novels; why the top prizes were dominated by books set in the past, or future, or overseas.

Today, as Isis rampage across our continent, and refugees drown on holiday beaches, where are the books that describe the viewpoint of the average Brit? Who cries when they see images from Syria but rage when they see homegrown Muslims slagging off our country? Who hates racism but finds the furore over dreadlocks utterly pathetic? Where are the writers who aren't easily summarised as "left wing" "right wing" or "liberal" - whose politics are complex, perhaps paradoxical? Is there an author in Britain who doesn't read The Guardian? Is there a publisher in Britain who knows that bloated expat Irvine Welsh now knows about as much about life in modern Britain - about parenting, and politics, and working every day in a job you despise - as the Mitford Sisters?
I'm sick of it - sick of the self-congratulatory wankfest that is publishing, where all that matters is what's for dessert and where you'll all holiday this year. None of these people care, REALLY care about books, about ordinary people who holiday in caravans and eat microwave dinners.

I'm sick of a business where JK Rowling's chair makes more money than a hundred talented authors in a year. Where the cynical creeps behind Alfie Deyes and all the other talentless posh kids can slap a sticker on a book and charge gullible preteens an extra four quid. Where McEwan, Barnes and bloody Martin Amis STILL have every word they write revered and reviewed though they haven't written an angry, original sentence in twenty years. Where publishers will only look at submissions via an agent, and agents say on their websites, as if proud, "we are not currently looking for new writers" - yet anyone who decides to self-publish is ridiculed, ignored, pitied.

Publishing has become irrelevant. Come on, writers. Let's take it back.

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