I’m sorry to say but the columns I’ve seen lately in The Guardian Books Blog are making Slate look trenchant. I haven’t been reading the Guardian’s blog for all that long, so I’m not sure if this is a case of a decline in quality or quality that never was, but I do think the publishers of the excellent Guardian Review can do a bit better than this.
Here’s some of the stuff I’ve noticed lately that’s led me to this conclusion.
From the column Why Writers Can’t Go It Alone, which makes the argument that, unlike indie filmmakers and rock bands, authors can’t be independent:
The literary world only bestows acceptance, it seems, on those who are published through the traditional avenues. Independent and small presses get short shrift – national newspaper supplements seem loath to review indie books, the big high street sellers won’t stock them, unless the books are about the tough lives of mill girls or histories of public house names, which can be shoved on a shelf marked "local interest".
Perhaps the problem is that independence in books is too closely associated with vanity publishing. Few diamonds are found in the welter of self-published books, and booksellers or reviewers probably don’t have the time to distinguish between the output of a small but genuine publisher and something knocked up on a frustrated author’s PC in an afternoon.
Let’s forget the irrationality of saying authors can’t be any more indie than rockers or filmmakers and just focus on these strange slurs against the small press. I imagine the close association of small presses with vanity presses would surprise the publishers of Grove, Cannongate (which has racked up enough Bookers to be the envy of any press), Soft Skull, Dalkey, and Archipelago, all of which, small or independent as they are, get plenty of national newspaper attention and would not ever be mistaken for a vanity press.
Then there’s this, from Why Publishing Has Gone to the Dogs:
At a time when the industry is crying out for readable literary fiction a novel like Davies’ is a gift. Admittedly he’s with a small publisher – Serpent’s Tail – but they were originally responsible for Houellebecq and David Peace, so it’s not exactly vanity publishing.
Is there some British bias against small presses that I’m not aware of? In any event, once the article gets around to its point, it’s a pretty tired one:
In short, [publishing is] now dealing with the problems that my own industry – magazines – faced seven years ago. Sadly, the book industry seems to be responding in the same way – by retreating into safe, middle of the road ideas and a particularly stubborn intransigence.
It didn’t work for magazines – dumbing down content and aiming for the lowest common denominator didn’t boost any existing title’s ABC – and it won’t work for books either. The good titles that do get published are too often lost in an attempt to make them look unthreateningly "mainstream".
Perhaps true, but also dull.
Likewise with The Literary Periodical Goes Online, which manages not to be offensive to small publishers but remains utterly mundane. Yes, most of us know literary periodicals are popping up in online-only spaces. This isn’t news; if you’re going to write about it, say more.
Or there’s When Good Authors Write Bad Books, which ponders such teen-angst questions as whether you’re honor-bound to read every book your favorite author has ever written and dispenses the advice that if you don’t like a book, you should stop reading it.
I know there’s only so much you can say in 600 words or so, but The Guardian manages to put out such a fine review section every Sunday that I expect a little more than a catchy headline from their culture blog.
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