Jay McGill

Paragliding and the Art of Serious Fiction

In early January 2001 a dramatic chase took place over the rooftops of London as a man flying a paraglider was pursued by a police helicopter before landing and surrendering to a waiting posse of armed soldiers and more police in the forecourt of Buckingham Palace.
    This, however, was not the usual trespasser on Royal property - typically, some solitary or disturbed person obsessed with the Royal Family or a particular member of it. This was a harebrained, eccentric, dangerous but boldly conceived attempt to make the headlines as a means of getting a book into print.
    The paraglider pilot was one Brett de la Mare, described as an Australian author, who had previously announced on his website the intention of landing in the palace grounds as a way of gaining publicity for his unpublished novel Canine Dawn.
    Whether Brett de la Mare's brief exposure on the front pages of British daily newspapers was enough to recommend his work to publishers is unclear. But the gamble was at least based on a sound market-analysis of contemporary publishing. In a cultural climate where supermodels, TV newsreaders and politicians publish novels as a new line in the endless labour of self-promotion, and a self-confessed functional illiterate can achieve huge book sales in a spinoff from a TV cookery programme, why shouldn't a paragliding Aussie daredevil become the latest success to hit the bookshops? The author himself had probably envisaged a spectacular air-show launch of his book, complete with Red Arrows fly-past; and himself dropping in from the skies for readings and signing sessions.
    To come back to planet Earth from these vertigo-inducing flights of authorial fantasy, however, is to return to the duller reality of contemporary fiction. There's an overwhelming sense that hype is the only thing concealing a drab and cautious conservatism at the heart of mainstream British publishing. To understand why, it's necessary only to go back a decade.
    After the boom-or-bust fiction economy in the late Eighties, when even first-time authors got big sums for novels that might only sell in hundreds, the Nineties were a time of shrinkage and takeovers, fear and retrenchment - of wide-scale editorial redundancies, and an asset-stripper's approach by new management to questions of authorial talent. The old-fashioned idea of investing in a good writer with small initial sales as seed-corn for the future - or as a loss-leader in firms with a strongly commercial list - was sacrificed to the idea of moving books quickly, preferably ones with glossy paper and bright colours. An unmistakable sign of this is the way "celebrities" (aka "personalities") now dominate publishers’ lists: the TV link and the familiar face on the cover are the sign of a gamble even more desperate than that of betting on talent. But it's the desperation of an industry permanently scared that it's on the edge of another downspin, and that publicity is the only way up. And what publicity feeds on is fresh blood. But fresh blood, as vampire films always insist, is a substance in short supply. . .
    This thirst for the new does not, of course, lead to a more adventurous publishing policy. Quite the contrary. The new editorial obsession is increasingly that a book must be aimed at an identifiable readership audience: the New Lad novel, the New Girly provocation, etc. Market research, the demographic target, has taken over from editorial judgment and an entrepreneurial sense of risk. As to those writers who had the good fortune to have published books before the new ice-age of talent, these are required to do no more than repeat the recipe of their former success. All this adds to the sense that the market for serious fiction and genuinely new poetry is dominated by conformism and a stagnant, almost superstitious faith in formulae.
    The truth remains, however, that good writers, whether novelists or poets, don't repeat or imitate themselves. What characterises original talents is a determination not only to make different choices from their contemporaries but write books which are different even from their own. Good novelists extend not only their own fictional universe but the possibility of fictional forms. William Faulkner's novels - to take the example of a writer and an œuvre which the passage of time has enabled us to judge with clarity - are all remarkably different from each other in theme and style and narrative technique. And they're a salutary and instructive example for writers and the publishers alike, as is their author's career as a writer.
    Faulkner has long been recognised as perhaps the greatest American novelist of the Twentieth Century; but this wasn't always so, and there was a long period when almost all his books were out of print. His novels hadn't sold well, were thought to be rebarbative in subject matter, and too experimentalist in style - full of long words, complex ideas and complicated syntax. In a word, they were difficult - and far too different from anything fashionable or popular at the time.
    The fact that Faulkner's work didn't disappear entirely - and in fact gained classic status - now seems largely fortuitous, due solely to his belated championship by a few discerning academics. But at least you can say of the period in which he wrote that publishers had the courage to take on board novels as various - and as unclassifiable - as his. Nowadays, when everything has to be aimed at an identified market sector - a known sales population - it's impossible to escape the sense that if Faulkner were starting out today he'd never get his work in print. No editor would take the longshot chance.
    Publishing, of course, has always been an unpredictable business. And the fact is that nobody knows what the next universal best-selling novel will be, or what it might even look like. This makes the occasional editorial gamble inevitable, and even the odd brave act of faith in an unlikely manuscript. But never have promotional or commercial - that is, non-literary - considerations weighed more heavily with publishers than they do today. And what's true for fiction is written even larger for the other areas of publishing.
    We are in a period typified by celebrity junk-publishing geared to a market supposedly agog for spin and spin-offs - a direct line from film and TV to coffee-table or, often enough, discount bookshop. Nothing is more depressing than to see these piles and piles of books "by" or about dim-wattage public "personalities" - those who are famous "only for being famous", and whose day of hype has come and gone.
    Everyone has a book in them, it used to be said. But soon only the famous will have one worth publishing, at least by the commercial houses. There's a fabulous illogic to it all. More and more books are being printed every year, we're told, while fewer and fewer may be being read. Paradigmatic of the whole thing are the huge sales of cookery books by "celebrity" TV chefs - sure-fire best-sellers, naturally, in the age of the cook-from-frozen shop-bought TV dinner eaten from a tray. It's like the audience for TV gardening programmes - most of them, one would guess, people whose pot-plants will end up dying of neglect (or overwatering). It's where our culture stands now.
    I don't know how "serious" or good a writer the author of Canine Dawn is. But I did read that his Ms. was being looked at by a literary agent - which, presumably, was progress, and may even be thought to have justified the whole stunt. Whether the novel appears in print remains to be seen. But the significance of Brett de la Mare's short but far- sighted flight from Parliament Hill to Buckingham Palace shouldn't have escaped anyone capable of reading about it in a newspaper: the link between publicity and publication is not just etymological, and has never been more naked.