What the fuck is going on with modern fiction?! I’m dying to read that wonderful book, which has a bloody big heart, yet I cannot find it. Gifted writers I greatly admire like William Boyd are now forced to churn out books like Restless, an all-too-familiar spy thriller that will be forgotten in no time, written for a pay check and no more. I can hear William’s agent whispering in his ear, “Look, just give me something I can get on Richard & Judy, okay. The friggin chimps in Brazzaville Beach aren’t cutting it. The British public are not interested in Central Africa and its primate inhabitants. Give them something more familiar, Will, something they can relate to. Yes, another World War II spy yarn, that will sell. The market will lap it up. This will be your bestseller!”
And so writers of the quality of Boyd are forced to pen boring, mediocre fare – yes, commercially-driven fiction conceived for the market first and the committed reader second – the kind of unremarkable books which those of us who believe in, and have a passion for, literature have bought and read a hundred times but never come close to finishing. Hell, we don’t even get a third of the way through them. And why? Because they are unremarkable, are not alternative, do not inspire. We know these books well. We pluck them off the shelves of Waterstone’s and WH Smith with great anticipation, our hearts beating excitedly. We dive into them as soon as we get home, settling ourselves on the settee and reading the first few pages in a kind of frenzy, longing to be immediately lost in their fictional worlds, consumed by them. And yet they do not grip us, do not move us, and soon, we are easily distracted from their pages and are looking for something else to do, to occupy us.
Who’s at fault here? The bookseller, the publisher, the agent, the writer or the reader. Well, all of them, to the extent that they are all slaves to the market. Yes, the relentless commodification of modern fiction is a ghastly thing! Why, because it encourages mediocrity, books becoming as bland as DIY furniture – made to measure, functional, conceived to do a particular job. Make you laugh, make you cry, bish bash bosh, job done. Now, books sit beside rows of tinned tuna in supermarkets, nothing more than commercial goods to be consumed, easily digestible and not too taxing. Idiotic sales statements adorn their covers, publishers reassuring would be readers that, yes, don’t worry, it’s more of the fucking same! And so, “Jo Nesbo is the new Stieg Larsson!” and “If you loved the Twilight series, then you’ll love The Immortals even more.”
A new book today, if it has a chance of being published, must not possess a whiff of the alternative, the innovative, the cult. A few possessing these awkward, unwanted traits do, however, slip through the moronic, money-grabbing filters of agents, publishers and booksellers, thank God, such as Michel Houellebecq’s Les Particules Elementaires or Dave Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, but they are rare indeed. Hell, these two were published over a decade ago! Perhaps the logic of agents and publishers is the very same as tabloid editors and media moguls. The public want the lowest common denominator, therefore give them this and they will not ask for more.
The majority of writers comply, because they have to: they have children to feed, mortgages to pay. And so they write safe, producing work that imitates others, written within a clear genre, which their agent can flog easily to the publisher, and which the bookseller can then peddle to the lazy reader, who’ll consume it like a bag of popcorn, mindlessly and effortlessly. Others, however, think fuck ’em and self-publish. The agent or publisher might be too damn lazy and disaffected to do the work, but they are not. They believe in what they’ve written, however challenging or idiosyncratic it is, and they’re sure that even if the mainstream will not appreciate their work a small niche will, and greatly. Notable self-published authors include James Joyce, Marcel Proust and Virginia Woolf. These three, James, Marcel and Virginia, cared little for the majority, the consensus. They wrote not for the market, but for the love of writing, the beauty and truth it contained not the moolah it made. The same can hardly be said for James Patterson and Tom Clancy!