"Murray is the best kind of literary biographer" – The Financial Times.
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Winner of the 2015 Basil Bunting Award for poetry

Friday, 5 September 2008

Are there too many books?

This cartoon from last Friday's Le Monde makes fun of that annual French ritual la rentrée littéraire [the new publishing season] into which are packed, it seems, most of the year's new literary titles in order to have everyone lined up for the autumn literary prizes. Each year there is the same article concentrating on how many titles are coming out. I have tried to get comparable figures for the UK but my Googling skills are evidently not what they were. The headline news is that 676 novels are published this year in France compared with 727 last year, a seven per cent drop. Back in 1998 there were only 488. Of this year's 676, 466 are French and 210 by foreign authors. It goes without saying that the British proportion would be a lot less than this.

The cartoon shows an unmistakeable Gallimard book cover with the title: "Take me, everyone!" with the implication that this is a publishers' orgy, throwing themselves at the public.

Yeats once announced, in the Cheshire Cheese, as he looked around at the massed ranks of poets thronging the bar: "There are too many of us." Obviously, he did not consider himself supernumerary and this is the point surely: that if we say too many books are published we never actually mean our own. And in one sense not enough books are published if we fail to find truly excellent ones in the cascade of trash.

As I keep saying in this space, the problem with contemporary publishing is the narrowing of range, the lack of ambition, the failure to encourage real originality and real innovation, the playing safe with more-of-the-same which is what you get when the marketing people rather than the people with genuine literary taste are calling the shots.

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