This article is taken from the July 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.
The current iteration of the trade magazine The Booksellerearnest yet excitable and full of profiles of happening young people, is probably what Matthew Arnold would have marked down as “a regrettable modern trend”.
Browsing through it the other day the Secret Author was interested to come across an advert for the British Book Awards, otherwise known as the “Nibbies”. “Whether you’re joining us in the room, tuning in to the livestream or catching up with our post-awards highlights show,” the rubric advised, “Lauren and Rhys will be there every step of the way.”
Lauren and Rhys? Well, this year’s presenters are Lauren Laverne and Rhys Stephenson, respectively a disc-jockey and a “CBBC presenter and Strictly Come Dancing sensation”. Talented young media folk, naturally, but what exactly are their qualifications to host a publishing industry awards show? Has either of them ever written a book?
Well yes, as it turns out, for Lauren is the author of Candypop — Candy and the Broken Biscuits (2015), about a self-styled “rock chick”. On the other hand, I think we can safely say that Ms Laverne has not been chosen for any literary skill that she may possess, but because she is the kind of person who tends to be assigned to this sort of job.
Curiously, the advert stirred an echo from days gone by, and the Secret Author suddenly found himself back in Dubai attending the opening ceremony of a bygone Emirates Festival, where three founders of the British book world had been selected to launch the show. They were Sir Tim Rice, the late Paddy Ashdown and Pam Ayres.
The celebrification of book-world culture is older than casual observers assume
Grand old troupers, all of them, and yet as the librettist, the retired politician and the purveyor of comic verse set about galvanising the audience you couldn’t help suspecting that the former Poet Laureate, Sir Andrew Motion — seated in the stalls — was better qualified for the role.
What might be called the celebrification of book-world culture is a great deal older than casual observers usually assume. To examine the programs for the Sunday Times “book exhibitions” of the 1930s, for example, is to stray into a landscape that can seem oddly familiar. Yes, there is Aldous Huxley reading from his work, Stephen Spender descanting on “Modern Poetry” and JB Priestley addressing the problem of “The Author in the Modern World”, but further down the bill come the celebrity chef XM Boulestin talking about “Cookery Books” and Douglas Jardine on “Cricketing Facts and Figures”.
If the presumption that books are only OK if brought to the general public by way of a bit of non-literary razzmatazz is at least 90 years old, then the large-scale colonisation of the major literary festivals by extraneous rag-tag had to wait until the early 2000s.
Insiders usually agree that a watershed moment came at Hay in 2001, when the recently retired US president, Bill Clinton, was invited to address the throng. Opinion was divided, which is to say that the local shopkeepers were delighted by the access of publicity, while most of the writers — outraged to discover that Clinton was trousers $50,000, while their services went unpaid — opted to sulk in their tents.
There is no way of getting round the fundamental commercial stand-off that lies at the heart of the celebrity’s aggrandising presence at book festivals. Put Michael Gove and Rachel Johnson together on a platform at Cheltenham Town Hall and 800 people will turn up. Ask a distinguished biographer to talk about their subject and you might get a quarter of this.
Would the same people be invited onto Match of the Day?
What makes it worse, alas, is the connivance of institutions that ought to know better. Chief among these is BBC TV, whose coverage of literature betrays all the Corporation’s traditional nervousness when confronted with any cultural artefact beyond a sitcom or a cookery show.
Sara Cox is a thoroughly engaging presenter, but why does she get to front Between the Covers? And why, among the guests, do we have Sophie Ellis-Bextor and the man from Kaiser Chiefs? Would the same people be invited onto Match of the Day to debate the Manchester City-Liverpool game with Gary Lineker?
Why should the discussion of football be thought to require specialist expertise while the discussion of literature is left to your average punter? Clearly there is a gap in the market here, and a TV commissioning editor wanting to make a name for themselves could start by pitching a series with a punning title such as Write in Front of You.
For maximum impact, this should assemble a panel of tough-minded younger critics — Claire Lowdon and Leo Robson, say — ally them with an angry old veteran of the Craig Raine school, encourage them to let rip on half-a-dozen of the week’s new titles and, in the case of works they particularly disliked, invite the authors themselves on to take issue with the verdict. The whole thing would be a kind of book-world version of Juke Box Jury. It would certainly have the edge on gogglebox.