The Short (but Sweet) Life-Cycle of the Contemporary Novelist ; `Most Modern Novelists Are Fortunate If They Are Still Allowed to Publish Books in Their Forties'
Taylor, D J, The Independent (London, England)
THE FUSS preceding tonight's advancement of the overall winner of this year's Whitbread Award for literature offers a neat little conspectus of the current British attitude towards books: an attitude in which sentiment and ageism come uncomfortably mingled, and the books themselves sometimes seem to occupy an uncomfortably minor place in the proceedings.
Some of the smart money is on Lorna Sage's Bad Blood, a revealing memoir of early life made all the more alluring to the public gaze by the fact that, sadly, its author died a fortnight ago. But the great predisposition of favour is directed firmly towards Zadie Smith, whose debut White Teeth is, it is fair to say, one of the most lavishly hyped first novels of recent years. Miss Smith, who has abandoned the somewhat homely look of her early publicity photographs and reinvented herself as a younger member of the Pointer Sisters, is a publicist's dream, and the Sunday newspapers cannot wait to chip in with another round of profiles.
This is not a complaint about Zadie Smith, her age (25) or the sum of money she was paid for her book (pounds 200,000, apparently). In fact, hats off to her for having managed to write and get published a novel of considerable merit, at a time when most of her contemporaries are still sitting in their barren bedsits, listening to the thump of rejected manuscripts descending on the doormat. All the same, the degree of excitement over Zadie Smith reflects a deeply insidious trend in modern publishing.
The book world, like the music industry and to a certain extent the theatre, is obsessed by youth. God knows why this should be, given that we live in an ageing society where the richest commercial pickings are made out of fiftysomethings with wads of disposable income, but for some reason publishers are avid to sign up the under- thirties. In the vast majority of cases, competitive pressures being what they are, the process goes something like this. Twenty-seven- year-old novelist X - usually, but not always, a woman - gets given an enormous sum of money for a book. It does fairly well (various interviews in Cosmopolitan, Evening Standard and so on) but, inevitably, it ultimately fails to repay its advance.
Novelist X then gets given a slightly smaller sum of money for her second book, which does correspondingly less well (interviews in the Wandsworth Guardian, TV Quick and so on). By this time, the kind of book novelist X is writing will probably have slipped out of fashion - publishers are currently turning very anxious about the durability of the "chick-fic", girl-about-town novel - and unless she is exceptionally talented, or exceptionally lucky, the chances are that there may not be a third novel, and novelist X will have to go back to her former job, working at the PR agency. …