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Making a novelty of youth

Is our obsession with instant celebrity cutting off young novelists in the bud?

Alexandra Jackson

Topics Culture

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They say that every one of us has a great novel inside waiting to get out, but in a world where instant fame is the only type worth having, are we pushing our young aspiring novelists into putting up their hands and shouting ‘Finished!’ too soon?

With teenagers receiving £70,000 book deals before they have even finished their A-levels, it seems that our unhealthy obsession with celebrity and our culture of instantaneous Polaroid fame – a culture that stumbles over itself in a rush to herald in the next big thing – is also impinging on a sector of the arts that should perhaps be insulated from this type of influence.

The novel has not yet followed the pop song into the Fame Academy or Pop Idol reality TV cringe-arena (admittedly, shoving wannabe storytellers in front of computer screens and having them read chapters out weekly to a panellist of judges before being voted off by text-message may not make such enticing viewing). Nevertheless, we are starting to see a rise in the celebrity author, with Zadie Smith gracing the pages of OK and Vogue, and a press that is thrilled to announce an 18-year-old as a shining new hope for British literature but distinctly less enthusiastic about bringing the pensioner’s 30-years worth slog of a book to public attention.

Sex sells, youth sells: we all know the marketing drill. With those of us who revere books as artistic products, the thought of these windows into other worlds being business commodities, as marketable as a new brand of toothpaste, makes us a little queasy. We feel that they should somehow be ‘above’ this type of treatment. Yet with book reviews demoted to a position somewhere among the DVD and Playstation game reviews, nestling there for only the most learned to seek out, for publicists to get the exposure their subjects need they must jostle authors into the lifestyle pages and on to the double-page interview spreads. If a writer takes an attractive photograph for the dust jacket then they are halfway there – if that person has the charisma to promote their book on Richard and Judy, then so much the better.

Andrew Nurnberg, a leading literary agent, offers an anecdote as proof of this practice. Last week, he presented a book for one of his clients to various top publishers, but presented it under a pseudonym, as (for undisclosed reasons) he wanted to safeguard the author’s identity. One of the leading houses said that they were unable to make an offer on the book without knowing the author’s real identity – ‘because of promotional necessitude’. The words in the book were not enough for this publisher; they wanted to know exactly whom these words had come from, as if this would be an important factor in deciding whether or not to publish the book.

Luke Brown, assistant editor of Birmingham-based publishers Tindal Street Press, agrees that it is a ‘more attractive proposition’ to a publisher if a book is written by a young slip of a thing as it gives ‘an extra edge’ when trying to publicise the product. Brown emphasises that Tindal Street Press (partly funded by Birmingham Arts Council) does not discriminate against older authors, and as proof of this fact he gives us Clare Morrall, whose first novel Astonishing Splashes of Colour was turned down by 20 to 30 agents before being accepted by the Birmingham house. Yet he is ready in his assertion that having a young, hip writer is a bonus – it is easy to create interest, he says, as the press pay more attention, and Brown looks forward to April, when Tindal Street Press will be promoting their own 21-year-old.

But is there any real problem with hyping up young authors into great writers, before they have got through even the most basic of reading lists themselves? Well, we run the risk of turning them into one-hit wonders – like Donna Tartt who disappeared for 10 years after her debut novel The Secret History‘s astounding success, only to return with a critical failure, The Little Friend. And Alex Garland, whose follow-up to The Beach was a fraction as successful. Or we turn them into dashing Israelites, bringing forth unleavened bread. Anna Stothard’s Isabel and Rocco, for example – published when she was 19 in a gap year between school and university – is reviewed on Amazon by reader Laura Bennett, who compares the novel to ‘a flower which had been forced to bloom too early’.

Whatever happened to working hard at something? We are living in a world in which experience has been devalued; a world in which fast-tracking prevails and 24-year-olds are deciding pension policy before they even have a pension of their own. The concept of striving to achieve something – the labour of love – is not as respected as it once was. Brown confirms that mid-range authors are now dropped by publishers rather than being allowed the steady development and natural progression that they once were. The idea of a publisher investing in a novelist with potential would today probably amount to handing them £50 for a decent haircut before the photo shoot.

Literary prizes promise large chunks of cash to the best work of fiction by somebody under 35 (the Somerset Maugham Award) as though being young and creating good fiction is to be lauded above being middle-aged and doing the same. Yet with the bestseller lists still dominated by older authors (people, one might say, who have actually experienced a bit of life, and so are more qualified to tell us about it) – authors like Audrey Niffenegger whose ‘magical’ and ‘extraordinary’ debut, The Time Traveller’s Wife, has been made at the positively wrinkly age of 42 – it is clear that the book-buying public care not two hoots about how old the person is who wrote it. The people who actually care are the vast swathes of agents and publicists who come between the writer and the reader.

But how much does all of this affect the artistic product itself? While we may be fearful of our literature being contaminated with the dirt of savvy businessmen, expecting as we do something that is akin to purity and honesty from our art, perhaps we should realise that the marketing middlemen – people whose job it is to make the most of any handle they possibly can to sell a novel – cannot really threaten art.

Literature has never been entirely isolated from moneymaking, and whether directly or indirectly, writing will always be to some extent a product of its environment. Charles Dickens himself was catapulted to fame on the back of comic-strip serialisations purely because this was how Victorian London made its literature available. And yet Dickens’s novels have lived on to tell us things, not only about the world that he lived in, but also about human nature in general. We must have faith that our own young novelists will have the far-sightedness to see past the exuberant accolades that are fleetingly bestowed upon them, and faith too that the best of their output will, like Dickens’ works, one day transcend these promotion-pumped origins.

Alexandra Jackson is working as an intern at spiked.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Culture

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