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Sunday 20 December 2009

Of Gardeners and Butlers.

About fifteen years ago, my husband came back from lunch with a publisher who had said he would be remiss in his job if he did not keep an eye on the business models used by pornographers – ‘because they are always the first to react to market conditions.’

Apparently the latest development in the business then was the death of the stars and the advent of ‘normal people’ as protagonists - what was called either ‘amateurism’ or ‘democratisation’. This was accompanied by a great expansion of what some call fetishes, others special interest groups, and marketing people term ‘genres’.

At the beginning I was, frankly, doubtful about all this. The use of the word ‘punters’ for book buyers struck me as more macho wistful than real, certainly in the mainstream of British publishing.

I was, of course, quite wrong. This argument - that where pornography points the rest follow - has now become commonplace. I remember reading a long article in the Guardian about it. More recently, the Financial Times had an alarmist report from the West Coast of the US, which said that even pornographers were struggling to survive with new technologies, and were experiencing the same problems that have afflicted music producers - how to make money when so much is freely available to download. There were other problems.

In his afterword to Lolita, Nabokov, suggests (remembering childhood fairy stories) that consumers of pornography needed what he called ‘sutures of sense’ so as not to feel cheated as they skip-read. He also suggested that pornographers were doomed to adding more and more characters and combinations. ‘In de Sade they call the gardener in.’

I suspect this argument shows Nabokov as an innocent moralist. Certainly this is no longer true. In the age of YouTube and YouPorn, no ‘sutures of sense’ are required. As I believe the director of the first Lara Croft film put it, ‘narrative is so last century.’

We might call this ‘instant effect’. I have to be careful using terms like shorthand – though shorthand descriptions have always existed. Lolita was after all first published, as Nabokov put it, ‘by a supplier of ‘one-handed literature’, before a mainstream publisher decided to cash in on scandal and greatness. In Spain, people sometimes referred to crime books as ‘el mayordomo’ – the butler.

I am not by nature censorious - certainly not when I have been charged with being akin to a pornographer myself.

Why? Genre, I was told, works on the same principles as old-fashioned (ie printed) pornography – ‘the manipulation of words to the satisfaction of the consumer’. The ‘consumer’ wants guaranteed satisfaction within narrow limits. P D James’ assertion that crime fiction is comparable to a sonnet shows that she does not know the difference between form and formula. And, to quote Nabokov again, ‘nobody wants to read a crime novel without any dialogue in it.’

In short, the crime reader wants consistency, a short cut to resolution or justice - usually of a conventional or atavistic sort that confirms and never challenges their presumptions and prejudices. Originality and curiosity are prohibited.

If you are reading this on this site you probably think the above case is, to put it politely, over stated. I was also told that I had ‘joined the herd. Romance was, Crime is – and there will be another shift in due course.’

I have to admit I found this stimulating. Apart from the obvious rejoinder - that this argument closes the arguer off behind dogmatic barricades and will probably leave him looking po-faced and wrong when future courses have taken their supple due - I found the argument too formulaic.

I will certainly not say that all crime books contribute to the well-being of humankind and advance our knowledge of human nature. But I would like to point out here - as I did at the time - that in Lolita, Nabokov had made use of ‘certain techniques’ – the confession, elderly pornographic novels – to spin a murder story of his own. Not his main intent? No. But he needed the readers’ familiarity with those conventions to work his magic. I also, probably unfairly, suggested that the genre-pornography argument given me was like accusing Nabokov of paedophilia, pseudo-taxonomy, and an inability to distinguish between real life and fiction. Hokum? You bet.

‘Bliss’ - which was Nabokov’s aim in writing - is a tall order, and varies from reader to reader. Ask a pornographer and he’ll probably say – you mean a happy ending? And for a pornographer, that is a balance sheet.

Yes, publishing involves money. Huge quantities of novels appear every year in the hope of acquiring some. And this hope is not just the publishers’ - some writers do find themselves, more or less planned, more or less willingly, in the grip of a formula to attempt to achieve this.

It may be that reflective, intrinsically slow prose will be twittered away, but I suspect that independent book stores and ‘boutique’ markets will persist for some time yet.

Honestly? If I could afford it I’d love to examine the possibilities in the new. (The e-books seem to me old mind set in a new technology – rather like early photographers slavishly referring to Old Master paintings.)

Finally, someone else has recently used the crime, thriller, spy genre for his own purposes: Javier MarĂ­as, who I have mentioned in earlier blog posts. I will be posting on him a little later.

In the meantime, have a supple and exciting Christmas and New Year.

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