Snobbish, us? An extract from Nicholas Clee's new book, The Booker and the Best
I made many mistakes when I was editor of the Bookseller, and two are relevant here. The first was when a tabloid journalist phoned me up and told me that Katie Price, better known then by her glamour model moniker Jordan, was touting an autobiography. What did I think the book was worth?
Not much, was my expert opinion. Jordan's fans, I explained to the journalist, were not book buyers.
I was right in one respect only: the big publishers were not interested in the manuscript. John Blake Publishing, a company that specialised in tabloid personalities, picked it up cheaply; Being Jordan (2004) went on to sell more than 1 million copies. For her next book, Katie Price moved to Random House, for which she has since provided five further autobiographies and 10 ghostwritten novels. The total value of her book sales has been reported as approaching £30m.
At about the same time, we got a press release announcing that Richard and Judy, the daytime television hosts, were starting a book club. The venture would be, I considered, a modest success. Yes, publicity for books on a nationwide TV show was welcome; but who, I mused as I sat in my central London office, watched TV at 5pm? And so I gave a lowly slot on page two to a piece about the most significant book trade event since the arrival of amazon.co.uk. In six years, titles selected for the club were responsible for £183m in revenue, and accounted for 4% of all high street book sales. The producer of the show, Amanda Ross, became courted and feared as "the most powerful figure in UK publishing".
So of course, some people were sniffy. "We have an industry where we have a Richard and Judy culture," the novelist Andrew O'Hagan lamented. "It is a lifestyle show, but these books oversell a reduced, unimaginative notion of what people's literary enjoyment might be." It is a surprising charge to level at a club that selected, to name but a few, William Dalrymple's White Mughals (2002), Zoe Heller's Notes on a Scandal (2003), David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas (2004), Julian Barnes's Arthur and George (2005), Richard Benson's The Farm (2005), Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Half of a Yellow Sun (2006), AM Homes' This Book Will Save Your Life (2006), Joshua Ferris' And Then We Came to the End (2007), Kate Atkinson's And When Will There Be Good News? (2008), and Kate Summerscale's The Suspicions of Mr Whicher (2009). These were not safe, unimaginative choices, and Richard and Judy turned them all into bestsellers, meanwhile demonstrating my inadequate understanding of the market on which I was supposed to be an authority.
Of course, Amanda Ross and Richard and Judy were touchily aware of how the likes of O'Hagan regarded them; in common with the genre writers quoted earlier, they knew that there was another kind of literary club that would never accept them as members. "These critics do a huge disservice," Judy has said. Richard added: "I hate intellectual snobbery. What I would call high-table literary critics see [reviews] as an opportunity to show off their intellect."
The literary world has its own class system. Wherever you sit, you're likely to have people to patronise and people to resent. The comic fantasy writer Terry Pratchett, for example, admired Douglas Adams, but resented him too. And it was not because, title-by-title, Adams' Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy novels outsold Pratchett's Discworld novels. It was because Adams, with his Cambridge education and Oxbridge chums, and with his apparently insouciant attitude to deadlines ("I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by"), embodied a privileged approach to writing that he, Pratchett, a working class boy who had left school before taking his A levels, could not countenance. Between 1979 and his death in 2001, Adams produced seven novels. In the same period, Pratchett produced 32.
But Adams, in turn, resented the literati. On Granta's announcement in 1983 of its selection of the Best of Young British Novelists, an anonymous author complained to Time Out: "At least my books sell." My suspicion that Adams had given this quote was reinforced some years later when, on the eve of an event I was chairing at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, he and I and his publisher met for dinner. The name of Julian Barnes, a Granta pick, came up. Adams, normally jovial, immediately mislaid his good humour. "If the first chapter of [Barnes' novel] A History of the World in Ten and a Half Chapters had gone before a comedy production meeting," he seethed, "it would have been rejected out of hand." To which there were several possible responses, one of them questioning whether the assessment of a comedy production meeting would have been the last word on Barnes' achievement; but I and the publisher - who was also Barnes' publisher - kept our counsel. No point in spoiling the whole meal.
Similar laws operate in the wider world. I am looked down on by the wealthy, who in turn are looked down on by people from prestigious families, who are looked down on by the titled. The entrepreneur with the private jet looks down on business people in first class, who look down on those in economy. And we on the lower rungs are aware of this condescension, and are bitter about it. Which brings us to the third theory of the highbrow sneer: that it demonstrates John Carey's argument, outlined in the previous chapter, from The Intellectuals and the Masses. People who consider themselves to be sophisticated are desperate to protect their position; and this means having clear notions, which the rabble will never quite grasp, about what divides the elite from the rest.
Hence such phenomena as Nancy Mitford's U and Non-U: the language that is one marker of this division. Hence the contempt for the films of Richard Curtis and for the people who enjoy them: they are like Malvolio, labouring under the delusion that wearing yellow stockings, cross-gartered, will win him his mistress' affections and lift him out of his lowly status. What a pathetic individual, to think he could mix with the likes of us!
We experience a conflict of feelings when we hear people say that they watch television in the lounge, or go to the toilet, or wipe their mouths with a serviette: we are annoyed at their blithe ignorance of the terms smart people use, and at the same time feel smug about our more cultured understanding. We wince when people say, "Between you and I" or employ "crescendo" to mean climax or "enormity" to mean something tremendous; but are we not pleased with ourselves too, for knowing better?
For artistic highbrows, there is a further complication. You can say to someone: "Actually, I think you'll find that an enormity is an atrocity", but you cannot say, "Actually, I think you'll find that Four Weddings and a Funeral is a perfectly dreadful film" - or you can, but you will not prove the point. So we are protective of our tastes, believing they make us special; dismayed that others do not share them; and unable to demonstrate their validity. And all the while, we do not acknowledge these feelings. We do not believe ourselves to be snobs; we want others to like what we like; and we think that the superiority of certain works of art is demonstrable. No wonder we get so het up about it all.
Nicholas Clee is joint editor of BookBrunch. The Booker and the Best is out today (20 February) from Amazon's Kindle Singles. Details here.