Which would you rather be: good or published? That is the dilemma that ‘the crisis in publishing’ has begun to press on British writers. Those ardent afternoons of adolescence, when aspirant writers wondered if they would ever produce anything good enough to be published, have turned into the small-hours disquiet of professional writers wondering if they can bring themselves to write anything bad enough.
The dilemma is not, of course, put explicitly. In talking to writers, publishers have long used a coded language, in which, for instance, ‘We’ll leave you free on that one’ means ‘I don’t like the sound of your next book, so my option will now apply to the one after.’ Recently I have sensed an extension of the code. ‘Several of us here in the office were not wholly convinced by the characterization in Chapter Twelve’ now means ‘We think it a marvellous book, but a realistic first printing would be 750 and we’d rather put our money into a better bet.’
Often enough, code is not needed. The message has been conveyed by the fame of the crisis. Suppose you are a novelist whose most recent book failed to cover its advance. Your publisher doesn’t brandish its failure at you, though neither does he go out of his way to explain to you, should you be ignorant of the economics of publishing, that failing to cover your advance is not necessarily the same as morally owing him money. In any case you know that he will mention the failure, regretfully, when you show him your next book and he offers you a lower advance than the one before. Suppose now your imagination is seized and fired by a new novel unlike any of your earlier ones: surrealist, say, or linguistically innovative or ‘sensitive’ in a mode that has been out of use these twenty years. The thing becomes a matter of tact between you and your publisher. You don’t want to be rebuffed or to put him in a position where he has to rebuff you. Anyway, there’s the electricity bill to pay and the children’s duffel coats to buy. You decide to take up the banal and middlebrow idea for a novel that has been lying around in your mind for years and failing to excite you into writing it. Thus without a word spoken does crisis make cowards of us all and a dreariness of ‘contemporary English writing’.