A recent Bookseller survey suggests there’s now a different kind of reader coming over the horizon. Ninety percent of book-buyers read digital books – not exclusively, but they do own a Kindle or similar device (Kindle predominates.) The books which sell best in electronic form are genre and commercial fiction (there is a difference apparently, though I don’t know what it is), with literary fiction lagging a long way behind. What do best in e-book form are the good-bad books: the non-literary novels, plot- and event-driven, fast-moving with no lingering on obscure complicated ideas.
In the nineties, moved by the new GOO (‘GOOd read’) classification in Camden public libraries, I devised my own classification scheme as follows.
Good-good books – the best of contemporary literary novels, plus classics which were best-sellers in their day and have withstood the passage of time: all engaging with the intellect, if ‘difficult’.
Bad-good books – pretentious and dreadfully boring, yet taken seriously by the occasional reviewer (usually a friend of the author) and funded by the Arts Council.
Good-bad books – intensely readable, unpretentious and seldom reviewed.
Bad-bad books – worthy only to be hurled into the corner or dropped in the bath.
My contention is that a different kind of reader needs a new kind of writer who is prepared to abandon literary dignity and write two versions of the same novel – one with the features of the literary novel (that is, written in contemplative mode with a strong authorial presence and inclined to discuss social and political issues or give advice as to the nature of humanity) and another shorter, easier version (a page-turner, plot-heavy and character-rich) which troubles no-one with too much thought. This last is not necessarily worse – just read by a different sort of reader in a different kind of way. The short e-version could usefully be written as a prelude to writing the longer book. Writers can’t expect the same version of their book to serve both markets.
Of the pile of books one once lugged on holiday, the ones that got read first were the bad-good books. The good-good books, the War and Peaces, would be brought back home unopened. My advice to writers who want to earn a living is that they should concentrate on the good-bad end of the market. Even in ponderous pre-e days that was by far the fattest slice of the pie chart, and now it’s most of the pie.
Short, in this the day of the galloping e-reader, is best. Writers need to envisage readers not turning the page as the maid draws the curtains and brings a glass of wine, but on the train or bus on the way to work, eating a sandwich, or standing in the queue for coffee in Costa’s.
I can read the new Martin Amis – for example – in book form, but when I try it in electronic form I tire. There’s too much intensity going on. Good writing is so much to do with an aesthetic, with a resonance of language which is apparent on paper but not on a screen. The e-novel is aesthetic free, resonance free, concerns itself rightly with happenings, cliff-hangers, suspense – all the crude elements the aspiring literary writer is encouraged to play down. Even Robert Harris (a comparatively ‘easy’ writer on the page) I find hard to read on screen – he’s both thoughtful and intelligent.
I find I’ve just written a novella, The Ted Dreams – an eventful, plot-rich ghost story of a mere 48,000 words, coming out first exclusively in e-form, and written with the virtual rather than physical book in mind. We’ll see how it goes.