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Reflections of a working writer and reader



New books for old?

I spent this morning, World Book Day, with a radio crew in a shop window in Harrogate giving away new books for old. Don’t ask how I got involved in it. I was offered it by a local radio station and then got swept up in the euphoria.

Baker on bed with booksI write novels and publish, most of the time, in mainstream publishing, so I’m involved, from time to time in promoting and helping to sell new books. My own. I arrive for personal appearances in bookshops and libraries, talk about my work, peddle my books.

As a writer, I find myself in the strange position of forever trying to introduce people to new books. Strange for me, because I don’t particularly like new books, or read them very often. I much prefer the old ones, some of which I’ve read before and others which, until now, have managed to give me the slip.

But on my blog I very rarely review new books. In the last year, I’ve reviewed perhaps two or three of them, and for each of those I could quote you extenuating circumstances. Because I don’t normally read new novels, let alone review them. There are far to many old ones that I haven’t got around to yet.

Generally, new commodities are preferable to old ones. New socks for old, that would make perfect sense to me, and, were someone to offer it, I’d be somewhere near the front of the queue. A new car for my old one, or a new computer for my old one, yes, without a lot of hesitation, I would probably take you up on both offers.

But new books for old, that is something entirely different. Books are about content, we value them for what they say or what they tell us about our condition. And, in my experience, the old books, the ones that have been around for some time, often perform that function better than the new ones, the ones that are advertised on the television or on the publisher’s hoardings.

I believe – 200,000 new titles published in the UK last year, something approaching the same number in the USA, and that’s before we begin looking at numbers in the rest of Europe, in Asia, Africa and South America – that too many new books are published each year. I would like to see fewer, but better quality titles.

Please feel free to rage about it if you must.

Next World Book Day you will, more likely, find me in the queue that is giving away old books for new. Because in that line I’ll be more likely to find something that I want to read.

(Oh, yes, I almost forgot to mention: I’m not promoting a new novel just now, but you can see some of my old titles here.)


4 Responses to “New books for old?”

  1. Ian says:

    I think I feel the same way about new books, John. I always attribute it to cowardice on my part – like I’m too afraid to swim in untested waters. On better days, however, I attribute it to wisdom.

    jb says: Better days are better days, Ian.

  2. Congratulations John, on the well earned exposure.

    A few, perhaps many new novels are a rehash on classic stories gone by; but with a new, contemporary twist, if we are lucky.

    I’d have to admit to being a reader of the “contemporary” in the main.

    But I also think that as long as the bulk of the population picks up a book and reads, we’re onto a good thing.

    Sadly, if I venture out into the centre here, where I live; as I walk, the word I hear most is “fuck” or “fucking”. I wish these people would just find a book and get involved – learning that “and” is more used than their favourite in the wider world and that a fictional story can enlighten them and perhaps quell their aggression. Also – appreciating that a story is entertainment, more so than the next argument or fight.

    I live in hope.

    jb says: Thanks, cfr. I also mainly read contemporary fiction, these days. It’s the ‘book of the month’ that strains my credibility.

  3. jlmunn says:

    I spent a few hours happily browsing through a bookstore yesterday. I would agree that the majority of the “new” out there isn’t worth the trees and hours wasted on them, and I am the first to rage when I waste my time reading one of them. Yet I must admit that I am equally impressed with a “new” and an “old” when it strikes the right chord.

    I suppose my question about the cornucopia of crap that is so readily available and promoted is, why? Is this the real reflection of the mentality of modern mankind or is it just an ill-conceived attempt on the part of the publishing world to compete with “reality” television and Internet gossip sites? My hope is that it is a passing trend in a confused publishing world, but, if I were to be truthful, I would have to admit that this is probably what we are going to have to live with.

    On a brighter note though, these situations tend to bring about a counter-revolution, which could mean great things for the right independent publishers. Until then, put on your hip boots and get ready for the trudging.

    Just as an aside…Thanks for the daily dose of thought provocation.

    jb says: ‘A confused publishing world,’ is a kind way of putting it, JL. I’m with you, looking for the counter-revolution. Lead me to the barricades . . .

  4. Andrew Kenneally says:

    Recently read the 4th part of Joseph Frank’s superb Dostoevsky biography, John, and I’m wondering what you make of his defence against being an author of the fantastic/unrealistic that should have no place in the world of literature. His argument if I have it right being that the extremities he describes are of the essence of reality, and also presumably in such extremes greater truths of being are revealed. How this relates to contemporary fiction being perhaps the fairly distinct separation in subject matter between “literature” and pulp/crime etc. TOBH I haven’t really read any real crime lit but related to my fairly new interest in things like occultic backgrounds of our political/capitalist(for the sake of argument assume I’m not waxing lunatic), it strikes me that such thriller type subject matter should of course belong in literature. Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor and Demons/Devils come very strongly to mind as examples of what I mean, as opposed to the literature of quiet desparation and all that.
    Hopefully when a gap opens in books to read ahead I’ll delve into some of your stuff. Finally one big recommendation to the contemporary Russian writer, Victor Pelevin, someone of incredible imagination and humour, especially his Clay Machine Gun, or Life of Insects, and I suppose quite a few of his short stories.