Fenton makes a hit
- In Memory of War: Poems 1968-1982 by James Fenton
Salamander, 96 pp, £6.95, June 1982, ISBN 0 907540 17 1
No one can have been more surprised than James Fenton that In Memory of War turned out to be one of the most acclaimed books of 1982. A year ago, used to being told by reviewers that he was a ‘difficult’, even ‘esoteric’ poet, it looked as if he had decided that small publishers and little magazines were the most appropriate place for his work. Although as a political columnist and foreign correspondent with the New Statesman and Guardian, filing copy from Cambodia, West Germany and Westminster, he had built up a modest reputation and following in the 1970s, this did nothing to unburden him of the thousand copies of his first book of poetry, Terminal Moraine (1972), many of which lay throughout the decade in the basement of his publishers, Secker and Warburg: that is where I picked up my copy, and Fenton eventually bought up the unsold stock himself, believing (rightly) that he’d make a better job of disseminating it. His next publication, the pamphlet ‘A Vacant Possession’ (1978), was slimmer and more difficult to get hold of still. And even occupying the position of theatre critic of the Sunday Times, with ‘over a million readers every week’, didn’t do much, initially, to help Fenton with The Memory of War, published by his brother Tom at the small Salamander Press: there were advance orders of only 200 and at the end of September, three months after publication, the book had sold a mere 569 copies. But then in early December several writers, nominated it as their ‘book of the year’, almost a thousand copies were sold in a week, and Penguin bought the paperback rights. Not for ages has ‘difficult’ poetry been known to achieve such commercial success.
Vol. 5 No. 4 · 3 March 1983
SIR: I know it is a shame to spoil a good story but if we let the record stand concerning James Fenton’s first book, Terminal Moraine, as so engagingly related by Blake Morrison (LRB, 10 January), we might look even more unsuccessful at persuading the British public to buy poetry than we actually are. Anyone who has visited our Soho basement will know that, with something like six hundred different titles in print, there is no way we could possibly have kept there the stocks of any book at all, even one as distinguished as the first volume of poetry Anthony Thwaite and I ever published; if Blake Morrison managed to pick up a copy there, then he is a clever fellow indeed. He obviously also knows more about what goes on in our house than we do, referring as he does to ‘the thousand copies of his first book … many of which lay throughout the decade in the basement …’ The fact is that we printed a combined hardcover and paperback edition of 2000 copies – clearly an extravagant gesture but hardly a lack of faith – and sold 513 in hardcover and 697 in paperback at full price and a few hundred more at a reduced price. We also kept the book in print for nine years. Thus, while the figures make grim reading, they are, as any publisher of poetry will confirm, not at all bad for anyone’s first slim volume.
All congratulations to James Fenton for the quality of the new book, which happily contains quite a few poems from Terminal Moraine, and to Salamander for a splendid publishing job: but James Fenton’s current success after many years in the journalistic public eye is, while thoroughly deserved, not necessarily a stick with which to beat us for misdeeds we have not committed. Authorial tales of publishers’ incompetence are always fun, often justified, but in this case just not true.
Chairman, Secker, London W1