Supersellers

John Sutherland

London now has an autumn season when the big fiction blockbusters are delivered to a public with longer evenings for reading and Christmas money to spend. It may not be anywhere near as clearly marked off as it is in New York and the launching machinery still creaks a bit, but its component parts are familiar from the smoother-running American model. Some six months before publication, fabulous, record-breaking deals and tie-ins are released to the trade and furnish paragraphs for the gossip columns. Background stories, authors’ profiles and studio portraits are sown in the national and provincial press during the run-up to publication day. With luck, Robert Robinson or a lesser TV person will be recruited to do a celebratory book programme. In addition to the traditional newspaper, shop-window and point-of-sale displays there will also be extensive coverage on commercial radio. This year, ‘biggest-ever’ advertising budgets have been divulged for the season’s biggest titles: £50,000, for example, for Hutchinson’s The Devil’s Alternative, a sum which they claim will finance the ‘greatest ever campaign for a hardback novel’; Secker and Warburg, a smaller house, have allocated £15,000 for the promotion of The Four Hundred. Authors’ tours, interviews and signing sessions are laid on. ‘Distinctive symbols’ are devised and publicised to fix the books in the public mind.

Most people will by now know that this autumn the British blockbusters are Forsyth’s The Devil’s Alternative (its distinctive symbol is a neon-red star), Stephen Sheppard’s The Four Hundred (its distinctive symbol is a gold sovereign) and Harry Patterson’s To Catch a King (this title and its distinctive symbol are still to burst upon us from, once again, Hutchinson). The authors of these commercially outstanding novels have much in common professionally. All are British tax exiles. Forsyth lives in Southern Ireland; Sheppard in Spain; Patterson in Jersey. Expatriation is fitting since they are in the business of writing what Hutchinson’s publicity machine quite accurately calls ‘world best-sellers’. The Eagle has landed, Patterson’s best best-seller (which he wrote under the name of Jack Higgins), is estimated to have sold 18 million copies in 42 languages; Forsyth’s last novel, The Dogs of War, runs alongside with an estimated 20 million copies in 24 languages. These authors are the literary equivalent of the multinational company. Forsyth reports that 80 per cent of his income derives from other than British sources. And in keeping with its global market, the subject-matter of this new variety of world literature is carefully internationalised by its authors.

The narrative of The Devil’s Alternative shuttles between Washington, London, Moscow and Holland. Understandable indulgence is shown by these British authors to non-British readers. Forsyth, for example, will routinely insert parenthetic guide-book material for the ignorant, but commercially valued, foreigner: ‘At home on the outskirts of Sheffield, the great steel town of Yorkshire, Mr Norman Pickering kissed his wife and daughter farewell …’ Would Bennett have ventured that (for us) redundant information as to Sheffield’s location and industry? But Bennett, of course, was a best-seller of a previous era and 80 per cent of his income was earned in the home market.

Forsyth, Patterson and Sheppard all have what in other branches of show business is termed a good ‘marquee’ personality. The camera likes them and they give a good interview. Like Jacky Collins, Jacqueline Susann and Tom Tryon (best-sellers all) Sheppard was previously an actor. His credits, admittedly, are grander than theirs – RADA, Old Vic and National Theatre; he was, apparently, auditioned for the lead in the film version of The Day of the Jackal but found to be ‘a bit too sinister’. His good-looking face, stuffed with a Havana cigar – to which, we are informed, he has become partial since fame struck – figures prominently in Secker’s advertisements for The Four Hundred. In the flap photograph for the novel he is shown festooned with necklaces and caressing a revolver. Now!, in a puffing feature describing him as ‘the new Forsyth’, devoted a half-page to a colour picture of the naked Sheppard (not ‘stark’ naked, but near enough to define the difference) exercising in the gym of the Monte Carlo Sporting Club, where he graciously received the journal’s literary editor. Forsyth’s style is, by contrast, dignified and squirearchic. It seems to be difficult to winkle him out of his ‘rural seclusion’ and ‘Georgian manor house’ in Wicklow. Nonetheless, Hutchinson make great play with the aquiline profile and matinée-idol looks. He is customarily shown in hacking-jacket, leaning on his paddock rail or ready for action in silk polo-necked sweater (shark-tooth pendant dangling) over the typewriter. Patterson is less patrician than Forsyth and less the playboy than Sheppard, but he too can rouse the Sunday Express’s interviewer to a thrilled description of macho manhood:

We sit beside the kidney-shaped swimming pool where there are tubs of geraniums and trellises thick with honey-suckle. He is a tall lean man whose reddish brown hair with odd threads of grey is cut into a boyish fringe. He wears tinted glasses and a tight navy shirt and trousers. He says he is a dark sort of individual … ‘very Celtic’. He looks grim and a little forbidding until he smiles. Around his neck hangs a heavy gold crucifix on a chain.

Discussing novelists’ physiognomies, personal ornaments and properties is, perhaps, a strange way to open a review of their novels. But where best-sellers are concerned, the author’s image and even such things as the novel’s ‘distinctive symbol’ matter; they are active and sometimes dominant ingredients in the mixture. And it makes a reviewer’s task very hard. How on earth does one deal with the kind of book where ‘hype’ (i.e. trade lies), the writer’s media image (his ‘kidney-shaped pool … tinted glasses’), and the flamboyance of the publisher’s promotion campaign, may be more important than the text in hand?

There are, one may say from general observation, three critical tones available to the reviewer confronted by this kind of superseller – none of them satisfactory. There is the facetious-tolerant address to the subject: all this is good fun, the reviewer implies, a rattling good yarn, but we don’t have to take it seriously. There is the contemptuous-aloof address, which opprobriates mammon and alleges dirt done on life. Finally, there is the surrender to the profferred advertising lingo in which the reviewer simply recycles the publicity office’s hand-outs and pictures. Each of these forms of address witnesses to the obstruction the reviewer encounters in engaging usefully with books which, for the book trade at least, are among its most valued commodities.

What is perhaps most perplexing for the reviewer is that these novels are ostentatiously not written in any sense of the word that suggests invention or creation. Time and again, the authors disclaim the literary as any significant part of their effort. Forsyth informs the world that The Devil’s Alternative was composed in 44 days (some nine days more than it took him to write The Day of the Jackal, but lest one suspect a weakening of the authorial sinews, he reminds us that the earlier novel was 50,000 words shorter). Patterson asserts that ‘each of his books seldom takes longer than three months to write.’ And writing, according to the laconic Forsyth in a radio interview, ‘is just a question of getting the words on paper’. Words so got down, and at such a tumultuous rate, aim to be no more than functional, and admit of no higher criterion than whether or not the prose is competent. One can pass it or fail it, but one can hardly subject it to literary criticism. Nor is there much to grapple with in terms of conception, plot or donnée. Best-selling fiction sets less store by originality than ‘literary’ fiction, and these three novels follow three fashionable and familiar formulae: the ‘tomorrow that must never happen’ (The Devil’s Alternative), the ‘best kept secret of the war’ (To Catch a King), and the ‘bank-job caper’ (The Four Hundred). Any number of stable-mates could be cited for each of them.

Another vexing difficulty for anyone trying to deal intelligently with the fiction superseller is the prematurity and overwhelming din of its success. Independent criticism comes to judgment very late in the day, and usually after orgiastic celebrations in the book trade of an already achieved triumph. All the good things happen to the novel before it comes into the reviewer’s domain. On first reading the typescript of The Four Hundred the novelist’s agent is reported to have exclaimed: ‘We’re rich.’ The remark may have been premature, but it was not far from the truth. Before the novel was set up in print, Sheppard, who had never published a word before, had an advance of £25,000 from Secker and Warburg, Penguin bought the paperback rights for £52,000, book-club rights were snapped up by Leisure Circle, Warner Brothers acquired the film rights for a million dollars (plus a percentage of the gross), and the novelist’s agent reported himself confident that American paperback rights would fetch in excess of two million dollars. The Devil’s Alternative, when it existed only as a synopsis circulating the Frankfurt Book Fair, earned a record £250,000 advance from Corgi for the British paperback rights.

In their advance publicity Hutchinson reported that the awaited novel had also hauled in ‘the biggest ever American advance ever paid for a book’ and ‘record sums from Bantam in the UK for paperback rights’. With this evidence of trade faith in the product, the first printing was set at a massive 300,000 copies. Months before any reader (or reviewer) could have had a peek at it, the novel was declared ‘quite simply the most powerful and most ambitious political thriller ever devised. And the biggest.’ In the same hyperbolic vein The Four Hundred comes to us with the announcement that ‘this magnificent novel is already a record-breaker’. Indeed, with Secker’s and Penguin’s pounds and Warner’s dollars earning interest in the bank, it certainly had broken records. In the face of such a deafening chorus of money talking who is the reviewer of the hardback to gainsay its ‘magnificence’? All the more so when what he has before him is only one of the work’s many protean forms, and arguably its least significant. £25,000 pounds for the hardback, £52,000 for the paperback, $1 million for the film rights – the proportions speak for themselves.

One can notice these books, or not notice them (which is what the quality press usually does), but it is difficult to review them. They simply don’t fit the reviewer’s bench or yield to his tools. For any adequate treatment, they must be left to what Q.D. Leavis, nearly half a century ago, termed literary ‘anthropology’. A useful approach to Forsyth, for example, would be to trace how his fiction has given the popular press a myth kitty with which to handle some of the newer forms of international crisis. For the tabloid-reading mind, ‘the jackal’ now means Carlos and the ethos of international terrorism. ‘Dogs of war’ evokes the pathetic band of executed European mercenaries who fought in Angola under ‘Colonel Callan’ – the rank invented, and the name borrowed from Edward Woodward’s flamboyantly-played television spy. One can expect leader-writers in three or four years’ time to pontificate solemnly about ‘the devil’s alternative’ facing the nation.

For the ‘serious’ journal this kind of book customarily ranks as Trivialliteratur and is accordingly neglected. Publishers like Secker and Hutchinson claim that, for their part, they cannot neglect the blockbuster: they need it as the firm’s breadwinner to support more respectable members of their lists. This is the argument of the Group Managing Director of Hutchinson writing sharply in the Bookseller of 22 September: ‘It is perhaps time to make a general comment. The British publishing industry is fighting to retain its leadership in markets throughout the world under heavy pressure from American publishers. We need British best-selling authors in order to command these markets vigorously and profitably, in order in turn to continue to nurture and sustain the talents of fresh generations of British authors of all kinds.’

Whether we like them or not, it would seem that our mixed literary economy needs super-sellers. And of their kind these two are superior products which should sell their millions and give the expected kind of pleasure to millions. Forsyth’s is probably the easier read. It foretells a crisis of the early 1980s in which a Russian harvest failure, Ukrainian insurgency, and the hijack of a super-supertanker, combine to bring the world to the brink of the unthinkable. As in The Day of the Jackal, the narrative is organised as a ‘countdown to disaster’, and although it lacks the earlier novel’s concentrated focus, Forsyth again achieves the pace and mounting suspense that overwhelm scepticism. As before, The Devil’s Alternative works from the Forsythian mythology that one man, sufficiently determined and skilled, can change the history of the world. In Jackal, it was the assassin, foiled by society’s lone wolf, the eccentric detective. Here it is a Ukrainian fanatic, foiled by an insubordinate British intelligence officer. Like the novelist himself, the hero of The Devil’s Alternative is a former Reuter’s man, and Forsyth’s fiction clearly owes much to his background as a professional journalist, depending as it does on fast-breaking stories, deadlines, crunch-points and men of the hour.

There is a well-publicised ‘story behind the book’ in both the sales campaigns for these two novels. In Forsyth’s case, it was that the novelist had unexpectedly decided to return from the Ali-like retirement which he had ostentatiously announced while he was still at the top after The Dogs of War. The story behind The Four Hundred was given out in the Evening Standard of 21 February and casts Sheppard as a Cinderella plucked from penurious obscurity:

The inspiration which ended the lean times for Sheppard came two years ago when he was in Jamaica trying to make a living writing film scripts. Things weren’t going so well and he was at a loose end and stuck for something to read. Nothing much was available except some old newspapers, most of them two or three years out of date. In one he found a paragraph headed A Hundred Years Ago Today. It was a brief story about four American con-men who defrauded the Bank of England of two million dollars in 1873. The novel which Sheppard built round that yellowed newspaper story has already brought him enough money to make him leave British for tax reasons.

Sheppard’s novel is very reminiscent of Michael Crichton’s Great Train Robbery and of the film The Sting. Hype apart, it’s an accomplished performance for a first novel, and when tied in with the forthcoming movie will establish the author as one of Britain’s (and Secker and Warburg’s, if he has any gratitude) more desirable literary properties.