An author’s agent, Michael Sissons, calls for fewer books
A publisher writes to the New Statesman: ‘The Halcyon days are over, and the boom in books, which already looked a little shaky last Christmas, was dealt a major blow by the events of the winter, and does not show any signs of recovering this summer. Most booksellers complain that their stocks are dangerously high, and some even go so far as to say that they have never been offered so many new books as during the last few months. They are cutting down orders right and left.’ A publisher writes to the Spectator: ‘I found myself wondering aloud where “literature” had got to. Almost every book seemed to deal with some more or less specialised subject.’ Another publisher writes: ‘These are hard times for authors … new authors, unless they are promising enough to elbow their established competitors aside, are denied publication.’
The full text of this essay is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.
Vol. 2 No. 23 · 4 December 1980
SIR. In an issue which features some admirably vituperative criticism of outright shoddy writing (I am thinking especially of Miss Brigid Brophy’s review of Deliberate Regression by Mr Robert Harbison) and a depressingly apt piece by Mr Michael Sissons on the current publishing scene, I am (mildly) astounded that one of the recurrent themes in Miss Angela Carter’s review of Colette: A Biography was permitted to pass without at least the raising of one eyebrow. Miss Carter treats it as if it were a patch of itchy skin, endlessly irritating, yearning to be scratched until the blood has run so persistent is she in her references to what she might call The Problem of Colette’s Name.
Without warning, she begins by bringing in Virginia Woolf sometimes a very bad sign indeed. ‘Colette,’ writes Miss Carter, ‘is possibly the only well-known woman writer of modern times who is universally referred to simply by her surname, tout court. Woolf hasn’t made it even after all these years.’ No she hasn’t made it, but then, unlike Colette, she did not choose to call herself Woolf, lout court. Miss Carter seems to see in this some sinister, albeit unconscious, urge on her subject’s pan to appropriate ‘the form of address of both masculine respect and masculine intimacy of her period’. If there is a point to this, I, for one fail to see It.
Yet she continues to scratch. ‘Her third marriage,’ continues Miss Carter, ‘some ten years later, never made her dwindle into Colette Goudeket, even though Colette was not her own but her father’s name.’ It is common knowledge that one inherits, for better or for worse, one’s patronymic, just as one’s father inherited his. Whether one wishes to take on the name of one’s husband is a private, and, to the rest of the world, altogether insignificant, matter. Even if Virginia Woolf called herself, simply, Stephen, there would be no cause for alarm except, perhaps, amongst the lunatic fringe of American doctoral candidates ‘minoring’ in psychology.
‘Her achievement as a whole was extraordinary, though – apart from the Chéri novels and one or two others – not in a literary sense,’ writes Miss Carter. ‘She forged a career out of the kind of narcissistic self-obsession which is supposed, in a woman, to lead to tears before bedtime, in a man to lead to the peaks. Good for her.’ (Do I detect a note of envy in that brief schoolroom retort?) ‘I’ve got a god-daughter named after her. Or rather, such are the contradictions inherent in all this, named after Captain Jules-Joseph Colette, one-legged tax-gatherer and bankrupt.’ The contradictions have been sown by the reviewer. Perhaps the real point is that while husbands came and went, as one music-hall stage began to look like the last, Colette had one thing which remained static and which, like her books, would live after her: her name. This, in the light of what she wrote, is sublimely unimportant