It is a truth universally acknowledged that bestselling writers are talentless cheesemongers and cynical fakers, especially the sub-Hornby authors, those who heaved up from the lowest gutter of Hell the ‘male confessional’ novel. The readers of these novels need saving from themselves. They need an injection of dark, transgressive cult literature to raise their collective blood pressure and bust the suffocating membranes of their mediocre, junk-cultural lives.
These aren’t my opinions but those of Richard Anger, indie bookseller, bilious bibliophile, experimental short story writer and protagonist of Charlie Hill’s smart, entertaining and necessary new novel Books.
At the outset we meet Anger on holiday in Corfu, where in a café he catches sight of the lovely Lauren and is instantly drawn. Any chance of Anger and Lauren making a connection is scotched when another woman keels over dead in the café. Anger notices that she’s been reading a rubbish novel by rubbish novelist Gary Sayle, bestselling author of mediocrity-fellating male confessionals and Cheesemonger General. Anger, whose bile has been on a brisk simmer for years, remarks that it’s hardly surprising that a Sayle could bore you to death.
Back in Birmingham, Lauren, a Professor of Neurology realizes that the spontaneous death in Corfu was an incidence of SNAPS (Spontaneous Neural Atrophy Syndrome), her specialist subject, and duly tracks down Richard Anger. As an awkward friendship develops, Richard and Lauren between them realize that Sayle’s new novel The Grass is Greener is so bad it does induce SNAPS. If its publication isn’t stopped, there will be a massacre. Meanwhile, Gary Sayle, the Cheesemonger General, develops a sort of messiah complex when he decides to go on a ‘People’s Literature Tour’ to connect with his readers, those whose mediocrity he serves, one that will be filmed by two super fans who are actually the Nathan Barleyish Pippa and Zeke, gratingly annoying conceptual artists who have concocted their own plans for a Sayle happening.
All this is achieved by some crisp and witty writing reminiscent of Jonathon Coe if he were more post-punk than prog. It’s a compact novel, but one that picks its fights wisely. This isn’t a novel aimed at writers marginalized by a new publishing reality, but at readers for whom fiction’s breadth of possibility has been curtailed in recent years, who have grown inured to the supermarket hackwork served up by writers like Sayle. Hill manages to trace the entire publishing process here, from the booksellers on the ground who can’t shift non-branded authors; readers who seem unable to relate to fictions that aren’t mere comforts, ‘ just something to look at,’ as literary titan Sharon Osbourne once said of her own novel Revenge; a book reviewing system dependent on nepotism and publishers without the drive or integrity to promote anything that isn’t already cookie-cut into a pre-existing marketing plan. Richard Anger is used to focus this survey, but Richard himself is so swept up in the myth of the transgressive writer, the boozed-up, ‘out there’ antagonist set against the towering ruins that he can’t see that his own work is unreadable, as terrible in its own way as the brain-death served up by Sayle and his like. How he retreats back from this limit is also part of the story.
This is a brave, playful and human book. If you have any real love or longing for fiction, don’t buy the next Gary Sayle just because everyone else is and it’s a quid in Asda. Buy this. If you’re writing, this is a book you should read before you browse those online articles on How to Get a Killer Agent or Ten Tips to Successfully Publish Your Novel or pay to go to some seminar where a posho tells you to write about the ‘everyman hero’ and that your choice is between ‘making a statement or making a lot of money’. Make statements. Tell the truth. This is what books are for. It’s what this one does. There’s no such thing as the everyman hero. Richard Anger, in his shabby and shambolic way is the nearest we’re going to get. There are far more Angers than single-parent firemen called to fight off a zombie invasion. There’s nothing heroic about being a name typed on a page who has arguments in IKEA about Star Wars, or whose seminal moments occur watching ER surrounded by ciphers . At least Richard Anger isn’t one of these.