I had a tweet from the high street booksellers W. H. Smith the other day. They wanted to tell me about their 'Fresh Talent' campaign, featuring some young authors, all of them new to me.
I have mixed feelings about advice from this retailer when it comes to the books I should read: perhaps this will explain why. But everyone makes embarrassing mistakes so, keen to know the writers to look out for in what's left of 2016 I clicked on the link to find out more. Below are the twelve titles, with an extract from the accompanying blurb (cut to save space, but each will give you an idea of what to expect). Publishers were not specified, but you can get fuller details via links here. It's a snapshot of a certain kind of English writing and publishing.
Here we go:
Fresh Talent is back and we have a brand new batch of new and emerging authors just waiting for you to discover them. Providing a place across our travel stores for fresh authors to be seen and for readers to find interesting reads, Fresh Talent has been tremendously successful in getting people talking about new authors.
[Does W. H. Smith employ any copy editors and proof-readers, I wonder? I suspect they do, more's the pity. How about "a brand new batch of new and emerging authors' for tautness and punch? The second sentence is like a motorway pile-up in slow motion.]
This Spring our selection of titles are [sic] as varied, unique and thought-provoking as you’d expect, dipping into poisonous friendships, second chances at love, family truths, dark crimes and the observations of a falling goldfish, amongst other things. Take a look at the titles featured in this season’s Fresh Talent below to find out more...
Tenacity – J. S. Law
A sailor hangs himself on board a naval submarine. Although ruled a suicide Lieutenant Danielle Lewis, the Navy’s finest Special Branch investigator, knows the sailor’s wife was found brutally murdered only days before. Now Dan must enter the cramped confines of HMS Tenacity to interrogate the tight-knit, male crew and determine if there’s a link.
The Sunshine Away – M. O. Walsh
One day Lindy Simpson cycles home from school and straight into a trap: someone is lying in wait for her, a wire strung between lampposts across the path. She is raped just yards from her front door. No one sees a thing and the perpetrator is not caught.
The Second Love of my Life – Victoria Walters
In the Cornish town of Talting, everyone is famous for something. Until recently Rose was known for many things: her infectious positivity; her unique artistic talent; and her devotion to childhood sweetheart Lucas. But two years ago that changed in one unthinkable moment.
Quicksand – Steve Toltz
Wildly funny and unceasingly surprising, Quicksand is both a satirical masterpiece and an unforgettable story of fate, family and friendship. Aldo Benjamin may be the unluckiest soul in human history, but that isn’t going to stop his friend Liam writing about him. For what more could an aspiring novelist want from his muse than a thousand get-rich-quick schemes, a life-long love affair, an eloquently named brothel, the most sexually confusing evening imaginable and a brief conversation with God?
Not Working – Lisa Owens
Claire Flannery has quit her job in order to discover her true vocation – only to realize she has no idea how to go about finding it. Whilst everyone around her seems to have their lives entirely under control, Claire finds herself sinking under pressure and wondering where her own fell apart
The House at the Edge of the World – Julia Rochester
John Venton’s drunken fall from a Devon cliff leaves his family with an embarrassing ghost. His twin children, Morwenna and Corwin, flee in separate directions to take up their adult lives. Their mother, enraged by years of unhappy marriage, embraces merry widowhood.
Fishbowl – Bradley Somer
From his enviable view from a balcony on the 27th floor of an apartment block, Ian the Goldfish has frequent – if fleeting – desires for a more exciting life. Until one day, a series of unfortunate events give him an opportunity to escape
The Exclusives – Rebecca Thornton
A heartbreaking story of friendship and betrayal – can we ever forgive the ones we love the most? Freya Seymour and Josephine Grey are invincible – beautiful and brilliant, the two best friends are on the cusp of Oxbridge, and the success they always dreamed they’d share.
The Daughter’s Secret – Eva Holland
When Rosalind’s fifteen-year-old daughter, Stephanie, ran away with her teacher, this ordinary family became something it had never asked to be. Their lives held up to scrutiny in the centre of a major police investigation,
The Dark Inside – Rod Reynolds
1946, Texarkana: a town on the border of Texas and Arkansas. Disgraced New York reporter Charlie Yates has been sent to cover the story of a spate of brutal murders – young couples who’ve been slaughtered at a local date spot.
The Butcher Bird – S. D. Sykes
Oswald de Lacy is growing up fast in his new position as Lord of Somershill Manor. The Black Death changed many things, and just as it took away his father and elder brothers, leaving Oswald to be recalled from the monastery where he expected to spend his life, so it has taken many of his villagers and servants.
The Blue Between Sky and Water – Susan Abulhawa
It is 1947, and Beit Daras, a rural Palestinian village, is home to the Baraka family – oldest daughter Nazmiyeh, brother Mamdouh, beautiful, dreamy Mariam and their widowed mother. When Israeli forces descend, sending the village up in flames, the family must take the long road to Gaza, in a walk that will test them to their limits.
Nothing on this list immediately snags my interest and that, I'm sure, is my loss. I expect I'm not within their target demographic, not in the market for middlebrow fiction, for books to pick up at the airport. What sttrikes me in the choice of books and authors for the Fresh Talent campaign is their lack of diversity - Susan Abulhawa aside, they all appear to be white and anglophone. The range of settings is narrow - Devon, Cornwall, London, England in the Middle Ages, 'the cusp of Oxbridge' (wherever that is). There are excursions to Palestine and Texakarna, but little interest otherwise in a world beyond a cosy middle-class setting. There's nothing in translation, of course.
In the middle of the last century, the English novel was in the doldrums, prompting Cyril Connolly to complain in 1955 of three “colossal, almost irremediable” defects: thinness of material, poverty of style and lack of power. All three failings, he argued, arose from the fact that most published authors came from what he called the mandarin class (the class to which Connolly himself belonged), a narrow social stratum with little experience of life beyond public school, Oxbridge and a few years’ professional dalliance in London or the provinces. Looking at the list above, with a couple of exceptions, nothing much seems to have changed. But the 1950s saw the arrival of red-blooded working class writers such as John Braine, Alan Sillitoe, David Storey, Keith Waterhouse and Stan Barstow (who was arguably the best of them). That generation has now gone, and there's not much evidence today of working class writers taking the citadels of publishing by storm. Not one of the books listed above seems to have a working class setting (which is no bad thing in itself, but certainly a thing).
The novel today is not in the doldrums, but you have to look elsewhere to discover the astonishing range of original writers currently at work, most of them published by small independent presses: Coffee House Press and Dalkey Archive Press the States; Galley Beggar Press, Fitzcarraldo Editions and CB editions over here; Tramp Press in Ireland - and there are many others. That's where the action is, and the energy, and these are the books that will last - if books last at all. These are not books you're likely to find in your local branch of Smith's, or Waterstones come to that. Buy direct from the publishers - always the best way. The success of the tiny independent presses is (forgive a sentimental moment) like the rise of small record labels in the punk era, or the production of fanzines. There's a lot of love and commitment in it. And there's to be a new prize to recognise the role of small presses in the UK and Ireland, which I'm blogging about for the Times Literary Supplement this week.
Good luck to the Fresh Talent - I hope they sell lots of books and have rewarding careers, but I'll be amazed if any of the twelve novels listed above are still in print five years from now. Say three.
I note that several of the writers elect to appear under their (de-gendering) initials, a long-standing tradition but revived commercially in recent years by the staggering popularity of books by J. K. Rowling and E. L. James. I'm all for it, W. H. Smith. But when did you stop being W. H. Smith & Son?
Blurbs © W. H. Smith