I do enjoy the NB column on the back page of The Times Literary Supplement. It’s usually by Jim Campbell, but on 7 March D.H. (David Horspool?) was filling in. This is the first item.

Remember the death of the novel? Of course you do, it was all the rage from about the 1920s to at least the 1980s, from Walter Benjamin to Tom Wolfe. Then everybody noticed that people kept on writing novels, and other people kept on reading them and said clever things like “the death of the novel has been greatly exaggerated” (which, as it happened, was a variation on something a novelist once said). But what’s this? In the Observer Magazine (March 3) Robert McCrum asks, not if the novel is dead, but if the novelist is: “Is this the end of an author’s life?”

The gist of the article is that before the “credit crunch” (which actually, though the writer doesn’t mention it, was merely the herald of something rather larger and more significant, a worldwide recession) and the internet, certain sorts of writers were doing just fine. Now they’re not. Only two authors, Joanna Kavenna and Robert Thomson, are called to the witness box to testify at any length on this state of affairs, and the Observer‘s photographer hasn’t helped things by snapping the former in an extremely inviting kitchen. The latter is at least pictured in the dark, on a nameless London street, but he spoils things a bit by telling us that his cutting back has necessitated giving up an office “on London’s South Bank” and constructing a tiny “garret” in his attic. Office, attic, builders? We should be so lucky. The story that they have to tell turns out to be one of reduced advances, which most likely has something to do with sales, but since the only figure given in the article is “a sum in excess of £100,000” for an advance for two books in the late 1990s, it is difficult to tell. We are told that other writers “off the record . . . freely confide their fears for the future”. Hanif Kureishi (was he happy to be on the record)?) “told me how difficult his life had become”, but as he had been “recently swindled out of his life savings”, that may be the reason for that, rather than an end of literary days.

Of course, people in all walks of life have experienced similar reductions in their incomes, and we wish it weren’t so. McCrum tries to get Kavenna to blame the internet, getting her to “speak passionately about the copyright problem from the perspective of a young writer struggling to protect her livelihood”. Recalling, with horror, the so-called Google Print Initiative (the digitizing of the world’s copyright libraries), she says: “It’s as if you came home and found your house burgled, but when the police turned up they said: “Did you stick a sign outside your front door saying DON’T BURGLE MY HOUSE?”‘”. We have puzzled over this analogy, and admit defeat. First, the Google Print Initiative. This (now the Google Library Project), whatever one thinks of it, is not a project to release copyright works free of charge. We looked up Kavenna’s first book, The Ice Storm, on Google Books. You can’t read it online, but you can buy the e-book, or “get the book in print” (links to WH Smith, Waterstone’s, etc). This doesn’t sound like burglary to us.

So the connection to the loss of a “business model” in other areas of creative production (music, journalism) is tenuous at best. Though McCrum makes little of it, his real observation is that, if most authors’ lives are getting more difficult, that is a return to a state of affairs that preceded a brief publishing boom in the 1980s and 90s. Grub Street has always been waiting, and the internet has very little to do with it.

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