I listened to Open Book this week on radio 4 almost by accident, but was interested as the results were revealed for the neglected classic competition. The panel who should surely have known better expressed some surprise over the number of books 50 years or older that listeners had suggested as further neglected classics for consideration and rediscovery. Who amongst the reading public can failed to have noticed Virago, Persephone, Hesperus, Capuchin, Penguin Modern Classics, Vintage, Faber Finds, Pushkin Press and Bloomsbury Group – and this is hardly an exhaustive list of publishers opting to resurrect the neglected classic, or even the not very neglected at all classic (Capuchin when did Dracula go out of print that you really feel that it’s a book that needs to be kept alive?)
Now clearly I’m a fan of books from just such publishers, their wares fill the majority of my book shelf space, and I await new publications with a level of enthusiasm other women apparently reserve for shoes and handbags. From time to time I try and put my finger on what it is that appeals so much about these books compared to the majority of contemporary fiction that I by pass with such regularity. My ideas about this keep evolving, the first reason I’m not terribly proud of – essentially it’s that quality is guaranteed. If a book has been initially well received even if it’s 50 years or more ago and a publisher I like and respect are validating it then the chances are I’ll find it a rewarding read. It’s a lazy sort of approach but with pressure on both time and money I like the feeling of confidence that Persephone and others inspire.
The second reason is that when I look around the book market it seems to me that the decent middlebrow novel is a slightly endangered species. Once upon a time shop shelves where filled with a now almost undreamed of variety (this is my romantic and slightly wine soaked recollection at any event) of titles, writers like Alice Thomas Ellis, Sarah Caudwell, Barbara Comyns and Robertson Davies who all must have been solid if not spectacular performers, and now are only readily available from amazon market place. Lowest common denominator books – the sort of thing that used to be the speciality of airports and railways (incidentally East Midlands Airports tiny WH Smiths had the best choice of books I’ve seen almost anywhere recently) are easy to find and so are the relatively high brow prize winners and fellow shortlisters but the middle ground feels curiously sparse.
I think the increasing number of niche publishers suggest all too clearly the fact that the mainstream has become over reliant on blockbusters and high profile heavyweights. The policy of deep discounting on certain titles dismays me, the official price tag on the latest Jamie Oliver is laughable – who will ever pay full price for that book, and what does that make it worth? The latest Persephone however knows its value and so do I – a much more reassuring position to be in, so it comes as no surprise to me that people want these kinds of books.