In Howard Jacobson’s gloriously filthy novel Zoo Time, writer Guy Ableman is having trouble adapting to changes in literary taste, publishing, reading and his private life. Guy is not the only one to be dismayed by the turn of events.
“A couple of senior publishers – immediately castigated as dead white males – had gone public that week about the decline in the literacy of new writing…We hadn’t only forgotten how to sell books; we had forgotten how to write them.”
Publishers like Merton Flak, Guy’s publisher at Scylla and Charybdis Press, commit suicide. Others like Flora McBeth (publisher of the paperback list who wants Guy to write for an audience of “girls under twenty”) and Sandy Ferber (who commands all his authors to “have a thousand story apps ready to go for the mobile-phone market. Bus-stop reading, he called it”) try to make sense of the new world where there seem to be fewer and fewer readers, where for “every reader that went missing a hundred new writers appeared to take his stroke her place” and where, due to print-on-demand, “you have to stop thinking in terms of ‘in print’. ‘In print’ is so yesterday”.
Guy is fed up of the whole business, reserving particular venom for literary festivals.
“Literary festivals filled a gap in the calendar of the retired. It was one stage before chair-dancing. Soon there would be funeral parlours on site. You wandered into a tent, you clapped a writer you’d never heard of, you didn’t buy his stroke her book, and you rolled over. Writers the same”.
Francis, his agent, leaves the business (taking Guy’s mother-in-law with him – but that’s another story) and his successor, Carter Strobe, helps Guy to find his niche in the new world of books. Once again drawing on his personal life for material, he completes The Good Woman – “the pornography of the sentimental”. “The Chipping Norton, Chipping Camden and Chipping Sodbury women’s reading groups” love it: “It struck them as uncanny that I could understand women as I did”.
So Guy Ableman, Scylla and Charybdis, and the novel mutate and survive in new market environments, just as literary forms, writers and publishers always have. But this new success comes at a price: “In my new incarnation as a writer of what was ‘readable’ I was the antidote to art”.
Howard Jacobson, Zoo Time, 2012