The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Some survival strategies
Lengthen shelf life

Have you ever looked for a book published, say in the mid-Nineties, but is no longer on the shelf' You would be lucky if you manage to get it. Is it then possible to write a book that will hold for ten years afterwards' For how many books published in the last three years or so, is this true today'

Very few. Let’s face the harsh truth. Contemporary works of imagination do not keep. The quality in them which makes for their immediate success is the first to go; they turn overnight. The short-lived success of a book may be the fault of the reader who is faced with a mass of distractions. The sheer pressure of our lives have vitiated the art of reading. Books that we have read and which seemed good to other discriminating readers go bad just the same.

Suppose you draw up a core reading list of 20th century English literature. We would mention Lawrence, Huxley, Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Conrad, Evelyn Waugh, E.M. Forster, Graham Greene, V.S. Pritchett, and a few others; if clever, we would add Eliot, Maugham, Shaw, Strachey, Wells, Galsworthy, Kipling. Of these, Strachey, Galsworthy, Kipling are out of fashion. If others survive, it is primarily because some of their novels or poems have been included in academic courses and students have to read them to get through. Or they have been turned into immemorable films. Ditto for 20th century American literature. Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, described as the source of all American poetry though published in 1855, is out in the cold.

Why do contemporary classics disappear from the shelves so fast' Is it only the apathy of the reader or are there other factors that compel booksellers to take them off'

Bookshop economics depend on two crucial factors. First, the necessity to turn over stock as rapidly as possible and make a reasonable profit. Severely cramped for space, they have to make room for the new that would perhaps have a better chance of being sold. Retail margins are small, but these margins are made only when the book is actually sold.

But what makes shelf-life even more precarious is the fact that bookshops “buy” stock strictly on a sale-and-return basis. That is, if the book doesn’t sell within a reasonable period, booksellers simply return the stock to the publishers or distributors and credit issued to them.

So what works' “Only connect”, the motto of Forster’s Howards End. Which means there must be universal themes that would survive the passage of time. In Forster’s case this could be put down as the breaking down of barriers between black and white, between class and class, between man and woman, between art and life. Forster’s novels survive because they are precursors of what the young left of today would want; they could be used by them to take-off in whatever direction they would develop.

But in the end it is the plainness of the writing, the truth of the writer’s convictions and the force of his emotions that ultimately win out. Paradoxically, what kills a book is the hype. The advertising, publicity and the enthusiasm which a book generates imply a reaction against it. One can fool the public about a book but the public will always store up resentment in proportion to its folly.

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