Wednesday, 21 October 2009

In defence of Martine McCutcheon

I once worked in an art house cinema in Liverpool, doling out the tickets and little tubs of Hagen Daz ice cream. On my first shift I got talking to my co-worker.

“What kind of music do you like?” he asked.

“Oh, all kinds,” I said.

“Okay,” he said, “how about Bulgarian communist brass band music?”

He laughingly produced a tape, turned off the Reservoir Dogs soundtrack and put on the horns and bellows of the Eastern Bloc. I lasted about two minutes before pressing stop and putting Little Green Bag back on. It was a brutal lesson of which I was reminded as I read this article – coming hot on the heels of a scathing attack by Marina Hyde in the Guardian – about Martine McCutcheon’s forthcoming novel.

For all the scorn, bile and vitriol thrown her way you’d think that Martine McCutcheon had announced herself the natural heir to Updike, Bellow and Foster Wallace, except with better breasts and whiter teeth. The literary pages, and the commentators below the line, have queued up to laugh at McCutcheon’s leaden prose, to squeal with delight at every rom-com cliché and to mock piteously any thinly veiled piece of autobiography. The smugness, and self-righteousness spreads across the screen like a fog. And it stinks.

McCutcheon’s novel, The Mistress, is a light, frothy bit of fluff to liven up a dull bus journey or a cut and blow dry at Toni & Sassoon; the kind of book left behind at holiday villas next to a dog-eared John Grisham and a pool-bloated Jackie Collins. It was no more written for those of a literary mien as Mr Balfour’s Poodle, Roy Jenkins’ fascinating account of an early twentieth century constitutional crisis, was written for future subscribers to Heat and Grazia magazine. As my cinema colleague so aptly pointed out, not only can you not like everything, not everything is produced with you in mind: so why is it that those who don’t read commercial women’s fiction feel compelled to point and sneer at the ex-Eastender?

The problem can be summed up by what we’ll call the Jordan Analysis. This is a yearly piece of hand-wringing where the Booker longlist’s sales are compared unfavourably to the beach-ball smuggling, orange-glazed freak’s latest ghostwritten epic. As a like-for-like comparison, it’s about as instructive as contrasting the global sales of Mars Bars with Fortnum & Mason’s pickled walnuts in truffle oil. But because it makes good copy, it gets reported, and once again blurs the distinction between the commercial and the literary.

Katie Price’s novels may share the same parameters as those eligible for the Booker prize – published in English, fiction, longer than 200 pages or so, printed and bound – but that’s it: availability, recommended retail price, level of discount and prominence, target market, demographics couldn’t be more different. And then there’s the fact that she promotes the hell out of her books, is in the gossip rags every single day and “writes” about a celebrity lifestyle that is at once familiar and aspirational to her target readership. Try telling Simon Mawr – who is unlikely to be a cover star of any magazine, save for Difficult Fiction About Architecture Quarterly– that it’s a fair comparison.

The Jordan Analysis shows the media’s fundamental lack of understanding of the fiction market – and as this is replicated in many of the literary pages, that’s a worry. It shouldn’t matter that Price has sold more copies of her books than every literary novel since 1960, it should be expected. It needs no commenting upon, Price’s novels – like McCutcheon’s forthcoming books – are commercial fiction and, like Arnie’s Terminator, commercial fiction has only one aim, and only one goal.

Editors might like to think that the aim is entertainment, but that’s only secondary: no one publishes commercial fiction without dollar signs in their eyes. No matter how entertaining, a commercial novel’s success is only measured on its Bookscan figures. That’s it. Sales. Not prizes, not good reviews, not a discussion on Front Row. Commercial fiction just wants your money. It cares only about your cash. Improbably plotted? Who gives a shit, show me the money. Paper thin characters? Go tell it to the pigeons, you fuck, show me the money. Stilted dialogue? Get a copy of Middlemarch, bitch, show me the money. Commercial fiction is Alec Baldwin in Glengarry Glenross. It’s all about the sales, stupid.

And if that sounds vulgar and venal, well it is. Major publishers operate on a knife-edge. Most literary novels lose money, which means quite often that commercial fiction needs to help balance the books. This is not as easy as it sounds. For women’s commercial fiction in particular, you need time to build a brand and a readership, and time is something in very short supply. A celebrity name perfectly sidesteps the early painstaking part of this process and can avoid years of careful, spirit-sapping toil.

Martine McCutcheon has the clout to get on every talk show in town, and get her face in every weekly glossy or celeb newspaper pull out – and the supermarkets know that customers will be drawn to her name. So, so long as she delivers what her potential audience expects – a bit of glamour, a few jokes, a bit of romance and a happy ending – everyone’s content. Everyone, that is, apart from those who somehow see this as the equivalent of Martine squatting over Proust’s grave and leaving literature a steaming, dirty protest.

Some of the criticisms thrown like so much shit from a monkey’s paw towards McCutcheon and Pan Macmillan do raise salient points. Celebrity authors and novels can tie up publicity and marketing budgets, deflecting attention away from other authors. True, but that’s the case with any large company acquisition. When Sudoku went massive four years ago, budget and publicity was snaffled from wherever to ensure that sales targets were met. For most writers the knock on effects will be minimal: unless of course you’re a commercial novelist yourself. And those writers are probably the only ones who can justifiably feel that Martine and the oncoming rush of celebrity authors are the horsepeople of the apocalypse.

Commercial writing of any hue is not just about the quality of the prose, jokes or plotting: it’s the whole package. What these celebrity novelists have brought into sharp focus is just how much this is the case. If you were forced to put your mortgage on the winner in a straight sales scrap between a mediocre celebrity title from Martine McCutcheon or an original and snappy piece rom-com from an obese office administrator from Winersh where would your money go? Principles, ethics, belief in the power of books to transform minds – none of these things are important when selecting which pieces of commercial fiction to publish. You’re just betting on the most likely horse.

As a business decision, therefore, Martine is a sound one and that’s all it should be considered. Pointing and laughing at her because she’s not a sexier version of Tolstoy is just plain dumb. To paraphrase from a better Richard Curtis film than the paper cut in the eyeball in which Martine starred, she’s just a girl, whose written a book, asking the public to buy it. She is not asking for literary acceptance, so let’s once and for all draw a line between books published solely for commercial gain and those that have a higher ambition than simple entertainment. We do it with other media (The Wire’s viewing figures are never humiliated in a comparison with Coronation Street or one of ITV’s many cop shows) so why not with books?

Publishers get slated every which way – sometimes justifiably, but often by people who don’t know an awful lot about the business, or those who really should know better – but you can’t blame them for wanting to actually make some money. McCutcheon’s books should do just that – assuming the advance was sensible – and using the windfall, Pan Macmillan can hopefully go out and find the next Roberto Bolaño, Carol Anne Duffy, China Mieville or another history title as good as the aforementioned Mr Balfour’s Poodle. Yes it’s hardly perfect, and yes, we’d all prefer it if only the very best writers in each genre were rewarded for their efforts, but that doesn’t mean we have to live in Cloud Cuckoo Land. Celebrity sells, and that’s something we’re all just going to have to deal with.