Tuesday, 28 June 2011

From Corpse to Zombie With a Single Shamble - Charlie Butler


There’s been much talk about e-books lately. Wherever you look, authors are publishing their out-of-print backlists and unplaced books on Kindle and other platforms. Agents and publishers, rowsed from their e-slumber, are trying to catch up, wondering what is a fair percentage for e-book rights - or what they can get away with (which is the same thing, so my free-market friends tell me). According to a powerful post written last month by Kristin Kathryn Rusch, we are witnessing a paradigmatic shift in the way that people think about publishing, and about books themselves. Who needs publishers when the internet lies trembling at our fingertips? In the age of the DIY download, need books ever go out of print again? On the other hand, with no quality control mechanism, some fear that e-literature is destined to be no more than a new recipe for spam.
These aren’t questions I feel qualified to answer, but they were in my mind when I visited Hay-on-Wye with my son the other day. As most UK readers of this blog will know, Hay is a small town on the border of Wales and England, just at the northern tip of the Black Mountains. It is also the home of more than twenty second-hand bookshops, the largest concentration in the UK by far. We were only making a day trip, nothing like long enough to plumb its treasures, but we still made some great discoveries, and it would be a poor soul who could visit Hay without doing so. To be tired of Hay is to be tired of life – or at least of reading.
All the same, when I find a wonderful book that’s been forgotten by all but the cognoscenti (who hug their enthusiasms to their chests like so many racing tips), and especially if that book is going cheap, I feel melancholy as well as triumphant. For Hay is, as well as a great shopping experience, a vast Necropolis. It is a graveyard for out-of-print books – and those of us who stalk its chambers, ripping the jewels from bony necks and fingers, cannot help but feel like tomb raiders – and not in a sexy, Lara Croft kind of way. If we are writers, a trip to Hay is also a plangent reminder of our own mortality, and – perhaps worse! – that of our books. Occasionally I meet one of my own offspring, staring back at me from the dusty shelves like a memento mori. “Buy me!” it seems to beg, in mute appeal. I generally oblige.
We all have our unjustly-forgotten writers, and Hay is a good place to find them. Whatever happened to Nina Beachcroft, for example? Her first three books, Well Met by Witchlight (1972), Cold Christmas and Under the Enchanter (both 1974) are a wonderful debut set, showing mastery of a variety of fantasy genres, from comic supernatural to traditional ghost story to occult tale of possession. But her footprint on the literary foreshore was soon obliterated, and although she produced half a dozen more books (many very good), it’s almost twenty years since a publisher put out an edition of any of them. I can see why they wouldn't do so now: to the omnipotent marketing departments Beachcroft's world of middle-class, largely rural childhood would seem dated. And, although I rate her highly, she's not quite good enough to face down such objections. All the same, I regret her absence from the shelves, and not just for sentimental reasons.
E-publishing may allow such neglect to be put right – and if it does, I’m all for it. I doubt whether Nina Beachcroft’s works will ever storm the bestseller lists, but they deserve a second life. It may be only a zombified half-life, subsisting on electronic downloads rather than good honest paper – but then, perhaps it's better to be a zombie than a corpse?

8 comments:

JO said...

But ebooks will never smell of book - that's one of the glories of Hay, those shops that smell of ancient paper. Nor will their pages rustle, in that surprised way that pages do when they are old. Bit like the rest of us, I suppose - smelly and rustley when we are old! (I'm nearly there so I'm allowed to way this.)

Leila said...

I think this is one of the great things about e-books: that we'll be able to read books like Nina Beachcroft's forever (because paper books do, unfortunately, rot away eventually, or fall to pieces after heavy reading).

michelle lovric said...

Love your image of stalking through Hay, ripping the jewels from bony necks and fingers.

When is a book dead? It is perhaps only when no one in their right mind would want to read it, or because it expresses obnoxious views, or because it is badly written, or because it does not have the power to grip the imagination.

Or ... in my view ... it dies when it starts getting traded - in places like Hay - as a first edition, and its value lies in its price as an object and not in what is inside it. That's when it's a zombie - something that moves around, but has no soul.

Katherine Langrish said...

Mmmm - and I own Nina Beachcroft's 'A Spell of Sleep': a wonderful book. I think we just have to admit no one can read everything. There'll be those of us who hunt down and read older, brilliant books, and those who don't - and I doubt if availablity as an ebook will make much difference: you still have to KNOW about them.

Katherine Langrish said...

And - Michelle - too right! A book is not worth anything unless it is being opened and read.

Ann Turnbull said...

Charlie, seeing your cover picture gave me a little shock! It's so familiar (and such a gorgeous cover). I met Nina Beachcroft when I was a newly published young writer in the 1970s and lived nearby. She was very kind and friendly to me and, like you, I loved her books, and have signed copies of several of them. Her writing was beautifully crafted, polished and easy to read, and she wrote some great stories. As well as those mentioned, Cold Christmas is a chilling ghost story - recommended!

Ann Turnbull said...

Sorry, you DID mention Cold Christmas - well, no harm in mentioning it twice! (three times now...)

Charlie Butler said...

You can mention it as often as you wish, Ann! She deserves more mentions altogether.