Good Reading : April 2005
instant books last word We’ve had instant mashed potato, instant coffee, and now, laments ALAN GOLD, we have the instant book. 54 goodreading Walk into any bookshop and you’ll find the front section filled with the latest novels, biographies, and books on gardening and cooking; the rapidly-diminishing rear section will contain shelves of what are called ‘backlist’ books – the classics, previous books by well-known authors, maps, directories, reference and business and medical and myriad other books. But increasingly, the precious space at the busy end of the bookshop – at the front between the window and the cash register – is being appropriated by instant books written by instant experts about events that happened just a few months previously and which, like mushrooms, appear and disappear almost overnight. If there’s a war in the Antarctic, journalists who rush to cover it will have their eyes on two objectives: one is an opinion column in the Sydney Morning Herald, the Age or some other paper on the immorality of one side or the other; and the second objective is being first to get to a large publishing house in order to persuade the pub- lishing director that this is a story that needs a 75,000 word book which will sell millions of copies internationally. So what type of topics or events have recently found their way into the royal real estate at the front of bookshops to become ‘instant expert’ books? Well, politics, of course, is the prime source of most instant books. Sally Neighbour’s In the Shadow of Swords, Peter Singer’s The President of Good and Evil, Margo Kingston’s ‘Not Happy John’ and Bob Woodward’s Bush at War are just a few examples of books which have a shelf life of months rather than years.And no doubt we will soon see a rash of books coming out of America to do with the new White House, the new approach to the War in Iraq, the new neo-neo- Conservatism, the rise and rise of the fundamentalist right, and much more. Then there are instant books on instant overnight celebrities such as pop stars and film stars; on fads, per- sonality problems, diets, the economy, get-rich quick schemes … more and more every day. The question we need to start ask- ing is simply this: if bookshops don’t sell newspapers, why do they sell instant books? If they don’t sell maga- zines, why do they sell magazine-style paperbacks which have roughly the same shelf-life? The space for reflective books which have taken years to write is rapidly disappearing, replaced by these massive print runs for books which turn around and disappear in a matter of weeks. Immediacy has become the new para- digm for publishers and booksellers; and readers and authors are suffering. Bookshops used to be places where people went to find finely wrought works of fiction and non-fiction; it didn’t matter whether the books were mass- market populist works or more esoteric high-end fictional and non-fictional crea- tive writing, when you wanted to browse through a range of literature, you went to a bookshop.Today, you have to force your way past the latest fads, the latest superstars or the latest events before you can find the sections devoted to works of creative imagination which will transport you to another landscape. Of course, I’m going to be accused of snobbery and elitism, wanting to keep bookshops pure and simple, unsullied by cheap commercialism. But that’s not what I’m talking about. A bookshop should sell Mills and Boon romances alongside arcane books on postmodernism.The criterion, however, is that they should be books, not jour- nalism wrapped up in a book jacket. Nor do I blame the publishers for publishing instant expert books, which are a prime source of income, bought in large numbers by an insatiable pub- lic. But their only qualification to be called a ‘book’ is that the text in them is contained in between book covers. Most of them could just as easily be re- published as large magazines of the Life or Time or Newsweek variety. And of course the booksellers, who make a tidy profit from selling instant books, will demand the right to car ry them. But just for a moment, step back and think of the lonely authors who have slaved away for years to bring out a wonderful work of literature, who finally manage to get it published, and then find that it’s obscured by the face of George Bush or John Howard or Osama bin Laden, fronting biographies about their latest adventure. How does a novelist or true expert in a subject manage to get display and shelf space, and hence a chance to profit from his or her life’s work, when it’s gazumped by some journalist who trots out yet another instant book which monopolises that arterial life-giving space at the front of a bookshop? You know, this is so important that I think I’ll write a book about it … The criterion, however, is that they should be books, not journalism wrapped up in a book jacket.