Bestseller by Alessandro Gallenzi Alma Books, 272pp, £12.99
IF YOU are a poet, playwright, novelist and founder of two small literary publishers, it is not surprising that you should feel like writing a satirical novel about the book business today. Happily, Alessandro Gallenzi has yielded to the temptation, and the result is a novel which is light yet serious, funny and painful, somewhat fantastic yet shot through with truth. It is the kind of thing the late John Mortimer used to do, or that fine novelist of the 1960s and 1970s, Roger Longrigg.
The two main characters, Jim Talbot and Charles Randall, are both what would be called losers. The first sentence of the novel places Jim precisely: "Jim's destiny was to be a great writer, to write a bestseller." This, as Gallenzi well knows, is a delusion. Few great writers are bestsellers; few bestsellers are great literature. No matter: Jim is a long way from fulfilling his destiny. His manuscripts return from publishers like homing pigeons. Meanwhile he lives in a bed-sitting room, at odds with his landlord, and has been milking his trusting mother's bank account.
Charles is a poet who has been running his own literary publishing firm for 30 years. Living from hand-to-mouth, he is never more than a couple of steps ahead of his creditors. Now it seems his luck has run out. He has found investors – both decidedly dodgy characters. They have brought in a management consultant, and the plug is about to be pulled on Charles. Deprived of his company he stops shaving, grows a beard and sinks into depression.
Meanwhile, Jim's magnum opus has suffered the same fate as his previous books. What should he do? The answer, it seems, is to go down-market, and give the public what it seems to want: a mixture of soft porn and misery memoir. Can he succeed, even with the help of two Glasgow girls who run a coffee bar? Charles, on the other hand, strikes it lucky. Sacked from his company, going through his papers, he comes on a manuscript by a famous Irish writer, now fortunately dead, and remembers that this had been given to him to publish when and how he pleases.
Gallenzi has a lot of fun with the crooked money-men who have taken over Charles's company, and with the men they have installed to run it. What about the memoirs of Osama bin Laden? That would surely make a splash. Or would they be more trouble than they are worth? Read all about it.
Like most good comic novels, Bestseller is serious at heart. Jim is, of course, an idiot – in the strict sense of the original Greek, one who knows nothing. You know from the beginning that everything he picks up will break in his hands. He does have a genuine vocation and he loves writing, will turn his hand to anything. It is the dream of the bestseller that prevents him from accepting reality, and putting such talent as he has to proper use.
But Jim is in a sense typical of the publishing industry itself. This is the serious point of the novel. Too many publishers are like Jim. They seek the gloss and glitter; their conversation is littered with talk of advances of 100K or 250K – far beyond what most of the books they publish will ever earn. Moreover, they tend to be at least a year behind, looking for this year's bestseller by seeing what made it last year. As for the two crooked money men, the only surprise is that they have chosen to buy a publishing firm rather than a football club, for an exercise in what looks like money-laundering.
The hero of the book is really Charles and the heroine his former office-girl, Pippa, who coaxes him back to a sort of life. Charles is in many ways a self-pitying bore. Much of what he chose to publish – translated Bolivian poetry, for instance – may have been pretty terrible, but he believed in it. He is hopelessly out-of date, incapable of understanding the world he has survived into. But he eventually comes good, making a speech in which he asserts the value of literature and expresses the modest but admirable hope that "some of the books I have written, edited or published will still be read in thirty years' time, preferably on paper." It is as much as most of us can hope for.
Literature can drive you mad. It nearly does for Charles and may have done for Jim. But serious writing and publishing still represent an oasis of civilisation amidst hectic commercialism and an industry where talk of "the bottom line" exists in stark contrast to the flights of fantasy indulged in by agents and publishers with their talk of 200K.
Because Alessandro Gallenzi's appraisal of the book world is so sane, it's also very funny. As Byron wrote: "And if I laugh at any mortal thing,/'Tis that I may not weep." Quite so.