The Daily Telegraph
After the literary deep freeze, I’m looking forward to a good book
Among its myriad disruptions, the coronavirus has encouraged a tendency towards the long view. Sales of Daniel Defoe’s “nonfiction novel” The Journal of the Plague Year and Albert Camus’ allegorical La Peste have been brisk, while there have been ambitious predictions of fundamental shifts in the way we live.
But when the histories of the “plague year” of 2020 are written, what changes will they record? There are plenty to choose from, including the repurposing of living rooms as temporary school-rooms-cum-exercise studios, and the transformation of domestic cubby-holes into working-from-home offices.
Among the testimonies that may seem as striking to future generations as the quiet courage of Albert Camus’ Joseph Grand, or Defoe’s record of the exemplary charitable provision for the distressed in the city of London, is the lockdown surge in popularity of those most comforting activities – reading and cooking.
The respective industry responses to increased demand have been instructive. When bookshops closed at the beginning of lockdown, the publishing industry’s response was defensive. At the moment when demand from readers was most urgent, the supply dried up. Books were postponed, their publication dates shifted back by months or longer. In April, I reviewed the latest in a beloved series of confectionary-themed novels – exactly the comfort reading that readers were craving – only to find at the last moment that it had been postponed until 2021.
Among the many books I own are some published during the Second World War, including a 1942 edition of Evelyn Waugh’s Put Out More Flags. The paperstock is little better than newsprint, the design perfunctory, but the effect on morale must have been tremendous. As I was beginning to compare the response of publishers then and now, the literary agent Jonny Geller had harsh words for the “narrow” approach of publishers, who put “everything in the deep freeze”, while other branches of the arts continued to produce new content, arguably in more difficult conditions.
Now the moment for the great defrosting has come. On September 3, almost 600 new titles will be published. For weeks now, proofs of forthcoming books have been arriving on my doormat, with press releases eloquently arguing their case. Some of these books are exquisite – Abdulrazak Gurnah’s Afterlives and Valerie Martin’s I Give It To You come to mind – but will their elegant, subtle voices be heard among the bellowing of the best-selling mastodons – Amis, Harris, Hornby, not to mention Ant and Dec – across the September publication swamp? I hope so.
September is traditionally the start of an annual flurry of cookbook publications. But while readers have waited largely in vain for forward thinking, cooks have been overwhelmed with options. Subscription for food boxes, such as the Joe Wicksbacked Gusto, and Hello Fresh, have prospered (Hello Fresh anticipates sales growth of 40-55 per cent this year).
While I’m slightly resistant to the food box model, I cherish good food writers, just as I cherish good novelists. Covid has made us value our versions of both fiction and nonfiction. For now, amid the flurry of grandeur, I trust the modest, the gentle and thoughtful will prevail.