A golden age
01.06.12 | Neill Denny
This weekend the country is gearing up to throw a massive party for the Diamond Jubilee, an event even the book trade—not noted for its jingoism—is not entirely ignoring. Bookshops of all stripes are running themed promotions and displays, while publishers have capitalised with a range of books from Debrett’s The Queen: The Diamond Jubilee to Sunbird’s Diamond Jubilee Royals Dress-up Dolly Book.
But the jubilee does offer a moment to consider a longer perspective. The book trade will score highly in any objective analysis of Britain since 1952, because it has been a golden period for literature, publishing and bookselling—a story of growth and success few other commercial and artistic realms can match.
Just in terms of crude output, publishing is producing perhaps 10 times the volume of 1952—and much of it of immeasurably better physical quality, particularly in non-fiction. Elizabeth may have presided over the greatest loss of territory of any British monarch, as the Empire was blown away by the winds of change, yet a curious echo persists in the Commonwealth, and its attendant publishing rights. Today, British publishing remains far more global than that of our American rivals and, by some measures, is the nation’s most successful cultural industry. Alongside this continued global reach of British writing, the domestic trade has opened right out, with cheaper books available in supermarkets, on high streets and via the web. The rise of chain booksellers, and the miracle of the choice offered by the web and by e-readers, stand out. The collapse of the Net Book Agreement in the late ’90s still divides opinion, yet had it stayed, books would have steadily become a narrow and expensive product.
The widening of access to books has been matched by a quantum rise in their profile. At the literary end, the Man Booker and the festival boom have put literature firmly on the national stage, while the contribution of Richard and Judy to taking books into the average home has been immense.
Salman Rushdie, Graham Greene, J G Ballard, Enid Blyton, J K Rowling, Ian Fleming, Evelyn Waugh, John le Carré, Iris Murdoch, Ian McEwan: writers of enormous literary, cutural and commercial power litter the reign even if no single figure as dominant as Shakespeare or Dickens will ever define the age. History will make that call.