A murder of books

There is an interesting moment during the staging of Philip Pullman’s La Belle Sauvage. For those unfamiliar with Volume One of The Book of Dust, the “equel” to Pullman’s His Dark Materials series, the book recounts how inn-keeper’s son Malcolm Polstead saves the baby Lyra Belacqua from the dread Magisterium. Midway through this telling, Polstead is recruited by Oxford scholar Dr Hannah Relf to spy for her in return for the loan of some books. He picks The Body in the Library and A Brief History of Time. As the Agatha Christie title is selected, Relf’s daemon retorts scathingly: “but he has a brain”.

The interaction stood out because I didn’t recall it from the book (the scene plays out differently on the page), but it also felt out of step: in the book Relf has an extensive library of “murder stories”. On the stage the conceit allows for two jokes: the second one being a repeat of the old gag about the Stephen Hawking bestseller having been bought more times than it has been read. As it happens, at my sitting that one flew over the heads of a mostly youngish audience, while the quip about the Christie title got a bellyfull.

I don’t mean here to have a pop at this production or its writer; as well as being brilliantly staged, the cast are valiantly carrying on at an all too fragile moment for theatre. And anyway, we all need a good laugh. But it struck me then, as it does today, that in some ways this is a running joke we all enjoy rather too much: as an industry we are a little cool about those books and genres that delight the most readers most of the time. 

It is perhaps a happy coincidence then that this year’s bestselling book is Richard Osman’s 2020 crime début The Thursday Murder Club, having sold upwards of 800,000 copies in its paperback edition alone in 2021. And perhaps an even happier happenstance that Osman’s second murder story, The Man Who Died Twice, was the fourth-biggest seller at more than 500,000 copies sold, making it the biggest-selling hardback fiction title of the year (and by some distance, I might add).

The daemon’s comment might be misdirected, but perhaps in its discomfort it reveals something true more generally: to view the Top 50 is to witness the trade as it is, rather than how it would like to be seen. Bestsellers underpin this business, but they are not evenly or some might say fairly distributed. Since it is predictions week, mine is that this conversation around the haves and have-nots of the book world will only intensify this year. In the US, in arguing the case for its takeover of Simon & Schuster, Penguin Random House will contend that to focus only on the big books is to ignore the vibrancy of those publishing off centre: but authors and publishers squeezed out of the visible middle by brands and celebs are right to question a system under which they cannot but fail.

What this part of the play gets wrong is the target. In 2022, as we seek to fulfil our promise to widen the market and improve choice, we should remember to celebrate readers’ choices, not decry them. For they, as Pullman would surely agree, know best.