Sunday, October 21, 2007
Why Proust hasn't changed my life
One of the first lessons I learned when running the Fiction section was that the sales of the first volume of Proust's magnum opus A La Recherche Du Temps Perdu exceeded the rest of the series put together. Indeed, I'm not sure if I can remember selling any of the other volumes. Knowing that the first book had evidently bored the arse off so many people put a bit of a dampener on things and even Alain de Botton's glowing endorsement wasn't enough to change my mind. But the other day I was chatting to a colleague in the unpacking room and he told me that although there were moments that were interminably dull (he compared the last book to a Ronnie Corbett monolgue), he was glad that he'd made the effort. I was almost convinced.
As a rule of thumb, the first volumes of novel sequences always sell at least twice as many copies as the remaining titles. The one exception to this is in the fantasy genre where, for better or worse, readers will happily buy every volume in the saga, particularly if the author's first name is Terry. It's very odd.
I suppose we should be grateful that the first volume of Proust sells. There are plenty of classic novels that never leave the shop and would slowly go yellow with age if we didn't replace them with newer copies. For example, nobody buys The Scarlet Letter. It may be a classic novel but I haven't sold a copy for as long as I can remember. I always insist on stocking it because I strongly believe that our credibility as a bookseller would be undermined if we didn't, but it belongs in the subgenre of novels that nobody reads. Titles in this category would include:
Cry the Beloved Country
The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropist
Franny and Zooey
The Magic Mountain
Mr Isherwood Changes Trains
The Red and Black
The Bone People
The Rachel Papers
The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold
Sons and Lovers
Room at the Top
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch
The list goes on. Sometimes I try to rescue these books and promote them locally in the shop. Once I was even lucky enough to be able to spearhead a national campaign for 'Forgotten Classics' and although the results didn't quite hit the bestseller charts, I like to think that I was instrumental in introducing some people to Revolutionary Road, Life with a Star and Journey by Moonlight. However I'm under no illusions. As someone pointed out in an article a few weeks ago, the sales of a Booker-shortlisted novel are always easily exceeded by specialist publications like Anglers' Weekly. Literary fiction is, it would seem, the real minority interest.