The 2003 Granta list of the best young British novelists has just been published. As the years roll by I grow crustily nostalgic of course, but will this lot prove to hold a candle to that truly phenomenal Granta list of 1983? What stars there were in that decade, and what fun we at Waterstone’s (founded just three months before the list appeared) had in rolling out our bookshops, and providing a marketplace for their work. No Borders, no Amazon, no Ottakar’s, just us really – until eventually, and too late to catch us, Dillons (once Terry Maher got bored with his second-hand office furniture business or whatever it was) set off in pursuit. W H Smith, insanely, were at that period issuing press releases proudly demonstrating their diminishing dependence on the book, embarrassing, low-tech, old-market thing that it was. Blackwell’s, easily the best name and the best placed of all, were, as ever, too absorbed in their family battles to notice what was happening. So we had the field pretty much to ourselves. Some independents folded their tents at the sight of us, and with vituperation. Why? We were as strapped for funds as they were, more so probably, but we went to the City, sucked our fingers as doors were slammed on them, and in the end raised, in reluctant dribs and drabs, the money that enabled us to roll.
And roll we did, with gay if not wholly responsible abandon, supported now by the huge credit risk taken on us, bravely and deliberately, first by Peter Mayer at Penguin, and then, with him telephoning around and encouraging others, most of the majors. Publishers – particularly the literary ones, led by Faber – opened their arms to us. We felt positively messianic. But rival booksellers hated us. A very young Waterstone’s manager stood up to speak at the Booksellers’ Conference of 1985, and before he could open his mouth he was booed. We were blackballed when we applied to become Chartered Booksellers, and by return of post. We were the enemy. We traded on Sundays. We stayed open till midnight. We ‘early-sold’. It was, all of it, very good fun indeed – although to this day I am angered at the memory of our young manager standing there, nervous with stage fright, as the catcalls came.
Yes – looking back at that Granta list of 1983 does bring it back to me. Ian McEwan (cerebral), Julian Barnes (charming) , Rose Tremain (also charming), and Jeanette Winterson (petulant) – they joined us around the country as we piled their books high, and they talked with their readers, signed their books and gave their little speeches: all things then so rare, now so commonplace. Beryl Bainbridge, Penelope Lively, Penelope Fitzgerald, John Mortimer, A N Wilson, Salman Rushdie, P D James, Ruth Rendell, Roy Jenkins , Tony Benn, Richard Holmes, Peter Ackroyd, Antonia Fraser, Auberon Waugh – even Iris Murdoch, for heaven’s sake, and Ted Hughes, and once both Anita Brookner and John Le Carré, famously the two British writers least willing to expose themselves to physical contact with their audience. It was like a great travelling, seven-days-a-week, literary circus. We sold literature – literature, I emphasise, not celebrity or cookery or gardening books – and we sold it by the ton. Only Kingsley Amis refused absolutely to join the party – without an appearance fee. Antonia Byatt, Michael Frayn, Edna O’Brien et al would drop everything to oblige. Peter Carey was there. Margaret Atwood. Robertson Davies. Maeve Binchy always – and with an adoring audience. Our Book of the Month promotion was created around Nicholas Mosley’s Hopeful Monsters and he too, for the first time perhaps, subjected himself then to interplay and contact with his and our public.
I said that all this has become commonplace now, and so it has, the first flush of the romance between us all having died a little, coarsened perhaps, become standardised and part of the treadmill. And the cult of the author, which Waterstone’s more than anybody was responsible for creating, has in a quite pernicious way served to damage bookselling. The real task of a bookseller is to maintain a wide, reliable and considered backlist, nurtured by reliable and informed staff. We used to be pretty good at that; now, I’m not so sure. But Waterstone’s competitors are worse. Recently I was in a big and famous bookshop in London. Their large, yet abysmal stock of fiction illustrated what bookselling could become in ignorant and unskilled hands: on the Scott Fitzgerald shelf twenty-three (yes, twenty-three) copies of Tender is the Night, six of The Diamond as Big as the Ritz and not one Great Gatsby. I went to S, and there was not one copy of a Saramago novel. I went to B, and there was no, I repeat no, Bellow. L for Lampedusa – and not a copy of The Leopard. If I had gone to the so-called Information Desk I would no doubt have been directed to Natural History. But the coffee bar was nice.
Thank God for Granta. And also that, however we might all complain (readers, booksellers, authors, librarians, agents, all of us), the book market remains robust. Nothing much changes. Nothing much will. Perhaps that’s a comfort. I was shown recently a letter from Charles Dickens to his publishers, Chapman and Hall. ‘I was in Canterbury yesterday’, he wrote, ‘and visited eleven booksellers. Three had not one single copy of David Copperfield. Apparently they had not seen one of your travellers for months.’