About this time last year, when the 2009 Man Booker judges were wrestling with their shortlist, I set off for Italy to interview Simon Mawer. In the books world, the author of The Glass Room was held to be the only horse with even an outside chance of pipping runaway favourite Hilary Mantel to the post. On a shortlist that also featured J. M. Coetzee, Sarah Waters and A. S. Byatt, however, he was viewed by the public and the media at large as a curiosity; a greenhorn in the company of heavyweights.
But here’s the thing: Mawer was no greenhorn. He had seven novels under his belt (The Glass Room was his eighth), as well as two works of non-fiction; his books had been consistently well reviewed; and his clean, quiet prose had earned him a host of champions among fellow-writers. Yet the fact remained that, without a major prize to his name or sales big enough to bring him to the general public’s attention, he was, as far as the wider world was concerned, oddly statusless. Mawer’s editor Richard Beswick said at the time that one of the chief things he hoped the Booker shortlisting would do for Mawer was raise him above the parapet; up to that point, Beswick said, every time Mawer released a new book, he had to tell everyone who he was all over again.
In years gone by, when publishing’s business model was more supportive of solid achievers, Mawer could justifiably have considered his career to that point a success: he was in print; his sales were decent; he’d even picked up a couple of small prizes (the McKitterick Prize for first novels, the Boardman Tasker Prize for Mountain Literature). Ian Rankin’s and Philip Pullman’s careers followed similar paths before they hit the big time. But these days, ‘good’ isn’t good enough. Until his Booker shortlisting, Mawer was the definitive ‘midlister’, and with publishers feeling the squeeze from retailers, and therefore reducing the support they’re able to give to authors who have published a few times but not quite hit the jackpot, it’s writers such as he who may well end up having to park their pens – and readers such as us who will end up suffering. Asking around on the Guardian books desk, everyone has their favourite example of a great, overlooked author who is in danger of slipping into obscurity and out of contract: Jane Gardam, Deborah Moggach, Carol Birch, Margaret Forster, Tim Parks, Tobias Hill, Jem Poster, Tim Pears, Charlie Williams – the list goes on.
‘I’m very proud of The Glass Room; I think it deserves to have made a bit of a show,’ Mawer said to me at the time. ‘But being referred to as “the least known”, “the dark horse” on the shortlist has got up my nose. I think, “if you’d read my other books, you wouldn’t call me that. It’s not my fault – it’s sort of yours”.’
Who IS to blame? Publishers? Journalists? The internet? Amazon? Supermarkets? All of the above, probably. Not all is doom and gloom, of course – I edit the Guardian’s books website and in the five or so years I’ve been doing that, I’ve seen much to feel hopeful about: authors taking charge of their own careers and speaking directly to their readers; the rise of print-on-demand offering a source of relief and potential revenue to embattled authors whose books have dropped out of print. On guardian.co.uk/books, we’ve also found that the internet’s boundlessness means that more space can be given to a greater number of excellent books. It’s possible that, once the Sturm und Drang of the current publishing revolution is over, and we’re all standing in the new world armed with our glittering e-readers, the loss of the midlist will be nothing but a bad memory.
But this Edenic future remains a long way off, and for now, many great authors continue to fall by the wayside. Fiction Uncovered will do something to bring them back to our attention.
Sarah Crown is Editor of guardian.co.uk/books. She will join the judging panel for Fiction Uncovered 2011.