What's new? What's old, more like

March 30 2000 / The Times

For too long publishing has been in thrall to novelty. No other artistic medium, not the visual arts, music or theatre, shares a similar preoccupation with newness. There were 110,000 books published in Britain last year and most enjoyed a shelf-life of no more than four to six weeks. Then they were gone, perhaps doomed to enjoy a flickering afterlife in trade paperback, before beginning that brutal journey to the remainder bin - from where only the oblivion of the pulping pit awaits..

If you love books and have ever visited a pulping warehouse, as I did recently, you will understand the strange melancholy that accompanies the witnessing of such mechanised destruction. Watching this happen, one thinks often of the American poet Delmore Schwartz, who, disillusioned by his own literary failure, wrote: “No reputation is more than snowfall; it vanishes.”

It wouldn’t in the least have surprised Delmore Schwartz - who died in 1966 but whose unhappy strivings were immortalised in one of Saul Bellow’s greatest novels, Humboldt’s Gift (1976) - to discover that his work has long been out of print in this country. Indeed, everyone, I’m sure, can think of a favourite writer or book that has disappeared, Schwartz-like, from publishers’ backlists and from public life.

In my own experience, some of the books I value most - Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer, Willa Cather’s The Professor’s House, Celine’s Journey to the End of the Night, the novels of Knut Hamsun, Douglas Reed’s Insanity Fair, Fred Exley’s A Fan’s Notes - are either out of print, or have only recently been reissued after years of neglect.

I was originally lucky enough to find these titles, either in dusty second hand bookshops or in America, where The Moviegoer, in particular, is justly recognised as one of the great postwar novels. It is a study in perplexed wonder. Binx Boiling, a veteran of the Korean War, works as a small-time stockbroker in New Orleans. Nothing much happens to him: he lives alone, has trouble sleeping, goes often to the movies and enjoys random affairs with women. He claims to feel contented by the mere “everydayness” of his routine, yet he knows, too, that something important is missing from his life. The novel enacts a lyrical search for that missing something - which Boiling doubts he will ever find. The Moviegoer deserves to be rediscovered by British readers.

One of the great acts of rediscovery and literary retrieval of recent decades was performed by Virago, under the auspices of its founding directors, Carmen Callil, Ursula Owen, Harriet Spicer and Lennie Goodings. Established in 1973, Virago’s mission was to offer hitherto neglected work by women writers a public place, in properly published editions. Virago quickly established itself as a brand of distinction, a list to trust. Across two decades a new generation of readers was introduced to, or rediscovered, writers such as Antonia White, Rosamond Lehmann, Willa Cather, Ivy Compton Burnett and Sylvia Townsend Warner, all published in those instantly recognisable green jackets.

Now, in April, the Orion publishing conglomerate hopes to do for history and non-fiction what Virago did for women’s fiction, launching a new imprint dedicated exclusively to bringing neglected and semi-forgotten works back into print, at the startling rate of 12 per month. Phoenix Press’s publishing director, Bing Taylor, is one of the most likeable and widely experienced players in the book business, having co-founded The Good Book Guide, worked for the mail-order book club BCA, in children’s and adult publishing and for WH Smith, where he was an impressive president of the Booksellers Association during its centenary year.

He and his assistant, Francis Gotto, have spent the best part of the past 14 months working, as he puts it, as “sort of private detectives, searching for ‘lost’ books and for their copyright owners”. Taylor has scanned centenary lists of influential titles. He has acted on sage advice from his consulting editors, Antonia Fraser and Simon Schama. He plans to offer prizes to members of the public who successfully propose titles for republication. His mission is assuming the obsessive dimensions of a quest. “I spend nearly all my time on the Internet, hunting for leads, trying to track down the descendants of dead authors,” he says, drawing reassuringly on a cigarette.

The most intriguing of the April launch list is The Spanish Cockpit, an eyewitness account of the Spanish Civil War by Franz Borkenau, an Austrian Catholic of Jewish descent who reacted against his early interest in Marxism. Favourably reviewed by Orwell and Rebecca West at the time of publication in 1937, the book has a thrilling immediacy and burns with anger, at the wasted lives and at the folly of ideological engagement.

The Spanish Cockpit was recommended to Bing Taylor by the second-hand bookseller Anthony Rota. After initial research, he discovered that rights hadn’t reverted from the original publishers, Faber & Faber, to the copyright holder, Paul Borkenau, the son of the writer and now a psychiatrist, whom Taylor found through the Internet. Once Faber had expressed no interest in reissuing the book, publication rights reverted to Paul Borkenau, to whom Phoenix paid a modest advance against any future royalties. Only then, after much protracted discussion, was Taylor free to publish - the culmination of a long journey.

Bing Taylor is confident that the Internet, with its global reach and proliferating niche specialisms, will help his project to flourish. “I know that books such as mine are always the last ones out of a rep’s bag. So our best chance is through exploiting the sales potential of amazon.com and bol.com. To that effect, we are developing our own online magazine and website. I’ve long felt that the book trade is too frontlist-orientated; if a book isn’t performing within six weeks, sometimes within two, it’s returned. There is nothing great about newness in and of itself. And I hope there is still room for elegant and informative historical narratives.”

One hopes that there is. For certainly the Phoenix list is impressively eclectic, and includes, among early titles, Crowds and Power, Elias Canetti’s classic study of mass psychology; Martin Gilbert and Richard Gott’s anti-Chamberlain polemic, The Appeasers; Hitler’s Table Talk, edited by Hugh Trevor-Roper; Commandant of Auschwitz, a memoir written by Rudolf Hoess, who was in charge of the Polish extermination camp; and assorted work by Richard Overy, Henry Kissinger, Naomi Mitchison and Vera Brittain.

What is so encouraging about the Phoenix Press project is the implicit recognition, by a major house, of the archival role literature plays, and of how a cult of the new can so quickly become glib and wearisome. The books that many of us treasure most are those read in our formative years, when we turned to history, philosophy, science and literature as a means through which to understand the mystery of the world and our places within it.

The New Statesman, where I work as an editor, has recently established a column, unimaginatively titled “Back-in-print”, which shines a spotlight on important reissues; and The Rights Report, a newsletter for the transmedia industry, has its own column, “Forgotten Gems”, which serves a similar purpose. It would be good to see other publications doing more, not just to promote the latest much-hyped offering, but in helping to reacquaint readers with the literature of the near and far past.

Perhaps things will change if Taylor makes a success of his list, as those at Virago did before him and as admirable independents such as Souvenir Press, Serpent’s Tail and Canongate Books have done since in keeping neglected classics in print. Then the ceaseless flow of new books may at last begin to slow, if not to a trickle.