My name is Sam and I am an historical fiction addict. It started with a little Patrick O’Brian and C.S Forester, deepened with some Salman Rushdie and Umberto Eco and in recent years has blossomed with George MacDonald Fraser, J.G Farrell and V.S Naipaul. I mention this because, if you’re anything like me, you will have been excitedly anticipating the release last week of Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies. The sequel to the 2009 Man Booker winner Wolf Hall, Mantel’s new novel continues her exploration of the soul of Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s ruthless right-hand man, and his role in leading Anne Boleyn to the executioner’s block. A sequel that has swelled into a trilogy (The Mirror and the Light will conclude the story, due for publication in 2014) the hype and fervour surrounding Mantel’s book has not been the preserve of me and my historically-inclined ilk. Features in all the Sunday papers, a sneak preview of the first chapter on the Guardian’s website (http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2012/may/08/bring-bodies-hilary-mantel-wolf-hall), looming gilded window displays like so much Tudor pageantry; the media-trumpeting that has accompanied Mantel’s book is enough to convince anyone that this is a publication of singular significance. Last Friday, clutching the book in my hot little hands and approaching the counter at WH Smith, I noticed that the publisher, 4th Estate, had engaged in a last minute effort to leave potential readers in no doubt of Mantel’s place in modern literature. Stuck in the upper-right corner was a bright yellow and blue sticker which bore the legend ‘The nation’s most important writer’. However, rather than further fuel my desire to receive the Word of Saint Hilary it set alarm bells ringing: by whose standards? Compared to whom? But what about X?!
‘Importance’ is a powerful term to chuck around and one that is central to the theme of this conference. Trendsetters, publishers and reviewers will always seek to ascribe a sense of gravity and currency to certain books, films, and artistic movements; not only is it a fundamental principle of modern advertising but also a measure to get the public buying books in an industry gripped by the fear of dwindling sales. However, working on both popular and obscure literature of the past seventy years has made me more than a little sceptical of this term ‘importance’ and the efforts of authors, critics and publishers to claim it as their own. In my own limited way I have argued that history repeatedly plays games with taste, emphasising that there is often no way of telling with any certainty what successive generations of readers, critics and scholars will hail as ‘important’ with hugely successful authors later consigned to the esoterica section of literary history. A cursory glance at some ‘great names’ of the last century reinforces this fact. Look at Arnold Bennett. With books like Riceyman Steps and Clayhanger, Bennett made a fortune, buying a yacht and infuriating Ezra Pound yet is rarely read today outside of scholarly circles. Ditto with the more populist Richmal Crompton. The Just William series ran to nearly forty volumes but you would be hard pressed to find anyone under fifty today who may have read any of them. Similarly, the pendulum of popularity swings the other way too; B.S Johnson was either politely ignored or outright rejected throughout his own lifetime, leading to his suicide in 1973. These days he is rightly hailed as a significant force in the post-war British avant-garde and his work a vitally ‘important’ record of experimentation in British fiction.
However, what my own research has convinced me of is that, ultimately, in a postmodern, intertextual, self-reflexive, bricolage-ridden age everything is important to someone and in equal measure. For instance, for me, the 1950s are all about the twin forces of affluence and growing middle class/middlebrow embodied in Ian Fleming and, a little differently, the Movement writers; to others, the 1950s belong to Beckett or the Beats. All very different; all great writers; all ‘important’. I wonder how many of them would have been happy with stickers attesting to their merits plastered across the covers of their books (Larkin’s thoughts on this I feel would not be hard to guess). So, before this blog turns into a sermon, if there’s something to be taken from the litany of the famed and the forgotten it’s that letting the writing speak for itself sometimes would not be such a bad thing. I would imagine that, in light of the efforts of 4th Estate, there are many who feel the same about Hilary Mantel and our own modern literary landscape.