Saturday 24 February 2018

Kevin Myers: State support only lends madness to libraries

Forty years ago this summer, one of the most influential novels of the 20th century -- and to my mind one of the greatest -- was published: Frederick Forsyth's 'Day of the Jackal'. It was sensational. It managed to dovetail a mastery of technical detail with a thrilling and complex plot: we learnt how to foil an assassination as meticulously as we learnt how to make a sniper's rifle that could be dismantled and then reassembled into a metal crutch.

I've bought the book three times, and each copy was duly stolen; so having thrice given Freddy his due royalties, I decided not to buy the special 40th anniversary issue but to order a second-hand copy through Amazon. I re-read it over the weekend, with a combination of utter awe and envy. Yes, of course, it has been panned by "literary critics" -- actually, no higher praise -- but the real issue is this: Did readers buy it? God's teeth, they did. Did they enjoy it? They loved it. Is it memorable? Totally. Why? Simple: it enthrals, which is the primary duty of any writer. That's what Frederick Forsyth did, and still does. I can give you a guided tour of Booker Prize winners whose books are unread beyond page 40 or so: pretentious, indulgent, smug, self-regarding, but gushingly reviewed by their peers, who will in due course be gushingly reviewed by those over whom they have themselves ejaculated so warmly.

Sales. That's the only true measure of a book's worth. I have little interest in critically regarded but otherwise unknown masterpieces. Yes, sales might take years to accumulate -- look at Patrick O'Brian -- but nonetheless, they are the only true and abiding artistic measure. Why else does Shakespeare sell, by the million, century after century? Or Bach? Or Beethoven?

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