This week Robert McCrum is onto something that, as regular readers here will know, has been causing me to gnash my teeth for a while. He quotes a prominent US literary agent: 'A new novel should be summarised in a single sentence, and should stop dinner conversation for at least 10 minutes', and goes on to point out that his own favourite novels, Heart of Darkness and Portrait of a Lady, wouldn't stand that test.
Of course not: the province of the novel is complexity and subtlety, which can never be represented in a single sentence or 'log-line' as it's known in the film industry. The province of the novel is the human psyche and the human heart, yet the second part of this agent's stricture - the ability to stop dinner-party conversations - leads one away from the subtleties of that to mere sensation, the single, striking, if possible unusual but readily graspable (and if possible sensational) idea, the marketer's 'High Concept' which in artistic or philosophical terms is anything but conceptually high.
I don't quite agree with McCrum's apparent implication that any novel that is summed up in this way is necessarily shallow - 'flatpack fiction' as he calls it: it's quite possible of course to concentrate in marketing on the more sensational aspects of a novel and gloss over the more subtle characteristics - a kind of misrepresentation of expedience that the cultural recession must be forcing marketers into. Of the non-winning Booker shortlistees, whose books he characterises as 'flatpack', the one that I've read, Jane Rogers' The Testament of Jessie Lamb, is billed chiefly as science fiction about biological terrorism, but also, and more importantly, it's a study of the power relations between parents and teenage children. [Edited in: whoops, sorry, that's my mistake: The Testament of J L was not shortlisted, but longlisted.]
However, it must also be true that this marketing philosophy is affecting the kinds of books that get published, that novels will be chosen for publication on 'concept' rather than content, and sold that way. So in turn people are sold, and buy, a ready-made idea rather than a text with which to engage on an exploratory and interactive level. And if you don't expect the book to yield more than the idea you've bought - if the physical (or digital) book is merely its symbol, why bother to actually read it, or at any rate to read it with any critical intelligence? It's the ultimate commodification.
I see it everywhere: it filters down to the non-commercial areas of literature. There's always, in my view, been a problem with short-story competitions: it's bound to be easier to catch the eye of a judge trawling through hundreds of stories with a striking, rather than the most artistically apt, first sentence. But the problem seems to be getting worse: now that short-story competitions have proliferated, and have become a chief way to get noticed in the short-story world, zombies and spooks and quirky Murakami-style aberrations abound, often without much thematic meaning that I can see beyond those sensationalist 'concepts'.
And the effect goes deeper - into the psyches of writers, and this feeds back into our culture. McCrum sees this as 'the desperate conditions in which the contemporary writer must operate'. I thank him for that insight, and can vouch for its accuracy: now when I conceive a short story or a novel I find myself immediately thinking: but would it stand any chance in this cultural situation? Could I give it a good log-line? And if I feel that I can't - that it's too subtle and complex - I wonder whether I should write it at all.