THE PUBLISHING SENSATION of the past few months was apparently J.K. Rowling’s first novel aimed specifically at adults. Having read The Casual Vacancy from cover to cover we are fairly confident in saying – in the words of Norman MacCaig – that ‘it was okay, as far as it went’. Had it been by any other author – we are also fairly confident in saying – its publication would have passed without buildings shaking and the earth moving. As it was, it was received with the kind of hysterical response which once attended the final installment of one of Dickens’s more mawkish serial novels.
If nothing else this was a triumph of modern marketing. How much it happened with Rowling’s blessing we know not. What we do know is that early copies of her novel were delivered by hand to reviewers while several journalists selected to interview the author had to read their copies in an empty office while vowing not to disclose a word of its contents before an agreed time and date. Unless one is a guest of Her Majesty this cannot be the most comfortable of circumstances in which to read a novel which stretches to 500 and more pages.
Amidst all of the hoopla it was easy to overlook the fact that the object of all this nonsense was a novel, and a not very remarkable one at that. The Casual Vacancy is set in the English West Country and is concerned with the kind of machinations that may excite editors of local papers but few others. There is no reason to sneer at this. Were such scenarios to be outlawed the novel would not be what it is today. But what was alarming was the response of the critical community which treated Rowling’s sophomoric creation with a respect it did not merit. This, though, is the effect of celebrity, which presently pollutes the publishing industry.
Of course, there still are – and hopefully always will be – publishers who care not a jot for pursuing the kind of sales and publicity which authors like Rowling engender. They tend to be small with few, if any, full-time staff and shallow bank accounts. Sales of their books may be counted in the hundreds and their authors are unlikely to get fat on their royalty cheques. Yet they occupy a hallowed space in the publishing firmament because their primary concern is not shareholders or the need to make a profit but the passion they bring to each book they produce.
One such is Mariscat Press which is celebrating its thirtieth birthday. It was founded in Glasgow by Hamish Whyte, a former librarian, and Kevin McCarra, who writes with uncommon poise about football in the Guardian. In the introduction to Cat’s Whiskers, a beautifully designed and printed anthology of highlights from Mariscat’s archive, Whyte writes how McCarra liked to recall an encounter between Ezra Pound and the publisher Elkin Mathews. ‘Ah, eh, do you care to contribute to the costs of publishing?’ Mathews asked of Pound’s Personae. To which the poet replied, ‘I’ve got a shilling in my clothes, if that’s any use to you.’ ‘Oh well,’ said Mathews, ‘I rather want to publish ’em anyhow.’
This, says Whyte, has been Mariscat’s ethos for three decades. Its first publication was XII from Catullus by David Neilson which was written on a typewriter borrowed from the Third Eye Centre and ‘copyprinted by an instant print shop’. Some 200 copies were produced and they sold well at 75p each. Thereafter, publishing poetry became ‘addictive’ and over the years Mariscat has added lustre to the nation’s literary scene, most notably in 1984 when it published Edwin Morgan’s Sonnets from Scotland. Among the poets represented in Cat’s Whiskers are Gael Turnbull, Brian McCabe, Angela McSeveney, Douglas Dunn and Diana Hendry, whom Whyte married but not before accepting a batch of her poems for publication.
Periodically, Whyte has threatened to give up. But there is no 12-step programme for poetry publishers and he proceeds from one year to the next, spurred by the arrival of poems from someone whose work he likes the look of and the desire to share it with kindred spirits. ‘It’s the combination of poems, type and paper – there’s nothing like it,’ explains Whyte who, we hope, will go on and on, doing what he does best, irrespective of the fickle demands of fashion and the incurable tastelessness of bean counters.
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