Entertainment: Sour Grapes by Dan Rhodes

Like many bookish people, I cannot resist books about writers, publishers, literary critics and book festivals. Especially if they don’t take themselves too seriously. So imagine my delight when I heard that Dan Rhodes (a former literary editor himself, I gather) had written a novel ruthlessly satirising the whole literary world and industry – it felt like birthday and Christmas and Easter had all come at once!

The quaint English villages of Green Bottom and Broad Bottom (and a few other Bottoms) are going to be hosting their first literary festival, organised by the indefatigable Mrs Angelica Bruschini, who has recently moved to the area and has a craving for presiding over a committee. Mayhem ensues, with pretentious authors, insufferable publicists and journalists, good-natured and bemused villagers all trying to muddle through.

For sheer entertainment value, the book does not disappoint, although it does get rather too heavy-handed in its humour at times. There is no sacred cow here that the author won’t poke fun at: JK Rowling, Salman Rushdie, Alexander Armstrong, Will Self (under the guise of Wilberforce Selfram, who keeps pronouncing the death of the novel), the diversity schemes and nepotism of the big publishers, literary festivals that are more about celebrities rather than authors, conspiracy theorists, social media scandals, millenials vs. Gen Z influencers, even Brexit tangentially, and so much more.

‘Well yes, there are a good amount of names there… but none of them are really, you know… authors. We’ve got actors with books out, and rugby players with booka out, and cooks with books, and pop stars, and game-show hosts, and alternative comedians, and people from Radio 2, and people from Radio 4, but no real authors. I mean the ones who just do books. As this is a literary festival, I thought it might be an idea to fill the last few slosts whith people who aren’t so much celebrities-with-books-out, as just, well, writers.’

The idea was not met with great enthusiasm. Everybody on the committee was very much looking forward to meeting all the famous people, and the thought of having to accommodate some obscure and serious writer types didn’t interest them at all.

I am picking those passages where the satire is more biting, rather than descending into farce, for instance:

Every few years a light from outside would be shone on the industry’s lack of social diversity. Articles would be written about how publishing was overbearingly upper-class, and whenever this happened they found themselves launching a scheme to get people from other backgrounds into the field. These would run for a while before quietly fizzling out, but while they lasted, they gave publishers the opportunity to point at this junior publicist, or that marketing trainee, and declare that their workforce was inclusive, conveying the impression that the grandees of the business were indeed committed to social modernisation.

The passage where I burst out laughing was with the Salman Rushdie appearance at the festival, the over-conscientious interviewer who never lets him get a word in edgeways, and the complete and utter mess of audience questions at the end.

At times, however, I have to admit it did all get a bit too hectic and far-fetched for my taste, a veritable slugfest, with some gratuitous murder and blood sacrifice thrown in. I think if the author had exercised a bit more restraint, the satire would have been all the more powerful. I suspect this will appeal most to an audience who knows the publishing world and to whom those sly digs apply. Will Self witheringly pronounces himself unbothered by the satire, but we have no reports as yet of the reaction of others featured in the story. A great way to relax and laugh over the weekend!