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FROM THE PULPIT

B ETWEEN 1975 AND 1990 the French television station Antenne 2 broadcast a regular Friday evening books programme called Apostrophes. Hosted throughout the period of its existence by one man, Bernard Pivot, it became very influential: an appearance on Apostrophes did wonders for an author and for the sale of his books. Each programme lasted 75 minutes. The usual format consisted of a studio discussion between six authors. Each in turn responded to Pivot’s questioning before being subjected to the comments and questions of the other authors. Some editions were devoted to a single writer. The level of discussion was generally high, and the programme gave writers of serious literary fiction the opportunity to present their work before a mass audience. Some bookshops began to have an Apostrophes table, displaying books featured on that week’s programme. It worked principally because of the enthusiasm and intelligence of Pivot himself; he also founded, as an offshoot, the monthly literary magazine, Lire. Of course it also provoked opposition, from publishers and authors who felt, often correctly, that their books had been unfairly ignored by Pivot. But in general writers and the book trade owed a good deal to the programme. Some English-speaking authors were featured – if their French was good enough to allow them to be articulate and to participate fully in the discussion. Julian Barnes and William Boyd were among them, and there can be little doubt that their high reputation in France had its origin, in part at least, from their appearance on Apostrophes. There has been nothing strictly comparable on British television, and, at least till recently, nothing that has had a like effect on sales. I say ‘till recently’, because the Richard and Judy Book Club on Channel 4, modelled on the American Oprah Show, has proved commercially successful, to the delight, and perhaps the surprise, of publishers. They are, one gathers, now happy to adjust publication dates, alter covers, and in general submit to whatever demands the programme’s producers may make, in order to have the books featured. But one has the impression that the R & J Book Club is seen primarily as a promotional device, and that it does not offer any serious discussion of literature. Over the years a good many attempts have been made to provide this on television. Books programmes have been hosted at different times by distinguished writers such as Melvyn Bragg and P D James, and by highly accomplished broadcasters like Robert Robinson, Frank Delaney and Joan Bakewell, and some of these have indeed offered incisive criticism. But, somehow, for whatever reason, all have withered; none has established itself as indispensable.

A LLAN M ASSIE Books on the Box

This may of course have been principally the fault of authors, rather than presenters, or even of the chosen format. It may be that British authors are in general less happy talking about their work, and less capable of doing so intelligently and articulately, than

French ones. If so, understandable; we don’t have the same tradition of public discussion or indeed of café culture. Moreover, again till recently, many novelists here have clung to the old-fashioned idea that it is their business to write books and the business of their publishers to market them. This has certainly changed, and successful authors today accept perforce that they must themselves engage in promotion and selling. Many are fluent and accomplished broadcasters. I was recently involved with Ian Rankin in making a demonstration tape for a projected series of TV programmes arising from the Edinburgh International Book Festival, and was impressed by his easy mastery of the medium. It is difficult to see a good reason why there shouldn’t be a successful books programme on television. But it requires certain ingredients. The first, clearly, is the right host or anchorman, someone with a discriminating enthusiasm, someone capable of maintaining discussion on a serious level. The second essential is that there should be consistency and continuity. Just as newspapers do better when they have regular reviewers, in whom readers come to repose trust, so also with television. This was where Bernard Pivot’s programme scored. Even so, one has to admit that there will always be something lacking. This is because those elements in a novel that are most discussible are rarely those that most concerned the author in the writing. You can talk most easily about themes, but when you are writing a novel the theme lurks in the background. You are occupied with questions of narrative and character; with the modulation of pace; with achieving the right balance between action, reflection, description and dialogue; with maintaining (or altering) the tone of voice. These, which may be described as technical matters, are what occupy your attention and sometimes perplex you. The theme, in contrast, can be left to take care of itself. Indeed you may not be aware of it till the book is finished, and sometimes not even then. This is why the simple question, ‘What is your book about?’ sometimes leaves you lost for words. The truth is that the experience of writing a novel, and indeed the experience of reading one, are quite distinct from the experience of talking about it. This is why there is a gulf, finally perhaps unbridgeable, between the book and the television programme. And it requires the intelligence and craftsmanship of a Bernard Pivot to disguise the unwelcome reality.

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LITERARY REVIEW May 2006

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