Why are there so few conservative titles in bookshops?
“Reality,” Stephen Colbert famously pronounced, “has a well-known liberal bias.” That apothegm Colbert being a liberal spoof of a Republican blowhard comes wrapped in layers of irony. But the question of how reality is represented in books - fictional and nonfictional is a subject where the irony falls away. Is the publishing industry biased against conservatives?
Many seem to think so. Not long ago the novelist and critic Alice O’Keeffe wrote about the difficulty she¹d found, as literary programmer for the 2018 Brighton Festival, in trying ‘to reach out beyond the cosy pro-Remain bubble.’ She quoted one publisher saying that many bookshops would refuse to stock ‘anything to the right of Tony Blair’, and speculated that some sort of publishing bias had formed in reaction to the perceived right-wing bias in print media. Even if that’s right, it’s an odd way to serve a public that, at least in shorthand, is spilt 52-48 per cent: a newspaper worldview that all but ignores the 48 per cent, and a bookshop culture that all but ignores the 52.
Not long ago I took a call from a radio producer who was trying to put together some talks by writers about the political moment, and wanted to pick my brains. Could I think of any novelists who didn’t take what seems to be the standard anti-Brexit, anti-Trump sort of position? I confess, in our subsequent conversation I struggled. We agreed that second-guessing or taking for granted anything Lionel Shriver thinks is a fool’s errand, so I suggested she consult Lionel. We agreed that Freddie Forsyth was a pretty safe bet for a Brexiteer. But after that it was a bit of a shot in the dark.
There does, in other words, seem to be a prevalent liberal consensus of some sort in the world of fiction. Think: Jonathan Coe, Ali Smith, Olivia Laing, Howard Jacobson, Ian McEwan et al. Why is that? You could make the case, and I suspect that those writers would, that fiction itself has an inherent liberal bias. Most versions of right-wing politics particularly those nativist strands uppermost at the moment on both sides of the Atlantic ask you to pick sides: us or them. A certain amount of what the woke call ‘othering’ is part of the deal.
Fiction, in all but its most unsophisticated forms, asks you to do the opposite. It’s about imagining what it might be like to be somebody else. That’s why so many writers Lionel Shriver eminent among them have been so fierce in defending their prerogatives from attack on another front in the form of the strictures of the identitarian left. If it’s ‘cultural appropriation’ to imagine yourself a different sex, a different race, a different class or what have you, novelists might as well fold their tents. Writing is to use the cliché - about crossing borders rather than putting up fences. Inasmuch as they can find instinctive common cause with ideologues of the right, it will be in the metaphorical territory of free trade rather than protectionism.
If it’s ‘cultural appropriation’ to imagine yourself a different sex, a different race, a different class or what have you, novelists might as well fold their tents.
But, of course, that is a serious oversimplification. And those arguments don’t apply at all in the nonfiction sphere where, still, we tend to see a distinct prevalence of arguments from the left. A handful of publishers the political publisher Biteback, founded by the Tory pundit Iain Dale, among them put out books from the right, but they have tended to be swamped by critiques from the left. For every Daniel Hannan or Rod Liddle, there is a Fintan O’Toole, a Danny Dorling, an Andrew Adonis or a Kevin O’Rourke.
In Europe the picture is a little different and, as you’d expect, more various. Certainly, there doesn’t seem to be a comparable liberal groupthink. In Italy, with its largest publishing house owned by Silvio Berlusconi, there’s obviously less of a problem with finding a home for voices from the Right. France has a long tradition of splenetic contrarians – with Eric Zemmour and Michel Houellebecq both being huge bestsellers. Holland’s publishing scene has entertained a strong strand of anxiety about the threats to native Dutch culture from Islam and immigration. And – though no European country has yet experienced anything quite as straightforwardly polarising as Brexit or Trump - there’s a growing interest in books that might help explain right populism. David Goodhart has recently been published to considerable fanfare in France, and Ivan Krastev’s The Light That Failed has sold in Germany, where mainstream publishers are still “bewildered” by the AfD.
The US seems to have a wider spread. No question, gossipy books about chaos in the White House (Bob Woodward, Michael Lewis, Michael Wolff, Anonymous) remain big box office; and every day now seems to bring thumping onto the literary editor¹s desk a fresh set of thunderings about the case for impeachment or the progress of the Russian Collusion ding dong. But Donald Trump Jr’s book Triggered (helped, admittedly, by a tweet or two from dad and $100,000 in advance orders from the Republican National Committee) went straight into the New York Times bestsellers chart at number one; and MAGA-friendly titles by Ann Coulter, Glenn Beck, Dinesh D¹Souza, Bill O¹Reilly and the like continue to publish prominently and sell well.
Why, then, is the Brexit-supporting British right so apparently ill-served by rigorous book-length arguments? There is a vested interest at work in that, by most accounts, any form of Brexit will hurt the
publishing industry as businesses and the harder we Brexit the more it will hurt. So publishers may not be so receptive to the arguments in the first place. And if most publishers are, sociologically, metropolitan liberals of a Remainy cast of mind (my social experience, if nothing more scientific, suggests they are), they may tend not to believe those arguments exist. Like the man said: reality has a well-known liberal bias.