Even established writers rage against the bookshop machine

Even established writers rage against the bookshop machine
A statue of Patrick Kavanagh on the banks of the Grand Canal, Dublin

The two best bits of the just published State papers from the 1980s are, inevitably, sections carrying no great national importance.

One record had a staff member from the Irish embassy in London getting verbally beaten up by a British MP during a train journey.

The diplomat — one Richard Ryan — described the MP as getting rattier and rattier throughout the trip, ending up “a fair burgundy colour about the neck”.

Which goes to prove that the expression of anger just makes you angrier and, if you are an MP, that your idiotic vitriol gets lovingly recorded and stored for recycling long after you got off your chest whatever you got off your chest.

It’s the other section that will ring a bell with any published author.

That’s the one where poet Patrick Kavanagh — him of the statue beside the canal — is revealed as having gone bananas in October 1938 about the treatment of his memoir The Green Fool by some major bookshops.

It wasn’t being put on display in their windows, which is where any ambitious writer wants their book to be, with occasional exceptions, about which more later. Kavanagh went first to the Fred Hanna bookshop on Dublin’s Nassau St, where he promised to “wreck the joint” if window space wasn’t found for his book, right there and then.

The owner seems to have decided display was the better part of valour and shoved it into the window.

Kavanagh’s tempestuous progress through Dublin’s book emporia over the following 48 hours establishes one thing for certain: The owners were not in a cabal agin him.

Each reacted in quite different ways to his incursions. None of them followed the Fred Hanna pilot.

In Hodges Figgis, he threw books around the shop and told a staff member who tried to stop him that the staff member should be careful, because Kavanagh planned to “break every bloody bookshop in the city up”.

It’s not clear if Hodges Figgis caved in, but at the Grafton Bookshop, the manager, Anthony Dempsey, was taking none of it.

He told the author that no law existed that would force him to stock a book he didn’t want to stock, whereupon Kavanagh darkly suggested Dempsey take a trip down to Hodges Figgis and see the damage one enraged poet could do to a bookshop.

According to the contemporary and delightful Garda report, Dempsey, unmoved, described The Green Fool as anti-Catholic and, as a result, likely to be offensive “to priests and nuns who comprise the majority of his customers”. (All together now: God be with the day…)

Patrick Kavanagh's book The Green Fool.
Patrick Kavanagh's book The Green Fool.

The anti-Catholic issue was only one of the reasons Marcus Noone, who then managed Browne & Nolan, wouldn’t buy copies of the book.

He was also wary of being sued by Oliver St John Gogarty, a major figure in Dublin life at the time, immortalised as Buck Mulligan in James Joyce’s Ulysses.

Gogarty sued Kavanagh because of two sentences in The Green Fool wherein the author claimed to have mistaken Gogarty’s maid for his wife — or his mistress.

Kavanagh explained away the mistake on the basis that he had “expected every poet to have a spare wife”.

Gogarty won the case and £100 in damages, which would be a little under €7,000 today.

Some of us have paid — and been paid — multiples of that figure when we have defamed or been defamed.

Perhaps the awards were smaller in those days. Or perhaps the judge wasn’t that moved by Gogarty’s plight.

The records don’t show if Kavanagh ever paid up, but knowing his financially chaotic life, one rather doubts it.

However, the possibility of related action against booksellers, added to the book’s perceived anti-Catholicism, prompted two of them to stand up to Kavanagh, who retreated, shouting that he was living in a fascist state.

Which probably prompted the Browne & Nolan manager to opine that “Mr Kavanagh is suffering from delusions regarding the sale of his book”.

Sergeant Noel Reynolds was the garda who drew up a report on the terrorising of the bookshops, and so reasonable and sensible was his report that the whole thing died down.

That was helped by the booksellers not taking legal action against the poet.

They saw him as “either obsessed with the idea that there was an organised attempt on the part of the booksellers generally to boycott the sale of the book giving it little or no prominence, or alternatively that he was seeking notoriety or publicity in endeavouring to create a scene”.

A priest consulted by Reynolds went with the latter view, advising that any prosecution would give Kavanagh only “the publicity which he is obviously seeking”.

Why did a garda consult a priest about a literary matter? Who knows.

The public relations business had not emerged in the late 1930s, so perhaps the clergy were assumed to have particular insight into communications.

Which, in this particular case, seems to have been an accurate assumption.

Nobody fed Kavanagh’s feeding frenzy, and despite him bellowing that he was living in a fascist state, which was a fairly robust accusation in the late 1930s, the excitement passed and desultory sales of the book ensued.

Although Kavanagh may have mounted the most raucous protest at not having a book prominently displayed, most published writers roil and boil less noticeably about the same issue.

Even established writers rage against the bookshop machine

Whether they produce critically validated works of art or write frothy romances, no writer ever believes their publishers do enough to publicise their book or that bookshops give it sufficient prominence.

Writers obsessively visit bookshops and re-position their volume, either on the shelves or on those tables where the three-for-two offers dominate.

Friends of writers visit bookshops and then inflame the writer by messaging them: “I couldn’t find your book in X bookshop, and when I asked, they’d never heard of it.”

Every writer feels entitled to window display and when they don’t get it, blame the shop, their agent and their publisher, although not many threaten, Kavanagh-fashion, to wreck the joint if the problem isn’t rectified.

The only window no writer wants to be seen in is the one in a remainder shop.

No writer wants to see their own oeuvre at a bargain store where everything unsold at full market price is marked down to €3 or €5.

Maeve Binchy’s sister was once so mortified to see a dozen of one of Maeve’s novels lined up in one such window that she counted them before going inside and saying she absolutely had to have 12 copies of the book.

Satisfyingly, the bookseller went to the window, reaching for each of the copies displayed there, bagged them up, and took her money.

Distracted by other books in the store, she dawdled for a minute or two, only to see the guy emerge from his storeroom at the back with twelve replacement copies of the same book, which he positioned just where the others had been.

She had wasted her money and the shame went on.

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