The rise of print-on-demand is proving a double-edged sword. The best of these print-packaging companies can be seen to offer decent quality releases of rare and hard-to-find titles. The worst too often peddle incomplete or even manually type-copied texts with generic covers wholly unsympathetic to the material within. Invariably, it is these you find clogging-up more deserving book-finder sites such as Bibliofind.
The socialist in me is less concerned about POD's lack of worldwide regulation, and a lot more troubled by the ease with which these poorer companies compete with the best on an apparent equal footing. Thus, to the eye, no clear differentiation for the hopeful but unwary punter with his or her debit card.
When you buy from Penguin, Little Brown, Harper Collins, or whoever, you don't first consider the physical quality of the book itself. 'Is the book gonna be any good?' you ask yourself. Or, you might just wonder if you can afford it right now, or wait for some later date when you are more flushed. The first question is rarely, 'will I be happy with the production?' as it is when you ponder on POD. Again, you are, naturally enough, divided. If you can't purchase the book any other way than second hand, from an antiquarian store abroad, and for a three-figure sum, you might convince yourself it is worth putting up with the odd imperfection you could put down to the book being POD. Alternatively, you will just have to take your chance and hope, blind, a refund might be as forthcoming from them as from Waterstones. Yes, well, don't hold your breath...
Yet the temptation harbours its own irresistible challenge to the self. For on receipt there still remains a guilty pleasure in opening your cardboard package, finding the new - otherwise rare - copy inside you decide you can be happy with, and, on the back fly-page, the print date of just four days before; a small but definitive confirmation it is somehow personal to you. The new 'printer's devil' has arrived.
So, welcome all. What do I intend with PAN REVIEW? The hope is I will be book-critiquing, about twice-a-month, specialising in genre and cult short fiction, old and new, undeservedly overlooked or best-forgotten. I am in a proud minority that sees the novel as overrated as an art form in 2011. Nowadays, life is too short to immerse oneself in a single story averaging 200 - 600 pages. I hear the usual arguments. 'But I need time and space to get to know the characters and get under their skins.' As comedian Brian Conley used to say to his audience, enthralled by one of his props; "It's a puppet!" In other words, it is a fictitious creation like any other, and, if the story is well written, does not require excess length. If a good (as in convincing) character cannot be liked or even grudgingly approved within fifty pages, that character is leaving something to be desired in execution.
Any character worth the candle can always be re-introduced in a sequel story anyway, as also occurs in the episodes of long-running TV series. This is the point for me. The snobs of the BBC's 'Late Review' may sneer at manuscripts being clearly intended as screenplays-in-waiting. I embrace that. There is something woefully precious and anal in this day and age about a novel that refuses to cite the wider medium in which it is a likely part. The Media - for better and worse - is neither anal nor precious. For an intellectual treatise (some of which I gladly have on my own shelves) there is always non-fiction.
Am I anti-novel? Certainly not. I just believe it doesn't serve the heart and the head in the way it once did through the last two-hundred years. The short story may never supplant it. But it shall return in popularity; of that you can be certain.