What exactly is an antibook?

I should have expected that the question would keep coming up, given that the idea is the key provocation in the first chapter of the book. Never mind that it merely serves as the springboard to (I think) far more interesting ideas.

In the book, I set up the antibook as the marketing-driven, ideas-free tomes that proliferate on the most visible shelves of big bookshops. You all know the ones. Celebrity cookbooks, how-to-get-rich-whilst meditating guides, humourless collections of asian aphorisms. Antibooks are the boy bands of the publishing world, artificial creations that exist for no other reason than to make money – and quite often succeed in so doing. And I argue that publishers focus on antibooks, at the expense of real books.
A real book, I suggested, has three things. It has an idea, it makes an argument in support of that idea, and it demands time – time for writing, publishing, reading and making its way in the world.
But the real book is dead. Destroyed by modern economics, and the rise of the modern book trade, these days driven by the need to meet shareholder expectations. And because antibooks make money in the short term, and real books often don’t, the decision about what to publish is a no-brainer.
Life, though, is always more complicated than it appears at first glance. And whilst I stand by the generalised assertions made in the book, it was written a while ago, and my thinking has shifted a little.

It all sprung from an op-ed piece I was asked to write. The trouble began when I started to get into arguments with myself (!) about whether such-and-such a book was an antibook. And I realised that the divide between book and antibook is not as clear as I might have liked. Indeed, I realised that it’s probably better to imagine a continuum with the antibook at one end, and the real book at the other. So Paris Hilton’s Your Heiress Diary might be the archetypical antibook, and Brian Castro’s After China might sit at the other end.

One designed to be read all the way through, thought about and absorbed. The other, to be bought, given away and then used to hold up the corner of a wobbly table.

In between the two extremes are everything else, sitting somewhere on the continuum. Spotless and the Blue Day Book somewhere on the antibook end, with The Dangerous Book for Boys. Fancy reissued editions of Shakespeare with pop-up pictures somewhere in the middle with Steve Waugh’s autobiography. Alexis Wright and Belinda Castles at the book end. You get the picture.

I should reiterate that I don’t dislike the antibook end of the spectrum. I’ve bought more than a few in my time, and enjoyed most of the Waugh book. In fact, in a former life, I once pitched a book idea (with my buddy Seana) called Wish I was There, a sort of celebrity holiday guide. Lucky for me, it never got off the ground! So, I’m not totally anti-antibooks, I just want some books at the other end of the seesaw; some semblance of balance.

Maybe the key to thinking about antibooks is thatin asking whether a book is an antibook or not, we are asking a far more important question. And that is, does the book in question matter? Or maybe, will it still matter in a few minutes/days/months/years? Will it make a difference? Because ultimately that’s what we want books to do.


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