The Big Bookshop's been in trouble in the Spectator this week - a journalist came across a 'recommends card' in the store for Brideshead Revisited that referred to Evelyn Waugh as she. A heinous crime, undoubtedly, and compounded by the fact that the bookseller he took the matter up with also admitted to not having read the book in question.
The article (which can be read here) is titled 'Bookselling for Illiterates' - and bemoans the fact that the Big Bookshop's parent company once "employed only men and women who had degrees in English Literature". And indeed, many of my colleagues there do, myself included.
I suspect, however, that the article's author, Michael Henderson, isn't too familiar with the contemporary English literature BA syllabus, which certainly doesn't include Waugh, as he's frankly a bit lightweight - they don't appear on a degree syllabus anymore than would PG Wodehouse or Jerome K Jerome. Excellent novelists all three (and some of my favourites), but not exactly the highest literature, and - let's face it - a bit dated.
And booksellers really can't be expected to read everything - with new novels to keep up with, the classics do often get left behind. Henderson admitted himself in a 2008 article that it took him a month to read Philip Roth's American Pastoral, which is all of 432 pages. All I can say is that he's lucky not to have been encouraged by his workplace (as we were at the Big Bookshop) to read The Passage last summer, which is twice that. He'd probably still be reading it. (Incidentally, in that same article, he takes Philip Hensher to task for saying that Natalia Ginzburg's translation of Proust into Italian is particularly good. Which I'm sure it is, as Ginzburg is one of the best writers in the Italian language. If the English translation was done by one of the great 20th Century memoirists, Proust would probably be better read in this country.)
I'm certainly fond of Waugh, and yes I know he was a man. In fact, I worked on a film when I worked at the Integrated Multimedia Content House, with his grandson. Which probably brings me closer to the great man than Henderson, who describes Waugh as "the greatest writer of English prose in the last century", which is surely laying it on a bit thick, as the century also included a positive glut of better authors, from William Golding to AS Byatt, and that's just in Great Britain.
As to his other charges of poor writing on recommends cards, including the aforementioned 'she', 'did' instead of 'had', and 'entierly', I fear Mr Henderson does not quite comprehend the writer's situation when it comes to producing these short critiques. Booksellers are not given a quiet space and access to all the dictionaries and thesauri they need. We are often required to produce dozens of the things in a short space of time, while also serving customers. Of course this means that mistakes are made.
Actually, speaking of having an English degree, I do also have a Masters degree in journalism, and so I know how much harder it is to write a dozen recommends cards at the Big Bookshop than it is to write an eight hundred word article about how badly written they are.