London's novel adventures
LONDON — There's something appropriate about the fact that in the home of Shakespeare and Charles Dickens it's easier to find a book than a garden salad.
Novels and nonfiction are stocked everywhere, even in supermarkets which is helpful when the craving for fresh produce and a bestseller coincide.
Books that are popular here are often by authors familiar to US readers Stephen King, Tom Clancy, Danielle Steel. Even Americans who aren't airport staples, like Alice Sebold, author of "The Lovely Bones," are making the bestseller list in Britain.
A century ago, Yanks took up fewer of the top spots, as books largely went from East to West across the Atlantic, feeding lit-hungry Americans not yet confident in their own offerings.
But now that the traffic is two-way if not favoring American exports, especially for fiction it's interesting to compare the tastes of British bibliophiles with their US counterparts.
Here, people say their love of a genre developed when they were young, or from a desire to know more about their ancestry. Some go to second-hand shops for the old, crumbly ambiance. Others can't resist a book of any kind.
"I have this fatal habit of not being able to pass a bookstore," says John James, a Londoner who has been buying books in the city for decades.
Cooking and mysteries, autobiography and pop fiction by guys (who have invaded the Bridget Jones turf) are all topping the charts at the moment in the country that was Jane Austen's muse.
The range is as broad as it is in the US, where books related to Sept. 11 and the fictional babysitters in "The Nanny Diaries" are dominating the charts. But those familiar with the literary scene in London point to some Brit-specific trends in recent years.
One is for tell-alls that reveal secrets about a beloved princess or a television anchorwoman, but ultimately end up in discount bookstores. The latest entry is Edwina Currie's just-published "Diaries: 1987-1992," which details her affair with former British Prime Minister John Major while she was a politician.
"Everyone is amazed by the story, but I don't think that's going to translate into sales much beyond an initial spurt in the first week," says John O'Connell, books editor at Time Out London, an entertainment magazine. "This kind of thing seems to happen every three or four months."
If British readers dismiss some nonfiction, they embrace a greater variety of novels than before, says John Mullan, a professor of English literature at University College London. "The range of fiction that one might consider reading is wider, really, than it's ever been. Although, there are exceptions. Some genres have shrunk. Science fiction is an example."
Twenty or 30 years ago science fiction was more widely read in Britain, he says, to the point where novelists like Doris Lessing tried their hand at it. He has no doubt that the genre is thriving, but observes that general readers in Britain are no longer interested: "Now only geeks read it."
Not surprisingly, books by and about sports figures are also popular here. And the British are quite smitten with books by cooks particularly by the sultry Nigella Lawson and by Jamie Oliver (aka the Naked Chef).
"They sell bucketloads," says Susan Wakefield, a spokeswoman for Nielsen BookScan. Mr. Oliver's latest, "Jamie's Kitchen," sold 13,000 copies in a recent week. "That's a lot for a £25 [$40] book," she says.
Ms. Wakefield is an avid reader of history another British favorite particularly of Antonia Fraser, whose "Mary Queen of Scots" she received when she was about 12, and is now reading for "the umpteenth time."
To discover more about what the British are reading you can look over their shoulders on the underground, or you can visit Charing Cross Road, the famed literary street in central London.
Just up the road from the National Gallery and the theater where Les Misérables is performed is the area made popular in the movie "84 Charing Cross Road," based on a book (naturally) about the correspondence between an American and the staff at a bookshop.
In recent years, rising rents have forced some stores out of business, but locals and tourists still peruse new and used books in a range of general interest and specialty shops.
Staff at Blackwell's, a chain, and nearby independent, Foyles, say their customers' tastes range from works by former Spice Girls to books that explore anti-American sentiments.
Readers particularly like Zadie Smith, author of the critically praised first novel "White Teeth," and another Brit, Peter Ackroyd, whose "London: A Biography," was published a few years ago. Both authors have new books out: Ms. Smith's "AutographMan," and Mr. Ackroyd's "Albion," a look at English cultural history.
A wildly popular but less literary option is Tony Parsons, an author who last month was outselling John Grisham at Foyles. His latest work, "Man and Wife," the sequel to his bestselling first novel "Man and Boy," is about a separated 30-year-old taking care of his young son and musing on his relationship with his father. It is currently dueling for the No. 3 spot on the fiction list with Irish writer Maeve Binchy's "Quentins," according to Nielsen BookScan.
Mr. Parsons, a former music journalist, is viewed by some critics as a less-polished version of another British writer, Nick Hornby. Mr. Hornby, who also sells well, is a contributor to The New Yorker magazine and author of "About a Boy," "High Fidelity" (set in England, though transposed to Chicago in its film version), and "How to be Good."
"At the moment, it feels like every month or so there's a great new American novel," says Time Out's O'Connell, naming "TheLovelyBones" (on bestseller lists on both sides of the Atlantic right now) and "Middlesex," about a hermaphrodite, by Jeffrey Eugenides.
American fiction is viewed on a continuum here, with Philip Roth and Saul Bellow on one end - leaving critics and some readers wishing for more work of their scale from British writers and authors like Tom Clancy on the other, providing the stories that some Brits say Americans are best-suited to write.
"It's true that most gee-whiz, techno geopolitical thrillers seem to come from America," says Mullan. "But," he adds, referring to Ruth Rendell and P.D. James, "most detective and psychological thrillers come from Britain."