Friday, May 28, 2004

The point, the whole point, and nothing but the point

Another Self, by James Lees-Milne, is described on the official Lees-Milne web site as an autobiographical novel, perhaps because the author took liberties with the facts for dramatic effect. In any event, I shall return to that book later, but for the moment I just want to refer to one passage in it.

James Lees-Milne was born in 1908. In 1926/27, at the age of eighteen or so, he found himself living in genteel poverty in London; he was taking a course in typing and shorthand which was really intended for young ladies. One day he was sent a whole pound by his mother, and he decided to splash out and go to the opera at Covent Garden. For half a crown he bought a standing-room ticket in the gallery, and there he met another young man, called Theo.

During the interval in the opera, the two young men fell into conversation, and, although they had known each other for only a few minutes, Theo made a series of remarks which struck James as a revelation. James records the event as follows:
[Theo] was the first person to teach me that the purpose of art... was to give pleasure. Until that moment I was totally unaware of this basic truth. On the contrary I had thought of art as a deadly serious matter like algebra... a thing to be approached and taken with respect and awe like the sacrament. To equate it with enjoyment was daring and revolutionary. I felt that a weight had been lifted from my intelligence.
I have to say that I agree entirely with Theo's argument. The whole point of 'art' -- which I take to include fiction, theatre, cinema, painting, sculpture, and, for that matter, embroidery -- is that it should give pleasure. And it follows, incidentally, that since we are all different, what gives pleasure to you is not necessarily going to give pleasure to me -- a circumstance which, if I may mention the book once again, I have considered at greater length in my book The Truth about Writing.

What I want to do here, however, is not so much plug my book (again), as draw attention to the curious fact that the fundamental truth about art (as described succinctly above) is blindingly obvious to some fairly ordinary people, and yet remains a mystery to some of the most intelligent and 'intellectual' members of the community. The latter will insist on inventing all kinds of weird and wonderful 'theories of literature', and the like, for something which, essentially, needs no elucidation whatever.

I suppose I shouldn't be surprised, really. I spent about 25 years working in the university sector, and you don't have to work in a university very long before you discover that a man can be a world-ranking expert in, say, biochemistry or physics, and still be a complete fool.

You will no doubt be able to think of your own examples.

Thursday, May 27, 2004

Ziegler on Hart-Davis

My dears, Philip Ziegler has written a biography of the publisher Rupert Hart-Davis, and the world is pretty much agog. Well, bits of it are, anyway. Horace Bent mentioned the book a couple of weeks ago (I won't add a link because you probably won't be able to access it now that the Bookseller has gone commercial); the Sunday Times carried a review on 23 May; and it is mentioned in this week's Private Eye.

The Eye piece is not so much a review as a gentle parody of the literary-biography genre. You know the sort of thing: 'Notwithstanding a natural courtesy, his opinions were always vigorously expressed. He always considered Ulysses to be "jolly rot" and Samuel Beckett to be "an absolute rotter". Pride of place in this demonology was reserved for The Wasteland. "Quite the worst gardening book I've ever come across," he complained.' And so on.

First, what do we know of Ziegler? Well, he's a surprisingly prolific writer, and the official biographer of Edward VIII and Mountbatten. He has also written books on Melbourne, Osbert Sitwell, Diana Cooper, and others. An experienced hand, then.

And who in the world was Rupert Hart-Davis? Answer, he was a publisher. Hence, by definition, a chap worth writing about.

An aside at this point. Matt Pfeffer has written quite a useful little piece on writing for the web. In it, he makes mention of irony. 'Always give your readers a hint,' he suggests, 'that a particular passage is ironic. Even the most obvious instances are often misunderstood.' I shall have to work on this, because I fear that I quite often make remarks which are not intended to be taken entirely seriously. Perhaps I might prepare a little symbol (and not one of those smiley things, either), which I could append to any ironic references so that regular readers, at least, would be given a warning. If I had such a device at my disposal, I would attach it to the last sentence of the paragraph immediately above; because I do not, in fact, believe that all publishers are, of necessity, worth writing about. Not, at any rate, at length. End of aside.

Rupert Hart-Davis was born in 1907 and died in 1999. He was educated at Eton, where he was friendly with James Lees-Milne (of whom more on another occasion). He first wished to be an actor, but soon abandoned the idea and went into publishing in the 1930s. After war service in the army, he set up a company bearing his own name.

As a publisher poor old Rupert was pretty clueless. He had exquisite taste in literature, but curiously enough these wonderful books didn't sell, and he was also short of capital. Any bestsellers which appeared on his list did so by the grace of God rather than through any commercial acumen on his part, and he was frequently ashamed of them: Gerald Durrell's My Family and Other Animals being a case in point.

Rupert was perhaps a better writer than a publisher. He wrote a biography of Walpole which was widely admired in its day, though few people now remember who Walpole was. (I barely do myself.) And his correspondence with George W Lyttelton, his former English teacher, attracted a surprisingly enthusiastic readership when it was published after the latter's death.

The publisher was also, by all accounts, a damn good copy editor. Ziegler reveals that Rupert removed 50 'of courses' from his biography of Diana Cooper. Now there's a really old-fashioned practice! The owner of the firm actually doing some hands-on editing?! I don't think the top men and women do much of that nowadays, do you? Damn it, you're lucky if anybody does any editing. In fact, come to think of it, you're lucky if anyone in the firm has even read the book.

But back to the famous Rupert. During the immediate post-war period, it was not too difficult to shuffle along in publishing, even if you weren't very good at it. But inevitably the day came when the bailiffs were at the gate and Rupert had to allow his firm to be bought out. It was sold first to Heinemann, then to Harcourt Brace, and finally to Granada. I can find no trace of it today, not even as an imprint in one of our vast conglomerates. There is a Bookseller publication from 2002, called Who Owns Whom in British Publishing (a bargain at £55), and it provides a chart which shows how the eponymous publishing dictatorships of the past were gradually taken over and absorbed into ever bigger monsters, losing all trace of their identity along the way (e.g. Victor Gollancz). But the firm of Rupert Hart-Davis was too small and insignificant even to figure on the chart.

Rupert Hart-Davis wasn't much good at marriage, either. He married four times, and at one stage was living with one woman in London and another in the country, at weekends. One thing he was good at, however, was literary politics. Apparently he was a sound committee man, a dab hand at memorial addresses, and a reliable literary executor. In due course these good works earned him a knighthood.

Even in his lifetime, however, Sir Rupert was never a major figure. Why then, one wonders, did Philip Ziegler bother to write this book? Out of fond memories of the old boy? Seems a lot of work to go to, just to preserve his name. And who, one wonders, will read it? Few people are as interested in publishing's past as I am, and at £20 I certainly wouldn't buy the book. Nor have I any intention, at present, of putting in a card for it at the library. But publishing is a funny business, and you can never tell. Perhaps all those people who read and enjoyed his letters will rush out and push it up the charts.

Delicate ground

Yesterday's newspapers reported that the UK literary agent Rod Hall had been found stabbed to death. Rod Hall represented chiefly film and television writers rather than novelists.

This is a very sad event, and it would be wise to avoid facetious remarks about aggrieved clients and -- more particularly -- would-be clients. However, if I were the police officer in charge of the inquiry, I would certainly be making a list of such people.

The same thought seems to have occurred to others. Today's Publishers Lunch newsletter, for instance, carries an item headed 'Agent murdered; writer missing.' There is a link to a BBC news item about Rod Hall's death, but so far as I can see this report includes no mention of a writer at all.

Of course there are other possible motives for murder besides a disagreement over business matters. The press reports don't actually say that Rod Hall was gay, but they tell us very firmly that he 'lived alone.' Which seems to constitute a definite nudge in the ribs. Or is it just me? British newspapers are so harassed by the libel laws that they talk in code half the time, and sometimes one gets it wrong.

Anyway, today's carries a link to the Guardian which tells us that the police are questioning a man in his twenties in connection with Rod Hall's death; the man's profession is unstated.

Meanwhile, by coincidence, Publishers Lunch also gives us a link to an Australian journal which quotes a Random House editor as saying that she is being stalked by a writer whose work she rejected seven years ago. 'Whenever I'm chairing something or on a panel, I look down into the audience and she's always there, in the front row. It's a bit weird,' says Jane Palfreyman. Not only weird but worrying, I would have thought.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of either of these two events, it has to be admitted that writers are typically rather peculiar and unstable people. A few years ago, Kay Jamison, Professor of Psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, produced some research on British writers. This showed that 38% of a group of eminent writers and artists had been treated for a mood disorder of one kind or another; of these, 75% had had antidepressants or lithium prescribed, or had been hospitalised. Of playwrights, 63% had been treated for depression. These proportions are many times higher than in the population at large.

Tuesday, May 25, 2004

Voss it all about then?

The Literary Saloon reports that one Peter Craven declares himself scandalised that people simply don't read Patrick White any more.

Craven's article apparently appeared originally in the Times Literary Supplement, which should be warning enough, but I did spend a couple of minutes researching this item and thinking about it.

The Lit. Saloon link to Patrick White reveals that he is indeed the man I thought he was. Australian, Nobel Prize winner (for literature, natch), and author of Voss, among other things.

Voss was published in 1957, so it was probably around that time that I read a review, or an article about White, in the TLS. And you will realise how young I was when I say that I regarded a warm recommendation from the TLS as a signal that I must read something. Nowadays I would regard it as a deadly warning: the equivalent of the skull and crossbones on the label on a bottle.

Anyway, I gave Voss a go. It turned out to be pretty much unreadable, as you would expect. Even the Literary Saloon admits that it is 'long, occasionally ponderous', and 'requires some patience.' Well, sorry, but I ain't got none. Life is too short.

One you can safely avoid, then. Along with nine tenths of those other Bolivian poets and Yugoslav playwrights who have won the Nobel big one. You can recite a list of their names in quite well-read company, and no one will recognise any of them. For instance, just from the last twenty-five years we have Czeslaw Milosz, Jaroslav Seifert, Claude Simon, Naguib Mafouz, and Kenzaburo Oe. Read any of them? Nope, me neither.

Value for money, aka book2book, reports today that the UK book-trade weekly the Bookseller has started to charge fees for reading its online pages, with immediate effect.

For 34 years I read the Bookseller faithfully, every week,and in the beginning I learnt quite a lot from it. Some of what I learnt was quite wrong, of course, but that's because the magazine is in thrall to the publishers. The Bookseller depends for a high proportion of its income on advertising from publishers, so you aren't going to read much that is severely critical of that quarter.

However, over the last few years I have gradually come to the conclusion that most of what is in the Bookseller isn't worth a bent penny of anybody's money, much less £140 a year. The magazine might be worth glancing at if the subscription is paid for with somebody else's cash, but apart from that, forget it. I did not renew my subscription when it fell due earlier this year, though I am still getting letters promising me all kinds of benefits, including, no doubt, a seat at the right hand of God.

The only thing that can be said in the Bookseller's favour is that it does occasionally show a flash of humour (Horace Bent et al.) and an occasional willingness to take the piss out of some of the more pompous members of the publishing community, of whom there are more than a few. This places it in marked contrast to the American equivalent, Publishers Weekly, which is po-faced and politically correct beyond endurance. I used to subscribe to PW too, at hideous cost, but soon abandoned it. PW also wants your money to read their amazing revelations on their web site, but the content is, if anything, even more anodyne than the Bookseller's. claims that the Bookseller's decision leaves as the only free source of online news about the UK book trade. This is probably true, but many US sites, such as Publisher's Lunch, Maud Newton, and the Literary Saloon, seem to pick up, and comment on, anything noteworthy in the UK. By visiting the Publisher's Lunch site you can subscribe to their email newsletter which is informative and not afraid to speak its mind.

I have just had a look at the new improved Bookseller site. It now asks me, God help us all, whether I want Flash. No, I do not want your unspeakably ghastly and trashy Flash, thank you very much. Beyond that the site won't do much for me. The Bookseller also does an email newsletter, to which I subscribe, though it mostly provides news which I have already read elsewhere. Will this free newsletter continue? I ask myself. I can hardly bear the suspense.

Monday, May 24, 2004

Goodbye to all that

Reuters report that Penguin UK have decided not to issue any more printed catalogues (or catalogs, if you're an American reader).

Penguin estimate that they can save £100,000 a year by providing their catalogue online, and, what is more, they can provide more accurate and up-to-date information.

On the whole this seems a wise move. It may even help writers. Years ago, when I was still trying to deal with publishing firms of the Penguin variety, I used to send for the catalogues of all the major publishing firms, and those of many smaller firms too. I did this at least once a year, and sometimes twice. It was an exercise which told one much about the ability of publishers to organise and manage their affairs. I gave an account of this procedure in my book The Truth about Writing (essential reading for every novelist, playwright, and screenwriter), and, to save you the trouble of buying the book, here is what I said.

In the case of the smaller publishers, the procedure for getting hold of a catalogue is quite simple. You ring up the main number, and the young lady (it usually is a young lady) takes your name and address; she writes it on an envelope there and then, stuffs a catalogue into the envelope, and tosses it into the post tray. Done.

The bigger companies, of course, are much more efficient than that. Oh yes. They have Systems, and the trouble with Systems is that they can sometimes be hell to deal with.

Every year I invariably have trouble with one big company. It’s not always the same company – they take it in turns to annoy – but every year there is at least one firm which really screws things up. This year it was the turn of Clapham and Irons.

You ring up C&I, tell them that you want a fiction catalogue, and the operator informs you that catalogues are dealt with by their distributor. OK....

So, you ring the distributor, and after the usual recorded lunacy (‘If you want lunch, press 1; if you want political asylum, press 2’) you eventually manage to speak to a human being. Called Doreen. You explain that you want a C&I fiction catalogue.

‘Are you a customer of ours?’

‘No, I’m a member of the public. I just want a fiction catalogue to see what C&I are publishing next year.’

Can’t have one. Sorry. Catalogues are only sent to booksellers.

No amount of argument will shift our Doreen. She has her instructions, and it’s more than her jobsworth to disobey them. Supervisor won’t budge either. God forbid, apparently, that a catalogue should ever fall into the hands of anyone who might actually buy a book.

Eventually, I give up and go back to C&I head office. I ask to speak to the sales manager’s secretary.

This is a dodge that I have tried before when sorely tested. You usually find that the secretary to the head salesperson has a few catalogues lying around on her desk and she can sometimes be persuaded to send you one. But this time the secretary isn’t answering. I get voice-mail, which I avoid using if at all possible.

I go back to the main switchboard, explain once more what I want, and ask to speak to somebody, please – really, really please – who might be able to inject a little common sense into the situation.

‘Ah yes,’ says the operator firmly, ‘catalogues are dealt with by Peter. I’ll put you through.’

But Peter isn’t there, of course. He's in a meeting. Voice-mail again.

For two or three days I try, in vain, to get through to Peter in person. In the end I give up and leave a message on his voice-mail. I ask, very specifically and clearly, for a copy of their current fiction catalogue.

Three weeks later (yes, it can be as quick as that), I receive a parcel through the post. It is a big, heavy parcel. So big and heavy, in fact, and so badly packed, that it has fallen apart in transit, and the post-office people have had to patch it all together again. It is delivered with multiple apologies for the Post Office’s carelessness, though for once the fault is not theirs.

This parcel contains twelve catalogues, all different. Each catalogue describes the C&I range of books which is offered in various school subjects, such French, Chemistry, German, and so forth. The average printing cost of such a catalogue, according to figures in a recent Bookseller, is about £1.50 each; so, if you include postage I have had about £20 of C&I’s money spent on me. But these catalogues are of no use to me and they all go into the bin.

And I still don’t have a fiction catalogue.

At which point I give up. I decide to live without news of C&I’s fiction.

Next year, C&I will behave impeccably, and it will be some other firm which proves itself to be hopeless in carrying out a simple task. But I have no doubt that I shall have big trouble with one of them.

And no, I didn't make up any of the above. It all really happened. More than once.

Friday, May 21, 2004

Vulgarity rules

This blog has never yet been short of material. In fact, the reverse is true. I often come across little bits on the web, or in newspapers, which would make an interesting post; I make a note of them, cut them out and stick them in the file, and then three weeks later I realise that time has rather passed them by. So here is one such cutting which I will mention before it becomes hopelessly out of date. And it is, fortunately, a point which is rather timeless.

On 17 April the Financial Times published an article about the artist Jack Vettriano. The name may or may not mean anything, but you can hardly fail to have seen his work. Whenever you buy a birthday card, or wander into any kind of shop which sells prints to hang on your living-room wall, you will see Vettriano's paintings. And if you want to see a few examples online, go here.

Anyway, the FT had this to say: 'Vettriano joins a select group of artists, such as Beryl Cook, David Shepherd, John Ward, and Ken Howard, whose work is snapped up by collectors but is... ignored by the critics.'

In other words, the public like it, but the taste police of the art world absolutely hate it. It's popular, see, so how can it possibly be any good?

I, of course, being a man renowned for my coarse, vulgar taste in almost everything, a person of relentless philistinism and -- heh heh -- actually rather proud of it, I quite like Vettriano myself.

What is true of the art world is also true of books. Take Josephine Cox, for instance. Not one of my own favourite writers, but a pro. For a good many years now she has been producing a couple of books a year, and they always feature in the Guardian's annual list of the 100 fastseller paperbacks of the year. In 2003, for example, she had Beachcomber (316,827 copies sold) and Bad Boy Jack (281,951). (Though she sells well in the UK, she does not, I believe, sell many copies in the USA.)

These books are perhaps best described by the slightly pejorative trade description of 'clogs and shawl sagas'. That is to say, they are often about young women in difficult circumstances, living in the industrial world of England in the nineteenth or early twentieth centuries. They are of interest, I suspect, mainly to older women readers, from similar backgrounds, who remember all too well how hard life could be in such times.

And what do the serious critics, those infallible judges of a 'good book', say about our Josie? Well, for the most part, as with Vettriano, they ignore her. But in 1995 the Times did condescend to review her book Living a Lie. 'Truth to tell,' said the reviewer, 'it stinks.... The writing is hammy, the characters mere ciphers, and the writing laboured and superficial.... Cox's prose is simpering, wishy-washy and full of monstrous cliches....' (Oh my God, pardon me while I reach for the smelling salts.)

The book stinks, but the author regularly sells 500,000 copies a year? Something a little out of kilter here, wouldn't you think?

Thursday, May 20, 2004


On 6 May I ran a piece about copyright, and I took the line that, if ever your copyright was breached, you would be well advised to think carefully before resorting the law to put right this dastardly wrong. But the latest edition of the Sunday Times carried a short para about a man who managed to get justice done without much fuss at all.

What happened was this. Marc Morris teaches history at Oxford. Last year he was the front man on a Channel 4 series about castles. And the other evening he was watching a BBC4 pragramme about a similar topic. It seemed to Marc, as he sat there in front of the TV, that some of the BBC script was, not too put to fine a point on it, lifted from his Channel 4 script.

The Sunday Times says politely that the offended historian 'contacted the BBC.' And, to avoid possible legal action, the BBC has promptly made eight edits to the script of the offending programme before it receives any further transmission.

So, that's all you have to do then, is it? When you find that someone has ripped off some of your work, you just write a polite letter, pointing this out, and the company concerned immediately apologises, raps the knuckles of the bloke who did the thievery, and puts things right pronto. That's the way it works, is it?

Er, well, no. Actually it isn't always that simple. I suspect that it only works that way if you're a distinguished historian at Oxford. Though Cambridge might do, at a pinch.

Stephenson wins and don't say I didn't tell you

A while back I had a quiet rave about Neal Stephenson's Quicksilver, and its successor, The Confusion. And now we have the news that the first book in the trilogy has won the 2004 Arthur C. Clarke Award. The award is given for the 'best science fiction novel which received its first British publication during the previous calendar year.'

It is no suprise that Quicksilver should win an award, except that, as Beatrice points out, it's doubtful whether it's science fiction. Still, let us not quibble. A good read is a good read, and deserves all the help it can get.

Wednesday, May 19, 2004

Food for thought

The Sunday Times (16 May) carried an interesting review of a book called Not on the Label: What Really Goes into the Food on Your Plate, by Felicity Lawrence.

The book reveals a host of abuses in the UK food business. For instance, chicken breasts, as sold in a UK supermarket, may legally contain as little as 54% chicken. The other 46% will be water, salt, gum, and other additives which include proteins extracted from the hide, bone, and ligaments of animals such as cattle.

Cheap food, as provided by the supermarkets, is largely unhealthy food: e.g. white bread and chicken nuggets made mostly of skin. ‘Choice’ is available, for those who can afford it, in the form of expensive ready-made meals which are highly processed and laden with salt, sugar and fat. They look good but are relatively tasteless and are less than ideal in nutritional terms.

In short, dear friends, what we have in the big-time food business – all too often – is shit masquerading as value. Sometimes it’s not even metaphorical shit – it’s genuine animal faeces containing the bacterium E.coli, which can give you a serious bout of food poisoning. Which is why, if you really must have a burger, you should make sure that it’s cooked at a high temperature.

Felicity Lawrence’s book also sheds light on some of the supermarkets’ brutal negotiating methods. Suppose, for example, you run a dairy producing yoghurt. And suppose you want to get your product into Smith & Jones’s powerful chain of food shops. My dear, you are first going to be asked for a listing fee. In other words, you pay Smith & Jones £1m (a sum actually quoted by Lawrence) and you then get to talk to the company, who may, if they’re feeling particularly generous, allow you to sell them your yoghurt. But they will only put it on the back shelf. If you want it up front, where the customer can see it, you will have to pay extra.

The thought which occurred to me, on reading the Sunday Times review of Lawrence’s book, is that what is happening in the food business is exactly paralleled by what is happening in the book business. Albeit on a much smaller scale.

First of all, in today’s publishing and bookselling, we also have shit masquerading as value. Well, all right, let’s modify that a bit, since it’s a nice day and I am less grumpy than usual. What we have, we will say, is the mundane and the run-of-the-mill being presented as if they were fantastic achievements.

What happens, typically, is that a publishing firm finds a new Wunderkind. This new writer still has a lot to learn, naturally, because he’s new, but he shows some talent and he’s a male model and he writes a column in the Guardian. So he is, naturally, the perfect choice for the autumn’s big book. Only trouble is, the book is much like any other first novel, a bit shaky. Not shit, then, but not a yummy chocolate cake either.

None of this stops the big-time publisher from giving this author a huge advance (good publicity, allegedly; free publicity anyway), a huge marketing budget, and a five-minute slot to impress the troops at the sales meeting. This kind of book/author is exactly what the publisher wants, because it’s also what the bookselling chains want. They live and die by the big sellers, just like the publishers.

Another parallel between the food business and books is that listing fees in supermarkets are now being echoed in book retailing. A couple of years ago, an article in The Spectator revealed that the going rate which a publisher had to pay, in order to get a book labelled as W.H. Smith’s ‘read of the week’ was £10,000. The fee for being declared Waterstone’s ‘book of the month’ was £2,500. (And you thought it had something to do with experienced readers actually reading the book? Ha!) In both cases the publisher would be expected to give the bookseller an extra 7.5% discount as well as the fee.

On 9 May this year the Observer revealed the latest version of this ‘listing fee’ practice as found in the book trade. (Thanks to Maud Newton for the link). The big publishers are now taking the book-buyers from the leading bookseller chains on expensive ‘sales trips’ – otherwise known as free holidays – to introduce them to their leading authors. Hutchinson, for instance, took book-buyers to Italy so that they could be told all about Robert Harris’s novel Pompeii. Simon and Schuster took a group to New York to meet Hillary Clinton. (Well they could hardly find out anything about her by staying at home and reading the newspapers, could they? Be reasonable.) And CollinsWillow took the sporty gang to Madrid to meet David Beckham. Average cost of each of these outings: £30,000 to £40,000.

So, as we survey the lovely and entrancing book-publishing scene, we can make certain predictions. Just as the supermarkets are squeezing every bent ha’penny out of their suppliers, so the big book retailers will bully, harass and browbeat the publishers into giving them product at an ever-lower price.

And guess who... Oh, but if you’ve been reading this blog for a while you’ve already guessed. Guess who is going to be given a slimmer share of the already thin pickings to be had from this book-publishing game? The authors, that’s who. Because they are weak, isolated, defenceless, and naïve if not actually stupid.

Fortunately for the book publishers, there seems to be a never-ending supply of mugs, suckers, and halfwits who will work on a book for a year or more, in their own time, and without a penny piece for it, just for the ‘pleasure’ of having an agent and/or a publisher send it back after six months (maybe) with a printed rejection slip.

Given a long queue of such naïve scribblers, book publishers need never fear that their supply of books will dry up. Whether those books will be any real good, of course, is a different matter. Even the briefest survey of past publishing history suggests that writers often take three, four, or five books to get into their stride. But nowadays a publisher wants a big smash hit first time out, and is prepared to spend £250,000 or more to make it look like a hit. So nobody is going to worry about the actual quality of the book, are they?

Well yes, as a matter of fact they are. My guess is that the readers will worry about it. Eventually. The penny will finally drop. In due course. The readers will get to page 45 of this ‘amazing, wonderful, hot new book’ by Camilla Fancypants, and they will realise that it is actually... erm... not very good. Thrown together by an amateur who lacks any technical knowledge not to mention experience. But who photographs beautifully and is the Prime Minister’s daughter. Awfully well connected, and a darling to boot.

What happens then? What happens when readers discover that the big firms are not really delivering quality product, in the sense of deeply satisfying books?

My guess is that readers will resort to the same practices as some food buyers. Felicity Lawrence suggests that, where grub is concerned, you should buy locally grown produce, unprocessed, in season, and directly from the grower if possible.

Same thing with books. Serious readers will be obliged to go out and search a bit. And with the internet at their fingertips they have a whole new way of searching. And the writers are certainly out there, if you look. Some of them are published by the smaller houses. Some are self-publishing, PODing it, ebooking it, blogging it. So if you look, you can find the good quality stuff, the kind of thing that you happen to like. It just takes time and effort to find material which is rewarding to you – and what is rewarding to you will not necessarily appeal to me. But it can be done.

Meanwhile the big publishers and the big retailers probably won’t disappear, any more than the local supermarket will close if a few sensible people go to the farmers’ market. But they may scratch their heads and wonder why profits aren’t rising.

Tuesday, May 18, 2004

Dickens in the Kalahari

In the airport bookshop I looked around desperately, as you do, for something to read on the flight. The latest Grisham perhaps? In the end I settled for the fourth book in the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series: The Kalahari Typing School for Men.

I have now read two books in this series, the first and the fourth. And the main thing to be said about them is that they seem to have very little to do with crime and detection; the fourth book particularly so.

This series has had an enormous amount of publicity recently, and is apparently going to be produced as a TV series before long, so you will be hearing a lot more. But in the meantime, in case you've missed the various mentions, you need to be told that the books feature a lady called Precious Ramotswe, who is Botswana's leading (because only) female private detective.

The author, Alexander McCall Smith, was born in Zimbabwe. He eventually became a professor of law in Scotland, returned to Africa to set up a new law school at the University of Botswana, and is currently Professor of Medical Law at Edinburgh. He is a prolific writer, and has produced more than fifty books in the last twenty years, including specialist academic works and children's books.

So far so good. The guy is a pro. And I have no real problem with the Kalahari book. As an airport read it was perfectly OK. But here are a few comments.

First, this fourth book has even less to do with crime and detection than the first in the series, and even in that one the detection was decidedly sketchy. So what is Kalahari about then? Well, it's about the problems of finding a husband, keeping him happy if you ever do find one, dealing with difficult children (in this case two kids adopted by Mma Ramotswe), and setting up a new business (the typing school).

It's all a bit -- well, twee, frankly. The good characters are decidedly saintly, and the bad guys aren't really all that bad when push comes to shove. The only one who could be called a villain in this book is a philandering husband. And what does he do when Mma Ramotswe reveals to him that she knows what he is up to? He wilts, that's what. 'I am sorry,' he says. 'I will do what you tell me to do, Mma.'

Now, believe me when I say that I do not wish to cast unwarranted aspersions on anybody. But I do find it a little difficult to believe that a contemporary African man, when threatened with exposure by a busybody woman, would react quite so meekly. From what I know of the African male character, he would be more likely to seize the nearest sharp-edged weapon and chop Mma Ramotswe into numerous untidy pieces. Adopted children or no.

In short, The Kalahari Typing School for Men seems to me to be placed in an unreal world. To my mind, this world resembles nothing so much as the nineteenth-century England which was portrayed for us by Charles Dickens -- i.e. a world of lost orphan children, kindly old ladies and gentlemen, and more or less happy endings.

Having thought this thought I then did a search on Google for the author's name plus Dickens. And guess what? Lots of other people have come to the same conclusion too. You can read Amanda Craig on the subject here.

So, Professor McCall Smith's Botswana is not, I suspect, the real Botswana, or the real Africa. The dark continent, as far as I can see, remains dark. Indeed it is black and thoroughly filthy in places. It seems to be a continent of corruption, brutality, and, of course, AIDS. But there are only the tiniest and most distant mentions of any of these problems in the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series.

But is that a valid criticism? Or even a criticism at all? After all, I myself have long held the view that all fiction should be regarded as taking place in a parallel universe. We don't have any problem with reading about Harry Potter or the Hobbit. And I am a definite supporter, on the whole, of feel-good fiction. In fact that might said to be the sole purpose of fiction: to make the reader feel better than when she picked the book up. So I suppose the only point I am making is that the reader should not, in my opinion, mistake this kindly and benign Botswana for the real thing. That would be a mistake which a great many well-meaning British people have made in the past.

For some reason I very clearly remember listening to a BBC radio programme shortly before Nigeria became independent in 1960. Was Nigeria ready to be given its freedom from British rule? That was the question which the programme asked, and the answer was a resounding Yes. Speaker after speaker came forward to testify that democracy on the Westminster model was well established. The Christian religion was widely observed. The judiciary was independent. The sun shone every day. And so on. Optimism ruled.

And what actually happened in Nigeria? Well, within a few years the country was thrown into a brutal civil war; and today that nation is one of the poorest in the world, renowned for its corruption.

Don't let me put you off Professor McCall Smith. Lots of people find him highly entertaining. It's just that, being old and grumpy, I find all that optimism a bit syrupy. What is more, I suspect that the learned Prof may actually be one of the most ruthlessly commercial writers to have appeared on the scene for some time. Giving the readers what they want, with knobs on.

Monday, May 17, 2004

Mulling it over

Just returned from a holiday on the Isle of Mull, in Scotland. Mull is, by British standards, a long way from anywhere. Roads are mostly single track, houses few and far between, and your mobile phone probably won't work. Lots of mountains, lakes, rivers. If you like that sort of thing, and you're interested in wildlife, then this is the place for you. If you can't live without CNN, visit somewhere else.

We stayed in the Druimnacroish Hotel, which is small, comfortable, and provides good food. No TV in your room, however, so if you'd just die without it...

For wildlife outings, we found that the trips organised by Arthur and Pam Brown were good value. These two know where to go to make sure that you see rare eagles, otters, sea birds, et cetera.

A word of warning. In the summer - June, July and August - Scotland is the home of a relative of the mosquito, known as the midge. Midges bite, and the bites are painful and tiresome. These wee beasties can ruin a holiday if you're in the wrong place at the wrong time. For more information read George Hendry's unexpected bestseller Midges in Scotland (Mercat Press). A one-page briefing can be found on the Undiscovered Scotland web site.

Friday, May 07, 2004

Leave of absence

Please note that the GOB will be on holiday for the next ten days or so. Posts will resume on 17 May or thereabouts.

Thursday, May 06, 2004

More or Lessig

The learned Lawrence Lessig recently gave a talk on copyright issues at the UCLA law school. You can find a very handy summary of what he said on the UCLA site. Anyone who uses the internet regularly enough to be reading this blog should take the trouble to read the key points of Lessig's argument, which are helpfully listed at the top of the page.

Perhaps the most interesting of Lessig's arguments, to the relative newcomer to these weighty issues, is that every use of the internet involves making a copy, which theoretically requires the copyright owner's permission, which makes criminals of us all. But do we care a tuppenny whatsit? No, sir and madam, we do not. Hence respect for the law is daily diminished. Which is how we come to have 11-year-old kids being sued by record companies and then going out and breaking all kinds of other laws. Get real, folks, and sort this out.

Lessig wisely makes the point that about 98% of published copyright material -- note the emphasis on published -- has no commercial value whatever after a year or two. So giving it a copyright life of 94 years, or whatever term the American Congress has recently dreamed up, is both unnecessary and unhelpful. It hampers the free exchange of ideas, a process which, for the small and shrinking minority who are still capable of rational thought, has historically produced some important results.

As for copyright in unpublished material -- well, pardon me while I give a rueful laugh. You won't have to look far in the advice columns for writers to find 'experts' who advise you to send a copy of an unpublished manuscript to yourself via registered mail, and then lock it in a bank vault, so that if and when someone steals your successor to Harry Potter you can whip it out and cry Aha! And claim your million dollars in the courts.

This is all complete cobblers, of course. In the first place, the likelihood is that your wonderful novel has no commercial value whatever. You are most unlikely to be able to sell it to a commercial publisher. If you do, the publisher is unlikely to be able to sell many copies of it. And if you publish it yourself, the costs are likely to exceed the profits from copies sold. So save the postage on the sending it to yourself business. Publishers have a general rule of thumb. Suppose a manuscript comes in covered in large labels which say COPYRIGHT!!! ALL RIGHTS RESERVED!!! ANYONE STEALING THIS MATERIAL WILL BE BEHEADED AT DAWN!!! The rule of thumb is this: the larger and more strident the labels, the bigger the heap of crap this manuscript is likely to be.

In any case, suppose somebody does rip off your work, what are you going to do then? Sue? Think twice before you do. Successful suits for breach of copyright are seldom reported. I know of one case where the author of a book on a pop star opened a newspaper and saw an article which was, in his opinion, more or less a straight steal from his book. He sued the newspaper and won. Only trouble was, he was awarded £8,000 in damages, and had legal costs of £20,000.

Then there was the Full Monty business. A good many years ago I saw a New Zealand play called Ladies Night, about a bunch of unemployed men who turned themselves into male strippers. A few years later, along came a movie called The Full Monty, about a bunch of unemployed men who.... I assumed the movie was a filmed version of Ladies Night. Turns out it was an 'original story'. The authors of Ladies Night sued the makers of The Full Monty for stealing their story. They lost.

Lawrence Lessig has devised a means whereby copyright holders can give a general authorisation for people to use their work on a much more generous basis than is allowed by the copyright laws. It's called a Creative Commons licence. As soon as I get organised I shall put a notice about it on this blog.

Wednesday, May 05, 2004

Stephenson aka Bury

A while back, I wrote a piece about Neal Stephenson’s latest novel, The Confusion. I was, if you remember, highly enthusiastic about it, and in the past few weeks I have been searching for Stephenson's earlier stuff.

You don’t have to go far on a Stephenson fan-site to discover that Neal has written two novels under the name Stephen Bury. I have just completed reading one of these, Interface.

Well, I suppose you have to call Interface a piece of science fiction. Or maybe a techno-thriller. Personally I would prefer to avoid such categorisation and just call it a novel.

Basically, the book is a story about a group of extremely wealthy, powerful, and secretive people who want to control more or less everything. Which in today’s world means that they need to control the choice of US President. And, for preference, they need to control the President’s actions, too. And so, when a strong potential candidate for the Presidency suffers a stroke, said clique of rich, powerful et cetera sets about implanting a chip in the candidate’s head. This not only enables the candidate to make a speedy recovery from his stroke, but also enables the conspirators to control, to some extent, his thoughts, statements, and actions.

Maybe that doesn’t sound too interesting a story, but since this is a Neal Stephenson novel we’re talking about, it becomes interesting when he writes it. Trust me.

The novel is long, as usual with Stephenson, and sheds some thought-provoking light on the way in which modern political campaigns seek to influence the media. You may find that some of the dirty tricks, as described by this author, test your credulity a little. But hold. Just consider the past, if you will. Consider all those little incidents which have littered the electoral path of various candidates – Nixon, Muskie, Dukakis – and then you will perhaps need to reconsider your view.

My opinion – for what it’s worth – is that the US election machine is a lot less scrupulous, and a lot more ruthless, than even Mr Stephenson’s overheated imagination suggests. And let us not forget that we are in an election year right now. Just watch what happens over the next few months. Certainly even the most objective and idealistic observer can hardly deny that we have two parties and two candidates – one in power and one seeking power – who will do almost anything to hold the reins during the next four years. If you think I exaggerate, just read your papers.

In the meantime, if you would rather take refuge in the world of fiction, Interface is a highly entertaining read.

Tuesday, May 04, 2004

JIm Kelly's Water Clock

Jim Kelly has been attracting good reviews for his second crime novel, The Fire Baby, so I thought I would begin by reading his first, The Water Clock. And an excellent book it is too. The cover carries a recommendation from Colin Dexter (Inspector Morse series), and often these don’t mean much, but in this case Dexter doesn’t even share the same publisher, so I guess he must mean it.

Kelly’s detective is a local newspaper reporter, and the background seems convincing to me. The plot need not detain us, but you will need to know that we are spared the all too common serial killer and the inner-city hard-boiled stuff. Instead we have a crime novel set in the Fen country of East Anglia. And a bare, bleak, cold, wet landscape it is too. I once knew it well, and Kelly’s writing conveys its flavour rather well. ‘A multicultural event in the Fens,’ says Kelly, ‘was a phone call from London.’ It is an in-bred and frightening part of the world at times, the people not taking kindly to strangers.

In short, if you care for English crime fiction, The Water Clock is a literate and well constructed example.

Should you be interested in knowing a bit more about the Fens, the best book that I know of is still A History of the Fens by J. Wentworth-Day – Harrap, 1954. Long since out of print, of course, but available secondhand. Wentworth-Day was an eccentric character, but he certainly knew his subject. I once heard him lecture; it must be fifty years ago, at least. There is a reference on the internet which says that his history is written from the landowner and squire angle, giving details of what to shoot and fish. Well, yes, it is, but it’s none the worse for that. The book includes lots of photographs which were well printed at the time and show hardly a trace of deterioration today.

Another excellent book which you can find secondhand (try Abebooks) is Iris Wedgwood’s Fenland Rivers. This was first published by Rich and Cowan in 1936; it was also published in the US by Morrow, and was reprinted in England in the early fifties. This has some pleasing paintings by Henry Rushbury. Wedgwood includes an eye-witness account of the execution of Mary Queen of Scots, which took place on the banks of the Nene, at Fotheringay. All that remains of Fotheringay Castle now is a mound. I once attended a scout camp which pitched its tents on the top of it.

There is a more recent book by David Phillips, The River Nene (Past and Present, 1997). This, as its title demonstrates, concentrates on just one of the Fenland rivers, giving a splendid description of its features, towns, and wildlife, from source to sea.

Monday, May 03, 2004

Educating Rita and others

To the Arc Theatre on Saturday night, to see an amateur production of Educating Rita by Willy Russell. And, as amateur productions go, tolerably well done.

The play is a two-hander comedy, first premiered in 1980 and filmed three years later, starring Michael Caine and Julie Walters. The focus is very much on Rita, a young woman with no educational qualifications whatever, who decides that it is time she emerged from her state of hopeless ignorance. So she signs up for a course on English Literature with the Open University. (For the benefit of any American readers, the Open University allows you to take courses on a part-time basis, anywhere in the UK.) The second character in the play, Frank, is her OU tutor. Frank is a full-time lecturer at a traditional university, and has taken on extra work with the OU to pay for his drinking.

So far so good. The action of the play covers the first year of Rita’s education in Eng. Lit., and as such allows plenty of room for fun as the likeable but ignorant Rita interacts with the failed poet and not very good lecturer, Frank. Should you get the opportunity to see the play, or the video, you could do a lot worse. The film, in particular, received excellent reviews.

But the point of this post, of course, is to consider a few of the ideas raised in my head by seeing this piece.

First, the lovely Rita is studying the wrong subject, of course. If you want a good general education, you should be reading history. Frank quickly gets her reading E.M. Forster, D.H. Lawrence, and the big-time critics such as F.R. Leavis. A course of reading like that is enough to put anyone off education for life, and it is little wonder that Frank, having to teach the stuff all day long, has succumbed to the bottle.

Secondly, Frank peddles the usual Eng. Lit. party line about there being such a thing as the Great Novel. The Great Novel allegedly stands there in its prime, and if you don’t like it then you, the wretched reader, are in some way at fault, lacking in brains, sensitivity and all-round nous. This concept is of course complete balls from start to finish. I have neither the time nor the patience to develop the argument further here, but if you’re interested then you should read Chapter 5 of my book The Truth about Writing, and all will be revealed.

All that mention of Forster and Leavis reminds me that, forty-five years ago, when I was an undergraduate in Cambridge, I used to see those two gentlemen in the street from time to time. Forster was a Fellow at King’s, Leavis at Downing.

Forster had, and still has in certain quarters, a reputation as an important novelist, though I doubt whether anyone these days reads his books at all unless they have to take an exam on them (and probably not then). Although having said that, I have to admit that A Room with a View made an entertaining movie.

Forster also wrote a book called Aspects of the Novel, which, since he was a practising novelist, might be thought to offer some useful insights into how to write a full-length work of fiction. It doesn’t, I’m afraid. It is famous for including a passage which regrets the need for the novel to tell a story: ‘Yes – oh dear yes – the novel tells a story.’ You couldn’t have any clearer evidence that literary people almost invariably miss the entire point. A story, to literary chaps, is a rather vulgar necessity which they would much rather do without. Whereas to the ordinary reader, who possesses at least a faint trace of common sense, the story is what makes the book worth reading. God forbid, apparently, that we should ever write anything which might appeal to the average reader. That would be frightfully common. Literary chaps only write for people of exquisite good taste.

Forster was, incidentally, a gay man at a time when homosexuality was a criminal offence in England. He wrote a novel with a homosexual theme: Maurice. This was circulated among friends during his lifetime and only published after his death.

As for the ghastly Leavis. Well, his intellectual position was that English Literature contained a core, or ‘canon’, of Great Books which included the works of Jane Austen, George Eliot, some of Dickens, most of Henry James and Joseph Conrad, and all of D.H. Lawrence. Everything else, according to Leavis, was crap.

This farrago of nonsense was surprisingly influential, and remains so to this day, though I must admit (having just looked him up) that Leavis got a thorough pasting from his fellow critics even while he was alive. You can find an essay on Leavis, by Paul Dean, here if you wish.

Cambridge, incidentally, only began to teach English Literature in 1917, and there was considerable opposition to the introduction of the subject even then. Most dons of the day took the view that literature should at all costs be kept out of the hands of self-appointed ‘experts’ who would take it upon themselves to tell the rest of us what we ought to be reading. The University, please note, never made Leavis a Professor. He remained plain Dr Leavis to the end of his days. So at least they got that right.

Leavis’s wife, Queenie, was an even bigger intellectual snob than he was. She wrote a book called Fiction and the Reading Public, which argues, in effect, that only intellectuals can possibly recognise which books are worth reading. According to Queenie, anyone who enjoys a book which is ‘not worth reading’ is self-evidently a person of no morality, character, or intelligence.

Those of you who dream, from time to time, of winning the Booker Prize, or the Pulitzer, or some such literary bauble, may care to bear in mind that, in entering for any such enterprise, you are placing yourself, and your fate as a writer, in the hands of the successors of F.R. and Queenie Leavis, i.e. the self-appointed and usually half-baked experts who ‘decide’ what is good, bad, and indifferent. This is not a fate which I would personally wish upon my worst enemy, so why inflict it upon yourself?