Friday, October 29, 2004

Obscenity, censorship, and free speech

Yesterday I talked about Steve Holland’s excellent book The Mushroom Jungle. And one of the several ways in which it is excellent is in describing one of the fits of madness which periodically overcome the English.

Elsewhere in this blog I have expressed my conviction that at least parts of the English population were driven insane by the two world wars which occurred in the first half of the twentieth century. In world war I, most of the best, bravest, and brightest young men were killed off. In world war II, a similar culling occurred, albeit on a lesser scale. What this meant was that, come the 1950s, there were men in high places (and they mostly were men) who had been born in, say, 1895.

These men were often second- or third-rate at whatever it was they were doing: the law, medicine, politics. But they had risen to the top because, through some quirk of fate, they had survived. Not only were they second-rate, but, as indicated above, their experiences had driven them insane. They were not barking, baying at the moon-type screwy, but they were very definitely a bit odd.

It was not difficult, among these men, to find a determination to pretend that none of the nastiness of the two world wars had really happened. The true history of events, culminating in atom bombs and Auschwitz, was, after all, too dreadful for all but the strongest minds to contemplate. As a result, many of the men in high places chose to pretend that none of the unpleasantness had taken place at all; either that, or they chose to believe that it was possible to wind back the clocks, and to recreate in English society of the 1950s the kind of moral atmosphere and social structures which had existed fifty years earlier.

Such attempts were, of course, bound to fail. But that didn’t stop men trying. And in The Mushroom Jungle Steve Holland gives us the best description that I have ever read of how these crazy ambitions were attempted in the book world. The facts are reasonably well known, but Holland gives us fresh insights and new detail.

In 1951, Sir David Maxwell-Fyfe was appointed as Home Secretary. He was one of those with many screws loose, and he used his position of power to attack ‘the forces of evil’ on three fronts. He began a witch-hunt against homosexuals; he ordered the harassment of prostitutes; and he declared it his intention to stamp out ‘pornography’. In all these areas, Maxwell-Fyfe was supported by the Director of Public Prosecutions, Sir Theobald Mathew; and Mathew was assisted by a sidekick called Mervyn Griffith-Jones.

As far as ‘pornography’ was concerned, the most obvious targets were the publishers of the paperback originals who had come into being since the end of the war. These new publishers were putting out hundreds of original stories, most of them with covers featuring an attractive young woman (though never naked, of course, or anything like it); and the stories often had titles, such as Virgin Dancer, or The White Slave Racket, which gave promise of sauciness within.

In fact, of course, nothing published in the 1950s was ever remotely ‘pornographic’ in the modern sense of the term. To begin with, it was quite impossible to use words such as fuck, shit, or piss, without ending up in prison. No printer would risk his skin by setting the words in type. And such descriptions of sexual activity as were printed were always highly restrained, often ending at the bedroom door, or couched in the most general terms. ('His passion overwhelmed her.')

Nevertheless, the cheap paperbacks were an easy target, and in 1953 the authorities launched 197 prosecutions against ‘obscene’ literature. In many cases the whole of a publisher’s stock might be subject to a destruction order; the company could well be made to pay a crippling fine; and, most serious of all, the proprietor could be sent to prison. Several of these publishers of cheap paperbacks actually did serve prison sentences; and, even if they didn’t, the fine put them out of business.

The futility of these prosecutions is well demonstrated by the fact that, once a book was ‘banned’ in one part of the country, sales of that book promptly rose everywhere else. ‘Since the [Hank Janson] books were first brought to the public’s attention,’ said one bookseller, ‘there has been a rush to buy them. I sold all I had in an hour.’

The day came, however, when the authorities overreached themselves. It was one thing to prosecute publishers who were issuing cheap paperbacks, which were sold to working-class readers through newsagents’ shops. The men who operated in that field had few resources: they could not afford good lawyers, and they had no friends in high places. It was quite another thing, however, to prosecute respectable, long-established firms, operating through traditional book-trade channels. The men behind these companies certainly could afford a good barrister; what was more, they had friends and neighbours who were actively involved in politics, the law, and other areas of influence; and, when they believed that they were publishing literary fiction of a high order, they did not take at all kindly to being labelled as anti-social smut merchants.

In 1954, the previously respectable and blameless firms of Heinemann, Hutchinson, Arthur Barker, Werner Laurie, and Secker & Warburg, were all prosecuted for publishing ‘obscene’ novels. One firm chose to plead guilty; another was acquitted by the jury in thirteen minutes flat; two other firms were found not guilty after a considerable struggle; but Hutchinson, and their author, were both fined £500.

These five trials made it abundantly clear to all but the screwiest of Englishmen that the law on ‘obscenity’ was a complete mess, and needed review. The result, very eventually, was a new Obscene Publications Act, which became law in 1959.

Even then the authorities did not give up. When Penguin decided to publish D.H. Lawrence’s famous sex novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover, the by now experienced prosecution team went into action once more.

The prosecution was led by Mervyn Griffith-Jones, a complete arsehole if ever there was one. He had a ten-year track record of success in prosecuting so-called dirty books, and he was hot stuff when it came to bullying shabby little men in shiny suits. But when he came up against the heavy troops marshalled by Penguin, he found himself on the end of a well-deserved beating.

It was Griffith-Jones, of course, who famously asked the jury whether Lady Chatterley’s Lover was the kind of book that they would want their servant, or their wife, to read – thus demonstrating beyond all possible doubt that he was living so far in the past that he was positively out of sight.

As the whole world knows, the publishers of Lady Chatterley’s Lover were found not guilty of publishing an obscene book. From then on, the great British public was perfectly free to read about people fucking each other to their hearts’ content, and no publisher need ever again worry about whether to delete any of the so-called four-letter words.

But let it not be forgotten, please, that there are still plenty of people around who would gladly wind back the clock again, even at this late hour. Those of us who value the freedom of speech would be well advised to keep that in mind.

Thursday, October 28, 2004

Steve Holland: The Mushroom Jungle

Steve Holland's The Mushroom Jungle (published by Zardoz Books) is not a new book; it was first published in 1993. It tells the story of an extraordinary period in British publishing -- a period of about ten years during which a few enterprising businessmen, with no previous background in publishing, were able to supply cheap paperback books to working-class readers and make a modest profit.

During the second world war, paper for books was in short supply, but there were plenty of people who wanted to read. This did not go unnoticed. And in particular there was a whole class of readers who were not considered at all by the traditional British publishers. For want of a better term we will call these people working-class readers.

Once the war was ended, in 1945, a number of businessmen thought that it ought to be possible to exploit this unsatisfied demand. For the most part, the 'publishers' who operated in this 'mushroom jungle' were not publishers in the usual sense of the term. They were very ordinary men, who might otherwise have been taxi-drivers or greengrocers, but they recognised a commercial opportunity when they saw one, and they were ready to take it. Often they had little or no capital, and they lived from week to week. Nobody got rich.

The books which these new publishers issued were nearly all originals. They were usually between 112 and 128 pages in length, and contained approximately 40,000 words. The paper on which the books were printed was flimsy and cheap, and the books sold chiefly on the strength of their garish covers. They were sold mostly through newsagents and hardly ever through the normal book-trade channels; they were bought, read, and passed from hand to hand in factories and shops, until, before long, they simply fell to pieces.

As for the writers who supplied the books… Well, they too were very ordinary men. Often they were journalists who had served for four or five years in the military and had then discovered, on their return home, that there were no jobs to go to. So they sat down and they hammered out a novel of, say, 40,000 words, in a week or so. Ten days at the most. If they did that, week in and week out, they could just about make a living wage.

One writer used to work from 4 a.m. until noon, during which time he would neither eat nor drink. Another writer sold 170 stories, of which half were between 20,000 and 65,000 words. His output peaked at 12,000 words in one day; in that same week he wrote 55,000 words of gangster fiction in five days.

All in all, the books which were produced in this way were hardly noticed by the traditional book trade, and were certainly never reviewed. Not surprisingly, given the speed at which they were written, these paperback originals are generally reckoned (by modern critics) to be some of the feeblest and least convincing fiction ever to appear in print. But they were read. People bought them by the hundred thousand, because they were cheap and because they met the demand for dramatic and exciting stories.

Westerns and gangster novels set in the Bronx were cheerfully written by Englishmen who had never been any further west than Bristol. Science fiction and romances were also favourites.

Often the covers, if nothing else, gave promise of saucy stories within, but by modern standards there was little in the way of sex scenes. As was usual in those far-off days, the man took the girl off to some hotel or other, closed the door and… a line of dots led us to the next morning.

In 1950, paper supplies were deregulated, which fuelled a further boom in this market, a market which was so far below the notice of serious book people that it went almost wholly unremarked.

But in the end, of course (by about the mid 1950s), the mini-boom in down-market pulp fiction inevitably ground to a halt. It was killed by a number of factors. These were, in no particular order: the ending of a post-war ban which had prevented American publishers from exporting fiction to the UK; a printer’s strike, which deprived the paperback publishers of income; and the widespread prosecution of many of the books on the grounds of ‘obscenity’ – though in reality, of course, all the books were models of restraint when compared with what appears in print today. I shall say more about this latter development tomorrow.

This is the story which Steve Holland tells, and he tells it remarkably well. All in all, he has produced a fascinating account of a period in publishing history which will never be repeated. His book is marred somewhat by numerous typos, but it holds the attention nevertheless. And it provides plenty of food for thought for those writers who are wondering what it is that holds readers to the page. Hint: it ain’t anything that they can teach you at the University of Iowa.

Tuesday, October 26, 2004

Payola in the book business

About three years ago, the Spectator published an article which 'exposed' some of the ways in which UK publishers obtain publicity for their books. (The ArtsJournal provides a brief summary: In Blurbs We Trust.)

In short, what happens is that publishers pay booksellers to label a particular novel (or non-fiction work for that matter) as 'book of the month'.

According to the original Spectator article, W.H. Smith charges £10,000 to call a book ‘Read of the Week’. Books etc.’s ‘Showcase’, and Borders’ ‘Best’, both cost £2,500. And Amazon demands £6,000 for its ‘Book of the Month’ endorsement. To have a book called the ‘Latest Thing’ will set you back £15,000, and for an author to be labelled ‘Fresh Talent’ costs £2,850.

As I recall, there was come mild quibbling over the figures when they were first published, but no one seriously contested the general principle, namely that UK publishers were paying in order to have their books given favourable labels by the bookshop chains. And, of course, they were also paying just to have books piled in a highly visible position, right by the door.

In 2001 this was news, in a sense. Most people, particularly most writers, hadn't realised what was happening. And I can't say that I had realised what was going on either. However, for anyone who bothered to think about it, the truth should have been blindingly obvious. We have known for years that supermarkets were demanding that their suppliers should pay them for giving their products a favourable shelf position, so why should the book business be any different?

Oh, you thought that publishing was run by gentlemen, did you? And I as good as confirmed the fact yesterday with my comments on the general way in which business is conducted. Well yes. Publishers may be gentlemen (on a good day). But the big booksellers live and die on the high street, and they are the ones calling the tunes here. As are the supermarkets too, of course. And the publishers have the bruised balls to show for it.

Anyway, the thought that crosses my mind is this -- and I ask a rhetorical question, to which I do not necessarily expect an answer. What is the difference between booksellers demanding payments from publishers, on the one hand, and the good old payola racket in the music business on the other?

A few words of explanation are, I think, required for younger readers. Back in the 1950s, in the United States, there were several thousand radio stations. It was also obvious that, if you wanted to create a hit record, and make lots of money, you had to persuade a large number of those stations to play your record. And the simplest way to persuade the disc jockeys to play your record every hour on the hour was to bribe them. This was known as 'payola'. The payment was sometimes in the form of cash, and sometimes in kind, e.g. a bag of cocaine or a freebie with a fancy call-girl.

In the course of time, the American courts made payola illegal. However, the rewards for selling lots of records remain great, and modern recording companies have developed new ways of exercising persuasion. It is these practices which, in the last week, have been called into question by the New York state attorney general, Eliot Spitzer.

Presumably, the legal position in the UK is that supermarkets can bully their suppliers without government interference, and the bookselling chains are likewise free to 'offer publishers the opportunity' to have their books drawn to the public's attention. But what is the difference between paying £10,000 (or whatever) to have a book labelled 'read of the week', and a good old-fashioned bribe?

Well, obviously, one is 'legal' and goes through the accounts office, and the other one doesn't. But apart from that I can't see any difference at all myself.

Not, please note, that I am at all exercised about this particular book-trade practice. In 2001, when the news broke, there was a certain amount of huffing and puffing: some novelists wrote stiffish letters to The Author. But to me it seemed no different from a publisher paying for advertisement space in a newspaper.

However, it may well be that some of the smaller publishers feel thoroughly aggrieved about this. They can't afford £10,000 to plug a book, or even £1,000. And perhaps they might prefer a more level playing field. And there is also an opportunity here, surely, for some bright young prosecutor, or MP, to make a bit of a name for herself by pressing for legislation.

Remember you read it here first.

Monday, October 25, 2004

Penguin and the culture of politeness

On 26 June I noted in these august columns that the ancient and honourable UK publishing firm of Penguin was having trouble with its warehouse. It had opened a new 'state of the art' distribution centre in Rugby, all fully computerised, of course. And the problem was, the, er -- well, the software didn't work.

Bookshops ordered books and Penguin couldn't supply them. Not, at any rate, by using its new improved system. It could only supply books by employing lots of men to scurry around with baskets and collect the books by hand, in much the same way as farmers' wives used to go round collecting eggs. Result: endless delays, inefficiencies, and lost sales on a grand scale.

By any standards, this situation was a business catastrophe of the first order. Back in June, Publishing News estimated that the likely loss to Penguin was somewhere between £20m and £30m. Which is a lot of money. And the authors would lose proportionately, of course.

Now Publishing News brings us
up to date. Penguin's authors have recently had their royalty cheques for the half year ending 30 June. And they are not happy. Most authors have lost one third of their expected income; some are down by an estimated half. The Society of Authors and the Association of Authors' Agents are thinking of taking legal action against Penguin to obtain suitable compensation.

However, the point about all this which interests me is one which was raised recently by Michael Cader in his Publishers
Lunch newsletter. He said recently that, while at Frankfurt, he asked more or less everyone from England 'Why hasn't there been more howling about the mess at Penguin's new warehouse?'

Mr Cader does not tell us what answer he got, but I can give him one. The answer is that a British writer who jumps up and down and complains about the performance of his publisher is a writer who pretty soon isn't going to have a publisher.

The whole culture of British publishing is still gentlemanly and ladylike. It takes its tone from the mannerisms of public life in the UK fifty years ago. I once knew a senior civil servant in the Treasury, and he remarked to me, 'You have to remember that I come from a culture in which to say, "I'm afraid I can't quite agree with you on that" means "I shall fight to the death to prevent you achieving your aims."'

The same applies in publishing. Once, years ago, when I was still working through an agent, I typed out on one side of a sheet of paper a least of key terms which I would require from a publisher if the publisher and I were to do a deal on a proposed book. I showed this sheet of paper to my then agent.

The agent was one of the most tactful and discreet people that I have ever met in my life. She read the note, and for a second a frown almost crossed her face. Then she said quietly, 'You know, Michael, publishing is a very friendly business.'

What she meant by that was, 'Don't try to be too brisk and businesslike, because it won't go down well.' And she was right, of course.

In dealing with British publishers it is bad form to be businesslike. What happens is that, if your agent puts in a great deal of hard work, you eventually get to have lunch with an editor. Lunch, please note, not a meeting. When attending this lunch you do not present the editor with an agenda for discussion. Dear me, no. What happens is that you have a pleasant time talking about all sorts of things, and if all goes well both sides emerge with a nice warm feeling and a vague understanding that it might be possible, in due course, to do a book together.

The paperwork, if it ever arrives, may well include, in the small print, a number of clauses which a thoughtful and well informed writer might feel inclined to question. But if you do, you will be told in rather hurt tones that, 'Those are our standard terms, I'm afraid, and we really couldn't vary those.'

The only sensible response to that statement is: Why the bloody hell not? What's so holy about 'standard terms'?

Mind you, an experienced writer soon realises that, in at least 95 cases out of 100, a publishing contract isn't worth the paper it's written on. For example, the contract will normally call for the book to be published within 12 months of signature. But supposing 13 or 14 months go by, and the book has not yet appeared in print (not an unusual occurrence). What are you going to do then -- take your book away and offer it to someone else? I hardly think so.

The trouble with British publishing, in short, is that everyone is too damn nice. Particularly the authors. A little hard-nosed business acumen would not go amiss. The Times on Saturday quotes the general secretary of the Society of Authors as saying 'Individually, authors like the staff at Penguin and they're reluctant on their own to make too much of a meal of it.'

See what I mean? They're reluctant to make much of it because they know that a writer who asks too many awkward questions soon gets labelled as 'difficult'. And it is but a short step from being labelled 'difficult' to being labelled 'Not wanted on Voyage'.

And so, as far as the Penguin warehouse nonsense is concerned, it is not at all the done thing to enquire who, by name, is responsible for this debacle. And who, by name, has been sacked for it. After all, everyone makes mistakes.

Friday, October 22, 2004

Booker and all that

You are probably aware that, on Wednesday evening last, a writer was handed a cheque for £50,000 -- and that, it has to be admitted, is a considerable sum of money. This particular cheque was handed to the winner of the Man Booker prize, which is (I think) the UK's largest prize for writers.

The Man Booker prize goes exclusively to literary novels; science fiction, crime, fantasy and romance are not normally considered by the judges, though there are exceptions: Harry Potter got on the short list one year.

Is it my imagination, or did the whole thing get less coverage than usual this year? Maybe it's just me not bothering to read about it, because the entire enterprise is, I have to say, a matter of complete indifference to me. Long years of experience have proved that I do not usually enjoy literary novels. But the whole Booker business did seem to be rather more low-key than usual this year.

As for the winner, Alan Hollinghurst's The Line of Beauty, even the literary editor of the Times didn't like it much, claiming that Colm Toibin's The Master was infinitely superior.

Well, that's as maybe. I doubt whether I would enjoy either of them.

It is worth noting here, however, that the other genres also have their prizes. The Crime Writers' Association award 'Daggers' of varying quality, and the top prize comes with a cheque for £3000. Similarly the Romantic Novelists' Association gives an annual prize for the best romantic novel of the year (or it used to -- the web site looks a bit out of date). And the British Science Fiction Association likewise selects a 'best novel' of the year. If you're looking for something to read in one or other of these genres, the various short lists form a good place to start.

Regrettably, none of these otherwise healthy genres can compete with the Booker in terms of publicity, and the chief reason for that is no doubt the relative size of their prizes. If only their management committees could rustle up a sponsor who was prepared to offer £50,000 a year for five years or so, perhaps they too could feature on BBC2.

Meanwhile, I hold the view that someone ought to organise an Alternative Booker Prize. After all, there was an Alternative Miss World contest at one point: it was for transvestites, as I recall, and seems to have been rather more fun than the real thing. Perhaps the same might be true of an alternative Booker.

Here are some suggestions for the rules. Entry should be restricted to mss which come accompanied by at least 40 letters of rejection from publishers and agents. Only the first 10 pages may be submitted (more being entirely superfluous, as any slush-pile reader knows). Entries to be posted on a web site somewhere. And voting to be by popular acclaim. The prize would probably have to be the sheer fame and glory.

The winner, I suspect, might be at least as interesting as some of the books entered for the real thing.

By the way, I am two thirds of the way through Neal Stephenson's The System of the World (part three of his Baroque trilogy). And the idea that there is, somewhere on the Booker short list, a novel which is even half as bold, interesting, inventive, scholarly, funny, and just all-round entertaining, is, I fear, too silly to be worth discussing.

And no, I am not about to labour my way through the Booker short list in order to verify my confident assertion. But thank you for making the suggestion. Should you wish to make a comparison yourself, Uncle Ted Smart will sell you all six of the Booker short list for a mere £30.

Thursday, October 21, 2004

Bargains for some

The Book People is the name of a bookselling operation run in the UK by one Ted Smart -- and a very smart fellow he is.

Ted Smart operates like this. He buys books cheap (and more of that in a minute). Then he organises a team of agents who take 20 or 30 sample copies and deliver them to an office, or a factory, or a dentist's surgery. People who work in or visit the office or whatever can then look at these sample copies, decided if they want to buy an unmarked copy of same, and put their name on a list. After a week or so, the agent comes back, collects the sample copies, and goes off to collect sufficient supplies of the books ordered. A few days later he delivers them and collects the payment.

There are no shops involved anywhere in this enterprise, and, although there is a web site and there are newspaper advertisements, I suspect that the bulk of business is found through agents, as described above.

The main point of the operation is that books are available to readers dirt cheap. As far as the book buyer is concerned they are getting genuine bargains.

Bearing all this in mind, let us have a look at The Book People's Christmas catalogue. If you live in the UK and you haven't seen one yet, don't worry, you will before long. It will drop out of a newspaper or a magazine, or perhaps even come to you through the post.

Many of the early pages deal with kids' stuff, because it is a Christmas catalogue after all. But a few pages on we find, for instance, the Times Atlas of the World available for £15. The recommended retail price (RRP) is £75. A page or two later we have Being Jordan (a recent big seller) for £6.99, while the RRP is £16.99. And further on still you can buy a bumper bundle: 10 paperback novels, with a total RRP of £69.90, all yours for £9.99. The books are not recent issues, but they are by respectable names.

I repeat: for the buyer, these are bargains. The paperback bundle of 10 includes, for instance, works by Beryl Bainbridge, Iain Banks, Jane Gardam, and Christopher Brookmyre.

I think we can also assume that Mr Smart has done his arithmetic properly, and that he is earning a decent profit on each sale. And nobody has put a gun to the publishers' heads, so they are not unhappy either. Customer, Ted Smart, and publisher, they are all smiling.

But what, I find myself asking (and not for the first time), what of the poor bloody author? How does he/she fare in this enterprise?

In his FT survey of the book trade which I mentioned yesterday, John Sutherland describes The Book People with admiration, and states that Ted Smart 'buys titles in bulk, at up to 60% discount.' What does that mean?

Well, I would expect it to mean that, if the RRP of a book is £10, Ted Smart buys it at a discount of 60% of that figure, i.e. he pays £4 for it. Which would presumably enable him to sell it at say £6, which is a heavily reduced price from the customer's point of view.

However, even a few moments' contemplation of the figures that I have quoted from the Christmas catalogue show that this is obvious nonsense. If Ted Smart was buying the Times Atlas at a 60% discount he would be paying £30 for it. But he is selling it for £15. As for the paperbacks, 60% off the RRP would give Smart a cost of just under £28, but he is selling the whole package of 10 for £9.99.

So, it follows with inexorable logic that, on average, Ted Smart is negotiating a whole lot more than 60% discount. I can see no reason to suppose that any of the examples that I have given are loss leaders, so let us examine the arithmetic of the novel package more closely.

The buyer pays £9.99, and carriage is extra. I will ignore carriage, though Ted Smart may well arrange things so that he makes a turn on that income too; quite a few booksellers do. We will just look at the money paid for the books.

How much of that £9.99 do you think Ted Smart has paid for the books, and how much is gross profit for his company? Well, it's anybody's guess, but if you told me that the deal was costed at 50/50 I wouldn't be surprised. In that case, The Book People would be paying the publishers £5. For our present purposes, let us err on the publishers' side, and assume that the split is two thirds and one third. In other words, the publishers get £6.66 per package, give or take a penny. Since there are 10 books in the package, that means that each publisher, on average, gets 67 pence per book. (And, as suggested, it could be less.)

How much of that 67 pence goes to the author, do you imagine?

The answer, of course, is that everything depends on the contract. But it sure as hell isn't going to be very much. For a start, 67p probably doesn't even cover the cost of printing the book, though the actual unit cost will depend on how many were printed in the first place. Long runs result in lower unit costs.

I have just had a look at Publishing Agreements (now edited by Charles Clark and Lynette Owen). Publishing Agreements is the standard UK reference book on publishing contracts. I don't have a bang up to date edition, but terms for authors have generally got worse in recent years, so my 1993 edition is probably a fair guide.

What it says there, in the 'model' contract between publisher and author, is that, one year after a book has appeared, the publisher shall have the right to dispose of copies as a remainder or overstock. If the price obtained is more than the cost of production, the author will get 10% of the proceeds. So, with enormous good fortune, a writer whose book is included in Ted Smart's 'bargain bundle' may get as much as 6p or 7p per book.

However, it is much more likely, I suspect, that the 67p obtained by the publisher is less than the cost of production. And what does the 'model' contract say about that? It says 'On disposal of stock at or below the cost of production, no royalty shall be payable.'

So the author gets Zero. Zilch. Nothing.

All you budding authors out there have been warned.

Wednesday, October 20, 2004

University enterprise: erotic writing

The UK universities may well be handing out PhD degrees as if they were green stamps (see Tuesday), but never let it be said that they are not enterprising.

Today's email brings news of a seminar in erotic writing. Crystal Clear Creators in association with the Department of English and Drama at Loughborough University (UK) are offering an opportunity to meet 'trend-setting author and anthologist Mitzi Szereto'. She is giving a one of her popular erotic writing workshops at the Creative Writing Day School on Saturday 30 October. The cost is a very modest £5.

For details, contact Dr. Jonathan Taylor:, or Robin Webber-Jones:

And if you want to know more about the lovely Mitzi, you can find lots of interviews with her on the web.

Sutherland's view

While I was off sick, Professor John Sutherland wrote a piece in the Financial Times magazine (9 October) about the state of the British book trade. (It's hard to get at FT stuff on the web unless you subscribe, so no link here.) Sutherland's article was essentially a review of a book by Eric de Bellaigue called British Book Publishing as a Business since the 1960s, plus a few recent bestsellers.

Sutherland describes the UK book trade as 'extraordinarily successful' on the grounds that it generates some £4bn a year.

Well, first of all, it is hard to find accurate figures about book-trade income, and I think the £4bn figure may be a little high. But even if we accept it, it doesn't mean that the trade is 'extraordinarily successful'. The British public spends about £11bn a year on lawyers' fees, and £10bn a year on the care of old people, and we don't normally regard those commercial enterprises as whizz-bang successes.

If we assume that publishers receive approximately half of what is paid into the bookshop tills, then publishers are generating about £2bn a year. This is rather less than the public spends on supermarket chicken.

Furthermore, Sutherland claims that 'every year the money turnover of the trade enlarges healthily.' I doubt whether this is true, at least as far as publishers are concerned, and after adjustments for inflation. Publishers are being squeezed hard, both by the high-street bookselling chains and, especially, by the supermarkets.

A few years ago, the Bookseller published an article listing typical profit margins in various fields of publishing. The term ‘profit margin’ can of course mean almost anything, but we will assume that on this occasion like was being compared with like. For business books, the average figure was 17.2%; for scientific publishing, 29.3%; and for consumer (trade) publishing 4.1%.

In other words, the part of publishing which makes the least money is the flashy part that everyone hears about: the big biographies and the Booker-winning novels. But since this is a world in which (as was reported on Monday) an editor can cheerfully pay £600,000 for a pair of books by Greg Dyke and Jon Snow, who can be surprised by the lack of profit?

Your attitude all depends how you look at things, I suppose. The good Prof may well see the book trade as bursting with health (at least for the moment; he has doubts about the future). Personally, when I look at it, it often strikes me as being sick unto death. Sometimes it looks as if the only signs of life are in the small firms. And long may they flourish.

Tuesday, October 19, 2004

Dumbing down in creative writing

Well, you learn something new every day.

Yesterday's (better class) newspapers and television screens were full of a new set of proposals for transforming the examination procedures for young people who are about to leave British schools. In many instances, soon to be 50%, such young people will go on to university -- or what passes for a university in this day and age.

Some newspapers also carry reports that the bosses of British industry are less than thrilled with the new proposals, and would much rather that reform efforts were concentrated on a few simple objectives. Such as making sure that all school-leavers can read, write, spell, punctuate, and handle simple arithmetic. At present, one third of UK companies are forced to run their own remedial courses in numeracy and literacy for the young people who join them straight from school.

It really does beggar belief that, in the year 2004, we still have not managed to achieve something that seemed within our grasp a hundred years ago. What is worse, it is not merely the below-100-IQ group which suffers from these shortcomings. It is now quite common to receive a letter from a 'professional' person, such as an estate agent or even a solicitor, which is, in effect, no more than a jumble of words. I have sometimes received letters from such persons which, with the best will in the world, I could only classify as the outpourings of an illiterate moron.

Is it any wonder that people of my age conclude that the world in general, and the UK in particular, is going down the toilet tube at a rapid rate of knots? What is more, we are dead right in that conclusion.

It is in that depressing context that I turn to my main topic, which is the award of PhD degrees for so-called 'creative writing'. A few minutes ago I did a search for creative-writing courses at UK universities, and came up with 422 of them. Most of these are undergraduate courses, but I have also learnt, from the press, that it is now far from unknown for PhD degrees to be awarded in this subject.

I am not going to give links to the precise press stories which brought this revelation to me. If I did so, I might be thought to be criticising one particular individual, and that is not my intention. If an opportunity exists, and an enterprising lad takes advantage of it, good luck to him. But I do wish to comment on the general state of affairs.

According to one source, who is an academic at the University of London, and presumably knows what he is talking about, the standard practice for PhDs in creative writing 'is that the student submits an example of his/her creative writing [such as a novel], together with a critical commentary upon his/her writing practice.' The regulations at one university stipulate an upper limit of 15,000 words on this critical commentary.

The only other requirement is that the applicant must submit to an oral examination on his/her work.

Let me declare an interest. I myself have a PhD, in education. It was awarded by a university with rather high academic standards. If you want to read a version of my thesis, intended for the general reader, hunt down a copy of The Goals of Universities (ISBN 0 335 09504 6), published by the Open University Press in 1988.

The traditional route to taking a PhD at a UK university of any standing is to undertake three years of full-time study, under the supervision of a recognised authority in your chosen field. During those years you are expected to complete an original piece of research, and to write up your findings in the form of a thesis. Often, three years is not enough time to complete the work, and many students finish off their theses in years four and five, while earning their living somewhere else. In other words, a PhD is a formidable piece of work, not to be tackled lightly. Many a student has abandoned halfway through, or taken to the drink, or found that his wife has left him.

If you compare the traditional route to a PhD, as described above, with the procedure for obtaining a PhD in creative writing, also described above, even the layman can see that there is no comparison whatever. And it so happens that I am in a position to make a very detailed comparison indeed, because I am both the holder of a 'traditional' PhD and the author of a good many published novels.

Most of my novels were written while I was in full-time employment, and I kept records of the amount of time I spent on them. On average, a novel took me somewhere between 200 and 300 hours, an amount of time which can easily be found in the evenings and at weekends, if one happens to be interested in writing a novel. So, to get a PhD at a former polytechnic, now labelled a university, you need to put in about 250 hours on a novel, let's say another 50 hours on the critical commentary, and there you are.

The idea that such an enterprise compares with a traditional PhD, involving original research, is patently ridiculous. The amount of labour involved in the two different routes to the 'same' degree is not commensurate; and neither -- I can testify from experience of both -- is the intellectual grasp required.

What we have in a typical UK PhD in creative writing is therefore a dumbing down of intellectual and academic standards. I for one find that highly objectionable.

Not only is it objectionable but it is also patently ridiculous. What are you going to do with a PhD in creative writing anyway, once you've got it? Do you seriously imagine it's going to impress a publisher? The only thing that it's good for (so far as I can see) is helping you to get a job teaching creative writing. And then you can help lots of other people to get useless degrees in creative writing as well. And so the cycle of madness continues.

Monday, October 18, 2004

Resumption of duties

Well, I'm back. More or less. Not yet firing on all four cylinders, but breathing. Meanwhile what has been going on?

A quick scan through the last page or two of book2book reveals that, while I've been hors de combat, some of our old favourites have cropped up once more.

W.H. Smith has been losing money again, and Tim Waterstone is thinking of putting in a bid for the company. So, it's been business as usual in both those quarters then.

The Frankfurt Book Fair normally generates a few stories about unknown authors who have produced works of staggering genius which have generated 'bidding frenzies' among publishers who just have to have the book for their list. The story I noticed this year is about Stuart Hill who (as usual in these cases) failed his 11-plus exam. His book has been bought by Barry Cunningham, who was the sole editor in London to have the gumption to buy the first Harry Potter book, though even he had absolutely no idea how big Harry was going to get.

The Independent tells us that Mr Hill's book 'looks set to become next year's hottest seller when it hits the bookshops in January.' Well, excuse me for pointing this out, but the book trade goes dead in January, after the Christmas peak, and if you throw enough publicity money at a book at that time it isn't too difficult to make an impression on the charts.

What else? Oh yes, there's a bloody great bitchy row at HarperCollins (or so the Guardian alleges) about -- of all unimaginable things -- books which aren't selling.

Dear me. The story is worth reading for all its glorious in-fighting detail. Basically, there are three superwomen involved, all of them convinced that they know how to find the supersellers which are needed for survival in today's book trade, and all of them -- ahem -- subject to criticism (from men, who would have believed it?) for not delivering what they promised.

Caroline Michel, for instance, has spent lots of money on books by the like of Jeannette Winterson, Greg Dyke and Jon Snow, and they just aren't doing very well. Hard to credit, isn't it? So her boss, Amanda Ridout, is less than pleased, and the overall boss lady of the entire shooting match, Victoria Barnsley, is said to be 'slightly disengaged from what is going on.'

Well, it can't be more than a week or two since I pointed out in these very columns that (a) today's editors are desperate to find the big sellers, and (b) they haven't the faintest idea how to do it. So they thrash around, throwing money at projects and making sacrifices to the gods. Small wonder that the strategy doesn't always succeed.

That's quite enough of all that nonsense. What of the actual books which are worth reading?

Well, Terry Pratchett has a new book out, Going Postal, and there can't be all that much wrong with the world in a week when that happens.

The local library, meanwhile, tells me that they have lots of stuff waiting for me, and with a bit of luck most of it will be a damn sight more rewarding than reading about the chaotic state of the British book trade -- a trade which, as all experienced observers have long since noted, is far beyond anyone's help or understanding.

Monday, October 11, 2004

Problems with posts

Posts this week my be irregular, short, or even non-existent, as I have the flu.

That's the bad news. The good news is that Amazon last week delivered my copy of Neal Stephenson's The System of the World, which should entertain me as and when I recover.

Friday, October 08, 2004

Nearly out of date topics (2)

Continuing yesterday's clear-up of a few overdue topics....

Also in May, the New Yorker ran a story about how literary bloggers sometimes end up with a book contract. The general tone of the piece suggested that getting yourself a book contract was a highly desirable end, whereas clear thinkers know otherwise, but never mind. The article was not without interest.

According to the New Yorker, the person chiefly responsible for this trend towards bloggers graduating (so to speak) to books is Kate Lee, a twenty-seven-year old assistant at International Creative Management (aka ICM). ICM, in case you don't know, is a major talent and literary agency. (Don't call them, by the way. They will call you, if they're interested, which is most unlikely. Their unsolicited submissions policy is as comprehensive and brutal an elaboration of the instruction 'Fuck off and stop wasting our time' as I have ever read anywhere.

Anyway, it turns out that the lovely Kate Lee (who is doubtless delightful but who appears, bless her heart, to be no more than somebody's gofer) spends a while each morning scanning the blogs in the hope of finding some potential literary talent. She does not so much read, says the New Yorker, as 'prospect, sifting through sloppy thinking, bad grammar, and blind self-indulgence for moments of actual good writing.' See, they've got real high standards at ICM.

When she finds any 'good writing', Kate sends the author an email to make contact. 'Most writers are not getting published,' says Kate. Well you're dead right there, darling. 'For people that don't have connections, blogs can be an entry way into the game.' Some game. And connections are a way in, are they? Interesting how minds work at ICM.

Funnily enough, some of the people who are approached in this way are not very responsive to Kate's enquiry. She gets the email equivalent of a blank stare. What ungrateful beasts these bloggers are!

However, what really struck me was as the joke of the month, and highly revealing of young Kate's thinking, was the final quote from her. 'I've started working with a couple of graduates from the Iowa Writers' Workshop,' she says. 'It's very exciting. They're interesting writers -- with training, and degrees to show for it.'

Oh, my goodness me. Now hear this, o ye dearly beloved. I spent nearly thirty years working in the university world, and I have three degrees of my own, including a PhD. And I am here to tell you, unequivocally, that possession of a degree certificate, in any subject, is, in and of itself, absolutely meaningless.

I once had a dear friend (now deceased) who was a student counsellor. Her name was Delia. Delia's job was to give comfort to those who had been wounded by the educational experience. She once told me (without naming names, of course) that she was advising a young woman of 25. This person had three degrees too, just like me, and had spent her entire life, so far, being educated. And what was the young lady's problem? She felt that she was totally unfitted for the real world. She felt useless. 'And do you know what's so awful?' Delia asked me. 'This girl is absolutely right! She is useless.'

So, you won't find me being dazzled by the fact that X or Y has a degree in creative writing from Iowa. In fact, my lip may very well curl into what could be mistaken, from a distance, for a sneer. Furthermore, I have to report that the Iowa writers workshop is not without its critics (see Yardley goes mental).

Another blogger (Concho -- post headed My apostasy) actually took the course at Iowa, and now has this to say: 'I think everything I learnt at Iowa is wrong.... I have sent Song of Roland to about 40 agents by now and found no takers. It is exactly the sort of earnest, character-driven fiction that I learned to write at grad school, and while plenty of those in the biz admired its execution, no one loved it. They got bogged down and bored with all the serious sadness. In the end, no one gave a shit.' (And, although I hate to be discouraging, I cannot say that I am remotely surprised.)

So, whatever else may be said about the U of Iowa, it does seem to produce some very serious literary writers. And whether the work produced by such 'trained writers' is something that ICM will feel able to sell is very much open to question.

Why not have a look at the U of Iowa program and decide on its value for yourself? You could even sign up for the course. It will only cost you two years of your life and an unspecified amount in fees and subsistence, and then you will emerge with a Master of Fine Arts degree. Which will impress the Kate Lees of this world no end.

Thursday, October 07, 2004

Nearly out of date topics (1)

I keep a file of press cuttings and jottings -- notes about stuff which could in principle form the topic of a post on this blog; and, as you would expect, I have more items in the file than I have time to deal with. So today and tomorrow I will mention a couple of things which are likely to disappear from the web soon if I'm not careful.

First, a piece by Lawrence Block which appeared in the Village Voice back in May. Block is the author of a great many crime novels, and he reports on his experiences in signing copies for fans -- a process which seems to take him just as long as writing the book did.

Block makes the point that signed books are now all the rage. Customers much prefer to buy a signed copy, not least because they can sometimes immediately sell it to a collector for a premium. A customer turns up at the bookshop, gets the author to sign three copies -- 'just the signature please', because if the author writes a dedication 'To Jane', in addition to signing, that will reduce the value of the book. And then the 'fans' flog the three copies on ebay or whatever.

In 1998, Block was sitting in a bookshop, signing copies of his latest, when he was faced with a couple of dealers who brought in several cartons of his old books and asked him to sign them. Free of charge. So now he has a policy: for every copy of the new novel that you buy on the day, he will sign three old ones. In 1999, says Block, one man cheerfully paid for 18 (signed) copies of The Burglar in the Rye and in return Block signed 53 copies of his old stuff. Everybody was happy: dealer, author, and bookseller.

There is at least one UK bookseller, Post Mortem Books, which specialises in signed copies and not much else as far as I can see. And I learn from their site that Waterstones are selling a limited (and signed) slipcased edition of Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell.

And finally, I have a scribbled note in my file which tells me that James Ellroy signed 65,000 copies of the UK hardback edition of The Cold Six Thousand. Can this be true? It very well may be, because not so long ago I bought a copy of that novel, at a remaindered price, and that one was certainly signed.

Oh, and one other thing. This is a story which works better when told orally, with the appropriate Australian accent, but I'll tell it anyway.

It is said that, many years ago, Daphne Du Maurier was signing books in an Australian shop. Business was not brisk, but occasionally someone would wander over and say, 'Could you sign it to Jenny Smith, please?' And then, naturally, the long-suffering Daphne would dedicate the book appropriately.

Late in the afternoon one woman approached and without any preliminaries said firmly, 'Emma Chisett.'

So Daphne wrote on the title page: 'To Emma Chisett', and signed.

The woman looked at what she had written and frowned darkly.

'Nao, nao,' she said (in a thick Australian accent, remember). 'Not Emma Chisett. How much is it?'

Wednesday, October 06, 2004

How weird are writers anyway?

Now here's an interesting question. Well it interests me, anyway.

The two posts earlier this week about seriously disturbed writers have led me to wonder, not for the first time, just how mentally disturbed the rest of us really are. Us writers, I mean. In other words, are writers really insane, or just a little bit weird?

There is at least one piece of research which demonstrates that some (British) writers have a higher than average chance of being mentally ill. The research was carried out by Kay Jamison, Professor of Psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. Her study showed that 38% of a group of eminent British 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, as you will have guessed, are many times higher than in the population at large.

Of course, the Jamison research was just one study, and it may not be truly representative. But I have observed, over the years, that writers are not always the most stable and rational of people. More specifically, I have been wondering this week whether writers might have an obsessive/compulsive disorder (OCD). In other words, do they keep on doing something, time and time again, which normal people would recognise as futile?

In order to find an answer to this specific question I sought, and found, references to obsessive/compulsive disorder on the web. Without too much trouble I discovered a site which told me that the obsessive/compulsive fraternity (and sorority) display the following characteristics, among others. OCD people are:

concerned with details;
excessively devoted to work and productivity to the exclusion of leisure activities;
inflexible on matters of morality (for which read 'artistic integrity');
unable to discard worthless objects (e.g. that manuscript which has been rejected 43 times);
and they are stubborn (for which read 'continue to write when all the available evidence suggests that they are going to get absolutely nowhere').

Does any of this ring any bells? It certainly did with me, especially as I have other obsessive/compulsive traits as well. Specifically, I often go back and check (again) that I've locked the back door and turned off the gas, and I worry about causing harm to a loved one through carelessness on my part.

So, thoroughly alarmed by now, I took a little test to determine whether I suffer from OCD or not.

Relief. It turns out that I have a score of 4 on this test, which indicates that 'OCD is unlikely'. So that's all right then. I'm not really mad. Just a little bit peculiar.

Tuesday, October 05, 2004

Ross and Tom: 2, Tom

Continued from yesterday….

Tom Heggen was, on the face of it, a much tougher and more street-wise character than Ross Lockridge. After college, where he did lots of journalism, Tom served in the Navy during the second world war, and you can’t spend a few years in the Navy without learning a little bit about life. (One former boss of mine told me that, during the war, he had been the only man on his ship who had never had a dose of the clap.)

With the war over, Tom began to put together some stories, based on his shipboard experiences, and he too found an enthusiastic publisher in Houghton Mifflin. The publisher came up with the title Mister Roberts, since Roberts was the character who linked the stories together.

Very early on in his relationship with Houghton Mifflin, however, Tom became aware of a circumstance which was to cause him endless trouble: the publisher viewed his first book as just that – the first in a series of novels. ‘Publishers are insatiable,’ Houghton’s editor-in-chief wrote to him, ‘and I am already beginning to think of the book that will follow Mister Roberts.’

Tom was thinking about it too, but he could not get started. ‘Honest to God,’ he told a friend, ‘I don’t know what to write.’

Mister Roberts was well received when it first came out, and before long the idea of adapting the book for the stage was raised. After a false start, Tom eventually formed a working partnership with Joshua Logan, who was then a highly prestigious and successful theatre director.

While Tom was trying to convert Mister Roberts into a stage play, in collaboration with Joshua Logan, he was still trying to write novel number two. But he couldn’t write and he couldn't sleep, and was prescribed fast-acting barbiturates as a cure. However, even Seconal did not work and he tended to drink his way into unconsciousness. He was only five feet eight to begin with, and he soon lost weight.

When finished, the stage version of Mister Roberts proved to be smash hit on Broadway. There was so much laughter during the last rehearsal that it added twenty minutes to the running time. Emlyn Williams (of all people) was drafted in to make some cuts, which he managed to do without damage.

Being the author of a Broadway hit meant that, like Ross Lockridge before him, Tom Heggen became rich and famous. Attractive women formed an orderly queue outside his bedroom door. He was earning $2,000 a week from the play, at a time when that was serious money.

But there were still some huge creative problems. Tom found that, as a writer, he had become dependent on the collaboration with Joshua Logan. His creative juices just did not flow without help. ‘I don’t know how I wrote Mister Roberts,’ he told a friend. It was spirit writing.’ And Joshua Logan, of course, had other fish to fry.

Tom tried psychoanalysis; and he was by now addicted to barbiturates, using twenty a day, on top of copious amounts of booze. He knew that he was doing himself irreversible damage.

On Wednesday 18 May 1949, Tom Heggen’s cleaning lady found him dead in the bath. The cause of death was described by the Medical Examiner as ‘Submersion in fresh water in bathtub. Probable suicide.’

As with Ross Lockridge, there really isn’t any doubt that Tom Heggen committed suicide. But even if we were to accept that either of these writers died by accident, the fact is that they were both dead men walking around like zombies. They had risen to dizzy heights. They each yearned to write another book. But neither of them knew how to do it. Success and all that goes with it had destroyed them completely.

Now –

What are we to make of these two grisly stories? They are such horrible case histories, so depressing to read about, that I wonder how and why I managed to read John Leggett's book about them. I suppose the answer to that conundrum is that the book confirms, with dramatic force, my long-held view that the ambition to be a writer can seriously damage your health. And in extreme cases it can even kill you. Hell, I even wrote a book about it: The Truth about Writing.

I defy anybody to read John Leggett’s Ross and Tom and tell me that they seriously want to be a famous writer. The dangers and disadvantages are great. And as for the rewards – well, they tend to be both brief and illusory.

Ah, you say, but if I was a big success I wouldn’t suffer the fate of Ross and Tom. I could cope better than they did.

Possibly. But I have to say that the recipe for disaster is a combination of factors which are really quite common.

To suffer the fate of Ross and Tom you need to be:

(i) wildly and absurdly ambitious;
(ii) the author of a first novel which makes heavy use of autobiographical material.

Ross Lockridge also had a head full of romantic nonsense about artistic integrity and writing the Great American Novel, which is again very common.

Those simple factors are all that’s required for you to become another book-world casualty.

If you are unlucky enough to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, you too could end up with a number-one bestseller, a Hollywood film contract, lots of new friends, and a score of people hammering on the door and demanding that you repeat the trick. And that you go on repeating it for the next twenty years. And yet you have no idea how you did it the first time, and certainly no idea how to do it again.

Oh, and one other thing is needed if you are to become an enormous success. You have to be the one person in a million or so whom the gods of the book world choose to honour with their favours. ‘As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods; they kill us for their sport.’

Let us hope that you escape that fate. The next time you get a rejection slip, try to think of it as a merciful release.

Monday, October 04, 2004

Ross and Tom: 1, Ross

Ross and Tom is the title of a book by John Leggett; its subtitle is ‘two American tragedies’, and for once the use of the word tragedy may be legitimate.

The Ross and Tom of the title were Ross Lockridge and Thomas Heggen. Leggett’s account of their lives, and deaths, first appeared in 1974, but was reissued in 2000. I have known of the book for years, but have only recently read it.

In brief, Ross and Tom were two young novelists. In the few years which followed the second world war, both young men enjoyed enormous success with their first books: they became rich and famous. But neither man could cope with the fame and the fortune; worse, they were under constant pressure to write another book, and they didn’t know how to do it. In the end, Ross and Tom cracked under the strain, and they both committed suicide, though in each case their families, naturally, tried to convince themselves that the death was accidental.

Today we will consider briefly the life of Ross Lockridge, and tomorrow that of Thomas Heggen.

Ross grew up in Bloomington Indiana, and, although it was the seat of Indiana University, Bloomington seems to have bred a small-town mentality in its young people. Above all, it appears to me that Ross Lockridge’s educators failed him. He was a brilliant student at school, but his brilliance seems to have resided mainly in an ability to absorb facts and to regurgitate them in the form required by his teachers. No one, apparently, thought it important that he should learn to think for himself, or that he should question the received wisdom about anything. Despite all his ‘brilliance’, Ross seems to have been incapable of original thought.

In 1933, Ross was one of many University of Delaware students who went on a junior-year-abroad program. His group went to Paris. And what did Ross do in a year in Paris? He got drunk – once. He got laid – once, when an American girl dragged him off to bed. He did not visit any of the nude shows for which Paris was famous; he did not haunt the jazz clubs; and, curiously for a man who had already declared some intention of becoming a famous writer and producing the Great American Novel (God help us all), he made no attempt whatever to mix with any of the literary personalities who were then to be found hanging around Parisian cafes.

What Ross Lockridge mainly did in Paris was stay in his room and read his college books. And at the end of the year he came out top. He was the leading scholar among all the étudiants étrangers.

What did he do then? Did he set out to explore Europe, as any reasonably enterprising person would? No, he just got right back on the first available boat and went home to Mom.

It is no exaggeration to say that, by page 55 of Leggett’s 200-page account of Ross’s life, I could already see how this kid was doomed. He had absorbed every half-baked piece of nonsense about ‘great literature’ that the American liberal-arts education could provide. And he had decided that he too wanted to make a giant contribution to ‘literature’. This foolish and ill-judged ambition would eventually kill him.

Ross Lockridge went on earn his living as a college lecturer, and in his spare time he worked on his intended masterpiece, Raintree County.

The book was based very largely on his own family history; it was heavy with symbolism; and it was long. Boy, was it ever long. Even the published version runs to 1066 pages. The manuscript contained 600,000 words, which is approximately ten times the length of Ian Fleming’s first James Bond novel (which would be published just five years later).

Perhaps the worst thing that could have happened to Ross Lockridge was that this bizarre monster should find a publisher. But it did: Houghton Mifflin, a well respected Boston firm. The publisher wanted changes to the text – not surprisingly – and Ross was greatly anguished over ‘compromising his integrity’; but he did it.

Then, even before the book was published, he won a major and highly prestigious prize, offered by MGM, which involved sale of the film rights for a huge sum of money. But MGM also wanted changes – not surprisingly – and once again the young author had to face the enormous labour of reducing this vast manuscript to a more manageable shape.

And then thirdly the Book of the Month Club wanted his novel, but only if he would make further changes. And so on. And on, and on.

In short, over a period of many years, Ross Lockridge invested a massive amount of time and emotional energy in producing a huge book. This effort was rewarded, in a sense, when the novel was finally published. He became famous – at any rate insofar as any writer can be said to be truly famous. And he had bucketfuls of money emptied over his head.

But there was just one problem. Everyone wanted him to do another book. His publisher expected it. The readers expected it. The critics expected it. And Ross Lockridge knew that a writer ought to go on writing. But he simply didn’t know what to do next.

Ross’s life at this time is exhausting just to read about. It must have been impossible for anyone to try to live that life. By the time Raintree County was published, Ross Lockridge was completely burnt out, mentally and physically, and he was damn near certifiably insane.

When published, on 5 January 1948, the book was a critical and commercial success. It became, inevitably in view of all the publicity, a ‘bestseller’; it was eventually filmed with Elizabeth Taylor in a starring role. But on 6 March of that year Ross Lockridge killed himself with the fumes from his car exhaust.

This is not a very cheerful story, is it? And tomorrow there is more, if you can bear it: we will consider the parallel life of Tom Heggen. And after that we will see if any useful lessons can be learnt from these dreadful events.

Friday, October 01, 2004

Sol Stein: Solutions for Novelists

If you are thinking of writing a novel – an undertaking which I do not, incidentally, recommend – then you could do worse than read Solutions for Novelists by Sol Stein.

Solutions for Novelists was published in the UK in 1999, and is based on an earlier work, How to Grow a Novel. The UK edition is priced on the cover at £12.99, but I bought a copy in Wimborne market for £1, so it is presumably being remaindered.

The book’s subtitle is ‘Secrets of a master editor’ and Sol Stein certainly has a long history as a fiction editor of the first rank. He worked with James Baldwin, Jack Higgins, and Elia Kazan, among others. He is also the author of nine published novels and at least one play which was performed on Broadway in the 1950s. The novels, by the way, were written while he was head of a publishing firm which turned out an average of a hundred titles a year.

Stein defines a writer as 'someone who cannot not write'. This is a fair enough definition, but it is salutary, I believe, to consider the implications. What the definition means is that a writer is a person who is clearly deranged.

A writer is a person who cannot stop writing? What do we say about people who cannot stop stealing, or cannot stop eating too much, or cannot stop breaking the speed limit? We think they’re nuts, right? If not criminal or immoral, or both. And they are. But Stein trots out his definition of a writer as if belonging to this group of crackpots is something to be proud of. Well it ain’t.

Stein is dead right about many things but dead wrong (in my judgement) about others. For instance, he is right when he says that, in schools and universities, literature is examined more for structure and technique than for effect. And yet the emotional impact of the prose is what the whole business is about. Later Stein says that ‘in fiction, the supreme function is not to convey emotions but to create them in the reader.’ (His italics.) Exactly. Couldn’t put it plainer myself.

Stein is also right when he says that an agent is not going to be interested in your novel unless he is pretty sure that he can sell it fairly quickly for an advance of six figures. Anything less than that is a waste of the agent’s time. Simple arithmetic.

Now for what Sol Stein is wrong about. He quotes the author Erica Jong, apparently with approval, saying that you can make it as a writer ‘if you are relentlessly honest about what you feel and fear.’ This, I’m afraid, is total and complete cobblers. Being honest about what you feel and fear is absolutely no guarantee of success in writing. Conversely, someone who is willing to lie through their teeth about what they ‘feel and fear’ could perfectly well make it to the top without their dishonesty having the slightest impact one way or the other.

Stein is also wrong when he tells us that detailed, hands-on editing made Elia Kazan’s novel The Arrangement into a number-one bestseller. Stein worked with Kazan every day for five months, knocking the book into some sort of shape, and he is justifiably proud of that. But what made The Arrangement a big seller was the fact that it was written by a famous movie director with two Oscars to his name. This meant that every chat show in town was willing to have the author as a guest, and that the book got reviewed absolutely everywhere.

The Arrangement itself, frankly, was run-of-the-mill to dull. More than thirty years ago, when I was young and stupid (as opposed to being old and stupid, yes, I know), I bought a copy to try to figure out what had made it a success. Nowadays I wouldn’t bother. I would know that it was the factors mentioned above. But I’m afraid that I found the book quite unenthralling and never finished it. Its success remained a mystery to me until I learnt a lot more about how the book trade actually works.

On the whole, Solutions for Novelists is a useful and helpful book for anyone who is about to embark on the foolish enterprise of writing full-length fiction. In particular, anyone contemplating taking a one-year course in creative writing should abandon the idea and buy a few books like this one instead. A book such as this is a distillation of such wisdom as has been acquired in a lifetime of work, and that’s what books do best. That’s what they’re for.

Another thing that any as-yet-unpublished writer should consider is Sol Stein’s remarkable statement about the English thriller writer Jack Higgins. In case you haven’t been paying attention, let me remind you that Higgins hit the big time back in the 1970s with a novel called The Eagle Has Landed, and has gone on having big sellers ever since. Stein worked closely with Higgins on a number of books, and since Higgins didn’t like hotels he stayed in Stein’s home; so we must assume that Stein knows his facts. And what he tells us (page 79) is that, before his first big success, Higgins had twenty-four (that’s 24, folks) books published. I knew it was half a dozen but I didn’t know it was twenty-four.

Now just think about that for a minute. First of all, contemplate the amount of work involved; and the determination. And second, contemplate the implications. The implications are that Higgins was a pro. He had written lots of stuff before anyone took any notice of him. He knew how to make things work. But even when he became rich and famous he wasn’t above taking editing from a cunning old bastard like Sol Stein.

All in all, however, Stein makes the business of writing a novel seem extraordinarily complicated, to the extent that it may put some people off. But that’s not a bad thing because there are already far too many people writing novels as it is.