Monday, April 18, 2005

Weekend news

Here are a few bits and pieces that accumulated over the weekend.


One commenter on my posts about prizes, last week, asks whether anyone knows of a long-term bestselling author who first came to public attention through a contest.

Well, one who did was the English crime writer Peter Lovesey. Peter is not perhaps a household name, but he has had a long and successful career as a professional writer.

In 1969 Peter won a competition for a crime novel, organised by Macmillan, with a first prize of £1,000, which was more than his annual salary at the time. He won the prize, and the book, Wobble to Death, became the first in his long list of subsequent publications. He tells the story in his interview with Anne Perry.

Lust and Truth

The latest edition of the Cambridge University alumni magazine includes a Don's Diary column from Simon Blackburn, Professor of Philosophy. One of his recent books was entitled Lust -- part of a series on the Seven Deadly Sins (and it appears to have been published, I regret to report, by Oxford).

This book seems to have generated rather more popular interest than is generally accorded to a book on philosophy. When interviewed on Irish radio, the interviewer said, 'So, what you're saying to all our listeners is, if you're masturbating, that's all right?'

To which the Prof replied, 'Provided you're not driving.'

Sadly, the Prof found himself stumped for a reply when asked, 'Where do you stand on bestiality?' Surely the appropriate answer is 'To the rear of the animal.' Though I was once told by a farmer that, in the case of young calves, you can stand in front. However, you do have to make sure that the calf is not old enough to have grown any teeth. Otherwise I cannot answer for the consequences.

By the way, Simon Blackburn's next book is entitled Truth: A Guide for the Perplexed, but he says that he does not expect it to attract the same attention as Lust.

I don't see why not. After all, everyone is interested in the truth, aren't they? Apart from politicians, of course. And advertisers. And criminals. And... well, yes, come to think of it, probably very small sales indeed.

Inspiring reads

The Times is running another of its periodic book promotions, this time called Inspiring Reads. Details were in a little pamphlet which fell out of the newspaper on Saturday and can be found online.

This seems to be a variation on the cunning plan which was launched last year, and which I wrote about on 7 June. The promotion appears, superficially, to be a service to the reader, who is (a) given helpful suggestions about good books to read, and (b) offered the opportunity to buy them at the bargain price of 99p each in WH Smith's.

On closer examination, one realises that most, if not all, of the books are published by HarperCollins, or one of its subsidiaries. (I didn't check every one, but five chosen at random are by HC, who also advertise at the back of the pamphlet. This was also true last year.) And HarperCollins is, of course, part of the Murdoch empire, as is The Times.

The offer is also limited to those who buy a copy of The Times or one of its sister papers, and you can only buy the one book that is designated for that week.

So, what we actually have here is a device to shift some stagnant paperback stock that HC happen to have lying around the warehouse. The books listed were well received in their day, but are now, I suspect, right at the tail-end of the sales graph. The scheme is also a means of selling a few more newspapers, plus a device to lure customers into WHS on a slow day of the week -- a marketing device which WHS have undoubtedly paid for, and HC will have had to pay for too, in one way or another. The whole being dressed up as a worthy contribution to culcha.

I am not impressed. And I find myself thinking the same thought that I raised last year. What about the poor bloody authors of these books? How much are they going to get out of a book selling at 99p?

My guess is that such sales will be covered by the small print of their contract, and at best the author's income is likely to be 10% of the money received by the publisher. Let's be generous, and say that the publisher is able to sell these 99p retail books to WHS at 50p each, wholesale. So the author might get 10% of 50p = 5p a copy. At worst, these cut-price sales might be dealt with under the 'remainders and disposal of surplus stock' clause of the author's contract. In which case, since the stock is probably being disposed of at a figure below the cost of production, no royalty at all will be payable.

Everyone, in short, benefits from this enterprise except the people who actually write the books.

Why does this scenario feel so familiar?

More bullshit

The Sunday Times magazine section entitled Culture is often a mixed bag, containing lots of publicity puffs for new films et cetera, plus, occasionally, some good stuff, particularly on books. Yesterday's issue, for example, contained a long review of Harry G. Frankfurt's essay On Bullshit (which I referred to last week). Sadly, the review article doesn't seem to be available online, but it confirms that the essay will be well worth reading. And it's only 47 pages, so it can't take long.

One interesting little comment in the review is the statement that the philosopher Wittgenstein said that a verse of Longfellow's could serve as his motto: 'In the elder days of art/Builders wrought with greatest care/Each minute and unseen part,/For the Gods are everywhere.'

This echoes Seneca's story, which I quoted on 1 April, about a craftsman who was asked why he took so much trouble over something that would never reach more than a very few people. ‘A few is enough for me,’ said the craftsman. ‘So is one; so is none.’

Both verse and story are, I feel relevant to bloggers and to those who are finding publication difficult to achieve.

By the way, Bryan Appleyard's review of On Bullshit is not the only bit of the weekend papers that I can't find online. Saturday's Financial Times includes a magazine section which often carries reviews by (Professor) John Sutherland, and I might have referred to his latest review article if I'd been able to link to it.

Of course, failure to find these things may just be down to my incompetence. But I suspect it may be related to the fact that both Appleyard and Sutherland have declined to sign over their digital rights, preferring to give their work limited exposure at this time, and publish a collection of pieces in book form later. If so, it is interesting that some writers can insist on that. Time was when newspapers would not only want digital rights but the entire copyright of the piece as well.

Never had it so good

Another Sunday Times review, which is available online, is Godfrey Smith's take on Never Had It So Good, which is a history of Britain from Suez to the Beatles (i.e. 1956 to 1963, or thereabouts). The author of this history is Dominic Sandbrook.

Sandbrook's thesis, crudely stated, is that we have a grossly distorted view of what was actually happening in England in the 1950s and '60s. Looking back, we tend to see the sensational headlines (Profumo, Lady Chatterley, the Rolling Stones drug busts), and to ignore the fact that many things really did not change all that much. We tend to adopt what E.P. Thompson called 'the enormous condescension of posterity.'

This thesis is, I believe, wholly correct. What is more, the phenomenon is echoed in the history of literature. With knobs on. As I indicated in my two posts on the history of the short story, those who write the official accounts of what happened in literature, drama, and the arts, tend to be academics with a vested interest in emphasising the obscure, the difficult to understand, the highbrow, and the esoteric. The tastes of what might be termed 'ordinary people' are wholly ignored.

For details, see my post of 17 March, in which I compare the official view of developments in the theatre and the short story with what was actually happening in public taste.


Finally, the ST also has a review of a book by Dave Thompson entitled Cream: the World's First Supergroup. The book itself doesn't sound to be all that hot, but it contains the information that next month the original trio of talents are to play their first concerts together for 26 years. Now that really is pretty staggering.

Thompson says that Cream sounded as hairy as they looked, preferring 'unstructured jams' to the neatly groomed set-lists of other groups. Actually I think it was a bit more complicated than that. Jack Bruce had a grounding in classical music, and before getting into Cream (largely for the money) he and Ginger Baker had been playing free jazz in Soho. I saw a television interview with Jack recently in which he said that Cream was really playing free jazz, and that he and Ginger saw Eric Clapton as the Ornette Coleman of the group. They just didn't tell Eric that he was Ornette Coleman.


Jon Allen said...

Well the Times promotion persuaded
me to buy the paper on Monday
to get the free book "The diving Bell and the butterfly" by Jean Dominique.

The book came with the paperback
inside the plastic bag with the paper
and is marked Not for resale
with a large The Times logo on
the back. so it's not old stock
they had sitting around!

Amanda Mann said...

I, too, was looking for the bullshit article and couldn't find it. But I found YOU instead! It just goes to show, bullshit isn't always bullshit under another name.


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