Thursday, March 31, 2005

Patricia Ferguson kindly pointed out an article in the Independent on Sunday which highlighted the trials and tribulations of a writer called Patricia Ferguson.

Patricia is a past winner of the Somerset Maugham award and a Betty Trask prize. Neither of these is an easy thing to win, and to win two constitutes a considerable achievement. Unfortunately, such achievements apparently count for nothing among modern publishers, who examine only the sales figures. And, since the sales of Patricia's earlier books were not impressive, she couldn’t find a mainstream publisher for her new novel, It So Happens.

Eventually, after a two-year search, a small firm called Solidus proved willing to issue the book. And now, to the author’s surprise, It So Happens has been longlisted for the Orange prize.

Solidus is a very small publishing house which works through POD. The web site states that they ‘specialise in publishing the work of established authors who want to make a break from their usual subjects, or to experiment with different ways of writing. Many writers find that traditional publishers require them to repeat earlier success and write within the narrow confines of accepted genres. We want to encourage writers to follow their own paths and to allow them to reach readers who may not have met their work before.’

All of which is precisely what I warned you about a few days ago. Publishers want you (a) to sell lots of books, and (b) to do the same thing over and over. Fail to do either of these and you will lose out.

Meanwhile Patricia is now getting a new lease of life, and good luck to her.

Amanda Craig,who reviewed It So Happens in the New Statesman, is quoted as follows: ‘I'm furious that the book wasn't picked up by anyone else. It wasn't as if she didn't have a really good track record. The trouble with publishing is that with the accountants running things, everything is dominated by how much your last novel sold. For middle-aged, mid-list authors, the result is disastrous.’

So three cheers, says the Indie, for one tiny publisher who was prepared to take a risk. And I add a fourth cheer too.

Other writers who are looking for a publisher should note that the Solidus web site says that the firm is not currently reading new submissions. But no doubt there are other publishers. You just have to keep searching.

A note about comments

This blog makes use of facilities, and I have tried to set the Blogger options so as to make it as easy as possible for people to post comments.

I would like you to be aware that the Blogger system is set up so that, whenever someone posts a comment, I get a copy of it by email. You can later delete your own comment from the blog, if you wish, and the public will not be able to read it, but I will still have had the email.

If you expect me to reply, or hope that I will, probably your best plan is to send an email to me direct, rather than post a comment. You can find my email address through my Blogger profile -- use the link at the top of the right-hand column on this page. I cannot send a reply to you if you simply post a comment -- in other words, although I get an email containing your comment, the 'reply' facility doesn't work because the system doesn't have your address.

The only exception (I am guessing here) is if you are already a registered user yourself; then the email containing your comment does seem to contain your email address for me to reply, if I want to.

Hope that's clear.

Occasionally, if I felt it was sufficiently important, I have been able to trace an email address for a commenter via Google or some other device, but that is the long way round the houses; and it isn't always possible.

Wednesday, March 30, 2005

John Buchan: The Three Hostages

John Buchan is a now a largely forgotten writer. However, he retains a small group of admirers, and they have formed a John Buchan Society to preserve his memory; their web site contains a mass of useful information.

Buchan was born in 1875, in Scotland; he was the son of a Calvinist minister. At one time he had to walk three miles to school each day, and three miles back, but he eventually made it to Oxford University.

From then on Buchan had a varied and high-powered career in both public and commercial life. At various times he was, for instance, a government administrator in South Africa, a director of Reuter’s, and a Member of Parliament. He was briefly the head of the UK intelligence service, and when he died (in 1940) he was Governor-General of Canada.

Given such a record of activity at a high level, it is surprising that Buchan ever had any time to write anything, but write he did: over a hundred books in all, of which about forty were fiction.

In my youth Buchan was famous as a thriller writer, and it is one of his thrillers that I want to discuss today: The Three Hostages.

First published in 1924, The Three Hostages features one of Buchan’s regular heroes, Richard Hannay. When the book begins, Hannay is just turned forty years of age, not long married, with a young son. After distinguished service in the first world war, he has retired to the country to fish and shoot. Before long, however, a national crisis arrives, and Hannay is told that His Country Needs Him. Reluctantly, Hannay has to respond to the call of duty.

The plot of The Three Hostages is pure blood and thunder; it is a melodrama. It is, however, an exceptionally intelligent and well told melodrama, and the reader is effortlessly carried along.

The main reason for discussing the book today is that it reveals how remarkably percipient Buchan was about future developments. When he wrote the novel, Buchan was approaching fifty, and had mixed for years at the highest level of UK politics and business. He was a well travelled and widely experienced man. It is nevertheless surprising to find how clearly he saw the problems that were developing in Europe.

I have argued elsewhere that the two world wars in the twentieth century effectively made the English people at least partially insane. Buchan saw it too, even in the 1920s. ‘Have you ever realised,’ one character asks Hannay, ‘the amount of craziness that the War has left in the world?’

Later, another character speaks of the dangers of propaganda. ‘Dick, have you ever considered what a diabolical weapon that can be – using all the channels of modern publicity to poison and warp men’s minds?’ This, please note, was written ten years before the appointment of Goebbels as Hitler’s propaganda minister.

The rise of Hitler, or a fanatic like him, is also foreseen. ‘In ordinary times he will not be heard, because, as I say, his world is not our world. But let there come a time of great suffering or discontent, when the mind of the ordinary man is in desperation, and the rational fanatic will come by his own. When he appeals to the sane and the sane respond, revolutions begin.’

At one point, Hannay meets a German whom he knew in the war, but is on good terms with. The German tells Hannay that Germany is now (in the 1920s, remember) no place for a moderate man. ‘You foreign powers have hastened our destruction, when you had it in your hands to save us. I think you have meant well, but you have been blind, for you have not supported our moderate men and have by your harshness played the game of the wreckers among us.’

So, one way and another, The Three Hostages is in interesting and entertaining read. It borrows, of course, from the past: the villain of the book has a touch of Svengali about him. And Buchan himself was borrowed from by his successors: Ian Fleming learnt from him.

But one cannot, I suppose – and I say this with a deep sigh – one cannot leave Buchan without touching, briefly, upon his alleged ‘anti-semitism’ and racism.

It is perfectly true that the 2005 reader, who has had an awareness of political correctness injected into his veins, will wince a bit at some of Buchan’s throwaway remarks. There are references, for example, to a ‘nigger band’ playing in a nightclub. And there are indeed derogatory references to Jews, as in the description of the same nightclub’s clientele: ‘the usual rastaquouère crowd of men and women… mixed with fat Jews and blue-black dagos.’

Before we get too excited about this, we do have to remember that we are talking about the English (a term which in this instance includes Scottish) upper classes here. Buchan married into the aristocracy, and he mixed with the greatest in the land. It is undeniable that, in the 1920s and 1930s, such people were typically arrogant, and were dismissive of almost everyone on earth apart from those few who came from their own select background. See the film Gosford Park if you want to know how they treated their servants.

Furthermore, we need to bear in mind that words such as Frog (for Frenchman), and Wog (for an Arab) were in frequent use well into my lifetime. Indeed, when I was a boy we were sometimes cautioned that ‘Wogs begin at Calais’. In other words, you can’t trust anyone but an Englishman; and you can only trust him if he went to the right sort of school.

With the benefit of hindsight such attitudes are unattractive; but in their day they were commonplace, and it is a little hard to abuse Buchan for being a man of his time.

Once anti-semitism, in its virulent form, appeared in Nazi Germany, Buchan was quick to condemn it publicly; so much so that Hitler promptly added him to the list of men who, after the proposed German invasion of England, were to be imprisoned for ‘Pro-Jewish activity’. In due course Buchan realised the sensitivity of some of his earlier (and entirely trivial) references to Jews, and eliminated them from his later work. If you wish to know more, the issue has been dealt with in Roger Kimball’s valuable essay on Buchan.

It would be unfortunate, to say the least, if such a remarkable body of work, by such a remarkably far-sighted man, were to be ignored, or, worse, condemned, on the strength of a few lines here and there.

Should you be interested in the history and development of the thriller, The Three Hostages is a book you should read.

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Honoré de Balzac: Lost Illusions

I had an email from Nassim Nicholas Taleb recently, in which he said that he had been re-reading Balzac's Illusions Perdues. Nothing, says Taleb, has changed in the book business in the last 150 years!

So I took at look at Illusions Perdues -- except that, not being clever enough to read it in the original French, I had to make do with the Penguin edition, in which the translation (Lost Illusions) is by Herbert J. Hunt.

Hunt's introduction to the book provides a necessary reminder (well, necessary for me) that the literary career was really quite well developed, at least as a possibility, in the first half of the nineteenth century.

Balzac was born in 1799 and died in 1850. In between he packed in an enormous amount of literary work and became both famous and (up to a point) financially successful; he certainly liked to live well, even if he didn't always pay his bills.

Lost Illusions was originally published in three parts between 1837 and 1843. It tells the story of a handsome would-be poet, Lucien Chardon. Lucien is ambitious but naive (sound familar?), and he leaves the provinces to make his way in the glamorous beau monde of Paris. But he finds -- dear me, how distressing -- that talent counts for nothing in comparison to money, intrigue, and unscrupulousness. The novel paints, it is said, 'a scathing view of the world of letters'; and you don't need much insight to guess that many of Lucien's experiences are thinly disguised (if that) versions of what happened to Balzac on his way to the top.

In 1835, a friend of Balzac's tried to interest him in a real-life Lucien Chardon, a young man called Emile Chevalet. Balzac took at look at this wannabe writer and sent his friend a brutal report. 'This young man is characteristic of our times. When one has no particular aptitude for anything, one takes to the pen and poses as a talented person.' Even for those with real talent, Balzac insists, long and patient effort is needed. This point is later driven home in Lost Illusions.

Chapter Nine of Part II of Lost Illusions is perhaps the heart of the book. Its title is Good Advice, and in it Etienne Lousteau makes it plain to Lucien that genuine talent is unlikely to make much headway in the real-life literary world. Here are a few of Lousteau's observations:

'If you reckon to live on what your poetry brings in, you have time to die half a dozen deaths before you make your name.'

'Don't imagine that the political world is much cleaner than the literary world: in both of them bribery is the rule; every man bribes or is bribed. When a publisher is bringing out a more or less important work, he pays me not to attack it.'

'The experience of the first person who told me what I am now telling you was wasted on me, just as mine will no doubt be useless to you. It's always the same story, every year the same enthusiastic inrush of beardless ambition from the provinces to Paris.... They all fall into the pit of misery, the mire of journalism, the morass of the book-trade.'

'In short, my friend, the key to success in literature is not to work oneself, but to exploit others' work.'

'The more mediocre a man is, the sooner he arrives at success.... It will be a fight to the death if you have any talent, for you 'd have a better chance without it.'

Hmmm. Now that's really encouraging, isn't it?

Balzac's story, as you will have gathered by now, is repeated perhaps ten thousand times a year. The ambitious young writers (whether male or female) travel to Paris/London/New York (either literally or they send a ms), and discover, to their total amazement, that the world does not read three pages of their masterpiece and go WOW! This is SENSATIONAL!

Young writers always find this hard to believe. Even when they know that it happens every year to ten thousand young hopefuls, and has done for 150 years and upwards, they still find it a bit of a shock when it happens to them.

Monday, March 28, 2005

Far too much about me

A recent commenter on the GOB has asked for a little more information about me; in particular he requests info on how I started my publishing company, Kingsfield Publications.

Good grief.

Well, there is a bit more about me on my Blogger profile -- see column to your right. By the way, if you look at that page, be aware that the user stats are out of date (Blogger's problem, not mine), and the 'recent posts' aren't very recent; again, that is something that Blogger tell me they are working on.

Should you wish to know even more, go to the Kingsfield Publications web site, where you will find a Links page. And the first link there is to a site devoted to my 'career' as a writer. The information given on that second web site is intended mainly to be of interest or value to book trade and media professionals. General readers of the GOB will, I suspect, find more there than they could possibly wish to know.

Incidentally, I must do something about that photograph. It is ten years out of date -- or maybe fifteen. Of course it is standard practice for authors to use photographs which take ten years off them, but in this case it is the result of sloth rather than vanity.

Here are a few remarks about fiction-writing 'careers' in general, and mine in particular, which may be of interest to the ambitious ones among you.

First, be aware that, even if you fight your way through the thicket of indifference and find a publisher who wants to publish your stuff, said publisher is going to want you to stick to the same genre and style as were used for your first book. This is even more true if you have a big success.

What readers want (it is said, and certainly believed by publishers) is a brand name. Readers want to be assured that if they pick up a book by John Grisham or Danielle Steel it is going to be the same sort of book that they read by that author last time out.

What this means for writers is that, even if they are able to make a living as a writer, they will find themselves forced to go on writing the same thing over and over. This can be very tiresome. Agatha Christie grew so weary of it that she took to writing occasional novels of a quite different kind, under another name (Mary Westmacott).

In my case, I had some success in writing crime novels under my own name (the Spence books). But after I had done three of them I found that I really didn't want to do any more. Until I retired, a few years ago, all my writing was done in my spare time, after a fairly demanding day in educational administration. This meant that any writing that I did in the evenings had damn well better be fun; and churning out the same sort of book, time after time, was not my idea of fun. Which is how I came to 'throw away' -- if you will -- a promising career.

What I ought to have done, if I was anxious for greater success in terms of cash and reputation, was to go on doing more of the same. I might then have been able to generate some television interest and might have become as famous and successful as, say, Colin Dexter, with his Inspector Morse books.

So be warned. Choose your genre early and well, and be sure that it is something that you would be willing to spend a lifetime at. In my own case, I have done all sorts and kinds of different books -- everything except a western. I haven't regretted it at all, but it has limited my earnings. I have not become rich and famous, but I've had more enjoyment from writing than I would have done otherwise.

As for how I began Kingsfield Publications...

Well, as part of my professional life in education I was involved in running a small university press, which published academic books. I also had overall responsibility for the management of the same university's internal printing department. These two experiences, over ten or fifteen years, meant that I developed a good working knowledge of printing technology and book publishing, in addition to what I already knew about writing books.

When I retired I intended to go on working in the traditional way, offering my work through a literary agent and being published by mainstream publishers. However, because of pressure of work I had not done any fiction for a good few years, and when I started again my agent found that modern publishers were not particularly interested in someone of my age: they were looking for younger talents, preferably ones who looked absolutely drop-dead gorgeous in a black mini-skirt.

At the same time, fortunately, I realised that huge changes in printing technology meant that it was now possible to print and distribute books in new ways -- what is called print on demand, or POD. So rather than continue with the frustrations of going the old route, I went down a new one.

Setting up and running a small press is theoretically a fairly straightforward business these days, requiring extremely small amounts of capital when compared with the costs of even ten years ago. However, before you rush into it, please remember that when I started I had the benefit of a good working knowledge of both publishing -- from the publisher's point of view -- and the printing trade.

Another point to remember is this. So far, everything that Kingsfield has published has been my own work, written under a variety of different names according to the type of book it is. In principle, I may one day start to publish work by other writers; but that day will not come soon. In the meantime, the KP site carries the following announcement:
A note for writers: To avoid disappointment, please be aware that Kingsfield has a full programme of books planned for the next two years and is not in a position to consider unsolicited submissions.
Believe it or not, that means what it says. So please, for your own sake, do not send your masterpiece to me. I do not read and advise on mss, not even for money. For one thing it is a difficult job to do well, and for another I really don't have the time or the inclination.

If you really can't make any impression on agents and publishers, and are dead keen to see your work in print, the best option, I suggest, is not to set up your own press but to publish your work through one of the many firms which now offer to do the job for you at a modest cost. Of course, these firms vary from the fully reputable to the totally fraudulent, and you will have to spend a long time on research. But then quite a lot of the work involved in writing is sheer drudgery, so you should be used to it by now.

One UK-based firm which looks as if it offers a reasonable deal to authors is Matador. One or two writers who have done books through this firm have subsequently landed deals with mainstream publishers.

Plain speaking about Ms Bronte

The Book Standard provided a link to an amusing Guardian article entitled 'Reader, I shagged him.' Here Tanya Gold gives us the truth -- as she sees it -- about Charlotte Bronte.

Once upon a time, many moons go, I was required to read Mrs Gaskell's biography of Charlotte Bronte as part of my school studies. I found it passing tedious, but I do remember that even our careful teacher was obliged to admit that there was more to Charlotte than Mrs Gaskell revealed. In case we hadn't noticed, he pointed out that Charlotte's feelings for a married man, Monsieur Heger of Brussels, were not entirely chaste.

Tanya Gold goes further. Charlotte, she alleges, definitely had the hots for Heger, referring to him in correspondence as her master, and generally showing a masochistic inclination to grovel at his feet. She had a lot more passionate feelings for others as well, and, according to Tanya, had an orgasm while taking her father his spectacles.

I do have to say that I consider that last bit unlikely, if only for reasons of practicality. For one thing, the glasses would have been handed to the old man in a steamed-up condition, and he would have suspected the worst.

On balance, however, I reckon Tanya is far closer to the truth than Mrs G ever was. Mrs G was, after all, writing in the nineteenth century, and doubtless all those Bronte girls had very passionate natures indeed.

It is many years since I went to the Bronte museum at Haworth, and I have largely forgotten what was on show at the time. What I do remember is that, quite out of keeping with the general tenor of the place, loud popular music was being played somewhere in an adjoining room, causing a few raised eyebrows among the visitors.

I also remember finding evidence of the large number of Americans who then (and now, no doubt) visited the place: Haworth, a small Yorkshire village, featured a chemist's shop (pharmacy) which in those days must have been the only one in England to describe itself as a 'drug store'.

Friday, March 25, 2005

More on the long tail

I have my son to thank for pointing out an interesting article in the Guardian about the Long Tail phenomenon.

The long tail is named after the type of graph you get when you plot such phenomena as the sales of CDs and books, or the popularity of web sites, and any number of other things. What happens in all these cases is that a small number of CDs or whatever sell in enormous quantities, forming a peak on the graph. After that you get a vast number of goods which sell in small quantities, and these form a 'long tail' on the graph, dribbling away to the right.

What has begun to be noticed is that some industries are only geared up to sell the big hits; in fact they can only sell the big hits. A cinema, for example, can only afford to show films which pull in biggish audiences. Films which attract tiny audiences are not economically viable.

However -- and it's a big however -- if you're selling films on DVD, you can have a million films in an online catalogue, and the 990,000 of them which sell only in tiny numbers will collectively add up to one hell of a lot of business. Perhaps they may be worth more than the big hits.

This is good news for creative people, in that, in theory at least, it provides a market in which they can offer goods and at least get some exposure. Low-budget movies may never get a full-scale cinema release; but they may nevertheless be seen by cult fans of that kind of movie, and they may build a reputation.

The same is true for writers. Someone whose face does not fit in big-time publishing can nevertheless get themselves into print somewhere, and in principle it is possible for followers of, say, science fiction, to find these small-time providers on the net.

There are many issues and problems associated with this concept, and the Guardian article does a pretty good job of summarising the chief of them.

Overnight success

Somewhere or other I came across a link to a site called Overnight Success. Here you can find some 40+ writers telling you how they came to write and sell their first book.

Some of these stories are definitely more interesting than others; and all seem to be on the short side. The site is a joint production of Mystery Ink and the Crime Fiction dossier, and so most of the writers are in the crime/thriller genres. Also, most seem to be American.

David Morrell tells how he went the classic literary route at first, writing literary short stories and obtaining a doctorate in American literature at Penn State. After that he taught at the University of Iowa (?creative writing or Eng. Lit.). And then after that he wrote the first Rambo book! Well, I guess somewhere along the line he realised that literary short stories were not going to pay the mortgage. He has churned out some 25 books since.

One or two of the author's accounts are not very interesting at all, I'm afraid. Perhaps the process of recalling that early struggle was just too painful.

And if you really think life is giving you a hard time you might read Robert Ward's story: he nearly got lynched in reverse, as it were.

Thursday, March 24, 2005

Plus ca change, as the Spanish say

I recently had an email from someone who wished to remain anonymous, providing an equally anonymous quotation from a grumpy old man of the past. (I could tell that the quoted author was long dead because of the nature of the prose.) Thanks to the miracle of Google I was able to trace the quotation if not the kind soul who sent it to me.

It turns out that the two paragraphs in question were written by Dr Samuel Johnson, and they originally appeared in a kind of eighteenth-century blog, called The Rambler.

Set out below, 255 years to the day after it first appeared, is Dr Johnson's take on the literary life. The prose is decidedly complex by our standards, but the messages, I think, are clear, and they remain valid today. First, those who fancy themselves as writers should take a long hard look at their qualifications for said career; and second, anyone who wants to be a writer is going to have a difficult time of it.

Here is what Dr Johnson had to say:
It may not be unfit for him who makes a new entrance into the lettered world, so far to suspect his own powers as to believe that he possibly may deserve neglect; that nature may not have qualified him much to enlarge or embellish knowledge, nor sent him forth entitled by indisputable superiority to regulate the conduct of the rest of mankind; that, though the world must be granted to be yet in ignorance, he is not destined to dispel the cloud, nor to shine out as one of the luminaries of life. For this suspicion, every catalogue of a library will furnish sufficient reason; as he will find it crouded with names of men, who, though now forgotten, were once no less enterprising or confident than himself, equally pleased with their own productions, equally caressed by their patrons, and flattered by their friends.

But, though it should happen that an author is capable of excelling, yet his merit may pass without notice, huddled in the variety of things, and thrown into the general miscellany of life. He that endeavours after fame by writing, solicits the regard of a
multitude fluctuating in pleasures, or immersed in business, without time for intellectual amusements; he appeals to judges prepossessed by passions, or corrupted by prejudices, which preclude their approbation of any new performance. Some are too indolent to read any thing, till its reputation is established; others too envious to promote that fame, which gives them pain by its increase. What is new is opposed, because most are unwilling to be taught; and what is known is rejected, because it is not sufficiently considered, that men more frequently require to be reminded than informed. The learned are afraid to declare their opinion early, lest they should put their reputation in hazard; the ignorant always imagine themselves giving some proof of delicacy, when they refuse to be pleased: and he that finds his way to reputation, through all these obstructions, must acknowledge that he is indebted to other causes besides his industry, his learning, or his wit.
Next week, Honoré de Balzac, writing in 1843, with the same message!

Ken Follett: Hornet Flight

Ken Follett, for those that don't know, began his career in the 1970s. You can find a fairly complete biography on his official web site, and it is worth noting that he worked in publishing before becoming a full-time writer. While still doing the day job, he wrote eleven thrillers under other names, and then he came up with a book which was a big hit.

In 1978, Follett wrote a book which was originally called Storm Island, but it has since become more widely known by the title given to it by its US publisher, Eye of the Needle. This won an Edgar award and was made into a film.

Follett thus proves a point that I have made many times on this blog, namely that any and every sort of writer needs to write a considerable body of work before they can be said to have mastered the basic techniques. In Follett's case it took at least eleven books.

It was around this time that Follett began to work very closely with a New York literary agent, Al Zuckerman. Fortunately for those who wish to master the art and science of fiction writing, this collaboration has been well documented. In particular, you can read Zuckerman's book Writing the Blockbuster Novel. (Don't be put off by the title -- it is equally valuable whether your aims are pure and literary or out-and-out commercial.) In that book, Zuckerman provides a long and detailed account of how he and Follett together worked on the outline of Follett's novel The Man from St Petersburg. It is an object lesson in how to develop the potential which is inherent in an idea for a novel.

Now it so happens that I myself was represented by Al Zuckerman for about fifteen years, and at the beginning of the 1980s I too worked closely with Al on the development of a thriller. However, it was always clear to me, and to Al, that not even he could guarantee that the resulting book would be a big seller. As he told me at the time, at any given point he is probably working on about 20 books with writers, and with a bit of luck one of them might make some sort of impact. In my own case, the book (No Holds Barred) was eventually published but did not set the world on fire, and the last time I looked I couldn't even find a secondhand copy on abebooks.

Back to Hornet Flight. In this book, Ken Follett returns to the second world war era, a period that he has dealt with successfully before, notably in The Key to Rebecca. Basing his story partly on real events, Follett gives us a plot in which the British discover, in 1941, that the Germans have an experimental radar station on the coast of Denmark. For a variety of reasons it falls to a young Danish student to get the details of this radar installation back to England in time to ensure that the facility can be destroyed before it leads to the elimination of the British air forces.

Follett has not been a thriller writer for all these years without learning how to do the job. He is extremely skilful. We are therefore presented, for example, not with the usual one-dimensional bad guy but with a rounded character, a complicated man.

On the minus side, I found that there was rather too much background information for my taste; overall, the book is not as tightly organised as The Key to Rebecca, which I often recommend to people who are trying to write a thriller and want a model to study.

It is also the case that Follett manipulates the reader's emotions in ways which I find rather tiresome. Of course, creating emotion is what the craft of fiction is all about, as I said a few days ago, but after many decades of reading thrillers (and after writing a few) I guess I am resistant to writers turning up the tension in too obvious a way.

This criticism particularly applies to the last few chapters of Hornet Flight. Here we find our hero and heroine having to fly an old Hornet Moth aeroplane from Denmark to England. Well now, it would not be much of a story if our two lead characters simply wheeled the plane out of its hangar, got in, and flew safely to their destination. Dear me no. So Follett follows the usual commercial formula and creates problems for them.

I will not weary you, or spoil the book, by telling you what all these problems are. What I will say is that they go on and on and on. Nothing goes right for the hero and heroine. And when one of them has to go out on the wing and refuel in the plane in flight... Well, I just thought it was a bit silly, that's all.

However, no doubt Mr Follett was thinking about how the scene would play in the movie version. And a movie version there will probably be.

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Blogging may damage your eyesight

Pay attention now, because this might get a little complicated.

Maud Newton's blog says that the day before yesterday, or thereabouts, Justin on the Beautiful Stuff blog transcribed part of a Literary Friendships conversation between Waldman and Chabon (I think you're supposed to know their first names), moderated by Garrison Keillor, in which Waldman argued that blogging is bad for fiction writing. Waldman says this:
Don't start, don't start; it'll suck you into the screaming vortex of the blogosphere, and then you will never get out.
Er, right. Well now, see, the thing is this. It is perfectly true that I, the GOB, haven't written a word of fiction since I started blogging. But I was, kind of, thinking about starting again. As I was shaving this morning.

Last autumn I had this flu-type infection, which gave me a temperature, and I had a dream about the story for a novel. And as I lay there, gently steaming, I began to work out the plot in more detail. And -- of course -- what happened was what always happens when you are struck by lightning in this way. I decided that my novel was going to be the best thing to hit the publishing industry since the Da Vinci thingy. (I was sick, please note.)

When I recovered I regained some form of sanity and realised that perhaps my novel would not be the Next Big Thing after all, so I put it aside. But over the last few weeks I've begun to wonder. Maybe it would be fun to do it anyway.

One thing is for sure. If I do write this book, it will be short.

Patrick McGrath: Blood and Water

Here, at last, is a mention of some short stories that I have been reading. You will, perhaps, recall that on 16 March I provided an official history of the short story, closely followed (on 17 March) by the true history of same. And I said then that those pieces were provided as a preliminary to further discussion of the short-story art. So here's the first bit of further discussion.

Patrick McGrath is an English writer. He was born in London but grew up near Broadmoor Hospital, which is effectively a prison for the criminally insane. The patients who are sent there are the kind of people who kill their friends for fun and eat them for dinner. With such a childhood it is perhaps unsurprising that McGrath writes rather peculiar short stories.

McGrath's collection entitled Blood and Water contains some fine pieces. But be warned -- again -- that they are a bit on the dark side, at best. They are described by some reviewers as Gothic; which, I guess, means not out-and-out horror stories, but stories which are odd, peculiar, and vaguely disturbing without being disgusting (most of the time, anyway).

We begin with a story called The Angel, which is set on the Bowery, and which involves, as you would expect, an angel as one of the characters. A number of other stories also have a US background, which as far as I can tell is faultless.

A little further on in the collection, we have a story called The Black Hand of the Raj. This is set in India about a hundred years ago, and -- I kid you not -- it concerns a number of blameless, clean-living English chaps who end up with a hand growing out of the top of their head. Shocking bad luck, really, but then what can you expect if you live in foreign parts?

Towards the end of McGrath's book, The Boot's Tale is unusual in that it is told from the point of view of an old boot -- yes, the kind you wear on your foot. And it is as black a tale as you are ever likely to come across. The events occur post a nuclear holocaust, and I advise you not to read it either shortly before or shortly after a meal. Note: when I say this story is black, I mean it is middle of a moonless night, sixty feet underground in a cave in the middle of a thick primeval forest kind of dark.

And the last story, the title tale, features a knight of the realm, no less, who ends up being committed to Broadmoor Lunatic Asylum , as it was known in those days.

In addition to his short stories, McGrath has also written a number of novels. I have only read one of these -- Asylum. As its title suggests, this is set in what used to be called a lunatic asylum (and guess which institution it is based on).

Asylum is not only competent but is unusually well written (if we ignore the author's occasional practice of dividing two sentences with a comma). Why then do I hesitate to recommend it?

Well, for one thing the author tells us on the first page that he has a sad story to tell, and it's true; and I'm not all that keen on sad stories. For my money the book is a bit slow-moving and, up to a point, predictable. But it is certainly full of insights into the kind of madness which expresses itself as sexual obsession and passionate love.

By the look of things, Asylum is being made into a film, with a script by McGrath himself. He is married, by the way, to the actress Maria Aitken.

Another English eccentric

Yesterday's Independent had a story about a more than usually eccentric Englishman: Mike Goldmark.

Mr Goldmark, until recently, had a secondhand-book business in a small town called Uppingham (where there is a famous school; Stephen Fry was expelled from it). The business opened in 1974, was later expanded with an adjoining art gallery, and has now closed; though the gallery remains open.

In addition to buying and selling old books -- in a somewhat eccentric manner, it has to be said -- Goldmark also did a bit of publishing. He published, for instance, Iain Sinclair's first novel, White Chappell, Scarlet Tracings, in 1987.

What happened was that Sinclair told Goldmark that he was planning to write a novel, and Goldmark said that if he did he would publish it. Later, Sinclair turned up and said that he had completed the novel, offered it around, and had had it turned down by everybody. So Goldmark said he would publish it anyway.

Sinclair asked whether Goldmark wanted to read the novel before making up his mind. And Goldmark said no, he didn't think that would be a good idea.

See what I mean about eccentric?

Turns out that Goldmark actually can read, but he finds it puts him to sleep. 'I just get extremely tired when I start doing it.' Yes indeed; I know the feeling.

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Profitability and size

A note from Mad Max Perkins draws my attention to a couple of interesting stories about the best size for a publishing company. The trend, over the last thirty years, in both the UK and the USA, has been for publishers to get bigger and bigger. Often the big publishers are themselves part of even bigger multinational conglomerates.

Only recently, at the London Book Fair, a fairly astute observer of the publishing scene, Tim Hely Hutchinson, was quoted as saying that he thought this trend was likely to continue. However, within a day or two of that, Viacom and Liberty Media have both announced that they intend to go against the trend and dismantle some of their huge empires into smaller chunks.

As if that wasn't confusing enough, there is an interview in the Financial Times (link provided by with Peter Olson, the chief executive of Random House, in which he says the RH is managing to make good profits despite the failure of competitors such as Penguin. The word is that RH's success comes from modelling the business partly on the company's German parent. Costs and back-office functions are co-ordinated centrally, but publishing units, including Doubleday and Bantam, operate almost autonomously in their dealings with authors.

'We are a microcosm of Bertelsmann," says one RH insider. "We often have two or three of our own houses bidding for the same book. It means we get more than one look at it.'

At first sight it seems distinctly odd to have two or three bits of the same company bidding against each other, but perhaps the 'secret of success', if there is one, is to have these autonomous units within an umbrella. Go figure, it's beyond me. I suspect it's all random anyway -- and absolutely no pun intended. What I mean is, this year RH, next year HC, and so forth.

The FT article, by the way, will probably go into register-or-you-can't-read-it mode before long.

Tim Bete: making them laugh

Writing stuff that makes people laugh is never easy; humour is such a personal thing, and what is hilarious to one person can leave another stone cold. (The Americans, in case you haven't noticed, insist on spelling it humor; which doesn't make it any easier to write -- just shorter.)

Furthermore, if there is one thing harder to achieve than writing a funny book, it is writing a daily or weekly (non-fiction) column that achieves the same thing. Think what it must be like: you wake up one morning with a hideous hangover, and not only do you you have to go to work but you have to be funny as well.

Perhaps it's my imagination, and I certainly haven't done a statistical analysis, but I have the impression that the Americans have always been better at the ho ho ho stuff in journalism than have than the English. And if I had to pick the best of them all I would go for Art Buchwald. Having said that, Erma Bombeck would be a close second.

I was reminded of all this the other day when I had some contact with Tim Bete. Tim writes a column on parenting for various US outlets, and he is also the director of the Erma Bombeck Writers' Workshop. More to the point, perhaps, Tim is the author of a book entitled In the beginning, which brings together some of his columns. As you would expect, the material deals with the problems of bringing up kids, and has attracted some enthusiastic reviews.

Should you be looking for a present for someone struggling with the changing of diapers (nappies if you're English), your problem is solved. At present it is not available on, but no doubt can send it wherever you wish.

C.J. Sansom: Dark Fire

A while back, I reviewed C.J. Sansom's first novel, Dissolution. Dark Fire is number two in this series of sixteenth-century crime novels, and it features the same lead character, the hunchback lawyer Matthew Shardlake. (A third book in the series is due next year.)

Sansom has a PhD in history, and has been a lawyer himself, so we can assume, I think, that the background is scholarly and authentic. In any case, it all seems to accord pretty well with what I remember of Tudor history from my own days as a student.

Dark Fire begins in 1540, three years after the first book. Henry VIII, though ailing, is still King. His first minister is still the arch-schemer, Thomas Cromwell. You had to be pretty quick on your feet to stay on top in Henry VIII's day, and Cromwell is quicker than most. To begin with anyway.

Shardlake finds himself defending a young girl on a murder charge. He is also sent on a mission for Cromwell. There are rumours that a government official has found the formula for Greek Fire, and Cromwell wants it, to strengthen his position with the King.

Greek Fire is mentioned by the ancients. It was a legendary substance which was used by the Byzantines to destroy Arab navies, but the Byzantines took such extreme precautions to keep its formula secret that eventually it was lost altogether. Shardlake has to find it again, while doing his best to prevent the execution of an innocent girl.

All in all the book is extremely well done. Some of the apparent creakiness of the plot turns out to be a bit of a double bluff, and the book rattles along quite painlessly for some 500 pages. I suspect that it helps if the reader has some background knowledge of Tudor England, but on the whole Sansom does a sound job of explaining what we need to know.


Monday, March 21, 2005

Gerard Jones: far from finished

Regular readers will know how much I admire Gerard Jones. Not only is the man a published writer (after some 14,000 rejections, and rising) but he is a good writer. Most of us, when we get mad, turn a nasty purple colour and begin to splutter incoherently. Not Gerard. When he gets mad he remains coherent and abuses his enemies not only fluently but amusingly.

Reproduced below, with Gerard's permission, is the full text of his latest email, which is being sent to '6,000 money-grubbing goons and giggly twits', a group from which, incidentally, he kindly excludes me, even though I got a copy of the email. The GOB, he tells me, is 'not very full of shit', which is the best news I've had in along time.
Finished, finally, fhew...

People wonder why I went to all the trouble of making Everyone Who's Anyone in Adult Trade Publishing and Tinseltown Too, an online directory of 2,500 of the top literary agents, editors and publishers in the US, UK and Canada and 3,500 Hollywood literary & talent agents, studio executives and independent film company boys and girls. Now that The Fourth Edition, April 2005 is finally finished, I'm gonna tell you why.

For fun, that's why. To crack myself up. And because it's a new kind of art—a new kind of literature, an approximation of the truth for a change. EWA's got more useful information in it about the book business and the movie business than anything else you can get for free, that's for sure, and it's gonna stay free like the rest of the best things in life.

I also made this whole huge 4.57 MB website to make it easier to get my beautiful books rejected some more. My goal is to be the most rejected writer of all time. I reached that goal clear back at fourteen thousand or so, but I wanna keep adding to the record so no one will ever break it. When I get done with this round of "querying" I'll be up to around 150,000 rejections, give or take. I'm proud. I'm happy. It's only fitting that one of the best writers who's ever lived should be far and away the most rejected writer who's ever lived. Virtue is its own reward.

But the main reason I made the site was so that I could sit down one fine day like today and send all 6,000 of the shortsighted, money-grubbing goons and giggly twits in the book business and the movie businesses an e-mail telling 'em exactly what I think of 'em. If you're reading this, you're one of those selfsame, shortsighted, money-grubbing goons or giggly twits who has rejected my beautiful books in one way or another going on a hundred and fifty thousand times over the years and here, briefly, is what I would like to take this opportunity to say to you, if I may:

I write great books, books that would make great movies, and you reject 'em, how stupid is that? You produce crappy books and crappy movies for money, I tell the truth for free. Who would you rather be, you or me? Wait, wait, you've already answered that an astronomical number of times but, what the heck, go ahead and answer it again. Ignore this e-mail like you ignored the others I've sent you. Prove yet again how truly ignorant you really are. Go on about the oh so very important business of making money buying and selling lousy books and lousy movies, live your lies, make your piddly piles of nickels and dimes and Deutschmarks—die, rot, be forgot, that's fine with me, but my little website's gonna give you some measure of immortality whether you want it or not. Ha!

Your children and grandchildren are gonna see your name among the thousands of money-grubbing schlock-peddlers and giggly twits who dismissed my beautiful books and chose instead to go gaga over the unspeakably inane, mind-numbing twaddle that will become known as American literature and culture of the early 21st Century. And you picked it. Wow. Should you feel good about yourself, or what? It's kind of cool being one of the best writers who's ever lived but how cool can it be to have ignored one of the best writers who's ever lived?

You may never know what you've done due in large part to having your head buried all the way to China in the dirt of your own giggly greed, but posterity will. You'll be lumped among book review editors and their idiotic ilk who have (with the single exception of Linda Richards who picked Ginny Good as the editor's only choice for the best nonfiction book of 2004) neglected to read or review the coolest book published anywhere in the world so far this century. Oh, well. I wouldn't want to be one of their children or grandchildren, either.

The thing that really cracks me up is that then y'all have the gall to call what some wide-eyed, innocent Saudi kid gets taught in a madrasa "brainwashing." Oh, my gosh. To love God instead of Money? Yikes. What kind of an absurd, subversive notion is that? Those towelheads ought to be bombed back into the stone age. Naturally you know what matters. Money. That's it. You love money. You adore money. You worship money. You eat, sleep, drink, breathe and take baths in money. Money isn't everything, it's the only thing. Whoever said "the love of money is the root of all evil" must be some kind of terrorist, some kind of whacko Islamic-fundamentalist.

You won't ever realize any of that either, of course, but future generations will. Your children and your grandchildren will be shunned because of you. They'll be embarrassed, they'll be afraid to play with other kids, they'll get teased, they'll be made fun of, laughed at; no one with any brains will have anything to do with them because it will be widely assumed that they were born with your moron genes.

Take heart, however, it may still not too late! You might be able to redeem yourself. You may still have a chance to make life a little easier for your otherwise ill-fated progeny. Take a look at Ginny Good. Buy the hardcover rights. Buy the Brit rights. Translate the sucker into Dutch. Get me to read it into a microphone so it can be an audio book. Future generations will treasure the sound of my glorious voice reading the gorgeous words I wrote back during that time when literature and culture was at its lowest ebb and you'll be revered for "discovering" me. Your children and grandchildren will be honored, flattered, sought-after instead of shunned...and
all because of you! Whoopdeedo. What better legacy could you possibly leave them than that?

Or better still, do it for yourself. Make a movie out Ginny Good so you can say you did one thing worth doing in your life. Or take a look at any of my other beautiful books. Buy or sell or make movies out of one or two or three of them while you're at it. Be a hero to your heirs. If you wanna find out how, click this: Manuscripts for Sale or Rent. You'll thank yourself. Your children will thank you, your grandchildren will thank you, your great-grandchildren will thank you, I'll thank you, but I'd thank you anyway whether you're a demonstrable idiot or not.


Gerard Jones

p.s. I know there's a fine line between delightful cynicism and bitterness. I cross it on occasion but I'm basically pretty pleased with myself and with the books I write and with the objectivity with which I see things. If you want to see more delightful cynicism, bitterness, bravado and the way things are, click this: Rants, Diatribes, Etc. I gotta go play golf in the rain. G.

Key concepts for writers

Yesterday's papers had a couple of pieces which provide our thoughts for the day.

First, in the Sunday Times, there was an article about a blues singer (white, female) called Mary Gauthier. Mary, it turns out, has led a thoroughly rackety sort of life. Now aged 43 or so, she has been in jail, overdosed on a heroin and alcohol mixture a couple of times, and has never been able to hang on to 'a relationship'. She didn't start writing songs until she was 35.

The key paragraph in the article is this: 'I couldn't sing,' admits Mary. 'My songs weren't that good, and I couldn't really play, but I knew that if I kept going, I'd get better. When the day came that I made grown men cry, I knew my songs had something that spoke to the heart.'

Now, here we have a number of key concepts usefully encapsulated, concepts which apply every bit as much to fiction writers as they do to singer-songwriters.

First, you need to practise to develop your technique, which is unlikely to be much good to begin with. And second, the business is all about creating emotion. Making grown men cry is what you're trying to do -- or should be trying to do. Either that or making young girls laugh. Whatever the audience, creating emotion in that audience is the ultimate objective. To those who can deliver such emotions, as and when wanted, great prizes will be delivered.

And how do you learn how to do that? Well, you do some research, do some thinking, and practise. It's not a difficult procedure, in principle.

The research you do by reading up on literary technique. And here's a tip: ignore anything written by an academic; it is a waste of space. Instead, read anything and everything written by a reasonably successful writer or an agent.

Second, do some thinking about what the research tells you, because there is no such thing as a book, or a shelf full of books, which will provide the answer to all your problems; some of it you have to work out for yourself.

And third, practise. Practise, practise, practise. Produce stuff. If it isn't any good, chuck it away and so some more.

Yesterday's Observer, linked by, had an article by Robert McCrum, with the heading Who are you writing for?

McCrum's comments on this issue are not, frankly, very illuminating. He reads as if he is still recovering from a last-night-of-the-London-Book-Fair party. But the question he asks is a crucial one. Because until you decide who you are writing for, you can't really design your piece in a way which will match the needs of the reader.

For example, a book written for middle-aged or elderly working-class women living in the north of England (aka a clogs and shawl saga) will of necessity have different characteristics from a young-adult book about magic.

If you want to write for an audience of one, i.e. yourself, that's fine. But don't be surprised if no one wants to publish the result.

The dead hand of subsidy

Joel Rickett's latest round-up of news from the UK publishing industry reports that, 'since 2002, the UK Arts Council has paid out some £5.4m to literary causes: publishers specialising in translated, regional or ethnic minority books, festivals, literacy groups and poetry presses. But after the government's tough budget settlement, it will close its doors to new funding applications. The current "literary portfolio" will continue to be supported; other hopefuls will have to wait until 2008 before they can apply.'

Well thank God for that, anyway. What a pity that the government didn't have the balls to get out of literary affairs altogether; with the possible exception of 'literacy groups', which sound as if they might be useful, government has no business meddling in publishing. If money is to be spent on books, I'd much rather spend it myself, thank you, rather than have the government spend it on my behalf.

If a business can't survive without subsidy, tough. It's not as if huge money is required: these days, you can start a publishing company with almost zero capital (see, for example, my own small press, Kingsfield Publications, which has cost me less than a week's holiday somewhere warm). Of course, what you can't do is copy the big four or five and spend £100,000 on advertising. But with the right book, and access to the internet, you can certainly find readers and you can get books into libraries.

The real problem with subsidy is that it encourages writers (and artists, actors, et cetera) to futher indulge in the me-me-me philosophy to which they are already too much inclined. Creative people need to be encouraged to think far more about their audience's needs, and far less about their own preoccupations. Subsidy does the precise opposite.

Friday, March 18, 2005

Naked girls warning

Michael Schaub, on Booklsut, has rightly drawn attention to the fact that publishing is about to sink to a new low. Leonard Nimoy, the guy from Star Trek with the funny ears, is about to publish a book featuring photographs of naked fat-bottomed girls.

Look, it was bad enough when Queen (back in 1978) wrote a song about fat-bottomed girls. The lyrics were utterly disgraceful, with references to various perverted desires over which we will hastily draw a duvet. And there was a video too, which I saw once. I don't think I've ever been quite the same since. There are reports that 50 naked girls were hired to stage a bicycle race for said video, and there are some even more disgusting stories about the aftermath of that event. What is more, I seem to remember that when the video was being filmed, press photographers were in attendance, so there may even be some still shots somewhere.

And now Nimoy is going to produce a new book of similar photographs. This is absolutely intolerable. If anyone can tell me who the publisher is, how much it costs, and where I can get a copy, I shall be extremely grateful, as it will enable me to issue an even more detailed warning at a future date. How fortunate you all are that clean-living chaps like Schaub and myself are around to ensure that you don't come to moral harm.

Jonathan Stroud: The Golem's Eye

On 4 February I wrote about Jonathan Stroud's The Amulet of Samarkand, which is volume one in the Bartimaeus trilogy. Volume two is The Golem's Eye.

You need to be clear at the outset that the Bartimaeus trilogy is a series of books for children -- or at any rate young adults. I mention that because, while some mature readers (me, for instance) are quite content to read books which are aimed at young people, others are not. Also, I have to say, The Golem's Eye is a bit more obviously designed for teenagers than was The Amulet of Smarkand.

What we have here is another book about magic. And if your heart sinks at that, tough. It's like saying that it's a book about crime, or romance. Either you dig that stuff, or you don't. Mind you, you should certainly avoid my mistake, which was to read this soon after reading Susanna Clarke's wonderful Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. The inevitable comparison had the unfortunate effect of making Stroud look very second-rate. Which of course he is -- because everyone is second rate when compared with Susanna Clarke. Judged on his own, he is pretty good.

The Golem's Eye, like the previous book, is set in a parallel-universe London. Bartimaeus is a 5,000-year-old djinni, or demon, and he is once again he is summoned to work for the teenage magician Nathaniel. But here there is a shift of emphasis from the first book, a shift which Stroud, in my opinion, handles very well. In the first story we were directed to sympathise with Nathaniel, and to be on his side in any of his adventures. To some extent that is still true now, but we are also led to sympathise with Kitty, a teenage girl who is definitely not a magician; indeed she has a genetic resistance to magic.

Kitty is a member of the Resistance movement, which seeks to bring an end to the magicians' domination of society and to restore freedom to the ordinary people. But the star of the show is still, perhaps, Bartimaeus, who has seen it all before, and who entertains us with his sardonic commentary on the foolishness of magicians and ordinary folk alike.

The Golem's Eye is not, perhaps, quite as tightly written as vol. one, but I recommend it anyway. I shall certainly look out for vol. three.

By the way: the Independent, a while back, invited 100 literary luminaries to nominate their favourite characters in fiction. This feature generated much interest among readers, who proceeded to nominate their own favourites. One reader from Somerset put forward Michael (sic) Stroud's creation Bartimaeous (sic), describing him as 'excrutiatingly (sic) witty, engaging without being attractive, awesomely intelligent but lacking self knowledge.' Well, I guess we should give this kid some credit for being a reader, but his teachers get about 3 out of 10 for their spelling lessons.

Carlos Ruiz Zafon: The Shadow of the Wind

Carlos Ruiz Zafon was born in Spain and has just turned forty. He moved to Los Angeles in his late twenties, and wrote four books for young adults before turning out his first novel for old adults, The Shadow of the Wind.

Despite living in LA for some years, Zafon apparently wrote his first grown-up novel in Spanish; it was translated into English by Lucia Graves, daughter of Robert.

For whatever reason, and they are sometimes hard as hell to figure out, The Shadow of the Wind has been a big-time hit in mainland Europe. It was the traditional runaway bestseller in Spain, and in Germany it made number one. In the UK, after a slow start, it gradually made its way up the charts; the chief boost to sales came about when the book was selected for Richard & Judy's book club. (R & J are hosts of a UK daytime TV show; their book club is a less effective sales tool than being chosen by Oprah, but it's still a big help.)

So, what kind of a book is The Shadow of the Wind? Well, it's principally a literary novel, in my view, though there are also some bits of this and bits of that: some mystery, some romance, and so forth.

And what's it about?

Technically it is, I believe, what is called in some quarters a metafiction: a book about a book. Set in Barcelona in 1945, the story begins with an eleven-year-old boy who is given a copy of a book called The Shadow of the Wind, by one Julian Carax, and he sets out to find the rest of the author's works. He soon discovers that someone is trying to destroy every copy of everything that this author ever wrote... And so on.

Personally I feel exactly the same way about this book as I did about Kate Atkinson's Case Histories: that is to say, it's not particularly well structured, because the author is still relatively inexperienced as a writer. Despite what some critics will tell you, no one can write a totally successful novel first time out; not even Susanna Clarke. It just isn't possible. And although Zafon has written fiction before, this is his first adult book. It shows.

The consequence of this inadequacy of technique was that I started to skip through the pages fairly early on in the book. In fact, but for knowing that this novel had certainly struck a few chords here and there, I would have given up altogether. After a couple of hundred pages or so, although I was still skipping, I rather wished that I had paid more attention earlier on. Or, to put it more accurately, I very much wished that the author had been sufficiently skilful to persuade me to absorb what he wanted me to know in every detail.

The book is just plain too long, of course, like everything else nowadays. There are some 400 well-covered pages. But by the end I had had a few glimpses of what had caused a number of people to praise it.

If you want to see the publisher's blurb, and have access to an interview with the author, and other material, you can find it here. And for a very handy summary of worldwide critical opinion, courtesy of the Complete Review (a most useful service, by the way -- well done to those who provide it), click here. The Complete Review decides that there is no critical consensus on this book. Some like it, some are less impressed.

My own take, for what it's worth, is that this book achieved its success in the UK through limited word of mouth but, most of all, by virtue of the buzz generated by the Richard & Judy seal of good housekeeping, or whatever they call it.

If you want to know more about the R & J book club, there was a useful article in the Independent last summer. It answers a question that I've been wondering about for some time, namely: How much does it cost a publisher to get a book listed on Richard & Judy?

The answer is nothing. The reason being that Ofcom rules make it impossible for the producers of the show to charge for this service. I have to say that that seems a bit silly to me, because this is commercial television we're talking about, but there we are. It turns out that, in order to get listed on the book club, you have to impress the producer's team of readers. Simple as that.

Thursday, March 17, 2005

The true history of the short story

Continued from yesterday. Today we deal with the true history of the short story -- the short story, that is, as read and enjoyed by the man in the street, or the woman looking down on him from the top deck of the Clapham omnibus.

In summary: the short story began, for all practical purposes, about the beginning of the nineteenth century. As more and more people became able to read, and as the print media became cheaper, the short story grew in popularity. It reached its peak readership from perhaps 1880 to 1920. Thereafter the short story lost ground: first to cinema, then radio, recorded sound, television, and today 515 different forms of entertainment.

Details follow. But first, a little background.

Over the years, I have come to the view that the ‘official’ histories of the arts often tell us only half the story. Or less.

Suppose you were to go to the library and find a book called British Theatre Since 1950, or something similar. This book would almost certainly be written by an academic or a professional critic; and in terms of the year 1955, to take one at random, our official history would faithfully record that this was the year in which an ‘important’ and ‘influential’ play called Waiting for Godot was premiered.

Which is true. But what this scholarly book is unlikely to mention is that 1955 also saw the first nights of such popular plays as The Reluctant Debutante and Sailor Beware. Also open for business in 1955 were The Mousetrap (which is still running), Separate Tables, and Dry Rot. These were all long-running successes, attracting big audiences.

And why are these popular productions not mentioned in our official history? Because they are not ‘important’, that’s why. To academic historians they were ‘mere entertainment’ – just mindless pap for gormless morons. But that is not, as you may have gathered, my own view.

I readily accept that plays such as Waiting for Godot and Look Back in Anger, which appeared in 1956, were written about at length, both at the time, and since, by people who might reasonably be called intellectuals: members of the intelligentsia (if you are prepared to stretch the meaning of the word ‘intelligent’). But what reason is there for supposing that plays which are appreciated by intellectuals are more ‘important’ and ‘better theatre’ than those which entertain a more middlebrow audience?

No reason whatever, in my view. I know of no rational argument which convinces me that plays that are enjoyed and discussed by intellectuals are any better than plays which entertain a middlebrow audience. As far as I am concerned, they are not ‘better’ either morally, technically, emotionally, or in terms of any other criterion. They are not better at all – they are just different. They are different kinds of plays, which appeal to different kinds of audiences; these audiences approach the plays with different frames of reference and different sets of expectations.

What is true of the theatre is also true of the short story. In yesterday’s post, I gave you a brief rundown of the ‘official’ history of this form of fiction. But, as in the theatre, there is another history, the true history, which runs in parallel. It is a history of the short story as it has been read and enjoyed by the average person in the street.

Such a reader is not highly educated and has not travelled the world, and is not, thank you very much, at all interested in symbolism, stream-of-consciousness techniques, or having to work out what the hell is going on from a minimalist description. Such a person wants a story told in plain English, with a beginning, a middle, and an end. And in my opinion it is no sort of crime for a reader to want to have things explained clearly.

I shall now provide a history of such short stories, though like yesterday’s history it will be a much condensed version of the facts.

What we have to remember, and what is so easy to forget, is that, in the nineteenth century, magazines and books did not have much competition. There was live theatre, of course, but that was only available in towns. And there were certainly no radio programmes, no television sitcoms, or films.

Compulsory schooling in England was introduced in 1870. This meant that more people were learning to read, and, as printing technology also improved, the short story and the novel were widely disseminated, widely read, and highly prized.

It should never be forgotten that the most famous fictional character of the entire nineteenth century, Sherlock Holmes, has his existence mainly in the form of short stories; to be precise, there are four Holmes novels, and five major collections of short stories. When the stories first appeared, in magazines such as The Strand, sales of the magazine markedly increased.

Conan Doyle, however, is not often mentioned with much enthusiasm in the official literary histories. Anthony Burgess, for example, in his 1984 essay on the short story in English, refers to Doyle’s ‘triumphant success’. But then he goes on to tell us that he (Burgess) has ‘never been satisfied that... the stories of Conan Doyle are literature, in the sense that Shakespeare is literature.’ So there. That puts Sherlock in his place.

We can be quite sure that in the nineteenth century, and ever since, there has been a constant flow of fiction aimed at middlebrow or lowbrow readers. In the twentieth century, it became known as pulp fiction – so called because the magazines which published it were printed on the cheapest possible paper.

In the 1930s, popular fiction magazines often appeared weekly, and they were endlessly demanding of product, particularly in the United States. I see from my file of notes that I once read a book called Pulpwood Editor, by Harold Brainerd Hersey. It was published in 1937 so is probably unobtainable now (though you could try abebooks), but it was a marvellous autobiography by a man who edited pulp magazines. He had a number of extraordinary stories about writers who, in some cases, apparently churned out a million words a year.

Some British writers were also amazingly productive. Consider, for example, the career of Charles Hamilton, who is perhaps best known for writing the Billy Bunter stories under the pen-name Frank Richards. Hamilton used around thirty pseudonyms, and is listed in the Guinness Book of Records as the world’s most prolific writer; he is credited with a lifetime total of 70 million words.

When I was a lad, in the 1940s and 1950s, there were still many boys’ comics, as they were known, which appeared weekly and regularly featured the same characters in short-story format (not pictures). The Rover, Champion, Wizard, and others, were famous for the exploits of such heroes as Wilson, the wonder athlete, Rockfist Rogan, the ace pilot who was also a boxer, Alf Tupper, the athlete known as the Tough of the Track, and dozens more.

A similar situation could be found in the magazines which were read by women – titles such as Woman’s Weekly, Woman, Woman’s Own, and so forth. Throughout my lifetime, all these magazines for women (and more like them) have been printing several short stories a week, and achieving circulations which are currently above half a million copies in each case.

Do the people who write stories for these women’s magazines ever get a mention in the official histories? Do they heck. Why not? Because they are writing for an audience which is mainly working class or middle class, of average intelligence or less, average education, largely unsophisticated, and of course, female. Such an audience simply does not count – indeed it barely exists – in the eyes of our official literary historians. The intelligentsia assume that anything which is enjoyed by readers of such modest abilities must, by definition, be absolute rubbish.

I do not accept this view myself, and I suspect that anyone who tries to write for the lowbrow market will soon discover that the job is by no means as easy as it seems.

Exactly the same state of affairs exists if we go up a notch on the intellectual scale. In the first half of the twentieth century, by far the most famous and financially successful short-story writer was Somerset Maugham. He wrote hundreds of stories, and some of them were made into films, such as Quartet in 1948 and Trio in 1959. Another of his stories, Rain, was filmed several times, most famously as Miss Sadie Thompson, with Rita Hayworth in the lead.

Maugham was a middlebrow writer to his core; almost anyone could read and enjoy what he wrote. And how is Maugham treated by our official historians? He barely rates a mention, naturally, and when he is mentioned he is sneered at. Here is Anthony Burgess once again, from the essay referred to above: ‘The first thing I wrote... was one of those cheating kind of short stories which Somerset Maugham indulged in: not a word of invention at all, but the mere recounting of an anecdote.’

Later in the same text, Burgess has another go: ‘With some shame, I have to mention the name of William Somerset Maugham, the most successful practitioner of the short story we’ve ever had in England.’ (Success is equated with shame.) Maugham, according to Burgess, was just repeating stories that he had heard on his travels in the Far East.

Maugham himself seems to have got the message about what the literary elite thought of him. In his autobiography he says: ‘It is a misfortune for me that the telling of a story just for the sake of the story is not an activity that is in favour with the intelligentsia.’

Burgess, and the other commentators who grudgingly mention Maugham’s name solely in order to denigrate his achievements, seem to me to be offering a less than fair assessment. Whatever else may be said, Maugham was a man who communicated successfully with a wide audience.

Not only do academic writers tend to overlook whole areas of fiction writing, but they are also likely to ignore the economic facts of life.

In the nineteenth and early twentieth century, magazines were a popular form of entertainment, and the stories printed within those magazines were often the feature that readers enjoyed most. As the twentieth century advanced, however, other forms of entertainment rapidly took over, and the readership of magazines declined.

The cinema, radio, television; gramophones, tape recorders, video recorders; 78s, 45s, LPs, CDs, DVDs – new sources of entertainment appeared almost year by year. As a result, the markets for short stories shrank to the point of vanishing entirely. H.E. Bates, in his book The Modern Short Story, first published in 1941, noted that even in the 1920s and ’30s it was said that the short story was unwanted, unprinted, and unread.

It was at this point that the literary magazine was invented. These subsidised, low-circulation journals exist for one reason only: to provide fodder for the great Eng. Lit. and creative-writing machines. Hence the prime requirement of anything published in such a place is that it should give any reader a sharp pain between the eyes. The more tedious the story, the better it suits the purpose of the professors, and therefore the more praise that is heaped upon it.

Back in the real world, there was, for all practical purposes, almost no commercial demand for short stories of any kind from about 1960 on. True, there were some crime and science-fiction magazines, such as Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine and Analog; there were a few glossy magazines, such as The New Yorker and Playboy, which used occasional pieces of short fiction; and there were the women's magazines. But these were exceptions, and the likelihood that they would publish anything by a previously unknown writer was close to zero.

A few writers, mostly those who also wrote commercially successful novels, still managed to persuade their publishers to put out collections of short stories: Stephen King, Jeffrey Archer, and Maeve Binchy among them. These, of course, are again names which are ignored by the official historians of literature, because they are popular, easy to read, and therefore (it is said) valueless.

Some writers did manage to swim upstream, and make an impact primarily through their short stories, rather than by means of full-length fiction. Stanley Ellin made his mark in crime fiction; Harlan Ellison in science fiction and fantasy; Roald Dahl in mainstream fiction.

Not that any of these names was ever given any credit for his achievement by the intelligentsia. Here is Anthony Burgess on Dahl: he is ‘not a very good short-story writer, not a writer that you would study in a university course, but well known... His stories... have a point; they have a twist in the tale; something happens in them.’

Roald Dahl's stories were not the sort of thing that you would find yourelf studying in a unviersity course, precisely because they were readable and popular. But they were good enough to form the foundation of an enormously successful writing career. Twenty-five of the stories were used as the basis of a long-running television series called Tales of the Unexpected. One of Dahl’s books for children, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, was chosen by readers of The Times as the most popular children’s book of all time, and was adapted into a hit movie. Dahl also wrote the script for the James Bond film, You Only Live Twice. Most of us would regard that output as the record of quite a good writer.

Today, the situation as regards the market for short stories is changing rapidly: the advent of the internet has led to the creation of new ways to reach new audiences. Dramatic changes in printing technology have also made it possible to produce books at a small fraction of the cost which would have been incurred in previous years.

These changes mean that there is now some point in writing short stories, where previously there was little point. I myself, for example, wrote a few short stories in my youth, but then never bothered to write any more for forty years, because there was almost nowhere to send them! In 2003, however, I published a book full of them: King Albert’s Words of Advice, available from at a bargain price. The only review that I have ever seen thought that they were pretty good too.

The internet, I suspect, will change the whole position as regards the short story. It will now be possible for a talented writer to make a reputation in her genre of choice in a relatively short period of time. Whether it will be possible for that writer to make any money out of the business remains to be seen.

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

More Maschler

On Monday I referred to a number of reviews of Publisher, by Tom Maschler. And today there is another review of the book in Private Eye.

Tom Maschler, we are reminded by the Eye, played a pivotal role in post-war British publishing of the literary kind. For somewhere near three decades he presided over the affairs of Jonathan Cape, a firm which he modestly describes in his memoirs as 'the greatest literary house in England.'

There is, however, a problem with the memoirs of this great man. Every reviewer seems obliged to point out, despite the cosiness and mutual-back-scratching nature of the UK book world, that the memoirs reveal a crass, insensitive individual, who continually states the obvious, tells us nothing remotely interesting or new, and seems obsessed with celebrity. Overall, as the Eye reviewer puts it, 'Maschler has no idea what might interest his audience and what might not.'

Well, of course, I haven't read the book, so I am not in an ideal position to judge. But it is certainly true that Publisher was written by a man who for decades made the key decisions about whether to publish certain literary novels or not. And so it follows, inevitably, that he cannot possibly be the clueless moron that the reviews suggest. The only possible conclusion from these facts is that Maschler's book is some sort of postmodernist joke. It is a super-sophisticated parody of the publisher's-memoir genre.

Yes, on reflection I'm quite sure that that is the answer.

The official history of the short story

Later this week – or possibly next week – I want to talk about some short stories that I have been reading. But first, let us devote a little thought to the history of the short story.

(Such thoughts as I have to offer here were written a couple of years ago for a book which I have not yet got around to publishing; but they will, as I say, serve as a useful introduction to some later reviews.)

The short story, it turns out, has two histories, not one. There is the official history, and then there is the true history.

The official history of the short story is written by the professors of English Literature, God bless their little cotton socks.

The Scottish universities were the first in the world to establish literature courses, as early as the eighteenth century, but the business did not really catch on until the twentieth century.

What you need to understand is that the establishment of formal courses in Eng. Lit. is a classic example of people creating a very cushy berth for themselves. Somewhere around the beginning of the twentieth century it suddenly dawned on a few bookish and idle people that, if they were to establish a course in Eng. Lit. at university level, they would enjoy a comfortable salary, long holidays, and would have not much to do even during term-time. True, they would have to give a few lectures; but the lectures could be the same every year.

However, it also dawned on these people – since they weren’t complete fools – that they would not look ‘respectable’ and ‘learned’ and ‘scholarly’ if they went around reading the same books as everyone else, and talking about them in much the same way as people do in pubs.

So – cunning devils that they were – the early professors of Eng. Lit. took two steps.

First, they began to lecture about, and write about, stuff that everyone else found pretty much unreadable and dead boring. And second, they began to write about this ‘literature’ in a language all of their own: its name is EngLitspeak, aka gobbledygook.

What I ask you to remember is that the official history of the short story is written by people of this kind – people whose (very comfortable) living depends on churning out ‘research’. No one, apart from a few bemused students with an essay to finish, ever reads any of this research or takes the slightest notice of it. Its practical value is zero; unlike research in the hard sciences, it does not produce valuable technological spin-offs. But it is the professors who churn out this unreadable material about unreadable source material who have invented the official history of the short story (and the novel too, of course) for their own purposes.

Their own purposes, I repeat, are principally the need to look knowledgeable and important when they come to teach Eng. Lit. to all those attractive young ladies who flock to the liberal arts colleges and universities which are so dear to us all. The professors are ever conscious of the fact that Eng. Lit. has to look serious. It cannot possibly be allowed to be fun. If it did look like fun, how could the parents be persuaded to pay little Deirdre’s college fees? And if there were no students then the professors would actually have to work for a living, which would be a catastrophe.

The Eng. Lit. industry did not really get under way until perhaps the 1930s, and it began to gather pace from about 1950 onwards. What this means is that even the official historians of the short story are stuck with the fact that, prior to about 1950, the short stories which are famous and readily available in print are the short stories which people actually read and enjoyed. Post about 1950, however, the Eng. Lit. guys were able to make their own rules; and, true to form, and consistent with their own devious ends, they saw to it that the short stories which were then held up as models, lectured about, and generally praised to the skies, were stories which were obscure, tedious, boring, dull, pretentious, and generally tiresome. You have been warned.

Here, however, is a brief summary of the history of the short story as conceived by our literary masters. The early stories that I mention are, of course, those which ordinary readers found memorable. The first part of the official history is therefore reasonably reliable; the second part, which I will keep extremely brief, is wholly unreliable, because it was invented for purposes explained above.

The short story was invented as soon as human beings could talk. One day, one of the first hunter-gatherers went out and had a close encounter with a sabre-toothed tiger. When he came back he gave his family a lurid account of what had happened, no doubt with a little exaggeration thrown in. Later, his wife told the story to some of the other men’s wives while they were doing the cooking. And so on. In other words, the short story began as a tale told orally, often around the campfire.

As soon as civilisation invented writing, stories began to be recorded on paper. The Bible, of course, contains numerous parables and stories which offer moral lessons and judgements.

The Greeks had the fables of the slave Aesop, dating from about the sixth century BC.

The Arabian Nights is a collection of stories from Persia, Arabia, India, and Egypt, which was compiled over hundreds of years.

In the fourteenth century, Chaucer gave us his Canterbury Tales, which are effectively short stories in verse.

Boccaccio’s Decameron (1353) is definitely a collection of short stories, by any reasonable definition; one hundred of them. The book relates how a group of young people fled from Florence to avoid the plague. While they waited for the disease to burn itself out, they entertained each other with racy stories about wicked priests and randy nuns.

Boccaccio, by the way, constitutes a bit of a problem for the Eng. Lit. guys. These stories about randy nuns et cetera look like fun – and many of them are. So Boccaccio is usually ignored. Fortunately he is Italian, so that makes it easier. If in doubt, you can always declare him grossly improper. Burckhardt, writing in the nineteenth century in his Civilisation of the Renaissance in Italy, simply said that ‘the character of the tales forbids lengthy description’, and moved hastily on.

In the eighteenth century, The Spectator published many semi-fictional sketches of characters.

Generally speaking, however, the accepted view among literary historians is that the short story, as we know it today, began in the early nineteenth century; that is to say, it appeared as a literary form slightly later than the novel, which is usually held to have emerged in the eighteenth century.

According to some authorities, the first short story of any significance, by a writer of any standing, was The Two Drovers, by Sir Walter Scott. This was published in 1827.

Grimm’s Fairy Tales, in the 1820s, was a famous and influential collection of folk tales, and before long the Americans got into the act with Hawthorne’s Twice Told Tales (1837) and Edgar Allan Poe’s Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque (1840).

In England, Thomas Hardy’s Wessex Tales (1888) was the first volume of short stories to enjoy a major success.

Other masters of the short-story art who worked during the nineteenth century include Anton Chekhov in Russia and Guy de Maupassant in France.

The term ‘short story’, incidentally, is said to have first been coined by Professor Brander Matthews, of Columbia University, in 1901.

Once we enter the twentieth century, any orthodox history of the short story soon presents us with a long list of ‘respectable’ authors. The professors of Eng. Lit. identified these authors as worthy of study precisely because they were not read and enjoyed by ordinary people. You had to be ‘an exceptionally good judge’ – otherwise known as a person with an intense desire to hang on to a sinecure – in order to appreciate them.

I am not going to list all the so-called ‘styles’ or ‘movements’ which the professors of Eng. Lit. claim to have identified in twentieth-century short-story writers: realism and modernism and minimalism and so forth. It is all too wearisome to think about. If you really want to know more, visit any well-stocked academic library and you will soon find some lengthy (and extremely dull) treatises on the subject.

Tomorrow we will turn, with a great sigh of relief, to something a bit more interesting and useful: namely, the true history of the short story, which is an account of the short story as favoured by readers. Readers who, praise the Lord, don’t give a monkey’s thumbnail what the professors of English Literature think about anything.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Why zebras don't get ulcers -- and writers do

On the recommendation of Nassim Nicholas Taleb, I have been reading Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers, by Robert M. Sapolsky. First published in 1994, the book is now in its third edition (2004).

Sapolsky is a professor of biology and neurology at Stanford University -- which is about as respectable as you can get in academic terms -- and he is one of those rare scientists who write stuff that ordinary people can read.

The blurb on the back cover provides, for once, a pretty fair summary of the book's contents. Sapolsky, it says, 'combines cutting-edge research with a healthy dose of good humor and practical advice to explain how prolonged stress causes or intensifies a range of physical and mental afflictions, including depression, ulcers, colitis, heart disease, and more. When we worry or experience stress, our body turns on the same physiological responses that an animal's body does, but we usually do not turn off the stress-response in the same way -- through fighting, fleeing, or other quick actions. Over time, this chronic activation of the stress-response can make us literally sick.'

Now what, you may be wondering, does this stuff about stress-responses have to do with writers?

More or less everything, I would say. Sapolsky is giving us scientific evidence to back up a statement that I made back in 2003. The very first paragraph of my book The Truth about Writing runs as follows:
Writing is an activity which can seriously damage your health. It can consume huge amounts of time and energy, and it can lead to frustration, rage, and bitterness.
Some years ago I came to believe that emotions, particularly strongly negative emotions, have a profound effect upon our physical as well as our mental health. And Sapolsky provides chapter and verse of how this reaction works.

The first chapter attempts to give us an overview of the general human situation. For the vast majority of beasts on this planet, stress is a short-term crisis. You are attacked by a lion. You run like hell and get away. Or you're dead.

For human beings it isn't like that. We just sit around and worry. And in doing so we turn on the same physiological responses as would occur if we were attacked by a lion. Our body floods with chemicals to help us to run like hell. And we don't turn off the response by using up those chemical resources. On the contrary, we worry for months on end: we worry about our relationships, about the mortgage, about our jobs, and -- of course -- about the rejection of our novel.

Sapolsky goes on to describe this basic mechanism in great detail, and in relation to specific illnesses. There are chapters, for instance, on strokes and heart attacks; ulcers and the runs; sex and reproduction; stress and memory; and so forth.

The book is a long one -- it runs to over 500 pages -- and I don't think that many readers are going to read every word. I certainly didn't. But if you suffer, for instance, from insomnia, constipation, indigestion, or any one of half a dozen other minor ailments, you might take a look at what Sapolsky has to say before matters get any worse.

The good news is that there is a final chapter on managing stress. The bad news is that the simple answers to coping with stress 'are far from simple to implement in everyday life.' What you have to do, apparently, is find a means 'to gain at least some degree of control in difficult situations.' (There is more to it, of course, but that's a key principle.)

Now, just ask yourself for a moment. How could you possibly have less control than is experienced by a would-be writer, as yet unpublished, who is sending out a ms to agents and publishers, in the forlorn hope that someone is going to pick up the phone and tell you that you are a genius?

Hmm? Care to tell me?

If you are determined to press ahead with a writing 'career', just don't say you weren't warned, that's all.

What is more, even if, by some miracle performed by the goddess Fortuna, you find yourself an agent, get published, and have a success, you will still not be in control of your own fate. You may doubt that, but it's true. In the biography of Dean Koontz, written by Katherine Ramsland, the author relates how, after 54 novels and a US hardcover bestseller, Koontz still had trouble in persuading his editor (the lovely Phyllis Grann) to publish his next book. And in my own modest life, one of the main reasons why I gave up using an agent, in 1999, was because I wanted to regain control of how my work was handled.

In the course of this brief post about the health risks to writers, I have tried to adopt a fairly lighthearted tone, but the truth is, this is not a joking matter at all. If, on top of all the other multiple stresses of modern life, you impose the additional burden of (a) trying to find the time and energy to write a novel, and then (b) try to cope with the frustrations of offering it around, you are seriously pushing your luck. Your system will be strained to its very limit.

'In our privileged lives,' says Sapolsky, 'we are uniquely smart enough to have invented these stressors, and uniquely foolish enough to have let them, too often, dominate our lives.'

Couldn't put it better myself. Good luck to all you as-yet-unpublished writers out there. And even to those of you who are published.