Friday, September 30, 2005

Bookworm on the Net

In the past I have drawn attention to items in the blog called Bookworm on the Net, which is written by romantic novelist Anne Weale, but for some reason the link to it was omitted from the blogroll on your right.

Well, I have now remedied that. And perhaps this is the time to repeat that Bookworm on the Net contains a great deal of useful and interesting stuff about writing and publishing. Particularly relevant, of course, if your ambitions lie in the direction of romantic fiction.

On the banning of books

This week the UK Labour Party has been having its annual conference; and an incident occurred there which is relevant, indirectly, to the process of trying to ban books.

What happened was this. The Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, was making a speech about Iraq. As he did so, he was heckled from the back of the conference centre by an elderly man. 'Nonsense!' shouted the old man at one point. And 'That's a lie!' at another. Precisely the sort of thing that most people shout at their television sets whenever a politician comes on.

Well, naturally, new Labour does not take kindly to being heckled, and the elderly man was forcibly ejected from the hall, along with another man who tried to defend him. Both men were apparently banned from future attendance.

The man who carried out the forcible ejection, it now emerges, was a burly fellow who is described as 'a freelance car clamper, celebrity minder, and former nightclub bouncer.' How reassuring it is, to know that our governing party staffs its conferences with persons of such gentility, good sense, and tact.

And the gentleman who was heaved out turns out to be an 82-year old Jew called Walter Wolfgang, who came to England from Germany as a refugee in 1937 and has been an active member of the Labour Party since 1948.

The whole of this incident was filmed by the television cameras, and, as you would expect (and indeed hope), it was the subject of much comment.

Today the newspapers are full of it. What happened yesterday was that Mr Wolfgang received a personal apology from everyone in the Labour Party from Blair downwards (or possibly even upwards). What is more, the gentleman suddenly found himself being interviewed, at great length, by journalists who only two days earlier would not have given him the time of day had he asked.

According to the Times, Mr Wolfgang spent much of yesterday 'giving back-to-back media interviews in which he eloquently and lucidly denounced Labour's policies, leadership and culture.'

In short, what we have here is a massive cock-up and an own goal of legendary proportions. An attempt to stifle dissent has led, as such things almost invariably do, to the precisely opposite effect.

Which brings me to Banned Books Week and related matters. The Book Standard provides an introductory survey of Banned Books Week, which ends on 1 October and which is being marked, it seems, with a coordinated campaign in the United States if not elsewhere. Further details of the events et cetera can be found on the ALA site.

Even in the US (which has a written constitution which appears to say something about the freedom of speech), attempts are regularly made to have books banned. Usually on the grounds that they are sexually explicit. Though I did read that, in 1983, four members of the Alabama State Textbook Committee tried to ban The Diary of Anne Frank on the grounds that it was 'a real downer'. Which is at least original.

If an attempt to ban a book is enforced with physical violence, e.g. by burning a few people at the stake to drive home the point, then it can be effective; if only temporarily. But in the long run, the final effect of censorship is to increase curiosity, arouse interest, stimulate the sale of bootleg copies, and all like that.

And if you want a case in point, consider what is happening in relation to Lady Colin Campbell's novel Empress Bianca. On 29 July I described how lawyers acting on behalf of a Mrs Lily Safra had initiated libel proceedings in relation to this book, claiming that it was a thinly disguised portrait of Mrs Safra. (The leading character in the book, by the way, murders a couple of husbands.)

The publishers of Empress Bianca, being small and impecunious, immediately gave in and had the book pulped.

Until Mrs Safra's highly paid rottweilers started chewing on the publisher's leg, virtually no one, I venture to suggest, had taken any serious notice of this novel. But once the news of the attempted banning of the book got out, everyone suddenly got interested. Even I, out here in darkest Wiltshire, got several emails from people in various parts of the world, asking how they could get hold of a copy. Some of these people, interestingly enough, wrote from legal firms of one sort or another.

And -- there is more. A few days ago a correspondent told me that the case of Empress Bianca had been discussed in two articles by Dominic Dunne, in the August and September issues of Vanity Fair. Unfortunately these are not available online, and I have not yet been able to track down copies. But if and when I do lay hands on them, I will let you know what they say.

Meanwhile I simply express the view that, if you are hoping to protect a client's reputation, having an alleged libel upon her discussed by Dominic Dunne in two articles in Vanity Fair is unlikely to help much.

Isn't wonderful what a few highly paid lawyers can do for you?

Thursday, September 29, 2005

Peter Stothard blogs

I am an ignorant fellow, in many ways, and I did not know that Peter Stothard -- actually Sir Peter Stothard -- is the current editor of the Times Literary Supplement. Perhaps I was unaware of it because that is a journal which I finally gave up on about ten years ago, after having read it every week since I was about sixteen. I eventually grew weary of trying to find anything in it that I could understand or enjoy.

Anyway, it turns out that Stothard has started a blog. Its layout is somewhat curious, giving you only a sentence or two of a post before inviting you to click on, and he has apparently only just set up shop. The content, however, seems less highbrow than one might have feared. Indeed some of it is quite... well, shall we say explicit?

Should you be so inclined, you can read all about girls in ancient Sparta who (allegedly) had their heads shaved, were dressed in boys' clothes, and were then subjected to 'institutionalised sodomy'. However, Stothard goes on to point out, as you would expect from a scholar and a gentleman, that the evidence for this is a bit thin. Though I dare say the book in question will sell a few copies, despite that.

The great Ottakar's merger conspiracy

Last week, while I was away on holiday, a number of stories surfaced which are clearly of importance to the future of the book trade but which generated in me, I'm sorry to say, nothing more than a yawn.

One such was the Google Print row. (Google are hoping to digitise every book ever written in the entire history of the universe. Well, if they do, the search engine had better work a bit better than the one at the top of this page does at the moment; apologies if you are finding it as frustrating as I am, but it ain't my fault.) Anyway, a number of authors have taken objection to Google's plans and have launched a legal case against them.

Sorry, but I can't get excited about that. Google will win in the long run, and a good thing too in my opinion.

And the other major non-story is the proposed takeover of the UK retail book-chain Ottakar's by HMV, owners of another big high-street book firm, Waterstone's. (The result may possibly be known as Wottakar's?) The UK Publishers Association says that this will bring about the end of the world as we know it. If the merger goes ahead, all kinds of bad things will happen: chiefly that publishers will have to give booksellers a larger slice of the book-buyer's pound.

Here again, I'm afraid I can't raise so much as an eyebrow, though the Society of Authors is deeply worried about it. So is Tracy Chevalier.

Yes, it is certainly true that both these proposed developments will bring about significant change. But while Google seem to understand very well the massive difference which the internet has made, a difference which is earth-shaking in relation to the book world, the dear old Publishers Association, and the Society of Authors, just don't seem to have got it yet.

I dare say the Ottakar's deal will reduce competition in the old-fashioned trade and will have some 'damaging' effects. But the Times this morning reports that high-street business as a whole is struggling, while internet sales rose by 31% in August.

The truth is, there is a whole new world of opportunity out there. There are now ways for writers (and publishers, and booksellers) to reach readers which were not only impossible to achieve a few decades ago, but for most of us were even impossible to imagine. And yet it's all there -- available now -- at your fingertips, on the end of your keyboard. (Like this blog, for instance.) All you have to do is wake up to the opportunity and use it in new creative ways.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Charles Stross: Iron Sunrise

Charles Stross's science-fiction novel Iron Sunrise (his second) is a perfectly competent piece of work; we will come to its virtues shortly. But it is not really outstanding, at least in my estimation, and I might therefore not have bothered writing about it here, but for one thing.

And the one thing is this: I fear that Mr Stross may be at risk of falling into a trap which has already claimed a number of other young(ish) British writers; he may be in danger of believing what the papers say about him.

Let us deal with the book's virtues first.

Mr Stross is a man with a powerful imagination, and he has devoted a great deal of time and thought to this book. His main virtue is that he can write; and that is not an altogether common accomplishment; it deserves notice, and praise. He has a nice way with words. He knows, for instance, that data is a plural noun. He refers, at one point, to a feco-ventilationary intersection; and while this is possibly not original, and while I would have written faeco- myself, he deserves credit for using such a phrase. And at another point, in a list of sponsors of the London Times, he includes a company called DisneyMob Amusements. This is amusing in itself, but when you think about it, it is probably inevitable that those two organisations will merge at some point. After all, they have so much in common, don't they? Principally the ruthless pursuit of the dollar.

There are, however, shortcomings. Iron Sunrise is too long. The plot is exceptionally complicated. And there are too many principal characters, particularly the women, for the reader to keep track of them with ease. What writers have to remember is that their precious novels are not read by leisured gentlemen, for two or three hours at a time, in the peace and quiet of a country-house library. On the contrary, novels are read by harassed commuters, standing up in the underground, or risking their lives on the Paddington express. A few pages are snatched here and there, when time permits; during a bathroom break, for instance. In such circumstances the reader needs all the help he can get; and excessive complication is not an aid to enjoyment.

One could go on, but the points, both for and against, have been made in outline. What I really want to deal with here is the reviews for Mr Stross's first novel, Singularity Sky, which are, of course, quoted on the dust jacket of Iron Sunrise.

Here are a few:

'Breathtaking' -- Locus
'One of the most significant works of SF this decade' -- Guardian
'Stross is an author who anyone interested in SF should read and relish' -- SFX. (Dear me, that really is pretty sloppily put, is it not?)
'The Next Big Thing in science fiction' -- Michael Swanwick
'Where Charles Stross goes today, the rest of science fiction will follow tomorrow' -- Gardner Dozois

Now reviews like that, even allowing for some selective quotation, are really pretty good. And a writer who gets reviews like that may be excused for feeling pretty damn pleased with himself.

But the danger is, of course, that he will assume from such reviews that he is doing everything right. And he will go on doing what he did the first time around, in the confident expectation that he will get more of the same reception. And he may, he may. Because reviewers very often try to be positive. If they really hate a book they often just don't mention it.

The one vital thing which a writer who believes his early reviews will not necessarily get, however, is a large and ever-growing population of readers who truly love his stuff, recommend it to all their friends, create web sites to spread the word about it, and otherwise act as the very best kind of p.r. people for no fee whatever.

A writer will only get such a battalion of fans if he (or she, of course) writes books which really work in terms of reader response. And if a writer is lucky enough to get everything right first time out, then he can safely believe what the critics say; he can go on doing what he did the first time, with impunity and indeed advantage. But if, like most first-time writers, he just proves that he can write a bit, but still has a lot to learn, then good reviews are a snare and an enticement. They constitute fleshpots and dens of wickedness which should be eschewed for the sake of your soul.

By way of evidence I offer the following.

Take, for instance, Christopher Brookmyre: a crime writer who is really smart. Brookmyre can provide paragraphs and even whole pages which offer writing of the very highest standard; he's funny too. From the beginning Brookmyre seems to have been praised to the skies. And, being nothing if not human, he has believed what the critics say. And the painful truth is that, one way and another, he has gone sadly astray. I have had to give up on both his last two books after a couple of hundred pages. Brilliant in places, certainly; but overall, intolerable.

The same can be said of Jasper Fforde: brilliant imagination, but just doesn't know how to control it; and, since everyone (except me, on 23 September 2004) tells him that he is absolutely wonderful darling, he sees no reason to.

Another example is Kate Atkinson, who won some very big prizes first time out, and has been ruined as a result. Though in her case, I am sorry to say, I have never personally been able to find any evidence of a high talent in the first place.

So, dear friends and would-be writers. When you open your newspaper, looking for the reviews of your first novel, and find yourself labelled a worthy successor to P.G. Wodehouse/D.H. Lawrence/Barbara Cartland, just remember that it may not be entirely true. And, even if it is, you still have a whole working lifetime ahead of you, during which you will need to hone and refine your skills at every stage. Really successful writers continue to improve; they mature with age.

If you wish to survive and prosper, and in due course become a household name, find yourself someone who really understands how novels work; someone who knows how to bolt a book together, and isn't fooled by all the razzle-dazzle. There must be a few such somewhere. Ask for their advice. Pay for it if need be. You won't regret it.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Michael Gruber: Valley of Bones

If you were paying attention, you will remember that I reviewed Michael Gruber's 'first' novel, Tropic of Night, back in August. And, having read that one, I naturally rushed out to find his follow-up. And Valley of Bones is it.

As might be expected, this one also features Miami detective Jimmy Paz. But Jimmy turns out to take second place, at least in my judgement, to a strange young woman called Emmylou Dideroff (among other names).

Also heavily featured is a hypochondriac police psychologist (female) who provides Mr Paz's love interest; and who knows, the arrangement may become permanent.

Once again this is an absolutely first class thriller -- or police procedural -- or crime novel. Actually, I suspect it is really about religion, in the same way that Tropic of Night was about black magic or voodoo or the occult. But don't worry: this is not one of your fancypants novels of ideas. This is a bite-your-fingernails kind of a book in the best tradition. Its subject matter is, however, those who are possessed by the devil, and those who are filled with the grace of God.

Gruber has, as we discovered last time, been a professional writer for decades, although this is only his second book under his own name. So it is not remotely surprising to find that he is a master of technique, switching between normal third-person narrative to first-person autobiographical confession to transcribed interview tape. All done without the slightest apparent effort or strain.

It would be a great mistake, however, to assume that this all comes easily. This book incorporates a lifetime of the author's accumulated wisdom, plus, I suspect, a great deal of research specifically for this project.

It will do no harm, I hope, if I state, yet again, that anyone who thinks that commercial fiction of this calibre is in any sense inferior to even the best of literary fiction is not just mistaken, they are nuts. There is no kind, polite, friendly way to put it. They are just plain ordinary nuts. Devoid of all judgement and common sense.

Who is John Twelve Hawks?

Back in August I wrote a piece about John Twelve Hawks's so-called thriller The Traveller (aka The Traveler in the US). I thought the book was a dud, but noted, as one would have to, that it was being given a tremendous amount of hype by the publishers, in both the UK and the USA.

I think it was always fairly obvious that John Twelve Hawks was a pseudonym, and I made a brief reference to the kind of person, or persons, who might be involved. But I can't say that I gave very much serious thought to who the author might really be, largely because I felt that the book was so feeble. And, of course, I was irritated by the fact that, yet again, a publisher was putting enormous weight behind something that really didn't deserve it.

However, it turns out that that there are in this world a number of people who are giving some fairly detailed consideration to the identity of The Traveller's author. And one of them, Janet Rice, has come up with the suggestion that the real author is Michael Cunningham. Yes, that very same Michael Cunningham who won the Pulitzer Prize with The Hours and has recently published Specimen Days, another book which I felt wasn't worth anyone's trouble.

Janet Rice first posted her piece of deduction as a comment on my review of The Traveller, and I certainly recommend that you take a look at her detailed reasoning.

I have to say that this linking of Cunningham with the Twelve Hawks identity question is the smartest piece of lateral thinking that I have come across in a long time. Janet has clearly read both The Traveller and Specimen Days with far greater care than I have, and has come up with several features which the books have in common.

Having written her piece as a comment on my blog, Janet has posted her further thoughts on this issue on the discussion page of Night Shade Books, where you will find several other speculations about the mystery man's identity.

Janet, please note, is not insisting that she is right; she is simply putting forward the Twelve Hawks = Cunningham idea as a hypothesis, and inviting others to test it out. For my own part, I have to say that I find the idea tolerably convincing.

First of all, both books are, in my opinion, of much the same standard: i.e. just about publishable but no great shakes. Secondly, the existence of a previously 'successful' author behind the pseudonym would certainly explain why the publisher was willing to invest so heavily in the book; although, having said that, one also has to say that publishers seem quite ready to invest substantial sums in unknown quantities on every other day of the week.

Perhaps somewhere out there is a computer whizzkid who could do some textual analysis and see how the prose style of Cunningham and Twelve Hawks actually compares. Always bearing in mind, of course, that such analysis was not wonderfully successful in identifying the real author of the Belle de Jour blog/book. And also bearing in mind that an author can deliberately adopt different styles and tones of voice for different books.

Janet also adds some speculation as to why Cunningham -- if he is the one -- should bother to write a commercial thriller; her own hope is that he was trying to find a way to get his ideas through to a wider audience than he could achieve via his literary work.

Well -- ahem -- forgive my cynicism, but one should never underestimate the power of the dollar. In publishing, the money is never as much as the hype suggests, whether you're Cunningham, Twelve Hawks, or anyone else. And in my view it might well be the case that some erstwhile literary chap has got tired of scuffling for a living and has tried to cash in.

I have absolutely no objection, in principle, to a writer going flat out for the money, but perhaps whoever is responsible for The Traveller now understands that writing a successful commercial novel is rather harder to do in practice than the literary elite of this world think it is.

Monday, September 26, 2005

Hay-on-Wye

On Friday last to the small town of Hay-on-Wye, which, as many will know but some may not, is the Town of Books.

Back in 1961, a young Oxford graduate called Richard Booth was keen to set up a business selling secondhand books. Unusually, however, he wasn't interested in basing his business in a city, and certainly not in London; and since his family had lived in Hay-on-Wye since 1903, he decided to set up shop there.

From the very beginning, Booth had the idea that a town full of bookshops could be an international attraction; even if it was a small town just over the border of Wales, with a resident population of 1300. And, over a period of forty years, Booth has proved his point. There are now at least 30 bookshops in Hay-on-Wye, and Booth claims that his own shop has more turnover in secondhand books than any other shop of its kind in the world.

Visiting Hay requires a certain amount of pre-planning and a good deal of stamina, because there are bookshops of every sort and kind, and you would need a good week to visit them all. Some are vast warehouses and some are tiny specialist boutiques; some are for trade only. Prices vary from the enormously expensive to the giveaway. The very cheapest books tend to exhibited in outdoor shelving which may not always protect them from the weather.

In short, Hay contains more or less everything that the book lover could possibly ask for, and Mrs GOB and I spent a pleasant day there. Contrary to what you might imagine, it is Mrs GOB who tends to run wild in these establishments, unless carefully controlled. Fortunately her many purchases were not of the expensive variety.

In my own case, I did find what I was looking for, but it was priced at £250, so I didn't buy it. I did, however, buy four cheaper books, of which you will doubtless hear more in time.

As for the King of Hay himself, R. Booth Esq., I didn't get the chance to speak to him, but I did (I believe) pass him in the street. He was talking to a well dressed and earnest-looking young woman, and they were obviously discussing business. As I passed I heard Mr Booth say, 'But I'll tell you what I have got, and I'm asking a million pounds for it....'

Sadly, I was out of earshot before I had chance to discover what this item was. But I didn't hang about (a) because it would have been rude, and (b) because, let's face it, I am in no position to make a realistic offer, however tempting the morsel might be.

Should you wish to combine a visit to Hay with a holiday, you should be aware that the Wye valley contains some famously beautiful scenery. You should also note that, each year, the Guardian mounts a book festival in the town. This attracts some eminent speakers and about 80,000 visitors.

Friday, September 16, 2005

Pause in posts

There will be no further posts on the GOB until Monday 26 September, as Mrs GOB and I are taking a break.

In the meantime, here are some other things for you to read.

The Book Standard has two articles which provide some thinking material for anyone involved in the writing business. First, Neil Gaiman is interviewed. He talks mainly about his experiences in film writing but touches also upon the way in which the media are changing, and how writers can find new ways to achieve old effects.

Then we have Judith Regan on similar themes, as seen from her position 'on the cutting edge of the information/entertainment nexus'.

Poynter and Snow, at U-publish.com, have a monthly newsletter which usually contains something interesting. This time they point out that, come 29 September, there is a 'Book Summit', at which the 'visionaries of modern book publishing' will discuss production, promotion, and the challenges facing the digital industry.

Most of us are unlikely to attend, but in the meantime there is a mass of advance commentary posted on the Book Summit blog site.

Horace's advice to writers

I've been reading Horace. Well, you probably have to call him Quintus Horatius Flaccus, but Horace and I go way back. At least as far as, oh, the day before yesterday.

There's a bit of Horace which I think is worth bearing in mind if you're a writer or a publisher or indeed anyone who works in the book business. It's his ode number I-XI, entitled Carpe Diem, which means seize, or pluck, the day: and hence enjoy the day.

As far as I can discover, the ode is addressed to someone called Leuconoe, who seems to have been a young lady. The ode offers advice -- advice which, I fear, might possibly be interpreted as an attempt to get inside Leuconoe's underwear. But perhaps I just have a suspicious mind.

Judging by the first couple of web sites that Google throws up, there is a fairly standard translation of Carpe Diem. And I would guess it is often quoted because it's out of copyright. Here it is in its basic form:
Ask not - we cannot know - what end the gods have set for you, for me; nor attempt the Babylonian reckonings, Leuconoe. How much better to endure whatever comes, whether Jupiter grants us additional winters or whether this is our last, which now wears out the Tuscan Sea upon the barrier of the cliffs! Be wise, strain the wine; and since life is brief, prune back far-reaching hopes! Even while we speak, envious time has passed: pluck the day, putting as little trust as possible in tomorrow!
That, as I say, is a fairly common translation. But there are lots of others. You can find at least a dozen, kindly assembled for us by Michael Gilleland. In addition he provides a modern version, which I suspect is his own. It goes like this:

Don't ask (it's forbidden to know) what final fate the gods have given to me and you, Leuconoe, and don't consult Babylonian horoscopes. How much better it is to accept whatever shall be, whether Jupiter has given many more winters or whether this is the last one, which now breaks the force of the Tuscan sea against the facing cliffs. Be wise, strain the wine, and trim distant hope within short limits. While we're talking, grudging time will already have fled: seize the day, trusting as little as possible in tomorrow.

Now that, I think you will agree, makes the meaning crystal clear for modern readers, and thus makes the point that I was striving for.

Michael Gilleland lists eight principal points which the ode makes, and clearly it has made them sufficiently forcefully to survive for a couple of thousand years. The ones which strike me as relevant are his points numbered 3, 7, and 8:

3. We must endure whatever befalls us.
7. It is foolish to make long-range plans.
8. It's better to enjoy the present moment.

In addition, I think the ode suggests that it would be wise not to build up your hopes too high, but to be content with a modest level of achievement. Temper your ambition, in other words.

Think on, as they used to say in Yorkshire when I were a lad.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Dangerous Characters

Mark Rayner, of whom more at the end, drew my attention to a recent article in the New York Times, with the title Dangerous Characters. It was written by one Benjamin Kunkel. (You may have to register to read it.)

Mr Kunkel, I find, having Googled him, is an (rather than the) editor of n+1, which is a newish magazine. It appears to be fearfully highbrow. Issue three, Fall 2005, seems to have the overall title The Intellectual Situation, and n+1 is therefore, pretty much by definition, not a magazine which would interest me. However, it's a big old world, and there's room in it for everybody (at the moment, just about), so I dare say that n+1 will find readers. If only because some people do take life awfully seriously.

Mr Kunkel also gets his picture in the New York Sun, where he is described as one of the 'new' New York intellectuals, and he looks like a presentable sort of chap. The sort of person one could take home to tea, perhaps, without Mother getting too upset and counting the silver. However, being presentable is one thing; being right is quite another. And I don't think he gets things quite right in his article about Dangerous Characters.

Kunkel's thesis is that 9/11 changed the American novel. Well, yes. And then again, no. Events like 9/11 change lots of things, but that really doesn't get us much further forward, does it?

And by the time we get to the third paragraph of Dangerous Characters we are deep into the kind of generalisation which makes me realise that my indifference to all things literary is even more intense (if you can have an intense indifference) than I had guessed.

Kunkel tells us that there were two literary preoccupations in the 1990s. One was the tone called 'irony' and the other was the genre called the social novel.

Now the odd thing is this, see. For most of the 1990s I was running, among other things, an academic publishing company; I was also running what was, in effect, a small printing firm; I was working in a university; I was reading all the standard book-trade magazines and pages of book reviews (I even read the Times Lit. Supp.); and I was certainly reading lots of fiction and beginning to think about writing some more myself, after a gap of several years. And yet despite all that, I had absolutely no idea that the two literary preoccupations of the decade were the tone called irony and the social novel. Not only could you have fooled me, but you did.

However, I am prepared to take Kunkel's word for it that in the literary coffee shops of New York and San Francisco, and in all parts in between, they talked of nothing else.

He goes on to say, however, that between 1989 and 2001, there was another preoccupation which has perhaps gone unnoticed. An extraordinary number of novelists were writing about fictional terrorists. In fact, he says, about as many 'major authors' wrote about terrorists in the 90s as did not. Fifty per cent of them, in other words.

Now, you know, I do try to remain good-natured about the Eng. Lit. lot, but really they do take your breath away. When you read that statement about 'major authors', you know that you are going to get -- you're going to get a list of famous literary names. Because authors who write crime fiction, romantic fiction, science fiction, and so forth, they are not 'major'. At least not in the eyes of those who write for n+1 and the New York Times.

I am beginning to feel like a cracked gramophone record, in that I keep saying this. But no one has yet produced any sound argument, to my knowledge, to demonstrate that those who write literary fiction are in any meaningful way superior to those who write in other genres. Which wouldn't matter if the literary types who speak of 'major authors' always made it clear that they are speaking of one genre only, and not in absolute terms which cover the whole fictional range. But they don't. And therefore Mr Kunkel and I do not get off to a good start.

Even within his own terms, however, I have to ask this: how does Kunkel justify his statement that half the major authors, within the literary genre, have written novels about terrorists in the years 1989-2001? Does he produce any lists? Does he define the term 'major author'? No, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, he does not. So what we have here, I'm sorry to say, is what respectable social scientists (if that is not a contradiction in terms) refer to as 'mere journalism'. Aka sloppy generalisation.

Kunkel then goes on to consider many of the literary novels of the 90s which did feature terrorists among the main characters. Which is tolerably interesting, as far as it goes. But there are certain points at which he loses me.

It occurred to me while I was reading this article that I myself once wrote a novel about a couple of terrorists. Its title was No Holds Barred. True, this book was written some twenty-odd years ago. And true, it didn't make much impression on the world even at the time. It was published in the US only, as a paperback original, by a firm which soon afterwards (coincidentally rather than as a consequence) went bust. Copies are rare indeed. But at least I have some practical experience of the problems of writing such a book.

And one of the points where Kunkel loses me is when he argues that the writer of the terrorist novel mingles 'detestation of the terrorist with a distinct if shameful envy.' And in the next paragraph he speaks of 'the novelist's jealous rivalry with the terrorist', arguing, in effect, that novelists envy the terrorist's ability to get himself into the newspapers.

Well, speak for yourself, Kunkel, is all I can say to that. I can tell you here and now that I felt no shameful envy of my terrorists. I recall that I went to a great deal of trouble to make them real people, with some sort of credible motivation for trying to bump off the US President and the UK Prime Minister in one go. But envy? No sir, not guilty.

Mind you, Kunkel does say that his statements only apply to a certain kind of literary novelist. And since I was definitely writing what he calls 'disposable suspense fiction', I guess I am excluded anyway. And therefore, I suppose, Kunkel may even be right, because there are certainly some kinds of literary novelists who are capable of believing all kinds of silly things. Seven of them , even before breakfast.

But then just when you think you might be able to excuse Kunkel for putting forward this idea, he produces it again. A problem looms into view, he says. 'A serious writer will hate terrorists not only because they threaten him along with everyone else, but because terror is one more thing to usurp his complex public art and shore up the society of the spectacle.' In other words, if I understand him correctly, the 'serious' novelist ( = literary chap in Kunkel's book) will hate terrorists because they take away his publicity.

This is one of those days when I am particularly glad not to be a literary writer.

Terrorist novels, says Kunkel, 'have usually sympathised with the left-wing domestic terrorist's complaint.' Hmm, well, I certainly didn't sympathise with the political agenda of my two. And presumably that's because my own tentatively held political opinions are usually to the right of Tony Blair. And if, by any chance, you are still one of those who think that the words Blair and Socialist belong in the same sentence, let me say that, if you remove Mr Blair's trousers, you will find that he is wearing Mrs Thatcher's cast-off knickers. Navy blue, from Marks and Spencer.

And there is more. It is quite a long article. So long, in fact, that my tip-off man confessed that he hadn't read it all.

Kunkel concludes that novels about terrorists will continue to be written, but that they will not be as sympathetic towards the actual doers of the deeds. Well no, I don't suppose they will. And the reason for that, if I may mention such a sordid material consideration, is that no one would buy them if they were! People are not, generally speaking, very sympathetic to those who go around killing and maiming innocent civilians in the interests of some crackpot creed, whether political or religious.

As far as I am concerned, a much more interesting and useful article than Kunkel's could have made out of an analysis of terrorist novels which have been written by the people who really know how to do the job; i.e. the professional thriller writers of this world, such as Ken Follett and Charles McCarry. But perhaps the NYT will offer us that next week.

Enough of all that. Let me end by saying that the man who drew this article to my attention, and so thoroughly upset my digestion of a perfectly good meal, was Mark Rayner. And he, bless his heart, has not written a novel about terrorists.

No. Instead he has written a novel about Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who did not die in 1791 at all, but survived, it seems, at least until 2028, when he decided to have a sex-change operation. And you can read about all this for a mere $16.00 US; a bit more if you're Canadian. In either case, a bargain if ever I saw one.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Darwinia

At the beginning of August I reviewed Robert Charles Wilson’s science-fiction novel Spin. And since I enjoyed that book I went back and found an earlier novel of his, Darwinia.

Darwinia was first published in 1998, and it won the Aurora Award. In fact, judging by the cover of the UK paperback edition, you might think that it had won the Philip K. Dick Award, but that went to an earlier book of Wilson’s, Mysterium.

Anyway, you will get the point that Wilson is not without honours. And deservedly so, because he is a skilful writer. His narrative technique is very sound, and it would repay study if you are into writing yourself. He knows how to use viewpoint, and he writes in scenes, with a lean, spare style of storytelling.

At the beginning of Darwinia there are perhaps too many characters introduced for my taste, but we soon settle down and concentrate mainly on the fate of Guilford Law.

Guilford has to cope with the fact that, in 1912, the world changes overnight. Europe and all its inhabitants disappear, being replaced with a continent which has the shape of Europe but different animals and plants. The new land becomes known as Darwinia.

Robert Charles Wilson is a writer capable of developing a powerful vision of what the universe might be about, and how it might work. But he wisely concentrates on the human element. And at the end of the book he manages to make us feel very deeply about the ultimate fate of his principal characters.

The book, in other words, is a success. Recommended if you like science fiction.

Ken Ratcliffe: Manhook

There was once a successful American playwright -- name will come to me in a minute -- who developed an elaborate garden somewhere in upper New York State (as I recall). One of his friends stood on the patio, surveyed the dazzling landscape as far as his eyes could see, and remarked that it showed what God could have done if only he'd had the money.

Moss Hart: that's the name of the playwright.

And yesterday I had an email which shows what a self-publisher can do if only he or she has enough money.

The email comes from a 'press release purveyor' at Universal Buzz, which describes itself, up-front in the email, as 'a publicity and communications company... that is responsible for bringing interesting new entertainment information to the most influential sites on the web.' No subterfuge there.

Take a look at the Universal Buzz site and you will find that they seem to concentrate mostly on rock groups, but they look like a highly professional outfit. They have a sub-division called Universal Buzz Intelligence which describes the various marketing services that the company can offer; and which, I would wager, do not come cheap.

The press release purveyor tells me that Universal Buzz is working with the former CFO of Apple (Ken Ratcliffe) to promote his new novel, Manhook. The book is described as a dark comedy about the inner workings of the corporate world, inspired by Mr. Ratcliffe's own experiences in the workplace. And the publicist clearly hopes that I will spread the word about this book; which I am quite prepared to do, because everybody is playing fair here. No one is pretending to be anything they are not.

The email comes with a link to a special web site for the book, and again this is a highly professional piece of work. This was not bolted together by Mr Ratcliffe's grandson one Tuesday afternoon while he was waiting for his tea. And you can explore it at length and see what you think. You are given quite a lot of information about the author, and ample opportunity to sample the text. You can also read many enthusiastic quotations from readers, and if you go to the novel's page on Amazon.com you can read some more.

The publisher, by the way, is Booksurge, a company which essentially serves self-publishers and is owned by Amazon itself.

So, what we have here is an everyday story of writing folk, writ a little bit larger than usual. Ken Ratcliffe, a man who has knocked about the business world, has written a novel about that world, which, naturally, he thinks is pretty good. He may or may not have approached agents and front-line publishers; I imagine he has. But at the end of the day he has found no takers (scarcely an unusual state of affairs), and has decided to do the job himself. And, being a professional sort of man with some resources behind him, he has given the book a hard push.

I would doubt, personally, whether he will get his money back. I would not, personally, buy a copy of the book on the strength of the sample pages. But that's just me. And the thing is essentially none of my business.

Even if Ken Ratcliffe has spent a lot of money, by self-publishing standards, I doubt whether he has spent more than it would cost for him and his wife to go on a decent cruise. And if he gets more satisfaction out of this than a cruise, why not?

As for readers, he is sure as hell going the right way about finding them. And it may well be that he will find them, especially among retired business executives and their wives.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Beautiful Ireland

Ireland is a beautiful country. And the Irish are often thought of as charming. Which they are; up to a point. But there is a much darker side to Ireland, and Irish history, than the one portrayed on the tourists’ picture postcards and in the more sanitised movie versions of Irish life.

The Sunday Times on 11 September carried a review by John Carey of John McGahern’s autobiographical book Memoir; and this is a book which reveals just how singularly unpleasant Ireland can be. Or at any rate was, in the recent past.

John McGahern describes what it was like to be brought up in Ireland in the 1930s and '40s. Ireland then was pretty much remote from what might be called European civilisation. The Roman Catholic Church controlled everything; it censored books, newspapers, magazines. It positively encouraged the corporal punishment of children. It's little wonder that James Joyce left.

McGahern was the eldest of seven children. His father was a policeman who mostly lived in the police barracks. But when, for two days a month, the policeman came home, he beat his children brutally. When the mother of the family died, the children went to live with father in the barracks.

Here the children lived close to starvation, not because father couldn't afford to feed them but because he chose not to. The beatings intensified, on an almost daily basis. One daughter spent two months in hospital: her crime was sleepwalking. The medical authorities and the police knew full well what was going on. No one did anything. The father was regarded as a pillar of the community, sitting in the front row for mass every Sunday.

When John McGahern grew up he became a teacher. He found, however, that the Church controlled education, as it controlled everything else. All teachers were required to pay an unofficial tax to the local priests at Christmas and Easter.

McGahern’s first novel, The Dark, was published in 1965. It was denounced from the pulpit as pornographic (hardly likely at that date), and McGahern was sacked from his teaching job on the orders of the archbishop. He sought help from his union, but the general secretary sided with the archbishop, declaring that McGahern had put himself beyond the pale by marrying a Finnish citizen.

None of this is news, strictly speaking. In recent years, despite strenuous efforts on the part of the Church, Ireland has begun to understand what goes on in the rest of the world, and Irish people have felt able to reveal what went on in the past, and to condemn it. The world, for its part, has begun to see what lies underneath the blarney. Films such as The Magdalene Sisters have seen to that.

My wife is British by nationality, but she was brought up in Ireland, and so she has many friends and relations there. We visit from time to time. About six years ago I found that the Irish newspapers were full of stories about sexual abuse of children by priests; and when I went back two years later, it was as if I had returned the following morning. I opened the newspaper and it felt as if I was reading the same story; and there were pages of it.

I remarked on this to the Irishman we were staying with. In response he proceeded to tell me about his own visits to prisons, in his capacity as an Open University tutor. In one prison, he said, there were 60 priests who had been convicted of child abuse; and there were another 60 awaiting trial. (Ireland, by the way, has a population of about 4 million; a bit less than Detroit.)

Roman Catholic parents have begun to vote with their feet. They may still go to church, but they enrol their children in Protestant schools – a circumstance which would have been absolutely inconceivable until recently.

The whole atmosphere in Ireland has changed beyond all recognition. And not before time, you might think.

Three years ago, my wife and I went to a (Protestant) wedding. The service was conducted by two clergymen. At the reception afterwards, one of the two clergymen remarked on how beautiful the bride’s dress was, and how dearly he would have loved to have worn it himself, if only it had been the right size. The other clergyman told what can only be described as a dirty joke, and he did it before people were quite drunk enough to appreciate it. No one present seemed at all disturbed by either of these gentlemen.

John McGahern, unsurprisingly, no longer goes to church.

Buy a friend a book

Just to remind you that the first week in October is officially a Buy A Friend A Book Week. For no better reason than that Debra Hamel says so. And she says so because she thinks it's a good idea to buy books for your friends. And so do I. Go take a look.

And while you're thinking about what to buy for your friends, may I remind you that one eminently suitable present -- indeed the most suitable present -- is the print version of the Grumpy Old Bookman. This is available from either Amazon.co.uk or from the other lot, Amazon.com, in both cases at a substantial discount. No wonder I never make any money.

Sheldon Goldfarb: Remember, Remember

Sheldon Goldfarb is the author of Remember, Remember, which is a novel for 'young (and older) adults, set in Victorian England.'

Now as a matter of fact there are few better times and places to set a novel than in Victorian England. It is a setting that I have used several times myself, most recently in the crime novel The Suppression of Vice, written under the pen-name Patrick Read. This is available world-wide through Amazon, either dot com or dot co dot uk. It is also available as an ebook under the title Deadly Vices. (Publishers do that sort of thing -- change titles on you.)

But enough of me. Fascinating though the subject is. Back to Sheldon Goldfarb.

Sheldon is a man with a PhD in Victorian literature, so he knows the background all right. And I've read the first chapter of Remember, Remember, and it seems just fine to me. I am not surprised, however, to find that, although Sheldon has garnered some enthusiastic quotes from adults, his keenest readers seem to be aged 11 or so.

Should you want something to tempt your 11-year-old, try Remember, Remember.

Sheldon and his book are published by UKA Press, which is an interesting outfit but which is, unfortunately, closed to submissions at present. Ian Hocking's Deja Vu is another publication of theirs. See also my note about the difference between UK Authors and UKA Press.

Monday, September 12, 2005

In critical condition

Professor John Sutherland had an article in Saturday's Financial Times. Sutherland is an emeritus professor of English Literature at University College, London, chairman of this year's Booker panel, columnist for the Guardian, regular reviewer for the FT, and an all-round regular expert and consultee on matters bookish. Saturday's article concerned the nature and status of British book reviewers.

Let me say at the outset that I have much more time for Sutherland than you might expect, given the unfriendly things that I have said about the Eng. Lit. lot from time to time. He has written some very readable and entertaining books, such as Is Heathcliff a Murderer? Given that most discussions of Eng. Lit. are conducted in impenetrable gobbledygook, we really should be grateful that Sutherland writes in a manner that us groundlings can comprehend.

His article on reviewers in the UK press is, as you would expect, interesting and informative. And, given this eminent professor's background, it is not remotely surprising to find that he repeatedly assumes that there is something called 'serious literature' or 'literary fiction' which is inherently more valuable and important than mere trash such as detective stories or science fiction. 'The wheat must be separated from the chaff', he tells us. But we could hardly expect a professor of Eng. Lit. to hold any other view (despite the existence on this planet of John Carey).

No, what surprises and distresses me is what Professor Sutherland says about the nature of certain reviewers. He reminds us -- well, actually, I never knew this -- that reviewing began in the UK in 1817, with a journal called The Gazette. This was set up by a 'hucksterish publisher' named Henry Coburn (nicknamed the Prince of Puffers), and it was designed to do two things: to puff Coburn's own publications and to hatchet those of his rival publishers.

And then Sutherland says something that worries me.
These two irreconcilable elements -- the high-minded and the hard-nosed -- have jostled uneasily ever since. At one pole is George Steiner -- every thinking person's favourite polyglot big-brain. At the other are 'quote whores' -- venal reviewers (so called) whose only function is to fawn or attack on command and for a price.
Now that worries me, as I say. So far as I can discover, George Steiner is alive and well. And Sutherland uses the present tense in the last sentence. So what are we to make of that? Are we to deduce that our columnist believes that there are, even today, reviewers who will 'fawn or attack on command and for a price'?

I must have misunderstood this, mustn't I? Surely it isn't possible that such wickedness survives in the twenty-first century. Say it ain't so, John. Please.

The Tao of Murder

I quite often get sent information from publishers describing their latest publication. I don't always pass these on via the blog -- far from it -- but once in a while I come across something of interest.

Over the weekend I had an email from Moonlight Mystery Press, describing a novella by Margaret Evans, with the title The Tao of Murder -- 'a fast-paced mystery thriller'.

Google seems never to have heard of Moonlight Mystery Press, and I suspect that Tao is its first and only publication. And I don't know for certain, but having clicked on a few links it seems to me that Margaret Evans is a lady who has written a few short stories and articles for online magazines, and has now decided to publish her own work. You can buy Tao for $5.00, post-free in the US.

And my point is, why not? This is all perfectly possible, and cheap. Margaret Evans may sell 3 copies or 3,000. Her novella may be well-nigh unreadable or it may be damn good. And who's going to publish a novella for you anyway, however good it is? You'd probably have to publish it yourself whether it was brilliant, bad, or somewhere in between.

More on emotions

On Thursday last I wrote a piece about Dylan Evans's book on placebos, and I mentioned in passing that he is the author of a book called Emotion: The Science of Sentiment. This prompted the ever-thoughtful Paul Vitols to do his own thinking about emotions, and the practice of deliberately trying to evoke same through what in shorthand terms we will call a work of art.

If you are a practising writer, these are things to think about. For more on my own views, see my piece of 13 July.

Friday, September 09, 2005

Weekend roundup

OK, here's a few things which you might, conceivably, care to know or think about before we all go do something more interesting and useful. In no particular order.

Prudery lives on

Galleycat had a piece pointing us to an article in the Christian Science Monitor. Subject: book blogs. Not very much in it to detain anybody, frankly, but a few points worth a comment.

First, the Christian Science Monitor could not bring itself to refer to the blog which goes by the name of Bookslut. They quoted the blog's boss, Jessa Crispin, and then said that she was the creator of a high-profile blog with a risque name which they defined as: 'the word "book" plus a vulgar term for a woman of loose morals.'

Now, I mean, come on guys. I know yours is a Christian paper, but get real for heaven's sake. If it was Bookcunt I might conceivably have some sympathy. But to waltz all around the thing just makes you look ridiculous.

Fortunately, not my problem.

Bloggers' impact

The Monitor also mentions the fact that, in the spring, Mark Sarvas of The Elegant Variation, and some 19 other bloggers, got together to try to promote a single novel. In the first instance they reportedly chose Kate Atkinson's Case Histories.

According to the Monitor, quoting the book's editor, a Ms Arthur, sales of the book remained steady for months after its release last year, despite the bloggers' intervention. But, she adds, 'it's anyone's guess why.'

Well, actually my dear, it isn't anyone's guess. Sales remained steady becaause Case Histories is not, sadly, much good. As I pointed out at some length on 14 February. It's just simply not the kind of book that makes readers grab their phone in order to tell all their friends to get hold of a copy. Simple. Nothing to do with bloggers. (Unless of course everyone is being influenced by my review. Which, instantly attractive concept though it may be, is highly unlikely.)

Asian writing

For better or for worse, English is the language in which most of the world's serious business seems to be conducted. (Don't confuse me with statistics about Chinese, French, et cetera; you get the point.) That being the case, it is perhaps not surprising, but nevertheless interesting, to find a web site called Kitaab (= book in Urdu/Hindi) which concentrates on Asian writing and conducts its business in English.

News, book reviews, links, et cetera, all related to Asian authors working in English.

Genres get respectable

Publishers Lunch reports that the New York Times is going to add a new section to its Sunday magazine, concentrating on genre fiction. The NYT strangely and ungrammatically makes reference to 'mysteries, detective stories and the like, which is having a particularly vibrant moment in popular culture just now.'

God, what an honour. Can us genre fans stand the excitement? Fittingly, the new section will be known by the elegant title of 'The Funny Pages'.

Scriptwriter magazine

Personally I have more or less given up any thought of writing for the screen, whether big or small, but there are plenty of people with ambitions in that direction. If you are one of them, you could do worse than take a look at the Scriptwriter magazine web site.

This offers a great deal of information which would seem to be useful if you are that way inclined. They also have a free newsletter, the latest of which gives details of a conference entitled Narrative Now: Fact versus Fiction in Contemporary Culture. And it's to be held in Oxford University's Department for Continuing Education. Can't wait.

Aggressive Fiction

Bryan Edward Hill is a screenwriter who also writes short stories. His screenplay The Mechanic has been directed by the very active actor Dolph Lundgren (four films in 2004) and is currently in post-production. You can read some of Bryan's short fiction at his blog, Aggressive Fiction. Some stories do have what he describes as 'mature content'.

Asylum

Asylum started life as a novel by Patrick McGrath. As I said in my review of his short stories, I found it well written and interesting, but by no means a bundle of laughs. And I noted that it was shortly to be made into a film.

Well, now the film is out. And the Times reviewer describes it as 'dour and depressing'. She adds that it is hard to feel sympathy for the leading character, 'or indeed anything other than profound annoyance.'

Well, see, I could have warned the producers that it wouldn't work as a movie. If only they'd asked.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Dylan Evans: Placebo

Are you concerned about your health? Do you believe your daily newspaper when it says that something is bad for you? Or when it says that an amazing new cure for breast cancer has just been found?

If so, read on.

Dylan Evans is a man with a rare talent: he can explain complicated scientific matters in a way which makes them readily understandable to the average untrained reader. What is more, he does it briefly: Placebo runs to just 215 pages.

I first came across Dylan Evans as the author of a book called Emotion: the Science of Sentiment. If you’re even remotely involved in writing and publishing fiction, this is a book that you should definitely read. Because emotion, whether you realise it or not, is your stock in trade.

Placebo is subtitled The Belief Effect. A placebo, in its purest form, is a pill which is made of bread and salt water or some other inert substance. It has been observed, over many years, that patients who are given placebos, while being told that they are being given a real drug, may end up being cured of their illness. This raises a number of questions which Dylan Evans addresses in this book. Why do placebos cure people (if only sometimes)? What does the placebo effect tell us, if anything, about the body/mind interaction? Why are placebos more effective in relation to some conditions than others?

In short, this is a book which is potentially of interest to anyone who is concerned about their own health or anyone else’s.

Chapter One deals with the history of investigations into the placebo response; the next chapter focuses on which particular medical conditions are most affected by this form of treatment.

In the third chapter, Evans puts forward a possible explanation for how placebos work, and he then argues that the key mental event which triggers the physiological improvement in the patient is the belief that one has been given an effective medical treatment.

Chapter Five looks at how human beings have evolved in such a way that their minds can somehow heal their bodies; and Chapter Six looks at some of the negative effects of placebos.

Towards the end of the book Evans takes a hard look at alternative medicine and psychotherapy, enquiring whether these forms of treatment can sensibly be regarded as anything more than placebos; and the final chapter looks at the ethical questions involved in administering and investigating ‘medicines’ which don’t actually contain any chemically effective substances.

For me, the most important parts of this book are the sections which highlight the technical difficulty of conducting research in this area; and indeed, the difficulties involved in undertaking any reliable experiments at all.

A good many years ago I took a PhD degree. And the one vital thing that I learnt from that exercise is that most forms of research depend, in their final stages, on statistical analysis of the results. But statistics, I discovered, is an absolute minefield for the unwary.

Here is an example drawn from my own area of interest, education. About thirty years ago, a group of researchers decided that it would be helpful to know whether modern, ‘progressive’ methods of teaching young children were, in reality, more effective than old-fashioned traditional methods. So they took two groups of children, one taught in the new way and the other taught in the old way, measured the children’s abilities at the beginning of the year, measured their abilities at the end of the year, and compared the results.

In order to compare the results they had to use statistical methods. And the researchers’ statistical analysis showed that traditional methods were best. This result was, quite literally, front-page news in the Daily Mail. It appeared to prove what a lot of parents (and grandparents) had long suspected.

However, there were those in the world of education who weren’t happy with this outcome at all. And so, with some difficulty, a second group of researchers managed to persuade the original group to let them look at the data. This second group did a second statistical analysis – of exactly the same figures, please note. And this time – guess what – the analysis gave precisely the opposite result. This time the progressive methods were shown to be the most effective form of teaching.

This second analysis did not make the front page of the Daily Mail.

After a few years, the curious case of the contradictory analyses attracted the attention of a third group of researchers. This third group was made up not of people who were directly involved in education, but of professional statisticians. And they wanted to know why it was that the two statistical analyses of the same data had yielded such different results.

So the third group took a long hard look at the data which had been collected. And the professional statisticians found… Well, they found that, for highly complicated statistical reasons, it was unsafe to draw any conclusions whatever from the data which the original group of researchers had collected.

Dylan Evans quotes another instance where the same thing happened, this time in relation to an attempt to measure the beneficial effects of psychotherapy.

These stories nicely illustrate the difficulties surrounding any form of research, and particularly research which is going to have profound implications for the ways in which children are taught in schools, or for the kind of medicines which are administered to sick patients. Research in these areas is fraught with difficulty, and the technical problems of analysing the data are enormous.

What has this to with placebos, you may be wondering. Well, one of the things that Dylan Evans explains, in his wonderfully clear way, is that much of the research in this area is either flawed in terms of its statistical anaylsis, or, worse, is flawed in terms of its research design. To put it simply, there are lots of things about the use of placebos which it would be useful to know, but which we do not yet know.

I have been told, by people in a position to know what they are talking about, that an alarmingly high proportion of the research, even in ‘hard science’ areas such as chemistry, is rendered more or less useless by the unsatisfactory and unreliable methods used to analyse the data. This is because, despite their many virtues, chemists and physicists, and even certain types of mathematicians, really don’t know very much about statistics.

What is more, the world is so constituted that scientists are under constant pressure to come up with results which are favourable to the organisation which paid for the research.

Suppose you run a pharmaceutical company which has spent years, and untold millions, producing a drug for arthritis. The time comes to try it out and see how effective it is.

If you are the boss of the pharmaceutical company, what you do not want to be told is that your new drug doesn’t work. Or that it doesn’t work any better than a placebo. Or that it works but it’s not as good as your competitor’s drug. And so on. So you pay for some research. And because you’re paying for it, you design the research so that the chances of it coming up with any negative results are, shall we say, limited from the outset.

Is this wicked? Is this unethical, immoral, even criminal? Depends on your point of view. And on how it’s done. But be in no doubt that it happens.

Private Eye recently provided a link to an article by Richard Smith, a former editor of the British Medical Journal, in which he points out that studies funded by a company are four times as likely to have results favourable to the company as are studies funded from other sources.

You don’t even have to be guilty of fraud to achieve this. What you do is test the product against a form of treatment known to be inferior; or you trial your drug against a too-low dose of a competitor; or you make the competitor’s dose too high, so that it looks toxic; and so on.

Last Saturday’s Times carried an article by Mark Henderson, based on a report in the Public Library of Science Medicine. This study points out that most of the published results of medical research are, in fact, false. They appear to be reliable at the time, but later studies show them to be wrong.

Many studies are based on a small number of participants and therefore produce results which are later proved not to be significant. For example, one piece of ‘research’ recently demonstrated that some sunbathers are addicted to tanning; and the research was based on 145 people.

Now you may think that we have come a long way from Dylan Evans’s book on placebos. But not so. The questions raised by Dylan Evans are those which concern us all. Which medicines work and which do not? And, if they do work, how do they work?

As we have seen, there are many obstacles to finding out the truth. These include honest errors based on faulty statistical analysis, and not-so-honest errors based on a desire to prove the value of a commercial product.

What does this mean for the poor bewildered patient, who is looking for a cure for his aching back?

Well, for a start, I suggest that it means that you should ignore more or less anything that appears in your newspaper about a ‘new miracle cure’. You can also ignore the results of any survey into what the public thinks about a particular topic. I have conducted one or two such surveys myself, and believe me, the idea that there is any such thing as ‘social science’ is so ludicrous a concept as to be a joke in very poor taste.

It may be that the results of any given survey are the best information we have about what the public thinks about anything. But that’s a long way from saying that the results can be relied on.

Dylan Evans’s conclusion, not surprisingly, is that we need to do more research into the placebo effect. ‘The power of the mind to heal the body may not be unlimited,’ he says, ‘but nor is it negligible…. The mind fights disease in many ways, and the most important of these is still by prompting us to take the right action.’

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Holtzbrinck Podcasts

If you haven't got broadband you can probably skip this one.

Holtzbrinck (not the world's easiest name to spell) Publishers is a group of publishing companies in the US which is held by Verlagsgruppe Georg von Holtzbrinck, which is based in Stuttgart, Germany.

The US firms under the Holtzbrinck umbrella now include: Farrar, Straus and Giroux; Henry Holt; St Martin's Press; Palgrave Macmillan; Picador; Tor Books; and others. How are the mighty fallen, eh? Tip: if you do business with the Stuttgart boys, don't mention the war.

Anyway, Holtzbrinck have today opened up a new web site, Holtzbrinck Podcasts. The purpose of this site is to publicise books through 'podcasts', which turn out to be audio recordings. You are invited to listen to the excerpt from the book, become seriously impressed, and then rush out to buy the thing.

Well, yes. And then again, no.

Podcasts appear to be the in thing at the moment. Though in truth they are nothing revolutionary. It's just like listening to good old steam radio. The new site does not appear to me to be particularly easy to use -- unless of course you have an intimate grasp of the difference between RSS and MP3, and similar technical matters, which I don't.

I sampled the podcast of the week and found it, I regret to say, a bit juvenile. It's all a bit Wow man, this is really cool. And in fact it's very old-fashioned. The whole site, in short, seems to be aimed at those under 25 or so, technically gifted but a bit unsophisticated in terms of reading matter.

M.J. Rose is a lot more impressed with the podcast as a marketing tool than I am, but she thinks Holtzbrinck are going about it the wrong way.

Susan Swan: What Casanova Told Me

Susan Swan is an established novelist who lives (usually) in Toronto, where she is a professor of Humanities at York University. Her last novel, The Wives of Bath, was a considerable success, being made into the feature film Lost and Delirious; it was also shortlisted for various prizes. Now she has produced a new book: What Casanova Told Me.

Incidentally, and before I forget, if you want to get yourself a nice little hit, write a novel called The Wives of Bath. Susan Swan did it, as above, and Wendy Holden’s book of the same name is currently about number 16 in the UK top 50.

What Casanova Told Me was first published in Canada by Knopf, last autumn, and has recently been brought out by Bloomsbury in New York and London. I read the American edition; this is handsomely produced, with the pages untrimmed on the right-hand side, a device which generates a nice sense of history.

Casanova is, I guess, a household name: the very word denotes someone who chases after women. That is the image which we have inherited from various films (including one from Fellini) and television dramatisations (including two from the BBC). But that portrait is decidedly incomplete.

Giacomo Casanova was a man of the eighteenth century. Born in 1725, he died in 1798. In between he lived the life of an adventurer, travelling widely and meeting many of the famous men and women of his day. We would, I suspect, know little of him, but for the fact that he wrote a twelve-volume set of memoirs.

Opinions vary as to how reliable Casanova’s memoirs are, but they certainly paint a vivid picture of his time. He was present, for instance, at the public execution of Damiens, a man who made the mistake of trying to assassinate the French king, Louis XV. The wretched Damiens was tortured for some hours, in front of an enthusiastic crowd; and on a balcony near to his own vantage point, Casanova witnessed two couples having sex while they watched the entertainment.

And what has Susan Swan made of this man and his memoirs? Well, she has made a highly enjoyable novel out of them. Once again I find myself in the slightly embarrassing position of having to say that I thoroughly enjoyed what is essentially a literary novel; that is embarrassing because I frequently declare how boring they are. But in this case I have an excuse, because What Casanova Told Me is also a romance, in both the old and new senses of the term. It is a romance in the sense that it is a love story, and it is also a romance of the kind referred to by Nathaniel Hawthorne: that is to say, a book in which the author allows herself to take certain liberties with history, while remaining faithful to the truths of the human heart.

There are two intertwined stories in Susan Swan’s novel. There is an eighteenth-century story related by a Puritan American lady called Asked For Adams (niece of the President, no less) in a document which she entitled What Casanova Told Me; and there is the story of Luce Adams, one of Asked For’s twenty-first-century descendants.

At the beginning, Asked For is in Venice with her father, where she meets an ageing Jacob (to use the English version of his name) Casanova; her father dies, and she begins to travel with the man who fascinates her. Meanwhile, in the modern world, Luce Adams undertakes a similar journey with her dead mother’s (lesbian) lover. And that’s really about all you need to know.

I suggest that, in order to enjoy this book, the reader needs to bring a certain background to it. It will help if you have some working knowledge of European history; a taste for Venice; and an awareness that Casanova was very different, in reality, from the crude caricature of many modern representations of him; and if you also possess some sympathy for the concept of the Great Earth Mother, that might also be of assistance. Overall, this may well be a book which will appeal more to women than to men.

Susan Swan is clearly the mistress of her material, and her narrative technique copes effortlessly with moving back and forth, between the journals of the past and the events of the present. The early and central parts of the book perhaps work better than the end, but at no point does the story falter. The novel is beautifully written, without being too clever and pleased with itself. This is an elegant, thoughtful, and classy novel: complex, leisurely, and wonderfully romantic.

Should you wish to know more, you can visit Susan Swan’s own web site, where there are links to other reviews and much more.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

The (UK) National Short Story Prize

About two weeks ago, a new short story prize was announced at the Edinburgh Festival. The winner will receive the handy sum of £15,000, which is said to be the largest award in the world for a single story. The prize is sponsored by Nesta (the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts).

You can find further details of this award on a substantial web site (Story) which has been set up as part of 'a campaign to celebrate the short story'. The web site has been created, it seems, by the (UK) Arts Council, the Scottish Arts Council, Booktrust, and the Scottish Book Trust. In other words, what we have is an initiative funded at least in part by taxpayers' money (though Booktrust in particular seems to be remarkably vague about its sources of funding).

Now there are a few things that I ought to say at the outset of this discussion, before we get on to considering the National Short Story Prize itself.

First, it needs to be said that I am not in favour of public subsidy of the arts. Why? Because I have not yet heard an argument which justifies it. However, I am open to argument, and I recognise that I am in a minority of one. But all forms of subsidy of the arts do make me just the tiniest bit grumpy. Even though I struggle to retain my usual sunny nature.

The second thing to say is that the art of the short story is a matter on which I have very definite views. See, for instance, my earlier posts on what I refer to as the official history of the short story, as opposed to stuff which people might might actually want to read for fun.

Third preliminary point. The Story web site contains a very large amount of useful information. But one part of it you can safely skip. I advise you not to bother with reading the essay by Raymond Carver which is made available on this site. Carver is a big name in the world of the literary short story (though I am not enthusiastic about his work myself), and in his essay Principles of a Story he purports to explain why he came to prefer the story to the novel.

In fact, as you might guess, he does not explain that at all. He simply says that he 'no longer had the patience to try to write novels.' Why? Oh, 'it's an involved story, too tedious to talk about here.'

Well, according to a friend of mine, who admires Carver greatly, what actually happened was that Carver became an alcoholic. As such, he constantly needed money for the next bottle. Problem: writing novels meant that he had to wait for ever for the next cheque. So he started writing short stories instead. That way he got paid pretty quickly, went on a binge, sobered up, wrote another one, and so on. His essay on the 'principles of a story' is more of the same device. It is not so much a pot-boiler as a bottle-buyer.

Now to the main subject of this post, namely the National Short Story Prize. What follows, by the way, is information derived from the Story web site, plus information given to me over the phone by a p.r. person for the Scottish Book Trust. Plus, of course, my own comments.

The award has generated a certain amount of publicity and the organisers declare themselves to be well pleased with the press coverage so far. However, at the risk of being accused, once again, at turning my nose up at something worthwhile, I do have to say that I have one or two reservations.

My reservations derive from the small print associated with this award. Perusal of the terms and conditions for same reveals a number of... Well, I was going to say problems, but perhaps circumstances would be kinder. Circumstances which may or may not take the edge off your eagerness to win the £15,000.

The first circumstance is that you are only eligible to enter the competition if you are a previously published writer -- a term which is tightly defined to exclude self-publishers. You also have to be a British national or UK resident. These two requirements alone mean that many hopeful wannabes will not even get to first base. Oh, and you're not allowed to enter if you're in prison -- not even if the jury made a dreadful mistake.

Another circumstance is that the National prize is being supported by BBC Radio 4, and Di Speirs, the Executive Producer Readings at Radio 4, has written a piece about the BBC's approach to the short story. This reveals that the BBC intends to broadcast the stories by the shortlist of five final candidates. Indeed, in entering for the competition at all, you have to agree that the story may be so broadcast.

So what, you say. Ah well, see, there are snags. Sorry, circumstances. (Trying to be positive here.) Stories entered for the competition may be up to 8,000 words in length. But the BBC normally only wants 2,000 words for a short story deemed suitable for broadcasting. On this occasion the BBC is prepared to stretch a point, and allow 4,000 words. But, as the arithmetic tells us, this may still mean that, to be broadcast, your story will have to be cut by 50%.

But fear not. The BBC say that this will be done 'with our usual sensitivity' by 'highly experienced abridgers'.

Another circumstance that may have occurred to you is that this is Auntie BBC that we are dealing with. And Auntie is normally very concerned about not offending people. Does this mean, I asked, that there are limitations on the kind of language and subject matter which might be considered suitable in a winning story?

I am assured not. The five shortlisted stories will be broadcast in a late-night slot when readers are judged to be broader-minded than in the afternoon. Though whether they will be quite broad-minded enough to swallow that favourite story of yours about lesbian vampires remains to be seen.

I note also that the whole emphasis of the competition appears, at first sight, to be on literary fiction rather than fiction from any other genre, such as crime, romance, or science fiction/fantasy. The first set of judges includes William Boyd, who is a literary novelist and screenwriter, Francine Stock, who is described as broadcaster and writer (two novels which look lit'ry to me), Alex Linklater, deputy editor of the the highbrow magazine Prospect, Di Speirs, of BBC Radio 4, and Lavinia Greenlaw, a poet who has won various British Council and Arts Council awards.

It did not appear, to my jaded eye, that this lot would have much time or patience for a story which first appeared in, say, Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine or Woman's Own. But again I am assured that this is a fallacy: a false suspicion in the mind of an unusually grumpy old man. All the judges will be looking for fantastic stories, from whatever genre. And they are very open-minded, prepared to consider anything, wholly without prejudice. Which is definitely good news. And we shall see what results.

The one thing that really did cause my eyebrows to rise, however, was that part of the terms and conditions for entry which I expected to be there but which was not there.

What I expected to see was a statement that the stories will be judged anonymously, and I expected to see the usual instruction not to put your name on the story submitted (seven copies required, by the way), but to provide details of your name and the title of your story on a separate sheet.

Not being able to find any such instruction I sought guidance. Are we to understand, I asked, that the judges will have the name of the author of the story staring them in the face while they read it?

Well, after a certain amount of head-scratching and being passed from one person to another, I was told that the final arrangements for judging the stories have not yet been fixed. A further meeting is to be held next week. (Is this not a bit late, I ask myself. But never mind.) At present, however, it does not appear to me that anonymity will be the order of the day.

Now I have to say, in the clearest possible terms, that a short-story competition in which the name of the author of each story is known to the judges at the time of judging is not a competition which I hold in much regard.

Just consider the unnecessary effort involved. The judges are committed (T&C clause 4) to being 'fair and independent'. But the book/publishing world is a small one. And so, if they know the name of an author, each judge is going to have to clear his/her head of all previous knowledge of that person -- are they not? A story by Martin Amis of SW1 will have to be given no more and no less attention than one by Freda Farnsbarns of Huddersfield. And therefore all past acquaintanceships, friendships, love affairs, rivalries, punch-ups, drunken orgies and the like, must be cast from the judges' minds.

I dare say the judges can do it. But why should they have to, when a simple anonymity arrangement can be (and normally is) set up?

It is true that, if you poke around long enough, you can find the odd short-story competition where anonymity is not applied. But they are odd competitions indeed. Conversely, all the high-value competitions which are held in any serious esteem (e.g. Bridport prize, £3,000, and Fish prize, 10,000 euros) make anonymity of authorship a requirement. And, in my view, the higher the cash value and the more prestigious the award (at least potentially), the greater the need for this rule to apply.

So. Not quite three cheers yet then. It remains to be seen how things work out.

Monday, September 05, 2005

Ancestral Voices

The Times today carries a report about a one-man play based on the diaries of James Lees-Milne, who has been dead these eight years or so.

James Lees-Milne (1908-1997) was a curious English character and he has his own official web site. He knew a number of the leading writers of his day, particularly Harold Nicolson and Vita Sackville-West (a married couple). James had what the web site describes as a homosexual relationship with Harold, while James's wife Alvilde had a lesbian relationship with Vita. And if that isn’t English enough for you, I don’t know what is.

Anyway, the thing that warrants today’s mention in the Times is that there are shortly to be further performances of the one-man play, Ancestral Voices, which is based on Lees-Milne’s diaries. There have been over a hundred performances so far, several of them as fund-raising ventures for charity.

This play is something of a tour de force for the actor Moray Watson. I saw it sometime last year and recommend it if you are within reach of a performance.

Lees-Milne himself published his diaries, or at any rate parts of them. These attracted rather more praise than his fiction. I have a copy of Another Self, which the author described as an autobiographical novel. It was largely a memoir of his real life, with some imaginary incidents thrown in for good measure. Well worth reading, if you are interested in what the Times calls ‘waspish’ comments on the English in the twentieth century.

The other Booker

If you read my review of Christopher Booker's The Seven Basic Plots, please make sure to go back and look at the comments, including one from the author himself.

Mr Booker defends his opus in a manner which is more good-natured than might reasonably be expected, given the thumping I administered in the original review, and he has other defenders too.

Nothing for it, folks. You will just have to buy, borrow or steal the book and make up your own mind.

Friday, September 02, 2005

Woman's Corner

Andy O'Hara, who has been a keen reader of the GOB for some time, has started his own blog, Mr Toad's Wild Ride. He intends to run for President, which should be interesting.

More to the point, perhaps, Andy and his wife run a free internet magazine entitled Woman's Corner. Wife Lisa is the editor. Like many of us, Andy and Lisa haven't been able to figure out any way to make any money out of what they do. So, one might ask, why bother?

The answer is that Andy and Lisa have this eccentric idea that writers can make the world a better place, whether through poetry, prose, fiction, or non-fiction. The results are, as I say, free of charge. And submissions are invited; even from men.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Joel N Ross: Double Cross Blind

Joel N. Ross is an American writer, and his espionage thriller Double Cross Blind was published in New York by Doubleday on 12 July. Oddly enough, it appeared in England, from Hodder and Stoughton, on 14 March.

Well, you wouldn’t expect either of those publishers to put out anything less than professional, and neither have they. This is an excellent thriller written in a wonderfully concise and concentrated style with lots of short chapters and chapters within chapters. No verbal diarrhoea here.

If you are sitting down to write a thriller, it is never a bad idea to look back through recent history, identify a turning point, and then build your book around that. Joel has chosen to hinge his plot around the event which brought the Americans into the second world war, namely the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

These days, of course, there are plenty of readers around who hardly even know who Hitler was, so you can no longer assume that everyone will appreciate the significance of events such as Pearl Harbor. So an author may have to explain quite a lot. Never mind – you can at least explain why it’s important when you come to explain what happened.

One American reviewer (of whom more in a minute), compares Double Cross Blind to Ken Follett’s Eye of the Needle. Actually, a much better comparator is Follett’s The Key to Rebecca, which revolves around the battle of El Alamein in 1942.

The agent who worked closely with Follett on that book was Al Zuckerman. I once asked Al whether he had found it difficult to sell the book, since everyone knows the outcome of the battle anyway. (Well, they do if they’re of a certain age.) Al said no, he hadn’t had any problems, because the reader’s interest is focused on the fate of the characters; to the reader, the progress of the war is a secondary matter.

So it is with Double Cross Blind. We know what happened at Pearl Harbor. But that doesn’t matter at all, because we are concerned about Joel’s main man, an American by the name of Tom Wall.

Double Cross Blind is an attractive book in every way. I am not wildly keen on the garish cover, even if it is based on the British flag, but the lines of the text are nicely separated (32 lines to the page), and the font is a decent size.

More or less the whole story takes place in London, with just a few brief flashbacks (which could, in my view, have been omitted). The story is also nice and tightly concentrated on a handful of characters, and all the action takes place within a very few days. All of these points might be thought to be dealt with in thriller writing 101, but it is surprising how often they are neglected.

Furthermore, someone has taught the author how to use viewpoint properly. And another nice touch, one which first-time authors can seldom achieve, is that although each chapter/section is written from the point of view of one main character, and in the third person, the overall voice used in the narration of that chapter reflects the nature of the viewpoint character. This is particularly noticeable in the case of Duckblind, the female German spy; she is almost more English than the English.

Some of the British characters speak as an American thinks they might speak, rather than as they really did speak at that time, but since the main readership for the novel is likely to be American we will forgive the author for that. We will also forgive him for overestimating the likely quality of the menu at a gentleman’s club in December 1941. (There was a war on, you know.)

As is usual with heroes, Tom Wall’s stamina stretches the credulity somewhat. And the plot, frankly, is a tad too complicated at times. But this is a writer who has an unusually sound knowledge of world war II, and he is at least entitled to ask us to follow the complexities that he has clearly mastered.

At the end, the chief villain, as usual, feels obliged to explain his motives. This is traditional in thrillers, and sometimes I have found it tedious and unlikely. But you know, now that I come to think about it, I believe it is entirely possible that a dedicated plotter and schemer would be narcissistic enough to revel in revealing just how clever he had been, before condemning our hero to a painful end. So perhaps the aren’t-I-clever speech is not just an authorly device; perhaps it is entirely in character.

The end of Double Cross Blind is, of course, a forgone conclusion if you happen to know the outline of world war II history. But Joel provides us with a neat and entirely credible explanation of why what happened did happen. In wartime, difficult decisions have to be made. It is hard enough, goodness knows, to sacrifice oneself; but to sacrifice others may, I suggest, be even harder.

Students of history, and of conspiracy theories, will know that there are other explanations of why the warnings about Pearl Harbor failed to get through. These vary from good old bureaucratic incompetence (the most likely explanation) to out-and-out villainy on the part of Churchill, Roosevelt, or both.

All in all I enjoyed this book and regard it as a more than promising start. However, some American critics seem to me to have been needlessly ungracious about it. Go to the Amazon.com page for the book, and you will find reviews from Booklist and Publishers Weekly.

PW complains about clich├ęd minor characters, including a golden-hearted stripper. Well, you know, things really were different in those days. There was no pill, and there was a lot of VD about in the war; and there was no penicillin. Girls just simply didn’t go leaping into bed at the first opportunity.

Barbara Windsor, for instance, was an actress in the 1950s, and she has related how she didn’t lose her virginity until she had been in show business for some time. And even then she had to work at it. So I wasn’t troubled by the stripper character; who in any case wasn’t a stripper. Stripping wasn’t allowed. The girls who appeared naked in nightclubs weren’t allowed to move; not even blink. The men didn’t blink either.