Wednesday, November 30, 2005

The best books of the year?

It's that time of year again. Everybody and his brother is coming up with lists of the year's best books, or the year's most notable, or some such. Year's most heavily hyped and most suitable for writing long, tedious, and pseudo-learned articles about, in many cases.

Should you care, a commenter kindly sent us the URL for the Canadian Globe and Mail's hot 100; the UK Sunday Times has a list; and so does the New York Times, if you can be bothered to register. I did once, but it seems to have forgotten me, so the hell with it.

Jessa Crispin worries that she's only read four of the NYT's list. She began to read some of the others but got distracted by an episode of Lost. Well yes. Entirely understandable.

Robert Nagle on The Networked Novel

Robert Nagle has been blogging since 2002 -- a long time in the blogosphere -- and he currently offers a lengthy and very interesting essay on The Networked Novel. Part 1 is up and Part 2 will follow.

Robert begins by quoting the GOB, but he soon widens the discussion (you will be pleased to hear), and offers us ideas from a variety of thinkers about the novel, including, of course, himself.

He suggests, among other things, that novel-reading is beginning to look like an increasingly eccentric way to spend your time, and that 'we may be returning to shorter forms or (more likely) serialized forms' of fiction.

Modern fiction writers, Robert suggests, need to recognise what is still unique about novels (and text-based artistic works) in the digital age: he offers six such factors to think about. And in Part 2 of his essay he will be asking 'how can the "networked novel" exploit the advantages of the web's opennness without diluting the magnificence of an individual's artistic vision?'

Licensing your work for fun and profit

Just over a year ago, I wrote a piece about the licensing of rights to publishers (and other parties). My essay was prompted by an article in the quarterly newsletter issued by the Fisher Organisation, the firm of accountants which does my tax return for me.

What the accountants in question had to say in 2004, essentially, was that, when you license rights to a company, you can confidently expect that the company will not pay you every penny that is due under the terms of the agreement. The accountants made this statement on the basis of numerous audits which they had carried out on behalf of licensors.

This year, the Forensic division of the Fisher Organisation has another article in the newsletter, and they have approached the question of licensing rights from a slightly different angle. They have presented readers with a list of the desirable features which any contract for the licensing of rights (as between, say, a writer and a publisher) ought to contain; desirable, that is, when viewed from the point of view of the writer, or licensor.

Here is a shortened version of the features which the perfect contract will contain:

1. The right to audit the licensee's books, such right to be exercised within two weeks of giving notice (otherwise the slippery bastards will keep putting you off. 'It's Christmas. Mr Jones is off sick. The files are in Belgium...').

2. Any unpaid sums found to be due should be subject to interest charges. It is 'not at all unusual' to find that a pattern of under-reporting goes back several years.

3. Royalties to be paid should be defined in terms of clearly defined gross/net selling prices, and not as a percentage of invoiced prices or money received.

4. There should also be anti-dumping provision. Selling goods dirt cheap tends to damage the perceived value of the brand, so the contract should stipulate a minimum selling price.

5. The contract should set out remedies if these measures are ignored. In particular, most contracts give a licensee rights to a certain geographic area, so any ex-territory sales should be regarded as counterfeit, meaning that the licensor is entitled not merely to royalties but to the net selling price.

And, finally, the Forensic division of this large and highly experienced firm says this: 'It cannot be said too often that any weakness or ambiguity in a contract will almost certainly be exploited by a licensee.'

Now, a few thoughts.

First of all, the firm of accountants referred to here does not deal solely, or even mainly, I suspect, with contracts in the publishing industry. And even when it does, those contracts are often between publishers in two different parts of the world, rather than between author and publisher. Nevertheless, there are some significant pointers here, I believe, when it comes to the kind of contract which the average writer is likely to be offered.

You don't have to be around the book world very long to discover that individual writers are in a very weak position when it comes to negotiating terms. Traditionally, two remedies have been propounded for this state of affairs. In fiction, most writers have to have an agent -- they are hardly likely to be offered a contract by a major firm if they don't work through an agent. And secondly, at least in the UK, there are two writers' unions, or trade associations, which have sought to negotiate minimum-terms contracts: the Society of Authors and the Writers Guild. (The WG web site is down at the moment but the link will lead you to the Guild's blog.)

As for minimum terms, it's a while since I had sight of one of those contracts, and in any case I seem to remember that they differed slightly from one publisher to another. But one thing I think can be said fairly safely. And that is that it is most unlikely that even the best of the minimum-terms agreements will come even close to meeting the template provided by the Fisher Organisation.

As for the agents -- well, no doubt they will do their best. But selling a new author is hard enough at the best of times. So you can expect that the terms available in your early contracts will be less than ideal; and not unless you acquire Dean Koontz/Nora Roberts status will you or your agent be able to tell the publisher what you will agree to and what you won't.

Many publishers are these days moving more and more towards remunerating authors on the basis of sums received rather than royalties on fixed prices. See, for instance, the lengthy discussion of this topic on the Akme web site. Here Andrew Malcolm describes how Oxford University Press, one of the largest and most powerful UK publishers, deals with royalties: a situation which he describes as 'the net-receipts swindle'.

The official story, says Andrew Malcolm, has always been that the switchover from 'published-price' to 'net-receipts' royalty agreements has been of no financial disadvantage to authors, and that the proper equivalences have always been maintained between the percentage rates in the two systems. However, Malcolm has tracked down a statement from the Warden of New College which, he maintains, 'constitutes a formal admission on behalf of a publisher that this is not in fact the case, and he carefully explains how the swindle works.'

As for digital rights... Well, C.E. Petit, of the Scrivener's Error blog, tells me that, since the mid-1990s, one major US publisher has adopted an 'electronic rights are a deal-breaker' approach to contract negotiations. That is to say, every agent/author's attempt to negotiate better terms than the standard electronic-rights grab gets rejected as a deal-breaker. Few agents or authors have been brave enough walk away from a deal on that basis.

Any writer who is offered any kind of a contract seems to regard it as a cause for celebration. The fact is, however, that if you examine the small print you are likely to find that it falls a long, long way short of being ideal.

Some years ago, a leading UK agent once said to me, 'You must always remember, Michael, that publishing is a very friendly business.' Later, when I knew her better, I came to understand that what she meant was this: Don't try to be too brisk and businesslike, because it won't go down very well in the book world. And don't think that you and I can dictate terms to these people, because if we do that we shall end up with nothing.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Tim Worstall (editor): 2005 Blogged

A few months ago, I was asked by Tim Worstall if I would allow one of my blog essays to be included in a kind of 'best of British blogging' anthology. Of course I agreed -- especially in view of the amazingly generous remuneration on offer (1 free copy of the book). And now here it is: I have the best-of-British blogging 2005 here in my hot little hand.

Fortunately, the book turns out to be a great deal more interesting and impressive than it looks on the outside. My first reaction was: Oh dear. The book designer seems to have thought to himself: Hmm. Blog = newfangled thingy. Cutting-edge sort of doodah. So we'd better have a cutting-edge sort of design. Except that the 'cutting-edge design' features a title which looks as if it was printed on one of those dot-matrix printers which disappeared about fifteen years ago; and the editor's comments, introducing each blog extract, are printed in the kind of capitals-only font which was used by teleprinters until about twenty years ago. And the text of the book, when you get to it, is printed in a sans-serif font which works well on screen, but actually we're not on screen, are we? We're on paper.

So the initial impression was not good. But happily the contents overcome the initial impression.

Tim Worstall seems to have read an unholy number of blogs in search of material, and to my (not wholly unbiased) mind he seems to have done an excellent job. The contents are arranged in the order in which they appeared on the originating blog, from November 2004 up to the end of October 2005, so the production team have done a good job in getting this into the shops for an 18 November publication date. The publisher, by the way, is The Friday Project Ltd., a new outfit set up to 'turn the Internet's best-known brands into the world's finest books.'

Every reader will have his or her own favourites from this varied collection, but I particularly liked the pieces supplied by those who are actually doing a job. For instance, we have some really good stuff from The Policeman's Blog (self-explanatory); a magistrate who is not too thrilled with the system (The Law West of Ealing Broadway); a teacher in an inner-city school (The Blackboard Jungle); and a paramedic who works in London (Random Acts of Reality). The latter's letter of apology to the dead woman whose life he was not able to save is, for me, the most moving piece in the whole book.

What is really encouraging, impressive, and unexpected, about these blogs from the coal-face is that every one of the bloggers can write really well. OK, if they couldn't I don't suppose Tim Worstall would have bothered to include them, but I bet you he wasn't short of material. And this unexpected literacy and fluency is a definite surprise to me, given that British schools abandoned all pretence of teaching kids how to use the English language about forty years ago.

2005: Blogged features a considerable amount of political comment, as you would expect. And, also as you would expect, most of it is brutally critical of the Government. Not a living British blogger, it seems, has a good word to say about the proposed system of identity cards; and while this is again not remotely surprising, it does warm the old cockles to find the whole fatuous case for the ID system being demolished brick by loose brick.

Another notable and very welcome feature of this book is the evidence it provides that a number of people are now monitoring what their daily newspapers say, and, when necessary, are blogging about the more ridiculous and unreliable reports that they read. (We've done a bit of that here, of course.) Scott Burgess at The Daily Ablution, for instance, noticed something interesting about the background of the writer of a Guardian comment piece. And Scott's blogging about this matter led, in due course, to the sacking of that reporter and to the resignation of the newspaper's executive editor.

In another instance, the book's editor himself, Tim Worstall, considers whether Polly Toynbee actually knows what she's talking about, and discovers (who would have guessed) that she doesn't.

Another really vital function of the modern blog is highlighted in Twenty Major's piece about the IRA's agreement to 'end the armed struggle'. I cannot imagine that any newspaper would ever have printed it, but by God it needed saying, and I feel better for having read it.

In short, this book is a great relief to me. I thought, when I first opened the package, that I was going to have to write a carefully worded piece saying only that, if you're looking for a Christmas present for a bookish friend, this might do. As it is, I can unreservedly and warmly recommend 2005: Blogged -- at least to any British reader. Overseas readers would probably not find it so interesting or relevant -- unless, of course, you happen to want to know what the average Brit thinks about things in this year of our Lord.

All links, by the way, are to the blog as of now, and not to the piece included in the book.

Typewriters writing a new chapter

Well, here's a bit of a turnup. My son Jon points out to me that the latest edition of the official magazine of the UK Museum of Computing contains an article about a revival of interest in the good old typewriter.

It seems that there are a number of 20- and 30-somethings who feel stifled by modern technology. And so when it comes time to locate their inner novelist, or just write letters, they like to hear the sound of hammering keys and the ding of a bell when they reach the end of a line.

One Mariah Pospisil, 22, of Los Altos, California, is quoted to the effect that 'It just seems like the computer and printer are too much of an intermediary between me and my writings.'

Hey, I favour a quill pen myself.

Anyway, more than two thirds of the customers at the California Typewriter Co. in Berkeley are in their 20s and 30s. Robert Thompson, a professor at Syracuse University and 'popular culture expert', says that the young people who choose typewriters are very careful about what they write. 'It doesn't seem as disposable and casual.'

And when things aren't going well, Heather Folsom, 28, says that she can rip the paper from the machine and crumple it up. 'I find that really satisfying,' she says.

Well, that's a positive way of thinking about it.

Actually this article looks suspiciously like a load of old cobblers put together in a press release to plug a typewriter shop. But never mind.


Kriti is a recently widowed Englishwoman who lives in Crete and writes. On her blog, StreetSweeper, you can read about how she copes with bereavement, and also read some of her short stories. Try, for instance, The Hunnish Princess, which appeared on 26 October. This is an interesting story, well told, but very tragic.

Kriti is also one of those who are taking part in the novel-writing marathon, NaNoWriMo, and she maintains a separate blog about that.

On StreetSweeper, there appears to be a slight software problem when the site is viewed in Internet Explorer, but it looks OK in Mozilla.

Monday, November 28, 2005

The Highfield Mole

An anonymous commenter on K.D. Lathar's The Changeling has alerted me to the existence of an originally self-published book with two authors: The Highfield Mole, by Roderick Gordon and Brian Williams. The book comes, as per usual these days, with its own web site.

The authors are two middle-agedish men with established careers, of sorts, though Mr Williams seems to have been at a loose end since he was 'let go' by an investment bank in 2001. These two men have known each other for a good few years, which is just as well, I suspect, for all writing partnerships must surely be subject to considerable stresses.

Anyway, if I have understood things aright, these two gentlemen seem to have noticed (as have we all) that books for kids seem to do pretty well these days. And, unlike most of us, they have decided to do something to take advantage of this marketing opportunity. Hence their book, The Highfield Mole, which is to be the first in a series.

Their first step was to set up a publishing company, Mathew and Son, and they proceeded to drum up publicity in various ways. The News page of the web site gives a short history of how it was done. Now their book has been taken up by Peter Straus of the agents Rogers, Coleridge and White, and he has sold The Highfield Mole to one Barry Cunningham, currently of Chicken House, which is an imprint of Scholastic Inc.

Now, if you are really awake this morning, you will remember that Barry Cunningham was the one man in the entire universe who wanted to buy the first Harry Potter, when Harry was no more than a pile of paper and a gleam in the eye of some woman no one had ever heard of. So Barry has form.

Back in October last year, Barry was much mentioned as the man who had bought the next big thing, in the form of a book by Stuart Hill. Who? Well, exactly. The Cry of the Icemark got some good reviews (Guardian and USA Today, for example) but I wonder how well it sold. I don't have access to Bookscan figures, but Amazon says that its current rank is 26,913, having been published last January.

So, as usual we wish good speed to The Highfield Mole and all who sail in her. But we will see what happens.

Sand Storm

SMC is the author of an as yet unpublished novel called Sand Storm and he (?) has set up the inevitable blog to plug it. Sunday's post provided a link to the (Canadian) Globe and Mail's top 100 books of the year, which proves to be a bit of a tease; unless I am missing something, you get the covering article but no more detail.

Peter Nicholson on Poetry and Culture

There are (and it's conceivable that long-term readers might even have noticed) some strange paradoxes in my life. On the one hand I spent a working lifetime in the intellectual powerhouse which is the university sector of English education, and I acquired, along the way, three university degrees; but on the other hand my tastes in the arts are almost invariably of the lowbrow variety; and high-level intellectual discussion of almost any variety leaves me cold to the point of hypothermia.

That said, I recognise that there are perfectly sensible people who prefer Beethoven to the Beatles, and who choose to discuss things at a more rarefied level than I care to myself. And it is in that spirit that I point you towards a two-part essay by the Australian poet Peter Nicholson. Part one can be found here, and part two here.

Peter is clearly a thoughtful individual with an alarmingly wide frame of artistic reference to draw upon, and his subject in the two-part essay is 'poetry and limitations of the ironic mode in the new millennium'. If you want to know more about Peter's background and work, you can find it on his own web site.

The world's best sex writing (allegedly)

Some years ago -- about forty, I suppose -- I saw a television interview with George Abbott, the famous Broadway writer and director. He was in London to direct the UK production of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. 'Let me tell you something,' said George to the interviewer. 'Sex is not about to go out of fashion.'

George was dead right. Yesterday the Sunday Times announced that it intends to launch its own Good Sex Awards (for books, that is); and the subject was introduced with a lengthy article by Belle de Jour about her favourite bits of allegedly hot books.

And, as if that was not enough for an elderly gentleman on a quiet Sunday, an email arrived announcing the publication of The World's Best Sex Writing 2005, edited by the renowned Mitzi Szereto.

'Sex writers', the press release says, 'were busy in 2005. The World's Best Sex Writing features the funniest, most articulate -- the best -- nonfiction writing on sex, culled from publications around the globe. Publications featured include Wired,,, LA Weekly, the Guardian (London), the Independent (London), and the Sunday Herald (Glasgow).'

The Sunday Herald, Glasgow? Shome mistake, shurely.

'Here' -- it says -- 'is Dave Barry (Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for the Miami Herald) on sex, men and fruit flies; Nigel Planer (novelist and actor best known for playing Neil in 80s Brit sitcom The Young Ones) on the sexual allure of Tahitian women; the Nation's Katha Pollitt on Andrea Dworkin; Ron Nyswaner (screenwriter for Philadelphia) on his sexual and emotional domination by a male hustler; Toni Bentley (former ballerina) on her obsession with anal sex....' And so on.

No, I don't believe that bit about the ballerina either. But you could check it out. Mind you, I once knew a ballerina who took her baby out shopping in a pram, parked him outside Harrods while she nipped in for something, and then went home without him. Easily done, as I'm sure you'll agree.

Friday, November 25, 2005

New ways in publishing

An examination of the organisational procedures which are employed by the average publishing company is an exercise which can easily generate enough tedium to cause lifelong paralysis, accompanied by the destruction of the will to live. Hence it is something of a pleasure, and a surprise, to read an article about how one particular publishing company operates which is not only interesting but even, in parts, encouraging. Go here to find it. (Link via

More on Macmillan New Writing

Back in May I welcomed the arrival of the Macmillan New Writing imprint, though others in the book world, you may recall, were much less enthusiastic; some indeed referred to it as a scam, a trap for the unwary and as yet unpublished young writer.

In the course of those discussions I also mentioned that one of the writers whose first book would appear under the imprint (Roger Morris) had started a blog, known as Roger's Plog (a cross between a blog and a plug for the new book). Well, for a while the blog was there, and then it wasn't, and now it is again. (Little communication problem between author and publisher; you know how it is.)

So you might like to take a look at that. And if you go to, find the advanced search facility for books, and enter Macmillan New Writing in the publisher slot, you will end up with a page which shows the covers of the first eight books to appear under the imprint. This link to that page may or may not work. If it doesn't, you'll have to do the search yourself. None of the books, by the way, is officially published until April 2006.

The eight books so far scheduled cover a wide variety of genres, from historical to science fiction, with a sprinkling of other stuff in between. I have to say that the publisher's blurbs do not make some of the books sound all that exciting -- but then, when did they ever?

Henry Porter: Brandenburg

I must confess that I began to read Henry Porter's Brandenburg with high hopes, but I ended up feeling very disappointed. And before stating the reasons for that disappointment, here is a bit of background.

Henry Porter is British. He is a former journalist for top newspapers and magazines, and still seems to work as the British editor of Vanity Fair. He has written three previous espionage thrillers which have enjoyed considerable success: Remembrance Day (1999), A Spy's Life (2001), and Empire State (2003). I have read them all, and have written about them here, mostly with approval.

Porter is clearly one of the good guys: read his interview (admittedly with a very friendly interviewer, Max Hastings) in a recent edition of the Guardian, and you will see that he has all the right instincts. He also has personal experience of the subject of Brandenburg, which is the unpleasantness (to put it politely) of the old East German regime, before the wall fell down.

Brandenburg tells the story, chiefly, of one East German citizen, formerly a member of the Stasi (think Gestapo), who becomes heavily involved in spying for the west. And if it's about anything, I would say that this book is about courage; with a Cold War background.

The Guardian interview reveals some interesting facts. On the basis of his track record so far, Porter expects to sell 25,000 hardbacks of Brandenburg, plus 100,000 paperbacks, and to be published in 13 countries. Empire State, we learn, was not published in the US because the publisher couldn't take the idea of the CIA torturing people. I find that, frankly, a very unconvincing reason for rejecting a book, given the highly uncomplimentary picture of the CIA which has been presented by countless US writers; and maybe it was just a polite excuse because they didn't think the book was all that impressive.

So far so good then. We have here an author with all the right background, lots of critical approval, plenty of readers, and a wonderful subject which he has well researched. You can understand why I licked my lips. And the book turns out to be intelligent, literate, and thoughtful.

So where, you may be wondering, does it all go wrong?

And the answer lies in the length. This thing, exactly like his other ones, is just TOO DAMN LONG. By way of comparison, I went to the book shelf and picked out three Ian Fleming books at random. The first one was just under 250 pages, and the other two were less than 200.

Now hear this. If Ian Fleming could create one of the half-dozen most famous and durable thriller/espionage characters of the twentieth century, in books of about 200 pages a time, then there is no need for the Henry Porters of this world to bang on and on for 426 pages. It is not productive. It doesn't help. It dilutes, rather than enhances, the effect.

Somebody -- agent, publisher, or pal like Max Hastings -- should seize Porter by the throat and give him a bloody good shaking. These books are too long, Henry! TOO DAMN LONG! Got it? Good.

That's the chief problem. There are others. I found the principal love story to be quite unconvincing. Sorry, but I did. I also found the way in which the characters bounce back from being tortured and abused to be a bit unrealistic. Sorry again.

I really wanted to like it Brandenburg. I really did. Few readers are more enthusiastic about the modern thriller than I am. But Henry Porter's whole approach to the genre seems to me to need a thorough rethink.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Get published or die tryin

Noah Cicero has started a blog. Three friends will also contribute and 'there will also be sporadic dumb shit.' I like it. Especially the chapter from the Nicole Richie novel.

Kembrew McLeod: Freedom of Expression

I am indebted to Robert Nagle, a commenter on the Gerard Jones affair, for pointing me to Kembrew McLeod's important book, Freedom of Expression: Overzealous Copyright Bozos and Other Enemies of Creativity. Should you wish to read it, you can download a free pdf version from the author's web site. And, if you care about personal liberty, freedom of speech, and all like that, I strongly recommend that you do.

It seems to me that European culture -- and for this purpose I take Europe to include North America -- has given the world almost everything of any value: certainly as far as material wealth and social organisation are concerned. But it is noticeable that, even within the overall envelope of European culture, it is all too easy for despotism, of one sort or another, to become the ruling paradigm. (You see? That word paradigm gets in everywhere sooner or later. But you also see what I mean, I hope. And if you don't, what I mean is that it is all too easy for the forces of darkness to prevail.)

And now, as if we didn't have enough to worry about, Kembrew McLeod comes along and tells us of the growing danger to our ability to say what we think, be inspired by a book or a piece of music to write a new book or piece of music, and even, it seems, to use certain gestures and groups of words. Just for starters, and just to prove how silly and dangerous a world we live in, Kembrew tells us that, while an undergrad, he trademarked the term 'freedom of expression'. So he 'owns' the term freedom of expression, in the same way that Fox News (bless them) 'own' the term 'fair and balanced'. (Fair and balanced! Ha! Pause while author tries to stop sniggering and regain a straight face.)

Thus Kembrew McLeod has the legal power, should he wish to use it, to prevent you or me from publishing (at least in the US) a book with the title Freedom of Expression. Which he would not do, he tells us. What he has done, just to emphasise the absurdity of a law which allows someone to trademark a few words like that, is to sue the giant phone company AT&T when they used the phrase freedom of expression in an ad.

Do you begin to get the idea? We live in a lunatic, lunatic world, in which legislation allows big companies to exercise iron control over what you say, write, and, if they have their way, think. For further example: Donald Trump has trademarked the words 'You're fired'; and not only that but he has also trademarked the hand gesture that accompanied the phrase when he used it on the TV programme The Apprentice. And, turning to copyright law, did you know that the song Happy Birthday to You is in copyright? It belongs to TimeWarner until 2030, and don't think they won't charge you a fee for using it at your kid's next party -- if they find out. No incidence of copyright infringement is too small for some of these greedy bastards.

I could go on. I could point out that, if you want to quote Martin Luther King's famous 'I have a dream' speech, in print, King's heirs and successors will expect you to pay $50 a sentence for the privilege. I could point out that the Church of Scientology has used the copyright laws to prevent Google from leading any internet searchers to sites which criticise said Church. And I could remind you, if you need reminding, that intellectual-property owners who take a dislike to your web site can easily make you disappear from sight by threatening your ISP. And I could warn you that, if you visit a privately owned shopping mall wearing a T-shirt with a slogan that the owners don't like, they can get you arrested. But there are limits to my endurance. I can read and quote only so much of this nonsense and downright wickedness before I throw up my hands and say The hell with it.

What you need to know is this. Recent US legislation, particularly the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act, and the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, have given additional powers to those whose greed, stupidity, and commercial shortsightedness know no limits. And the result is a potentially disastrous chilling effect upon artistic creativity and the interchange of scientific knowledge.

Here, to illustrate the practical problems which can arise from all this, are a few examples of relevant events in just the last week or so. I make no comment, please note, about the rights and wrongs of any of these cases; I simply note that these are instances where people have got their hand caught in the legal mangle, or where a big corporation is trying to do something to extend its powers.

Andrew Knight is trying to patent a storyline. Judith Kelly is accused of plagiarism. And Cambridge University has angered dons with proposed changes to rules allowing them to patent inventions; critics fear that the proposal to reform the system of intellectual property rights at the university will crush academic freedom, when the rights to ideas are no longer controlled by the creators. The University of Georgia Press has withdrawn Brad Vice's The Bear Bryant Funeral Train. And (which has already patented the one-click ordering system) has just been granted three further patents, including one on consumer reviews.

Fortunately, for the likes of you and me, there are a number of defenders of the faith. First, there are university professors such as Kembrew McLeod and Lawrence Lessig, who are intelligent, well informed, and courageous, and are telling it like it is. They are in the vanguard of the war, and it is a war, against those who wish to impose total monopoly control in copyright situations. They argue instead for the tradition of openness, maintaining that copyright law is intended to promote the dissemination of creative expression, not suppress it.

The second encouraging factor -- and it is a measure of how deep a hole we have dug for ourselves that I, who have never had so much as a parking ticket, should say this -- the second encouraging factor is the existence of a large number of young people who can only be described as anarchists. They are people who are simply not going to stand there and take this shit. Why should they? They have fifty years of active life ahead of them -- why should they allow what they see, read, listen to, and say, and create by way of art, be dominated by some corporate asshole?

In 2000, the Metallica guitarist Lars Ullrich made a very serious mistake. He volunteered to be the front man for an attempt to close down Napster, an attempt which included a personal visit to Napster HQ with lawyer and press accompanying him. A crowd formed outside, and a teenager screamed at him, 'Fuck you, Lars! It's our music too!'

And you know what? The kid was right.

No one is suggesting here that talent and hard work should not be rewarded. Far from it. Any and all digital availability of professionally published music, or prose, or images, should, in my view, be directed towards generating the maximum possible income for the creators. And so when Cory Doctorow makes free digital copies of his books available for download, he does so not out of any charitable instinct but because he thinks that that's his best marketing strategy. And I agree.

The point being made here is not that music should be free for everyone, all the time. The point is that it is not a smart move to alienate, and make criminals of, the people who are most passionate about your product. Music, in particular, is meaningless without an audience. And Metallica's fame and fortune had been built upon a fan base which, when the band was all but unknown, repeatedly violated the copyright laws by taping concerts and exchanging cassettes. Signs are that Lars Ullrich found out the hard way that he'd got it all wrong when he talked about piracy. So have thousands of others, including the big-time business executives who don't have a clue about what inspires the creative drive which results in their precious product; and who really don't understand how to get the best out of it in terms of revenue generation.

The publishing industry, bless its little cotton socks, seems intent on repeating all the mistakes that were made by Hollywood with the video-cassette recorder, and by the music industry twice -- with cassettes and then with downloads.

So -- what, if anything, is to be done?

Well, my advice, for what's it's worth, is that, to begin with, you should read Kembrew McLeod's book. Freedom of Expression is scholarly, learned, and yet informally written and readily readable; so maybe there's hope for America yet. I could have done with more sub-headings in the chapters, because I am a simple sort of fellow, easily intimidated by unbroken slabs of print.

Next, instead of playing Ain't It Awful, you should do something positive. You must have some expertise in something. Write it up, and post it on the internet for free. Instead of making a fool, and a nuisance, of yourself, by trademarking a phrase or trying to insist on payment for your work, give it away for free. Stick a Creative Commons licence on it (as on this blog). Encourage people to use it, transform it, make money out of it if they're smart enough.

Finally, don't -- please don't -- fall into that dreadful writer's trap of imagining that you are the next J.K. Rowling, and slap a big fat copyright sign on everything you write, complete with dire warnings about suing the arse off people who even quote it to a friend. Acquire a little dignity, and a little common sense. You and I should count ourselves lucky if we find half a dozen readers -- apart from Mum -- who will even bother to read our work through to the end.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

The Dead Boy at Your Window

I should have mentioned this when I was writing about Bruce Holland Rogers on Monday, but I hadn't found it at that point. It's a prize-winning story of his, called The Dead Boy at Your Window, and you can read it online. I think it's rather fine myself, and so do some other judges. It won the Pushcart Prize in 1999 and was nominated for a Nebula Award in 2000.

Paul di Filippo: The Emperor of Gondwanaland

This time, before writing a review of a book, I went in search of the author's web site (if any) first. And Paul di Filippo has one. Boy, is it ever weird. But then, if you've read his short stories, you would kind of expect that.

Mind you, once you get over the surprise of finding that the home page of Paul di Filippo's web site has some strange collage-encrusted envelopes on the front of it (a different one very time you visit), you find that the inner pages contain a great deal of fascinating information.

Paul is best known, I think, as the author of short stories, and I have been reading his latest collection The Emperor of Gondwanaland. Essentially, Paul is a writer of science fiction/fantasy/speculative fiction (though he tells us that he has no training in science). But that categorisation is not a lot of help, really, apart from indicating that you should not expect the orthodox.

The Emperor contains 18 stories and it is, he says in a short introduction, his first non-themed volume. In other words, there is a bit of everything with no obvious connection between the stories. Well, there's no harm in that. Some charm in it, actually, and I read them all without difficulty.

Overall I was impressed. This man has terrific range and versatility. Take, for example, his story Observable Things. This features the young Cotton Mather as narrator. And if the name is vaguely familiar but you aren't quite sure who he was, the answer is that Cotton Mather was a seventeenth-century minister of Boston's Old North church, and was heavily involved in the Salem witchcraft trials. Paul di Filippo also introduces into this story 'a fictional hero from the canon of Robert E. Howard'. And the whole thing is related in convincing first-person seventeenth-century prose. See what I mean about range and versatility? Plus a thoroughly uninhibited imagination.

The prose style of the other stories is often equally startling and proficient, but there are, I think, two weaknesses. First, some of the plots are rather mundane and uninspired; and second, for my taste the author gives us too much information from his own position as story-teller. Yes, I know that no less an authority than R.P. Burnham tells that this is perfectly acceptable as a narrative technique, and I dare say it is, in principle. But in practice I prefer stories in which the necessary backstory is provided painlessly and neutrally, so to speak, in the course of dramatic scenes. This preference comes of having a sensibility which is corrupted by too much television as a child.

Paul di Filippo frequently makes use of real-life characters. There is, for instance, an excellent story about Albert Camus. Who? Gosh, you are young. He was famous once. Another famous literary personage to appear in these pages is Robert Frost. Of his choice of Frost as a protagonist, Paul says this: 'Grab a poet as your leading man or woman, and you've instantly got a wealth of human feeling, and likely also some dizzy, unconventional lifestyles to play with.' I agree: Mr Swinburne has served me well more than once, in three short stories, a play, and a novel.

In addition to his hundreds of short stories (of which there are about eight collections), Paul di Filippo has also written some novels which, judging by the covers, look to be seriously interesting. I know, I know, but the cover is at least something to go on, right? I might be tempted by those.

In one of the interviews available on his web site, Paul tells us that he is a self-taught writer; he has never been on any creative-writing courses. Isn't it interesting how interviewers automatically ask this question now? And the next one usually is, Where do you teach? And by the way, just as an aside, I have had an email from Bruce Holland Rogers in which he mentions that, when he took a university course on The Poetics of Fiction, the class was required to read some 'recent masters of literary obfuscation', and also had to produce some paintings. Yup. Paintings. Two of the three 'term papers' were required to be paintings. Go figure.

Finally, before I forget, Paul di Filippo is also the author of Lost Pages, a volume of stories about some twentieth-century literary icons. Of this, Harlan Ellison said 'I swear on the grave of my sainted mother that Lost Pages by Paul di Filippo is nothing less than an imperial read.' I have a copy, which I bought and read two or three years ago. But I think I might just read it again.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

New thinking at Random House

In the recent past I have been heavily critical of big-time publishers for (a) failing to be aware of the digital revolution, and/or (b), if they were aware of it, proceeding to reproduce all the mistakes made by the music industry in their response to it. Well, there are just a few hints that things may be changing. Sort of.

Try reading (link via the BusinessWeek article about Random House's plans for moving into the twenty-first century. RH, it seems, is to set up an online facility which will allow readers to read pages of RH books at about 4 cents a time. And the process is being speeded up by the competition offered by the likes of Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft.

Among other things, Richard Sarnoff, president of RH's Corporate Development Unit, reckons that rapid breakthroughs in digital readers are about to occur. Sarnoff believes that, within 18 months, reading devices could be as easy to use for books as the Apple iPod is for music.

Jane Friedman, CEO of HarperCollins, welcomes the RH initiative. 'Everybody now wants to digitize all intellectual property,' she says. "That's good for publishers because we control [it].'

Er, just a minute. Who's the 'we' here, darling? I thought authors had something to do with it.

Anyway, Friedman goes on to say 'Everything keeps changing, but this ultimately will be a healthy time for books. We just have to make sure [digital sales] get done right.' RH is, however, to discourage copying of the texts by delivering pages in low-resolution files. Ho hum. The usual paranoia. Any publisher who has something that people actually want to to copy for a friend should go down on his knees and thank the Lord. Discouraging the 'Wow, have you seen this?!' response is a Stone Age knee-jerk braindead piece of thinking.

And what do the punters make of all this? The BusinessWeek page allows comments to be made, and some of them are most revealing. A guy called Joe Blow, for instance, says this: 'When I buy a book it is my property. Just as when I buy a tv, car, cd, house, land, shirt, etc. it my property. Random House, Microsoft and the rest of then can KMA!'

Now what can that possibly mean?

John Farrow: Ice Lake

The dust jacket of Ice Lake tells us that John Farrow is the pseudonym for a distinguished Canadian author of literary fiction.

Well, ever the nit-picker, I have to say that 'pen name' would in my opinion be a better term to use than pseudonym. The latter suggests an intention to hide an identity, perhaps even to deceive; whereas the former suggests (to me, at any rate) a name adopted to indicate a particular style of work. In any case, you don't have to google very hard to discover that John Farrow is actually a guy called Trevor Ferguson.

Trevor's first five literary novels won the highest plaudits from the critics, but, in a 2001 interview with J. Kingston Pierce, he does not disagree with a statement that none of them sold more than 700 copies. (I hope you guys are paying attention out there. Critical praise does not translate into sales.)

Come 1995, therefore, Trevor decided that, if he was going to survive as a writer, something had to change. So he began to write crime fiction under a new name. So far he has written two John Farrow books, but a search on suggests that he has published nothing new under either name since 2001.

John Farrow's first 'mystery thriller', to use the 2001 interviewer's term, was City of Ice. Set in the author's home town of Montreal, it featured a French-descended detective called Emile Cinq-Mars -- 'an old-fashioned cop in a new-fashioned world.' This book was notably well received by a new set of critics; the Vancouver Sun said that it 'might be the best book ever produced in Canada', and Booklist labelled it 'a character-driven mystery of the highest order.'

Ice Lake is the second in the John Farrow/Emile Cinq-Mars series. And personally I would characterise it as crime fiction. There isn't much suspense, apart from one scene; there is little mystery; and it certainly isn't a whodunit -- or at least, not for very long. What it is, is a long, detailed, and rather old-fashioned novel about people involved in a crime. Some of the people are mostly good, some mostly bad, and at least one is more than a little insane.

The setting is Montreal in winter, and judging by the description I am mighty glad I don't live there. The author makes heavy use of the complicated social structure of the city, involving (just for starters), those of French, English, and Mohawk Indian antecedents; and all of these cultural complications are well understood and well described.

The narrative technique is traditional to the point of being old-fashioned, as mentioned above. And eventually we get to know an enormous amount of detail about the origins, early life, medical history, tastes, ambitions, and general psychological profile, of all the major characters; with a little Freudian analysis thrown in. The only thing we are short of is the results of their Rorschach tests.

Ice Lake is, just like every other thriller these days, a good 50-100 pages too long. And I wish I could say that I found it to be a real zinger. But I didn't. It's diligent, capable, and it held my attention; but it's also pedestrian, over-conscientious, and committedly bourgeois. So what we end up with is a James Ellroy plot as written by a very polite vicar.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Bruce Holland Rogers

Bruce Holland Rogers is an American. He is a full-time writer, and teacher of writing, who has found an interesting way to eke out a modest living. For $5 a year he offers to supply readers with three short-short stories a month. That's 36 stories a year, or fourteen cents a story. So far, 608 people in some 60 countries have signed up, and most of them re-subscribe at the end of the year.

If you want to take a look at what he offers, go see It's intriguing, at the least. A French-language version of the service will start in January, and may be followed by a Portuguese version.

What you will find, as you poke around, is that Bruce is no slouch. He has a published bibliography which goes back to 1989, teaches at some respectable colleges, and has won some distinguished prizes: two Nebula awards (1996 and 1998) and a Bram Stoker (1998).

He has also written a book on the problems of surviving as a writer.

Literary theory is dead, hurrah! Or is it boo?

The Literary Saloon has a link to an article in Slate, entitled 'The death of literary theory -- is it really a good thing?'

Written by Stephen Metcalf, this is a short history of the life (and death?) of literary theory as taught in the great universities of the western world. It is written, happily, in terms which ordinary people can understand, which is more than can be said for almost everything else ever written about the subject.

Metcalf has an appropriately jaundiced view of the intelligence and ruthless self-interest of professors of Eng. Lit. Such profs, he argues, moved from being suckers to being con men and back to being suckers again; none of these roles being one which attracts respect from anyone capable of rational thought.

Along the way, however, he points out that the great strength of English departments in universities was that, while being 'vulnerable to charlatanism and dupery' (you can say that again), they were also 'the last great repository for the nonutilitarian hopes of the university.' The English departments, were (Metcalf maintains) just about the only places where any serious thinking went on about life and knowledge in general, without that thinking being directed towards turning students into competent lawyers, engineers, and surgeons.

Well, maybe. Metcalf certainly has a point. I have always had a strong preference for vocational education myself, but not to the exclusion of all else. Any vocational education needs, in my view, to be based firmly on a broad liberal-arts foundation. And I would not disagree with the following statement from John Alexander Smith, a professor of moral philosophy at Oxford, who told his new students in 1914 that
Nothing that you will learn in the course of your studies will be of the slightest possible use to you in after life, save only this, that if you work hard and intelligently you should be able to detect when a man is talking rot, and that, in my view, is the main, if not the sole, purpose of education.
The problem with the English departments is that they did (and still do) a great deal of harm and not much good. Their success rate in teaching students how to 'detect when a man is talking rot' is lamentably low. If it wasn't, they wouldn't have any students left after the end of the first term.

If you really wish to consider the purpose of university education in more detail, find a decent university library and read my 1988 book The Goals of Universities.

Friday, November 18, 2005

More interesting than it sounds

The American National Book Awards are not something that I have previously paid much attention to. I dislike awards generally, the only exceptions being where the voting is done by ordinary readers. However, the Awards claim to be 'the nation's preeminent literary prizes, and The National Book Awards Ceremony and Dinner [is] the most important event on our literary calendar.' Especially the dinner, by the sound of it.

Despite these reservations, however, I have to say that the Book Standard's account of this year's National Book Awards ceremony was reasonably entertaining, and introduced me to the surprise winner of the fiction category, William Vollmann. Can't say I'd heard of him before, but then he is a fearful highbrow sort of chap, and I'm not.

Should you be intrigued enough to want to know more, the Kirkus review of Vollmann's prize-winning book, Europe Central, is available online.

The Wiltshire public library system, by the way, has never heard of Vollmann either. Except when spelt with one N. And then it tells you that it doesn't stock him. And if you go to, you discover that Europe Central is published in the UK by Penguin, but there is absolutely no information provided it at all. Not a two-line summary, not a word about the author, not so much as an 'Excellent', Slough Advertiser. Good to know how on the ball our major publishers are, and what detailed care they devote to marketing a big prize-winner.

Nicole Richie, novelist

Publishers Lunch reports that Nicole Richie (you know, the one who was in that TV thing with Paris) is busy doing signing sessions for a novel which 'she wrote herself.' Wow! Now there's a novelty. Someone doing a book-signing session who actually wrote the book herself.

The lovely Nicole merits about 20 column inches -- in the New York Times, no less -- for this achievement, most of the space being devoted to teenage fans' enthusiasm for Nicole's hair, figure, dress, wit, wisdom, and all like that.

Publishers Lunch wonders why Nicole rates this space above any other young novelist with a book out. Get real, lad.

Cantara Christopher on publishing

Cantara Christopher, who refers to herself as 'dogsbody and publisher', has some reports from Paris on her blog. Of more specific interest, perhaps, are her three 'foundational essays' for her small press, Cantarabooks. One of these, about a disturbing real-life murder case, I have already mentioned on 30 August, but the one which caught my eye today was entitled Writing in the New Publishing Paradigm. Considerable food for thought here.

Tim Appelo on Jonathan Raban

Tim Appelo has a long, long article on, and interview with, Jonathan Raban in the Seattle Weekly.

Quite how and why the Seattle Weekly should be willing to devote so much space to an English writer, even if he does live in Seattle, is a bit of a mystery. However, it's an interesting discourse on an unusual writing career.

Tim Appelo describes himself as 'the recovering Bestsellers Editor of, now doing honest work in newsprint.'

Harlan Ellison

Harlan Ellison is one of the really big names in science fiction/fantasy, though I gather that the man himself prefers to speak of 'speculative fiction'. Here is a brief list, taken from a page on what claims to be his official web site, of the honours and awards that have come his way:
In a career spanning more than 40 years, he has won more awards for the 75 books he has written or edited, the more than 1700 stories, essays, articles, and newspaper columns, the two dozen teleplays and a dozen motion pictures he has created, than any other living fantasist. He has won the Hugo award 8½ times, the Nebula award three times, the Bram Stoker award, presented by the Horror Writers Association, six times (including The Lifetime Achievement Award in 1996), the Edgar Allan Poe award of the Mystery Writers of America twice, the Georges Méliès fantasy film award twice, two Audie Awards (for the best in audio recordings), and was awarded the Silver Pen for Journalism by P.E.N., the international writer’s union (this prestigious accolade was presented for his columns in the L.A. Weekly, titled “An Edge in My Voice,” in defense of the First Amendment).
All of that being the case, you may be wondering why you haven't heard of him. And I have no ready explanation for that, though there are a few hints in the wind. First, it is said that 90% of his stuff is out of print. And second, he has a reputation for being, shall we say, difficult. The man clearly believes in free speech (see reference to First Amendment, above) but he does not like having his stuff used without remuneration. He was involved, for instance, in a 1980 landmark lawsuit: he sued ABC-TV and Paramount Pictures for $337,000 when they plagiarized a television series that he had created. This was the famous (in some quarters) Brillo/Future Cop case. And more recently he has taken on AOL.

'What Ellison does best', says one web site, 'is irritate people.' Ellison is not a tall person, says the same source, 'but he is very self-possessed and confrontational... When he stood up to give a reading at a convention a voice drifted to his ears: "Isn't he short?" To which Mister Ellison's immediate reply is reputed to have been (through gritted teeth), "I may be short, but I'm very tall when I stand on my ego." The disembodied (and much chastened) voice did not reply.'

If you search for Ellison's works, you will find plenty listed, but they almost all come from American publishers. My local library has almost nothing of his. Hence it took me some time, poking around in dusty old bookshops, to find a collection of short stories first issued in the UK in 1973 and reprinted in 1981.

Titled All the Sounds of Fear, this collection includes some of Ellison's most famous stories, particularly I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream, and 'Repent, Harlequin!' Said the Ticktockman. The latter I regard as one of the most brilliant titles that I have ever come across, though personally I would have omitted the inverted commas.

In a short introduction to All the Sounds of Fear, Ellison says that the theme of alienation dominates the collection. And he is right. But, he adds, the stories 'are by no means stories of hopelessness.' Well, I'm not so sure about that.

I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream, the first story, is a strong contender for the title of blackest, darkest, bleakest story that I have ever read, describing, as it does, a future in which computers have taken over the world and preserve just one human life solely in order to inflict pain and suffering upon him.

The Ticktockman story did not, for me, live up to its title. And the last one in the book, Bright Eyes, is yet another vision of an apocalyptic future in which all human life is extinguished.

In short, I suspect that Harlan Ellison is a writer for true connoisseurs, hard-core fans of the genre, rather than the general reader. However, if you're tempted, you might begin by trying The Essential Ellison: a 50 Year Retrospective. It runs to more than 1200 pages, according to, though thinks it only has 152. I think the former authority is more likely to be correct, particularly as it supplies far more information about the book.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Book binding for beginners

Warning. This post contains material which some will find distasteful. (And if you're thinking that all posts on this blog do that, then this one more so than most.)

Maud Newton commented on an item in the Literary Saloon which was based on an article in The Record, which describes itself as the independent newspaper at the Harvard Law School. The article in question is a learned disquisition upon the art of binding books -- and other objects -- in human skin. Books so bound are said to be examples of anthropodermic bibliopegy.

You can read the article for yourself, if you wish, but the purpose of this post is to record one notable omission: or at any rate a case of enthusiasm for this rare craft which The Record failed to note.

In the nineteenth century there was a well known distributor of pornography called Frederick Hankey (1828?-1882). Hankey was a profoundly unattractive person, both physically and morally. For example, he once attended a public hanging, with a friend, and took along two girls so that he and his friend could have sexual intercourse while witnessing the event. Hankey was probably inspired in this action by the incident recorded in Casanova's memoirs: Casanova noticed two couples doing the same thing at the execution of Damiens, the would-be assassin of Louis XV of France.

Hankey was resident in Paris, then the centre of the porno business, and he used couriers to import forbidden material into England. Sometimes the books were carried in the diplomatic bag (Hankey had a friend in the Paris embassy), but the best of his couriers, Hankey maintained, was Mr Harris, the manager of Covent Garden; he was adept at transporting books in the bend of his back.

It was Hankey's oft-expressed ambition to own books which were bound with human skin. To Richard Monkton Milnes he spoke of his desire to see a girl hanged and to have the skin of her backside tanned to bind his Justine with. And when the explorer Sir Richard Burton passed through Paris Hankey asked him to try to obtain the skin of a Negress (preferably torn off a live one). Burton promised to try to get him one, but failed. Burton wrote to Richard Monkton Milnes from Dahomey with the sad news: 'I have been here three days and am grievously disappointed. Not a man killed, nor a fellow tortured. The canoe floating in blood is a myth of myths. Poor Hankey must still wait for his peau de femme.'

A fuller description of Hankey can be found in Ronald Pearsall's The Worm in the Bud. Also see Ian Gibson's immaculately researched book The English Vice. And, if memory serves -- it is forty-odd years since I read the book, and I don't have a copy to hand -- Hankey is mentioned in Mario Praz's The Romantic Agony. Hankey can be found too in various biographies of Swinburne, with whom, naturally, he was acquainted. Swinburne called him 'the Sadique collector of European fame. His erotic collection of books is unequalled upon earth -- unequalled, I should imagine, in heaven.'

As indicated by the public-hanging incident, Hankey's sadistic taste was not confined to books. When in London he patronised a flagellant brothel run by Mrs Jenkins, who provided facilities for flogging girls of 13 or so. Hankey also stuck needles into the girls. But not very far, he said, indicating the tip of his finger.

The brothers Goncourt met Hankey in Paris, describing him in their journal (in translation) as 'a madman, a monster, one of those men who live on the edge of the abyss.' Through him, they wrote, they had a glimpse of 'a terrible side to a wealthy blase aristocracy -- the English aristocracy -- who bring ferocious cruelty to love and whose licentiousness can only be aroused by the woman's sufferings.'

Thus Hankey may, for all I know, single-handedly be responsible for the the coining of the French term 'le vice anglais'.

Finally, Hankey appears as a minor character in my novel The Suppression of Vice (written under the pen-name Patrick Read).

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Daphne du Maurier: Rebecca

On Monday night to the Theatre Royal, Bath, to see another play based on a famous novel: this time Rebecca, by Daphne du Maurier.

Some of these stage adaptations of famous novels work very well. The Young Visiters, seen last Friday, was a delight. Rebecca, sadly, wasn't.

Daphne du Maurier wrote Rebecca in 1938. It has sometimes been described as the greatest of the imitations of Jane Eyre, but the plot, when baldly stated, would tax the credulity and patience of a ten-year-old.

Our heroine (she has no name in either novel, film, or play) is working as a lady's companion when she meets a rich English widower, Maxim de Winter. Maxim sweeps the young woman off her feet, marries her, and takes her back to Manderley, his large country house near the sea. The Manderley household features the usual array of characters: a faithful butler ('I've served the family man and boy'); a village idiot ('Don't let them put me in the asylum, Miss -- especially as I'm a key witness in Act Two'); and a nasty housekeeper, Mrs Danvers.

Everyone at Manderley is obsessed by the memory of Maxim's first wife, Rebecca, who drowned in the sea.

None of the key characters, viewed objectively, has any appeal whatever. The heroine (who narrates the novel) is a complete wimp. Maxim is a member of the idle rich -- a class of people whom it is hard to admire at any time, but particularly, one might have thought, in the 1930s. And Mrs Danvers speaks so far out of turn for a 1930s servant that no employer, or employer's wife, would have put up with her for thirty seconds.

In due course, Maxim confesses to his second wife that he actually murdered Rebecca. She was a tart, you see, and provoked him. Anyone would have shot her. At which point the wimpish wife suddenly acquires some backbone; but the backbone has a curious twist to it. She does not report his crime to the police; on the contrary, she becomes determined to protect her husband against any charge of murder.

Such dramatic moments as occurred in the latest stage version of the story (such as the first-act curtain) are presumably lifted from the book, and they arise out of faux pas and ludicrous misunderstandings which could have been avoided by anyone with any common sense.

One member of the cast does come to the conclusion that Max murdered Rebecca, and he says so. This is is Jack Favell, one of the Rebecca's lovers, and he is clearly a bounder because he wears co-respondent shoes.

The allegation of murder is dealt with by having the matter investigated by a friendly local magistrate: a dining pal of Max's. He holds an informal meeting in Max's sitting-room. Evidence, of a sort, is provided by the village idiot and by a lady doctor who was consulted by Rebecca shortly before she died.

The lady doctor gladly reveals Rebecca's medical history ('I know this is unprofessional, but...') and it emerges that Rebecca had been diagnosed with incurable cancer. So she had a motive for suicide. Ergo any suggestion that Max murdered her is clearly nonsense. (Technically this is known a deus ex machina, or desperate ploy invented by an author who has got her hero up a tree and can't think how to get him down again.)

And now you see, I hope, what I mean about the plot taxing one's patience and credulity.

It has to be said, however, that Daphne du Maurier evidently wrote the original novel with enough bravura to turn the thing into a big popular success. That initial success snowballed when the novel was (a) adapted for radio in the US by the great Orson Welles, and (b) filmed by Alfred Hitchock with Laurence Olivier in the lead.

It is a tribute to the skills of Olivier and Hitchcock that they managed to turn this unlikely story into a big fat hit. Rebecca the movie won two Oscars (including best picture) and was nominated for nine more.

So much for the history. And now someone has decided to produce a new version of the book for the English stage; I say new because there was a 1940 version starring Celia Johnson as the heroine and featuring Margaret Rutherford as Mrs Danvers. And I say 'someone' because it is not clear to me who initiated this new venture.

Whoever it was, they have assembled a formidable array of talent and spent a lot of money. As producers we have David Pugh and Dafydd Rogers, both of whom have a long string of hits behind them. The director is Patrick Mason, who gave us the original production of Dancing at Lughnasa. The script is by Frank McGuiness, a prize-winning playwright. And Nigel Havers stars. And there were, if I counted correctly, fourteen actors on stage for the final curtain, a huge number by modern standards, because any more than five is usually considered uneconomic.

One way and another then, a large number of talented people have convinced themselves that this weary old warhorse still has life in it, and they have devoted a lot of time and effort to presenting it to the public. And to be fair, I have to say that the play is running for two weeks in Bath, and on the Monday night of the second week the place was packed.

That said, I find it difficult to think of anything nice to say about this production at all. The action takes place against a bank of shingle, representing a Cornish beach, and the design is almost monochrome -- perhaps seeking to evoke the success of the movie. Changes of locale are suggested by the most minimal means: chairs and tables mostly.

But absolutely nothing seemed right to me. Nigel Havers initially wears a suit which doesn't fit, and his evening dress isn't much better. As for the lighting -- well, the lighting director has chosen to light the production entirely from the wings, with the result that the actors are for ever casting shadows on each other's faces. I couldn't see the logic of this at first, but I began to suspect that it was an arrangement specifically requested by the cast. They were probably so embarrassed by what they were asked to do and say that they wanted to make sure that no one would be able to recognise them in the street.

The actors, of course, did their best. Actors always do. But it was a losing battle. One thing, however, was excellent: Mrs GOB and I were both agreed on that. Filmed shots of the sea, breaking on the Cornish coast, are at certain points projected on to a giant screen at the back of the stage. This, we thought, was rather good.

The rest of it was dire.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Ian Hocking: Deja Vu

Ian Hocking's science-fiction novel Deja Vu attracted some good reviews: e.g. the GOB and Debra Hamel. Now the author has decided to make it available as a free podcast audiobook. One episode each Saturday, lasting about twenty minutes.

The audiobook is available under a Creative Commons licence (which this blog also uses, by the way). It will be interesting to see what (detectable) effect the audiobook has on sales of the paperback.

Ian Hocking also maintains an interesting blog, This Writing Life.

Biff Mitchell

Biff Mitchell is an IT-savvy writer who (mostly) does his own thing as regards publishing and marketing. You might care to take a brief look to see how he does it.

The second edition of Biff's book on emarketing tools for writers has just been published at Fictionwise. I might have bought it but I'm afraid the complications of the Fictionwise site wore out my patience.

How to shock your reader

These thoughts are prompted by the fact that, as mentioned last week, I have been watching a BBC3 serial called Funland (now finished -- but it will be back, no doubt).

The chief virtue of Funland was the quality of the acting. Everyone in it was superb, but the stand-out performance, for me, was that of Judy Parfitt as Mercy Woolf.

Judy describes the part as follows: "Mercy is totally ruthless; she will do anything to get what she wants and she is so detached from any sort of real emotion. If she does show any emotion then it is only in the hope of manipulating someone to do what she wants them to do! She's totally different to me as I think I'm about as frightening as Minnie Mouse!"

Mercy has a son, who is confusingly named Shirley. And at one point Mercy advises Shirley to face up to the truth about himself. She says this: You fucked your mother, and you loved it.

This 'revelation' in Funland was not really a revelation at all, because the scriptwriters had, as they say in the drama business, foreshadowed it. But when the truth is made known to Shirley's wife, she is deeply shocked by it.

And then the question that I asked myself was this: Was I shocked by Mercy's line or not?

The answer, of course, is No.

For several reasons. First, I had seen it coming. Second, incest is scarcely a rare occurrence these days. It is mostly father/daughter, but the other way round is not unknown. (There was an ancient Greek called Oedipus, I believe, but I don't think he counts because he didn't know what he was doing.)

And all this led me to recollect that, as someone once remarked, the times they are a-changing. There was a time when the British were shocked by almost anything, and the Americans even more so. When I was a youth it was absolutely inconceivable that anyone could mention incest in a play or a novel. In the 1950s you couldn't print the word 'fuck' without the probability of a jail sentence; even if you could find a printer who would risk putting his name to it, which was most unlikely. (For further details, see my post of 29 October 2004.)

This squeamishness was not limited to prose. In the British theatre, censorship of a fairly severe kind was in force until 1968, forbidding even the most passing reference to sexual matters. In terms of images, no male sexual organs (other than in classical art) could be shown before the late 1960s, and even then certainly not with an erection. Female pubic hair was particularly taboo, and at one time there was a section of Customs and Excise (Department PT4, with 30 civil servants aided by ten Acts of Parliament) devoted solely to ensuring that printed photographs never revealed the fact that women have genital organs.

As for television -- well, I can remember an episode of a BBC cop show, Z Cars, in about 1963, where there was a scene set in a mortuary. Dead body on slab, pathologist poised for action. At one point he said, Well, I'd better get on with it, picked up a scalpel and prepared to make an incision. You didn't actually see him do anything. This scene caused such an uproar that the BBC was forced to issue an apology and state that it had gone too far. Today, at three o'clock this afternoon, you could probably tune in to satellite TV and watch a series called Post Mortems for Beginners: part 94, the liver and kidneys. In colour. The BBC in 1963 was black and white.

So. Point made, I think. It is now quite hard to shock people.

But, you may be wondering, why bother?

Well, for one thing, writing a shocking story has been, historically, one way to bring yourself to public attention. For example, in the late 1940s, a young American called Stanley Ellin was struggling to break into the fiction business. He had never sold anything, but he had an idea for a short story which even he expected to be rejected. Nevertheless, he sent it around, and, sure enough, it bounced back. But then it found a home with Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine.

The story in question was called The Speciality of the House, and it described a restaurant in New York (naturally) where a particularly tasty dish was served. And the final revelation (as you may have guessed) was that the dish derived its unusual flavour from human flesh.

When it first appeared, this story rapidly became the talk of the town. It won the magazine's best fiction award in 1948, and helped to establish Ellin's career. And subsequently, of course, many other writers have found that it does them little harm to have written something which people find shocking. Think Lolita.

That said, however, it will be fruitful to consider the nature of this 'shocking' process in a little more detail. The object is not (it seems to me) to horrify, appal and disgust. At least you should not do that to your chosen audience. There may be others, outside your target audience, who will be horrified and disgusted, but that's no help to anyone. What you are seeking here is the story that makes the hairs on the back of someone's head rise when they reach the end of it. You want them to put the book (or magazine) down, lift the phone, and call a friend to say Hey, have you read...

I have often argued here that achieving an emotional effect on the reader is, properly understood, almost the whole and sole proper purpose of a piece of fiction. And to do that you need to identify a number of things very clearly.

One, as mentioned above, is the target audience; and the easiest way to understand your target audience is to be a member of it. It's hard to write a number-one chart hit if you're 73 and only like Beethoven.

Next, you need to think very carefully about the nature of the emotion that you are trying to create. In this case what you want, I suggest, is a kind of slow burn. You need the tension to rise higher and higher as you approach the end, and then you want to produce the Oh my God! effect.

An ending which is truly a surprise is not, in my opinion, going to do it. The reader will all too often feel cheated, because you haven't played fair. No, what is required is an ending which, on reflection, readers will realise is inevitable, given what you had told them, but which they really had not wanted to recognise as inevitable because they were reluctant to do so.

Oh, and if they were reluctant to recognise what was about to happen because it involved an unhappy ending -- an ending in which a character whom they have come to like meets a sticky end -- you have failed.

Well, that's all quite straightforward, isn't it? Can't think why people don't do it more often.

Monday, November 14, 2005

The Giller Prize

The Giller Prize is allegedly the Canadian equivalent of the Booker, and it has been getting some attention from the blogosphere.

David Bergen won for his novel The Time in Between, which is a story about a brother and sister who travel to Southeast Asia to look for their father, a Vietnam veteran who has disappeared there.

The Bookslut reckons that one advantage of the Giller Prize ceremony over the American National Book Awards is that, at the former, 'you can totally smoke weed there.'

On the other hand, you could just stay at home and smoke weed anyway.

Unhappy ending

Terry McMillan is a middle-aged lady (black, American) who wrote a bestselling novel called How Stella Got Her Groove Back. This described how a 42-year-old woman went to Jamaica, found herself a man who was half her age, shagged him silly, and as a result was... well, you know, kind of rejuvenated.

According to the Times, this novel was inspired by Terry McMillan's own experience. She was 43 when a young man aged 20 caught her eye over breakfast at a hotel in Jamaica. The two of them had a passion-filled five days and as a result Terry was... well, you know, kind of rejuvenated. She subsequently married the fellow.

Now Terry McMillan has found out that her handsome young husband is gay, and throughout their marriage has been seeing other men. So she has dumped him, and the two of them are suing each each for this and that.

No, no. You mustn't laugh. Really.

Daisy Ashford: The Young Visiters

On Friday last, Mrs GOB and I attended a theatrical adaptation of Daisy Ashford's novel The Young Visiters. And no, that isn't a typo. Visiters is the way Daisy spelt it.

Daisy Ashford was born in 1881. She began dictating stories to her parents before she could write, and when she was nine she wrote a short novel called The Young Visiters. Her punctuation wasn't much better than her spelling, but she had a wonderful imagination.

In 1917, at the age of 36, Daisy found her early manuscript in a drawer, and lent it to a friend who was recuperating from flu. Various other people read it, including Frank Swinnerton, who was a novelist and reader for Chatto and Windus.

Because of Swinnerton's enthusiasm, the book was published exactly as the young Daisy had written it. J.M. Barrie, the creator of Peter Pan, agreed to write a preface, and the book became a huge success. It is still in print today, both in the UK and the USA, but you can in fact read it online.

The chief characters in the story are Mr Salteena ('an elderly man of 42'), Ethel Monticue (a young girl of 17), and Bernard Clark, a rival of Mr Salteena whom Ethel turns out to prefer.

Most modern readers -- and certainly the audience at the theatrical version of the book which I saw on Friday -- have found the book highly amusing. The humour lies, of course, in the fact that Daisy writes about adult love affairs and marriage without ever quite understanding how such affairs are conducted. At the end, Ethel and Bernard return home from a six-week honeymoon 'with a son and hair a nice fat baby called Ignatius Bernard.'

And so on. Not everyone's taste, perhaps, but a little gem of its kind.

Should you reside in the UK, watch out for the touring production of this novel/play, as mounted by Paddock Productions.

At the age of 13, Daisy wrote another novel, The Hangman's Daughter. And then she retired.

Friday, November 11, 2005

R.P. Burnham and The Long Story

On 13 May I mentioned that a commenter had drawn my attention to the work of R.P. Burnham, who is the author of a collection of essays called The Least Shadow of Public Thought: the Small Press and the Art of Fiction; he is also the editor of a journal called The Long Story.

Subsequently, Mr Burnham sent me copies of both his collection of essays and issue 23 of The Long Story, and I have been reading both with great interest. The essays were all written between 1983 and 1992, and the collection was published by the Juniper Press in 1996. It is now (so far as I can discover) out of print, so you will have to search libraries and the net to find a copy.

Let's have a closer look at the essays.

I don't think I have ever read a book about writing which has ended up being so heavily annotated with pencilled comments; and this I regard as a mark of quality. Certainly I learnt a great deal from it; and, more to the point, perhaps, it gave me food for thought in relation to what, if anything, I am trying to do when I write fiction myself.

In his introduction, Burnham tells us that his essays offer a different perspective on the writing of fiction from that which is presented in the 'ubiquitous writing programs of the colleges and universities'; and that is an excellent start. Implicitly or explicitly, he tells us, his essays 'suggest that Modernism and Post-Modernism has been a disastrous mistake.' In other words, if I understand him aright, he believes in the more old-fashioned methods of telling stories. And so do I.

Burnham comments that, out of every 100 submissions to The Long Story, 95 read as if they were written by the same writer. The little literary magazines and the big commercial publishers, it seems, have at least one thing in common: in each case there is a kind of approved style of writing which gains you entry to the club; but in the process you end up writing something which feels to the reader like a manufactured product rather than the work of an individual. So Burnham's essays are, he says, addressed to those few writers who 'want to be true to their own individual voice and vision.'

That said, he does not claim to be 'normative', which I take to mean prescriptive. He hopes not so much to advise writers on how they should write, as to make people think -- especially if they've been fed three years of creative-writing-course propaganda.

The first essay, on Moral Fiction, is not as forbidding as it sounds. It describes (usefully, if you intend to submit to The Long Story) Burnham's preferences in fiction. He is not really interested in stories which observe the 'modern rules' about point of view, neutral narrators, dramatising not telling, and so forth. Unlike many modern theorists, he believes that it is useful for a story to have a plot; perhaps one which concerns the struggle for human dignity. And, above all, he wants vision, which he sees as an invitation to the reader to share the writer's humanity.

The second essay is an attack upon what Burnham calls 'bourgeois aestheticism', which ensures, as he sees it, that the complete truth about the society that we live in is never told. At the heart of bourgeois aestheticism, he says, is the the principle of never getting involved. Hence he argues for committed fiction; fiction which at least reveals which side the author is on, and which shows some commitment to life. Burnham wants fiction with emotion in it: tell the truth about the particular, he says, and the universal will find expression.

The whole thrust of this second essay is to widen the boundaries of acceptable literary practice. Burnham wants to read more fiction which deals with the dispossessed and the poor in the USA. (Try Noah Cicero.) 'I take it as axiomatic', he says, 'that any writer who is lionized by the New York literary establishment is far more likely to be a genial, middle-browed bourgeois booby than a writer of any serious consequence.' Right on, brother. But he will, he says, happily consider publishing a story about a banker's vacation in Acapulco, provided the writer can make it a larger vision of what the banker's journey here on earth means.

The third essay begins with another attempt to describe what Burnham admires, and hence what he is looking for as an editor. 'Though we are not at all interested in science fiction, adventure, detective, adolescent bedroom farce, and other forms of popular fiction, anything of a serious nature will get a close reading.' Furthermore, 'we publish at least two stories each issue that are not exactly up our alley but which we think are exceptionally well done.'

The remainder of the essay (1986, and hence long before the internet) deals with the role of the little magazine and the small press in publishing the work of writers who would otherwise never get a look in.

Burnham is blunt about disliking popular fiction: 'I distrust works that become too popular, and I distrust works that aim to be popular.... In reading submissions I look for the work that burns with sincerity... independence of spirit and courage of conviction'. Such writers, says Burnham, can only find a home in the alternative press; and they may be read by only 300 or 400 people; but at least they will prove that 'the government, the mass corporations, and the mass media have not been able to fool all 240 million of us.'

The next essay is entitled Literary Seeing, and it touches upon a point which has been troubling me recently (as you may have noticed from recent posts): namely, how can fiction compete with other media, such as movies and music?

Burnham's view (which I don't altogether share) is that if movies fill most people's need for a story, then literature's claim for attention must be based on something else. And he therefore welcomes literary experimentation -- but not experimentation in the direction that it has gone in recent years, which he thoroughly dislikes. 'The ludicrous notion that deliberate obscurity signified artistic worth became fashionable,' he writes, 'so that if one could say, "I don't see the point of this piece," that was supposed to be a measure of its greatness.' If this is the price of keeping literature alive, he says, it is better to let it die.

Burnham believes that there are, in principle, other ways to develop fiction which may be better than those found so far; and he suggests that the most suitable subject for fiction is the inner response to the outer world.

I don't recall that Burnham actually mentions the stream of consciousness technique in this context, but perhaps I might mention here that there are, if my memory is not deceiving me, at least two bestsellers -- or at least famous books -- in which the highly literary device of stream of consciousness was used within a more traditional narrative. One such instance occurs in William Styron's Lie Down in Darkness, and another (a much more commercial context) in Ken Follett's The Key to Rebecca.

Next comes a consideration of The Aesthetic Moment, in which Burnham rightly emphasises the fact that 'while technical devices, form and genre are the flesh and bones of an art, emotions are its soul.... The artist must present an intrinsically moving subject universal in scope, and the appreciator must bring to the work the willing suspension of disbelief and the intelligence and humanity to enter into the artist's world.' I agree.

There follows a valuable discussion of The Neutral Narrator and the Empathetic Narrator, in which Burnham attacks the (apparently well established) concept that the author should stay well out of the action and simply show, not tell. Oddly enough, the great Thomas H. Uzzell also pointed out that some of the great writers of the past were very much inclined to comment on the action. Uzzell recommended that the extent to which this should occur should be left pretty much to decide itself, according to the author's temperament; and I can offer no better advice than that.

This discussion of technical aspects of narrative broadens out in this essay into a criticism of the capitalist system and its effects. Academia and the large media outlets, says Burnham, are already in the pocket of the large corporations; and it very much suits the interests of the large corporations to have the writers and intellectuals 'too busy squabbling over questions of form and expression to notice what the rascals are up to.' What a modest word that 'rascals' is.

That being Burnham's view, you will not be surprised that he goes on to argue, as he has before, for literature in which the author is committed to a particular view, and which leaves the reader in no doubt what that view is.

I could go on a lot longer about this chapter on the role of the narrator. It is, I think, much the best in the book, and my pages are covered in scribble. He sums up by pointing out that no one is surprised to find that an essay writer has something to say; why should there not also be fiction where the writer has something to say?

Some light relief is provided, towards the end of the book, by an imagined interview, conducted by Litbiz magazine, with William Shakespeare and Fyodor Dostoyevsky (simultaneously, both men having been nabbed at the Meatloaf Writers' Retreat). This is fun, and has Shakespeare, for instance, saying that 'we can't change the world, but we can write and if successful get a job teaching somewhere.' His poem 'Shall I compare Ya to a Summer's Day' has recently been chosen for inclusion in The Best Loved Poems of the Creative Writing Teachers of America Anthology.

The final essay is devoted to The Reader and the Writer. Here Burnham argues for a mutual respect between reader and writer. And I have an uneasy feeling that such respect is not only lacking in some of the cruder commercial novelists (I will name no names), but also in the literary elite, where the object is not so much to entertain or move the average reader, but to impress the highbrow critics -- rather a different audience.

'Literature is not mathematics,' says Burnham, 'and there is no such thing as an iron rule.' I agree. And he adds, on the final page, 'The small press, even conceding that a large percentage of it is adolescent, or too academic, or in pursuit of private agendas, or merely the front for a group of writers who are pals, is still the only place in America where it is possible to find literature not written from an economic motive.'

Well, not any more it ain't. Now we have the internet.

Burnham is a slightly puzzling man to read. I often found that I both agreed and disagreed with him; sometimes even in the same paragraph, and even in the same sentence. But, as I said before, he makes you think: which is occasionally painful but often advantageous.

And now to issue 23 of Burnham's literary magazine, The Long Story.

Well, the nature of the beast is that it contains stories between 8,000 and 20,000 words in length -- an uneasy sort of length in my opinion. As you would expect from what has gone before, the stories are all rather serious in nature. They are, however, pretty varied in content. One deals with the lives of Welsh miners in the 1930s; one give us insight into the political situation in Poland at about the same time; and a third deals with the moral problems of present-day security guards in America.

I can't say that any of the stories struck me personally as outstanding; but that's because, as regular readers of the GOB will know, my taste is ineffably vulgar and I am a man in search, mostly, of cheap thrills. However, even the dimmest reader could not fail to ackonowledge the intelligence, thought, and hard work which has gone into the construction of these eight stories.

I do feel obliged to comment on one point, which I am increasingly coming to think of as a vital factor in the appreciation of fiction: and that is the layout of the words on the page. The Long Story is roughly A5 sized, with very narrow margins, print which might just be 9 point but looks more like 8, and 48 lines to the page. Now -- I understand full well the economic forces which bring about this state of affairs. But personally I believe that Mr Burnham's writers would have been better served by dropping one or two of the stories and giving the others a much more reader-friendly layout.

More information: The Long Story; R.P. Burnham; The Wessex Collective, publisher of R.P. Burnham's novel Envious Shadows.