The publication of John Barlow's novel Intoxicated was noted here on 7 February. Subsequently, however, John sent me a copy of the book, with a not-so-cryptic comment to the effect that I might as well have a copy, since no one else wanted one.
At about the same time, in a comment on Walter Ellis's sad tale about how he got lots of publicity but no sales, John said this: 'Walter, I read your comments and they almost broke my heart. However, since I had a very similar experience to accompany the recent publication of my own book, my heart was already broken.'
And, if that is not enough, on his own blog John writes that 'If your book flops, you’ll know very quickly; just check your infolder, and if it’s still empty seven days after publication, you’ve written a flop.'
From all of which, you will deduce that the public reception of Intoxicated has not made John a happy bunny. And, if he will forgive me for rubbing salt in the wound, the rest of us might benefit from trying to decide what, if anything, went wrong.
Bit of background to begin with.
John Barlow read English at Cambridge, and later got a PhD in Applied Linguistics. He first came to public attention through the Paris Review, which seems to have as high a literary reputation as any journal in the world. And his first book, Eating Mammals (a collection of novellas), was greeted with favourable reviews in such prestigious places as Publishers' Weekly, Booklist, and the Times Lit Supp. All very promising, and the right sort of credentials for a literary novelist.
You also need to know about John's geographical background. He was born in Gomersal, West Yorkshire (England), and Gomersal features as the location for at least one story in Eating Mammals. The Bradford/Leeds/Gomersal area is also the setting for Intoxicated.
Now the details of the novel's publication.
Unusually for an English writer, the first edition of Intoxicated came out in the US, published by Morrow, part of HarperCollins, and therefore a big-time, prestigious imprint. As is often the case with American books, the actual physical object is produced to a higher standard than a typical UK equivalent would be. It's a hardback, on decent paper, handsomely bound. The layout is well designed and has been given a good deal of thought. A considerable sum, several thousand dollars, has been spent on the dustjacket.
As for the actual content, the text, I find myself admiring certain aspects of it very much indeed. Overall, it is a very fine piece of work. I have criticism,s and it certainly isn't perfect, but it is the product of much intelligence and hard work. In fact, when I reached page 349 (out of 353) I noted down that 'this is a very beautiful book'. And I shall have to try, in a minute, to explain both to you and to myself what I meant by that.
On the negative side, I have quite a number of things to say. First, like almost everything else these days, Intoxicated is too long. At a guess, 120,000 words. And in my view it would be far more effective at two-thirds that length. But you can always skip.
And then there's its subject matter. The book is about a Yorkshire family, in the nineteenth century. Yorkshire then made most of its money ('brass') from wool. And Isaac Brookes is a successful mill owner who meets a hunchbacked midget on a train. They go into business together and produce a fizzy, fruity drink from... Well, actually from rhubarb. Rhubarb being a curious vegetable/fruit which grows well in the Yorkshire area. And Rhubarilla, as the drink is called, becomes enormously successful and popular.
Well now. Suppose you were an editor of literary fiction in a New York publishing house, and an Englishman with one respectable publication to his name came to you with a novel set in Yorkshire, in 1869, about a hunchbacked midget who makes a successful fizzy drink, what would you think?
Would you think Wow! This is an absolute winner. Watch out Michael Cunningham; and take a look over your shoulder, Dan Brown? Or... Would you scratch your head, study the Bookscan figures for literary fiction in general, and say to yourself, Well, this is all very fine in principle, nicely written and so forth, but...
And the principal but would be, in my opinion, Who the hell is ever going to read this thing, even if it's available free in a library? As for buying it -- is the average New Yorker, faced with the choice of this or the latest Jackie Collins, going to have much difficulty in settling for Jackie?
The surprising thing to me, and I mean this with no disrespect, is that the book ever got published in the US at all. I would have been faintly surprised to see a US edition even if there had been a UK edition to begin with, accompanied by good reviews. But to publish it first in the US strikes me as an odd decision, even by the standards of literary publishers.
So. If we are to wrestle with the problem, What went wrong?, I think the first thing we have to acknowledge is that a novel of this kind is inevitably going to have a very small readership.
John Barlow could reasonably take issue with that, and point to some of the favourable reviews that the book has already received. E.g. 'Intoxication delivers the goods' (Washington Post). But reviews don't necessarily sell books. And the absence of reviews isn't always a handicap. Josephine Cox, mentioned yesterday, is never reviewed in any UK journal that 'counts', but she regularly sells over 100,000 paperback copies of each of her two books in every year.
No, I'm afraid there isn't much mystery. There never was a profitable market for this book. The best that publisher and author could hope for (And they do hope, don't they? Oh yes.) was that the book might be one of those lightning strikes. Another Life of Pi, a book that no one really wanted (except one eccentric publisher, who was willing to take a punt), but which somehow, by the grace of whatever gods may be, took off.
And this one didn't.
My final thoughts on Intoxicated are very personal, and probably of no interest to anyone. But how did I come to find myself feeling that it was very beautiful? And what did I mean by that emotional reaction?
The answer lies in my family background. The characters in Intoxicated are Yorkshire people of the nineteenth century, and they remind me of relatives, long since dead, whom I knew and loved.
My parents were from Yorkshire -- from Bradford, to be precise -- and I suspect that my ancestors could be traced back to Yorkshire for a thousand years. Possibly ten thousand. When I was a boy, therefore, I spent a great deal of time in Yorkshire, staying with a multiplicity of aunts, great aunts, grandparents, and the like. Since I am getting on in years myself and since some of the great aunts and uncles were themselves getting on when I was a boy, it turns out that I actually knew some of the people -- or the kind of people -- that John Barlow is writing about. And I have no doubt whatever that they were the finest people I ever met in my life. They became my role models.
My family were skilled working class. Or not so skilled. They were not bookish people, but they were educated, to a point, and self-educated after that. They had talents: music, and amateur dramatics. They were not at all religious but they were law-abiding, honest, sober, reliable, hard-working, and decent rather than merely 'respectable'. They lived in crowded houses in narrow, dark streets, which were black with industrial soot and fumes. My grandmother could remember the mill girls going to work, so early in the morning that it was still dark, with the wooden clogs on their feet clattering loudly on the cobbled surfaces.
When my great-aunt Ethel became too old to look after herself, and had to go into a home, the man who ran the home remarked that he had never had an old person in his care who had so many visitors. She must, he said, have helped a great many people when she was younger. I don't doubt it.
And I suppose that is why I found Intoxicated so impressive. Despite its faults. It wasn't until about page 300 that I really began to get interested, and that after a good deal of judicious skipping. But if you can stick with the book that far you should find the end rewarding. The portrait of Taffy Thomas, for example, the music-hall performer, is a wonderful achievement. And the book is full of marvellous writing, even if it is, for my taste, over-written.
Oh, and before I forget, I enjoyed the various references to walking sticks which either do, or do not, have a horse's-head handle. I wonder if they came from Woolworth's?
The moral of all this, for writers, is probably not one that they wish to hear. But the moral is this. It can be a very painful and damaging experience to invest enormous time, energy, and emotional capital in a project which, if you are able to look at things objectively, is never likely to succeed. It may be best not to start.
Writers, almost by definition, find rational thought difficult. But surely, they will say, every year sees an example of an unexpected book suddenly rising to fame and fortune. Mine has a chance of doing the same.
Well yes. That's true. Sort of. It's also true that, if you go to Blackpool for the weekend, you may, like young Albert, end up by being eaten by a lion in the zoo. But it's not very likely.