Monday, October 09, 2006

Francis Ellen: The Samplist

Francis Ellen's The Samplist is perhaps the best known self-published novel of recent years. It is said to be the first self-published novel to be reviewed by The Times Literary Supplement for more than a hundred years.

The Samplist was published in 2004, and I actually bought a copy about a year later. But it wasn't until I was sent a further review copy, together with an accompanying CD of music, that I actually got around to reading it.

For the purposes of this review, I decided to limit myself to the kind of information that might typically be available to a publishing-house editor or a newspaper book reviewer: in other words, I would just read the book, and listen to the music, and make comments accordingly. I have not (yet) looked at the author's web site.

What we have, essentially, is a substantial (360-page) novel about music; it is related in the third person. The principal characters are all students in a specialised music college in Glasgow. Also featured are several members of staff, most of them slightly barmy.

The samplist of the title is Alex, who records 'samples', or individual notes of music, as played on various instruments, and then uses a computer to construct from the samples a musical performance which is 'greater' than that of any living musician.

While Alex is the central character, we also spend quite a lot of time with Elliott, a brilliant guitarist, Skuggs, who plays the tuba, and Laura, who can play the violin like a virtuoso, but only if Alex is touching her at the time.

The storyline is concerned with Alex's attempts to avoid being thrown out of college, and to prove to the world that his phantom, computer-generated pianist can fool the finest judges. There is also a sub-plot involving the bearded Principal who prefers to dress as a woman, and his scheming deputy who, Macbeth-like, wishes to take over the top spot.

Now -- if you're a really close reader of this blog, and if you're one of the tiny minority who actually make a point of reading the comments on various posts, you will know that Francis Ellen is a fairly regular commenter here. You will also know that he is less than happy with the state of publishing today, not least because he has a pile of letters from publishers and film companies saying things like, 'This is a marvellous book, but...'

So, let us at this point examine some of the virtues of The Samplist, and then let us try to determine why it has been that more than a few publishers and reviewers have admired it, but no commercial firm actually wants to publish it.

Almost everything about this paperback puts it a cut above the average. In the first place, it is nicely designed -- easily the best designed self-published book that I've come across, with interesting musical motifs in the margins and so forth. True, the cover is not all that startling, but when you come to think about it, it would be quite hard to do better.

The characters are extremely well portrayed. In the course of the book we get to know them all quite well, and they are both entertaining and convincing as people. Overall the tone is serious, but also light-hearted: we get touches of comedy, if not outright farce. Along the way we are offered some seriously interesting insights and discussions about the nature and purpose of music. And in the end the good guys win: the ending is both funny and neat.

There are a few problems. The author uses the third-person, writing mostly from the point of view of one or other of the main characters, but then, abruptly, shifting to another character. I found this unsettling, but other readers may not be so fussy. For me, it was a bit like being driven somewhere by a person who hasn't quite mastered the clutch: you get there, but the journey could be smoother.

We have occasional, and perhaps deliberate, variations from orthodox spelling: poe-faced and buggar, for example. One chapter, in particular, goes on too long. But these are trivial criticisms.

OK, so what we have is an unusually well written and competent first novel. So now let us try to see why editors didn't buy it.

If I were an overworked and underpaid editor, sitting in my little cell, I would ask myself a number of questions. E.g.:

Is this a 10/10 must-have book? No. It's an 8/10 book. A lot better, I suspect, than most offerings from as-yet unknown writers, but not absolutely irresistible.

Did it make me laugh out loud or cry real tears? No. It's amusing, in an Evelyn Waughish way, but not (for me) hilarious.

Is it going to generate passionate word of mouth? Not really. Respectful recommendations, yes, but not an immediate, leap-to-the-phone, Wow you've got to read this. It's not going to be a big fat hit.

And, er, what about this accompanying CD business? Can we sell a book with a CD attached? Well yes, it's done all the time with books on computing, but it adds to the expense, and you can't do it with a mass-market paperback, so...

Hmm. You begin to see why this has generated the editorial feedback that it has. Much to the author's disgust and fury.

There are a few other causes for potential concern, if we are being a really picky publisher. The Samplist gives the impression of being heavily based on first-hand experience. And, as I said only last Friday, novels based on personal experience are, in my view, considerably more dangerous, from a legal point of view, than is generally realised -- particularly by young authors. The dangers are real. And, furthermore, what does our author do for an encore? Where does he go from here? The further adventures of Alex and Co?

The CD, now that we have mentioned it, is at least as impressive as the novel and must have absorbed, I suspect, even more man hours. It features five short classical pieces: two as performed by 'Yang Li', i.e. Alex's virtual digital pianist, two by 'Elliott', and one by 'Skuggs'.

I have to say hear that my knowledge of classical music is minimal, and my ears are distressingly low fi. But the Skuggs piece definitely sounds much too fast for a human being playing the tuba, and the guitar pieces I wasn't sure about. Though I do know, because Francis said so on this blog, on 25 October last year, that all five are computer generated: it was done 'almost exactly as described in the novel. Each individual note built from hundreds of samples with hundreds of variables to control and sculpt into a convincing performance.' That in itself, I suggest, is a major achievement.

At this point I went to have a look at the author's web site. Here you get to see the cover of the book, and to read some reviews. You also learn that Francis Ellen has a degree in music from Glasgow University and a master's degree awarded by the department of mathematics and computing science at Stirling University. There is an excerpt from the book and an opportunity to listen to the CD music online.

Overall conclusion: I have a feeling that this novel will not go away. It's a substantial achievement and has impressed a considerable number of distinguished judges. In a parallel universe you can easily imagine it being both published and winning prizes. I hate to mention the word randomness -- well, actually I don't hate mentioning it at all -- but it does play a major part in the way things happen.

In various places Francis has given us hints that he is working on something new -- and quite different. Whatever he does, I'm sure it will be worth reading.

15 comments:

Iain said...

Having myself published a novel with spectacular lack of success -- no reviews, virtually no booksellers prepared to stock -- I was sufficiently intrigued by Francis Ellen’s story to get hold of a copy of The Samplist

I loved it, and even posted a short review on the GOB (a review that Amazon, for reasons unknown, would not publish).

Francis Ellen is intelligent, highly computer-literate, streetwise and prepared to do what it takes (far, far more than is ever required of any more conventionally published author) to make a success of his work. He is, in other words, just about as well qualified to make a go of self-publishing as anyone unknown and unconnected could be. Yet despite the quality of his work and the excellent reviews it has garnered, he has failed to interest a major publisher. And that, when it comes down to it, is what really matters: if you want to be taken seriously, and to sell serious numbers of copies, you’re going to need a serious publisher.

I am reminded of the case of Gerard Jones and Ginny Good. The number of rejections received by GJ would undoubtedly have caused any normal human being to give up: it doesn’t matter how much you believe in your work, there is a limit to the amount of kicking that most people can take. But Gerard Jones, whatever else he might be, is not any normal human being. If he were, the world would be missing a tour de force.

Susan Hill recently informed us, in entries dated 30th September (JUST NEVER LET ME HEAR ANYONE SAY IT AGAIN*) and 3rd October (From MARIE, about finding a publisher for her first novel) that, in order to have a book accepted by a serious publisher, all you have to do is ‘write one that is good enough’. As evidence, she cites the cases of two writers who have recently found publishers despite having no public reputation and no useful connections. Now there’s a gap in logic here wide enough to accommodate the entire collection of the British Library. The fact that a tiny number of unknown and unconnected writers do indeed succeed in finding publishers proves only that it is not absolutely impossible. It certainly does not prove that a good book will always find a publisher. Susan Hill, is, of course, only repeating what many on the inside of publishing have said many times before, but it doesn’t change reality: a falsehood is not made true by constant repetition.

The trouble is that the vast majority of slush-pile manuscripts are garbage. The politically correct may not like to hear it said, but it remains true. Take a look, for example, at Publish America (one of many places where the slush pile is in fact published.) Try almost any of their books at random, and you’ll see what I mean.

Knowing this, the conclusion of the publishing establishment in general is that the slush pile contains only slush. (This does not come off the top of my head: it is based on publishers’ replies to a questionnaire which I sent out a few years ago.) But we are back in the land of illogic here. The publishing establishment is like a pearl fisher who, failing to find a pearl in his first hundred (or thousand) oysters, concludes that no oysters contain pearls. (This, incidentally, is why publishing today gives us so many cultured pearls in the shape of commissioned books -- normally nonfiction -- which will never have quite the bloom of the real thing.)

Well, I’ve gone on long enough. Why not test my assertion that The Samplist is worthy of a major publisher? It certainly isn’t difficult to
get hold of a copy
, and it won’t break the bank. If you’re Susan Hill (and you might be, for all I know) you may find your opinion of the Great Unpublished (or Self-Published, same difference) confirmed. Or not.
If you’re not Susan Hill, you may, nonetheless, very well be a writer -- in which case, almost by definition, you will be self-published if you’re published at all. What you will learn -- just how hard it is to succeed whatever your ability -- may depress you. But the alternative -- to write on and on in the almost certainly vain hope that you will eventually find a publisher -- will depress you still more. Believe me.

*Damn! Said it again. Bugger!

Anonymous said...

Susan Hill also makes the assumption that Marie Phillips simply 'sent her novel into an editor' (she is fed up of people unpublished novelists claiming you need contacts to get published). But Marie is a bookseller and has made clear on her blog that her novel was passed to Dan Franklin by the Cape rep. If that's not a contact, I don't know what is...

Andrew O'Hara said...

I'm not so sure that what one sees in the self-publishing market is a very good indicator of what's in the slush pile. There is, indeed, a frightening amount of bad stuff being cranked out by the likes of Publish America et al, but a good many of them ended up there directly, not necessarily after rejection by "trahditional" houses. One would be mistaken to make that kind of apples-and-oranges conclusion.

It's a mixed world and Ellen's is a heartening story. It tells us some things--but not everything.

dh said...

What a great blog you have here GOB. Almost a novel in itself.

The Francis Ellen story is fascinating. Hard to understand why he is having so much trouble with his second novel. Terrorists, a Muslim 'that doesn’t really care about religion', slaves of the American Empire: The H1 Niggers, and the accelerated demise of the U.S. and the rise of China, it sounds loaded with successful ingredients to me.

Kay Richardson said...

Hmmm. Yes. Interesting. Loving your work. I'm not going to buy Ellen's book, though.

Anonymous said...

Yes, indeed. Sweet Publish America. Don't get me started.

Peter L. Winkler said...

Francis Ellen, author of "The Samplist," claims his novel has been reviewed in The Guardian and The Times Literary Supplement, as well as by others. I conducted an internet search to try to locate and read these reviews.

I used Google in an attempt to find the reviews from The Guardian and Times Literary Supplement.

Nothing.

I even made the effort to go to the Guardian's and
Times Literary Supplement's own sites and used their on-site search engines.

Nothing.

Mr. Ellen's web site carries the same quotes from the Guardian and TLS reviews that turn up in stories written by GOB and the authors of other blogs who have given Ellen coverage. However, Mr. Ellen's web site has no links to the actual reviews at The Guardian and TLS.

I believe that Mr. Ellen's reviews are fictitious. Also, Francis Ellen is a pseudonym. The author's real name is David Starr.

Andrew O'Hara said...

I'd like to hear a little more on Mr. Winkler's suggestion. I did find a "roundup" page that appears to be some appendage of the Guardian, but the comment quoted by the author on Amazon ("At the heart of The Samplist is a portrayal of the love of music and what lies beyond it") isn't there. Instead there's a rather unflattering comment, "...beery brass players who can fart a perfect E flat and the rest of it. But his curiously unmelodic prose veers between baffling concision and rambling redundancy."

That's at http://books.guardian.co.uk/print/0,,5082339-100569,00.html

I don't know--all these games with people making claims...seems like the whole thing is turning into a light and mirror show where everything is claimed and nothing's real--except the public believes it. I don't doubt His Grumpyness' evaluation of the book, but I fatigue of how every author seems intent on upping the ante, and I'm reluctant to believe anyone.

Depressing.

Francis Ellen said...

I am undone, exposed, all I can do is beg Forgiveness.

I had no idea when I started this venture that my work would be subject to forensic examination by intellects that soar so far above my own as to render my efforts entirely moot.

Winkler has seen to the core of my being. Already he has followers. What is a poor self-regarding sad-sack to do?

Here’s the deal:
Not only did I make everything up, I even made up the novel itself.

The one thing I had going for me was the tacit assumption that I had based my novel on events in my own life. Now that people know that all of my reviews were entirely fabricated they should also know that the book is fiction; nothing at all in it happened and not a single character is drawn from real life. There were no ferocious shaggings, no mellifluous farts that end with deft ornaments in B flat, there were no trannies and no hints at true magic.

I'd simply had some old words rattling around in the back of my brain for a while and it was time to put them to use. I arranged them so cunningly that I even thought about sending the result to a proper publisher; the kind that eats a lot of finger food. But surely I would be instantly found out for the fraud that I am?

So instead, I concocted to publish the thing myself and accompany the publication with assorted reviews.

At first, I wrote reviews that slated the work entirely (no need to arouse suspicion) but when it became apparent that my ruse was working I become bold. I went from pretending I was a stringer for the Big Issue that had a proper writer's cock stuck up my arse in order to garner a publishing deal, to putting on a posh accent and talking about how clever I was in The Guardian whilst making it (seemingly) entirely clear that I had not read the book. That was a real stoater (as they say in my parts).

After I penned the Times Literary Supplement review (I even gave it a date, and an issue and page number to belay suspicion - January 7, 2005, page 20. Sounds real, no?) I changed tack.

Now the reviews started to look like the reviewer had read the book. They had to become a little fight between reviewers (you know; "Dickens? Are you serious? You fucking moron. Ellen's no better than Sharpe. Someone compared him to Heller? Heller? For fuck's sake get a fucking grip..."

Thus, it seemed I would cast a spell upon unsuspecting publishers. They might say to themselves; Mmmmm (for that is their wont) might not this character's book make some money for me? For while I enjoy the parties making money is good too?

And so, before I got to that wondrous stage, that place where I might shout verily Lord for I am published oh, Lord, Thou hast not forsaken me! Winkler comes and pisses on my head.

You know Peter, what you need is a good hard shag, man.

Andrew, it's hard to disagree with your comments. Indeed what is going on? The “At the Heart of The Samplist...” quote is from the TLS (not The Guardian; I certainly did not lie in my 'quote' from the Guardian. What I did was what any self-respecting publisher would do in my position. I used the word 'Guardian' to indicate that the book existed outside of the living room of the embarrassment that is the self-published author).

I surgically removed the words that would best serve my purpose. Perhaps I might instead have tried to sell my little book by saying that this book is a ‘bad book’? (Big Issue - and thanks for not even reading the quote on the back cover properly. These people at writing school should not be told about how to spot bad writers from looking at the ISBNs.) Or should I perhaps use:

"The Samplist is the sort of novel which makes you take your head out of the gas oven and have another bash at living. It’s a comic novel, a novel of ideas, and it hasn’t got a dull sentence. In trying to place Francis Ellen, critics have invoked Dickens, Malcolm Bradbury, Joseph Heller, Tom Sharpe (though in truth Sharpe resembles Ellen much as Forest Green Rovers resemble Real Madrid). My own point of reference for The Samplist, for what it’s worth, would be Lucky Jim. Ellen does dreadful things to pretentious snobbery..."

Of course, the guy that wrote that is a complete nonentity (like myself). (He gave the game away with “…for what it’s worth…”; indicating that he was not paid to read the book.) Who cares what he thinks? Regular people who don’t fancy their barrie as having an opinion of more value than another’s are ‘my market’. My market. Mine. I wrote the book that I wanted to read at that time. When I can make a living writing fiction instead of technical manuals or articles on exotic options then I’ll give a shit about critics. You guys are really not getting it, big-time. The reason that this novel got fourteen major reviews is because it’s ‘got something’. My novel will never be properly published. Along with the few people at publishing houses who really enjoyed the novel there were publishers who said things like “ …your characters are nasty, horrible, vile people.” (who does that remind you of?) So you can cool it guys. No need for all that effort.

I think I'll use the reviews where people had a good time, thanks. Or any of the choice cuts you'll find on my shitey web site. And I have a ton of reviews just like that sitting on my computer at home. Not everyone likes to brag in public about how much they enjoy a book because (and here's the fucking rub) they're scared to, and so they should be; as evidenced herein.

Andrew, since you mentioned Alfred Hickling's opinion. NO, if you don't mind I won't talk about some fucking arsehole's opinion (who didn't even read the fucker and his editor should get his fifty quid back) of my prose. But cheers for rooting it out man. Alfred Hickling is a twit. Although he is spot on about the prose style (in The Samplist) when he describes it as ‘unmelodic’. I expect he thought the musical reference was pretty clever. He's a clever guy. My prose (in The Samplist) is certainly not melodic. That’s because it is exactly the way I wanted it to be. Melodic is wonderful in music but ‘melodic’ prose is too poofy for the requirements of this novel. He didn’t notice any of the musical structures I had borrowed, or that the prose has built-in rhythm; sadly. I don’t expect many reviewers to ‘get it’ yet as many readers are required before a writer is ‘noticed’ by experts. But Can SB Kelly – an alligator - say “Part metaphysical fable about the creation of a purely virtual musician, part frat-house comedy. There is a new and interesting author here: it is a vivid premise, with a nice line in eccentricity and caricature, and some startling ideas. This book is like a vigorously shaken can of fizzy drink: energetic and amusing…"?

You see where the dots are in that quote? Well, that’s where the reviewer says something that isn’t as good as “New and interesting author…” Lazy, stupid reviewers deserved to be ellipseized into nothingness. I have a couple of words from the Guardian. All I needed from them was their name and, well, one word is enough, no?

Some of you people seem to think that getting a ton of reviews for slush is the same as getting tons of reviews for a properly published book. It is most certainly not. And getting quality reviews from quality publications without the aid of a blowjob is well nigh impossible. I think what Michael said was the most complimentary of all comments “I have a feeling that this novel will not go away”

If you think it’s hard self-publishing you should wait for my third, non-fiction offering called “Self-Publishing is a Pure Cunt.” (Due out sometime in the future.)

I’m off now to write a letter to the editor of Tesco’s Magazine telling him I won’t buy their sausages.

Iain said...

What, I wonder, is Peter Winkler's problem?

I trust that Francis Ellen will himself shortly make an appearance (if he can be bothered defending himself against an attack so vindictive and ill-informed).*

In the meantime, I will simply say that I have read Roz Kaveney's review of The Samplist which appeared in The Times Literary Supplement (aka TLS) of January 7, 2005. Don't think I've read The Guardian's review, but I don't doubt its reality either.

When you do a search on a newspaper's website, you aren't searching all the content; only as much as the webmaster chooses to make available at any given time. I thought everybody knew that.

Still Mr Winkler does get one thing almost right. Francis Ellen is indeed a pseudonym. The author's real name, however, is not David Starr but David Stars. Get it right.

Nonetheless, Mr Winkler makes a fair point. Just as I do when I inform everyone that the real name of George Orwell was Eric Blair. Lying bastard! If he isn't even going to write under his own name, then he isn't worth reading, I say.

Mr Winkler's attack is, I repeat, vindictive and ill-informed. Disrespectful not only to Francis Ellen but also to Michael Allen (aka the GOB), who is not that easily conned.

An apology (or two) might be in order.

*In fact, Francis Ellen has now made an appearance. But he hadn't when I started writing this. Honest.

Andrew O'Hara said...

I asked for more and certainly got it by the shovel full!

Peter L. Winkler said...

To Francis Ellen and Iain:

Mr. Ellen, you go on and on shooting smoke shells. Posting the links to the actual reviews would end the matter. Accordng to Iain, your pal and comrade in arms, you are so computer savvy. So I don't think this should lie beyond your skills.

Iain:

I have a problem with fals advertising. Amazingly naive of me to be sure, but there it is.

francis ellen said...

Peter, get a friend to install a thing called Google on your computer.

In the little box where you're allowed to type things enter the following (making sure it is exactly as shown):

"francis Ellen" + "the samplist" + "tls"

Go to page two (2) of the results then to a link for a university in Madrid (http://www.ucm.es/BUCM/compludoc/W/10501/0307661X_6.htm)

Go to the main menu in your browser then click on Edit > Find.

When a window opens type in francis ellen or the samplist or peter winkler is a fucking dimwit.

You'll find that I bribed them to put in that reference (my sting was well-prepared). I did all of this so that you would see it and not buy it: I'm a genius.

Now, if you think it's all right to publicly call writers frauds and liars without evidence outside of your own skull let that be an end to it but if you're part human you might want to apologize for your assassination attempts and to the human race for your sorry ass.

If you want to actually read the review you’ll have to put your hand in your pocket; call the TLS and ask for a back copy.

If only I could write well. I’d never have to suffer these indignities.

Francis Ellen said...

If I could get off the subject of Francis Ellen Lying Bastard Nasty Man, for a second.

A reader here wrote to me with a view to reviewing The Samplist.

If anyone else reading this would like to look the the novel with such a view in mind (anyone? Peter? Anyone?) I'd be glad to supply a copy.

e-mail: admin@ronak-publishing.com

Thank you again Michael and apologies for once again dragging your wonderful blog into the gutter.

Peter L. Winkler said...

Dear Mr. Ellen:

I apologise for accusing you of making up your reviews.

Considering the fact that I still can't turn up the Guardian review that Andrew O'Hara provided the link for, even after knowing it can be accessed on the internet, and the fact that one has to go to a server at a Spanish university to ascertain the existence, though not the body, of the TLS review, I feel no need to apologise for having had my suspicions aroused.

Nevertheless, it would be unfair to try to qualify an apology. I presumed guilt where none existed.
So, I apologise to you.