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.