Friday, October 06, 2006

More MNW

Macmillan New Writing (MNW) is an imprint which was set up last year and began publishing in April of this year. Its purpose is to publish fiction in any genre by authors who have not previously had a novel in print.

Below are short reviews of the two latest MNW publications. Both are (naturally) first novels, and both exhibit the features that one might expect of such a novel. That is to say, they are heavily based on personal experience, if not actually autobiographical. And they both lack the total mastery of technique which comes from writing a considerable number of novels (if it ever does).

Of course, first novels need not be directly based on personal experience, and as a matter of fact I think it is better all round if they're not. For one thing, writing about 'what you know' leads to basing your characters on real people; and your friends, neighbours and acquaintances may not always appreciate that. There is a very real risk that some of them may consult Messrs Sue, Grabbit, and Runne. And that is not a matter to be taken lightly.

The second problem is that, if you use up all your personal experiences in novel number one (or even novel number three), where do you go from there? Beryl Bainbridge, for example, found this something of a problem at one stage.

None of this will, however, prevent ambitious young novelists from plunging ahead and mining their own past for inspiration.

Overall there is now a third problem for these two MNW authors. It is that the first flurry of interest in the imprint has evaporated, and booksellers, literary editors, and book buyers are all going to look at the latest offerings with a much more critical eye than they did initially. Making your name through MNW was never going to be easy, and it gets harder with every passing month.

Jason Webb: The Ghost of Che Guevara

Jason Webb was the Reuters bureau chief in Colombia for five years. While there, he interviewed Marxist rebels, far-right paramilitaries, and coca growers; he spent time in jungle camps. Now he has written a novel which is set in Colombia and centred around a British journalist who goes out into the jungle, interviews Marxist rebels, and so forth.

Robert, the principal character, exhibits some of the burnt-out, alcoholic characteristics of, say, the British journalist in Graham Greene's The Quiet American. And, like Greene's protagonist, Robert is involved with a young woman who may or may not be a prostitute.

In the course of his work Robert meets up with an American student who, no doubt inspired by noble motives, has joined the rebel forces. And to reveal much more about the story might, perhaps, be unfair to the author and the potential reader. What I can say, I think, is that Robert emerges from South America with a story on videotape, only to find that, because of 9/11, no one is interested.

This is all very well as far as it goes, and the novel improves as it goes along. But the crucial early pages are not, I'm afraid, all that gripping. And, as we all know by now, in the twenty-first century a novelist is no longer allowed to develop his skills over three or four early books before finally finding his voice and his audience.

To my mind, the novel appears considerably better when you've finished it that it does while you're reading it. And I can see why MNW bought it: it's intelligent, thoughtful, and relevant to today's world.

But this book is, I fear, a version of its own story: that is to say it is a sound piece of craftsmanship that almost no one will wish to buy. Its natural home is the UK public-library system. But in 2006 is there any library system left? Time was, a publisher could break even on a writer's early books by selling 1500 to 2000 to libraries. But those days are gone. Today, a hardback sale of 500 would be a good result.

There may be hope. In the MNW publicity material accompanying review copies, the author is quoted as saying, 'Colombia's war, which has been going on for more than four decades, is probably as difficult to explain to an ordinary English-language reader as the Middle Ages.' That being so, he may have other books in him. And, next time out, he may write a sharper, bolder, more intense book.

Of course, the poor bloody author probably thinks he's done all that already. What an ungrateful lot we readers are.

Lucy McCarraher: Blood and Water

The cover of The Ghost of Che Guevara makes it perfectly clear that the book is about armed revolutionaries, but the cover of Blood and Water gives us no guidance whatever. Or it gave me none, anyway. Yes, I did eventually get the point about blood being thicker than water, but not immediately. Personally I thought the cover was thoroughly confusing; the book could have been about anything.

What we have, in fact, is a novel written by a mature author with two grown-up sons and two young daughters. And the book itself is about a mature woman with two grown-up children and a second, younger, husband by whom she has a young daughter. Personal experience, I imagine, played a substantial part in choice of plot.

Lucy McCarraher has had lots of writing experience: you name it, she's done it: script-editor, researcher, journalist, ghost writer, theatre critic, and so forth. This would give her, you might think, loads of confidence, and perhaps it did. Nevertheless, Blood and Water begins with an acknowledgements page which makes the novel sound like a team effort.

Well, there's nothing wrong with that. However, as Algernon Swinburne once observed, the problem with the advice of one's friends is that no two friends offer the same advice; and in the end you really have to take responsibility for your own work.

We are also presented, before we get any text, with a two-page list of 'main characters', running, by my count, to 43 names; and this for a 246-page book. I was not, I have to say, encouraged by this. I know Jilly Cooper did it, in at least one of her books, but Jilly's books tend to be very long and it's just about forgivable. In general, if your reader has to refer to a list, I would say that you have too many people in your pages.

The first person narrator is Mo Mozart, a woman who has a crowded, hectic life. Inevitably, therefore, quite a large amount of action is packed into the relatively short (by modern standards) narrative.

The subject matter is, I suppose, relationships. Relationships between men, women, mothers, fathers, siblings. Teenage sex, adoption, other women, that sort of thing. Precisely the sort of thing, in fact, that most men are not interested in reading about but which may well intrigue women readers.

One relatively minor aspect which did intrigue me was a character who was born with ambiguous gender characteristics: in other words, a person who might have been either a girl or a boy. The parents were given a choice -- or perhaps we should say that they had to make a decision -- as to which gender to choose. And they got it wrong. Such cases are by no means unknown. And in a similar case known to me, the wrong choice was also made, with sad results.

The plot of Blood and Water eventually resolves itself into a search for the birth mother of Mo's husband and his twin sister.

The potential audience for this book is one which the author refers to as the 'sandwich generation' of women: those who combine responsibility for children, partners, a career, and often older adults too. And such readers will, I guess, find this a rewarding book.

But will they actually go out and buy it? Read it via the local library, yes. But buy it? I am rather doubtful. So much time effort and talent has gone into this book, and yet I can't see it being a great commercial success. Life really isn't fair.


Lesley Cookman said...

First books are notoriously difficult to sell - both to an agent/publisher, and to the public. When you are a first time novelist, even with a background as a freelance journo and editor, and you are published by a small independent house, the prospects are daunting. The euphoria of at last being a "proper" writer soon wears off.

At least my publisher got my book out there, and sales have proved healthy - if discounted! - for a first book in, according to the trade, an unpopular genre.

One of my fears for MNW is that like Aunt Sally, it has been set up only to be knocked down again. I do hope not.

Paul Ekert said...

MNW has been unpopular from the very start with accusations of "doing it on the cheap" swinging in from critics and writers alike. I have read one book in this range, Homunculus — Hugh Paxton, which was excellent and nicely produced too as a hardback, although made in china, which tends to raise the ghost of child labour in ones mind.

MNW may well be knocked over at some point in the future, just so the critical critics can prove themselves write, but at least for the moment it is an actual outlet for a precious few new writers, and that in itself is a good thing. Let’s hope more publishers copy this idea so they can at last do something constructive with their slush piles…