Monday, July 31, 2006

Held over from Friday

HarperCollins romance

Galleycat reports that HarperCollins are inviting romance fans to contribute to a romance ebook, one chapter at a time.

Jane Friedman, CEO of HC, says 'We're creating an online community that will bring the fans closer to the authors we publish. If you are a fan and you get a communication from Julia Quinn, somebody you've been reading for years, then you'll be a fan of hers for life. And I think you'll become a fan of Avon's for life.'

Well, yes. And replying to fan letters always was a good idea. But now we're into 'online communities', which means that, to be a successful writer, you have yet another (unpaid) burden added to the list. Time was, all you had to do was write the books.

Grumpier than me

Actually I don't have any real reason to be grumpy. I don't depend on the book business for a living. In fact, I barely deal with the book business at all, except through a minimally profitable contract with a distributor (the UK wholesaler Gardners), who (extremely efficiently) send out whatever books of mine that people are eccentric enough to order. But there are those who are really involved in the book business, and have put their professional lives on the line for it.

One such is M.J. Rose, who has a background in marketing and advertising, as well as a successful track record in writing novels. In a recent post on Buzz, Balls and Hype, M.J. complains bitterly, giving examples other than her own, of publishing firms which, in her opinion, are still stuck in the Middle Ages and show no awareness of the need to change their ways.

Mass market blues

Went down to the bookstore, saw my baby there --
Yes, went down to the bookstore, saw my baby there.
Marked down to a dollar, can't get paid nowhere.

Or something like that.

Also on Buzz, Balls & Hype, M.J. Rose reproduces, with permission, James Grippando's piece for the MWA about the (alleged) death of the mass market paperback.

I must confess that, like the first commenter on the article, I was not too impressed by the reasoning in this one. The author almost suggests that buying anything other than a hardback at full price is immoral, and I wouldn't care to go down that route myself.

'Though the purchase of used books is not even the remote equivalent of pirating music off the Internet...' he says. Well that's good to know.

The Golden Age of Detection

Jon Jermey, mentioned here on 26 July, kindly drew my attention to the Golden Age of Detection Wiki, or GADetection for short, which is a very promising resource.

As its name suggests, the site is 'a comprehensive collection of material relating to the Golden Age of Detection - roughly from 1920 to 1960 - covering authors, books, magazines, ephemera and other details.'

First explorations suggest that this contains a great deal of useful information. For example, two of my favourite crime novelists are Margery Allingham and Colin Watson (click on their names for sight of my earlier essays on them). Here on GADetection both are featured, though not surprisingly there is far more about Allingham than Watson, who seems to have kept a low profile.

The General Discussion section also provides such gems as Ronald Knox's Ten Commandments for Detective Fiction. Knox, by the way, was one of the many clergymen who were fascinated by the classic detective novel.

There's a story about a clergyman who read whodunits, and I think it's in Colin Watson's Snobbery with Violence. It seems the clergyman went to his local bookshop and poked around for something to read (in the whodunit line, of course), without success. He then asked the bookshop owner if he could help. The owner suggested this, and suggested that, but every time the clergyman, sucking his pipe, answered succinctly, 'Read it.' Eventually the bookshop owner's patience ran out. 'Well then,' he said tartly, 'you'll just have to read a proper book, won't you?'

Aiming too high

Publishers Lunch links to a New York Times article about crime witer George Pelecanos. 'Mr. Pelecanos, 49,' says the NYT (and doncha just love that 'Mr'? Respect, eh?), 'is part of a fraternity of writers, including Dennis Lehane and Richard Price, who push the boundaries of crime writing into literary territory, exploring character more deeply than many crime novelists dare, introducing challenging social themes and bucking expectations that everything will come out all right in the end.'

Which is a load of crap, for a start. Anyone who thinks that there is anything praiseworthy about a crime writer who pushes into literary territory has a few screws loose. Crime writing belongs out in the mean streets, and should be printed on pulp.

Furthermore, the NYT is puzzled that 'critical acclaim has failed to translate into the kind of sales that Mr. Pelecanos's publisher, Little, Brown, believes he deserves.' As if critical acclaim was ever worth a pitcher of warm spit. I don't think Mickey Spillane ever got any critical acclaim. 'If the public likes you,' said Spillane, 'you're good.'

The National Free Press

The National Free Press is a new publication produced in Canada, and aimed chiefly, I suspect, at Canadian readers. It places a great emphasis on freedom of speech, and you can read the May/June issue for free online.

A healthy lifestyle

Maud Newton tells us that one Thomas H. Benton, an understandably pseudonymous college professor, has been talking to his English students and asking them why they want to do a PhD. Here's what they came up with:

Formative experiences with reading as a child: being read to by beloved parents and siblings, discovering the world of books and solitude at a young age.

Feelings of alienation from one’s peers in adolescence, turning to books as a form of escapism and as a search for a sympathetic connection to other people in other places and times.

A love for books themselves, and libraries, as sites of memory and comfort.

A "geeky" attraction to intricate alternate worlds such as those created by Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and George Lucas....

There's a lot more to the list than the bits I've quoted, and it gets worse, if you can believe that.

Does this sound thoroughly unhealthy to you? Because it sure as hell does to me. I always knew that Eng Lit students were a sad, misguided lot, but it's faintly unnerving to have it demonstrated in public.

Publishing News says that has had a good first year.

There is no obvious way of finding out who is resposible for this site, but it gives every indication of being a commercial operation rather than a site run by mad-keen amateurs. Users are invited to register, and they get to read extracts from every featured book. The titles of the latter are displayed in a box on the right and they change pretty rapidly as you browse.

Louise Weir is director and co-founder of this site, and I see that in 1990 she won an award for book promotion of the year, so presumably the whole of this latest venture is paid for by publishers. Also on board is Sarah Broadhurst, who for the last twenty-five years has been the Bookseller's paperback preview person. I may be wrong, but it rather looks as if self-publishers in search of a bit of free publicity need not apply.

Perhaps not so revolutionary

Several bloggers have noted that Penguin UK have announced the arrival of their brand-new company blog, as of today, 31 July.The Literary Saloon is quietly amused by Penguin's claim that they are offering 'the first blog from a mainstream publisher' -- the Lit Saloon links to at least 16 others.

Lynne Scanlon on Borders

Lynne Scanlon is a person who has worked at a high-level in the book trade, and her views on developments at the US bookseller chain Borders are therefore better informed than most. And there are quite a few other ideas in the comments section.

On the Road in full

A number of bloggers (e.g. Dibs) have reported that the original typescript of Jack Kerouac's 1950s novel On the Road has been found and will now be published as he originally wrote it.

Frankly, I'm not sure that anyone who wasn't around in the '50s is going to get too excited about this. And for me, On the Road never quite hit the spot. However, Kerouac is (says he with a sigh) 'taught' these days, so I suppose academe will welcome the news as it will give them something to chew on. 'Compare and contrast...'

Mortal Ghost

L. Lee Lowe has begun to post chapters of his YA fantasy novel Mortal Ghost on a purpose-built blog, at the rate of one a week. A new chapter will appear every Friday, at the end of which the whole thing will be available as a free PDF.

All at sea?

I haven't looked at a map, but I suspect that it's impossible to live in the UK and be more than -- what ? -- sixty miles from the sea? Anyway, we've all been there, which is more than can be said for some who live in mainland Europe, Asia, America, and Africa.

Margaret Muir is a writer who has sailed on a barquentine on the Indian Ocean and crossed the Atlantic on a clipper; she has even sailed on Cook’s Endeavour replica. Not surprisingly, therefore, her 2005 novel Sea Dust involves a sea voyage.

On her blog, Margaret also has something to say about HMS Victory, and Mary Rose.

To the barricades, old codgers!

Raymond Tallis is a Professor of Geriatric Medicine at Manchester University, and in today's Times he tells us that he sees the elderly as the chief defenders of human liberty.

Where, then, are we to look for the guardians of freedom? This is where the growing cadre of healthy elderly people may be increasingly important. They no longer hope for promotion or preferment. They are not required to bite their tongue or grovel. They have no targets to deliver on, no need to devote themselves to the futile productivity of academe, no asinine mission statements to write or respond to. They are at liberty to think and to say what they like. They can therefore shout out what those who have families to feed and careers to promote — and so must remain on-message at all costs — would not dare mutter in their sleep.

Hear, hear, sir! Well said. Aux armes, citoyens!

Friday, July 28, 2006

Peter Hall in Bath

Sir Peter Hall's company of actors has returned to the Theatre Royal, Bath, for another summer season of plays in repertory. And, as usual, the productions are performed to a high standard.

Big star names cost a lot of money, and I am not sure that Hall would want them even if he could get them, so he contents himself with actors of the first rank who are capable of playing a wide range of parts. (See, for instance, the Times profile of Andrea Riseborough.)

Five plays are being presented this year, including a repeat of last year's Waiting for Godot; that we shall see later, but so far Mrs GOB and I have seen Habeas Corpus and Measure for Measure.

The plays are, as I say, performed in repertory, which means that you may get three performances of Habeas, followed by four of Measure, with a couple of Miss Julies in between. A play performed at a matinee is not usually performed again in the evening. This makes the actors' task particularly demanding, as very often they are appearing in two different plays on the same day.

Last week we saw Alan Bennett's Habeas Corpus. This is certainly a comedy, and may be a farce, depending on your definition of same. But it is not a traditional English farce, with a realistic set, complete with multiple doors, in and out of which the cast rush with immaculate timing, adulterous couples just managing not to be caught with their trousers down or skirts off. Instead, Bennett gives us a succession of interconnected scenes, more like a film script than a traditional play.

First performed in 1973, the play then starred Alec Guiness. The title caused some confusion, not all punters having been taught Latin, or even law. In a programme note, Bennett tells us that one man in the ticket queue was reported as saying, 'I know it's a flash title but it's meant to be quite corny.' Which, says Bennett, is absolutely true.

Habeas Corpus is about sex, that perennial subject for English farce. Sex was, Bennett says, very much in the air in the 1970s, much more so than in the allegedly libidinous '60s. I suppose that's because it took the provincials and the middle classes a little while to catch up with what had earlier been all the rage in London.

Being about sex, and set in England, the play is therefore very naturally about hypocrisy.

And I think that's all you need to know. We have the usual figures of English farce: a randy clergyman (Canon Throbbing, and he certainly does throb). We have the upper class lady who will stand for no nonsense (Lady Rumpers). We have a flat-chested lady who orders some bosom enhancers, and a man from the false-bosom suppliers who is sent to test them for fit, and chooses the wrong lady to assess. And more of the same. It's all good clean fun, slickly performed, and it's a play to see if you ever get the chance.

Shakespeare's Measure for Measure, on the other hand, is not a comedy. At least not in the ho ho ho sense. It's listed as a comedy in most of the classifications, but that means nothing. To my mind it's a serious play with some comic relief. According to some authorities, it is also a play which has intrinsic structural flaws. 'The play shifts wildly in tone after the first three acts,' it is said, 'and the [central] character of the Duke is deeply ambiguous.'

Well, I don't know about that. It all seemed perfectly OK to me. But before I go on, let me tell you about a little incident which occurred before the curtain went up.

Mrs GOB and I arrived, for a matinee performance, with tickets for stalls seats H7 and H8 in our hot little hands. But behold: an elderly lady and husband were already seated in same. Were they sure they were in the right seats, we asked politely. Oh yes. Quite sure.

This has happened to us before, so we went in search of management to sort the matter out. 'Oh, sit anywhere,' said management airily. 'The house is far from full.' Which was true.

So, Mrs GOB and I returned to row H and I sat down in seat H6, with the elderly lady to my right. She was examining her tickets. 'Oh dear, I'm terribly sorry,' she murmured. 'We are in the right seats, but these tickets are for tomorrow.'

I advised her that management seemed profoundly unconcerned about who sat where (and presumably when), and that, since she and her husband had taken the trouble to turn up, they might as well stay where they were.

The lady seemed grateful and I asked her if she was familiar with the play. No, she wasn't. But she was so looking forward to it. She liked Alan Bannett, and she was hoping that it would be very funny.

Well, my dears. What a dilemma! What to do? Eventually I decided that it would be unkind not to warn her. Actually, I said, she wasn't going to see Alan Bennett's play today. That would be on tomorow. Today it would be Shakespeare's Measure for Measure. And, if it's any comfort, I said, a friend of mine had been in the very same position last year. Turning up for an afternoon's gentle entertainment via Edward Fox in a harmless bit of Shaw -- a nice, elegant, middle-class sort of play -- she had found herself watching a couple of dirty tramps in Waiting for Godot. Not at all what she had signed up for.

However, the elderly lady made the best of it. She and her husband stayed, and enjoyed Measure for Measure, as did I.

I had not previously read the play, or even a summary of it, so I was starting entirely from scratch, and I thought I would have my work cut out to follow the action -- especially being a bit Mutt and Jeff. But in fact I found the play tolerably easy to follow.

Set in Vienna, the play asks us to believe that there is a law banning premarital sex. Two young lovers are caught out by this law. The man is sentenced to death, the woman is exposed to public ridicule. The law is imposed by a puritan fanatic, who is acting for the temporarily absent ruler, the Duke. The Duke himself, meanwhile, disguises himself as a visiting priest, and keeps a disapproving eye on the actions of his hypocritical stand-in. The central question, of course, is whether the nice young man will have his head chopped off or not, and, if not, how his sister is going to get him off the hook. The price of mercy involves the girl sacrificing her virginity to the hypocritical stand-in ruler. Will she allow the nasty fellow to have his wicked way with her? And all like that.

Of course, we are asked to believe that the Duke, by shaving off his beard, can pass himself off as a priest, unrecognised by his friends and colleagues, and that takes a bit of swallowing. But then this is the theatre. It's all a game of let's pretend, from start to finish. Beyond that, I can't see what's so structurally flawed or ambiguous about the play, myself. But then this was my first time through.

According to Sir Peter Hall, the problems of the play are 'precisely the fun of it', and the troubling character of the Duke in particular was what drew him to Measure for Measure in the first place. 'If you build the work around the Duke then it all falls into place,' Hall goes on to say. And: 'If we assume that Shakespeare knew what he was doing then these "difficult" plays suddenly seem much less difficult.'

Well, dammit, I don't see why one wouldn't assume that Shakespeare knew what he was doing. For one thing, he wrote this play in 1603 or 1604, when he had been in the playwrighting business for some time. And for another, it seemed blindingly obvious to me, as I sat there watching the play, without the slightest idea what was coming next, that the writer had a very firm grasp of dramatic structure. Which sounds silly, I know, but I have actually spent a great many years studying dramatic structure, and have written a few plays myself; so I reckon I know when a playwright is up to the job and when he isn't. And for my money, old William knew what he was a-doing of.

One thing did occur to me, however, and that's this. I have come to the conclusion that Will more or less assumed that his audience would see his plays several times. After all, there were very few theatres available at the time, even in London. So I don't think he expected the audience to absorb every nuance at first hearing.

What one tends to forget sometimes, in view of the vast intellectual prestige which surrounds Shakepeare's name, and the fact that the audience almost feels as if it's being tested by turning up to watch one of the plays, is that he can, on occasion, deliver one hell of an emotional punch.

With me, this tends to happen when I'm watching a play that I've never seen before. Such as The Winter's Tale. Or, in this instance, Measure for Measure. The scene at the end, where the young virgin, Isabella, finally realises that her brother has not been executed, as she thought, very nearly made me blub. And a playwright can't do more than that, can he? That's what the theatre's all about.

Of course, I didn't actually blub, because I'm English, and Englishmen don't go around sniffling into their handkies. It's just not done.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

The Manchurian Candidate, 2004

I finally got around to watching Jonathan Demme's version (2004) of The Manchurian Candidate. It took me a while because, frankly, I really wasn't expecting very much. However, I am genuinely pleased to be able to say that it is a far better movie than I had feared.

It contains some excellent acting from the principals (Denzel Washington and Meryl Streep in particular), and the direction isn't bad either. As for the writing... Well, quite impressive too. I admit that with some surprise, because I feared the worst. But fortunately the writers started with some absolutely classic material, and although they have made changes the plot still works pretty well.

If you aren't familiar with the history of The Manchurian Candidate, please pay attention, because it is, in my opinion, one of the classic books of the twentieth century -- as opposed to all that literary nonsense that the college professors would have you believe in.

First published in 1959, The Manchurian Candidate was written by Richard Condon. He had a background in advertising, p.r., and the Hollywood movie business. He wrote about twenty novels, several of which were filmed, and nearly all of which are still worth reading. For my part, I must have read The Manchurian Candidate at least four times, and it's still in print if you want to give it a try (which I warmly recommend).

Soon after publication, Condon's novel was bought for movie adaptation, and the film was released in 1962. It was directed by John Frankenheimer.

The plot does not lend itself to easy summary (in my opinion). It is best categorised as a thriller, and what happens, basically, is that a small group of American soldiers are captured during the Korean war, and are brainwashed by the Communists (actually I think conditioned would be a better word) to return to the US with a fictional story which they believe utterly. One of their number (Raymond Shaw) is brainwashed/conditioned into being an assassin who will kill whenever instructed.

In due course, the brainwashed killer is to be used to assassinate a man who is running for president, thus enabling the vice-presidential candidate to be elected in his place. And the VP candidate is a Communist agent. The bulk of the story is taken up with finding out whether one of the brainwashed soldiers (Ben Marco) can figure out what has been done to his head, and whether he can then prevent the assassin from carrying out his instructions.

The book can be read simply as a thriller, and as such it is a very good one. But Condon is often spoken of as a 'satirical' writer, which implies that he had some higher purpose than merely writing a gripping story.

Certainly he uses the plot of The Manchurian Candidate to reveal his total contempt for Senator McCarthy and similar political conmen. And in later books Condon gave us some brutal portraits (with a smear of disguise) of such figures as Nixon and Joe Kennedy. But his principal object, I believe, was not to make us smile, or to ridicule his subjects; it was to purge himself of his own profound disgust and distrust of the US political system. Or rather, not of the system itself, but of the corrupt and perverted version of the system which was then in place, and which shows, nearly fifty years later, absolutely no sign of being able to make itself clean and whole again.

In short, Condon's work is deeply revealing of how reality varies from the image presented to the public. And that is a situation which we find, in the world today, over and over again. Condon first saw it, in close-up, in Hollywood, but he soon came to understand that 'spin' (as we now call it in the UK) was everywhere, and was everywhere corrupting, demeaning, and dangerous.

The climax of The Manchurian Candidate involves the gunning down of an American politician in a public place. And, one year after the release of the film, America was traumatised by the Kennedy assassination. After that the film dropped out of sight. Today, however, you can buy it on DVD. And you can read the original George Axelrod script free of charge on the web. My tip: print it out and read it on paper. It's perfectly easy to follow, and a model of its kind.

Before I leave the original novel and the Frankenheimer movie, let me point out that I have written about both before. On 22 April 2004 and 23 April 2004, to be precise, and with a few other passing references. But the best online essay on the subject is the one by Louis Menand in the New Yorker.

So, we had the novel, followed by the Frankenheimer movie, and now we have the Jonathan Demme remake. Which is, incidentally, produced by Frank Sinatra's daughter Tina; see Menand and my own earlier posts for comments on the Sinatra connection.

The fact that the film was directed by Jonathan Demme had me worried for a while. Demme was director of the 1986 movie Something Wild, which I well remember as one of the most objectionable films that I've ever seen and which was, not surprisingly, a box-office flop. However, he has also done some good stuff, including The Silence of the Lambs, and his version of The Manchurian Candidate is about five times better than I thought it would be.

It is in the plot of the Demme version that we find the biggest variations from the Condon/Frankenheimer story. I am not going to compare and contrast the two movies in any detail here, though someone could (and probably will) make a PhD thesis out of it. But if you want an amusing account of how the story goes, there's quite a good one on the imdb page. (The reviewer doesn't like Frank Sinatra's kung fu fight in Frankenheimer's version, but I thought that was one of the really good bits.)

Demme has shifted the period in which the action takes place from the 50s/60s to the present day. The Korean War brainwashing episode now takes place during the first Gulf war. And while Condon was positing that the Communist powers were plotting to get their own man into the White House, Demme argues that it is a branch of America's big business which now wants to take over the world: a big-time defence contractor called Manchurian Global.

Demme's plot is stronger than Condon's in one respect. Demme's candidate for the US presidency actually has a chip in his brain which obliges him to follow instructions. Whereas in Condon's version the candidate was a puppet, but a puppet with his own free will intact.

In other respects the plot changes are not, in my judgement, an improvement. But I shall have to see the film again before I finally make up my mind about that. Both movies, incidentally, chicken out of revealing that Raymond Shaw's mother has an incestuous relationship with him. Although even the book, written in 1959, had to be discreet about that. It's OK to write about assassination and brainwashing and stuff, but having sex with your mother... There are limits, you know.

On the whole, the Demme version seems to me to lose some of the ironies and the tragedy of Frankenheimer. Raymond is no longer obliged to kill his journalist mentor and friend. And his teenage girl friend, the one his mother got rid of, no longer appears to care for him, and thus the horror of his killing her loses much of its power. I at least no longer felt pity for this new Raymond.

However... as the imdb reviewer points out, there is lots of subtle stuff going on in the background of this movie, and it requires more than one viewing. Also, being deaf, I shall either have to read the script or get a subtitled version to make sure that I've absorbed all the information. And, although there are losses, there are probably also gains.

Why have I spent quite a lot of time reading and re-reading the Condon book, and watching the first movie version several times (and will now, I suspect, proceed to do the same with the new one)?

Because the material is oddly fascinating, moving, and highly relevant to our times. One way and another, Condon put his finger on some of the most vital issues of our day: the relentless desire of politicians and big businessmen to control what we do, think and buy; and their ready willingness to destroy the little people for what they would have us believe is the greater good. And to achieve their ends, they tell us endless lies, without a hint of shame or regret.

When he retired from the presidency, in 1961, Eisenhower warned the American people about the unprecedented power of the military-industrial complex. 'In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.'

Nothing has changed since then, except that the risk has become greater. And these are the kinds of issues which Condon and two movie directors have dealt with. Along the way, they have given us characters who are interesting in themselves, who move us by their actions, and who become, in some instances, tragic victims of circumstance.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Short notes

Mass-market blues

M.J. Rose talks about the advantages and disadvantages of mass-market publication. As you thought, snobbery in the book world is rife.

Using real people for characters

Most first novels -- at least of the literary kind -- seem to be more or less autobiographical, and frequently the characters are recognisable. This may, to say the least, cause embarrassment. It may cause financial disaster to both author and publisher.

The Literary Saloon describes a case in Germany at the moment which rather proves the point.

Many new and young writers seem to think that basing their novel on real people is a normal procedure, and indeed that it is rather amusing. However... One of my own publishers told me about a book he'd published in which the author had, unknown to the publisher, used the names of all the people in his home village. The book had to be pulped, at considerable cost. And I don't think the publisher asked to see the author's second book.

Many and numerous are the cases where an author has been too ignorant, or lazy, to check the name of his professional doctor or army officer character against the lists of various members of these professions; this can be an expensive failing. Even the experienced Fay Weldon got caught out once.

And so on. The list is extensive. My advice: make everything up. Invent the story, invent the characters entirely from scratch; check names against lists. For bad guys use very common names (there are thousands of Michael Allens, for example). Don't really on real life for inspiration: use your imagination.

Writers are, after all, supposed to have an imagination. It goes with the job. It's like... undertakers having a long face, and pawnbrokers having three balls.

Clancy's Mom

Clancy Sigal, whose book about his 'fast-talking, redhaired, sexy, unwed mother Jennie, a firebrand union organizer', was mentioned here on 21 March, is interviewed in the Chicago Sun-Times -- Chicago being her home town. Link from Publishers Lunch.

New indie paradigm (I think that's the right word)

Independent bookshop owners all over the world are scratching their heads and trying to figure out how to survive in the face of Wottakars and the equivalents in every nation. Well, here's the latest wheeze as worked out by the owner of BookBeat in Fairfax, California: get rid of the books.

This isn't as silly as it sounds. Gary Kleiman, the owner of BookBeat, has stripped out the big bookstacks in the centre of his shop and has just retained those along the walls. He gave most of the store's 4,000 books to charity.

He also built a stage, where musicians play three to four nights a week, he got himself a beer and wine license, and now offers free wireless Internet access. BookBeat has become mostly a virtual bookstore. Instead of stocking a large inventory of new and used titles, Kleiman offers next-day service for most book orders. Customers order books by phone, then pick them up at the store.

Full story in the San Francisco Chronicle. Link from Publishers Lunch.

Brick Lane meets brick wall

A while back, Monica Ali wrote a novel called Brick Lane which attracted a good deal of favourable attention and was shortlisted for the Booker. Now someone is making a movie of it.

However, Dibs has noticed that the residents of the real Brick Lane neighbourhood (in London) are trying to prevent the film being made in their area, on the ground that it's racist. The residents are mostly Bangladeshi and they are none too pleased with young Monica. You know how it is, if a neighbourhood gets the wrong reputation, property prices go down the tube.

Dibs hasn't read the book, and neither have I, so we can't possible comment. However, one commenter on Dibs's post understands what is going on perfectly:
The book tries to make out that all Sylheti people (Bangladeshis in this country mostly from Sylhet, Hobigonj, Moulvi Bazaar and Shunamgonj) are backward. No community likes to be perceived to be illiterate. Anyway, we know most Dhakaiya Bangladeshis donĂ‚’t like Sylhetis because we are better off than them because there are more Sylheti people living in UK, US, Canada, Italy etc than from any other region. So it is envy that makes them attack us.
Right... I think I've got that.

Susan Hill's new blog

Susan Hill has a new blog, as of yesterday. The old one is still open for reference but will not be updated and comments are closed.

Chief item to look at is Susan's suggestion for a 'Book Bloggers' Prize. This will be -- if it takes off, and it's still in the early discussion stages -- a prize for a new book published in 2007. Susan herself has offered to put up an initial £1,000 as prize money, which is above and beyond the call of duty, and details are still to be worked out. Input is requested.

As many readers will know, Susan is a well established novelist, playwright, and publisher; her books are actually set for examinations, and she gets thousands of letters from students. She also blogs. And, as if that was not enough, she's doing an MA in Theology. 'The new module arrived,' she says gleefully, 'in a huge exciting parcel. It is the last module before the dissertation as I am moving into my 3rd year, and it is on THE CISTERCIANS IN THE 12TH CENTURY IN ENGLAND AND WALES. Bliss.'

Well quite, quite. Nothing to brighten one's day like a module on the twelfth-century Cistercians, as I'm sure you'll agree.

The Museum of Just Not Getting It

Jon Jermey and friends have a site called The Museum of Just Not Getting It. This is dedicated to descriptions of devices and dodges used by big, famous companies to prevent -- oh my God!!! -- anyone copying their precious digital files. Result, as often as not, catastrophe, big company made to look extremely dim, bad publicity, and a lot of really pissed-off users who proceed to exercise their not inconsiderable skills to get round any and every stupid piece of DRM ever introduced, and to to spread the word as far as possible.

This is what's known in the non-digital world as shooting yourself in the foot.

Jon Jermey, by the way, is based in Australia and is a hotshot indexer. Both the old kind of indexer (books published by McGraw Hill et cetera), and a new-fangled webindexer. No, I didn't know you could either, but Jon and Glenda Browne have written a whole book about it.

Jon has also written three novels.

Value for money?

Sara Nelson, editor of Publishers Weekly, this week tells an everyday story of a big-time author transferring from one publisher (Random House) to another (Harper). Name of writer: Adriana Trigiani. (Obviously has a Welsh background.) Alleged advance involved: $3 million.

Can't say I've ever heard of Ms Trigiani, but that's neither here nor there. Point is, she sells. But what caught my eye was this: 'Don't forget the woman's amazing gift for promotion; surely Jonathan Burnham, the newish Harper head who is himself no stranger to razzle-dazzle, is factoring in her tireless book-clubbing and reading and greeting, all of which move books.'

Note that: tireless. See, another thing you need to be a big-time writer these days is boundless energy. And it seems that Ms Trigiani once travelled on the comedy circuit, so no wonder she's good at working audiences. Energy plus other talents too, you see.

I hope you're taking notes of all this. Oh, and she's already been on Richard and Judy, 2004. And she's been a writer/producer on The Cosby Show, and it seems that, to get her first novel off the ground, she spent a year and a half getting up at three in the morning, in order to write before she went off to work on a TV show.

I don't think I'm strong enough to read any more of this. Especially with it being so hot. $3 million sounds pretty cheap to me.

Oh, I've just noticed. She has a three-year-old daughter. Well, you know how it is. You need something to fill up your spare time, or you get bored.

The London Magazine

Just a reminder that The London Magazine is still around. Originally founded in 1732, the magazine was re-launched in 2002, when Sebastian Barker took over the editorship from Alan Ross. Today, the magazine is intended 'for those who enjoy reading stories, poems and articles by the leading authors of today; for those who want to follow the development of new talent at home and abroad; [and] for those who look for first-class criticism by a first-class team of reviewers.' Recently the magazine has decided to cover all the arts.

I used to read this magazine in the 1950s, but I was much more highbrow then than I am now, and it's got a bit ethereal for me. However, it's a prestigious place to get published or reviewed.

Gin palace and royal gossip

Before I forget, last weekend's Sunday Times carried an extract from Behind Palace Doors by Major Colin Burgess, which will be published by John Blake on August 7. Burgess was once an equerry (= gofer) to the Queen Mother, who died in 2002 at the age of 101.

The Queen Mum (mother of the present Queen Elizabeth II) was, shall we say, a bit of a character. She wasn't an alcoholic, says Burgess, but she was a keen social drinker, and her life was very social. He gives us an amusing and fairly no-holds-barred account of life in the royal family, and his book will no doubt sell well.

If you're into royal gossip, however, there are two other books which are essential reading. The most famous is Kitty Kelley's The Royals. This was so scurrilous that, even today, the book is clearly marked NOT FOR SALE IN THE UK on Amazon.

Of course, with a family as big and as ancient as the Windsors, there is masses of scandal which is undeniably true. But, as with every other public figure, there is also masses of gossip which is wildly exaggerated. The problem with Kelley's book, at least to a trained historian like myself (he says modestly), is that she doesn't distinguish between the two. Total nonsense is presented alongside established fact, as if the two were equally valid. And frankly, as often as not, the established fact is at least as shocking as the conjecture.

A better book, if you really enjoy scuttlebutt, is Lady Colin Campbell's The Royal Marriages. As I remarked on 30 November 2004, The Royal Marriages makes Kitty Kelley's opus look a bit tame. Campbell's technique is quite different from Kelley's. Instead of asserting that such and such is a fact, she tells us that various wicked lies have been told about the British royal family, and then proceeds to tell us what they are. (E.g. that at least two of the present Queen's children were fathered by someone other than her husband.) And there was lots more in the same vein.

Unfree speech

In today's Times, the blogger Tim Worstall has an excellent Comment piece about the need for free speech. Well said Tim. And on his blog today, Tim is less than pleased with the outcome of a recent prosecution of some alleged terrorists.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Patrick White remains unpublishable

You just can’t trust the mail these days, can you? Private letters get reproduced all over the place.

Last week, we noted that a journalist from The Australian had submitted a disguised version of a novel by Patrick White (the Aussie Nobel Prize winner) to a number of Aussie publishers and agents, and had then expressed shock horror that none of them wanted to publish/handle it.

The novel was submitted as if it came from a Mr Picket, and some of the (copyright) letters from agents and publishers were freely quoted in The Australian’s article. Well, now one of said correspondents has written another letter, and someone else (namely me) has published the damn thing in full, but this time with the author’s permission. Here it is:

Dear Mr Picket,

Back in May I sent you the following letter:

Dear Mr Picket,

Thank you for your letter and the attached MS.

I regret that we cannot make an offer for publication. Why? The first and easy answer is that we try to curb all desire to publish novels. This is a matter of self-preservation: the Harold Park Trots are by comparison a rational way of earning a living.

As a result I cannot really give any sensible critique of the work, but what I read left me puzzled. I found it hard to get involved with the characters, so it was not character-driven, nor in the ideas, so it was not idea-driven. It seemed like a plot-driven novel whose plot got lost through an aspiration to be a literary novel. It was very clever, but I was not compelled to read on.

I think you can reliably dismiss all this as the reaction of a dyspeptic and ignorant reader.

Yours sincerely

Nicholas Hudson, Hudson Publishing

I can’t tell you what trouble this has caused me. It somehow fell into the hands of the Literary Editor of the Australian, who extracted part of the middle paragraph and published it!! Next thing, every aspirant novelist in Australia seems to have got the idea that because I didn’t like clever novels I would like theirs.

After that came a throng of black armbanders saying that my rejection of your submission signalled the end of civilisation. Apparently I did not have the right to publish some books I liked unless I had read a whole lot of books I didn’t like. Some even accused me of claiming to be a literary critic!

The logic of this escaped me. If I want to put money on a horse, I am allowed to choose it in any way I like. Nobody says that I am setting myself up as an expert on horses and must therefore know all about all the other horses in all the other races. But it seems that if I decide to bet on some literary properties I have set myself up as a literary critic, and should therefore have read all the popular books, at least enough to pick all the plagiarisms, parodies and wannabes.

Every successful novelist is pursued by a peloton of wannabes, and Patrick White is no exception. Yes, you were not the first. But you were the first I ever encountered to save the tedium of writing your own pastiche by providing a pastiche written by the master himself.

The next suggestion of the prophets of doom was that because I didn’t like the writing of their pet hero, I was unfit to be a publisher. Would I really have been a more responsible publisher if I published books I didn’t like, just because they appealed to somebody else? I would prefer to be a philistine than a hypocrite. And if being puzzled by White’s appeal makes me a philistine, there have been a lot of us, including some distinguished critics. Dear old Alec Hope, for a start.

But the chatter got wilder still. It was suggested that it was all the fault of the education system. As I have not been near the education system for nearly fifty years, this seemed far-fetched.

Tell you what: just in case the mail thieves at the Australian don’t intercept this one, send it to a few newspapers and see if they’ll make an offer for it. Just send me the cheque. Nobody but a blockhead ever wrote other than for money. Pick it, Picket?

Yours still sincerely,

Nicholas Hudson, Hudson Publishing

You know what? I really like that. It might have been quicker, and for my part it would have tempted me severely, just to adopt a bit of Oz straight speaking and tell Picket that he was a stupid ***ing **** -- but Mr Hudson is a much milder man than I am.

Meanwhile I am adopting a new motto: 'I would prefer to be a philistine than a hypocrite.' I may have it tattooed somewhere.

Monday, July 24, 2006


Mom wins prize for gay book

You'll like this one.

The Next Big Writer is a web site which allows writers to post stuff, and thereby to get 'feedback, recognition, and rewards.' From time to time they run competitions, with worthwhile prizes (how about $5000?). And now the Book Standard reports that a mom from Maryland has won the the latest such comp.

Dora McAlpin-Zeeks’s gay-themed novel beat out entries by nearly 200 other competitors to win the $5,000 prize.

The author, who prefers to go by the nom-de-plume Ivey Banks, wrote Out of the Dark, in which teenager Thorn MacDonnell struggles with his sexuality and the fact that he has been diagnosed with HIV and leukemia.

"I’m thrilled Out of the Dark reached the No. 1 spot and I’m very grateful to the readers who put it there," said Banks.

Sol Nasisi, the founder and director of said that, since the site launched in October 2005, more than 13 pieces on the site, including novels, short stories and poetry, have been published by literary journals.

Bottom of the heap

I have known writers (and I was one of them once) who imagined that, because there are no books without writers, writers are therefore somehow important in the general context of the book business. Ah me. What naivety.

For example: Publishers Lunch reports that George Jones (formerly of Saks and Warner Bros), who has just been appointed as boss of the US bookselling chain Borders, has some ideas on how to develop the business (which is in poor shape, with the shares at a three-year low).

His ideas, says PL, apparently do not include being a better bookseller and a smarter merchandiser. Rather: "If we think of ourselves as more than just selling books or music or movies but as being a provider of information and entertainment, then there are a lot of things we can do," Jones said in a telephone interview. "I have a ton of ideas of things I can do with the relationships I built over those years in Hollywood that I think I can tap into that could help differentiate us as a company and make us stand out versus our competitors."

Not a lot of mention of writers there, is there?

The Borders group is a leading global retailer of books, music and movies with more than 1,200 stores and approximately 35,000 employees worldwide. More information on the company is available at the Borders web site.

Penguin warehouse fallout

Galleycat reports that the Penguin warehouse disaster (reported on here with some irritation on 25 October 2004) has had a belated fallout. One of the (alleged) star authors at Penguin, Graham Swift (a lit'ry chap), has gone back to his old publisher.

Or perhaps, Galleycat suggests, this fallout isn't belated. Perhaps it's the first of many such departures when contracts come up for renewal.

Internet porn

The sub-heading here gives you fair warning. Don't read this if the subject of porn upsets you.

However, if you're still here, you should know that M.J. Rose's latest novel, The Venus Fix, deals with the effect of internet porn on the young. There's a review of it on The Huffington Post. What is really interesting, however, is the robust nature of the comments on the review.

On her blog, M.J. says that she didn't think the review said what most of the commenters seem to think it did. Either way, it's certainly interesting.

What (non-fiction) editors are looking for

Galleycat also has a link to an essay by Didi Feldman in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Didi has a ten-point plan (or thereabouts) for writing a (presumably) non-fiction book.

More elderbloggers

Clare of Tunbridge Wells works in publishing, and she has a blog called Three Beautiful Things, on which she simply records three beautiful things which happened to her , or which she came across, in the course of a day. A nice idea.

Clare sends me news of two more elderbloggers, i.e. pensioners who blog (for more of same, see the column of links on the right).

Joe Hyam is 72, a retired journalist, and now a poet and vegetable-grower. He has modelled his own blog, Now's The Time, on Clare's, and uses it to record, day by day, things that he has enjoyed.

Then there's The Old Professor, who's 83 and lives in California. He has a blog called Paulz Place, and he also has a web site called The Old Professor. Actually he doesn't work on that site any more, but it contains some of his earlier stuff, such as a short piece about beach volleyball. With pictures. Heh heh heh. Men don't improve much as they get older, do they?

Both of these will go on the blogroll when my feet touch the ground.

Free New Books

Chris Mitchell, editor of, has created a separate facility on which he provides links to downloadable, and free, versions of (newish) books. It's called (unsurprisingly)

Chris says that he is 'trying to avoid all the old out of copyright stuff as many other sites have already done a great job of gathering those together - mine is all about bringing interesting new books together whose authors have been enlightened enough to put the entire manuscript on the Web.... It's still quite a scary, counter-intuitive thing to do for many people, but it seems to be working well for those who take the plunge.'

Free-new-books already has a link to my own How And Why Lisa's Dad got to be famous, which is nice. And -- writers please note -- he is very keen on hearing from anyone else who has a book available online.

Spike Magazine itself, by the way, is well worth a visit. It's described as a literary/culture site, and covers books, music, art, and travel.

Mumbo jumbo, stick it in the gumbo

Martin Rundkvist kindly sent me a link to a site called Mystic Bourgeoisie, which is dedicated to the exposure of 'numinous lunacy and the sanctimonious narcissism of the New Age' -- i.e. 'the unlikely story of how America slipped the surly bond of earth and came to believe in signs and portents that would make the Middle Ages blush'.

There's some amusing stuff here, with a very serious point to it. The general tone may be deduced from the following reference to Catholic theology: 'As a survivor (I think) of that particular Weltanschauung, I reserve the right to yank its pants down and make fun of its ugly butt as the mood strikes me and without further rationalization or apology.'

Well, ridicule is one way to weaken the grip of superstition, conspiracy theory, and other half-baked theories of the modern world. Education would work better, in my opinion, but it's slow. And since the educators themselves, these days, often seem to have lost touch with reality, it may be a unwinnable struggle.


There's more. A lot more. But it will have to wait.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Smile: it's Friday

Not a knockoff

Publishers Lunch reports that Kathleen McGowan's The Expected One is written as fiction, but that, according to the author, it actually mirrors her own life. She believes, you see, that she is a descendant of a marriage between Mary Magdalene and Jesus. (Thank goodness they were actually married, that's all I can say. So many people don't bother, do they?) What is more, the visions experienced by the novel's main character are verbatim accounts of Kathleen's own visions of Mary Magdalene.

But, er, haven't we heard something like this before? Ah yes, but this is quite different.

'Everyone's going to think I'm on The Da Vinci Code bandwagon,' says Kathleen, 'but I'm not.' By way of evidence she adds that she began working on her book in 1989. The Da Vinci Code was published in 2003. So that's all right then.

Apparently Kathleen originally self-published her novel last year, but it sold only 2,500 copies. Imagine the disappointment of that. Still, now she gets a second chance, because Simon and Schuster are running a first edition of 250,000 copies. Full story in USA Today.

Digital options for Updike

A while back we noted that John Updike (a literary novelist of note, in case you're wondering) was not keen on the digital world. He likes proper books. Well, that's OK.

Publishers Lunch points to a letter in the New York Times in which Joni Evans points out that participating in the digital age is optional.

Updike does not have to join the revolution. Digitization is optional. The Internet operates in the world of Also, Either/Or, Not One Way. Updike's intentions of privacy and intimacy are safe; his copyright thoroughly protects his choice to remain nonenhanced, nondigitized, nonhyperlinked and nonsearchable.

But what is good for John Updike is not necessarily good for the millions of authors the current system has locked out. Creativity does not flourish when books can't find publishers or when audiences cannot be sustained. Those authors whose works remain unpublished, out of print, out of stock or out of date will be the ones to march in the digital revolution. Updike is a large, elite fish in a small pond. The digital pond is primarily for other species — smaller, less recognized, exotic fish that need the oxygen this new world provides.

Couldn't put it better myself. Joni Evans, by the way, has worked for many years as an editor, publisher and literary agent. She's a known name.

More on illustrated diy books

Last October I wrote a piece about how you can produce your own fully illustrated books by using the facilities of

At Christmas, Mrs GOB and I were given a beautiful calendar, put together by our son-in-law, and featuring photographs of our grandchildren for each month of the year. And that got me looking at how he did it. It turns out that there are now lots of online firms which will do digital calendars for you. You can order just one copy if you wish.

The print quality of our gift calendar was extremely good. Not absolutely top quality, by comparison with, say, an art book issued by Thames and Hudson, but quite enough to satisfy all but the most critical eye.

Now, thanks to Galleycat, I have read an NYT article on further developments in this field. Perhaps the most promising of these is the service offered by (which seems to be for US customers only at present, but that will change). If they can produce a book which satisfies an amateur astronomer I think it likely that the result might also satisfy those ultra-picky amateur specialists in fine-art black and white photography.

When that's been demonstrated, then an age-old problem will be solved. There are lots of people around who would love to publish a book of art photographs, but who (a) can't find a commercial publisher to touch it (for obvious reasons: high cost, small sales), and (b) can't afford the £10,000 plus to finance it themselves via the old technology.

At, even doggies can publish a book. (Take a look if you don't believe me.)

It's tough at the top

Publishing News reports (link from that Ravi Mirchandani is leaving UK's Heinemann. PN understands that 'the move was not his decision'. So, in other words, he's been sacked.

Heinemann (established in 1890 and at that time, of course, independent) is now part of Random House, which is part of Bertelsmann, which is a big international media group. Such groups exist solely to make profits for shareholders and not to enrich the literary culture of our time. And when you look at Mirchandani's track record you see that he is a very lit'ry chap indeed.

The lit'ry stuff presumably isn't making enough money (hardly surprising), so Mirchandani gets the boot. Tough, but logical after its fashion.

The Book Bar

There's a new book blog/resource in town, and it's called The Book Bar. Very new as yet, but quite a lot there already.

It's the brainchild of Jessica Ruston, who tells us that she writes and works for a small publisher. She immediately gets into my good books by admitting to having read Katie Price (aka Jordan)'s Angel. Verdict: 'It's pretty appalling. But also rather wonderful.' Sounds right up my street.

Jessica also mentions Never the Bride, by Paul Magrs, which I'd not heard of before. Apparently it's about the Bride of Frankenstein, who lives in Whitby, and it's as weird and funny and quirky as that suggests. Just a minute -- I thought it was Dracula who lived in Whitby? Or am I more confused than usual? I shall just have to read it.

In case you're thinking of doing something similar, be warned. It takes a lot of time and effort to set up a site like this.

Danuta Kean's new web site

Another extremely valuable resource for writers is to be found on Danuta Kean's revamped web site.

Danuta is an award-winning UK journalist of long standing. She writes a regular column for The Author, which is the house magazine of the Society of Authors, and has written for most of the leading newspapers; she also interviews authors on Channel4Radio.

There is an enormous amount of valuable information for writers on her web site, with more to come, including all The Author columns. As a sampler, try her piece about super-agents. Yes, folks, it could happen to you. Keep the faith. But just don't hold your breath; you might go very red in the face.

Seriously though, that one article is in itself a valuable insight into how modern publishing interlocks with everything, notably TV. And you thought it was enough just to write an interesting book? Oh, dearie, dearie me.

And finally...

I warned above that it takes a lot of time and effort to set up a halfway decent blog. But there are also other risks.

This week most of the UK papers reported the case of La Petite Anglaise, a young Englishwoman living in Paris, who blogged about her daily life in the French capital and lost her job as a result. Lynne Scanlon pointed me to a particularly detailed version of the story in the Telegraph.

La Petite's employers claim that she -- gasp of horror -- used the firm's time to work on her blog, and that she made them look stupid. Well, not nearly as stupid as they look now.

I'll tell you this for sure. You don't have to read her blog for very long to discover that this girl has been around the blogosphere for some time, and knows how to look after herself. And express herself. So far she has not named names. But if I were her former employer I would be feeling very, very nervous. There's ways to do things and ways to do things, and they done it all wrong.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

The rise and rise of Sam Bourne

Nicholas Clee has kindly sent me some figures from the Bookseller which will, he says, make me splutter a bit.

Well, yes. And then again... no.

The main story that he tells relates to last week's sales in the UK book market. The Righteous Men, by Sam Bourne, has gone to number one on the bestseller list, with sales of 30,624 copies in seven days. Katie Price, aka Jordan (doncha just love her?), has to be content with second place again, with her novel Angel selling 26,654 copies.

How did this first place for The Righteous Men come about? Answer, the Sam Bourne book was included in Richard and Judy's summer reading list, a list than which there is no greater shifter of books in the UK (think Oprah in a UK context). Sam and his book were, I gather, featured on the show quite recently.

This is, apparently, only the second time that an R&J nominated book has made it to number one, and it gives HarperCollins their first overall number-one title for two years (the last being Cecelia Ahern's PS, I Love You).

And why does Nicholas think this will make me splutter? Well, because I have a well documented antipathy towards Mr Bourne and his book, based on the old-fashioned idea that there are other writers out there who deserve this kind of success far more than he does.

The saga begins (do feel free to click away if you've heard this before) on 16 September 2004, when I noted that Guardian journalist Jonathan Freedland, with Jonny Geller of Curtis Brown acting as his agent, had sold the 'partial manuscript' of a thriller, entitled The Righteous Men, to editor Jane Johnson at HarperCollins. A six-figure sterling advance was involved, and the book was to appear under the Sam Bourne pseudonym.

'I am bound to enquire,' I said sniffily, back in 2004, 'whether there is anyone out there in the blogosphere who can explain to me how this deal can possibly be justified.'

But I had already answered my own question, in the same post. I had already pointed out that, from a modern publisher's point of view, the ideal author is a practising journalist. Such a person can not only string words together on paper but is likely to be articulate, personable, well connected, London-based, media-savvy, and all like that. Ideally, of course, the journalist should be female, absolutely stunning to look at, single, and ready to sleep with anyone short of the Pope -- but, at a pinch, a bloke will do.

So there wasn't really anything too surprising, depite my outrage, at Bourne/Freedland being handed a juicy contract for a partial manuscript.

I then forgot all about Mr Bourne and his book, until it finally came out. Curiously, not even the strict code of Fleet Street practice managed to get the man more than a couple of reviews (as noted in my post of 17 March), and those reviews that did appear were, to use the technical term coined by Glaswegian untermenschen, shite. This was all very distressing to those who, like myself, were bubbling over with goodwill towards the entire project, on which much of Mr Bourne/Freedland's future pension doubtless depends.

There was, however, as in all the best stories, a white knight on the horizon. Or two white knights, actually: Richard and Judy. On 20 June I reported that The Righteous Men had been included in R&J's summer reading list. And if that doesn't shift a few copies, I said, nothing will.

And now it has.

There are just a few morals to this story, and, since there are always new, young, and impressionable young writers appearing on the scene, it is worth, perhaps, pointing them out again.

You may have been brought up to imagine that literary fame and fortune will be yours if only you write a great book -- 'great' being defined in any way you wish. But that is not true. That may be the way it should be in principle, but in practice it simply ain't so. Having a 'great', good, or even competent book is neither here nor there. What is needed today is the package.

As The Righteous Men's story demonstrates, if you have the right package you don't even need an entire book. An idea will do. But you, the author, have to be the right sort of person. And you have to have the right agent, who will not only get you taken up by the right publisher (i.e. a big, powerful one), but will continue to act on your behalf thereafter.

We have already discussed the nature of the 'right' author. As for agents -- well, Jonny Geller, as I pointed out in 2004, is the agent de nos jours. He is a man with a considerable track record in taking very average writers and building them, at least temporarily, into stars. (See my discussion of Jake Arnott and The Long Firm).

Given Geller's prestige and success, anyone in the book trade will take calls from him. Including, I suspect, Amanda Ross, the lady who actually decides what gets the hands-on blessing from R&J. I would bet a modest sum of money that, at some point, Jonny called Amanda and invited her out to lunch. That's what agents are for, after all.

Over lunch he would have drawn her attention to the many virtues of his client, a man so far underrated but clearly (he would have said) with the legs for a lengthy Ian-Fleming type career (Fleming was, after all, a journalist himself). And Amanda, who, in her recent Times interview, told us all that thrillers are not her thing, seems to have accepted the argument. And besides, you never know when a friend on the Guardian might come in handy.

I don't think I feel an urge to splutter over this. Not any more. I dare say I would have, once. But spluttering over it is about as much good as spluttering over the fact that the sun rises in the east. You and I, after much earnest discussion, may agree that, all things considered, everything taken into account, one thing weighed with another, the sun really ought to rise in the south. But tomorrow morning it will come up in the east, just the same as ever. And Geller will go on selling books by journalists for six-figure contracts.

But, as I have said here before, and meant it, I do try hard to bear in mind the admonition of a friend of mine, who was a high-ranking trades-union official. None of us, he said, should ever resent the success of a fellow labourer in the vineyard.

Now I have to admit, when pushed up against a wall, with the usual loaded revolver pressed to my right temple, that there are many labourers in the vineyard whom I woud rather see prosper than Sam Bourne; and almost any published thriller writer with a decent set of reviews to his name can reasonably lay claim to being a better choice for R&J's beneficence than this Bourne fellow.

However, if it is any comfort, bear in mind that, where writers are concerned, success doesn't come very often. When it does, the 'success' is often more illusory than real; and the money is never as much as the publicity would have you believe.

Comments and searches

From time to time, someone who comments on a post will ask me a direct question, obviously in the hope that I will enter into a dialogue, perhaps through an entry of my own in the comments column, or perhaps via a further post.

The truth is, I very seldom respond. This is not out of any wish to be rude -- far from it. It's just that there are only so many hours in the day.

Bloggers adopt various policies in relation to comments on their blog, according to their temperament and circumstances. Some blogs, e.g. Terry Teachout's About Last Night, don't offer a commenting facility at all. And when you look at the number of things that TT packs into each day, that's hardly surprising. He wouldn't have time to read them, never mind respond.

Other bloggers have had unpleasant experiences with comments. Either they get swamped with spam, or commenters become violently abusive, or whatever, and they close the facility down.

At the other extreme, there are those bloggers who positively encourage comments, and willingly enter into a dialogue. This is what the standard textbooks on blogging recommend, particularly if they view blogs as a marketing tool. It's called involving the reader, or some such, and it's very much a Web 2.0 concept; the purpose is to encourage those who become involved in the dialogue to go out and buy whatever it is you're selling.

My comments policy is in between these two extremes. You are free to make comments, and I am certainly interested in reading them, but I don't, on the whole, get involved in any discussion. And so far, touch wood, I have not had to delete any comments on for legal reasons or any other.

I was prompted to write this post by the fact that one recent commenter asked me directly whether I had read Patrick White's novel Voss. And I knew that I had previously written a post about Voss, so I tried to find it.

As you know perfectly well, you try to find things on the internet by using a search engine. And if you're really clued up on these things, you already now that, the site which hosts this very blog what you are reading, is owned by Google. Furthermore, if you're really sharp-eyed, you will have noticed that, at the very top of the GOB page, in the blue band, there is a white box, with beside it the words SEARCH THIS BLOG.

So far so good. The blog is hosted by blogspot, which is owned by Google, and the Search This Blog facility is therefore powered by Google, and it ought to be absolutely infallible. Right?

Right. Only it isn't. The truth is, this facility absolutely sucks. It is very unreliable, gives you different results on different days, and infuriates me when I know perfectly well that I have previously written about a subject but the search engine tells me I haven't.

For instance: two minutes ago (just to recheck the position) I typed the word Voss into the Search box and pressed go. Result: nothing. I typed in "patrick white", in inverted commas, as per approved procedure, and still got nothing except Monday's post.

This happens a lot. So then I have to use plan B. I go to to the main Google search engine, on its own usual web page, type in "grumpy old bookman", "patrick white" and Voss, and I get 19 results, of which the second on the list is the one I want: a post written on 25 May 2004 and entitled Voss it all about then?

We now arrive, in a roundabout way, at a potentially useful piece of information. Suppose you feel inclined to write a comment on a post. You are very welcome. But if you are wondering, for instance, whether I have ever come across a writer called John Smith, or a web site called Brainwashing for Beginners, or whatever, your best course is not to ask me a direct question via a comment, for reasons explained above.

Your best course is to give the Search This Blog facility a quick try and see what comes up. And if you get nothing, you need not suppose that that is necessarily the end of the matter. You can always go to the main Google search engine, put in "grumpy old bookman" plus whatever you want to know about, and see what that throws up.

That process does, however, involve a considerable amount of time and effort. And if you decide that it really isn't worth the trouble then I can't say that I blame you.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Midweek miscellany

Language Log

Michael Schaub at Bookslut tells me two things. One, there is a blog called Language Log, which is for those who are very interested in the finer points of the English language, including the origin of pseudo-Chinese proverbs and matters of that sort. And two, that there is now a book based on excerpts from the blog and called Far From the Madding Gerund.

I used to know what a gerund was, once, before my brain went. And a gerundive. Because they're different. I think.

The Frontlist

The Frontlist is a brand-new UK-based web site which offers a service to writers who are in search of a publisher or agent. Basically, the idea is that you submit a sample of your novel. Then you are asked to write critiques of the work of several other authors who have done the same. And finally, if your own novel (extract) proves to be highly popular with your peers, and gets to the top of the hit parade, so to speak, it will be considered by a publisher or agent.

The service is free, in principle, but if you want to have sight of the critiques of your work by other would-be novelists then you are asked to pay a one-off fee of £10. So it isn't going to break the bank.

Theoretically, this vetting process offers a kind of slush-pile filter which might well be attractive to hard-pressed editors and agents. The first editor to agree to look at work which has been vetted in this way is Jason Cooper at Picador (part of Pan Macmillan). Simon Trewin, an agent at PFD, has also said some kind words about the project.

Some unpublished writers will think that this is a wonderful idea, and will rush to submit. Others won't. I myself would need some persuading that a community of unpublished novelists is the group best qualified to assess either the commercial or literary value of my work. I am profoundly unenthusiastic about the whole critique-by-your-peers process, whether on creative-writing courses or anywhere else.

However, it is quite clear that this entire operation is being run by thoughtful and well-intentioned people -- idealists, even -- who are going to be doing a great deal of work for close to zero money, and it would therefore be churlish to be unkind about it. Suck it and see, is my advice. Maybe it will work for you.

Future of the media

The Creative Commons blog announces that the Future Exploration Network has just published a report on the future of the media. There's a chart which makes it all perfectly simple.

Mickey Spillane is dead

Mickey Spillane has died. At one time he was thought of as the crudest and most vulgar and most violent of the writers of hard-nosed thrillers, even before the fear of prosecution for four-letter words went out of the window.

I once heard a British TV interview with Spillane in which he said that he never rewrote anything, and no one ever needed to edit his stuff. Except once, when he had his hero machine-gun some 44 commies. Apparently the editor thought that figure of 44 was a bit too high to be credible: 34, possibly...

All those statements were probably the purest bullshit, designed to impress the viewers. Anyway, I could never get on with the books, but the Robert Aldrich-directed version (1955) of Kiss Me Deadly is one hell of a film. See it if you get the chance.

Wayne goes sleepy-bye-byes

Wayne Rooney, as UK readers will know, is a footballer of some note. He has a £5 million contract to 'write' five books, a deal which defies all comment, but I keep an eye on what he is up to.

Wayne has a perfectly charming live-in girl friend -- sorry, fiancee -- called Colleen. This week the newspapers say that he feels so guilty about this habit of visiting brothels that he has told Colleen that she can spend as much money as she likes. But the bit that caught my eye was in the Times.

There it says that Wayne can't get off to sleep unless there is some soporific noise in the background: television, hair-dryer, hoover... I wonder -- do you think the sound of Colleen's vibrator has the same effect?

Kevin Curtis Barr

Kevin Curtis Barr is an artist who has a presence on, along with many other artists, and he sent me an email with some of his work attached. Interesting enough in its way, but quite frankly it took me a hell of a time to figure out what, if anything, it had to do with books.

Turns out, if you read Kevin's biography closely enough (and I have to say that some wouldn't bother), that he is the author of Welcome To The Graphic Design Age.

'This book features art and poetry; within it's (sic) pages are poems about Mother Teresa, Oprah Winfrey, Princess Diana and legendary songstress Chaka Khan. The art centers around Hollywood stars like Tina Turner, Tom Cruise, Jennifer Lopez and Vin Diesel to name but a few.'

Well, if nothing else, this shows you that self-publishers can now publish a heavily illustrated full-colour book for a tiny fraction of what it would have cost even ten years ago. And that's worth knowing about.

Reading on Writing

There's another Kevin in town, Kevin Allison, and this one has a blog on The Editorial Department, where there's lots and lots of stuff about writing and editing and publishing. Subject of the blog is mainly short stories and how they work. It's a wee bit lit'ry for me, but then you know by now but that I am a convicted philistine. How else would I know about Mickey Spillane? Flannery O'Connor he wasn't.

Book-blog has moved

Debra Hamel has moved the Book Blog from to Typepad, and you can now find it here. Result is a sleeker, more easily navigable site. Latest post is about Marilyn Johnson's book on the great obituarists.

I would have thought that obituary writing was fairly modest-level journalism, but I've noticed before that Americans seem to give the obituary editor of a paper rather more prestige than do the English. Some years ago, Esquire magazine ran a profile of the senior obit man at the NYT, which puzzled me somewhat.

Here in the UK we tend to commission an obit from a distinguished person's peers, usually well before the VIP's death, and get it updated from time to time if the individual insists on surviving. I've never actually written an obit for the Times, but I've known a couple of people who have. Going rate about £100 (ten years ago).

Bulwer-Lytton revisited

Mention here, last Friday, of the annual Bulwer-Lytton prize, prompts m'learned friend C.E. Petit Esq to point out that, a couple of years ago, irked by the fact that the prize is awarded for awful fiction only, he dashed off a non-fiction example of the joys of legalese.

What is terrifying, he says, is that his parodic effort is actually shorter and less convoluted than a lot of real legal writing. And he's absolutely right; here in England we specialise in that kind of thing. It's beyond parody.

Writers FM

Speaking of videos and podcasts, which we have been recently, you really need to know that there is a radio station for writers which broadcasts on the web, 24/7: Writers FM. Seems hard to believe, but there it is. Just click here - and make sure that you have the speakers of your computer switched on; mine are usually off.

When I tuned in, there was a Brit (judging by his accent) talking to Nick Daws (another Brit, I deduce) about his method for writing a book. Apparently the book-writing business is really simple! How could I have failed to understand this?

Sandi Thom

The other day I turned on my car radio, something I seldom do, and quite by accident I happened to hear 'I wish I was a punk rocker' by the internet-famous Sandi Thom. And you know what? This girl can actually sing! Not only that, but even a deaf old man like me can hear the words. I was so surprised and grateful I very nearly blubbed.

This girl could go far. If you want to hear her for yourself, visit her web site, and click on the Now Playing link.

Aultbea Publishing -- an update

Long-term readers of this blog may remember several posts about the activities of Aultbea Publishing Ltd, a company owned by Charles Faulkner and based in Inverness, Scotland. Those who are new to the subject, or who wish to refresh their memories, are invited to look at my post of 30 June 2005.

Essentially, what emerged from these previous discussions was that Aultbea was (and is) a small publisher of scientific journals related to the food and pharmaceutical industries. About two years ago, Charles Faulkner took it into his head to launch an entirely different publishing venture. He published a fantasy novel called Dragon Tamers, by Emma Maree Urquhart, who was then aged 13. This appeared in December 2004.

Charles Faulkner then proceeded to bang the publicity drum, using the author's age as the selling point. He made various claims about the book and the number of copies sold which were, to any experienced observer of the publishing scene, wildly exaggerated -- but then he is not, of course, the first publisher to have done that. Most newspapers took him at his word and hailed Emma Maree Urquhart, for a day or two, as the next J.K. Rowling.

Personally I was not impressed by the fact that reputable broadsheet newspapers, which really ought to have known better, reprinted Mr Faukner's press releases more or less verbatim, without questioning any of his assertions about the numbers of books sold, Hollywood film deals, and the like.

If you visit the Aultbea web site today you will find that, in the last eighteen months or so, Aultbea has published about a dozen other books. These are either written by young authors, or are aimed at young readers, or both.

Last week I had an email from an author who recently offered a book to Aultbea. 'The owner replied,' says my correspondent, 'with promises of fame and movie deals. Then, two weeks later (after even more promises of fame etc), he contacted me saying that he was going to publish my work. What I didn't know at the time, and didn't find out until the contract negotiations began, was that he wanted £10,000 for which I would receive 50% royalties. He quoted figures such as 10,000 books at £6.99 would give me £34,950 profit, despite the fact that he was only going to publish 1,000 copies.'

My correspondent declined the offer.

Paying for publication is not a new idea, of course. In the nineteenth century, Swinburne's first book of poems was paid for by his father. It sold seven copies.

Should you be anxious to get a book into print, your first step should be to approach agents and/or every mainstream and well established firm that deals with the kind of book that you have written. And, if you meet with rejection, then there are still, I would suggest, ways in which you can proceed.

The existence of firms such as iUniverse and is well documented, and the cost of self-publication through these firms is minimal. They do not, however, offer any serious chance of selling books through the orthodox book trade.

In the UK, if you want a package which provides a fully professional service, and which does work through the normal book-trade channels, then you should take a look at the Book Guild. Their web site makes it absolutely clear that, in addition to some conventional publishing, they also undertake what they call Joint Ventures, where the author contributes to costs.

It seems clear the Book Guild is selective in its choice of projects: in other words, even if you offer them money, they will not necessarily publish your book unless it meets certain standards. Given that sort of approach, it is not altogether surprising that they are able to get reviews in major newspapers and magazines, as the examples quoted on the web site demonstrate. At least once within the last couple of years, they succeeded getting extracts from a book printed in the Times.

How much will such a deal cost you? Well, I haven't done business with the Book Guild, but I have negotiated contracts for authors with two other mainstream firms. One author had written a set of memoirs, and the other a company history. Neither of these books was considered sufficiently commercial for conventional publication by the top companies, but in both cases I was able to find a smaller firm which would gladly publish the book if the figures were made to work via a subsidy from the author.

Both authors were willing to proceed on this basis. The average cost contribution was in the region of £10,000; both books were illustrated, which increases the costs. (I got no commission on these deals, by the way: I was acting for friends.) Both books were a success, in that they reached their (small and specialised) target audience. They were each well reviewed and sold several hundred copies.

Neither author got rich as a result, but then they didn't expect to. No one had mentioned movie deals or a profit of £34,950.

Monday, July 17, 2006

The unpublishable Patrick White

A correspondent sends me a link to an article in the The Orstreyelian which proves, he says, that the publishing industry 'is a drunk playing darts'.

Well, it is certainly true that the publishing process is, in some respects, rather like a drunk playing darts. You keep on aiming at the target, and usually you miss; and when you do manage to get a bullseye, it is often the result of luck rather than good judgement.

However, the particular story to which my correspondent refers does not, in my opinion, show publishers and agents in quite such a bad light as might appear at first. Far be it from me to rush to the defence of decisions made by publishers and agents, but on this occasion I think the book-trade folk concerned got it dead right.

What happened, you see, was this. (And, yes, it has been done before.) There's an Australian Nobel prizewinner called Patrick White -- no, not many people have. So some enterprising person (Jennifer Sexton, it seems) typed out chapter three of White's The Eye of the Storm, gave the book a new title, changed the characters' names, and submitted the result, as if it was a new, unpublished novel, to a number of Australian agents and publishers.

None of the agents and publishers recognised this submission for what it was, i.e. a book by a Nobel prize winner, and none of them wanted to publish/handle it. The general tone of Sexton's article implies that this demonstrates that the agents and publishers concerned are completely clueless.

I beg to differ.

To my knowledge, this experiment (with different authors) has been done at least four times before during the last thirty years. Most recently it was done by the Sunday Times, in January this year. I wasn't impressed by the Sunday Times's effort, and said so at some length. Neither am I impressed by this latest Australian one, which is just a crib of the ST story. Not even original, and further evidence of the decline in journalistic standards.

In short, I would have to say, in my humble opinion, that this kind of exercise proves far less than those undertaking it seem to imagine.

In the first place, Patrick White is well nigh unreadable. If he was Grisham-like readable, he wouldn't have won the Nobel prize. Stands to reason. And if he's not easy to read, he won't sell.

Secondly, I would be willing to bet that you could choose the right passage from The Da Vinci Code, change some of the details, and show it to a few professionals, including those who had actually read the book, and they still wouldn't recognise it. Why should anyone expect them to? We don't all have photographic memories.

Third, anyone who knows anything about modern publishing knows that it's a business. It is designed to make money. And you don't make money by publishing books that are damned heavy going. In a discussion of the Jennifer Sexton article, the Literary Saloon makes the point that American publishers don't want to publish Patrick White's books even when they do know that he's the author, and I can't say that I'm remotely surprised.

Given that context, the comments made by publishers and agents on the disguised White submission seem to me to be thoroughly sensible. Here are a few:

'We regret that we cannot make an offer for publication. Why? The first and easy answer is that we try to curb all desire to publish novels. This is a matter of self-preservation: the Harold Park Trots are by comparison a rational way of earning a living.' Nicholas Hudson of Hudson Publishing.

'I thought it was pretentious fart-arsery,' he added later, when questioned about his rejection of the submission -- which sounds about right to me.

'I suggest you get a copy of David Lodge's The Art of Fiction (Penguin) and absorb its lessons about exposition, dialogue, point of view, voice and characterisation.' Mary Cunnane, agent. Actually that would be damn good advice for quite a few literary writers, including Nobel prize winners.

No, sorry, I am not averse to tweaking people's tails and having a quiet laugh at their expense, when appropriate, but on this occasion I think the book-trade personnel involved have demonstrated excellent judgement.