On 6 January, the Financial Times published an article by Charles Pretzlik in which he described the fifty-year history of Ayn Rand's novel Atlas Shrugged. The novel is apparently about an engineer, John Galt, who 'stopped the motor of the world by leading successful businessmen on strike against the new elite of collectivist free-loaders.'
According to Pretzlik, and I have no reason to doubt him, Atlas Shrugged is easily the most successful business book ever. Six million copies have been sold in English since 1957. However, he described reading the book as a joyless experience.
The following week, two readers wrote in to protect Ayn Rand's reputation. How could the book be so popular, they not unreasonably asked, if it was really as tedious as Pretzlik claimed?
According to one correspondent, the novel's 'picture of self-serving government charlatans squashing economic and political freedom through dodgy moralistic spin is, I am afraid, entirely up to date and right on the button.'
As far as I can remember, I'd never previously heard of the book.
Churchill a doubtful ally?
Last Saturday's Financial Times also suggests that George Bush is a big fan of Winston Churchill. The same article tells us that Churchill was cited, approvingly, when Senator Christopher Dodd was discussing 'the new way forward in Iraq'.
Well, um, yes, possibly. But, in the context of the war on terror, there is a bit of a problem with old Winston. You see, during world war II, he set up an organisation called the SOE, the purpose of which was to 'set Europe ablaze'.
As Matthew Carr said in a recent book review:
This is not, perhaps a simple matter to explain to explain to the American electorate. Sir Charles Hambro once remarked that it was not good for democracies to know what their governments did in times of war.
What is not in dispute is that the British government engaged in a form of warfare that it had previously regarded as savage, uncivilised and "terrorist"....
The military historian John Keegan later claimed that SOE "shamed Britain".... Had Germany won the war, SOE and its allies would have been consigned to the dustbin of history as terrorists and bandits. Instead the resistance was seen as an exemplary patriotic enterprise, which would be cited as a model by many terrorist organisations in the post-war era..... It is worth remembering once again that the distinction between hero and terrorist is often determined not so much by the methods used, but by who wins.
Caitlin Moran can write
I don't know about you, but I am always pleased when I come across someone who can just plain write, whatever their subject. The good writer can make anything interesting, especially if they inject a vein of humour. Try Caitlin Moran, who writes regularly for the Times.
The Times yesterday reported, in rather clunky prose, that 'the pop-punk band Koopa became the first group not to have been signed by a record label to have a Top 40 hit, thanks to new rules governing internet music sales. The single, Blag, Steal & Borrow, entered the chart at No 31 on download sales alone, according to the Official UK Charts Company.'
What does this signify for the book world? Does it mean that a self-published novel will soon kick the ass of Richard and Judy's latest fave? No, frankly. But it's a portent, of sorts.
Value for money
Maretha Davel Joubert kindly reports that my own free pdf on The Truth about Writing is better value than some other chap's book at $47 -- that's $47 if you sign up before midnight. It's $99 tomorrow. So act now. And remember, you found it here.
Most wanted and most expensive
Abebooks has published further data on the books most in demand last year. Following the recent list of the top ten most requested books in the UK, we now have one for the American market. And we also have a list of the most expensive books sold through Abebooks last year. You might have expected these to be all very old, incunables perhaps, but they're not.
Tim W. Brown has created a web site about Fiction Collective 2. On it, Mr Brown tells us that, through researching FC2's recent tax records, grant applications and other documents, plus conducting interviews with a number of individuals, he has discovered that FC2 collects, literally, hundreds of thousands of dollars of public funding from arts granting agencies and universities, a significant portion of which is used to publish the books of FC2's own principals and board members.
I haven't read enough of the content to form a firm conclusion about the rights and wrongs of the matters which he refers to, but the design and general approach of the web site are in themselves remarkable, and certainly give rise to the expectation that the creator will know what he's talking about.
It seems that the theme of potential conflict of interest within the publishing community is one that Mr Brown has been exploring for some time; and, what's more, in the elegant manner of the eighteenth-century pamphleteer. So this is worth looking at for the style alone.
For the record, I am personally one hundred per cent opposed to subsidy of the arts, from the public purse, in any form whatsoever. (Exceptions occur in education.) But am I so firm in upholding this principle that I will never go to see, for instance, state-sponsored ballet? No, I am not. If I took that view I would hardly ever see or read anything, because, in the UK at least, the dead hand of government is everywhere, and is inescapable.
Tindal Press is launching What Was Lost, by Catherine O'Flynn, at 7 p.m. on Wednesday 24 January in Birmingham, England. If you ask nicely they'll probably let you in. Tel. 0121 773 8157.
Nadine Laman tells me that, despite Simon and Schuster being involved, she is profoundly unimpressed by the terms offered by a sort of new and improved version of the Sobol prize (which collapsed, as you may recall, under the weight of overwhelming apathy and suspicion).
Personally, as I said on 11 December, I am unkeen on all such competitive enterprises, but they may suit some people.
Speaking of prizes, the Guardian claims that agents are now demanding from publishers, in the case of some powerful writers, that the publisher guarantee that the book under discussion will be submitted for, say, the Booker or whatever. Shock, horror and scandal. Agents looking after their clients' interests, indeed. Whatever next? (Link from booktrade.info.)
Following my piece about Colin Watson's Snobbery with Violence, Sophie Masson points me to her essay on Agatha Christie, which appeared on Norman Geras's Normblog.
Sophie's case is that, while Agatha's huge sales are well known, her skills as a writer are often underestimated. I agree. Which is not to say that time has treated her all that kindly. Agatha herself was very conscious of changing social mores: towards the end of her life she remarked that some perfectly good motives for murder -- e.g. nude photographs -- were no longer usable, because no one cared. (Paris and Pam rather prove her point.)
Sophie's analysis is really rather good.
Mr Pierrepoint's prices
This is about hanging, and it comes last, so you can safely leave if you're not interested.
We have yet another bungled execution in Iraq. Well, I have known a number of Englishmen who held managerial positions in the Middle East, and I can't say that any of them enthused about the competence of the locals under their control. Rather the reverse. So I am not altogether surprised.
It seems that, in trying to hang Saddam's half-brother, the executioners succeeded only in beheading him. This is a known known, as Rumfseld might say, in the execution business. In New Mexico, in 1901, Black Jack Ketchum ended up in the same way, and there were doubtless less well publicised occurrences too.
As I remarked about the Saddam job, Albert Pierrepoint, England's most distinguished, and certainly the most literate, hangman, would have been deeply shocked by this incompetence. He wrote a book (which concluded, oddly enough, with his assertion that he was opposed to capital punishment), in which he outlined in some detail the best procedures to follow. You can still buy plenty of copies of this book (Executioner) for less than £10. The Iraqi experience does not, so far, seem to have shifted prices upwards.
To conduct an execution properly, you need to weigh the prisoner and calculate the drop. Full details are on Wikipedia, including, most helpfully, the British Home Office's official table of drops.
All you need to do, therefore, is spend £10 on Pierrepoint, and go to Wikipedia, and you are fully equipped. But this, it seems, as much else, is beyond the Iraqi authorities.