Friday, June 29, 2007

Fishy stuff for Friday

If you're interested in Aristotle Onassis, then Martin Rundkvist has a review of a novel based on Onassis's life. The publisher is Cape, which usually means subtle lit'ry stuff.

Nadine Laman has noticed two recent newspaper articles, both about science fiction as a genre. Is this a trend, she wonders? One article in the LA Times (it may not be there long, I fear; see below), and one in the London Guardian (dealing with TV). Nadine, by the way, has a new trailer on YouTube for her trilogy of books.

Advance orders for Tunnels are doing nicely, Publishing News reports.

Josh Saitz says (speaking ironically, I'm sure) that he would like to thank the six people who turned up for his recent reading. And for those who couldn't quite make it, he has re-run the experience on YouTube. All the material he uses is drawn from Negative Capability #5, which should be out next year.

Akashic Books, of New York, is a small press which goes in for dark and dramatic stuff, both fiction and non-fiction. Latest entry in the Noir series is Wall Street Noir. This is edited by Peter Spiegelman, and consists of pieces by 17 crime-fiction writers, many with financial backgrounds. A starred review in Publishers Weekly says that these cautionary tales showcase a side of Wall Street previously restricted to convicts, criminals, and newspaper headlines.

Also just out is Tango for a Torturer, by Edgar winner Daniel Chavarria. Set in Cuba, Booklist says that it's 'by turns bawdy, funny, dark, cheerful, learned, and madcap, populated with memorable characters and filled with the sense that Havana is a must-see travel destination.'

Further to yesterday: the Spectator has now run a review of Tina Brown's Diana book, by Sarah Standing. And, er, she likes it. Link from the Literary Saloon, which is very sniffy about the whole thing. Hey guys, the idea is to sell books. OK?

Shazad Akram tells the story of Miami Red. Rejections so far: 159. But that's no record. And he has several chapters online so you can judge for yourself.

I see that Vintage Books are reprinting some of Ross MacDonald's Lew Archer books. I can't yet find details on the Vintage web site, but take my word for it: The Ivory Grin and The Way Some People Die are both due out on 10 July. When they first appeared, forty or fifty years ago, these private-eye novels were intelligent, gripping stuff, and my guess is that they will have lasted pretty well. Rather Freudian plots, as I recall. I think I read them all.

Cheryl Kaye Tardif is a Canadian author of mysteries, and her April 2007 book, Whale Song, published by Kunati, is doing pretty well. As with all well-organised writers, this book has its own web site, where you can read all the details. The target audience is young adults and women, and there is currently some interest from movie companies.

I rather like the cut of Kunati's jib. The covers of their books are particularly striking. And I see that they've got a novel about reality TV. So when you do your PhD on 'Reality TV in fiction in the early twenty-first century', do remember to include The Game, as well as Daniel Scott Buck's The Greatest Show on Earth and my own How and why Lisa's Dad got to be famous (available free online, folks).

Dear God, I suddenly feel very tired indeed.

There I am, quietly minding my own business, and reading through me Bloglines connections, and what do I find? I find a new post from Mad Max, who has been dead (blogospherically speaking) these... oooh, six months or more.

But although the post has only just turned up on Bloglines, it is dated 9 April. Which means, I think, that Max must have updated it or tweaked it in some way. Anyway, it is the content of this post which makes me feel tired.

Max links us to a page in the LA Times, which is no longer available, of course. Newspapers do that kind of thing all the time. But the subject of the post is still extant, and it's the LitBlog co-operative. And the thing that makes me feel tired is the description of the Litblog's perceived mission.

Mad Max says that the overall aim of the Litblog co-op is 'to generate more and deeper public discussions of literature.... Mark Sarvas, who drew the project together, described the effort as less an awared program than a conversation starter. "We want to shine a light on literary fiction likely to get overlooked and lost in the shuffle..."'

Well, there's nothing very terrible about that, is there? Quite a good idea, really. It's just the thought of lots of earnest young people (many of them, no doubt, doing Eng. Lit. courses, or, God help us all, MFA degrees) sitting around and discussing literary fiction. That's what makes me feel very tired indeed.

Sometimes I feel glad I'm not young any more. Didn't Uncle Maurice say something like that?

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Royal gossip

Sarah Bradford is the pre-eminent biographer of the British royal family. She isn't the richest and most famous of such writers -- Kitty Kelley claims those titles with The Royals -- but Sara B is the biographer who is respected by serious historians. Her books will last, whereas Kitty Kelley's book, with its cavalier approach to evidence, is already dismissed as something of a joke.

Among Ms Bradford's books are biographies of George VI, the present Queen, and, of course, the unavoidable Diana. It was inevitable, therefore, that some newspaper or magazine should commission Sarah Bradford to review Tina Brown's new book about that icon of the late twentieth century.

The journal in question turned out to be the Spectator. But behold: when the review was submitted, the Speccie refused to print it. So the Guardian printed it instead. But -- and it's a fairly big but -- the Grauniad only printed an 'abridged and edited' version. Presumably the lawyers took a long hard look at it, and, the English libel laws being what they are, set about carving it up.

The resulting review, what's left of it, is not too catty, but you won't be surprised to hear that Ms Bradford is not all that impressed with the Brown opus.

While we're on the subject of royal gossip, the Times last week made a very mealy-mouthed reference to the fact that the Queen Mother (who died in 2002 at the age of 101) had a colostomy. Apparently someone who should have known better made a joke about it at a dinner. Later the joker was forced to apologise.

The interesting thing about this colostomy business is that some sources seem to regard the Queen Mother's surgical operation as an unconfirmed rumour. However, my memory is rather different, though I can't give chapter and verse.

As I recall, the Queen Mother was obliged to undergo that surgical procedure several decades before she actually died. At the time it was probably a closely guarded secret. However, when she was about eighty or so, the QM decided (perhaps on advice from friends) that it might be helpful to other elderly people if she let it be known that she had led a very full life for a good many years, despite this inconvenience. Accordingly there came a time when she allowed one of her many biographers to include a reference to it, deep in the boring details of chapter 39, or wherever. It was a matter that she was quite prepared to have in the public domain, so to speak, without it being overemphasised.

To my mind this was a brave and worthy thing to do. I'm sure that many a surgeon, when faced with a frightened old lady, needing to undergo an operation for cancer, has been very pleased to be able to quote the QM as an example of a great survivor. And I'm sure that many a patient, when struggling to get used to the situation afterwards, has been very proud to whisper to her friends, 'Of course, no one is supposed to know, but actually the Queen Mother's got one too.'

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Margery Allingham: The Beckoning Lady

Margery Allingham is one of my top-ten favourite writers, which is how I came to be reading The Beckoning Lady for the third time -- the first time being about fifty years ago.

The Beckoning Lady was first published in 1955. It was one of the author's later books, and it was, I suspect, slightly old fashioned even when it came out. Miss Allingham (in case you don't know of her) was one of the queens of English crime fiction; her rivals were Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers. I have written about Miss Allingham in several previous posts, principally on 4 June 2004, and then again on 17 August 2004.

The plot of The Beckoning Lady is complicated, with a large cast of characters: so large that the author provides a dramatis personae list, which for once is justified. One essential plank of the plot is, I regret to say, wholly incredible now, and can't have been much better in 1955. But I do not mention the book here in order to subject it to serious critical analysis.

I only mention it at all because it seems to me to provide sad proof -- if proof you need -- of my contention (mentioned here more than once) that the English were driven mad by the second world war. The first world war killed off most of the talented men, and the second drove everybody barmy. We were also bankrupt, and have more or less remained so ever since. All of which is a pity, because once upon a time we were doing quite lot of things rather well. Today we are reduced to T. Blair & Co., of whom quite enough will be said elsewhere.

The action of the The Beckoning Lady is confined to a few days before an enormous Midsummer's Eve party, which is held in a large country house of the same name. There are at least two murders, possibly three, depending upon your interpretation of events. There are also gross departures from what must, even then, have been standard police procedure. And, finally, there is some barely credible tampering with the evidence and an invocation of the Old Boys Act of 1898.

You will note, I am sure, that I am not exactly recommending this book to modern readers (even though it is wonderfully well written). But you might care to read it because it was written by a woman who cared deeply for English life; thought that such life was best lived in the English countryside; and deeply regretted the passing of the old ways.

What the author was faced with, in the early 1950s, was a nation stripped of much of its excellence, worried about how to pay next week's rent, and obsessed with trivia, such as whether, when attending church in a village, one should wear a country suit or a town suit. It is no accident that several of the characters in this novel complain of being tired, if not exhausted. Everyone was.

Miss Allingham knew perfectly well that things would never be the same again. And they never were. And while there was much about old England that needed to be discarded post-haste, there was also much that didn't.

Mr Campion (Miss Allingham's lead detective) says this: 'I've lived through the Jazz Age, the Age of Appeasement, the Battle Age. Now it's the Age of the Official.'

Oh, my dear Miss A -- if you only knew.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Oddments - some very odd indeed

This marketing-of-books-via-video business is certainly catching on. Sid Tafler has a short video on YouTube. For some authors this will be an all too familiar situation: an interviewer who hasn't read the book, and who confuses the author with somebody else entirely. Sid's book, by the way, is a memoir called Us and Them.

It seems that, a week last Saturday, the UK's Channel 4 TV company broadcast a programme called Lie Lab. This featured the case of Kathy O'Beirne, written about here on 20 September 2006 in relation to her book Don't Ever Tell.

Don't Ever Tell is claimed to be an autobiography, and it tells a horrific tale of child abuse. The question at issue has always been whether it is true or not. Kathy claims it is; other members of her large family, with one exception, say it's a pack of lies.

I didn't see the Lie Lab programme, but, judging by their published comments (details in a moment), those who did were not impressed by Kathy O'Beirne's credibility. Her brothers and sisters took a lie-detector test and passed; Kathy refused to take it.

My post about Kathy, on 20 September 2006, now has more comments on it than any other post in the blog's three-year history. So somebody's interested. More importantly, perhaps, the Amazon UK entry for Kathy's book now has several bitter complaints from other authors of child-abuse books who have taken a lie-detector test, and passed. Worth a look.

I always said it was a bad idea to write a novel with too much autobiographical content. Or indeed any. The Times reports a case where an author got beaten up by his neighbours. And that's before they even start suing him for libel. Martin Rundkvist found the same story in the Scotsman.

John Clute kindly left me some info in a comment on an old post recently, and that prompted me to look him up. I was sure I knew the name. He is, of course, a prominent SF writer. I know him chiefly as the joint author of The Encyclopaedia of Science Fiction, a substantial work which sits on the shelf above me. If it falls off it will do me serious injury -- one of those, and all the more useful for it. His wife is a distinguished artist.

MyPubSite is a new service which will, for a price, allow small or self publishers to sell books directly to the public. It's a US-based company.

Randall Northam runs a small UK publishing company called SportsBooks. It does what it says on the label: publishes books on sport. Mostly, of course, niche books that the big publishers don't want. For instance, a book by a woman about boxing, which must be something of a rarity.

Randall also runs a blog, which comments not only on sport but also on the book trade. He is not always a happy man, and who can blame him. Although I got ticked off the other day for suggesting that the book business might be hard work and difficult. It's not hard work and difficult at all. It's fun, fun, fun, all the time! Non-stop.

There was a big do for bloggers in Paris about a week ago. How come I didn't know about it till it was over? It was hosted, in a park, by the famous Petite Anglaise. Her blook -- a book based on her blog -- is being published by Penguin next January.

Judith Martin is an American syndicated columnist who writes as Miss Manners. She is also nuts about Venice, and has written a book to prove it. The FT carried an excerpt, and it certainly seems a very tasty item.

Wanna run a successful small bookshop? Serve the customers raspberry ripple while they browse. If you're an author, and you do a signing at the SilverDell Bookshop, you get a new ice-cream flavour named after you. Now there's fame for you.

Ee, there's trouble at t' mill. Or, to be more precise, the Chelsea Hotel. A new management team has been appointed, and long-time residents and enthusiasts are deeply worried. The story seems to begin on the Chelsea blog on 17 June, and will doubtless be updated by the time you read this. Thanks to Betty Bishop for the tipoff.

Do we plan our life challenges before birth? If you want to know the answer, Robert Schwartz has written a book for you.

Sophie Parkin, daughter of Molly, is a regular contributor to the 3am magazine. See, for instance, her interview with Genesis P-Orridge, who is currently in a state of transgender. Which reminds me that I have yet to write part 2 of my thoughts on transthingummy-whatsit, part 1 having appeared six months ago. Ah me.

Or, you could just try Sophie's account of a night out with a ready-to-strip friend at David Piper's Cafe Royal. Or, you could just have a look at Sophie's diary -- which is, sadly, not quite up to date but then who is? The pictures alone are worth the trip.

Oh, and if you're in London you can get to see/hear Sophie as part of the London Lit Plus business: 29 June at The Wheatsheaf, Rathbone Place.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Andrew George Elliot

Publishing News reports that Constable & Robinson have bought Elliot Right Way Books, a firm that I remember with great admiration and respect.

The firm was founded 63 years ago by Andrew George Elliot, and it looks as if his sons have been running it recently. Andrew was a splendid man, author of many books of his own, including one on how to organise yourself for business life, which I read as a young man and found most useful.

Andrew Elliot's chief contribution, however, and it is a far from negligible one, is that he wrote factual books about sex at a time when such practical guides were almost unobtainable. More to the point, his books were full of good sense, good advice, and wisdom. In the 1940s and '50s, reliable, sensible information about even the simplest sexual matters was almost never provided, particularly for teenagers. You won't believe that, but it's true. Elliot did his best to change that situation permanently.

Writing under the pen-name Rennie MacAndrew, Elliot produced about ten books over a ten-year period from 1939. These included Approaching Manhood: Healthy Sex for Boys, with a matching version for girls; the Encyclopaedia of Sex and Love Technique; and Lifelong Love: Healthy Sex and Marriage.

There is every indication that these books were immensely successful in terms of sales; and they deserved to be. But at the time you wouldn't have found them on display in any bookshop. Most of them were sold through the post, I suspect. And you won't find them mentioned in any history of bestsellers, either. However, the British Library lists a copy of The Red Light: Intimate Hygiene for Men and Women, dated 1949, as the 15th, revised, post-war edition; which gives you some indication of the book's success.

If memory serves, Andrew Elliot also published some kind of memoir about his experiences as a publisher. It was possibly Who's Who and What's What in Publishing, 1960, which you can find on Abebooks and similar sites. In that memoir, Elliot relates that he once published a book about how to make money breeding pigs; and also a similar text about chicken farming.

A year or two later he got a letter from a farmer. The farmer said that he had bought the book on pig farming and it had made him hundreds of pounds in profit (read tens of thousands in today's money). If he sent back the book about pigs, asked the farmer, would the publisher be kind enough to send him a free copy of the book about chickens?

Thursday, June 21, 2007

The corruption of the political process

OK, now if you do nothing else today, you ought to at least take a look at Lawrence Lessig's piece about why he is going to change direction in his academic work and activism.

For the past ten years or so, Lessig has been a leading light in the struggle to inject some common sense into the intellectual-property business. In particular, he has been one of those behind the Creative Commons movement. Now, however, he is going to focus on a new set of problems.

I won't try to summarise any more here; instead I will give you just a taster of how he is thinking, with the block quote below. (Passing comment: Lessig is not, in my opinion, the world's best prose writer; he could do with a good rewrite man at his side. But you will get the drift all right.)

As the Gowers Commission concluded in Britain, a government should never extend an existing copyright term. No public regarding justification could justify the
extraordinary deadweight loss that such extensions impose.

Yet governments continue to push ahead with this idiot idea -- both Britain and Japan for example are considering extending existing terms. Why? The answer is a kind of corruption of the political process. Or better, a "corruption" of the political process. I don't mean corruption in the simple sense of bribery. I mean "corruption" in the sense that the system is so queered by the influence of money that it can't even get an issue as simple and clear as term extension right. Politicians are starved for the resources concentrated interests can provide. In the US, listening to money is the only way to secure reelection. And so an economy of influence bends public policy away from sense, always to dollars.

As Lessig goes on to say, the problem has long been recognised; and indeed it has been mentioned here from time to time, though less lucidly analysed than in Lessig's statement. And for those who think this is exclusively a US problem: don't be so damn smug. The UK suffers just as badly: remember the Blair/Ecclestone business. Equally affected, I suspect, is every other western nation. As a problem, it makes the war on terror look minor.

Lessig, because of his background, couches his initial statement in terms of copyright. But it is just as relevant in relation to many other fields, such as global warming. Food is another example; and of that, more in a week or two, when I have got my thoughts together.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

The way the world turns

If you live in London, there's an open literary festival due in a couple of weeks' time. This is organised by a 'loose coalition of London literary folk'. And it looks as if you can still join in as a participant, if you've a mind to.

Marti Lawrence alerts me to an article about how painful and difficult it is to run a small, independent bookshop. The context is California, but the problems are universal.

David Barringer seems to me to be doing quite a lot of things right. He belongs to a small co-operative of writers who publish work under the name So New Publishing. They describe themselves as:

an ultra-micro-mini press based in Eugene, OR. What does ultra-micro-mini mean? It means that our staff consists of a few very dedicated people and a few volunteers now and then -- people who make books because they love making books. Our warehouse is a spare bedroom. Our shipping department is a stack of envelopes and a PO box. We have day jobs.

Fair enough. So Mr Barringer has found a way into print.

Secondly, he has an unusual way of marketing his new novel (American Home Life). Go to his web site and you find that potential purchasers of the book can get a signed copy, complete with a choice of gifts, direct from the author.

Third, when writing to people to publish his book, Mr Barringer encloses details of three calls for submissions. He invites people to make contributions to various book projects and litmags that he is associated with. These are: a book called The Bush Years; a litmag called Opium; and Code Green, a collection about eating sensibly and the effect it has on the eater and others.

Next Stop Hollywood is a collection of short stories which were specifically written with a view to being suitable as adaptations for the big screen. On the whole I think I would prefer stories to be written primarily with a view to working as stories on the printed page. However, when you consider what godawful stories are produced by the tens of thousands of MFA students in this world, perhaps something written with overtly commercial intent, albeit in another medium, is a better bet.

Steve Tiano is a book designer who writes a blog about the finer points, and the trials and tribulations, of his calling. Well worth a look. Steve also has a web site, on which he publicises his various designs.

Good book design is, as ofttimes stated here, a matter of critical importance, frequently underestimated.

I keep coming across new, and small, UK independent publishers. Here are a couple more.

Legend Press thinks it has the youngest staff of any UK publisher, and I am not in a position to disagree. The Press specialises in high quality, contemporary work, both lit'ry and commercial. They also do a daily blog on MySpace. And they're prepared to consider submissions.

Then there's a firm called Paperbooks, which is located in Wendens Ambo, Essex. Now you really couldn't make that up, could you? Not even if you were Margery Allingham. They also have an interesting list, and, naturally, a blog. Also open to submissions.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Idle gossip

Helen De Witt is a successful author who wants a better financial deal. Fair enough. And one way to get it, Helen thinks, is to enable writers to earn a royalty whenever one of their books is sold secondhand.

This is not a new idea, and I discussed A.S. Byatt's version of it on 3 February 2005. I was unkeen, on grounds of practicality. I remain unkeen. Helen has discovered that the UK Society of Authors is also unkeen; as is the US Authors' Guild. George Monbiot likes it though. See what you think.

Crimeficreader at It's a crime! (or a mystery...) draws my attention to some interesting interviews that she has recently conducted.

First there's one with Brian McGilloway, author of Borderlands. McGilloway, as noted here on several occasions, is having considerable success with his first crime novel, which is to be developed into a series. Perhaps the most interesting point in this interview, for me, is McGilloway's suggestion that some of the minor characters in his book might become central figures in a novel of their own. This was something that I suggested as a possibility in my original review of Borderlands.

Then there's Crimeficreader's interview with Roger Morris, whose Taking Comfort was an early Macmillan New Writing publication last year. It turns out that in February this year, Roger had a novel published by Faber. Titled A Gentle Axe, by R.N. Morris rather than Roger, it has attracted the attention of editors elsewhere, and foreign rights have been sold to 17 countries so far. That is pretty damn impressive. And I'm not too surprised that Roger has been taken up by Faber: Taking Comfort was itself a Faberish sort of book.

The third interview is with Chris Ewan, who is published by Susan Hill's Long Barn Books. And Susan Hill is a most discerning judge. Chris Ewan's book, The Good Thief's Guide to Amsterdam, was reviewed earlier on the same blog.

Galleycat brings us up to date on O.J. Simpson's book. (You can't have forgotten, surely?) ABC News had a sort of scoop, in that they got hold of a 117-page deposition from O.J.'s daughter. She is questioned by a gentleman who refers to 3 o'clock in the afternoon as 'late in the day'.

I didn't intend to read this document at all, but having clicked on it I found it sufficiently intriguing to keep going. It provides an extraordinary insight into the complicated dealings of a complicated family, and the even more complicated legal affairs of the paterfamilias. None of the Simpsons seems to be overburdened with brains, and they have a touching faith in the wisdom of lawyers.

You can't help admiring the Simpsons' get-up-and-go, though, can you? Oh, all right then.

In the UK hardback bestsellers list, top place this week is held by Crystal: author, one Katie Price.

Not a name known outside the UK, this lady is best known for being famous. She is a 'model' and general show-business personality, remarkable chiefly for her enormous, and surgically enhanced, bosom.

Katie Price did not, of course, write her number-one hardback bestseller herself. It was ghosted. Katie/Jordan is simply a brand name: a marketing device, attached to the book in order to give it visibility through her appearances on chat shows and the like.

In case you think I disapprove, let me disabuse you. I have said here, more than once, that, if you're in the commercial fiction business, you might as well go the whole hog and do the job properly.

Katie, however, now has a rival. Kerry Katona (another name little known outside the UK, I believe) has signed up with Ebury Press, in a similar sort of deal. Madame Arcati has commented, and has thrown in a few ideas for young Kerry as well.

I see that Madame has mentioned Jodie Marsh in passing. Jodie is another of these young and well-bosomed ladies. At one time Jodie was said to have a five-book contract. I wonder what happened to that? Maybe she wanted to write them herself? If so, a great error of judgement.

Word from America was that Tina Brown's new book on Princess Diana was rather dull. But A.N. Wilson (no mean judge) disagrees: he thinks it's a masterpiece of muck-raking.

I don't want to appear boastful to our American friends, but really, when you look at the history of the last 500 years, it is perfectly obvious that the Brits have been everywhere and done everything. Afghanistan and Iraq, for instance. Been there and done it, long before the latest lot.

Not only have we been everywhere and done everything that you can imagine, we have also done things that you couldn't possibly imagine. Not, that is, unless you were prepared to write bizarre fiction without a hope of publication because of its lack of credibility.

Consider, for example, north Borneo. Once known as Sarawak, it was ruled for 100 years by white rajahs from England: family by the name of Brooke. They were effectively absolute monarchs, unhampered by any kind of parliament, and all the young women walked around topless.

Philip Eade has written a book about one of the family: woman by the name of Sylvia.

Jeanette Winterson's latest book, Tanglewreck, turns out to be a children's book. And it looks rather fun.

This morning's Times has an article based on a 'confidential' letter to publishers from the powerful UK chain bookseller, Waterstone's. The letter sets out the prices that publishers have to pay if they want their books displayed in the window, piled near the till, and so forth.
The most expensive package, available for only six books and designed to “maximise the potential of the biggest titles for Christmas”, costs £45,000 per title. The next category down offers prominent display spots at the front of each branch to about 45 new books for £25,000 [each]. Inclusion on the Paperbacks of the Year list costs up to £7,000 for each book, while an entry in Waterstone’s Gift Guide, with a book review, is a relative snip at £500.
The details of this story are new, but the fact that big booksellers are charging publishers for putting their books in prime selling spots in the shop is not new. It was described, for example, in the Spectator in 2001.

Various customers in the Waterstone's shops are being quoted as outraged by all this, but in fact the book trade is merely trailing along in the path of the big supermarkets and other retailers, which have bullied their suppliers ruthlessly for decades. See, for example, Felicity Lawrence's valuable expose, Not on the Label.

The important point to be noted here, however, is that all young and inexperienced wannabe writers had better make quite sure that they understand what kind of a business they are getting into, before they go wasting their time and ruining their health by devoting endless hours to writing a book.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

The Highfield Mole -- aka Tunnels

Gee whiz, crumbs, and all like that.

Back in 2005 I wrote about a children's book: The Highfield Mole. Originally self-published, it had then been taken up by a big-time agent and sold to Barry Cunningham of Chicken House.

Chicken House have not exactly bust a gut to rush it out, but it is soon to be published (July 2007, to be precise) under a new title: Tunnels. Back on their own web site, the joint authors have a lot more info about the book, and themselves.

So far so mundane, if a good boost for those who believe that self-publishing will lead to mainstream success. But there are those in this world who remember that Barry Cunningham was the only publisher in town who had any time for the original manuscript of Harry Potter. And they wonder if he can do it again. Some of these people are therefore looking around for copies of the original, self-published, version of Tunnels, i.e. The Highfield Mole. And they are prepared to buy same in the hope that one day, after (perhaps) seven successive Tunnels and the usual succession of Hollywood movies, the self-published ur-version of this classic will be extremely valuable.

And this is where it gets a bit gee-whizzy. Richard Davies of Abebooks tell me that, through Abebooks, dealers have recently sold copies of The Highfield Mole for £590 and £700 respectively.

You can currently (as I write) buy a signed copy, in mint condition, for £2,500. Plus, of course, £3.80 for shipping.

It may not entirely be a coincidence that one of the two authors of Tunnels has a background in high-level finance; and some of his friends doubtless have sufficiently big bonuses to take a punt on this kind of thing.

As I said last time: we shall see.

Crumbs, eh? Who said the secondhand-book business was dull?

P.S. An hour later: the £2,500 copy has been sold.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Further to the former

Brian McGilloway's Borderlands has been shortlisted for the UK Crime Writers Association New Blood Fiction Dagger. It is a Macmillan New Writing publication.

Blog tours seem to be arousing an increasing amount of interest these days, as a cost-effective way of publicising a book. Here's an example. (Link from Anne Weale.)

I'm sure that blog tours are a good idea in principle, and I've co-operated in one that I remember, but I feel a strange lack of enthusiasm somehow. It's a side effect of coping with too much data, I think. Must cut down on the mouse-clicking. Must cut down on the mouse-clicking.... Must cut down....

Martin Rundkvist has kindly drawn my attention to a most unusual memoir by a famous American publisher, James Laughlin.

Laughlin certainly was famous (it turns out) though I must confess that I had never heard of him, probably because he operated with big literary names; and as you will know, if you've been reading this blog for any length of time, I do not usually (there are exceptions) bother with the lit'ry stuff, it being way above my head. And I know my place, guv. He says, tugging forelock.

Anyway, Laughlin's memoir, The Way it Wasn't, seems to come in an alphabetical format, with lots of pictures.

Martin Rundkvist adds that Laughlin invented for himself a fictional assistant. All unpleasant correspondence was signed with this assistant's name, and every time someone was angry with the publisher's doings, Laughlin told them that the problem was the assistant's fault and that he had fired the man. I warm to Mr Laughlin.

Publishers Lunch reports that Flickr is about to publish The 24 Hours of Flickr, a heavily illustrated book with 122 photographs picked from (presumably) the thousands that were submitted. The book will be sold 'at cost', and $1 for each copy sold will be donated to Médecins Sans Frontières, up to a total of $10,000.

This publication was announced on 5 May, when submissions were invited, and perhaps the chief point of interest for readers of this blog is that it is a collaboration between Flickr and Blurb, an ambitious POD book publisher.

Blurb is a potential rival to Lulu, as noted by the Washington Times, and it's about to enter the European market. Books will be printed in the Netherlands. It will be interesting to see how well the Blurb product reproduces the photographs in the Flickr book -- that is, after all, bound to be the key point in any collection of same.

Just to repeat: M.J. Rose has been re-running her 1993 words of wisdom and ran part 3 on 13 June. The bit I like best is in the 'sidebar', at the end, where two anonymous writers list the 'things they [i.e. publishers] don't tell you'. E.g.:

  • They don't tell you that your publicist is leaving, has left.

  • They don't tell you that your new publicist is still too young to rent a car and has never heard of Somerset Maugham.
I mean, really. How can people be so cynical? And ungrateful to boot. Publishers are such lovely people. I won't hear a word said against them. Two or three hundred words said against them, on the other hand, and I'm interested.

Galleycat reports that a big-shot librarian has attacked web 2.0 culture. The fellow in question, Michael Gorman, has a few valid points, but he seems to think that the internet is incompatible with respect for expertise and scholarship. I think the reverse is true. I think the internet provides a wonderful route whereby one can access expertise and scholarship, in a way, and with an ease, which was not even dreamed of by earlier generations of scholars and experts.

Wordsworth, a division of Not Born Yesterday, reflects, amusingly, on the ups and downs of the English language.

Darrell Bain is another of those high-energy American guys, the very contemplation of whose literary output fills one with the urge to lie die down in a darkened room until the memory dissipates. And as if that isn't enough, he wins prizes too.

It's a bit late in the day for me to notice this, but it was drawn to my attention by Cantara Christopher.

Back in 2006, the British Government passed the Terrorism Act; this made it illegal to glorify terrorism. Well, we may allow, gritting our teeth, that the glorification of terrorism is a bad thing. However, since the British government, in world war II, was itself involved in terrorism, the goodness or badness of terrorism clearly depends on where you're standing; one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter. Furthermore, there are plenty of serious people in the UK who feel that the Terrorism Act 2006 was an unacceptable limitation on free speech.

Among those troubled by the Act were quite a number of science-fiction writers, and a group of them got together to publish a book which overtly protests against it. The title of the book is Glorifying Terrorism, and it was published in February this year.

Since I had not heard of the book until recently, it's probably fair to say that its impact has been muted. No one has arrested the authors, anyway. That having been said, I gather that the print run is almost sold out, and that there are no plans to reprint, so this book may well become something of a collector's item.

It was only a matter of time dept. Madame Arcati has heard from Jon Snow's lawyers. And the comments are not likely to go down well either.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Cantara rides again

From time to time in this blog we have sung the praises of Cantara Christopher, a brave and determined supporter of good writing in most of the media, for example through her publishing arm, Cantarabooks. Well, I have to say that Madame has now excelled herself.

Some time ago – I’m afraid it sometimes takes me a while to give things their proper attention – I got an email from Cantara telling me about a new venture of hers. It’s a literary magazine in strictly electronic format: PDF, to be precise. Entitled Cantaraville, it will appear twice a year.

Just as later issues will, the first Cantaraville contains stories, poems, excerpts from novels, and a short memoir. It was this memoir which caught my eye. It’s an account by Manda Djinn of the year when she replaced Bertise Redding as the star of the Folies Bergeres in Paris. Imagine: Manda found herself sitting in the same star dressing room that Josephine Baker had once used. And we learn, not to my surprise, that even in the late 1980s every vocalist except Manda was miming to a tape. Even the tap dancers’ tapping was taped. So much for spontaneity. Anyway, it’s a fascinating read.

Cantaraville has its own extensive web site. Here you can download a free sampler of the first issue; the full works will cost you $4.95. You can also find out how to submit material for future editions. Each issue will, I understand, be sent out free to a large number of editors, reviewers, movie producers and literary agents. At least one contributor has already been contacted by a leading agent (Katherine Fausset of Curtis Brown), and a 17-year-old poet from Tipperary was mentioned by one of the members of the LitBlog Co-op (which is a high-powered NY-based outfit, dedicated to finding the best of contemporary writing).

Meanwhile, in her other areas of interest and activity, Cantara Christopher has been working on a scheme to link new writing with established work of about the same length and general subject matter – a process which she has christened ‘sibling’. First of these sibling pairs is Katherine Mansfield’s In a German Pension, which is available as a free PDF. The availability of the Mansfield work is designed to whet your appetite for Penance, an original novella by Jack Adler.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Relatively short bits

The blogger at It's a crime! (or a mystery...) has been to the Hay Festival and was most impressed by the joint presentation by Neil Pearson (actor) and Rick Gekoski (rare-book dealer). The link to this post came from Maxine at Petrona, who thought I might be interested in it, and I certainly am. I won't steal the thunder by telling you too much about it, but if you're interested in rare books, the history of banned books in general, and so forth, you won't be disappointed.

The Emerging Goddess is looking for a publisher.

Four years after its publication, Amanda Stern's novel The Long Haul has been has been chosen by fashion collective LOLA New York as the inaugural title to be sold at the trend-setting Southampton clothing boutique, Blue&Cream.

'In a creative move to make literature cool,' says the press release, 'LOLA New York will use their brand as an innovative platform to disseminate risk-taking literature to their Generation Y peers.'

See? You just have to keep plugging away.

M..J. Rose is reprinting two articles that she wrote four years ago. Part one on 11 June and part two on 12 June, with more to come. These articles summarise what a continuing joy it is to live the life of a writer published by a big-time publisher. Read them, and revel in the thought of what you can look forward to.

The paperback version of Richard Dawkins's The God Delusion came out in the UK on 21 May, and last week it was the single bestselling book, fiction and non-fiction, in the UK, shifting more than 25,000 copies.

The nineteenth century was, of course, the age when the machine really took off. We didn't yet have cars or aeroplanes, but we had plenty of mass-produced goods. And when writing about William Powell Frith, last week, there was one story that I forgot to mention.

Frith specialised in producing large pictures crammed with scores of human figures, and the story goes that one little old lady spent some time gazing at one of his pictures in awe. She then turn to one of the gallery staff and said, 'Excuse me, but can you tell me whether this picture was painted by hand?'

Ray Atkinson is yet another writer who has resorted to a form of self-publishing. Ray's The Black Tea Experiments is described by the author as an airplane book -- i.e. pure entertainment, to be read and discarded; and it's a bite-size book. Fair enough, and of its kind it sounds tolerably interesting.

Worth noting, however, is the publisher of this novel: American Book Publishing. The firm's own web site is, by my reading, remarkably coy about precisely how it operates. However, you don't have to google very hard to find lots of complaints and warnings about the company. Preditors and Editors says it's Strongly not recommended. The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America have had lots of complaints. You can clearly do better elsewhere.

Meanwhile, word reaches me of a writer who is published by a totally mainstream company, Kensington, and who has done something completely original. At least I don't know of another novel which attempts the same thing.

Come 28 August of this year you will be able to buy Andre W.M. Beierle's First Person Plural. This is a novel about Owen and Porter Jamison. These two are an extremely rare set of conjoined twins of the type dicephalus (literally “two-headed”). They are separate individuals from the neck up, but share a single body.

'As children,' says the press release, 'they’re seen as a single entity—Owenandporter, or more often, Porterandowen. As they grow to adulthood, their differences become more pronounced: Porter is outgoing and charismatic while Owen is cerebral and artistic. When Porter becomes a high school jock hero, complete with cheerleader girlfriend, a greater distinction emerges, as Owen gradually comes to realize that he’s gay.'

Now that, you have to admit, is one hell of a concept. Whether you actually wish to read the novel or not... Now that's a different matter. But it comes with loads of advance praise, and you can read the first chapter online.

* is a site which invites writers to 'join the community' and thereby get the opportunity to promote their books. I don't know why, but whenever I'm asked to join a community I find myself making signs of the cross and backing off fast. I guess I'm just not the joining sort.

Peeledballoon has had an unusual life and is blogging his new novel.

Had a hard time recently? Haven't we all. Write it up and win a $300 prize.

America is currently obsessed with Tina Brown's new, and apparently very dull, book about Princess Diana. But as Abebooks points out, there are already more than 200 books about the lady, so what's one more?

Hang Fire Books is a newish, and well above average, blog, associated with a secondhand-book seller and zombies and all sorts. And it's got pictures too. Makes a change.

Meanwhile, Abebooks has some very interesting data on bookdealers in general. Seems there is almost no such thing as a young online used-book seller. Of course there may be some young people who act as dealers in other areas of life -- who knows? Certainly not I.

You may think it's hard work getting a novel published, but consider the travails of selling a book to an academic press. In a recent post by Maxine Clark (she gets everywhere -- see first para of this post), Mary Scriver provides some wry comments on her experience.

The book in question is Bronze Inside and Out: a Biographical Memoir of Bob Scriver. Mary Scriver was the late sculptor's wife. Note: the reference to 'Western art' in this post uses the word 'Western' as in cowboys and indians. The first two paragraphs of the post are taken from Brian Dippie's introduction to the book, and Mary Scriver's notes follow.

Mary Scriver also blogs as Prairie Mary. And she reads the GOB, which is nice. (Link from Dave Lull.)

People are funny that way

Why the book business is seriously weird

For weeks I've been reading press reports about how, in the UK at least, no bookseller can make any money out of the last (and shortly forthcoming) in the Harry Potter series. The big supermarkets are going to sell it as a loss leader, just to get people into their shops, with the result (it is claimed) that other booksellers will have to match that price -- or get near it. Result? All retailers will earn zero profit, out of the biggest bestseller in history.

The latest gloom and doom story along these lines appears in the Independent and is summarised by the Bookseller.

Now this is ridiculous. The appearance of the conclusion of the HP series is going to provide the retail book trade with its largest volume of purchasers ever; punters will be literally banging on the doors and demanding to hand over their money. And yet no one can make any profit out of it? I can't imagine, frankly, a more vivid demonstration of the general cluelessness of the entire UK book trade. And signs are that it's not much healthier elsewhere.

Well, if I was a small independent bookseller, I know what I'd do. I'd make the best of a bad job. I'd put up a big window display, with a placard out in the street (until the health and safety police stopped me), saying 'Get Your Full-Price Harry Potter here! Do Not Accept the Cheap and Inferior Editions On Sale Elsewhere! Buy the Real Thing Now!'

And so forth.

Words of wisdom

Speaking of large numbers of readers, what's the most popular book in the world, viewed from a long-term perspective of, say, the last couple of hundred years?

No. Wrong.

According to Martial Development (link from reader Elberry) it's the Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu (sometimes written as Lao Tse and other variants). Martial Development also points out, with reasons, that, if he were around today, Lao Tzu probably couldn't make ends meet by using AdSense. I am inclined to agree.

One of Lao Tzu's aphorisms is: Those who know do not speak; those who speak do not know.

Which certainly puts me in my place.

While we're on this subject, don't forget that Ron Hogan did his own translation of the Tao Te Ching. Ron was the creator of the Beatrice site, in 1995 -- surely one of the first of its kind. And he is currently one of the editors of Galleycat.

Friday, June 08, 2007

June is busting out

Angry young men and a bitter old one

Ooh. Ooh. It makes you wince, even to observe from a distance.

Once upon a time, back in the 1950s, there was a media construct in the UK known as the Angry Young Men. This was a label stuck on to a group of writers by some newspaper columnist or critic, or both, and the AYMs became, briefly, the talk of the town. (The US equivalent was, I suppose, the Beat Generation.)

These young Englishmen (they were all young, and men) had virtually nothing in common, beyond the fact that they wrote stuff, and disliked -- nay, hated and despised -- many aspects of England as it then was. And with good reason. Their number included John Osborne, John Wain, John Braine, and Colin Wilson. (And, apparently, a good few more -- I had forgotten. Time is merciful in many respects, and growing old does have hidden benefits.)

The angries hardly knew each other, much less formed a deliberate movement to achieve something or other. And they were all, I suspect, deeply jealous of each other's success.

Now the first three of the ones I named are dead. So are most of the others. And Colin Wilson, at the end of a career for which the word chequered might have been invented, has written a book about them. Roger Lewis reviews it in the Telegraph, and the review makes painful reading.

The various angries all came to unpleasant ends, cheered on their way, it seems, by Wilson. And Roger Lewis seems to feel a deep-seated contempt for the author of this summary of a long-dead age (which was barely alive at the time, if truth be told).

As I say, it makes you wince just to read about both the age and the book, not to mention Wilson's feelings as he discovers what the Telegraph really thinks of him. Wilson, by the way, says of himself that 'I had taken it for granted that I was a man of genius since I was about 13.' And he made no secret of that in the '50s. My, how we all laughed. But it's painful to contemplate such silliness and delusion.

I found all this, by the way, courtesy of Savannah, who left a comment on one of last week's posts, and led me to Dick Headley, where there's a staggering piece of video about beautiful women. Stunners, Mr Swinburne used to call them. And they are. Every one.

Smart cookie

On 19 December 2005 I wrote quite a long piece extolling the virtues of Michael Hyatt, CEO of publisher Thomas Nelson. Hyatt, it seemed, was spending a lot of his time just sitting there, staring at the wall, and thinking.

Smart move, I suggested.

Now here's further evidence of how smart he is (link from Hyatt has dumped Thomas Nelson's 20 imprints and rolled them all under the Thomas Nelson heading. Customers don't care about imprints, he says. And he's right. I said so on 8 February 2005.

Brief notes

I first mentioned Marina Lewycka's novel A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian when it had won a respectable prize but was still relatively unknown. Since then it has gone on to be a huge seller, mainly powered by word of mouth. Now Marina tells the Guardian how she went about writing it. (Link from

If you are young enough to take life seriously, and are prepared to take on the Disneys and McDonalds of this world, then equip yourself with a book recommended by the Creative Commons blog: Ourspace by Christine Harold.

While you're at CC, you might want to note what they say about a new documentary on copyright and culture. You can, if you wish, download the whole movie from

And also, of course, CC are interested in what publisher Tim O'Reilly has to say about the influence of free downloads on book sales. In a non-fiction context, you should note.

If you really care, and I have to say that I don't, you can go to M.J. Rose's blog and read all about where MFA students go wrong. With more to come, probably available by the time you go there.

Bowker says that, in the US last year, there were 291,920 new titles published.

Errol Lincoln Uys tells me that, at the age of 63, James Michener had written only two of his blockbuster novels, with nine more yet to come. So there is hope for late starters. Meanwhile, Alex Beam, in the Boston Globe, has things to say about the Uys/Michener collaboration.

The Tartarus Press has moved servers, and old links may not work. This one will. Tartarus is a really interesting UK-based publisher, with quaint old-fashioned ideas about book-production quality. They print stuff in sewn sections, with acid-free paper, and embossed boards! Good grief, whatever next? You could spend a long time, with considerable advantage to yourself, exploring these pages.

Open Letters has a new edition out. It includes a startling review of Christopher Hitchens's latest. You know, the god is not Great thingy.

Fish Publishing is running various competitions for writers.

Tao Lin has posted two stories from his recent BED collection.

The Small Press Review, a UK-based journal for small publishers everywhere, will launch on 19 July 2007. Thereafter bi-monthly. Fiona Wallace is i/c. And there's a Christmas writing competition.

Ed Gorman has hosted a debate about the need for authors to promote themselves. (Link from the Wild West man, Chap O'Keefe.)

William Powell Frith (see Tuesday) had quite a lot of trouble with his models. He used to get them from the local workhouse, but after being paid they would go off and get drunk. Linda Bulloch has written a book about her own experiences as an academic studio model. But she was, I hasten to add, entirely sober. Her book deals with art education, a typical models' roster, syllabi, art materials and techniques, as well as some of the problems of posing nude. But it was, of course, the nudity thing that the media focused on.

Jerry D. Simmons has a lot of experience in publishing, and offers advice and other resources for writers.

Myrmidon Books is a newish UK-based indie publisher, prepared to consider submissions direct from writers.

Publishing News reports that Rosalind Kerven, author of 50 children's books, is setting up her own imprint for a new project.

Jane Austen isn't funny. Official.

Best story I've read this week appeared in an aside in the Guardian. It seems that veteran war photographer Don McCullin, whose camera stopped a bullet in 1969, was once thrown into a lorry with a pile of dead, dying, and wounded. But he kept on taking pictures. When asked why, he said, 'There was still some light left.'

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Victorian pornography -- Part 3: George Augustus Sala

Parts 1 and 2 of my occasional series on Victorian pornography -- 28 June 2006 and 11 July 2006 respectively -- caused a certain amount of dismay. Well, if you joined Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells in condemning those learned if unseemly essays, then you can safely avoid this one, and remain beautifully uncontaminated. The rest of you might, perhaps, be interested; if only to discover what a wicked and sinful lot those outwardly respectable Victorians actually were. Couldn't happen these days, of course.

In particular, I want to pose for you a question. It is one, I admit, which will interest only the most dedicated researcher into the darker corners of Victorian literature, and answering it will undoubtedly involve many hours of labour in dark, dusty rooms in long-undisturbed libraries. But if you ever come across the answer, do let me know.

At the end of yesterday's post about William Powell Frith, I said that he had some unusual friends, and, indeed, he painted formal portraits of some of them, and included others in his larger paintings. Take a look for instance at Frith's 1881 work, Private View at the Royal Academy. You can zoom in, a little, on the image provided by the Mercer Art Gallery.

The sixth figure from the right, in a silvery waistcoat, is a man named George Augustus Sala. Immediately to the left, in front of Sala, is a woman in a black coat and red skirt, accompanied by a small boy. The man in the top hat, immediately behind the boy, is Oscar Wilde. Almost everybody else in the picture is a famous name, including Mrs Langtry (mistress to the Prince of Wales), the actress Ellen Terry, and others. Frith himself lurks at the back, only his head visible.

And who, you may reasonably ask, was George Augustus Sala?

Well, he was a minor figure in the late nineteenth century, but he crops up in various histories of the period, usually in slightly dodgy circumstances. Born in 1828, he died in 1896. And he sticks in my memory as the author (strictly co-author) of a book called The Mysteries of Verbena House; of which, more in a moment.

Vernon Lee described Sala as 'a red, bloated, bottle-nosed creature', and that is exactly what he looks like in Frith's picture: a determined toper if ever I saw one. (Vernon Lee, by the way, was the pen-name of Violet Paget, a woman given to passionate attachments to other women, but who seems never quite to have understood that she was a lesbian.) More kindly, the historian Ronald Pearsall has described Sala as 'one of the greatest journalists of the age'.

In part 2 of this series, I discussed the work of the indefatigable bibliographer of pornography, Pisanus Fraxi. And it is from Fraxi that we learn of the existence of the 1882 publication called The Mysteries of Verbena House. The subtitle is 'Miss Bellasis Birched for Thieving', which, if you know anything about Victorian porn, speaks for itself.

The book was published privately, in a print run of 150 copies. The price was four guineas, a sum which you can probably multiply by 100 to get today's equivalent price (perhaps US$600). This, of course, placed it far beyond the reach of the vulgar crowd.

The Mysteries of Verbena House is a rare book indeed. I have never seen a copy advertised, though I did once have the offer of a French translation of it. You will not find the book listed in the catalogue of the British Library, which is not surprising, given its nature. But the BL does tell us that one G.A.S. (tentatively identified as Sala) was the author of a posthumous 1905 publication featuring the Good Fairy Fairfuck. And the G.A.S. in question is also identified as the creator of the Verbena House story.

Fraxi himself does not tell us the real name of the author of The Mysteries of Verbena House, who is listed in the book itself only as 'Etonensis' -- a term which means an Old Etonian, i.e. someone educated at Eton College. But he does tells us that the book had two authors.

The first part of the book describes a fashionable Brighton seminary for young ladies, and tells how Miss Bellasis is detected as a thief. Her punishment, of course, is to be stripped naked, tied down, and whipped with the traditional birch -- because what we have here is a classic Victorian flagellation novel.

Fraxi tells us that, 'after wading through so many dull, insipid, if not absolutely repulsive books', it is a relief to come across one that is well written. At least for the first 96 pages. The original author was, however, 'unable to complete the tale, in spite of his prodigious industry and astonishing facility for work', and so it was brought to a conclusion by another gentleman. This second man was in fact James Campbell Reddie, with whom Fraxi worked closely.

Fraxi gives considerable detail about the author of the first part of The Mysteries of Verbena House, and the identification of Sala as that man comes to me from Peter Fryer, whose edited edition of Fraxi is the one I normally refer to. Whether Fryer took the British Library catalogue as his authority I know not.

Why didn't Sala finish the book himself? I don't know that either, but I suspect he may have got bored with it. After all, he had lots of other distractions. He was fascinated, for example, by the fashions adopted by young female horse-riders in Hyde Park, and took to posing as one such in composing letters to the Englishwoman's Domestic Magazine. In that journal he described the amazing sensations which are afforded by the wearing of tight corsets, and riding trousers in chamois leather. He was a versatile chap, there is no doubt about it.

But what, you may be wondering, is this question which I mentioned earlier, and which I am so keen to have answered?

Ah. Now the facts are these.

Sala was certainly known to perhaps the most famous poet of the late nineteenth century, Algernon Swinburne, and Swinburne is said to have admired him greatly. And Swinburne was yet another Victorian who, as a result of his experience at Eton, was totally obsessed by flagellation. Though in his case his interest was masochist rather than sadistic; his sole sexual interest was in being the slave of a beautiful, violent woman.

We know for certain that, in the late 1860s, Swinburne was a regular visitor to a flagellant brothel in St John's Wood. Here he was able to act out his fantasies. According to Edmund Gosse, writing in 1919, ten years after Swinburne's death, the brothel was staffed by 'two golden-haired and rouge-cheeked ladies'; there was also an older woman, who welcomed the guests and took the money.

During the course of a discussion about whether to include such sordid details in an official biography, Gosse wrote to various interested parties and asked them what should be included and what left out. And it is in the course of this correspondence that the poet A.E. Housman is said to have 'let slip' that the name of the brothel was Verbena Lodge. The correspondence between Gosse and the others is stored in the British Museum, and one scholar says that few people have been privileged to see it.

Now we come to the point. It is one which troubles me, as I lay awake, late at night, and ponder the wickedness of the world.

Where did Housman get his information? He is, so far as I am aware, the only source of the claim that the late 1860s brothel was called Verbena Lodge. Did Housman, writing in 1919, have a memory of it himself? Or was he, as I strongly suspect, simply making an analogy with Sala's flagellant novel, and misremembering House as Lodge?

Come to that, why did Sala choose to give his seminary for girls the Verbena name? Was he, in 1882 or thereabouts, remembering what Swinburne had told him fifteen years earlier?

A careful reading of the Gosse papers in the British Museum papers might resolve these matters. Or one could, perhaps, go to old maps and Post Office directories for enlightenment. We certainly know the brothel's address, though when I went to look at it I found that the nineteenth-century house was long gone, and had been replaced with some very undistinguished building of a later date.

In any case, as I say, much poking around in dark corners is necessary, and it is a matter best left to those who have an academic career to build. But, if you ever find the true explanation for the mystery of Verbena House/Lodge, do let me know.

And by the way -- before we leave this subject -- you may care to know that Miss Bellasis, for all her sins, is not entirely forgotten. Indeed she is risen from the dead. And she has created a new career for herself, as a purveyor of nipple tassels. And she still lives at Verbena House, although it has been transported to Brighton. She even features on MySpace, where she has friends called Titmore and Asspley.

No, dear friends, I am not making this up. Would I ever?

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

William Powell Frith

On Sunday afternoon last to the Mercer Art Gallery, Harrogate, to see an exhibition of the work of the once-famous Victorian artist, William Powell Frith (1819-1909).

Frith was a Harrogate lad, it seems, though in due course he made his home in London, where the real money was. He showed great talent as an artist from an early age, but he himself had no illusions about his status. He admitted that he never was, and never could be, a 'great' artist, but he was a popular one.

Of Frith's popularity there can be no doubt. On at least six occasions a set of railings had to be erected in front of his paintings to protect them from the crowds trying to see them when they were exhibited at the Royal Academy. Not surprisingly, reproductions of these works sold in great numbers, and made handsome fortunes for those involved, though Frith himself never became truly rich.

One of the reasons why money passed through his hands fairly quickly was because he maintained two households, quite close to each other. His wife Isabelle bore him twelve children. Meanwhile, a mile away, he kept a mistress, by whom he eventually had seven children. Contact with the mistress was maintained, it is said, by taking a regular 'evening walk'. And on one occasion his wife's suspicions were aroused when she saw him posting a letter in London when he was supposed to be on holiday in Brighton.

Despite this wonderful example of Victorian hypocrisy, Frith seems to have had plenty of energy left over for his work. His most famous paintings were large-scale pictures, featuring crowds of people at a railway station, or at Epsom racecourse on Derby day, or at the seaside. Download versions of these are available from the Mercer Art Gallery site.

These pictures were the equivalent of long novels, presenting the viewer with a large number of interacting characters, and the visual equivalent of sub-plots. Frith also used the opportunities to portray members of his own family and friends.

Should you find yourself anywhere near Harrogate between now and 15 July, the Frith exhibition is well worth your time. And, if you're an enthusiast for Victorian art, but not able to attend in person, you may wish to know that the exhibition is accompanied by a new(ish) book, William Powell Frith: Painting the Victorian Age, published by Yale University Press. This is available in both hardback and paperback, though the Yale web site prefers you not to know about the paperback, which is roughly half the price.

There is also a biography of Frith by the ever-reliable Christopher Wood -- William Powell Frith: A Painter and His World.

So, Frith himself was an interesting man, but even more interesting were some of his friends. And of one of those, more tomorrow.

Monday, June 04, 2007

Aaron Shepard: Aiming at Amazon

Aaron Shepard's Aiming at Amazon is intended for a very specific kind of reader: someone who has self-published a book and wants to maximise its sales through Amazon.

More specifically still, the book is designed principally for those who have published non-fiction; and, if you follow the author's recommendations, you will also have used the services of Lightning Source.

If you already fall within this target readership, then there is no doubt that this book is worth its money. In fact, it's probably worth ten times its money. There are pages and pages of advice and tips here, most of which will enable your book to move towards achieving its potential, and, in so doing, generate income for you.

If you're still thinking about whether to self-publish a book or not, then reading this guide is an even more salutary experience for you. I don't think I have ever read a book which made it plainer that publishing is damned hard work. It's a fiddly, irritating, time-consuming and exhausting rigmarole of paying close attention to tiny details, adjusting them when they don't turn out right, and then discovering that you have a dozen more of the same to attend to. Not, on the whole, a lot of fun. Writing a book may be fun, but publishing often isn't.

Since Aaron Shepard is an American, the whole book is orientated towards American practice, and refers to American firms, such as the giant distributor Ingram. But even for writers and publishers from other parts of the English-speaking world, the US is still the biggest market, and so the book remains highly relevant.

I think that's probably all you need to know. But let me emphasise, again, that this book is absolutely brimful of technical, hands-on advice on everything from choosing a sub-title to designing a cover to setting a price. As for Amazon itself -- well, I had no idea that there were so many different facilities on offer, or that they were capable of being used in so many different ways at the discretion of the author/publisher.

All you need is endless time and patience.

Aaron Shepard makes something of a habit of writing how-to books for writers and small publishers. His Perfect Pages was reviewed here quite recently. He also offers a web site which includes updates on his various books and links to more resources.