Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Free books

Mrs GOB and I are having one of our periodic clear-outs. Among other strange things which have emerged from dark corners of the loft and garage are several boxes of my own books: i.e. books wot I have wrote.

In some cases these books are the remains of the complimentary copies supplied by the publisher. American publishers often gave me 20 free ones, compared with the usual 6 in the UK. In other cases, I seem to have bought extra supplies for some reason, and never got around to sending them out.

Anyway, there they are. And they are yours, free, for the asking. The point is, I didn't write those books to have them sit around in boxes. I wrote them in the hope that they would be read. So you can have free copies if you like. But there is one condition. Please don't put the book on your shelf and keep it there for the next twenty years. When you've read it, or decided that it's not for you, put it in a charity shop, or give it to a friend.

For the same reason, I will sign every free book. But I would be reluctant to write 'To Jane' or whatever, because if I do that you will be inclined to hang on to it.

Set out below is a list of the books available, roughly in order of publication. If you click on the linked title you will find a bit more information, and quotes from reviews, about each one. You will also see that some of these novels are published under pen-names

If you decide that you would like one or more of these books, send me an email (see profile, top of right column). Don't forget to include your snailmail address!

Do I want you to cover the postage? No. Far too complicated and fiddly. Yes, airmail is rather expensive, but if you feel guilty about it, put a dollar (or whatever) in the poor box.

This offer holds good until 1 December, when the post office gets ridiculously busy because of Christmas.

The Leavers (1963). A typical first novel of the 1960s. I cannot imagine why anyone would want to read it now, but I have some copies if you do.

Spence in Petal Park (Spence and the Holiday Murders in the US) (1977)
Spence at the Blue Bazaar (1979)
Spence at Marlby Manor (1982)
These three are classic English whodunits, with a policeman called Spence as the detective. Spence at the Blue Bazaar is also available in French (La Scandaleuse du Blue Bazaar) and Danish (Thana Betyder Dod), if you prefer those languages. If you ask for one of these books you might as well have all three.

Counter-Coup (1980). A thriller/adventure story in the Wilbur Smith mould, set in Africa.

Topp Family Secrets (2002). A family saga.

Beautiful Lady (2002). A thriller set in wartime England.

Passionate Affairs (2002). Two interlocking love affairs; set in 1960.

Scrooge and the Widow of Pewsey (2003). A sequel to Dickens's A Christmas Carol.

The Suppression of Vice (2003). A nineteenth-century crime novel.

King Albert's Words of Advice (2003). Short stories.

The Truth about Writing (2003). A handbook for novelists, playwrights, and screenwriters.

Grumpy Old Bookman (2005). The first six months of the blog in book form.

How and why Lisa's Dad got to be famous (2006). A novel about reality TV.

Lucius the Club (2007). A crime-fiction novella.

Mr Fenman's Farewell to His Readers (2007). A short memoir (?) by a nineteenth-century novelist.

Hurry, hurry, while stocks last. Or something like that.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Fooled 'em again?

The latest Private Eye gives the sales figures for the Booker shortlist, prior to the announcement of the winner. Anne Enright's The Gathering had shifted 3,687. None of the shortlist had sold over 6,000 except Ian McEwan's On Chesil Beach, which had achieved 122,631. Such is the power of publicity.

The announcement of the winner came on the evening of Tuesday 16 October. This left plenty of time for eager readers to rush out a buy a copy of The Gathering before the close of business on Saturday 20 October. But did they?

On 27 October the Times published (as usual) a list of the top 50 bestsellers in the UK for the week ended 20 October. Enright is nowhere on it. But she does appear on the much smaller list of the 10 best sellers for small independent bookshops. So presumably the Booker prize did not result in Enright selling as many as 6,404 copies, which is what book no. 50 on the main Times list managed to do.

No wonder Enright came out with some controversial statement or other. I forget now what it was. Oh yes. Google reminds me. She had a go at the McCanns. (See the Daily Mail of 18 October.) Well, that's a nasty cheap shot if ever I saw one; the mark of true desperation. Perhaps it backfired.

Private Eye reckons that the Booker's sponsor must be feeling pretty cheesed off, and I wouldn't be surprised. More to the point, perhaps, I have a feeling that this may be the year in which the penny finally dropped for the great British book-reading public. You can only fool people so often, you know. For a good many years now the public has been told that the Booker prize-winning novel is the best book of the year. And they've been going out and buying it, or borrowing it. And guess what? They've found that, er, well, actually the bloody thing was pretty damn boring.

Various sources, e.g. booktrade.info, have carried a short report about a big-time success for a self-published author. Google the name of the author, Brunonia Barry, and you get more detailed reports of a self-published author with at least a 2-million-dollar deal; some suggest higher figures.

Now this is interesting, of course, and is going to convince a lot of other people that they can do the same. It was ever thus. But while I was not exactly suspicious, I was inclined to think that there was more to this story than simply author self-publishes, gets good reviews, gets agent, gets big-time deal.

How, for instance, would a novice self-published author get a starred review in Publishers Weekly? And please don't tell me that she just sent it in and its outstanding merit made it leap out of the dustbin, because I would find that impossible to believe.

A little more detective work, for instance on the book's own web site, leads to the information (not remotely surprising) that Brunonia has been around a while, has worked in theatre and movies (including promotional campaigns), and has been closely associated with Robert McKee; she has also written novels in the Beacon Street Girls series.

In other words, what we have here is a person with absolutely the right sort of experience to produce a highly commercial novel; and, having produced it, she knew how to sell it.

Do you think your book deserves to be made into a movie? Does it pass the wicked witch's test (24 October)?

There are supposed to be some clever men and women working in universities. So how come that, week after week, the powers that be at the University of Michigan still manage to look like a pathetic bunch of wankers? Don't they employ a p.r. person?

Galleycat has the story, plus a link to Inside Higher Education. The U manages to make more or less the right decision, but only very eventually. And gracelessly.

Speaking of web sites, I came across a three-year-old recently who points out the spiders' web sites in the garden.

I suppose, he says with a sigh, that this is the time of year when people begin to look for Christmas presents. And if you have an elderly aunt or uncle, of a bookish disposition, then you could do far worse than visit Old House Books, where some interesting items from the past are reprinted.

Is Grandad keen on railways? Buy him a map of the London rail network of 1897. Does Grandma speak fondly of old-fashioned cures for warts? Buy her The Lady's Dressing Room.

And so forth.

Last Thursday afternoon Mrs GOB and I called in at Arundel for tea. As one does. And there we found (not for the first time) Kim's Bookshop. This is a very well organised shop, dealing in some valuable antiquarian and first-edition stock, but also with a pleasant intermingling of good to middling secondhand books. They also have a branch in Chichester.

It's a shame that the Webmaster can't spell category, but then who can spell these days? Ask Grandma.

Oops. Forgot to add this. Just seen a report on the Bookseller site about CSS firing some agents at PFD.

There is a technical term for this kind of thing, I believe. Something about excrement being freely distributed through collision with a piece of ventilation equipment. M'learned friends must be chuckling and rubbing their hands. Sitting there watching the phone....

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

This is probably it for this week...

...on account of the grandchildren are here, after which Mrs GOB and I take a well earned short break.

Should be a total no-brainer, but the University of Michigan is still debating the contract with Pluto and all like that.

Coming soon... Free books for the asking. Sugar blues. The woman who saw it all coming. And a lot more. Don't go away.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Late-night stuff

New ways to do old things, no. 94: Simon Spanton, of Orion, sends out an email to people in the book trade, warning them about 'three bitter, angry, damaged, resentful and extremely violent people who have been making themselves very unwelcome around our offices. They should be in care, they'll probably end up in jail. Or dead, after a drunken brawl or from a drug overdose. And you might say good riddance.'

Turns out they're characters in a new book.

Hm? Oh, all right then. The Steel Remains, a 'new epic fantasy' from Richard Morgan. Published by you know who. Or part of them.

Paul Brown of the UK's Tonto Press has an unusual book out: The Rocketbelt Caper. Described as 'a true tale of invention, obsession and murder'.

The Tonto blog has a discussion about small publishers somehow being regarded as inevitably publishing books of local interest. When you have a true crime/popular science book that is set in Texas filed under Local Interest in a Newcastle bookshop you know you have a problem.

Paul Brown also draws my attention to the article in the Observer which uses the Frankfurt book fair as the excuse for a survey of the modern book trade, and comes to some discouraging conclusions. You're surprised?

Old hand Patrick Jimjam-Smith: 'If you're not in a three-for-two or Richard & Judy, forget it. There's no point. If you ask me, publishing is in a mess.' No! Really? Who'd have thunk it?

Lyn Lejeune continues to try to revive New Orleans. She is giving all royalties from The Beatitudes to support the city.

Chris Keil complains that I made a comment about his book without having read it. Actually I was making a general point, rather than commenting on his book in particular. However, to make amends I will point out that Nicholas Clee has read Chris's book (Liminal), and reviewed it in the Guardian. And thanks, but it still sounds like the kind of book I don't want to read.

Emmett James's Admit One can be previewed on Google books. Which is interesting for me, because it's the first time I've actually been to that site. But preview is the right word, because the book isn't actually published yet.

The title of this book refers to a ticket to the movies. And it is about, not surprisingly, a young man who is obsessed with film, and eventually makes his way to Hollywood.

Emmett himself spent his childhood in Croydon, South London, and after studying acting at Strasberg Actors Studio in London he eventually moved to Los Angeles in the early nineties to pursue a career in film. He comes from a family of authors which includes J.B. Priestley.

Libel strikes again; this time in the classical music biz. But Yanks, it seems, will be able to read the material more or less as is.

By contrast with other commentators on the book world (see above), Evan Schnittman returns from Frankfurt convinced that publishing has the edge over technology for three reasons: discoverability, print on demand and repositories. See the OUP blog.

Mary Whitsell tells me that The Word Detective is a site somewhat like Michael Quinion's World Wide Words, but American. Looks promising.

Monday, October 22, 2007

New books and other stuff

Bad Attitude is a new novella by Leopold McGinnis, and you can read parts of it, and eventually the whole, as it appears online. It's a comedy about a man who quits a high-profile office job to enter the McWorkforce; he then tries to get hired, and then fired, from as many jobs as he can.

Leopold already has a formidable track record as a writer. He is the author of the underground novella The Red Fez and the novel Game Quest. He founded and edits the literary site Red Fez Publications, which publishes under-recognised talent from around the world (with no funding). He was once a member of the Underground Literary Alliance, and is now a founding member of The Guild of Outsider Writers.

By the way, Leopold is also trying a dodge I haven't come across before. He's been putting ads for independent books into the pdfs of Bad Attitude. It's an experiment in cross-promoting indie writers. Interesting.

Parlez vous Francais? Eh bien, allez voire Mots et Couleurs. The lady is an elderblogger, or so I am told by May, who provided the link.

Dave Langford of Ansible provided me with a few links to an interesting case of plagiarism. It seems that one Lanaia Lee has published a book called Of Atlantis. Unfortunately, this appears to copy substantially from the work of British fantasy author David Gemmell. When challenged, Lanaia admitted that she had engaged the services of a ghost writer. Who he? Christopher Hill, that who he. A man famous for running a 'literary agency'.

One could spend an awful lot of time and energy following the links on this one. Start here.

Dave Langford also pointed out to me that Richard Morgan of Glasgow, a science-fiction writer, is an outspoken sort of fellow. To see what he has to say about the work of Nicholas Mosley, click here. Then scroll down to Skidelsky on Mosley.

The latest edition of Dave's Ansible is particularly worth reading. But then they always are. Here's Ursula K. Le Guin on Jeanette Winterson: 'It's odd to find characters in a science-fiction novel repeatedly announcing that they hate science fiction. I can only suppose that Jeanette Winterson is trying to keep her credits as a "literary" writer even as she openly commits genre. Surely she's noticed that everybody is writing science fiction now?'

And I see that poor old Enid Blyton is still being worked over. Dick and Fannie have become Rick and Frannie.

On the future of reading, Jon Evans says Apocalypse Soon; his publishers don't like the idea of him making a book available free online. And he pursues a similar line of thought in the Guardian.

Don't forget, if you live in the UK and get a bit browned off from time to time, that Not Born Yesterday provides almost daily comment which should give you a smile.

The Chelsea Hotel book is now available.

At Underneath the Bunker, arguably Europe's greatest cultural journal, debate continues on the merits et cetera of the novelist Jarni Kolovsky, aka Yefimovich Pasadziec. Principal contributors, as one might expect, are Georgy Riecke and Andrew O'Hara, of the Jimston Journal. Essential reading for anyone who wishes to keep abreast of what is happening at the cutting-edge of European literature.

Speaking of Mr O'Hara, he recommends, for them as is feeling harassed, a short piece of restful ballet on YouTube. And why not?

A. Igoni Barrett is a writer based in Nigeria. He is making his short-story collection, From Caves of Rotten Teeth, available free online. One of the stories here won the 2005 BBC Short Story Competition. For a review of the whole book, visit Laura Hird's site.

Andrea Cumbo Dowdy is a teacher, writer, and reader. And she blogs, naturally. She has thoughts on ekphrastic writing (15 October) and other matters.

The New York Times mentions William Gerhardie, in passing, and refers to him as 'now-forgotten', which indeed he is. But once he was famous. So was Angus Wilson, who, according to John Sutherland, died of Alzheimer's. At the end of his life he was the object of charity from his friends and the Royal Literary Fund, without which his estate could barely have afforded a decent funeral.

But I digress. Gerhardie is mentioned in the NYT's article on William Trevor. Trevor has won every prize going --well, several -- and is widely respected, but I have never taken to him. His work is extremely sensitive, well observed, caring, thoughtful, and so on. But ultimately, I find, depressing. As William Boyd says, there aren't many laughs.

Seven types of short story? Or just seven types of ambiguity?

Thanks to Dave Lull for the NYT link.

Bluechrome is a relatively new (2002) indie publishing company with an interesting list. There are some known names here, and some original thinking: see the Mono EPs. Submissions, sadly, are closed at the moment, but there is a short-story competition still open. Go on, etonnez nous.

Ooh dear. Another case of two books coming out with the same sort of ideas and content, and people jumping to conclusions. Duels, sadly, are out of fashion. Always an appropriate method, I think, for resolving disputes of this kind. Link from Publishers Lunch.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Words of wisdom

Now here's a real find, for which I have to thank Edmond Clay. In World Wide Words, Michael Quinion writes about international English from a British viewpoint.

It would take a long time to explore this site fully, but it is clearly the work of one of those old-fashioned, elderly men (they're almost always men) who are fascinated by the English language, and who manage to communicate their enthusiasm to the rest of us. When they are gone, these chaps, are they likely to be replaced? I can't say that it seems likely.

Meanwhile we can all enjoy the benefit of their scholarship.

How to speak sooth safely. That is the question.

You may remember that, on Monday last, I noted that Rod Liddle, in the Sunday Times, had referred to O.J. Simpson as a man who 'murdered his wife'; and he had done so without so much as an 'allegedly' by way of qualifier. Where, I enquired rhetorically, was the ST duty lawyer when that went through?

I was assuming, you see, that the statement that O.J. Simpson was a murderer was libellous in terms of English law. I also assumed that the lawyer in question had not been down the pub and neglecting his duties, but had taken the same view as myself: namely that, while the statement was libellous, he did not think it likely that O.J. would sue; and that, if O.J. did, the whole of the UK would be greatly entertained while O.J.'s lawyer attempted to convince an English jury of his innocence, and while O.J. was being given the third degree by the ST's Queen's Counsel. The latter interrogation being a spectacle for which I, for one, would gladly buy a ticket.

However, the question niggled. What, exactly, was the true position?

Well, it is well known that this blog spares no expense or effort in the pursuit of a story and after the exchange of -- ooh, at least two emails -- I am able to bring you the facts.

You will probably recall that O.J. Simpson, as famous in the US as David Beckham in the UK, was charged with the murder of his wife Nicole and her friend Ronald Goldman. In due course the jury acquitted him. Subsequently, Ronald Goldman's father brought a civil case against O.J. The civil jury in that case found O.J. liable for the wrongful death of Ronald Goldman, and ordered him to pay $33.5 million in damages. (He has not complied.)

M'learned friend has advised me that the civil verdict is the key to what we may and may not safely say about O.J. Simpson. A speaker is entitled to rely upon any legal finding that has been sustained by a final judgement, except if reversed on appeal, as sufficiently factual to defend against a claim of libel, either under US or English law.

So, any and all US and UK citizens can safely thumb their noses at O.J. Simpson and call him a murderer as often as they like. Although, if being extra cautious, they might wish to substitute the word 'killer'.

'Murderer' necessarily implies 'criminal'. M'learned friend, ever conscious of little tiny quibbles and loopholes, as these weaselly fellows are, points out that objections to the claim that O.J. 'killed' anyone would get thrown out by a judge at early stage, whereas if you said that he 'murdered' someone it would only get thrown out after discovery. And if you want to know what discovery is all about, go see your own learned friend.

However -- here's another of those little tiny quibbles -- it's possible, in theory, that the ST lawyer was dangling a bait here. Maybe the duty man doesn't like O.J. (Extraordinary, I know, but possible.) He might, perhaps, have been offering O.J. and his not-too-experienced-in-English-law US lawyer some hope that they could, after all, clean up in the English courts. And if they lost, the English courts have a much more vicious 'loser pays' regime than do the Americans. So who knows. It would probably be pretty hard to collect, though, given O.J.'s capacity for avoiding payment.

Isn't the law fun, eh?

But.... There's always a but where the law is concerned, isn't there? If laws were the same everywhere, and if it was all easy to understand, then all those lawyers would be out of a job; and then where would we be? Who said better off?

But, if you live in France or Germany you had better tread carefully. M'learned friend points out that those countries have exceptions for civil findings in the case of prior criminal acquittal. So there the saintly O.J. is a deeply wronged man, and you had better zip your mouth.

Of course, I doubt if O.J. can actually read French or German. But nevertheless, just thumb your nose and omit the description.

You will recall, I'm sure, that the question of how to make jam was hotly debated (both literally and metaphorically) in chapter two of Tolstoy's Anna Karenina. How could one forget? And the key issue, of course, was whether or not one added water to the fruit.

Agafea Mihalovna maintained that jam could not successfully be made without adding water, while Kitty took the view that it most certainly could, and should, be.

You will be pleased, but not surprised, to hear that the UK politician and polymath Boris Johnson has come up with the definitive answer to this contentious issue. He passes on the secret in the Daily Telegraph.

Those readers who are not resident in the UK may not realise that Boris is currently the Conservative candidate for the post of Mayor of London. And how reassuring it is to find that Boris has his eye firmly on the ball.

Other candidates are rushing around making speeches about how to improve London's transport system, and how to prevent the Thames overflowing when global warming takes hold, and all like that. But Boris is much more down to earth; much more in touch with the everyday concerns of London citizens. Boris well understands what any Englishwoman will tell you, namely that a slice of newly baked bread, heavily encrusted with butter and damson jam, is a far more satisfying experience than sexual intercourse, any day of the week. And it is to this end that Boris's efforts are, rightly, directed.

I would be willing to bet that Mr Bloomberg never came up with an infallible and sensational recipe for damson jam. On matters of jam-making the citizens of New York are, I would wager, left entirely without guidance.

Next week, Boris will deal with the tricky question of how to get a vacuum cleaner into those awkward corners. Did Virginia Woolf have the right technique? Or is the answer to be found in the correspondence of the Mitford sisters?

One can hardly wait.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Would you believe it?

The Register claims (link from booktrade.info) that the 'US Patent Office decimates Amazon's 1-click patent -- only five of 26 claims survive.'

Which is quite interesting, because, as I understood it, Amazon was earning revenue from any other web-based outfit which offered a similar facility.

And, what is more interesting, the patent claims were challenged by a New Zealand blogger, supported by funds donated by his readers.

In passing, of course, retired schoolmasters such as Mr Robinson will note that, in rejecting 5 out of 26 claims, the Patent Office was not 'decimating' at all. Strictly speaking, to decimate means (as Sir Ernest Gowers pointed out in Plain Words in 1948) to reduce by one tenth, not to one tenth. And here the Patent Office wasn't doing either.

Decimating was originally something done to mutinous troops. You shot every tenth man and the rest usually had second thoughts.

Sir Ernest offered the following example, drawn from a discussion of the misuse of the word 'literally' in the Times. It came from a penny dreadful: 'Dick, hotly pursued by the scalp-hunter, turned in his saddle, fired, and literally decimated his opponent.'

Forty years ago, my pupils in the top class for English used to enjoy that one.

The Times reports that there are plans afoot to make the Booker shortlist available free online.

Oh my God. Madame Arcati is a fan of Martin Amis. I would never have thought it. Well, at least I made the right guess about Madame's sexual tastes.

I read a news report last weekend which said that, on average, an American office worker receives 140 emails a day, and manages to look at less than half of them. One young woman reportedly deleted 30,000 unread emails, and felt a lot better afterwards.

My situation, mercifully, is not that bad, but I am still catching up on that two-week absence of computer. So, if you have written to me in the past month, and wonder why I am being so rude as not to reply, bear with me. You may yet get a response.

Crossword fan? Go to the OUP blog and try theirs.

Frank Beddor wrote Seeing Redd and The Looking-Glass Wars, and now I learn that he was producer of There's Something About Mary. His latest is a 'geo-graphic' novel called Hatter M. Wikipedia fills in the background.

There seem to be lots of reworkings of the Victorian stuff these days -- e.g. Lost Girls. Intriguing.

The braindead are always with us. The Salt Lake Tribune says, 'Publishers rarely issue new books over the summer.' Only about 2,000 a week, that is. Link from Publishers Lunch.

The Creative Commons blog has an interview with Brandt Cannici, creator of a web site called Strayform.com. This seeks to provide creative artists (for want of a better expression) with a platform through which they can perhaps obtain funding for their work. Strayform makes heavy use of the Creative Commons licensing system, which means, of course, no DRM or nonsense of that kind.

This looks to me like a good idea in principle, but it has some way to go, I feel, before it gets out of what is effectively the beta stage at present. It may, conceivably, offer a useful platform for writers at some point. Keep an eye on it.

The BBC lists the ten main ways in which you are persuaded to read (and preferably buy) a book. (Thanks to Bill Sinclair for the link.)

In the US, substitute Oprah for Richard & Judy.

By the way, speaking of Oprah, Publishers Lunch recently reported the case of Sarah Symonds. Ms Symonds is the self-published author of Having An Affair: A Handbook for the 'Other Woman'. Somehow or other Ms Symonds got herself taped for an interview to appear on Oprah on 10 October. When Hatherleigh Press publisher Kevin Moran heard about this, he promptly signed the book, with a little help from his distributor, Random House.

So that makes everything very simple, doesn't it? All you have to do, if you're a self-published author, is get yourself pre-recorded for Oprah, go see a publisher with a distribution setup, and all your problems are solved.

I have an idea for a short story, as yet unwritten. It's about a man who hates Christmas, especially when it starts on 1 October and continues until the end of January. This character has certain attitudes not entirely unrelated to my own, and he would not be too thrilled, I feel, by http://www.hollyclaus.com/. This is the story of Santa's daughter. And it is for kids. And it opens with a song.

Excuse me while I go and lie down.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Anne Enright wins Booker -- and what larks!

My dears, I haven't had such a good laugh over breakfast in years! I fair spluttered into my porridge.

The Booker prize, according to its official web site, 'promotes the finest in fiction by rewarding the very best book of the year'. And 'best' in these quarters is defined in terms of literary fiction.

It turns out that the 2007 prize was awarded last night. The winner was Anne Enright, who was apparently the outsider, and her novel The Gathering is 'a bleak story of a dysfunctional Irish family'. This is not, you will understand, a novel that I am about to rush out and buy. But nevertheless, the circumstances of the award provide much more entertainment than the average literary novel ever does.

The laughs came from the introductory remarks which were made by the Chairman of the judges, Sir Howard Davies. You can read all about it in the Times. Basically, what the Chairman had to say was that too many reviewers are far too kind to literary novels, being very reluctant to do anything except heap praise upon them. 'There appear to be some novels,' he said, 'where people leave their critical faculties at home.'

He quotes examples. Ben Okri's latest book was, he said, 'more or less unreadable, but you would never catch that from the reviews because of the status that Okri has achieved'.

J.M. Coetzee's latest was described by Sir Howard as 'a strange construct which I don’t think comes off as a novel. Yet it was treated with exaggerated deference by many reviewers.'

No! Who would have guessed it? Who would have thought that the literary establishment in London would be ensuring, with a few exceptions, that only nice things are said about lit'ry books, while books issued by small presses and written by unknown writers are steadfastly ignored?

Sir Howard, the Times said, stopped short of accusing authors of back-scratching, but the Times itself has more guts. In an editorial, the paper lays out the facts in plain English.
Presenting the Man Booker Prize last night, Howard Davies referred to a curious habit of literary critics. Their curious habit is to review each other’s books fulsomely. Author X selects Author Y’s novel as her Book of the Year. Author Y reciprocates by reviewing Author X’s novel as the most ripping yarn since Rudyard Kipled and Haggard Rode. In London’s literary tent, everybody is related to, or in love with, or in debt to, or has expectations from, everybody else.
Well, I told you publishing was a friendly business, only last week. 'Caveat lector,' says the Times. 'Select your reviewers (and books) with care.' Indeed.

Such general thoughts as I have had upon the Booker prize appeared here in January 2005. I have nothing to add, except that you might like to sit back and watch it all happen to Anne Enright, the winner who wasn't expected.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Stephen King (and my modest self) on the short story

Stephen King writes the introduction to The Best American Short Stories 2007, which he edited, and which I really must get hold of. Dave Lull kindly told me that the intro was published in the New York Times, and it is eminently worth reading. Theme: Is the American short story alive? Yes. Is the American short story well? No.

Now, as it happens I don't really enjoy Mr King's novels at all. We won't go into why. But several decades ago, when Mr King was a newbie, a leading American agent told me that, even if you don't like his material, you had to admit that, by God, the man could write.

He still can. And he puts his finger very precisely on what is wrong with the modern short story, whether American or otherwise. It's pussy-whipped, that's what's wrong with it. I speak metaphorically, and I paraphrase Mr King, but that's the gist of his argument. And the pussy to whom vast numbers of modern short-story writers are beholden is the vain hope that they might actually, one day, get published in the New Yorker. As if that goal was one which any sane person would consider important! The New Yorker short story is traditionally one in which absolutely nothing happens.

The audience for short stories has shrunk to the point where most of those reading the few magazines that still publish such stories are reading them in order to find out what gets published there, in the hope that they can do the same; and thus win a fellowship, or a teaching post somewhere, or acquire reputation as a writer of sensitivity and style. Thought and care for the kind of reader who used to read the pulp magazines and now watches football or reads the tabloids is a long way from their mind.

King read some hundred of stories before making the final selection for his anthology, and many of them, he says, 'felt show-offy rather than entertaining'. They were 'written for editors and teachers rather than readers', and they read like a 'fraidy-cat's writing-school imitation of Faulkner, or some stream of consciousness about what Bob Dylan once called "the true meaning of a pear".'

This is a recipe for disaster, as is blatantly obvious to anyone who bothers to read a so-called literary magazine.

Stephen King's intro to his 2007 collection is worth reading for its wonderful, loose, easy style, if for nothing else. Look how he expresses the truth with such informal but absolutely spot-on phrases as 'fraidy-cat's writing-school imitation'.

Fortunately, all is not entirely lost. There are places where you can find some stories which set out to entertain rather than impress, if you search hard enough, but by golly you have to search. And if there is one message which comes through from Mr King, with my endorsement, it is this: don't be afraid to write the damn thing. Do it your way. For preference, give it some balls, or the female equivalent. And for all our sakes, pay no attention to any of those creative-writing people.

'Talent,' says King, 'can't help itself; it roars along in fair weather or foul, not sparing the fireworks.' So, light the blue touch-paper and step well back.

Arising out of Stephen King's essay Maud Newton acts as hostess to short-story writer Jean Thompson, who nicely summarises some of the comment which the King NYT essay produced.

And, if you have the time and patience, you might care to look back at my own earlier statement of the position which is now so eloquently expounded by Mr King. On 16 March 2005, I gave some account of the official history of the short story; and then, on 17 March 2005, I provided a true history of the short story. These two essays are, I think, on reading them again, good combative stuff. And I stand by every word.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Miscellaneous accumulations

A day or two ago, the Bookseller offered two stories right next to each other. One will attract huge headlines, and indeed already has done, and one will pass largely unnoticed, but it raised a small cheer from me.

Doris Lessing has won the Nobel prize. That's the first story. Well, at least she's more readable than most of those who get this accolade.

The other, rather more important piece of news, is that Orion have won a landmark libel case in the Court of Appeal. The Court has ruled in favour of investigative journalism; as a result, one allegedly bent copper and his supporters are left with a huge bill.

Judging by the web site, Ron Wulkan's novel The Gook Lover seems to be a cut above the average. Certainly it is written by a man who has had an extraordinary life and knows whereof he speaks. Having lied about his age, he found himself, aged 17, serving as a military policeman in occupied Japan.

David Loye is another World War II veteran, married to an internationally known holocaust survivor (Riane Eisler, The Chalice and the Blade). He was a television newsman back in the Ed Murrow days, and an award-winning author himself (The Healing of a Nation) in the Nixon era. Now he's running the Benjamin Franklin Press, dedicated to publishing books 'for the restoration of national and global sanity'.

David is has not entirely given up the idea that the world may have a future if we do the right things. Take a look for yourself.

Margaret Atwood told the Cheltenham Festival audience that young writers need an awful lot of luck. 'Writing is not a job description,' she said. 'A great deal of it is luck. Don’t do it if you are not a gambler.'

For a longer discussion of the same important truth, see my essay On the Survival of Rats in the Slush Pile.

In the Sunday Times, Rod Liddle does as thorough a demolition job on If I Did It as I have ever read. He describes it as:
A book that is simultaneously morally disgusting and excruciatingly dull. A filthy little project that, although extremely brief (there’s a lot of padding in those 208 pages), succeeds in both boring the reader beyond endurance and making him gag.
Furthermore, Liddle describes O.J. Simpson as a man who 'murdered his wife'. Where was the ST duty lawyer when that went to past the sub-editors? 'Spare yourself and don't buy it,' Liddle concludes.

Commenters on my piece last Thursday, about the PFD debacle and the generally matey atmosphere in publishing, have accused me of a certain lack of consistency. Surely, they say, I have always argued that modern publishing is all about the money?

Well, maybe. I would not claim to be immune to inconsistency, but here I think I have just not explained myself very well.

Yes, modern big-time publishing is mainly concerned with profit, whereas once the big-time publishers were more concerned with literary quality, the public good, the need for the truth to out, and all like that. But where do books come from, whether chosen for literary merit and general worthiness, or for their ability to sell in large numbers?

Answer, they come from writers and agents. And since big-time publishing often pays big money (by publishing's modest standards), everything depends upon judgement, track record, reliability, trust. An editor who is going to pay half a million for a book ideally wants it to come from a writer with a proven track record, and a well known agent who will advise her wisely in the writing and marketing of same.

These relationships take a long time to build up. If an agent departs from an agency, taking her clients with her, you can't replace her in the same way that you can replace a van driver or a copy typist. That's why I think the money men have got it wrong where PFD is concerned.

Incidentally, it seems to me that the really smart money men take a quick look at publishing, decide that it's an absurd business, and push off elsewhere. Consider the career of Luke Johnson. He was once a publisher, but described it as a 'terrible business… a barely rational industry.... You ship finished volumes to booksellers who only accept them on a sale or return basis, and demand at least 55 per cent trade discount, and pay 120 days later.'

Not surprisingly, Johnson has recently bought the UK division of Borders.

Friday, October 12, 2007

A Midsummer Night's Dream

Last night to the Theatre Royal, Bath, to see an unusual production of A Midsummer Night's Dream.

The British Council is a government-sponsored body, intended to 'build mutually beneficial relationships between people in the UK and other countries and to increase appreciation of the UK’s creative ideas and achievements.' In 2004, the Council invited the director Tim Supple to direct a theatre production with performers in India and Sri Lanka. This is the result.

The production was a fair while in gestation. In 2005 Supple worked with hundreds of performers in a variety of cities and other locations in India. He eventually narrowed his choice of performers down to 60, and, after a final difficult month, selected 22 to appear in this play. The only Englishman involved is the director.

What we have here is a most unusual, if not unique, style of production. In the first place, each actor usually speaks Shakespeare's lines in the language which he or she normally uses to perform. So the text is spoken in seven different languages.

Next, we have an amazing mixture of dazzling costumes, an extraordinary set, acrobatics, music, movement, dance, and ever-changing lighting, all built around and integrated with the framework of the play, with which most of the audience are already familiar. The outcome is an extraordinary theatrical experience, and one which I warmly recommend to you.

That being said, you do need to be aware of what you are letting yourself in for. This is not a normal Shakespeare production. I saw three people leave during act one, and the couple next to me did not return after the interval. And one could occasionally criticise the direction, in that the main thrust of the play sometimes gets lost in the spectacle. Most of the audience loved it, however; and this particular audience was much younger in average age than is normally the case at the TRB.

This production has already been widely performed in England and will, I gather, tour in Australia, New Zealand and parts of the US. Keep an eye open for it.

For further discussion see the Guardian blog.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Publishing is a very friendly business

There was one occasion in the past when I proposed to my agent that we should deal with a particular matter in a thoroughly brisk and businesslike way, setting out on paper, in clear terms, what we would and would not accept.

My agent was not happy. 'Michael,' she said, 'what you have to remember is that publishing is a very friendly business.' She might equally well have used the word 'personal'.

The point which my agent was making, and I belatedly accept it, is that selling books is not like selling fish or buttons. Everything depends on personal judgement and personal interaction. A writer offers a manuscript to an agent, and the personal reaction of that agent is central to whether the agent takes the book or not. And ditto when an agent approaches a publisher. And then again when the press agent seeks to place the author on a chat show.

It is tempting to grumble bitterly about this, and to complain about the old-boy network and the public-school mafia and the literary cliques, and so forth. But it has been shown, time and time again, that it is easy to overlook books which could, properly handled, be enormously successful; and, equally, it is easy to become over-enthusiastic about books which prove to be duds. So much depends on trusting other people's judgement, and knowing their track record.

(The same is true, incidentally, of the theatre. With knobs on. Appearing on stage is a mighty scary business, and if you're going to do it you want to be on stage with people whom you know and trust. People who understand the traditions and the conventions. Which is why many actors are the sons and daughters of other actors, or people in the business.)

All of which leads me to the sad case of the mighty UK literary and talent agency PFD. As mentioned here once or twice recently, this agency has fallen into the hands of the money men, who simply do not understand the ethos of publishing. Consequently agents and clients are fleeing in all directions.

In the latest Publishing News, Andrew Franklin explains it all rather well. I must say that I have seen better formatted articles for on-screen reading -- some white space between the paragraphs would help -- but it's worth struggling with.

If only CSS understood the difference between shareholders and stakeholders, how much better handled this business might have been. Perhaps they're just not very good businessmen.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

More catch-ups

This morning, three British crime novels; each of them excellent, in its way, but all rather different.

Denise Mina: The Dead Hour

Back in August, I reviewed Denise Mina's The Field of Blood, which was the first in a series of novels about Paddy Meehan, a fat girl of Irish Catholic origins, living in Glasgow in 1981, and working for a newspaper. The Dead Hour is number two in this series.

The year is 1984. We're still in Glasgow, but Paddy has moved up a rung on the journalism ladder. She's now a junior reporter, and stuck with the night shift, which nobody wants, following police cars and ambulances. In the course of pursuing this thankless task, she inevitably stumbles across a crime, meets a lot of hard, vicious men (and that's just her colleagues and the police), and gets into all kinds of physical and moral difficulties.

Several decades ago, at the end of the golden era of detective fiction, the whodunit and the private-eye books of the time had become very formulaic. The more thoughtful commentators on that kind of fiction had begun to murmur about the need for a crime novel which combined the best features of the blood and thunder brigade with some of the character analysis, and other virtues, of the literary and mainstream novel. Well, it's not often found, even these days, but Denise Mina can do it.

Side by side with the story of plain, fat Paddy, who is her family's sole provider, we get the story of another young woman, much the same age, who is beautiful, has access to money, and has never done a day's work in her life. Unfortunately she's a coke-head, which leads, as always to trouble.

I am not a believer in the need for characters to 'grow', and I'm especially not keen on analysts who talk about a character's arc, and all that shit. But Paddy does grow, and develop, before your very eyes, and that's just fine, the way Mina does it. Paddy is a consistently interesting and convincing character.

Much recommended, but start with the first in the series.

This book ends, by the way, with a cliff-hanger which will make you gasp. But fear not. Number three in the series is available.

Very nicely designed by Bantam: royal octavo, set in 12/16 pt Garamond.

Peter Robinson: The Summer That Never Was

Of the three authors whose books are reviewed in this post, Peter Robinson is the one who has written the most books and has had the greatest amount of commercial success and critical recognition. (The Summer That Never Was made the New York Times bestseller list.) The fact that I like him the least of the three is neither here nor there: simply a matter of personal taste.

Robinson's series character is Inspector Banks, a British policeman of the old school. He has now, by my count, featured in 18 books, published over a twenty-year period. The Summer That Never Was first appeared in 2003, sixteenth in the series.

This is a long book, featuring parallel investigations into the disappearance of two teenage boys, forty or so years apart. Both investigations are headed up by women police officers, with Banks assisting each, either formally or informally.

This is a long book (489 pages), and in addition to hearing a lot about the investigations we also learn a great deal about the characters and backstories of Banks, his former lover Annie, and the woman he fancies now, Michelle. This is all well observed stuff, well written, thoughtful, literate, and cultured.

Why then am I not wildly enthusiastic? Well, for my taste the style is curiously old-fashioned, with a slightly plodding pace. The book feels as if it could have been written thirty years ago. But if it had been, the publisher would have wanted a book only half the length.

The cover quotes a blurb about how Banks is for those who miss Inspector Morse. But to my mind this book is not like Morse at all. It's more like Alan Hunter's books about Chief Superintendent Gently (1955 onwards); or W.J. Burley's books (1968 onwards), about Inspector Wycliffe.

But... Robinson is a big seller, so obviously lots of people find this very acceptable.

L.C. Tyler: The Herring Seller's Apprentice

Very stylish; very English; amusing, dry, clever, tricksy, draws on the best of the detective novel's past, and is clearly the work of a man who has read widely in the genre. He also has that old-fashioned virtue, much overlooked these days, namely a command of the language.

This is a Macmillan New Writing publication. The cover, painted by Mark Thomas, is excellent, and sets the tone nicely, as does the novel's subtitle: A gripping tale of murder, deceit and chocolate.

The two principal characters here are a writer (Ethelred) and his agent (Elsie). The latter is a forthright, plainspoken lady, who is described as 'very honest' in her assessment of her clients' work: on page 6, for example, she states that Ethelred's latest manuscript is 'crap'. When asked to be more specific, she says, 'dog's crap'. But Ethelred seems used to it.

Between them, these two look into the disappearance and death of Ethelred's former wife. And that's all you need to know, really.

In tone, this reminds me somewhat of the great and much-missed Colin Watson; and ditto Joyce Porter and her Inspector Dover. I have to confess (or boast) that I saw the Big Surprise coming; but then I am a deviously minded sod, with some experience of writing these things myself. And the ending of this book, like much else in it, is capable of more than one interpretation. So, as I said at the beginning, tricksy stuff. Keep your wits about you while you smile.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Catch-up reviews

The pile of books which deserve a mention on this blog is getting worryingly large, so let's try to reduce it a bit.

Rupert Everett: Red Carpets and Other Banana Skins

Rupert Everett, act-or of this parish, has written a couple of novels (at least one of which, he tells us, was a roman a clef) but Red Carpets is his autobiography. So far, one might add, since he is not that old (born 1959).

I call him an act-or because to my mind he belongs firmly within that group of theatrical personalities (theatrical even if they never appear in the theatre) who are known in some English circles as luvvies. Luvvy is a slightly unkind term, implying an excessive friendly and self-obsessed, pretentious approach to life. Every so often Private Eye runs a column giving quotes from such slebs.

My memory tells me, and a Google search confirms, that the UK publisher (Little, Brown) paid an awful lot of money for this book (£1 million, reportedly), and succeeded in selling only a modest number of copies (15,000, according to BookInfo.Net).

All of that being so, I wasn't expecting a great deal from Red Carpets, and it therefore came as a pleasant surprise. My first note says: 'Why did this not sell? It's a bit too good really, isn't it? Actually it is a lot too good. Classy in the extreme.'

You can see very easily how some editor might fall in love with this book, and bet the farm on it. Unfortunately, sales don't depend upon what editors and I think about things: it's all down to the punters, who, by and large, prefer Jordan (think big knockers).

Everett takes us through most major stages of his life. He was brought up as a Catholic (or Roman Catholic, as John Betjeman used to insist on it being phrased), and educated at Ampleforth, a well known English school. Thereafter he went into acting, and in his time has co-starred with the likes of Sharon Stone and Julia Roberts.

All in all, Mr Everett has had a fascinating life. Though essentially gay (he describes himself as queer, which is an old-fashioned English version of gay), he has had affairs with some beautiful women. His deepest love, however, seems to have been reserved for his dog, Mo. His account of Mo's death is carefully observed: he has the true writer's disease of being highly observant, even when distressed, high, or drunk.

The key to the whole thing is that Everett can write. No hint of a ghost writer here, take my word for it. [Later note. Actually, don't do any such thing. Madame Arcati tells me that the book was ghosted by Justine Picardie. Well, someone can sure as hell write, and the ghost has done one hell of a job.] His portraits of the likes of Paula Yates and Fred Hughes are full of insights, and movingly written.

Overall, Red Carpets is thoroughly recommended, but it helps if you're (a) English, (b) deeply interested in show business, and (c) tolerant of the gay world and luvvies in general.

Thanks to Martin Rundkvist for recommending this book. I should have had more faith in his judgement.

By the way, before I forget. Rupert E will shortly be seen in the new film version of St Trinians. He plays -- oh, but you've guessed -- the headmistress. Now this, I have to see. My guess is that the ghost of Alastair Sim is stirring uneasily.

Judith Martin: No Vulgar Hotel

Judith Martin is much better known as Miss Manners, under which name she advises Americans on how to behave. In her private life, however, she is more than a little taken with the city of Venice. This book is subtitled 'The desire and pursuit of Venice', and it is both a valuable guide for visitors and for those who want to go several steps further and actually live in the city.

And, er, that's about it really. The book will make an ideal present for anyone who is about to go to Venice, or, having been there, talks longingly about going back one day soon. Though not encyoplaedic in format, No Vulgar Hotel certainly constitutes an encyclopaedia of information about what is perhaps the most glamorous, romantic and compelling of all cities.

It's worth noting, in passing, that, in the Renaissance, Venice was the publishing capital of the world, with some 1,500 presses. The greatest of Venetian publishers was Aldus Manutius, who not only invented italic type but also pocket editions and -- best of all -- the rejection letter.

Venice can also lay claim, I think, to having invented the concept of Intellectual Property. The patent system originated there in the fourteenth century, and Marcus Antonius Coccius received the first known copyright in 1486.

The publisher, W.W. Norton, clearly didn't expect this book to sell in significant numbers, because it is not particularly well presented and the illustrations are not well reproduced.

Hugleikur Dagsson: Is This Supposed To Be Funny?

Yes, is the answer. And is it? Yes, in places.

HD is the most famous cartoonist in Iceland, though on the evidence given here he can barely draw more than stick figures. What he can do is think up utterly outrageous, shocking, and sometimes disgusting things for his stick men and women to do and say.

Is This is HD's second book, and his first led the UK's downmarket Sun newspaper to declare firmly: 'Ban this sick book'. Which should constitute a warning to anyone. The Sun points out that the first book has become a cult classic in Iceland, 'where during the winter there are only three hours of sunlight each day'. As if that explains the phenomenon.

Samples? Oh, all right then. If you insist. Daddy figure to child figure: 'Put broken glass in Mummy's food and I'll give you a pony.' Also: female figure arising from bed, with male figure still in bed: 'Our sex life is like a box of chocolates -- my fingers are brown and sticky after we're done.'

This would possibly be a suitable present for a young person of a crude frame of mind. But take a look at the book before buying.

Terry Pratchett: Making Money

And finally, Mr Pratchett.

Mr P's new book didn't get much of a fanfare. But then it doesn't need a fanfare, does it? All it needs is to appear in the shops, and thousands of people buy it. In the most recent week for which there are figures, Making Money sold 37,425 copies, easily taking it into the number one slot.

Making Money is, as you would expect, a Discworld novel: either the 31st or the 35th, depending on who's counting and what you include. Anyway, the point is that, if you have never read a Discworld novel, this is not the best place to start. Start at the beginning and work your way through the lot.

Those who are already familiar with the Discworld will know what to expect, and will meet a whole host of old friends. Even before you get into the story, however, you will note, no doubt, that the book is handsomely printed and typeset (11.75 on 15 pt Minion, which is eminently readable; although there are those who say that the kerning is a bit tight, particularly after full stops, and I can see their point). You will also note that Mr P has taken to giving us old-fashioned chapter headings, in which the contents of the chapter are briefly encapsulated; as if one actually needed an incentive to read on.

As for plot -- well, Mr P must be psychic, or have a very good crystal ball. Why? Because the story is all about banking, and what it is that causes us to have faith in banks, and what causes runs on banks; and all like that. The timing could not be more apposite, because within the last few weeks the UK banking system has undergone precisely that kind of crisis of faith.

As usual, the book is very funny. But it is, of course, an English form of humour. We learn, for instance, that the ruler of Ankh-Morpork once had an ancestor who had people torn apart by wild tortoises; it was not a quick death.

The book is much more than funny, of course. It is, in places, touching and sad; and, in a note on page 334, I described it as beautiful.

Now that's a funny word to use about a Discworld novel isn't it? Beautiful. Do you think that after all these many decades of reading, and all these many thousands of books, do you think that I might be going... Well... you know... a little bit... peculiar?

Monday, October 08, 2007

We have lift-off

So to speak. My computer now works, and should be better than it was before, though I am not making a final judgement until it has been running a few days. However, I should be able to post things here as usual, beginning tomorrow.

The backlog of emails, however, will take rather longer to cope with, so if you are expecting a reply please bear with me.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Free speech is all very well, but...

The little man who labours away in the back room of the computer shop tells me that, come Monday, he may be in a position to sew my right arm back on (metaphorically speaking). So who knows -- next week normal service on this blog might even be resumed.

In the meantime, here's something for you to think about.

We have often noted here, you and I, that the libel laws of England provide wonderful cover for those who have something to hide: R. Maxwell being a splendid (and helpfully dead) example. All you need is lots of money to pay the lawyers. And over the past few weeks we have occasionally noted that billionaire Sheikh Khalid bin Mahfouz has used said libel laws to force Cambridge University Press to pulp all copies of a book which said things about him that he didn't like (see, for instance, the post of 1 September).

You might have thought, were you not fully briefed on these matters, and deeply cynical, that the UK newspapers would have brought their readers fully up to speed on this issue, since it involves (doesn't it?) the principle of free speech: a principle in which you might have thought, were you not fully briefed et cetera et cetera, the UK newspapers had a deep interest.

But no. It turns out that, as usual, money doesn't just talk; it screams its bloody head off. What is more, it gets its way.

The fearless UK fortnightly Private Eye at least has the balls to tell readers what is happening. As of the time when the Eye went to press, the lawyers who protect the UK media against their own excesses have ensured that every mention of the Sheikh in question has been deleted.

The Observer, says the Eye, was all set to run a piece on Mahfouz by Nik Cohen, but the lawyers spiked it. The Spectator was going to do a piece by Brendan O'Neill, which listed all the titles that Mahfouz has succeeded in getting pulped. O'Neill' s essay concluded that Mahfouz is 'almost single-handedly determining what we Brits may read and hear about contemporary terrorism.' But, again, the story never appeared.