Wednesday, March 31, 2004

Dixon's man for Waterstone's

The Bookseller announces that David Gilbert, former head of Dixons group, and before that m.d. of the electrical retail giant Currys, has been appointed as managing director of Waterstone's. He has two degrees in English literature.

Well now, this is just what the UK book trade needs. Isn't it?

I once worked for an American boss, and he insisted that every incoming phone call should be answered within four rings. Do you know what they do at my local Currys? The rule there is that personal customers, actually in the shop, take priority. Answering the phone is left to anyone who's free, and who feels like putting down their cup of coffee to do the job. And, since they are not exactly overstaffed, no one ever is free. So the phone rings.... And rings.... And rings....

Good luck when you next try to contact Waterstone's.

Lawrence Lessig

Lawrence Lessig is a professor of law at Stanford Law School, and founder of Stanford's Center for Internet and Society. He is also one of the Big Names in modern thinking about life, the internet, and everything. Lessig's books include Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace, The Future of Ideas, and now Free Culture. The subtitle of the latest book is 'How big media uses technology and the law to lock down culture and control creativity.' I always thought that media was a plural noun, but we will let that pass and try to concentrate on the ideas, shall we?

Lessig's latest wheeze, of which I heartily approve, is to make an ebook version of Free Culture available at no cost on his web site. So, should you be remotely interested in what this learned man has to say, and most of it is certainly interesting to me, then you can get yourself a free copy. Of course the book is also available in hardback from any decent bookseller.

There is a shortcut which provides a quick guide to Lessig's latest. Lawrence Solum is giving a kind of summary and running critique as he reads his way through the book, and you can follow his argument on his legal theory blog.

None of it is easy going but then it's not obscure either.

Tuesday, March 30, 2004

Remembering names

Don't know about you, but I've got to the age where I find it difficult to remember names. Anyway, there I was, a week or two ago, reading a book called Prey by Michael Crichton. It's a pretty forgettable sort of book (sorry, Michael), but professionally enough done, in a Crichtonish sort of way, and there was one character in it who kind of sounded familiar: Bobby Lembeck.

As I sat there reading the book I would occasionally ask myself why I knew this name. Was it someone who lived next door? A former agent? The tax man? Couldn't quite figure it out.

Eventually I decided that Bobby L was a fictional character. He was probably, I thought, the platoon baby in Mailer's The Naked and the Dead. And since it is about 47 years since I read that book I thought it was pretty damn clever of me to remember.

Today I checked on the internet. And of course I had it slightly wrong. Bobby Lembeck was indeed the platoon baby, a sixteen-year-old kid. But it wasn't in The Naked and the Dead. It was in The Manchurian Candidate, that great and timeless movie masterpiece which you can now get on DVD I believe. And also, of course, don't forget the original Richard Condon novel on which the movie was based. Condon is one of the old masters who seems to have dropped out of view.

But the best news of all is that in doing a Google search for young Bobby I came across the whole script of the movie, available for free! Now is that cool or what?

Monday, March 29, 2004

Alexander Besher, Chi, and the structure of novels

Alexander Besher is the author of Chi, a novel which I found by the simple device of wandering round the library till I came across something that looked interesting. This is not an infallible method, but it has produced some winners in the past: John Lawton and William Smethurst for example (the latter's novels, by the way, not the Archers books).

Chi is a remarkable novel in many ways, absolutely bursting with interesting ideas. Science fiction, of course, so it may not be your thing. It did bring home to me, however, that no matter how talented you are, you do need a certain grounding in technique to write a book which is absolutely going to grip the reader by the balls -- or possibly some other suitable attachment. And Besher, I fear, falls a tad short in that ball-gripping department.

To be precise, there are too many flashbacks for my taste. His time frame goes back and forth at a great rate of knots. Yes, I've used flashbacks myself, and it's always tempting, but really it just slows down the action, at best. At worst, it can put you off completely, as it did in my case with Martin Cruz Smith's last one, Tokyo Station. Never did finish that, though I usually enjoy his stuff.

Then there's the rather confusing array of characters in Chi. Just a few too many of them for my simple taste. Besher would have been better off, in my view, by sticking to three or four main characters, with each chapter being told from the viewpoint of one of them. That is perhaps the ideal structure, if you're interested in doing the job well. Ken Follett's The Key to Rebecca is a model which would repay study.

The trouble is, of course, where does a chap go to get trained in this narrative structure stuff? A new, young, beginning writer that is. An MA course in creative writing? Oh, please, don't make me laugh, I shall loosen me stitches. His editor? No, no, you really must stop. Once upon a time there were editors who understood these things. Marie F. Rodell, for example. And Barbara Norville. But they seem to be an extinct species. Modern fiction editors are too busy reading synopses and doing lunch to have any time to think about structure.

What about a writer's agent? Well, now we're getting somewhere. It's perfectly true that the best books about fiction have been written by agents because they're the people at the sharp end who know what sells and what doesn't. So if you're interested in knowing how to write an effective piece of fiction you could do a lot worse than read Al Zuckerman, Paul F. Reynolds, Scott Meredith, and Malcolm MacCampbell. At least half of whom are out of print, of course, but there's always the secondhand market. Dean Koontz wrote a decent book about popular fiction too. In fact I think he wrote it twice.

I can't help wondering how many copies Chi actually sold. Not a great many, I suspect, at any rate in the UK. And it must have taken a great deal of time. No wonder he seems to have a modest output, and it's just as well that he has other strings to his bow.

Friday, March 26, 2004

Jane Austen wasn't as naive as this

There's been a minor flurry of interest on the web in an article published at by one Jane Austen Doe -- a pseudonymous American writer, apparently female. You can read her tale of woe online for free, but only if you watch an advert first.

In this article, J A Doe tells a not unusual story of how her first book earned her a largish advance ($150,000) but didn't sell very well, and how, thereafter, she found it difficult to find another publisher to take her work. She goes on to complain about how awful publishers are, and what a miserable life it is being a writer.

Well, yes. And then again, no. Some people, of course, would think J A Doe was damn lucky to get $150,000 in the first place.

As for the rest of it.... Well, there are undoubtedly a great number of naive souls out there who think that publishing owes a living to everyone capable of putting a book together. But, whatever impression you may have gained to the contrary, I am not among their number.

For anyone who has been around the writing and publishing business for a few decades, the situation is now perfectly clear. Publishers exist to make money. All the big publishers, with the odd exception, are part of enormous conglomerates which, while not actually being called Enron and WorldCom, might as well be, because they share the same attitudes. The bottom line is all. I don't have any problem with that. My criticism is that most publishers are very bad at making a profit. Many of them are, in short, less than competent.

As a writer, would-be or actual, you mix with these people at your peril. Even with a good agent, you are weak and essentially powerless. Your position vis-a-vis the publisher is far weaker than that of suppliers in relation to supermarkets. And if you've been following the financial pages with even half an eye recently, you will know that said suppliers have a list of complaints about how they are treated which is rather longer than the average arm on an orang-utan. Suppliers complain, just for starters, about such things as slow payment, changes in the terms of a contract after it is signed, and being made to contribute to marketing costs. All of these have parallels in the publisher/writer relationship.

So I'm sorry, J A Doe, but your whole approach strikes me as being a bit dumb. And to anyone else who feels like writing a book, my advice is -- take a long hard look over the wall before you jump.

Thursday, March 25, 2004

Nit-pickers of the world unite

Rob Grant is the man who created Red Dwarf, so it is not surprising that his new novel Incompetence is an amusing read, though I imagine that younger readers would find it funnier than I did. (It's an age thing.) The book is set in the near future, at a time when incompetence has ceased to be a bar to promotion. (Does this sound familiar to those of you who work in publishing?) So, you get airline pilots who can't find the airport to land at, etc. Some of the set pieces go on far too long for my taste, but you can always skip.

However, the point of this post is that the book is tolerably well proof-read (which is a pleasant change) apart from a couple of instances. In one place the author speaks of having to 'diffuse' a nuclear bomb, and in another of wanting to 'diffuse' a situation. For diffuse read defuse.

All of which is, of course, entirely beside the point as far as most readers are concerned. It's just that case-hardened nit-pickers like me can't help noticing these things.

Mind you, I'm not a completely lost cause. I haven't even bought Lynne Truss's famous book yet, much less read it. Although last year I did buy Lapsing into a Comma, by Bill Walsh, who is the style guru at the Washington Post. As you would expect, given the author's background, the suggested usages are mostly American in style, and concern the newspaper world rather than the book world; but it's an interesting read nonetheless.

These days, of course, English kids don't get taught any English. Which wouldn't matter quite so much if they had good examples set before them. But, as Walsh points out, they don't. In the past, readers had professionally edited newspapers, magazines, and books from which to take their cues, and to some extent they would absorb correct usage through their bones, so to speak, like radioactive fallout. (Or is it fall-out?) Today, the poor devils have mostly the internet, which is often the domain of morons and their 'amature' models. And even the Times can't always tell the difference between appraise and apprise. It will end in tears, mark my words.

Yes, I dare say you can find errors and infelicities in the posts on this noble blog. My eyesight is not what it was, and the spell-checker on Blogger seems a bit eccentric; it doesn't even recognise 'blog'. So no prizes for writing in, I'm afraid.

To my distress, Walsh argues that sexism in pronouns can legitimately be avoided by using a plural pronoun with a singular subject, as in 'Every music lover has their own favourite album.' This was Carole Blake's solution in From Pitch to Publication, and I really didn't like it. 'The original publisher,' she says, 'who is no longer actively publishing the book themselves...' No thanks.

For real copy-editing junkies Walsh runs a web site. (I prefer that to website, but I am prepared to listen to argument.) Its title is The Slot, and it has more nit-picking per line than any other site I know of. But it is very American, full of stuff about rigor, and neighbors, and practicing.

Guess what? Having just visited The Slot for the first time in a while, I find that Walsh has a new book out, as of 12 March: The Elephants of Style, subtitled 'A trunkload of tips on the big issues and gray areas of contemporary American usage.'

Wednesday, March 24, 2004

Taleb's tales

Publishers Lunch says that Nassim Nicholas Taleb has a deal for a new book, The Black Swans. Which reminds me that I have long intended to read his first one, Fooled by Randomness. Its subtitle is 'The hidden role of chance in the markets and life.' Sounds to me as if it might be highly relevant to writing and publishing.

The new book 'explores the role of significant unforeseen events... showing how our evolutionary heritage prevents us from understanding modern uncertainty... unless we can embrace a new form of an ancient philosophy -- stoicism.'

So, Nassim, we are all advised to be stoical, are we? Yup, like I say -- highly relevant to writing and publishing.

Franzen follies

The Times yesterday had a two-page interview with Jonathan Franzen. Well, it fills up the space between the adverts, doesn't it?

For those of you who have, mercifully, forgotten, or never knew, Franzen is the author of The Corrections, a novel which was the talk of the town -- in some quarters -- a couple of years ago. The interview reveals, however, that since then poor Mr Franzen has had an absolutely miserable time. All that fame and fortune did not make him happy. No sirree. His wife couldn't stand the fact that he was more successful than she was, and divorced him. And then he just couldn't write any more. You know? Bit like being impotent, I guess. So he's been in therapy. Well, that should fix it all right. Make it permanent, I wouldn't wonder.

Mind you, life wasn't always blissful, even when Franzen was an unknown. His first novel was reviewed by the New York Times in the crime fiction section! Imagine the shame of it! One wonders how he could ever face his friends. A serious, worthy chap like Franzen being mistaken for one of those low-class fellows who write books which people read for fun. You just can't win, can you?

A word of advice to any young authors whose eye may, perchance, fall upon these words. Just don't take yourself too goddam seriously, OK? What we have in Franzen is a writer who doesn't write. When asked by the Times about his next novel he said that he might, perhaps, write some short stories.

Listen, my friends. A writer is someone who produces a couple of books a year. Terry Pratchett, Nora Roberts, Dean Koontz, Josephine Cox. These are people who have a core of fans who have grown to enjoy their work and buy it regularly. And what do these writers get in return for their enormous success? They get sneered at by the literary establishment, that's what.

Well, that can work both ways. Stephen King said that his first impulse on reading The Corrections was to heave it into a far corner of the room and then piss on it. Which is probably the way I would feel if I ever bothered to read the book. Which I am not about to do.

Tuesday, March 23, 2004

Rimington writes

The Sunday Times (which I have only just read) tells us that Stella Rimington, former head of MI5, has written a thriller. Title: At Risk.

Now, there are two possibilities here. One is that Dame Stella has written the book herself, in which case it is unlikely to be much good, and the second is that she has had it written for her.

Why do I say that a book by the Dame herself isn't likely to be much good? Because it takes time to learn how to write a novel, that's why. This is something that publishers used to understand but the modern lot have either forgotten or were too thick to understand in the first place. Thomas H. Uzzell (Narrative Technique, long out of print) used to say that you had to write a million words of fiction before you became much good at it, and he wasn't far wrong. So the chances that the Dame has written a cracker first time out are somewhat thin.

The situation is slightly more promising if she has confined herself to providing the espionage background (which apparently includes detailed recipes for making a bomb) and someone else has done the nitty-gritty. I seem to remember that, in the case of Swan , Naomi Campbell was described as author on the copyright page, and that lady from Piatkus (name escapes me) was listed as Writer. Which is plain enough. That sort of arrangement sometimes works pretty well.

Of course, you may wish to argue that Ian Fleming, another man with real-life experience of the world of espionage, managed to write his own books, and that his first one, Casino Royale, was pretty damn good. And I wouldn't disagree with you. But Fleming, remember, was a first-class journalist, well used to stringing words together in a way which would hold readers to the page. What is more, he knew how to be concise. My early paperback copy of Casino Royale runs to 159 pages -- barely 60,000 words. Rimington's book, which for some reason is listed on Amazon only in its paperback version of 2005, is shown as running to 384 pages. Which suggests that it will be long-winded and dull.

Don't get me wrong. If At Risk turns out to be halfway readable I shan't complain, because there's not much about that is. But somehow I feel a bit... doubtful.

The cover, of course, claims that the book is a 'stunning debut novel'. They always call them stunning, don't they? And sometimes they are. You read the first few pages, and then you slap yourself on the forehead and stagger drunkenly around the room, mumbling 'How the fuck did that ever get published?' Sometimes it takes days to recover.

Monday, March 22, 2004

Henderson's Spear

Just finished reading Henderson’s Spear by Ronald Wright. This is a literate (rather than literary) book by a well read, well educated man who knows how to bolt together a story. I can’t say I read every word, but with judicious skipping I enjoyed it.

But the question that occurs to me now is this: Who is going to write this kind of book in the future? If our wonderfully efficient and effective profit-making big-time publishing companies are really only interested in the immediately exploitable, who is going to bother putting out this sort of a book? No one, I suspect. And who is going to bother to write them? Even in the old days, the only person who could really afford to write a book like this was someone with a private income.

At the end of his novel, Wright provides a list of acknowledgements for help given and a list of sources. Which reminds me. A while back I submitted a novel (Beautiful Lady) to one of the publishing tribe who are thanked by Wright, and had it sent back with the comment that it revealed 'an absence of any research into the WWII period.' The 'subsequent inaccuracies', it was said, made the book unacceptable.

Since I had, as usual, gone to almost obsessive lengths to get my facts right, I wrote back. I pointed out that at the end of my novel I had provided (like Wright) a list of books which were 'particularly useful when researching the period covered by the novel.' As for the 'subsequent inaccuracies', I said, no doubt the editor in question had a list of them, and perhaps he would be kind enough to send me a copy.

I’m still waiting. And such, I'm afraid, are the daily nonsenses with which writers are assailed by publishers.