Thursday, September 30, 2004

Ulysses in Nighttown

My brief mention of James Joyce’s Ulysses on Monday reminded me that I possessed, hidden somewhere deep in a file or cupboard, a theatre programme dating from 1958. And, with a little digging, I found it.

The theatrical production which the programme describes was entitled Ulysses in Nighttown, and it was, as the name suggests, a stage adaptation of Ulysses – or at any rate parts of it, chiefly the section set in Nighttown.

The particular production of the play which I saw was mounted at the Rooftop Theatre in Greenwich Village, and it opened on 5 June 1958. I must have seen it soon after that.

Ulysses in Nighttown was conceived, the programme tells us, by Burgess Meredith, who was a well known actor from the 1930s on but subsequently became much more famous (e.g. as the trainer in Rocky and as Penguin, the arch enemy of Batman). The play was, however, ‘dramatised and transposed’ by Marjorie Barkentin. ‘Transposed’, I suppose, because the Nighttown sequence of Ulysses is already in dramatic form. And ‘dramatised’ because the play version begins, like the book, in the Martello tower. (I was in the very room only last summer, I’ll have you know, and I have a James Joyce mug for my coffee to prove it.) The play ended (as I recall), with part of Molly Bloom’s soliloquy. But there was also, again if my memory does not deceive me, a final coda, perhaps transported from earlier in the text, in which Leopold Bloom sees his dead son Rudi, and calls out his name, in distress.

Why have I kept this programme? Because I have never seen any theatrical production which matched this one, that’s why. OK, so I was young and relatively easily impressed. But you have to admit that this was one hell of a show. I live in hope of seeing something more impressive before I die, but things are not looking hopeful.

Why was Ulysses in Nighttown so memorable? Well, apart from the obvious fact that it was based on one of the most durable novels of the twentieth century, one key factor was that it starred Zero Mostel as Bloom.

Now Zero Mostel was never a Henry Fonda or Jimmy Stewart type movie star, but he was, I venture to suggest, a connoisseur’s actor. He won three Tonys for three Broadway shows in a row, so he knew how to do the job. And he seemed to me then, as now, a natural for Bloom. Whom he made, of course, funny. (Not that Mostel had to distort anything to do that, because Ulysses is full of humour.) It turns out that Mostel won an Obie for this particular performance, and no one can be surprised at that.

Subsequent performances of this play do not seem to have been plentiful. The original production came to London in about 1959 or 1960, when it did not set the town on fire, and it was revived on Broadway in 1974, again with Mostel in the lead and Burgess Meredith directing. There was also an Irish production at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin in 1990. And, er, that seems to be about it.

No doubt one of the reasons why the play is seldom performed is that it calls for a large cast. My programme lists 16 performers, who between them play 62 named characters. Far too many, in other words, for most producers today. A cast list of more than about five scares the poor devils to death.

It was this theatrical experience which encouraged me to spend a bit more time reading Ulysses than I had done up to that point – though I was certainly well aware of Joyce and had been somewhat stunned by picking up a copy of Finnegans Wake. And the main purpose of this post is to encourage you to have a look at the book, if you have not done so already.

Ulysses is quite unlike any other novel of my acquaintance in that it is probably not a good thing (in my opinion) to start at the beginning and read through to the end. A passing acquaintance with the structure of the book will provide a little illumination, and after that the best plan, I believe, is to dip into it at random.

You could do a great deal worse than to start by reading the Nighttown episode. In my Penguin edition, which runs to some 700 pages in total, Nighttown begins on page 425, and you can recognise it because the text is set out as if it was a play script. Which, of course, it is.

Now -- who says I don't appreciate literary fiction? It just has to be good, that's all. And I mean genuinely good, not just good according to the professors of English literature.

Wednesday, September 29, 2004

W.G. Sebald: Austerlitz

Austerlitz, by W.G. Sebald, is certainly the strangest book that I have read for some time. It was recommended to me by a friend, otherwise I would probably not have come across it.

Sebald, who was killed in a car accident in 2001, was born in Germany in 1944 – a significant year in that he was too young to know anything about the second world war at first hand, but grew up to know many German people, not least his father, who had been fully involved in it.

Soon after graduating from Freiburg University he came to England, where he became a university lecturer. In due course he was appointed as a Professor at the University of East Anglia. His academic career and private life are fully discussed in an obituary which was published in the Guardian, so I will not attempt to summarise them here.

The author, incidentally, was reluctant to refer to his narratives as ‘novels’. He seems to have invented a new literary form, which was part novel, part memoir and part travelogue, often involving the experiences of one ‘W.G. Sebald’, a German writer long settled in East Anglia.

Austerlitz is unusual in a number of ways. The actual layout of the text is markedly different from that of most novels: there are only 25 widely spaced lines to the page. There are no paragraphs anywhere in the book, and no chapters in the usual sense; there are only a handful of inverted commas for speech. And there are quite a number of photographs dispersed through the text, photographs which Sebald seems to have taken himself.

As for what the book is about: well, no brief account is going to do the work any sort of justice; you will just have to try it and see if it appeals to you. But basically this book is about the life of Jacques Austerlitz, born in 1939, sent to England, and placed with foster parents in Wales. Eventually he becomes an architectural historian, and in his retirement he begins to explore what happened to him more than fifty years earlier. This exploration inevitably reveals much about Sebald's attitude to European history in general and German history in particular.

All Sebald’s work, both in fiction and in academic life, seems to have been related to the German reluctance (as Sebald saw it) to come to terms with the events which occurred in the time of the Third Reich. As such, Sebald’s output, both ‘fictional’ and academic, undoubtedly has a lasting significance. Its importance was recognised during his lifetime by a number of awards.

But will you actually enjoy Austerlitz? I can only say that it did not grip me as I hoped it might. It is, after all, a literary work, and my blind spots in that area are well known. At all stages of my reading, however, I was conscious that I was in the presence of someone who knew exactly what he wanted to do, and how to do it. Austerlitz would, I suspect, repay a more careful reading than I felt able to give it.

Tuesday, September 28, 2004

Final thoughts on randomness


Here’s an encouraging thought. Actually, I jest. Or rather, I ironise. Because this thought is not encouraging at all; it’s potentially depressing.

In his book Fooled by Randomness (about which I have been posting for some time, hence the number twenty attached to this initial pensée of the day), Nassim Nicholas Taleb tells us that purely rational behaviour on the part of humans can arise from a genetic defect in the amygdala, which blocks the emotions of attachment. This means that the subject is, literally, a psychopath.

Taleb does not give us any figures for the proportion of all rational actions which arise from this defect, and in the nature of things such figures are impossible to obtain; but, from the examples he gives, I certainly get the impression that, in his judgement, truly rational thinking without such a defect in the amygdala is rare.

Taleb goes on to say that a common characteristic of emotional humans, as opposed to psychopaths, is that they tend to be married to ideas. For example, an academic who has become famous for holding a particular view of, say, history, is not going to change his opinion any too readily, because he has invested many years in propagating that view – and since it has made him famous he is rather attached to it.

Consider the unfortunate implications of this for writing and publishing. A psychopath is, I suspect, incapable of writing a novel. A writer is therefore, pretty much by definition, an emotional and hence relatively irrational creature. She will, moreover, have invested a vast amount of time and energy in creating her novel.

Not only has our posited writer made an irrational decision in the first place (i.e. the decision to write a novel), but she is more than likely married to the idea that it is a pretty damn good novel (the view which she expresses in public), if not actually the greatest work of literature that the world has ever seen (which is her private view).

This situation, I was going to say, could have unfortunate consequences. But we don’t have to say ‘could’, do we? Because the evidence that this combination of circumstances has unfortunate consequences is all around us: in the shape of bitterly disappointed and frustrated writers. And we all know a few of those, don’t we?


Taleb tells us that he starts every meeting with his colleagues by convincing all those present that they (himself included) are a bunch of idiots who know nothing and are mistake prone, but that they happen to be endowed with the rare privilege of knowing what they are.

I recommend this procedure to the chairmen of the acquisition committees of every major publishing house.


Henry de Montherlant was an aristocratic French writer. When told that he was about to lose his eyesight to a degenerative disease (a disease which strikes at random), he decided to take his own life.

Taleb makes the point that, faced with the effects of randomness, you always have a choice – even if it is an extremely difficult and painful choice. There is always something you can do. It may be something small, or something extreme, such as committing suicide; but there is always a choice which can influence or deflect, to some extent, the ravages of chance.

In the end, of course, chance (randomness) will always have the last word. But, says Taleb, we are left with dignity as a solution.

Stoicism, says Taleb, means following the dignified path. And a stoic is a person who combines the qualities of wisdom, upright dealing, and courage.

Well, I persist in holding the view that a truly wise person would not get involved in the writing and publishing business in the first place. But, given that we are unwise, emotional, irrational creatures, it is inevitable that many of us will become so involved. And a writer’s only defences against the workings of randomness in our chosen madhouse are dignity and courage.

Do your best on your execution day, advises Taleb. Shave carefully (or substitute an equivalent female activity). Try to leave a good impression on the death squad. When, diagnosed with cancer, try not to play victim; hide the information from others. And try not to blame others for your fate, even when they deserve blame.

I’m sure that you are quite capable of working out the writing/publishing equivalents of this strategy for yourselves.

Monday, September 27, 2004

The novel and false teeth

Let's get one thing clear before we start the week.

I am getting just the tiniest bit weary of seeing novelists praised to the skies in the newspapers as if they were quite exceptional human beings on the Churchill/Mandela scale. Tain't so.

A novel is not a big deal. It's just something you buy to read on the plane or the beach, or before you go to sleep at night. With a bit of luck it might turn out to be something that you can recommend to a friend. With a bit more luck, you might read, every once in a while, a novel that you will remember all your life -- much as you might remember a special meal, or a visit to a museum.

Neither do I subscribe to the view that a 'good' novel can only be written by a full-time writer. Ian Fleming, P.D. James, and James Patterson all managed to write successful books while holding down senior positions in journalism, the civil service, and advertising respectively.

And, if you want to consider authors in less commercial genres, I have to say that there is nothing in Ulysses (a novel which I admire) that could not have been written by a well-read and thoughtful man making good use of his spare time. Furthermore, if James Joyce had had a proper job to do, instead of bumming round Europe on other people's money, he might have given us a follow-up which was a bit more rewarding than Finnegans Wake.

True, writing a novel requires a good deal of skill and experience. But so does fitting a set of dentures. And on the whole, I venture to suggest, a satisfactory set of false teeth are a great deal more use to you than the best novel ever written.

A competent dentist, therefore, is worth more to society at large than any number of D.H. Lawrences. In fact, in the particular case of Lawrence, the ratio is about 1 to 112.

Friday, September 24, 2004

Akme's autumn offensive

Andrew Malcolm has sent me a link to what he calls the Akme autumn offensive, and, as usual, the web site makes for an interesting read.

Back in the mists of time, Oxford University Press managed to upset Andrew Malcolm pretty severely. He sent them a work of philosophy which, in the eyes of some eminent judges, was perfectly sensible and worthy of publication. At first OUP said that they would publish it. Then they said they wouldn't, and told him to push off.

Many writers have experienced a similar disappointment. I was once in New York to see a publisher who had happily agreed to publish a crime novel of mine. I rang up on a Tuesday to make an appointment to see the editor, and when I arrived for my appointment on the Wednesday morning she told me that she had just been made redundant. ('They are letting me go,' she said. Which I had to have translated.) The book never appeared. Well it did, but not under that publisher's imprint.

Faced with such an event, most of us just swallow our feelings, or go out and get drunk or whatever. But Andrew Malcolm decided that he just wasn't going to take this shit without fighting back. Ever since, he has been exposing the foolishness and follies of Oxford University Press, and its parent University, at every opportunity. And believe me, opportunities come thick and fast.

The immediate subject of Andrew's autumn offensive is the University's (probably illegal) reluctance to publish proper accounts, and to make them available to the public at a reasonable cost. This is not something which will interest many writers. However, if you have any writing ambitions or experience (and whatever your nationality), you would be well advised to explore the Akme web site in some detail. It requires patience, and ideally you need some prior understanding of the book trade. But there are many valuable pieces of information to be found there.

To give just one example: if you scroll down towards the bottom of the first page, you will find a link to an interesting account of how HarperCollins's (US) practice of dividing the income from foreign sales has been successfully challenged. Like all publishers, HC took the major slice for themselves and threw a few crumbs in the authors' direction.

Further down the page, you can find a link to the 'Akme law library', which is described as 'a unique resource for all authors'. And for once the word unique is, I think, justified. I do not know of its equal. It constitutes an extremely valuable service to writers, and it is free.

And there is much more. But you will have to take your time and devote a little effort to the search, because there's an awful lot there.

I admire Mr Malcolm's energy.

More on Da Vinci

Only last week I pointed out that the central plot element of Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code is not an original idea. (Not that Brown, to my knowledge, ever claimed that it was.) The novel asks us to believe that Jesus Christ fathered a child by Mary Magdalene. In my post of 17 September, I pointed out that this idea is to be found in The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail (1982, originally) by Michael Baigent et al. And probably in lots of other places as well, I said, dating back centuries.

And today, book2book provides a link to Publishing News which reveals that Baigent and his co-authors are considering suing Brown for 'breach of copyright of ideas and research'. So you see, if you want to stay ahead of the news, all you have to do is read the GOB.

Personally, I reckon that the chances of Baigent et al succeeding are close to zero. As I said in my first post, I suspect that the Jesus/Mary bit is as old as the hills. My guess is that Dan Brown's lawyer will be able to demonstrate beyond a shadow of a doubt that the idea of Jesus having a child by this woman first appears in written form in the work of Dionysius Exiguus (known to his friends as Short-arsed Denis).

Short-arsed Denis was the clown who fucked up the calendar by getting his dates wrong. So it turns out that Jesus was actually born in 4 or 5 BC, give or take a bit. (See The Calendar by David Ewing Duncan for details.)

What is more, my guess is that Dan Brown's lawyer, not being any sort of slouch, will be able to demonstrate, beyond a peradventure, possibly by producing Methuselah as a witness, that the idea of Jesus being a dad goes back further still, to about 32 AD (depending on whether you believe Denis or not). What happened was, see, there were these two blokes in a pub in Jerusalem:
1st bloke: 'Ere, you know this Jesus of Nazareth....

2nd bloke: Yeah, what about 'im?

1st bloke: Do you reckon 'e's gay?

2nd bloke: Nah. No chance.

1st bloke: But 'e's got these twelve very close mates.

2nd bloke: Yeah, but that's all a cover-up.

1st bloke: Is it?

2nd bloke: Yeah. There's this bird, see, oo's no better than
she ought to be....
Like I say, if you want to stay ahead of the news, read the GOB. Just so long as the news you are interested in dates from 32 AD, or thereabouts.

Later note: Actually, it would not be Methuselah who was called as a witness. It would be Ahasuerus, aka the Wandering Jew.

Thursday, September 23, 2004

Almost last thoughts on randomness


In chapter 10 of Fooled by Randomness, Nassim Nicholas Taleb asks us to consider a room full of professional actors waiting to be auditioned for a part. One of them will get the part. But they are all professional actors, otherwise they wouldn’t be there. What will determine the producer’s choice?

Well, as Taleb points out, it could be some silly detail. It might be, for instance, that the guy just 'looks right'; or it could be that the producer had fallen in love the previous day with a person of a similar-sounding last name. In other words, the choice is random. And yet this choice could mean all the difference between an actor being a member of the cast of a smash hit (and acquiring all the fame and fortune which then follows) and the actor continuing to be a waiter in a coffee shop.

Substitute a room full of manuscripts by hopeful authors, for the room full of actors, and you begin to see the point. I hope.

And I have to ask, as I have asked before, and will go on asking at the risk of being boring – is this a business in which sensible people would wish to be involved? It compares very badly, for instance, with hairdressing and selling secondhand cars. In both of those occupations, a reasonable degree of success can be pretty well guaranteed to anyone with minimum aptitude and the knack of turning up for work on time. It ain’t nearly so random, in other words.


In the information age, says Taleb, winners tend to win big. Take for example, Microsoft. Is the Windows software the ‘best’? You don’t have to go far to discover that plenty of people don’t think so. In fact, phrases such as ‘heap of crap’ have been known to creep into some of the conversations that I’ve had. But is it the biggest success? Oh yes.

Success, however achieved, leads to more and more success; and, provided the product is tolerably professional and acceptable, quality over and above a certain basic level is not much of a factor. So the big-selling books get bigger. And bigger and bigger. And everybody else starves. And IT AIN’T FAIR!!

But what, exactly, can you do about it? Well you can stay out of the book business, for one.

Taleb, remember, is a writer himself. It has dawned on him, by page 167, that the bi-polarity which he describes is affecting him personally. Either everybody wants your book or nobody does, and they won’t even return your phone calls. But writers should bear in mind, he says, the nonlinear effect behind success in anything. ‘It is better to have a handful of enthusiastic advocates than hordes of people who appreciate your work – better to be loved by a dozen than liked by the hundreds.’

This has, I suggest, profound implications. Because today you can publish your work in ebook form, if nowhere else. And, in theory, you can find your dozen passionate advocates from all over the world. All you have to do is (a) write an absolutely staggering book, and (b) find those twelve people who are going to be knocked absolutely sideways by it and act as your publicity agents. Shouldn’t be too difficult.

Final thought from chapter 10: ‘Too much success is the enemy (think of the punishment meted out to the rich and famous), too much failure is demoralising.’ Taleb says he would like the option of having neither. And so say all of us.


Why are writers so resistant to reality? Why do they fail to see the blindingly obvious, and beat their heads against brick walls to the advantage of no one except possibly those who sell bandages and soothing ointment?

Well, you’ll be relieved to know that writers are not just thicker than everyone else. Taleb points to the evidence that human beings are not wired to make rational decisions; we are wired to make decisions based on emotion. Which explains much.

Even the mighty Taleb has his limitations. He reached a turning point in his career, he says, when he realised that he was not intelligent enough, nor strong enough, to even try to fight his emotions. But he is intelligent enough – just – to know that he is rather emotional by nature. He therefore finds it best not to read things – such as criticisms of his work – which will upset him.

Unless the author of a statement, such as a book review, has extremely high qualifications, the statement will be more revealing of its author than of the work which he is reviewing. So you can forget about reading any rejection letters or ‘suggestions for improvement’, since most authors of such missives have absolutely zero track record in knowing what they’re talking about. Furthermore, reading what they have to say will only annoy the shit out of you. (Technically this is called Wittgenstein’s ruler, by the way.)

Final thoughts on randomness next week.

Wednesday, September 22, 2004

Publishers' memoirs

Yesterday, while looking through some notes for a lecture on publishing, I came across a bibliography which I prepared for the students and which lists a couple of publishers’ memoirs. Both, I think, are worth a brief mention.

First on the list is Diana Athill’s book Stet. The subtitle is ‘An editor’s life’, and the kind of editing referred to is, of course, book editing.

Stet has been described as a chronicle of a vanished age, an account of the time before the conglomerates took over, when it was still possible to run a publishing company from one rented room with your ideals of literary quality intact. As such, the book is certainly not a reliable guide to present circumstances, but I found it interesting nonetheless.

Diana Athill is a single lady, now retired, and she spent most of her working life at André Deutsch, a firm which has long since been absorbed into a conglomerate. Run by its founder of the same name, Deutsch was for a while a successful middle-rank publisher in the UK and Diana Athill worked closely with some famous names such as V.S. Naipaul and Jean Rhys. The firm also published a longish list of distinguished American writers, among them Norman Mailer, Philip Roth, and John Updike.

Stet has much to say which is of value to writers, and it is mercifully short. The author had a complicated personal life, and she wrote other books which provide an account of that. Incidentally, she was clearly a lady with firm views on punctuation, and some of her own is a bit unusual. But since she is consistent we must assume that her practice is deliberate.

In her text, Diana mentions a memoir by a former colleague, Jeremy Lewis, entitled Kindred Spirits. She tells us that this memoir describes exactly what it was like to work for a British publisher in the days when publishing was still an occupation for gentlemen, and indeed it does.

Kindred Spirits reveals that Jeremy Lewis was, by his own admission, uncomfortable and not very successful in pretty well every job he ever had in the book trade (outside of freelance work). As a result there was a pattern to his working life which was repeated several times.

First he would get a job with a publisher or an agent. Then he would find, after a time, that he didn’t like the job and wasn’t much good at it. And then he would begin to take longer and longer lunches. Eventually the directors would call him into the board room and say, ‘Now look here, Jeremy old chap, we feel that things aren’t really working out terribly well.’ And Jeremy would say, ‘No, no, I’m afraid you’re right.’ And then he would resign, to great sighs of relief all round.

Later that day he would go to a pub where publishing folk gathered and let it be known that he was leaving his present post. And someone would tell him that they had heard that Clapham and Irons had a vacancy in marketing. So Jeremy would wander round to see a pal of his in Clapham and Irons (because everyone knows everyone in UK publishing), and he would let this chap know that he was available. And a bit later on the pal would wander into his boss’s office and say, ‘By the way, I think I’ve found someone for that job in marketing.’ And so the cycle would begin again.

Late in life, Jeremy Lewis seemed to find his vocation as a writer rather than a publishing employee. He has written biographies of Cyril Connolly and Tobias Smollett; and, if internet references are to be believed, he is the literary editor of The Oldie.

The story I like best in Kindred Spirits is one that Jeremy tells about his fellow memoirist, Diana Athill. One gets the impression, from Diana’s own book, that she came from a rather posh family. Daddy, one imagines, was probably a retired Colonel, and Mummy probably chaired the county council and kept the natives in order. At weekends, Diana would probably go home and walk the dogs on the family estate. This, however, is not quite the way it was.

One Friday, Jeremy found himself needing to deliver a ms to Diana. So he rang her up to establish a convenient time to call. Diana told him that she was just leaving the office, but she would be in London over the weekend, and she gave him an address where he could find her.

On Saturday morning, Jeremy set off to hand over the ms. As he turned into the road where she was supposed to be found, Jeremy began to suspect that he had made a mistake in writing down the address. And when he reached the house with the right number, he was convinced of it. However, just to check, he rang the doorbell.

The beat of very loud West Indian music could be heard emanating from the house, and he had to wait some time for an answer. But eventually the door was opened by a very large black gentleman in a shirt which was almost as loud as the music. The smell of most unEnglish food, plus a whiff of exotic cheroots, filled the air. Jeremy nervously stated his business, and the black gentleman told him to wait.

After a pause Diana appeared at the door. She was wearing a very short miniskirt and a blonde wig.

‘Oh, hello, Jeremy!’ she said brightly. And then she took the ms from his hand and went back inside.

Update on supermarkets

Following yesterday's post about supermarkets and publishers, I had an email from Felicity Lawrence. She tells me that everything that I described has already happened. She has heard all the publishers' arguments and excuses that I listed, and so have her published friends. Authors, she says, are the new whingeing farmers!

Well yes. I can only agree with that. The point I wanted to make was that, since the abolition of the Net Book Agreement, booksellers have been selling books at 'bargain' prices. In order to maintain their own profit margins, they have been demanding (and getting) larger discounts from publishers. And the publishers, in turn, have been steadily reducing their payments to the weakest participants in the whole book trade, namely the writers.

I am convinced that this process will continue, and I just want all you as-yet-unpublished writers out there to know what joys of authorship await you.

Tuesday, September 21, 2004

Felicity Lawrence: Not on the Label

Not on the Label is a first-class piece of reportage by any standards. The author, Felicity Lawrence, is consumer affairs correspondent for the Guardian, and her subject is the food industry.

There are two aspects of Lawrence's book which call for comment. One comment concerns food, and the other concerns the book trade.

The subtitle of Lawrence’s book is ‘What really goes into the food on your plate’. And when you find out, you will wonder why you bothered to eat that last meal. Indeed you will wonder what permanent harm the meal did to your central nervous system. The overall message of the research in this book is conveyed in one sentence on page 207: ‘We are being fed junk, and it is making us sick.’ And she's not talking about high-street fast food here -- she's talking about standard supermarket fare.

If you care about your health, and that of your children, not to mention the fate of the third world, UK farmers, small businessmen, and other groups which are being wiped out by the food manufacturers and retailers, then you should read this book.

Now for the implications, for the book trade, of what Felicity Lawrence’s Not on the Label tells us.

The message which comes across loud and clear is not a new one. For forty years I have been hearing stories from businessmen of how, when you start to supply a big high-street chain (whether with food, clothes, shoes, or anything else), everything is rosy at first. You just cannot believe your luck to have landed such an important customer. And then, of course, the customer increases his orders until you are running like hell, just to keep up, and your factory is working overtime. And then they cut what they pay you. And cut it again. And again. And again. And your old customers aren’t interested any more because they’ve made other arrangements. So you’re stuck. You are no longer your own boss. You’re working for a slave driver, at slave rates.

Lawrence demonstrates how this has happened in the food industry. Take the farmers, for instance. Fifty years ago, 50p to 60p in every pound which was spent on food and drink in the UK went to the farmers. Today they get 9p.

Page after page repeats the same story. ‘You’d agree a price at the beginning of the season,’ says one apple grower, ‘then the week after it would be cut, then it would be cut again.’

And then the supermarkets demand that the suppliers should pay them for the privilege of selling goods in their stores. One supermarket told a major dairy co-operative that they would have to pay £1 million, up front, before negotiations on listing its milk could begin.

What has this to do with my novel, I hear you ask.

Well, my friends, your novel is now being sold in supermarkets. And if it isn’t, your time on the publisher’s list is likely to be limited. And what you can be quite certain of is that the supermarkets are going to get even nastier with the book publishers than they have been already. They will drive down the price that they pay for books. And then they will drive it down again, and again, and again. Just as they do with food.

The publishers will dodge and squirm and complain, but in the end they will just have to take it. And they in turn will cut costs. They will start using printers in Thailand. And they will use cheaper paper, cruder covers, and so on. But at the beginning of the day, never mind the end of it, they will pass on the bulk of the pain to the weakest party in their side of the negotiations. This is to say the writers.

The writers will be told that times are hard, and that they are just going to have to accept a much lower level of payment for books sold in supermarkets. In most contracts there is already provision for the publisher to make ‘special deals’ in which the writer receives only 10% (or less) of the sum received, rather than a normal royalty. This can mean a payment per book of perhaps 2p -- as opposed to, say, the 7.5% royalty on a paperback at £6.99, which is roughly 50p.

Writers who complain will be told to think of the great benefits to their reputation which arise when 50,000 copies of their book are sold through Tescos. ‘It will result in higher hardback sales for your next one,’ the publisher will say. If you believe that you will believe that Santa Claus will buy the film rights as well.

It won’t end there. Before long (if it hasn’t happened already), publishers will have to pay for the privilege of having their books made visible, instead of being buried under a heap. And then you, the writer, will be asked to pay the publisher to give your book some prominence in his next negotiation with the supermarket. That’s if you’re lucky. If you’re not lucky you will just see a deduction on your next royalty statement.

But already I can hear mutterings of disbelief. Nah, you are saying. Couldn’t possibly happen. The people who work for my publisher are awfully nice. Very friendly. They wouldn’t treat me like that.

But that’s part of the problem, you see. Publishing people are indeed ‘nice’. Which means that they are wholly unfitted, by temperament and training, for the cut-throat, hard-nosed commercial environment in which they now find themselves. The supermarket buyers are going to eat them alive.

Monday, September 20, 2004

Getting your short story into print

Last Saturday’s Financial Times magazine carried an article by Jan Dalley (the paper’s literary editor) on the ‘renewed status’ of the short story as ‘a bastion of serious literature and unbridled creativity.’

That phrase ‘serious literature’ should have been enough to put me off, but I did actually read the article. It took the form of a review of William Trevor’s latest volume of short stories, plus a couple of other books, and included an interview with Trevor. You can find this piece on the web but you have to register to read the thing and frankly I wouldn’t bother; I happen to have read the paper version and in any case I will tell you about the only interesting bits.

The article makes mention of a conference on the short story which took place recently at Charleston in Sussex, the former home of Bloomsbury artists Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant. Charleston is an interesting place to visit if you’re in the area, and my wife’s cousin’s husband’s aunt was the cook/housekeeper there during the Bell/Grant era. I saw the advance programme for the short-story conference and it looked as if it would include one or two interesting sessions, but it was too far away for me to make the trip.

Anyway, the conference demonstrated (apparently) ‘how varied and vigorous the [short story] form now is.’ Personally I would have thought that the form was always varied and vigorous, pretty much from the start of time, but never mind, that’s just me being argumentative as usual.

The main point of Dalley’s article, if I read it correctly, is that the short story has for some time been viewed as a second-best medium to the novel, which is where the real action is, but that the short form is undergoing a renaissance. The Arts Council, it seems, is now supporting such get-togethers as the Charleston affair.

Well, personally I would have thought that Arts Council support was the kiss of death for anything, but once again that’s just me.

Dalley does, however, make one sensible point, which is that, unless you’re a big name like Trevor, there really isn’t anywhere to publish short stories, at least if you’re hoping to get paid for it and to make some sort of name for yourself.

Oh yes, there are masses of small magazines, some of which do actually pay a fee. (If you want to get a feeling for the number and variety of these, read a magazine called The Fix.) But the point at which Dalley’s article loses touch with reality, I feel, is in the failure to give any idea of the difficulty of getting a short story published anywhere, even in a non-paying magazine, because of the sheer volume of competition.

The big boys attract huge numbers of submissions. The New Yorker, which is probably the most prestigious short-story market in the world, is reportedly sent 2000 unsolicited short stories every week, and I doubt whether, in a year, it publishes more than one or two of these.

The Paris Review is another highly prestigious journal, and I want to make a number of points about it in the earnest hope that what I have to say might be of value to young writers who are still hoping to make some sort of mark on the world.

If you read even superficially about the short story as an ‘art form’, so called, you will pretty soon discover that the Paris Review is talked of and thought of as the place to get published. If you can say that you had a piece in the PR last month, you will widely be thought of as someone to be reckoned with.

Let us just examine that concept for a moment. The Paris Review is a quarterly magazine with a circulation of about 10,000. (In June this year Maud Newton interviewed the new editor.) Have you ever seen a copy of the PR? I can’t remember doing so myself, and if I did it was in a university library. Have you ever met anybody who subscribes to it? I certainly haven’t. Have you heard, even third hand, of someone who eagerly awaits the next issue because it’s a cracking good read? I very much doubt whether you have.

So, we have the bizarre situation that a very obscure magazine, with an extremely modest circulation, is thought of as being the place to get published. And because of that, the magazine receives somewhere between 15,000 and 20,000 unsolicited submissions a year (a number which, please note, is approximately double the number of subscribers to the magazine).

Let us assume that there are 18,000 submissions a year, which is 1,500 a month or about 400 a week, i.e. 75 or 80 a day. That’s 75 big fat envelopes dropping on to someone’s desk, every day of the week. Consider, if you will, the sheer labour of opening these, connecting them up with the enclosed return envelope (if there is one), and then attempting to sort out the amazingly brilliant from the oh-my-god.

Could you do this job? I couldn’t. I would go nuts. (The Maud Newton interview, by the way, reveals that those who do read them are often mfa students. If that doesn’t put you off, it should. Mfa = Master of Fine Arts = people who are deluded enough to think that a one-year postgraduate course in creative writing will turn them into the next John Updike or whoever. Worse, they are people who actually want to be the next John Updike.)

How many stories do you think the PR publishes in each edition? The contents list of the current edition lists four names. That’s 16 stories a year. Out of 18,000. So the hit rate is 1 in 1,000, or thereabouts.

Do you have any confidence whatever that the 1 story in 1,000 which is selected is, in any sense at all, the ‘best’ story in those 1,000? I don’t, and neither does Maud Newton.

Why would you bother submitting yourself to trial by lottery in this way? It is, as I may have remarked before, a process characterised by randomness. Is there not some better way to proceed?

Well yes. There are several ways. For example, you can publish your stories in book form, as I did myself last year. (King Albert’s Words of Advice.)

You can post them on the web, through a site such as Fictionette.

And you could publish them on a blog; e.g. the incomparable

Almost any of these methods, it seems to me, would be a more sensible way to proceed than posting stuff off to the Paris Review.

Friday, September 17, 2004

Da Veni, Da Vidi, Da Vinci

You can hardly open a newspaper these days without reading another article about The Da Vinci code by, er, Dan Brown. Had to think there for a minute, because the name didn't exactly spring to mind.

Now here's a funny thing. Well, actually it's not funny, but it's just about worth reporting. I read this book about six months ago (it was published in the UK in March 2003) and I thought it was an OK sort of a novel. If you're on a plane or the beach, that is. I read all the way through it without experiencing an urge to heave it into a far corner of the room and piss on it, as Stephen King is wont to say.

But the funny thing is this. This morning I find yet another reference to the work on book2book, whom the gods preserve, and I realised that I couldn't remember a damn thing about the plot. Not a thing! What's it about, I asked myself. And the answer was, well, it's about the Mona Lisa, I think. Which was painted by, er, Whatsisname. And it's in the, er, the Louvre, innit? And the plot revolves around, um, some sort of code. And the protagonist is, lemme see -- well it's either a bloke or a woman. One of the two.

So, at least as far as I'm concerned, The Da Vinci Code is not exactly memorable. For me it lasted about as long as a Chinese meal.

One thing I do remember, sort of, is that the Roman Catholic Church is kind of covering things up. Well, if truth be told I don't actually remember that from Dan Brown's book. It's something I know because that's more or less standard operating procedure in the RC church, isn't it? Sorry if that offends all you good RC folk out there, but that is sure the way it looks from here.

Anyway, the b2b bit reminds me that The Da Vinci Code alleges that Jesus Christ fathered a child by Mary Magdalene. Which is not an original idea. It is to be found in The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail (1996) by Michael Baigent et al. And probably in lots of other places as well, dating back centuries.

It now turns out that this idea is so offensive to Christians in Lebanon that they have ordered the book to be pulled from the shelves of local bookshops. The end result of this futile effort will, of course, be a flood of free publicity for a book which is otherwise totally forgettable. With enemies like these, Brown and his publishers don't need any highly paid p.r. persons.

Thursday, September 16, 2004

Guardian angel

My attention has been drawn (I can truthfully say) to a mention of this blog by William Boot, in the Bookseller for 3 September.

Mr Boot maintains that I am not as grumpy as he is. He alleges that I am no more than ‘mildly cynical’. Ha! Well we’ll see about that. Boot obviously didn’t read the post a few months ago in which I said that (a) I wasn’t going to bother reading the Bookseller any longer, and (b) I didn’t think that anything which appeared in the Bookseller was worth a bent halfpenny of anybody’s money. If he had read that he might have taken a different view.

However, Mr Boot’s jibe, justified or not, has prompted me to try to be a bit more grumpy in future, since I wouldn’t want to disappoint my readers. So I will start by referring to a matter which, once upon a time (before I learnt wisdom), would have had me jumping up and down with fury.

I have long maintained that, from the modern publisher’s point of view, the ideal writer is a 29-year-old woman who looks drop-dead gorgeous in a black mini-skirt and writes a column for the Guardian. Such a creature, I have stated publicly, and more than once, could get a contract to write a novel on the strength of an outline sketched out on two sheets of paper. Widely spaced.

The fact that a gorgeous young woman with columnar experience knows absolutely nothing about writing fiction would, I have long maintained, prove to have no bearing whatever on the situation. Fiction editors are capable of endless folly, and any one of them would be prepared to cough up the traditional six figures – before the decimal point – in return for the promise of a novel from such a divine and dazzling creature.

Why so? Well, because the young woman in question would, by definition, be someone who (a) can be photographed in Vogue and similar media without embarrassment, (b) can hold her own with Richard and Judy, and (c) has an address book of media contacts an inch and a half thick, most of them being people she has either slept with, or supplied coke to, or both, and who owe her one.

And guess what. Last week produced a press release which more or less proves my point. With one or two minor variations.

Nicholas Clee, in one of his periodic surveys of the book trade, tells us that HarperCollins have paid a six-figure sterling advance to Guardian journalist Jonathan Freedland, who is to write a thriller. Publishing News tells us that the editor concerned is Jane Johnson. The deal was done on the basis of a ‘partial manuscript’, which presumably means a bit more than a two-page outline. Possibly three pages plus the back of an envelope, I would guess. And the agent, of course, was Jonny Geller. (My dears, there is just nobody else.) The book will be entitled The Righteous Men, and will be published under the pseudonym Sam Bourne.

Of course, Mr Freedland does not quite fit the ideal template for a publisher's wet dream. He originates from the Guardian, which is a good start, but his age is not stated, and he is a bloke, so the mini-skirt thing is presumably out. On the other hand he might be a bit of a cross-dresser, and for six figures who wouldn’t be? And the inch-and-a-half-thick contacts book he will certainly have.

Mr Freedand is doubtless a man of many virtues, who regularly helps old ladies to cross the road, and the editor at HarperCollins is, equally doubtless, a legend in the publishing world. Nevertheless, I am bound to enquire whether there is anyone out there in the blogosphere who can possibly explain to me how this deal between the two of them, and Geller, can possibly be justified.

Consider how this arrangement would look in other contexts. If Freedland were to put forward a bid to design a new building, for example, in competition with experienced architects, would he not be expected to have some kind of qualifications? He would be asked, would he not, to detail such previous experience in designing buildings that he might have had? And if he had not even so much as a garden shed wherewith to demonstrate his skills, would he not be shown the door in pretty short order?

But in publishing, apparently, considerations of this sort do not enter anyone’s mind. Freedland uses words in his day job, and a novel is just words strung together, isn’t it? Sure it is. So it’s more of the same, right?

Wrong, actually. But I can’t really be bothered to work up a head of steam. I just can’t be arsed. I really would like to be thoroughly grumpy about this deal, because it fully deserves it, by my heart isn’t in it.

No, I will just sit here and watch, and let you know from time to time how this (to me) absurd project is progressing.

This isn’t the first time this sort of thing has happened, and it won’t be the last. A few years ago, I recall, there was a former publishing executive called Robyn Sisman. She also decided to write a novel, without having previously done so, and on the basis of a chapter or two she was given the inevitable six-figure contract. Robyn Sisman's only qualification for the job, so far as I could see, was that she was on first-name, let's-do-lunch terms with all the key decision-makers in publishing, and with many media people.

In interviews, Ms Sisman was later frank enough to admit that she had found the task of writing a novel to be a bit trickier than she had imagined (it looks so easy, doesn't it?). And when the book, Special Relationship, finally appeared, it proved to be less than stunning. It received, of coure, acres of press coverage, but not all the reviews were by friends, and not all of them were friendly. The book ‘never even resembles a nail-biter,’ said one. ‘Just too tame,’ said another.

I do have to feel a little sorry for book editors in the current climate, a climate of cut-throat competition for which they find themselves totally unfitted. They know full well that unless they come up with a constant stream of big sellers their career will go down the tube. But they haven't the foggiest idea, poor bewildered souls, how to find these books.

So they try to manufacture them. A celebrity biography one month, a controversial book on politics the next (but not too controversial of course; steer clear of the Saudis); and they commission a good solid journalist to write a novel in the month after that. Some of these cunning wheezes succeed, and some of them don't.

I stil haven't managed to be really grumpy -- I just haven't got the energy this morning -- but I will close by making the point that any editor with a brain between her ears could do better than commission a novel from an untried talent. There are plenty of experienced writers around (such as the modest author of this blog, for instance) who would be prepared to write her a professional piece of work for a lot less than six figures. They are precisely the sort of people, in fact, who have been dumped from publishers’ lists in considerable numbers over the past few years. But, give them the kind of publicity budget which inevitably accompanies a six-figure advance, and who knows what they might achieve.

Wednesday, September 15, 2004

Even more thoughts on randomness

You probably thought that we were through with thoughts prompted by Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s extraordinary book Fooled by Randomness. But you’re wrong. Here's some more.


Taleb expresses, very sensibly in my view, a preference for distilled thought over newer thinking. Thought distilled, that is, by the passage of time. If an idea has survived for a good many years, say a few centuries, it is likely that it is a relatively good idea; noise, so to speak, has been filtered out; the idea has been tested and not found wanting.

After making this point, Taleb goes on to argue that, by contrast with distilled thought, the information which the modern media provides, in an unending stream, is not just (generally) diverting and useless, but it is also toxic. And he recommends that anyone involved in decision-making under conditions of uncertainty should ensure that he or she has minimal exposure to the media which pump out this unending stream of trivia. Instead, they should concentrate on ideas and information which have withstood the test of time.

Now. It is beyond doubt that publishing editors who have to select books for publication are decision-makers (either individually or collectively) who are operating under conditions of uncertainty. What could be more uncertain than the actual reception, by public and critics, of that much-hyped masterpiece about which even its author may have a few secret doubts? And who can possibly be certain about that sure-fire winner which has been persuasively put forward by the chairman’s wife because it was written by her nephew's girlfriend?

Question. How many of such decision-making editors do you think actually observe Taleb’s dictum, and seek consciously to isolate themselves from the constant flow of media babble? And how many do you think adopt the reverse policy, and consciously and deliberately immerse themselves in the latest best-seller lists, the witty repartee on Richard and Judy, and even – heh heh heh – the occasional blog?

Is it any wonder that the book trade experiences a few problems?


Consider the lot of the as-yet-unpublished writer. And there are an awful lot of them whose lot we ought to consider.

An as-yet-unpublished writer is forced, of necessity, to submit her work to agents, because publishers won't look at a ms from any other source. The chances of being noticed by an agent are possibly 1 in 500. I have a note in the file of a Curtis Brown person – possibly the amazing Geller – who was sent 1200 unsolicited mss in one year, and took on 2 new clients. The last time I had lunch with Al Zuckerman he told me that he was being sent, on average, 35 novels a day.

It follows, as dogs follow a bitch in season, that an as-yet-unpublished writer is going to receive an awful lot of rejection slips. If she’s lucky. If she’s not lucky the ms will get lost. Or held on to for 15 months. And this experience is not going to fill the writer with positive emotions. On the contrary, she is pretty soon going to feel bitter, angry, and frustrated. She will, ere long, come to recognise the truth, namely that success in this game is not determined by talent, hard work, good looks, or even knowing the right people (though all might help a bit). No, what determines success (initially in the sense of an agent being willing to talk to you) is the random working of a factor which some call luck, chance, fate, happenstance, or whatever.

And after a while, the contemplation of this randomness will generate a kind of emotional burnout, a corrosion of the soul, when the writer realises that she has expended a vast amount of time and effort to no good purpose. That publishing, in short, is ‘not fair’.

Taleb points out that highly negative experiences (of which the rejection of one's novel is a prime example) have an effect on the mind and body which exceeds (by an estimated magnitude of 2.5) the positive effect of a good experience. So, if, after 15 submissions, our writer actually gets an agent to give her the time of day (which is in itself most unlikely and indicates nothing in particular) then our writer will still be left in emotional deficit.

And this is not a trivial matter. The first sentence of my book The Truth about Writing declares that ‘Writing can seriously damage your health.’ Which I firmly believe to be true. And Taleb reminds us that:
People in lab coats have examined some scary properties of this type of negative pangs on the neural system (the usual expected effect: High blood pressure; the less expected: Chronic stress leads to memory loss, lessening of brain plasticity, and brain damage).
Still wannabe a writer? If so, don’t say I didn’t warn you about the potential hazards.


My own conclusion, after reading Taleb, is that the wise writer is one who assumes, from the outset, that the end result of his work will be complete failure in every respect. Because that is the most likely outcome.

It so happens that, more as a result of many years of bad experiences than through any sensible thinking on my part, I pretty much came round to that point of view about ten years ago. And believe me, it was much to my advantage that I did so.

For example. About four years ago I came home from a holiday to find about six messages on my answerphone from a theatre producer in New York. She had read a copy of my play Artists and Models, and she had read 200 other scripts, looking for something suitable to produce, and mine was the best. By far.

In tones of increasing anxiety, over the six or seven calls, the producer begged me to contact her. It was important. Time was of the essence. She wanted to put on my play in September. (It was then August.) There was a slot. She had been auditioning the cast. Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

Now, had I been 25 years old, or even 45, I might well have rejoiced somewhat. I might have assumed, not unreasonably, that this was my lucky day.

As it was, hardened by exposure to years of randomness, I more or less shrugged my shoulders. I have learnt, the hard way, that the only time to believe anything about a theatrical production is when you’re in the car, on the way home, after seeing it.

So, I got in touch with the New York lady, and had a few conversations with her. But no, of course it never happened.

Another example. Two years ago I published a novel through my own small press. I faxed every film producer in town, asking if they wanted to read the novel, and the detailed film treatment which I had also completed. Four or five producers asked me to send both novel and treatment. After receiving my package, two of the producers replied promptly, indicating that they were very enthusiastic. One of them phoned me several times.

Did I, ladies and gentlemen, open the bottle of champagne which sits under the stairs? No, sir and madam, I did not. Because I knew very well, after many years of experience in the business, that enthusiasm and kind words come cheap. Film options, on the other hand, even modest ones, cost money, and they require the initial enthusiast to convince his partners.

Nothing happened. Of course. I didn’t expect it to. But it was worth a try.


Taleb points out that, at the age of 16, he was dumb enough to buy Manhattan Transfer, by John Dos Passos, because the jacket revealed that Jean-Paul Sartre had claimed that Dos Passos was ‘the greatest writer of our time.’

Sartre, suggests Taleb, may not have been entirely sober at the time.

But there is another explanation, which those more familiar with publishing will already have thought of. Namely that Sartre and Dos Passos shared the same publisher. An editor had probably phoned Jean-Paul and asked for a quote. And Jean-Paul had probably said, Yeah, yeah. Anything, so long as I don’t actually have to read the fucking thing.

This is what Taleb calls survivorship bias. And it is visible, in the publishing world, in terms of reviews. The reviews that survive, i.e. get quoted in publicity, are the good reviews. Sometimes it’s just a few words, such as ‘an excellent thriller’. The actual review probably read: ‘Clapham and Irons claim that this is an excellent thriller. They must be joking.’



Just so’s you don’t misunderstand me, or Taleb.

Taleb insists that he is not saying that every rich man is an idiot who just got lucky, and that every unsuccessful person is just unlucky. He is only saying that, in the absence of much additional information, it is safer to reserve one’s judgement about the causes of success and failure. Randomness, in the absence of other evidence, is the most convincing explanation of any particular instance.

So, in relation to publishing:

I am convinced that, for as-yet-unpublished writers, success, however defined, is the result of randomness. The writing and publishing whirligig is, if you will, a lottery.

But of course, to win the lottery you have first to buy a ticket. And the price of the ticket in writing/publishing is that you should first have produced a publishable book, which is capable of impressing at least somebody. Which is not at all an easy thing to do. There are many cases on record of writers who have written three or four novels before they produced one which even they thought was up to scratch.

The problem is, of course, that producing a publishable book is not sufficient, in and of itself, to get you an agent. If you have an agent, being publishable is not sufficient, in and of itself, to get you a contract. If you ever appear in print, it is not sufficient to get you reviewed, favourably or otherwise; and it is certainly not sufficient to ensure that you will receive the kind of word-of-mouth buzz which, in the absence of a massive publicity budget, is the only thing which is going to achieve lift-off.

What happens after success is achieved is, of course, subject to a phenomenon called hindsight bias. In retrospect, it seems perfectly obvious that Harry Potter should be an enormous success. It’s just that no one was able to see this when it was just a pile of paper. To that extent, therefore, all success for as-yet-unpublished writers is the result of randomness.

And, since randomness is not something which you can influence, all writers should learn to be relaxed about the situation.

Ah! If only they could!

Tuesday, September 14, 2004

Nothing new

One more bit from the Oxford Book of Literary Anecdotes, and then we’re done.

I have recently been sent a government leaflet, telling me what to do in an emergency – such as, presumably, a terrorist attack. I have, of course, read, marked, learnt, and inwardly digested this leaflet, and so now I know exactly what I shall do when the siren sounds. I shall panic, like everybody else.

It is reassuring, however, to know that the current public alarm about atrocities of one sort and another is not new. A hundred years ago the dreaded word was ‘anarchist’. The anarchists were in the habit of throwing bombs about, for no better reason, it seems, than to create anarchy.

The public conception of the anarchist was of someone with a soft dark hat, a flowing cloak, and a spreading necktie. And one day Edmund Gosse happened to find himself on a crowded omnibus when he came across William Michael Rossetti, together with the latter’s daughter.

Rossetti was dressed very much in the manner which might arouse suspicion of violent intent, and so Gosse said to him, in a jocular manner, ‘I understand you are an anarchist.’

‘I must differentiate,’ said Rossetti, in an exceptionally loud voice. ‘I am an atheist: my daughter is an anarchist.’

At the next stop, the bus rapidly emptied.

The death of Shelley

The Oxford Book of Literary Anecdotes is a collection of extracts from books. The extracts generally illustrate some amusing or revealing aspect of a writer’s character.

The book contains the original versions of many familiar stories – familiar, that is, if you had an old-fashioned education.

There is, for example, Coleridge’s 1797 account of how, feeling slightly unwell, he fell asleep in his chair. When he awoke he found that his head was filled with what seemed to be a long but complete poem on the theme of Kubla Khan.

Rushing to his desk, he began to scribble out the poem. However, he had only reached a certain point when he was interrupted by the doorbell. It was the famous ‘visitor from Porlock’, who detained him on business matters for the best part of an hour. And when Coleridge finally got rid of the unwelcome caller, he found that the remainder of the poem had entirely vanished from his memory.

Anecdotes also gives us the text of a letter from Thomas Carlyle to his brother, in 1835. This sets out in some detail the appalling story of how Carlyle lent the manuscript of the first volume of his book French Revolution to John Stuart Mill. The latter had unwisely left this pile of paper in a position where it could be mistaken for waste, and an industrious maid had used it to light a fire! Only four sheets remained.

Poor Carlyle had lost five months' work, and there was nothing for it but to sit down and write the whole of the first volume again. (Note for younger readers: In those days they didn’t have word processors, you see, so there was no backup copy.)

The story in the Anecdotes which I found the most interesting was, however, E.J. Trelawney’s account of the death of Shelley in 1822. In that year, Trelawney, Shelley, Byron, and some other friends were summering in Italy. Shelley and a companion went out sailing in a small boat, a violent storm blew up, and both men were drowned.

After more than a week, two bodies were washed up on the shore. The face and hands of the first were by now fleshless, but from the possessions in the pockets Trelawney was able to tell that the body was undoubtedly that of Shelley.

Trelawney arranged for the body to be burnt on the beach. Byron could not watch, and swam out to his own boat. But Trelawney remained as a witness.

In due course the body of the famous poet fell apart in the intense heat of the fire. The brain of Shelley ‘literally seethed, bubbled, and boiled as in a cauldron, for a very long time.’

Oddly enough, the heart remained entire, and Trelawney impulsively snatched it from the fire, severely burning himself in the process.

Trelawney’s account occupies no more than four pages. But it is a remarkably detailed and vivid account, full of telling and graphic detail. Those nineteenth-century guys really knew how to write, and Trelawney was evidently prepared to risk being accused of writing material which was in very poor taste; he preferred to be truthful.

I am not the only one to have been impressed by Trelawney’s account. Tennessee Williams, in his play Camino Real, features a number of characters from history and fiction, including Byron, Casanova, Kilroy (he who was here), and La Dame aux Camelias. Byron has a soliloquy in which he recounts, with evident horror, the story about the brain of Shelley. Though as Byron, in real life, didn’t have the stomach to witness the scene, this is actually a bit of dramatic licence on Williams's part.

Monday, September 13, 2004

Ken McClure: Wildcard

According to the cover of Wildcard, Ken McClure is (or has been) a research scientist with the Medical Research Council of Great Britain. Until 2000 that was a full-time job, so goodness knows where he found the time to write, but one way or another he has produced a dozen or so medical thrillers.

The plot of Wildcard revolves around an outbreak of infection in the UK which is caused by a bug similar to the Ebola virus. Lots of people die very quickly. The protagonist, of course, has the job of tracking down the source of this virus and wiping it out.

This is an excellent thriller, and the main reason for mentioning it here, apart from the obvious purpose of pointing out a good read, is to contrast this author’s technique with that of Henry Porter, whose Remembrance Day I reviewed last week. McClure gives us a bit less than 100,000 words, though it feels shorter, whereas the Porter novel runs to about 150,000 words, and it feels a lot longer.

In other words, Wildcard is tighter, more focused, and faster paced.

Point made, I hope. If you’re in the thriller business, edit. Better still, plan the thing to be concise from the beginning.

Sunday, September 12, 2004

Long weekend

You may have noticed -- well of course you did -- that there were no posts on Thursday or Friday last week.

The explanation is simple. After several days of being sulky, Blogger flatly refused to talk to me on Wednesday. I tried to post a couple of things, without success. Though today, Sunday, I note that they have suddenly appeared! Go figure. And then on the other days Mrs GOB and I had grandchildren duties, which I would have warned you about if given the chance.

Let us hope that all goes smoothly from now on. Everybody seems to love the new Blogger. And I do too. When the bloody thing works.

Wednesday, September 08, 2004

The right attitude

In The Times on Monday last, Elmore Leonard was quoted as follows:
I got into crime because I knew it could sell. And that’s my purpose, to write as well as I can and to sell and make money.
Now that’s what I like to hear from a writer. There’s none of your arty-farty, airy-fairy, half-witted, feeble-minded, cretinous, childish and immature nonsense about ‘expressing himself’ from Elmore Leonard, please notice.

Perhaps the National Academy of Writing (see 1 September) should invite Elmore to give a seminar or two. Very possibly he has already done a similar stint at the University of Iowa.

And no, madam, this Elmore is not the same chap who recorded ‘Dust My Broom’. This is a different Elmore entirely. Yes it is an unusual name, I grant you, but take my word for it, this Elmore does not play the guitar. At least not professionally. He just writes. Rather well, and rather successfully. And who knows, his success may even be related to the fact that he has the right attitude.

Henry Porter: Remembrance Day

I have previously mentioned, with firm approval, two other thrillers by Henry Porter (A Spy's Life, 23 August, and Empire State, 23 July). Remembrance Day is actually the first in the series, dating from 1999, and it is a cracking good book.

You don't need to know very much, except that, if you normally enjoy thrillers, and you want a book for the plane or the beach, this is a sound bet. It is particularly remarkable given that it was the author's first novel, though he is a highly experienced and indeed distinguished journalist.

I have only a couple of criticisms, neither of them fatal. First, the book is, of course, far too long. This almost goes without saying, because it is virtually the norm these days. One can of course skip, which is what I did, and there are quite long sections where you can follow the plot perfectly well by reading 20% of the text.

Secondly, the book would be more effective, I feel, if it had fewer principal characters. In this respect Mr Porter could learn something from Youngman Carter (mentioned here on 6 September).

Overall, a shorter, tighter book would, in my view, be even more effective than the present work.

Incidentally, Mr Porter is sufficiently clued up on technological matters to have described in his plot, in 1999, a mechanism for setting off bombs which was used earlier this year by the real-life Madrid bombers.

Tuesday, September 07, 2004

Yet more thoughts on randomness

Yet more thoughts on randomness – thoughts inspired by Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s book, Fooled by Randomness. (See also, if you have not read them already, my posts of 20, 23, and 27 August.)


Taleb makes the point that some people (typically mathematicians and scientists) are capable of the most complex calculations, carried out with the utmost rigour, in relation to equations. But these same people are totally incapable of solving a problem with the smallest connection to reality.

This reminds me very much of the situation of many writers. They are quite capable, it seems, of writing a 100,000 word novel, to which they have devoted several hundred hours of effort. It may well be an immaculately written novel, correctly spelt, beautifully punctuated, and full of poetic language and noble ideas.

But does it bear any relation to what the market wants?

Not usually, because for most as-yet-unpublished writers ‘what the market wants’ is a sordid and disgusting concept with which the writer resolutely declines to engage.

And does our as-yet-unpublished writer have the foggiest clue about how the present-day publishing industry actually works?

Certainly not. There is no need for that (in the opinion of as-yet-unpublished writers) because a novel which is a masterpiece (naturally – they all are) will immediately be recognised for what it is.

Won’t it?


The stove is hot.

Taleb remarks that children learn from their mistakes. Perhaps it is the only way in which they can learn. Children will refrain from touching a hot ‘stove’ – or radiator, or whatever – only after they have actually touched it and suffered pain. Telling them not to touch it will just not work.

Exactly the same situation applies to writers. And if it doesn’t apply to all of them, it certainly applies to a high percentage. They just won't be told.

Bloggers and other experienced hands like me can bang on for ever about how unlikely it is that even an experienced publisher or agent will be able to make an accurate assessment of a novel’s commercial or literary potential (a statement for which there is masses of evidence) – and will point out that submitting a manuscript to publishers and literary agents is a process likely to lead only to high postage costs, long waits, and a deep-seated sense of frustration. But does anyone take any notice? No.

Does the advice offered by old and wise heads effect any reduction in the number of novels being written? Not so’s you would notice.

And does such advice reduce, even to the tiniest degree, the naïve and hopeless optimism exhibited by those who insist on writing novels? Nope. Not even the tiniest bit.

It may be, perhaps, that there is a small army of people who have flirted briefly with the idea of writing a novel, have looked at some of the facts surrounding publishing, and have then decided not to bother.

But somehow I doubt it.


Mr Taleb describes an incident in his own life, when he was working as a Wall-Street trader.

A new man was brought into the firm that Taleb worked for. He was an ex-civil servant, adept at writing reports. This ‘expert’ analysed a large number of the transactions which the foreign-exchange traders in the company had undertaken, and noticed that only about 1% of these transactions generated any significant profit; the rest either resulted in a loss, or a tiny profit which was hardly worth bothering about.

The solution to improving the firm’s overall performance was simple, said the ‘expert’. The traders should just concentrate on making those trades which would result in a decent profit, and not bother with any other transactions.


Of course, exactly the same situation applies in publishing, because publishing, like trading on Wall Street, is a business governed to a large extent by randomness.

I read a story once about HarperCollins (I think it was HC – but it could have been any of the big firms). HC, it is said, called in some consultants to try to improve their efficiency. The consultants went through the accounts and in particular looked at the sales figures for each book. What they found, of course, was that most books did not even recover the cost of publishing them; that was particularly noticeable if you calculated the costs properly, including elements for heating, lighting, staff time and so forth.

Aha! After a comparatively short time those brilliant (and expensive) brains on the consultants’ staff had cracked it. The solution to improving the profits at HC was, they said, to give up publishing all those money-losing books and just publish the books which were going to be popular with the readers.

The staff at HC read this expensive report and scratched their heads for a while. Ah, yes, well, they said. There’s a bit of a problem with that….

Monday, September 06, 2004

Youngman Carter

On 17 August I wrote a piece about the late Margery Allingham, who, along with Agatha Christie and one or two others, can legitimately be referred to as a queen of crime fiction.

In 1966 Allingham died at the relatively young age of 62. She had suffered from cancer, and her published work suggests, I think, that she had been failing for some time. There was no dramatic deterioration, but the last novel which she completed, The Mind Readers, was not well received by the critics, and reads unconvincingly today.

She had, however, intended to continue, and at her death she was halfway through Cargo of Eagles. Not surprisingly, given that detective novels have to be carefully planned, the whole framework of the book was well established, and her husband, Youngman Carter, was able to complete it for her. This was no secret even at the time, and most people were not able to detect any difference in quality between the beginning and the end of the book, though Edmund Crispin claimed that he could ‘see the join’.

After his wife’s death, Youngman Carter announced his decision to continue the series of novels featuring Margery’s famous detective, Albert Campion, and he didn’t waste much time in going about it. In 1969 he published Mr Campion’s Farthing, and in 1970 Mr Campion’s Falcon. And there the series finally did end, because Youngman Carter died of lung cancer.

I had read almost all of Margery Allingham’s novels at some time in the past, before I began the re-reading which I completed earlier this year, but I had never tackled the two books written by her husband. I had assumed that they would be of inferior quality.

Well, t’ain’t so. I have recently obtained secondhand copies of the books in question and they turn out to be very presentable indeed.

Both books feature a McGuffin, which is a term invented, I think, by Alfred Hitchock. A McGuffin is a device or a plot element which catches the reader’s attention and drives the action; it is often of little real significance in itself, but it creates a mission or puzzle which provides the plot interest, and around which the various characters can show their paces. In both of Youngman Carter’s solo books the McGuffin remains mysterious until the end, when it is revealed. And, as is commonly the case with McGuffins, the revelation turns out to be less interesting than the events which preceded it.

I have to say, on the evidence of these two novels, that Youngman Carter was absolutely no sort of slouch. Either he learnt a great deal from his wife, or she learnt from him; or perhaps it was just a perfect working partnership. Either way, Youngman Carter proved that he was a highly entertaining thriller writer.

Both books, incidentally, have the great virtue of being relatively short, at least when compared with the behemoths that we get stuck with these days. Mr Campion's Farthing runs to 191 pages in the Penguin edition, and Mr Campion's Falcon to 196. They are crisp, concise, well structured and characterised, and full of fairly convincing action. And, for true Allingham fans, Farthing features one of those tough, indomitable old ladies who appear so often in the great lady’s work.

Good solid thrillers are not so common that we can afford to neglect those from the past. And although these two were written thirty-five years ago, they stand up pretty well.

Friday, September 03, 2004

Losing the plot

I have been reading The Well of Lost Plots, by Jasper Fforde.

You may remember that, towards the end of last week, I averred that I remained ever optimistic that before long a book would come along about which I could be genuinely and warmly enthusiastic.

Yes. Well. Unfortunately, The Well of Lost Plots isn’t it.

First, for those of you who haven’t been paying attention, a few words about Mr Fforde. He first appeared on the scene in 2001, with a novel entitled The Eyre Affair. This featured a heroine called Thursday Next, and it was set in a cross between a parallel universe and an alternative history of England. The lovely Ms Next functions in a world in which characters from books, such as Jane Eyre from Jane Eyre, can be kidnapped or can perform other useful plot functions of one sort or another; and it was a world in which, for instance, the Crimean War had never ended.

Mr Fforde’s basic idea, that of mixing characters from books with ‘real-life’ action, so to speak, was undoubtedly brilliant. I will leave it to others to debate whether it was wholly original. I suspect not, and in any case it doesn’t really matter. The fact is that this framework is one which is capable of endless development in any number of directions, and it could easily support a series of 20 books all on its own, just as Mr Pratchett’s Discworld does. No wonder Mr Pratchett was quoted as saying, ‘I’ll watch Jasper Fforde nervously!’

Well, as it is, Terry Pratchett has nothing to worry about. Not, at any rate, as yet.

Fforde’s first book attracted a lot of critical attention, as you would expect, because the book was at least clever, and was full of postmodernist literary references which only the highbrow critics could understand. And they, of course, took a great delight in explaining the jokes to us peasants. But I for one was not too impressed with The Eyre Affair.

Neither, it seems, was I alone. One of the Amazon reviews points out that it isn’t really all that wonderful. ‘If this book is so hilarious,’ asks the reader, ‘why didn't I laugh? …Is it part of the joke that the book is written badly by normal criteria?’

Next came Lost in a Good Book, in which Thursday Next battles the sinister Goliath Corporation and tries to save the world from extinction. I skipped that one. And now we have The Well of Lost Plots. And I’m afraid that the title is all too appropriate, because I for one couldn’t figure out what the hell the plot was. I learnt more from the fly-leaf of the novel than I did from the first 40 pages, after which I’m afraid I gave up.

Which is a dreadful shame, because the basic premise has so much promise. And Mr Fforde works so hard. This is his third book in three years, and there is another one just out, Something Rotten. In this latest, Thursday Next teams up with Hamlet, and George Formby turns out to be President-for Life. So you see what I mean about wonderful ideas going to waste. In each book Fforde trundles on for a 100,000 words or so, but in the two that I have read so far the basic narrative skills are neglected and it all becomes stodgy and difficult. If he wrote at half the length and got the material more crisply organised we would all be a lot better off.

My copy of The Well of Lost Plots was borrowed from the Wiltshire library system, and you can see from the date stamps in the front of it how often it has been read. The book was published in July 2003, and the first reader took it out in August. Three more people read it before Christmas. And four more have read it in 2004.

What does that suggest to you? What it suggests to me is that, out here in darkest Wiltshire, we are not sufficiently hip, cool, and with-it to appreciate Mr Fforde. And what is true here may be true elsewhere in the backward provinces as well.

In his official Amazon review Barry Forshaw writes: ‘Word-of-mouth among readers often does more to make an author's name than any publicity campaign. That's certainly the case with Jasper Fforde, and The Well of Lost Plots will be eagerly devoured by his ever-growing coterie of admirers.’ Yeah, well, maybe. But, judging by the library stamps, there ain’t no word of mouth out here in Wiltshire, Barry. Mr Fforde's book has had 8 readers in a year. Compare that with The Da Vinci Code, for which, my librarian tells me, there is a two-year waiting-list.

Well, I suppose we should not give up hope. It is early days yet. A novelist who has written four books is, when all is said and done, still a beginner. Forty years ago a writer at this stage of his career would have been regarded as an apprentice who was showing some signs of making a name for himself one day. It’s only in modern publishing that you’re expected to demonstrate genius on your first time out. (And of course you are supposed to accept cheerfully the fact that you’ll get dumped if you don’t sell a vast number.)

So, Mr Fforde may yet surprise us all. I wish him well.

His web site, incidentally, is unusually clever and inventive, and a lot of fun. I just wish the bloody books were a bit more readable, I really do....

Wednesday, September 01, 2004

Three Queer Lives

My post about City of Night the other day reminded me of another gay book: Three Queer Lives, by Paul Bailey.

‘Queer’, of course, is the word which was, for many decades, used by English people used to describe homosexuals, before gay became the preferred term.

The three lives described in Paul Bailey’s book are those of Fred Barnes, a show-business character; Naomi Jacob, a butch lesbian writer; and Arthur Marshall, who was both a performer and a writer; late in life he became something of a TV personality.

For my part I read Paul Bailey’s book because I wanted to know more about Arthur Marshall. In my youth, I attended a school where Arthur was one of the teachers, and although I had little contact with him personally I can at least say that I knew him.

Even in my schooldays, it was evident that Arthur Marshall was not a personality who would remain a schoolmaster for very long. By 1950 he had already acquired a reputation as a writer of comic sketches which were broadcast on the BBC, and at school he organised a dramatic performance which was entitled ‘Masterpieces’. This was a show which was performed, as the title indicates, entirely by the staff. It was a kind of variety bill, with sketches written by Arthur which succeeded in making every single member of the staff look ridiculous – chiefly, of course, Arthur himself. There were also ‘ballets’ and other foolishness. The boys loved it but the staff, I suspect, were not so keen. There were probably sighs of relief when he left.

Paul Bailey makes it clear that although Arthur Marshall was thoroughly camp, frequently adopting the persona of a mature female headmistress et cetera, he served with some distinction in the second world war. On one occasion, Arthur was in charge of a group of men who came under heavy fire from the enemy. His commanding officer contacted him by radio and asked for a report on the position.

‘Well, sir,’ said Arthur, shouting to make himself heard above the bombardment, ‘I’m afraid the (BOOM) – I’m afraid the Germans are (RAT-A-TAT-TAT) being rather beastly to us, sir.’

On another occasion he was given a desk job, and the officer in charge was one of those military liberals who like to use first names. ‘What’s your name?’ he asked Arthur.

Arthur, who had the initials C.A.B, replied, ‘Cynthia, sir.’


‘Yes, sir.’

‘Bit odd, isn’t it?’

“Well, sir, some chaps are called Evelyn, and some chaps are called Leslie, and I just happen to be called Cynthia.’

‘Hmm,’ said the officer, who was the unimaginative type. So, for several days, whenever the officer needed Arthur, he would bellow out, ‘Cynthia! Get over here, please.’

After a week or so, the officer called Arthur into his office for a private chat. ‘Now look here, er, Cynthia,’ he said. ‘I’m afraid this name of yours is causing a bit of difficulty. The chaps are beginning to snigger, and we can’t have that. Haven’t you got some other name we could use?’

‘Well, sir,’ said Arthur doubtfully, ‘I suppose you could call me Arthur.’

The officer perked up no end. ‘Ah! Jolly good. Arthur it is then.’

There are more stories in a similar vein in Paul Bailey’s book. The Times Lit. Supp. called it ‘Gentle, wise and funny,’ and for once I agree with that august publication.

What I like about Arthur Marshall is that he was always jolly, however adverse the circumstances. It is an admirable frame of mind if you can manage it, but of course very few writers can. They all take the world, and most of all themselves, so goddamned seriously.

All words and no action

Hee hee hee hee hee! Oh dear, excuse me laughing at someone else’s discomfiture, but you just can’t help it sometimes, can you?

A while back, there were grand plans announced for a National Academy of Writing, right here in the good old UK, funnily enough. It was a grandiose scheme, ‘a dedicated writing school set up by internationally renowned writers’, no less. And guess who was in charge? Yup, you got it. Melvin himself. Lord Melvin Bragg, to you, the great panjandrum of cultural TV and a novelist to boot (though I must confess I’ve never read any of them).

The announcement of this enterprise came two years ago, well before the establishment of this blog. The NAW was supposed to be going to run ‘postgraduate courses, glittering literary events and regular writers’ workshops’. (What about workshops for writers who are constipated, I ask myself, but never mind.)

At the time I greeted all this with a sort of ‘Oh yeah? Believe it when I see it’ sort of reaction. And it wasn’t an idea which I supported or in any way thought would succeed.

And now? We have confirmation of what I half suspected would happen – the whole thing seems to have ground to a halt. The Literary Saloon kindly drew my attention to an article in the Birmingham Post which tells us that the great Academy is floundering for lack of funding. There ain’t much happening at all.

Well, the Literary Saloon doesn’t shed any tears over this, and neither do I. Yes, it is possible to teach people some of the basics about writing, and there are books which can be extremely helpful. And an experienced writer or editor can certainly sit down with a writer, on a one-to-one basis, and teach that writer how to improve his work. But the whole business of postgraduate courses and degrees in creative writing is, frankly, ridiculous. And I say that as someone who spent nearly thirty years in higher education, in one capacity or another.

It wouldn’t be so bad if the people who organise and teach these things had their feet on the ground, but they haven’t. They live in some airy-fairy arty-farty parallel universe in which the world is seen as owing writers a living – and a very handsome living at that – so long as they ‘express themselves’.

If you are thinking of spending a year and a substantial amount of money on a creative-writing course, my advice is: Don’t.