Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Odds and ends

I have to go to a funeral later this morning so time is short.

Booktrade.info carries an announcement that Lady Colin Campbell has a new book out soon: The Real Diana, to be published by Arcadia Books, 6 December. And yes, it is about that Diana -- the one whose voice can currently be heard on American television, waffling about her infrequent and unsatisfactory sex with Charles, if today's Times is to be believed.

If the new book is anything like that author's The Royal Marriages it should be hot stuff. The Royal Marriages made Kitty Kelley's opus look a bit tame, in my view. Campbell maintained, through various not so subtle hints and nudges, that at least two of the Queen's children were fathered by someone other than her husband. And there was lots more in the same vein.

In The Real Diana Campbell will reveal (or allege, according to your taste) that Diana had an abortion while married to Charles, and had flings with King Juan Carlos of Spain and the Earl of Pembroke. What with that and falling in love with her bodyguard (today's Times again), the girl certainly seems to have got around.

And if you're wondering how Lady Colin Campbell comes to have such an odd name, I can tell you that it's because she married a British aristocrat, Lord Colin Campbell, and takes the name from him. They are now divorced. I can also tell you, though you may not wish to know, that the lady was born in Jamaica with some serious genital malformations (fused labia and deformed clitoris), and was brought up as a boy. Later surgery enabled her to have normal sexual relations as a female, though she cannot have children. Lady Colin has herself told this story in some detail.

The only other thing I have time for today is to point you to an article in the Guardian about the annual English nonsense about 'Books of the Year'. Pretty much every major newspaper and literary magazine invites a team of well-known names to give the titles of their three favourite books of the year. Not surprisingly, this leads to an enormous amount of mutual back-scratching and 'you plug mine and I'll plug yours' type of thing. No one in their right mind takes the slightest notice of it. But the Guardian reveals that the annual pantomime continues because it provides pages of almost free copy! The contributors either get a very modest fee or a bottle of wine. No wonder they use the opportunity to mention their own and their friends' books.

Monday, November 29, 2004

Another one for the optimists

There is a monthly magazine (in the UK) called Book and Magazine Collector; it doesn't seem to have a web presence. For the most part it is aimed at the serious collector, as the title suggests, but I buy a copy occasionally to see who is advertising what. The magazine also includes general articles about the various editions of writers' work, how much they are worth, and the circumstances in which they were produced and published.

Issue no. 250 (Christmas 2004) has an article on a writer called Deborah Lawrenson. Deborah, it seems, published three novels through Heinemann in the 1990s, and then hit a snag with her fourth. The publisher 'found much to praise' but thought that 'the book would be difficult to market'. In other words, as usual in today's hard-nosed commercial world, her first three hadn't sold well enough for the publisher to want to go with the fourth. And rather than trust the author to go on developing and learning her trade, they dumped her. Which is so common an occurrence as to be worth hardly a mention.

However, in this case Deborah decided to publish her book herself. And she seems to have made a success of it. So much so that a couple of other publishers (Bloomsbury and Random House) were prompted to show an interest, and the latter firm will now publish a paperback version of the new book, The Art of Falling, next year.

Well, congratulations to the author, Deborah Lawrenson. She has invested a good deal of time, money, and effort, and won herself a renewed lease of life as a result. So hers is another success story which will be added to the list of self-published authors who have made good.

Should you be remotely thinking of publishing your own book yourself, you may now feel the urge to google the words "self publishing" and see what comes up. When you do that, you will find that there are a multiplicity of firms ready and willing to take your money to provide the relevant services. And, I dare say, most of them will do a reasonable job. Deborah Lawrenson used a company called Matador; judging by its web site, this is a great deal more respectable and responsible than most.

But you won't have to go far in exploring the web sites of these service providers to find an article which assures you that almost every famous writer in the entire history of literature started out by publishing his or her own work. Trafford, for instance, gives us a list including Alexander Dumas, Edgar Allan Poe, and Margaret Atwood. Advocate House reminds us of Mark Twain, James Redfield, and John Grisham. And even so straitlaced a body as the UK Publishers Association mentions Jill Paton, Timothy Mo, and Susan Hill. The longest list is to be found in the self-publishing hall of fame.

Yes, dear friends, no doubt it is true that a substantial number of famous writers have at one time or another gone in for publishing their work themselves (usually, I suspect, at the start of the careers). But so, if I may make so bold, what?

Does it follow, as night follows day, that J. Bloggs, or Freda Farnsbarns, the unknowns from Clapham and Blackpool respectively, will, after arranging for the private publication of their own dazzling novels, also become as rich and famous as John Grisham? I venture to suggest not, and for a variety of reasons.

For the chief of these reasons I am indebted to Nicholas Nassim Taleb, who refers to it several times in his work. It is a circumstance known, I believe, as survivorship bias, and attention was first drawn to it in 1620 by Francis Bacon.

Bacon, it seems, was aware of a number of shipwrecked mariners who had escaped drowning and had ascribed their survival to the fact that they had previously offered up suitable prayers and had generally 'paid their vows' -- which I suspect means that they had given some money to the church in order to get special treatment from God. And lo and behold, when in due course their ship had been wrecked on a rocky coast, they had been cast ashore with little more than a wet suit of clothes to trouble them -- thus proving the efficacy of prayer.

Except, of course, as Bacon pointed out, their survival illustrated absolutely nothing at all other than the capriciousness of fate. The survivors, we are told, had their portraits painted and became famous men (the church naturally wanting to publicise the good fortune which follows from the payment of large fees). But where, Bacon asked, were the pictures and other details of the countless mariners who had also offered up earnest prayers, and paid out large sums of money, but had drowned nevertheless?

Exactly the same question could be asked about those who publish their own books. Yes, over the last couple of centuries, we can find examples of writers who, at one point or another, have paid for the publication of some of their work, and have then gone on to become rich and famous. But how many of them are there, when compared with the countless thousands who have also shelled out large sums of hard-earned money, only to sell three copies and remain entirely anonymous?

As ever, a little logic and clear thinking would not go amiss in the mad worlds of writing and publishing.

And just in case you've forgotten, let me add that I publish my own work through my own small press, Kingsfield Publications, and amazing stuff it is too. Buy something today. Please.

Friday, November 26, 2004

Two pandas and some commas

Now here's a funny thing. Odd, anyway.

I am reading Steering the Craft, by Ursula K. Le Guin. This is a how-to book for writers, based on a workshop for writers which the author gave in 1996. In the introduction, Ursula says that she offered the course (and wrote the subsequent book) because she had met a lot of writers who were 'afraid of semi-colons and didn't know a Point of View from a Scenic Vista.' Not surprisingly, therefore, an early chapter deals with punctuation.

Midway through the chapter, Ursula offers a story which I will reproduce here absolutely verbatim:
I will now tell the Panda Story to illustrate the importance of the presence or the absence of a comma. This panda walked into a tea shop and ordered a salad and ate it. Then it pulled out a pistol, shot the man at the next table dead, and walked out. Everyone rushed after it, shouting, "Stop! Stop! Why did you do that?"

"Because I'm a panda," said the panda. "That's what pandas do. If you don't believe me, look in the dictionary."

So they looked in the dictionary and sure enough they found Panda: Raccoon-like animal of Asia. Eats shoots and leaves.

Now -- ladies and gentlemen -- those of you who are English, and possibly those of other nationalities too, will immediately recognise that this (very old, I suspect) story is essentially the same as the one which Lynne Truss used to give her the title, and raison d'etre, so to speak, of her big hit of last year Eats, Shoots and Leaves.

With one critical exception.

In Lynne's version of the story, and hence in the title of her book, she has an extra comma. As in Eats, Shoots and Leaves.

What are we to make of this? I have given the matter deep thought, and I have decided that what we have here is two pandas with differing standards of education; or possibly outlook on life. Or both.

First, Ursula's panda is clearly, and sadly, a bit of a dimmo. His dictionary tells him that a panda 'eats shoots and leaves'. This, I dare say, is literally true. I have to admit that I have no first-hand knowledge of the diet of pandas, but as a piece of zoological data the statement seems unexceptionable. But this particular panda lacks a sound working knowledge of the importance of correct punctuation, and so he regards the four words as an instruction to take three separate actions. Indeed he goes further, and seems to read into the alleged instruction an implication that he must not just 'shoot' harmlessly into the air but commit murder. This demonstrates a lack of proportion, in addition to, in all probability, a misspent youth.

Lynne's panda, on the other hand, appears to be a little brighter. He derives the justification for his extraordinary behaviour from a 'badly punctuated wildlife manual' (at least if the Guardian is to be believed). So he evidently went to a tolerably good school, or paid attention during the lessons, and as a result he has some appreciation of the importance of a strategically placed comma. He grasps the point that 'eats, shoots and leaves' carries a different meaning from 'eats shoots and leaves'. Nevertheless, he too is of a somewhat literal turn of mind. He fails to appreciate that if his wildlife manual is indeed badly punctuated, then it might be wise to exercise caution about the interpretation of what appears in it. But no. He likewise regards the four words quoted as an instruction which it is compulsory to obey on every occasion, rather than merely an observation about what happens from time to time -- perhaps among badly behaved pandas. So he too equips himself with a firearm and proceeds to perform the three steps of the instruction. Though in Lynne's version of the story homicide is avoided; possibly because he has consumed a ham sandwich in a bar rather than a salad in a tea shop.

Hmm. There is considerable food for thought here.

Mind you, I myself am inclined to agree with the reviewer in the New Yorker, who pointed out that, if we are going to introduce commas into our list of three terms plus a conjunction, we really ought to have two commas: as in 'eats, shoots, and leaves'. The regular use of this second comma is one of the early admonitions of our old friends Strunk and White, who tell us that the second comma is often referred to as the 'serial' comma.

We must earnestly hope that neither of our two pandas went on to become a serial killer.

Thursday, November 25, 2004

WH Smith again

'There is much to be said for failure,' remarked Max Beerbohm. 'It is more interesting than success.'

If Max was right, then WH Smith is currently the most interesting business on the high street, because it is, let's face it, a bit of a disaster area.

In the last few months I have been in three branches of WHS, and they have all been distinctly unimpressive. In fact 'bloody awful' was the phrase which first came to mind.

The first shop was in a small town in Scotland. The premises looked as if they had been taken over from a local draper in 1930, without much having been done to the place since. A wooden floor, with patchy stock. I could not help feeling that, if the shop had belonged to a local mom and pop, instead of a national chain, it would have been much smarter, sharper, better stocked, and generally on the ball.

Shop number two was in a major city. A big shop, on two floors. The problem here was twofold. First, it was Christmas, which meant, as usual, that there were mountains of crap everywhere, and will be, presumably, for the next six weeks. After which there will be a desperate attempt to unload everything which hasn't sold up to that point, which looks like being quite a lot.

The second major problem in shop number two results, I believe, from a recent management decision. I seem to remember having read a statement from Kate Swann, the newish chief executive of WHS, to the effect that the bookshelves cum display cabinets, or whatever the correct technical term is, were not high enough, thus failing to display enough material to tempt the eager customer.

Well, in this particular big city branch of WHS the new improved display shelving had recently been introduced. With the result that I found myself in a narrow canyon, surrounded on all sides by Christmas rubbish, and unable to see any indication whatever of where anything that I might actually want to buy might be. I did eventually find what I was looking for (a copy of The Stage, a weekly trade journal for the theatre and related media); but only with great difficulty and after a longish search.

In this particular store, books were on the first floor (second floor if you're an American), but my courage gave out before I got that far. I became claustrophobic, experienced breathing difficulties and had to run outside for a bit of fresh air.

The third shop, which I called at only this morning, is located in a small country town near my home. It is the branch which I visit most frequently, if only to see how things have deteriorated since my last outing. Here too we now have the new improved shelving. And lots of Christmas cards.

Like most (if not all) branches of WHS, this one still purports to be a bookshop. I asked a member of staff if they had a copy of last year's big hit, Eats, Shoots and Leaves. She asked someone else, who asked a third party. This was kind, and helpful, but does not exactly generate confidence in the top management. Once again, because of the new, above-head-height shelving, it is hard to navigate from one area to another.

There are no doubt at least 150 highly paid consultants currently advising the management of WHS on what to do in the present crisis, but here are the GOB's comments, entirely free of fee.

First of all, WHS needs to make up its mind what the bloody hell it is supposed to be selling. My nearest WHS has a floor area of roughly 35 feet by 90 feet. (I paced it out, to frowns from the staff.) In that area WHS are currently selling: magazines; books; videos and DVDs; CDs; stationery; and cards. Lots of the latter. They sell none of these well.

A recent head-office ruling has declared that in future WHS will not attempt to stock any but the most popular magazines; but this decision is not applied, so far as I can see, rationally. This morning WHS had a copy of Fortean Times (circulation 30,000) but not The Stage (circulation 40,000 -- both figures from 2003 but I doubt whether they have changed much). There are two smaller, non-chain newsagents within a stone's throw which offer at least as good a range of magazines, if not better. Certainly better if you want soft porn. Not, of course, that I do. Far too old.

Then there are books. Well, yes, WHS has books. But if I'm seriously looking I got to Ottakars, perhaps a hundred-yard walk away. Far better range of stock.

Stationery? I go to a dedicated and really rather good stationer, more or less opposite Ottakars.

Videos and DVDs? The range of stock in WHS looks pretty thin to me. OK if you want the top 10, but if you're looking for anything a bit specialised -- e.g. a DVD of The Third Man or The Manchurian Candidate (Frankenheimer version) -- forget it. Amazon seems a much better option.

And so on. All rather depressing really.

Today's Times reports that WHS have appointed a new chairman: Robert Walker, who will take over next February. He will work one day a week, whereas the present chairman works four.

The Times makes much of this appointment, but what, I wonder, is Walker expected to do? Here is a comment from Thinking About Management, a much underrated book by Bob Holder:
A chairman should either also be chief executive, or have so much work outside the company that he cannot meddle with its executive management. It is disastrous when he, through want of anything better to do, or through conceit, establishes himself as a parallel source of authority to the managing director.
Walker is at present chief executive of Severn Trent, but according to Retail Bulletin (linked from booktrade.info) he will stand down from that job in February next; he is also a non-executive director of jewellery retailer Signet. So he will evidently have time on his hands. Plus, it would seem, he will have ample incentive to get involved in day-to-day decisions, because -- according to the Times -- 'he's taking a big professional risk by taking on the challenge' of WHS.

Will Walker start to interfere? Will the lovely Kate tell him where to go? Will either of them, or both, be able to turn the company around?

The Times says that city analysts remain bearish, and so by golly do I.

Wednesday, November 24, 2004

Ian R. MacLeod: The Light Ages

The Light Ages is a remarkable book. It's not commercial, and it does present a dark image of an imagined world, with not so much as a smile anywhere in it. But it is a memorable piece of work.

Why so? Chiefly, I think, because of the quality of the prose. I am the last person to witter on about the importance of style; a good style, as far as I'm concerned, is a style you don't notice. And various critics seem to have had a little difficulty in forming the right words to describe Ian R. MacLeod's style.

'Written in dense, cadenced prose,' says Locus, and sorry, but I don't know what cadenced means either, but it sounds OK. 'Rich as treacle and equally black,' says the Guardian.

I myself would go for hypnotic, and perhaps lyrical, without being particularly happy about either of those terms. But whatever it is, MacLeod's sentences, at their best, seem to induce an almost trance-like state in the reader.

In the right reader, that is. On reflection, I think this book will appeal to the following sort of person. Ideally, you need to be English; old enough to have some sense of the flow of events during the last fifty years at least; you need to know something about the industrial north, preferably from personal experience; a knowledge of Marxist theory wouldn't do any harm; and you need to be prepared to consider an alternative view of history.

I fit this bill pretty well. I am certainly old, and have studied the history of England in the last two hundred years, both formally and informally, for decades. My parents were born in Bradford, Yorkshire, and I can remember the days when all you could see of Bradford, from a hill, was a mass of smoke from the chimneys of the mills and factories. And I am certainly receptive to alternative views of history.

By now you may be wondering what The Light Ages is about. Well, it's a first-person account throughout, telling the life story of one Robert Borrows. He lives in an England which lies in a universe which is parallel to ours -- a world where Joshua Wagstaffe discovered aether in 1678. And aether, with its associated magic, powered the industrial revolution. That revolution brought with it massive wealth and privilege for the aristocracy, and reinforced a rigid class structure. Robert Borrows is a witness to, and a participant in, what happens when the aether runs out and the resentment of the masses boils over into revolution.

Fine though it is, this book is by no means 'commercial' in publishing terms, and I find myself wondering, not for the first time, how a writer like this manages to make a living; but on his web site Mr MacLeod tells us that he teaches English and creative writing. He adds that it has taken him a long time to get anywhere with writing novels, and even longer to sell them; I can't say that I am surprised by the latter circumstance.

The MacLeod web site includes an interview with the author in which he says this: 'In the current publishing world, I feel that novel-writing is much more compromised than short fiction. There are so many ridiculous preconceptions based around what's genre, what's commercial, and what the public appeared to like last year, all of which is then buried beneath a layer of dross.' Too right, brother, too right.

Specifically, The Light Ages took MacLeod about five years to write. Just don't ask about how much money it generated, or what that works out at per hour.

Tuesday, November 23, 2004

Robert Littell: The Visiting Professor

Sometimes a book proves to be disappointing; and this is not, I hasten to say, necessarily the writer's fault. Sometimes it is just that we, the reader, have selected the wrong book. Or we have approached it under a misapprehension. That, I suspect, is what happened to me with Robert Littell's The Visiting Professor.

Robert Littell is a familiar name from the past. He wrote, among a dozen or so other things, The Defection of A.J. Lewinter, and that was, I seem to remember, a halfway decent thriller. He also has some excellent reviews to show for books such as The Once and Future Spy and An Agent in Place. So I suppose I picked up The Visiting Professor imagining that it would be in the espionage mode.

Well, it ain't. I should have known that from the publisher alone: Faber. By and large Faber don't do spy stories. Far too vulgar.

The Visiting Professor proves to be about just what the title suggests: one Lemuel Falk, a Russian theoretical chaoticist who wins an invitation to join the faculty of the Institute for Interdisciplinary Chaos-Related Studies in upstate New York. And, er, that's about it. Plus the various complications which ensue. In short, it is not really my kind of book. And if I staggered through to the end I did so because of rare titbits thrown to someone such as I along the way.

For instance, Lemuel Falk becomes friendly with a Rebbe (aka Rabbi), who tells him that Yahweh is high on randomness. And he gives examples, drawn from Exodus 19 and elsewhere. For someone who has spent a lot of time writing about Nassim Nicholas Taleb's Fooled by Randomness (see post on 28 September and earlier), this is an idea not without interest.

There are other ideas which also give pause for thought. On page 145, for instance, we learn that one of the constituents of pure, unadulterated randomness is the occasional flash of what Lemuel calls 'random order'. If you work out the value of pi to around three hundred million decimal places (insufficient room on the back of an envelope) you will come across eight eights in succession; these are examples of random order in an otherwise purely random sequence.

Pure unadulterated randomness, by the way, is not just the work of God. According to Lemuel, it is God.

On page 185 we learn, by implication, that Agatha Christie was a randomness simulator, in that she had a plot (don't ask me which book, but I think it was one of Agatha's) which featured a number of apparently random murders. But in fact, of course, the murders were carefully planned to appear random; the killer wanted to bump off one of the victims, but made that victim part of a series of seemingly motiveless murders in order to disguise the motive for that one particular death.

Should you find yourself investigating a series of such murders, you can tell whether they are truly random, and hence the work of a nutcase, or not, by checking for random repetitions. In a truly random series of murders, two of the victims are likely to have the same colour shirt, or be the same age; purely by accident, so to speak. If no such correlations exist, it is probable that the crimes are the work of someone seeking to simulate random murder. So, once you have reached that conclusion, you should then look for real and valid reasons for one of the victims to end up dead. Find out who benefits from that death and you have your killer.

All of which, I appreciate, is pretty slim pickings for someone who is looking for another thriller from Robert Littell. On the other hand, if you are in search of that high-flying literary object, a novel of ideas, then The Visiting Professor might just be for you.

Sunday, November 21, 2004

Robert Aickman

Somewhere in my perambulations across the internet I found the name of Robert Aickman (1914-1981), a writer of what he referred to as 'strange stories' -- which are often referred to by others as ghost stories. And, among Aickman's non-fiction works, I found listed a book called The River Runs Uphill. Thinking that this might be an autobiography, I unearthed a copy from the archives of my local library.

Well, The River Runs Uphill is certainly autobiographical in nature. Written sometime in the 1960s, but not published until 1986, it tells mainly of Aickman's experiences in founding the Inland Waterways Association (IWA). The IWA was an organisation set up in 1946 (or so) by a group of true English eccentrics, and was dedicated to restoring England's derelict canals and other waterways to something like their old glory.

Aickman's book is chiefly of interest today in that it provides a wonderful case study of what it is like to become involved in the leadership of an entirely voluntary organisation which is dedicated to achieving something that runs contrary to existing government policy. The experience can, I think, be summed up by saying that banging your head hard, and repeatedly, against the nearest brick wall would be a lot more fun by comparison.

However, it is a measure of Aickman's achievement if I say that, from the very room where I sit writing these words, I can look across the valley and see boats of various sorts proceeding along the Kennet and Avon Canal, a waterway which was largely impassable as recently as thirty years ago. Now, thanks to the work of people like Aickman, it has been fully restored. Only last year Prince Charles came to the town to open some new part of it.

The River Runs Uphill does not tell us a great deal about Aickman's career as a writer. But there are mentions; the text includes various asides about literature and the arts in general. 'Literature,' he says at one point (and he was writing in the 1960s, remember) 'is palpably dying. Man, even the intellectual, is more and more ready to do without the written word.'

Later, he records producing a book of ghost stories in collaboration with the young Elizabeth Jane Howard, noting in passing that 'there are perhaps only twenty-five or thirty good ghost stories in European fiction'.

The chapters are mostly headed by quotations from various philosophers. Chapter VII, for instance, has this from Lao-Tzu: 'Whoever makes good progress in the beginning has all the more difficulty later on.' A good motto for writers to remember, I feel.

That Aickman was interested in the paranormal is made perfectly clear by several passages in the book. At one point, for instance, he tells of hearing (while trying to sleep on a boat) a number of strange noises. The most worrying of these was a sound like a mouse creeping about in straw. For some reason he, and his girl friend, found this terrifying, and Aickman tells us that he concluded that the noise 'related to psychic or mediumistic powers' in his girl friend, whom he refers to as X.

Miss X displayed other 'psychic gifts'. On one occasion, while they were both changing for dinner in Aickman's house, he looked at X's image in the mirror as she sat at a dressing-table. What he saw was an old woman with grey hair; though she was still unmistakably X. He never mentioned what he had seen, but some time later X told him that, one evening while in his house, she had looked in a mirror and seen herself as an old woman; the image seemed to last for quite some time, she said.

The book contains several other stories of paranormal events and experiences, many of them connected with the inland waterways of England, and reported by others as well as Aickman himself.

The regular users of the canals, those who made their living by operating barges on what remained of the waterway system in the 1940s, had an interesting way of dealing with dead bodies floating in the water; for the most part, they ignored them. Apparently, reporting a corpse in the canal would result in nothing but trouble and incovenience: having to give statements to the police, and being obliged to attend inquests. It was much better, the professionals considered, to let someone else have the fame and glory of finding a dead body.

This reluctance to accept the hassle of dealing with the drowned was not confined to bargees. Aickman describes how Geoffrey Percy, a friend of his, was once out birdwatching beside a lake when he saw a uniformed constable having some difficulty with a long pole. When Geoffrey drew nearer, he could see the body of a woman in the water; the constable was trying to move it.

'Let me help,' said Geoffrey. 'The two of us will soon get her out.'

'Get her out!' snorted the constable. 'I'm trying to work her into the next county.'

I have no difficulty whatever in believing this story because some years ago I read of a precisely similar occurrence in the memoirs of a journalist (Percy Cudlipp, if I remember rightly). As a young reporter, Cudlipp had stood on a bridge and watched several police officers and other officials doing their level best to get a body to move downstream, so that some other police authority should be stuck with all the paperwork and expense of dealing with it.

Nothing like that could happen today, I suspect, because of the mobile phone. The first person to find a body in a canal or river will immediately ring all their friends; this will be followed, if they happen to think of it, by a call to the police, and a crowd will have gathered long before any gentlemen in blue arrive on the scene. The TV cameras will not be far behind, as some enterprising soul will surely have rung them in the hope of earning a fee.

A little further (belated) research on my part reveals that Aickman did write a 'proper' autobiography, The Attempted Rescue, which looks intriguing. As for The River Runs Uphill -- it seems to be a rare book: copies cost £65 and upwards on abebooks. Volumes containing his 'strange stories' seem to be easier to find, thanks to Tartarus Press, and I will report back when I have read some.

Friday, November 19, 2004

On the undoubted honesty of publishers

All English publishers are, of course, gentlemen. Every one. (Except the ladies.) And a gentleman's word is his bond. You can depend on him. Above all, a gentleman is honest.

What follows should therefore not be interpreted as in any way a slur upon the good name of English publishers. It is an unfortunate fact, however, that English writers are obliged, occasionally, to do business with foreigners. Distasteful though this is, it can sometimes generate income. Always provided, of course, that you watch what the slippery blighters get up to.

These thoughts are prompted by a quarterly newsletter issued by my accountants. Like most people with financial affairs of anything but the most astounding simplicity, I have to pay an accountant to draw up my tax return. Originally, my accountant was part of a small family firm, but in the course of time that firm merged (as they do) with a much bigger company, and this company (The Fisher Organisation)sends out regular bulletins intended to provide useful information.

This quarter's newsletter contains an article about the licensing of rights. Now don't go off to sleep, because if you are a writer, or even a dedicated reader, the licensing of rights, and the collection of the income generated from such licensing, is a matter of supreme importance.

And, just to hold your attention, let me say immediately that what my accountants have to say reveals -- well, not dishonesty exactly, for that would be unthinkable -- but a certain, shall we say, carelessness with other people's money.

Suppose you are a firm which has developed a widget. You decide to make money from this widget by selling it abroad, and to do that you license the right to make and sell the widget to, say, a firm in Venezuela. Under the terms of the contract, you, the originator of the widget, will be entitled to a royalty on every widget made and sold in Venezuela.

It seems that this is so frequent a practice that the firm of accountants that I deal with has a whole division, the Forensic division if you please, which is devoted to nothing else but checking up, on behalf of British widget-makers, that they are being paid the full and proper amounts of cash for licensing their widget.

And what the writer of the article, the head of the Forensic division, has to say is this: 'When we are appointed to carry out a licensing audit for a new client, we invariably find that the businesses to whom it has granted licenses are not making an accurate report of relevant sales and allowable expense.'

Note that word invariably. The writer says that he is 'unable to recall a single instance where this has not been so.' But not always for criminal reasons. 'Sharp practice is not always involved.' Sometimes, as I mentioned above, it can be just carelessness.

Now -- you will have been wondering all along what this has to do with publishing. And the point is this. Every book which is published is issued under the terms of a contract between the writer and the publisher. Typically, an early sentence in the contract will state the 'the Author hereby grants to the Publishers the sole and exclusive right and licence to produce and publish...'

In other words, a book contract is a small-scale licensing agreement. Often a very small-scale agreement indeed, involving pitifully small amounts of moolah. But it is, nevertheless, a licensing agreement.

And if it is true that the Forensic division of a major firm of accountants invariably finds, on investigation, that businesses operating under the terms of a licence are -- not to put too fine a point on it -- underpaying the party from whom they obtained the licence (purely through carelessness and administrative error, of course) then perhaps it would pay writers to give a little thought as to what extent their publisher might, perhaps, be underpaying them.

Should an author wish to launch a formal investigation into the extent of payments, provision is normally there in another fairly standard clause of a publishing contract. Typically, it will say something like: 'Upon reasonable notice and during the Publishers' normal business hours the Author or the Author's representative shall have the right to examine the Publishers' records of account at the place at which they are normally kept....' And so forth.

There are, however, drawbacks. First, most authors are hopelessly ill equipped to investigate accounts themselves. Secondly, it costs a great deal of money to send in the Forensic division of a major firm of accountants (anything less than £150 an hour seems very unlikely to me). And third, the sending in of the heavy mob would be interpreted by the publisher as a declaration of war, and you could forget about doing any more books with that firm -- or, I suspect, any other, because the word gets around. It is, as I remarked some posts ago, but a short step from being labelled Difficult to being labelled Absolutely Fucking Impossible.

What do we actually know about the payment of sums due from publishers?

Well, the article in the accountants' newsletter referred to above quotes an example. The Forensic division was appointed by a firm of UK publishers who had licensed the rights to a bestseller to a French publisher. On investigation the Forensic boys found that 'our client was entitled to a much greater sum' than had actually been paid.

There are also some well documented instances of major underpayments to authors. In particular, I wrote about one such case on 12 April.

And, finally, it is worth noting that the Society of Authors regularly runs audits on behalf of its members. Every so often a few names are chosen at random, and, with the members' agreement, the Society looks into the publishers' records and checks whether the authors have been paid the right amounts. This independent procedure, checking up at one remove, so to speak, seems to protect the authors from any bad feeling in the chosen publishers' offices. I no longer subscribe to the Society's journal, The Author, so I can't quote any recent figures for the outcome of such investigations, but my memory tells me that errors were by no means unknown. None of them, naturally, were the result of deliberate dishonesty. But these days you just can't get the staff.

Thursday, November 18, 2004

The lost boys (and girls)

Yesterday's booktrade.info provided a link to an interesting article in the Independent by Tom Boncza-Tomaszewski (hereinafter to be known as Tom).

Like most newspaper articles, this one was designed to do no more, I suspect, than distract the weary commuter from the discomforts of the cattle truck in which he makes his daily way to work; and as such it no doubt worked pretty well. Tom's article was not, in other words, intended to be a final statement of the whole truth about everything, as in, perhaps, the works of St Thomas Aquinas.

I make this point because I disagree with Tom about a number of things. But I do not want what follows in this post to be regarded as criticism of Tom's position, much less a personal attack. I choose to mention his article only because it provides a useful background against which to highlight some different ideas of my own.

Tom notes that some of the most prominent literary names of the 1960s are now completely forgotten. Well yes. Indeed. And hardly surprising, if I may say so. I myself was around in the 1960s, reading newspapers and books, and it was about that time when I began to notice a distinct discrepancy between what the learned literary journals were saying, on the one hand, and my own experience as a reader, on the other.

Quite often I would come across some writer who was regarded as a close associate of God by Cyril Connolly and Philip Toynbee, only to find, when I read his work, that on the whole I much preferred Ian Fleming.

Ah yes, you say. But that is because you are a moron and a vulgarian. And a vulgarian I certainly am -- time has proved that. But time has also proved that, whatever else I may lack, it is not IQ. So I would venture to suggest, on the basis of this limited sample, that young readers would be unwise, at any point in history, to place too much reliance on the judgements of the experts of the day. All too often the giants of literature who are identified by the experts of the day prove to be (a) unreadable by normal people even in their year of publication, and (b) soon forgotten, even in circles with exquisitely refined taste.

Another piece of Tom: 'Much of the best writing in this country is probably not even getting published any more.' I agree, in the sense that it is not published by the traditional mainstream book publishers. Where I disagree, I suspect, with Tom is in defining 'the best'. He clearly identifies the best as that which comes from the literary-fiction stable. Whereas I would define the best as something like 'fitness for purpose'. In other words, there are science-fiction books which prove highly entertaining to sci-fi fans, thrillers which entertain the thrillable, and so forth. The problem is, of course, that there are some excellent writers in all these genres who can't get much of a look-in in today's new improved publishing world.

Tom quotes Leo Hollis, who has some experience at the coal-face of publishing: 'Selling books is the point of publishing, it has no other reason to exist.' And this is absolutely true. I have no problem with the concept of publishing as a commercial enterprise; none whatever. The problem is, as I have pointed out before, that modern publishers (UK in particular) are fairly bloody hopeless at running commercial enterprises.

There are all sorts of reasons for this commercial ineptitude, of which the following are just a few: the relatively small size of even the biggest publishers; lack of capital; absence of training; naivety; nepotism.

Another publisher quoted by Tom: 'Major publishers can't be bothered with stuff they consider small-fry.' This sentence is presented as if it described a shocking and immoral state of affairs. But why should major publishers be bothered with small fry? They are only concerned with books which are likely to sell in large numbers; and so they should be.

At this point you may well advance an argument which I was rather fond of myself until recently. Ah, you will say, but if publishers don't bother with small fry, then eventually they will run out of big fry, because the big fry will have nowhere to learn their trade.

This was a valid point even as recently as ten years ago. And it has taken me most of that ten years to wake up to something which has changed things. And that something is the medium on which you are reading this message: namely the internet.

The advent of the internet/web/net has, to state the obvious, changed everything. And, in tandem with that, we have changes in printing technology, which have enormously reduced the cost of printing and publishing, even in traditional book form. The combination of these two developments means that young (or emerging) writing talents need never lack a platform on which to present their work. (See yesterday's post for more on this.) Of course they won't make much money; but I would argue that it is absurd for a writer to expect to make any serious money. When it happens, it happens mainly by accident -- or, in the case of big firms, through the expenditure of a huge advertising budget.

In general terms, Tom's article bemoans the way in which really fine writers of the past tend to disappear from view. He is chiefly concerned with literary fiction, but the same danger exists in every other genre. And it is indeed a pity if fine writing -- of whatever kind -- is lost sight of. But the world has changed, folks!

Once upon a time it would have been economically impossible, for all but eccentric millionaires, to republish the work of almost-forgotten whodunit writers, or early specialists in bug-eyed monsters, or the teenage work of Barbara Cartland. But now, all is changed. Enthusiasts, fans, weirdos and nut-cases of all sorts can bring out their favourites from the past and parade them for everyone's attention: either in ebook form, or in print-on-demand paperback.

If you doubt that, take a look at the long lists of reprints of the obscure and overlooked which are being presented by such firms as Renaissance and Wildside Press. (My current favourite is Arthur B. Reeve's Constance Dunlap, a 1914 classic which combines both detection and romance; and just think, you would never have heard of it had you not read this blog.) And there are plenty more highly individual and enterprising small presses like these two. Long, as I may have said before, and quite recently, may they flourish.

Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Negative Capability

Somewhere along the line, when I was writing yesterday's post about Ansible, it occurred to me that Ansible was a sort of fanzine. And, if you're wondering, as I once did, what a fanzine is, it's 'an amateur-produced magazine written for a subculture of enthusiasts devoted to a particular interest' -- mainly science fiction enthusiasts, it seems. At least that's the definition according to the online Free Dictionary. And no, I don't know how to pronounce fanzine either. You can find a much longer definition of the term, and a discussion of the fanzine phenomenon, in the Fancyclopaedia.

Strictly speaking, the fanzine seems to be a printed magazine, though I have a feeling that there is lots of stuff on the web which could sensibly be called a fanzine: Ansible being a case in point. And what immediately came to my mind, when I remembered the word, was a passage from the writing of one Josh Saitz, which I came across a year or so ago. So I looked up old Josh to see how he was doing these days. And you can easily do the same by clicking on the link to his web site, Negative Capability.

As you will see, Josh runs a fanzine (of sorts). Or at any rate a small-scale printed magazine. The front page of his web site tells us that it offers (among other treats) 'hidden celebrity nudes, MP3s and lots of other stuff that will get me cease-and-desist letters from lawyers, but I don't care.' I really like that sort of attitude, though it is of course grossly immoral and a flagrant breach of the copyright laws which all us writers worship and revere. And I haven't actually found any of these hidden nudes yet, but I live in hope.

Of course, the first thing that you will notice is that Negative Capability isn't a fanzine at all -- not in the classic definition of the term. It seems to be just a small and irregularly issued magazine -- edited, and largely written, by one short-tempered and outspoken individual who has been enraged, over the years, by the repeated failure of editors to recognise his talent and in the end has just decided, fuck it, if they won't publish my stuff I'll publish it myself. Josh's own definition of the thing, by the way, is 'a zine specialising in humor and anger.' Which is a pretty good combination. It has served Private Eye fairly well over the years.

Anyway, the bit of Josh Saitz's wisdom that caught my eye, a year or more ago, was his little rant on the submissions page. And as it's still there I thought I would give you the benefit of bits of it here. This is what Josh has to say:

If you are a talented writer and are thumbing through the writing market book looking for a place to send your submission, do yourself a favor and save yourself the postage. Publish it yourself. Write it, edit it, get pictures yourself, print it and sell it. You don't need anyone to validate you and you definitely aren't going to make any money or get any fame by having a short story published by the Pine Cone Journal in Wisconsin because nobody fucking reads that shit anyway. And if you only write sensitive poetry, please, for the love of god, please stop because it's a waste of paper.

I am sorry if this short spiel has left you feeling disappointed, but I really do have a great deal of empathy for you because I too was a miserable unpublished writer for a long, long time. I also sent out hundreds of short stories, essays, reviews and other wonderfully insightful pieces and I was rejected 99% of the time, usually by being ignored. The 1% of people who responded were either liars or total frauds,and none of the people I ever found from Writers Digest or any other book ever published anything I ever wrote. I have written for dozens of magazines and zines since then, but it was only because they had already read my zine. So my advice to you is to publish your own work, send it out, trade it, sell it wherever they sell stuff like that, and eventually you will be able to find your audience before you go crazy.

Now this is all excellent stuff, and I agree with every word of it. It so happens that once upon a time I had an 'orthodox' (if not very lucrative) career as a writer, publishing novels through mainstream firms in a variety of countries. But in the end I grew weary of dealing with such people (individually pleasant though they are), and in any case they decided that my work was not sufficiently commercial for them, so we parted ways. Ever since I have published my own stuff (Kingsfield Publications), and feel much better for it.

So I commend Josh Saitz's strategy to your attention. Why not buy old Josh's magazine? He deserves it, on the grounds of effort alone. At least he doesn't sit on his arse and whimper about the need for more Arts Council support.

Tuesday, November 16, 2004

Ansible, Langford and sci fi

Us pensioners have to watch the pennies, you know. I don't actually root through the neigbours' dustbins -- not in daylight, anyway -- but I will gladly accept free books from anyone. Thus it was that I found myself searching a plastic bag of books which my son was about to take to the charity shop; and I came across a novel by David Langford entitled The Leaky Establishment.

This is not a work that I was familiar with, though I do know of Dave Langford (of whom more later). The Leaky Establishment is described by its author as a nuclear farce. First published in 1984, it concerns a series of highly unlikely, but nonetheless amusing, events at Robinson Heath, which is a thinly disguised version of the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment at Aldermaston. A place where, oddly enough, Langford once worked.

The Leaky Establishment is quite a lot of fun. It entertained me well enough on the train home from London. The genre, I suppose, is comedy science fiction, which is not altogether a common species, at least as far as I'm aware. And if you are up to smiling at the removal of radioactive materials from top-secret establishments, plus the accidental firing of nuclear missiles at Stockholm (catastrophe averted by the substitution of some sort of football for the real warhead) then this could be the one for you. Warning: you do need a sensayuma, and not everyone has the same model, or indeed possesses one at all.

The history of this book is interesting in itself. It was first published in hardback by Muller in 1984, and then paperbacked by Sphere in 1985. It was revived by Big Engine in 2001, complete with an introduction by Terry Pratchett, and finally issued yet again by Cosmos in 2003. Big Engine was a small UK-based sci-fi publisher, and, sad to say, it went the way of many another big engine -- it sort of blew up. Cosmos is an American firm, an imprint of Wildside Press . All of which is interesting to me, at least, because it indicates that a book can still find a publisher and new readers even after twenty years; even if it isn't, in itself, the greatest thing since the transistor.

David (Dave to his friends) Langford was already known to me as the originator of a monthly newsletter about science fiction known as Ansible. This newsletter usually contains some worthwhile stuff, even if you're not a big fan of the genre. For instance, there is often an item called 'As others see us', which demonstrates that many publishers and critics will go to great lengths to deny that they have anything whatever to do with so sordid and vulgar a genre as sci fi, though they will happily publish and write about it under some other heading.

Oops. I see that an item in the latest issue of Ansible quotes someone else as suggesting (as I almost did above) that sci-fi writers seldom have a sense of humour. This implies that, in Langford's eyes, sci-fi writers and readers regularly fall to the floor clutching their stomachs and howling (with laughter). I bow to Langford's greater knowledge of these matters.

Even a partial exploration of Dave Langford's Ansible web site shows that he has written masses of stuff, including at least three other novels. He has also written considerable numbers of articles, reviews, and essays. In other words, he was a blogger long before blogs were invented. He has won, apparently, 23 Hugo awards, mainly for his work in publicising and popularising science fiction. All in all, Ansible is a site which will repay exploring.

Monday, November 15, 2004

Penguin problems

On 26 June I quoted a report from Publishing News to the effect that Penguin was experiencing severe problems with their new state-of-the-art warehouse. The problem was that the software didn't work, which meant that the firm couldn't deliver books to meet the booksellers' orders. Something of a catastrophe, really, and the estimated loss to Penguin was put by PN at £20m to £30m.

Then, on 25 October I again quoted from PN, which reported that Penguin authors were beginning to make noises about being paid compensation for lost sales.

And now PN reports that Penguin are currently saying that their new warehouse will not be fully automated until March 2005 'at the earliest'. In other words, men will still be going round collecting books in baskets over the busy Christmas season, which is absolutely crucial for both booksellers and publishers if they want to end their financial year in profit.

Penguin are naturally trying to emphasise that sales of new books are doing OK -- 43 bestsellers this year, as against 33 last, et cetera. But backlist sales are way down, both for Penguin and for booksellers.

What interests me in all this (since I am mercifully not a Penguin author) is how a firm like Penguin came to experience such a disaster with new software. After all, problems with warehouse software are far from new in UK publishing. The most famous failure was that of a distribution firm known as Tiptree, and the causes of that spectacular ballsup have been fully analysed by a group from the University of Wolverhampton School of Computing and IT. That case history is posted on the web and can be studied by anyone. Presumably (says he hopefully, but without any great faith) it was looked at by Penguin management before they embarked on their great adventure.

It is now at least eight years since I was involved with a major software development scheme. It involved the creation of new management systems for a group of about 15 UK universities. Between them, the universities could summon up some amazing academic firepower, but even so (as I recall) outside specialists were called in to do the actual software writing. What the universities did was to set up an elaborate procedure for laying down exactly what the new systems had to do, and then for monitoring and testing the output of the software developers as and when it appeared.

At the time I was inclined to think that the network of commissioning and monitoring committees was over-elaborate, but with hindsight I can see the point of it. After all, even then we knew all too well about the failures of software systems which had cost many millions of pounds. And since then there have been many more such debacles (for details, see almost any issue of Private Eye). Most of these failures seem to involve the national health service and other government departments.

What procedures did Penguin have in place, I wonder, for designing the specification for their new software? And what methods did they use to monitor and test the output of their software developers? If I was a Penguin shareholder, and even more so if I was a Penguin author, I think I would want to know. But I doubt if anyone outside the company will ever be told. Commercial confidentiality, don't you know.

Back to Tiptree for a moment. The case history referred to above includes one interesting sentence: 'As difficulties surfaced, Tiptree tended to play them down to the point where customers could not believe what they were hearing.' Does this ring any bells?

The case history also tells us that Tiptree faced substantial claims from publishers for lost sales and that these claims were eventually settled 'by negotiation'.

I don't know exactly what happened to Tiptree in the end, but an internet search reveals that the 'former site' of the company in Colchester is likely to become the home of a brand new Tesco supermarket. Which is not altogether encouraging for those of us who would like to see a new and improved look to UK publishing.

Can Penguin survive? Well, if it was an independent company I would be inclined to think not. But as it is part of the massive Pearson group I suppose the answer is yes. Though whether the present management of the company will survive is another question altogether.

Friday, November 12, 2004

Robert Ryan: The Blue Noon

You will have gathered by now (if you've been paying attention) that I am particularly interested in novels which are set in the second world war. There are several reasons for this. One is that I was born in 1939 and can therefore actually remember the war (and that is what it was always called -- the war); and another is that I have written a novel set in that time myself (Beautiful Lady), written under the pen-name Patrick Read.

So that explains how I came to be reading Robert Ryan's The Blue Noon.

Ryan has published six novels so far, all of them thrillers (for want of a better term). Ryan himself seems to be English: born in Liverpool, lives in north London, writes for various magazines and newspapers when not doing novels. His first three books were set in America, for some reason which I do not understand, but perhaps connected with the idea that the market is bigger over there. Then he discovered world war II, or thereabouts. Early One Morning was firmly set in that era, and makes fictional use of some real-life characters, now deceased. And The Blue Noon does the same.

The central character is Harry Cole. And Harry is, according to the publisher's blurb, a rogue. There are other words for such a person. Small-time crook; con-man; thief; chancer; first-class shit; someone who looks after number one and fuck everybody else.

Harry, in other words, is not someone you might immediately and instinctively like; not when you know the truth about him. And it is a tribute to Ryan's narrative skills that he does make us care about Harry.

Harry Cole was very much a real person, and The Blue Noon features quite a number of other historical figures, either doing what they actually did in real life, or doing fictional things. This is a tricky technique to handle. I have done it myself and can testify to that.

I don't know what rule of thumb Robert Ryan adopted when using real-life personages in this way, but for my part I decided that it would be unfair to paint historical figures as any blacker than they actually were. This, for me, did not create any particular problems, because the people I was dealing with -- Ribbentrop, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Joe Kennedy, for example -- were all people who were adept at coating themselves with whitewash during their lifetime, but who, when you scrape off the layer of whitewash, proved to be such absolute shits that it would be hard to oversell their villainy.

Anyway, back to The Blue Noon. In my eyes, this is an exceptionally well written book, particularly in the early chapters. It constitutes a considerable improvement on its predecessor, which I discussed on 9 June.

At the end of the book, Ryan lists the books which he has used as sources. This is very sensible of him. I have done the same. And one just has to hope, of course, that none of the historians, either professional or amateur, who have written the source books, will take any exception to the way one has freely adopted and adapted their work.

The Blue Noon is thoroughly recommended.

Robert Ryan has his own web site with lots more interesting information.

Thursday, November 11, 2004

Christopher Priest: The Separation

Christopher Priest is normally categorised as a science-fiction writer. And maybe he is. And I am not one of those who will wriggle and squirm and do anything rather than admit that I read science fiction. Far from it. I do have to say, however, at the outset, that The Separation seems to me to be an altogether 'bigger' novel than might be suggested by decribing it as sci fi. Just don't let any sort of labelling put you off reading it -- that's what I'm really saying.

The second thing that needs to be said is that The Separation is sometimes described as an alternate-history novel. And that too needs more than a few comments.

First of all, a definition. An alternate-history novel (so called) is one which describes events in a world which might have come about if only someone had done something a little different.

This kind of speculation is as old as time. It was Blaise Pascal, for example, who first pointed out that, if Cleopatra's nose had been shorter (in other words, had she been a really ugly woman, with halitosis to boot) the whole course of history would have been different.

And while it is a long time since I did any serious reading about the French Revolution, I seem to remember that at least one historian commented on how differently things might have turned out if the French royal family had escaped, and had never been executed. At one point they managed to get as far as a place called Varennes, where they were recognised and forced to return to Paris. And, as I recall, one historian listed some simple but critical mistakes which the royal family might have avoided if only... Simple points which would have changed the course of history. If only...

And we cannot, of course, leave the question of 'alternate' history without pointing out that science-fiction admirers and critics do themselves no favours by using this term. In the world of recorded music, Humphrey Lyttelton long ago pointed out that the practice of referring to 'alternate' takes was a nonsense.

The correct description is surely 'alternative' takes and 'alternative' history. The adjective 'alternate' means 'every other (of two things) each following and succeeded by the other in a regular pattern' (Concise Oxford). 'Alternative' means 'available as another possibility', which is much more in line with what the record collectors and sci-fi commentators have in mind.

However, largely, I suspect, through the North American influence, we seem to be stuck with 'alternate history' as the most widely used form of words, and if you want to read a handy summary of the origins of this type of fiction you can find one here.

At last we turn to The Separation. Basically, this is a story about a pair of male twins who win bronze medals for rowing in the Berlin Olympic games of 1936. Thereafter they live in a world in which things happen which did not happen in the real world of our history, but which very well might have happened, if only...

Christopher Priest is a man who knows the true history of the second world war intimately, and is thus able to offer us variations on it in an absolutely convincing manner. Beyond that I am not going to say much about The Separation, except that it is exceptionally well written, thoughtful, and intriguing. It must have taken a very long time to write, and it is, perhaps, a little over-written in places. But it would be churlish to complain about something so subtle. (If you insist on a summary of the story, you can find one here.)

The quality of The Separation was widely recognised on its publication in 2002 (the reviews are available on the author's own web site) and in 2003 it won both the BSFA Award and the Arthur C. Clarke Award. Something strange seems to have happened in its publication history. It was first issued as a trade paperback by Scribner, but one source says that it was 'withdrawn'. In any event, it was republished by Gollancz in 2004.

All in all, I warmly recommend The Separation for your attention. One word of warning: I found the ending to be both shocking and disturbing. If you are looking for something light-hearted and full of jokes, this ain't it.

Wednesday, November 10, 2004

The point of view, part 5

Below is the final post in my series on the choice of viewpoint in fiction.

Choice and consistency

I appreciate that by now you may have the impression that choosing the best viewpoint to use for a short story (or a novel) is a decidedly tricky business. But it isn’'t really.

If you are planning to write a story at all, then you will presumably have some sort of an outline in mind. Have a look at that material, and as often as not you will find that the ‘best’ viewpoint pretty much suggests itself. The choice is frequently instinctive, and may well be dictated, or at least suggested, by the nature of the material.

However, at some stage it will probably be wise to take a look at your ‘instinctive’ decision on viewpoint, and decide whether it really will provide the best method of telling the story.

If you get stuck, and aren’'t quite sure which viewpoint to use, then here is a series of questions which will enable you to reach a decision.

1 Are you going to use the omniscient viewpoint, which enables you to enter the heads of any and all characters if you so wish, – or are you going to write from the point of view of one major character, or one minor character?

2 If you are using the major-character viewpoint, or the minor-character viewpoint, are you going to write in the first person or the third person?

3 Whichever viewpoint you choose, are you going to describe external and visible events only, or are you going to describe the internal thoughts and feelings of any of the characters?

4 If you are writing in the third person, are you going to provide ‘author comment’? Are you going to give the reader strong indications of how she should react to the characters and events, or are you going to let the events speak for themselves, with the reader coming to her own conclusions about who is good or bad, right or wrong?

5 If you are writing in the first person, is that narrator going to try to influence the reader about who is good or bad, right or wrong? Or, again, is the reader going to be given a neutral, objective account of events, and be left to form her own conclusions?

6 If you are writing a first-person account, is that going to be a truthful account of what happened, or not?

7 In the major- and minor-character viewpoints, does the narrator come to correct and sensible conclusions about what he observes? Or does he come to false (and perhaps tragic or comic) conclusions?

To repeat, you may not always find yourself needing to work through this checklist in any conscious way, because the answers to the questions listed above will often be implicit in the material that you have already developed. Nevertheless, it can sometimes help you to strengthen what material you have by thinking about some of these possibilities.

As for consistency in the use of one viewpoint – well, that is a matter of personal choice and taste. I myself make it something of a point of honour to stick rigorously to the selected viewpoint. Genette, on the other hand, argues that strict observance of this rule is unnecessary.

Will anyone complain if you do vary the viewpoint? Suppose, for example, you are writing a story from the major-character viewpoint, in the third person. If, for a paragraph or two, you forget to be consistent and suddenly tell the reader what a minor character is thinking, – are your readers going to feel upset?

Probably not, is the honest answer. Most readers won’'t even notice. At least, not consciously. I am inclined to think, however, that readers will notice such a shift of viewpoint unconsciously, and that is why I avoid it.

My advice is that you should choose, consciously and deliberately, to write each story from one particular viewpoint and then stick to it.

Tuesday, November 09, 2004

The point of view, part 4

Continuing my series of posts on the various viewpoints from which fiction may be written.

The minor-character viewpoint

The third and final angle from which a story may be told is the minor-character viewpoint. It is sometimes referred to as the mystery angle – for reasons which will now be explained.

In a story told from the viewpoint of a minor character, the narrator is a participant in the action, but is more of an observer than a person who makes the key decisions in the story. And a story told from the minor-character viewpoint can be written in either the first or the third person.

Fortunately, we don’t have to go far to find an example of a whole series of stories which are told from the point of view of a minor character. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle provides us with the archetype in the Sherlock Holmes canon.

The Holmes stories, you will recall, are written in the first person by the great detective’s faithful assistant, Dr Watson. And, as Conan Doyle obviously realised at an early stage, the minor-character viewpoint is ideal when the author wishes to maintain a sense of mystery. We, the readers, know no more than Watson is able to tell us, and as often as not that is not very much. Holmes sits and puffs his pipe, and comes to amazing conclusions, but we, like Watson, stumble along in Holmes’s wake, wondering what on earth he is up to now.

Countless other crime novelists have adopted the same technique. S.S. Van Dine wrote a series of mystery novels which were related by the detective’s secretary. Rex Stout’s books about the eccentric detective Nero Wolfe are recounted by Wolfe’s faithful sidekick, Archie Goodwin. And so on.

The minor-character angle has other uses, however. Suppose you were to write a story in which the main character is going to be driven insane, or commit suicide, as a result of the impact of certain tragic events. Such a story could either be told from an omniscient viewpoint, or it could be told by a minor character. Through the eyes of such a minor character, the reader shares the impact of the events on the narrator, and is told of the much greater effect that they have on the major character.

As with the other two viewpoints, the writer of a story told from the minor-character viewpoint can influence the reader’s attitudes towards all the other characters in the story by the extent to which the narrator gives the reader nudges, winks, and nods.

When using the first person, you can also colour the reader’s view of the minor character cum narrator by what you make the narrator say about himself, about the other participants in the action, and about the nature of the unfolding events.

If you were ever extravagant enough to buy a copy of my own collection of short stories (King Albert’s Words of Advice), you might need to know that I regard Decent White Folk as a story with a minor-character viewpoint, told in the first person. The principal character in that story is the Inspector, not the narrator.

Monday, November 08, 2004

The point of view, part 3

This post continues the series of extracts from my forthcoming book on the technique of the short story. The extracts are taken from the chapter on the various points of view from which a story may be written.

The major-character viewpoint

Now we come to the second of the three possible viewpoints for writing fiction.

A story which uses the major-character viewpoint is, rather obviously, one in which the events are related as seen by one of the most important participants in the events. A story told from this point of view is an account of the action as seen (or heard), by a character who is heavily involved in the story.

When using this viewpoint, you relate the events as the major character sees them, and you probably describe that one character’s thoughts and feelings. But you do not enter the heads of any of the other characters, or tell the reader what those characters are thinking and feeling.

Why not? Well, because your major character can’t be sure what the other characters are thinking. Unlike the omniscient author, he or she is not a god. The main character may guess what is running through the minds of the others, from the way they look and act – but he can’t know for sure.

Consider, for example, Maupassant’s story The Beggar (which you can find here). The Beggar tells readers about what happened to the only important character in the story. It is told in the third person, and the author describes the events precisely as they were experienced by the main character, the beggar himself.

In addition to recounting events, Maupassant describes the beggar’s thoughts and his feelings. He also tells us what other characters do in relation to the beggar, but he never tells us what those characters are thinking and feeling. We can definitely deduce that those characters are angry, and resentful, and that they dislike the beggar, but we are never told exactly what they are thinking or feeling internally.

Chekhov’s Old Age is another story told from the major-character viewpoint, in the third person.

Edgar Allan Poe’s The Cask of Amontillado uses the major-character, first person viewpoint.

So far so good. But hold on a minute, you say. There may be four or five major characters in a story so how do you decide which of them to use as your pair of eyes?

Al Zuckerman’s opinion (with which I do not intend to argue) is that you should select as the viewpoint character the character who is experiencing the biggest emotional load – the one who has the most to gain, or to lose, depending on how the events of the story turn out. Maupassant’s choice of the beggar himself as the viewpoint character was a fairly obvious one!

The major-character viewpoint is ideal for stories in which the viewpoint character experiences strong inner conflicts, which you can describe in some detail. Your character may well sit and think for some time, rather than act as prompted by pure reflex. (Action after due consideration is much more revealing of character than is action on the spur of the moment.)

As remarked above, a story told from the omniscient viewpoint has to be written in the third person. The major-character viewpoint story, however, can be written in either the third or the first person.

Uzzell maintained that it doesn’t make a scrap of difference which grammatical form you use, because both forms convey exactly the same information. ‘I climbed the stairs’ tells us no more than ‘He climbed the stairs’. This is true, up to a point. But... it is worth making a few comments.

To begin with, a first-person narrator must usually be a reasonably articulate individual, if he is to be convincing. Having said that, you may, of course, want to convey an impression of an individual who is not particularly articulate, in which case the first-person mode conveys perfectly what a limited vocabulary the fellow has.

The first person is far better than the third if you want to write a story which is told with a regional accent. See, for instance, my story Decent White Folk, in King Albert’s Words of Advice.

I sometimes feel, instinctively, when reading a story told in the first person, that such a story is probably more involving to the reader than it would be if it were told in the third person. That, however, is not a contention which I can prove. And I do have to accept the validity of a point made by Gerard Genette, namely that it is implicit in a first-person story that the narrator has survived the events which he is describing. When reading a first-person story we thus have some assurance (perhaps absorbed unconsciously) that our first-person character will come out on top in the end. So, if you want to maintain total suspense about the ultimate fate of the main character, then the third person is the one to use. Maupassant, for instance, could not use the first person in The Beggar, because the beggar ends up dead!

It is also true, I believe, at least in most cases, that stories which call for a great deal of psychological analysis and self-questioning are better handled in the third person. An individual who, on his own admission, spends a lot of time worrying about his own motives and reviewing his own past history can soon begin to seem rather self-centred.

When using the main-character viewpoint, it is still possible to ‘colour’ your descriptions subjectively, or alternatively make them objective, in just the same way as was described in relation to the omniscient viewpoint. In other words, even when you are writing in the first person, your main character can either say ‘He was a seedy and unpleasant-looking man’, or, ‘His shoes were down-at-heel and his raincoat was streaked with dirt’. It is worth noticing, however, that in the major-character story, the writer’s choice of words will not only colour the reader’s attitude towards the other character who is being described, but the words will also colour the reader’s view of the major character himself.

For example, if a first-person narrator says of another character ‘He was a total shit-bag’, then you know that the narrator is not a man who pulls his punches. On the other hand, if the first-person narrator says (of the same character), ‘He was far from a perfect gentleman’, then the narrator is revealing that he is probably an elderly gentleman who was brought up in the age of understatement.

Finally, before we leave this discussion of the advantages and disadvantages of the major-character narrative in the first person, I should not neglect to acquaint you with the concept of ‘the unreliable narrator’.

The term is pretty much self-explanatory, and at the risk of stating the blindingly obvious I will just say that it is at least possible that a character who gives you a first-person account of a series of events may, in fact, be lying through his teeth. The whole story may be a complete fabrication, intended either to entertain or to deceive. This possibility presents a number of interesting opportunities, but I will leave it to you to explore them.

The concept of the unreliable narrator is much discussed in literary circles. Indeed in the Eng. Lit. common rooms of the great universities they speak of little else. But don’t let that put you off.

Another possibility presented by first-person narration is not so much that the narrator is lying, as that he misunderstands completely the meaning of the events that he is witnessing. And, if you can somehow contrive to reveal to the reader that the narrator is drawing entirely the wrong conclusions from the events in which he is involved, then the result can be either comic or tragic, depending on how you handle the material.

This writing business, you will now realise, does tend to get a bit complicated at times. But therein lies the skill; and by mastering these skills through practice you will gradually learn how to ensure that your stories have a bigger impact on the reader – an impact more in line with the one that you have intended.

Friday, November 05, 2004

The point of view, part 2

Today we continue with the extracts from the chapter on the use of viewpoint in fiction which will, eventually, appear in my forthcoming book on the technique of the short story. Today's extract deals with the god-like vision.

The omniscient viewpoint

A writer who adopts the omniscient viewpoint writes as if she is one of the gods. In other words, she looks down from above, as it were, and sees everything with perfect clarity.

An omniscient author knows everything about everybody in the story. She knows what each and every character is thinking and feeling, at any given point in time, and she is free to tell her readers about those thoughts and feelings to whatever extent she wishes.

The omniscient viewpoint is sometimes called the novelist's angle, and certainly it was much used by novelists in the nineteenth-century. Such novelists, as often as not, commanded great armies of characters, and they told their readers, in enormous detail, about the characters' upbringing, tastes, likes and dislikes, moral character, and family history. The novelists told their readers these things, please note, and did not just reveal them to readers through the characters' actions. They also told readers about the innermost thoughts and feelings of the characters.

The writer who adopts the omniscient viewpoint stands well outside the story, looking on. She is not a participant in the tale; she stands aloof.

Inevitably, and inescapably, the omniscient writer must write in the third person. She must say 'He climbed the stairs', and not 'I climbed the stairs', because if you write in the first person you are, of necessity, using one of the other two available viewpoints. (Which we will deal with in later posts.)

While it is possible, in theory, for the omniscient writer to enter the minds of all her characters, it is common for novelists to limit this practice to the half-dozen or so major characters. In a short story, it may be wiser to describe the thoughts and feelings of only one or two major characters. Other, minor, characters may best be dealt with by describing their actions only, ignoring their internal reactions.

And by the way, if you are going to enter the heads of your leading characters, and convey their thoughts to the reader, you should preferably be consistent about it. In a murder story, for instance, it is no good telling us what everyone is thinking except the murderer. Not only is that aesthetically unbalanced, and a form of cheating, but it also tends to send a signal to the alert reader. It is the equivalent of putting a neon sign above the guilty party's head, saying This Is The One Who Did It!

The omniscient viewpoint has a long and honourable history. And for that reason it is, perhaps, just the tiniest bit old-fashioned. Don't let me put you off -- you can certainly breathe new life into the old girl. But, in adopting a technique which was widely used 150 years ago, you can easily slip into the habit of writing in the style which the old-timers used. And that may not go down too well with modern editors and readers.

Author comment

Before moving on to describe the second of the three possible viewpoints, I want to say something about the extent to which an author may, or should, comment on the action.

As I mentioned above, there are numerous variations which can be worked upon the three basic viewpoints; and one of those variations is the extent to which the author chooses to comment, or nudge the reader's elbow, so to speak.

The omniscient viewpoint provides ample opportunity for the writer to say what she thinks about any of the characters, or about the unfolding events; and, if you are using this viewpoint, you really ought to decide, as consciously as possible, whether you are going to use this opportunity to comment, or not.

Not commenting means that you just tell the story. You simply relate what happens to the characters. You may, perhaps, take advantage of your godlike position and tell the reader what the major characters are thinking and feeling. And that would probably be a good idea; it helps to get the reader involved in the story.

However, the writer who chooses to comment can go considerably further than that. The writer may, if she wishes, give hints and tips about the unfolding action: she may choose to remind us readers of things we might have forgotten, and forewarn us of events yet to come. She may well tell us, for instance, that Mr Brown is a nasty piece of work, and that Mrs Green will one day be declared a saint. She may point out that Miss Jones is making a big mistake by agreeing to have dinner with that man from the sales department, and she may assure us that Mr Brown will one day be married and have four kids.

In the nineteenth century, particularly, writers took full advantage of their godlike status to bombard us with their own beliefs and moral judgements. Which is all very well. You can do that if you choose. But just remember that the modern reader is likely, on the whole, to be more interested in the unfolding events of the story than in hearing what you, the author, think about couples living together without being married, or the state of the modern Labour party. A writer can make herself the star of the show if she wishes, and inflict her opinions on the long-suffering reader. But be warned -- even the star can be booed offstage.

My advice, for what it is worth, is that you should confine yourself to telling the story, entering the minds of the leading characters from time to time, and telling us what they are thinking and feeling. Apart from that, keep your mouth firmly shut. No one wants to know.

Even if you refrain from telling us directly that Miss Jones is making a big mistake, you may still colour the reader's thinking by the way in which you present raw information. And here again, this may be done either consciously or unconsciously. I recommend the conscious and thoughtful approach.

For example, you could write: He was a seedy, unpleasant-looking man. By writing such a sentence, you are conveying to the reader, deliberately or otherwise, what you think of this character. If you refer to him as seedy and unpleasant he doesn't sound like much of a catch for a well brought up young lady, now does he?

On the other hand, you could write, of the same individual: His shoes were down-at-heel and his raincoat was streaked with dirt. Which is more objective, and doesn't ram home a moral judgement. It also leaves open the possibility that this character might turn out to be a perfect gentleman -- one who, for entirely understandable reasons, is temporarily down on his luck. And the reader might well be more interested in continuing to read your story if she is left to wonder about that possibility, than she would be if you put up another neon sign above the character's head, saying This One Is Up To No Good.

Some literary thinkers have referred to these two different ways of presenting the facts as writing subjectively and writing objectively. Nudging the reader's elbow, by describing a character as seedy, may be thought of as writing subjectively. Writing objectively, by contrast, simply means telling the reader that the man's clothes are shabby.

All too often a writer will fall into a subjective style of writing without being conscious of it. And that may be a perfectly satisfactory way of proceeding. But just try to be aware of what you are doing, and ask yourself whether that is really the best way to achieve the effect you are seeking. At the revision stage, try to recognise when you are falling into the commenting mode, and, if that is not what you really want to do, strike out the offending passage.