Thursday, May 26, 2005

Pause in posts

There will be no further posts on the GOB until Friday 3 June.

There are no Great Novels

In my previous post, John Carey and the Arts (set out immediately below this one), I promised to supply an extract from my book The Truth about Writing: an extract which deals with the question of whether there is, or is not, such a thing as a Great Novel.

Here is that extract. But if you haven't yet read the piece on John Carey, then I suggest you do so first.

There are no Great Novels

The theory of emotion which is expounded in the previous sections [of my book The Truth about Writing] has a number of interesting implications. Here is a discussion of the first of them.
Almost every teacher and lecturer in the field of English literature will seek to convince you that there is something called a Great Novel.

The alleged great novel may be, for instance, James Joyce’s Ulysses, a book which, it so happens, I much admire; or it may be D.H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers, a book which, it so happens, I find unreadable.

According to the professors and opinion-setters of our time, the great novel somehow has a stature all of its own; it remains a great book whether you happen to enjoy it or not. In fact if you, as an individual, happen to consider the great novel excruciatingly dull and boring, then it is you, the moron, who is at fault. The novel in question allegedly remains a great novel, regardless of whether or not you – the individual reader – have the good taste and intellectual equipment to recognise it as such.

Nonsense, is my view. I know of no argument which constitutes grounds for believing these ideas to be true, and I can put forward a strong case for believing the opposite.

Consider what we know so far about the novel.

If the novel is anything at all, it is a machine for creating emotion in the reader. Reading a novel may, conceivably, leave you better informed about hotel management or fetishistic sex, but readers do not, on the whole, buy and borrow novels in order to enhance their stock of general knowledge; consciously or unconsciously, they read novels in order to be made to feel. The main function of a novel, therefore, any novel, may be said to be the generation of emotion in the reader. This is true whether the reader understands what is happening to her or not.

And what have we learnt about the generation of emotion?

We know that, in order for us to ‘get the joke’ – if we are to feel amusement, and if we are to laugh – we have to be able to speak the right language; furthermore, we need to have the right frame of reference. To understand a joke which is told in English, we need to speak English. To understand a joke told in English about Holmes and Watson, we need to know who Holmes and Watson are.

If we are German, or Japanese, and if we are Nobel-prizewinning chemists, are we necessarily intellectually inferior because we don’t speak English, and because we have never heard of Holmes and Watson? I don’t think so. We may, in fact be extremely bright and well educated.

Those persons who do not ‘get’ the joke about Holmes and Watson [which I quoted earlier in the book] – and I have no doubt that there are many millions of them – cannot be said in any meaningful way to be stupid, ignorant, or lacking in taste. They are simply people who do not speak the necessary language and who do not possess the necessary frame of reference in order to appreciate the joke.

Exactly the same can be said, of course, about the communication of emotion via Ulysses, Sons and Lovers, and any other book which is held by the so-called authorities to be a great novel.

A brief excursion for ammunition

At this point we need to make a brief excursion into the fields of quantum mechanics and information theory. But fear not. It’s all quite simple really.

In 1927, Werner Heisenberg pointed out a particular limitation of science. Heisenberg realised that if you wanted to know the precise location of an electron, you had to make it visible, so to speak, by bombarding it with electromagnetic radiation.

Unfortunately, when you bombarded the electron in this way, you also shifted its position. Hence you could find out where it was after you had ‘shone a light’ on it, but you could never know where the elusive thing had been while it remained in darkness, so to speak. This circumstance is known as Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle.

Please note that the observer who examines an electron does not give ‘reality’ to that entity; but the act of observing does change the system.

In itself, the uncertainty principle does not seem to be all that big a deal, at least to the layman; it doesn’t seem to have much to do with the price of fish. But it turns out that the principle has some profound implications in philosophy and science.

For example, Karl Marx and his communist colleagues had argued that a number of political developments were absolutely certain to occur in capitalist societies. Certain to occur, please notice, without any mights and maybes. Armed revolution by the working classes, for instance, was historically inevitable, at least according to Marx; you couldn’t do anything to prevent it even if you wanted to.

However, when armed with the uncertainty principle, a number of critics of communism, notably Karl Popper, were able to demonstrate that the Marxists’ claims were fundamentally unsound. Marxism, it turned out, was no more scientific than any other set of preferences or ideas about how things might happen in the future.

Popper was also able to show that Freud’s ideas on psychoanalysis were distinctly less scientific and ‘certain’ than some enthusiasts had claimed. For a long time, Freud’s supporters had managed the neat dodge of labelling any sort of criticism of their theories as being motivated by neurosis; hence, they argued, criticism of Freud’s theories merely constituted further proof of how right those theories had been all along. In the end, this argument was recognised as specious.

To summarise: the important thing to note, from a writer’s point of view, is that, in quantum mechanics, the observer has an effect on reality.

Next we need to have a brief look at information theory.

Information can be described as ‘the difference’. For example, there is a difference, to most observers, between (a) the sky and (b) the grass in a field below the sky. A scientist and a cow can both see this difference.

To the scientist, however, the grass might represent something to be taken to the laboratory and tested for chemical content. To the cow, the grass would probably represent food.

Same stuff, grass, but two observers and two interpretations of the same information. In other words, in modern information theory, the observer becomes part of the equation.

Quantum mechanics and information theory both demonstrate that in any assessment of reality, the observer has to be taken into consideration. This contrasts with the view of nineteenth century scientists, to whom the observer was irrelevant; reality was thought to exist independent of any subjective viewer. But in the twenty-first century we are obliged to accept that the observer’s participation makes a difference.

Back to the Great Novels argument

When we consider fiction, we find an exactly analogous position to that which exists in quantum mechanics and information theory.

A novel exists as a physical object, a book. But the emotion which a novel creates is not of a fixed quantity or quality. The emotion varies according to language spoken by, and the frame of reference possessed by, each individual reader. The case for there being any such thing as a great novel is therefore fundamentally unsound.

This is not a secret. We already know this. We have seen it demonstrated many times over. When we come across a book which we ourselves find entrancing, we often recommend it warmly to a close friend whose tastes, we know, largely coincide with ours. But even then the friend may remain unmoved and unimpressed; the magic doesn’t always work.

And why doesn’t the magic doesn’t always work? Because of the way in which emotion is generated. We know that, in real life, the series of events for creating emotion is: stimulus; conscious or unconscious thought; physical response.

The same mechanism operates, or fails to operate, when we read fiction. A stimulus is provided by the printed word; this creates conscious or unconscious thoughts, and stirs up memories; and a physical response may or may not arise.

Each reader (observer) brings to this interaction of stimulus, thought, and physical response, her own set of experiences, memories, hopes and fears. The contribution from the reader may or may not interact with the stimulus provided by the writer in the ways which the writer intended. The precise opposite of what was intended may occur. The intensely serious play by an intensely serious young man may play like a farce which has the audience folded up with laughter.

There is not, literally, a two-way exchange of traffic between the novel and the reader; the words on the printed page do not change. But there is certainly an interchange, and there is certainly two-way traffic, metaphorically speaking. The reader invests the book, temporarily, with her own biochemistry and receptivity, and the novel succeeds, or fails, accordingly.

It follows, therefore, that great novels do not exist as entities in their own right. A novel only has the power to generate emotion when a reader of the right kind comes across it. And this is true whether we are talking about D.H. Lawrence or Mills and Boon.

There is no hierarchy of fiction

Most professors of English literature, and most of the highbrow literary critics of this world, would have you believe that there is, metaphorically speaking, a hierarchical tower of fiction. This tower is something like a block of flats. At the top, in the exclusive penthouse, is a small amount of ‘literature’, i.e. Great Novels. In the basement is a large heap of trash.

Now, I am not much impressed by some of the more extreme feminist arguments about dead white European males, but I do have to admit that all this hierarchy malarkey has a distinctly masculine feel to it. The idea is almost phallic. Furthermore, it is a theory which is for the most part advanced by men, and curiously enough it embodies the belief that most of the good stuff, at the top of the tower, is written by men. The ‘generalised rubbish’ at the bottom of the fiction pile is often identified, when push comes to shove, as romantic fiction, or women’s fiction.

The truth, however, is that there is not a top-to-bottom hierarchy of fiction, with great books at the glorious summit and ‘trash’ or ‘pulp’ at the unspeakably vulgar bottom. If we must think of the range of available fiction in visual terms, it is best to think of a broad spectrum of books, which runs horizontally. You might care to imagine a street in which every building is a bookshop containing a particular kind of fiction.

This range, or spectrum, of fiction consists of a variety of types of novels which are accessible at different points to different kinds of readers.

Not every book appeals to every reader, in the sense that each and every reader will inevitably feel its emotional impact. It has never been so, and it never can be so. A novel will only ‘speak to’, and generate emotion in, those readers who are capable of understanding its language, and who possess the relevant frame of reference.

Let me remind you of what Edgar Allan Poe said, in that paragraph which I quoted earlier in the chapter [i.e. in the Truth about Writing]. He spoke of a short story being appreciated ‘in the mind of him who contemplates it with a kindred art.’ (Italics added.) ‘With a kindred art’ is Poe’s way of saying that you need to speak the right language and possess the right frame of reference.

As we grow older, and learn more, our knowledge of ‘languages’ usually expands, as does our frame of reference. We do not usually read and enjoy the same novels at age seventy-five as at age fifteen. At different stages of our lives we may very well access the spectrum of fiction at different points.

We know instinctively what we want from fiction, just as an animal knows when it needs salt, or water, and we seek it out. We read reviews, we ask our friends for advice, we question librarians and booksellers. But the point is that we move sideways on the available menu, not upwards – or even, occasionally, downwards.

This visual image of the range of fiction is, I suspect, a softer and more feminine view than the one which is offered to us by males.

And do you want to know why men are so keen on the hierarchy idea? Because it permits those who hold power in this particular arena to impress the opposite sex.

You think I’m joking? Try attending a party given by one of the leading literary publishers and watch the young lions (male writers) being surrounded by gullible young women. Seems to work every time.

Then again, consider the vested interest of all those who teach the subject of English literature. They are all doing pretty nicely, thank you, preaching the 1947 party line, and they’re not too keen on having any revisionists question it.

The facts are really very simple. A book either works in terms of producing the intended emotion in a target reader, or it does not.

For instance, a literary work by, say, Salman Rushdie either fascinates and enthrals and ‘delivers’ to those who normally enjoy contemporary literary fiction, or it does not. Similarly, a Mills & Boon hospital romance either works for regular hospital-romance readers, or it doesn’t. If a particular novel does satisfy most readers in the target audience, it may be said to be successful. To insist on calling it a ‘good’ book or a ‘great novel’ really doesn’t help much.

Personally I do not believe that a book can be said to be good or bad in any absolute sense – it is only successful or unsuccessful in terms of its intended audience. And its intended audience, to repeat a point made earlier, is a group of people who speak a particular language, either literally or metaphorically; it is a group of people who share a set of interests and a common frame of reference.

Some books continue to produce the intended emotion in readers over a long period of time. There are still plenty of people who can read Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice with pleasure, even though it was written in 1813. On the other hand, Fergus Hume’s The Mystery of a Hansom Cab does not satisfy many readers today, despite the fact that it was a huge hit in the years immediately following its publication in 1886.

Books which continue to be enjoyed for long periods of time tend to become known as ‘classics’. This is a convenient shorthand term, but again, you should not be misled into assuming that it implies some absolute quality.

Sherlock Holmes is often thought of as ‘immortal’, and James Bond is still going strong at about fifty years of age. But were their creators, Arthur Conan Doyle and Ian Fleming respectively, any better writers than, say, Edgar Wallace or Margery Allingham, neither of whom is much read today? I don’t believe so.

Books which continue to work for a long period of time, say several decades, do so I suspect more by virtue of factors other than the inherent character of the books themselves. Not the least of these is adaptation into film and television series.

As for striving to achieve classic status yourself – forget it. Your first task, when writing a novel, is to make it work for your intended audience today. Let the future take care of itself.

John Carey on the arts

Now don't let that word 'arts' put you off. This is not going to be a high-falutin, arty-farty, fancypants piece of pseudo-intellectual bullshit, of the kind to which you are so well accustomed, and of which you are so heartily sick. No sirree and madam. This is going to tell it like it is. Courtesy of John Carey. And, of course, my modest self.

Last weekend's Sunday Times contained an article by John Carey, extracted from his forthcoming book What Good are the Arts, to be published on 2 June by Faber. I would like to give you an online link to this article, but I can't because the Times web site has been down for a week or more. Never mind. I can give you the gist of what Carey had to say.

John Carey, by the way, was Merton Professor of English at Oxford until he retired in 2001, and he is still an emeritus Prof. But fortunately he has not fallen prey to spouting the kind of nonsense which emerges from some of our universities. In addition to his academic status he has for a number of years been the Sunday Times's chief literary critic.

Judging by the extract from Carey's new book, his argument is that people in the West have been saying extravagant (and just plain wrong) things about the arts for two hundred years. For example, it is often claimed that art-lovers have more 'refined sensibilities' than others, and that those who fail to appreciate the highbrow stuff are in some way a lesser kind of human being.

Carey rejects that view. It derives, he believes, from the work of Immanuel Kant, in the Critique of Judgement, and Kant's barmy ideas have remained the basis of aesthetic assumptions in the West ever since. Much of what Kant had to say, Carey argues, is a 'farrago of superstition and unsubstantiated assertion.' And he is dead right.

One way and another, those bloody German philosophers have a lot to answer for, don't they? Kant, it seems, was the starting point for Hegel, who led on to Marx. And look where that got us. Right up the creek.

Similarly, Carey is right on the ball when he points out that the highbrow arts (for want of a better term) constitute a glorious opportunity for certain sections of the community to 'demonstrate', i.e. assert, their own superiority over the mere plebs who prefer Coronation Street to Hedda Gabler.

The argument, he says, goes something like this: 'The experience I get when I look at a Rembrandt or listen to Mozart is more valuable than the experience you get when you look at or listen to whatever kitsch or sentimental outpourings you do get pleasure from.' This is a point of view which is all too familiar and one which, to use a distressingly plebeian phrase, gets right up my nose.

Such arguments, says Carey, bring with them a wonderful sense of security (for the select elite, that is). The elitist viewpoint 'assures you of your specialness. It inscribes you in the book of life, from which the nameless masses are excluded.'

These unacceptably snobbish attitudes are based on the assumption that there exists a category of things, called works of art, which are intrinsically more valuable than things which are not works of art, and that those who can 'appreciate' them are infinitely superior to the rest of us groundlings. And they are based, says Carey, on no firm intellectual footing whatever.

Well, bless my little cotton socks. It is always gratifying to find an eminent and learned man who says things that I myself have said a good few times: frequently on this blog, in abbreviated form, and at greater length in my 2003 book Truth about Writing. That book, by the way, is available either on, or on

My next post will take the form of an extract from The Truth about Writing which deals with the question of whether there is or is not such a thing as a Great Novel, and whether there is truly a hierarchy of fiction -- or for that matter, any other form of art. Hint: there ain't.

Meanwhile, if you want to read a seriously objectionable piece of intellectual snobbery, coupled with some amazingly fuzzy thinking, nip over to the Guardian. There you will find a piece by D J Taylor.

The assumption underlying this article is that there are 'good books', which are read and appreciated by frightfully clever chaps like Taylor, and there are books which are sold in supermarkets, which, my dears, are the most ghastly vulgar trash. So much so that one can hardly bear to think of all those dreadful working-class people carrying them off and actually enjoying them! It is too, too depressing.

According to Taylor, the availability of books in supermarkets can only lower the overall quality of the available material. And this is, apparently, quite dreadful news for 'serious novelists' -- for which, read people who write literary fiction, take themselves far too seriously, value themselves far too highly, and expect others to take them at their own valuation.

For more on why Taylor is wrong, see my next post.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Culture shock

My eye fell on a story in Jai Clare's blog, The Cusp of Something, about the University of Cairo. Since I used to work in the university sector (in the UK) I am always interested to hear what goes on elsewhere.

In brief, what happened is that Brazilian writer Paul Coelho turned up to speak to the students, and was introduced by not just one academic but two, both of whom seem to have been excessively fond of the sound of their own voice. Not surprisingly, the assembled students soon became restless, as did the visiting speaker.

It turns out that this is pretty much the prevailing pattern at the U of C. The lecturers regard themselves as second only to God, and the students are supposed to sit there, write it all down, and be grateful.

Well, there are apparently moves afoot to change all that. And the sooner the better, in my view.

Vote of thanks

Today's Publishers Lunch (which ain't free, sadly -- but then there never was a free lunch, was there?) includes a mention of Mrs Lunch.

This reminds me that there is also a Mr Maud, over at Maud Newton. And of course there is a Mrs GOB. Doubtless there are many others, whose heart sinks when the beloved (well, fairly beloved, most of the time) slopes off to the computer when really there are far more important things to be done. Like trimming the hedge, decorating the spare bedroom, counting the sheep, et cetera. All vital and long overdue.

Since nobody (to my memory) has ever offered a vote of thanks to these long-suffering partners, I do so now. They also serve...

Yet more on Macmillan

You will recall, perhaps, the discussions of the Macmillan New Writing initiative.

On 3 May I wrote a piece warmly welcoming the Macmillan scheme, although in the process I did have to point out that the Guardian had published an article reporting that the good and the great on the London publishing scene universally hated its guts. Words such as 'scam' were freely bandied about, in drunken disregard of the libel laws of England.

Subsequently, on 17 May, I had to report that the mighty Robert McCrum, in the Observer, had also laid in with what, to my mind, were some wholly unfounded criticisms of Macmillan, including the allegation that the venerable old firm was guilty of an 'astounding abdication of cultural responsibility.'

Goodness me, I thought to myself. If this goes on it will be handbags at dawn before long.

Anyway, after all these various pieces had appeared, Mike Barnard, Executive Director of Macmillan Ltd, wrote to thank me for taking an interest in the Macmillan initiative. As he sensibly says, there are bound to be different views of it, and God knows I have criticised enough publishers myself in my time. But, says Barnard, Macmillan are acting with good intentions, and, at least in their own eyes, their integrity is intact.

Barnard enclosed with his email the text of a letter which he had sent to the Observer in response to McCrum's article. As it happens, the cowardy custards at the Obs didn't publish it, so with Barnard's permission I am going to reproduce it here.

Dear Sir,

What a bizarre outburst from Robert McCrum last week.

It is true Macmillan were the proud publishers of Hardy and Kipling in days gone by. It's also true that in 2005 we are the proud publishers of the current Booker prizewinner, Alan Hollinghurst, Nobel Laureate V. S. Naipaul, John Banville, Don DeLillo, Alice Sebold, Colm Toibin and many others. Hardly a publishing house displaying poor literary taste.

But, yes, we have eclectic lists of different types of publishing. This is one of the reasons why Macmillan is a vigorous, secure and successful company.

As to Macmillan New Writing, I am not quite sure why he is so critical. He identifies three problems for the publishing industry: huge advances (well, MNW is not paying those), decisions made on the basis of incomplete books (MNW is only reviewing completed novels) and publishing decisions initiated by sales and marketing departments (sales and marketing is one of the few responsibilities I have never held in my publishing career).

Incidentally, MNW was never a sales and marketing initiative. It arose out of a publishing strategy discussion at main board level and I subsequently talked to Macmillan editors I believe Robert McCrum would regard as "frontline" who told me they thought it was a good idea, although we agreed the new venture would be run independently and not as part of Macmillan's trade division, Pan Macmillan.

Is it the fact that we are reading unsolicited manuscripts which offends him? Is it only agents who may read unsolicited manuscripts? In the proud publishing traditions of the 19th century of which he seems so fond, this was how authors were chosen and I believe a few large publishers do still cast an eye over work sent in by unknown authors.

If it's print on demand which is upsetting him, he should verify his facts: all these books are being printed for stock. Print on demand will only follow after the first edition and then only for slow-selling titles. No doubt even he had a few of these in his time.

I enjoyed his comic image of agents "all over town" shaking their heads at our poor judgement. I'd hardly expect agents to welcome a scheme which has authors dealing direct with publishers. But I'm sure Pan Macmillan will continue to acquire most of its titles through agents. MNW is an additional initiative.

With regard to commenting on the grammar of a telephone quote I gave to a trade magazine journalist, that would suggest a dearth of other more useful points to be made. I don't know whether I was quoted verbatim, but if so I'm really ashamed of using "that" instead of "who". Sorry.

What I should not be accused of, however, is "abdicating cultural responsibility". How can that be the case when I am trying to remedy what he apparently agrees is an unsatisfactory situation?

I'm sure Robert Mc Crum would agree that the proof of the pudding's in the eating so I will happily send him the first titles for review next year.

Mike Barnard, Executive Director, Macmillan Ltd

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Rants and whines

Over at Bookangst 101, Mad Max is, as usual, publishing a number of complaints and comments from writers -- usually to the effect that their publisher done them wrong.

Fair enough, and you may care to send one in; I heard from a writer the other day who had done so, and is awaiting publication on the blog. But be warned. Max may not say, 'There, there, diddums, Mummy kiss it better.' He may, as he did on 17 May, say 'Sorry, but this is self-pitying crap.'

Windsor Chorlton: Cold Fusion

For about ninety per cent of its length, one might be forgiven for describing Windsor Chorlton's Cold Fusion as just another techno-thriller. But then it rises above itself, so to speak, and becomes something rather more valuable (at least to me): that is, a moving novel about human relationships.

Windsor Chorlton is a former senior editor of Time-Life Books, but now writes full-time. Before producing Cold Fusion, in 1999, he had written four other thrillers, but so far as I can discover he hasn't written one since then. However, unless there are two of him, he has written quite a lot of non-fiction, including books on weapons technology and silicone chips.

Cold Fusion is set in a not-too-distant future, after the earth's weather systems have been severely thrown out of kilter following the impact of a large meteorite. In particular, much of North America is now uninhabitable other than by polar bears.

It is in this world that a character called John Cope wakes up from a lengthy coma. Dr Mhairi Magnusson specialises in memory-retrieval and she is recruited to trawl Cope's brain for clues to his identity. In doing so she uncovers -- quote -- the horrors of his past and a yet more terrible future -- unquote.

There is, of course, a malevolent big-business company involved -- Zygote Investments. And Cope and Magnusson have the usual adventures which make for better reading in full than they do in summary. But this thriller does, as I say, distinguish itself from the more run of the mill stuff by concentrating on human affairs rather than pure technology.

It struck me while I was reading this book that most readers, even those who themselves have experience of writing, tend to underestimate the amount of effort and time that goes into writing a book like this. And there is a problem in that, apart from the sheer drudgery and labour.

The problem is that most books don't sell enough copies to justify the time and effort. And perhaps Chorlton's books fell into that category, admirable though his fifth one is. Perhaps that's why he seems only to have written non-fiction since.

Parody and satire

In my discussion of Davis Sweet's The Baloney Code, I quoted the definitions of parody and satire which are given by the Oxford English dictionary; and Oxford is, at any rate from my ultra-English viewpoint, the ultimate authority on the use of the English language.

However.... Americans readers, writers, and publishers might care to note that the Oxford definitions are almost the precise opposite of the definitions which are used by the US courts when distinguishing parody from satire for the purposes of evaluating a fair-use defence in cases of alleged copyright infringement.

I am grateful to C.E Petit for pointing this out on his blog, Scrivener's Error.

Monday, May 23, 2005

Bookworm on the net

Anyone who has read the UK Bookseller for a few years will remember a regular column called Bookworm on the Net. It ran from 1998 to 2004, and essentially it was a guide to book-relevant web sites. The author was Anne Weale.

Well, now you can read Bookworm on the Net once again, but this time really on the net. Anne Weale has started a blog. At the moment she writes it on Sundays only, but she usually has a good deal to say, and all of it interesting.

Anne is unduly modest on her blog, but she is a long-standing author of Mills and Boon romances. Check her out on and you will find 268 references. You can find a summary a summary of her achievements here.

Trends in bestsellers

This blog tends to concentrate on fiction, but it must never be forgotten that the vast majority of books that are published are non-fiction. And if you're thinking of writing for a living, it wouldn't hurt to give a little thought to what is selling in the non-fiction field.

I mention this because every week the Sunday Times publishes some bestseller tables. Not so long ago, these were based on reports from just half a dozen booksellers. What reputedly happened was, come the day when the shop had to report what was selling, they had a look at the view from the office door, saw which big pile of books had not reduced much this week, and listed that as the number one seller; the hope was that reporting that the slow seller was in fact a hot item would shift a few copies in the course of the next week.

Now, however, all that has changed. Oh yes. Nowadays the sales analysis is all done by computer, and is therefore totally reliable. Well, at least it's based on a far greater number of shops than it used to be, and at least it records, in theory, the number of books that have actually been exchanged for cash from the customer.

I don't normally bother to look at the bestseller lists these days, but there was a time when I did so religiously. But it has been observable, probably since time began, that there tend to be fashions in books, as in shoes, ties, and handbags. Once upon a time, in the 1920s and '30s, detective stories were all the rage. About the time of The Godfather, it was mafia books. And so forth.

I well remember an agent saying to me, early in my career, that by the time the average person noted a trend in publishing, it was over. In other words, if you notice that chick lit is highly commercial this year, and then sit down to write one, it might well take you a year. You would then have to find a publisher, which might take you another year. And it would take a third year to get it into the shops. By which time the punter will have lost all interest in chick lit, and will have moved on to something else.

However, if you were really, really clever, a couple of years ago, what sort of a non-fiction book would you have written, in anticipation of what seems to have become a hot topic in 2005?

The answer, I think, is a book about a child having a thoroughly miserable time. Here, to illustrate the point, are some of one- or two-line summaries of books which currently appear in the Sunday Times bestseller lists:

Girl survives physical and sexual abuse to emerge as a loving parent.
Harrowing ordeal of the Belgian girl abducted by a paedophile.
Psychologist aids former patient's transition into teenage life.
Son of Yorkshire Ripper's first victim recounts his traumatic childhood.
Account of a couple torn apart by the murder of their young daughter.
Boy's journey from a painful and lonely childhood into adulthood.
Educational psychologist helps an abused child back to life.
Account of being raised by a mother with Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy.
That's 8 out of a total of 20 books on the hardback and paperback non-fiction lists.

What is the appeal of such books? Well, I haven't read them; but at a guess I would say that they all deal with adversity faced with courage; and presumably they all end with some hope for a better future.

More on Mary Archer

Publishing News carries a report that Simon & Schuster's MD, Ian Chapman, has contacted 'key account buyers' to assure them that they would be indemnified against any legal action which might be taken over Margaret Crick's biography of Mary Archer. (See my post of 16 May.)

Hmm. Does this indemnity extend, do you think, to any bloggers who might -- just as a matter of public interest -- quote some of the juicier details in said biography? I think we should be told.

Moving the publication date of the Crick book back from 5 September to 12 May is a process which has, apparently, been carried out 'with military precision'. Chapman says that what started out as a 'low-key thing' now involves a point of principle, the principle being that of free speech.

Meanwhile it is worth remembering that England's libel laws are much more favourable, to those who don't like what is said about them in print, than are those of most other countries. In most parts of the world, an aggrieved party has to prove that what is said about them is a lie. In England, all an aggrieved party has to do is sue. It is then for the defenedant to prove that what he has written really is true. That can be very difficult if the source of the information is reluctant to appear in court, e.g. because he fears for his life.

This situation has given rise to a phenomenon known as 'libel tourism'. If, for instance, a book is published in the USA, and the subject of the book doesn't fancy his chances in the US courts, he can sue for libel in England instead, where he has a much bigger chance of success. This is true even though there may have been 10,000 copies of the book sold in the USA, and only 23 sold via to customers in the UK.

There are indeed some very important principles involved here, and, for reasons outlined in the above paragraphs, there are good reasons why writers in all parts of the world should keep an eye on who sues whom in the English courts.

For more on libel, see my post about Peter Carter-Ruck.

Friday, May 20, 2005

Sculpting a marketing plan

If there is one point that I've made a dozen times on this blog it is this: it is one thing to publish a book; but it is quite another to sell it.

This truth holds good whether the publisher is part of a multinational corporation or a one-man band. Either way you print a pile of books -- whether it's a big pile or a small pile -- and then you actually have to sell them.

In the UK, for instance, the past year has seen the publication of autobiographies or memoirs by such big names (in the UK only, probably) as Greg Dyke, Jon Snow, and Rageh Omaar. In each case, a large advance was paid; and in each case, reportedly, the publisher was left with a lot of unsold copies.

It seems then, that marketing is the key to everything.

In a recent book by Catherine Wald (of which more next week when I review it in full) there is an interview with M.J. Rose. Now for those who don't know, M.J. Rose is the pseudonym of an American woman who had a career in advertising but gave it up to write fiction -- mostly. She also writes a great deal about the business of writing and publishing; and you could begin to get the flavour of her views by visiting her blog.

Catherine Wald's questioning of M.J. Rose produces some vital insights. For example, it turns out that M.J. was offered a contract for her first novel Lip Service, but the offer was rescinded 'because the marketing department felt the book would be too hard to sell.' In the end, after various nonsenses of this sort, M.J. felt that she might just as well publish the book herself. Which she did.

And, of course, nothing happened. At which point a sudden thought came visiting. M.J. realised that she had spent her entire working life in advertising, but she had never bothered to put together a marketing plan for her own novel.

M.J. spent a month working out a complete plan, and in November 1998 she began to implement it. By January 1999, Lip Service had become the highest ranked small press book at and had been reviewed by over fifty internet sites.

In early 1999 an editor at the Doubleday Direct book club asked for a copy of the book, and two weeks later she made an offer for it. This was, in all probability, the first time that anybody had ever used the internet to generate buzz for a novel, and it was certainly the first time that anybody had ever sold a self-published novel to the Doubleday Literary Guild. And this was a book which had started life as an ebook.

Now, what M.J. does not say in her interview with Catherine Wald, but what she has said elsewhere, is that implementing her marketing plan involved a vast amount of work. She sat in front of her computer screen for many hours a day, for weeks on end, writing thousands of emails, requesting reviews, pestering people, getting her name known on newsgroups. And so forth. It was not easy for her.

Since then, M.J. has become a definite guru on the art of book marketing in the digital age. She has written an ebook on the subject, Buzz Your Book, but much of her advice is available for free. And you could begin by reading her blog post of 18 May, entitled Sculpting a Marketing Plan.

In this post, M.J. describes the marketing plan which has been dreamed up by her friend and co-author Douglas Clegg, for his new novel Priest of Blood. I am not going to summarise the plan here, because you can perfectly well read it for yourself. And whether you think it sensible or not, you will certainly take the point, I hope, that being a writer involves a lot more, these days, than just sending off your ms and leaving the rest to the publisher.

Thursday, May 19, 2005

Ian McDonald: River of Gods

Ian McDonald's River of Gods is science fiction. It is set in India, in the year 2047, which is a hundred years after the country gained independence from the British.

Perhaps the first thing to be said is that the book is long: 575 pages. And it contains a great many characters: too many, I think, for comfort. It is one of those sweeping panorama type of books which garnish a lot of praise in some quarters; and indeed it's going to get praise from me, but not without some caveats.

I borrowed this book from my local public library, and the date stamps show that it had been borrowed by two other readers before me. However, judging by the stiffness of the binding, I don't think either of them finished it.

Why not? Well, at the beginning of the book we are introduced to ten different characters in as many chapters. Not only that, but we have to take on board a completely foreign culture, and also the imagined world of 2047, as envisioned by Ian McDonald. This is all a bit much to absorb, quite frankly, and some readers will doubtless lose patience.

True, the author provides a glossary at the back of the book, to help to explain some of the terminology. But there are some important words missing: ghat, sundarban, Kali, for example.

Whether the reader sticks with this book will depend, I think, upon whether the reader is prepared to put up with not being quite sure who he is reading about, and what they are up to. I can only say that, in this instance, I was prepared to stick with it (and I am notoriously quick to dump stuff on occasion), and I found it worthwhile in the long run.

And what's it about, I hear you cry. What's the one-line description? Um, well now. That ain't easy. But I suppose that it's about artificial intelligence. And it took me about two thirds of the book to figure out what an aeai was.

There is also a serious problem, I find, with long books. There is a terrible danger that, at the end, one will feel a sense of anticlimax. All that, you think, just for this? That was my reaction even to Neal Stephenson's formidably talented Cryptonomicon. So, once again, I would caution would-be writers against excessive length. Kurt Vonnegut's Sirens of Titan was about half the length of River of Gods, and at least twice as effective.

All of that having been said, this book is a substantial achievement on the author's part, and I recommend it -- but only if you have a taste for long science fiction. Some previous knowledge of India wouldn't do any harm either.

Ian McDonald has written many other books and has won various awards.

Davis Sweet: The Baloney Code

What's the difference between a parody and a satire? Quick now...

OK, so I wasn't sure either. Turns out that a parody, according to Oxford, is the imitation of the style of a particular writer with deliberate exaggeration for comic effect; while a satire is the use of humour and exaggeration to to expose and criticise stupidity and vices.

I was prompted to look this up because Davis Sweet's new book The Baloney Code is definitely a parody. It says so twice on the front cover and once on the back. And it is a parody, in case you haven't guessed, of Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code.

Well, I read Dan Brown's opus soon after it first appeared, and before the mass hysteria was fully developed, and I found it an OK sort of a book, for a plane journey or the beach, but eminently forgettable.

Since I first mentioned it, however, things seem to have got completely out of hand. Some readers have forgotten that it is a work of fiction, and apparently take it seriously. Here in the UK, we have had a 90-minute TV programme, hosted by Tony Robinson, no less, explaining that it is all nonsense from start to finish; but if even half the reports are true, we still have people hoping to follow the clues and find the Holy Grail for themselves.

Given these bizarre circumstances, one can only say that a parody was somewhat overdue, and Davis Sweet has filled the need rather well.

Parody works best, in my view, when it is short, as most editions of the UK magazine Private Eye will demonstrate. Book-length parodies need to be pretty good to succeed, and the author of this one has been wise, I think, to keep it to 134 pages.

Yes, but does it work, you are screaming at me. Is it funny?

Well, the answer is yes. Up to a point. If you like that kind of thing. The author dedicates the book to his father, who, he says, won't get it. And that, I think, incorporates a truth. Not everyone will 'get' this book, and it's probably more likely to succeed with young people than with old. However, I found it entertaining enough to continue with it, and I did laugh aloud here and there.

I must point out, however, one serious error. On page 34 we have a character called Teabag, who has adopted a British accent. Teabag operates 'under the popular and frequently true theory that British accents get more "birds" [i.e. women].'

Now this is simply not true. Dammit. Maybe it has something to do with a hint that a young woman gave me during one of my visits to the States, namely that her friends complained that Limeys in general just don't take enough showers. Whatever. The accent, I can assure you, ain't enough on its own.

In form, The Baloney Code seems to follow the original pretty closely. Or put it this way: reading the Davis Sweet text reminded me of things that I seemed to remember from the Dan Brown version, and which would otherwise, I suspect, have remained buried in my subconscious memory.

The author of The Baloney Code will, of course, be scanning reviews such as this one for words and phrases that he can pull out and stick on his advertising material or on the back of other books: words and phrases such 'brilliant', 'hilarious', and 'I laughed till I was sick all over Granny's antimacassar'. Actually that last one's a sentence, but you get the idea.

So, what can we say to support ole Dave here. Um: 'Suitable for all those with a bad case of the glums.' Now that's true. 'A healthy antidote to Da Vinci fever.' And: 'Ingenious, clever, and funny.'

That's enough for one review I think.

Should you have a friend who is consumed with enthusiasm for the Da Vinci phenomenon, you might perhaps consider giving him/her a copy of The Baloney Code as a birthday present. It could do much to return them to sanity.

On the other hand, it might lead to the end of a beautiful friendship.

Davis Sweet, by the way, is editor of The Bean magazine. This, as you would expect, has its own web site, where you can also read the first chapter of the editor's book.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Opportunity knocks

The Guardian (reached via announces that the Book Trust is setting up a series of national awards (presumably for UK citizens only) which are worth £5000 each. These are for unpublished writers of fiction, literary non-fiction, and poetry.

By the look of it, these awards have a definite literary bias to them. Would-be writers of Mills & Boon romances will probably not be welcome. Why that should be so is a mystery to me, but there you go. Snobbery is rife in the book world.

The Book Trust web site is distinctly coy about its source of funding, but there is a reference to the Arts Council as the lead sponsor, so I imagine it's the poor bloody taxpayer, as usual. Why don't you just let me keep my own money, and I'll decide which authors to support.

Meanwhile Cantara Christopher, in the course of commenting on the ULA, reveals that she is editor of an outfit called Published in New York. This seems to be a webzine which, in its own words, 'covers the independent book and fiction magazine publishing scene chiefly but not exclusively in and around New York, through features, essays, publisher profiles, "how-I-did-it" articles, and news about innovations and technological advances that benefit small electronic and print presses. Following in the noble tradition of DIY (Do It Yourself) that reached its zenith in the early pre-Internet 1990s, PINY is done on the fly, done for peanuts, done for love, rages against the machine, is highly opinionated, and hopes to be not only useful to both writers and publishers, but intelligent, provocative and fun.'

So, here we have yet another set of people who have decided that the big-time publishers and magazines are never going to see sense, and have decided to find readers themselves. This must be about the sixth such enterprise that I've come across, and mentioned here, I hope, in the last week.

Running to keep up

Dammit, there is so much good stuff coming out these days that it is a struggle to keep up, and it's tempting to abandon the attempt.

However, a moment's thought reminds us that the past ten years have seen absolutely massive changes in the way books are published and sold, and there is a lot more to come yet. So as Michael Cader said recently, if you don't like change, you'll like irrelevance even less.

Most of us feel, I suspect, that we have more than a full-time job to do, and we really don't have time to read all these speculative articles about the way things are developing. Fine. But if you don't keep an eye on the way things are going, then pretty soon you may not have a job to go to.

Those are the thoughts which prompt me to point you to an article by R J Nagle (which I found via This is a piece about the way in which Amazon is developing, and the effects that this might have on the relatively unknown author -- which is to say virtually all of us.

Amazon, Nagle suggests, 'is retooling itself to offer a complete publishing solution to authors disenchanted with the current state of publishing.' His article is therefore essential reading for any writer who is not yet favoured with a big contract -- and even they may need to read it soon, when they get their Dear John letter. Publishers might also have a think about the challenges which the Amazon strategy creates for them.

Nagle's article carries a link to an even better essay by Tim O'Reilly, of O'Reilly publishing. This deals with copyright, online file sharing, and the lessons for book publishing in general. It is an essay which is full of good sense.

O'Reilly begins, for instance, by making the point that I have made a good few times on this blog, namely that it is absurd for the average writer or musician to get worked up about their wonderful art being ripped off for free on the internet. 'Obscurity,' says O'Reilly, 'is a far greater threat to authors and creative artists than piracy.' Being well-enough known to be pirated, he points out, would be a crowning achievement for most people.

O'Reilly himself has found what others have found before him, namely that while pirated copies are annoying, they do not destroy his business.

Which is why, when I come across an amateur's web site which tells me that unauthorised copying will be met with the full force of the law, I am forced to smile. Or, more likely, snigger. Only an ignorant fool could write such a thing. In the first place, enforcing the law is well nigh impossible unless you are a billionaire with five years to spare, and for another, most of those who slap such warnings on their stuff would be lucky to have it downloaded even once.

O'Reilly is not the first commentator to point out that the music business has been well nigh clueless in its handling of the file-sharing 'crisis', and he raises, implicitly, the question as to whether book publishers are going to be any smarter.

Oh dear, he really shouldn't. It hurts me where I had my last operation when I laugh that much.

R J Nagle also gives us a link to another piece by O'Reilly, this time specifically about self-publishing, and although I haven't yet had time to read it I rather think I should. And Nagle also reminds us that Cory Doctorow is the author of the definitive statement as to why digital-rights management systems don't work and are counter-productive. Now that I have read, and a brilliant, brilliant piece of work it is too.

Well, it's all out there if you look. And if you're smart enough to make sense of it all, and work out a strategy, you could become a very big wheel indeed.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

More on Macmillan

On 3 May I wrote a piece about the Macmillan New Writing imprint. This is an initiative which I warmly welcomed, but I had to point out that many other observers were less than happy about it, some indeed calling it a scam.

Now, via, I note that Robert McCrum has put in his twopenny-worth. And he doesn't like the Macmillan deal either. In fact he is pretty damn rude about it, though he does have some interesting things to say along the way.

McCrum argues that the days of taste and literary discrimination at Macmillan are over. Worse, he says, the new writing wheeze 'appears to have emanated not from the deepest counsels of the editorial department, but from marketing and distribution.' Macmillan says that 'some great authors just get lost in the ether', and they want to find them. But McCrum describes this as an 'astounding abdication of cultural responsibility.'

Dear God. A publisher who is concerned about finding new authors, and about making a profit. How appalling.

I very definitely get the feeling that McCrum is not thinking straight here. He appears to be advocating a return to the old days, when editors with literary tastes decided what was published, without concern for the bottom line. But that policy can hardly be said to have been a great success at Faber, when McCrum was in charge, can it? Or am I missing something?

And in any case, what's all this crap about cultural responsibility? I don't want publishers holding themselves responsible for my culture, thank you very much. I can grow my own.

The last few paragraphs of McCrum's piece were the ones that fascinated me, however. Because however confused Mr M may be on some points, he sure as hell has his ear to the ground.

McCrum refers to the 'dismal editorial conditions prevailing in British (and American) publishing houses'; and I agree with him on that, though I suspect that we would differ greatly on how they are dismal.

He refers to the 'desperation rife among editorial cohorts', and indeed they are desperate. Desperate to find big sellers, and scarcely an idea among the lot of them as to how to do it.

It is, he says, a small market; and he's right there. The book business is tiny compared with most. If I remember the figures correctly, the market for books is about the same size as the market for bagged salad.

And, most significant of all, he tells us that 'several major imprints are struggling.'

Now that has the ring of truth. And truth is what you seldom hear in publishing, particularly where the financial state of the company is concerned.

From time to time all the big companies put out statements saying how well they are doing. Often they quote the magic figure of a 10% return on capital, because that's what the City investors want to hear. But if you believe all that you will believe that the moon is made of green cheese.

Robert Maxwell proved decades ago that company accounts can be made to yield any result you want, and since then we have had ample proof that some auditors will sign off anything if you pay them enough in consultancy fees. But McCrum says that several major imprints are struggling, and that publishing is 'an industry hovering on the brink of crisis.'

Food for thought there, my friends.

Foer and Strauss

As is stated in the post immediately below this one -- The good, the bad, et cetera -- I am not a man of refined taste. Far from it. I tend to favour the Hollywood movie over the fancypants art thing from Eastern Europe, Ry Cooder over Mozart, and Terry Pratchett over D.H. Lawrence. In fact, in relation to the last two, it is in my opinion a case of of Everest compared with sea level.

As a consequence of these opinions, I find myself filled with a profound sense of indifference when I read that Nicole Krauss and Jonathan Safran Foer are New York's golden literary couple. Many decades of writing experience have taught me that I am unlikely, these days, to get much pleasure from reading books by people who attract such praise. Time was, of course, when the latest big thing in New York -- Catch 22 for example -- was actually readable and enjoyable. But those days are long gone.

However, I recognise that there are doubtless readers of this blog whose taste is far more elevated than mine; that wouldn't be difficult, when all is said and done. So you may, conceivably, wish to read the Guardian's profile of the lovely Nicole Krauss. She sounds like a frightfully sensitive girl and her stuff seems to hit the spot for some people.

My personal suspicion -- hey, I'm not called grumpy for nothing, you know -- is that those who admire Nicole Krauss most are those who earnestly desire to emulate her own rise to eminence, and believe that somehow, if they attach themselves to her star, the process will be repeated for them. Fat chance. But you never know.

Meanwhile, if you want to know what Nicole's hubby is up to (Jonathan Safran Foer), you can find a review of his latest, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, by Noah Cicero over at ULA HQ.

Sadly, the reviewer did not enjoy the book, and he feels thoroughly cheated. Out of 368 pages in this 'novel', 21 are blank, 26 contain just one line, and there are 2 and a half pages of numbers. There are 49 pages of pictures, 4 pages of words written in magic marker in different colors, and a variety of other novelties. In total, says the reviewer, there are 129 useless pages. Only 248 pages are left with story on them.

Well, I guess that's what it takes, nowadays, to be a star in the literary firmament of New York.

The good, the bad, and the somewhere-in-between

I think I am in love with M.J. Rose. Only don't tell her because it would be terribly embarrassing for both of us.

The reason why I have such warm feelings is that M.J. talks more sense than most groups of fourteen other people in the writing and publishing worlds ever do. And on 15 May she had a particularly sane piece entitled Sermonetta.

She begins by describing some of the amazingly bitchy things that female, literary, writers have said about her. Talk about sisters sticking together -- jeez. And then she goes on to make the point that we should all stop worrying about whether particular books are commercial crap or deeply serious literature and get on with the business of encouraging people to read them.

Hear, hear. Particularly as today brings news (via from the US Book Industry Study Group, that the sales of books in the US dropped by nearly 44 million between 2003 and 2004.

The dichotomy -- oh dear, I really must kick this habit of using sesquipedalian words -- this division, right, between the fancy stuff and the unspeakably vulgar has always seemed to me to be a false one anyway. Why can't you enjoy both? But for the record I am firmly on the side of the unspeakably vulgar. My all-time favourite TV show is a long-forgotten sitcom called Nearest and Dearest, which was about as far down-market as you could go. It was about a brother and sister who owned a pickle factory somewhere oop north -- the north of England that is -- and it starred Hylda Baker and Jimmy Jewel.

Baker and Jewel were both pretty elderly by the time they got into this show, but they had grown up as old-time music-hall performers. Their craft had been polished by decades of standing in front of challenging audiences, and making them laugh. They were a joy to watch, though they seem to have hated each other with passionate intensity. Hylda was a difficult woman to work with.

Earlier in life, Jimmy Jewel had a long partnership with his cousin and fellow comedian, Ben Warriss. They were very famous in England in the 1940s and '50s. So much so that they once got invited to appear in America, on the Ed Sullivan TV show.

Sullivan was short-sighted, and far too vain to wear glasses. He also had a short memory span. So when he tried to announce the next act as Jimmy Jewel and Ben Warriss, it came out as Jim Jowl and his walrus. The British boys were not too impressed, and in any case their humour was not for the Americans, who had their own masters of comedy.

Ed Sullivan was, I have to report, a man with a deep knowledge of, and respect for, the higher levels of European culture. A friend of mine, who worked in the world of ballet, once found himself sitting next to Sullivan at a charity performance given by Rudolf Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn. 'Tell me about this Nureyev guy,' said Sullivan to my friend. 'Is he a high jumper?'

Monday, May 16, 2005

The saintliness of Mary Archer

American readers will probably not be as familiar with the names of Jeffrey Archer and his wife Mary as are readers in the UK , so let us begin with a brief recapitulation.

It seems likely that Jeffrey Archer has always regarded himself first and foremost as a politician. He is a former member of Parliament, was once the deputy chairman of the Conservative Party, and in 1992 was made a Life Peer. That means that he is a member of the House of Lords and is known formally as Lord Archer; his wife acquired the title Lady Archer as a result.

In parallel with all this, Jeffrey built for himself a formidable career as a writer, and one reasonably objective web site refers to him as Britain's top-selling novelist. Given that he has been massively successful in the US, which not all British authors are, that may even be true. Certainly he has made a lot of money.

All Jeffrey's books are, of course, purely commercial fiction. And as a teller of tales he is undoubtedly pretty good. His first book of any significance was Not a Penny More, Not a Penny Less, and he then made an impact on the American market with Shall We Tell the President?; this was a book which Jacqueline Kennedy found morally objectionable, and the resulting publicity did not harm sales.

Publicity is in fact the key to Jeffrey Archer's writing career. He learnt early that modesty is the enemy of talent, and in any case Jeffrey was never a modest man. While most writers hate to do book tours, Jeffrey revelled in them, and he was a complete master of the chat-show plug. Nobody could shut him up. One gathers, however, that those whose job it is to escort writers on such tours did not enjoy them quite as much as Jeffrey did.

In the midst of all this success there were occasional problems. He was sometimes the subject of criticism in the newspapers, and he sued for libel, successfully, on a number of occasions. It began to look as if Jeffrey had not just one but two or three guardian angels.

In the end, however, it all went horribly pear-shaped. In 2001 Jeffrey Archer was prosecuted for perjury. The jury found him guilty, and he was sentenced to four years in the slammer. He served the usual two, and was then released.

Throughout all these 35 years of trials and tribulations, Jeffrey has remained married to the same woman, Mary. And Mary is no sort of a slouch herself. She has held a succession of academic posts in chemistry, first at Oxford and then at Cambridge. And they don't appoint the clueless to those positions.

In this last week, public attention has shifted from Jeffrey, where it normally lies, to Mary herself. On Thursday last the Guardian printed a carefully phrased piece, reporting that Margaret Crick has written an unauthorised biography of Mary Archer; the publisher is Simon and Schuster. Not only is the biography unauthorised, but Mary has done everything in her power to prevent its publication. She has made demands, pulled strings, and, finally, resorted to the law.

All these attempts to prevent publication have failed. And in order to forestall any more of the same, S&S have rush-published the book; they have cancelled the original publication date (5 September) and have put it out, officially, on 12 May.

Now the interesting thing is this. Throughout all the many adventures of the Archer family, the general view has been that Jeffrey is the naughty boy, prepared to cut corners on occasion, while Mary is the loyal, long-suffering, and entirely blameless little woman, keeping the home fires quietly burning, and no doubt darning the great man's socks, as and when the need arises.

Personally I have long regarded this interpretation as a complete misreading of the Archer family dynamics. So I am looking forward to finding out what view is held by someone who has evidently made a prolonged attempt to establish the facts. No doubt we shall shortly have some reviews of, or extracts from, Margaret Crick's book, and then we shall know.

Theodore Dalrymple

I am indebted to David Hadley for directing me to a most interesting article by Theodore Dalrymple. David rightly says that the article touches on a number of points that I have been making in the blog recently, but it turns out that there is much more of value in it than that. Not surprisingly, because Dalrymple is a man with a heavy punch; he's in an altogether different class from that inhabited by the average blogger.

Theodore Dalrymple, you mutter, who he? Well, he is a British psychiatrist and prison doctor, and you can find a short biography here -- he is listed under his real name, Anthony Daniels, halfway down the page. You can also find a much fuller profile of the man published in the New York Sun. No, I don't understand why it appeared there, either, but it's a bloody good piece of reporting.

I believe that there is some sort of rule or regulation which forbids British doctors from using their own name when writing for the press, so in the early days Dalrymple was very careful to preserve his anonymity, never telling us the names of the places he was referring to. Today, he seems to have abandoned that policy, perhaps because he is due to retire in 2005.

I first came across Theodore Dalrymple about fifteen or twenty years ago, when he began to write for The Spectator, and I was immediately impressed. Unlike most of those who pontificate about the ills of British society, Dalrymple knows what he is talking about, because he works at the sharp end of the business. He is intimately familiar with those at the bottom of the pile. The people whom he sees on a daily basis are the criminal young, the drug-addicted, the desperate immigrants, and the neglected elderly. As a result, he has few illusions about life as it is lived by what he refers to as the underclass.

An article by Theodore Dalrymple is not likely to contain many laughs. But by golly it will make you think a bit. So it is with the piece in The New Criterion, to which I was referred by David Hadley, and which is entitled 'An imaginary scandal'.

You really ought to read this article for yourself, because you won't find anything more worthy of your time in a month or two; but here, just to encourage you, is a brief summary of the major points that it touches upon.

Dalrymple begins by telling the story (which is not new but is worth the re-telling) of Rahila Khan. In 1987, Rahila had a book published by Virago, a press which specialises in contemporary feminist authors. The book was called Down the Road, Worlds Away. This, according to Virago's blurb, was a collection of 'twelve haunting stories about Asian girls and white boys... about the tangle of violence and tenderness... in all their lives,' and it was written 'with hard-eyed realism and poignant simplicity.'

Everyone at Virago, it seems, assumed that Rahila Khan was a young Asian woman, a relatively recent arrival in the UK. In the course of time, however, it emerged that 'Rahila' was in fact a man. He was Toby Forward. And Toby was not just a bloke; he was a Church of England Vicar.

Confusion all round. Feminists in general, and Virago in particular, were not pleased.

Dalrymple takes us on a grand tour of the nonsenses and hypocrisies which surround this tale, and in doing so he exposes, yet again, the cretinous and self-serving nature of much of what passes, these days, for academic discourse. He is, as usual, utterly fearless and entirely convincing. The people who work in the humanities departments of universities are not going to like this article one little bit. Probably their best plan, however, is to ignore Dalrymple and hope that no one will notice what he says.

The article should not be ignored by anyone who is interested in the technical problems of writing fiction, because there is much to be learnt from the Khan/Forward saga about what it takes to write successfully about a given set of experiences.

Dalrymple being Dalrymple, however, we are offered a lot more than just a few hints as to how to improve your fiction. We learn a great deal about the uncomfortable position (I speak euphemistically) of young Muslim women in what passes for a civilised society. Dalrymple tells us, almost in passing, that his young Muslim patients 'all know of girls who have been killed by their own fathers and brothers when they refuse to accede to a forced marriage to their first cousin back home, or to a man four times their age.' But how many convictions have there been for such crimes?

As I say, you should read the article. Not only that, but those who wish to get a flavour of life in today's inner cities in the UK should read one or two of Dalrymple's books. There are about 20 of them, all told, including an extremely dark novel.

The Khan/Forward situation reminds me of a tale that I was told some years ago. It is a story which works best if told orally, but I think I can tell it in print with the aid of some phonetic spelling at the end. The account which follows came to me third hand, so I cannot vouch for every detail. But the details are in any case irrelevant to the central point.

I don't know what it's like in your part of the world, but here in England there are quite a number of grant-awarding bodies, funded by the government, which support the so-called 'arts'. I thoroughly disapprove of this system of state handouts, but no one takes any notice of me and the racket continues to operate.

These grant-awarding bodies have very definite views about the kind of people who deserve their money. They strongly favour the 'minorities'. Women, for some reason, are regarded as an endangered species, and particularly suitable for support; so are those who have recently arrived in the UK.

Some years ago, one of these grant-awarding bodies decided to run a competition for a drama script which reflected 'the black experience'. In the course of time they received the usual 200 or 300 entries, and to their pleasant surprise one of them was really quite good. It was about the life of a young black woman living in Brixton (which these days is a largely black neighbourhood), and it was obviously based on personal experience. The author was one Michele Celeste.

The competition organisers were particularly thrilled to have discovered a talented writer who was not only a woman (score 1 brownie point) but also black (score another brownie point); with a bit of luck, they thought, she might turn out to be a disabled lesbian as well, and then they would really have hit the jackpot.

So, losing no time, the organisers wrote to Michele and told her that she had won. To celebrate the occasion, they said, they would be holding a short ceremony at a given time and date; this would be attended by all those involved in the competition, various representatives of other bodies, local dignitaries and politicians, and as many members of the press as could be attracted by copious free drinks.

Michele wrote back and said that she would be delighted to attend the prize-giving. Looked forward to it.

Come the day, and a considerable crowd assembled to partake of free food and drink. But, sadly, there was no sign of Michele. There were a number of black ladies present, but none of them answered to the name of Michele Celeste.

The organisers waited fifteen minutes. And then another fifteen. Until eventually the man in charge felt that he just had to go ahead without the star of the proceedings. So he rose to his feet and said that he was terrible sorry, ladies and gentlemen, they had been hoping that the winner of first prize in their extremely successful writing competition would be here to receive her prize, but regrettably she seemed to have been delayed.

Whereupon, a small, dark-haired man jumped to his feet from the front row and shouted, 'No, no, iz me, iz me -- Michele Celeste, I am here, I am here!'

Confusion all around, once again.

It turns out, you see, that Michele Celeste was not a black woman at all; he was a young man of Italian origins. And the name Michele Celeste is not pronounced Me-shell See-lest; it is pronounced Mi-kay-ly Chell-esty.

Such are the bear traps which await those who rush to judgement about who is capable of writing what.

Of course, the organisers ought to have realised that the female name Michelle is normally spelt with two Ls. But then who the hell can spell nowadays?

More OBEs

One of my daily sources of information about the lunatic worlds of writing and publishing is the Publishers Lunch newsletter. This costs money, unfortunately, otherwise I would recommend it without reservation. But anyway, from time to time I pass on various items which appear in it and which may be of interest.

One such item recently was a mention of WebdelSol, a very professional-looking site which seems to make reference to a number of the arts, but is particularly strong on literature. You might try, for instance, the House of Blogs page. Also worth looking at are the links to Algonkian. Caution -- Algonkian is an outfit which wants your money. But who knows -- what they have to offer may be worth every penny. In any event they also offer interviews with some top literary agents, and if you still believe that you have a dazzling future in front of you there may be things to learn here.

Another link provided by Publishers Lunch is to yet another attempt to make a living from the web, this time one launched by fantasy writer Lawrence Watt-Evans. Apparently no mainstream publisher was interested in the ninth volume in his Legends of Ethshar series, so he is offering the book online on a sort of instalment plan. If there are enough enthusiastic readers to pay him a total of $100 each week, he will issue another chapter. If not, presumably that's it, at any rate until the target figure is reached.

Friday, May 13, 2005

Comments on comments

This has been an exceptionally busy day, so once again I am obliged to resort to OBEs -- i.e. Other Buggers' Efforts.

I don't know about you, but when I am reading a blog I seldom bother to click on the Comments link. Which is a pity really, as there is often some good stuff there. Particularly on the GOB, which, as you will doubtless have observed, tends to attract a rather better class of reader than some blogs; and a bright gang of commenters also, who provide some valuable insights.

The one exception, perhaps, a commenter I could do without, is the man who sometimes posts porn links in the comments box, presumably because he earns 0.0001 of a cent every time someone clicks on one. Well, thank you very much, sir, it's awfully kind of you, but I am perfectly capable of finding my own porn sites (and a list will be supplied upon payment of a modest fee).

Anyway, just in case you missed them, allow me please to highlight a few recent comments which contain useful and interesting links. The contributors are not listed in any order of importance, and indeed are not the only ones that could be mentioned.

You may care to investigate comments yourself, and if you do, here's a tip: if you click on a title in the previous-posts box in the top right-hand corner of this page, the post will open all on its own, complete with comments.

First, David Hadley, who tells us that his short stories have been rejected by all the 'literary' magazines, but have been 'cherry-picked' on ABC Tales, presumably because they have some old -fashioned virtues such as a beginning, a middle, and an end.

The ABC site turns out to be a place where writers can post short stories and other material. Well, there are a number of these, but it never hurts to know of another one. I am not quite sure what 'cherry-picked' means, but presumably it means that a story has been held to be outstanding in some way. David has his own web site and is also, by the way, a blogger.

Next is Sandra542000, who I suspect is actually Sandra Shwayder Sanchez. Sandra introduces us to an annual journal called The Long Story. Sandra says that 'Yes indeed the short story has been hijacked, whittled, gutted, and generally rendered empty and useless by intellectuals during the last half century. I would like to direct your attention to another grumpy guy who has edited an antidote to the academic short story for the past twenty-four years.'

This turns out to be R.P. Burnham. His annual publication, Sandra says, features 'stories long enough to contain actual content: plot, characters, a point, that kind of old fashioned thing, and each issue is prefaced with an editorial "prelude" which properly lambasts the academy for hijacking, gutting, whittling, etc. the short story form. In fact these grumpy essays have been collected in a publication called The Least Shadow of Public Thought published by Juniper Press.'

(Unfortunately, as far as I can see, The Least Shadow is out of print.)

Sandra goes on to refer us to a 'publishing collective' which will be 'publishing books for and about people in the real world. Check out our website: (Remember Thomas Hardy? Thus the Wessex in the collective).'

Yes, I certainly remember Thomas Hardy. Mrs GOB is a big fan, and if she doesn't own a copy of everything he ever wrote it is not for lack of looking. We have also been to the house where he grew up.

Finally for today, Andrew Stevens. Writing in connection with my reference to the ULA, Andrew points out that 3am Magazine published an interview with Michael Jackman of the ULA. Andrew says that people tend to sneer at the ULA, and they tend to sneer back twice over. However, the interview seeks to be objective and does not take sides. It's certainly worth a look.

Just these three commenters, all on their own, have generated links which would take some time to explore in full. And there are a whole lot more that I haven't even begun to look at. So, thanks to all those who have made comments; and the moral is, click on the Comments link from time to time, because if you don't you'll be missing some valuable stuff.

Thursday, May 12, 2005

Not only free but valuable

Some time in the summer of 1961 -- the precise date eludes me for the moment -- I attended a garden party at Queens' College Cambridge. (And, if you're wondering, the apostrophe does go after the S because the College was founded by two Queens; unlike Queen's College, Oxford, which had to make do with only one.)

One of the other attendees at this party was Sir Harold Bailey, who was one of the most distinguished Fellows in the College's history. An Australian by birth, he was Professor of Sanskrit, and spoke an indecent number of other languages besides. It is said that, when he visited an Academy of Sciences in one of the small Soviet Republics, he addressed them, to their astonishment, in their own language, Ossetic, which even then was almost forgotten. They were so impressed that they presented him with a Cossack uniform, which he wore proudly when he had his portrait painted.

Anyway, during the course of this garden party, Sir Harold and I fell into conversation (as you do), and I remember very clearly one of the things he said to me. The gist of it was as follows: if you have spent your life studying something, you should make quite sure that you publish the fruits of your research; otherwise your time has been wasted.

This was not, of course, a staggeringly original thought. Although I do have to point out that, in those far off days, it was perfectly possible for a scholar to spend twenty or thirty years on a subject without having to worry about publishing anything. Today, of course, any academic who doesn't publish half a dozen papers a year is hardly likely to hang on to their post. And the fact that no one in the entire world troubles to read those half dozen papers is considered of no consequence whatever.

All of which gets us back to a point I made on Tuesday of this week, namely that there are a considerable number of thoughtful and intelligent people who are prepared to use the internet to give us the cost-free benefit of their experience. Another of these is the novelist Ian Irvine, and I was pointed towards his work by a commenter called L'etranger, who turns out to be a blogger in her own right.

Ian Irvine runs a web site which, as you would expect, is devoted mainly to plugging his own novels. It contains, however, a substantial amount of information which is of great value to ambitious writers, and is clearly the result of long and sometimes painful experience.

Sample, for example, the section entitled The Truth about Publishing. I was going to pick out a few juicy quotes, but really the whole thing strikes me as being so down-to-earth and sensible that, if you are even thinking about writing a book, I can only advise you to read the whole piece. I will, however, draw your special attention to Lesson 10A: You're not published until you're in print, and sometimes not even then. It runs as follows:

Deals fall over for all sorts of reasons, so don’t count your chickens until they’re roosting in a thousand bookshops. Here are some of the most common problems.

There was a ‘misunderstanding’ when the publisher made your agent an offer for your book. You don’t get a publishing contract after all, or you get a contract but a worse deal than originally offered.

The publisher goes bankrupt before your book is published. If they’ve paid the advance, you keep it. If they haven’t, you’re back in the queue.

Your editor leaves or is fired and her replacement hates your book and decides not to publish it. You keep the advance though.

The publisher is having a tough time and decides that they would lose money publishing your book, so cans it. You keep the advance and, if you’re lucky, they might pay you a small sum in lieu.

The editor loves your book and offers a terrific hardcover deal and great promotion, but the sales department or the major book buyers don’t agree that it has big sales potential. You get downgraded to paperback, with little or no promotion, and your potential income and sales are massively reduced.

Your book is found to be libellous and the publisher doesn’t want to get sued, so they cancel publication, or if it’s been printed, withdraw the book and pulp it. You’ve violated your contract and have to pay back the advance, and they could even sue you for their losses.

Your non-fiction book is proven to be fraudulent, ditto.

In a more lighthearted vein, Ian offers A Guide to Success. This was originally written for the HarperColins Voyager web site, and although there are humorous touches there is also an enormous amount of good sense.

And it is all, as I say, free. So if that doesn't persuade you to read one of the man's books, nothing will.

Galleycat and the ULA

While contemplating the page yesterday -- something that I do daily, and recommend -- I noticed that, in the essential links box, the GOB is still listed in the number 2 spot, just below Everyone Who's Anyone and above a few amateurish web sites such as Publishers Weekly and Amazon. Which is as it should be. But then I noticed that Galleycat is still at number 3, and since I hadn't read Galleycat recently, I went to take a look.

It turns out, as far as I can deduce, that Galleycat is in the middle of some sort of flame war with an outfit called ULA. I emphasise that all is conjecture here, because this is a foreign language to me, but Galleycat seems to have linked to a site called Hot From My Pockets, which is, if I've got this straight, a parody of ULA output. And someone objects to her doing that.

Now I was somewhat handicapped here, see, on account of I don't know who or what ULA are. I know, I know, it's pathetic really. I am so out of date it is barely credible, but that's the way it is when you get old. You struggle to remember what day of the week it is. Anyway, to find out more about ULA I went to Google.

Let's see now. Universidad de Los Andes? No, that doesn't seem very likely. Ultralight Adventure Equipment? Hardly. Utah Library Association? Ah, now that's a bit warmer. And, at last, Underground Literary Alliance. I guess that's it.

You will have to read this stuff yourself to verify my best guesses, but it looks as if ULA dates back to at least 2000. It describes itself as 'the most controversial writers group in America. We stand up for writers, expose corruption in the publishing world, and work to create a fun & exciting alternative to the literary mainstream.'

Well, that sounds all right. In fact their manifesto, at first glance, appears to contain a lot of stuff that I agree with. They argue that literature has become elitist, which I think I accept, depending on definitions; that style has become primary and convoluted; and that the literary establishment is corrupt to the core. As a consequence of these beliefs, the members of ULA renounce, among other things, 'the muddled style of contemporary literature, and bear witness that we will speak in clear voices, unfettered by "cleverness" and intellectual gobbledygook.' All of which sounds good to me.

There is a whole list of members, none of whom I've ever heard of, but that's neither here nor there. And there is a ULA blog which publishes stuff by ULA members. I haven't yet had time to read much of it, but my immediate reaction is that I don't like the typefaces used. I have a theory, which I have mentioned from time to time, that readers are sensitive to fonts, layout, and page design, to a far greater extent than is generally recognised.

Anyway, there it is. Somewhere along the line the ULA has pissed off somebody big-time, and he she or yt (I'm reading Ian McDonald) has decided to set up Hot from my Pockets. And Galleycat, who did no more, it seems, than point to Hot Pocket's existence, gets dung flung at her as a consequence.

It's a hard life being a blogger.

Mind you, Galleycat does end with reference to her 'long-held theory that the ULA is not a literary rebellion, but a very long, intricate piece of Andy Kaufman-inspired /Dadaist /Duchampian performance art, albeit with intentions no more lofty than your kid brother's on a long family car trip -- i.e., to annoy the shit out of you, or anyone else unlucky enough to be in its audience.' So you can see how she might have upset someone. Writers are terribly sensitive flowers, easily bruised.

Anyway, it's clearly all far too subtle for me. I think I will go out and cut the grass, which is about the only thing that Mrs GOB trusts me to do out there.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Classic English short stories

This blog is in danger, I feel, of degenerating into lots of little bits and pieces, referring readers to decent-sized essays, written by other people, to be found elsewhere. So let us start the day, at least, with some modest attempt at original thinking.

Some months ago, I took possession of two volumes of short stories. These prove to have a somewhat bizarre publishing history, but the bibliographical details of the two books that I hold in my hot little hand are as follows:

Title: The Oxford Library of Classic English Short Stories. Vol I: 1900-1956. Vol II: 1956-75.
Introduction to Vol I by Roger Sharrock (codswallop, by the way; ignore).
Publisher: Guild Publishing, by arrangement with Oxford University Press.
These two volumes are marked copyright 1989 by Guild Publishing. In addition, Vol I is copyright the English Association 1939 and 1958, and Vol II is copyright the English Association 1965 and 1976.

Make of that what you can. I have done my best to trace the publishing history through the catalogue of the British Library, which should in theory have a copy of every book ever published in the UK. And it seems, from my researches, that the Guild edition is based upon, but probably not identical with, various collections issued by the English Association from 1939 onwards, under the title English Short Stories of Today -- or To-day, as it was printed in 1939. Some of these collections were published for the English Association by Oxford; and the Association, by the way, is a gathering of those interested in the teaching of the English language and its literature.

Whatever. The point is, we have here two volumes purporting to give us some 'classic' short stories, i.e., in somebody's view, the best. And whatever the damn thing was called, I seem to remember, now that I have read Vol I in 2005, that I probably read the 1958 edition soon after it came out.

'English' by the way, seems to mean almost entirely British authors, and mostly the true English at that, but in Vol II a couple of Americans and a few colonials do get a look in.

Now. Preliminaries are almost out of the way. But I do need to point out that, back in March of this year, I posted two pieces about the history of the short story. The first, on 16 March, was about the 'official' history of the short story, and the second, on 17 March, gave you the true account. These two pieces were designed to act as a background to a discussion of the two volumes which I have finally got around to mentioning today.

If you are interested in reading -- or, better still, writing -- short stories, you would do well to have a look at my two essays from March, but what I argued then was this: I said that, up to about 1950, short stories were widely read by 'ordinary readers', if you will forgive the use of such a loose expression; but I think you will know what I mean. Post 1950, former readers of short stories largely forsook that medium and took up television, CDs, DVDs, cinema, and a hundred and one other alternatives. Thus, post 1950, the short story was captured by the so-called intellectuals -- professors of Eng. Lit. and other forms of folly -- and they twisted and perverted the short story for their own nefarious purposes. The short story, in short, became unreadable by ordinary folk; and the more unreadable it was, the more praise it earned from the intellectuals.

I was prompted to say all that, in March, by reading the two volumes which I have only just got around to describing. Sorry, but I got distracted.

Let's have a look at Vol I. Here we have the work of a great many writers who were not only famous but popular. Here are the first four: M.R. James, Saki, H.G. Wells, John Galsworthy. There are many others: Dorothy L. Sayers, Somerset Maugham, and so forth.

All of these stories can be read today with considerable enjoyment. And one, at least, is now wildly politically incorrect. It is Evelyn Waugh's story Mr Loveday's Little Outing. It concerns an institution known formally as the County Aslyum, but referred to by most of the characters as the loony bin -- the term which was, in my youth, universally employed to indicate a psychiatric hospital (as I believe the approved wording is today).

The story begins with Lady Moping and her daughter Angela visiting Lord Moping, who has regrettably been confined to the bin for some years. During the visit, they encounter another inmate, called Loveday, who, though of lower-class origin, is clearly a chap without much wrong with him.

Angela gets to know Loveday, and he tells her that he still has one ambition left in life, if only he could be released from confinement. Angela, a kindly girl, does what is necessary, and Loveday is released. And he does indeed fulfil his ambition... but it would spoil the story if I told you what it was. Suffice it to say that Waugh might have trouble getting anyone to print his story today.

In short, Vol I is entertaining, eminently readable, and for the most part fun.

With Vol II, however, we enter the realm of Literature. What we have here is serious stuff. Stuff which was written by serious people, and intended to make their name. The stories have been chosen by someone who teaches Eng. Lit., someone acting on behalf of an association of his brethren. You may have more luck with Vol II than I, but in my opinion it epitomises everything that is wrong with the highbrow approach to fiction. Most of it just isn't any goddam fun any more.

In Vol I there is a story by Hugh Walpole. We are not given the date, but I suspect it was written in the 1930s, and it refers to a period before the first world war. In this story, Walpole describes a man who was a voracious reader. This reader had, says Walpole, 'a touching weakness for the piles of fresh and neglected modern novels that lay in their discarded heaps on the dusty floor [of a bookshop]; young though he was, he was old enough to realise the pathos of these so short a time ago fresh from the bursting presses, so eagerly cherished through months of anxious watching by their fond authors, so swiftly forgotten, dead almost before they were born.'

The piles of dead books are now even larger than ever. And if you, dear would-be writer, want to avoid your masterpiece becoming one of them, then you should study the short stories contained in Vol I of the two-volume collection which has been described above, and ignore entirely the contents of Vol II.