Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Star treatment

You know how it is when you're a big-time writer. You get the star treatment, right?

Er, no. Not exactly.

Go see what Tess Gerritsen has to say about being on the road plugging her books. (Link courtesy of Mediabistro.) Now although I didn't much like one of Tess Gerritsen's novels when I reviewed it a while back, it is undeniable that she is a big commercial success. But you'd never know it if you talked to some bookshop managers. She tried, and found they'd never heard of her.

At Store #3, the manager doesn't want me to sign ANY copies. She wants to be able to "return them all" if necessary. Then she looks in the computer and stares. "Wow," she says. "We have a lot of your books in stock. I guess you must sell really well here." Only then does she allow me to sign three copies of VANISH. I ask her if she has many authors come through her store.

"You're the only one," she says. (Do other authors know something that I don't?)

Trying Neaira

Debra Hamel’s Trying Neaira is an object lesson in how to write a non-fiction book which has academic credibility and yet remains easily comprehensible to the general reader.

The book’s subtitle is The true story of a courtesan’s scandalous life in ancient Greece. The courtesan in question is Neaira (pronounced neh-EYE-ruh), and the ‘trying’ part of the title refers to the fact that, towards the end of her life, she was prosecuted for living with an Athenian citizen as his wife.

Under the laws of Athens, foreigners (of whom Neaira was one) were forbidden to marry citizens. The penalties were far from negligible: if found guilty, Neaira might have been sold back into slavery, and Stephanos, the man in her life, would have lost all the rights and privileges associated with citizenship.

First published in hardback in 2003, the book is now available in paperback. The publisher is Yale University Press, and in the academic world there are few more prestigious names. Yale will undoubtedly have had this book vetted (anonymously) by experts in the field, and indeed the author thanks them for their suggestions. So you can be sure that the information conveyed is correct.

The cover of the book features a highly apposite illustration: a sumptuous nude study by Jean-Leon Gérome. The artist’s subject is another famous Greek courtesan, Phryne, who was known for charging variable prices according to whether she liked you or not.

In essence, the book is very simple. It tells, in as much detail as is known, the life story of Neaira. She was brought up in a Corinthian brothel – in the fourth century BC – and was at one time a sex slave but bought her own freedom. And then she entered into a thirty-year relationship with Stephanos of Athens.

Stephanos, is seems, had enemies, and some of them sought to attack him through his long-term relationship with Neaira. The prosecutor was one Apollodoros, and the text of his speech to the court has amazingly survived; it constitutes the main source for Debra Hamel’s book.

In the course of describing Neaira’s life, Debra Hamel passes on a substantial amount of background information about life in ancient Greece, not least about the extraordinary legal system of Athens.

Trying Neaira is short and to the point. The author has mercifully chosen not to write in the fashionable style of gobbledygook which is so eagerly adopted by many who work in the humanities. Equally mercifully, we are spared a lot of feminist propaganda to the effect that all men are bastards; Debra Hamel allows the facts to speak for themselves.

As you would expect, there are extensive footnotes, enlarging on the points made in the text, and there is a substantial list of references. One book missing from the bibliography is Hans Licht’s Sexual Life in Ancient Greece, which was popular when I was a lad; but no doubt it has been displaced by more recent studies in this field.

One way and another Debra Hamel has provided this book with masses of supporting material on the web. You could start by going to her book blog, which is a valuable resource in itself, or you can go to the book’s own web site and work on from there.

Maybe, in the course of time, someone will do Neaira – the Novel. And after that Neaira – the Movie. Who knows?

Tuesday, August 30, 2005


Here, in no particular order, are a number of thoughts and links which arise from previous posts and comments upon them.

Science fiction

A correspondent tells me that the University of Minnesota has put up a series of mp3 files which are recordings of a set of lectures on science fiction and fantasy. I have not dipped into them myself, but my correspondent tells me that they are ‘worthwhile, knowledgeable, and accessible.’

Macmillan New Writing

One correspondent tells me that he submitted a ms to Macmillan New Writing back in May, since when he has heard nothing. Well, maybe that’s a bad sign. On the other hand, when a publisher hangs on to something it is sometimes an indication that he/she is taking it seriously.

Meanwhile, Roger Morris has not only submitted a novel to MNW but has had it accepted. There you go, see. Keep the faith. To celebrate, Roger has started a blog, which he refers to as a plog because it largely exists to plug his forthcoming book. Which is in my view a very smart thing to do.

I see from yesterday’s post that not only has Roger signed the contract but he has had proofs delivered. Hot damn, they must move fast at MNW.

Furthermore, Roger tells us that Jordan – aka Katie Price and author of what is currently the hottest ‘autobiography' in town has been signed to do two novels! Wow. I can’t wait.

Having dipped into other parts of Roger’s plog, I find that he has another one: Taking Comfort. He also says that, since Macmillan have been so niggardly with the advance, they have been generous with their punctuation, adding lots of commas and a few hyphens. Well, that’s publishers for you.

It all seems good-humoured and well calculated to arouse interest. Which, given the MNW slimline approach, he is largely going to have to do himself.

Beyond You and Me

W.S. Cross (not sure if that’s he or she) has sent me details of the erotic novel Beyond You and Me. Now what could possibly have made Cross think that I was interested in erotic fiction? Well, maybe it was the piece I wrote about Mitzi Szereto, or the one about books on sex.

Anyway, Cross is another author with a blog and a determination to tell the world about the new novel. This one isn’t sold yet. In fact I don’t think it’s even finished. But hey – it’s never too soon to start plugging, right?

I can’t say that I have actually dipped into Beyond You and Me because I got distracted by the long list of links to other erotic sites which W.S. Cross provides. But then Mrs GOB caught me at it and I was sent upstairs without any supper.

The Celebrity Café

The Celebrity Café wrote to me on the basis of no pretext whatever, but to point out that it is the internet’s longest-running entertainment magazine, read by 3.4 million people a month. Under the links section there is a section for authors, and for a consideration – e.g. a reciprocal link – they will no doubt give you and your book (whether out or forthcoming) a mention.

The Intellectuals and the Masses

Paul Vitols read my piece about John Carey’s book on the intellectuals and didn’t entirely agree with it so he wrote his own extensive comments on his blog Genesis of a Historical Novel. Well worth a look.

Gerard Jones

The great Gerard, whom the gods preserve, is still working on the audio version of Ginny Good. I particularly enjoyed the Introduction (bottom mp3 file on the list), which includes some of Joan Baez, and also a story about a man who was bitten on the neck by a deer which was in the back seat of his car. Look, you just have to listen to the story, OK? And it’s free.

Gerard is absolutely unique and if the internet had been invented solely in order to publicise his book it would have been worthwhile.

Cantara Christopher on Murder in the Genre

Cantara Christopher has commented on various of my posts in the past, and today she has a piece on Warning. This piece is seriously disturbing. It reminds us that the blogging world is but a shadow of the real world and that the real world contains a great deal of unpleasantness. The stuff that I write about – books and publishing – scarcely qualifies as real at all. But if you want to read something by someone who is prepared to face up to the difficult issues surrounding murder, motherhood, and grief, Cantara’s piece is for you.

Laraine Anne Barker

Laraine has some kind words to say about my essay On the Survival of Rats in the Slush Pile, which she is recommending to beginning writers who seek advice on her FAQ page. Laraine is the author of The Obsidian Quest and other novels, details of which are on her web site.

And, er, that’s about it for today.

Monday, August 29, 2005

More Moneypenny

Yesterday’s Sunday Times carried an odd sort of article on a forthcoming book by one Kate Westbrook: The Moneypenny Diaries.

I first mentioned Miss Moneypenny and her diaries on 8 July. In Ian Fleming’s astonishingly successful series of novels about the British secret agent James Bond, Miss Moneypenny was the secretary to M, the code name for the man who was head of the UK’s Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) and hence Bond’s boss.

For those who are too young to remember these things, perhaps I should point out that the Bond books (the first of which appeared in 1953) were wildly successful as novels. However, what really established the Bond name on a worldwide basis was the even more successful series of films, beginning in 1962 and still running today. These have not only generated untold millions for all involved in them but have made the name James Bond known throughout the world. In the far east he is known as Mr Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.

In my first post on this matter I pointed out that, although the Moneypenny diaries clearly made use of Fleming’s characters, it appeared that the Ian Fleming estate, in the form of an organisation known as IFP, knew nothing about them; and IFP had not, it then seemed, authorised the publication. If they hadn’t, I wondered, how long would it be before they reached for their lawyers?

The Sunday Times, in a thoroughly confused and confusing manner, supplies an answer, of sorts.

First of all, let it be said that I assumed from the outset the Kate Westbrook’s book was a work of fiction. And Amazon has it listed as such. However, it would appear that, for a while at least, the publisher – John Murray, with managing director Roland Philipps as spokesman – was trying to make out that the book was factual.

It is hard, frankly, to discern the true story from the Times’s jumble of facts and quotes. But it appears that Philipps claimed that the author, Kate Westbrook, was a distinguished historian – a fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge no less. Further, he claimed that the diaries were actually written by a woman who, at the time, was secretary to the head of SIS. The references to ‘Miss Moneypenny’ and to ‘James Bond’ were simply used to cover the names of real people, people on whom – it appears – Fleming based his books.

Clear so far? No? Well don’t blame me, I’m doing my best with this nonsense.

OK. Next thing. At a certain point, someone – possibly Richard Brooks, who wrote the Sunday Times article – made a few simple phone calls and established that the story didn’t hold up. For instance, there is no fellow of Trinity called Kate Westbrook and never has been. The stories in the book, when checked against the memory and knowledge of experts on the SIS, were held to be ‘implausible and improbable.’

Philipps seems then to have changed his tune. He now admits that the diaries are not genuine. ‘It’s a spoof,’ he says. Go on – we would never have guessed.

One wonders what on earth Philipps thought he was up to. Did he really believe, at any stage, that the Moneypenny diaries were real? Well, you gotta remember that there were a few people around who were dim enough to believe that the Hitler diaries were genuine.

Or, did he pretend they were real in order to beat up more press interest?

Or – hey, this is beginning to get like one of those complicated thriller plots from the days when espionage novels were all the rage, and you had double bluffs and triple agents and all sorts. Weren’t they fun?

Or, as I was saying, perhaps it was a devious ploy to avoid having to do business with the Ian Fleming estate?

There is a slight hint in the Times article that this latter explanation might, perhaps, be the right one. Corrine Turner, IFP’s managing director, is quoted as follows: ‘We always take protection of our intellectual property seriously and, in normal circumstances, would have stopped this book. However, after detailed negotiations with John Murray we have reached an agreement to allow this project to receive the public attention it deserves.’

She adds that ‘We were certainly led to believe by the publishers that there was a real Miss Moneypenny.’

Well, frankly I am beginning to lose interest. But it looks to me as if the story is very simple. Somebody, somewhere, decided that a successful commercial project could be launched by getting a writer to churn out a series of books (because there are more promised, I gather) which purported to be the diaries of Ian Fleming’s character, Miss Moneypenny. Any fule can see how this might work jolly well. A few bob would be made by everyone, and no harm done.

But then there was the tricky business of IFP demanding a share, as, again, any fule would recognise that they would. Perhaps, just perhaps, the author, agent, and publisher were unwise enough to try to proceed without asking permission. Perhaps they thought that by pretending it was a ‘real’ document, which used the names of Fleming characters for convenience, there would be no breach of copyright and no requirement to do a deal.

The IFP director's statement that normally they would have stopped such a book (dead in its tracks, she might have added), suggests to me that IFP came into the act late in the day; possibly when they were alerted by John Cox, the Bond fan mentioned in my first post. An item in the Observer at the beginning of this month also suggests that this was the case.

I can only say that, if that really was how it happened, I would not personally have cared to be on the end of the legal kicking and thumping which was, doubtless, administered by the IFP lawyers. The Bond franchise has generated many many millions, with more to come, and heavyweights like that do not react kindly when you tread on their toes.

Friday, August 26, 2005

Harry Blamires: The New Bloomsday Book

Yesterday we noted how, in order to separate themselves from the vulgar masses, the intellectuals of the early twentieth century deliberately developed a form of literature which was too difficult for the ordinary reader to understand. And few books in that era were more difficult to understand than James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922).

You might imagine, therefore, that the appearance of Ulysses would have been greeted with cries of joy and acclamation from the literary intelligentsia. But not so.

Why not? Well, there were two problems. The first was that Joyce himself was not one of us; he was a definite oik. And the second problem was that Joyce’s hero, Leopold Bloom, was even oikier. The man was an Irish Jew, for a start. And he was some sort of clerk, for heaven’s sake; and there were few worse insults in the intellectuals’ armoury than to describe a fellow as a mere clerk.

The word oik, by the way, is an old-fashioned English term for a person of uncouth behaviour and/or appearance. A friend of mine once had to act as guide to a distinguished politician called Roy Jenkins (now deceased). Roy was sometimes known as Woy, because of a minor speech impediment. By way of small talk my friend and Woy fell to discussing other personalities in UK politics, and my friend asked Woy what he thought of Kenneth Clarke – a man who may soon lead the Tory party. ‘Oh,’ cried Woy, ‘an absolute oik!’

But back to Joyce. Yes, strive though he might to be the leader of the avant-garde and hence the intellectuals’ darling, poor old Jimmy boy never quite made it. He was dismissed by Virginia Woolf as a ‘a self-taught working man, and we all know how distressing they are, how egotistic [ha!], insistent, raw, striking and ultimately nauseating.’ He probably smelt too.

Leopold Bloom also failed to find favour. He was not an intellectual. The only book we see him buy is entitled Sweets of Sin (not one feels, a highbrow volume), and he reads a periodical called Tit-Bits!

We may note, in passing, that Tit-Bits was not as salacious as it sounds, but it was a magazine which was regularly singled out for condemnation by the intelligentsia. It was aimed firmly at suburban readers, and in its early days each issue contained 40,000 words of text covering a remarkably wide spectrum of subjects. It was clearly bought by those of the lower social orders who sought to improve themselves, and such people got little encouragement from most of the intellectual community.

So, one way and another, James Joyce did not receive universal approval and admiration from the literary intelligentsia, despite the fact that they were the obvious audience for his book, and despite the fact that Ulysses was as difficult to follow as anything ever published up to that point.

Not that Ulysses is impossible to read in the same way that you would read any other book, but it is pretty hard going. It is much easier to follow, on the whole, if you have a guide to help you. I myself have found that the best guide to the book is Harry Blamires’s The New Bloomsday Book – subtitled A guide through Ulysses. First published in 1966, a second edition appeared in 1988; this is the one that I have. A third edition, however, was issued in 1996. If you buy a copy, you should ideally make sure that you have an up-to-date edition of Ulysses, so that the page-number references match.

As I have remarked before, my favourite section of Ulysses is the Nighttown sequence, which is written largely in the form of a play script. I am not always sure, however, whether some of the symbolism that Blamires’s commentary draws attention to was placed there by Joyce himself, intentionally, or whether it is something that Blamires himself has read into the text. Either way, Blamires’s guide to this longish section of the book has proved invaluable to me, and I warmly recommend it to others who are about to wrestle with Joyce’s masterpiece.

Some time ago, a reader of the blog kindly sent me a quotation from Albert Camus: ‘Those who write clearly have readers, those who write obscurely have commentators.’ Well, as commentators go, Blamires is one of the best.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

John Carey: The Intellectuals and the Masses

A while back, someone wrote a comment on one of my posts in which he suggested that I should read John Carey’s book The Intellectuals and the Masses. And indeed it has proved to be a rewarding experience.

John Carey, by the way, was Merton Professor of English at Oxford until he retired in 2001, and he is still an emeritus Professor. The sub-title of his book is Pride and Prejudice among the Literary Intelligentsia, 1880-1939.

The book comes in two parts. The first part contains various ‘themes’ and the second offers case studies of several writers.

You don’t have to read very far in this book before you get a surprise. And the surprise is that an Oxford Professor really doesn’t have much time for the literary intelligentsia. Or at any rate, not the kind of people he writes about in this book. In fact I don’t think I’m reading too much into it when I say that he despises large numbers of them.

The general thesis of the book is that the (largely self-anointed) intellectual classes were deeply shaken by nineteenth-century social developments. I’m not sure that Carey mentions the French Revolution of 1789 (it isn’t in the short index), but I think we could argue that that event was deeply disturbing to all those in Europe who held positions of influence, power, and wealth.

What the French Revolution demonstrated was that you weren’t necessarily safe even if you were a King. You could still end up in prison, or worse, with your head chopped off.

As the nineteenth century moved on, the ruling classes (from whom intellectuals were exclusively drawn in those days) began to be aware that the masses (for want of a better term) were rapidly growing in power and influence. What was more, they were being taught to read! And this was deeply alarming. Who could say what ideas they might pick up? A revolution in France was bad enough – but what if it spread? A widespread and deep-seated fear of the masses began to percolate through the intelligentsia.

As far as literature is concerned, Carey argues that, in the face of this much enlarged reading public, the response of the intellectuals was to create new forms of work which were deliberately exclusive. The whole point (conscious or unconscious) of modernist literature was to exclude the ordinary people. It was to create a class of writers and readers who could feel comfortably superior to the masses, because only they – the new intelligentsia – were clever enough to understand the new literature. And how reassuring it was, how comforting, to be aware that there were still people like themselves – people who were so infinitely superior, in every way, to the great unwashed masses who revelled in sordid crime stories and slushy romances.

Ortega y Gasset, for example, in The Dehumanization of Art, argued that it was the essential function of modern art to divide the public into two classes – those who can understand it and those who cannot. The intellectuals could not prevent the masses from learning to read. But they could prevent them reading certain types of literature by making it too difficult; and this they did.

Without even trying very hard, Carey reveals to us that intellectuals such as Nietzsche and Ortega y Gasset were quite exceptionally nasty people. ‘I believe,’ said Nietzsche, ‘that the mob, the mass, the herd, will always be despicable.’ Which is plain enough. The immense popularity of Nietzsche’s ideas, Carey tells us, is indicative of the sheer panic that the threat of the masses induced.

It isn't long, of course, before that raving old madman F.R. Leavis appears on the scene. The mass media, he declared, arouse ‘the cheapest emotional responses. Films, newspapers, publicity in all forms, commercially-catered fiction – all offer satisfaction at the lowest level.’

You see how the thinking goes? I am not one of the masses. I am someone special. I am an intellectual – one of the elite. Therefore my emotional responses, obviously, are far more sensitive and subtle than those of my cleaning lady.

And where, I ask (though Carey doesn’t, explicitly), is the scientific evidence for such a belief? Who has done the research which demonstrates that a third-rate man like Leavis (or even a first-rate man) has more sensitive emotions than someone with an IQ of 75? Who has proved that the grief felt by a bereaved mother is more intense if she is Lady Hermione from the Manor than if she is Mrs Jones from no. 3 Railway Cuttings? Where is the machine which measures the intensity and 'quality' of emotions, as a sphygmomanometer measures blood pressure? There isn't one.

The fear of the masses also acted as the cover for an equally nasty attitude among the intelligentsia, and that was the fear of women. Popular newspapers were hated and despised because (no doubt in the interests of circulation, a sordid motive if ever there was one), they encouraged women to better themselves. Good God! Women will be demanding the vote next!

A whole array of intellectuals are revealed by Carey not merely to be snobs and fuzzy thinkers, but possessed of singularly unattractive opinions based on nothing more than prejudice, stupidity and fear for their cosseted life style. D.H. Lawrence, for example, wrote to Lady Cynthia Asquith from Ceylon , assuring her that the natives were ‘in the living sense lower than we are.’

That remark reminds me of a canard that I used to hear when I was a boy: black boxers, it was said, win more world championships than white boxers because ‘they don’t feel pain like we do.’ Neither this assertion nor Lawrence’s was based on anything that might even loosely be called reliable data. Idle gossip is more like it.

Incidentally, although I am no admirer of D.H. Lawrence, Carey succeeds in shocking me when he relates that some of the intelligentsia in the early twentieth century anticipated Hitler in favouring the extermination of the old, the sick, and the suffering. Lawrence was among them. ‘If I had my way,’ he said in a letter of 1908, ‘I would build a lethal chamber as big as the Crystal Palace.’

The literary intelligentsia, as noted above, created a class of literature which was impossible for the average reader to understand. But I doubt, personally, whether it ever provided much pleasure for the elite, except in so far as it allowed them to demonstrate, to their own satisfaction at least, that they were infinitely superior in every way to those ghastly oiks who favoured penny dreadfuls; or, later, Ian Fleming; or Dean Koontz; or anyone else who sells big but is despised by the literati. That, I suppose, is the price you have to pay for being allowed to feel superior; you don’t actually enjoy anything very much.

All these attitudes were reflected in what books got reviewed and in how they were reviewed (and they still are). Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat was roundly denounced for its vulgarity, and for being written in ‘colloquial clerk’s English.’

The principal aim of all this, says Carey, was ‘to acquire the control over the mass that language gives.’ After all, if the masses exercised power, they would probably start spreading out wealth more equally, and then where would we be? Democratic government, thought Thomas Hardy, would lead to ‘the utter ruin of art and literature.’

The masses were feared because it was thought that they would behave like crowds: i.e. they would be ‘extremely suggestible, impulsive, irrational, exaggeratedly emotional, inconstant, irritable and capable only of thinking in images – in short, just like women.’ The process of civilising women was, incidentally, considered by the intellectuals to be one of extreme difficulty.

Every development which favoured the middle or working classes in England was viewed with deep suspicion if not outright hostility. Suburban growth, with improved new housing, was decried for ruining the countryside. Cyril Connolly considered suburbs worse than slums.

Enough, I think to make the point. Carey succeeds, well beyond anything I had thought possible, in demonstrating that, in the period covered by his book, 1880-1939, English intellectuals (in particular) were an unpleasant, snobbish lot. Motivated by sheer funk – terrified that they might lose all their privileges, which in truth were seldom justified – they objected on the one hand to anything which might be called progress, while on the other hand they busily reinforced their own all too fallible self esteem through the creation of ‘superior art’ which the masses could not understand.

The trend continues to this day, as you have doubtless noticed.

After the general introduction of part one, part two of Carey’s book provides several case studies. He deals with George Gissing, H.G. Wells, Arnold Bennett, and Wyndham Lewis, particularly the latter’s connection with Hitler.

Gissing, though now forgotten, ‘was the earliest English writer to formulate the intellectuals’ case against mass culture, and he formulated it so thoroughly that nothing essential has been added to it since.’ Gissing, incidentally, was a charming fellow whose sexual appetites required women who were his intellectual and social inferior, and he could only get it up by humiliating and punishing them. He claimed to have beaten both his wives with stair rods.

H.G. Wells is remembered rather better than Gissing. I heard a rumour recently that someone had made a film based on one of his books. But his views are unattractive from our perspective. What will we do with the black and the brown races, he wondered, since they are so obviously inferior to us in intelligence and initiative, and there are so many of them. He became obsessed with reducing the world’s population.

Arnold Bennett is included by Carey because the author views him as a hero. ‘His writings represent a systematic dismemberment of the intellectuals’ case against the masses.’ But Bennett was, of course, despised by the intelligentsia because the bounder made money from literature. Only an utter cad would do that. He also wrote a book called The Truth about an Author, which I really must read.

Intellectuals, Bennett believed, should write so as to appeal to a wider audience, and he did not see why a book which the masses liked should automatically be thought of as trash. Between the popular and the highbrow reader there was, he argued, no essential difference. Neither is there: in fiction both seek emotion; in non-fiction both seek information.

Wyndham Lewis, it turns out, wrote several books in the 1930s, all of which were enthusiastic about the German Fuhrer, the charismatic Adolf. Contempt for women was perhaps the key to Lewis’s character. ‘Stay to dinner,’ he asked a friend. ‘I’ve a wife downstairs. A simple woman, but a good cook.’

I don’t think anyone is likely to reprint Wyndham Lewis any time soon. Whiteness, he suggested, ‘is in a pigmentary sense aristocratic’, and is the proper colour for a gentleman. As for his description of what he calls ‘the average Nigger’, I really don’t think I dare quote it, lest someone should mistake it for my own opinion.

As far as Hitler himself is concerned, Carey tells us that ‘the tragedy of Mein Kampf is that it was not, in many respects, a deviant work but one firmly rooted in European intellectual orthodoxy.’

Carey ends his survey at 1939, but he reminds us that the old intellectual prejudices have not died out yet. The ever-expanding mass media have ‘driven the intellectuals to evolve an anti-popular cultural mode that can reprocess all existing culture and take it out of the reach of the majority.’ This mode is variously called ‘post-structuralism’, or ‘deconstruction’, or just plain ‘theory’, and it began in the 1960s with the work of Jacques Derrida. It has managed, says Carey, to evolve a language that is impenetrable to most native English-speakers. You can say that again. Much of it is gibberish. The whole wretched business was exposed by Alan Sokal.

Carey has, in my view, summed up all the modern apparatus of criticism and reviewing very neatly. Every department of Literature in every university and college in the world takes the line that there is a form of ‘serious literary fiction’ which is inherently superior to popular or commercial fiction. But where, I ask, not for the first time, are the sound arguments and research data which demonstrate this truth?

I have been reading novels for at least 55 years, reading about novels for at least 50 years, and writing them for 45 years. If there was any such evidence I think I would have noticed it by now.

In fact, as I have argued many times before on this blog, there is no evidence for seeing the world of fiction as a hierarchy. According to the intelligentsia, the world of fiction is, so to speak, a tower block with ‘serious literary novels’ firmly ensconced in the penthouse. In the basement, needless to say, is romantic fiction, which is read only by those brainless women.

This tower-block, or hierarchical, view of fiction is, in my view, a product of male intellectuals. The tower block is a male erection; and, like all male erections, it is fundamentally ridiculous.

The only sensible way to view the world of fiction is as a street with many bookshops. Each of these bookshops stocks a different kind of fiction, and the sensible reader will visit all of them at one time or another. On this street there are no prime sites; all premises are of equal value.

The kindest thing that can be said about the intellectuals’ view of the world of fiction is that it is the product of fuzzy thinking. Unfortunately, as Professor Carey has demonstrated, there is a much darker side to this mode of thinking which, particularly in the 1930s, led to some very unpleasant and unwelcome consequences.

Professor Carey’s book on intellectuals and the masses is, in and of itself, a good argument for the existence of universities. Only an academic would have the time (and indeed the duty) to undertake the necessary reading and to think through the implications of the results. I doubt whether many of Professor Carey’s colleagues ever thanked him for this book; but the rest of us ought to be deeply grateful.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Michael Gruber: Tropic of Night

Michael Gruber’s novel Tropic of Night is a thriller; and it’s an absolute… I was going to say cracker, which in England means a firework, and hence, metaphorically, would mean in this case that Tropic of Night is a tremendous read. But I’ve just realised, based on the evidence in the book itself, that in the US the word ‘cracker’ means something else (see any of the several dictionaries of racial slurs).

Anyway, you get the point. This book is one hell of a good read – always assuming that you like thrillers; and even if you don’t – and I strongly recommend it.

Michael Gruber is evidently a very smart man. He has a PhD in marine biology, from the University of Miami, to prove it, but it’s perfectly clear from his book. This is said to be his first novel, but his slightly mysterious and vague background mentions that he has had a number of jobs, most of which included writing, and usually anonymously.

Whatever he did, he has certainly learnt his business. It is highly unusual, frankly, to find a first novel which is this good, and I suspect he has had practice under other names. Either that or he worked with a very good book doctor on the structure and pace of the thing. Which is possible.

Set in the present day, the action takes place in and around Miami. The chief characters are a police homicide man, Jimmy Paz, and a woman in peril, Jane Doe, who is an anthropologist. There are several grisly murders involved, but fortunately the emphasis is not on the gore but on the characters.

Jane Doe is a woman who has not so much kidnapped a child as rescued her from an abusive mother – and has killed the mother in the process. So Jane is on the run. And not only because of the child. Also because her husband is looking for her.

The two cops involved in this book, Jimmy Paz and his partner, are tremendously strong characters, expertly delineated. This is top-rank crime writing, my notes say. Who taught Gruber how to do this? You don’t get to write like this overnight.

The time structure of the book is complicated, and I am not normally in favour of complicated time structures. I prefer a straightforward chronological account. However, if you must have flashbacks, do them as well as this. The viewpoint also switches from first person (Jane) to third (Paz). But again this is smoothly handled.

I don’t know whether you believe in witchcraft, sorcery, black magic, and all that kind of thing. But by golly you will be much more likely to believe in it by the time you’ve read this book.

Even though this is a work of fiction, there are a few points made about witchcraft, shamanism, or whatever you wish to call it, which hold up, I think, in the real world. Jane Doe is an expert on shamanism, and one of her mentors points out to her that spiritual does not necessarily mean nice. Witches, shamans, wise women and other variants of the same are more than likely to have their own agendas. Some of these people may be saints, but saints are about as common among them as saints are among the generals, corporation presidents, and politicians of the non-magic kingdoms. This is worth remembering, I think, before you rush off and join your local Wiccan coven, or whatever.

The story rattles along at a fair old pace, distracting one from the occasional shortcoming. And there is at least one substantial problem with the credibility of the story, if you bother to think about it. It could have been cured with a couple of paragraphs early in the book but it wasn’t. Never mind. Many readers won’t notice.

Not only is this a first-rate thriller, but there is a moment towards the end which is truly affecting. And that’s not so common in this genre.

All in all then, a highly successful beginning.

So good, in fact, that when I’d finished it I looked round for more. And fortunately there is some. I had feared that, having devoted a fearsome amount of time and energy to this book (it couldn’t be written otherwise), Gruber might have decided that the cash generated didn’t justify further books. And he might have given up in order to concentrate on a properly rewarding career. But fortunately that doesn’t seem to be the case.

Second in the Jimmy Paz series is Valley of Bones, which was published in March this year.

Oops. I just got around to searching for a Michael Gruber biography, so that I could point you towards it. And I have found one which someone seems to have cobbled together unofficially, without any help from the man himself. From this I learn that Gruber was born in 1940!

What is more, I find, reading on, that he has ghosted a legal thriller for his cousin, Robert K. Tanenbaum. In fact, reading further, there seem to be fifteen of them!

Well, dammit, I’m not going to go back and change a word of what I’ve written. This late discovery of Gruber's apprenticeship just proves how perceptive I am. Heh heh heh.

His US publisher, by the way, still refers to him as 'one of the most talented thriller writers to debut in many a year.' And the official biography tells us very little. Publishers -- you just can't believe a word they say.

Agent 007

I’m not sure why, but somehow I’ve been slow in getting around to reading the Agent 007 blog. And that was a mistake.

Agent 007, as the first part of her name name suggests, is a literary agent working in the US market. If you read the small print you will learn that she started blogging in July this year (so far as I can make out); but her profile says she’s been on Blogger since September 2003, so maybe she had a previous existence.

Anyway, it’s now all very much worth a look. I particularly recommend her piece on the slush pile. This attracted masses of comments, as you would expect.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Christopher Booker: The Seven Basic Plots

Oh dear.

Oh dear oh dear oh dear. What can one possibly say?

Contrary to what you might think, I do try to say something positive about every book that is mentioned on this blog. A book, after all, usually represents a year (at least) of the author’s life; and it represents an investment of perhaps £20,000 on the part of the publisher. So positive I try to be. But in this case it’s going to be difficult.

The problem is that Christopher Booker’s The Seven Basic Plots reminds me of the story of Professor Jowett’s father.

In the nineteenth century, Benjamin Jowett, Master of Balliol College, Oxford, was an eminent man; but his father was a failure. Towards the end of his life, Jowett senior got it into his head that what the world needed was a metrical translation of the Psalms. He spent several years obsessively working on this project, during which time the son had to support his parents financially. It was obvious to everyone except the old man that this was an entirely futile undertaking, and, when it was eventually published, the metrical translation of the Psalms received absolutely no acclaim whatever.

And that’s the problem I have with Mr Booker’s opus. It seems to me to be entirely pointless.

Let us suppose, just for the sake of argument, that Booker (or someone) were to work out the seven (or 15) basic plots on which every story, novel, play and opera could be found to be based. What possible value would this be? How could the knowledge be put to practical use?

Let us take the novel, for example. How would a knowledge of the n basic plots help a publisher, a bookseller, a writer, or a reader?

Would the publisher put out a sign saying, Don’t send us anything but plot no. 4? I doubt it. Would the bookseller arrange his stock according to plot, and alphabetically within each plot? It seems unlikely.

And what of the poor bloody writer? How does it help him? Is he going to say, I shall write plot no. 5 this time, because that was a massive hit for Shakespeare and Goethe, so it’s sure to put me at the top of the bestseller list? Hm? Would he?

Even the reader doesn’t get much help from such an analysis. Is any reader going to say, I only read plot no. 4 because the rest just don’t do it for me?

It’s all futile, useless and pointless. I get no pleasure from writing those words, but that’s the way I feel. Booker’s book seems to me to be gloriously beside the point. The point is not that the number of plots is limited: it is that the number of possible emotional effects that can be created in the reader/audience is limited. The number of ways in which those emotions can be aroused, however, is infinite, and depends largely (but not entirely) on the skill of the writer. (For a much simpler and shorter explanation than Booker’s, see Chapter 5 of my own book The Truth About Writing; the chapter is 53 pages long.)

Let’s go back a bit.

Christopher Booker has been a fairly well known writer in the UK for some forty years. In the 1960s he was the very first editor of Private Eye, and he has produced a number of well-received non-fiction books. As a journalist he is best known for his weekly column in the Sunday Telegraph, where he has been a fierce critic of bureaucracy.

But in addition to all that, Booker has, by his own account, spent thirty years (on and off) faffing around with this nonsense about basic plots.

The book itself, as a physical object, is distinctly off-putting. It is heavy, and thick. It runs to 728 pages, and by my calculation contains over 400,000 words. The typeface is small.

I have a fundamental problem with non-fiction books which are long; and I am not alone. Thirty years ago, one of my duties was to process students’ PhD theses in a university. One day, an academic came into my office and picked up a thesis which was three inches thick. ‘If I were the examiner,’ he said, ‘I would fail this on sight. A student who hasn’t learnt how to condense the results of his research into a volume of reasonable length hasn’t learnt very much.’ And that’s my view too. At one fifth the length, The Seven Basic Plots might be readable; as it is, it ain’t.

I also have a problem with what in academic terms is called the methodology. In other words, how the author went about things. In the humanities we can, of course, pretty much forget about science from the outset; but we can at least be systematic, and adopt some kind of structured approach. Has Booker done that? No. ‘I embarked,’ he tells us, ‘on an almost indiscriminate course of reading and re-reading, through hundreds of stories of all kinds.’

Another difficulty, for me, is that Booker has chosen to use Jung as a guide to generating insights. You see, when Booker and I were lads, Freud and Jung were not only respectable but positively revered. But the world has changed, and Booker doesn’t seem to have noticed. Freud, to my mind, is so hopelessly unscientific that he comes close to being a charlatan; and when Jung is mentioned, I fear that the phrase ‘mumbo-jumbo’ enters my head. So to me Booker's approach does not seem promising, and I am not surprised to find that, in my judgement, it has led nowhere.

One way and another, Booker has spent thirty years in reading, drafting, and re-writing. And in the end this is what he has come up with: an amorphous mess. His seven basic plots, in summary, and for what they are worth, are listed on the cover of the book: overcoming the monster; rags to riches; the quest; voyage and return; comedy; tragedy; and rebirth.

Comedy, I may say, is not a plot at all. It’s an effect: it is something which is generated by stories of various kinds, if the material is properly handled.

There are endless, endless problems with all this. And I could go on. But I won’t. Not for long.

This book belongs in a long tradition of books in which the authors have sought to identify the secret of narrative success. There are few indications that Mr Booker realises this – and certainly none in the bibliography – but it may be said that the 'secret of success' sequence started with Aristotle’s Poetics, and it really got under way about 150 years ago. It became obvious about that time that a successful novelist or playwright could make lots of money, could become famous, and would therefore enjoy all the trappings of celebrity. Hence a number of sharp lads began to scratch their heads and try to identify what it was that went into a successful book/play, so that they too could become rich and famous.

The long series of ‘secret of success’ books is most clearly defined in relation to stage plays and, nowadays, movies. It began, I suggest, with Freytag’s Technique of the Drama (1894), and went on through William Archer, Brander Matthews, Krows, Price, Egri, Grebanier, and now, in the present-day movie context, Robert McKee. All of these men sought to produce rules or a set of principles which could be followed and which would guarantee success.

Of course none of them ever succeeded, or they themselves would have become famous playwrights and screenwriters. But their response to the ‘if you’re so clever why aren’t you famous’ line was simple: 'Ah well, they would say; I can show you the basic principles, but to apply them you need a touch of genius.’ And, since there is never any shortage of ambitious wannabe writers who are sure that they have more than a touch of genius, they were able to sell their books.

Booker doesn’t present us with a how-to book for wannabe writers. Goodness me no, that would be far too vulgar. This is a serious academic analysis. But his work is, nevertheless, in that tradition. Its closest comparator, in my view, is George Polti’s The Thirty Six Dramatic Situations, which Booker mentions only in a footnote, and then dismissively. (The British Library lists five editions of Polti’s book, from 1924 to 1944, so it must have sold well. It was reprinted in 2003. Presumably Booker hopes for similar popularity and longevity, but I don't think he's going to get it.)

Enough, surely. You will gather that I don’t recommend this book. I certainly don’t recommend that you should buy it – though you will shortly be able to pick up lots of secondhand copies at bargain prices.

And what can I possibly find to say about it that might loosely be interpreted as positive?

Well, I suppose it is possible – just – that a young person who fancies a career as a novelist or screenwriter might read this analysis and gain one or two insights into the way plots are structured. Possibly. But how does it avail us to have even a perfect template for a plot? We still have to sit down and write Othello, or The Importance of Being Earnest.

Ah – I have it. The book is at least written in plain English, and not in academic gobbledygook. Sorry, but that’s the best I can do for positive.

One person at least does seem to have read this book from cover to cover. The copy that I had was borrowed from the Wiltshire public-library system, and one previous borrower had not only read it – apparently every footnote – but had also commented copiously. In blue felt-tip pen. Now normally I would regard that as very naughty, but in this case the comments were more fun than the text. (‘Too glib’; ‘far too superficial to be taken seriously’.) And the fellow is fiendishly well informed to boot.

Poor old Booker occasionally gets even his facts wrong. He tells us that Peter Brook introduced Waiting for Godot to the London stage. And he didn’t; as we noted last week, it was Peter Hall. (The Phantom Scribbler of Wiltshire knew that too.) And now that I come to use it, the index isn’t reliable either. Peter Brook isn’t in it, and I knew I’d come across his name somewhere in the text.

Finally, I think I must have a look on the internet, and see if anyone liked the book better than I did.

OK. Results. Well, ahem, even the Sunday Telegraph, Booker’s own outfit, was less than enthusiastic. The Daily Telegraph had reservations: ‘Booker's principle of classifying stories is a possible, but not the only possible (or even necessarily the most illuminating) approach.’ The Observer was lukewarm: ‘Christopher Booker’s hefty tome of cultural archaeology is peculiar, repetitive, near-barmy and occasionally rather good.’ The Times piece was not so much a review as an attempted summary plus quotes from the good and the great.

In America, the New York Times man was not happy at all. He claimed that Booker had lifted his ideas from ‘a wide spectrum of influential, even canonical works by writers and thinkers as varied as Jung, Freud, Joseph Campbell, Bruno Bettelheim, Sir James George Frazer, the Shakespeare scholar A.C. Bradley and the folklore experts Peter and Iona Opie.’

Furthermore, Booker is said to have made absurd generalisations about well known classics. ‘Such inane readings of modern literature effectively eclipse the more engaging arguments presented in the first portion of Mr. Booker’s book. Anyone tackling The Seven Basic Plots would be advised to peruse the informative first half and quickly ditch the second half of this 700-plus page tome.’

All the British reviews were written by people who, if not exactly friends, are likely to bump into the author from time to time. Oh, and by the way. If you yourself should happen to be introduced to Mr Booker, and if he should ask you, in that modest self-effacing way that writers have, whether you have, by any chance, read his book on the seven basic plots, here’s a little tip.
What you do not say is, ‘No, I haven’t read it, and I gather it’s a bit of a mess.’ Dear me no. No, what you must say is this: ‘No, Christopher, I haven’t actually read it yet. But I’m really looking forward to it.’

Monday, August 22, 2005

Comments and searches

Just a reminder that this blog allows you to comment on a post if you wish to. From time to time I fish out a comment which I think deserves a special airing, lest it get overlooked, but that is a slightly invidious process. In any case, what I think is a particularly valuable comment is not necessarily what you will value, and vice versa.

Today, I think, I will simply remind you (modestly) that some of the comments are possibly more useful than the original post. Not often, it’s true, but occasionally.

If you want to look at the comments on a post, there are two ways to do it. On the front page of the blog, you will find a grey line at the foot of each post. The number of comments, if any, will be shown there, and you can click on the link to reveal them. What you then get is a new page with that one post on it, plus the comments.

Back on the front page, if you want to look at a post which is listed under Previous Posts (top right) you can click on its title, and that will similarly open up a page with that one post only, plus comments.

Don’t forget either that there is a handy search facility, for this one blog, at the very top of the front page, to the right of the word Blogger. If you want to know, for instance, whether I have ever commented on a particular book, or a topic, put the key words in the search box and Google will search the GOB only and give you a list. For book titles, phrases et cetera, put the words in double inverted commas, as with other Google searches.

Mr Big in books put me on to an article in the New Statesman. It is available online, sort of, but you have to pay at least £1 to read it. Instead I went out and bought a copy, because it was a while since I’d read the magazine, and that cost me £2.50.

The article is by Nick Cohen, who is presumably the same Nick Cohen who wrote the book Pretty Straight Guys – an analysis of the New Labour types who are anything but – and various other pieces for the Guardian, Observer, and so forth.

Cohen’s subject is Mr Big, the jokey name that he gives to Scott Pack, the buying manager for Waterstone’s, which is one of the UK’s top bookselling chain stores (200 shops, 14.7% of the market).

Literary London, says Cohen, fears Scott Pack, largely because he cares little for literary London; the literati regard him as ‘cheap and tasteless.’

Pack’s crime, apparently, is that he is not impressed by airy-fairy literary prizes; the Booker, he claims, does not sell books – not many, at any rate. Neither does our Scott have much time for the broadsheet review pages, which ought to be a means of getting punters eagerly into the shops but aren’t. (Given that the broadsheets seem to concentrate on books like Specimen Days, which is currently getting acres of space, I can’t say I’m surprised.)

So, the result of all this is that Waterstone's, under Pack, is going ‘downmarket’; which means that they are going to concentrate on stocking books that sell.

Can’t see anything much wrong with all that myself. Scott Pack seems like a man after my own heart.

However, the overall tone of the Cohen article feels a bit odd to me. He refers to the sale or return process as if it was something new, introduced solely by Waterstone's; and ditto the practice of publishers buying display space.

Cohen also appears, in places, to side with the literary lot. He seems to find it unacceptable that, even if a book makes the Booker long list, Waterstone’s will not necessarily stock it. And he states that, as a result of Waterstone’s strategy, ‘the next generation of serious writers will find it harder to reach an audience.’

Quite why anyone should think that those who write literary fiction are more serious than those who write crime or romance, I am at a loss to know.

However, at the end of the piece, Cohen says this: ‘Listening to Pack’s incandescent critics, I couldn’t help feeling sympathy for him. Anyone who has heard the herd of editors, publishers, authors and critics mooing their political and cultural clichés at a London literary party and not felt the urge to reach for a baseball bat is less than human.’

Well quite. Quite.

So, the New Statesman article is a bit of a hodge-podge really, and I wouldn’t encourage you to go out and spend money on it.

Rather more interesting, and free, is a piece in yesterday's Sunday Telegraph. This is a similar discussion of Waterstone's role in the marketplace, with much less emphasis on the influence of Mr Big.

So worried are the publishers about offending Waterstone's, which is one of their biggest customers, that they will not be quoted by name. However, there are lots of anonymous quotes. The article begins by suggesting that Waterstone's may have lost a lot of money on the latest Harry Potter, which Waterstone's deny, and goes on to discuss how the firm will cope with competition from the supermarkets.

'If Waterstone's wants to just be a mass-market retailer,' says one publisher, 'then it has to take on Tesco on price. And Tesco will eat it for lunch. Waterstone's is simply not geared to that cut-throat competition.'

Well, we shall see. At least these two articles do demonstrate that there are a few people in the UK book trade who are trying to think straight and who are aware of the economic facts of life. And I suppose that’s worth knowing about. Kind of reassuring, really. Maybe there’s hope yet.

Friday, August 19, 2005

Five tips to avoiding total disaster

Or, to give this thing its full title, Five Tips to Avoiding Total Disaster as a Novelist from a Poor, Wretched Fool Who Had to Learn the Hard Way.

Yesterday I had an email from Yolanda Carden at FSB Associates, enclosing an article by Kris Saknussemm, author of a novel called Zanesville, which is being published by Villard in the US in October. No sign of a UK publisher yet, but the book is listed by, so there should not be a problem in getting a copy.

The article, said Ms Carden, was available for me to use on my blog if I wished, free of charge.

Now, I am usually somewhat resistant to this kind of thing. After all, it is only a week or two since we looked at The Traveller, an intensely hyped book which was commensurately disappointing. However, I made a few checks and decided that Zanesville sounds quite interesting.

First of all, Villard is a perfectly respectable publisher, part of Random House no less, and therefore not your run-of-the-mill POD outfit.

Second, if you go to you can find the Publishers Weekly review of the book. PW is not 100% enthusiastic by any means, and the plot summary isn’t going to attract every reader, but it intrigued me.

Third, FSB Associates is a highly professional book-publicity firm with a very fancy web site; and, presumably as part of the push for Zanesville, there is a site devoted to the book, on which you can read some other reviews and plugs. FSB seem to be doing their stuff.

Finally, when I came to read Kris Saknussemm’s article, it seemed to me to contain some sound advice. So, here then is what Kris has to say:

The problem with ‘should’ advice is that it’s either something you already know, i.e. your diet should include more fruit and vegetables than cheeseburgers and martinis -- or it’s something really difficult (like consuming more fruit and vegetables than cheeseburgers and martinis). So, based on my own stumbling, fumbling experience, I offer the following list of things I would strongly advise aspiring and despairing writers not to do. I doubt that simply by avoiding these pitfalls you will be guaranteed international fame and fortune, but I’m confident that you will at least escape many unnecessary frustrations and defeats, so that you can be fresh for the really poignant failures and setbacks that will either make or break you -- and with any luck will do a bit of both.

First Tip. Do not spend years gathering interesting material -- odd quotations, overheard remarks, colorful phrases, bits of trivia, weird statistics and obscure facts in the hope that you will one day find a story to contain them. I ended up with a literal warehouse of such stuff and I can tell you now with considerable confidence that the larvae of the human botfly bore into the skin and gorge themselves, emerging as centimeter long maggots, while a Joshua Hendy nine-thousand horsepower steam turbine delivers a cruising speed of 16 knots at 78 rpm. There is nothing wrong in knowing that if left underwater for years brass gives off a bright verdigris stain or that the first Birds of Paradise shipped back to Europe had their legs chopped off to facilitate packing, but the collection of details is like any acquisitive habit -- potentially obsessive. You can end up with a novel that reads like the Gospel according to St. Matthew translated into the Duke of York Island language and a response from the publishing industry reminiscent of a deserted poolroom on the shore of Sheepshead Bay. Put bluntly, burn your notebooks and clear your head.

Tip #2. Do not spend years experimenting with different forms of writing and various intellectual follies such as cut-ups and verbal collages, intricate multiple person narratives, dream stories, recipe books, anatomies, imaginary academic theses and the like. Yes, it’s true that some of the world’s most interesting literature has elements of these forms -- but that was then and this is different. If you are serious about getting a work of fiction published today you need quick sharp answers to the following questions. In what section of a bookstore or retailer’s website will your book be found? Which authors can your work be likened to? In three sentences or less what’s your novel about?

Tip #3. The Puritans believed in covering the body for modesty’s sake. Yet they developed a sexualized fascination for the ears of women and the noses of men. My point? (See Tip #1) In apparent restriction there is unexpected release. Dickens created over 800 individual characters and laid down some of the most intense cultural satire in English -- but his writing really came into focus when Wilkie Collins hipped him to the detective story. I struggled for years trying to find a form for my writing, flitting around like a Ulysses butterfly. The moment I gave myself permission to write an action/adventure story, things started falling into place. Modern art has provided artists with unparalleled and some might argue paralyzing freedom. Don’t waste time trying to create a new form. It’s given to very few people in any medium to do that -- and many of their achievements end up looking like legless Birds of Paradise later. A seemingly simple repetitive musical style like the Blues has proven capable of expressing the full spectrum of human experience and has inspired countless variations and mutations. Give yourself over to an established structure and follow its guidelines, and suddenly interesting points will emerge to surprise you.

Tip #4. Read your work aloud, to some willing victim ideally, but at least to yourself. Storytelling began as an oral form and the ear (however erotically appealing) has a trueness to it that will reveal what’s working and what’s not in a more immediate and decisive way than simply scanning the page. This discipline will also slow you down psychologically and bring you into more intimate contact with your story. In the end, it will take no more time than reading back a page silently.

Tip #5. Ignore all reasonable sounding advice like “write about what you know,” “read as much as you can,” or “try to write every day.” If you need to hear this advice you are in the wrong game. But more importantly, reasonableness won’t get the job done. One day in an ice-stricken back alley in Boston I saw a fat little Irishman beat the daylights out of four larger, stronger assailants. When it was over, and it was over astonishingly quickly, he brushed himself off and said simply, “I had to get unreasonable with ‘em.”

Unless you are willing to face the unreasonable in yourself -- unless you are willing to entertain some strange notions (and deal with them when they stick around) -- unless you are willing to get lost, confused and even terrified -- then what you’re doing won’t have any meaning. The famous device of conflict upon which all stories are supposed to hinge starts within the writer. You are all the characters in your dreams and so too with a novel. You can’t put your creations into jeopardy or into embarrassing or miraculous situations without going there yourself, and that is not a sensible ambition for a grown person to have. As a writer who has made more mistakes than most, my goal above all else is to be very, very unreasonable.

About the Author:

Kris Saknussemm grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area but has for a long time lived abroad, in the Pacific Islands and Australia. A painter and sculptor as well as a writer, his fiction and poetry have appeared in such publications as The Hudson Review, The Boston Review, The Antioch Review, New Letters and ZYZZYA.

Zanesville (Villard; October 2005; $14.95US/$21.00CAN; 0-8129-7416-6) is his first novel and the first in a series of books called The Lodemania Testament. For more information, please visit these websites or

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Reviews and obituaries

Publishers Lunch guided me to an article in Slate, about book reviewing in the United States, and it is well worth reading. However, the really good bit comes at the end.

The author of the article, Jack Shafer, tends to the view that British book reviews are better than American ones because British literary editors don’t give a twopenny whatsit about any link between the reviewer and the author of the book. Quite the reverse: they will often appoint the sworn enemy of an author to review his latest book. Result: sparks.

At the end of the article, Shafer remarks in passing that British obituaries are better than American ones too. They go in for plain speaking. (See, for instance, my reference to David Hooper’s obituary of Peter Carter-Ruck.)

Shafer offers a link to an absolute peach of an obituary: it appeared in the Daily Telegraph, and the subject was the journalist Graham Mason. As the first line of the obituary tells us, Mason was the drunkest man in the Coach and Horses – a title for which there was, by the way, considerable competition.

Among the competitors was the famous Jeffrey Bernard, who was turned into a play, so to speak, by Keith Waterhouse. Peter O’Toole played the part of Bernard, and you can get a DVD which is a recording of a performance of the play at the Old Vic.

For a good many years Bernard wrote a weekly column for the Spectator. It was described by Jonathan Meades as a suicide note in weekly instalments, because it mostly dealt with his boozing and with the increasingly catastrophic effects of that habit on his health. The title of the Keith Waterhouse play was Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell, which was the excuse offered by the Speccie whenever its author was too ‘tired and emotional’ to produce any copy.

The column ran for years, and some of the characters in it became famous as a result. The owner of the pub, Norman Balon, became known as the rudest landlord in London. He was even invited to publish his memoirs; which he did, with a little help.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Samuel Beckett: Waiting for Godot

To the Theatre Royal, Bath, last night, to see Samuel Beckett's play Waiting for Godot, directed by Sir Peter Hall.

For several summers past, Sir Peter Hall has brought a company of actors to Bath, where they have performed a number of plays in repertory. Last year, for instance, I noted Shaw's Man and Superman. This year the plays are Private Lives (Coward), Much Ado (himself), Waiting for Godot, and Shaw's You Never Can Tell (not yet seen).

Last night's performance was particularly interesting in a number of ways. It is now fifty years since Peter Hall first directed the play in its English-language world premiere. He has written an account of how that premiere came about in the programme notes.

To understand what an extraordinary event Godot was in the London theatre of the 1950s, you need to have some feel for what English society was like at the time. And if you weren't around then -- or even if you were -- you could do worse than read my post of 13 June, in which I describe the atmosphere.

Suffice it to say here that in the 1950s the English were, as I put it, 'tight-arsed and morally restrictive to a degree which young people today would find hard to believe. It seems as if, having fought so hard to preserve what we had, in two world wars, we had lost all awareness that change might sometimes be for the better.'

In the theatre of 1955, the fashion was still for traditional well-made plays, usually in three acts, with a beginning, a middle, and an end. There was, of course, a censor (the Lord Chamberlain, no less), who eliminated any hint of smut, overt (or even imaginary) references to sex, comments on religion, references to the Royal family, et cetera. Theatre, in short, was bland, polite, respectable, and dull.

In 1955 Peter Hall was 24 years old, and, as he puts it, a very lucky young man. After a career in undergraduate theatre at Cambridge, he had been put in charge of the Arts Theatre in Great Newport Street, London, and was told to produce a play every four weeks. He used this opportunity to do a number of new and adventurous productions.

One day, Donald Albery, a leading impresario of the time, offered him Waiting for Godot. It had been running in Paris for a couple of years, where it was a hit with the avant-garde, and Beckett (who had originally written it in French) had now translated it into English. But Albery could find no English actor willing to appear in it, or a director willing to risk his professional life by directing it.

Hall liked the play, but he too found it difficult to cast, and the reviews were not encouraging. Even the great Bernard Levin described it as 'a remarkable piece of twaddle.' The production nearly closed at the end of its first week, but the drama critic of the Sunday Times, Harold Hobson, saved its life. He not only wrote a warm and perceptive review, but went on writing about it for the next seven Sundays.

Godot mania soon gripped London. It was the Rubik cube or the Sudoku of its day. It caught on: cartoonists depicted it, commentators wrote about it, and television pundits discussed it.

Godot was, of course, and still is, a bit of a puzzler. The set is a bleak space in the 'open air', with the bare bones of a tree and a rock to sit on; nothing else. In this landscape two tramps talk about nothing very much as they pass the time while they wait for Godot to appear. After a while they are joined by two other strange characters, who also talk about nothing very much. It is a two-act play, as one critic said, in which nothing happens: twice.

Godot puzzled, and it offended. Lady Dorothy Howitt wrote to the Lord Chamberlain requesting that the play be banned. She described it as 'offensive against all sense of British decency.' But it was also, of course, very funny. Only recently an elderly professor of biology told me how amazed he was by that original production.

Peter Hall has directed the play only once (I believe) between 1955 and 2005, and that was seven years ago, at the Old Vic. So this anniversary production is something special. Last night was the very first performance, and was technically a preview; the press won't be invited in for another week.

As you would expect, the Peter Hall Company perform to a very high standard, but the first-act curtain was messed up by the lighting director, and there will doubtless be a few more tweaks before Hall is satisfied. In my opinion there are a good few laughs to be got out of it yet -- a few opportunities missed.

I first saw the play in the late 1950s, in Cambridge, where the audience was young, sharp, and alert. Last night's audience was, as is always the case in Bath, middle-aged at best, and perhaps slightly sleepy. Despite that, the play got a warm reception. If nothing else, the audience seemed to understand that this was a historic occasion.

If you see the play for the first time this year, you may well wonder what all the fuss was about. But it is hard to underestimate its impact. The success of Godot altered everything. As Hall points out, the way was opened for Harold Pinter, Joe Orton, Edward Bond, and subsequent generations. A decade on, the impact was clearly felt in such productions as Monty Python's Flying Circus; and today Spamalot plays on Broadway.

By the way, here is a little conundrum for you. In the post-war era, Cambridge University has produced countless theatrical stars, including directors (e.g. Peter Hall, Jonathan Miller, Nicholas Hytner), actors (Hugh Laurie, John Cleese, Emma Thompson), and producers, lighting men, et cetera. How is it that the drama department of the University has achieved such distinguished output?

Answer: there is no drama department at Cambridge. If you do theatre at Cambridge you do it as an extracurricular activity, on top of your formal degree studies.

Do you think, perhaps, that there could be a lesson here for all those universities offering MFA degrees?

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Detective work on the Sherlock copyright issue

On 8 August I wrote about a modern book featuring Sherlock Holmes, and noted (not for the first time) that the copyright of Conan Doyle's work(s) was a murky area, one which the wise person would stay well out of. Ditto for writing novels featuring the characters of any other writer whose work is still in copyright.

I had also written about the Conan Doyle copyright on 8 July, in the context of a wider discussion of the extent to which copyright prevents or allows the use of copyright characters in sequels or spinoffs; and that post recently attracted a comment from Darlene Cypser.

Darlene is a US attorney (among other things) who seems to be unusually well informed on the subject, so I have fished out her comment, lest it get overlooked, and reproduce it below. I finish off with a few comments of my own.

Here is what Darlene had to say:

I don't know enough about UK copyrights to agree or disagree with Ms Solomon's assessment of law there.

However, in the US, while here, too, copyright protects the expression of ideas and not ideas themselves, there is case law that has interpreted the law to protect the use of characters. In the US the use of the character would be considered a "derivative work" and only the copyright holder has the right to create a derivative work. I guarantee you that Disney believes this or they would not have gone to such an effort to extend the copyright law another 20 years to protect Mickey.

The whole issue is moot in the UK related to Sherlock Holmes because Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories are now in the public domain the UK.

In the US all of the Sherlock Holmes stories EXCEPT those in the Casebook are now in the public domain. (The Casebook was just about to fall out of copyright when the Bono Act extended it another 20 years.)

This leaves an ambiguity. If the stories which defined the character are partially in and out of copyright can you create a story based on the character and claim you are basing it only on the public domain stories?

Of course, you can claim that but would you win in court? I don't think anyone can answer that question at the moment because no court has ruled on it.

Regarding the missing website: It is still around. They just moved it to a different domain, possibly due to the ongoing battles over the copyrights. You see, the website that you referred to does not tell the whole story. It merely tells the claims of Mrs. Andrea Plunket, ex-wife of Sheldon Reynolds. [See below: GOB]

Most Sherlockians acknowledge Jon Lellenberg as the appropriate representative of the Doyle estate. He represented Dame Jean Conan Doyle (the last of Doyle's children to die) and now represents her estate. (Go here and search on Arthur Conan Doyle: )

I think you are attributing the publication of some pastiches to Reynolds or Plunket which were authorized by Dame Jean through Lellenberg. The books authorized by Dame Jean or her estate say so.

There have been ongoing legal battles between these two sets of supposed representatives. However, the end result seems to be that both have some claim.

Many people don't seem to understand that if two people jointly own a copyright EITHER can authorize publication and NEITHER can prohibit any publication authorized by the other. That's a fact of US Copyright law.

In this case the parties claim their rights under different children of Conan Doyle.

Actually the person to blame for the mess is probably Sir Arthur himself. He obviously wrote his will without adequate legal advice. (I have a copy in front of me.)

If all the children and all the children's spouses and heirs had gotten along then there would not have been a problem. But you can't count on that. He should have put the copyrights in a trust, named an institution the trustee, and named his wife and children the beneficiaries. Then there probably would not have been 75 years of arguments and litigation.

Well, there you have it. The last time I myself had to make enquiries about a Conan Doyle matter was in 2002. I see from my files that I then corresponded with Jonathan Clowes Ltd., who appear to be the UK agents for Mrs Andrea Plunket. They wanted what I considered to be an unreasonable sum for what I had in mind, so I gave up on the idea. But perhaps, in view of what Darlene Cypser says, I was talking to the wrong people.

If you want to pursue your own ideas for the use of Sherlock or his mates (which I do not recommend), there is a website for the Andrea Plunket side of things. Follow the link to 'About the Estate' and you can find one view of the uninspiring history of the copyright dispute. There is no mention, so far as I can see, of Jon Lellenberg.

If you prefer to deal with Mr Lellenberg, he can be reached at

The Sherlockian web site, edited by Chris Redmond, makes the following comment on the competing parties:
A recently created web site for "the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle Literary Estate" represents Andrea Plunket, the former wife of Sheldon Reynolds, producer of the 1954 television series starring Ronald Howard as Holmes. Reynolds controlled the copyrights in the 1950s. Plunket is proprietor of a guest house in Livingston Manor, New York. Her claims to rights in the Sherlock Holmes stories have been repeatedly rejected in U.S. federal court decisions (including Plunket v. Doyle, No. 99-11006, Southern District of New York, February 22, 2001; Pannonia Farms Inc. v. ReMax International and Jon Lellenberg, No. 01-1697, District of Columbia, March 21, 2005). She has also filed a claim to the name "Sherlock Holmes" as a United States trademark, and it too has been turned down.
There are lessons for us all there.

Number one, don't get involved with trying to negotiate deals to use other people's characters. It's not worth it. Not only do you have to deal with the (alleged) copyright holder, but, as you can see from the above example, there may be different situations in the US, UK, and every other country on the planet.

Number two, if you yourself own any copyrights which are worth a warm pitcher, for goodness' sake leave a will which is clear. And try to have children who will agree with each other.

Before I finish, here is a story which I find passably amusing.

Some twenty-odd years ago, when Andrea Plunket was still married to the film producer Sheldon Reynolds, I had dinner with her. Yes, I know, it's a very modest distinction, but some of us have to clutch at straws. Anyway, I found Andrea to be a perfectly amiable person, but that was not a universal view.

After Andrea and Sheldon were divorced (I don't know who did what to whom), she went off and became the close companion of Claus von Bulow. Yes, that very same Claus von Bulow who was accused of murdering his wife Sunny with a lethal injection of insulin, and who was, in due course, acquitted by a jury. His story was turned into a film, Reversal of Fortune, starring Jeremy Irons (who won an Oscar in the process).

At one point in all these shenanigans, Sheldon Reynolds was asked what he thought of his ex-wife going around with a man who had been accused of murder.

Sheldon gave it a bit of thought. 'Well,' he said, 'let's put it this way. If Claus marries Andrea, he'll wish he'd been found guilty.'

Monday, August 15, 2005

Neal Asher: The Skinner

Neal Asher's science-fiction novel The Skinner is a book in which the author's powerful imagination overcomes some of the problems thrown up by what I judge to be an inadequate grasp of narrative technique.

The Skinner runs to 473 pages, and in my view it would be more effective at two thirds the length. As it stands, there are too many principal characters, and in the early sections of the novel we are not always sure which of them we are supposed to be concentrating on.

Given that the action takes place on a planet called Spatterjay, where things are very different from what we are accustomed to on earth, there is too much new information for the reader to absorb comfortably. The result, I fear, is a certain amount of confusion, blurring of the story line, and a tendency for the reader to put the book down and pick up something else.

What, then, kept me reading? Answer (as I indicated at the start): the fact that this author has a powerful imagination. He has created an entirely new world for us, a task which must have absorbed his energies for a very long time, before he even began to write the novel proper. And it all hangs together tolerably well.

Furthermore, there is absolutely nothing wrong with Neal Asher's technique that couldn't be put right by a thorough reading of Dr Zuckerman's book Writing the Blockbuster Novel. As I have remarked before, you should not be put off by the catchpenny title. A careful study of this book will pay dividends no matter what sort of a novel you intend to write, even the most literary.

Personally I was quite glad I did stick with The Skinner, because at about page 300 it began to get quite exciting. And it continues in that mode until the end. But there is, I repeat, too much for us to absorb early in the book, and we are trying to keep track of too many characters, right to the end.

This is one for serious SF fans, I think.

The author has his own web site, where, as usual, you can learn more about him and his various books.

Friday, August 12, 2005

Publisher profiles

Back in June, I mentioned that the UK book-trade journal The Bookseller is planning to publish a book in October this year with the title Consumer Book Report.

The principal feature of this report is to be 'a comprehensive, detailed profile of the top 100 publishers' (presumably the top 100 in the UK market), together with quantitative analysis of their sales and market share; also on offer will be detailed research showing prospects, opportunities and threats over the coming years.

All of which sounds tolerably interesting: a mixture of fact and speculation. And if you go to the book's own web site, and take the trouble to register, you can get a taster of one of the company profiles; three more will be available shortly.

The first company profile is that of Pearson, one of the biggest media groups in the world. Print out this profile and it runs to two and a half pages.

To tell the truth there isn't a lot here that we haven't come across before, although in this instance all the info is gathered together in one handy package.

Pearson has three major divisions: Penguin group, Pearson Education, and the Financial Times group. Penguin imprints include Michael Joseph, Allen Lane, Hamish Hamilton, Viking, and a good few more. Between them they have 4,000 staff worldwide and published 4,000 books last year. (Altogether Pearson has 33,000 staff.) They have a 12.1% share of the UK market.

Brief mention is made of the crisis at Penguin's distribution centre in Rugby (early 2004), which caused a massive loss of sales and damaged goodwill among authors and booksellers. But again, we knew this already. Sales in 2004 were down by £54 million compared with 2003, and operating profits were down by £35 million.

None of which prevented Penguin group from having a string of bestsellers. Top of the list was You Are What You Eat by Gillian McKeith, which shifted 965,423 copies in the 52 weeks to 18 June 2005, a circumstance which illustrates the power of television. Not bad for a book which, as some nit-picking columnists and bloggers have pointed out, comes from an author whose academic qualifications and knowledge of nutrition are questionable.

So, as I say, this is all tolerably interesting. It would, no doubt, be useful to have 100 of these company profiles, plus the promised forecasting of the future, all assembled in one tidy volume, which one could draw down from the shelf as and when necessary. At £15, or even £25, I might go for it. But at the offered price of £249? Thanks, but I don't think so.

The book is not, by the way, listed on Amazon; so it's no good looking for a discount there.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

More tips

Tim Bete is director of the Erma Bombeck Writers' Workshop at the University of Dayton. He tells me that he gets dozens of emails every week with questions about book publishing. He therefore decided, earlier this year, to document the key stages in seeing a book of his own through the publishing process. The result, he feels, provides answers to some of the more frequently asked questions.

You can find Tim's article, Anatomy of a First Book, at his personal web site. Tim covers how he started writing, how to create an author's web site, how to write query letters and book proposals, and a lot more.

The material on offer is not so much a template for everyone to follow as an example of how one professional writer handled each stage of the process, from the first approach to publishers to book signings. What worked for one person may not be precisely right for you, but you can build on the examples.

If you are new to the submissions business, and particularly if you are trying to sell a non-fiction book, this is well worth a look.

Tim Bete's web site, by the way, has been selected by Writer's Digest magazine as the best writer's site of 2005.

From the horse's mouth

Here is some advice from the horse's mouth -- which is what I wrote without thinking about it. Then I did think about it. What does that phrase mean exactly?

Well, the Oxford dictionary says that it means '(information) from an authoritative source'; and I guess that the origins lie in horse racing. In other words it's a tip from someone who is in a position to know.

This particular tip relates not to racing but to another form of gambling, namely publishing. Yesterday a real live actual British agent made a comment on an earlier post of mine which I think deserves to be dragged out into the full light of day, because info from agents is usually worth passing on.

This particular piece of info/tip relates to writing novels -- a distressingly bad habit, like biting your nails, which some of you seem to have picked from mixing with entirely the wrong people.

This is what the (anonymous) agent has to say, in response to my post about Francis Ellen's novel The Samplist:

It's interesting how often struggling writers embittered by rejections from countless agents and editors hurl their derision on the idea of a Big Brother contestant having his or her autobiography published as an example of taste subordinated to commercial viability. As far as I know, no Big Brother contestant has ever had their autobiography published by a trade publisher, and no agent or editor worth his or her salt would even think of commissioning such a book.

As an agent, the first thing I look for in a fiction submission is precision; the precise elucidation of ideas. It's a prerequisite for reading beyond the first page or two (though it's not enough on its own; it has to be accompanied by narrative flair). I'm not surprised Paul [another commenter on the same post] hasn't found a publisher, if his scattergun rant is any evidence.

Incidentally, I don't give a damn whether a novelist attended a particular school, or who they know. I'm only interested in the quality of the writing, and I speak for a very large majority of my fellow agents in saying so.

That said, in the case of certain high-profile novelists, I do think a deeply conservative and depressing prize-giving / reviewing culture has developed. Positive reviews and reputations do indeed gather their own momentum regardless of the quality of the author's most recent novel, and today's Booker longlist is evidence of the fact. Ian McEwan, Rushdie, and Zadie Smith - presumably the favourites to win - are trading on reputation alone; all three new offerings are embarrassingly bad.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

C.E. Vulliamy: Prodwit's Guide to Writing

A few weeks ago, while trawling through an old-fashioned secondhand bookshop, I came across an old-fashioned book: Prodwit's Guide to Writing. Ever eager for illumination and improvement, I bought it.

The author's name, C.E. Vulliamy, seemed familiar to me, but, having studied the list of his published works, I can't say that I remember reading any of them. However, he wrote a number of novels, as well as many non-fiction books, and some of his fiction took the form of detective stories, so maybe I have.

Vulliamy, who was active chiefly around the middle of the twentieth century, seems to have been an all-round man of letters. He wrote biographies of Voltaire, John Wesley, Mrs Thrale (aka Mrs Piozzi), Byron, and others. He produced two volumes of autobiography. He also wrote at least six books which his publisher categorises as satire; and some of his fiction is also said to satirise British society.

In short, he seems to have been a man with a well-developed sense of the ridiculous. And that -- or at the very least a sense of humour -- is an essential attribute for anyone who is trying to make a career in the book world.

Prodwit's Guide to Writing falls firmly within Vulliamy's satirical output. His publisher describes it as 'a rollicking satire'. However, the publisher adds, 'many of Prodwit's observations are exceedingly just, and an appreciable amount of his advice is of genuine value.'

First published in 1949, Prodwit's Guide purports to be the work of the late Giles Bendigo Prodwit, as edited by Mr Vulliamy himself. In addition to the normal editorial work, Mr Vulliamy tells us that he has felt bound to introduce some comments on Prodwit's wilder assertions.

In short, the Guide is what used to be called a 'conceit', which the Oxford dictionary defines as 'an elaborate metaphor or artistic effect', but which I usually think of as an extended joke.

When I tell you that this book extends to 164 pages, you may suspect that the joke might wear a bit thin before the end. And so it does; but the world was a different place (in some respects) in 1949, and I dare say it amused a few people then. Certainly the book seems to have sold tolerably well: there are still plenty of copies available on the secondhand market, and that isn't true of everything published at that time.

I'm sure that Vulliamy's main reason for writing the book was that it allowed him to say exactly what he thought of the book world without incurring the sort of wrath that would result if he had written a direct and controversial attack on the good and the great. And, despite the good-clean-fun approach, it is pretty clear that he had a fairly low opinion of how certain aspects of the post-war book trade were conducted.

What does Prodwit have to say which might conceivably interest us today? Well, for a start he says that 'writing is a trade which requires little previous knowledge.... It is much easier to become a successful writer than it is to become, say, a successful plumber.'

Prodwit hold this view because his experience has proved to him that it is possible to build a career as a writer very largely by stealing other people's work and claiming it as your own.

He argues that one essential piece of equipment for would-be writers is a library of the complete works of Standard Authors -- the important point being that these authors should be safely dead and out of copyright. The adroit and intelligent use of other men's work, says Prodwit, 'leads to public applause and adequate remuneration.' This is the system 'upon which the overwhelming majority of writers have established their renown.'

And so on.

Also amusing, nearly sixty years after they were written, are Vulliamy/Prodwit's assertions that 'the sale of a novel was never more uncertain than it is today', and that far too many novels are being published. This, mark you, was his opinion at a time when the number of books published in the UK in a year was somewhere around 10% of today's figure.

Prodwit ploughs his way through 23 chapters in all: How to write history, poetry, biography, travel, and so forth. On your relationship with your publisher, Prodwit's advice is that you should 'ring him up as often as possible. Remember, he has very little to do in his office, and he will certainly appreciate your friendly attention.'

Recalling my own recent essay on reviewers, I had a look at what Prodwit has to say about them. 'You can have no idea,' says Prodwit, 'without experience behind the scenes, of the intimacy and intricacy of this muddy business.... Friends caress and enemies batter each other continually by means of literary reviews, and entire cliques are thus organised for offence or defence.'

Balzac said much the same thing a hundred years earlier. And, bearing in mind what the Washington Post has to say about its own recent review of John Irving's new book, it is painfully apparent that, in the last 56 years, nothing much has changed. It was ever thus, and it ever will be.