Friday, August 05, 2005

Francis Ellen: The Samplist

A while back, a reader of this blog asked me if I had heard of Francis Ellen's self-published novel The Samplist. At the time I hadn't; but I certainly have since.

Let's get the background out of the way first. Francis Ellen (a pseudonym) is a man with training in both music and computing. He was a guitar student at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, and subsequently did a master's degree in maths at Stirling University. Not surprisingly, therefore, his novel The Samplist is about computer-generated music. And, what's more, it comes complete with a CD of the music which is written about in the book; not many novels do that.

You can find a profile of Ellen in the Scotsman, and details of his book on his own publishing company web site. There you can also find extracts from reviews, an excerpt from the book, and you can listen to the music.

So far so good. And in due course I might have got around to finding a copy and reading it. However, in the meantime I find that Mr Ellen himself has been here and left a message, in the form of a comment on one of my posts. Unless you are an exceptionally keen reader of the GOB, and go back and read comments as they appear, you will probably not have seen it. And as it's long, and well worth reading, I am going to copy it in here.

This is what Francis Ellen had to say about my little essay on the way things are in the book world:

I noticed this discussion and as it concerned me on two fronts: my self-published novel, The Samplist, and the apparent 'desire' to create the appearance of a mastermind behind terrorism. I couldn't help but comment.

I self-published and yes, I got reviewed up the wazoo. The earliest reviews were horrendous, beyond rude. Two reviewers didn’t even read the back cover; they simply misquoted it (by sticking in their words and leaving out some of my words) and brandished their own rewrite as evidence of my lack of ability. (This was a 'legitimately' published novelist; trust no one!)

I did get a couple of great reviews early on as well but the turning point was a review in the Times Literary Supplement.

After that, things changed. The last two reviews of The Samplist (BBC Music Magazine and the British Science Fiction Association's Vector Magazine) were out of this world.


A word to self-publishers; every time you get a good review, send it to the next reviewer WITH the novel. My guess is that it's the ‘sheep’ effect; gradually, the reviews get better and better (the BBC Music Mag review trashed earlier reviewers for comparing me to Dickens, Heller and Flann O' Brien and then compared me to Tom Sharpe - well, Tom Sharpe'll do me thanks very much).

On the 'intelligent' terrorist: The reviews helped to get me two offers from agents. I rejected a heavy hitter and settled for a guy who seemed 'in-tune' with my writing. I recently sent off the first 10,000 words of my latest novel to him and he told me that he wouldn’t try to sell it 'In this climate' and that 'no editor would touch it.'


Because I used to work for a company that did the software security for a lot of government agencies that use three-letter acronyms and I know where the real holes are in the security AND I paint both the security agencies AND the terrorists as dimwits.

So, nobody wants my first novel because only two out of five people who read it love it and the other three hate it so there’s 'no market,' and I’m being censored because nobody wants to hear 'some' truth about the dreadful world in which we live. My writing is callous and offensive. My latest novel has a Muslim as the lead character. The whole terrorist 'thing' is viewed from the perspective of the kind of Muslim that doesn't really care about religion. The book also is about the new slaves of the American Empire: The H1 Niggers, and about the accelerated demise of the U.S. and the rise of China (as unwittingly promulgated by idiot politicians and deliberately by smart speculators).

I grew up reading, and reading about, writers on the edge. People who challenged the mass hypnosis of the day, but now I find that if I don’t wear a silly hat I don't get to create a narrator who lives and thinks differently from me. I thought this was the point of fiction, of literature, of entertainment?

I don’t even get the chance to become the victim of the first American Fatwa. My subject-matter is to be strangled at birth before my ham-fisted attempts to bring my feeble story to life are even completed.

As to publishers; a few more words: I have feedback from dockworkers and postmen and laborers; people who tell me they haven't read a book in thirty years and they loved my book but an endless list of publishers has turned me down (although in
each company there was at least one person who loved the book – if only I could get them all into the same company?).

I grew up in the roughest part of the roughest part of my country. I was perhaps the first person in my family to get an education. But every publisher I speak to is a 'literary' type. I'm writing for a completely different audience but I won't write 'about' druggies on housing estates so I lose my natural 'edge'. I write for people who normally watch TV. I write for an audience that is huge but the publishers don't 'get' them beyond patronizing celebrity tripe that they stuff down their throats (at great marketing cost).

Why can't I understand the market? Who are they to say, 'I loved the characters, the color….. but I didn’t warm to the story.' Didn’t warm to the story?


Who cares? You know that others have 'warmed' to the story. Don't you have stock holders who want you to sell books? Sell the product. There is a demand but every single shopkeeper I try is as hard as trying to get a bloody agent. One store manager asked me to send a synopsis after the book was reviewed by the TLS.

Now I have 30,000 words of a great story that I have to write (another year at the day job) and I've already been told I'm wasting my time because I'll offend Americans (and the French) by suggesting that the security services are as dumb as the terrorists (and all of them are as monstrous as they are incompetent).

The TLS said The Samplist was 'saying something important'. I wrote the book as a pure entertainment. If The Samplist said anything important then this book really IS important.

But I cannot argue with the genius of the publishing industry. Should an executive hand over a million dollars to a politician for a book that reads like the author wrote it after he got hit in the ass by a tranquilizer gun… well, he did the right thing because nobody can predict the 'market'.

I can predict MY bloody market. Publishers should start hiring people with some commercial acumen and keep their opinions out of it.


Ashlee said...

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Anonymous said...

Well, perhaps Mr. Star gets his publishing comments a bit lost between American Fatwa's, mass hypnosis and censorship. Self-published authors don't generally get their books reviewed "up the wazoo," if at all, so I'm left to wonder if Mr. Star may have fallen prey to his own promotional tactics. Salability is a distasteful part of how publisher pick a book (if they even notice it), but it's real life. Heck, I'm self published, too, but if I had people comparing ME to Dickens I'd be pretty happy and ignore a few irritating Fatwas.

Anonymous said...

As a struggling 'writer' I can tell you that this man has a point... Publishers and indeed Agents do tend to treat writers as sources of in-bound amusement and/or rabid lunatics who obviously can't write because they a) didn't attend the right schools or b) don't know the right people...

The truth is, they need writers so they can continue to make down payments on their lives, without writers, they are stuffed. But being arrogant sods with lots of stories about writers who can’t write plaguing them night and day they will not see this. Perhaps they don’t like the idea of being in fact the fiddle rather than the fiddler…. And of course many have already realised that the short cut to money is to get a celebrity to write something, anything really, in order to sell the name rather than any kind of literary worth...

I've sent my latest greatest novel out to various publishers and agents most of whom have rejected it. I await rejection letters from the rest. In an order to keep track of my submissions I enclose a postcard which I ask the recipient to date stamp and return to me... Easy enough, I put a stamp on it, I put my address on it, I even put 'this post card acknowledges receipt of your submissions package’ followed by a place to put the date... Of the 15 I sent out, only 5 could be bothered to return the card at all and of this thunderous response one couldn't even be bothered to scribble the date on the card. I suppose I should count myself lucky to get the card at all.

Publishers and agents (at least in the UK) are, in my opinion, the dearth of writing and writers, and now they are owned by money men I think we can expect to see the actual content of books slide gracefully down the shitter. Hear the splash as each Big Brother biography hits the shelves...

But still I write even though I know that getting published will probably never happen. Why? Because being a writer is what I am, not what I do. The next book is already nagging at me to get written… Soon I will answer that call, write the damned thing, be proud of the effort, then wonder at the rejection letters flooding in… The barman at my local asked me last night “How’s the writing coming along’ to which I replied ‘I’m still a genius in waiting’ and as he gave me my first pint of the evening he answered, ‘I know the feeling.’….


archer said...

I enjoyed Ellen's comment immensely. What's an H1 Nigger? It sounds like a freight switching term from the 1880's.

Anonymous said...

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 flare). I'm not surprised Paul 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 embarassingly bad.

Anonymous said...

Whether there is any point in posting a comment nearly eight weeks late, I cannot say. (Come to think of it, there just might be: I mean you're reading this, aren't you?)

But, after weeks of trying to get my review of
The Samplist onto Amazon (they claim that reviews appear within two working days) I thought I might as well just put it here.

This is a terrific novel. Set in a Glasgow music academy, it tells the tale of Alex Stone, a mediocre pianist whose computer skills enable him to forge the world’s greatest performing musician. Yang Li is a virtuoso pianist . . . and violinist, and guitarist and tubaist. And just to prove it, Ronak Publishing have made his performances available as a free download from their website.

The Samplist is the sort of novel which makes you take your head out of the gas oven and have another bash at living. It’s a comic novel, a novel of ideas, and it hasn’t got a dull sentence. In trying to place Francis Ellen, critics have invoked Dickens, Malcolm Bradbury, Joseph Heller, Tom Sharpe (though in truth Sharpe resembles Ellen much as Forest Green Rovers resemble Real Madrid). My own point of reference for The Samplist, for what it’s worth, would be Lucky Jim. Ellen does dreadful things to pretentious snobbery.

Like all the best comic writers, he can’t help being serious. At one level, The Samplist is a warning from computers to professional musicians (and, by implication, to Homo sapiens in general): anything you can do, we can do it better (or if we’re not there yet, we soon will be). All right, there’s nothing new in this, but Ellen makes it feel new; he makes you think.

But don’t look for seriousness in The Samplist: if you’re not hopelessly thick and ignorant, that’ll filter through regardless. Just read it for fun. Because in a literary world which, when it’s not grovelling at the feet of celebrity, so often gazes obsessively at its own cavernous navel, The Samplist is a gas. Promise.

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