Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Leslie Charteris

In a recent comment, the lovely Bernita compares my convoluted prose to that of Leslie Charteris. How very kind. Because Charteris, you see, was a pro of the old school. A first-class entertainer who is still fondly remembered today.

For proof, visit The Saintly Bible, a web site which celebrates Charteris's most famous fictional character, The Saint. Hero of innumerable books, two major TV series, B movies, and so forth, The Saint was a sort of forerunner of James Bond, a buccaneering type who liked fast cars and ladies but remained, always, a gentleman.

Charteris was born in 1907, the son of a wealthy Chinese surgeon and an English mother. He became, in due course, an American citizen. And he had -- I speak from much-faded boyhood memory -- a nice way with words. Also he had a sense of humour. How well the books would stand up to being read today I don't know.

While we're at it, Edgar Wallace was another old-time thriller writer who was also a master of prose.

Unreliable memoirs

I have mentioned before, briefly, that there is a huge row/discussion going on in the US about the alleged memoirs of James Frey. This has been covered ad nauseam by bloggers and the mainstream media, not to mention the mighty Oprah. Also as mentioned before, I have not attempted to keep abreast of this matter, either in the blog or off it, but the continuing echoes do serve to remind me of a number of consequential and inconsequential things. Here are a few of them, more or less in random order.

First, Clive James at least had the common sense to label his own slice of autobiography as Unreliable Memoirs.

Second, the official web site of James Lees Milne describes his book Another Self (1970) as 'superficially a volume of memoirs, in reality an autobiographical novel depicting his life in terms of his reactions to a series of hilarious incidents, some of them imaginary. (Its inspiration was a similar work by his friend Harold Nicolson - Some People [1927].) Another Self became (and remains) hugely popular and established JLM's literary reputation; it has rarely been out of print.'

Third, Frank McCourt, the author of Angela's Ashes, is said to have infuriated the people of Limerick by exaggerating the poverty of his childhood, the sadistic nature of priests, et cetera. And as for Dave Pelzer, well...

In short, it would be hard to find a well-known autobiography or set of memoirs which had not embroidered the facts more than somewhat. And since neither publishers nor reviewers are complete fools, it follows that they all know this perfectly well, even if readers don't. That being the case, publishers really ought to take the trouble to question an author -- particularly a previously unknown person -- before printing her 'memoirs', in order to find out whether what they have is a true memoir or an autobiographical novel. (Celebrities, e.g. recently retired politicians, are clearly a different kettle of fish, because what they say can so easily be checked against the public record.)

First-time writers -- e.g. a young man -- who produce a novel about e.g. a young man making his way in the world, also need to be questioned very closely about the extent to which their book is based on fact. From a libel point of view, it is particularly dangerous, for example, to write a novel about university life, if you have just left university, because even if you invent totally fictitious incidents, the likelihood is that someone is going to 'recognise' themselves and -- if you have made them a rapist -- take a dim view and resort to m'learned friends.

In short, I wholeheartedly recommend that fiction should be fiction. It should be a MADE-UP STORY. Invented from start to finish. True, there are some readers who will complain bitterly if you describe a character as taking the 9.15 train from Woking to Bristol, because, as they will undoubtedly tell you, the 9.15 service from Woking to Bristol was cancelled in 1943, and your book is set in 1947. But such lunatics can be ignored. Invent stuff. Motorbikes in real life do not have a reverse gear (I am assured); but in your book they can do, because it was fitted (you can say if asked) by an enthusiast in a shed at the bottom of his garden.

Make it up. Everything. Characters, places, events, attitudes, names of political parties, the lot. However hard you try, some people will 'identify' themselves, particularly if they know you. But if you have genuinely taken the trouble to make up everything, and can demonstrate that you have, with notes and so forth, then at least you are likely to steer clear of legal trouble. And, perhaps just as important, your conscience will be clear.

Places to look at

If bloggers divide, as is sometimes said, into linkers and thinkers, then I am, I like to kid myself, more of a thinker. However, Steve Clackson over at Sand Storm and I have been exchanging emails recently, and he recommended a number of web sites/blogs as worth looking at. I agree, so here they are, as links without much else attached.

First, there's MetaxcuCafe, which is run, I understand , by Bud Parr. This contains enough stuff to keep you busy for quite some time, all on its own.

Then there's Blogcritics.org, which covers popular culture in general. And its offshoot, Desicritics.org, which does the same job for South Asia.

Frank Wilson is the book-review editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer, and he finds time to blog about the business in general at Books, Inq. He, by the way, seems to be both a linker and a thinker.

And there's Temple Stark, an Arizona reporter who collects playing cards. Sorta. And he has reviewed Steve Clackson's as yet unpublished and unagented novel, Sand Storm.

Question: If Val Landi is having trouble selling his new novel, through a top agent, because publishers think it's too terrorist-realist, is Steve Clackson going to have any better luck? Watch these spaces.

Monday, January 30, 2006

99 Burning magazine

I got an email the other day, inviting me to take a look at what appears to be a free online magazine called 99 Burning. So I went to see what was what.

As I sat there, feeling somewhat bemused, a sign came up saying 'Click something to read it, dipshit...' Well all right, I thought. All right. Just give me time....

The result, I have to say, when I finally chose something, was not all that encouraging. The first title I clicked on didn't seem to lead anywhere. The second was part three of something and I hadn't read the first two parts -- and frankly, didn't feel any incentive to go looking for them. And the third click produced a sign saying that the piece was coming soon.

Hmmm. Anyway, it all seems to be cutting-edge stuff, if such is your thing, with lots of links to what looks like more of the same. Aimed more at the young, perhaps, than at me.

Bill Sinclair on UK creative writing courses

I haven't done an exhaustive search, but I don't remember seeing a first-hand account of what it's like to participate in a creative-writing course at a UK university. So I was particularly interested to come across one by Bill Sinclair.

Bill's short memoir is a little difficult to find, but go to A.M. Burns's blog The Conceit, find the post for 23 January entitled What Are You Looking At? (I can't locate a permalink for it), and click on the comments. (Note -- it may be just me, but this web site sometimes won't play ball. Keep trying.)

Bill's account relates to 1984, and therefore may have limited relevance for today, but it makes for an interesting contrast with what one hears of American courses of the same kind.

Friday, January 27, 2006

Malcolm Pryce: The Unbearable Lightness of Being in Aberystwyth

The Unbearable Lightness of Being in Aberystwyth is the third in Malcolm Pryce's series of novels about Louie Knight, a private eye who is based in, um, Aberystwyth. Which, for the sake of those living outside the UK, is a modest little town (with a lot to be modest about, one suspects) on the west coast of Wales. It has a university (part of the University of Wales), an old castle, a pier, an arts centre, and a marina. Pop. 13,500.

Pryce's first book in the series was Aberystwyth Mon Amour, which appeared in 2001; then came Last Tango in Aberystwyth, in 2003; and in 2005 the third in the series.

The Aberystwyth books are definitely cross-genre. At the very least they are crime/fantasy, thought they could be labelled crime/fantasy/humour. I enjoyed the first two enough to take the trouble to track down the latest.

In the great private-eye tradition of Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald, Louie Knight acts as his own first-person narrator. And, again in the great tradition, the story begins with a client sitting in the PI's office; only this time the client has a tail, because she's a monkey who was once an astronaut on the Welsh Space Programme, and her son, Mr Bojangles, is missing.

It gets weirder than that in places. Before long, for instance, we meet a veteran of the Patagonian War called Rimbaud. (Try pronouncing it in French, rather than Welsh.) And we also meet a nun called Sister Cunegonde. But fear not. You are in the hands of a most assured writer. This guy is smart, and he's been practising.

In fact, there are whole pages at a time in this book when the writing is so good that it really leaves one a bit breathless -- at least if you're a writer. If you're a reader, I think you probably won't notice, consciously, how outstanding it is. Because although it is very clever, this prose does not, thank God, stand up, wave a flag, and shout LOOK AT ME! AREN'T I BRILLIANT? In the way that many a literary author's prose does.

On page 111, for example, we have a description of a clapped-out seaside district which is quite outstanding in its power to evoke a scene which will be dreadfully familiar to many British readers. (Shades of summer holidays in caravans, with Mum and Dad, in places which looked lovely in the brochure but turned out to be a bit different.) Here's a brief quote. The town is described as being:

...about as poor as you can get without selling a kidney. It's not a one-horse town, not even a hoof, maybe the imprint left by a horseshoe nailed once long ago to a fence or maybe just a handful of oats.

After a short walk over the hilltop you arrive at the top of a valley that the sun never kisses; never even shakes hands with or even acknowledges with a curt nod....

Down below I found a few grubby bits of land on which caravans were anchored with bricks and strung together with a cat's cradle of washing lines and TV aerials; white pebbles from the beach were laid out to signify territorial possession....

For entertainment you can lose some money at the amusement arcade situated in a breeze-block room that anywhere else on earth would be called a garage. Or you can take a car out to the main road and drive fast over the hump-backed bridge.

In its bleakness, this description reminds me of Swinburne's great poem A Forsaken Garden. And you have to be pretty damn good to remind me of Swinburne.

Pryce's description of going into a girls school is also well nigh perfect.

The sweet descant of girls' singing drifted on the air like the scent of flowers at dusk. It was accompanied by something I hadn't encountered for many years: the smell of school dinner. Cabbage boiled to the colour of bone; the smell of water drunk from a glass made from car windscreen material; brown food colouring and flour and fat congealing into the brown tapioca that is called gravy.

And there's a lot more like that. Mr Pryce also has a nice line in original similes and metaphors. Nice, because they seem to come naturally, without having had an enormously long delivery time. Richard Condon and Chester Himes were a couple of other crime/thriller writers who went in for colourful similes, but in Condon's case they often felt a bit artificial: as when he described someone as having a voice which sounded like 'a suit of armour falling downstairs'.

In short, what we have in The Unbearable Lightness of Being in Aberystwyth is a gem.

I have no idea whether Mr Pryce is a full-time writer or not (his biography, as we shall see, is decidedly fishy). But, for what it is worth, I want to make the point that this book could certainly have been written by someone working in his spare time. And yet a very special kind of someone, because this man was not in a hurry when he wrote. I don't say that he spent hours sweating over each sentence. But the story has a leisurely feel to it. This was written by a man who was not so consumed by ambition -- to win next year's Booker, say -- that he rushed things along. And it shows. It has an unhurried and unforced feel to it, which in places is quite wonderful.

As for the humour... Well, it's certainly a very funny book in places. Towards the end it becomes a bit more serious and a bit sadder than I would wish. But hey -- it's not my book. And the author is entitled to call it the way he sees it.

I can't help feeling, having seen the wonderful Funland, that this would make a good TV serial. Let's hope so.

Now for further info. Mr Pryce's official web site, like his book, is a bit eccentric. However, his publisher (Bloomsbury) helps out. You can read the first chapters of the first two books, and also study his biography. This maintains, as such things always do, that he has worked on the BMW assembly line, and has sold aluminium; and, doubtless, worked as a doorman at a brothel for one-legged sailors. It claims that he lives in Bangkok. Personally I think this is all a load of kok from start to finish. I think he's a librarian in Swansea.

Tesco online book sales

I imagine that everyone in the UK who is interested in the book trade knows that Tesco (a hugely powerful and successful supermarket chain) uses its clout to sell books at massively discounted prices. And they sell lots of them -- sometimes out-ordering and out-selling WH Smith by five to one. But what you may not know -- I certainly didn't until I went googling for something -- is that Tesco also have an extensive online bookstore.

I've been having a look at it, and my first impressions are that it's rather good. Limited, of course. Doesn't list every book ever published, and leans, as you would expect, towards the popular side of things. But you can find the paperback version of the GOB on it, if you want to.

What is more, you can use the site to buy lots of other things, such as DVDs, CDs, and the like. You can even download music.

Now -- I've spent a few minutes googling and can't find the answer to this -- did Tesco build all this from scratch? Or are they piggy-backing their online presence on the back of some other company which does the stocking and despatching? The latter, I expect. But who?

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Grebanier's Climax

Yesterday we looked at Grebanier's Proposition, and today I want to introduce you to another of Grebanier's tools for the improvement of plot, namely his theory about the Climax.

The word climax is, of course, commonly used in the description of plots in media of all kinds. 'The film's climax comes when the volcano erupts....' 'The situation rises to a climax when George shoots Mildred through the head....' And so forth. Usually the concept includes some sort of dramatic physical event or action.

Grebanier has a much more subtle concept of the Climax. For him, the Climax is indeed a key element of the plot, and of the utmost importance, but, as he explains, 'it may well be a moment that does not strike the audience with its importance at all. The Climax of the plot is the turning-point; it is the point from which there is no return. Thereafter events unfold with the same inevitability and logic which were present in the Proposition.'

For Grebanier, the Climax, like the Proposition, is an event which impacts upon the relationship between the central and second characters. And the Climax of a play (or other work) is the moment in which the most violent dislocation occurs in this relationship between the central and second characters.

We noted yesterday that the question which is posed in the Proposition of Romeo and Juliet is this: will Romeo find happiness with Juliet? Will they have long, fulfilled lives and have lots of children? And at first (unless members of the audience are familiar with the plot before they see the play) there is a possibility in the audience's mind that Romeo and Juliet may find happiness together. However, it is when Romeo kills Tybalt (an important member of Juliet's family) that any chance of Romeo being allowed to marry Juliet disappears, and the tragic ending of the play becomes inevitable.

Now as it happens, the Climax in Romeo and Juliet is a physically violent event. But the Climax need not always be physical. In The Importance of Being Earnest, the Climax occurs when Jack shows Miss Prism the handbag in which he was found as a baby. Miss Prism's acknowledgement that the bag is hers is what enables Jack to discover who his parents were (and also to discover that he was christened with the highly desirable name of Ernest), and this reverses the apparent impossibility of his marrying Gwendolen.

The Climax, Grebanier emphasises, has nothing directly to do with the Proposition. It is a separate element of the plot. It is indirectly related, however, in that it constitutes part of the working out of the answer to the third stage of the Proposition (the third stage being a question). The Climax is the deed which begins to provide the answer to the question.

How can you identify the Climax, if you're busy plotting a novel or a film script or whatever? Well, Grebanier argues that the Climax is always a deed performed by the central character. Romeo kills Tybalt. Jack shows Miss Prism the handbag. Furthermore, although the deed results in a change which has a major impact on the relationship between the central and second characters, it is a deed which involves not the second character but a third person. Not Juliet, but Tybalt. Not Lady Bracknell, but Miss Prism.

Grebanier is at pains to tell us, and I wholeheartedly agree, that neither the Proposition of your story nor the Climax can be summoned up out of thin air. That is not the way to go about things. Instead, you wait until you have got a story of some sort partly figured out in your head. Or, better still, on paper. Then you take a long hard look at it.

There are many, many aspects of a potential story which need thinking about. Not the least of these, in my opinion, are such factors as: How long is it likely to take to write this thing? Is there any realistic hope of selling it? But then, if you feel that the project is one worth pursuing, it is extremely valuable (in my experience) to look at the plot material in the context of Grebanier's ideas. I have more than once found that doing this exercise has helped me to see interesting and valuable possibilities in the material which had not been obvious to me before.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Grebanier's Proposition

If you've ever considered writing a novel, a play, or a film script, you will almost certainly have read one or more how-to books. Of which there are many thousands. So here, just to help you to sort out the wheat from the chaff, is a short piece about one useful mechanism for analysing and improving the plot of your masterpiece: Grebanier's Proposition.

Round about the middle of the last century, it became obvious that writing for the theatre was a remarkably effective way (at least in principle) of becoming rich and famous, with all the attendant benefits. And so any number of clever men (they were usually men) sat down and tried to figure out the secret of how to write plays which would be smash hits -- every single time.

A German chap called Freytag was, I believe, among the first. Unlike many theorists of the drama who followed him, Freytag had actually written some successful plays, such as The Bridal Journey, a comedy of 1844; he was also a novelist. In 1863 Freytag produced a book called The Technique of the Drama; and in 1894 an English translation became available.

Freytag was followed by literally hundreds of others, most of them out to make a quick buck. And they have their successors today, of course -- although, as the stage has dwindled into a minor art form, most modern theorists tend to concentrate on writing for the movies and television.

At one time in my life -- for several decades in fact -- I made it my practice to read all these books, as and when they appeared, and to research into the older ones too. Not many people, I suggest, have on their shelves a copy of How's Your Second Act?, published in New York in 1918. But I've got one; and a lot more besides.

I could go on for hours, but let us stick to the point: Grebanier's Proposition.

Bernard Grebanier was evidently a professor of English at Brooklyn College, and he wrote a number of scholarly books. In 1961 he produced Playwriting: How to Write for the Theater; and it's still in print. Grebanier's book is, I suggest, not only one of the most valuable how-to books if you're thinking of writing drama (for any medium), but it is also a useful source of ideas for novelists. And the most useful practical tool in it is what Grebanier calls the Proposition: it's a device to assist you with plotting.

Like every other theorist of drama or the novel, Grebanier was much preoccupied with plot. Each and every one of the early theorists was concerned to find the magic formula: to identify the key elements of the successful plot, and so to provide a way to ensure that whoever slotted all those elements into his story would inevitably and invariably produce a sure-fire hit. Sadly, no one has managed it so far.

Also like every other theorist, Grebanier built on the ideas of those who had gone before. And in his case he was particularly impressed by a man called William T. Price (1846-1920). Price had laboured for years to find a logical equation (or the logical equation) in which any sound plot might be stated. Price sought to develop a way of describing a plot with the simplicity of the syllogism of formal logic. So here is an example of a syllogism, which is in three parts:
  • All men are mortal.
  • Socrates is a man.
  • Hence, Socrates is mortal.
And it was Price who developed the first version of the Proposition, which Grebanier describes as 'the most significant contribution to the science of playwriting since Aristotle's Poetics.'

Let's cut to the chase. Grebanier revised and developed Price's work, and in the course of his book he argues that a sound plot -- i.e. one which will hold the attention of an audience -- can be stated as a three part Proposition. Here is the plot of Romeo and Juliet, expressed in Grebanier's terms:
  • Romeo meets Juliet and falls in love with her.
  • He marries her.
  • Will he find happiness with her?
And the plot of The Importance of Being Earnest:
  • Jack asks Lady Bracknell's consent to marry Gwendolen.
  • Jack is forbidden, by Lady Bracknell, to marry Gwendolen unless he can acquire parents.
  • Will Jack succeed in acquiring parents?
A number of points are immediately obvious. First, Grebanier believes that a plot is essentially a question. Will Romeo and Juliet live happily together for the next fifty years? Well we all know the answer to that one, I hope. Will Jack somehow be able to produce a family history and make himself sufficiently respectable to gain Lady B's consent?

This is not the place to reprint the whole of Grebanier's argument. But it is important to note, for instance, that he argues that the three stages of his Proposition have a logic and an inevitability about them. There are also certain fixed principles, such as that the third stage always takes the form of a question; and stages one and two always involve the same two characters, the central character and the second character. Romeo and Jack are central characters; Juliet and Gwendolen are second characters. (The identification of these first and second characters is by no means always obvious.)

Perhaps you are unimpressed. However, I can only say that in fifty years of reading both crude and vulgar how-to books on the one hand, and learned scholarly tomes on the other, this is the best I can offer you by way of a good working tool.

Personally, I have found it thoroughly advantageous to consider the plot of anything -- stage play, short story, novel -- in terms of Grebanier's Proposition. Once I have accumulated a certain amount of story material, I find that I then need to sit back and ask myself what on earth this story is all about. What kind of book is it? Which genre does it fit in? What emotion am I intending to create in the reader?

As a part of that process I ask myself which of my various characters is the main character, in Grebanier's terms; which is the second character; and what is the question which the story might be said to be answering.

Of course the only way for you to find out whether this exercise is going to be of the slightest value to you is to read the book for yourself.

If you do so, you will soon find that Grebanier experienced the same problems as everyone else who has sought to analyse great dramas of the past and to isolate their key components -- namely that he sometimes has to force the material to fit his template.

Never mind. Even if he did not find the complete and infallible answer to everything, he did produce a stimulus to useful thought. Which is more than can be said for many.

Coming soon to a blog near you: Grebanier's Climax. (Not nearly as racy as it sounds.)

The right idea

A.M. Burns done got the right idea. Or so it seems to me, judging by the blog.

Entitled The Conceit, A.M. Burns's blog is built around the following notion:
Can creative writing be taught? That depends on what kind of writing matters to you. University cirriculums direct students toward literary fiction. If that's not your cup of tea, then you don't need a University to learn to write well.
Seems good to me. And the 19 January post on declining literacy and dying novels says it all.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

More on Peter Pan

M'learned friend C.E. Petit Esq. has, as usual, some pertinent things to say about the Peter Pan/J.M. Barrie copyright/intellectual property/perpetual motion/whatever fiasco -- nip over to Scrivener's Error to take a look. I'm sure he's right, in the sense that it's all way beyond my understanding, or most of yours, and is best avoided.

And over on Bookslut Michael Schaub tells us that the now-announced title of the new sequel to Peter Pan is Peter Pan in Scarlet. And he also adds that, if you're going to write a sequel to a beloved children's book, 'the first thing you want to do is make sure the title can't be interpreted in any sexual, obscene way.' Which is also a mystery to me, but then I have led a very sheltered life.

Should you wish to study the exact wording of the British Government's generosity towards the Great Ormond Street Hospital, you can find it in section 301 of the Copyright Designs and Patent Act 1988. And gripping stuff it is too. A classic example of a bit of special pleading and last-minute fudge, tacked on to the Act because Uncle Jim (Callaghan) was an old softie.

New initiatives

You don't need me to tell you that all sorts of new initiatives in the book-publishing business are being launched on a daily basis. Here are a few which have come my way.

An outfit called Blood and Treasure has set up shop to publicise a new book called Institutionalized. This has the great virtue of being a comedy, so at least they don't take themselves -- or at least the world -- too seriously. You can download the first chapter and test-drive it free.

Then there's a new blog from That Girl Who Writes Stuff. If nothing else, That Girl has read and enjoyed some seriously weird stuff, and has links to some horrible dog-fights in the world of underground literature. She is a Noah Cicero fan, by the way. And also reads Carlton Mellick, so she clearly has nerves of some tough substance of the kind that used to be made in Sheffield. When I were a lad.

And finally we have the Mainstay Press. I take my hat off to anyone who founds a new publishing company in this day and age. Yes, I've done it myself. Sort of. (Kingsfield Publications, and if you're trying to find a publisher for your own book, please note the statement on the home page.) But it takes some money, more time than you could possibly imagine, and a great deal of effort. In return you get... well, frankly, not a lot. Except the satisfaction of doing the job well.

The Mainstay Press mission statement says that the firm 'publishes books geared to social change, along with other political books – fiction and non-fiction both. Mainstay books help readers understand the realities and possibilities of contemporary social and political life – the life of the public that is profoundly related to the personal lives of people everywhere.The politically progressive literary and popular works of Mainstay Press challenge the politically limited nature of American (U.S.) fiction, in particular, by exploring public realms of crisis today...' And so forth.

Serious stuff, you will understand. The three founders describe themselves as 'world class writers' and that's OK by me. Modesty, as I have often remarked before, is the enemy of talent. And they are certainly fearsomely intellectual, with several published works each.

The Mainstay web site offers a long and very high-powered essay on progressive political fiction, by Tony Christini, and there are other offerings on the same level from the other two founders, Andre Vltchek and Mike Palecek.

Well, another of my regular comments is this: The last great privilege of the Englishman is that he can still afford -- just -- to ignore politics. And I used to believe it. But I don't think I do any longer. Not with George Galloway on Celebrity Big Brother.

What the market wants -- or not, as the case may be

Val Landi has an interesting post on his blog about whether the current US mainstream publishers can or cannot bring themselves to publish a book with a terrorist theme.

It's a matter on which he has pondered before, and it is, of course, all related to his own ms in search of a publisher (A Woman from Cairo). Nevertheless, this post should certainly give pause for thought to anyone who, filled with enthusiasm, is about to devote the next year or two to writing a novel.

Who knows what will happen in that time? And who can say how it will affect the way in which editors will view your masterpiece? And might there not, in all seriousness, be less risky and more productive ways to spend your time?

Proceed if you must. But it is, as always, a pretty desperate gamble.

The Pope cashes in

In the past, we have noted how even the heirs of latter-day saints such as Martin Luther King have charged money for allowing people to quote their words of wisdom. And now the Pope has got in on the act too.

The Times has the story -- or a version of it, because it will doubtless be reported all over. The Vatican has decided that the pronouncements of the current Pope, and his predecessors for some fifty years, shall henceforth be declared copyright.

In fact more than henceforth. Hence backwards too. A Milanese publishing house that had issued an anthology containing 30 lines from Pope Benedict’s speech to the conclave that elected him, plus an extract from his enthronement speech, is reported to have been sent a bill for €15,000 (£10,000). This was made up of 15 per cent of the cover price of each copy sold plus 'legal expenses' of €3,500.

Fifteen percent of the cover price of each copy sold? Seems a bit steep, doesn't it? Vittorio Messori, who has co-authored works with Pope Benedict and John Paul II, said that he was 'perplexed and alarmed . . . This is wholly negative and absolutely disastrous for the Vatican’s image.'

Well, far be it from me to worry about the Vatican's image but I'm inclined to agree.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Caring about the quality of prose

Back in the mists of time, I was lucky enough to be taught by a schoolmaster who was interested in 'good writing' -- a loose term which I will leave undefined for the moment. At any rate, he had certain ideas about how sentences, paragraphs, and essays should all be constructed, and he did his best to din them into us boys.

Over the following decades I have done my own best to write 'good' prose, according to my schoolmaster's instructions: though it's a shifting target, because what works in one context and for one audience is going to offend another, and vice versa.

I mention this because a few days ago I reported that Thomas Melancholicus of The Anatomy of Melancholy had applied his critical faculties to the first few pages of Elizabeth Kostova's The Historian, and had found that he was not impressed by the quality of her writing.

Ever since that post appeared, there has been a spirited debate going on in the comments section about what does and does not constitute good writing. The debate has been passionate and not always good-tempered -- brothers and sisters in prose, let us not bad-mouth each other, please -- but the heart-warming thing is that people care deeply about how to communicate effectively. Would that there were more of them.

The death of the high-street bookshop?

In the Independent (link from booktrade.info), Boyd Tonkin has an article on the future of British bookselling. And although the word 'British' is in there, it seems to me that much the same arguments apply everywhere else too.

Tonkin takes the view that British high-street bookselling 'now looks suspiciously like a murder victim who has decided to speed up his demise by committing suicide. The pincer movement executed by the likes of Asda [a supermarket] and Amazon has made the cut-throat discounting of a few sure-fire bestsellers the norm -- with all of its risks to future diversity. Far from resisting this assault, the retail chains -- and the corporate publishers whom they now bully - have opted to act as their own Sweeney Todds [a nineteenth-century Englishman who cut throats. Remember the Broadway musical? Wonderful. But I digress.]. At Christmas, stores worked frantically to teach shoppers that the true value of a much-publicised new book with a cover price of £18 or £20 is, let's say, £6.99. It amounts to voluntary death by a thousand cuts.'

He goes on to argue that, given the increasing difficulty of making any money out of high-street bookshop chains, it would be a smart move for publishers to assist the internet booksellers -- rather than complaining about developments such as Google Print and the Amazon 'Search Inside' facility.

Now, as you may have gathered, you won't read anything in the article that you haven't read before -- here, for instance. So why mention it, then? Well, because I find it encouraging that these fairly obvious truths -- obvious, that is, to those without a built-in fear of losing their job, seeing the share price drop the floor, et cetera ) -- are now becoming so unavoidably true that even the mainstream media have picked up on them.

Question is, who's going to get their arse in gear sufficiently soon to benefit from the opportunities? Instead of playing the Ain't It Awful record, over and over again.

Another child prodigy to worry about -- well, two actually

I have never been happy about child prodigies. If I was religious, I would thank God for not having given me brilliant children. Bright, yes. Thank you, Lord. But not brilliant.

Apart from any other reason for distrusting early signs of genius, I spent most of my working life with people with IQs approaching 200, and you pretty soon learn that a man (or woman) can be a world-class physicist or mathematician and still display a remarkable reluctance to do anything sensible.

Anyway, Friday brought news of a couple more child prodigies for me to worry about. An anonymous commenter on the Libby Rees saga gave me a link to the web site of Adora Svitak, who is 8 years old, or thereabouts, and is described (by Good Morning America, no less) as 'a tiny literary giant'. The web site calls her a writer, poet, and humanitarian.

Hmm. Well, one thing's for sure; the media love her. Naturally. Whether it's good for a kid that age to be feted by national (US) TV is a different matter. The web site features extracts from Adora's various works, and, yes, she does have a blog.

I worry about this kid's future. And as if that wasn't enough, the web site has a link to info about another of the same. This girl is is Akiane, and the front page of her web site labels her officially as a child prodigy. She is also described as 'the only known child binary genius'. And she's been on Oprah, so it must be true.

Well, that's quite enough of all that for me, thank you.

And if you want to know what happens to children who get masses of media attention when they're young, the answer (apparently) is that they grow up to be novelists.

Take Macaulay Culkin, for example. Last heard of living in an apartment in New York and getting drunk with lots of young friends (oh, and giving evidence for Michael Jackson), Culkin, it appears, has been busy. He's been writing a novel. Well, a sort of novel.

The Book Standard gives us an early peek at the forthcoming Kirkus review of Macaulay Culkin's book Junior. The reviewer doesn't quite say This is a heap of shit, but he/she might just as well have, because that's what the review amounts to. The book, says the reviewer, 'briefly ascends to the level of mediocrity. Filled with jokes lacking wit, introspection devoid of insight, poetry made of nothing, this is a work frustratingly short on substance.'

This is going to annoy quite a few people, I feel. The book, that is. Not the review. I wonder what the advance was?

Friday, January 20, 2006

Peter Pan: prequels, sequels, copyright, and confusion

The Independent has a modest article about the complications surrounding copyright in J.M. Barrie's famous children's book, Peter Pan. (Link from booktrade.info.)

Complications arise from the fact that, in his will, Barrie left the copyright of Peter Pan to the Great Ormond Street Hospital for Sick Children, in London, intending that the Hospital should benefit from the considerable income generated by that famous (if bizarre) work. And the complications which ensue from that simple gesture of goodwill have been touched upon here several times before, for instance on 12 April 2005.

The situation today is that a book was published in the US, in 2004 according to Amazon.com, which was a prequel to Peter Pan and has sold more than 500,000 copies. Its title is Peter and the Starcatchers. This book, please note, was published by the mighty and ruthless Disney, who in my view are just about the only people who can afford the massive lawyers' fees needed to deal with this issue. Disney have taken the view, based on their interpretation of US copyright law, that they didn't need Ormond Street's permission for their book and that the Hospital isn't entitled to any royalty; so they ain't paying any.

Meanwhile, dear old Ormond Street is planning its own exploitation of the rich Peter Pan seam. A while back they commissioned the award-winning children's author Geraldine McCaughrean, after a worldwide competition, to write a sequel to the Barrie book. The sequel, whose title will be unveiled this week, will be published this year to raise fresh funds for the Hospital. But it will come into competition from the Disney opus. And the Hospital is not pleased.

The result of all this confusion is that the two authors of Peter and the Starcatchers, Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson, evidently feel themselves caught in a moral dilemma, and are talking about giving a concert in London to raise funds for the Hospital.

What a mess. But a lovely, lovely earner for the lawyers. They must go down on their knees and bless the worldwide legislators who have created this hodge-podge of jurisdictions which seldom seem to agree on who owns what and for how long.

I must confess to having a personal interest in this matter. About ten years ago, with Ormond Street's knowledge and permission (we struck a deal on royalties), I too wrote a prequel to Peter Pan. It took the form of a stage play entitled Hook in Bath, and it told the story of how James Hook first became a pirate. The only Pan characters used in it were Hook and his mate, Smee. Sadly, however, I have never been able to persuade a producer to put the play on, and therefore income, for both me and the Hospital, stands at zero. However, if there are any producers out there who are looking for a damn good play...

If you want to read an article by someone who has done far more work on this issue than I have, try reading section 8 of the Wikipedia entry on Peter Pan.

If you want to read the Hospital's perspective on the matter, they have a page on their web site.

The moral of all this, imho, is that you shouldn't waste your time trying to write sequels and prequels. If you want to know my reasons in detail, I went on a good deal about the problems which can arise from recycling other people's characters in my piece of 8 July 2005.

Tim Hall confesses

You have probably noticed, if you read any blogs besides this one, that for the last two or three weeks there has been enormous discussion of one James Frey. Frey, it seems, published a successful memoir, but was subsequently found to have... well, you know... invented bits of it.

I haven't attempted to cover this story, for a variety of reasons. First, it was an American success story and not a book I'd ever heard of. Second, it seemed that other bloggers were doing it more than justice. Third, I have never yet heard of a successful memoir which didn't embroider the facts somewhat. And a lot more like that. However, if you want to know what the book's editor, the famous Nan Talese (now I've definitely heard of her), thinks about it all, she gives her views in the New York Observer. (Link from Publishers Lunch.)

There is also what appears to be a separate but similar debate about who, or what, a writer called J.T. Leroy is, but I'm not up to speed on that one either.

Meanwhile, Tim Hall writes to point out that, over at Blogcritics.org, he has decided to come clean, now that a gun has been pressed to his head, and admit that his new novel is 'mostly fiction'. Which is quite a neat way, I must admit, of giving your first novel a bit of publicity. Shades of Sylvie Nickels.

'I became a novelist because I am interested in exploring the truth,' Hall says. 'If I wanted to lie to readers, I'd write a memoir.'


Thursday, January 19, 2006

H.F. Ellis: A.J. Wentworth, B.A.

Every so often one comes across what one supposes is a long-forgotten gem, only to find that it is not forgotten at all; it is still in print. And so it is with the work of H.F. Ellis.

A while ago, I was poking through a shelf of secondhand paperbacks when I came across one by H.F. Ellis, entitled A.J. Wentworth, B.A. The publishing history of Ellis's books about his hero Wentworth is a little complicated, so bear with me.

The paperback that I have been reading was published by Arrow Books (UK) in 1981, and seems to be still in print. It incorporates two earlier books by the same author: The Papers of A.J. Wentworth, B.A., first published by Evans Brothers in 1949, and A.J. Wentworth, B.A. (RET'D), published by Geoffrey Bles in 1962. There appears to be a third book in the series, The Swan Song of A.J. Wentworth, published by Arrow in 1982. And there is a recent reissue of the first in the series, The Papers of A.J. Wentworth, B.A., published by Prion Books in 2000.

Older readers, who live in the UK, may remember that the first Wentworth book was serialised by ITV, with Arthur Lowe in the lead (1982).

Now the first and most important thing to be said about Ellis (who died in 2000) is that he was an English humorist. His character Wentworth reminds me very much of Mr Pooter in The Diary of a Nobody; in fact, both characters first appeared in the weekly magazine Punch. In other words, what we have here is very quiet, dry, English humour about a man who is self-important, more or less completely incompetent, and who, if one wishes to be kind, might generously be described as accident prone. If you like that kind of humour, H.F. Ellis is not to be missed. But if you live in California and are a big fan of the Farrelly brothers' movies, it may not be quite the thing for you.

When we first meet him, Wentworth is working as a mathematics teacher in a prep. school for boys, somewhere in England. Prep. schools in those days (and today) took boys from the age of about 7 to 13, and 'prepared' them for entrance to one of the so-called public schools, which in England means a private, fee-paying school for the sons (and daughters) of those who can afford the substantial fees.

If you were educated in such a prep. school, or taught in one (I confess to that crime), then the atmosphere will be instantly familiar. But I dare say that those without personal experience will soon get the hang of it.

Wentworth is one of those schoolmasters who believe that they effortlessly control the boys, but who frequently fall headlong into the cunning little bastards' traps. Here, for example, is a passage quoted by Miles Kington in his obituary of H.F. Ellis.

This morning IIIa were unusually quiet when I went in and I at once glanced at the front legs of my desk. Once or twice since I first came to Burgrove I have hurt myself rather badly through my desk falling off its dais the moment I have leant my elbows on it. I shall always believe, though I have never been able to prove it, that this must have been the work of the boys. . . However, the desk looked all right today, but I was still uneasy.

Every schoolmaster knows how unnerving it is when the boys sit quietly in their places and watch you in that silly expressionless way they have, and I do not mind admitting that I stood quite still in the middle of the floor for a full minute waiting for something to happen. Nothing happened at all, except that I distinctly heard Mason whispering, "Rigor mortis has set in".

I at once strode to the desk to get my punishment-book, but when I opened the lid a pigeon flew out, nearly knocking my spectacles off and giving me a very nasty shock. . .

The pigeon, when captured, turns out to have a message attached to its leg. It says 'Fly at once. All is discovered.'

Later in life, Wentworth serves in the army (WWII is won despite that). And in retirement he occupies himself with amateur dramatics (providing an unintentionally comic turn which is the hit of the show), and escorting two schoolboys on a trip to Switzerland (their excursion into Italy unaccountably goes wrong).

At the very end of the book, there are signs that Mr Wentworth might, just conceivably, enter into matrimony with a friendly widow. I think I really must get hold of The Swan Song of A.J. Wentworth and find out.

Warmly recommended. If you like that kind of thing.

Joseph Nassise podcasts for free

The horror genre is not one which has ever appealed to me -- unless you count ghost stories -- so I am not up to speed on the stars of that variety of fiction. However, Joseph Nassise is a former President of the Horror Writers Association, and a nominee for the International Horror Guild Award, so he clearly has some standing in the field. And now, it seems, he and his publisher are making podcasts of his new novel available free of charge.

According to the press release which has come my way, this is the first time that a novel currently available on bookstore shelves, and released by a major New York publisher, will be podcast in its entirety -- beginning on 31 January. The book in question is Heretic.

This podcast enterprise is the result of a collaboration between the publisher (Pocket Books), The Horror Channel, and The Podcast Network. In the future, The Podcast Network hopes to work with authors to find suitable sponsors for the podcast versions of their work, so that they will still get a commercial return on their efforts even if listeners don't eventually purchase the book. Well, we shall see. Nassise, by the way, is acting as his own narrator (as have Gerard Jones and Ian Hocking).

Heretic is the first volume in a new dark fantasy series called The Templar Chronicles, a series which has its own web site. This is the place to sign up if you want to listen to the podcasts on your iPod (or whatever). There is also an interview with Joe Nassise on The Horror Channel web site.

I presume that this Horror Channel is the same one that I can get on Sky satellite here in the UK. I don't usually find much there for me, but I did see an intriguing interview with the actress Ingrid Pitt a while back. Doubtless it will be on again.

Le Prince Maurice prize for love stories

Following close on the announcement of the longlist for the UK Romantic Novelists' Association book of the year award, the Guardian now brings news of another prize for love stories. (Link from booktrade.info.)

This one is named Le Prince Maurice prize, and it is intended to be awarded to a 'literary love story'. This seems to be a wonderfully flexible term which will allow for all kinds of 'controversy'. And the media, as we all know, just orgasmate over controversy.

The Grauniad says that the prize offers 'no large cash sums to the winner', and that's true. But Le Prince Maurice turns out to be a five-star resort on the island of Mauritius, and the winner receives an all-expenses-paid two-week retreat at the hotel, while all the judges and shortlisted authors are flown out to the island for the ceremony. Which sounds quite a nice little prize to me. The whole thing, it appears, is designed to generate publicity for Mauritius in general and the resort in particular.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Thomas's demolition job on The Historian

Wow. Crumbs. And more of the same.

I knew there were readers out there who read books carefully. For example, I once took a novel by Ken Follett out of my local library. It seemed OK to me, but some previous reader had been through it and marked up all the mistakes and inconsistencies in stated times, colour of characters' eyes, and all like that. I had noticed none of these things, because I whizz through books pretty quickly, but this reader had been concentrating. And had remembered.

And now the blogger Thomas (Anatomy of Melancholy) has provided a link to his piece of 12 October last about Elizabeth Kostova's novel The Historian. In what is quite a lengthy essay, Thomas analyses the quality of the writing in just the first six pages of The Historian, and finds it severely wanting. Not exactly a good advert for MFA degrees, he decides.

As a master-class in close reading and clear thinking, Thomas's essay is pretty damn impressive. But it's also worrying for those of us who fear that perhaps our own work might be just as sloppy.

Gregory Alexander's perspective on the future of the book

Following Monday's piece about the future of the book, Michael Antman kindly writes to say that another view of the same topic is offered by Gregory Alexander at the ENC Press web site.

This turns out to be a thoughtful and exceptionally well written essay, full of good sense. It offers considerable hope, I feel, to those who are just beginning to think about writing books, if only they will take on board the simple statistical facts and make wise decisions accordingly.

I don't agree with everything that Gregory Alexander has to say. In terms of fact, I think his suggested figure for books in print (1.2 million in English) is much too low. As for opinions, I don't agree with his view that the only really good book is a book which has been heavily edited.

First of all, it isn't necessarily the case that a heavily edited book is improved as a result. And second, I for one believe that a writer should take responsibility for his own work. No one edits my own current fiction (or non-fiction either), which doubtless means that a number of foolish errors creep in. But, there it is. I take full responsibility for it: good bad, or indifferent. And frankly, I would much rather do that than have someone else muck around with it.

That said, I recommend Gregory Alexander's piece as a model of clear thinking and writing.

There are, by the way, other excellent essays on the ENC site, including one by the publisher of ENC. This is highly recommended to those who are newbies in the writing/publishing world.

There is also an essay by Michael Antman, who gave me the link to this site. Michael, it seems, is interested in poetry (something of an eccentricity these days), and he makes the point that the stuff which currently passes for 'good' poetry, and is printed in such 'eminent' journals as the Paris Review, is pretty pathetic, pallid stuff.

He is dead right, of course. (The Paris Review fiction, by the way, is on a par with the Paris Review poetry -- i.e. it's only of interest to those who want to know what the magazine is publishing so that they can get published too. I had more to say about this on 20 September 2004.)

Michael says that the average free-form 'poem' is merely chopped up prose. Furthermore, when the chopped-up stuff is reassembled, 'it isn’t even well-written, not as sparkling or memorable as the work of the average big-city newspaper sports columnist.' Judging by the examples offered, that is not only true but a kind and generous way of putting the matter.

Still, no doubt there are three- and four-year MFA degree courses on offer which will tech you how to write poetry of this kind. And then you too can get it published in the Paris Review, and then you too can get a job teaching on an MFA degree, and as a result the world will be a much better place.

Er... won't it?

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Paul Pearsall: The Last Self-Help Book You'll Ever Need

The terms 'science' and self-help' do not often occur in the same sentence, and so when the science correspondent of the UK Times wrote a short piece about Paul Pearsall's latest book, The Last Self-Help Book You'll Ever Need, I decided that it might be worth looking at. So it is; and bits of it are particularly relevant to writers.

Paul Pearsall is the author of at least fifteen other books, most of which, judging by their titles, fall into the 'self-help' category. Unlike many self-help gurus, however, Dr Pearsall is well qualified as an authority in this area: he is an adjunct clinical professor at the University of Hawaii and is an internationally recognised neuropsychologist.

Pearsall's main message is that we really should not accept as the gospel truth the currently fashionable ideas about self-help which are preached by some powerful personalities who have mastered the art of flim-flam. I couldn't agree more.

The acknowledgements section, at the start of this book, makes interesting reading. In it, Pearsall points out that The Last Self-Help Book You'll Ever Need 'takes exactly the opposite view of the ideas that sell millions of books', and he is therefore grateful to his publishers, Basic Books of New York, for taking a risk with him.

His interest in self-help was developed, he tells us, by his experience of severe illness in the late 1980s. He developed Stage IV lymphoma, and was expected to die. Many friends and family, seeking to be helpful, showered him with books about helping yourself to get well: the power of positive thought, and so forth. There were so many books, in fact, that they became a nuisance in his hospital ward. But all these books failed to give him what he wanted; in particular, he decided that they were virtually all thoroughly unscientific.

When Pearsall got well -- against all expectations, including his own -- he decided to try to connect science and self-help once again. And in this, his latest book, he attempts to demonstrate how the self-help movement has seriously lost touch with science, and proposes some means of re-connecting the two. Insofar as the self-help movement seeks to provide people with the means to lead happy, healthy, and successful lives, this seems an admirable aim.

Pearsall regularly addresses audiences of people who are voracious consumers of self-help manuals, and for several years now he has been asking these audiences to complete a questionnaire. He presents them with a list of twenty statements, and invites the respondents to indicate which statements they agree with. I am not going to quote all 20 of the statements here, but set out below are about one third of them; they have been selected because of (what I consider to be) their relevance to writers. I suggest that you read through the list and make a note of how many of them you agree with.
  1. We must never lose hope.
  2. Childhood experiences determine adult feelings and behaviour.
  3. Winners never quit and quitters never win.
  4. High self-esteem is essential to mental health.
  5. Most people are addicted to something.
  6. If you want something badly enough and put your mind to it, you can achieve it.
  7. We must get in touch with our feelings and act on them.
Pearsall comments that, typically, the people who attend his lectures, and who complete this questionnaire, agree with the large majority of the statements that he puts to them. The average score is 18 out of 20, and nearly 50% of respondents score 20 out of 20.

However, Pearsall goes on to argue that the scientific research evidence which is presented in his book suggests that none of the statements is correct. The 'best' score should in fact be 0. He also tells us that a zero score was registered by 20 researchers from the fields of psychology, psychiatry, and medicine, when they took the test. In other words, since these statements all embody beliefs which are constantly emphasised by the self-help gurus, self-help has seriously lost its way.

So, what does all this imply for writers?

Well, what struck me about Pearsall's questionnaire is that many of what he regards as unrealistic, unjustified, and unhealthy beliefs are precisely the kind of thing that many writers do believe, and which are embodied in many how-to books for writers.

For example, statement 6. This is one of the more obviously nonsensical statements, as a moment's thought will demonstrate. A person who is four feet tall and weighs 150 lb may well harbour a desire to be an Olympic high jumper. But they are never going to achieve that ambition, no matter how hard they 'put their mind to it'. The same, I fear, is true of many of those who passionately desire to get on to the bestseller lists. But try telling 'em. Rather than believe you, they will continue to devote years of effort, and not a little money, to trying to write that breakthrough book. Result, as Mr Dickens might say: misery.

It is not, in my view, the hard work and the expenditure of time which do the damage: it is the illusions about the purpose of the work, and the likely results of it. As Pearsall puts it, 'There is no evidence that hard, long, vigorous, fully involved and enjoyable work is dangerous to the health, but there's plenty of research to show that constant striving to be who we're not can kill us.... We must find a way to work that doesn't just enhance our sense of self but causes it to disappear completely.' That is to say, as far as writers are concerned, forget about becoming a celebrity, and concentrate on the needs of the poor bloody reader; because she's so grateful when somebody does.

The Epilogue of Pearsall's book summarises some research from the 1970s, which identified the 'big five' personality traits that are most likely to lead to a sense of well-being. The first of these is Extroversion, on which Pearsall comments that 'reaching out to others is healthier than focusing on yourself.'

I think I might argue with the idea that extroversion always involves reaching out to others, but let us set that aside. The message for writers is, I think, very simple. It is that those with a desire to 'express themselves' through writing fiction should abandon the idea immediately. At least if they want to get into print and stay sane in the process.

As I have argued here more than once -- so often in fact that I could type it in my sleep -- no one in this world is going to be interested if you 'express yourself'. Even your own mother won't care, and your milkman and your dentist certainly won't. On the other hand, if you forget all about yourself, and concentrate on entertaining the reader, there is at least a remote chance that you might actually produce something which might interest an agent, publisher, or reviewer. Which might, in turn, get you into print and in front of a few readers, even if it doesn't make you rich and famous.

Earlier in the book, Pearsall touches upon the issue of narcissism, a characteristic which, he believes, the self-help movement encourages. To be precise, he is concerned about the prevalence of what he calls 'secondary narcissism', the kind of egotistical self-regard which involves self-absorption and a lack of concern for others.

Well, you wouldn't have to go far, I think, to find writers who believe that their own work is streets ahead of that of anyone else, and find it extraordinarily difficult to understand why that view is not shared by others. And the message for writers, at least in my opinion, is that it is only by abandoning the 'look at me, aren't I wonderful' attitude that most writers are ever going to get anywhere. Once again, consistent success will be achieved only by those who concentrate on satisfying the emotional needs of others through the medium of fiction (or drama, for that matter), and ignore the desire for self-expression.

Real self-help, Pearsall suggests, requires a constant questioning of the 'facts'. And here again this is a line which I have preached so often that regular readers are probably weary of it. Basically, what I have said is that the current widespread belief that literary fiction, as admired and taught in the various departments of Eng. Lit., is somehow superior to popular, genre, or commercial literature, is a fallacy. It is an 'accepted truth', or fact, which isn't true at all. (See my piece of 26 May 2005 if you want to take this further.)

And there are many other points on which I find myself in agreement with Pearsall -- points which sometimes relate to writing and which sometimes have nothing at all to do with that art.

As for shortcomings: well, I am not keen, on the whole, on Pearsall's occasionally rather gushy and sentimental way of expressing himself -- for instance when describing the virtues of the family. Neither do I agree with his ideas about reincarnation. And although he provides us with a great many pages of references to research papers, he sometimes leaves me feeling that his opinions are not always based on research-supported fact.

That said, of course, this book is a huge improvement over the average hot-air 'rebuild your life' tomes which occupy so much shelf space. If nothing else, it encourages the reader to question the basis of the bald assertions which are often offered by the gurus in this field.

You can, incidentally, complete a questionnaire on Paul Pearsall's web site which is different from the one mentioned above but which will assist you to decide whether it's worth reading the book.

Romantic Novelists' Assocation longlist

The UK Romantic Novelists' Association awards an annual prize for the romantic novel of the year, and the longlist for this year's prize has just been announced.

The prize is currently sponsored by FosterGrant Reading Glasses, which is entirely appropriate, as I'm sure you will agree. And -- wait for it - this year's longlist includes two men. Douglas Kennedy gets in with State of the Union, and Nicholas Sparks with True Believer. Both of these chaps appear to be old hands at the writing game.

Small, but perfectly formed

James Morrison is a regular contributor to Bookslut, which takes the form both of magazine and blog. One of James's particular interests is the short novel, about which he has written a number of essays; and the archive of those essays can be found here.

Gathered together under the overall title Small, but Perfectly Formed, the essays range widely over the field of shorter fiction. I for one found quite a few books to add to my list. Since James is an Australian I am tempted to say Good on ya, cobber. Except that I am probably light-years out of date. Nowadays the appropriate Australian commendation is probably I say, jolly well done, that chap. Or something similar. Anyway, James Morrison's archive is a very useful and interesting series of essays by a man who clearly knows his way around some obscure parts of the literary scene.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Robert McCrum on the future of the book

Robert McCrum, in yesterday's Observer, provided a thoughtful article on the future of the book. (Link from booktrade.info.)

I hope it will not seem immodest if I say that the article does not really tell you anything that you won't have read here: in fact as recently as last Monday (see the last two paragraphs of my piece on the Sunday Times). But McCrum is on first-name terms with all the big hitters in publishing, and comes up with direct quotes which neatly encapsulate their thoughts.

For me, the most interesting points are made by Dick Brass and Richard Charkin. Brass is a retired Microsoft Vice-President, with wide experience of e-readers, and he believes that it may take as much as ten to fifteen years to produce an electronic device which provides a reading experience close to that of the book. And Charkin, chief executive of Macmillan and President of the UK Publishers Association, says that he spends four-fifths of his time worrying about technology. He adds that 'none of the big general UK book publishers [Random House, HarperCollins, Penguin] has really embraced the new technology.' Which is another point that has been made here from time to time.

Charkin, by the way, has his own blog, about a month old, and already attracting a large readership. I am flattered to discover that the GOB is one of only two blogs listed in his blogroll. But I'm sure that won't last long.

Fred Vargas: Have Mercy On Us All

Before we go any further, let us be clear that Fred Vargas is a woman. A Frenchwoman, to be precise, and a historian and archaeologist by profession -- or at least she was until she started writing novels, at which she has been very successful.

All in all, I gather that Vargas is the author of twelve titles in French. Three of them have so far been published in the UK, and Have Mercy On Us All has just been brought out by Simon and Schuster in the US; other books are to follow from the same source.

Have Mercy On Us All was a considerable hit in France: it was chosen by the booksellers of France and by the readers of Elle magazine as their Book of the Year. It's a crime novel: a mystery; a thriller, if you will. On the cover we are told that 'Commissaire Adamsberg investigates', and indeed that is her principal character and his job is to investigate murder.

The plot is amiably eccentric, and just about remains credible if examined in bright daylight; in the context of fiction, it works just fine. In the 14th arrondissement of Paris, a former merchant-navy captain has adopted the role of town crier. He will read out anything if you leave a note in his box, together with a modest fee, and one day someone starts asking him to read out obscure mediaeval texts. It emerges, in due course, that all these quotations relate to the plague. And before long people start dying of the plague. Or so it seems until Adamsberg gets going.

The great strength of the book is in its delineation of a dozen or so Parisians -- not always born and bred there, but assembled there. And a motley crew they are too. Always engaging, often amusing, and usually recognisable as bearing a resemblance to folk we have known.

If there is a weakness in the book, it is in the way that the author would have us believe that Adamsberg conducts himself. In real life, no senior police officer could possible investigate multiple murders in the same way as Adamsberg does. But never mind: this is a fictional entertainment, not a manual of police procedure.

Another weakness, if you're determined to find fault, is in the character who was allegedly a brilliant scientist in his twenties, but who now believes some wholly unscientific ideas about bubonic plague and how one can become immune to it. But again, most readers are just going to be grateful for a book which is entertaining, occasionally amusing and touching, and doesn't either insult our intelligence, cover us in gore, or try to explain the Meaning of Life.

This book is well planned, thoughtfully written, well observed, human, absorbing. It is not surprising to find that the author has won prizes and is published in 22 countries. The translation is by David Bellos, and has its own little eccentricities.

Comments we could do without

If you ever go back to previous posts on this blog, and read the comments, you may have noted that some of the comments aren't really comments at all: they're adverts for porn of various varieties.

Now whatever one's feelings about porn, pro or anti, we really don't need links to such sites in the comments section of this blog. Well I don't anyway. And back in the good old days, say a year ago, I was able to delete these non-comments as and when they appeared, because there weren't many of them.

Then we got a whole flood of the things, generated by a machine somewhere, and I had to resort to using a Blogger filter. This involves asking would-be commenters to take one further step before being able to post a comment, which was a nuisance but it did succeed in blocking fake comments for a while.

Now, however, it seems that the spammers have found a way round that, and the porn links and adverts for fake Rolex watches and so forth are turning up again. Until and unless Blogger figures out how to stop them we shall just have to put up with them.

Of course some people used to think that such ads were the best part of the show, but that's another story.

However, the real point of this post is to say that, if you want to know more about all the various wicked things that can be done -- by spammers and the like -- to poor harmless bloggers who never hurt nobody nohow, then there is a handy summary recently issued by Semantec. The answer, if you are worried about the effect of these things on your computer, is to probably to buy a piece of Semantec software. What a surprise.

Friday, January 13, 2006

The right title for a bestseller

Finding the right title for your literary masterpiece has long been considered a black art. For example, some thirty or forty years ago I came across a theory that the best title for a stage play consisted of a dactyl and a spondee. In other words, two words which, when pronounced, come out in the rhythm dah-di-di dum-dum. Long, short short; long long.

And now I suppose I have to think of an example, and the old brain is decidedly slow this morning. But, er... pause for thought...

How about Lesbia Brandon. Not a stage play, of course, but the unfinished novel by the nineteenth-century poet Algernon Charles Swinburne, a novel which so terrified his lawyer (with its incestuous theme, cross-dressing and so forth) that he pretended to lose several chapters, to discourage Algernon from ever finishing it and from trying to get it published.

Other examples, roughly speaking, would include Clifford Odets's Waiting for Lefty and William Gibson's Two for the See-Saw. Also my own stage play Artists and Models.

When we come to novels I know of no specific theory of titles as such. But now, thanks to Vince Vawter, who gave me the link, I can point you to some research into the titles of bestsellers which may, conceivably, lead you to fame and fortune. Or then again, perhaps not.

The research was evidently commissioned by Lulu.com, an outfit which will print your book for you in any one of a variety of formats. And, since they are in the business of encouraging writers to publish their books through the Lulu facilities, Lulu decided that it would be appropriate to offer some advice on titles which would maximise sales. Here's what Lulu says:

The Lulu Titlescorer has been developed exclusively for Lulu by statisticians who studied the titles of 50 years' worth of top bestsellers and identified which title attributes separated the bestsellers from the rest.

We commissioned a research team to analyse the title of every novel to have topped the hardback fiction section of the New York Times Bestseller List during the half-century from 1955 to 2004 and then compare them with the titles of a control group of less successful novels by the same authors.

The team, lead [sic] by British statistician Dr. Atai Winkler, then used the data gathered from a total of some 700 titles to create this "Lulu Titlescorer" a program able to predict the chances that any given title would produce a New York Times No. 1 bestseller.

The fruit of this work is presented here, in the form of the Lulu Titlescorer: a program that you can use to gauge the chances that your own title will deliver you a New York Times No. 1 bestseller.

Now, no wish to be unnecessarily rude about something which is little better than a bit of fun, but the last sentence is clearly nonsense; it will seriously embarrass Dr Winkler if he ever sees it. The Lulu web site itself says that using the Titlescorer software will deliver a result somewhere between 9% and 83%, which would suggest that almost one book in ten gets to the top of the NYT bestseller lists; at a minimum.

Furthermore, Lulu seems to have leapt to the absurd conclusion that it is titles alone which determine bestseller status. So, it's all nonsense, as I say. However, the Titlescorer might conceivably give you a few leads as to whether you're on the right track or not.

Just for fun, I ran a few of my own titles through the machine. This year's novel, which you will hear much more about soon, is entitled How and why Lisa's Dad got to be famous. This, Lulu reckons, has a 10.2% chance of success. My earlier novel, Passionate Affairs, written under the name Anne Moore, had a 41.4% chance in theory, but in practice didn't make it.

And, of course, you can amuse yourself by passing some famous books through the machine and seeing what it produces. The Historian shares my 10.2%, and Fleshmarket Close ditto at 41.4%.

From which you learn that these apparently precise figures of 10.2% and 41.4% are not precise at all.

Oh well. It's quite amusing for ten minutes.

Before I forget: There was a time, some thirty years or so ago, when Robert Ludlum was having a run of successes such as The Matlock Paper, The Prometheus Deception, and so forth. This led to a whole rash of books with similar titles. But it got to the point where my then agent said to me, 'For God's sake don't give me a book with a title that goes The Adjective Noun. The market's sick of them.' Even though the Lulu Titlescorer rates them at 35.9%.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Michael Chabon: The Final Solution

Michael Chabon, as you are probably aware, wrote a novel called The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay, and it won him the Pulitzer prize. The underlying idea of that novel was a clever one -- something to do with comic-book heroes and the men who created them -- and I remember reading it, but it made little impression on me. The only thing I do remember is that, as with most literary successes, it was a big thick long book which seemed to grind on for ever.

So, although I am not going to argue with those who consider Michael Chabon to be talented, I wouldn't normally have rushed out to read anything else by him. But for two things: The Final Solution includes Sherlock Holmes in its cast of characters; and it's short.

Slightly to my surprise, The Final Solution proves to be one of the most impressive books that I have read in a long time; and I suspect that I shall remember it. Yes, the author is obviously exceedingly bright, but, unlike many such, he mercifully doesn't wave his cleverness in our faces; on the contrary, he rather disguises it, which is an endearing characteristic if ever I came across one.

The plot, involving a small boy, a pet parrot, and a murderer, is entirely preposterous. But it would be unreasonable to complain about that. Most of Conan Doyle's plots were preposterous too; but he pulled them off by dealing mostly from the bottom of the pack, and by using, of course, Dr WAtson as his viewpoint character. And then again, The Final Solution is set in the second world war, when any number of bizarre ideas were tried out, and some of them actually worked. (Consider the case of the bouncing bombs.)

Sherlock Holmes, by the way, simply appears in Chabon's book as one of the cast. He is not the dominant figure. This is perhaps unsurprising when one realises that he is now 89, and has been doing nothing more cerebral than keeping bees, somewhere between Eastbourne and Brighton, for several years.

The title, of course, will probably give you a hint of Holmes anyway -- or it did me. There was another non-Conan-Doyle addition to the Holmes canon some years ago: The Seven-Per-Cent Solution. But 'the final solution' also gives us a strange hint of what is now widely referred to as the holocaust, and that features in the plot too. And there is a third reference/meaning, which you will discover towards the end of the book. Yes, Mr Chabon is a clever chap all right.

He has also, as all good authors do, undertaken his research; and only the occasional word or phrase reminds one that the author is not English.

At first one imagines that this book is just another piece of Holmesian whimsy, but somewhere around page 50 you realise that it's really rather good. And it's all very elegantly done. A bottle of whisky in Holmes's drinks cabinet is described as being coated in 'a layer of dust that might have repelled a Schliemann.'

The final chapter of this book (narrated, if you please, from the point of view of the parrot) is, I have to say -- and I say it through gritted teeth because you know how much I hate to bestow praise on a literary novelist -- brilliant. No other word for it. More to the point, however, it is moving and memorable. And the last page is ironic. In more ways than one.

The Final Solution is warmly recommended. And, I repeat -- go down on your knees and thank the Lord -- it is short. It is the living proof of a principle which I have expounded here many a time: namely that, if you have the talent, you don't need to bang on for 600 or 700 pages; you can do it comfortably in 127; which includes a few rather nice illustrations.

Michael Chabon's official web site, by the way, is most unusual.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Abandoned novels

During the Christmas break, I began to read two novels and abandoned them both halfway through.

Both these books have been huge sellers, and have undoubtedly found an appreciative audience. So the fact that I didn't care to finish reading either of them is neither here nor there. But there may be, I think, some virtue in comparing and contrasting these two and seeing what can be learnt from their authors' careers so far.

Elizabeth Kostova: The Historian

The first book was Elizabeth Kostova's The Historian. The Book Standard fills us in on the background of this one rather nicely:

The whopping $2-million advance first-time author Kostova received from Little, Brown for The Historian, her take on the classic Dracula story, may have raised some eyebrows in the publishing world, but it’s safe to say that Little, Brown can look on it as a good investment. The huge marketing push behind the book—publicists sent out more than 500 galley copies of the title to booksellers—also paid off. The Historian wound up moving 282,000 copies to take the No. 1 position in the Debut Novel category for titles first published during the award’s timeframe.

And that's just the American sales. According to the exceptionally well informed Galleycat, Little, Brown have more than recovered their whopping advance by selling foreign rights to overseas publishers.

So: $2 million for a first-time author, and a thousand and one other publishers fighting for it. Must be a pretty good read, right? Well, er -- sort of.

Elizabeth Kostova is a Yale graduate with an MFA from Michigan. And whatever else they teach them on MFA degree courses they evidently don't teach them to achieve their effects in a minimum of words. The Historian runs to 642 pages. So that's the first problem I had with it. It's long. And it's slow.

It's also a tad confusing. As I have remarked before, modern readers do not concentrate on a novel for two hours at a time while sitting quietly in their panelled library. On the contrary, they snatch five minutes here, ten minutes there, while on the bus, on the loo, waiting for the girl/boyfriend to turn up.

And the difficulty with The Historian is that the first 100 pages are complicated. We have a story being related in 2008 about events in 1972, with another character describing events in 1952. And 1932 comes into it somewhere as well. So chapter 4, for instance, is a first-person account of the narrator's father telling a story which was told to him by a third character. It's not exactly straightforward stuff. There are several competing first-person narratives here, and it's hard to remember who's what.

Another characteristic, which is not a problem for me, but which makes it far from obvious to me as to why an American publisher was so interested in the book, is that The Historian is a very European novel. And it's about old Europe at that. The Europe of deep, dark woods, castles, and wolves, and Hansel and Gretel. Little Red Riding Hood. It's a carefully researched, even scholarly novel, and it's about scholars. But it's not until about page 88 that we really know what the thing is all about.

And it turns out to be about Dracula. Basically what we have here is a plot made familiar by a dozen or two Hammer horror movies from the 1950s and 60s: namely, Dracula lives; and he's going around doing nasty things to people.

So. This is all very well. Promising enough. Quite commercial in its way. But I'm afraid I looked at the pile of other stuff beside my bed and really decided that some of the other stuff might be more rewarding. Which brings me to:

Ian Rankin: Fleshmarket Close

Ian Rankin's career stands in well defined contrast to that of Elizabeth Kostova, though he has a similar academic background. He was at one time working on a PhD, and planned a career as a professor of English literature. But he decided, very sensibly, that he would rather write books which people read than books which simply sat on the shelf of an academic library.

Unlike Kostova, Rankin did not have a smash hit with his first book. Or, for that matter, with any of the first half-dozen. And that alone sets him apart from the average writer of today. In a very wide-ranging and extremely interesting interview with the Bookslut, he describes how his publisher, Orion, had got to the point where they were about to dump him.

They were saying, 'Ian, we’ve tried everything. We’ve tried promoting you as best we can and it’s not working. You’re still selling a few thousand copies. We’re going to see if another publisher can do any better.' Which is a tactful way of saying you're out the door.

However, at that point he won the Crime Writers Association Gold Dagger for 1997. Black and Blue became his breakthrough book. It sold four times as many copies as previous books and it was shortlisted for the Edgar award; it won a few awards overseas. 'Suddenly, I felt like I could make a living doing this. Up to that point, it was very fragile ground I was walking on.'

Yes, indeed. Not only was the ground fragile for Ian Rankin, but it was ground that, ten years later, few writers are going to get the chance to walk on. Not many publishers these days are going to give you half a dozen chances to find an audience. Today you either make a big impression with your first book or you can go fuck yourself. Not, of course, that anyone in publishing would put it that way, because they're all far too well bred; but that is pretty much what it amounts to.

After 1997, Rankin became a huge seller. Fleshmarket Close, paperbacked in August 2005, had sold 243,152 copies in the UK market by the year's end. His books have also been adapted for television. His detective, Rebus, was played initially by John Hannah, and a new series with Ken Stott in the lead role has just started. Stott is a fabulous actor, and I found the first episode extremely watchable.

Why then did I give up on Fleshmarket Close at page 254, with another 230 pages to go? Well, there was nothing really wrong with it. It was all highly professional. But I have read just a few too many novels about burnt-out detectives who drink and smoke too much and have problems with their women. That's all.

Hackoff.com continued

Some three months ago we had a look, you and I, at Tom Evslin's novel and web site and bells and whistles under the name Hackoff.com. I decided then that it was all a bit alarmingly high-tec for me. But Tom Evslin is the former head of a dot.com company, so it's to be expected.

Since October Tom has gone on developing his basic idea. Go to the Dothill Press web site and you will see that he has recruited one Kelly Evans to handle the administration. It seems that he is publishing his novel Hackoff.com first via a blog, then via podcast and finally via hardcover in the first quarter of 2006.

The same site outlines detailed plans for organising a 'blook tour' for the book, and presumably, for other books by other authors. And the Links link gives you a means of moving from Dothill to various associated sites. And the Amazon.com page for the book is definitely worth looking at.

It's all pretty dazzling stuff, even if they can't spell advice, and even if the font size is definitely on the small side for elderly eyes. This is evidently the way to go if you're tech-savvy and have enough money to do it. But will it succeed in terms of the bottom line? Let's hope we get to find out, though ventures which don't turn out to be profitable usually have a veil thrown rapidly over them.

We now have a number of authors, Val Landi being another example, who are well familiar with the business and technology worlds, and who are pretty much convinced that publishers are an unnecessary link -- one might almost say an obstacle -- between an author and the public. I suspect that this is much more true of non-fiction than of fiction, but time will tell.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Big Brother's books

Well, I warn you, there may not be many books read here for the next couple of weeks, because Celebrity Big Brother is on Channel 4 again, and it's gripping stuff.

Of course, it's sheer ignorance on my part, but I'm not quite sure how many other countries run their own Big Brother shows, so here's a quick rundown of what happens.

You take 11 celebrities (I use the term loosely) and lock 'em up together in a purpose-built house. They have no contact whatever with the outside world. No phone, no radio, no TV. They just have to sit there and interact. And, this being the digital age, the house is wired. There are cameras and microphones everywhere, so no one can even whisper without the audience picking it up.

The audience can watch all this, pretty much 24 hours a day. It's broadcast live, or nearly so. There's just enough time-lag to cut the sound if someone says something libellous or swears too often while the kids might be watching.

The idea is, and I speak from the producer's point of view here, that someone -- some particularly sensitive flower -- may succumb to the pressure and have a nervous breakdown. Or shag his way through every woman in the show, live. (I believe it's been done.) Or run amok with a kitchen knife. Or otherwise entertain us.

Every so often the audience gets the chance to vote on who should remain in the house and who should be evicted. And at the end of three weeks or so a winner emerges. With lots and lots of lovely media exposure. The newspapers love it and the winner can enhance, or rebuild, his/her career big-time.

And all of this, surprisingly enough, is heavily book-orientated.

To begin with (and I apologise if I'm teaching Grandma something about eggs here), the title of the show derives from a famous novel by George Orwell, entitled Nineteen Eighty-Four. Published in 1949, that novel imagines a nightmarish future for England, in which the government, personified by an all-powerful figure known as Big Brother, has the power to investigate and check up on every aspect of a citizen's life, and to cause pain and suffering to said citizen if he should dare to question the powers that be.

Well, the future hasn't quite turned out as Orwell feared, but it's pretty damn close. The British police have more than enough powers to make life very difficult for you if you choose to disagree with Mr Blair. A woman was arrested in Downing Street recently for reading out the names of the Iraqi war dead; this was justified under the terms of the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005. And on the other side of the pond, Cousin George is busy phone-tapping everyone who thinks he's a fool; an exercise which should keep him busy for some time.

So, Big Brother has literary antecedents. Not only that, but several of the current participants have books to their name already -- let alone what they will produce if they win.

Dennis Rodman, for instance -- yes, it is that Dennis, black, American, retired basketball player; the one who Madonna wanted to have a child with, and didn't; the one who politely declined to have oral sex with Madonna; that Dennis -- he is the subject of a biography by his ex-wife. They were married for ten days. This biog, Worse Than He Says He Is, relates how Dennis gave his missus sexually transmitted diseases and let her down badly in bed: sex lasted about 14 seconds. And the Celebrity BB hostess, the lovely Davina, has already told us that he requires extra-large condoms. All of which makes me worry about that nice little English girl, Chantelle, who was last seen holding hands with him. How will it all end? You can see how a chap can get distracted.

Then there's George Galloway. Yes, the same George who made mincemeat of a Senate committee, and wrote I'm Not the Only One, which was reviewed here on 14 June 2005.

Jodie Marsh is a former stripper, page 3 girl, and all like that. Jodie is the author, in a manner of speaking, of a 288-page autobiography, Keeping It Real. She's only 27, but a good-looking girl with a generous bust measurement can pack a lot into those years you know.

Next, Rula Lenska: distinguished actress. Rula has not, so far as I know, written a book, but she has been involved as the narrator on numerous audiobooks, especially for children: Roald Dahl's Matilda, for example. Also, her ex, Dennis Waterman, has written an autobiography entitled Reminder, so she presumably makes an appearance in that.

Michael Barrymore has the inevitable autobiography. And the others, so far as I know, are, so to speak, book virgins. Although the transvestite pop singer Pet Burns clearly has more than one book in him. (I quite fancy Pete, Doctor. Is this a cause for concern?) When last seen he was wearing a dress with a train, to which were attached about a dozen multi-coloured balloons. You think I made that bit up. But I didn't. See below.

Chantelle, as you will doubtless know, is not a real celebrity but was required to persuade the others that she was; and succeeded. I thought the girl done good. And since it seems that, never having sung a note in her life, she is about to release a pop record by the mythical band which she claimed to be a member of (yes it does get a bit confusing, doesn't it? Keep notes, is my advice), there is no reason on earth why she should not also turn up on next year's Booker long list.

Oh yes, it's gripping stuff, as I said at the beginning. And in case you're wondering why I should be taking such an interest in a weird reality-TV show, the answer is that, during the past year, I have been working on a novel about a man who goes on just such a show in order to win a million pounds for his daughter.

Now I thought, when I was writing this novel, that I had put forward a few outrageous and far-out ideas about the kind of people who might go on such shows, and the kinds of things that they might be required to do. But of course, now that I've watched the real thing, I have discovered that the reality of reality TV is far, far more outre and bizarre than anything that I could ever have invented.

You couldn't make it up. Really. I know. I've tried.