Thursday, March 16, 2006

MNW: second tranche of three

You may recall a series of posts here about the Macmillan New Writing (MNW) project, the latest of which was on 10 March.

The story so far is that Macmillan UK have set up a new fiction imprint to publish the work of previously unpublished authors, in any genre, with the first six books appearing on 7 April 2006. I am in the process of reviewing (or perhaps overviewing) all six: three were done last week, and three more feature today.

You may also recall that what I have done with these six books is to perform a 40-page test. That is to say, I have read the first 40 pages, or so, of each book, in order to get a flavour of it and to enable me to make some sort of judgement about the skills of the author. The books are listed here in alphabetical order.

At some point, probably next week, I will offer a few general conclusions about the MNW imprint, based on this overview.

Roger Morris: Taking Comfort

Unusually, this novel has a Contents page, and the chapters have both numbers and titles. Actually there are two Contents pages, because there are 55 chapters in a 215-page book.

Short chapters I always think of as a good sign. Yes, I am a simple soul, easily put off by slabs of thick prose (and not all that comfortable with joined-up writing). But titter ye not, madam (copyright Francis Howerd); there are lots of us simple souls out there, and we appreciate the kindness of those who make things made easy for us.

This book is written in the third person, and largely in the present tense, and it is immediately apparent that it is a little... different, shall we say. Not your run-of-the-mill book in any genre.

The principal character is Rob Saunders. He is about to start a new job, an experience which is often worrying to the strongest of us. And on his way to work Rob is a witness as a young woman throws herself in front of a train on the London Underground. Immediately before jumping, she drops a ring file, and Rob picks it up. He finds that, in some mysterious way, this action helps to make him feel safe.

From then on, Rob collects more items relating to death and various disasters, large and small. And the more items he has in his collection, and the more violent or terrible the event with which the object is associated, the 'safer' he feels, psychologically. But it turns out that these actions have not made him safe at all. Rather the reverse.

Hmmm. This is certainly an unusual novel -- at any rate in terms of the kind of novel that I am inclined to read. I would class it as both literary and experimental. Those who are more widely read in such fields than I am may, however, feel that it is neither very literary nor very experimental. It certainly isn't difficult to follow.

The book seems to me to be well structured and well written. And, having sneaked a look at the ending, I can say that if you do stick with the book you will not find it unsatisfactory: the conclusion has logic to it.

Roger Morris has a blog, which he entitled Roger's Plog, since it exists mainly to plug his new book. He also has a web site devoted entirely to Taking Comfort.

I have had more than one look at Roger's Plog over the last few months, and yesterday's entry is more than apposite:

What I should be doing: Visiting local bookshops. Visiting local libraries. Sending out my promotional postcards to everyone I know. Emailing everyone else I know. Spreading the word about my Goldsboro bookshop reading.

What I'm actually doing: Hiding under the bed. Metaphorically, of course. But you know what I mean.

This elicited a wry smile from me, because it is exactly my own position.

It so happens that I have a novel of my own coming out on 5 April. (Don't worry, you will shortly hear so much about it that you will rapidly sicken of same.) And what should I be doing? I should be launching an online marketing drive a la Val Landi. And what am I actually doing? Writing lots of posts on the GOB, and reading other people's books. I believe that this is known technically as displacement activity.

Anyway, Roger is a hip sort of guy, if you will excuse the grotesquely dated term. He understands about blogs (which I do too), and he also understands about making a video clip of himself and posting it online, which I don't.

All in all, this is an interesting book and an interesting author. Taking Comfort is not altogether to my personal taste, but it may reasonably said, without, I hope being too pompous, that it is influenced by, and reflects, the very natural angst among city-dwellers in the twenty-first century.

Suroopa Mukherjee: Across the Mystic Shore

There is a general point about the first six MNW books which I might as well make here as anywhere. The imprint, by definition, will print books of any genre; but even if it was confined to one genre, I always feel that each book published will benefit from a clear label of some sort, to tell the potential reader what kind of a book it is.

On the cover of Across the Mystic Shore, we have no banner, or label. Just the author's name, and the title. Now it so happens that the combination of these two, plus a picture of a foreign-looking riverside scene, tells us more or less what to expect: Indian author, Indian locale. But I can't help feeling that a little extra help would not go amiss.

Suppose we were to lift a phrase from the blurb on the inside flap: 'The entwining lives of four women forced to confront their past'. Something like that, and slap it on the front. Yes, I know, it's the simple-soul approach again. But in my view it never hurts to give the reader a little guidance
So to the book itself. The event which kicks off this novel is the arrival of a young boy in an upper-class Bengali household. This, to quote the blurb again, 'triggers a gripping story of love, desire and renunciation.... Central to the story is a dark and shocking secret that manifests itself and demands expiation... [This is] a colourful evocation of past and contemporary Indian settings and family life... An examination of relationships between lovers and family members and a perceptive study of motherhood.'

I don't think there is any need for me to try to paraphrase that blurb, because it says it all quite succinctly. In other words, as I see it, this is a variety of fiction which is aimed at, and will be enjoyed most by, women. And, furthermore, I imagine that author was writing as much for Indian readers as for those in the UK.

As regular readers will know, I try to avoid speaking in terms such as up-market and down-market, preferring instead to think of the continuum of different types of fiction as running horizontally. But, however you view it, Across the Mystic Sea is separated by some distance from Taking Comfort. It's aimed at a different audience entirely.

The book has a very definite old-fashioned feel to it. And again, I say that not as a criticism, but as a description. And the feel derives at least as much from the technique employed as from the subject matter.

What gives the book its distinctive character is, I think, the use of viewpoint. Because here, very unusually in a modern novel, we have the full-blown omniscient viewpoint, used, so far as I can see, throughout.

Modern fiction writers, at any rate if they're professionals, almost invariably use the main-character viewpoint, either in the first or third person. (For a full discussion of viewpoints see my various posts in November 2004, beginning on 4 November.) In the main-character viewpoint, the action is described as seen by one individual, and any internal thoughts given are those of that individual only. If the viewpoint switches to that of another character, the change is normally signified by a chapter break.

In the omniscient viewpoint, however, the author writes as God. The author sees, and describes, everything that happens; and the author may enter the mind of any character, and tell the readers, at any point, what any of these characters are thinking. In this case, Suroopa Mukherjee not only shifts the viewpoint within the same chapter, but within the same paragraph.

This is very definitely a nineteenth-century technique. And, while there is nothing whatever 'wrong' with it, it is relatively unusual these days, and it does give a slightly quaint and old-fashioned feel to the prose. Personally I find it unsettling.

In fact, I would go further than that. To my mind, this technique has the effect of diminishing the characters. It makes them appear a little like children, who are being described by an adult who understands them far better than they understand themselves.

Now, if that is an effect which an author wishes to achieve, so be it. And we have to remember that this book is about a non-Western culture, written by a non-Western author, and aimed, I believe, at least to some extent at a non-Western readership. And, as I remarked with reference to Henry Baum, I am not about to dictate to any author how she should write her book.

Cate Sweeney: Selfish Jean

The President of Harvard got into trouble recently for suggesting that women might differ from men in some respects. Well, perhaps he should get a job in publishing, because in the book world it is certainly obvious that women have different tastes from men. If you doubt that, go ask Mills and Boon, who collect hard data on the readership of their romantic novels (just about the only publisher, incidentally, who does). The last figure that I saw suggested that the readership of Mills and Boon books was 94% female; and the only surprise about that figure is that it wasn't 4% higher.

I mention this because Cate Sweeney's Selfish Jean is definitely a woman's book. One hundred per cent. Written by a woman, aimed at women, will be enjoyed by women. And therefore not much in it, I'm afraid, for me. But then, as Mrs GOB has often remarked, with a sigh, I am not much into relationships and the touchy-feely stuff. Actually that isn't quite true, but I know what she means.

Selfish Jean is a shortish book -- 218 pages, and not many lines to the page. But that, I hasten to add, is in its favour. I am not, on the whole, a fan of damned, thick, square books, as the Duke of Gloucester once referred to them.

The central character is Jeanette, from whom we hear in the first person. She wants a number of things, but a child above all; but she is past her best-by date, and adoption is proving difficult. We also hear about, in the third person, a small boy called Levi, who is 'trapped in the care system', a system which, on the whole, is best avoided. He is not happy.

So, we have wife who doesn't much like her husband any longer, but kind of needs him if they are to have any chance of adopting a child. And then there's Paul the social worker who checks her out for suitability, and whom she kind of fancies. And so on.

Don't be misled, however. Once again I have sneaked a peek at the ending, and I am here to say that this is not your average, predictable feel-good book. It's a cut above that. Or, as I suggested above, it's located on a different part of the continuum. Whether the audience which is likely to be attracted by the publisher's blurb will feel entirely happy about that, I'm not sure.


S. Kearney said...

Bravo for your work here - and I found your reviews (even if only for the first 40 pages) helpful. I was particularly interested to read your comments about Roger Morris' book Taking Comfort. I'm going to buy it, and other titles at MNW, on the strength of the reviews I've seen so far and the extracts I've read. How do you find the time to write so many posts, when you're also producing books? My blog is up and running at:

archer said...

What is "joined-up writing"?

Lebatron said...

Women are something else, ya know. Hard to figure out what they want and don't want. If you're having trouble with women, I've posted an article "Pointers for the Dunces" going through some DOs and DON'Ts. Check it out, you may learn something.