Friday, June 16, 2006


I must be getting old. Thought I had posted some of this stuff on Monday, but, unless I am even older than I thought, I didn't. So here it is now, plus some later stuff accumulated during the week.

Post Secrets

Seth Godin's post about blog traffic led me to PostSecret, a bizarre and sometimes disturbing place where people write their secrets on a postcard. For those who care about novelty, this is a wholly new 'art form' (for want of a better word), enabled by the internet. Either that or it's a clever wheeze to make money out of other people's work. There's a book involved.

Read the small print before you contribute. And it's hard on the eyes, because it's one of those white text on black background things that drive me crazy.

Was, were, and the subjunctive

A commenter on the ghostwriting post takes me to task for writing 'If I was...' instead of 'If I were...' In other words, I am told that I should have used the subjunctive mood.

Well, yes. And then again, no.

When I was writing the sentence complained of, I did actually pause before tapping further on the keyboard. I contemplated writing 'If I were...' and decided against it.

Why? Well, because of a general sense that the language is changing. And because a blog is not the most formal of contexts. And besides, I said to myself, will anyone not understand me if I write 'If I was...'? I decided not.

But, for the record, I have now consulted Authority on the question of the subjunctive.

Fowler's Modern English Usage, 3rd edition, as revised by Burchfield (and not, I understand, in itself universally admired) says that the standard reference work on historical English syntax has 156 pages on the subjunctive. Which is too many for me. But in the conclusion of his own (rather complicated) article on the subject, Fowler/Burchfield says that the subjunctive 'is seldom obligatory.'

If we go back 58 years to Sir Ernest Gowers's Plain Words, for a mercifully simpler explanation, we find that he does accept that it was common (in 1948) to find the subjunctive used after 'if'. However, after, quoting various instances of the subjunctive, he concludes: 'It is probably true of all of them that the indicative would have been equally correct, and certainly true that the subjunctive has a formal, even pedantic air.'

Well, as you may have noticed, the style of this blog varies wildly between the twenty-first-century informal and the eighteenth-century formal, so you may find all sorts of usages occurring. And I do not guarantee consistency in the use of the subjunctive or anything else. But I don't think I would accept the argument that 'If I was...' is, in and of itself, necessarily wrong.

As to the anonymous commenter's question -- does the ability to spot things like this qualify him as a good ghostwriter -- I suppose my answer to that is that this ability is certainly useful, and, insofar as it is indicative of close attention to detail, it is a Good Thing. But don't count on it to get you a contract.

Rosemary de Courcy

In a quiet way, Rosemary de Courcy is one of the most famous names in UK publishing. She started out (as I recall) as an editor at Futura, a mass-market paperback firm. It was about thirty years ago, when the paperback firms, particularly the American ones, were cutting each other's throats to buy the rights to books. And Rosie sold the US rights to some really rather ordinary bodice-ripper for about $300,000 -- which was quite a lot of money in those days. Hence she became hot.

She and I had a discussion at that time, about the possibility of writing a paperback original, but we never came to any agreement, and the proposed book (Counter-Coup) was later published by Muller.

Since then Rosie has gone onward and upward, but always making use of her very substantial editing skills. Never (so far as I know) tempted to write her own novels, Rosie has always had a keen nose for what is commercial and what can be sold. Really smart, in other words. Never dumb enough to fall for all the lit'ry glamour.

Now it seems, she is planning a move which will give her 'a more flexible career to take beyond pensionable age.' She has joined up with a literary agency (Mulcahy and Viney) and will also continue to provide editorial services to the likes of Maeve Binchy, Penny Vincenzi, and others. Joel Rickett has the story in the Guardian (link from

Indie bestsellers

Joel Rickett also reports that the Bookseller has started to publish a special bestseller list derived from the sales at 20 leading independent bookshops. This, it is believed, will give a different picture of the trade from the usual lists, which are heavily influenced by supermarket sales. For better or worse, this new list does not seem to be available online.

April Ashley tells all

You have to be quite old, and British, to remember April Ashley. But she was a big name in the tabloids some forty or perhaps fifty years ago. Why? Because April was probably the first bloke in Britain to 'have the operation' and become -- superficially speaking at any rate -- a woman. Now she's written a book.

The book, The First Lady, is written, interestingly enough, 'with' Douglas Thompson. Our Doug, a name not previously known to me, turns out to be one of the heroes of our time, i.e. a ghostwriter (mainly). As a ghost he has helped along the likes of Christine Keeler, Michael Flatley, and Paul Nicholas. What is more he writes showbiz biographies on his own. Just the sort of career, in fact, that sensible writers would aim for.

You can get a broad outline of the April Ashley story from an interview in the Sunday Times. An old show-business friend of mine performed with April in a nightclub in the 1960s. He ended up flat on his back while April, skirts a-twirling, danced above him. 'It's true, it's true!' he yelled.

Yes, I know. Terribly vulgar. But it was that sort of era. (See Boothby, below.)

Jeanette Winterson bereted

Jeanette Winterson reports that she has been 'bereted by two readers, indeed made into something of an escaped goat, for being sufficiently unfamiliar with the English language to imagine there was such a thing as a damp squid.' And she has whole lot more of the same in her entertaining column in last Saturday's Times.

Pot and kettle

Galleycat reports that John Freeman (whoever he), writing on the blog of the national book critics circle board of directors, has been criticising book bloggers who review books and then offer links to an online retailer from which, if a reader buys the book, they get a commission. Freeman claims that this is immoral and removes any shred of credibility that a litblogger might have.

Well, cheeky bugger, is all I can say. As it happens I don't (usually) link to Amazon or anyone else (although I have in the Doug Thompson bit just above), and I can't be arsed to go through the rigmarole of setting up affiliate status anyway. But what about those newspapers which happily accept advertising from publishers and then, by a curious coincidence, review books from said publishers? What are we to make of that, eh Freeman? Whassa matter --cat got your tongue?

The Boothby affair

Unless you're very old, and English, you won't remember, but once upon a time there was a politician called Bob Boothby, who later became Lord Boothby. He had a number of distinctions, not the least of which was that he was bisexual; in that capacity he not only fancied boys, but also fathered a child by the wife of Harold Macmillan, a man who later became Prime Minister (and remained married to the same wife).

The other day, when looking for something quite different, I came across a fascinating short memoir by John Pearson. It seems to have been printed, if I'm reading it right, in the Independent on Sunday on 15 June 1997.

It's too long a story to go into here, but Pearson tells how politicians, journalists, senior police officers, and various others, all saw fit to save Lord Boothby's skin, purely and simply because it suited their own interests to do so. Also involved are various murders and murderers, gay orgies, blackmail, extortion, gangs... Oh and a whole lot more.

None of this is news, really, We've had it all rehearsed in the press and in books, many a time. But John Pearson's article is an interesting read none the less. And, of course, these events have been dealt with in fiction, most notably I suppose by Jake Arnott -- a writer who does not, I'm afraid, impress me, but who has impressed other people. Unless I mistake me, Arnott's character Lord Teddy Thursby has strong echoes of Boothby.

The Pearson article appears on the web site of Bernard O'Mahoney, a writer who specialises in books on crime.

Jesus Christ never was

Never was what? Well, never was at all. Never existed. So, at least, argues Luigi Cascioli, and he has a web site in four languages to prove it.

There's a book involved. Well of course -- there would have to be, wouldn't there? And there's a law suit. And it all links up with the Da Vinci code. But how did you guess? And the web site has masses and masses of other stuff.

If you're looking for the racy bits, try the essay on Nudism and Satanism: complete with pictures. As you would expect, this has lots of stuff about clerical orgies, witchcraft, and black masses.

The most entertaining aspect of all this is that Luigi Cascioli is being represented, at the European Court of Human Rights, by that well known 'important international lawyer' Mr Giovanni di Stefano. If you want to know why that's entertaining, go here, here, and here.

99 Burning

99 Burning's issue 9 is out. It's just as rude, bad-tempered and pushy as ever, urging you to read something or be labelled a dipshit. The article by Jim Cherry, said to be about the publishing industry, seems to me to be about music. Or are we expected to draw parallels?


Then there's Litro, described as original fiction for the underground -- in more senses than one. What happens is, Mike Fell prints up stories and hands them out free to people going into one of London's underground stations. And you're invited to submit stories of your own.

Well, there's more ways than one to find readers, and some of the stories are also posted online at the Litro site. I recommend Mumbo Jumbo by Lynsey Calderwood. This is, at first sight, tough going because it's written in a kind of Trainspottingese, or Scots. But stick with it -- it's worth it. All in all, the Litro site is more professional and impressive than I thought it was going to be.

Litro also tells me that Foyles Bookshop hold short story readings on the last Friday of every month (in London, that is). Go to Decongested for details. It seems they've contracted Arts Council funding, which can be a fatal disease, so we must hope that they all feel better soon.

Tami Brady on the real You

Tami Brady has a new book out from the Loving Healing Press. Entitled The Complete Being: Finding and Loving the Real You, it is a bit too touchy-feely for me, but it may be exactly what you're looking for.

Tami is an archaeological contractor. (Look, I keep telling you I don't make these things up, OK?) And she is founder, editor, and reviewer for TCM Reviews, which seems to offer an essentially free review service, plus a number of for-pay promotional packages.

Loving Healing Press is what I would describe as a new-age publisher, but it certainly has an interesting range of books which are fully described on the web site. They have also taken advantage of Amazon's facilities to launch a publiblog -- something that I had heard about but not seen before.

The blog offers an intriguing account of how one of the firm's books came to be written: David Powell's autobiographical story of how a tour of duty in Vietnam nearly destroyed him mentally, and how he finally managed to recover.

Bill Liversidge on Octavia Randolph

Bill Liversidge is one of those with some faith in the digital revolution and the internet-viral marketing model -- at any rate as a device for interesting mainstream publishers who might recognise a powerful online performance, in terms of generating readers, and buy a book on the strength of it. But his faith is severely tested by the communication he has had from Octavia Randolph.

Nip over to the Pundy House and read it for yourself. But basically Octavia has concluded that even a large online readership counts for naught in the book worlds of London and New York.

My site receives over 50,000 readers a month, from more than 60 nations. On it I have three complete historical novels, a novella, and scores of essays - over 500,000 words of text. Everything is free....

I'd like to speak to the fact that conventional publishers live in a parallel universe to those of us who publish on the WWW. It wouldn't matter to them how many readers download or access free novels on the internet, because that is just not how they decide their lists.

Hmm. Maybe a rethink is in order.

Octavia's web site has lots of good stuff on it, including an essay on Wyrd: the Role of Fate. I haven't quite figured out yet what impact wyrd has on writers, but I'm working on it. Preliminary interpretation: performing with courage and drive may help you to succeed; but if you're doomed, you're doomed.

And last...

One could go on for ever, it seems. But we must stop somewhere.

If you were wondering where you could buy a set of nipple clamps which can send and receive SMS text messages, and which can simultaneously download knitting patterns off the internet, then I have the answer. They can be found in Little-Frigging-in-the-Wold, where they are manufactured by Norbert Trouser-Quandary.

What a wonderful thing the internet is. Have a nice weekend.


Anonymous said...

I like Godfrey Howard's "The Macmillan Good English Handbook" for succinct opinions on matters such as the subjunctive. "If I were..." he regards as educated usage and "more or less obsolete". On this, I don't entirely agree. I use both forms, depending on which I think sounds more natural to the ear at the time of writing.

For instance, "If I were you..." sounds more natural to my ear than "If I was you...", but I concede that this is simply because I have heard it said more times that way (well, naturalism does depend on what people most commonly say). But, to take another example, "If I was married to her..." sounds more natural to me than "If I were married to her...".

I regard both forms as correct and choose according to sound, as illustrated.

Anonymous said...

Since I'm still in college, I've been doing a lot of thinking lately about my future as a writer and otherwise. I had originally planned on becoming an editor of some sort, preferably for a publishing company to learn the ins and outs of the business. Now, though, with all this buzz about ghostwriting, it seems like a sensible alternative.

What I don't understand: How does one get into that, exactly? How do you, for lack of a better phrase, start ghostwriting? This is all over my head, so if you, as someone more experienced in the industry than I, could clue me in, I'd be in your debt.

Anonymous said...

To s.m.o'shea

I'm tempted to smile cynically at your naivety, and move on, but that wouldn't be fair. I take it that you're young, and I certainly wouldn't have known the lie of the literary land when I was at college.

If you want to get into ghostwriting, you must get connected; you must make yourself known to people in publishing, either personally or by reputation. Nothing else will do. Don't listen to the pseudo-idealists who will tell you that you must hone your style and be true to yourself even while writing in someone else's name, etc., etc. These people are cynics in disguise.

Please believe me when I tell you that, in today's world of publishing, the greatest literary genius the world has ever seen would stand not a snowball's chance in hell of getting a ghostwriting contract without knowing the right people. That's just how the system works.

Ghostwriting, like journalism (of which it is really an offshoot) is craft, not art. If you're even remotely literate, you should be up to the task. The problem is that so are thousands of others, and a hell of a lot of them would like to be ghostwriters just as much as you would.

Publishers hand out such tasks to people they know and trust. People they've never heard of don't even get a look in.

In order to make connections, your best bets are to get into journalism, or into publishing. Social networking is far less useful, since publishers hate being approached by hopefuls of whom they know nothing, and who have no track record of published work.

Please don't think that these are the words of a cynic. They are the words of a realist.

ivan said...

I sometimes wonder, when it comes to the subjunctive and the indicative, if Jeah-Paul Sartre may have been complaining of the French language, rather than "being and nothingness."
Have you ever (and I think you have)had a look at the various subjunctive and indicative moods in the French language?
As they say over here in Canada,

James Long said...

As I have a friend who once described a party as 'a bit of a damp squid', your link Jeanette Winterson's column naturally caught my eye.

I was surprised by such levity from an author I had believed (on little evidence, I admit) to be Quite Serious. Turns out she's a saucy little Minsk (lexigraphically speaking).

Susan Hill said...

One other point worth making is that there are very very few jobs for ghostwriters anyway..there are the big celebrities who need one to ghost their autobiography and - er - that`s it. Not recommended as a career option.

EJ said...

I guess we're both getting old because I remember reading some of this on Monday. Sigh...

ivan said...

Ah, ghostwriting used to be so easy,especially when one had a syndicated column and people were actually seeking you out instead of the other way around.

Vexilollogists, makers of flags,
agronomists dying to have their "instant lawn grass" stories printed in Canada's Reader's Digest, hostesses with the mostesses, the Vancouver Aquarium and their crocodiles sleeeping with open jaws to have coins and flashbulb cubes dropped therein.

The requests seemed endless.

Then I stopped writing columns and became a teacher, just an ordinary teacher and then the game was different and the knives came out as they do in any do-nothing institution and I was hung out and dried.
The ghost-writing requests still came, former druggies and Vietnam vets who got their lives back together--that sort of thing--but in most cases I feared the subjects had no real claim to fame and I stayed with my job as a pigeon-grey teacher in a pigeon-gray college.
And then I published my book. Not altogether honourably, I fear.
Then suddenly I had paparazzi and even some ghostwriters looking for me.
Alas, like John Cleese says, one success almost guarantees the next work to be a failure.
It was.
Now they won't even let me teach any more because I'm too old.

Oh well. Dare I think, as in the young man days that the excitement will return after I meet some exciting woman?

We are all dreamers and when the good stuff happens, we think it's just the same for everybody else.

..."And then there were none."

Susan Hill said...

By the way Michael .. you DID publish some of this on Monday. Not all. But some.

Armand said...


I met Octavia Randolph at The Marketplace and the Muse in Cambridge (MA) ! A real nice woman.

- Armand

EminemsRevenge said...

RE: the subjunctive...

i always THUNK that using correct grammar when your characters are speaking is often a stylistic gaffe unless one of your characters is Ford Madox Ford!!!

Whilst i generally hates the FORCED *cawn pone* Eubonics of some of my compeers as much as a faux cockney-laced novel...sometimes you gotsto step outside the box!

ivan said...

Oh I dunno.
Carson McCullers stayed right in the box with simple,declarative sentences in good English.
And she was as modernistic as they come.
Every writer should get right back in the box, for that is where the discipline and the art lie.

Elizabeth Baines said...

No grumpiness can excuse saying that a writer does not impress without explaining why!!!! (Call me an old pedant as well as a bitch.) Actually, my own reservations about Jake Arnott - I can't deny he's a compelling read - are based in the exoticism he brings to the era about which he writes. Or maybe the exoticism comes from the era being filtered via the good-looking gay persona his publisher peddles. I dunno, can't tell books from personalities nowadays.

Elizabeth Baines said...

Heck, sorry. I wrote the above before going on the Jake Arnott link where you explain exactly why....

Anonymous said...

When you're doomed, you're doomed... Yes, I have had to accept that Wyrd has some other plan for my writing efforts. After eleven years of effort and two skilled literary agents, I finally responded by releasing all of my work into the wild. The result has been a huge growth of readers, particularly international readers - people who never would have been exposed to my novels if they had been conventionally published. I made the decision that Being Read was more important than Being Published.

A blogger who is a reader of yours wrote me following your mention of my exchange with Bill Liversidge, which is how I found your excellent blog. May you continue to go from strength to strength!

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Juliet Hamilton said...

Well you are Grumpy aren't you? So grumpy in fact that you may not rely on being totally accurate in your statements ie your Rosie De Courcy blog.I remember Miss De Courcy being a good friend & mentor to my Mother the writer of the "rather ordinary bodice ripper" that was auctioned in America for $300,000(?).I think you fail to grasp the fact or even have knowledge of the woman who wrote this book.She had her first book published at the grand old age of 17 & before her death at 46 She had written & had published over 50 books many under Rosies umbrella.Would Miss De Courcy really have wanted to stand side by side with some mediocre writer therefore damaging her reputation! I don't think so.My Mother put her heart & soul into each of novels & her imagination new no boundaries.Her research was thorough & unquenchable & She was an inspiration to family,friends,fans & other writers.Have you read any of her books? Do you even know her name? Shame She can't respond as well because She'd knock your drivel into a cocked hat!!!