Friday, September 29, 2006

Friday stuff

There is an enormous amount of stuff that deserves to be mentioned (at the very least), so let's try to shift the whole lot without getting too wordy.

Ghosting for beginners

The life of a ghost writer is never easy. Especially when the person whose name is on the cover can't read and write. Kim Green complains to Radar. (Link from Publishers Lunch.)

Kathy O'Beirne

Private Eye says that Kathy O'Beirne has suffered terrible abuse -- but only since the book came out.

And this morning, in the Independent, Boyd Tonkin has some sensible things to say about the difficulties of remembering precisely what happened. (Link from

Nicholas Coleridge exposed

Madame Arcati, via Private Eye, explains how a rich man can still take the trouble to review his own book on Amazon. And he had already arranged for favourable reviews in the magazines that he controls. Ah me. Vanity, thy name is author.

Vive La Petite Anglaise

Galleycat reports that La Petite Anglaise, the blogger who got sacked because she allegedly made her employers look stupid (something they were managing quite well on their own), has landed a big book deal. And she's so pretty too.

Waiting for Godot

As I suspected it might, Peter Hall's production of Waiting for Godot is going to London, for seven weeks only from 3 October: at the New Ambassadors Theatre. If you're remotely interested in 'serious' theatre, this is a must-see.

The Queen of risible fiction

Wednesday's Times had an article about Amanda McKittrick Ros, a Victorian novelist who was much loved by Tolkien and his Oxford pals for her unintentionally hilarious prose. Actually I quite like her poetry too. But to get the full flavour of this one you have to know that, in World War I, the German leader was known as the Kaiser, and he had a withered arm.

Go! Meet the foe undaunted, they’re rotten cowards all,
Present to them the bayonet, they totter and they fall,
We know you’ll do your duty and come to little harm
And if you meet the Kaiser, cut off his other arm.

Blood good stuff eh?

Advice from Margaret Atwood

This morning's Times reports that Margaret Atwood has been giving a masterclass in creative writing at the University of Glasgow. 'If I were your parent,' she told the assembled wannabes, 'I would say, "Why are you doing it? Go get a proper job".'

Quite right too.

Warmer yet and warmer

Enthusiasts for global warming (see my review of Michael Crichton's State of Fear) will be pleased to note that the UK Meteorological Office (a government entity, owned by the Ministry of Defence, dealing with weather forecasting) has predicted that, by the end of the century, temperatures in Britain will reach 46C, which is as hot as the Sahara. Roads will melt, railways will buckle, and thousands of people will die. And this isn't even 'the worst-case scenario'.

Personally, since I know perfectly well that the Met Office can't even forecast tomorrow's weather with any certainty, I am not going to commit suicide just yet.

Getting to the Point

Jenny Haddon (Chairman of the UK Romantic Novelists' Association) and Elizabeth Hawksley have written a 'panic-free guide to English punctuation for adults', entitled Getting to the Point. It's aimed at 'everyone who read Eats, Shoots and Leaves and is still in a quandary'. Like Delia Smith, they say, 'we start with "this is an egg" and work gently forward. 'What's more, you get three mini-novels included.

You can read more about Getting to the Point on the book's own web site.

I would like to say that this book would make a good present, but I suppose one would have to be fairly careful about who you gave it to in order to avoid giving offence.

The two authors of this book are, of course, professional writers themselves, and between them they clocked up over 90,000 library borrowings in 2005. (That's books of theirs, i.e. written by them, borrowed from libraries by other people, you understand; not...)

No honour among journalists?

On Tuesday I mentioned an article in the Guardian, on 26 September, by D.J. Taylor. Now Danuta Kean writes to say that Taylor seems to have been influenced, shall we say, by her own research which was written up in the Independent on Sunday on 24 September.

You can find Danuta's article either on the Indie site or on Danuta's own site, where there is a lot more good stuff too.

In particular, Danuta complains that Taylor has borrowed her phrase 'the Bluewater factor', which is a vital element in the marketing of celebrity biographies. What you should do, Danuta, is trade-mark it. Just as Donald Trump has trade-marked 'You're fired!'

Freemasonry revealed

Once upon a time, the Freemasons were a secretive lot. This, however, earned them rather a bad press and a great deal of suspicious muttering, so in recent years they have tried to open themselves up a bit.

There always have been books on freemasonry, but in the past you had to search hard for them (if you were interested). Today you just need to make a few clicks. Lewis Masonic, for instance, will sell you stuff, including (an unsolicited email tells me) The Complete Royal Arch Ritual.

At least, I think they will sell you stuff. Although now I come to check, I find that the ritual book is not available through Amazon, so maybe you have to state your Lodge number before you can buy from Lewis.

Nadine Laman

Nadine Laman is yet another writer who has found a way to do her own thing.

Virtual Penguin

You may understand this, but I'm not sure that I do:
Penguin UK today launched the first of a series of initiatives in the 3d virtual world Second Life and in doing so became the first trade publisher to create a presence in ‘the metaverse’. Together with virtual agency Rivers Run Red, the publisher will be distributing print and audio extracts of the Neal Stephenson novel widely credited with creating the vision that led to Second Life, and offering a discount on book and ebook editions of Snow Crash to Second Life® residents from the Penguin website.
Gee, and I thought I was pretty clued up on Neal Stephenson too.

Insofar as my feeble mind can grasp it, it seems that Second Life is 'a 3D online world with a rapidly growing population of over 750,000 residents from 100 countries around the globe, in which the residents themselves create and build the world which includes homes, vehicles, nightclubs, stores, landscapes, clothing, and games.'

Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash is a pretty techie sort of novel, and Penguin feel that it will fit right in with the Second Life ethos, so they're making it available in some kind of virtual/digital form. Or something like that. Jeremy Ettinghausen is Penguin's digital publisher.

Should you wish to wrestle with it, try the links. At least it makes a change from having to suggest that UK publishers are only dimly aware that things can be done digitally and online.

Bat Segundo

The Bat Segundo Show offers audio interviews with a surprisingly large number of writers.

Underneath the Bunker

Underneath the Bunker, 'Europe's premier cultural journal', has churned out an impressive amount of stuff in the almost one year of its existence, including reviews of twenty-one of the novels from Georgy Riecke’s Greatest European Novels by Contemporary Writers. They have also published six exclusive excerpts from respected art historian D H Laven’s monumental work-in-progress The Story of Forgotten Art (four of which are still available to view). And a lot more.

There is more, as you will soon discover, to this site than immediately meets the eye. My only criticism is that it is time-consuming to read. But somebody, or somebodies, must have devoted a staggering amount of time to creating it.

I am particularly fond of Bo Bjo's 'Quite Smelly One Morning'. Also, there are many pearls of wisdom: 'Beauty is so dazzling; it shimmers like a thousand shards of glass on a Sunday morning shopping street.'

Swedish executions

Have you ever wondered what happened to the bodies of eighteenth-century Swedish criminals after they were executed? Yes, it always troubled me too. But now we have the answer.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

An overview of emotion

This blog has now been running for over two years, and if you were to go back and read it through from the beginning you would find that there is one topic which is mentioned over and over again. That topic is emotion.

Somewhere around 1958, I met a man on a train who was a schoolmaster by profession but who was also a published writer. We got to talking about writing. I mentioned that I had ambitions in that line myself (I was very young and foolish), and he advised me to read a book called Narrative Technique, by Thomas H. Uzzell. (The book was first published in 1923 and is long since out of print, but it's still worth buying if you can find an old copy.)

In due course I did read Uzzell's book, and Uzzell revealed to me that the whole point of fiction is that it generates emotion in the reader: that is why readers value it. My major conclusion at that point in my development was therefore that, if I wished to succeed as a 'creative writer', I had better (a) learn as much as I could about emotion, and (b) learn as much as I could about how to create emotion in readers or drama audiences.

The result is that, for nearly fifty years, I have been reading anything I could lay my hands on which dealt with human emotion and writing techniques. And gradually, my reading and learning have begun to organise themselves into several different areas:

1. The scientific study of emotion itself.

2. The problems of fictional narrative technique: i.e. how to make the reader feel an emotion.

3. The impact of emotion on writers: notably, the negative effects of rejection; and

4. The role of emotion in general physical and mental health.

If you're a regular reader of this blog, you will have noticed that, whenever possible, I review books which cover these topics; and, as indicated at the head of this post, I have already dealt with the four topics at some length, in several stand-alone essays. The purpose of today's post is therefore to point you towards some of the material related to emotion which already exists on this blog, and to give you information about other sources of information which you might wish to pursue.

A central plank in the edifice which we are to construct today is Chapter 5 of my non-fiction book The Truth about Writing. And if you want a fairly quick and simple guide to everything that I've learnt about emotion and writing in the last fifty years, then you should read that chapter.

For months, if not years, I have been muttering about making available a free PDF copy of The Truth about Writing, and now, at last, I've done it. Click here for details. Chapter 5 begins on page 133.

In the meantime, here is a 5-minute guide to relevant posts on this blog and to outside sources of useful information.

1. The scientific study of emotion

Fortunately (or unfortunately), it has not proved too difficult or demanding for me to keep up with scientific research in the area of human emotion, because, for all practical purposes, there isn't any.

See my discussion of such data as are available beginning on page 143 of Truth. There I discuss Dylan Evans's book, Emotion: the Science of Sentiment. This is quite a short book, and it summarises what scientists have discovered about emotion in the last hundred years or so. (Precious little, it turns out.)

You will find that I also mention Candace Pert's book, The Molecules of Emotion, in which a genuine practitioner of 'hard' science (measuring things) tells us what she has discovered.

Another relevant book is Dylan Evans's Placebo, discussed here on 13 July 2004, in the course of a general discussion of the need for writers to produce emotion in an audience.

Why this paucity of scientific research, you may wonder. The answer is that emotion is hard to put under the microscope, hard to measure, and hard, even, to define. Since scientists build their reputations by doing experiments which produce hard data, which can then be replicated by other scientists, they soon realise that there is no professional future in the study of emotions, and they back off. The volume of research in this area, compared with almost anything else you care to mention, is tiny.

2. Fictional narrative technique

There is no better source of information on how to create emotion in the reader than Uzzell's Narrative Technique (mentioned above), if you can find it. Also good is his 1959 book, The Technique of the Novel. But you will find a handy summary of Uzzell's theories, plus my own take on how to put them into effect, in Chapter 5 of my book Truth, beginning on page 156.

There are, of course, numerous other books on writing techniques and I must have read at least a couple of hundred of them myself. But very few remain on my bookshelves. One that does is Albert Zuckerman's Writing the Blockbuster Novel; it's a much more subtle and thoughtful book than it sounds.

3. The impact of emotion on writers

My third area of interest is the impact of emotions on writers.

As the years passed, I gradually came round to the view that writing is a pretty dangerous business. And The Truth about Writing was mainly written to warn writers -- particularly young and naive writers -- about what they are letting themselves in for.

The first paragraph of the book reads as follows: 'Writing is an activity which can seriously damage your health. It can consume huge amounts of time and energy, and it can lead to frustration, rage, and bitterness. The overall purpose of this book is therefore to protect and preserve the sanity of anyone who is unfortunate enough to be afflicted with the ambition to write.'

And I was not kidding. If you want to understand how dangerous to your health writing can be, read my review of Sapolsky's Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers. And for a couple of cases where the pressures of the writing world proved fatal, read Ross and Tom 1, and the follow-up, Ross and Tom 2.

4. The role of emotion in general physical and mental health

Finally, the impact of emotion on physical and mental health in the population at large.

To get a feeling for that, you will need to dip into some of the books already mentioned: Dylan Evans on Emotion and Placebo; Candace Pert on The Molecules of Emotion; and Sapolsky, Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers.

But the best account (in my view) of how powerful emotions impact upon the mental and physical health of all individuals is, of course, Dr Sarno's book The Divided Mind, which I reviewed on 5 September.

Later note: If you are interested in learning more about Dr Sarno, there is now a wiki-type site which contains a great deal of useful information. In particular, it contains many first-hand reports by former pain sufferers who explain how Dr Sarno's ideas, and his practical suggestions for treatment, have helped them to feel better. I warmly recommend it. The web address is

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

More data

Gerald Sibleyras: Heroes

To the Theatre Royal, Bath, yestereve to see Gerald Sibleyras's play Heroes. This is the second play in succession by Sibleyras which has come to the TRB, the first being An Hour and a Half Late, discussed here on 18 September. And between the two of them, these plays present us with something of a mystery.

An Hour and a Half Late had a running-time, not surprisingly, of 90 minutes. Heroes was even shorter: 80 minutes. Now value for money in the theatre is not, of course, measured in terms of the time spent in one's seat. However, an 80 minute play, at £22 a seat, had better be pretty damn good -- scoring 8 or 9 out of 10 -- and Heroes does not achieve do that. It was worth about 4 out of 10.

Heroes is translated from the French by Tom Stoppard. Well that's nice work if you can get it, because he doubtless shares in the royalties, and I don't think he had much to do. We are faced with one set and three actors. The year is 1959 and the setting is a home for old soldiers. The three heroes of the title are World War I veterans (French, of course).

All three men have been severely damaged by the war. One has a tin leg; one still has shrapnel in his head, which causes him to black out at increasingly frequent intervals; and one, who at first appears the strongest, is in fact too terrified to go outside the gates of the home.

The old men sit and talk about this and that. One goes for a walk and meets a beautiful girl, to the envy of the others. They plan an expedition, to a line of poplars on a hill in the distance. But they never go, of course. And, er, that's about it.

There were a few modest laughs, and a few touches of pathos. But not much else.

And yet this play has met with huge praise from the London critics. 'A masterclass in wonderful acting [it was a different cast in London]... hilarious and moving... achingly funny and piercingly sad' -- Daily Telegraph. (Some other reviews are a bit more qualified.) It has also been nominated for various prizes in Paris.

So the mystery that one is presented with is this -- and it's the same mystery that one is faced with in the case of many a much-hyped novel -- how did these two rather thin and not very impressive plays ever get put on in the first place?

Any theatre's slush pile must contain a dozen or more similarly slight pieces. If the authors of such plays are very, very lucky, they might get put on in the upstairs room of a pub somewhere, and be watched by nineteen people including the man who works the lights. But in Sibleyras's case he gets full-blooded West End productions with stars.

In other word, Sibleyras is a man who has got what it takes. It may be that he knows, or is sleeping with, the right people. It may be that he has enough private capital to finance these things himself. What it is, precisely, that he has, I know not. I only know that I haven't got it. And neither, I suspect, dear Reader, do you.

Madame Arcati

Every time I visit Madame A, my mouth drops open at something or other. She covers an enormously wide showbiz field, including books, and even if some of it isn't new (e.g. Spencer Tracy was gay), some of it is (e.g. the exclusive on the McCartney breakup -- if you care).

Madame's latest missive (as of typing this) is an account of a new kind of fan fiction: a novel by Russ Tamblyn, entitled The King of Hollywood, and based (allegedly) at least partly on the life of Kevin Spacey -- so much so that the author splits the royalties with Mr Spacey; or tries to. (If that's actionable, officer, I'm only quoting Madame. OK?)

Details of the book (not that you'd want to read a novel about a gay movie star, naturally, but just in case you want, you know, to have a look) are found on the author's own web site.

Life in South Korea

Should you wish to know what life is like in Seoul and South Korea generally (and I cannot imagine why you should), then my son Jon is doing a pretty good job in his blog I'm a Seoul Man.

When to do research

Galleycat had a story last week about John Le Carre deciding to do a little fact-checking and background research after, rather than before, he wrote his novel. And before you start to snigger and feel smug about such an eccentric approach, just remember the advice of John Creasey.

Whether or not Creasey really was the most prolific novelist of all time is a matter that I happily leave to those who think records are important, but he certainly wrote several hundred. Creasey's view was, you should always do your research after writing the book.

His theory went like this. OK, so you're writing a novel about a coup in Africa, let's say. Well you know that such a revolution would involve tanks and men with guns, so you write about that. Then, later, to add a bit of verisimilitude, you do some research and discover that the tanks would most likely be Russian T54s (or whatever), and the guns would be Kalashnikovs.

The beauty of this method is that you know, before you start researching, exactly what information you need. So you don't waste time in reading up a lot of stuff that you never use.

Incidentally, Le Carre comes up with a peach of a quote from Hermann Goring at Nuremberg (1945):

Naturally, the common people don't want war... but after all it's the leaders of the country who determine the policy, and it's always a simple matter to drag the people along.... All you have to do is tell them they're being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism.... It works the same in every country.
Yes, it does. Ask George Bush and Tony Blair.

The latest teenage sensation

The Literary Saloon reports a story about an 11-year-old girl, Nancy YiFan, who got herself a world book deal (allegedly) simply by emailing her manuscript to the CEO of HarperCollins, Jane Friedman, in New York.

The Saloon has some doubts about the veracity of this story. I know, I know, I was shocked too. I had to take two asprins. But hey, this kid got it all wrong anyway. She should have emailed Aultbea.

The O'Beirne row rumbles on

Last week, in common with a lot of other bloggers and virtually every UK and Irish newspaper, I mentioned Kathy O'Beirne and her controversial memoir, which may or may not be 100% accurate.

Bookslut now leads me to quite a lengthy and thoughtful article in the Observer. There is now such a level of concern in the Irish Republic that there are calls for an independent inquiry. Given the complexities and bitterness of Irish politics and religion, I find it not at all surprising that, as I noted on Monday, some people are trying their best to stay out of this one. There will be blood on the streets before long.

The Book Bricks

Leon Jenner provides further proof that a writer can use the internet to do anything he damn well pleases. Leon has written what I take to be a novel, or long story, called Bricks, and he has made it available in the form of an audio book. You can find the links here.

A word of warning. On my computer, the Windows Media Stream wouldn't work, so I downloaded the whole file. This was not a problem for me, because I went off and had lunch while that was happening, but at 51 MB you might find that it chokes your system.

As for the book itself... Well, intriguing. I have no idea what it's about, but bricks are clearly involved.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

More press

Much Fleet Street ink has been expended on UK publishing's autumn programme, which not only features lots of big-time novelists (Thomas Harris, John Le Carre, John Grisham) but also lots of big-time celebrity biogs. Big-time, that is, in the sense that huge sums of money have (allegedly) been offered by way of inducement to the (nominal) authors.

Since many of the 'celebrities' who feature in this throw-money-at-the-problem scenario are scarcely widely known names even in the UK, I will not list too many of them here, but the Guardian provides some details. (Link from

Apparently the holy grail in celebrity biog business is the 'Bluewater factor' defined as the star who can bring into the bookshops people who wouldn't normally go anywhere near. Jade Goody is one, and Jordan is another.

The Guardian also tells a good story that I had not come across before, namely that, in Thackeray's Pendennis, there is a character called the Honorable Percy Popjoy, who fancies himself as a novelist but lacks the talent and the energy. So he recruits a ghost to do the job for him. Rather successfully, it turns out.

However, poor Percy falls foul of some literary snobs, who, knowing the true authorship of the novel, proceed to congratulate Percy on his skill in managing certain scenes -- scenes which do not, of course, occur within its pages at all.

How unkind some people are. I trust that no one did that kind of thing to poor Naomi Campbell, in relation to Swan -- although it is said that the 'author' did have considerable difficulty in remembering what the book was all about, and had to consult a one-page cribsheet when preparing for interviews.

Should you wish to read Swan (1996), you can buy a hardback via Amazon for £0.01, but I really wouldn't bother. It was ghosted by Caroline Upcher, who did a sound job, but the story wasn't very interesting unless you happen to be mad keen on the world of fashion.

Caroline Upcher, by the way, has multiple skills. She has worked as an editor in various publishing houses, and under her own name wrote Falling for Mr Wrong. But it is her work as 'Hope McIntyre' which is perhaps of most interest to readers of this blog.

Hope McIntyre's How to Seduce a Ghost is the story of a (female) ghost writer called Lee Bartholomew; it has been described as 'a ripe old yarn of murder and passion'. It reveals how a ghost writer has to struggle to make a screwy celebrity sound sane and wise, and it is, of course, pure fiction, and not remotely related to the Hope/Caroline's real-life experiences.

Speaking of ghosted books, here's one just begging to be written. Tucked away in the Public Agenda section of the Times is a story picked up from the Daily Mirror about a Bournemouth man who was arrested by the police for kerb-crawling. The police watched him pick up a prostitute. They they waited until he was parked in a secluded car park and finally arrested him in a 'compromising position'.

Nothing very unusual about that, except that this man is 95.

Let's see now: How to Have an Active Sex Life in Your Nineties -- a Sinner Reveals His Secrets. Or, Getting It On When You're Getting On. Or, Passion for Pensioners.

OK, so it it needs work. But there's a book there, dammit.

Tim Worstall, blogger and editor of 2005 Blogged, has a comment piece in the Times. It's all about giving money to the government. Apparently there are a few people who freely give money to the UK government, over and above what they have to pay in taxes: five of them, to be precise. Tim's point is that we should only pay attention to those who recommend higher taxes if they can show us their receipts for such voluntary gifts. Without such receipts, he suggests, we can safely ignore them.

Finally, this morning's Times has an article about barn owls, which apparently have had a terrible breeding season. A cold March was followed by a wet May, which killed off parent birds.

A spokesman for the Barn Owl Trust says that it's the worst year he's ever known, and he blamed it all on changing weather patterns caused by global warming.

At which point I sighed deeply. Not just because I have recently read Michael Crichton, but because I remember very well a conversation that I had in about 1963 or so.

I was driving along the A47 in East Anglia, in pouring rain, when I saw a man in RAF uniform by the side of the road, so I stopped and gave him a lift. We got to talking about the weather.

'It's the bomb,' said the RAF man firmly. By which he meant the atomic bomb, or its bigger cousin, the hydrogen bomb. 'All my mates in the RAF reckon that things have never been the same since we started testing.'

And it was true, of course, that in the years from 1945 onwards, several big nations had been testing their bombs: the Americans, the British, the French.

So, if tomorrow morning you draw back your bedroom curtains and find that it's pouring with rain, just remember this: it's all because of the bomb; or global warming; or global warming caused by the bomb; or some variation upon same as yet undiscovered.

There is no possibility whatever -- none at all, and you should clear your minds of the very idea -- that it might just be raining.

Monday, September 25, 2006

The weekend press

I remarked here not so long ago that I can sometimes go through the books sections of the Saturday Times and the Sunday Times in about three minutes flat, without finding anything of the slightest interest. This last weekend, however, things were different.

More on Kathy O'Beirne

The news section of Saturday's Times carried a further article about Kathy O'Beirne (see last Thursday's post).

Incidentally, I note that the online version of this story has a different heading and is considerably shorter than the print version which reached me on Saturday a.m. Now I wonder why that should be? In any event, that being so I will reproduce here some of the quotes which didn't make it into the online version.

The print version of the story says that O'Beirne claims to have documentary evidence proving the truth of her story, but, when asked to produce it, refused. She has, however, prepared a follow-up book to Don't Ever Tell, called The Aftermath: Who am I?; this will, she says, vindicate her.

A spokesman for Mainstream, which is 50% owned by Random House and which published the first book, said that although no contract for book two had been signed 'we would love to do it.' Mainstream also add their opinion that the current uproar 'is a family dispute which we don't want to get involved in.'

On some databases, e.g., Michael Sheridan is listed as a co-author (presumably ghost). He is quoted in the Times as saying that O'Beirne's family is 'a time bomb', and that he found O'Beirne to be a very reliable witness. 'What went on in that house was worse than it was portrayed in the book,' he said.

There is a photo of O'Beirne in the print version, and to be quite frank she looks a bit of a bruiser. Furthermore, I get the distinct impression that some people would not care (a) to cross her and (be) to meet her in a blind alley at midnight. Says the Times: 'Experts on the dark past of Ireland's religious institutions said that they did not wish to be caught up in the controversy. "My instinct was to give her a reasonably wide berth," said one researcher, who did not wish to be named.'

Perhaps you, like me, had done a bit of arithmetic and had noted that out of a family of nine, seven had spoken out against sister Kathy, and one hadn't. In that case, you might like to know that Kathy O'Beirne has a brother, Joseph, who claims that he too was beaten and abused as a child and is writing a book about it.

To cap it all, O'Beirne says that she has not seen any money from her book. 'Most of the advance I gave away to charity. I haven't got a pot to pee in.'

Well, it's all part of life's rich tapestry, isn't it?

The Dangerous Book for Boys

The Times has a chart for the top 10 sellers in independent bookshops, and number two this week is The Dangerous Book for Boys, by C. Iggulden and H. Iggulden. I haven't had chance to have a really close look at it, but a quick shufti revealed that it is a sort of anthology of all sorts of bits and pieces, including -- now hold your breath, please -- including several chapters on grammar!

Yes, and I think I was sober when I looked at it too.

Authors' Licensing and Collecting Society

Here in the UK we have a body (the ALCS) which collects, and annually distributes to authors, fees which are charged in respect of photocopies made of journal articles and books. (Various other sources of income are involved too, including I believe repeats of old TV shows and the like.) For instance, I will shortly be getting £43 paid into my bank account.

But American authors, and, I presume, other non-Brits, will not be so lucky. This is bad news for the estate of F. Scott Fitzgerald, because The Great Gatsby is, according to Nicholas Clee in the Times, via the ALCS, Britain's most photocopied novel.

Somebody, in fact loads of people, must be teaching it. God help us all, I feel inclined to add. Is there really any benefit in large numbers of students writing essays on such stuff? Is there no better way for them to occupy their time?

Amanda Craig gets it right

I don't usually read Amanda Craig's regular Saturday Times column about children's books, but a subliminal glimpse of something provoked me to do so this week. And I'm glad I did.

Auntie Amanda points out that, these days, well over three quarters of children's books are fantasy, and that, unlike most critics, she is an unabashed fan of that genre. 'Which makes me,' she says, 'all the angrier at the bad stuff being published.'

She goes on to single out for a thoroughly deserved kicking the latest over-rated output of G.P. Taylor. Taylor, you may recall, is an English clergyman who self-published a novel called Shadowmancer, which he parlayed into a decent seller and then got a contract with Faber.

Amanda Craig's verdict: 'I am appalled at the way this author has managed to rise on a minimum of talent and a maximum of self-publicising stunts.'

Well, as a general principle I try not to begrudge any writer any degree of success, however small, but in this case the bandwagon is rolling with such momentum that nothing I say will make the slightest difference. So I can safely declare that I tend to agree with Auntie Amanda.

I tried Shadowmancer when it first came out and very soon gave up. It just didn't work. How G.P. Taylor got taken up by Faber is one of life's great mysteries; but then Faber always was an arse and elbow company.

A global crisis

Now to the Sunday Times, the books section of which leads with an important review by William Dalrymple, who is a historian with a substantial reputation. If you are remotely interested in the future of western civilisation, you really ought to read this article.

Dalrymple reviews two books, the first of which is Celsius 7/7 by Michael Gove. This, it turns out, is a more or less worthless book, written by a self-proclaimed expert on Islamic affairs, and Dalrymple performs an elegant demolition job. Here are a few quotes:

These days it is generally agreed that it is better to be familiar with a subject before proclaiming yourself an authority: plumbers have usually looked at a number of sinks before trying to fix blocked pipes; lawyers have to have a degree in law before entering a court. The exception to this rule appears to be the study of Islam. Since 9/11, hundreds of self-proclaimed experts have held forth on the errors of the Muslim world, and produced instant solutions to its problems, many of them lacking even a passing acquaintance with the subject....

A prominent example of the sort of pundit who has spoon-fed neocon mythologies to the British public for the past few years is Michael Gove. Gove has never lived in the Middle East, indeed has barely set foot in a Muslim country. He has little knowledge of Islamic history, theology or culture -- in Celsius 7/7, he just takes the line of Bernard Lewis on these matters; nor does he speak any Islamic language. None of this, however, has prevented his being billed, on his book's dust-jacket, as 'one of Britain's leading writers and thinkers on terrorism.'

And so on. Gove, it turns out, now sits on the Conservative shadow cabinet and is said to influence his party's policy. Worse still, his dreadful book was named by British MPs as the one most taken on their summer holidays.

What was that I just said about God and help, a few moments ago? 'Blair was bad enough,' says Dalrymple, 'the blind leading the blind; now it seems the madmen are taking over the asylum.' We also learn, without much surprise but with deepening gloom, that long after invading Iraq Bush was still unaware that there was a distinction between Sunnis and Shi'ites. And according to the 9/11 report, only 17 students graduated in Arabic from American universities in 2002.

The article is illustrated, in the print version but not online, with a photograph of Gove which was presumably supplied by the publisher. I can only say that, to my eye, even before I read the article, I had concluded that the picture made him look like a complete idiot. One of the worst kinds of nerd.

The other book reviewed by Dalrymple is The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda's Road to 9/11, by Lawrence Wright. Unlike Gove, Wright is a man who has actually done some 'diligent and painstaking research on the ground in Pakistan, Egypt, Iraq and the Gulf.' Wright is, it seems, a New Yorker staff writer.

New Pratchett

An advert alerts me to the fact that Terry Pratchett has a new Discworld book out: Wintersmith. This is, strictly speaking, a children's book (12 and over), but it features Tiffany Aching and the Nac Mac Feegle, whom I thoroughly enjoyed on previous acquaintance, so I shall certainly be reading this. W.H. Smith are selling it for £9.99 in shops, £8.99 online. And whatever reservations you may have about UK book-pricing policy, you've got to admit that that is bloody good value for money.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Friday again -- where does the time go?

Cory Doctorow on copyright

It is a circumstance more than once remarked upon here that the best indicator of a truly amateur (and probably truly awful ) writer is a manuscript which bears on the cover, in large letters, a statement along the following lines: PROTECTED BY COPYRIGHT THROUGHOUT THE ENTIRE KNOWN UNIVERSE AND IN ANY UNIVERSE WHICH MAY HEREAFTER BE DISCOVERED. YOU ARE ALLOWED TO READ WORK THIS ONLY WITH MY WRITTEN PERMISSION. YOU CAN'T PHOTOCOPY IT. AND IF YOU TRY TO POST IT ON THE INTERNET I WILL SEND MY AUNTIE MILDRED ROUND TO DUFF YOU UP. AND THEN YOU'LL BE SORRY. Or words to that effect.

That situation arises because there are very few people around with any common sense, and even fewer who combine common sense with a knowledge of copyright law. Cory Doctorow is one of the few who have both, and you can read his latest essay on the subject in Locus.

Meanwhile, there's some more common sense on the question of copyright in music from Valleywag. (Link from the Creative Commons blog.)

Simon Jenkins's new book

Simon Jenkins (actually he's Sir Simon, having been knighted in 2004) is one of my favourite journalists. He's a former editor of the Times, which is about as distinguished as you can get in journalism, and until recently he used to write fairly regular think-pieces for the Times, though I gather he is now officially signed up to the Guardian.

Jenkins is also the author of quite a few books, such as England's Thousand Best Churches. And his latest is due out from Penguin (Allen Lane) in October. Its title is Thatcher and Sons: a Revolution in Three Acts.

Here's a snatch of the advance publicity:

[Mrs Thatcher's] premiership transformed not just her country, but the nature of democratic leadership. By 2006, Britain was the most heavily regulated country in the non-socialist world, with every aspect of public activity relentlessly audited, and power more rigorously centralized than in any other mature democracy. The great instrument of centralization and audit was the Treasury, whose Thatcherite policies were carried to their apogee by the most controlling Chancellor of modern times, Gordon Brown.

Pithy, passionate and polemical, Simon Jenkins's book explains how we have come to be where we are - prosperous but perplexed, economically liberated and spoilt for 'choice', but less and less equal, infantilized by targets, overwhelmed by bureaucracy and frustrated by a politics which values spin over substance.

Yup. Sounds about right to me.

I shall be surprised if Jenkins's book isn't serialised somewhere, shortly before publication.

A bad day at the office

M.J. Rose, at Buzz, Balls & Hype, points to a short cartoon on YouTube and suggests that yes, some days the business of being a writer does feel like that.

What's this with the 'some days' though, M.J.? It's surely every day.

Also on YouTube

While you're hanging around YouTube, with all those asbos and hoodies, you might do well to look at something with a bit of culcha. Try the witty and really very interesting 'TV programme' about the typeface Cooper Black. (Link from Mr Maud at Maud Newton.)

Hanging is too good for them

Yesterday Blogger was being a real pain again, losing half an hour's work for me, and I sat there muttering how one day I would swing for that bloody Blogger.

And that got me to thinking, or rather wondering, how many of the modern generation understand the origins of that expression, 'I'll swing for' something?

At the risk of stating the obvious, it derives from the old English practice of hanging criminals from the neck until dead.

And that got me thinking about hanging in general. I was led, naturally, to remember the most famous English hangman of them all, Albert Pierrepoint, but I wrote about him not so long ago, so I won't repeat that here.

And the next thought, in this idle chain of linkages, was my memory of what Bernard Levin had to say about a famous hanging judge, Lord Goddard, who ended his career as the Lord Chief Justice.

Almost immediately after Goddard's death, Levin wrote an article about Goddard which was a pretty brutal denunciation of the man. So far I have not been able to trace an online copy of the article, but there are plenty of web references to it. It appeared in 1971, and I haven't read it since, but my memory tells me that Levin accused the Judge of deriving sadistic pleasure from sentencing a man to death. He also reported that the Judge liked nothing better than a dirty story, the coarser the better, and that his taste in stories was for those in which women were demeaned and humiliated.

Anyway, whatever the details, the Levin article enraged the legal establishment, and soon afterwards, when Levin applied to join the Garrick Club, he was blackballed. (For an explanation of blackballed, see here.)

Low Winter Sun

These days I am hard put to find anything that I really want to watch on television, so I tend to study the printed programme rather carefully. Yesterday I noticed that the Times thought that there was some terrific acting on show in Low Winter Sun, so I gave it a try -- Channel 4, 9 p.m.

Wow. LWS is a modern crime drama, set in Edinburgh, and it carries a warning at the beginning about violence and strong language, both fully justified. However, this is not sensation for the sake of sensation.

It turned out that I was watching part II of a two-part drama. What with that, the thick Scottish accents, and me being deaf, I was not able to absorb the finer points of the plot -- but never mind, it was gripping throughout.

What we have here is absolutely top class UK TV drama. I have the impression that Channel 4 have been getting a bit of stick recently, but they've redeemed themselves with this one; though I see that it was made by the indie company Tiger Aspect in association with BBC America, whatever that is. I gather it means that LWS will end up on American screens.

Chief plaudits must go to the actors, particularly Mark Strong. He was in The Long Firm, you may recall, and as a friend of mine (now dead, alas) said at the time, when he's on the screen you can't take your eyes off him. Another eye-grabber is Neve McIntosh, who was in Bodies; and John Sessions, playing an unusual role for him. And so on.

The photography and direction are as good as you will see, and the writing, by Simon Donald, was of course excellent, otherwise the whole thing would never have held together.

You can get Low Winter Sun on DVD, or you can watch/record it in the UK on More 4, from 9.15 p.m. to just after midnight, tomorrow, Saturday 23 September.

Unremarked bestsellers

The Guardian publishes a light-hearted reminder that the books which sell best, year in and year out, are the ones with a low profile that most people ignore, take for granted, or never even know about. (Link from

Fractured Veil

Gregory Connors has published his novel Fractured Veil on Lulu, where you can find a brief description of it. There is also a substantial chunk available as a preview, so you can make your own mind up, and there is a lot more on Gregory's blog.

This novel is not one that I personally can feel wildly enthusiastic about, but the last time I said that about a similar book it got noticed by a New York publisher, who bought the rights, so there you go.

The origin of speech

There's a new blog on the block about the origins of speech. This is an academic subject, but it is, perhaps, more interesting than it sounds, and it might not be a bad idea for writers to have some idea of what the scholars are thinking.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Another secret life

Kathy O'Beirne (see yesterday) seems to have invented a life for herself, and a deeply troubled one at that. But some writers invent a new and false personality for themselves. And it can also be deeply troubling to have the truth about that exposed.

James Tiptree Jr was a successful science-fiction writer in the 1970s and '80s. Most of the Tiptree books are collections of short stories, and Smoke Rose Up Forever is the reportedly the best selection; but there were also two novels: Up the Walls of the World and Brightness Falls from the Air.

James Tiptree, however, had a secret. In 1970 he wrote: 'I have what every child wants, a real secret life… not a bite-the-capsule-when-they-get-you secret, nobody else’s damn secret but mine.' And that secret was, James Tiptree was a woman.

The author's real name was Alice B. Sheldon, and now Julie Phillips has written a biography of her: James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon. It's been getting some rave reviews.

Alice was born in 1915. Her father was an explorer, who took her to Africa when she was six, and her mother was a writer. At 19, Alice married a poet, but he had a habit of shooting at her when drunk, so she dumped him.

Later, Alice served in the women's Army Corps during World War II, married a man called Huntington Sheldon, and worked for the CIA. She also got a PhD in psychology.

As for her own psychology, Alice declared: 'I like some men a lot, but from the start, before I knew anything, it was always girls and women who lit me up.' Her biographer tells us that Alice knew full well that she was a lesbian, but doubts that she ever had the nerve to have an affair.

Well, maybe so. But I like to think that a woman who had served in the armed forces and worked for the CIA probably had rather more nerve, and more secrets, than Julie Phillips thinks.

Certainly the revelation of the true identity of James Tiptree seems to have upset Alice B. Sheldon more than might reasonably be expected. She had to go on medication.

This story does not have a happy ending. Or maybe it does, depending on your temperament. Alice seems to have been deeply shaken by the revelation of her James Tiptree persona, and it is said that she never really recovered. And in 1987, when her she and her husband were both suffering from debilitating illness, she shot him and then herself.

How the other half lives

From where I sit, it looks as though the majority of people who read this blog are writers. Well, that's not surprising really, because everyone has one novel in them, don't they? That's what I was told as a lad, anyway.

But have you ever considered how it feels to be one of the others -- one of those people who has to read the writers' output, and decide whether it is suitable for their firm/magazine?

Apparently it isn't always a lot of fun. Or so Edgar Harris says. And it's less fun in the field of science fiction than in most others.

Edgar's report is not new, by any means -- it dates from 2002 -- but he gives an account of how the New York gang of SF editors was then organising a slush-pile bonfire day, when they would commit to the flames any number of hideous (in their eyes only, you understand) manuscripts of one sort or another.

Opinions of this enterprise will doubtless vary, but I thought it quite amusing myself.

Paul Riddell (link from Locus) was reminded of slush-pile day by the announcement of the Sobol prize. He reckons that the prize might justify a slush-pile bonfire all of its own. He is obviously a man of very little faith. And actually -- ahem -- as I recall, the Sobol prize doesn't involve paper submissions at all -- it's all gotta be digital, baby.

Meanwhile, over at the Kenyon Review, David Lynn has some slightly more serious comments to make about the difficulties of judging the slush-pile submissions.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

The truth about Kathy O'Beirne

Yesterday I gave notice (based on a report in the Times, of course) that the family of Kathy O'Beirne were about to reveal that her autobiography (Don't Ever Tell in the UK) was less than accurate.

Today the Times has a fuller report of the press conference held in Dublin by the O'Beirne family. Seven of Kathy's brothers and sisters turned up to give a fairly comprehensive demolition of virtually all of Kathy's horror stories.

In the book, O’Beirne says that she suffered abuse during nearly 14 years spent in Magdalene laundries — institutions for 'fallen women' run by religious orders. Mary O’Beirne said: 'Our sister was not in a Magdalene laundry, or Magdalene home; she was in St Anne’s children’s home, Kilmacud, St Loman’s psychiatric hospital, Mountjoy prison and Sherrard House for homeless people. Our parents placed her in St Anne’s for a brief period when she was 11 because of ongoing behavioural difficulties.' She spent six weeks there.

She added that between 1968 and 1970, when O’Beirne claims to have suffered the worst of the abuse, she was in fact staying with them....

'Our sister, to our knowledge, was not raped by two priests, and did not receive an out-of-court settlement for the same. There is not a shred of evidence to support such outlandish claims.'

Kathy O'Beirne, apparently, 'has a self-admitted psychiatric and criminal history, and her perception of reality has always been flawed.'

The family are not over-impressed with the behaviour of the book's publishers (Mainstream). And certainly you would think that ordinary professional caution -- especially in view of recent events -- might have prompted the publisher to carry out some checks.

On that issue the publisher provides no details, though the Times quotes Mainstream as saying that it had taken steps prior to the publication of Don't Ever Tell and was satisfied that the memoir was appropriate for publication.

Before long they might be forced to be a little more forthcoming than that. Meanwhile, as of when this post was written, the book is still featured on the Mainstream web site. And they quote the following from She magazine: 'Her story is so horrific, it's almost unbelievable.'

Plugging your book

If you have a book to plug, and you live in the UK -- or even if you live elsewhere -- one site to keep an eye on is the UK publishers publicity circle (PPC). This, as its name suggests, is a group of professional publicists who meet together (in real life, face to face) on a monthly basis and have a discussion based on input from editors of magazines and the like who might be interested in featuring books.

The PPP web site is open to non-members and you can find quite a lot of useful information there. Usually, for instance, there is a summary of the information which was passed on at the last meeting; and there is an archive of such summaries.

In July the PPC discussed literary web sites, and if you go to the summary page you can find guidance on what the editors/bosses of half a dozen such sites might be interested in. Mostly, of course, they are looking for input from the big trade houses, and big names to interview or feature. However, clever publicity seekers who can work out an angle might well strike lucky.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Funny I mentioned that

Only yesterday I drew attention to the large sales in the UK which are generated by non-fiction books about people having a thoroughly miserable time. One of the books mentioned was Don't Ever Tell, by Kathy O'Beirne.

Kathy O'Beirne's book is an autobiography, and it describes how she was beaten by her father and sexually abused by two boys from the age of 5 before being sent away to an institution. She claims that at the age of 10 she was repeatedly raped by a priest and whipped by nuns. Later she was forced to take drugs in a mental institution.

All of this happened in Ireland, of course, in case you're in any doubt. And in Ireland the book is titled Kathy’s Story: a Childhood Hell in the Magdalene Laundries.

Don't Ever Tell has so far shifted 350,000 copies, which is a huge total in the UK market. There are 15 readers' reviews on Amazon, and they all give it five stars. But there is, it seems, a small problem.

Today's Times reports that doubts have been expressed, shall we say, as to whether the story is entirely accurate. The first organisation to challenge the account was the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity, one of four religious orders which ran the Magdalene laundries (institutions for young women who were seen to be in moral danger). The sisters said that they invited an independent archivist to study their files after nobody could remember Kathy O’Beirne. And no record has turned up of her actually being in such an institution.

Now, says the Times, her own family is about to dispute her story. Five of her brothers and sisters plan to hold a press conference in Dublin today. O’Beirne’s older brother, Oliver, 52, has told an Irish newspaper: 'I read the book and I can’t figure out where she is coming from. My father was a good man. There are nine kids in the family and she is the only one who has any stories of abuse.' Adding that she did not have a good relationship with her family, he said: 'I think she needs help.'

Hmm? What's that I hear you say? Frey? James Frey?

Never heard of him.

Michael Crichton: State of Fear

Do you lie awake at night, worrying about global warming? Do you think our weather is deteriorating? Are you convinced that sea levels are going to rise and wash away London and New York? If so, perhaps you ought to read Michael Crichton's novel State of Fear, and then you might feel a bit better.

Michael Crichton has a distinguished academic background. He obtained his first degree, in anthropology, at Harvard, and later qualified in medicine at the Harvard Medical School. He then did post-doctoral fellowship study at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies. This strong scientific background is reflected in everything he writes.

State of Fear is, by my count, his fourteenth novel under his own name, and his books have been extremely successful since the beginning. His first novel, The Andromeda Strain, was a considerable success and was filmed. His most famous book is perhaps Jurassic Park. He has also written and directed movies; and he created the TV series ER.

Crichton's genre is, I suppose, the techno-thriller, though you could equally well call most of his books science fiction. The precise description doesn't matter: the point is, he knows how to write popular fiction which grips the imagination.

Judged as a thriller, State of Fear is, in my opinion, pretty run of the mill. Indeed in places I found it positively banal and almost inadvertently comic. The big surprise which is brought out at the end has been obvious for some 300 pages.

True, Crichton is exceptionally good at putting his good guys into desperate peril and then describing how they get out of it; but in this book Crichton was not, I suspect, particularly interested in the thriller framework, which is why the writing is, overall, somewhat less than distinguished.

What Crichton really wanted to write about was what is generally referred to as global warming. And he probably thought long and hard before writing about this topic in a fictional context at all. (He had previously written four non-fiction books. Consider, for instance, Five Patients, in which Crichton expresses some pretty robust views about doctors.)

I hesitate to condense Crichton's opinions on global warming into one sentence. He has, after all, given us a 567-page novel on that theme, plus an author's message and three appendices, including a lengthy annotated bibliography. However, I think it is fair to say that he believes that there is more nonsense talked about global warming than about any other scientific topic in the modern era. Time after time in State of Fear he quotes data which demonstrate that most newspaper reports, and virtually all television programmes, which make reference to global warming, are based on thoroughly half-baked and only dimly understood science.

In his author's message, Crichton tells us that he spent three years on reading environmental texts. The difference between Crichton and me, and, I imagine, most other readers of this blog, is that Crichton can go back to the original scientific research, as published in the most reputable academic journals, and read the papers with a critical eye.

As a result, State of Fear was much more interesting, to me, for the quotations from the academic literature than it was as a thriller. Just to give a few brief examples:

Did you know that, at West Point in New York, there has been no change in the average temperature over the last 174 years? In Punta Arenas, the city closest to Antarctica, the average temperature has fallen by about 0.6 degrees C between 1888 and 2004. In Antarctica itself, there is one small peninsula which is melting and calving huge icebergs. It's been melting for the last 6,000 years, and as a result the sea levels have indeed been rising: they've risen by four to eight inches every hundred years. But the rest of Antarctica is getting colder, and the ice is getting thicker.

Crichton is really much more interested in considering these data than he is in driving along his thriller. As a result, there are times when the characters simply stop the action and make speeches to each other. One of the speeches which caught my eye was that of the character (not a thousand miles from Crichton himself, perhaps) who bitterly criticises modern universities.
The universities transformed themselves in the 1980s. Formerly bastions of intellectual freedom... they now became the most restrictive environments in modern society.... Universities today are factories of fear. They invent all the new terrors and all the new social anxieties. All the new restrictive codes. Words you can't say. Thoughts you can't think.... Foods that are bad for you. Behaviours that are unacceptable. Can't smoke, can't swear, can't screw, can't think. These institutions have been stood on their heads in a generation.
Over the years, Crichton has spent a great deal of time in Hollywood, and he has clearly had his fill of big-time stars and celebrities who latch on to the latest fad in order to demonstrate their concern for society at large. In this book, Crichton gets his revenge: the principal Hollywood asshole gets eaten by cannibals.

For my part, what little I know about global warming is derived from the very sources that Crichton so deeply despises: the better-class newspapers and magazines. However, I have never been convinced by arguments that our environment is deteriorating because of carbon emissions. And in any case, even if I was so convinced, I think I would also take the view that it's going to be very difficult to do anything about it.

If you read The World is Flat, you will discover that the developing nations, such as India and China, are fast acquiring their own affluent middle class. So pretty soon the global-warming brigade are going to have to say to these people something along the following lines: Sorry, boys. We in the west have all got our motor cars and fridges and air conditioning and central heating, but you can't have all those things because it will destroy the environment.

Somehow I don't think that's going to play very well in downtown Beijing.

And another thing. If we're talking about the earth's atmosphere, for example, perhaps we ought to remember that the earth is currently on its third atmosphere anyway. (The first two didn't last.) And perhaps we ought to remember that, for the last 700,000 years, the planet has been in a geological ice age, characterised by advancing and retreating glacial ice.

'No one,' says Crichton, 'is entirely sure why, but ice now covers the planet every hundred thousand years, with smaller advances every twenty thousand or so. The last advance was twenty thousand years ago, so we're due for the next one.'

To read more of what Crichton has to say on environmentalism, read his 2003 speech to the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Accumulated data

In no particular order.

Lemony Snicket interview

The Book Standard has an interview with Daniel Handler, who is evidently responsible for the series of books by 'Lemony Snicket', with the overall title A Series of Unfortunate Events. I have never read any of the books, but I have seen the movie, which was absolutely wonderful.

Booker shortlist

If you care, the Booker shortlist has been announced, and Sarah Waters is on it. The Night Watch is easily the weakest of her books, but the Booker being the silly affair it is, Sarah might well win. At 5/1 she was not a bad bet, but the odds have now shortened to 2/1.

Carl Hiaasen

Carl Hiaasen has a new book out. I think I've read all the others, and I look forward to this one.

French author slams Brits

A French author has written a book describing the British as a nation of 'vulgar, aggressive, unprincipled, consumerist zombies'. Yup, sounds about right. We don't like the Frogs much either. (Link from

Two more for the optimists

British publishing seems to be going through another of its periodic fits of throwing money at authors, and these two examples will appeal to those of you who believe that you are about to win the lottery. (Excuse me while I snigger.)

Diane Setterfield was paid (allegedly) £800,000 by Orion and over $1 million from a US firm.

And this morning's Times has the story of William Petre, who survived 50 rejections (only 50?) and ended up with a contract for (allegedly) £165,000.

Romantic fiction on the box

Starting tonight (Monday 18 September), Daisy Goodwin is presenting a series of four TV documentaries which constitute a defence of romantic fiction. Showing on BBC 4, the series is rightly generating some advance publicity. Last week's Telegraph had a lively discussion of whether men can write convincingly about women (and anybody who thinks that Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary prove that they can is on very weak ground indeed). And then Daisy Goodwin herself had a good few column inches in the Sunday Times.

How to sell 20 million books

You want to sell 20 million books or so? It's really quite easy. Janet Evanovich tells you how: you just spend ten years collecting a crate full of rejection slips and then you get the hang of it.

Hmm... I don't think so

Publishers Lunch last week mentioned the Sobol Award, which offers (reportedly) a prize of $100,000 for an unpublished novel, plus nine other prizes. One snag: an $85 entry fee, which apparently means (I haven't used a calculator myself) that only 1,700 entries will cover the prizes and they are expecting 50,000 entries. The organiser of the Sobol Award is Sobol Literary Enterprises, an agency (apparently) which will represent the winners.

Lunch points out that 'the likes of blogging agent Miss Snark and the Preditors & Editors web site have raised warning flags. Aside from the fees, objections include the requirement that contestants agree to have their entries represented by the Sobol Agency in order to be considered as a finalist. Miss Snark notes: "This literary agency as far as I can tell has no sales."'
And she, I think, would know.

Gloom and doom

A few months ago I commented on the fact that the UK non-fiction bestseller list contained a large proportion of books about children being abused or mistreated in some way. Well, the trend for gloom and doom continues.

The current paperback non-fiction bestseller list features the following:

Rock Me Gently/Judith Kelly: controversial memoir of a miserable upbringing in a Catholic orphanage.
Call Me Elizabeth/Dawn Annandale: How a woman was forced to turn to prostitution to make ends meet.
Don't Ever Tell/Kathy O'Beirne: The horrors of a childhood spent in the infamous Magdalen laundries.
Little Girl Lost/Barbie Probert-Wright with Jean Ritchie: Tale of sisters fleeing war-torn Germany.
God's Callgirl/Carla van Raay: Story of a nun who escaped the convent only to fall into a life of prostitution.

Was is always like this, or have I only just noticed?

Gerald Sibleyras

Gerald Sibleyras is, it would appear, a successful French playwright, in the boulevard comedy tradition, and he is currently having a little bit of a flurry in the UK. His play An Hour and a Half Late is currently touring, starring Mel Smith, and Heroes has recently won the 2006 Olivier award for best new comedy.

Mrs GOB and I saw An Hour and a Half Late at the Theatre Royal, Bath, last Saturday. It's a modestly entertaining piece, aimed firmly at the 50-plus audience. A middle-aged couple sit and discuss, for 90 minutes, where their marriage has been and where it's going. More entertaining, perhaps, than it sounds, but not a world-beater by any means.

Tao Lin returns

Tao Lin's sixth book is now available at the Bear Parade. Entitled Today the Sky is Blue and White, it is certainly a bit different from the average run of things.


Void magazine is apparently interested in literary postmodernism, and it's not without a sense of humour.

Tonto Press

I'd forgotten Tonto Press, though I have, I'm sure, mentioned it before. Anyway, Tonto is a UK-based small press which has been running a competition for new novelists. Some 400 submissions have been reduced to eight.

Song poems for the 21st century

Martin Rundkvist did some research into the musical equivalent of the 'get your book published now' market and came up with some stuff about a blind man's penis. (Always remember: I don't make this stuff up; I just report it.)

You think you have a hard time?

James Paul Long sent me this link to a story about a bookseller cum publisher whose warehouse was bombed in Iraq.


The authors of Institutionalized have set up a new web site to plug the book. Rather to my surprise, since the book is a bit of a spoof in general, and ditto the web site, some of the readers' recommendations are from real people. Or, let's put it this way: there is a real David Weinberger, and there is a real Uncle Phil.

Hook me

If you're thinking of writing a novel, Lynne Scanlon has some advice on how to hook the reader, and the importance of same.

Kenyon Review

The Kenyon Review (literary, of course, as its name suggests) is open for submissions again. The editor points out that last year, two out of a total of twenty short stories that received the prestigious O. Henry Prize were first published in KR. Both came from the slush pile.

Twin authors

An anonymous commenter points out that twin brothers, Jyoti and Suresh Guptara (currently 17 years old) are publishing Conspiracy of Calaspia, which is part 1 of their epic fantasy series Insanity.

These two might just be worth keeping an eye on. They already have some impressive endorsements, e.g. from Richard Adams (Watership Down) and other published writers. Publication is to be in Switzerland (where they live), India, and the UK. The UK publisher is, er, Aultbea. Well, we all have to start somewhere.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Pause in posts

There will be no further posts on this blog until Monday 18 September. However, before I depart, here are a few brief items.

Madame Arcati, fast becoming a must-read, continues to put up extraordinary stuff, including a 7 September pen-portrait of a Sunday Times man. (I'm not even going to mention his name. Or his job.) I just hope Madame has a good lawyer.

Next, a brief word about Waiting for Godot. Just over a year ago, I mentioned that Mrs GOB and I had been to see Sir Peter Hall's production of this Beckett piece at the Theatre Royal, Bath. Well, this year Sir Peter brought the play back again, with the same cast.

Last year we saw the very first performance of this production, and I commented at the time that the cast would, in due course, get a lot more out of the text, particularly in relation to the humour. This year we saw almost the last performance in the run, and there is no doubt that much had been achieved. I would say that the overall effect was nearly 100% better.

Sadly, the run has now finished, but I suppose it's just possible that the same cast might appear in it somewhere else. Definitely worth seeing if they do.

Waterstone's used to borrow Amazon facilities for their online presence, through the simple expedient of putting Waterstone's at the top of the page instead of Amazon. Now, however, they've decided to do their own thing.

I think I commented a while back that this seemed a very ambitious scheme, and one which would require a considerable investment of time and effort. The new online presence is now available for business, but it's going to be some time, in my opinion, before Amazon need to worry.

I started, as I normally do with Amazon, with the advanced-search page, and immediately Waterstone's facility proves to be inferior. There is no way, for example, to search for books published by a particular publisher in a given year. The keyword search doesn't help either: type HarperCollins into the key word box and you get 137 results -- only a fraction of HC's output.

If you do manage to locate a book, e.g. my own How and why Lisa's Dad got to be famous, you get no cover picture, although Nielsen Bookdata certainly have one, no facility for readers' comments, and no obvious way for the publisher or author to add an extract. Things, presumably, can only get better.

Oh, and if you're used to whacking return after you've entered your search data (in advanced search), you'd better unlearn that habit fast. Here you have to mouse-click on Submit. Really useful.

Finally, several bloggers (the first I saw was Galleycat) have drawn attention to an article in the Bookseller. Here Alex Peake-Tomkinson describes the endless joys of working as a work-experience girl and editorial assistant in more than one UK big-time publisher over a three-year period. The first job she was given, naturally, was to read the slush pile.

Don't miss this one; it's is a real peach, believe me.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Friday fryup

Madame Arcati lives

Madame Arcati not only lives, she blogs. (The original madame, you will recall, was created by Noel Coward in Blithe Spirit.) She pursues, it says at the top of the blog, copy-lifters. Which presumably means that there is no Creative Commons licence here. Or is it an obscure reference to gay men in the newspaper business?

Anyway, Madame has been having some correspondence with Bookworm of Private Eye (5 September). It's a bit inconclusive. She had a go at him/her, he/she had a go back.

Actually that's just about the least interesting post on the blog. Whoever Madame may be, she's bloody well informed (did you know that Brigitte Nielsen used to have holidays on the island of Thudufushi in the Maldives?). She obviously gets around a bit, has apallingly vulgar taste (much like my own, although I didn't actually watch Charlotte Church's new chat show because it was past my bedtime), and she either reads all the show-business trade mags and press releases or gets first-hand reports in the bar. This is seriously interesting stuff.

My only crit: some paragraphs are much too long, and we could do with spaces between all of them.

The Sound of Meat

Randall Radic is an American, currently resident in north California, and he is, or was, a priest of the Old Catholic Church. This is a church which does not, it seems, require its priests to be unmarried or celibate, and Randall is neither. He also has a somewhat unorthodox history, for a priest, in that he sold an actual church building, which he did not own, and was sentenced to a 16-month jail sentence as a result.

Randall writes. He has a blog, on which he spends quite a lot of time discussing such topics as writers who committed suicide, and he is the author of several books. The religious works are, or were, published under the name Maximus Confessor, but only one is currently listed on And -- this, at last, is the point -- he has written an autobiography called The Sound of Meat.

The Sound of Meat is available in ebook form only, as yet, and it's published by a UK firm, Cool Publications. And there's more about the man and his book on his own web site.

Nowhere, however, (nowhere that I've found anyway) is there an opportunity to read a sample chapter of this book, which is a pity, because I think it unlikely that many people are going to shell out even £4.99 for an ebook without getting a sniff of it first.

Well, I've read part of it and there is no doubt that Randall can write. As a matter of fact he strings words together words rather well. The book is divided into 24 chapters, and by my count 16 of them have the names of women in the titles. So, if you want to read a (fairly truthful) book by a priest who is a convicted felon and has had eight fiancees and two wives, and a very complicated set of relationships with his mother, father, and other family members, then this is for you.

The Sentinel

The Sentinel is a new(ish) movie starring Michael Douglas. Plot: the Douglas character is a senior officer in the US Secret Service, i.e. the force which protects the President. He is also having an affair with the wife of the President. And there is a plot to kill the President.

Douglas gets set up so that he appears to be the inside man involved in the plot, and to clear his name he goes on the run.

Nothing terribly original here, but then there's nothing wildly original about many plots: everything depends on how it's handled.

These days, I am not such a close follower of the movie medium as I once was, but this seemed to me to be a thoroughly professional job. It was rather better, actually, than I expected. I do have to say, however, that other reviews that I have seen have been lukewarm.

Of course our credulity is strained a little here and there. And the character played by Eve Longoria (of Desperate Housewives) requires perhaps more suspension of disbelief than some others. (Aside: did you know that Marcia Cross, who plays Bree in DH is pregnant? In real life, that is. Yes, I know. I heard that too.)

My main reason for wanting to see The Sentinel was that it is, of course, an obvious comparator for The Manchurian Candidate, the book and two films, of which I have written here more than once.

The Sentinel is based on the 2003 novel by Gerald Petievich, who, it turns out, is a former Secret Service agent himself. And, what's more, he is the author of To Live and Die in L.A., another novel which was made into a very respectable movie.

Well, The Sentinel movie is not another Manchurian Candidate, either Mk I or Mk II, but it does make me think that Gerald Petievich might be a writer worth investigating.

He has some interesting comments on his own web site. 'It's nice,' he says, 'if they can take your book, which is art, and turn it into some form of entertainment, from which you can make a lot of money.'


By the way. It turns out that, if you are having an affair with the First Lady, it's awfully difficult to get time to yourselves.


Well, I had hoped this morning to get through an awful lot of stuff that people have told me about, but we aren't doing very well so far. So let's see if we can shift a few in one line; or at least one sentence.

Issue two of A Public Space is out: fiction, poetry, and art.

Another mag of much the same kind: the Jimson Journal.

Scott Stein has written about where novels come from; and they don't seem to be found under gooseberry bushes.

The Real Literature Directory offers biographies and texts of some older famous writers.

Penguin books UK now has an official blog on which members of staff post their views, doings, and info on new books.

Hey, you remember how keen I was on Homunculus? Well, now it's been more than favourably reviewed by The Star in Johannesburg, and Richard Charkin, boss of Macmillan, is well pleased. Claims that it's the politically incorrect novel of the year, which is what I said in April.

Jason Sanford has been doing some work on rates of response to fiction submissions.

John Howard, author of self-published children's book The Key to Chintak, has notched up 10,000 sales, and in July the book rose to no. 6 on the Waterstone's children's chart.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Ambition in writers

Over a period which stretches back fifty years now, I have met a considerable number of writers; and I suppose I must have read about hundreds of others -- possibly thousands. Most of these writers have specialised in 'creative' writing, i.e. fiction or drama.

The one outstanding characteristic which nearly all these writers have had in common is their immensely powerful ambition.

They are ambitious in that they yearn passionately for success. They long to be famous, to make lots of money, to be favourably reviewed in prestigious journals, to be interviewed on TV, to be asked for their autograph... and so forth.

Here, for instance, is an extract from an email that I received from a reader who had read, marked, learned, and inwardly digested my essay On the Survival of Rats in the Slush Pile.
I suspect that you are right about everything. Nevertheless, I do expect my fifth or sixth novel (learning narrative technique being the slow job it is) to command an advance of $750,000 or so. I also expect the book to top the New York Times bestseller list for at least a year, during which time I will tour the United States at my publisher's expense, fighting off beautiful graduate students at every airport. This analysis does not even include the royalties, or whatever you call them, from the movie deal -- and considering the the movie Titanic grossed over a billion dollars, I think I can quite reasonably expect to quit my job and purchase the Mideast, which I intend to turn into a paradise of peace and plenty.
The tone is jocular, but the sentiments are but little removed from those of many a young and naive writer; and I, for one, have definitely been one of those.

In the past few months, after I have made similar statements about the prevalence of lunatic ambition, I have had emails from perhaps four or five writers who claimed that they were not ambitious at all. They said that they were in the writing business purely for the pleasure and satisfaction of it.

Since these people all seemed perfectly genuine, and did not appear to be delusional, then of course I accept what they say. But such people are, in my experience, in a tiny minority. To put their number at 1% of the writing community would, I think, be an overestimate. More like 0.1%.

And the thought which has again been expressed here more than once is, can this overwhelming ambition, which is present in almost every writer breathing, be entirely healthy?

It was with that question in mind that I re-read, after a gap of 45 years or so, W. Beran Wolfe's How To Be Happy Though Human. And so, having done that, I thought I would share with you some of Wolfe's comments on the subject of ambition, and see where we go from there.

Dr Wolfe, I have to say, is less than enthusiastic on this matter:

A word about ambition, which rates as a virtue in the copybooks, but on investigation, betrays itself as a vice in nearly every instance....

The ambitious man has very little time for the communal fellowship that is so necessary for true happiness....

Beware of ambitious men and women. They are usually more courageous than those who are patently vain and egoistic -- but the unsocial nature of their striving is apparent the moment its goals are examined....

More often than not [ambitious individuals] ask a prestige which is entirely incommensurate with their actual contribution....

The ambitious are constantly in a state of tension....

The special difficulties that lie in the wake of ambition deserve further discussion. Nearly every neurotic is an individual whose ambition has been frustrated. This is almost axiomatic. Just because ambition is so generally egoistic in form and meaning, its goal is one of personal superiority which runs counter to the commonweal and the logical laws of common sense.

Sooner or later the ambitious individual is forced to admit that he is beaten and frustrated..... He must either retreat, or shift the blame for his failure to some external circumstance over which he seems to have no control.

If you pride yourself on your ambition, take a mental inventory of its ends, and ask yourself whether you desire to attain those personal ends and forego the opportunities of being happy, or whether you prefer to be happy, and forego some of the prestige that your unfulfilled inferiority complex seems to demand....

The only normal goal for human ambition is to know more about the world we live in, to understand our neighbours better than we do, to live so that life is richer and fuller because of the quality of our co-operation. All other ambitions end in death, insanity, or the tragic crippling of body and soul.

Not very encouraging, is it?

Of course, as you will quickly point out to me, and as I will readily agree, Dr Beran Wolfe is not the fount of all wisdom, whether on the question of ambition or anything else. Nevertheless, I think he talks much good sense about human psychology in general, and over the years I have borne his ideas in mind, even if I have not always acted in ways which he would consider wise.

In particular, over the last decade or so, I have devoted some thought to my own literary ambitions, which as a young man were undoubtedly as powerful as anyone's. And I have been interested to try to work out what lay behind that ambition in the first place.

As I hope I indicated briefly in my review of How To Be Happy Though Human, and as is indicated even more briefly in the penultimate paragraph quoted above, Wolfe takes the view that ambition is motivated by a sense of inferiority.

Here, as with the patients of Dr Sarno's, referred to earlier this week, we immediately run into an emotional reaction. People don't like the suggestion that they might have an 'inferiority complex'. It makes them feel insulted. And yet Wolfe (basing his ideas on Adler) would argue, I think, if he were here, that feelings of inferiority are perfectly normal and indeed inevitable. The human child demonstrably is inferior, physically and mentally, until quite a few years have gone by.

The trick of living a successful and happy life, if we are to believe Wolfe, is somehow to get a realistic and true picture of the nature of that inevitable inferiority, and not to let mistaken and misunderstood ideas about its nature dominate your life and disrupt it.

Easier to say than to do.

For my part, after a certain amount of introspection, I have come to the conclusion that my own ambition was fuelled by a basically flawed interpretation of certain facts and events in my childhood.

Am I going to share these details with you? No, I'm not. I'm not going to let you stand in the bathroom door while I take a crap, either, because I think that some things are best kept private. What I am going to say is that now, in my sixties, I feel much more relaxed about those twin impostors, failure and success, than I did as young man. Which is just as well, otherwise their impact would have destroyed my sanity by now. (What do you mean, it already has?)

One other point that occurs to me is that most writers' ambitions fly in the face of what Wolfe refers to as 'the logical laws of common sense'.

Suppose that you are a young woman of sixteen or so, and you conceive the ambition to be a hairdresser. This is an ambition which is perfectly capable of achievement. Every small town has a technical college which will train you in hairdressing. Every village, almost, has a hairdressing salon in which you can gain employment. Your ambition is therefore sensible and realistic.

But suppose you are a highly intelligent young woman of sixteen -- far too bright ever to contemplate anything so modest as a career in hairdressing -- is it sensible to think of a career as a full-time writer? A career which might last a working lifetime?

It is possible, as anyone who has ever had contact with a university knows, to be, on the one hand, absolutely brilliant intellectually, and yet be, at one and the same time, a complete fool. And surely even the most rudimentary acquaintance with a few publishing statistics will demonstrate that achieving a career as a full-time writer, a career which lasts for more than a few books, is a rare achievement. One which is about as likely of fulfilment as becoming a member of the Cabinet (in the US read: becoming a US Senator). It happens, but not often.

What then, if anything, is to be done? Are we to leave the young, and the not so young, to wallow in ambitious naivety and ignorance and do whatever they will with their life?

As an early employer of mine once said to me, everyone is free to ruin their own life in their own way. And indeed they are. But perhaps, just perhaps, the older and case-hardened among us might offer a little useful advice. Experience suggest that it will not be heeded, but never mind; our consciences will be clear.

For what it is worth, here is my twopennorth.

The young and ambitious writer should examine the motivation of her ambition carefully, and would be well advised to identify its cause.

Identifying the cause of ambition is certainly possible, at least in my own experience. Hint: consider your fantasies. And here I speak not of sexual fantasies, but of fantasies relating to success as a writer. Thinking about the situation which will arise from achieving your imagined success will, I believe, give you some guidance as to whom, or which group of people, you seek to impress.

Having identified the impressees, so to speak, you may then be able to work back and identify the events and circumstances which made you feel inferior to that individual or group. Those events and circumstances are likely to lie in childhood or adolescent memories. And then you can ask yourself, with the benefit of hindsight and some adult insight, whether the sense of inferiority which you then felt was actually justified or not. And even if it was justified, and not based on some misapprehension, does it really require that you should devote endless hours of time, money, and effort, sacrificing much else along the way, in order to 'prove', through achieving success as a writer, that you are no longer inferior?

Such self-analysis may prove valuable. It certainly did for me.

The completion of such analysis does not necessarily mean that you have to abandon all interest in writing. Far from it. You may now be able to undertake writing with a more relaxed attitude towards the outcome, taking a greater pleasure and satisfaction in the actual work. Who knows -- your work may be all the better for it.

A final thought. I would not wish you to think the Beran Wolfe regarded all creative work as selfish, antisocial, and not conducive to long-term happiness. Far from it. He himself, for example, was a sculptor.

There is a certain quantum of creative energy in every human being which is not absorbed by the business of a work-a-day world. Even people who are engaged in some eminently satisfactory occupation have some creative energy left over.... We must all create something -- or class ourselves as human vegetables. No one can be happy who does not find some channel for this creative energy.

You just shouldn't let it get out of hand. That's all.