Tuesday, March 27, 2007

The New Statesman

To the Theatre Royal, Bath, yestereve, to see a play called The New Statesman: authors, Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran; star, Rik Mayall.

There are, I think, two aspects of this play which deserve mention here: one is the picture of politics which the play presents to us; and the other is the extreme crudity and violence of the language and action. Lest I seem to disapprove, let me say at once that neither of these aspects caused the audience the slightest difficulty; au contraire, almost everything in this play was greeted by uproarious laughter.

The playwrights, Marks and Gran are long-time masters of the TV sitcom, and judging by this example they are perfectly at home in the theatre.

Rik Mayall is an extremely familiar face from TV comedy shows of one kind and another. Among these, he did four series of shows with the title The New Statesman; these were written by Marks and Gran, and centred upon a fictional politician called Alan B'stard. It is these shows that are brought up to date in the current stage version. The chief characteristic of B'stard, as his name none too subtly suggests, is that he is totally ruthless.

Mayall is without doubt an accomplished actor. He is also a highly successful stand-up comedian. All in all, I don't think I have ever seen an actor, whether classical or otherwise, dominate the stage in quite the way he does. It is a formidable performance by any standards; whether it is funny is a matter of personal taste, but the vast majority of the audience thought it was very funny indeed.

The play asks us to believe -- and it is really quite easy -- that Alan B'stard is now a key member of Blair's cabinet, a man who pursues wealth, women and power without the slightest concern for morality or the law. And that is really all you need to know.

The printed programme tells us that The New Statesman belongs in the long tradition of political satire. And so it does. But satire changes over the years, and this one is quite different in tone from most of what has preceded it, at least in the twentieth century.

Until well into my adult lifetime, the English stage was subject to censorship, and certainly any form of portrayal of real-life politicians would have been out of the question before about 1970. And when we did begin to get political satire on stage, it was of a gentle nature. John Wells's play Anyone for Denis (about Mrs Thatcher and her husband) was, as I remember it, in the nature of an affectionate lampoon.

The New Statesman is quite different in tone, and I find it difficult to identify the right choice of words to convey its flavour. Brutal hardly covers it, though vicious is wrong. What we have here, you see, is a portrait of British politics, with names named, which suggests that everyone in it is totally corrupt, depraved, driven by self-interest and manic ambition, willing to undertake any betrayal or crime, tell any number of lies, and, along the way, engage in frantic sexual congress with anything that moves or shows signs of being useful.

Judging by the audience's reaction, this is not a picture which caused any distress or incredulity, much less outrage. On the contrary, everything portrayed here was accepted without question as a mirror of the real world -- albeit in exaggerated form. But not all that exaggerated.

And then, of course, we must consider the language and the action via which this portrait was painted. Once again, I remind you that even the mildest swear words were banned until the 1970s; and even then it was some time before anyone said fuck in public. But in The New Statesman, of course, every obscene word you ever heard (or dreamed of) is used repeatedly, and with great emphasis.

This is a play in which our hero, inadvertently, it must be admitted, calls the Queen of England 'a sad, useless old cunt'; cue howls of laughter. And then, when he finds out what he has done, B'stard clutches the back of his trousers to indicate that he may have shat himself.

On another occasion, B'stard receives a parcel containing the head of a woman who has been murdered on his instructions. Then, finding that death has made him 'horny', he proceeds to insert his penis into the mouth of this somewhat charred head. No one rose from their seat and protested.

There is, in the course of this play, no action so revolting that Mayall will not perform it; no form of words so scabrous that he will not utter them. And he performs and speaks with total command of the stage and the audience.

I am, I decided, the wrong age for this kind of play. You need to be young enough -- let's say under 45 -- to have no memory whatever of the way things were. To the young, this kind of totally uninhibited form of language and action is the norm. They see nothing unusual about it at all. But a man of my age can only sit there in stunned disbelief.

I am not the only person who found himself sitting stony-faced while all around him had hysterics. I don't say that the other man and I are right, mind you; because the theatre is all about entertaining the audience, and there is no doubt that this play carries out that function supremely well.

I'm not sure that I can imagine an American version of this. But perhaps I'm just out of touch.

Monday, March 26, 2007


Herewith a collection of short notes and links:

Longer tails

If you hope to sell books, even on a small scale, in the digital era, you really need to keep on eye on what Chris Anderson is saying. Anderson is the author of The Long Tail, which you really ought to be reading, or, better still, to have read, too.

Recently, Anderson had things to say about vertical aggregators. Now you may not know what they are (any more than I do), but you will get the general idea. What he is saying is that small niche operators will spring up which cater for minority interests on a worldwide basis. Therein lies profit for retailers who know what they're up to, and there can be found (or will soon be found) readers (and possibly even buyers) for writers with a book to sell.

Link from Michael Cader of Publishers Lunch, who says of the Anderson piece: '[This] points the way to abundant opportunities in publishing, too; ones that could finally favor publishers with natural specialties and a deep understanding of particular types of content and their readers.'

Nadine's biz card

Speaking of new-fangled ways of doing things, Nadine Laman sent me a copy of her Biz Card; this is a digital business card, made for her by 5-Pints Productions. It's in the form of a miniature, odd-shaped CD disc, a really fancy piece of gear, and it features her own home-made video about her trilogy of books, backed up with original music written by her son.

Happily, if you want to see how Nadine has gone about publicising her books, you can find the same video on her web site, and, I gather, in other places such as YouTube.

Dr Taleb critiqued

Longer-standing readers will recall that I wrote an extended essay, On the Survival of Rats in the Slush Pile (available free online), which drew on the ideas of Nassim Nicholas Taleb and applied them to the world of books.

Taleb's ideas were principally expounded in his book Fooled by Randomness, discussed here in 2004 and mentioned several times since. And now Dave Lull has kindly drawn my attention to a critique of Taleb's ideas which has been published by Gary North.

Now I am quite sure that, as with all thinkers, Taleb's ideas are open to criticism on any number of grounds. However, without wishing to be unkind, I have to say that I found Gary North's critique profoundly unimpressive. North writes as a committed Christian and seems to believe that, thanks to the providence of God, there is a firm link between hard work and success. I am unconvinced, particularly where the book world is concerned; not to mention the stage, television, film, music, and, I dare say, the selling of double-glazing units.

Meanwhile, Taleb's latest book, The Black Swan -- the Impact of the Highly Improbable, is due out on 17 April. I have an advance copy and will report in due course.

One-liners (more or less)

If you like dogs, Charles Emery has a book for you.

Kevin Kim, a slightly mad blogger who resides in South Korea, has a piece about getting his book printed in two different ways from the same data. All did not go smoothly. He provides pictures to prove it. Link from Jon.

Martin Rundkvist found a book on parenting for Richard Dawkins fans.

Josh Gidding is a writer whose subject is failure; and it found him a publisher. There's irony. The first chapter can be found on his blog.

Angie's Dad tells of Angie's unhappy experience with Aultbea in a comment on my post of 23 November 2006.

Manybooks.net offers all sorts of free books online, including a couple of mine.

Andy O'Hara of the Jimston Journal was disturbed by all those books that British readers started to read but then couldn't finish; just goes to show, in my view, that you shouldn't bother trying to read stuff that people tell you is good for you. Concentrate on the trash is my motto.

The shortlist for the 2007 Blooker Prize has been announced, and Slim Palmer is well pleased; he thinks he's the only Brit on it. My favourite is The Doorbells of Florence. I wish I'd been clever enough to think of that idea. (Poddy liked it too.)

The new issue of Bookforum is nearly all available online, free of charge. It's highbrow stuff, from distinguished contributors. Included is a profile of agent Ira Silverberg, dealing with his collection of books: one of these is an early chapbook by Andrew Wylie, which reveals (surprise!) that as a young man he was interested in sex.

And there's a new arts and literature online review, Open Letters. It opens with an assessment of all twentieth-century literature, which, you've got to admit, is ambitious.

Andrew Feder has written a novel, When the Angels Have Risen, about the dangerous liaison between politics and religion.

On YouTube there's a trailer for Alex Scarrow's 'apocalyptic new thriller' (Last Light, Orion, 25 July).

Chris Hamilton-Emery, of Salt Publishing, is one of several people who mentioned to me the thoughts of Stephen Page, head of Faber. At first sight Page might appear to be a go-ahead type of chap. But, as Publishers Lunch pointed out, at Faber you can look commercial if you don't actually wear a monocle.

Someone is keeping a very close eye on my piece about Kathy O'Beirne (20 September 2006). Whenever someone suggests that Kathy might, just conceivably, have exaggerated a little here and there, someone else jumps in and defends her. Interesting, no? Blogger doesn't date these comments -- just gives the time of day at which they were posted, which isn't very helpful -- but they have cropped up fairly regularly over the last six months.

If you're an author living in New York, or a publisher, or just a book lover, you may want to arrange for someone to sell books at your reading, lecture, book launch, or just plain party. If so, Levi McConnell Multimedia can help you.

ViaLibri is an internet resource for book collectors and bibliophiles. If you can't find it here, it's very obscure indeed. I found what I wanted, at about 300 sterling. So I passed.

New Orleans has inspired many books, including The Beatitudes, a new novel (a planned trilogy) by Lyn Lejeune.

Farewell to a wonderful contributor to the gift economy

And finally, Poddy Girl (mentioned above) has called it a day. If you never met her, go take a look and read her last post (13 March).

Poddy has spent the last two years reading books printed via print on demand (POD), sorting out the brilliant from the unspeakable, and writing about them for the enlightenment of the world. In doing so, she went through 1,600 books a year (or thereabouts), on top of a day job, writing books of her own, doing a couple of book tours, and having a miscarriage. She dealt with -- or tried to -- 500 emails a day. Not surprisingly, she is now burnt out.

In the right-hand column of her blog is her list of the top POD books of 2005 and 2006. You could do a lot worse than take a look through it. And on 7 March she offered the judges' selection of the very best of 2006.

And while you're there, take a look at her stats. Here are just a few:

Total number of books not read past first page: 217
Total number of books not read past first paragraph: 23
Total number of books not read past first sentence: 8
Total number of books I read in one sitting, despite hunger, daybreak, and bathroom needs: 5
Total number of times I was harassed for not reviewing a submitted novel: 8
Most times a single author submitted a single book: 6
Total number of times an author asked me to purchase his or her book to garner a review: 6

And so on. Ah Poddy, there's a moral here somewhere. A blog which offers a true service to others, for no monetary reward, can become an impossible burden. But we are grateful.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Mr Lethem leads the way

I don't know about you, but I have pretty much given up on expecting governments to do anything sensible. Furthermore, the big companies are motivated solely by proft, but then that is their raison d'etre, so it's no good complaining about that. And organised religion has shown itself to be deeply flawed. It therefore falls, it seems to me, to individuals to save the world.

One man who, in my opinion, is heading in roughly the right direction is the novelist Jonathan Lethem. He is the author of the novel Motherless Brooklyn, which I read with some interest a while back. And now he has just published a new novel, You Don't Love Me Yet. And in the case of this novel, he intends to deal with the film option and the ancillary rights in a rather unusual way.

To get the full details, you will have to read Jonathan's own account of what he is proposing to do, but basically he is offering film producers a free option on the book in return for two per cent of the budget (eventually) and an undertaking that, after five years, all the ancillary rights to the film and the novel will pass into the public domain.

'In other words,' says Lethem, 'after a waiting period during which those rights would still be restricted, anyone who cared to could make any number of other kinds of artwork based on the novel’s story and characters, or the film’s: a play, a television series, a comic book, a theme park ride, an opera – or even a sequel film or novel featuring the same characters. For that matter, they can remake the film with another script and new actors.'

Now this, you have to admit, is unusual. The question is, is it a smart move? Is it smart commercially, in the long or the short term? Because Jonathan does not make himself out to be a philanthropist -- he has to make a living. And is it smart in terms of reptuation, public interest, and creative interest? Is there a single film producer breathing who will not snort with derision at this naivety?

We shall see. In the meantime, it is certainly refreshing to find someone who is not so tight-arsed about copyright that he phones his lawyer every time someone quotes three sentences from what he has written.

Mr Lethem is also, by the way, the author of the most scholarly and fascinating essay that I have ever read on the subject of influence, copying, plagiarism, the use of famous characters in new works, et cetera et cetera. I particularly like his story about Muddy Waters telling how he 'wrote' the song 'Country Blues'.

'It becomes apparent,' says Lethem, 'that appropriation, mimicry, quotation, allusion, and sublimated collaboration consist of a kind of sine qua non of the creative act, cutting across all forms and genres in the realm of cultural production.' Think Romeo and Juliet and West Side Story.

And, when you get to the bit about Jefferson and the American constitution on the question of copyright, you might like to compare it with the ideas of Macaulay.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Brian McGilloway: Borderlands

Borderlands, by Brian McGilloway, is due for publication by Macmillan New Writing (MNW) in April this year. It is essentially a modern whodunit, a story told in the first person by the official police detective, Inspector Devlin.

This book is an unusual addition to the MNW list, in that it is subtitled 'The first Inspector Devlin mystery', thus indicating that there will be more books featuring the same character. And, furthermore, if you look at the author's own web site, you will find that the second in the series will be entitled Gallows Lane, and will be published in spring 2008. There will be a mass-market paperback of Borderlands from Pan at around the same time. And there is already one of those funny 'airside' editions of Borderlands -- airside seems to mean a trade paperback version, sold only in airports.

All the above evidence suggests that MNW feel that, in publishing Brian McGilloway's crime fiction, they are on to a winner. And the question is, Are they right?

Broadly speaking, they are. Though it has to be said that Mr McGilloway has chosen a field in which there is one hell of a lot of competition.

To begin with, a novel featuring a police Inspector is up against a whole battalion (or whatever the police equivalent is) of other police inspectors with whom Inspector Devlin will be compared. In the very beginning of the genre, there was Poe's Inspector Dupin, to be followed, in due course, by a thousand or so detectives in the golden age; and, in modern times, we have Inspectors Morse and Rebus for Devlin to contend with. (Morse, by the way, is also published by Macmillan.)

McGilloway's Inspector Devlin is a member of the Garda Siochana (Guardians of the Peace), which is the police force of the Republic of Ireland (Eire). He lives and works on the borders between the Republic and Northern Ireland -- hence the title of the book.

McGilloway has chosen to give us a first-person account of the unravelling of this crime story, and this is a viewpoint which can, at least in theory, create some serious problems in a whodunit. The whole thrust of the story, usually, is devoted to the question of who committed the murder(s). And if we share the detective's thoughts during the course of his investigation, then there may come a point where, if suspense is to be maintained up to the final revelation, the detective just has to stop thinking -- at least as far as the reader is concerned.

In practice, however, only a few fusspots like me are likely to be troubled by such niceties of narrative technique, and in this instance the author deals with the matter quite well.

The publisher describes the book as 'highly lyrical', which means that the writing gets a bit fancy and poetic in places. Personally I like my detectives to be a bit more hardboiled than that, and generally immune to the charm of sunsets. However, we live in a new age, and I dare say that many readers will welcome a detective who is a sensitive sort of chap, the kind of person who, no doubt, helps with the washing-up.

Speaking of which, Borderlands also gives us a fair chunk of the detective's domestic life. Again, this is not for me, but historically a large proportion of the readership of crime novels has been female, and the inclusion of much of Devlin's private concerns will probably go down well with many readers.

As crime stories go, I found this quite gripping -- and that is not a word that I use lightly. As is often the case, it is sometimes hard for the average reader (who comes to the book only once a day, perhaps) to keep track of who the various characters are; but this is not a major problem.

It will be interesting to see how the main character develops. There are are lots of possibilities here. For example, Devlin's sidekick, Caroline Williams, could be built into a major character all on her own. Also, at some point, Devlin might transfer to Dublin. And so on.

Overall all then, this is an excellent start to what might be an entertaining series. Borderlands is not as good a book as Peter Temple's The Broken Shore, but then Temple has been writing for some time. It is, however, a better book than Benjamin Black's Christine Falls; though it won't get anything like the same public attention because Black (aka Banville) has a Booker prize in his back pocket. No, life isn't fair. I never said it was.

Monday, March 05, 2007


Belinda Starling

Now here's a sad story.

Back in October 2005, Publishers Lunch reported that Bloomsbury had bought a novel by Belinda Starling for publication in June 2007. Its title was The Binding, and it was the story of a bookbinder's wife, in 1860s London, who took over her husband's business and ended up working on high-end pornography.

Given my established interest in Victorian porn, I made a note of this, and recently I decided to see what was happening about the book. Finding no mention of it on Amazon, I googled the lady's name -- only to find out, alas, that Belinda Starling died in August 2006. She as 34, and she died of complications following bile-duct surgery. Judging by the photographs accompanying this report, Belinda was a beautiful and multi-talented young woman.

Belinda's book will reportedly now appear in November 2007, under the title The Journal of Dora Damage.

The prolific doctor

Still struggling with your first book? Oh dear oh dear. Why so slow? Follow the example of Dr Vernon Coleman, surely one of the UK's most prolific authors, who seems to produce half a dozen books a year.

Dr Coleman has so far produced 114 books, and has also written some 5,000 articles for 100 or so magazines. He was a columnist on the UK Sunday The People, until he fell out with them about Iraq. The good doctor's range includes both fiction and non-fiction, and he is, you will rapidly discover, a man with firm opinions on all sorts of things, from animal rights to cancer to politics (he regards Mr Blair as a 'traitor and war criminal'). Clearly not a man who suffers from writer's block.

A game of tag

It turns out that Amazon has put money into Shelfari. Some book-world observers hold the view that, in the digital future, readers are going to need new and improved guides to what to read. There will no longer be big window displays on the high street, and piles of books inside the superstore, to give people a nudge. So recommendations from other readers are thought (in some quarters) to be the answer to the filtering and selection process which once used to be performed by the big publishers and their marketing departments.

Some observers argue that sites such as Shelfari, with their user-created systems of tagging, are the answer. See also LibraryThing; AllConsuming.net (another Amazon-backed initiative); and Debbie's Idea. (Links and hints from Publishers Lunch.)

Meanwhile, Waterstone's managing director Gerry Johnson warns the troops of impending change on the high street. Link from booktrade.info.

Lies, damned lies, and favourite books

Most UK newspapers last week carried reports of an alleged list of 'the nation's favourite books'.

What can one possibly say? Well, for a start, I suppose there are some people around who are so young, so badly educated, and so lacking in intelligence that they will actually believe that an 'opinion poll' which uses the data provided, online, by 2,000 self-selected people, is somehow truly representative of what the British nation thinks.

And perhaps it is worth saying that, in terms of social science, the methodology of this opinion poll lies somewhere between the pathetically incompetent and the deliberately fraudulent. This did not, of course, discourage most of the leading newspapers from presenting the results as if they actually mean something. See, for instance, the Times, Telegraph, and Guardian.

Surely even the dimmest young reporter must have smelt a rat, just by looking at the results? You would think so, wouldn't you?

We are asked to believe, for instance, that Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment is the fifth favourite all-time book among male readers. OK. Now, just for the record, let me say that I spent my entire working life in academic institutions, the last 25 years of it in a university. So I think I can say that I mixed with some fairly intelligent and well-read people. And in the whole of that time I never, ever, came across anyone who had read Crime and Punishment. I did, on the other hand, meet a lot of people who had read the entire Ian Fleming canon, though Fleming, naturally, appears nowhere in last week's list.

The list of 'the nations's favourite books' can therefore, quite safely, and quite accurately (in metaphorical terms) be dismissed as a large pile of peculiarly smelly horseshit.

Sam Leith's blog post on the Telegraph site got it more or less right.

Brief notes

Abebooks has a feature on the most valuable science-fiction books and book-related material. (Moral: never throw away your old manuscripts, complete with editor's comments.) There's also an interesting piece about collectable film scripts. And while you're over at Abebooks, there's an interview with me, for what it's worth.

Any Amount of Books, which still seems to be on London's Charing Cross Road, despite rumours of rent rises driving the bookshops out, now has a blog. How much are your unwanted books worth? Find out here.

Wanderingscribe continues to keep a rather testy eye (can you have a testy eye?) on the latest doings of allegedly homeless person Anya Peters -- which is not her real name, I now gather. Her book, by the way, is due out on 8 May.

Bear Parade has posted My Eventual Bloodless Coup, by Ofelia Hunt.

The Tempest Press folk ('paradigm-tipping, barrier-breaking, web-aware, blog-besotted publishers') now have a blog of their own.

Barry Beckham has just published his first novel for 20 years, and has made a free preview copy available online.

Noah Cicero has a new book out: Treatise. And one reviewer likes it better than one of Salman Rushdie's.

Bebo have launched a new short-story competition -- for nanotales.

All is still not well at WH Smith. See Kevin Baines's comment on my post of 25 November 2004.

Daniel Scott Buck points out that the truth is always stranger than fiction.

Dave Lull points out that Nassim Nicholas Taleb's The Black Swan will be published on 17 April. Essential reading after you've read my On the Survival of Rats in the Slush Pile -- which is free, folks.

Salt Publishing is a UK-based independent publisher doing poetry and short stories and a lot more.

A new issue of the Jimston Journal is just out: fiction, photography, poetry, reviews. And a piece about elders: Are we irrelevant? Should people pay more attention to us?

Lynne Scanlon considers why wannabes are reluctant to pay a modest fee to have their work assessed by a professional judge.

Kitty Myers tells me that J.K. Rowling is suing ebay. And the Guardian (link from booktrade.info) says that UK indie bookshops are trying to work out ways to sell the new Harry Potter when they can't even buy it as cheaply as Tesco is selling it. (And, yes, last time some indies did get their stock from Tesco.)

Nicholas Clee, former editor of the Bookseller, has a contract to write a book about a racehorse.