Thursday, May 31, 2007

News from the assembly line

How to blog

Gawker says that I must, by now, have seen that YouTube clip where some guys, er, 'perplex an ottoman'. Well no, see, I haven't. Actually. So I am one of those eight people who missed it. I don't get out much, if truth be told.

Anyway, it turns out that some other guys have done a parody of the original settee-humping whatever, and this time it's about blogging. A couple of guys teach you how to blog. Don't blame me if you waste three minutes watching it. I don't recommend it. Just thought you ought to know. In case you want to avoid the dreadful fate of being one of those eight people who don't know what everyone else is talking about. If that happens, no one will want to know you.

And since you ask, no, that's not the way I go about it when I blog. Doctor's orders.

Keeping it quiet

You have to smile don't you? If an established literary novelist wants to earn some cash, it's not unknown for him or her to turn to -- brace yourself -- crime fiction. Or -- even more shocking and horrible -- romance. Yes, I know you can hardly believe it, but it's true. One such is the pseudonymous Inger Wolf.

Publishers Lunch reports that she (I presume it's she) has just sold The Calling, featuring a 61-year-old, recently divorced detective, to Harcourt, for six figures, at auction, for publication in spring 2008. Publishers Weekly tells us that Wolfe is 'a pseudonym for a prominent North American literary novelist'. But don't worry, darling. If I ever find out who you are, I will not reveal your dirty little secret.

How big is yours?

In Slate, various writers are asked to name their favourite font -- i.e. the one they actually write in.

The Literary Saloon, whence this link, seems to find that bizarre, but actually it's a very interesting set of comments. I think it's fair to say that most of the (admittedly unscientific) sample prefer to write in something like an old typewriter font (often Courier). But I believe that's all wrong.

My advice: forget all that mss-have-to-be-doublespaced crap, and set up your word-processor page so that it looks as much like a proper book as possible. That way you will see things more or less the way the eventual reader will see them. Which is, in my view, essential. Unless, of course, you're one of those pure, idealistic writers who doesn't care about readers.

Ghosts rise from the dead

From time to time this blog has touched upon the gentle art of ghostwriting. And I have said here, more than once, that I warmly approve of the entire arrangement, at least in principle. To learn more, see my post of 1 June 2006.

In this connection, I have been taking a look at the web site of Errol Lincoln Uys. Here he has a section entitled Working with Michener. The Michener in question is James A. Michener, once famous for very long books about big subjects -- books which sold in vast quantities. His 1959 novel Hawaii, for instance, had sold 3,913,341 copies by 1975; and doubtless a few more since. His 1974 novel Centennial sold nearly as many in the first year after publication.

What Uys reveals is that Michener did not work alone. From 1978 to 1980, Uys was Michener's collaborator on a book which became Michener's South African novel, The Covenant. Uys plotted and outlined the book with him, undertook major research, and (most importantly) wrote thousands of words for key sections of the novel.

None of this comes as much of a surprise to me, but it might well have surprised those who bought and read Michener's books when they came out. Producing books of great length and complexity is largely a matter of hard grind -- almost a cottage industry -- and in the real world constructing such a book probably involves several people in most instances.

Uys was not, it seems, Michener's only collaborator. But he was, he says, the only one to go on and write his own epic in the same grand style. See his section on Brazil.

Uys suggests that his web pages offer a unique look at what goes into the making of a major novel. I agree.

Brief notes

If you view the comments to some of my old posts, e.g. this one, you will find that the spammers have succeeded in breaking through the defences. Ideally I would go through and delete all these, but life is too short. In the meantime, the true nature of a comment that includes links to a hundred or so sites dealing with credit is probably fairly obvious.

Anyone who writes thrillers, or is thinking of writing a thriller, or just enjoys reading thrillers, should take a look at Thrillerfest -- in New York City, 12-15 July.

Tonto Press has launched a second book of short stories, and is now interested in non-fiction submissions. More competitions for fiction will follow, I understand.

Aardvarchaeology is running the 27th Carnivalesque blog carnival, with links to mostly mediaeval stuff. Seems the ancient Brits believed in an otherworld, but even by Chaucer's time no one was seeing elves any more. (You get 'em in gardens now, but that's different).

The Hotel Chelsea blog has published an interview with British author and teacher Julia Bell.

Facial Anomaly is a blog whereon a writer seeks to develop material for a novel. Comments invited.

If you're a crime fiction fan -- or simply a reader who is interested in outstanding books from whatever genre and period -- hie thee to The Rap Sheet and peruse the extensive list of overlooked and half-forgotten masterpieces. Actually there are several lists; when I visited we were up to number IX, and there may be more by the time you get there. This assembly, by the way, is part of The Rap Sheet's first-birthday celebration.

Monsters and Critics kicks off a series of interviews: first, the multi-talented Charles R. Johnson.

Do you care desperately whether you're an alpha male, or even a delta male? Do you sincerely wish to win? If all of this concerns you, you might wish to peruse Newsweek's assertion that betas rule the world. Link from Josh Gidding, who is mentioned, and whose book, Failure: an Autobiography, is out soon.

Good grief! Clutches heart and reaches for the pills. Madame Arcati has written a novel! But it isn't available just yet. In due course, Madame will publish it herself. Eccentric as ever, Madame has a low opinion of editors and retail managers and prefers the new publishing paradigm.

The American end of OUP has blog, and the lady in charge, Rebecca Ford, was over here last week, picking various people's brains. The OUP blog has one very smart feature: every so often, it asks one of the OUP authors to write a piece about their area of expertise, linking their book to a current piece of news. Example: Stuart P. Green's essay about Lord Browne.

If you are mad keen to keep up with every snippet of news about the book scene, the UK's Bookseller has an RSS feed, which you can use to feed stuff into, say, Bloglines. In the US, Publishers Weekly offers a whole series of RSS options.

Tony Cowell, brother of the more famous Simon, is allegedly going to host a TV show which invites aspiring bestsellers to pitch their (completed) blockbuster novel to a panel. Winner gets a six-figure contract and may be mentored by Jeffrey Archer or Jackie Collins. Do you get to choose who? Because if not, I'm not going to play. (Link from

Just in case you missed it, John Angliss posted a comment on the recent copyright post which included a link to a minor work of genius. It's a succinct explanation of the concept of fair use, as illustrated by the output of that prime example of the power of massively well paid lawyers, the Disney Corp.

Do you want to know how to write the Great American Novel? If so, watch this short video and it will be a doddle. The video is produced by Morris Hill Pictures, which has short instructional films available on a number of subjects.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Charles McCarry: Christopher's Ghosts

Oh yes.

When I wrote to Duckworth (UK) and asked them for a review copy of this book, I told them that I had been enthusiastic about McCarry's previous thriller, Old Boys, (20 June 2005), and that I did not think I would be disappointed by this one.

Nor am I. Come this time next year, I expect Christopher's Ghosts to be a strong contender for the MWA's Best Novel award (see yesterday's post for the 2006 winner). If it isn't, someone won't be thinking clearly. And it won't be me.

McCarry has a long track record as a thriller writer, some outline of which I provided in 2005, so I won't repeat it here. Suffice it to say that he is now in his late seventies, and that earlier in life he did a ten-year stint 'under deep cover' for the CIA.

Christopher's Ghosts is a novel in two parts. Part One is set in Berlin in 1939, and centres upon an American family, the Christophers, living in that city. Paul Christopher is sixteen years old, and he is reading Balzac. Not, therefore, your average American teenager. He is, essentially, a European, but his family are the very best kind of Americans. The kind of Americans who will be familiar to anyone my age who has mixed with US citizens in the military, business, or government. I have the feeling that they are not as thick on the ground as they used to be, but I hope I'm wrong.

Berlin in 1939 was, of course, run by the Nazis. And before long we are reminded -- if we need reminding, and I certainly don't -- what a brutal, vicious, and nasty lot the Nazis were.

Incidentally -- and this has nothing whatever to do with the book here being reviewed -- I once knew a senior diplomat who had at one time been our man in Brussels. He told me, almost in passing, that you didn't have to be in Brussels very long to find out that the most important reason for the creation of the European Community was the need to control the Germans. Two world wars in one century was felt to be enough. Everyone in Brussels understands and accepts that, said my informant. Including the Germans.

Back to Berlin in 1939. The Christophers soon fall foul of the Nazi authorities; not least because they are smuggling Jews out of Germany on board their sailing boat. Paul Christopher's mother also has the misfortune to attract the sexual attentions of Reinhard Heydrich, who in real life was one of the architects of the Holocaust, and who eventually was assassinated in Prague in 1942; not a moment too soon.

The teenaged Paul falls in love with Rima, a German girl whose father, though a life-long Lutheran, has three Jewish grandparents and is therefore, under German law, a Jew; hence he is unable to practise his profession as a doctor.

Events in Berlin, as you would expect both in terms of history and genre, become more and more complicated. The Christophers find themselves persecuted, and worse, at the hands of Heydrich and a Gestapo thug named Stutzer. So be warned: this is a serious book, not a fairy tale; and it is immensely sad.

When events in 1939 Berlin come to an end, of sorts, we move to 1959, which by my count is twenty years later, not thirty as the front flap of the dustjacket suggests.

Paul Christopher has grown up and become a member of The Outfit, for which read the CIA. One winter night, as he passes under a streetlamp in a grey European city, Christopher briefly glimpses the face of a man walking in the opposite direction. It is Franz Stutzer, the secret policeman who brought about the destruction of the Christopher family in 1939. After that first brief glimpse, Stutzer escapes; and from then on the book becomes a chase story, as Christopher tries to bring the man to justice.

This is a very subtle book, full of character and history, focused on one family, its friends and enemies. It has the stature of a Greek tragedy, in that it makes the death of one person deeply significant; which, of course, it always is.

The war years, 1939-45, were hard times indeed; harder than anyone under the age of fifty or so can possible imagine, and this book gives us just a hint of that. If the ending doesn't make you cry, then you aren't human, so don't come back here any more, because you won't be welcome.

At its best, a thriller can do (at least) three things rather well. It can provide an enthralling story about people whose fate the reader comes to care about; it can give us insights into times and places other than our own; and it can provoke thought.

As you would expect, Christopher's Ghosts does all of these supremely well. In particular, this is a novel about the power of secret policemen, and it is, in my view, absolutely no accident that McCarry has chosen to write it now.

Any reader of this book who follows current affairs with even half an eye must surely see worrying parallels between what Christopher describes in 1939 Berlin, and what is happening in the UK and the US at the present time. In the UK, we currently have a very lively debate about the limitations on freedom which have been imposed by our government in pursuit of the 'war on terror'. (See, for instance, our Prime Minister's justification of these developments in last week's Sunday Times. And read the comments attached.)

One of McCarry's points is that quite ordinary people can be turned into brutal secret policemen without much difficulty. And surely Abu Ghraib rather proves it. Lest you think I am unfairly picking on the US authorities, let me add that many modern interrogation techniques have been developed or 'improved' by the British. After all, we've had plenty of practice in the last few decades, in places like Malaya, Cyprus, and Northern Ireland.

Having read Christopher's Ghosts, I find myself reflecting, and not for the first time, that the real fiction-writing talent is today to be found not among the so-called literary elite but in the 'humbler' genres. In fact I am inclined to propose a new law -- or at any rate a good working principle: the greater the talent, the humbler the home. If you're looking for intelligent, thoughtful story-telling, based on life in the real world, rather than some MFA-inspired navel-gazing and stylistic flourishes, then you're far better off poking around on the crime, romance, and SF shelves than in the more 'prestigious' areas of the shop.

In the UK, the publisher of the latest McCarry, Duckworth/Overlook, announce in their autumn 2007 catalogue that they are to publish nine titles by this author. With a bit of luck this will include all seven of the Paul Christopher canon, and I shall be able to read them in rapid succession and in the right order.

If nothing else, this will reveal, I think, that the author had at least the outline of a plan from the beginning. I notice, for example, that in the last one, Old Boys, there was an elderly woman who had been forced, once upon a time, to be Heydrich's mistress (see above). This nine-book read will be a real treat, and I look forward to it.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Jason Goodwin: The Janissary Tree

Jason Goodwin is an English historian who has written, among other things, a history of the Ottoman Empire. The Janissary Tree is his first novel, and to the surprise of some it has just won the Mystery Writers of America award for Best Novel.

Among those surprised was Goodwin's American agent, who (I read somewhere) advised him not to bother going to New York for the MWA award ceremony. Another surprised party was Goodwin's American publisher, Sarah Crichton of Farrar, Straus & Giroux/Sarah Crichton Books. Publishers Weekly quotes Sarah as follows: 'I mean, this book is about a eunuch in the sultan’s court in the 1830s—who would’ve thought it could win?'

If you want a set of three surprised individuals, add me. Mind you, the MWA has a record of honouring some odd ones. In 1986, L.R. Wright won with The Suspect, and I think it's fair to say that not many people know of that writer, or the book.

The Janissary Tree is published in England by Faber. Now despite that firm's support for P.D. James, one would have to say that Faber is not the sort of publisher that one generally associates with crime or thrillers, so any novel in that overall genre which is published by them is obviously going to be a shade unusual. And this one is.

As indicated by the American publisher, the book is set in Istanbul in 1836. The author himself describes it as a thriller, which is a fair description, and the hero is Yashim, a eunuch. In case you're wondering, the Sultan's palace was at that time pretty much thick with eunuchs. Yashim wasn't all that unusual.

The plot concerns some dead Janissaries and an equally dead virgin from the Sultan's harem. The Janissaries, in case your memory has temporarily lapsed, were the crack troops of the Ottoman empire, often recruited from among the conquered Christians.

This brief description of the time and setting describes more or less equally well the novel's chief selling point: its novelty. This isn't the only crime novel about a eunuch, but they're not all that common. Neither do we often go to Istanbul in the 1830s.

That said, there isn't an awful lot else to say. The book mostly held my attention throughout, and there are some really splendid touches, such as the pen-portrait of George, the Greek vegetable vendor. Mr Goodwin has also worked a variant on Raymond Chandler's general principle: when in doubt, have a man come through the door with a gun in his hand. In this case, Goodwin's law says, when in doubt have a eunuch go into a room where there's a naked woman gazing into a mirror. That livens things up a bit.

However, the author is inexperienced in the field of fiction, and it shows. And in my view the ending is too subtle for its own good.

This book is evidently to be the first in a series. More info on the author's web site.

I can't help wondering if there's a film in this. Eunuch. Istanbul. Non-Christian religion. Yeah, you know, come to think of it, there is. Tom Cruise would be a natural.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Copyright, copywrong, copywrong; copywrong, copyright, copyright

Maud Newton reports that the American authorities, heavily bribed by the big intellectual-property-owning companies, want to strengthen the laws against breach of copyright.

Sorry, sorry, strike that bit about politicians being bribed. Big companies give campaign funds, don't they? All in the interests of democracy, freedom, guys in white hats and all like that. Greedy self-interest would be a totally false description of their noble stand on matters of principle.

Speaking of copyright, do you ever get the feeling that this is a subject on which 99% of the people in the world are very fuzzy thinkers? To find a a classic example of such fuzzy thinking, nip over to the New York Times (if they'll let you in; the man at the door is very picky) and read what Mark Helprin has to say about copyright. He thinks it should last for ever. And if it doesn't, that's slavery. He says. (Link from Galleycat.)

Well, when an article like that appears in a prestigious place, then I suppose somebody has to sigh deeply and take it seriously; and that somebody, naturally, is Professor Lawrence Lessig.

Lessig was written about here very early in the life of this blog, and often since; he is one of the main thinkers behind the Creative Commons movement. In response to the Helprin 'contribution', Lessig has set up a wiki page which deals, in considerable detail, with the matters raised by Helprin. The slavery nonsense is dealt with in section 10.

Look, I have a modest proposal to make about this. Why don't we just pass a law, applicable in every country in the world, which says that the copyright of everything ever written or created, past, present or future, belongs for ever and ever amen to the Walt Disney Corporation? Hm? That would make everything perfectly simple and straightforward, wouldn't it?

Everyone would know that, if they wanted to quote three words of anything, they would have to pay the Disney Corp $500. Per word. And then we wouldn't have all these pointless debates about how long copyright should last, and who owns it.

Who could possibly object to that? Eh? Who? Macaulay? Who he? He's dead, isn't he? What do dead guys know about anything?

Friday, May 25, 2007

Weekend roundup

By the way, if the line spacing in this post looks odd, that's not my fault. New Blogger is about as reliable as New Labour -- i.e. seems to have gone completely crazy.

If you can rhyme, now's the time

Abebooks commissioned a sculptor to create a bookshelf entirely out of Harry Potter books. And it's being offered as a prize in a Harry Potter poetry competition. You could do far worse/ than to enter your verse.

Recruiters on the loose

Big row in the UK at the moment about Scientology. Personally I once tried to read Dianetics and failed utterly. Perhaps it was because I could never bring myself to have much faith in a belief system invented by a science-fiction writer.

For my own part, I belong to the apathetic-agnostic-atheist wing of the Church of England. This is a religious denomination of which you can remain a member in good standing by attending church on three occasions only: when you are christened, married, and buried; and the first two are optional. You can be a fully paid-up member while doubting everything, believing nothing, and having no faith whatever in anything. I warmly recommend it.

Meanwhile, if you are accosted by eager young people who are keen to convert you to Scientology, the Times offers advice. You should say 'Xenu' to them. Repeatedly. Apparently, Xenu was an alien who visited the Earth 75 million years ago, but you aren't supposed to know about him until you have reached a senior level in Scientology; and, of course, have paid a commensurate fee.

S&S start chopping things about

Quite a lot of people are unimpressed by the new terms introduced into Simon and Schuster's contract -- e.g. the US Authors Guild. S&S/Touchstone were involved not so long ago in the Sobol competition debacle; and said competition was severely criticised by them as knows owt about publishing: e.g. Miss Snark.

However, as if that wasn't enough, Touchstone is now involved in yet another online 'competition' -- of sorts. Here's the press release. Galleycat says that the publishing world finds this latest S&S venture a trifle ridiculous.

Michael Cader, of Publishers Lunch, also read this press release, and promptly got on the phone to several of the participants. He discovered that the details are as clear as mud. Either MediaPredict declines to disclose them, or they have yet to be firmed up, e.g. with participating agents. Common sense, rather than inside information, suggests that you ought to be very cautious indeed before leaping forward to participate in this one.

Miss Snark retires

Miss Snark is another big-time blogger who has found it all too much and quit. But she leaves a formidable resource to dip into.

Publishers Lunch ain't free

Incidentally, you will find that I quite often make reference to the Publishers Lunch newsletter, written by Michael Cader, and if you click on my link you will find that you have to pay to receive the de luxe version. And you may feel that paying out good money for this purpose is quite unnecessary. Well, unnecessary it may be, but I think it's good value for anyone who is seriously trying to make headway in the book business. (Not a course of action that I would advise, by the way.) Cader is very much on the ball and has a refreshingly inquiring mind. His discussion of the MediaPredict business alone could save you a lot of heartache.

Here's another Publishers Lunch link. If you're thinking of becoming a ghost writer (smartest move in an otherwise dumb career, imho), then choose your agent carefully. Otherwise, you might end up paying a high commission and being sued.

Let the Devil die?

Radenko Fanuka argues that we should not let the Devil die. I didn't even know he was ill. In addition to poetry, Radenko has written a book, which has been well received by Amazon reviewers.

Viagra emails get through OK

I know we have to avoid giving needless offence to people, but some Americans seem to have their email filters set a bit high. Ron Hogan on Galleycat reports that one of his correspondents had trouble receiving a review of a book from him, because the book was entitled Impotence: a History.

Amateurs spoil it for the pros

M.J. Rose -- unsurprisingly, in view of her history as an earlier exploiter of online marketing opportunities -- takes a sensible line on the business of how to give it away on the web and still get paid. The web wants to be free. Don't ever doubt it.

Repeat after me

Jim Crace has a new book out. I tried one of his earlier novels and decided it was not for me, but I have a soft spot for him because of one story he tells. Seems he went into a bookshop to buy a copy of one of his own books for a friend. He asked the young man behind the till whether he had a copy of Whatever it Was, by Jim Crace, pronouncing his name (as he always does) to rhyme with race. The young man led the way to the shelf, remarking smugly as he went, 'I think you'll find that the author's name is pronounced Crar-chay.' Jim didn't say anything. Just handed over his credit card.

Now Croce, on the other hand... I remember another smug young man, forty years ago, telling me that, at Oxford, people were reading Croce again.

Madame gets around

Madame Arcati interviewed Jonathan King about the Eurovision song contest and his life in general. Naturally they touched on the state of popular music, and here's part of what Jonathan said. Does it ring any bells in another context?

The big problem at the moment is - the major music corporations are (rightly) dying in this download world and the thrashing of their death throes means we are being force fed crap which is their top priority but no good. However, the good news is... it's easier than ever for truly talented musicians to emerge via internet and other sources.
By the way, my principal objection to Eurovision this year was that it gave every impression of being mimed. But no one else has mentioned it, so perhaps it was just my suspicious mind. Anyway, even giving the impression is bad.

Madame, by the way, continues to mingle with the good and the great. Ah, dear reader, if only you and I could win the Booker -- or the pools, or the lottery -- we could do the same. Perhaps, like Madame, we should polish up the old crystal ball and learn what will be popular/prestigious in the future.

Cold Tree Press

You may remember that, some time ago, I reviewed Mark Levine's book The Fine Print of Self-Publishing. This contained detailed analyses of 48 companies which provide services for those who wish, in effect, to publish their own book.

One of the companies listed as 'outstanding' was the Cold Tree Press. Nip over to their web site and you can form a judgement for yourself. The company was founded and is run by Peter Honsberger, an award-winning graphic designer, and I think it shows. Levine also adds that the firm puts out well written and aesthetically pleasing books; and there is certainly an emphasis on authors having their work professionally edited.

I was prompted to look at this firm by a press release about Gary Paul Corcoran's novel The Trip into Milky Way. This is not, it turns out, a novel that I want to read, for a variety of reasons, but I can see clearly enough how it came to be written. I can also believe that it will strike a chord with readers of a certain age and background: Americans who were young and hopeful in the 1960s, but are not so young now -- and, who knows, maybe not so hopeful.

Mitzi is still at it -- apparently insatiable

Mitzi Szereto -- you remember her, I'm sure -- is preparing a book of female sexual fantasies. The aim being (and this is a serious academic study, I will have you know; Black Lace books have a reputation for that kind of thing) to shed light on the female psyche at this particularly significant point in the new millennium. Or something like that.

If you want to take part, you go to the Black Lace web site and fill in the questionnaire. Or try to. It's not easy to find, and when you do get to the right page it says 'reader questionnaire to follow soon'. Little right hand/left hand problem here one feels, but never mind. You get the general idea. (Original link from

Of course it would be wholly inappropriate for any gentlemen of a mischievous turn of mind to invent a female persona and sign up in her name, so to speak. That would distort the whole thing, and introduce a bias into the findings which would deeply distress all seekers after the truth. So don't even think of it. Heh heh heh.


Maud Newton found an article which introduced me to some hitherto unknown rules of English grammar. And I bet you don't know them either.

Mike Palacek has a fictional vision of a near-future world in which neo fascists can stick you in jail for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Totally incredible, as I'm sure you will agree; couldn't possibly happen here. Fiction gone mad.

Meanwhile, on the same general subject of combating terrorism, you might like to read last Sunday's review by Max Hastings of a new book by Professor Hennessy.

Michael Cader of Publishers Lunch draws attention to a rather nauseating post on the Google Book Search blog (cute kid, if you please). But behind this curious way of announcing something lie some key developments in the Google Book Search programme. Cader seems to have tested the system out and is so far not wildly enthusiastic about the actual results. A succinct explanation is available here.

Cader also reports that HarperCollins Publishers' Chief Executive Jane Friedman just didn't understand what The Dangerous Book for Boys meant. It means dollar signs, darling; very simple. Fortunately her sales staff urged her to stick with the title. The book had been a hit in England and Australia, and, in just two weeks, Dangerous has become the breakout hit of the US season. Despite taking out the stuff about cricket.

In the Times, Philip Kogan tells what it's like to run a small academic publishing house. (Hard work. Helps to be a workaholic.)

Over at Galleycat, Ron Hogan beats up some clown from the LA Times who thinks that bloggers are a lower form of life and should have their licence to write confiscated. Give him a kick from me, Ron.

At, self-published or small-press authors get a chance to sell their books and, er, mingle with their readers. This is not a process that will appeal to everyone, but some will love it. Especially, I suspect, a certain kind of reader. Video, podcasts, and all like that. And there's a reader-driven knockout competition to identify 'the top 100 indie books'.

Word is (via Galleycat) that Rosie de Courcy is joining Random House UK. But she is described as a 'veteran publisher'. This makes me feel old. Bloody hell, I had an interview with Rosie when she was still a teenager, fresh her first triumph of persuading some US paperback firm to pay a ridiculous sum of money for some bodice-ripper (can't remember the details). We got on OK but she didn't buy my book.

And finally...

... which may be a considerable relief if you've got this far. Bloggers are firmly put in their place by... no. no. Must resist the temptation to say what I really think about this woman, especially after yesterday's piece on libel. But one Sheila Kohler says this:

Occasionally someone may mention my books in a blog. I believe the dangers of this indiscriminate reporting on books is that people who have no knowledge of literature can air their views as though they were of value and may influence readers.
(Link from Galleycat.) God forbid, of course, that anyone should ever believe any of the crap that people put on blogs. This brilliant piece of analysis comes, by the way, from a woman who has just hired a publicist, who is, naturally, contacting lots of blogs....

As I have frequently said, the first requirement for working in the book world is a sense of humour.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Why libel makes an editor's knees go weak

As part of last Wednesday's miscellany of notes, comments, and links, I originally had a short paragraph which ran as follows:
Live in the UK? Write stuff? Worried about libel? Well you bloody well ought to be.
And I included a link to a useful article on libel which had appeared in the Times on 14 May. But then, when I was checking the links after I had published the post on the blog, I noticed that the Times article was no longer available online. So I deleted my own brief paragraph on the subject of libel, since it wasn't much use without the link.

Today, while reading me latest issue of Private Eye (a UK magazine which is almost alone in being willing to tell the truth about anything), I found an explanation for what had happened.

Heather Brooke, who wrote the Times piece on 14 May, began her article as follows:
The libel laws are an abomination. They favour rich, litigious bullies at the expense of freedom of expression.
All of which is undeniably true, in my opinion; and the Eye suggests that this opinion is broadly shared by most journalists and many lawyers.

To make her point clear, Brooke quoted as an instance the case of a child-care expert who sued a website which, allegedly, libelled her. She forced the owners to apologise and made them pay for part of her legal fees.

According to the Eye, the child-care expert also read Heather Brooke's Times article, decided that she didn't like that either, and got her lawyers to threaten legal action. So the Times promptly took the article off the web site. Which is why I couldn't link to it, and why I deleted my own comment on the situation.

Well now.... This is where, as of posting this post (a point which I emphasise, in case some of the links don't work if and when you click on them) things get a bit complicated.

The name of the child-care expert concerned is Gina Ford. Wikipedia has a page on her. The Wikipedia entry also has a brief summary of her case against the web site, which is called Mumsnet.

A Google search for "Gina Ford" + Mumsnet reveals that on 9 August Gina Ford issued, and posted on her own official web site, a statement about her position vis a vis Mumsnet. You can find (as of when I write this) a copy of the Ford web-site page, carrying this statement, in the Google cache. However, if you follow Google's link to the current version of that same page, you get a blank. At least in both of the browsers that I use.

Just to give you a view of the other side of this argument (courtesy of the Guardian), perhaps you ought to look at what Justine Roberts, one of the co-founders of Mumsnet, has to say.

If you have time and patience to pursue any of this any further (which, frankly, I do not recommend), you could try reading a summary provided by Blaise Grimes-Viort -- plus the comments from his readers. (After some earlier stuff on Big Brother, you will find that he gets to the lovely and delightful Ms Ford in due course. And he ain't too impressed.)

But now, perhaps, you begin to see why I drafted, then deleted, and now reinstate, my own two pennorth on the subject of libel:
Live in the UK? Write stuff? Worried about libel? Well you bloody well ought to be.
If you really want to know more, trawl through some of my earlier posts about defaming the allegedly innocent, notably my comments on the life of the king of libel, Peter Carter-Ruck.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Mr Fenman's Farewell to His Readers

IMPORTANT NOTE, added 18 February 2013.

Much of the original post, 21 May 2007, which follows, is now out of date and the links will not work. However, Mr Fenman, in all his glory (or otherwise) is now available on your local branch of Kindle. In the US you will find him here, and in the UK here. Residents in other countries will have to search for the title of the book.

I would like to introduce you, if I may, to my latest publication. Its title is Mr Fenman's Farewell to His Readers.

As is my usual practice these days, I am making this publication available online as a free pdf file. I will provide a link below. This pdf file is issued under a Creative Commons licence (details are given at the end of the book). It can be printed out (if you wish); it may also be copied and sent to a friend. In short you can use it freely for more or less any non-commercial purpose.

For my part, I wanted to be able to send printed copies of the book to friends and reviewers, so I have made the book available in paperback format through Anyone who wishes to buy a copy can have one for £4.84 plus postage, or the equivalent in your local currency.

Mr Fenman's Farewell to His Readers is in two parts. The principal part of this short book (84 pages in printed form) is a brief memoir, written in 1836 by the long-forgotten English writer Thomas Fenman. This is preceded by my own introduction to the memoir, which sets it in context.

Mr Fenman's Farewell to His Readers is a title which I have assigned to the text, since Fenman himself did not provide one. And it is a rather mysterious work. Fenman himself assures us that every word of it is true, to the best of his recollection. And yet he himself admits that, if the world is ordered as we think it is, his account cannot be true.

Fenman offers us various explanations of this state of affairs: that he is lying about certain details, perhaps; or that the story is complete fiction from start to finish; or that he is becoming senile; and so forth.

But for the modern reader that is not, perhaps, the principal puzzle. The most interesting question raised by Mr Fenman is this: who was the mysterious Madame de Mentou? She was, we know, the mature and sophisticated woman with whom the young Fenman became totally besotted -- or says that he did. But, whether she was real or a figment of Fenman's imagination, who was she?

Happily, you can read the book and form your own conclusion. And, insofar as there is any pleasure to be had in it, therein lies the reader's interest and satisfaction. But, having read the book, and having resolved the mysteries in your own mind, you may wish to turn to an authoritative and erudite critic for a complete explanation.

Through the good offices of Georgy Riecke, the editor of Underneath the Bunker, I am able to tell you that an advance review of my book has recently been published in that magazine. Underneath the Bunker is a valuable online survey of literature and the arts (mentioned here before), and it has been described (correctly in my opinion) as Europe's premier cultural journal. In this journal, Emeritus Professor R. Gowan Haverges has provided what some might call a postmodernist deconstruction of Mr Fenman's Farewell to His Readers; and this review article is, in my estimation, a sound interpretation of the facts as we have them.

Be warned, however, that Professor Haverges's review reveals certain details and background information which may, perhaps, spoil your enjoyment of Fenman's memoir, if read in advance of the text itself. So a careful study of Haverges's theory is best postponed until after you have read the book (if you ever do).

By way of temptation, a short extract from the beginning of Fenman's memoir is printed out below. But first, here are all the necessary links, assembled in one convenient place:

Kingsfield Publications's page on Mr Fenman, with download link to the pdf file. page from which you can purchase a copy of the paperback version.

Professor Haverges's erudite review, in which many mysteries are elucidated (just in case you have not worked them out for yourself).

Those who have not previously explored Underneath the Bunker would be well advised to do so. There are few quicker ways to acquire a convincing veneer of culture, and a useful supply of big names with which to impress young ladies (afterthought: or, of course, young gentlemen) at cocktail parties (or, conceivably, the local McDonald's).

And now, as promised, here is a brief extract from the very beginning of Mr Fenman's extraordinary account:


Mr Fenman's Farewell to His Readers

O Muse, great mistress, please assist me now!
O memory, that noted what I saw,
Here shall your value be made plain to all.

THERE WAS PLAGUE in Venice that year. But I did not leave.

I might well have left; I had every intention of doing so. But I was dissuaded by Madame de Mentou.

I had arrived in Venice in early September 1786, just fifty years ago, to the week, as I write these words. I took rooms in a hotel while I looked around for a house to rent for the winter.

At first, all seemed well. True, the bells of the church nearby were for ever ringing; and there seemed to be frequent funerals. But I paid little attention, being distracted by the sights and sounds of a new and extraordinary city.

But then I began to notice (or fancied I did) that the hotel staff were muttering to themselves in the corridors. They had quiet conversations which I could not quite hear, and which in any case were hastily broken off as I approached. And finally, of course, I was told the truth by my French friend, Monsieur Charleroi.

Monsieur Charleroi had been in Venice for some time. Like me, he was a young man on the grand tour, and he had kindly acted as something of a guide to me in my early days. But one afternoon, when I returned to the hotel after a walk, I found him surrounded by bags in the lobby.

‘Monsieur Charleroi,’ I exclaimed in surprise. ‘Surely you are not leaving?’

‘I am,’ he said abruptly. ‘And so should you.’

He pulled me to one side, where we could not be overheard. ‘You remember,’ he enquired, ‘the manager of this hotel, the man who admitted you when you first arrived?’

‘I remember him well.’

Monsieur Charleroi nodded. ‘Three days ago he was as cheerful as you or I. Today he is dead.’

I was shocked into silence. ‘It is la peste,’ Charleroi whispered to me. ‘The plague. You understand? You should leave at once.’

At this, my heart beat faster and I am sure that the blood faded from my cheeks. The plague! Something like panic filled my mouth with hot saliva, and I became as wide-eyed and pale as Charleroi himself.

Charleroi said no more, apart from, ‘Be warned, mon ami,’ and he continued his arrangements to depart. And I, after bidding him farewell, went upstairs to my room to consider what to do.

Now I was nothing in those days if not a well trained English gentleman; and while I had a healthy sense of concern for my own welfare, I also thought of others. And I immediately remembered Madame de Mentou, the French lady to whom I had been introduced by Charleroi himself a week or so earlier.

I went downstairs to find that Charleroi had already gone, depriving me of the opportunity to ask him if he had spoken to Madame de Mentou already. So, in case he had not, and filled with a sense of civic duty, I immediately left the hotel and made my way to the house where the lady was living.

At the door I was told that Madame was with her dressmaker, and that it was not convenient for me to call, but I rudely demanded to see her anyway, insisting that it was an urgent matter. Eventually I was admitted, albeit with a great deal of tutting and handwaving in protest.

Fortunately, Madame de Mentou was quite unflustered by my sudden entry – though few ladies, I am sure, would have welcomed my intrusion upon such an important domestic scene. Venice, I had already been told, was particularly demanding in the number of dresses that a lady must have, and the seamstress was down on her knees, with a mouthful of pins, when I burst in upon them.

‘Why Mr Fenman,’ said Madame. ‘How kind of you to honour us with your presence.’

The gentle irony, and the implicit (and deserved) rebuke, went unnoticed.

‘Madame,’ I blurted out. ‘We must leave Venice at once!’

Madame turned to look at me. ‘Must we?’ she enquired. And she gave me one of her mocking smiles. It was clear that she, at least, was not about to panic, no matter how dreadful the news. ‘And why would we do that?’

I took the liberty – quite unlike a nervous and callow young Englishman – of approaching her closely and whispering in her ear, so that the seamstress should not hear.

‘It is not safe,’ I told her. ‘There is plague in the city.’

I stepped back, astounded by my own boldness.

Madame took the news with remarkable calmness. ‘Is that so?’ she said. ‘And you believe we should leave?’


‘And where do you think we should go, Mr Fenman?’

This was not an unreasonable question, but it was one which, in the ten minutes or so it had taken me to rush to her house, I had not had the wit to address.

‘Why, anywhere,’ I spluttered. ‘Rome, Paris, London. Anywhere will be safer than here.’

Madame gave me one of her marvellous laughs; her face lit up with amusement. ‘And what makes you think that?’

‘Why… because there is no… There is not the same… not the same risk there as there is here.’

Madame moved her position, to allow the seamstress to work on a different part of the dress, around the waist.

‘Do you really think so, Mr Fenman? Does no one ever die, then, in Rome, or Paris, or London?’

I was beginning to feel foolish. I could feel myself going red.

Madame was enjoying my discomfiture immensely. ‘I perceive, Mr Fenman, that you do not know the story that the Arabs tell, about the man who tried to run away from Death.’

I did not know it then, though I have heard it several times since, and indeed have used it in my own work. So Madame proceeded to tell me.

In this story, a rich man in Baghdad sends his servant to the marketplace to buy food. But almost immediately the servant comes back, empty-handed and trembling with fear. He tells his master that in the marketplace he bumped into a pale-faced man, whom he recognised as Death – and, what was worse, says the servant, Death recognised him and made a threatening gesture.

The servant begs his master to let him take a horse, and he gallops away to Samarra, which is far enough away, he believes, for him to be safe.

Later, the rich man goes into the town himself, and he too meets the pale-faced man. Taking his courage in both hands, the rich man asks Death why he had made the threatening gesture to his servant.

‘That was not a threatening gesture,’ says Death. ‘It was merely an expression of surprise. I was astonished to come across your servant here in Baghdad, for I have an appointment with him tonight in Samarra.’

Madame laughed out loud when she had finished this story, as if it amused her greatly. And she clearly was not remotely alarmed by the prospect of plague in Venice.

‘So you see, Mr Fenman,’ Madame continued, ‘it would be quite wrong to think that you might do yourself any good by running away from here.’

She approached me, a warm smile on her face: a smile which filled me with admiration and longing. How fortunate I was that this beautiful and sophisticated woman should see fit even to converse with me.

Madame placed her hand on my shoulder, to reassure me.

‘While you are in this city, Mr Fenman, you should think of yourself as being under my protection. No harm will come to you here, I promise you that.’

The seamstress had now either finished her work, or had given up the attempt in the face of my distractions, and was packing away her things.

‘And besides, you have work to do here in Venice. And so have I. We shall work together.’ She smiled again. ‘I have decided to take you under my wing, Mr Fenman. And when I take a young man under my wing, he tends to do rather well. In fact, very well indeed.’

And then she came closer still, and kissed me full on the lips.

After that, of course, I remained.


Reminder: to download the whole of Mr Fenman's memoir, as a free pdf file, follow this link.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Things to contemplate on a Wednesday

Ah, dear reader, you thought that life was hard for writers. But consider, if you will, the hardships endured by the men (and women) who set your book in type. Or used to, until the world went flat. This extract from a forthcoming book (link from Galleycat) is a real eye-opener. And there's a moral. It's not a good idea to let your fingers get caught in the mangle. Though what you do instead I have no idea.

Actually, I do have an idea, at least if you're a writer, and I've been preaching it here for yonks. Stay away from big publishing. Do your own thing. Of course you won't make any money, but remember what Jack Saunders said. Come on, I mentioned it only the other day -- 16 December 2005, to be precise:
Disintermediate now. Don’t wait for permission. Start from where you are. Get better by doing it. By and by, a cult will form around you. You’ll be respected by your peers. You’ll be known in the narrow world of what you do as a mensch. A stand-up guy. A soldier.
I like that.

Another thing I like is on the Hotel Chelsea blog. It's a video plugging a new book called Legends of the Chelsea Hotel (not published till 28 September, I see). It's very simple, and presumably cheap, but very effective. First of a series, I believe. Of course you have to be old enough to know who they're talking about.

Fifty years ago, when I first became interested in writing, there was comparatively little information available to a wannabe writer: a few books (not very distinguished) in the local library, and that was that. Today, the place is awash with it. There's a great mountain of links on this one page alone. (Link from Paul Perry.)

Success in any medium is a two-edged sword. On the one hand, it is much desired, and may well be the source of one's income; on the other hand, it brings with it many burdens and consumes huge amounts of time and energy. Witness the story of Jonathan Coulton, a successful songwriter and blogger. (Link from M.J. Rose.)

Now this one might be a treat. I've read the first chapter and it's certainly looks stylish and intriguing. The guy can write, and typos appear to be zero, which is always a nice surprise. If I didn't have such a big pile.... But you know how it is. Anyway, Ian Woollen has written a novel called Stakeout on Millennium Drive, and it's published by Ramble House Press. Here's the link to the book. It comes with endorsements, one of them from Michael Z. Lewin, an American who used to live 10 miles down the road from me. I wonder if he still does.

There's also an immensely worthwhile article on Bookslut, mainly about the importance of small presses, which makes a mention of Ian Woollen's book towards the end. From said article, I am surprised to find that Jake Arnott, once a star, is now published in the US by a small outfit like SoHo Press. Actually I'm not surprised at all, but there we are. I bear the man no ill will.

What is really, really interesting about Woollen, however, is that he's published by the Ramble House Press. The Mystery Strumpet at Bookslut describes Ramble House as a 'spit-and-bubble-gum publishing house', and I can see what she means. The firm seems to specialise in bringing to life long-forgotten authors, with a sprinkling of new stuff. It also operates through Lulu, which is a model that could repay study.

Everyman is publishing a book of poems about Fatherhood, just in time for Father's Day, 17 June. Ahhhh.... Inthat nice?

For lessons in how to plug a novel on TV, see Madame Arcati.

Hey, what did I tell you? The Blooker prizes have been announced, and Andrew Losowsky won the fiction prize for The Doorbells of Florence. The overall winner was a non-fiction book about the war in Iraq. And it looks as if it deserves its success.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Let's hear it for the humble hyperlink

There's a good deal of discussion at present (I gather; I haven't read 90% of it) as to whether bloggers are crap book reviewers, and are they driving hard-working, scholarly, underpaid newspaper chappies out of business; et cetera, et cetera. Here's an example of such discussion; and here's another; and another. And an overview of it all.

As a result of this discussion, or such parts of it as I've read, one thought strikes me rather forcibly; well, actually several thoughts.

The first thought is that bloggers have numerous practical advantages over the newspaper guys. In the first place, they can review whatever they like, or don't like: a book which is a hundred years old, one from a self-publisher, whatever. The newspaper-based book reviewer, by and large, has to jump to his editor's commands.

Second, a blogger can write at any length he wishes. Ten thousand words, no problem. One word? Equally acceptable. And nobody will go through the review, change this, alter that, improve the other. In print newspapers and magazines, not only is length constrained, but the evidence suggests that what goes underneath the reviewer's name is not necessarily what he wrote.

Evidence: see the Wikipedia article on Publishers Weekly; section on book reviews. Guy there says: 'On a few occasions, I’ve had opinions utterly reversed from what I wrote. I’ve questioned this, but I’ve never received satisfactory answers.' So much for principle. Gotta keep the advertisers happy.

Also, bear in mind what happened when Michael Dibdin wrote a scathing review, for the Guardian, of a book by the Guardian's political correspondent: they refused to print it. So Dibdin took his review, plus the story, to the Times.

Finally, however, let us remember one simple fact. However erudite the print reviewer may be, and however exquisite his taste and critical judgement, he is handicapped by comparison with the most humble blogger. Our print man cannot link directly to other sources.

This is, I would suggest, a major problem. Twenty years ago, of course, no one could even imagine it. But now it has to be faced.

For my part I have been running this blog for over three years, and as the weeks go by I increasingly find myself linking to earlier posts of my own. But even a blog which is three weeks old can lead readers to other online sources which yield immensely valuable information.

So let's give three silent cheers for the humble hyperlink. And for the fellows who first dreamed it up (Ted Nelson, Douglas Engelbart, and friends).

Monday, May 14, 2007

Alan Moore & Melinda Gebbie: Lost Girls

In 1974, the Belier Press published a book called The Adventures of Sweet Gwendoline, by John Willie, whose real name was John Alexander Scott Coutts.

John Willie was an artist and photographer, and he might best be described as a bondage freak, though he was in my opinion harmless rather than sinister. True, John Willie's heroine, sweet Gwendoline -- she of the spectacular bosom-- does get in some fearful scrapes, and is frequently tied up in the most awkward positions; but one really doesn't feel that she suffers any lasting damage.

Anyway, the point is that The Adventures of Sweet Gwendoline came with an introduction by the artist Allen Jones. In that introduction, Jones tells us that there is a form of drawing which he calls Popular Illustration. This, he says, exists outside the accepted area of Fine Art, and can be divided into six categories (at least).

These six categories are, briefly: satirical cartoons; book illustrations; the picture story; commercial advertising; the animated cartoon; and the pin-up.

Lost Girls, by Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie, falls firmly into the picture story category (as, of course, does Sweet Gwendoline). In other words, it is a long story told in comic-strip form, with several frames on each page. Comics, by the way, have a long history, and are sometimes known as sequential art or graphic storytelling. The point of comics/sequential art/graphic novels is simple. By comparison with other forms of fiction, you get a lot of pictures and not so many words.

First published by Top Shelf in August 2006, Lost Girls comes in three volumes, all enclosed in a slip case, and carrying a fairly high price tag: current Amazon price $75. Officially, the book is not yet on sale in the UK (copyright problems, of which more in a moment), but some copies have been imported.

So, what is this graphic novel cum book-length comic, or whatever, all about?

The answer, I suppose, is that it's mostly about sex, which is vividly illustrated. If you are offended and upset by representations of human sexuality -- erect penises, exposed vaginas, and the like -- then this is not for you. Neither is it for you if you feel that any persons under the legal age of consent can ever willingly engage in sexual activities. (For a discussion of these controversial aspects of the work, see Wikipedia.)

And who are the Lost Girls, you may be wondering. The answer here is that they are characters drawn from fictional media. To be precise, they are Alice (now Lady Fairchild) from Alice in Wonderland, Dorothy (Gale) from The Wizard of Oz, and Wendy (nee Darling, now Potter) from Peter Pan. In Lost Girls these three fictional characters are shown in later life, as it were; and if you object, on principle, to the lifting of such characters from much-loved classics, let alone their involvement in sexual activities, then this again is not the book for you. Alan Moore, however, has made a habit of the practice: his graphic novel The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen was something of a success, not least in the film version.

In book 1 of the Lost Girls trilogy we are gradually introduced to the three principal characters in the story. The time, we realise, is immediately prior to the outbreak of World War I. The three girls -- actually women -- find themselves attending the 1913 premiere of Stravinsky's ballet Le Sacre du Printemps. And already we find the girls' traditional experience (in their original book/movie/play) being reinterpreted in sexual terms. Book I, my notes say, is rather fine: imaginative, erotic, original, interesting; the artwork distinctive.

In book 2 there are instances of lesbian sex, involving the three girls, and gay sex, featuring other characters. A number of additional characters from the source works also make their appearance: Captain Hook, for instance, becomes Captain Huxley, a paedophile.

It is also in book 2 that the reader begins to absorb the sense of doom which is perhaps the overall impression of this book -- at least it is once you have got over the shock/horror of the graphic sex and the liberties taken with famous characters. We are reminded, over and over again, of the coming tragedy of World War I, a tragedy which the characters are mercifully unaware of, but which somehow is in the atmosphere. It's certainly in the book. There is a great deal of red in these pictures, and I don't think that's an accident: I think it symbolises the terrible bloodshed which is shortly to come about.

Not only are the pictures remarkable, by the way, but the prose is also noteworthy. I am not going to quote examples, because when taken out of context they will inevitably seem banal.

As the story progresses, we are treated to pastiches of works by artists and authors of the period: these include such luminaries as Colette, Aubrey Beardsley, Wilde, Mucha, and so forth.

At the end of book 2, the women cavort while the Archduke dies at Sarajevo. And instinctively, Alice tells us that 'something quite glorious was finished with for good'. Thus she provides an epitaph for the age which was about to close.

Book 3 features a number of Beardsleyesque illustrations which in my view are the best in the book. And it contains a very English joke about not having sex while the train is standing in the station. In fact book 3 contains a very large amount of sexual activity, enough to make me feel that it was rather repetitious. However, one has to remember the context, which, I repeat, is immediately prior to World War I.

The book ends on the morning after the assassination of the Archduke, a crime which acted as the final precipitator of war. All the girls' most intimate secrets have been revealed to each other and it is time for them to leave the hotel where they have been staying.

German soldiers arrive and smash everything. The war begins.

The dialogue on the last few pages is entirely in German. But should you wish to know what the German soldiers are saying to each other, you can find a translation online.

A few final notes. Lost Girls reportedly took 16 years to complete. The authors found themselves in disagreement with Great Ormond Street Hospital, which owns the copyright in J.M. Barrie's Peter Pan, but the Hospital has now reached an amicable agreement with the publisher (Top Shelf Books), to the effect that there will be no recourse to legalities so long as the publisher does not attempt to publish Lost Girls in the UK until after 1 January 2008: at which time the copyright allegedly expires. However, as always with copyright, the position is hideously complicated. I think that both parties would be well advised to avoid the courts, as the only people to benefit from such nonsense would be the lawyers.

This is a book which will repay study. And, should you wish to explore some of its complexities and subtleties before buying a copy, the Wikipedia article is a good place to start. The same article also provides links to some of the extensive internet comment on this book.

The publisher, by the way, naturally has its own web site.

I have stated what might put you off this book. But, if you are to enjoy it fully, you need not only a tolerance to those aspects that I have highlighted, you also need a sound working knowledge of European history and culture; otherwise, I suspect, many of the references will pass you by. And I do not claim that I understood all of them myself.

It is, in fact, rather hard to identify the natural audience for this book. It will appeal most, I think, to those with an odd combination of eccentric tastes -- tastes in art, literature, popular culture, and erotica (if we must use that shop-soiled term). Despite its exclusivity, however, I believe that this book will still be read in many years' time.

Some of the illustrations may not fall within the definition of Fine Art, as Allen Jones would have it, but they are definitely fine with a small f. The book will certainly tell future generations something about the present generation of writers, artists, and readers: though what that is, I cannot say.

If you have academic ambitions, you may care to note that there is material here for any number of PhD theses. To give but one example: all the participants in the sexual activity have an impossible number of orgasms; but the point is made in the text that pornography is not real. The girls tell stories of people doing things which the girls acknowledge are awful and dreadful, but which will excite the teller and the listeners. This seems to me to be a morally complex idea.

Overall this is, in my view, a much more subtle and complicated book than it might appear. It deals with imagination and fantasy as compared with real life, and guilt about our fantasies.

P.S. 16 May. Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie just got married. How romantic. Neil Gaiman was there and took some photos.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

The Rocky Horror Show

On Friday evening to the Theatre Royal, Bath, to see a late-night performance of The Rocky Horror Show. And a good time was had by all.

Rocky was premiered in June 1973, at the Royal Court. It subsequently became a big smash hit almost everywhere, including odd places like Tokyo, though Broadway didn't take to it. Never mind. All right-thinking persons elsewhere loved it. In particular, US college kids loved the movie version. It didn't make any serious money, but it became a cult. And periodically the stage show gets revived. The current UK tour still has some weeks to run: itinerary and much else on the production's own web site.

For those who remain blissfully unaware of what joys await them, perhaps we should say that Rocky is a rock and roll musical. It tells the story of the innocent young Brad and Janet, whose car breaks down and who subsequently find themselves in the castle of Dr Frank N Furter, a man with strange tastes in clothing, and who swings, shall we say, both ways.

Somewhere along the line, the tradition grew up that audiences should dress the part when they go to see Rocky. This is a very rare, if not unique, circumstance. And on Friday last I would guess that some 80% of the audience had made an effort.

Dressing for the part means, if you are full-blooded about it, that the men should dress in drag and the girls go for basques, exposing lots of creamy bosom, and of course, fishnet stockings, suspenders, and stilettos.

Mrs GOB and I went part way. I settled for formal evening wear, and Mrs GOB had fishnet tights and lots of dramatic makeup. I was shown up as a coward by a 60-year-old man to Mrs GOB's right. He had given it the full works, including painted nails.

Lest you think that extreme, let me tell you that, the previous evening, a young gentleman had turned up in the restaurant, and subsequently the theatre, wearing stilettos, a black G-string, and naught else. No one complained (the barman told me), though I think he was improperly dressed myself: surely such an outfit calls for a pair of black evening gloves?

This being a musical, and a much amplified one at that, I had bought seats in one of the upper galleries. Here, I discovered, one meets a much more interesting class of person than in the stalls. There were several groups of cheerful young ladies, wearing not a lot, and all extremely beautiful. Single gentlemen of a certain age, please note: this is a good place to be, if you get the chance, as it struck me that quite a few of the young ladies might have been susceptible to an approach. Yes, even without a formal introduction. Times change, you know. One young lady even smiled at me, which denotes a certain keenness, if not actual desperation.

The second tradition which has grown up around Rocky (it began in the US) is that the audience participates in the show. There are numerous well established routines, which can be mastered by those who take the trouble. Those who have not seen the show before are known in Rocky terminology as virgins, and there is a useful virgin's guide on the official UK fan-club web site.

Rocky is clearly one of those strange phenomena which appeal both to the young and to those who were around when the show was young. Long may it continue to entertain.

Friday, May 11, 2007

News of a sort

The book inscriptions project reproduces some strange things written in books. Says Shaun, who runs the show: 'These inscriptions -- not to be confused with author dedications or autographs -- are personal messages written in ink (or lead or marker) and were given as gifts from one person to another. Some of them are so private that it seems almost impossible that they ended up in a library or a garage sale.' Intriguing. Possibly a site of value to secondhand bookshops, because an entry can have a link to your store.

Kitty Myers, by the way, who reminded me about Abandoned, is herself the author a book of short stories called Briefs and Other Unmentionables. Trust me -- it's a lot of fun. is setting up partnerships with big players, one of the first being Universal Press Syndicate. It is not at all clear to me yet how this partnership will work (to my mind, the press release could be a lot clearer). Nevertheless, I agree with Publishers Lunch's comment on this deal:
Publishing traditionalists often lament the explosion of self-publishing and the ironic implication that people today are more interested in being authors than readers. The next logical step is to see how publishers can make money serving this audience rather than fighting with it, and these initiatives are steps in that direction.
June Austin is a UK-based writer and speaker whose new book has been described as the antithesis to Richard Dawkins's The God Delusion. June has written extensively about the self-publishing process (in a UK context), and there is a great deal of background information on her web site. On the general principle that you can learn from other people's experience (and mistakes), it's well worth a look.

If you are one of those who hopes/believes that your self-published book will immediately be taken up by a big-time publisher, and thus make you rich, famous, and beloved by Oprah, take heart from Maryann McFadden. Publishers Lunch reports that Maryann's The Richest Season (about a corporate wife who runs away and settles on Pawleys Island, SC, working as a caregiver for an elderly woman) has been sold to Ellen Archer at Hyperion, with Leslie Wells editing, at auction, in a two-book deal, for publication in summer 2008. Agent: Victoria Sanders at Victoria Sanders & Associates.

Crumbs. Read Lynne Scanlon's beat-up on book reviewers and you will never dare to write a review again. Not till next week, anyway. (Hands off -- Saturday night? What kind of book is that?)

For reasons best known to himself, Mr Joe Blogs wanted to interview me.

Interested in graphic art? Interested in lesbians? No, no, I didn't think you were really, but I just thought I'd ask, in case some weirdo pervert had wandered in here by mistake, in which case I'd despatch him, or even her, over to Dykes to Watch Out For. Probably permanently. (Link from Bookslut.) Note the thousands of comments, by the way. There are lots of them out there. So watch it. You just can't be too careful.

There's a very amusing piece on called Confessions of a Recovering Writing Contest Judge. If you enter contests, it's well worth reading. And besides being fun, it's seriously good advice.

Emil Michelle has a novel in progress: Saints and Sinners, a religious thriller. Constructive comments welcome.

Everybody says that newspapers in America are cutting down book reviews, or eliminating them entirely. But in the UK the Financial Times's Saturday magazine has for the last two weeks advertised an increase in book coverage.

Dekel Publishing House is based in Israel, but it has an extraordinarily cosmopolitan list of books. The web site does not entirely do the list justice in my opinion, as you have to dig deep into it to find the good stuff. But it is there. Where else can you find a book about 'the only female Pope', or a book about Turkish food written by an American trial lawyer?

Morris Hill Pictures can tell you how to write the great American novel. Turns out it's quite simple really.

The paperback of Emily Giffin's Baby Proof is published in both the UK and the US on 15 May. A romantic comedy, it also deals with some of the serious issues facing young, or not so young, women who are still wondering about having that baby. Or not. An issue de nos jours.

Well, I should have known, shouldn't I? I wondered why a novel called Sunday at the Cross Bones was getting lots of publicity and reviews. So much of it that even I noticed, and I don't actually pay a lot of attention to fiction reviews. And it turns out, of course, that the author, John Walsh, is a columnist at the Independent, and therefore the usual Fleet Street rules apply. You scratch my back...

This info comes to me courtesy of Madame Arcati, who was at the launch party. Which was, it seems, attended by every literary journalist and reviewer in London. Bar one. You must not believe, of course, the terrible lies that Madame tells about everyone. And later on Madame reported a little spat which occurred; but I'm sure that wasn't true either.

We have commented here before on the endless greed of the big corporations, and their willingness to trade mark even the most common everyday phrases, thereafter claiming them as their own property. (See my discussion of Kembrew McLeod's Freedom of Expression.)

For a new example, read today's account in the Times of how Kentucky Fried Chicken and their overpaid lawyers tried to bully a remote English pub out of using the phrase 'family feast'. Result of this fatuous endeavour: acres of bad publicity for KFC and their representatives, Freshfields. Aren't lawyers supposed to give sensible advice?

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Macmillan New Writing -- an update

Macmillan New Writing (MNW) is a UK imprint designed to give a platform to first-time novelists, writing in any genre. It is now just over a year since the first published books appeared, and therefore it is time perhaps to consider how the imprint is doing.

When first announced, the MNW initiative was warmly welcomed here, though not everywhere. Some book-trade people thought it was just plain silly, or worse, and some writers feared they would be ripped off.

Well, in the event nothing untoward has happened, and on the whole I think Macmillan, booksellers, and writers, have all done rather better from the initiative than might have been expected. MNW themselves have naturally chosen to look on the bright side, and here are a few of the highlights of the past year, as they see them.
  • The German rights to M.F.W. Curran’s The Secret War have just been sold for an advance which would have many established authors breaking out the champagne. It will be published by Lueba later this year.
  • Jonathan Drapes’s Never Admit to Beige was one of the first books to be selected as Book of the Month by the Simon Mayo programme on Radio Five.
  • German rights of Brian McGilloway’s Borderlands and his second novel have already been sold to Dumont.
  • A film option has been sold in Michael Stephen Fuchs’s The Manuscript.
Which isn't bad. Most MNW novels have been reprinted several times, and sales have been measured in thousands rather than hundreds. Submissions continue to arrive, with over 6,000 being received in the first year.

You may recall that the standard MNW contract gave the imprint an option on their published authors' next book, and deals have been done to publish follow-up novels by Michael Stephen Fuchs, Edward Charles, and Brian McGilloway. In fact, Pan have bought world rights to three more books by McGilloway, and it is pretty clear that Pan Macmillan are hoping that he will be the natural successor to Colin Dexter (the onlie begetter of Inspector Morse.)

At least one author, to my knowledge, has had her second book turned down, but that, I fear, was always going to be the inevitable outcome for the majority of those whose first book appeared under the MNW banner. It was always the case that MNW saw this venture as a way of sorting out the top commercial talent. If you don't make the cut it is doubtless bitterly disappointing. But that, I fear, is what happens if you venture into the cutthroat world of trade publishing. You can scarcely say you weren't warned, both here and in a thousand other places.

As for year two of MNW, the firm have issued (to the trade) a paperback containing extracts from the next 12 months' output. This includes some intriguing stuff. Fuchs's second book has a good start; the opening chapter from MNW's first American signing, David Isaak, is also interesting; but the best bet, to me, looks like L.C. Tyler's The Herring Seller's Apprentice.

This features Elsie Thirkettle, the world's rudest literary agent (a title for which there is considerable competition). The book begins with a postscript, which is something of a novelty, and I am much looking forward to the rest of it. So are others, it seems. If you wish, you can pre-order a signed copy from Goldsboro Books.

All in all then, MNW looks increasingly like a very good idea indeed. But then I always said it was.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

The power of negative thinking

A few last words before we leave the subject of romantic fiction for a while.

It is in the nature of things that romantic novels appeal mainly to women readers. And for that reason, romantic fiction (a pretty woolly term if ever there was one) is largely despised by the literati.

This arrogant, unpleasant attitude has a long history, at least in English intellectual life. The origins of this contempt for women, and for popular culture generally, have been more than ably chronicled by John Carey, in his book The Intellectuals and the Masses. Carey also presented some of his material in the form of a recent TV documentary.

You and I, however, know better than to sneer at a book simply because it appeals to a group of readers to which we do not belong. Well I do, anyway. If we have any sense at all we know that there are lots of books which have fairly narrow and specialised audiences. Poetry, for instance. Much science fiction. Gay books. And so forth.

One would like to think that most writers would hold the same view. However, what we absorb from the general atmosphere in early life tends to linger in the mind; and I have noticed that, whenever I meet any romantic writers, I am forcibly struck by the fact that they have been brainwashed. For years and years they have been belittled and sneered at, and generally led to believe that romantic fiction is trash, and is (allegedly) infinitely inferior to the real stuff -- i.e. literary fiction.

So often, and so intensely, has this idea been beaten into the heads of romantic novelists that many of them unconsciously believe it to be true. For instance, when I remarked to one writer recently that her latest book could just as easily have been marketed as a literary novel as a romantic one, she took this as such a compliment that tears began to form in her eyes.

Well now, I am always ready, I hope, to compliment a lady, but in this case my remark was not so much a compliment as a comment on the publishing business.

Let us banish this idea of genre inferiority once and for all. (If you need supporting arguments, see chapter 5 of The Truth about Writing, available free online.) And let us remember too that science-fiction writers have been treated in much the same way. But the sf guys (and gals), as far as I can see, have never believed a word of it. Faced with the idea that literary fiction is the real thing, they just snigger back.

Evidence? Try the Ansible newsletter, wherein Dave Langford always quotes some ridiculous, pompous statement which compares sf with lit, unfavourably, and then he proceeds to skewer it for the crap that it is. In the latest Ansible, he quotes Joyce Carol Oates, who is clearly a thinker to be avoided; and Langford also includes several other 'As others see us' paragraphs.

Perhaps some research chemist should develop a monthly antidote of the Ansible kind, and administer it to those who write romantic.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

The best of the rest

Last week I posted a review of Rosie Thomas's Iris and Ruby, which won the UK's Romantic Novel of the Year Award. And I mentioned that I would also post some notes on the other five books which were shortlisted for the award (out of 200 submitted, remember). So here they are, in alphabetical order by author's surname. But first, a brief overall comment.

You and I know that there are lots of books which have fairly narrow and specialised audiences. Poetry, for instance. Much science fiction. Gay books. And so forth. Thus it will come as no surprise if I tell you that most of the five books described below will appeal mainly to women readers. Romantic fiction is, however, a very broad label indeed, and some of these books are aimed principally at small sections of that general readership.

For obvious reaons, I don't fall within the target readership of most of these books, but even so I found them all interesting and mostly enjoyable. For anyone interested in narrative technique, it is always intriguing to see how a skilled author goes about achieving the desired effects.

Matt Dunn: The Ex-Boyfriend's Handbook

It is interesting to try to identify the precise audience for this one. The readers who will enjoy it most will be young, I think. But blokes might get as much out of it as young women.

The basic story is that young man gets dumped by his girlfriend, after about ten years of cohabiting. 'You've let yourself go,' she tells him, 'so I'm letting you go too.'

Our hero feels mighty hurt about this, so having taken a hard look at himself he decides to effect a major makeover, with assistance from his super-slick TV presenter best friend. The book tells how he goes about it, and what happens at the end.

This is essentially a comic novel, and it will make you laugh. It's lighthearted, entertaining, and would be excellent for a plane journey. It is also, by the way, very well designed: 31 well spaced lines per page, and a decent font size.

More on Matt Dunn here.

Katie Flynn: Beyond the Blue Hills

Katie Flynn, my friends, is a complete professional. And I know no higher compliment.

She began writing yonks ago, at first under the name Judith Saxton, and has produced maybe fifty books. These books appeal mainly to working-class women who are, shall we say, advanced in years: people who remember, as someone put it, what it was like to go downstairs and borrow a couple of candles.

Such books are not, of course, going to get reviewed in the Times Lit Supp. Let us not forget, however, that there are enormous numbers of heavy readers out there of whom the TLS wots not. Last year, Katie was the 18th most frequently borrowed author from the UK public-library system, and I recently met a Woolworths manager who told me that, in the north-west of England, he can sell a big pile of her hardbacks as soon as they appear.

Beyond the Blue Hills is a family saga, telling the interweaving stories of two families in the 1930s and '40s. It is exactly what Katie Flynn's fans want, and if you're old enough to remember life in the north of England in those days, then this is for you. But if you're wearing Jimmy Choo shoes, don't bother.

Judith Lennox: A Step in the Dark

Judith Lennox, I would guess, was asked by her publisher to produce a big fat family saga, covering several decades and several countries. And she has done so, very skilfully.

Of course, years ago, a story like this would have been told in several volumes; and it would, in my opinion, have been the better for it. One thinks of Mazo de la Roche's famous Jalna series (11 million copies sold, if you please), or Cynthia Harrod Eagles's Morland Dynasty. But that's not the modern way, it seems.

Here the story begins in India in 1914, when the principal character, Bess, is 18, and carries on until she is in her 60s. Along the way she encounters a vast number of complications, setbacks, admirers, enemies, and so forth. As I say, skilfuly done, by an experienced hand, and will be enjoyed by those who like a long perspective on events.

Judith Lennox has been shortlisted for the Romantic Novel of the Year Award with an earlier novel, so I would expect her to turn up on the list again.

Carole Matthews: Welcome to the Real World

Carole Matthews is an experienced producer of romantic comedy, aimed mainly, but not exclusively, at a younger readership; she has enjoyed considerable success in terms of sales.

The heroine of Welcome to the Real World is Fern, who has ambitions as a singer. She enters a TV talent show, takes a job as PA to a world-famous opera singer, and guess what.

This is lighthearted, lots of fun, told at a fast, crisp pace by an experienced professional. There is no gloom and doom here, particularly as, despite the title, it doesn't take place in the real world at all.

Elizabeth McGregor: Learning by Heart

Learning by Heart is a book which, like Iris and Ruby, moves backwards and forwards in time. It also moves in space, between England and Sicily. Set partly in the present, partly some forty years earlier, Learning by Heart reveals its secrets almost grudgingly.

At the centre of the book is one of those insane love affairs in which both man and woman know perfectly well that they should not be doing what they are doing, but somehow cannot help themselves. I must confess to a certain liking for this kind of book, because I wrote one myself, under a pseudonym.

Earlier in her career, Elizabeth McGregor wrote psychological thrillers, but here she shows herself to be in complete command of a love story, writing in a way which generates very powerful emotions with material which is at times of painful intensity.

The book is marketed in such a way that it is clearly labelled 'women's fiction', and it is probably the mostly wildly romantic of all the shortlisted books. But in fact any reasonably civilised man could read it with a great deal of interest and enjoyment.

Once again, it's worth noting that the author has been well served by the book designer. The font is 11 pt Sabon.