Tuesday, July 31, 2007

The Agent

Martin Wagner's new stage play The Agent is about writing, publishing, and (obviously) the business of being a literary agent. First seen in London in the spring, the play has now transferred to Trafalgar Studio 2, a venue which, as its name suggests, is located just off Trafalgar Square.

I haven't seen the current production, but I have read the script. It's published by Pinter and Martin.

For anyone with any experience of publishing, the play script is a slightly painful read, being based all too clearly (one suspects) on the author's personal and far more painful experiences. However, those unfamiliar with today's wonderful world of bestsellers might well find it an eye-opener.

The play is a two-hander, featuring a not very successful writer and an agent who is an archetypal wheeler-dealer. And that's almost all I can sensibly tell you without revealing too much.

One thing I can add is that the plot hinges around some incriminating photographs. This is not remotely surprising to me. Sin, I have decided, must be rife within the book world, because I long since came to the conclusion that the existence of incriminating photographs is the only possible explanation for quite a number of publishing decisions.

Reviews of The Agent have not been universally favourable, but Benedict Nightingale in the Times seems to have liked it. Other reviews appear in The Stage and the Financial Times. All these reviews, however, tell you more than you might wish to know if you're going to see the play.

One final note. There have, in the history of the commercial theatre, been a fair number of successful two-handers. Two for the See-Saw (later filmed with Mitchum and McLaine) was one; Albee's The Zoo Story was another; and more recently we have had An Hour and a Half Late.

However, my favourite drama theorist, Professor Grebanier, argues that, from a structural and theoretical point of view, two-handers are never successful. It's all to do with climaxes, you see. Two people can, it seems, achieve a perfectly satisfactory climax in sexual terms, but not in dramatic terms.

For a two-hander to work, Grebanier argues, there's has to be, as he puts it, something which 'is used with the catalytic force of a third personality'.

In Two for the See-Saw that something is the telephone. And so it is in The Agent, wherein we have a publisher person on the other end of the phone and playing a vital role in the proceedings. (I wonder if he gets paid the Equity rate?)

Just in case you're interested, Grebanier argues that in The Zoo Story it's the park bench which at first assumes the importance of a third personality; and a bit later on it's the knife.

As for the more recent An Hour and a Half Late, the third personality in that is, at least according to my own dazzling powers of theatrical analysis... Er, lessee now. Sure I'll think of it in a minute.

Ah! The clock. Or that's my story, anyway.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Reflections on our Times

The UK Sunday Times has been my favourite newspaper for a good many decades. It is not, however, perfect. Far from it.

Madame Arcati has been less than complimentary about some of its staff, and there is the occasional article which is just plain ridiculous -- such as last year's nonsense about publishing.

That being said, one can usually depend on the ST to provide food for thought, if nothing else, and yesterday's issue was up to scratch in that respect.

Bryan Appleyard, for example, is one of the ST's most reliable performers, and yesterday he appeared twice. First, in the magazine, he produced a useful survey of Web 2.0. Nothing terribly startling there, and probably all younger readers, who would feel as if they had had a limb amputated if you took away their BlackBerry, will know it all already. But the average ST reader probably found it enlightening.

Mr Appleyard also featured in the ST's Culture section, and here, I fear, he came sadly astray. He chose to interview an American literary novelist. I will not record here the man's name, because my purpose is not to attack the individual. Rather it is to state (strictly, restate, because some of you will have heard it before) my view about a particular attitude which is embodied in this article.

Our novelist, you see, is of the lit'ry variety. Not only that, but he has attended the most prestigious of American training schools for lit'ry types, namely the Writers' Workshop at the University of Iowa. Mr Appleyard, by the way, regards this as 'what every aspiring young writer in the world should do'. It is, he claims, a step 'so sane, so enviable, and so right'.

Personally I regard going to the Iowa Workshop as nuts, entirely unenviable, and wrong, and I am deeply grateful that I have no personal dealings with anyone who has even thought about doing such a thing. Long-term readers will know that, when faced with another mention of that institution, I groan loudly, make the sign of the cross, and hang garlic round my neck for a few days. But let us contemplate, for a painful moment or two, what attitudes this particular 'creative-writing' course represents.

I submit that the course embodies, and has succeeded in making respectable in many quarters, a form of Me-me-ism which, on a good day, I regard as offensive, childish, and immature, and which on a bad day I regard as both pathetic and contemptible.

All too many writers, whether Iowa trained or not, tend to take themselves very seriously indeed. They hold the view, consciously or unconsciously, that the universe revolves around them, and that everything they do, think, or feel is of vital importance. Not least to interviewers from the Sunday Times.

All of which, I submit, is demonstrably untrue. It is a world-view which should be firmly discouraged. But the ST's Mr Appleyard, to my dismay (for he is normally a sensible chap, when he sticks to what he knows best), seems to accept all this without question.

I have read the interview carefully, though with the exercise of a good deal of will-power to get me through the thing, and nowhere in it can I find a mention of anything so vulgar as a reader.

Now this is odd, not least because in his Web 2.0 piece Mr Appleyard sees full well what is going on. Appleyard quotes the results of some recent research into the attitudes of US college students, to the effect that modern students suffer from an excess of self-esteem.

'Today's college students are more likely to have a feeling of self-importance, to be entitled, and, in general, to be more narcissistic,' said Professor Jean Twenge, lead author of the study. And Appleyard comments on this situation as follows: 'Kids put themselves on Facebook, say how great they are, and then believe it. The problem is that this New Narcissism is utterly without foundation.'

Now, if Appleyard can see that in relation to kids on Facebook, how come he can't see it in relation to literary novelists who think that they too are 'important', and are entitled to be taken at their own valuation?

Of course, Appleyard, were he here, would doubtless tell us that, in the case of the novelist whom he chose to interview, the talent would justify a high level of self-esteem. Possibly. I am not in a position to judge. But what I can say is that there are few areas of life in which the New Narcissism is more evident than among the wannabe literary community. I have the emails to prove it, and Susan Hill has a lot more.

And why should I care, anyway, you may be wondering. Well, because at the very least it will result in wasted effort and deep frustration; and at worst it will end in madness and death.

I was taken to task recently, by a correspondent, for my excessive fondness for commercial fiction as opposed to the literary kind. 'Surely,' he wrote, 'your heart must sink when you contemplate the bestseller list.'

Well yes. Indeed. But between the crass commercialism of Katie Price's Crystal on the one hand, and the extremes of lit'ry nonsense on the other, there is plenty of sensible middle ground.

This is the ground which was occupied fifty years ago (to quote English examples) by the likes of Margery Allingham and Ian Fleming, and is occupied today by such as Rosie Thomas and Susanna Clarke.

Fortunately, we have a splendid example elsewhere in yesterday's ST -- admittedly from a field outside that of the novel -- of a woman who has her feet very firmly on the ground. The actress June Whitfield is probably little known outside the UK (except perhaps for her appearances in Absolutely Fabulous), but for the past fifty years or so she has worked with almost all UK comedians of note, feeding them lines and nobly allowing them to enhance their reputations at her expense.

June describes working with Tony Hancock, a troubled man who later committed suicide. He was always under some stress or strain and was very inclined to say 'What's it all about?' 'Well dear,' says June, 'it's about five minutes and we're on.'

Exactly. Precisely the kind of attitude that I would encourage in would-be novelists. Stop intellectualising and get on with entertaining the reader.

Speaking of which, let us not overlook a one-time would-be novelist who succeeded in reaching precisely the kind of broad, non-literary audience that I would advise all would-be novelists to bear in mind. I speak, of course, of J.K. Rowling.

Now you may well feel about this lady as I feel about Churchill and Kennedy, namely that I have read quite enough about them to last me through this lifetime and several others. But do spare a minute to at least glance at A.N. Wilson's review of the latest and reportedly last Harry Potter.

Mr Wilson is not a man with whom I always agree, but he assuredly made me think about giving young Harry another go. I read the first one long before it was famous, but haven't bothered with the rest, mainly because some of them seemed fearful long. But Wilson quite persuades me that, in the HP sequence, we have a gigantic intellectual achievement and one which I might well appreciate were I to give it the time. He at least is not afraid to admit that he can read popular children's fiction and weep real tears. I take my hat off to him.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Market day

The Bookseller is launching a series of blogs by people in the UK book trade. Let's hope they're a bit more interesting than those at Publishers Weekly, which I'm afraid I only looked at once.

Alcemi is a new fiction imprint based in Wales. Not surprisingly, they are concentrating on Welsh writers, but in principle 'there will be no bars to setting, subject or style'. They are looking for 'original contemporary fiction that will resonate within Wales and far beyond'.

First two out of the box are Liminal by Chris Keil (not a very Welsh name, is it?) and Salvage by Gee Williams (that's better).

Both of these books have a mystery/crime tinge to them, but both seem determined to aim higher, and be metaphors or some such. That always makes me a bit nervous, frankly. I think most writers would be well advised to stick with the blood and thunder, and do it really well. After that, everything kind of follows naturally, without forcing it.

Alan Gerstle did an MFA degree in acting and has a PhD in social science. He is also a fiction writer. On the sound basis of this considerable academic experience he now runs a blog for the benefit of humanities students -- particularly those on creative-writing courses. And let's face it, students on those courses need all the help they can get.

The Times has an obituary of Don Arden, one of the UK's leading managers of pop groups in years gone by. Known in his youth for beating people up and threatening them with a nasty fate, Arden was chiefly famous at the end of his life for being Sharon Osbourne's father, and hence Ozzy's father-in-law.

Arden also published an autobiography of sorts: Mr Big -- Ozzy, Sharon, and My Life as the Godfather of Rock. It was written with a ghost, of course, and the ghost must have had to work hard for his money, because he gets his name on the book too (Mick Wall). I imagine that about 10 per cent of the stories might even be true.

Sharon gave up talking to her Dad for a good many years, and she told her side of the story in Sharon Osbourne Extreme.

The BBC reports that Charles Whiting has died. Best known, perhaps, by the pen-name Leo Kessler (among others), Mr Whiting was the author of about 350 books. His work was discussed here on 6 July 2005. (Link from booktrade.info.)

There is much to entertain us on Madame Arcati's blog this week.

First, Madame was watching (shorthand pad and pencil to hand) when George Galloway went to work in the House of Commons (post of 24 July).

Say what you like about George (and people do), he has the balls to say things which a lot of people are thinking but never quite have the courage to articulate. In this case, he wonders why the (New) Labour Party is prepared to accept money from a man whose TV channel features 'Spunk-loving Sluts' (and that's one of the polite ones). Not a bad question. Consequently, the Speaker, as you would expect, shut him up.

George wrote a book, of course, discussed here on 14 June 2005.

Then there's the results of the Arcati poll as to whether Daniel Radcliffe is cut or uncut (post of 25 July). Look, it was Madame's idea to have a poll, not mine, OK?

And finally we have the intriguing saga of Susan Hill and Fallowell, D. (posts of 24 July and 26 July, plus comments).

A little bird tells me that the Russians aren't too fussed about copyright, and have posted lots of books online without permission. Which is, of course, very naughty.

However, if I were one of the authors, I think I would be quite relaxed about it. No one, surely, is going to read a full-length novel online, and printing it out would be slow, cumbersome, and expensive. On the other hand, having access to the entire thing gives one a pretty good taste of it, and one might, perhaps, go out and buy the book afterwards.

The list is eclectic, and, so far as I can see, in no logical order whatever. Or am I missing something? The two files that I tried were zipped, and you may need one of those fancy WinRAR programs. He says, as if he knows what he's talking about.

Raft is a newish UK literary agency which is looking for a small number of new clients. There is also a company blog with news of latest deals et cetera, and Raft will be at Frankfurt this year.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Snobbery 4

I call this post Snobbery 4 because the other night I was slumped in front of the TV and half-watching Aliens 4. Actually I gather that the movie is properly called Aliens: Resurrection. Anyway, it's the fourth Sigourney Weaver movie about those really nasty and apparently indestructible alien life forms; and it struck me, when I came to read the piece that I am going to refer to in a minute, that good old-fashioned literary snobbery is just as tough and indestructible as them nasty ole aliens. There is absolutely nothing that you can do to get rid of it. Think you've wiped it out in one place, and bugger me but it pops up again somewhere else.

These thoughts were prompted by reading an article by Michael Faber. (Faber was born in Holland, and sometimes appears as Michel Faber.) The article ain't brand new and was sent to me by Viktor Janis. It appeared originally in the Scotsman, but is now available at their web site to subscribers only. For the next few days (I gather), it may be available on a file-sharing service. But in any case, even if you can't find the article or don't want to bother reading it, the content is the same old rubbish.

Mr Faber is undoubtedly a much-honoured writer; see his entry on Fantasticfiction for details. He also mixes in some very high-powered company: in 2006 he was one of the contributors to Not One More Death, getting equal billing with Richard Dawkins, John Le Carre, and Harold Pinter, among others.

The title of Faber's Scotsman article is 'Dumb and Dumber?' In brief, Faber argues that literary fiction is infinitely superior to commercial stuff and is aimed at 'intelligent grown-ups' -- everything else, he implies, is bought and read by teenage morons. The rubbish, he argues, is crowding out the worthwhile stuff.

The fact is that every crappy book you see reviewed in a newspaper or stacked on a table at Waterstone’s is there in place of a better one....

Trivial books fail to touch us deeply, leaving us in exactly the same state as before... We need literature that inspires and changes us.

And so on. As an example of arrogant, snobbish, fuzzy thinking you would be hard pressed to find its equal.

However... My purpose today is not to go through Faber's argument step by step, because I've done that kind of thing before, several times. What is pertinent, however, is to ask the following question: Do you think it is possible -- just conceivably, perhaps, maybe -- that Mr Faber has now changed his tune? His tune being, if Imay paraphrase, to the effect that everything in a prominent place in a bookshop is crap.

In the Scotsman article, Faber tells us that he has just returned from Slovakia, where he was celebrating the publication of a collection of short stories, Raz Urcite Zaprsi -- or Some Rain Must Fall, in the English version. And that book was published in Slovakia in 2001.

But in 2002 Mr Faber had a considerable hit. His novel The Crimson Petal and the White was a New York Times bestseller, and had sales, I understand, of almost a million copies. So -- in the light of that experience, does Faber still, I wonder, take the view that 'the crassest, most aggressively marketed books take up the most shelf space, column inches in the media -- and everything else gets pushed to the peripheries'?

The Crimson Petal and the White can't have been pushed to the peripheries. Its publisher must have paid for it to be displayed up front. So what gives? Did Faber suddenly decide to join the ranks of Jeffrey Archer and Kathy Lette (writers whom in the Scotsman he clearly despised)? Have publishers suddenly seen the light and abandoned crap? Or is Mr Faber's whacking big opus (894 pages) an exception to the rule? I.e. is it a literary masterpiece which somehow was such a work of genius that it contrived to win some newspaper space and some shelf space, despite his claim that 'everything else [my italics] gets pushed to the peripheries'?

The questions are rhetorical. Mr Faber, I suspect, finds himself in the same position as those authors who despise all literary prizes on principle. Until they win one.

And consider the fate of poor Mr Franzen. Nominated as one of Oprah's choices, the poor fellow wriggled and squirmed and wondered what the hell he should do. Could he (a frightf'ly sensitive artist, my dears, a man devoted to literature rather than commerce) accept such a vulgar commendation? Or should he make an excuse and leave? I haven't had such a good laugh for ages.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Why do I love Mondays?

Further to the Jane Austen nonsense, referred to at the end of last Thursday's post, the Times reports the comments of two seasoned publishers. These two have been in publishing for a total of thirty years. They receive 1,000 unsolicited submissions every month. Each. Between the two of them, over the whole of their careers, they have only published four or five unsolicited manuscripts.

Moral: don't waste your time and money by sending unsolicited books to big-time publishers. You have to find some other way to gain their attention. Preferably, you need to get into the position where they approach you, rather than vice versa.

If the above doesn't put you off sending in mss to unsuspecting and uninterested publishers, here's a story that just might. It was passed to me by translator Viktor Janis, and it comes from another translator, Anna Feruglio Dal Dan.

Once I was called upon by the fiction editor of the publisher I worked at to write a vitriolic rejection letter for a particularly egregiously offensive manuscript.

I duly went and composed six dense pages of shattering deconstruction of the manuscript, starting with its poor spelling and uncertain grammar and ending by taking issues with its theory of homosexuality.

Then I presented it to the fiction editor who frowned and said: “You know, I appreciate this, but I gotta tell you, it’s not cruel enough.”

I said. “Oh, come on, have some heart. One of those poor girls is a depressive, says so in the cover letter. What if she gets the letter and kills herself?”

The fiction editor hesitated a little, then she said firmly: “No. Some people have got to be stopped.”

(We didn’t do this to everybody: this manuscript really managed to offend my fiction editor deeply. Mostly she wrote kind encouragement critique letters - which usually earned her the emailed wrath and never-ending hatred of the people she responded to, such being the ego of your average would-be writer.)

Good, eh? Anna, by the way, has a blog. She also has some Daily Observances in the form of podcasts.

Frank Beddor's second book in the Looking Glass Wars trilogy is out soon: 21 August to be precise. Intended for younger readers, age 12 and up, and based on Alice in Wonderland, part 1 of the trilogy attracted quite a lot of attention. More on the trilogy's own web site.

I kind of like odd addresses. I just noticed that the UK small press Tindal Street is located not in Tindal Street but in 217 Custard Factory. And Duckworth, once upon a time, used to be in The Old Piano Factory.

Oh I say. Bit much this. One of my most faithful correspondents, Jibby Collins (whom the goddesses preserve) tells me that Mitzi Szereto is at it again. Or still, probably. She is compiling material for The New Black Lace Book of Women's Sexual Fantasies. So you are invited to submit. But they gotta be genuine, OK? And no, sir, you can't send one in. Not even if you do wear a dress while you're writing it. Go to the Black Lace web site and click on the shoe. No, I don't know why it has to be the shoe. I expect somebody has a kink for those things.

If you live in London, or within reasonable reach, take note that Martin Wagner's play The Agent will be staged at the Trafalgar Studios (Whitehall) from 25 July to 18 August. This play was well received at earlier performances. It's a two-hander, the two characters being a writer and an agent. Here's the blurb:
It’s just another day at the office for high-flying literary agent Alexander; manuscripts to read, deals to be done, celebrity clients to be taken out to lunch… and just one quick meeting to get through with an author whose latest book the agent thinks is, frankly, not up to scratch. This gripping and often bitingly funny two-hander about a writer’s struggle for proper representation perfectly reveals the subtle shifts in power in the relationship between artist and agent. The only thing we can be sure of is that there can only be one winner.
This might be a bit too much like real life for some, but for those who have never had an awkward discussion with an agent it could be a lot of fun. Details here.

Miss Bellasis -- you remember her, surely? If not, see the end of my post of 6 June 2007 -- tells me that she has been frightfully busy recently (the nipple tassel business being absolutely hectic, my dears), but she has acquired a new friend; one who makes gorgeous knickers.

The knicker firm goes by the name of Buttress and Snatch, and the garments in question are made in Hackney by honest, hard-working girls who never fail to attend church on Sunday.

No, I know that doesn't have much to do with books, but this bit does. Miss Bellasis herself is threatening to write her memoirs. These, if completed and published, will doubtless cause many a heart to beat faster.

If you're interested in satirical/humorous writing plus some hard-edged criticism of our saintly politicians and leaders (mostly in a UK context, but with some excursions into the US), then do remember that the author of the Not Born Yesterday site turns out some good stuff at alarmingly frequent intervals. The site takes a bit of exploring, but you could try Life in the Wrong Lane for topical material. And for UK readers I recommend this bit.

The Daily Telegraph, a week or so ago, published a brief obituary of the American romantic novelist Kathleen Woodiwiss. Her novels, they say, were 'absurdly overdramatic, overwritten, overlong, and filled with ludicrous sex scenes'. And then a paragraph or two later we get this: 'Altogether Kathleen Woodiwiss's 13 novels sold 36 million copies.'

Let me see if I've got this straight. Romantic novelist, writes 13 novels, and does the job well enough to get 36 million people to pay hard cash for them, not to mention the millions of other readers who borrowed the books from a library or a friend -- and these books are absurd, too long, too dramatic, ludicrous?

I hardly think so. Wouldn't it be more accurate, not to mention more gracious, to say that Kathleen Woodiwiss was an immensely talented novelist with an unusual ability to generate emotion in many millions of grateful readers.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Notes from a long weekend

The Guardian has a very interesting article about Christopher Little, the man who has always acted as agent to J.K. Rowling. As ever with publishing, I suspect that the estimates of earnings are a little inflated, but even at a 100% overestimate, Mr Little is still a rich man. (Link from booktrade.info.)

One the same theme, Terence Blacker, in the Independent, has written a thoughtful and insightful article into the impact of J.K. Rowling's success, not least upon herself. And he concludes, inevitably, with a much-deserved comment on the general cluelessness of the book trade in general, at least as far as HP is concerned. When handed a unique opportunity to make huge profits, most of the book trade seems to have managed to actually lose money. (Link from booktrade.info.)

How reassuring to know that American puritanism has not completely died out. The Independent has the story of a German author who found out that a US publisher can be very touchy about the naked human body. Said body is, reportedly, potentially offensive. Problem is, of course, excessive prudery is also potentially offensive.

Meanwhile, the UK has its own pathetic nonsense, with the Tintin is a racist affair. I think it's about time some people developed a sense of proportion. Did British civil servants organise a protest march when John Cleese did his Ministry of Silly Walks sketch? Can't say I remember it.

Eco-Libris suggests that we should plant a tree for every book we read. It is estimated that about 20 million trees are being cut down every year to produce paper for books sold in the U.S. alone. By partnering with non-profit organizations in developing countries, Eco-Libris has a new website through which readers can do something towards replacing the world's stock of trees.

George Melly, a well known figure in the UK but largely unknown abroad, was one hell of a character, as the Times obituary demonstrates. He also wrote some good books, both autobiographical and on art. Now Publishing News tells us that trumpeter Digby Fairweather will soon be publishing an account of his work with Melly, covering their concert, recording and drinking sessions, as well as some 'unexpected and unscripted encounters' along the way. On the Road with George Melly: The Final Bows of a Legend will be published next month.

Ah, it's such fun being a writer, isn't it? Especially a science-fiction writer. Galleycat reports that there's a new online magazine being planned. Contributors will be paid, but not much. And for the privilege of being published, you will be expected to hand over a share of any subsequent income, should you succeed in turning your story into a book or a movie.

I get a lot of emails about self-published books, the latest being The Cobbler of Normandy, by holocaust survivor Otto Berliner. Not surprisingly, given the author's background, this book is about World War II. On Amazon.com you can look inside and decide if you wish to read further. What caught my eye, however, is that the book is published by Booksurge, an Amazon subsidiary. Just as a matter of interest, I checked via Amazon search to see how many books Booksurge has published. The answer: 11,436.

Despite my doubts about the O. Henry book, expressed earlier this week, I remain a keen enthusiast for the short story. Hence I welcome, in principle, Planet Writers, a newish site for posting short stories and articles. Not a lot there as yet.

Speaking of short stories, the Warren Adler Short Story Contest is now open for entries. The entry fee is $15.00, which is just one reason why many people are unhappy about such competitions. However, if you go into it with your eyes open I can't see any harm in it. Stories have to be about New York City. Further info at the Adler web site.

Another publicist's email tells me of a book called Conservative Comebacks to Liberal Lies: Issue by Issue Responses to the Most Common Claims of the Left from A to Z. This US publication would have us believe that Hillary, Al Gore and the like are trying to turn America into a socialist state. What is more, they're trying to cut off the phone lines of the Christian right.

I would like to be able to tell you that this is all an elaborate piss-take, but sadly I don't think it is. Let's see now -- didn't I once hear something similar about Commie bastards trying to take over America? Like, about fifty years ago? Rings a bell. The publisher of this new book, by the way, is JAJ, a one-book outfit, according to Amazon search.

Crime writer Marshall Karp is killing his readers. Or so his publicist tells me. Seems that Marshall's comedy novels about two LAPD detectives are getting excellent reviews on both sides of the Atlantic. And not just from bloggers either. These reviews are from the real guys -- you know, the ones who write in the newspapers.

More trouble, I gather, at the Chelsea Hotel, as mentioned here before. The Living with Legends blog has the details and is seeking support for the cause.

Josh Gidding, author of Failure: an Autobiography, will be interviewed on National Public Radio's 'Weekend Edition Sunday', hosted by Liane Hansen. The interview will probably air this coming Sunday, July 22. (Unless it fails to do so.) Josh suggests that, if your local NPR station carries this programme, you should tune in and hear him fail.

Last year I published a novel about reality TV -- and you can read it free online, should you wish. In that novel, the leading character says, more than once, that everything in TV is faked. And now we have proof that I didn't even know the half of it. Even the mighty BBC is now exposed as having faked all kinds of things. And an almighty row is afoot.

The Times this morning has a report of an old dodge performed yet again, and presented, naturally, as if it was all new. Man in England copies out a few chapters of Jane Austen's novels, sends them to agents and publishers as a new submission, and they all reject them. The Guardian also carries the story.

Ho hum. This is, frankly, very boring. The last time someone did this, I wrote about it at excessive length, giving, in a footnote, full details of several other occasions on which exactly the same thing was done with the same results.

This time I think I'm going to ignore it.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Say what you mean

Yesterday's discussion of the O. Henry volume started me thinking about short stories of my own. I cannot claim even one hundredth part of our hero's worldly success: but what I can claim is that, from time to time, I have tried to emulate his example in writing stories which are good-humoured, might raise a smile, and have, at the end, some modest kind of twist, revelation, or surprise.

And why not, I thought to myself, treat the faithful of the GOB to just such a story? Hence today's post, which takes the form of a short story of mine called Say What You Mean. This appeared in my 2003 collection, King Albert's Words of Advice. You should be able to obtain that book, if you desire to do so, from any reasonably capable and co-operative bookseller in the US or the UK. Amazon will, I dare say, despatch it to places further afield.


There are few newspaper reports which give more pleasure to a retired English teacher than those which provide evidence that standards in the teaching of English are not what they were. Mr Robinson was therefore particularly delighted when he found an example in that morning’s Times.

‘Aha!’ he exclaimed triumphantly.

His wife looked up from her sewing. Although it was only just after breakfast time she was hard at work on her latest quilt. ‘Have you found another mistake, dear?’

‘I have indeed. It will be hard for you to believe this, Mavis, but it appears that a man who has written a front-page report for The Times is ignorant of the difference between the words appraise and apprise.’

‘Good heavens,’ said Mrs Robinson. In what she knew, from long years of practice, was a suitably shocked tone of voice.

Mr Robinson sighed. ‘I shall have to write, of course.’

‘Of course.’

‘I have long since recognised that it is pretty much a lost cause, but I do feel a sense of duty.’

‘Quite right,’ said Mrs Robinson.

Mrs Robinson was anxious to get her husband started on his letter to the Editor of The Times as soon as possible. Because otherwise he might start to question her about her own familiarity with these two words; and that would be embarrassing.

The truth was, of course, that if you had put Mrs Robinson up against a wall, stuck a gun in her ear, and demanded that she must identify what part of speech the words appraise and apprise were, she would have been hard pressed even to guess that they were verbs. And if, further, you had required her to tell you the precise meaning of each of these verbs, on penalty of pulling the trigger in return for a wrong answer.... Well, in that case Mrs Robinson would have been – to use a vulgarism which Mr Robinson would never have permitted – so much dead meat.

In fact, not only would Mr Robinson have objected to the use of the descriptor ‘dead meat’ as vulgar, but he would also have pointed out that the phrase was tautologous, since meat is, by definition, always dead.

Fortunately for Mrs Robinson’s health, and for Mr Robinson’s peace of mind, Mrs Robinson had usually been successful, over a period of more than forty years, in disguising the full extent of her ignorance from her alarmingly pedantic husband.

Mr Robinson proceeded to spend a contented half-hour composing a letter of rebuke to the Editor of The Times. These days he always headed his communications ‘Not for publication’, so that he did not feel so aggrieved when they failed to appear in print.

‘Splendid!’ he exclaimed when he had sealed the letter. ‘This particular example of linguistic sloppiness will, of course, come in extremely handy as a topical introduction to my lecture this afternoon.’

‘What lecture is that, dear?’ asked Mrs Robinson, who had trouble keeping up with her husband’s commitments. What with his being chairman of the Scouts fund-raising committee, and a member of the photography club, and secretary of the fuchsia society, he was out of the house more often than he was in it.

‘This afternoon I am addressing the Townswomen’s Guild Talk Shop,’ said Mr Robinson. ‘My subject: the importance of precise communication in English.’

‘Oh, well I’m sure they’ll enjoy that, dear,’ said Mrs Robinson. Loyally.

The Chairman of the Straitford Townswomen’s Guild Talk Shop was Mrs Deirdre Thorpe-Manners, and she was just the tiniest bit apprehensive.

It was, she reflected, becoming increasingly difficult to find even halfway satisfactory speakers; and the title of this afternoon’s talk was scarcely enthralling. Mr Robinson had wanted to call it ‘The Importance of Precise Communication in Oral and Written English’; and he had been reluctant to change it, as suggested, to ‘Say What You Mean’.

Mrs Thorpe-Manners’ wishes had, however, prevailed, if only because she was in charge of publicity. Even so, she had had to ring round and twist a few arms to ensure that her speaker addressed a respectable audience. And she was quite pleased to see that she had managed to attract nearly a dozen attendees into the church hall on what was, after all, a warm afternoon in May.

Mrs Thorpe-Manners was also faintly troubled by the fear of controversy. There was a distinct possibility that even Mr Robinson’s modified title might prompt some further discussion of whether it was entirely appropriate for the individual heading the Townswomen’s Guild to be known as the Chairman; and whether it would be more appropriate for her to be known as the Chairwoman, Chair, Chairperson, or even, God forbid, Chairlady.

Mrs Thorpe-Manners was pretty confident that she had cajoled Mr Robinson into staying well clear of this question himself; but she feared that some trouble-making feminist with nothing better to do might creep in at the last minute and start making a nuisance of herself. Mrs Thorpe-Manners had no doubt that she would be able to stamp on any unwelcome motions from the floor – she was after all, the Town Councillor who had seen off the Archdeacon when he raised the matter of smelly drains under Any Other Business – but on the whole she preferred to avoid a scene if at all possible.

It was, therefore, with some relief that, at only two minutes past the appointed hour, she found herself with a speaker, an audience of eleven sensible-looking middle-aged ladies, and not a short haircut, a bare midriff, or a pair of jeans in sight.

The Chairman and Mr Robinson were seated behind a small table, with the audience in a few rows of fold-up chairs in front of them. The Chairman introduced the speaker and Mr Robinson stood up.

He had given this little talk several times before, and as usual he began by saying that he would try to avoid being excessively sesquipedalian.

This was a joke, Mr Robinson explained. It meant that he would try to avoid using too many long words, and being too long-winded.

Mr Robinson, for one, always found this introduction amusing. And whenever he found something amusing he would chuckle in his own idiosyncratic way. This involved making a ‘Hmph, hmph, hmph!’ sort of noise, with his mouth shut, and moving his shoulders up and down in time with the hmphs. This mannerism had, of course, been gleefully imitated by many generations of schoolboys.

‘Hmph, hmph, hmph!’ went Mr Robinson on this occasion, and some of the ladies actually smiled with him. So it was quite a good start, he felt. Or rather, considered. Mr Robinson only felt things with his hands.

Mr Robinson moved on to the main subject of his talk. This involved a discourse upon the importance of distinguishing between pairs of words which were almost the same on paper, or when spoken aloud, but which had quite different meanings. Among the examples he gave were appraise and apprise (of course); poring and pouring; interment and internment; compliment and complement; and so on.

All good stuff. Some of the audience actually seemed to follow his argument, he was pleased to note.

Next came a brief reminder of the need to be careful in the use of the word ‘literally’. Examples were quoted from journalistic sources. Was it really true, Mr Robinson wondered, that Arsenal had literally wiped the floor with Chelsea? Or that a particular horse had literally run away with the Two Thousand Guineas? Mr Robinson rather thought not.

Spelling came next. And oh dearie me, what a lot there was to say about that. Mr Robinson told his story about the head of English at a local comprehensive school – a school located, Mr Robinson implied, rather less than a thousand miles from the centre of Straitford – who had issued a set of notes to his pupils about Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar. And, sad to relate, this particular head of department had spelt the hero’s name as Ceasar throughout.

One or two of the audience even tutted.

Then there were the various newspapers – and not just the tabloids, either – which had reported that Eaton College was advertising for a burser; or that a grammer school was in need of a mathmutician.

The word millennium was also a bit of a problem, Mr Robinson suggested. ‘Perhaps we should all make a mental note, now, that it has two l’s and two n’s, so that we get it right when the next one comes along. Hmph, hmph, hmph, hmph, hmph!’

Well, Mr Robinson wasn’t perhaps generating gasps of horror or hoots of laughter with these stories, but he was at least managing to keep his audience awake.

He moved on to punctuation. Mr Robinson was, he declared, a fully paid-up member of the AAAA. And when one or two ladies looked shocked he explained that the initials stood for the Association for Abolition of the Aberrant Apostrophe.

Why, only recently, Mr Robinson had come across a television advertisement which had displayed a sentence on the screen which included the word ‘it’s’ when, in fact, ‘its’ without an apostrophe would have been the correct version. And this advertisement, Mr Robinson averred, had continued to be shown, uncorrected, for months.

‘Good heavens!’ Mrs Thorpe-Manners felt obliged to exclaim.

‘Good heavens indeed,’ said Mr Robinson.

With a careful look at his watch to judge the timing of the talk, Mr Robinson concluded by pointing out that all this emphasis on the need for accuracy had very real and important practical implications. It was not just a case of an old schoolmaster being fussy. Dear me, no.

‘Put a comma instead of a full stop in an internet address,’ said Mr Robinson, ‘and it won’t work.’ (He was nothing if not bang up to date.) ‘That, of course, is only a trivial problem. But put a plus sign instead of a minus sign in the software designed for an aeroplane, and the plane may crash. Put the decimal point in the wrong place on an X-ray machine, and the patient gets a fatal dose.’

Over the years, Mr Robinson had collected numerous stories to illustrate the fact that failure to communicate one’s meaning clearly could have fatal and tragic consequences. However, bearing in mind the age and gender of his listeners, he did not, for this particular talk, paint too gory a picture of the catastrophes which might occur. Instead, he confined himself to that old favourite, drawn from a military source and appreciated most by those familiar with pre-decimal coinage.

‘There was once an army officer,’ Mr Robinson explained, ‘who asked his soldiers to pass a message from man to man – in whispers, because they were close to enemy lines. The message was: Send reinforcements, we are going to advance. By the time this message reached headquarters it had been repeated thirty times, and had become somewhat distorted. The message now was: Send three and fourpence, we are going to a dance! Hmph, hmph, hmph, hmph, hmph!

‘Above all, ladies,’ Mr Robinson concluded, ‘we should all try to take advantage of the great riches of the English language. The wide vocabulary which is available to us, and the conventions of spelling and punctuation which have been established over the years, are vital tools which enable us to communicate accurately and meaningfully. We should therefore adopt as our motto the words which no less a writer than Tolstoy jotted down at the front of one of his diaries: I must try to say precisely what I mean.’

And with that, Mr Robinson sat down.

There was a short burst of clapping, and Mrs Thorpe-Manners rose to her feet.

It was customary, at the end of addresses to the Townswomen’s Talk Shop, to invite questions from the floor. Today, however, Mrs Thorpe-Manners didn’t want to encourage any questions. They had got this far without the Chairperson controversy raising its head, and she wasn’t about to permit it to be raised now.

‘Any questions?’ she asked, taking care to be looking down at the table in front of her as she did so. And, 1.6 seconds later, she added: ‘No? In that case all that remains is for me to do is to thank Mr Robinson most warmly for a truly fascinating address. I’m sure that we have all learnt a great deal from it....

‘One final point. Mr Robinson has most kindly told me that he does not wish to be paid any sort of a fee for this afternoon’s talk. But he is, he tells me, chairman of the First Straitford Scout Group’s fund-raising committee.’

Mr Robinson nodded.

‘The Scout Group is working hard to raise money for a new hut, to replace their present temporary headquarters. A year ago, they were given first refusal on a large ex-army hut, admirably suitable for the job. The hut will be given to them for nothing, but they do have to pay for it to be transported and erected. A sum of three thousand pounds is required in all, and so far they have raised only five hundred pounds. So, at the present rate of progress, it’s going to be another five years before the Scout Group gets its much-needed headquarters. Mr Robinson would therefore be most grateful if, in acknowledgement of his kindness in talking to us today, each member of the audience would make a modest donation to this cause. You will find a plate for that purpose situated just beside the door.’

‘Thank you very much,’ said Mr Robinson, with an encouraging smile.

‘May I remind members,’ Mrs Thorpe-Manners continued, ‘that today’s talk will be followed, as usual, by a little informal gathering in the Church Tea Rooms, across the road.... I now declare the meeting closed.’

The members of the audience began to pick up their handbags and other belongings, and Mrs Thorpe-Manners used the opportunity to have a private word with Mr Robinson. Without actually saying so, she managed to imply that, while he would be welcome to join the ladies in the Church Tea Rooms, their conversation was likely to concentrate on grandchildren, recent operations and the like, and that probably he wouldn’t enjoy it very much.

Mr Robinson, taking the hint, said that he had to be getting home anyway. And with that, he began to gather together his notes.

He was just about to depart when he noticed that a lady was standing in front of him.

‘Um, I wonder,’ she said, ‘if I could have a word.’

‘Of course, of course,’ said Mr Robinson, and the lady sat down on the other side of the table.

‘My name is Frances Goodchild,’ she said. ‘Mrs Goodchild. I really did enjoy your talk, Mr Robinson. Because of course there’s nothing that people of our generation enjoy quite so much as somebody telling them that the world is going to the dogs.’

‘Ah!’ said Mr Robinson, smiling broadly. He was glad that his subtext had been appreciated.

‘And I really was quite fascinated by what you said about the importance of precise communication.’

Mr Robinson preened himself. It was doubly gratifying to find that one had managed to be genuinely interesting.

‘Yes,’ said Mrs Goodchild. ‘You see, I think I can tell you about an experience of mine which quite definitely proves your point.’

‘Oh good,’ said Mr Robinson, who was always pleased to add to his stock of examples.

‘Yes. And I think I might also be able to help with the funding of the new Scout hut.’

‘Ah! Splendid!’ said Mr Robinson.

Mrs Goodchild began to grope in her handbag, and eventually she produced a cheque book, a sight which Mr Robinson considered most promising.

‘Of course, I would have to speak to you in total confidence, Mr Robinson, and swear you to secrecy. But you won’t mind that, will you?’

‘Oh no. Certainly not. I am one hundred per cent gossip-proof, Mrs Goodchild.’

‘Jolly good.... You see, my husband is just like you. He’s a retired schoolteacher too, but in his case he was a mathematician. And you know what mathematicians are like – they’re absolute sticklers for detail and accuracy. What my husband did with the interpretation of the bowls club rule book just doesn’t bear thinking about. Took it to absolute pieces he did. The poor committee didn’t know which way to look.’

Mr Robinson chuckled. He had shared a common-room with a good few mathematicians in his time and did indeed know what they were like.

‘But what I want to tell you about is this. You see, when the national lottery started up, I decided that I would like to have a go. I thought that if we won anything it would be very helpful for the grandchildren and so forth. So I had a word with my husband about it, and he made a few enquiries and talked to his mathematical friends.’

Mrs Goodchild seemed unable to find a pen, so Mr Robinson offered her his.

‘Oh, lovely. I might have known that a gentleman of your generation would have a proper fountain pen. Thank you.... Yes, as I was saying about the national lottery.... My husband and his friends spent quite a lot of time looking at the odds against winning, and discussing whether you improved your chances if you bought a lot of tickets at one time, and whether you should use the same numbers every time, and things like that. And surprisingly enough, some of these questions are by no means straightforward. Or so I’m given to understand. It’s all well above my head, as you will appreciate.

‘Anyway, after what seemed like an awful lot of debate, Mr Goodchild decided that I should buy just one ticket a week, and that he would give me the numbers. At the time I didn’t really know where the numbers came from, but I discovered later that they were random numbers. Do you know anything about random numbers, Mr Robinson?’

‘Er, no. I can’t say that I do.’

‘Well neither did I, of course. Every Saturday morning my husband would give me a new set of numbers, and I would buy a ticket. And this went on for some time. We won ten pounds every so often, enough to keep us interested, but nothing more. And then the day came when Mr Goodchild had to go into hospital.’

‘Oh dear.’

‘Yes, it was all most unfortunate. It was his prostrate, you see. Blocked up entirely it did, so he couldn’t pass water at all.’

Mr Robinson nodded sympathetically. He did consider, briefly, whether he should give Mrs Goodchild a short explanation of the difference between the words prostrate and prostate; but he decided, on balance, what with the cheque book open in front of her and everything, that this might not be quite the best time.

‘So Mr Goodchild had to go into the hospital for an operation,’ Mrs Goodchild continued. ‘Which is not at all nice, Mr Robinson, is it? Have you had your prostrate done?’

‘Er, no,’ said Mr Robinson, who had a few worrying problems in that department but was hoping to avoid surgery.

‘Yes, it’s really not at all nice, you know. They sort of push a pair of scissors up the penis, you know, and sort of snip a hole in the prostrate so that you can pee again.’

‘Ah,’ said Mr Robinson. Whose desire to avoid surgery had just been considerably intensified.

‘Anyway, there was poor Mr Goodchild, lying there on the trolley, feeling a little bit dopey from the pill they’d given him, and just about to face this nasty experience, and what do you think he said to me?’

Mr Robinson gave her an enquiring look.

‘Don’t forget the lottery ticket, Frances, he said. You must remember to buy a lottery ticket. But they must be random numbers. You understand, my dear? You must use random numbers. He was most insistent, Mr Robinson.’

Mrs Goodchild paused while she filled in the date on the cheque. ‘First Straitford Scout Group, wasn’t it, Mr Robinson?’


‘Yes.... So off I went and bought the ticket. Helped to take my mind off things as a matter of fact. But of course, my point is this, Mr Robinson – I didn’t understand what my husband had meant. When he said random numbers, I thought he just meant that I should pick numbers at random.’

‘And didn’t he?’

‘Oh no. Goodness me no. Up till then he’d always given me the numbers himself, without telling me how he’d worked them out. So when he said I had to use random numbers I just used people’s birthdays. It happened to be Uncle Jack’s birthday that day, and so I used his birthday, and Aunty Jane’s, and one or two others. But, you see, they aren’t random numbers at all.’

‘Aren’t they?’

‘Oh no. Not to a mathematician they’re not. You see, if you go into it properly, it turns out that there’s a scientific procedure for picking random numbers. You can use a special book, which has got pages and pages of random numbers in it – but even then you have to be careful which numbers you pick. Or – and I didn’t know this at the time – you can actually get the lottery computer to pick some random numbers for you. It’s called lucky dip. There’s a special box that you fill in on the form.’

‘Ah,’ said Mr Robinson. Who had never bought a lottery ticket in his life.

Mrs Goodchild broke off again to work on the cheque.

‘Let’s see now, I think you said you’d raised a little bit of money, but the total sum needed was three thousand pounds?’

‘Er, yes, that’s right.’

‘I see. Well it’ll be simplest if I give you the full three thousand then, won’t it?’ She filled in the figures. ‘Of course, I shall have to remember to give an equal amount to the Girl Guides as well, otherwise it wouldn’t be fair, would it?’

‘Mngh,’ said Mr Robinson, whose tongue seemed to have become stuck to the roof of his mouth.

‘I mustn’t ramble on,’ said Mrs Goodchild, ‘because I know you have to get away. But you see the point is this, Mr Robinson. You are absolutely right when you emphasise the vital importance of being clear and precise when you talk to people, and making sure that they understand exactly what you mean. Because, you see, if I had really understood what Mr Goodchild was saying to me, when he went in for his operation, and if he had made sure that I understood it, then our lives would have been completely different.’

‘Mngh?’ said Mr Robinson.

‘Oh yes.’ Mrs Goodchild finished writing the cheque and signed it. ‘You see, if I really had used random numbers that day – proper random numbers – instead of family birthdays, then Mr Goodchild and I would never have won the seven million pounds. And our lives would have been quite different from what they are today.’

Mr Robinson’s tongue came unglued and his mouth fell open.

Mrs Goodchild handed him the cheque.

‘And come to think of it,’ she added thoughtfully, ‘the First Straitford Scout Group might have had to wait another five years for its new hut.’

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Laura Forman (editor): The O. Henry Prize Stories

If you bought The O. Henry Prize Stories (2007) in England, you would, I think, be able to claim your money back from the bookseller, under the terms of the Trades Descriptions Act: because this book does not, in my opinion, deliver what it offers on the label.

The problem lies in the use of the name O. Henry. Label this collection The Best Literary Short Stories of the Year, and I have no problem: apart from wanting to know whose opinion is involved in the word 'best'. But to stick O. Henry on the front cover is, in my opinion, misleading.

O. Henry is comparatively little known these days, but he made his name a hundred or so years ago as a writer of short stories of a particular kind. He was, as any standard internet biography will tell you, a master of the surprise ending, the twist in the tale, the plot 'which turns on an ironic or coincidental circumstance.' In short, he was popular, and commercial. And the stories offered in his name, at least in the 2007 edition, are by no means what I would call popular or commercial. Far from it.

It turns out that, in 1918, some eight years after O. Henry died, his friends decided to establish a memorial to him in the form of an annual collection of short stories. The first such book appeared in 1919, and, apart from the odd interruption, there have been similar collections ever since.

Currently, the year's 'best' stories are chosen by Laura Furman. Personally, I think that (given the title of the annual series) the editor might reasonably have been expected to be someone actively involved in the popular magazine business. But no: she's a Professor in the English Department of the University of Texas at Austin.

And so on. You get the idea by now. Authors and agents are not allowed to submit stories for consideration; magazines have to send in complete issues as and when they appear. Not every magazine, it appears, is regarded as equal; the criterion is 'the seriousness of the magazine's commitment to short fiction'. Hence the New Yorker is listed among the magazines scanned for good stories, but Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine is not -- and I doubt very much whether EQMM even bothered to add Professor Furman to their mailing list.

If you like the work of those who graduate from MFA degrees, then this book is for you. But O. Henry wrote stories which were amusing, light, good-humoured, sentimental, and popular. And if you're looking for some of them, forget it. Somewhere along the line, the O. Henry tradition was abandoned as something distressingly vulgar and common. In which case, it's rather naughty to go on using his name.

If you want more information about this annual series, it has its own web site. And if you want to read the great man himself, quite a number of the stories are now available online. My favourite is The Ransom of Red Chief. This is a story which, as I can testify from my teaching days, is much enjoyed by children. But I don't think kids would sit still for long if you tried reading them any of the 2007 stories which are offered with the same brand name attached.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Queries and questions

I have never believed in the subsidy of the arts via the taxpayer's money (other than in education). Only once, in an article in the UK's theatre weekly The Stage, did I see an argument which came even close to convincing me. Generally speaking, therefore, I hold the view that the UK's Arts Council ought to be closed down at 9.00 a.m. tomorrow morning; or preferably, if you can possibly manage it, at 5.00 p.m. this evening.

Some hints as to why some people feel even less enthusiastic about subsidy of the arts than I do may be found in various blogs. It seems that the Arts Council recently funded a study trip to New York for various members of the UK writing and publishing community. The invitation to apply to be included in this study trip (from the North East region), was included in an April newsletter; this is a public document, but an obscure one.

In the event, a party of delegates was selected and was in New York from 28 May to 2 June. A couple of them have written about their experiences: here's one, and here's the other.

While in New York this party of (reportedly) 15 or 16 earnest enquirers after truth were one day in the offices of Palgrave Macmillan, where their presence was noted by Richard Charkin, boss of same. He found himself wondering why it was that British taxpayers' money was being spent on subsidising these already very competent publishing people on a visit to America. He is not alone.

Please note that I make no criticism of those who took advantage of this example of government largesse. If the government is dumb enough to hand out taxpayers' money on various projects, and if I think I am eligible to apply, then I will stand in line with my hand out, like any other sensible person.

But do I think such subsidy is justified? No, I do not. People who want to know how New York publishing works should either go out there at their own expense (which I have done at least half a dozen times) or sit in front of their computer and read blogs.

As for last year's equivalent 'project', which was a trip to the Festival of the European Short Story in Croatia -- I am at a loss for words. Strictly a temporary condition, I'm sure.

Dave Lull, who seems to have a full-time job finding interesting internet sites, points me to the 2Blowhards blog, where a number of 'eternal amateurs discuss their passions'. One of them has the good taste to read the GOB (11 July). What a splendid fellow.

You can get a sense of what Michael Blowhard is all about from his best-of compilation. These guys are heavily read, and judging by the samples I've taken, they attract a lot of comments. Thanks again, Dave.

In the Independent, Sarah Churchwell asks 'Why can't British students write like Americans?' The answer, as we all know, but few of us dare say, is because the British educational system has been a catastrophe for the last 50 years or so -- more or less during my working lifetime, which was spent (sadly enough) in education.

Sarah Churchwell's article is a brave and outspoken piece of comment, doubly so because it comes from a practising academic. I don't go for her definition of a sentence, but apart from that I give her full marks.

A few days ago I mentioned the Million Writers Award. Now I hear that, on Bloggasm, Simon Owens has interviewed both the creator and the winner of this year's Award. Well worth reading.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Notes and jottings

The misery continues. In last week's UK paperback bestseller list, 5 out of the top 10 were memoirs which sound to be about as much fun as a bad dose of flu. Viz the summaries:

  • Four sister's experiences of a brutal East End childhood.
  • Childood abuse that resulted in a teenage pregnancy.
  • Memoir from novelist who grew up in poverty with alcoholic parents.
  • Story of childhood abuse by deaf and partially blind parents.
  • Man who killed his abusive stepfather suffers further in prison.


There is a school of thought which holds that the new social-networking web sites present a considerable opportunity for book marketers and publishers. Publishers Weekly has a discussion of same, and I suppose you owe it to yourself (whatever your interest in books) to struggle through it.

As you will have gathered from the tone of the above paragraph, I find myself profoundly indifferent to all this. However -- underline however -- you should not let my world-weariness influence your own assessment of these places. Web sites such as Shelfari, Goodreads, and LibraryThing all attract visitors who are mad keen on books, and who also handle the net as easily as putting butter on bread. People of my generation just don't find it so instinctive, and I for one tend to find it more trouble than it's worth.

What is slightly depressing for publishers and authors to contemplate -- and I can see no way round it -- is that here we have yet further proof that book marketing on Web 2.0 is going to be just as fiddly, time-consuming, and generally tiresome as every other aspect of writing and publishing. You may have thought that, as technology kicked in, everything would get simpler and easier. Ha! Fat chance. It seems to be getting more and more one-to-one and bespoke, rather than one size fits all.

Shelfari, by the way, has just developed a new application for Facebook members which is

designed to let them easily rate, review and share their books with Facebook friends and connect with one another via their love of literature. Unlike the majority of Facebook book applications that were built by independent software developers as siloed communities, the Shelfari Facebook application connects with the vibrant community of Shelfari.com and enables users to connect their book activity within Facebook to the deep book-centered world on Shelfari.com.

And all like that. Wow, eh?


If you want to know what it is like to undertake work experience at a small UK publisher, Marianne at Tonto Press can help you.


Oh what joy. Focus groups -- much relied on by Noo Labour -- are coming to publishing. Story in The New Yorker. (Link from booktrade.info). I see, by the way, that The New Yorker, home of a thousand fact-checkers and nit-pickers, spells focuses as focusses. I know it's one of those cases where you take your pick, but that's never looked right to me.


The first thing I do, on hearing of a self-publishing services provider, is see what Mark Levine has to say about it. In the case of Cold Tree Press, he lists it in the 'outstanding' category. Which is a good start.

Cold Tree have just announced an enhanced set of services and revised pricing plans. They declare themselves to be looking for 'serious authors' and aim to produce books of an exceptionally high standard, in terms of production quality. They are no doubt assisted in this by the fact that Peter Honsberger, the boss man, is an award-winning graphic designer.

The firm has been going for six years and has 99 books listed on Amazon. I wonder whether they ever decline to publish, even if the authors do have the money.


As every newspaper in the world is probably reporting, Sebastian Faulks is writing the new James Bond. Hey, what's wrong with the old one? Fleming, like Edgar Wallace, was one hell of a writer, and a neophyte thriller writer would be a lot better off studying him than reading the bloated books produced by many of today's bestsellers.


Andrew W.M. Beierle guest-blogs at Bookseller Chic. Subject: the difficulties of writing about a character with two heads. It can't be easy.


If you're in Birmingham, England, on Tuesday 26 July, 6 p.m., Mick Scully is reading from his 'deviant noir' debut, Little Moscow -- subversive and witty crime stories set in and around Birmingham's gay village. Venue: Prowler Birmingham, 29-30 Stephenson St, Birmingham, B2 4BH. More info at Tindal Street.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Short reviews and mentions

The pile of books in the room where I work is getting completely out of hand. All of these books deserve, in my opinion, at least a mention here, and most of them deserve a proper review. But, life being what it is, they aren't going to get it. Hours in the day, and so forth. Instead, we're just going to have to make do with some short reviews and mentions.

No one in the entire world, I suspect, would enjoy every one of these books. But each of the books listed here is going to be just what somebody, somewhere, is looking for. And if nothing else I hope to help you to find out whether a particular book is the ideal one for you.

Random order, by the way.

Ken Bruen: Cross

Ken Bruen is another Irish crime writer; but, unlike Benjamin Black and Brian McGilloway, he's been going for a while. Cross is, by my count, his seventeenth book, and it shows in the skill level. You soon discover that you're in the hands of a pro. His prose is sharp and funny, with a telling eye for detail.

The lead character is Jack Taylor, a complicated (aren't they all?) ex-cop now private eye. Not young, not even a recovering alcoholic, and going deaf at 50. This isn't a whodunnit -- we know who done the crime -- but it's a gripper.

Regular crime readers probably know of Bruen already; but if not, he's recommended. The book came to me, I think, from Shots magazine, and the publisher is Bantam, who've done an excellent design job on the trade paperback (12/16 pt Sabon; good choice, boys -- or girls).

Jack Saunders (editor): Postcards from Pottersville, vol. 3 -- Adventures in the Underground

Long-time readers of this blog may remember Jack Saunders, who edits, and contributes several items to, this anthology. Jack has been writing for 35 years, is working on his 275th book (or was, when Postcards vol. 3 was published), and serialises the books he writes, on a daily basis, on the web. One of nature's eccentrics then: by rights he ought to be English, but he ain't.

Postcards calls itself an anthology of art and literature, and it contains essays, interviews, poems, and short fiction. Also a few photographs and drawings.

The title of the book suggests that all the contributors come from the 'underground' -- which I take to mean a sub-division of the book world which isn't entirely accepted and respectable in the eyes of the literary establishment, but which isn't obviously commercial or genre-based either. Of course I may have got that entirely wrong, but that's the way I read it. In his introduction, Jack Saunders suggests that underground writers are the people who are 'out there banging their heads against the brick stone wall of the world's indifference.' Which I like.

I hope the other contributors won't all jump on me together for saying so, but I found Jack's own contributions the most interesting. It seems to me that Jack understands the writing business with painful clarity. Here is just a sample:

You'd better get your reward out of doing the best you can with what you have to work with and knowing that, whatever happens, you do not quit, turn bitter, or sell out. You might wear down. Attrition might get you. You finally might just not have anything left. You might exhaust yourself. Short of that, I don't see anything that will stop you.
I warmly recommend this collection to anyone who has ever had a rejection slip. You will learn, for instance, that submitting poetry for publication is an even more thankless task than sending out fiction; you will also come across some sound common sense, wisdom, and good humour.

Publisher is the Pottersville Press, who request that you buy the book from them if poss. They are supporting local artists by publishing their work.

Natasha Mostert: Season of the Witch

If Mr Shatzkin is right, the world of fiction will become ever more concentrated into niches. The old genres of crime, romance, and so forth, will be analysed out into large numbers of sub-genres: not just romance any longer, or even Regency romance, but lesbian explicit red-haired humorous touches Regency romance.

That being so, how the hell do you pigeon-hole Season of the Witch? The UK publisher (Bantam again) clearly has no idea: or at least, gives none on the cover. Chapter 1 suggests that we might have a techno-thriller about hacking into computers. Chapter 2 look like a private-eye book. Chapter 3 is a bit skiffy -- second sight, remote viewing, clairvoyance type of thing. And the ending suggests that it's really a love story.

Actually I know exactly what this book is, but knowing it is no help to anyone. In theory this book should carry a banner on the cover which says: In the tradition of Dennis Wheatley. The problem is, no one under the age of 60 knows who Dennis Wheatley is any more, though in his day (say the 1940s-60s) he was a huge seller. Anyway, the book is a supernatural thriller.

As such it held my attention throughout. It's an unusual read, but a good one. Natasha Mostert's agent, by the way, is Jonny Geller. Which seldom hurts a writer's career.

Brian Garfield: The Meinertzhagen Mystery

The author and title combination suggests that this is a novel. But it ain't. It's non-fiction: a biography, and a scholarly biography at that, the product of an author plus team of researchers, and published complete with 90 pages of notes and a 12-page bibliography.

Brian Garfield will be best known to readers of a certain age as a thoroughly professional crime writer who suddenly happened to touch a public nerve with a novel called Death Wish. This was the tale of a guy who got fed up with criminals and decided to get his own back. The book was a huge seller, and the film version (directed by Michael Winner) was an even bigger success.

Meinertzhagen was, by his own account, a British war hero, a secret agent, and an internationally famous expert on ornithology. In fact, as the subtitle of Garfield's book suggests, the Colonel was a colossal fraud. Garfield goes through his subject's life, year by year and exploit by exploit, and reveals that most of the stories that Meinertzhagen told about himself were either total fiction, or took considerable liberties with some underlying truth.

It's an extraordinary story, and one which fiction writers might do well, in my opinion, to have a look at. It has at least the potential to reveal much to us about a certain type of man, and about the willingness of others to take people at their own estimation.

Lewis Hyde: The Gift

The Gift was first published in 1979. It is described as 'an enquiry into the place of creativity in our market-orientated society', and it ranges across anthropology, literature, economics, and psychology. It is said to have been one of the books which influenced ideas about the 'gift economy' on the internet. Which is why I bought it. Sad to say, I found it tedious.

The chief problem with the book, as far as I was concerned, was that there were far too many quotations: from poets, visionaries, mystics, politicians, and academics -- to mention just a few. It seemed to me that the author ought to have more faith in his own ability to think. I also came to the conclusion that the author's argument could have been better made in a book half the length.

However, someone, somewhere, as I said at the beginning, is undoubtedly going to find this inspiring.

Monday, July 09, 2007

Moody Monday

The latest Macmillan New Writing publication is Michael Stephen Fuchs's Pandora's Sisters. This is interesting because it's Fuchs's second book for the imprint, the first being The Manuscript, reviewed here on 10 March 2006. Only a minority of MNW authors are succeeding in having book no. 2 accepted by the imprint, and this one certainly looks promising. As with Fuchs's first novel, Pandora's Sisters has its own web site.

The Manuscript, by the way, is now out in paperback, and no doubt your local indie can get it for you.

Maxine, bless her heart, has tried to make an old man very happy by sending me details of erotica in audible form. Martyn Daniels of the Booksellers Association has the details. All I can say is that the featured Susie Bright sounds to me like one of those frantically active high-energy American gals. She is said to have her own website, blog, store, entry in Wikipedia, generates over 400K hits on Google and produces a weekly podcast which is sold via Audible. Do you think she ever has time to, you know, actually do it?

Catherine J Gardner, at her Fright-Fest blog, offers tales of horror, suspense, and the psyche. It turns out that she has had over 60 short stories published in magazines and anthologies, but can't seem to raise any interest in her novels. Meanwhile, she has a new novella available through Lulu. And you can download it free.

May Sinclair is a poet with a PhD in the philosophy of metaphyics, and she has just published Infamous Eve, a book which discusses the historical and contemporary place of women in society. If I were female and a lot younger, I think I'd take a pretty close look at this one. The publisher, by the way, is Wheatmark -- yet another self-publishing service provider.

I have belatedly read Susan Hill's blog post in which she explains her reasons for discontinuing the Long Barn first-novel competition. Basically, it seems that many of the books submitted were pretty poor, and Susan Hill said so. The writers didn't like this home truth, and started bad-mouthing her in various quarters. Up with which Susan Hill does not have to put, nor will she.

I am not surprised by this. Ever since publishing began, it has been true that the vast majority of stuff submitted to publishers simply isn't any good. A lot of it is semi-literate at best. And it does no one any favours to pretend otherwise.

As for novel-writing competitions, well, I've noted previously (last December, actually, but will repeat now) that they usually throw up problems. In 1983 the Sunday Express ran a competition to find a new romantic writer. Over 10 million words were submitted, but unfortunately only one entry conformed with the requirements of the competition.

And I also remember an article which appeared in Esquire at least forty years ago. That told the tale of a competition (run by an American publisher, I think) to find a really great novel. The prize was huge (I seem to remember $200,000), and included sale of film rights to some Hollywood household name. In the end the entries were so poor that the publisher had to commission a professional to write the 'winner'.

Friday, July 06, 2007

Idealogical ideas

Mike Shatzkin of the Idealogical Company is a publishing strategist whose thoughts have been recommended here more than once. He tends to make them publicly available, and you can find a list of most of his thought-provoking presentations on the company's web site.

The text of Shatzkin's latest speech has been available for a month or so now, but I have only just got around to reading it. Unless you are very keen on reading stuff on screen, I suggest you print it out. It runs to 21 pages.

The title of the speech is 'The End of General Trade Publishing Houses: Death or Rebirth in a Niche-by-Niche World.'

You can, of course, skip this reading duty if you're just a plain old buyer of books (though what Shatzkin has to say will affect you just as much as anyone else). But if you're planning any sort of business or professional association with the book trade in the next decade or two, I suggest that you give Shatzkin your attention. He doesn't offer an infallible road map into the future, but he will at least get you thinking about how the book world is changing.

If you want a brief summary (dangerous thing), then Shatzkin suggests that general trade publishing will dwindle away, and that publishers will instead cater for much more tightly defined niches in the market than they do at present. And that doesn't mean setting up more imprints (remember Nelson?).

And there's wonderful (?) news for authors. The preponderance of agents, says Shatzkin, think that authors should spend 2 to 10 hours a week promoting themselves online. What fun, eh?

Here's a hint for writers just starting out. Probably the main reason why my 'career' as a writer never got very far was because I never found a tiny niche and stuck to it. I always liked to do different things: mainstream novels, thrillers, police procedurals, all sorts. I also wrote for several different media: books, stage, TV, radio. Hence no big-time success. But I had a lot more fun doing that than I would have had if I'd gone down the niche route for the last forty years.

Friday assortment

Virtual Bookworm is a self-publishing services company that I had not come across before, but I find that it is listed as one of the outstanding companies in Mark Levine's The Fine Print of Self-Publishing, so I guess that quite a few people must be using it. To be precise, Amazon.com lists 743 books from this publisher.

I came across Virtual Bookworm because it is the publisher of A.W.G. Coleman's Quest of the Seal Bearer fantasy adventure series; book 2 of the series came out in April.

The whole series has quite an elaborate web site to go with it. Given that these multi-part fantasy stories seem to be popular, this one might do quite well. You can, in any case, read several chapters of each book online, to see if they appeal.

Catherynne M. Valente won the 2007 Million Writers Award for best online short story with "Urchins, While Swimming". She got 31% of the public vote. Details at storySouth.

Bewrite Books is a name that has cropped up once or twice recently, and it certainly seems to be an interesting little publisher. Magdalena Ball, for example, is the author of a non-fiction book on reviewing, The Art of Assessment, and a chapbook of poetry, and she has a novel coming out from Bewrite at the end of this month.

Sleep Before Evening is about a young woman 'teetering at the edge of reason. A death in the family has sent her brilliant academic career and promising future spiraling out of control. Growing resentment towards those who shaped her past sends her on a wild, desperate search for the truth about herself.' You can read an extensive sample on the publisher's web site; or, indeed, listen to the author reading it.

In her spare time (!) Magdalena runs The Compulsive Reader, which provides reviews, author interviews, literary news and criticism.

Fish Publishing (in Ireland) continues to run all kinds of competitions for writers. One of them offers a 10,000 euro first prize. Which ain't bad. Last year it was won by a young lady from New Zealand.

Touchstone Books have been in the news once or twice recently, but an email from them recommends Heidi's Bedtime Stories, which apparently contains 36 erotic quickies for men and women. This is, of course, of absolutely no interest to a man of my age and medical history, but it may conceivably (conceivably -- that's good, isn't it?) appeal to younger readers.

Robert Rankin is getting married in style. Plus lots more info at the latest Ansible. While you're there, read the bit about Diana Wynne Jones and be glad you're not a success. Think what you'd have to put up with. Those who enjoyed the debate about singular nouns and plural verbs should also study Thog's Masterclass. Oh, and, of course, Ursula Le Guin on serious literature. Look, why don't you just go there and leave me in peace. I'm sure you meet a much better class of person there anyway.

I don't feel any sympathy for ole O.J., of course, but it seems like the court done removed his copyright. Can they do that? Evidently so. (Link from Publishers Lunch.) Seems like the Goldman family can do everything except speak in his name. Although, come to think of it, maybe they can do that too.

Halfcut Books is a small UK fiction publisher with an elaborate web site but as yet a small list. No sign of inviting submissions either, so probably they have plenty to work on already. They also offer photographs, short stories, and songs.

Susan Hill, novelist and publisher of Long Barn Books, has for three years been offering a prize for best first novel submitted to her. The shortlist for this year has just been announced. According to the Bookseller, however, this will be the last such competition, as Susan is fed up with the criticism that the comp has brought her way.

Paul Perry in Melbourne Orstreyelia draws my attention to a self-published book with a difference. The story is a little difficult to follow, and I'm not quite sure that I've got it right, but it seems to go like this.

Michael Kelley has been running his 'Page of Misery' for quite some time now, and offers an archive going back to 1999. More recently, he has written, and published, a book on Roy Orbison. And, what's more, he has persuaded his local Waterstone's to put it on display. (He must have a hold on the manager: probably a firm grip on two sensitive parts of the body, I would guess.)

The new book apparently contains stories about Roy Orbison being wrapped in cling-film. And it is published (not surprisingly) under a pseudonym. In the circumstances, I'm sure you will excuse me if I have got confused somewhere along the way, but that appears to be the story.

Not surprisingly, the Australian writer Peter Temple has won the UK Crime Writers Association £20,000 prize for the best novel of the year award. (Report from the Bookseller.) When I reviewed the book last September I described it as the best novel in any genre that I'd read for quite some time.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Nassim Nicholas Taleb: The Black Swan

Some introductory remarks

I've been putting this off, you know -- writing a review of Nassim Nicholas Taleb's new book, The Black Swan. Why? Because it's hard work for one thing: requires concentration; and because it's a deuced risky enterprise for another.

Consider, for example, the fate of the man from the New York Times. I think we can assume that, generally speaking, the NYT selects book reviewers who are fairly well qualified, if not uniquely well qualified, in terms of the subject matter of the book in question. But in the case of The Black Swan, the NYT man had no sooner published his review than Herr Doktor Professor Taleb produced a PDF file on his own web site, spelling out in some detail the several points on which the reviewer had misrepresented or misunderstood his book.

Which immediately demonstrates one of my problems in writing this review. I am very anxious, for a variety of reasons, not to misrepresent what The Black Swan tells us, or to identify the author as being something that he is not. But already, in paragraph two, I have been forced to write something which might suggest that Taleb is one of those four-star whingers who habitually write to newspaper editors to complain about the inadequacy of the reviews of their book.

I don't believe that Taleb is that sort of person at all. On the contrary, judging by the evidence of this book and its predecessor (more re the predecessor shortly), and other sources of information, Taleb seems to me to be a very even-tempered, easy-going, relaxed sort of person. He advises us not to worry about things we can do nothing about -- advice which I for one have tended to follow for some time, all the more so now that I know about black swans -- and I imagine that he has a rather calmer approach to reviews than do most writers.

That having been said, however, Taleb does express some disappointment, from time to time, that many so-called experts turn out to be anything but. This he refers to as the 'empty suit problem'. Many professionals, he argues, 'have no differential abilities from the rest of the population, but for some reason, and against their empirical records, are believed to be "experts".'

As examples he gives us clinical psychologists, academic economists, and political analysts. Such people, he warns us, 'dress up their expertise in beautiful language, jargon, mathematics, and often wear expensive suits.'

In one extensive empirical study, it was found that there was a negative correlation between the reputation of experts and their actual ability to make sound predictions. And if we transferred that circumstance to publishing, we might well find (does it ring any bells?) that the secretaries of big-time editors would turn out to be better predictors of a book's success than their bosses. (But still not very good.)

More specifically, perhaps, if I tell you that the whole point about 'black swans', as defined and described by Taleb, is that they are unpredictable events, you can understand our author becoming a trifle testy when newspaper reporters ask him to list 'the next ten black swans' for the edification of their readers. Which does not invalidate my contention that he is, by and large, a remarkably placid individual; particularly when you reflect upon the import of what he says.

All of this being the case, I think I am going to write you two separate reviews of Taleb's new book. In fact, I don't think I'm going to call them reviews at all: I shall describe them as discussions. First, then, a short discussion; and then a longer one.

The longer one will be subdivided into various bits; and I offer no guarantees of logical order or clarity of explanation. All I can promise you is that, in the faint hope of not making a complete fool of myself, I shall make every effort to ensure that what I tell you about the book is correct in terms of what the book actually says. When stating an opinion -- any and all of which are likely to be of dubious value -- I shall make it clear that it is my opinion, and not a matter of fact.


What is The Black Swan about?

Well, the subtitle is 'the impact of the highly improbable'. And Niall Ferguson, author of a review of the book which Taleb approves of, explains:
Before the discovery of Australia, people in the old world were convinced that all swans were white, an unassailable belief as it seemed completely confirmed by empirical evidence. The sighting of the first black swan might have been an interesting surprise for a few ornithologists (and others extremely concerned with the coloring of birds), but that is not where the significance of the story lies. It illustrates a severe limitation to our learning from observations or experience and the fragility of our knowledge. One single observation can invalidate a general statement derived from millennia of confirmatory sightings of millions of white swans. All you need is one single (and, I am told, quite ugly) black bird.
This logical problem has often been remarked upon. For example, William James, the brother of Henry, was interested in psychic research. He soon became aware, however, that no matter how many hoax mediums you exposed, you were always left in a position of doubt. You only had to find one genuine case, among 10,000 con artists, to prove that communication with the dead was possible.

Black swans, in Taleb's terms, are unexpected, and indeed unforeseeable, events which have enormous impact. Examples: the events of 9/11 (bad, negative); Harry Potter (good, positive, particularly if your name is J.K. Rowling); the rise of Christianity; the rise of Islam; the first and second world wars. But after a black swan has occurred, human nature is such that we concoct explanations for it, making it both explicable and, we feel, predictable.

In short, black swans are some of the most important and influential events in the history of the human race.

'A small number of Black Swans,' Taleb tells us, 'explain almost everything in our world, from the success of ideas and religions, to the dynamics of historical events, to elements of our own personal lives.' And their impact is increasing, given the nature of the world we now live in.

But hold on a minute, hold on, I hear you cry. Surely there were lots of people who saw, for instance, that the two world wars were inevitably going to happen. Yes indeed. Or so it appears, afterwards. Afterwards we can readily find evidence that such conflicts were 'inevitable'.

At the time, however, such black swans were far from obvious. Taleb draws our attention to the pre-WWII Berlin diaries of the historian William Shirer, which show, for instance, that the French thought that Hitler was a short-term phenomenon. And the Harvard historian Niall Ferguson has demonstrated, through an analysis of bond prices, that the financial markets certainly did not expect war in 1914.

And so on, and so forth, in considerable closely argued detail, for 400 pages.

I hesitate to call The Black Swan a work of philosophy, because experience has taught me that I am crap at philosophy, and have grave difficulty in following even the simplest philosophical argument. But I didn't have any real difficulty in following the drift of The Black Swan. On the contrary, I found it an exceptionally agreeable read. So I think I would prefer, if you don't mind, to think of this book as a work of ideas. Talk philosophy to me, and my mind glazes over pretty rapidly; but tell me some of your ideas and I am interested.

True, The Black Swan does get very technical at times. (Example: 'Sometimes a fractal can make you believe that it is Gaussian, particularly when the cutpoint starts at a high number.') But Taleb does tell us when things are going to get technical; he advises us how many pages can safely be skipped by lay readers; and he provides summaries of his ideas, in layman's terms, either before or after the technical bits. The result is that the book is, in my estimation, painless and rewarding to read.

I emphasise that, because, so often these days, reading a serious non-fiction book is not a happy experience. You may well end up feeling deeply worried, guilty, upset, horrified, appalled, angry, and so forth. Well, there is plenty to worry about in The Black Swan, if you're the worrying kind. But on the whole the author does not seem to me to be particularly anxious to convert us to the cause, or to have us take up arms.

On the contrary: as I read him, Taleb tells us that it is not comfortable to recognise the truth about black swans, or randomness; but he seems disinclined to inconvenience or distress us by emphasising the point. Here are the facts, he says, rather apologetically. I am sorry to burden you with them, but this is the way things are.


Background: the author

Taleb is himself something of a rare bird. He combines practical experience of the financial world, at a high level, with academic interests and standing.

For example: Taleb has been, at various times, managing director and proprietary trader at Union Bank of Switzerland, and Managing Director and worldwide head of financial option arbitrage at CIBC-Wood Gundy. He is currently 'taking a break' by serving as the Dean's Professor in the Sciences of Uncertainty at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst.

The dust jacket of The Black Swan describes Taleb as a man who has devoted his life to the problems of luck, uncertainty, probability, and knowledge. He is said to be part literary essayist, part empiricist, part no-nonsense mathematical trader.

As I say, an unusual combination.

Background: previous books

Taleb has written two previous books. The first, Dynamic Hedging: Managing Vanilla and Exotic Options (1997), was a specialist book published by John Wiley. His second book, Fooled by Randomness, was, however, aimed firmly at the lay reader, and was sufficiently successful to have been translated into twenty languages.

Fooled by Randomness was reviewed here on 20 August 2004. The ideas contained in that book seemed to me to have some major implications for writers and publishers. Consequently, I wrote a further series of posts about Taleb's ideas on randomness on the following dates:

23 August 2004
27 August 2004
7 September 2004
15 September 2004
23 September 2004
28 September 2004

Later in 2004, I noticed that Taleb was beginning to post some draft chapters of The Black Swan on his web site. I read these, combined some thoughts on them with the thoughts and ideas which I had already posted on my blog, and incorporated the melange into a 72-page essay entitled On the Survival of Rats in the Slush Pile. This essay attempted to provide writers, agents, and publishers, with some new insights into the nature of their business. The essay is available free online, in the form of a PDF file. In fact that's the only form it is available in, as I haven't yet got around to publishing it in book form. Though I may before long.

In other words, as you will have gathered, I am quite interested in the ideas of Nassim Nicholas Taleb, and the way in which they impact upon the lives of writers and publishers.

A declaration of interest

At this point I ought to declare an interest of another kind.

When reading The Black Swan, I noticed early on that, in his 28-page bibliography, Taleb lists two of my books. There is the Rats essay, referred to above, and also The Truth about Writing, which you can also read free of charge as a PDF if you wish, though the paperback copy may be more convenient.

Not surprisingly, human nature being what it is, a reviewer tends to look kindly upon an author who has read the reviewer's books, and you will need to bear that in mind. However, there is more. In his six pages of acknowledgements, Taleb says this:
Michael Allen wrote a monograph for writers looking to get published [Rats], based on the ideas of Chapter 8 -- I subsequently rewrote Chapter 8 through the eyes of a writer looking at his lot in life.
Now, I have to say that this little paragraph is both flattering and alarming. It is flattering because it is easily the greatest compliment that has been paid to me in an intellectual context (and this, if I may modestly say so, in a life not entirely without some academic distinction). And alarming because, as you may already have concluded, I do not belong in the same company as the others listed in Taleb's acknowledgements section. I am not, as testified earlier, any sort of philosopher, much less a mathematician. I do not belong in the same part of a book as such famous dead names as Hegel and Montaigne, nor even alongside famous living names such as (to pick a few at random) Chris Anderson, Daniel Kahneman (a Nobel laureate), and Benoit Mandelbrot.

Before leaving Taleb's acknowledgements section, it is worth noting (from the point of view of this blog) what he says about his editor.

'He protected me from the intrusions of the standardizing editors. They have an uncanny ability to inflict the maximal damage by breaking the internal rhythm of one's prose with the minimum of changes.'

Yes indeed. We've all met some of those.


Rather than attempt to summarise Taleb's ideas (a risky business, at indicated at the outset), I think I will just mention a few of the implications of them, chiefly in non-publishing contexts.

Taleb's background, as we have seen, is in the financial world, and it is here, perhaps, that the implications of black swans are most worrying. More than once, I think, Taleb reminds us that bankers normally think of themselves as the most conservative of men; but in fact, he says, they are sitting (metaphorically speaking) on top of a pile of dynamite.

'The creatures with the largest cortex have the highest intelligence,' says Taleb. 'We humans have the largest cortex, followed by bank executives, dolphins, and our cousins the apes.' Our author, has you see, a gentle touch, with which he guides us painlessly through the book.

Taleb argues that our brains are genetically predisposed to make us rationalise after an event: to convince us that, for instance, had we been smart enough, we could have seen the black swan coming; and to persuade us that, when we look at the evidence, it is obvious that the black swan was inevitable.

This inbuilt tendency makes us over-confident about predicting the future, and over-confidence can lead to disaster. By way of example, Taleb offer us the case of Long-Term Capital Management. This was a speculative trading firm which offered investors (in crude terms) a sure thing. The brains behind this enterprise were all drawn from the top ranks of academia or finance, and were considered geniuses (except by Taleb). Two of them were Nobel prize-winners in Economics.

The brainy boys had all built careers and spent lifetimes in the business of risk management, and they had built up their sophisticated theories to the point where, when applied in the real world, they couldn't possibly fail to make vast profits. Except, of course, that they did fail. Very nearly dragging down the financial system of the entire western world with them. Total losses were $4.6 billion. You can read the details elsewhere.

Taleb's theories constitute a telling critique of the whole 'science' of economics. I was going to write a 'brutal' critique, but that would give the wrong impression. Taleb does not go around kicking the shit out of people. He just states his case, mildly, and with good manners, and then responds with dignity when people lose their temper with him.

If you read Chapter 17 you will discover that Taleb tends to regard economists, in particular, as not just the blind leading the blind, but leading them perilously close to the cliff's edge. However, you will also learn (if you don't know it already) that academics who have built a successful career in economics do not take kindly to a man who comes along and points out (politely) that they are either fools or charlatans. Don't underestimate the viciousness with which academic counter-attacks can be conducted, and on an ad hominem basis, at that. And don't underestimate the importance of Taleb's underlying ideas, either.

If you begin, at this point, to worry about your pension, then there is a strategy available to you: Taleb calls it the barbell strategy. It involves placing 85-90% of your assets in US Treasury bills, or your local equivalent (unless, of course, you live in Zimbabwe), and investing the remaining 10-15% in plenty of small, speculative bets.

Taleb goes on to point out that the barbell strategy can also be applied to other aspects of life. In fact, parts 3 and 4 of the book provide a number of practical steps that you can take to protect yourself against the negative black swans, and to enable you to benefit from the positive ones.

(For further discussion of the mathematical/statistical and economic/financial aspects of Taleb's ideas, you might wish to read the reviews by David A. Shaywitz and Roger Lowenstein. Thanks to Dave Lull for the links.)

By and large, says Taleb, human beings are blind to the impact of randomness. And we confidently predict the future in any number of ways. Unfortunately we are nearly always wrong, though later, when things have happened, we tend to remember only the times when we were right.

'Our cumulative prediction errors for political and economic events are so monstrous,' says Taleb, 'that every time I look at the empirical record I have to pinch myself to verify that I am not dreaming.'

If you want an example, bear in mind that, in 1970, the US government's official view was that, by 1980, the price of foreign crude oil might well decline, and would not, in any case, show a substantial increase. In fact, oil prices went up tenfold by 1980.

At the risk of misquoting and misrepresenting, perhaps I can summarise what is, for me, one of the key ideas of this book, namely that we fail to appreciate the asymmetry in our perception of events. We attribute our successes to our skills, and our failures to external events outside our control, namely to randomness. (Eight-four per cent of Frenchmen think that their lovemaking abilities put them in the top half of French lovers.)

We also forget very easily. As Taleb points out, it is possible to read a book such as his, agree entirely with it, and yet fail to take such things into account when thinking about the future.


I was once taken to a pub in Yorkshire which was called The Black Swan. The locals referred to it as The Mucky Duck. That may help.

This particular Black Swan (i.e. the book) is full of marvellous and amusing insights, for page after page after page. It would constitute a wearying catalogue of human folly, were it not illuminated by good humour.

The author does not hector you and bully you, and urge that you take these three simple steps to transform your life -- though for once it might be true. Instead, he seems to say to us: Go ahead, fool yourself if you must. Ignore what I tell you if you find it uncomfortable. See if I care. But when things go wrong -- and they may well do, despite everyone's best endeavours -- don't say you weren't warned.

Not every reader will find the book enjoyable, but those who stick with it, and particularly those who devour it with enthusiasm, will find it immensely rewarding.

I could go on, of course. For many thousands of words. But it would be second-best for you, when you can read the book for yourself. Actually, buy it first, and then read it. You will need to refer to it later.

And if I may venture to offer a prediction of my own (it is allowed, despite the hazards), then I would say that this is a book which will still be read in fifty years' time. (Possible comparator: The Open Society and its Enemies, by Sir Doctor Professor Karl Raimund Popper.)

By the way, if you're a publisher, watch out for that Yevgenia Nicolayevna Krasnova (see index). She's had her ups and downs, but this kid could yet be big.