Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Short reviews

They deserve longer, but...

Ken Gelder: Popular Fiction

In a lifetime of reading (or, more often, dipping into) academic books about the novel, I have found only a handful which are of the slightest practical value. This is one of them, and I warmly recommend it to anyone who is either writing or publishing commercial fiction.

The subtitle of Ken Gelder's Popular Fiction is 'The logics and practices of a literary field.' The publisher is Routledge. There's a hardcover version (£50 in the UK) and a paperback (£15.99). The book first appeared in 2004. Ken Gelder teaches at the University of Melbourne.

While I am enthusiastic about the contents of Popular Fiction, I have a heartfelt and bitter complaint to make about the publisher.

In the first place, the print is too damn small. What the hell is it -- eight point? Nine if it's lucky. Far too small, anyway. And all done to reduce costs, of course. The result is a nasty, cheap, shoddy piece of work which is a disgrace to its publisher and does no favours to the author.

And don't lecture me about how hard it is to make academic books pay. I know all about that. I ran an academic publisher for about ten years. In that time, I tried not to publish a book unless I thought it would still be read in fifty years, and since it would be read several decades hence I made sure it was printed in a format which would last.

The cover is no better than the insides. A book about popular fiction -- even an academic book -- surely offers an opportunity to feature a lurid cover: something from a 1930s gangster novel, or a bodice-ripping romance. But no - no one at Routledge had the wit to think of that.

There is much in this book which runs counter to the perceived wisdom of the Eng. Lit. brigade. For example, the author supports the view that romantic fiction should not sensibly be viewed as escapist. Gelder quotes with approval the idea that it is feminism which is remote from women's lives, not romance. 'Romance,' he says, 'can indeed sit closer to women readers' actual lives and aspirations than one might at first imagine.'

Good on yer, Ken.

Chap O'Keefe: Misfit Lil Fights Back

What a terrific name for a character, eh?

This book belongs to an endangered species: the western. It's published by Robert Hale, who is one of the few remaining publishers who still dabble in this genre.

Hale is a firm which sells (I would guess) almost exclusively to the UK library market, which these days has dwindled almost to vanishing point. Hale have always laid down pretty tight specifications for their books. Forty years ago the preferred length was 55,000 words, and this one is about 35,000 -- presumably, as with the book above, to keep costs down. What is more, I see that all the other recent westerns put out by Hale are the same length: 160 pages.

The binding is a sort of hardback -- one of those library bindings in which the cover illustration is laminated on to the card covers. Incidentally, the cover illustration is terrific too.

As for the story: totally professional, as you would expect, and a lot of fun. By my count, Misfit Lil Fights Back is the author's sixteenth book, so he knows how to do the job. Ms Lil has appeared in the series before, and doubtless will again.

Philip K. Dick: The Man in the High Castle

Philip K. Dick is a bigger name now than he was when he died, in 1982. In recent years his work has been 'discovered' by Hollywood, leading to movies such as Blade Runner and Total Recall.

The Man in the High Castle is often spoken of as Dick's best novel. It is the only one of his books to win a Hugo award (for best science-fiction novel), and according to Wikipedia it is considered a defining novel of the alternate history sub-genre. (I prefer the term alternative history myself.)

The novel (first published in 1962) asks us to assume that America was on the losing side in World War II, and that the Japanese control the western parts of America, while the Germans dominate the east. It's an intriguing premise, and Dick certainly makes the most of it.

To my mind, the most interesting aspect of the book is the way in which he manages to convey the fact that his American citizens, now firmly under the thumb of the Japanese, have unconsciously adopted as their norm a manner of speech which reflects the way in which the Japanese speak English.

Dick being Dick, of course, he also throws in all sorts of other ideas. He offers a reference to an alternative-history novel in which Roosevelt, instead of being assassinated (as in Dick's book), survives and makes America strong again, so that Germany and Japan actually lose the war. Complicated, isn't it?

Mr Dick's universe is also one in which Goebbels was a novelist. And funnily enough, I find that it's true -- in our universe. I never knew that before.

Mark Gatiss: The Devil in Amber

This is an odd one.

Mark Gatiss is a British comedy actor, one of the team in The League of Gentlemen. And now he writes novels. The blurb of this one describes him as the twenty-seventh most dangerous man in Islington -- a title for which there is, perhaps surprisingly, a great deal of competition.

The Devil in Amber is an affectionate... what? Spoof? Pastiche? Take-off? Tribute to? In any case, it is written in the style of, and in homage to, the kind of 1920s and 1930s thriller which was written by such writers as Sapper. It's a thriller -- described on the title page as a shocker -- and it's the second book to feature Gatiss's hero, Lucifer Box.

Box is a kind of precursor of Bond. Unlike Bond he is bisexual, and extremely active with it. Not only is the text written in 1920s style, but the spelling follows suit: school-girl, for instance, with a hyphen. And we get unusual words, such as frowst. In other words, what we have here is an unusually literate and intelligent author with a serious command of the language and the medium.

Given the author's history, we should not be surprised to find that he summons up some very strange characters indeed. Mrs Croup is my favourite: a sort of geriatric Rosa Klebb, when needs must, and randy with it.

There are many built-in tributes to other great thriller writers of the period in which this book is set. Box's servant, for example, is much the same person as Albert Campion's Lugg, only female.

It's all schoolboy stuff, but extremely well done of its kind and consistently entertaining. Very English, however, and it helps if you read widely as a schoolboy some sixty or seventy years ago.


Anonymous said...

The Man in the High Castle was used in a class I took back when I was attending community college in the 1980's.

My personal favorite though is A Scanner Darkly. Dick's work seems like escapist fantasy now-a-days, living under the last gasps of the Bush regime here in California.

He often presents the idea that the reality his characters live in is not the correct one, or the real one. Kind of hits home.


Anonymous said...

Indeed, the cover of poor Mr. Gelding's book could be mistaken for a dinner napkin. A good commentary on how a publisher can be an author's worst enemy.

Otherwise, some promising comments and I hope they all (including the unfortunate Gelding) do well.

Anonymous said...

Goebbels may have been a one-off novelist but he was not too good at reading them. Look at:

Anonymous said...

"...the most interesting aspect of the book is ...that his American citizens, now firmly under the thumb of the Japanese, have unconsciously adopted as their norm a manner of speech which reflects the way in which the Japanese speak English.

Brings to mind Ernest Bramah's Kailung series, a tour-de-force of the Chinese idiom.

Anonymous said...

This is what happens when the making cheap books/marketing crowd win out over common sense in book design. The cover is supposed to attract potential readers to the book and invite them inside. The interior design and layout have a really simple job: to present the author's work in a pleasing way that's easy on the reader's eyes. They are never, not ever, supposed to get in the way of the author reaching the reader.