Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Hell in a Handcart

Now let's get this straight:

Last week Danuta Kean got publishers to fess up to the way commercial pressures are cutting off authors' careers (and therefore, it follows, literature).

On Sunday Kate Kellaway got an agent to admit that an author's looks definitely come into the equation.

Some time in the last few days we heard that Wordsworth Editions has found it necessary to photoshop Jane Austen's portrait to make her prettier, and that since poor Virginia Woolf 'wasn't much of a looker' and George Eliot was 'frumpy' they're considering giving them a makeover as well. (Ms Baroque has an excellent post on the matter.)

And now the Bookseller announces 'a Dragon's Den-style show on ITV London which will seek out new author talent for publication under the Random House Group's Arrow imprint' involving top agent Ali Gunn and Simon Cowell's brother Anthony. (Thanks to Jessica at The Book Bar.) (Debut novelist Struggling Author has a great take on this.)


Any one still up for claiming that publishers can still afford to care much about good literature?

But hey, publishers, here's a good wheeze: if photoshop can work for Jane, why not for the rest of us? (Oh, OK, I know, those TV appearances....)

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

A Triumph in Spite of it All

This morning all Bitchiness melts away from your blogger and she looks out at the sun-filled world and thinks: Here be justice.

Why? Because last night she had an email telling her that Tamar Yellin, a writer she considers brilliant and whom she once published in the short-story magazine Metropolitan, but whose subsequent novel was roundly declined by British publishers, has won with that very novel a major US-based international prize, the newly-inaugurated Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature, 'the largest-ever Jewish literary prize given and one of the largest literary prizes in the nation.'

The independent US Toby Press should be congratulated for taking up Tamar's novel, The Genizah at the House of Shepher, after a British literary agent failed to sell it to British publishers. (And today the Bitch and her erstwhile co-editor Ailsa Cox are patting themselves on the back for having published two of her early stories).

Ailsa and I set up Metropolitan as a deliberate attempt to counteract the loss of platform for short stories due to the increasing commercialisation of fiction publishing. We are very proud of the writers we published, both known and unknown. One of these was Russell Hoban, to whom Susan Hill recently drew attention in her 'underrated writers' series of blog posts.
So why did we jump on Tamar's stories the moment they came out of the envelopes when we were editing Metropolitan from my back room? Because they are written in the most beautiful prose, precise and spare and telling. They are utterly serious and political yet entirely accessible and filled with a wry humour and humanity. We just LOVED them!! How could she not have got published in Britain?? And it's not that she ain't young and attractive (re Kate Kellaway's recent depressing Observer article) (just look at the picture on the Jewish Book Council site).

Ee, British publishers, eh?

Sunday, March 25, 2007

First or Second Novels?

Kate Kellaway writes in today's Observer about the difficulties for first-time novelists in an article titled: That difficult first novel. Well, I guess it's an ironic title (a play on the more usual phrase that difficult second novel), but I can't decide if the article itself is ironic or confused, as many of the problems it outlines seem indeed not to be the problems of first-time novelists but of second- or third-time ones. Getting a first novel published - and publicised - is harder than ever before, she says, but if Danuta Keane's research is anything to go by, publishers are publishing more first novels than previously and cutting back on their mid-list authors - for the very reasons of unearned advances, Neilsen Bookscan monitoring and heavily discounted books which Kellaway quotes.

The issue of publicity is a different matter. Kellaway quotes Kate Saunders, currently a judge of the Orange Prize: 'It is harder for first-time novelists to get noticed now. They will find, increasingly, that they are judged alongside their work - and are less likely to be taken on if they are not photogenic or newsworthy.' And as for first-time innovators, well, here's Kate Saunders again: 'Publishers seem enormously scared of too much originality. Many of the first novels we read this year appeared to be watered-down copies of something else.'

Well, this is indeed serious confirmation of what a lot of us have been saying, but if it's bad for first-timers, what's it like for the second-timers starting to grow crow's-feet, especially if they're stupidly innovative enough to divert from their own 'formulae'? And sure enough, it is those second-timers who did make it as first novelists which Kellaway ends up concentrating on. How do you follow a brilliant first novel with a second? she asks, and one publisher replies in ominous terms: 'I'm staring down the barrel of that particular gun at the moment.'

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

And If It Is Their Fault, They're Paying For It...

This article confirms what I've always been saying.

Thanks to Clare for the link.

Is It the Writers' Fault?

Ms Baroque puts her mind to answering Henry Porter's question, Where are our Orwell and Dickens? and comes down to the view that we writers had better start getting our political act together. In today's Guardian, however, playwright Anthony Neilson bemoans the fact that much of our theatre is downright boring due to a contemporary playwriting concern with issues at the expense of story-telling. Like Porter he seems to be blaming the writers themselves, but, as I have said on my other, writer blog, my hunch is that a lot of this is down to the pressures on playwrights from theatre policies. As I indicated in my last post here, writers are now under such marketing pressure - whether of the populist variety predominant in the publishing industry and our larger theatres, or the bureaucratic mission-statement sort still holding sway in our alternative theatres - that they are no longer always in control of subject matter or even of style.

I went to the theatre last night and when I lit this morning on Neilson's statement that theatres are too often failing in their unique task of providing 'live magic', I thought: Funny he should say that...

It was the Library Theatre press night for Chapter Two by Neil Simon. The lights went up on an immaculately designed set: the living rooms of two flats. Nineteen-seventies? New York? - don't ask, I neither really know or care: in spite of the suggestion of surrealism in the two simultaneous locations, it was so rigidly (and yet somehow surreally) naturalistic and indicating so ominously what was to come that the Bitch's heart sank and her mind stopped focussing right from the start. And it came. A long silence while the audience 'appreciated' the set and its emptiness of people and developed an expectation. And then, just as we had expected (no surprise, no magic) a middle-aged man came in with a suitcase, put it down, and laboriously went through the usual, only-to-be expected rituals of someone returning from holiday.

The Bitch's partner yawned noisily. The Bitch, furious, biffed him in the ribs. As an occasional actor, the Bitch knows only too well how attuned an actor is to the responses of the audience and its tiniest sounds, most particularly in those first moments on that first night... The Bitch's partner hissed: 'But it's so boring!' and the Bitch wanted to crawl under her seat.

But he was right: as Anthony Neilson says, Boring an audience is the one true sin in theatre. Neilson is talking in the main about over-consciously political or 'poetic' theatre, but the same objection can be applied to hackneyed naturalistic theatre. OK, so this was a period piece, you could say, and OK, much of last night's audience - which, at the risk of sounding ageist and classist, was middle-aged, even elderly, and middle class - seemed to enjoy this play a lot better than did the Bitch and her partner. But I'd say that the laughter was too comfortable, and far too automatic, and one could ask why a present-day theatre wants to put on such an unchallenging piece.

What Neilson is saying is pretty important: we do need to challenge, as Henry Porter has said, but we need to do it in ways that first and foremost transport and entertain. But then what do you do when the first priority of publishers and producers is to pander to the market which wishes not to be challenged?

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Whether Novels Matter

Plenty of meat in the newspaper literary pages this weekend, and some to delight the Bitch. Jed Mercurio, flouting Milan Kundera's warning that film adaptations of novels steal their essence, describes with relish in the Guardian the process of doing so (though I'd say not without revealing the odd doubt). However, a posthumous essay from Susan Sontag in the same paper sounds a deeply serious note about the growing encroachment of television culture on novels and on their crucial role in our social and intellectual life. Sontag says:
What serves "the modern" is standardization, homogenization. (Indeed, "the modern" is homogenization, standardization. The quintessential site of the modern is an airport; and all airports are alike, as all new modern cities, from Seoul to São Paulo, tend to look alike.) This pull toward homogenization cannot fail to affect the project of literature. The novel, which is marked by singularity, can only enter this system of maximum diff usion through the agency of translation, which, however necessary, entails a built-in distortion of what the novel is at the deepest level - which is not the communication of information, or even the telling of engaging stories, but the perpetuation of the project of literature itself, with its invitation to develop the kind of inwardness that resists the modern satieties
Television distances, she says, whereas novels pay attention and require the reader to do so:
I would argue that the mindset [the media] foster and the appetites they feed are entirely inimical to the writing (production) and reading (consumption) of serious literature... On the one hand, we have, through translation and through recycling in the media, the possibility of a greater and greater diffusion of our work. On the other hand, the ideology behind these unprecedented opportunities for diffusion, for translation - the ideology now dominant in what passes for culture in modern societies - is designed to render obsolete the novelist's prophetic and critical, even subversive, task, and that is to deepen and sometimes, as needed, to oppose the common understandings of our fate.
These should be words close to the hearts of us novelists but Henry Porter in the Observer suggests that our well-known writers are now colluding with this non-engaged market culture. None is engaging with the urgent issues, he says:
...the widening gap between poor and rich, the seething anger of the underclass, the steady attack on the rights of those who cannot protect themselves, the war in Iraq, the regular deaths of British soldiers in Helmand province, Afghanistan, Guantanamo, rendition. Instead, he says, the widening gap between poor and rich, the seething anger of the underclass, the steady attack on the rights of those who cannot protect themselves, the war in Iraq, the regular deaths of British soldiers in Helmand province, Afghanistan, Guantanamo, rendition.
Instead, he says:
Nowadays, there seem to be an awful lot of middle-aged blokes dragging their tortured souls around the literary circuit, fretting about their display in Waterstone's.

Maybe he shouldn't be blaming the writers, though. Maybe the reason they're tortured is that their most political and 'singular' work, like that of the Bitch and others of her acquaintance, is not always the work which is published or produced, but is pushed away into drawers, declined by the publishers and producers as 'too challenging' for the market.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

It's All Relative

Children's laureate Jacqueline Wilson answers a question for the Guardian:

How do you feel when you read reports of how fabulously wealthy you must be?

I wish it were true. It's very odd. People see JK Rowling and assume that if you are high-profile children's author you're in a similar position. I certainly earn far more money than I ever dreamed possible, but give or take a lovely house for me, a nice house for my daughter, a few treats for friends, money there in case I gently lose it myself and need a nursing home, there's not huge wads of money. I'm very small beer compared with actresses and rock singers.

The Bitch (who is reliant on someone else for a roof over her head, whose kids will have to get their own houses, and who when she loses it anything but gently will no doubt be off into the sunset with a plastic bag or two) has to smile.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Bookshops at Risk

Last night the Bitch and her partner went to a reading at Manchester Waterstone's Deansgate, and it was just like the old days: a thrilling display of books from the radical small press Dedalus, the publisher Eric Lane and his companions travelled to be there in person, two Dedalus authors - Nick Royle and Andy Oakes - reading, a small but intensely dedicated audience, nice red wine and bookish conversations before and after, and everyone, thus mellowed, (including the impecunious Bitch) buying far more books than they might otherwise have done, and going away with a new body of literature to relate to and purchase in future.

But you can't help thinking it was just a last dying gasp: Robert Jones, Deansgate events manager responsible for the evening, announced his departure in a fortnight's time to Bath, where he will help to run a new independent bookshop being set up by Robert Topping, ex-manager of Deansgate and king of that old author-reading era. And this morning we read that HMV is to close 30 of its Waterstone's stores and reduce the number of 'highbrow' books it stocks to combat falling profits which it blames on the encroachment by Amazon and the supermarkets. (Will this give some breathing space to independents like the new one in Bath, or will they continue to fall similarly prey to the internet and the supermarkets?)

And how about this from Monday's Guardian article on the books people fail to read: "The important thing from a bookseller's point of view," said a spokesman for Waterstone's, "is that people buy the books in the first place." Understandable of course, but yet another indication of the increasing enforced commodification of literature.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Crumbs for Bottom Feeders

Here's one effect of those big advances:
The average author earns about £16,000, a third less than the national average wage... But hidden behind that figure released by the Authors' Licensing and Collecting Society (ALCS) is a grimmer truth: when you take away the superstars who are earning shedloads, the actual figure for the rest is closer to £4,000.
Thanks to Charles Lambert and Debi Alper for pointing me to the link.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Best of What?

Yet another 'Best of', this time Granta's second Best of Young American Novelists. For Cult-of-Youth watchers, the cut-off age has come down from 40 to 35 (and in my opinion Jack's explanation does nothing to dignify this), but the really interesting thing to me is the fact that 7 of the 21 are not novelists at all but short-story writers. Jack says:
Reading the submissions, it seemed to us that many story collections deserved as much if not more attention than the novels, that there was a great liveliness and insight in them...
You could look on this as a good thing, more proof that short stories are in the ascendant, but I wonder. Why call these writers novelists, then? Why not call the list Best of Young American Fiction Writers? Short stories are after all a very different form from novels, requiring very different narrative skills, and not all writers of one can write the other. You read on and it becomes clear:
...often, given their binding structure of character and location, they were nearly novels in any case. This accounts for the number of writers on our list (seven) who have yet to publish a novel.
Ah, so they were short story collections aspiring to be novels! And notice that yet, implying that old notion that short stories are merely an apprenticeship for writing novels.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Money Again, and Life versus Literature

In a comment on my last post, David Isaak alerts us to the fact that he continues his theme of publishers' advances. Here is his latest thought-provoking post.

And in a Guardian profile playwright Martin Crimp touches on a continuing theme of this blog, his desire to separate his life from his work and a culture insistent on conflating the two:
...he finds being interviewed unsettling: he doesn't want to talk about his family ("People you're close to shouldn't be part of your public world"), his life in London, or indeed anything except his 20-odd plays and translations, least of all the personality behind them.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Advance Thinking

Macmillan New Writing author David Isaak has an interesting post about the matter of publishers' advances which relates to my own post of last year.

Like the Macmillan New Writers, the Bitch has also recently done a deal which does not include an advance and, skint though she is, quite frankly she doesn't give a damn. After the experience of having a (different) book put up for auction under a new pseudonym (as a concession to the cult of the Next New Thing) and then dropped like a hot brick when the hoped-for half a million or whatever didn't materialise, the news from her new publishers that they are interested in nurturing her career as a writer - rather than just in her book as a single commodity - is music to her ears.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Amazon Marketplace

As I describe on my other, author blog, when one of my novels went out of print, I printed a revised edition myself. The other day I looked it up on Amazon Marketplace, the place where second-hand books are sold. There were copies of this revised edition being sold there as new. NEW? That's odd, I thought: the new copies are on Amazon Advantage, the facility for publishers, and apart from that it's only I, as the publisher, who have new copies, and those bookshops which have ordered it from me. I looked closer. One of the Amazon Marketplace sellers describes their copy of my book as 'sourced direct from the publisher': it seems that some of those Gardners orders were for bookshops or companies selling through the net.

In his Guardian Bookseller column yesterday Joel Rickett comments on the threat which publishers see Amazon Marketplace as posing:
...there are now hundreds of small companies specialising in importing books, or even finding them in charity shops and posting them up. They are able to offer such low prices because of the standard £2.75 charged for UK postage, of which they receive £2.26 - much more than it costs to post an average book through the Royal Mail. Publishers are convinced that the Marketplace option eats away at their sales, but it has so far been impossible to discern by how much. A new piece of research shows how popular the service is among students: nearly 29% of students bought their last secondhand course book from Marketplace, compared to 12% from their university bookshop. Many of them will also re-sell those books via the site; that's the kind of perpetual exchange that gives publishers nightmares.
In the same paper yesterday, Stephen Page argued that it is only by embracing the opportunities for publishing and marketing offered by the net that publishers will be able to combat such threats.

Enough to make the boat list

Oy-oy-oy, another pesky list, and Robert McCrum has some good tart things to say about it, and about lists in general.

Saturday, March 03, 2007

The End of the Literary World?

Rich food for thought about novels and their future in today's Guardian Review: Giles Foden bemoaning the fact that 'literary' is a term of abuse, Milan Kundera reflecting on the nature of novels and their creation, and Stephen Page arguing for a more, rather than a less, significant role for publishers and editors in the digital age, all of them circling a central preoccupation expressed thus by Stephen Page:
The world emerging at the start of the 21st century is full of threat to those who create. The desire to commodify all art as some form of entertainment, and the growth of a monoculture based around mass-market tastes and distribution, make many writers feel precarious.
Giles Foden has it in for Richard and Judy and their producer Amanda Ross (who recently stated that she hated the word 'literary' since readers bring to it negative associations) and says:
Personally, I'd rather not listen to the twitterings of a pair of permatanned nincompoops on literary matters.
Well, personally, I'd rather people didn't blame the messengers (or insult them so personally), but to some extent Stephen Page concurs:
For all their great benefits, one of the effects of Oprah Winfrey's book recommendations in the US, and to some extent Richard & Judy's in the UK, is that they create a migration towards a small number of books.
Kundera's fascinating piece is excerpts from a forthcoming book from Fabers. An idea which jumps out for me in the wake of Zadie Smith's recent argument that novels are essentially expressions of an author's personality is Kundera's notion that art, including the novel, is an artist's/author's property to alter or suppress as he/she sees fit (an idea which I discuss on my other blog in relation to my own work). The piece ends on a reflection about the novel as novel, and whether it can survive:
For turning a novel into a theatre piece or a film requires first decomposing the composition; reducing it to just its "story"; renouncing its form. But what is left of a work of art once it's stripped of its form? One means to prolong a great novel's life through an adaptation and only builds a mausoleum, with just a small marble plaque recalling the name of a person who is not there
an issue which I also discuss, in relation to my own writing experience, here.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

World Books?

Do you know, I'd really rather not talk about this:

The World Book Day poll for the ten books the world could not do without.

Anyone familiar with this blog will know that the Bitch hates lists, that they bore her stiff and that she has a constitutional aversion, rooted no doubt in ancestral trauma (those peasants, servants and slaves still floating about in her genes, those relatives who failed the eleven-plus), of anything which smacks of EXCLUSIVITY or COMPETITION, or choices made by any select few, most especially a self-selected few.

And she's sick of saying these things, but guesses they need to go on being said:

I'm all for schemes and ploys which draw attention to books, but I would venture that polls like this may even be counterproductive: they do nothing to encourage a spirit of inquiry about books and to broaden the canon. Time is the best critic, said Martin Amis earlier this week, and the Guardian suggests today that this list proves it. But look at all those childhood favourites and school staples turning up on the longer list, and 'time' turns into 'nostalgia' and a lazy reliance on the status quo. And the 'top-ten' list which emerges is not only the result of this impulse rather than of any true test of literature, but offers a closed conclusion, a tiny section of the spectrum of literature, beyond which, it could be implied, we need not look, because it is the definitive best.