Thursday, July 19, 2007

The Smell of a Rat

Laugh and cry at the Guardian's report of the test for publishers and agents set by David Lassman, director of the Jane Austen Festival. He typed out Jane's books, changing only the names, and submitted them as new manuscripts and all he received back were polite rejections.

Well, you might say, what publisher in their right mind would glance twice at a contemporary manuscript written in late-eighteenth century prose and steeped in eighteenth-century upper-middle-class values? Trouble is, though, it seems that in that one glance at the beginning of Pride and Prejudice, only one publisher recognised it for what it was.

Laugh and cry as the publishers and agents tie themselves in knots explaining it away. Oh, but they did recognise it, claims a spokesman for agent Christopher Little: they might have sent out a polite rejection, but in fact there were 'discussions about plagiarism'. Excuse me while I fall off my chair imagining that po-faced discussion while the smelly rat ran riot beneath the table.

Excuse me while I fail to get up as I imagine the special x-ray process whereby Penguin, who say that they never actually said the manuscript was original, only that it 'seemed' so, can judge a manuscript when - as they also say, thus giving the whole game away - 'It would not have been read.'

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

The Price of Retail

Watch your jaw on the desktop when you read these figures regarding Waterstone's charges to publishers for 'maximizing their books' potential', as reported by The Times.

Emma Barnes of Snow Books has commented before on this blog that in fact Waterstone's operate a sliding scale of charges in order to accommodate small publishers, but the books of small publishers are of course unlikely thus to get the kind of 'maximization' being referred to here, and Anthony Cheetham of Quercus Books is now quoted as saying:
There is a genuine level of exasperation and anxiety in the publishing industry that the booksellers have gone too far down this road. It’s the reader who loses because it’s throttling the distribution of a wider range of high-quality books and [perpetuating] the system whereby you plaster the entire country with copies of the same few books.
Thanks to Debi for the link.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

A Breath of Fresh Air

Any one concerned about the draconian developments in modern copyright would do well to check out 'Free to Air' running at Manchester's Cornerhouse this month (106.5 FM and online), and which I write about on my other blog.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Been Had

Tee hee.

Here's how it went this week with a local journalist to whom I had sent a press release about a play:

Extract from phone conversation #1:
Journalist (after patiently bearing with me about the play and then asking the strangely apparently more interesting personal questions which I managed to deflect): So where did you get your inspiration for the play? From things you see in the village?

Me (wisely onto such journalistic tricks, intent on keeping things more literary and cleverly deflecting): Umm. Well, it doesn't quite work like that. You have to have an idea brewing already, and only then will something in the outside environment spark that idea off into a story.

She rings me again. Extract from phone conversation #2:
Journalist (after probing more deeply about my life and my 'hobbies'): So when you go walking round the village, and down the meadows like you said, is that where you get your inspiration?

(getting slightly worried now): Umm, well, as I explained, there has to be an idea already there...
She rings me a third time. Extract from phone conversation #3:
Journalist: So what is it you like about living in the village? Is it the people?

(thinking of course of the paper's readers which include my neighbours!): Well yes of course!
She rings me a fourth time. Extract from phone conversation #4:
Journalist: So it's the people in the village who give you your inspiration?

Me (laughing): I'm not telling you who I put in my stories! (And realising at once I've fallen into the trap)

Journalist: And do you sit in the village cafe and watch people go by?

Me (still recovering and so not concentrating): Well, I have done... (in truth only once or twice)
Here's an extract of the article which appeared yesterday, titled 'Are you a player on Elizabeth's suburban stage?':
The next time you take a stroll through the village you could unwittingly become a character in a book or a play. That's because Elizabeth has a unique method when it comes to creating her characters. She simply sits at her favourite cafe watching people go by and imagines what it must be like for them. The figures are then transformed into three dimensional creations in her stories... She likes nothing better than sitting outside the village cafe with a notebook and pen and doing a spot of people watching.

Friday, July 13, 2007


Speaking of marketing and the power of authors, you may be interested in a new website set up by a group of us blogging authors:

Bookarazzi is the public face of BloggersWithBookDeals, a group of published writers / artists who spend half our lives on the internet.
There are almost 50 of us, and our books range from surreal comedy to commercial women’s fiction to graphic novels and disgusting recipes. This is where we come to pool our collective abilities and provide stuff for you to read and use.
Whether you’re a budding writer, a bored net surfer or are just feeling nosy, there should be something for you.

Oh, and we might plug our books occasionally too.
Check us out and let us know what you think:

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Real-life Fantasy

Mark Ravenhill complains, as I am always doing, about the tendency to want to see autobiography in fiction:
It's troubling to be a writer on the receiving end of this hunger for autobiography. When my play Shopping and Fucking was produced in 1996, I was totally unprepared for the fact that many people would read it as autobiographical. The play is inhabited by rent boys and junkies. Suddenly, people I knew well were scouring my arms for track marks.
We've all had similar experiences. The most annoying for me was when a journalist who knew nothing whatever about me stated sagely that my depiction of my protagonist suffered because of my own pain. Maybe she really had hit on a failure in the writing, but I do think this judgement was fuelled by a (wrong) assumption of autobiography.

At the moment I'm producing one of my own plays. I talked to several directors interested in working on it. 'Is this protagonist you?' asked one of them. I was shocked, and went hot and cold all over, because, as I am so often saying, once you start looking at a play or a book in the light of the author's life you are no longer looking at it for what it is, and indeed it becomes something less than it should be.

I've just come off the phone from talking to a journalist to whom I had found it necessary to send a press release about the play. Actually, she rang three times. The first time I deflected her nicely from the personal questions I knew she would ask. Then she rang again: her editor had asked her to get more colour. Not about the play (of course: who's interested in literature, what we want is the lowdown on the writer!), but I managed to keep her on the subject of my writing career. The phone rings again. Her editor still wants more. What age did I say I was? (I didn't). What years were my children born? What year was I divorced? What is it my partner does? Oh, what the hell, I told her - I could sense her desperation, and it's only a local paper, and anyway everyone locally knows all these things anyway, and quite frankly nowadays I'm past caring what anyone knows or even thinks about me, but then the moment comes: 'And how does this relate to your play?' and I do care how people view my play.

Even Mark Ravenhill seems to miss the real point about fiction. He says it's often the differences rather than the similarities between an author's life and work which are interesting. But the whole point, as I've said before, is that you can't make those divisions: fiction is an indivisible meld of fact and imagination, something different from either and carrying its own truth.

And I'm totally puzzled by all this fuss about JT LeRoy: what, so no one ever makes up a persona for the rest of the world? So you wouldn't expect a fiction writer to be better at it than most?

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Not Just Designs on Your Purse

Recently some of us noted the cloning of certain book covers as cover design becomes increasingly in thrall to 'the market'. Interesting then, and encouraging, to read of the new Penguin Books Design Award, aimed at final-year art students, and, according to artist Harland Miller, promoting book covers as artefacts which are 'design- rather than sales-led' and, he implies, more sensitive to a book's content and ethos. Left is the winner of the inaugural competition: Ara Youn's design for Malcolm Gladwell's Blink.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Could Do Better

Well, you can always count on Terry Eagleton to stir it, or to notice the emperor's nakedness, depending on your point of view. Tucked into the bottom half of the comment page in today's Guardian (as though the Guardian itself isn't too sure about it all) is an article by Eagleton writing off our contemporary writers as politically unengaged - even those we have thought of as politically acute. Rushdie's knighthood, he says, was actually his reward for turning from satirising the west to 'cheering on its criminal adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan', David Hare has turned from radical to reformist, and Christopher Hitchins 'who looked set to become the George Orwell de no jours' has 'thrown in his lot with Washington's neocons'. 'Most of the Angry Young Men of the 50s metamorphosed into Dyspeptic Old Buffers,' he says, 'Larkin ... was a racist who wrote of stringing up strikers', and our migrant writers such as VS Naipaul and Stoppard are 'often more interested in adopting than challenging the conventions of our place of refuge.

He makes one exception: Pinter; but unfortunately he finds him dreary.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

No Time to Laugh

Comedy is tragedy plus time, says Stuart Jeffries in a profile of the actor Dennis Hopper.

In other words, time creates the detachment which I have noted is necessary for comedy. But time, or rather the past, is not valued in our culture - we are hooked on the new and the searingly up-to-date. Unlike novelists of the nineteenth century, who often set their novels just a few years earlier than the time in which they were writing, today's novelists, if they are not writing out-and-out historical novels, must concentrate on the undigested now in order to be packaged as marketably 'contemporary'. Is this then why our novelistic culture is so lacking in comedy, as Julian Gough claims?