Thursday, February 28, 2008


A few things I think worth noting:

Kate Pullinger contributes a characteristically feisty article to today's Guardian drawing attention to the fact that authors are in danger of losing out in new contracts with publishers over digital rights. She points out that since digital books will make printing, warehousing and transport unnecessary,
'the primary function of a publishing house in the digital age is selection and branding, though even this is difficult to quantify and define: for the most part we don't buy a book because it is published by Penguin, we buy the book because we want to read that writer.

At the end of the day, the writer herself is a more valuable brand than the publishing house and it's time for writers to wake up to this fact: why should we sign contracts giving us a paltry 15% royalty in an industry where actual costs are being massively reduced overnight? Why aren't writers jumping up and down over this?'

Earlier this week, in the wake of William Sidelsky's Prospect article on newspaper review pages and in answer to earlier criticisms on the Guardian books blog, books editor Claire Armitstead set out her principles in drawing up The Review (and inevitably provoking further criticism from commenters).

Finally, I hope to god that Madame Arcati is writing a novel.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Is Contemporary Fiction Tired?

There's something in the air. The Guardian Review Diary reports (as did Vanessa Gebbie on her blog last week) that George Steiner has told a meeting of the Royal Society of Literature that contemporary fiction, and in particular British contemporary fiction, is 'in deep trouble'.

'The power of metaphor is located in constraint,' he is reported as saying, and 'now that anything can be said, fiction is in deep trouble ... I believe the narrative form is very tired.'

In the same edition of the Review, Gilbert Adair, paying tribute to the innovative novelist Alain Robbe-Grillet who died last week, expresses much the same opinion (although presumably he doesn't share Steiner's faith in metaphor as the defining characteristic of fiction, since Robbe-Grillet famously set out to 'emancipate literature from the seductive tyranny of metaphor which he accused of anthropomorphising the material world'.)

Adair says: 'Whatever the qualities of McEwan, the Smiths Zadie and Ali, and any other contemporary English-language writer one cares to cite, can it honestly be said of them that they have reinvented the novel?'

I have to say I'm a bit put out on behalf of Ali Smith and her fictive project (partly I guess because I'm currently trying to do something similar myself). Smith's fiction is specifically concerned with the contingency of narrative, both in subject matter and, quite brilliantly, in form. The titles of her novel sections (she eschews conventional 'chapters') indicate her concerns - 'past', 'present historic' etc (Hotel World), 'The beginning', 'The middle' (The Accidental) - and her books sing with the fluidities and uncertainties of being which no conventional narrative mode could convey, and thus are exhilarating and anything but tired.

Edited in:

I omitted Adair's concluding and most important point: he lays the blame for the conservatism of contemporary British fiction with the current market-driven literary culture in which publishers are forced to seek what they know sells:
'Literary fiction is thriving, so why tamper with it? Yet as the case of Alain Robbe-Grillet proved, the most influential artists are those who choose to fix something that no one else noticed was broken.'

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Bad Publicity Turned to Good

I suggest that anyone who still thinks that not all publicity is good publicity takes a look at this site dedicated to 'disgraced' author James Frey. The email from his publishers John Murray alerting us to it specifically uses his 'bad publicity' as a hook, thus:
I'm not sure if you're familiar with the James Frey/'a million little pieces' controversy but if you are, then this site might be of interest!

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Will Great Writers Always Make It?

One could be as cynical as the Partner of the Bitch and point out that while many of us have been raving for a couple of years now about formerly neglected novelist Richard Yates - led by Methuen's excellent programme of reissues - it takes forthcoming films of his books (Revolutionary Road and The Easter Parade) to prompt an article about him in The Observer. (I can't find a link, I'm afraid.) But I don't care - I'm just rejoicing at the rehabilitation of this wonderful writer.

Nick Fraser, author of the Observer article, makes some acute points about the reason for Yates's lack of recognition in his own lifetime. His very independence of vision exiled him: his books 'were dangerously at odds with the prevailing [American] wisdom' and his 'view of life's prospects were too brutal to appeal to the genteel literary culture of his time.' For instance:
Criticising the shallowness of American corporate life was one thing [but] to imply that, far from pursuing the approved dream, executives in corporations didn't really do much work, was something not even Jack Lemmon could have conveyed to the American public in Yates's heyday.
And he quotes Ellen Barkin, producer the forthcoming film of The Easter Parade: 'Brits immediately get Yates - maybe because they have never bought into anything as dumb as the American dream.'

Fraser recounts some of the literary travails which plummeted Yates into alcoholism and depression:
Yates tried to sell story after story to [The New Yorker]... In the end fiction editor Roger Angell came clean about Yates's prospects. 'It seems clearer and clearer that his kind of fiction is not what we're looking for,' he wrote snootily to Yates's agent in 1981. 'I wonder if it wouldn't save a lot of time and disappointment in the end if you and he could come to the same conclusion.'
Honestly, it's hard to know whether Yates's story is vindication or otherwise of those who insist that great writers will always make it in the end.

Positive Reviewing: a Cultural Error

Daniel Green at The Reading Experience responds to my post on positive/negative blog reviewing by stating that he too (even he) tends to avoid reviewing small press publications negatively and those authors he thinks 'vulnerable' (although he says that if enough writers tell him that they agree with me that they'd prefer a negative review to none at all, then he'll consider changing his reviewing policy).

Well, here are my thoughts on the matter after these last few days' discussions:

Firstly, in my opinion a concern with the 'author' and the author's feelings is quite misplaced in any serious literary debate (and is in danger of playing into the cult of personality). Any serious critic should be concerned foremost with literature, with books and with the more general issues of literary culture, and serious writers worth their salt know that the books they have written, once they are published, are entities separate from themselves, indeed no longer their personal properties but the property of others and components of a wider literary culture.

Perhaps some reviewers are not so concerned with an authors' feelings but worry rather that a bad review will stop a book selling. This concern is founded on the assumption that anyone reading a bad review will be put off even looking at a book. But it's a breathtaking patronization of readers to assume that they'll swallow wholesale a blogger's views. As some commenters have said, they are often prompted by a bad review to read a book and are not only pleasantly surprised but provoked to write a contradictory, positive review. Susan Hill however has stated that she has noted 'lemming' behaviour among bloggers - I hope she's not right. Someone somewhere during this week's discussion (can't find it at the moment, I'm sorry) quoted an American study which showed that while negative reviews do not push up the sales of books as much as positive reviews, they do nevertheless push them up.

Clearly, as I have said, bloggers have every right to set their own agendas, but it seems to me that litblogging can only be a creative force in literary culture (and not just a handmaiden to publishing marketing departments) if it embraces for discussion all aspects of that culture, and I cannot but think that suppressing books and withholding information (for an author's or a book's so-called 'good') is not only too dangerously like benign dictatorship for comfort but culturally pretty well mistaken.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

A Chestnut Even Older than I Thought

Looks like I'm lagging behind everyone on this debate (previous post) - too stuck in my own writing to keep up! Rosy of Vulpes Libris blog alerts me to their interesting article on the matter and to an interview they conducted with Susan Hill as a result of her comments on positive/negative blog reviewing. A spirited, indeed negative, response to Susan's comments can be found here.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

The Old Blogging/Newspaper Chestnut

Dan Green at The Reading Experience, one of our most thoughtful literary bloggers, has understandably taken umbrage at William Skidelsky's portrayal of litbloggers in this month's Prospect magazine. Skidelsky says:
...while blogs make a great deal of fuss about being where the action is, they contain little decent criticism. It is rare to encounter good critical writing on the internet that didn't start life in print form. Lively literary websites—or online magazines with literary sections—do exist, especially in the US: Salon, Slate, the Literary Saloon. But blogging is best suited to instant reaction; it thus has an edge when it comes to disseminating gossip and news. Good criticism requires lengthy reflection and slow maturation. The blogosphere does not provide the optimal conditions for its flourishing.
However, while we can smart at that sidewipe, the real concern of Skidelsky's article is the sorry state of print reviewing. Here are the blows he deals in that direction:
Few reviews buck the critical consensus or challenge long-inflated reputations. Review sections have a tendency to be cliquey ...In most review sections, much less space is given to fiction than to non-fiction, discouraging reviewers from tackling the big questions that novels raise—whether aesthetic or political. Reviewers rarely attempt more than a plot summary and some perfunctory reflections on style. Trends are rarely analysed ...Book reviews often display a certain sloppiness or complacency.
And here's his final note, which echoes my own previously stated view of the matter:
In the end, though, the squabbles between literary journalists and bloggers miss the point. While both parties have cast themselves as adversaries in a pressing contemporary drama, they really are (or should be) allies in a more important battle—for literature itself, and its right to be taken seriously.
He singles out fiction reviewing as the area of criticism where 'aesthetic judgements are not just desirable but necessary', and interestingly yesterday Susan Hill (whom Skidelsky characterizes as championing bloggers) made much the same point and was indeed fiercely critical of those book bloggers who exhibit a herd mentality and eschew independent thought and a concern for aesthetic standards.

Susan Hill is not in fact as combative as her spat with John Sutherland (who so famously appeared to sneer at blook bloggers) made her seem. Recently she said this: are word-of-mouthers, amateurs who want to tell not only their friends but a wider circle about what they are reading and enjoying. Their role is different from that of the professional book critic.They are self-appointed and they may not know as much as they think they do. They are also unedited and unregulated.
I don't think all litbloggers would characterize themselves in quite this way - as purely enthusiasts and as amateurs - and many part company from her in her policy of positive reviewing, which she sets out in the same post:
I rarely review in the media now but during the forty years I did so, I often had to be, shall we say, less than enthusiastic about a given title. When I blog about books, I only mention those I admire and have enjoyed. If I can`t praise, I do not write about the book.
Now I know where she's coming from: there's nothing more depressing than having to slate a book - or even, actually, be less than enthusiastic - when as a writer yourself you know how it can spear the heart of the author. (And of course as a blogger she has every right to set her own literary agenda.) But in fact, as I've said before, as an author I wonder if it's a mistaken kindness. Recently Dovegreyreader, who shares this policy, gave my book a glowing review (I'm pleased to say), and told me that if she hadn't liked it she wouldn't have reviewed it but would have discreetly set it aside. I appreciate her sensitivity, but as it happens I'd rather have a negative review and my book be thus a visible part of literary debate than have it buried in silence. Books like mine - short stories, newish independent press - don't get reviews easily in the newspapers (as Sidelsky indicates), or indeed as easily on the much of the web as those hyped by big publishers. A bad review from Dovegrey would at least have made more people aware of its existence than none - and some readers may have chanced their arm with it to see whether or not they disagreed with her.

Or is it exactly as the newspaper critics claim and Susan Hill herself fears - that all independent thought has gone out of the window and the blogosphere is full of literary 'lemmings'?

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

How to Sell Literature

Susan Hill doesn't believe in public funding for literature, full stop. If no-one wants to buy the books a small publisher produces (and she gives some figures to support the notion that they often don't), then they shouldn't be funded, she says, not in a world where old and ill people are failing to get help because of lack of public funds.

But the question is, Why are the sales figures for some books published by small publishers so small? Is it, as Susan seems to be implying, that the books are basically unsaleable? And since the publishers at the heart of this discussion (about the recent Arts Council cuts) are 'literary' and 'highbrow', what's being said here? That 'highbrow literary' fiction is unsaleable? Well, as readers of this blog will know, I maintain that with the right marketing strategy you can sell anything. Is it rather, then, that the publishers of these non-selling books are failing in their marketing strategy, either through their own fault or through commercial forces entirely outside their control - the refusal of bookshops to stock their books, for instance? (And if it's this last, then wouldn't it be a case for more funding, not less?)

Or is it that, as Mark Ravenhill takes as his premise in his Guardian column this week, good art, which is 'complex, troubling, difficult', is unsaleable in a society with 'the more direct pleasures of video gaming and reality TV' on tap?

Ravenhill's solution, which as an ex-schoolteacher I find utterly seductive (and amusingly utopian), is to put the money into education. Educate people to want the good art, he says, and then it will sell.