Saturday, May 31, 2008

Why mis mem authors will be crying, and the classics Cracified

According to The Guardian:
Last week's happiest news was that sales of misery memoirs are down 27% on the same period in 2007. In the Bookseller's report, Orion's Amanda Harris candidly says "we are now taking every misery memoir on its own merits", making you wonder what the previous policy was [my italics]; and another publisher, John Blake, remarks that "even the world's most miserable person is being oversupplied" by some houses producing a mis mem a month. The drawback is the possibility of mis mems about the mis mem slump and its dire financial and domestic implications for the genre's stars. JD
And now John Crace has been unleashed on the classics, hilariously (but also seriously) pointing out the elephants of ideological blindspots in their cultured rooms.

Friday, May 30, 2008

What's it for?

Here's an interesting post on the purpose of fiction by Daniel Greene at The Reading Experience. Claims that real life is now so bizarre that fiction can't keep up are predicated on an assumption that the function of fiction is to mirror life, he says. I like his insight that even those requiring fiction to present a world larger than life are still conforming to this model - literature as some kind of pointer to real life - and I agree with his conclusion that fiction's true role (little acknowledged nowadays) is in fact very different.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

The Virtues of Recycling

In a recent TV documentary Doris Lessing bemoaned the need to come up with different answers to the same questions with which writers are always bombarded.

Looks like Hanif Kureishi doesn't feel the need to bother.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Raining on Hay

Hay 2007: Champagne at The Guardian

Last year The Guardian, long-time title sponsors of the Hay Festival, kept pretty quiet about the recent 'corporatization' of the event, and as far as I remember the annual G2 Hay Special preserved its traditional celebratory tone. Today, however, G2 sends Stephen Moss to interview those running the breakaway fringe festival and (while telling us tongue-in-cheek that 'The Guardian, of course, sponsors the main event so won't hear a word against it') air their criticisms, while Patrick Barkham points out the laddish tone of many of the events so far, and John Harris notes the parochialization of the festival political concerns. Best of all, John Crace is let loose to satirize the whole 'free market' that the event has now become. Not that the Murdoch empire (broadcast sponsors to the festival, owners of a major publisher inevitably featuring large at the festival) is mentioned anywhere, as far as I can see...

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Time, Technology and the Market Wait For No Bod

Sorry about the gap on this blog: life has been getting the better of both writing and blogging for me in the last few weeks. Nothing like a break, though, to point up the way things move on, and today I come back to find Robert McCrum ending his 10-year spell as the Observer's literary editor with indeed an article on the stupendous changes which have occurred in the book world during those 10 ten years. Listing 10 major phenomena which have changed the face of literary culture - beginning with Zadie and allowing a towering photo of her (looking pretty superior) to dominate the page, and including Amazon, JK Rowling, the prize and festival cultures and of course the internet - he seeks to chart the way in which reading has become both commercialized yet democratized over this period.

I hope he is right that as a result of digitization 'Readers and writers may now experience the liberation of literature in ways Caxton never dreamt of ', but in view of some of the negative developments he describes (such as a ghosted novel by Katie Price outselling all of the Booker shortlisted books put together) there's a glibness, I feel, in his conclusion that 'what I have described are the birth pangs of a golden age'. His final statement that 'To be a writer in the English language today is to be one of the luckiest people alive' will draw hollow laughter from all those dropped mid-list authors or the growing number with unpublished literary novels praised and admired by agents and publishers alike but declined on grounds of 'lack of marketability'.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Dreaming and Marketing

Thanks to the delectable Madame Arcati for alerting me to a great interview with Will Self on the Access Interviews website. Five film clips show a softer Self than his reputation allows, whose happiest moments include his kids being born, but he is never less than intellectually steely, of course.

In the third clip, 'The Writing Life', Self rightly describes writing as 'structured dreaming'. For Self, therefore, it is useless to write for anyone other than himself and least of all, it is implied, for the 'market' - unlike Tony Parsons who, he tells us, uses focus groups to help him decide what novels to write. It occurred to me for a moment that Tony Parsons might think of suing him, but then in the present climate it's hardly an accusation...

In the meantime, having been one of the three judges drawing up the shortlist for the Best of the Booker, John Mullan betrays to the Guardian the farcical nature of the enterprise:
Mullan also noted that the list would have looked quite different had every shortlisted title been eligible. "All three of us felt that quite a lot of really good novelists have won, but not for their best book. Lucky the novelist who won for his or her best book, like Coetzee.

If Ian McEwan's Atonement had won the Booker it would have had a great chance, but he won with Amsterdam. And it's a pity that Margaret Atwood won for The Blind Assassin."

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

So Much for Fiction

And there were some of us trying to make a distinction between life and fiction...

And it's not just Michel Houellebecq and his mother Lucie Ceccaldi who make none. Journalist Angelique Chrisafis assures us in the Guardian interview she conducts with Ceccaldi about the spat between mother and son:
'Literary theorists welcome the precious psychological insight into the biggest voice [Houellebecq's] of a generation.'
So that's what literary theorists are up to...

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Frank O'Connor Long List

Regular readers will be familiar with my complaints about the invidious aspect of literary prizes: the fact that choosing some books over others for long lists and short lists inevitably bestows negative associations on the books omitted. Well, now my own book is on a long list, but I don't have to swallow my words (well, I wouldn't anyway!) because this long list of 39 books for The Frank O'Connor Short Story Award - an international prize set up specifically to draw attention to the short story and to publicize collections which have appeared within the year - is deliberately inclusive.

This list is a thermometer showing the robust health of the re-emerging short story, a map of its geographical growth and an indication of the areas of publishing in which it is blossoming. As last year, it shows that it is within independent publishing that the short story is thriving, and this year that Britain is now the great home of the short story. There are 8 collections here from the US, 5 from Ireland, 4 each from Australia and New Zealand, 1 each from Singapore, Taiwan and Nigeria and a whopping 14 from Britain, including 8 from Salt, who are thus announced as the most committed and successful publishers of the short story world-wide.

Saturday, May 03, 2008

Faber Finds

Is the tide turning? The Guardian reports on what looks like a great new venture, Faber Finds. Utilizing digital technology, Faber plans to supply forgotten classics on demand. You can nominate your own books, and The Guardian kicks off with writers' suggestions which they say will all be available from the site when it begins operation on June 2nd.

Could it possibly be that we are leaving behind the age of the Next New Thing and of the book as a commodity with a sell-by date?

Friday, May 02, 2008

Literature for Free

I'm never immediately sure what position to take when there's an argument over making literature available for free. Jeanette Winterson, who begins her novel Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit with a striking salute to mixed feelings, comes down with certainty against sites like Read It Swap It and Book Mooch, through which people swap books, paying for only the postage. 'Of course I want people to read my books,' she says, 'but I also want people to buy my books,' echoing Wendy Cope's complaint not so long ago that people were downloading her poems off the internet. If they want her poems, Cope said, then they should pay for them and buy her books.

Hm. I know where these authors are coming from. The notion that literature should be free is too worryingly close to the all-too pervasive assumption that authors shouldn't want to make a living out of what they do and should do it for love alone. As many have said before me, you wouldn't expect not to pay a doctor, would you, just because she's driven to do what she does? (And don't start telling me that doctors are useful and important to society and writers aren't, or I might come round and knock your philistine block off.) There is always the awful worry that such practices reinforce this assumption and thus endorse those who have the power to remunerate authors but far too often fail to do so (as happened recently in the Welsh National Library's digitization of journals).

It's interesting, though, that it's always those writers who are indeed making a living out of their writing who pop up to protest on these occasions: they are the ones who can afford to. It's not as if they are bravely speaking out for the rest of us, those of us who do not make a living out of our writing. Marketing budgets and decent advances are concentrated on the few to which these authors belong and publishers nurture their investments by nurturing those authors' careers, steering them into scarce review space and keeping their books in print. Those who don't belong to that happy band soon find their books out of print, and literature and music publishers (Winterson calls on the latter for comparison) hold inordinate powers of censorship over artists and authors, condemning many to oblivion. As publisher Philip Felstead tells the Guardian, schemes like these sites can combat that and 'disseminate around the world' books which may otherwise have disappeared for good: indeed, The Guardian tells us, the most popular book on Book Mooch is The Memory Keeper's Daughter by Kim Edwards (Penguin), a book which I at any rate hadn't previously heard of.

Apart from which, Book Mooch's founder John Buckman says, 'People who use the site become fans of books and end up buying more .' It's viral marketing, after all: maybe even Winterson and Cope have more to gain from these sites than to lose.