Thursday, August 28, 2008

Back to the Hills

I may or may not be blogging very much for the next 10 days or so. The usual reason. (There's still a cloud down on this hill.)

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Get Thee to an Old Folks' Home

Nice article by Mark Lawson on possible signs that ageism in the arts may be on the wane...

I do wonder, though. I'll never forget the time I was teaching in a Glasgow comprehensive, not long out of college. I was twenty-three. We had cosy little individual staff rooms and the people in mine were a riot: swearers, drunkards, anti-establishment cynics who held parties in the school after hours - you know, you've seen them on Teachers. Well, I was telling them a story about some really stuffy people, and I described those people: straight-laced, tradition-bound, no sense of humour - well, what did I expect, they were all over thirty!

There was a gulping silence, and then everyone in the room said, 'Well, thanks!'

Well, of course I knew if I thought about it that they were all over thirty, but I didn't think of them as over thirty, for this reason: the image in my head of thirty-year-olds was pretty dire, and they simply didn't fit it. But such images are pretty hard to shift, and I do wonder sometimes what images are in the heads of the young people who seem increasingly nowadays to be running our arts organisations (and of course, in the theatre especially, funded to look for work by even younger people)...

Sunday, August 24, 2008

No Point in Whispering when You Want a Shout

OK, so I looked up, the service providing book blurbs (by which they seem to mean puff quotes), which has apparently caused some outrage. And thanks to Tania Hershman I found the hilarious article by Rebecca Johnson on exposing the fact that nothing could be more potentially corrupt than the traditional way that such cover quotes are obtained. tells us:
Normally, a blurb will cost an author and/or publisher $14 - $23, which includes printing of the galleys, packaging and mailing fees. The standard 30 – 50 blurbs expected per book can range from $420 to $1,150. It is also very time consuming researching and contacting prospective authors as well as conducting follow-ups during the duration of the process.
Notice any figure missing? A fee to the poor 'blurbing' author! As Rebecca Johnson says, it's also a time-consuming business for the endorsing author, who is expected to do it for free. Once, I remember, the winning novel of a competition for which I'd been on the judging panel, which was now to be published by a small publisher, was sent off for a quote to a famous novelist well known for her left-wing feminist views. How amazed and shocked the publisher was when she wrote back that she didn't do quotes for free. But you know, in reality, it's their shock which is shocking.

Here's my own recent cringe-worthy experience, my search for a cover quote for my recent story collection. Would I ask people I knew? Would I heck! How could I live with myself (and them afterwards) otherwise? So what did I do? I sent initial queries to the agents of short story writers I didn't know personally but whose work I respected. Guess what? Back came nice polite letters from the agents telling me that their clients were fiendishly busy but wished me all the luck.

What next? OK, I would bite the bullet and ask a well-known short story writer I had met not so long ago. But I wouldn't put her on the spot by ringing her up, or suggesting the coffee we had vaguely mooted. Instead I sent her a postcard, in which I insisted (repeatedly) that she must refuse to do it if she didn't want to etc etc, she didn't even need to answer this card if she didn't want to.

Guess what? She didn't answer the card. I didn't get a quote, and yet I still may have spoilt a beautiful potential friendship...

What next? Well, there's that mega-famous author who's really close friends with some really close old friends of mine, and I've met her at their house more than once... that wouldn't be so bad, would it. I mean, it's pulling strings, but I can hardly be said to know her, and she wouldn't feel obliged to give a good quote whatever... So I email my friends and ask them what they think. Well, they'll read the stories first and decide whether to ask her. I email the stories. One of my friends reads them over a week on his train journey to work. He really likes them, he thinks his friend the mega-famous author will like them. He'll contact her and ask.

Days go by. Weeks. A month, two... I give up. (Nine months later, when the book is published, I'm at a party at his house - the mega-famous author isn't - and he tells me she never answered his query.)

Meanwhile, I have caved in completely. I have rung up my good friend who has agreed to look at the manuscript, and there I am in his kitchen on Sunday afternoon, handing it over and cringing inwardly, not nearly as sure as he seems to be that he'll like the book when he reads it... But then we're saved the embarrassment: for my publisher decides it's better he doesn't do it anyway, since he's already just provided a quote for another of her books.

I was lucky in the end. I walked into the foyer of MMU for a reading, and Livi Michael, writer of wonderful novels for adults and children - and of brilliant short stories, one of which we published in metropolitan - came sweeping across the tiles to greet me. Livi! Perhaps I could ask Livi! But does she know my work? Would she hate my work? How could I put her through the embarrassment of saying no if she didn't like it? No, I can't ask Livi!

She sees the look on my face. 'I know what you're going to ask me,' she says, 'and the answer is Yes!' Turns out she did like my work already: turns out she loved the book.

Even so, it's not the easiest thing in the world, coming up with a quote that sums up and yet does justice to a book. Wouldn't surprise me if Livi, like so many of my writer friends, has since declared herself a blurb-free zone.

And I did only manage to get one shout.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

It's All too Much for an Author

Got my head stuck in that bearpit the Guardian books blog this week, where, after writing a post on the problems of having to sell one's book via one's identity in this commercially-oriented literary world, Josie Henley Einion was torn apart by the resident purists for using both her identity and the books blog to sell her novel.

Sigh. I must get out more...

And in so doing, I missed an apparent web discussion about book blurbs... well, it happened according to the Guardian, but I still can't find it, or should I say I'm not prepared to spend a moment longer at this ruddy computer on this first hot day of August, and I'm off in to the garden.

Which is just as well, because if you ever got me started on the excruciating process of having to creep to your well-known friends and acquaintances for shouts... Can't think about it any more, I'm shuddering too much. I'm off to do some weeding...

Friday, August 22, 2008

Internet Widower

John Keenan responds on the Guardian books blog to John Updike's contempt for the internet, and links it to a fading relevance in his recent novels, in particular The Widows of Eastwick.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Thanks, Enid

In response to Enid Blyton's win in the recent Costa poll for the best-loved children's writer, Lucy Mangan writes in today's Guardian of her own childhood obsession with Blyton and the fact that while Blyton's books were once banned from public libraries as politically incorrect and culturally impoverished, she opened up for generations of children the 'promised land' of reading.

I've said it many times before and I'll say it again here: she opened up for me the promised land of writing. I wanted consciously to be a writer from the age of eight - in fact, I was a writer before that, and Enid Blyton played no small part in that. Like Lucy Mangan, while I was reading everything, including Dickens, I gobbled up Blyton - The Famous Five, The Secret Seven, and in particular the Adventure Series (The Castle of Adventure, The Valley of Adventure etc) - like a drug. You can say this for Blyton, which you can't say for Dickens: nearly every time I finished one of her books, I went off and wrote a story of my own.

Why was this? I don't have any Blyton books here to study for the reason: while I still have many of the books I read then I never kept a single Blyton; that wasn't the point of them, the point of them was what they triggered in me. I do of course remember though that they were, as Mangan says, formulaic and baldly told. It's interesting to me that Mangan reports that Blyton decribed her working method thus: '...simply a matter of opening the sluice gates and out it all pours with no effort or labour of my own.' Clearly, what is going to result from this is unthinking, cliched, repetitive. Yet there was something exciting for me, I think, generated by that, an energy - and a permission just to do it, which the classics, bound by their mature and rarified insights and more sophisticated use of language, couldn't give. The classics (after a certain age I never read any other books specifically intended for children; I stayed away from them like the plague) were exclusive in their consciousness (while of course being in the long term far more nourishing fodder), whereas Blyton did not even merely include me in hers, she allowed me to take over: so bald was her prose (as I remember) that it left infinite room for my own projections, my own imaginings of the settings and the inner thoughts of the characters. No wonder I would go off and write when I'd finished reading one: I was already writing as I was reading.

I must have another look at The Faraway Tree. So many people have told me that they hated it when I've said I loved it. I had chicken pox, I remember, and I suppose I was a bit delirious. But that notion of a tree you can climb to another world, the world of imagination (Yes, OK, I know it's derivative in the first place, but it's probably something about the very bald way she wrote it!) has been the basis of of my concept of writing ever since.

Creativity works in more complicated ways than we sometimes think, and all I can say is, Thanks, Enid.

Monday, August 18, 2008

It's Marvellous, Darling!

A nice post from Ms Baroque on the fraught question of reviewing for writers.

Business versus Literature?

Mark Liam Piggott writes interestingly (and bravely) for the Guardian blog asking whether literary agents are any longer helpful to literary writers, or whether the pressures of the market have turned them into gatekeepers barring work which, however excellent as literature, is unlikely to be profitable. The many comments are interesting. Susan Hill (with her publishing hat on) points to the Nielsen book scan which reveals the sales of any previous book by an author, and thus determines whether or not they are likely to be invested in again, pointing out as she has on previous occasions that publishing is above all a business and that 'fine words butter no parsnips'. Though whether this is a defence or a condemnation depends where you're coming from with regard to the matter of literary fiction, I guess...

Like Piggott's, Nasim Marie Jafry's novel the State of Me, which I review on my other blog, is another interesting case of a novel held back by the commercial requirements of agents and then making it to publication without an agent.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

The View from the Mountain

So sorry – I hadn’t resolved my internet problems after all. I’ve been pretty cut off altogether: the radio hasn’t tuned in either, there’s no telly, and each day it’s been late before I’ve driven the 6 miles for a newspaper, and sometimes there haven’t been any left.

Anyway, through my tiny window of internet connection from the side of a cloud-covered mountain I’ve had one or two glimpses of our weird commercially-oriented literary world: John Sutherland on the sexual fantasies the BBC Drama dept finds necessary to invent to make our literary history palatable, and Molly Flatt striking despair into the heart of every novelist by taking a whoops-silly-me-but-what-a-lark attitude to the fact that she reads as a kind of addiction without attending much to what she reads.

And if you think that going back up the Welsh mountain has made me regress to the Wesleyan parts of my origins, I don’t care. (And when the flood comes, I’ll be OK, Jack, even if I will have to live in a silent, clouded world.)

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Back and Eating My Words

Back in blogging business sooner than I expected.

And proved wrong by the Raymond Carver short story comp either that short story comps are universally conservative or about my own level of innovation...

Saturday, August 02, 2008

Short Break

Just to say I won't be blogging much or responding to comments for a while. Back in 10 days or so.