Monday, December 14, 2009

How Can You Be Dissident?

Robert McCrum asserts that our contemporary market-driven culture has no room for the dissident writer, and that ' "the habit of art" has become the "addiction of charm" '. His heart's in the right place, and in my view he's absolutely right about the general trend, but the thrust of his argument is to blame writers themselves - he accuses them of 'want[ing] to join the system, not keep it at arm's length', and refers to 'artistic vanity' and 'complacency and an appetite for entertaining' which leads to a 'sapping [of] the instinct to ask awkward questions of the status quo.'

But this overlooks the power of a system within which it is just not possible for the dissident or avant-garde author to operate. If authors are 'fearful of risk', as he says they are, it is only because in this day and age your agent or editor will simply turn you down if you're 'not commercial enough'. McCrum says authors nowadays just wanna belong, but maybe it's more a case of not belonging meaning not being published at all.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Women and Writing

I have more than I can possibly settle down to say about Rachel Cusk's Guardian article on women and writing, and the way it relates to my own writing experience - on a weekend, that is, when I'm gearing up for builders, meetings, another trip to London, pre-Christmas and Christmas visitors and, ironically, trying to find time even to get back into my room of my own to actually write (and realizing that December, which I had planned to set aside for a new story, is in all practical ways nearly over). Maybe I'll write about the article soon (on the train, perhaps, though laptopping on those Pendolinos makes me trainsick). Suffice for the present to say that she rang a lot of bells for me, and I'm still ringing...

Friday, December 11, 2009

Ten Awful Truths About Publishing.

Enough to make you give up writing altogether. Thanks (or not) to Eva Ulian.

Women Writers and the Short Story

Sarah Crown ponders the recent successes of female writers with the short story, and concludes:
Whatever the reason, their current success has the welcome effect of reminding us that great writing doesn't have to be set on the grand scale.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Selling lit fic to Waterstone's

As I write I am in Waterstone's Gower St again, where on November 16th Verona kindly ordered a copy of my novel Too Many Magpies. When I wrote about this , Salt's Chris Hamilton-Emery explained that bookshops rarely re-order even if they do sell such writer-motored orders, and David Knowles of Two Ravens Press questioned that they were even really ordered in the first place:
But the real value of your experiment will come if you ever manage to find out how many of those 'Magpies' actually got ordered after you left - and, more importantly, how many have come home to roost in 3 or 4 month's time.
Well, I have to report that there is no copy of Too Many Magpies here on the fiction shelves. So was it not really ordered? Or did they send it back double-quick, or did it sell, and it hasn't been replaced?

Do you know, I feel too weary to ask...

The BBC National Short Story Award

Yesterday afternoon I managed to catch up with the BBC National Short Short Award on the BBC website, where podcasts of four of the five selected stories remained. Kate Clanchy's winning story, The Not-Dead and the Saved was certainly very impressive and extremely moving, and I'm not surprised that it won both this and the V S Pritchett awards. It's interesting that the press-release story stresses the wonder of the winner being a poet with only the third short story she has written (the implication being that she is not practised at the form). It seems to me that that's no wonder at all: short stories, as I'm frequently saying, are closer to poetry than novels, and this short story bears all the hallmarks of that: a linguistic attention and the structural and verbal patterning at which Clanchy as a poet is supremely practised, and it is these elements which create the control of emotion and tone for which this story has been rightly praised, and make it so moving.

The other stories were prosey by comparison, I thought. Sara Maitland's Moss Witch was an interesting choice as runner-up: it's typical of Maitland's oevre - ecological and feminist with a good dollop of fairytale quality. The judging panel were of course female, which might explain this, though I do wonder if it was the ecological theme that did it. It felt a little forced, even clunky, at times, I thought, but was certainly a most interesting concept, and memorable as so much of Maitland's writing is. Lionel Shriver's Exchange Rates was competent, indeed extremely well-oiled, but pretty much a traditional New-Yorker type story, I thought, and Jane Rogers' Hitting Trees With Sticks betrayed her drama background by being a dramatic monologue narrated by a woman beginning to suffer senility - a difficult feat to pull off with psychological authenticity, as the authorial voice was more knowing than the narrative voice, and I have to say I wasn't absolutely sure it worked - or maybe I was just put off by Julia McKenzie's reading which rendered the narrator rather irritating.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

The Physical Act of Writing and the Psychological Problem

Tim Adams asks whether the art of great writing can survive the advent of the e-book. He works towards an argument (I think) that computers and our constant on-line status have created a kind of solipsistic self-centred mentality which may make us unable to appreciate extended arguments or concentrate on the great social novels which are at this moment being loaded onto e-books.

Well, maybe my head has already been turned to mush via all this stuff, because for much of this article I don't find his logic easy to follow. Adams begins by suggesting that the problem is based in 'different understandings of the physicality of the act of writing and the act of reading'. One assumes - or I did - that he is referring to different understandings about each of these things. However, he goes on to contrast an act of writing with an act of reading [* added: or to be more precise, elements surrounding an act of reading]: the fact that Don DeLillo still writes his novels on a manual typewriter with the fact of the new Classic Book Collection created for the Nintendo DS - and it's not clear to me from his argument what is the precise nature of this contrast or what it signifies. DeLillo, he reports, needs the physicality of his manual typewriter because he thinks of writing as sculpting: "I have a sculptor's sense of the words I'm making." This I can understand - as a writer I know that sense of a physical, bodily relationship with words in general and with the sentences you're making - and thus far I can follow. But then Adams says that in describing Shakespeare 'as an "iconic author" of "must-read novels" ... [the Nintendo makers] betray some of the side-effects of their product - it treats all writing as if it were simply text, content, something else to scroll on a screen to suit your mood'.

This begs so many questions I hardly know where to begin. Firstly, although by describing Shakespeare as the author of novels the makers or their copywriters are betraying a pretty general cultural ignorance, I'm not sure that they are betraying anything whatever about an attitude to the physical act of writing or any other aspect of it, and this is hardly their concern. Their concern is quite properly with 'writing' in the sense of text - that product which is the goal to be reached via the physical act of writing and which even writers like DeLillo will acknowledge as separate from it - and I'm not clear what there is to complain about in this. Apart from which, text and content are never simple, they are complexly cultural. Perhaps in the last phrase -'something else to scroll onto a screen to suit your mood' - Adams' objection becomes clearer: he feels that the medium of the e-book diminishes the cultural character and impact of the text. However, it seems to me that this is a question not of how we write, but how we read.

He goes on to discuss interestingly our developing relationship with the computer, and the writing we do use it for in the form of blogging and social networking, which he sees, as I say, as increasingly solipsistic rather than truly social. (We can be fundamentally anonymous on the internet, and we are not subject to editorial correction, so that our writing on the internet can, I think he is saying, create a form of inward-looking self-aggrandisement.) He then asks: 'What effect might that have on writing itself?' adding that writing on the internet is not subject to the 'rationalities of syntax or argument', and that, constantly logged on, we are losing our capacity the 'think in the real world'.

But social networking on the internet is not the same as the writing of novels any more than writing letters to your friends has ever been the same as writing novels; it's not as if novelists are unable to shift between registers as necessary. Adams' final question gets nearer the nub of the problem for both readers and writers: 'Will anyone who is "always on" have the concentration to read the great social novels?... Will anyone be able to see far enough beyond themselves to write one?' It's a psychological problem, as I discussed earlier this year.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

On the Borders of Change

A thoughtful blog by independent Snowbooks' Emma Barnes on the horrible realities of book retail (in response to the denied rumour that Borders is in administration). Here's a snippet:
Truth is, Borders and their sub brand Books Etc have bought hardly anything from us for the whole year. Our current balance with them is about £100. So on the plus side, if they go bust as a result of being in administration, our cash flow will hardly notice and we won't have to write off any debt.
Read the whole blog, though: there are also interesting thoughts on Amazon.

Books are Evil

Michael Wolff has had it with books (Thanks to Melville House Publishing via Peter Robins at the Guardian):
If there are still good books, they are largely irrelevant to a form and business that is largely about the creation of the artifact—identifier, symbol, leave-behind, brand enhancer...

...It’s not that there is anything wrong, or at least out of the ordinary, with salesmanship or promotional copy, or with even saying you wrote what your ghostwriter wrote. This is the stuff of speeches, advertising, and testimonials. What’s insidious here is that these forms, which are understood to be insincere and a confection, are now in the guise of a book, which is understood to be genuine and substantial.

And, indeed, people are fooled. And, to the extent that readers are not fooled (and reading just a few paragraphs of these books, if you do read them, ought to raise questions), the form of the book itself is undermined. Books lose value and meaning. Real readers come to understand there are fewer and fewer real books.

Publishers publish fake books because, if you have an “author” who has some larger cause to promote, the publisher gets free promotion. What the publisher has traded for such an abundance of promotion is its own brand. HarperCollins does not really believe Sarah Palin has written a valuable book—or even that it is really a book, not in the way that HarperCollins has historically understood books, or in the way that people have counted on HarperCollins to have understood a book. But, these are desperate times and real books are an increasingly equivocal proposition anyway, so almost all publishers are willing to engage in the strategic mix-up between real books and fake books.

This really isn’t quibbling. We have created a giant system of national agitprop, in which books and the book business have become one of the most effective tools...

...Literate people should boycott books.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

The Reality of Fiction

A post on Katy Evans-Bush's blog reminded me tonight that I hadn't yet read Zadie Smith's Guardian essay on the essay, and I went and did so. I commend to you this article, in which Zadie acknowledges the reality of 'novel-nausea', a sickness with the artificiality of novels in general (which Katy, it seems, strongly shares) and conventional novels in particular, but takes issue with the total condemnation of fiction expressed in a forthcoming book by David Shields.

Funnily enough, I had been intending a blog on this subject myself, ever since I went back, a few weeks ago, to a place where I once lived and which I'd had in mind as one of the 'settings' when I wrote my new novel. Suddenly I found myself in the same street, and suddenly the emotions came back to me that I'd had when I lived there. I hadn't even tried to translate those feelings into the novel, as they weren't appropriate to the story, but it struck me that I never could, not precisely: because those feelings were to do with the inchoate: they belonged to the time before they could be processed, and modified, via logic and the imagination and words.

But then I wondered? Could I? Isn't that my next task as a novelist, to find some way of doing so? To dispense not only with accepted conventions but my own conventions, and write something truly real but nevertheless fictional? Because, like Zadie, I have faith in Werner Herzog's 'ecstatic truth' of fiction.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

On the Theme of Themes

I like this by A L Kennedy on the Guardian books blog, which expresses exactly what I feel about being asked to write stories according to predetermined themes:
I object on principle to unhelpful restrictions of time and subject, because I got into writing at least in part so that no one could tell me what to do or think. I neither like nor thrive upon that kind of interference and it doesn't necessarily help me to grow or develop my capacities. I also don't relish restrictions being placed upon a form which should be able to roam free and express itself as it wishes. Sometimes a subject is an inspiration or chimes with an idea you've already got, but often a magazine, or a newspaper, or a bunch of people who say they want to save the short story will end up constricting imaginative and technical scope and making sure much of what they receive will resemble slightly over-emotional op-ed articles. This doesn't help the uninitiated to think well of the short story. And would anyone phone up a writer and ask them to write a themed novel?
I also like Darragh McManus's tribute on the same blog to Margaret Atwood on her 70th birthday, which is a nice counterbalance to Robert McCrum's recent dismissal of the powers of older writers.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Selling to the Bookshop Chains: How Waterstone's Compares

After the conflicting claims about the way in which Waterstone's deals with literary fiction not backed by big marketing budgets (see Stuart Jeffries versus Waterstone's MD Gerry Johnson and writer and Waterstone's employee Sara Crowley), it's been a bit hard to know what to believe. So, for what it's worth, here's my own experience of visiting branches of the chain bookshops in central London this week, and asking if they would order my new novel, Too Many Magpies (published by independent Salt which doesn't have the resources for big marketing budgets).

Borders, Charing Cross Road. I set foot in this shop with a sinking heart: it doesn't really look like a book shop, more like a W H Smith's, a big gift shop, basically. I approach the information desk with my book and a sheet of information about it, and ask if I can speak to the relevant person. I am given the immediate and unequivocal answer that I need to ring Head Office and swiftly handed the number. I leave the shop, efficiently dispatched.

Foyles. Now this should be more promising: after all, Salt have done a reading here in which I took part. At the information desk I am told by a rakish-looking young man with a beard that the fiction buyer is not available, and I should email him for an appointment. I explain that I'm only in London that day (Tuesday) and the next, and am told that I should still email him and ask for an appointment next day. He adds that this is a very busy period, Christmas. I'm pretty sure I'm being cynically fobbed off, but for the sake of thoroughness, I repair to a cafe and do so. Now, at the time of writing, it's late on Thursday, and I have still had no reply, and of course I am back in Manchester.

Blackwell's, Charing Cross Road. The academic bookshop which you might expect to be interested in serious literature - although of course they probably rely on the academic rather than the general market. This time I can actually speak to the fiction buyer, a nice bearded young man. He hears my spiel, he looks at my book and the information sheet, and the review quotes for my story collection on the back cover. He looks very embarrassed. He is silent. He bites his lip. He says, 'Er...' He is silent once more then he says: 'But will you be getting broadsheet reviews for this?' I say, 'Well, it's certainly been sent out to them for review!' But of course we both know how difficult it is to get reviews nowadays, and the unspoken knowledge swells between us. He starts to go red. He looks as though he'd rather die than be dealing with this. I feel tremendously sorry for him. He bites his lip again, and then he shakes his head. 'I'm sorry,' he says - and I can see he really is - 'but it's so difficult to sell anything that hasn't already had broadsheet reviews.' And that's it. He can't stock my book.

Now 7 branches of Waterstone's:

Waterstone's Trafalgar Square. I'm feeling pretty cynical as I enter this branch, which I imagine caters to passing rather than serious literary trade. But when I speak to Stephen on the front desk, he turns out to be not only one of the fiction buyers, but to know all about Salt, to be really interested in the fact that they have now published a novel (my book), and in my book, and orders two copies on the spot! Wow! Thank you, Stephen!

Waterstone's Gower Street. Once again the first bookseller I speak to, Verona, turns out to be a fiction buyer and orders a copy of my novel there and then. Double wow! This Waterstone's also has a 'small press' section, I notice, in which books by Dedalus and another small press are given a magnificent display. Thank you, Verona!

Waterstone's Covent Garden. Triple wow! Without any ado Gabie, the knowledgable-looking woman on the front desk, orders a copy of my book as I stand there! Thank you, Gabie.

It's the end of the day now and I finish on a high and I'm back in love with Waterstone's.

Waterstone's Oxford Street Plaza. Next day here in the retail heart of London my renewed affection is perhaps inevitably in for a bit of knock. This is a far more commercial-looking branch, 'Best sellers' flagged like mad at the entrance. I must say, though, that the young man I speak to is wonderfully attentive and enthusiastic: he insists on taking me upstairs to the fiction buyer, and all the way up the escalator he asks me about the book and takes it in his hands and strokes it and seems mightily interested and impressed. He introduces me to the fiction buyer and stands by waiting. She is an extremely polite young woman, who tells me most pleasantly but briskly that at this time of the year unless I am a local author or the book has a specifically London connection, they are unable to take it as they can't give it the profile it requires, with face-out displays and Staff Recommends. I say that I wouldn't necessarily expect the book to be given a high-profile treatment, but she insists on her point, perhaps understandably, and says that now, in the run up to Christmas, all the Staff Recommends are hardback (my book is a paperback). Maybe I'm being unfair, but now I'm getting the feeling I'm being fobbed off. She does take my information sheet and tells me that in the New Year they'll perhaps look at the possibility again. And the young man insists on taking me downstairs again and all the way to the front door, with almost ostentatious solicitousness, and, maybe I'm completely wrong, but I can't get rid of the feeling that they saw me coming (or at least read my statement on the web that I was coming).

Waterstone's Oxford Street West. This branch is if anything even more commercial. I speak to a young woman who says the fiction buyer has just popped out, she'll go and check. I can hear her reporting my request to a man who comes back and tells me that there are no fiction buyers in the shop today. He says he'll pass my information sheet on to them, and I'm out of the shop in five minutes flat with the complete certainty that nothing will come of it.

Waterstone's Piccadilly. Here in Waterstone's flagship store is the first table I have come across dedicated to collections of single-author short stories, but as far as I can see (in my by now worn-out state), they are all by well-known or classic authors in editions from mainstream publishers (which would appear to make Brighton Waterstone's, with its specialist short story section, something of an exception). The person I speak to is the crime buyer, who says he will deal with me because the general fiction buyer is busy and not available. He looks doubtful. I push my spiel. I point out my nice comment (re my short stories) from ex-Waterstone's Scott Pack. He says, in such a mumble that I have to ask him to repeat it, that they only deal with official reps from publishing houses. I explain that my publishing house doesn't have the resources for an official rep, and then get the feeling that I've thereby condemned myself and my publisher anyway. He takes my information sheet to pass on, but once again it doesn't look in the least promising.

Waterstone's High Holborn. This is the last shop on my list. It's late in the day, dark, I'm exhausted and hungry - I didn't have lunch - and it's a long trek up to High Holborn from Piccadilly. Is it worth it, when Waterstone's has been so disappointing today? But me, I'm like a dog with a bone, I've got to finish this job. I set off for High Holborn. When I get there I find the branch is tiny. The fiction section is miniscule. I say to the young man at the desk: 'Is that your whole fiction section?' Yes, he tells me. 'Well,' I say, hardened and cynical now, 'then there's probably no point my asking if you'll stock my new novel.' He says he'll go and ask James. James comes up. James instantly hits the buttons and orders three copies of my book. I nearly fall off my blistered feet to the floor. Thank you, thank you, James!

Hatchard's, Piccadilly. Before leaving Piccadilly I turned into Hatchard's (owned, like Waterstone's, by HMV). Oh, wow. Here it was, a truly traditional bookshop, oozing the glamour of intellect and of tradition and modernity in collision which I have always associated with bookshops, and for which I think we're all in mourning. Downstairs in the fiction section which was hushed with a kind of lush intellectual expectancy, Margot received me and my book with warm enthusiasm and ordered four copies, the biggest order of all, and told me that she will give it attention and display it face out. Thank you, thank you, Margot.

So what can be concluded? If my experience is anything to go by, the other big chains are a dead loss for no-budget literary fiction, but Hatchard's and some, though not all, of the Waterstone's branches are great. And that Waterstone's just can't be characterized by any single one of its variable branches.

And, for the sake now purely of promotion, here are the branches where I know my new novel is available:

Hatchard's Piccadilly and Waterstone's in Brighton (Thank you Sara!), Trafalgar Square, Gower Street, Covent Garden and High Holborn.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Waterstone's Response

Gerry Johnson, managing director of Waterstone's, responds to Stuart Jeffries' Tuesday Guardian article, and insists that Waterstone's is still passionate about books, and intent on making sure that 'writers get to write the books they want, and readers can enjoy the books they want to read'.

This is a most heartwarming thing to read, and I am very glad indeed if the worries of publishers and writers turn out to be unfounded (in relation to Waterstone's at any rate). However, Johnson needs to make a better argument to reassure me.

He says that Waterstone's buyers picked out Aravind Adiga's The White Tiger and Sadie Jones's The Outcast 'before they received any media or awards attention.' Well, The White Tiger comes from independent Atlantic, so this is good. But Sadie Jones's debut is well known to have been 'hotly tipped', so the odds are that its powerful publisher, Harper, awarded it a fair-sized marketing budget which must have included buying attention from bookshops.

He refutes Jeffries' statement that Waterstone's is a place where 'you're invited to buy as much as possible and then shove off' with the vague statement that the stores are 'hugely inviting'. Hm, maybe W has changed since I last went there, but the alternative possibility is that Johnson believes that the sight of rows and rows of the latest bestseller face out like slabs of marg is inviting, in which case he rather undermines his own point: such a sight can be inviting only to the reader happy to be marketed the latest commodity. (I suppose it's also an inviting sight to the marketer.)

In addition, he says, the shops 'give people the opportunity to meet writers they love'. Now that's an interesting statement. Which writers is he talking about? People can only love the writers they know about, of course, and they are more likely to know about the ones the bookshops are pushing. So which writers is W pushing (and inviting to read)? And that phrase 'the writers they love' has too much of the ring of crowd-pleasing and the lowest common denominator for comfort.

Similarly with the 'countless reading groups' he says W runs: to be convinced that they are any more than cynical marketing exercises we would need to know that these reading groups read books other than those with front-table budgets behind them.

Jeffries weakened his argument with his choice of vocabulary, I think, when he made a plea for bookshops to be more like 'old-fashioned reading lounges'. But Johnson's rebuff is very telling. 'Our customers' needs are different to those of shoppers a century ago', he says. 'Our industry must look to the future and adapt to changes in demand, taste and technology.' Again, he fails to define. We must work out those customer 'needs', 'demand' and 'taste' from the context: that customers don't want to hang around browsing any more, and are thus no longer interested in exploring and making their own choices, but in simply purchasing those books on ready display, or those they know about before they set foot in a bookstore, and which, mostly, they know of only because of big marketing budgets. Above all, this statement appears to prove Jeffries' main point that bookshops have relinquished their role of 'creat[ing] demand for books worth reading', and now respond solely to a commercial imperative. And as for that word 'industry': well, I know we use it for the creative businesses all the time, especially in the media, but one wonders if in the context it's especially telling.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The End for Writers

Stuart Jeffries examines How Waterstone's killed publishing. So great is the stranglehold of the book chains over publishers that he can't get any publishers to talk openly about the situation. Agent Bill Hamilton tells him that "They fear speaking out about how their books are being sold." Hamilton, a man who should know, tells us instead:
"There's been a slow bonfire of literary authors in the last 18 months," says Hamilton. "Publishers are sending out to pasture established literary novelists because they realise they aren't going to be sold by the chains. The complaint now from publishers is that most of their quality books hardly get a look in at all"

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Old Authors: Shut Up

Same old story from Robert McCrum as he adds fuel to the ageism of our literary culture once again. (It's always the same old story, Observer, today.) Old authors ought to shut up, is his basic message, pointing to the thinness of Roth's latest novel, the disappointment of Nabokov's recently revealed last, and the fact that Doris Lessing is remembered for the novels she wrote in her forties rather than her latest, written at 87 - and the fact that Shakespeare hung up his quill before he was 50, another aspect, according to McCrum, of his genius. McCrum rather shoots himself in the foot again, though, with his finger-wagging retort to Tolstoy's avowal, expressed at the age of 79, not to be silent: that Tolstoy produced his last 'novel of any consequence' at the tender age of 72...

Edited in: This, ironically, in an edition of the review which leads with an appreciation by Tim Adams of Alan Bennett and the cover story strapline: At 75, with a masterly new play on stage, are we finally seeing the true Alan Bennett?

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Same old

Joe Queenan is sick of the repetition in film which current marketing practice has created. (They liked this, so let's give them another.) Most of the films he mentions, though, are populist, and while many of us deplore the blanket application of such marketing philosophy to all films and books, including the serious and 'literary', I only have to haul my ex-mother-in-law before you once again to indicate that, when it comes to populist culture, the marketers have got it right. Picture her once more: rotund, leaning back in the soft chair by the fire, feet up on the side of the fireplace, Mills and Boon in her hand, utterly engrossed for two solid hours. Then she gets to the end and snaps the book shut with great satisfaction, heaves herself, knees spread, from the chair, stops half-way up with a thought and then says, matter-of-fact: 'Mmm, think I might have read that one before!'

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Definitive versions?

Today in the Observer Tim Adams reviews Beginners, the unexpurgated version of Raymond Carver's second story collection, published by Gordon Lish as What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. He finds the differences startling, but that the 'new' version is nevertheless 'an extraordinary book, more generous and rambling in tone than its distilled counterpart', more nuanced, yet 'still recognizably Carver's'.

Struck by the incongruity of that last thought - presumably that we should be looking for, and hoping for, what we think of as Carver's 'real' voice in his more original work - Adams muses most interestingly on the power and practice of editors:
Editing of Lish's kind is a dark art, but not so unusual. I used to work for a literary magazine, Granta, where the editor, Bill Buford, brought a Lish-style idea of editing to all the content. In some pieces, long stories of 10,000 words or more, not a sentence of the writer's original draft stood. Many writers were grateful for these interventions: they had never sounded so good. Some, of course, balked at the mauling. Carver's friend Richard Ford, for one, would always take Buford back through any story and painstakingly argue for the choice behind every word and comma until the original was restored exactly, not in every case better, but all his own.
One does wonder if this still happens: the Booker judges this year complained at the apparent lack of editing. But you never know, really: as a once-editor myself, I know that it's perfectly possible to overlook the typos but still mess about with a writer's prose, and anyway I suspect that in general nowadays an obsession with the market promotes a cavalier attitude towards authors' intentions which allows for the former and leads to the latter.

The Carver-Lish debate and these Granta revelations focus on the issue of prose style. My experience with my first novel was to have to submit to a change of structure - simple but radical: chapter four was moved to the beginning - specifically designed to create a very different type of novel (as I indicated recently) which would appeal to a very different market. As a new young writer I felt I didn't have a leg to stand on in this matter, but I was never happy with the result, and later republished the book with its original structure restored. Adams predicts that the publication of Beginners will start a trend in this direction - 'the author's cut'.

(If anyone is interested, the revised edition of my first novel The Birth Machine - The Author's Cut, which includes a preface discussing the implications of the changes, is available on Amazon or direct from me via my profile along with a limited number of used copies of the original edition.)

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Carver and Tricks

Interesting Guardian books blog article by Stuart Evers on Carver and Lish, and the matter of experimentation/innovation in short stories. As usual, the comments illustrate the wide variety of responses readers can have to a single author...

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Robert McCrum Tells it Like it Is

A friend of McCrum's has, like so many of us, fallen foul of the current situation in which
new fiction by unknown writers, the lifeblood of the business, is being scrutinised by people who have neither appetite for, nor understanding of, originality.
He says what I have been saying for years about the errors of contemporary publishing marketing philosophy:
Here, as in Hollywood, [from the nineties] the cry was: "Give us books that look like other successful books"... Original books are, by definition, not like others. They must be selected by experienced readers (aka editors).

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Thinking in Boxes

In March I read at the Huddersfield Literature Festival with two other Salt authors, story writer Carys Davies and poet Mike Barlow, at an event titled 'Salt of the Earth'. It's a strange thing, the way you get billed like this, almost as a representative of your publisher, rather than simply of your own writing. Although on this occasion that's how we offered ourselves, as a cohort of Salt authors, it is quite often the festival or independent events organizers who do this - decide to bill an event as a 'Salt' event: this has happened with an imminent Manchester Literature Festival event and another at Manchester Central Library in December (in both of which I'm taking part). My publisher has certainly made a splash as a small independent publisher of poetry and (so far) short fiction, and appears to have caught everyone's attention and imagination and the good thing about this is that it's a great publicity/marketing hook for events organizers and we, its authors, alike.

But at that Huddersfield reading, a question was asked by festival director Michael Stewart - who, indeed, I believe had given the event its name, 'Salt of the Earth' - a question that raised issues we three authors were unable to tackle fully at the time, and which I've only touched on since. What, he asked, did we think of the difference between Salt and Comma (Ra Page's Manchester independent, publishing chiefly short fiction), the difference as he saw it being that Comma was a 'high-concept' publisher and that Salt... Well, to be honest, I can't swear what he said Salt did, but at the time, perhaps influenced by the connotations of his title for our event and the fact that he referred as example to my having recently won a prize in the Raymond Carver competition, we interpreted him as saying that Salt published realist fiction, and swiftly stated the fact we know to be true: that Salt does not just publish realist writing, but is a broad church committed only to literary excellence (no one would call Carys's own contemporary fairy tales realist, or the science-inspired fantasies of Salt author Tania Hershman - and, as I put in, I wouldn't even call my Raymond Carver competition story realist but an attempt to critique the whole concept of realism).

The trouble was, we had failed to understand the term 'high-concept', or at any rate, speaking for myself, I had, taking it as a literary term meaning concerned with ideas and style rather than 'realist' notions of real life and character and story. It seems ridiculous now, because the term is now everywhere, but back then in March I hadn't understood that 'high-concept' is a marketing term denoting something almost opposite: a graphic notion which catches attention and is easily grasped, and is thus desirable for marketing any book. Ra Page's anthologies of short stories are indeed 'high-concept' in this sense, in that they are themed, usually around such a graphic notion, and I understand that some of his single-author collections, such as Tiny Deaths by Robert Shearman, are commissioned to be written around a unifying concept agreed beforehand. Salt, on the other hand, publish single author collections only and do not have that anthologist's need to shoe-horn diverse writers, and they don't commission collections to precalculated themes. However, contrary to what I think now was Michael's suggestion - which unfortunately I think our 'broad church' answer may have seemed to corroborate - Salt by no means eschew the high-concept marketing principle: director Chris-Hamilton Emery has made it clear that, while literary excellence is his touchstone, his books must be marketable with a clear, attractive concept (and fortunately for us Salt authors, when it comes to marketing matters like readings, we also have the Salt banner to wave).

But the big question arises: how do we market our books thus without reducing them? I have frequently railed against themed anthologies (although, succumbing to marketing pressures, I have published them) and the way in which they can force sometimes reductive readings on individual stories. By succumbing of necessity to the 'high-concept' sell, do we divert readers away from certain aspects of our work which are perhaps important to us? And does that matter? To be perfectly frank with you, as a writer the thing I'm really interested in, and would like my readers to share an interest in, is the ways we think, but tell that to the bookshop buyers and the Saturday browsers! Fortunately (or not) I come from a family in which you can soon get your leg pulled for sitting around and looking like you're thinking too much, so I learned early on the value of narrative and concrete detail for luring people into ideas, often by making them identify. But which do you stress when you're marketing? This is the stumbling block over which my first novel, The Birth Machine, (which wasn't originally called that), fell from being about logic and science and intuition and aimed more at men than women, into being sold and read as a feminist novel about childbirth aimed only at women. What I'm particularly interested in is the way we think in boxes, and a lot of my writing is about showing the falsity of those boxes. But you can't stop people reading in boxes, it seems, and one story of mine in which I tried to deconstruct concepts of class (and race) ended up in one critic's eyes as a depiction of a 'rolling working-class childhood' while in another's as being 'about a middle-class child'. I'm particularly keen to show the lack of dividing line between the 'ordinary' and the 'out-of-the-ordinary', but people seem reluctant to accept the fuzziness of this, and want to categorize. Several critics have stressed that my story collection is about 'ordinary lives' and, well, I'm just sitting here thinking: what, your dad beats you up and was a Jewish refugee; your next-door-neighbour is a famous opera singer; you're a mother with a newborn baby and you're losing it and you suddenly run away from a family outing across the sand dunes - these are ordinary? You take a stranger back to your hotel room for sex before you've hardly had time to speak to him? - well, I guess there's no accounting for what some people think of as ordinary, which rather proves my original literary point. And how much does 'high-concept' marketing exacerbate such simplifications? (How much is this reading of my stories influenced by my marketing blurb, which concentrated on the concrete and readily graspable?)

I've got a new novel out, so you can see why this matter is taxing me... (Luckily, it concerns a mystery, which is one 'high concept' that doesn't require things pinned down.)

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Google Settlement

All summer, while I was firstly immersed in the short stories I'm writing for a new collection and then up a mountain in Wales and away from all things literary, I'd have a knot in my stomach as it suddenly surfaced: before September I was supposed to make a decision about the Google digitization deal: whether to opt out. But opt out of what exactly? And what would be the implications of doing that, of losing the chance of having my out-of-print works aired once more? But would failing to do so mean that I'd be losing the copyright I now owned and giving it away to Google? There was something I was supposed to do to prevent this happening... For some reason I just wasn't clear: a quick read of the sheet of information I'd had from the Writers' Guild didn't really seem to give me an answer. What was going on? I'm accustomed to being able to skim such things and quickly grasp the gist, but this time I couldn't - and a quick look on the internet left me no wiser. Was I losing it? I'd have to put some decent time aside to investigate the matter. And then I didn't have the time... and now the moment for opting out has gone.

Well, now the US Justice Department has come out against the settlement as proposed, and Nick Harkaway articulates precisely on his blog why we should be relieved. As he says now on the Guardian books blog, there are good things about Google's library plan, but what was worrying was the method. Most importantly, as he says on his blog:
Google’s actions here are a massive rights grab, but more than that, the structure of the agreement is opt-out. If you don’t, you’re in. That’s a massive change. The default position of copyright has always been that if you don’t have active permission, you can’t use the material...

It’s true that copyright law is also a tool used by large companies to make large profits. It’s true that it is badly in need of reform. But short-circuiting the legislative process in a Class Action Settlement and creating an opt-out situation… that ain’t reform. That’s just kicking down the fences. It invites a situation where a powerful entity can flatten a small rightsholder

You come down from the mountain, and the law has changed on the plain...

Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Truth About Publishing

From the horse's mouth, ie Daniel Menaker, ex Random House Senior Vice President and Executive Editor-in-Chief.

Some choice bits (which I know other blogs have quoted ):
Genuine literary discernment is often a liability in editors. And it should be -- at least when it is unaccompanied by a broader, more popular sensibility it should be. When you are trying to acquire books that hundreds of thousands of people will buy, read, and like, you have to have some of the eclectic and demotic taste of the reading public....

Financial success in front-list publishing is very often random, but the media conglomerates that run most publishing houses act as if it were not...

It's my strong impression that most of the really profitable books for most publishers still come from the mid-list -- "surprise" big hits with small or medium advances, such as that memoir by a self-described racial "mutt" of a junior senator from Chicago. Somehow, by luck or word of mouth, these books navigate around the rocks and reefs upon which most of their fleet -- even sturdy vessels -- founder. This is an old story but one that media giants have not yet heard, or at least not heeded, or so it seems. Because let's say you publish a flukey blockbuster about rhinoviruses in Renaissance Italy -- "The DaVinci Cold" -- one year: the corporation will see a spike in your profit and sort of autistically, or at least automatically, raise the profit goal for your division by some corporately predetermined amount for the following year. (The sequel to or second book after that blockbuster will usually command an advance so large as to dim a publisher's profit hopes for it.) This is close to clinically insane business behavior and breeds desperation rather than pride and confidence in the people who work for you. Cut it out, I say, or get out of the business!...

Many of the most important decisions made in publishing are made outside the author's and agent's specific knowledge. Let's say your house publishes a comparatively modest number of original hardcovers every year -- forty. Twelve on the etymologically amusing "spring" list -- January through April; twelve in the summer; sixteen in the economically more active fall. Well, meetings are held to determine which of those books your company is going to emphasize -- talk about most, spend the most money on, and so forth. These are the so-called lead titles for those seasons. Most of the time, the books for which the company has paid the highest advances will be the lead titles, regardless of their quality. In many cases, their quality is a cipher at this planning stage, because their manuscripts haven't been delivered or even written or even begun yet. But why should the literary quality of writing figure heavily into this prioritizing? It's not as if the millions of readers being prayed for are necessarily looking for challenging and truly enlightening reading experiences.
But read the whole thing if you haven't already. Thanks to my colleague Sam Thorp for nudging me about it.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Copyright, Open Rights and the Future of Publishing

Interesting article by Electric Literature's Andy Hunter on new media and the future for publishing, especially in the light of Peter Mandelson's proposed crackdown on internet file sharing and the protest against it.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Looking Back to Look Forward

Some of the comment about the Booker shortlist last week seems to me symptomatic of our current obsession with time, as discussed recently by David Ulin in the Los Angeles Times, and of the 'global' and linear way we think about it. We see the world in terms of 'past' and 'present', it seems, and this as a bad/good opposition. I suspect that 'Degrus' 's comment on Sarah Crown's Guardian books blog that the list of six 'historical' novels is 'depressingly backward-looking' represents a common train of thought. As David Ulin points out, there's an obsession with contemporaneity, with the now. I confess I haven't read a single book on this shortlist (!), so I'm writing theoretically, but I'd like to pose the question: what is wrong with 'looking back'? Or to put it more strongly, isn't it damn well urgently important to look back? I hate to be cliched, but sometimes cliches seem to get forgotten, and wasn't there something someone said about remembering the mistakes of the past in order not to make them again...?! In other words, the present and future lie in the past, and as 'Hedgiecc', another Guardian blog commenter pointed out, what is important in historical fiction is to 'make the themes of the work relevant to contemporary concerns'.

Edited in: I wrote the above before I looked at today's Observer. While one article there reported on the fact that history is in danger of disappearing as a subject from our schools, another by Tim Adams bemoans our heritage culture as a retreat from the present and its concerns. I can't disagree with this last, and while there seems a paradox, I think in fact it's just the other side of the coin of our simplistic 'global' thinking, the one which alternatively holds the past as 'good' and the present as 'bad' (or at least, as he says, too difficult for contemplation). Adams acknowledges the respectable tradition of mining the past for 'stories that will illuminate the present', but believes that the 'current appetite for historical fiction' seems different, a part of this retreat from 'the here and now'. Well, it's true that you can't legislate for what people seek in books, but (while, as I say, I haven't yet read the current Booker shortlist) this seems in itself a bit of blanket/'global' condemnation of the shortlisted books.

Friday, August 28, 2009

The Face of the Author

An excellent article by the Guardian's Richard Lea, who reports that since the Guardian began a series of video author interviews on their website, some publishers have been pushing to them the 'personable' aspects of their literary authors.

The crucial point Lea makes is that literary fiction appeals to the intellect (among other things, presumably) (an interesting, and useful I think, definition of literary fiction), and implies that any reader with a modicum of intellect would be put off rather than attracted by such base and irrelevant marketing appeals. He acknowledges, though, that literary fiction is a 'hard sell' which explains why 'even literary fiction' comes to be sold in this way. Personally, I'd take this further, and strike the 'even literary fiction' and replace it with 'literary fiction, above all others'. I'll never forget when I was invited to Harrogate or York (I forget which) to a dinner of Women of the North (no they weren't all wearing viking helmets, they were wearing those spiky/curly things with flowers and nets etc - it was some kind of achievers thing), and was put on the writers' table. Every other woman on the table was a highly successful writer of romantic fiction, and every one was matronly, plump and over fifty, or at least looked it. That was the moment it occurred to me that popular fiction just doesn't need the kind of marketing in which the author must be some kind of soulful or smouldering beauty, and that the marketers realized that literary fiction did.

Perhaps we should just acknowledge that reading literary fiction, like thinking itself, is not exactly a mass pursuit, and stop trying to sell it as such. Yet independent publishers of literary fiction who do operate outside the mainstream are especially reliant, if not on authors' good looks, on authors' personalities: as Salt's Chris Hamilton-Emery has made clear to his authors, it's those authors with a profile on the web (and, I'd add, lots of friends there) who are most likely to sell books. May as well forget about hiding your suspect personality behind your brilliant prose, and too bad, eh, if revealing it puts people off even looking at your books...

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Way Up a Mountain

Sorry for the blackout on my blogs at the moment: I'm up the mountain again, this time to help out with decorating work: too busy to blog, and my head's gone dead anyway or rather has been taken over by thoughts about woodfiller and whitewash and paint and drying times and suitable surfaces and - oh you don't want to know. Suffice to say that I'm now on most friendly terms with the staff at Bangor B&Q (literary conversation: what's that?). And if I should ever get a literary inspiration, well, that'll usually be when the signal for the mobile internet goes blank instead: it's much worse when it's windy for some reason - which here, opposite the ridge by the sea, it nearly always is. It's as much as I can do to keep up with my emails (and then I have to use the very primitive server mail platform: can't send block emails, each email takes an age to load through, and the platform doesn't keep a copy of what I've sent). Twitter hardly works at all. (So much for getting all my mates to vote for my book on the new Salt Just One Book poll and keeping up my books's exposure - what this does expose, I guess, is something of a flaw in the blanket contemporary acceptance of a culture of internet-based author marketing). And some days I don't get out in time to get a newspaper, though yesterday evening on my way to a fabulous meal in Molly's restaurant in Caernarfon, I did manage to buy a Guardian, and read an article by Nick Laird bemoaning the need for authors to market their own work and describing all the feelings we all have to squash in order to do it (or I do anyway): 'For one thing, it seems the height of bad manners, like going on about your own children' - which is exactly what I said the other day on the Elizabeth Baines blog. Oh, and a profile of Fay Weldon, who always makes me laugh... No way I can give you all the links, sorry: it would take half an hour at least, and there's a door waiting to be painted.

As for reading, I got quite hooked on a book in ms by a friend, in the half-hour each day I read in bed in the morning - more hooked than by most published books by well-known writers, to be honest. And having left our next reading group book at home (Angela Carter's Nights at the Circus, which I bought years ago but for some reason never read) I sent off for a second-hand copy from Amazon (and that took half an hour!), but it never arrived, presumably due to the remoteness of this location...

Should be back in full swing again by the second week of September (and of course publicising my new book, Too Many Magpies). Meanwhile, I'll blog if I can...

Cross-posted with Elizabeth Baines.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

How Can We Read?

John Siddique points us to an excellent article by David Ulin in the Los Angeles Times, in which LAT books editor Ulin confesses to the difficulty many of us share in settling to read books in these days of instant online networking. Ulin pinpoints the question of focus:
...the ability to still my mind long enough to inhabit someone else's world, and to let that someone else inhabit mine. Reading is an act of contemplation, perhaps the only act in which we allow ourselves to merge with the consciousness of another human being. We possess the books we read, animating the waiting stillness of their language, but they possess us also, filling us with thoughts and observations, asking us to make them part of ourselves... In order for this to work, however, we need a certain type of silence, an ability to filter out the noise.

Such a state is increasingly elusive in our over-networked culture, in which every rumor and mundanity is blogged and tweeted. Today, it seems it is not contemplation we seek but an odd sort of distraction masquerading as being in the know. Why? Because of the illusion that illumination is based on speed, that it is more important to react than to think, that we live in a culture in which something is attached to every bit of time.

Here we have my reading problem in a nutshell, for books insist we take the opposite position, that we immerse, slow down.
Rightly, I think, Ulin says this question of time is at the heart of the matter. Books may now seem too slow, too behind the times. Yet in such a fast-forward age, he points out, the thing which books provide, that slowing down for contemplation, becomes ever more necessary.

It's a problem which I think is behind the cultural resistance to the short story, which, being in my view closer to poetry than the novel, requires a particular kind of focused attention. (A discussion about this is currently taking place at The Rumpus.)

And whatever applies to reading applies to writing several times over, I'd say: writing books requires far more contemplation than reading them, and far more necessary withdrawal, yet, since nowadays writers are required to take part in the marketing of their own books, it becomes urgently necessary for us to immerse ourselves in online networking...

Friday, July 31, 2009

Boyd Tonkin on the Short Story

Boyd Tonkin writes in the Independent about the disjunction between our perceptions of the short story as lightweight and the reality of it as a vibrant, and indeed burgeoning, form. He points out interestingly that major figures of our literary canon could be studied via their short stories alone without any loss of impression of their stature, and, pointing to the irony that Alice Munro has won the International Booker but would not qualify for the yearly prize, asks if short stories should now be eligible for the Booker. With a dig at The New Yorker, he takes issue too with the 'template' attitude to short story length (which I've complained about on this blog, with regard to lit mags and competitions) and that other form of lengthism, the prejudice against what Henry James called 'the blessed nouvelle'. He says rightly: 'The only rule is to write originally and well - whether the result takes two, five or twenty thousand words'. Hear, hear.

My own recent article on the current state of the short story here.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Plagiarism: Proof and Power

OK, I was a bit rushed yesterday, so here today are some more detailed thoughts about the difficulties around plagiarism.

Many of the current blog discussions centre on internet writing forums, and I have nothing to add to the helpful guidelines in avoiding committing plagiarism offered to participants. But here are some thoughts on the vexed matter of situations where the power balance is more uneven, where professional writers with a platform are in a position to read the unpublished work of unknown, or less well-known, writers without a current platform.

Some blogs have been keen to insist that those with responsibility would be unlikely to filch ideas. But consider this: if you have ever been the editor of a literary magazine or a creative writing tutor, how often have you read a piece and thought, I wish I'd had that idea!? How often have you thought, What a pity that writer hasn't written that as well as they could have done, and: I could write it better! As a past editor and creative writing tutor I've had that response several times. I've never consciously filched someone else's ideas (I want my ideas to be my own) but how many times do you think people have had that response and then either cynically (come on, now, think about human nature!) or unconsciously (think about the subconscious workings of the human brain) gone on to write that idea for themselves?

What if you are on the judging panel of a competition with a well-known filmmaker who is arguing passionately for something whose subject matter really speaks to him and says he wants to make a film of it, but in the end it doesn't win and afterwards never sees the light of day. But then one day the filmmaker makes a film which is uncannily like that piece but doesn't bear the other author's name? Is this plagiarism, ie, did the filmmaker cynically use the idea, or was he so affected by the piece that it entered his subconscious - or did the piece indeed chime with obsessions that were already there? * How can you tell? How can you prove anything, especially if you are an unknown author with no voice and no status? How would you want to - it would all be so unpleasant, and yet maybe there was no malicious intent, so how would that make you look? How would that affect your potential career?

*Edited in: this is why there's no copyright on ideas (and why neither should there be) and why therefore it's so difficult to legislate on plagiarism.

What if you join a TV new writer scheme and the well-known tutor is so impressed by the idea you have entered that he wants to know exactly how you'd do it, and is impressed in turn by that. Your piece isn't chosen for production, but then next time you see the author's work there is your story - with some different trappings, but the important things, even down to the camera shots, identical to yours. Once again, what can you do? Nothing, beyond deciding to feel flattered, because you simply can't be sure it wasn't unconscious, and anyway YOU HAVE NO POWER. What's beyond dispute is that there's no way you can offer your idea to any other TV company, ever.

I don't want to be a damp blanket and scare new writers, but I don't think we should give anyone a false sense of security: these are real cases. Personally, I am very wary nowadays of where I show my unpublished work, and I no longer read unpublished work at readings unless they're going to be recorded or filmed.

Though as I said yesterday, I think the greater general awareness of the problem created by this debate can only be good.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Anti-Plagiarism Day

I'm a bit late to this as I was travelling today. It's Anti-Plagiarism day for literary bloggers, and all the links can be found at How Publishing Really Works.

I'm not so sure there are many easy answers to the problem of plagiarism, since as many bloggers point out it's a matter of ethics, you can't copyright ideas, and it can be hard to prove that mimicry wasn't unconscious (the plagiarist's classic defence).

Some bloggers are keen to reassure people that it doesn't happen very often and not to deter people from taking part in web writing forums, but I have to say I feel somewhat more cynical, having had personal experience of professionals plagiarising the work of unpublished authors and new writing schemes operating as cynical ideas-gathering exercises for the media.

Still, I think that making a noise about it in this way is probably just about the best thing to do: plagiarism is made much easier when people generally aren't aware of the problem.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Style Isn't Everything

I didn't catch Martin Amis's Guardian review of John Updike's posthumous collection of stories last weekend, but my curiosity was aroused when I saw the letters this week strongly disagreeing with his assessment that in this final book Updike had lost his ear.

Some readers of this blog will be aware of my own ambivalent feelings about Updike's writing. My repeated reading of Rabbit, Run at the age of fourteen was most surely one of the things which set me on the path of writing - I couldn't keep away from the book and its breathtaking prose, fluid yet concretely vivid; it was like stepping into a new way of being, which is of course what every teenager wants. Needless to say it is thus a fundamental part of my own mental/creative landscape, and if I have learnt anything as a writer, some of it I learnt from him. However, while I still cannot look at many of its paragraphs without, as Amis says, 'incredulous admiration', revisiting the book as an adult has been a troubling experience, and some of the reasons for this are unintentionally implicit in Amis's piece, which I've now read.

Amis begins his piece by quoting a small section from the new book and pointing out what he deems 'one infelicity and one howler' (which I'll discuss in more detail below), and goes on later to quote many apparently 'clunky' sentences and phrases. Dismayed for both Updike and himself (he says it's of 'increasingly urgent interest to the present reviewer, who is closing in on 60'), Amis calls this book and its apparent loss of form 'the portrait of the artist as an old man'. 'Age waters the writer down', says Amis, and his 'broad impression is that writers as they age lose energy (inspiration, musicality, imagistic serendipity)' but make up for this in craft. The loss of Updike's energy he accepts as given, therefore. The loss of craft he perceives puzzles him, and he wonders if this is due to Updike's increasing physical deafness - as if Updike, of all people, would ever lose his memory of verbal sound.

Well, now, excuse me while I put my face in my elbow and try not to laugh at the psychic precariousnes of literary machismo. If we do accept that this book represents a loss of form, why should it not be the result of illness rather than age per se - Updike died of lung cancer, with which he battled, and there must have been a period of loss of health before he was diagnosed? Amis does indeed refer to the need to copyedit and is aghast that the errors he sees in this book have slipped through this necessary stage. Personally, I'm getting a picture of Updike too ill to do that work (though one senses a deeper horror on the part of Amis at this indication that the superman writer may have ever needed to do it rather than having sprung fully-formed with cryptonite verbal immunity intact). But also why should it not have been the result of a lifetime of stratospheric literary success - getting written out (and it is maybe this which is worrying Martin). What about those older writers with no such ennui, whose lives have prevented them writing the stuff which, by the time they reach their sixties, they still have backed up? What about Marilynne Robinson? What about those who get older and madder and stronger, like Milton? It's true that old people get ill more often than the young, but Amis is wrong to conflate the two, infirmity and age, and in doing so he provides an unfortunate boost to the regrettable cult of youth and the dismissal of older writers which dominate our literary life.

But what if, as the first letter-writer suggests, the prose in this book of stories represents rather a deliberate change of style on Updike's part? When we experiment we often fail; was Updike merely failing in order to fail better? Indeed, as Amis points out, the stories in this collection are arranged chronologically, and the final story - towards which, in the writing process, Updike would have been working - is, according to Amis, 'quietly innovative'.

And what if, as all three Guardian letter-writers suggest, the prose in this collection is not, after all, bad?

Here is the first section Amis quotes
... Craig Martin took an interest in the traces left by prior owners of his land. In the prime of his life, when he worked every weekday and socialised all weekend, he had pretty much ignored his land
pointing out the rime riche of 'prior' and 'prime' and the clunkiness of both sentences ending with 'his land'. And here are some others, full of the rhymes and repetitions with which he charges Updike:
ants make mounds like coffee grounds ...
polished bright by sliding anthracite ...
my bride became allied in my mind ...
except for her bust, abruptly outthrust...
Let us end these painful quotes with what may be the most indolent period ever committed to paper by a major pen (and one so easy to fix: change the first "fall" to "autumn", or change the second "fall" to "drop"): "The grapes make a mess on the bricks in the fall; nobody ever thinks to pick them up when they fall." The most ridiculous thing about this sentence, somehow, is its stately semi-colon.
Well, I must say that here, out of context, and in the context of Amis's criticism, these sentences do seem to me pretty dire, but if you haven't read the book (and I haven't) they are out of context. And what strikes me about Amis's criticism is that he is not allowing for context. To Amis, it seems, repetitions and rhymes must always be bad and must always be unintentional. Well, now, tell that to a poet. Tell that to a writer of lyrical prose rather than the kind of pared-down yet glittering, forward-thrusting prose Amis himself writes, and previously written by Updike (and which of course I admire). It's a matter of style, and of mood, and of the things you need to say. Sometimes you do need a moment of clunkiness, you need to pull the reader up short, create a sense of dissonance, upset the world of your own prose, sacrifice its musicality for something deeper. Sometimes you want to loop the reader back to a previous moment, to reassess an earlier meaning - the major function of rhyme and repetition. I don't agree with Amis that the mere sound of the repetition of 'prior' and 'prime' in the first piece he quotes is offensive. I agree that it doesn't work, but this is because the two concepts linked by sound here are opposite, the sound pattern therefore cutting across the logical meaning of the prose rather than strengthening it.

I find it very interesting that Amis finds that (woops, two 'finds!)
now, denuded of a vibrant verbal surface, [the stories] sometimes seem to be neither here nor there - products of nothing more than professional habit. Then, too, you notice a loss of organisational control and, in one case, a loss of any sense of propriety.
Well, to get back to my earlier point, it's that lack of propriety that has latterly disturbed me about Updike's writing. Yes, I admire his prose, but I can't read this kind of thing in Rabbit, Run without wincing:
When confused, Janice is a frightening person. Her eyes dwindle in their frowning sockets and her little mouth hangs open in a dumb slot
not out of any knee-jerk feminism, but because of the way the beautiful, biting, wondrously precise prose (that 'dwindle', that 'slot'!) makes love to the mentality, Rabbit's, giving rise to this viewpoint.

Style isn't everything, you know.

Sunday, July 05, 2009

SF winner of Edge Hill Short Story Prize

Congratulations to both SF author Chris Beckett and small publisher Elastic Press: last night Beckett's collection of stories The Turing Test won the prestigious Edge Hill Prize over shortlisted collections from mainstream publishers by Ali Smith, Anne Enright, Sheena Mckay and Gerard Donovan. The Turing Test is a book of 'fourteen stories featuring, among other things, robots, alien planets, genetic manipulation and virtual reality, but which focus on individuals rather than technology, and deal with love and loneliness, authenticity and illusion, and what it really means to be human'.

Anne Enright won second prize with her collection, Yesterday's Weather. Chris Beckett also won the Readers' Prize, voted for by local reading groups and MA Creative Writing Students.

The judges, who read the shortlist selected by Edge Hill staff, were James Walton, journalist and chair of BBC Radio 4’s The Write Stuff, author and 2008 winner Claire Keegan and Mark Flinn, Pro-Vice Chancellor of Edge Hill University.

James Walton commented: ‘I suspect Chris Beckett winning the Edge Hill Prize will be seen as a surprise in the world of books. In fact, though, it was also a bit of surprise to the judges, none of whom knew they were science fiction fans beforehand. Yet, once the judging process started, it soon became clear that The Turing Test was the book that we’d all been impressed by, and enjoyed, the most — and one by one we admitted it.

This was a very strong shortlist, including one Booker Prize winner in Anne Enright, and two authors who’ve been Booker shortlisted in Ali Smith and Shena Mackay. Even so, it was Beckett who seemed to us to have written the most imaginative and endlessly inventive stories, fizzing with ideas and complete with strong characters and big contemporary themes. We also appreciated the sheer zest of his story-telling and the obvious pleasure he had taken in creating his fiction.’

As I have commented previously, the stress of the Edge Hill Prize (which is the brainchild of my former co-editor Ailsa Cox), is on not only great writing but cohesive collections. At the award ceremony (which I attended) Mark Flinn said interestingly that the judging process had taught him that the short story collection takes us back to the song cycle of the past, in that it is more than a collection of narratives but involves an overall unity, and that Chris Beckett's collection in particular achieved this.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

It's Not the Writing that Counts

And here's publisher Chris Hamilton-Emery's latest corrective for those who believe that good writing rises to the surface whatever: in another blog post advising authors on publicity he says this:
Most books have less than a minute to sell themselves to booksellers. A buyer in a store tends to ask a small range of vital questions. Have I heard of this writer? What’s special about this book? Why would anyone buy it? A sales rep will need some answers to these questions: ten second answers before they move on to the next title in the catalogue. Writers should spend time answering those questions, too. A ‘selling point’ is a compelling reason why a bookseller should stock your book against thousands of others. It’s rarely about the quality of the writing. (My bolds.)

Authors, Publicity and Privacy

Even so (see my last post), I can't help sounding a heartfelt agreement with Nicholas Lezard, who sends up three cheers for Jonathan Littell for refusing to appear in person to collect his Athens prize on the grounds that writing is too private a matter.

This is so true, for me at any rate, that writing is a private thing. Personally, I can only write well when I have managed to shut out all other voices from my head, to sink into a special, private mentality which is utterly divorced from the kind of mentality required for publicity, and very vulnerable to disruption so that it's often also necessary to remove oneself physically. (Anyone who reads my author blog will know I frequently complain about this problem.)

Maybe when you're winning major awards you can afford to take Littell's stand, but for most writers the need to be a publicist for one's work appears to be the cross we just have bear nowadays...

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Authors as Publicists

Here it is from a publisher (my own publisher, Chris Hamilton-Emery of Salt): in a blog post intended primarily, I think, to educate submitting authors, he says:
Great writing doesn’t always make for great books.
By 'great books' he means those which become recognized as great and don't sink without trace. Now Chris is passionately committed to great writing; by no means is he here subscribing to the (too horribly widespread) view that if a book doesn't sell either it can't be any good as literature or wanted by the public (two separate notions which are sometimes conflated). No, what Chris is saying here is that however great a book is as literature, it can't be recognized or even known as such if it isn't properly publicized, and in such a way that embeds the idea of the book in the public mind. Rhetoricians are of course committed to the magic number 3: provide a list of 3 linked points and the underlying notion will stick in the mind of the audience. A book will sell, says, Chris, if it has three 'hooks that people can remember' and 'knowing what they are is the key to getting published.' His implied advice is that submitting authors should know them, that this is how a book must be sold in the first place, by the author to a publisher, and the message is clear: publicity is everything, perhaps for literary writing more than anything.

In another provocative and revealing blog post he advises:
The best way to beat the slush pile is to avoid it in the first place. Unsolicited submissions are the worst way to reach an editor, less than 1% succeed. Most editors are receptive to recommendations (some ask their writers to be on the look out for talent). In a people business like publishing, who you know really matters. Writing is social. A couple of recommendations from the right people will open doors for your writing. It reveals two things: firstly, other published writers think you’re worth investing in, and secondly, you are already building your profile and finding readers.
It goes right against the grain for me to admit it - I would love to think there were possibilities for good writing to rise on its own - but he is right. I got my own break at the start because my tutor on an Arvon course, Martin Booth, sent my work to his own agent. My second novel was published because I was talking to an editor in a bar after a reading and she suggested I send it in. So many published writers will tell you similar stories. And I have a big envelope stuffed with the form rejections I received from publishing houses when I was just sitting at home conscientiously honing my literary skills and in touch with no one else in the literary world...

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Jenny Diski: Not a Well-Behaved Guest

A very interesting article by Jenny Diski in today's Guardian, in which she recounts her recent 'sacking' as the guest editor of a student fiction anthology, for coming up with a different 8, out of the 15 pre-selected for her, from the ones the regular student editors wanted, and for her introduction, which failed to conform to the spirit of encouragement which, it turned out, the publication is intended to provide for 'new and developing student writers'.

This incident hinges on several important issues.

Firstly, the question of the guest editor. Students, anyone: never invite a guest editor unless you are going to hand over all editorial control to them for their issue! (This is why Ailsa Cox and I never had guest editors for the short story mag metropolitan, in spite of hints from our funders that it might be the politically correct or indeed exciting thing to do: we had our literary and aesthetic vision, indeed mission; on a marketing level we branded our mag with what I think was our distinctive vision; and we were NOT going to water any of that down.) It looks to me as if the student eds of this publication felt somewhat similarly, and indeed the editorship they handed Jenny Diski was a pretty toothless one, since they had already selected 15 from god knows how many, from which she was to reject only 7. One wonders: since Diski's views about this 15 were so very different from theirs, how many of those who didn't reach the final 15 might have found Diski's approval? (And this is a question which indeed arises every time you hear of the entries to major competitions being sifted beforehand, sometimes by less experienced sifters - as I'm always saying, ad nauseum.)

So why did they ask her? Looks like it was a marketing strategy, and I guess it usually is: a big name on the cover will sell more, full stop. But also the name of a serious literary novelist will create a halo of literary quality over the contributions to the book. But then Diski didn't play this last game: she said quite openly in the introduction that while all of the 8 stories in the anthology were competent, only a few met her standards for good, necessary writing. It's to Diski's credit and, if she's right about the stories, best for her reputation that she stuck to the guns of her own literary integrity. Personally I'd have balked somewhat earlier and bowed out, rather than lace these stories and their writers with this declaration of mediocrity in a publication which is presumably intended to sell (and you can absolutely see why the student editors wouldn't want to include it). Perhaps Diski doesn't expect the anthology to be on the open market, as her final statement in the Guardian article implies an inhouse circulation: 'I'm [sorry] that they thought a plea for serious writers to write seriously wasn't what new writers want to hear.'

But you know what? Diski has voiced the best-kept secret, the fact that there are lots of competent writers, but really good writers are quite rare. It's a fact which the funders of new writing, especially those with a community agenda, always deny, and which writers themselves collude in keeping quiet because it's just so scary (if it's true, how much smaller are my chances of being one of the great ones?). It's possible, too - as I think Diski may be implying - that encouraging merely competent writers to think they are good is a way of preventing them becoming good. Or are great writers great from the start anyway? Don't hit me for asking the question, please - it is a question which, as I've said before, occurred to me on the one or two occasions I came across school age literary geniuses.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Anonthology and Nemonymous

An interesting publication from Fourth Estate: Anonthology includes nine stories by nine of their authors, but readers are left to guess which story is by whom, and there is a competition to enter. Fourth Estate call it 'an experimental project to assess the importance placed on name and reputation over quality of writing'.

As some commenters have pointed out on Alison Flood's Guardian books blogs article, D F Lewis has been producing something similar - Nemonymous - since the late nineties *, with perhaps a little more prescience, since the cult of personality was only just then tightening its stranglehold on our literary culture,
but perhaps also with greater freedom as a small magazine** publisher. Lewis's has been the purer experiment: while Fourth Estate provides us with the clues of the names of the contributing authors, Lewis publishes his issues initially without identifying the authors at all, and so readers are more truly focussed on the work itself. (As far as I am aware, the identities of contributors to each issue are revealed in the next.) The Fourth Estate experiment is predicated on the assumption that we know the contributors' writing: it's a 'recognition' exercise, and this is where it gets fuzzy: since the writers do have a reputation, is the thing we are being invited to recognize after all the writer, in which case you could argue that the ultimate effect here is once again to focus on the personality rather than the writing? Anything that draws critical attention to the issue of the cult of personality is a good thing, I reckon, but it does seem a little weird (if inevitable and maybe even necessary) to rely on personality and reputation to do it...

Edited in: * DF Lewis points out in the comments below that his first annual issue appeared in 2001.
** He also points out that his latest issues are large book anthologies.
And he adds that for the early issues he read the stories 'blind', which indeed made his experiment purer still. However, the last three issues have, like the Fourth Estate anthology, carried the randomized names of the authors on the cover (on the back, rather than the front, though) (to be matched with stories in the subsequent issue a year later).

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Short Stories Will Do It for You

Short stories have triumphed again, this time in the Wales Book of the Year Award 2009, which has been won by Deborah Kay Davies for her debut collection Grace, Tamar and Laszlo the Beautiful (Parthian).

And here's the latest on Facebook from Salt director Chris Hamilton-Emery on the amazingly successful Just One Book campaign:
A month [and] we’ve had 1,400 orders and taken over £30K (two months’ cash): it’s been extraordinary, exhausting and exhilarating.
The ICA is now supporting the campaign, there's to be a new ad in the London Review of Books and Birminghan New Street Waterstone's is doing a Salt table display.

Makes one wonder if, in spite of the recession - or maybe because of it? - short stories (and poetry!) are turning the corner...

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Writers and Readers

Robert McCrum doesn't appear to agree with me: he says in today's Observer that novelists writing with a greater awareness of the market, as did their Victorian forbears, would only be a Good Thing. His argument seems unclear to me, however. Making a general accusation that contemporary literary novelists 'disdain readers', he names no one specifically, and refers only to a 'literary elite'. One might assume from his reference to a time 'when "story" was not a dirty word' that he has in mind here innovative writing or complex texts. In point of fact I can't disagree with his statement that a writer-reader relationship is essential, and I think it's the challenge, and indeed the duty of the innovative writer to find ways of preserving it. But McCrum seems to be implying that all such contemporary writing, and indeed all contemporary 'literary' or 'non-genre' writing generally fails to keep this contract, with his statement that 'if there is a genre where the old contract between writer and reader is still going strong it must be thrillers.' Inadvertent or not, there seems a real anti-literary sentiment here. And then again, he asks in evidence: 'How often have you come away from a literary festival with a sense of regret at the failure of the big name in the marquee to live up to your expectations?', a question which seems like a non sequiteur, revolving as it surely does around the issue of personality and performance and having little to do with the needs of the reading experience.

In a smaller column on the same page in the printed version of the paper, McCrum develops his theme of reader satisfaction by praising the Orange prize for invariably selecting winners that 'your average reader may actually want to read.' And says that this year the prize 'surpassed itself', and goes on to applaud this year's 'worthy winner', the surely highly literary Home by Marilynne Robinson, whose linked earlier novel Gilead was too literary, highbrow and arcane in its religious reference for many of my very literary friends.

But then one suspects that McCrum's twisted knickers are the result of a journalistic need to drum up controversy as our Sunday broadsheets abandon their serious literary agenda.

Saturday, June 06, 2009

From the Brink towards a Possible Future

Due to all the remarkable support for Salt's Just One Book, it is no longer a campaign to save Salt from immediate demise but has become a campaign to build a sustainable business. Here's Salt's latest announcement:

We’ve been busy campaigning over the last two weeks to save Salt. The business has faced some serious financial difficulties as the recession hit us hard. I’m pleased to say we’ve stabilised the business, but we still need to build our cash reserves to secure our future. We’d like to thank all our customers for supporting us; but more than that, we thought we’d offer everyone a summer treat:—


We’re now giving you a huge 33% off ALL books till the end of June. Use the coupon code G3SRT453 when in the checkout to benefit. Don't forget if you spend £30 or $30 you get free shipping too.
Please continue to spread the word, and spread news of this offer. Please don't let up. It's been extraordinary, but we're not out of danger yet. Every penny goes into developing Salt's books and services. We want to start a new children's list, and offer more resources to teachers and schools. We want to extend our publishing in new areas including our translations programme, we want to offer you more free magazines online. We want to help develop more support for debuts with the enhancement of our Crashaw and Scott prizes. We're planning audio books, ebooks and new videos for you. We only want to move forward, to develop and expand what we do and deliver great books in new ways to you and yours.

We need your support throughout June. We'll try and organise more readings and promotions with our authors. Virtual book tours. More launches. We'll work with bookstores to bring you short story and poety evenings. Stick with us throughout June and we can do something astonishing. That's the power of Just One Book — we want you to be a part of it. Follow us on Twitter look for #SaltBooks and #JustOneBook. Join our Facebook Group.

And have a giggle at the vid, too.

Oh, and one last special offer — Catherine Eisner’s magnificent crime novel, Sister Morphine for £7.50 plus P&P, simply enter coupon code EISNER in the UK checkout

Watch out for more special offers throughout June.

Crossposted with Elizabeth Baines.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Alice Munro and the Nature of Fiction

No one will be surprised to hear that I am thrilled that yet another short-story writer has won a major award, the wonderful Alice Munro being awarded the International Man Booker. On Sunday the Observer ran a profile, and two of the things she is quoted as saying struck me particularly.

Firstly, she says: "I never have a problem with finding material. I wait for it to turn up and it always turns up. It's dealing with the material I'm inundated with that poses the problem." Now maybe by this she meant that there is just too much material to cover or to choose from (that word 'inundated' is probably a big clue), but I wonder if she also means this: that it's not finding material that's the problem for writers, but deciding how to process it. In other words, it's not the subject matter that is important so much as the way it's dealt with, the insights you bring to it, the language and forms which it gives rise to in a particular writer's hands. This last is an important point to make, it seems to me. We are in an age when books marketing tends to focus on subject matter alone, while it is the treatment which makes for great writing. It is one way in which a market-led publishing industry can indeed end up suppressing good books and silencing good writers.

Secondly, Munro says: "I have all these disconnected realities in my own life and I see them in other people's lives. That was one of the problems - why I couldn't write novels, I never saw things hanging together any too well." This really stopped me short. It seems to me any great novel nowadays must do exactly that, encompass the disconnected realities which characterize life in the 21st century. Maybe Munro is simply saying that she never wanted to to do this - after all, her short stories taken together do it beautifully - but I wonder if she is subscribing to a view of novels as (inappropriately) holistic, one which again lends itself to marketing and again can lead thus to the suppression of innovation and subtlety.