Sunday, March 25, 2012

The literary establishment

Last week in the Guardian Geoff Dyer questioned the whole concept of the 'literary establishment'. He makes some good points, but, in view of MsLexia's recent experiment to find undiscovered talent and the shocking results (which I wrote about here), as I read Dyer's piece a thought was lurking in my mind which is best expressed by a response from Paul Bilic in this week's Review Letters, who says:
What he fails to address, however, is that to huge majority of non-metropolitan types who are not journalists or celebrities it is nigh on impossible to get a manuscript read by an agent, let alone a publisher. For these people, the notion of an establishment still means something, and, I would contend, more so now than ever before.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Not yet kindled...

Joanna Trollope, chair of this year's Orange Prize, has said that she found reading all the books on her Kindle or iPad a most unsatisfactory experience:
The machines homogenised everything. No matter how striking the prose, the little grey screen subdued everything to sameness... The sheer heft of a book in your hand ... is not only pleasurable but informative. You can tell a great deal just by the look and the feel. (Guardian - can't find a link, I'm afraid)
I've so often said that it's the words that matter, not the trappings with which they're conveyed, but now I'm thinking I agree with Trollope about the Kindle. I got mine for Christmas but, although I've done a fair bit of reading to say that I've also been writing hard, I can't say I've used it much.

I must say I had a bad experience to begin with: I downloaded a PDF I needed for research, and it was hopeless: when the screen showed the whole page, the print was impossibly tiny, and zooming in gave me a frustrating section of a page only, whereas if there was one thing I needed to do with this document, which was the report of a tribunal, it was scan whole pages and skip. I ended up printing out the whole hundred A4 pages, which gave me the chance physically to divide it all up, and put together the sections I really needed, and mark bits with different coloured highlighters according to order of importance. Well, that was a PDF, but then when I came to download a novel next, I discovered that that ability to skip back and forth is crucial to my reading of novels, and it wasn't so easy on a Kindle. Get to a point in a novel which refers you back to an earlier moment which you then want to glance at again quickly, and with a paper book you can usually do it in an instant by remembering how far the book was physically open at the time. Try that on a Kindle, and you're pressing one button after another, and your reading experience is suspended and clotted... And I know some people think it's sacrilege, but I like to scribble copious notes in the margins at top speed...

Maybe I'm just not used to it yet, and maybe I'd be thinking they weren't problems by now if most books since Christmas hadn't however presented themselves to me in print form. I've been sent several print novels for review and comment (and offered a sackful more). I read two books for my reading group, but I had both on my shelves already - and only one of them was available on Kindle in any case. I've read a beautifully produced new hardback - just the opposite of an ebook, with its carefully appropriate artwork, and its creamy pages with good black print so easy on the eye - and I've since been sent the paperback edition. I've been working on proposals for drama adaptations of novels: only one of those books was available on Kindle, and I already had a copy of its print edition. As for those I didn't have, I was back in that old sweet-smelling world of the second-hand bookstore, and the joy of the cover artwork of earlier eras.

On the whole, I can say that the Kindle simply hasn't yet entered my life. However, as Joanna Trollope concedes, 'A Kindle is a brilliant tool, a clever adjunct to reading on the move.' I'm going away at Easter, and I've downloaded a novel ready. We'll see...

Thursday, March 08, 2012

Hidden treasure

Mslexia dropped through my letterbox this morning. Always good for the latest industry trends and issues of interest to writers, this morning it held a special treat for me: the news that my friend Rosie Garland (who once thrilled audiences as Rosie Lugosi the Vampire Queen poet) has won the Mslexia competition for an undiscovered novel, with her novel The Beast in all her Loveliness. Not only that - another of her novels is on the 9-strong shortlist! The Beast... garners huge praise from judges Jenni Murray, who compares her to Angela Carter, and Sarah Waters, women who know their stuff when it comes to good writing, and fellow judge agent Clare Alexander says it has 'so much energy and exuberance, it glued me to the page.'

There's no way, at this rate, that Rosie is not now proved to be the fine and exciting writer I have always known her to be, yet in the 'How I Did It' section she describes the struggles she has encountered in a commercialised publishing industry. Such struggles are all too common now for literary writers who are however hardly free to air them before achieving this kind of success, and so the difficulties lie hidden. Mslexia, however, hearing 'rumours from agents that the market for fiction was in freefall, publishing deals were harder to come by, advances were decimated, and established authors were being tossed on the scrap heap' and noting that 'it's a sad fact that many agencies employ junior staff to sift submissions' and that in such a situation success depends on contacts, launched their competition to test how much good debut literary fiction has been left lying by the wayside. Their results appear to be spectacular: they say they were 'seriously impressed by the standard of the writing on show'. To find out why so much good writing was lying hidden they contacted the hundred (!) longlisted authors. It wasn't that the writers weren't sending their stuff out; far from it, but only 15% had managed to get an agent. Amongst the rest Mslexia encountered a tale of 'near misses', agents recognising the merit of manuscripts, even working for long periods with the authors on manuscripts, but ultimately feeling unable to sell them. Rosie herself writes of an agent who sent her winning book out only once, leaving it languishing after a single rejection before finally confessing to her that 'the market was so dire at the moment, he had been told by the agency to concentrate on non-fiction.'

God help us, is all I can say, and I'm not just talking about us writers but our so-called civilisation.

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

Faber Academy Online

Last year this blog hosted a most lively Faber Academy discussion about the value of creative writing and the teaching of it as a subject. One point which is often raised about creative writing courses is that they are available only to those who can afford to take time out from work to attend, and, for those at a distance, the expense of travel and accommodation. Many will therefore find welcome the news I've just received from Faber Academy's Ian Ellard of the launch of Faber Academy Online, 'a brand-new web-based creative writing platform powered by Moodle 2', creative writing courses in which 'chatrooms, topic forums and specially commissioned video content from Faber editors will be combined with one-to-one Skype feedback and podcasts to create a unique learning experience.' The whole thing kicks off with a 28-week online course in novel-writing, based on their existing face-to-face course, beginning April 11th and taught by novelist Kris Kenway.
Application deadline midday 28th March. Details here.

Crossposted to Elizabeth Baines