Sunday, May 08, 2005

Transita and the Jane Austen industry

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What an exceptional stroke of luck, in my first week as a blogger, to encounter Michael Marking who develops computer software and is also an enthusiastic reader of books ranging from
George Orwell's 1984 to Frank Herbert's Dune. But I'll share my email exchanges with Michael a little later in this blog. First I want to discuss the topics in this week's heading.

You would think that the start up of an independent publishing imprint, particularly one specialising in a somewhat neglected field of fiction, would be widely welcomed - especially by writers.

But reactions to the new UK imprint,Transita, have been mixed and even hostile.

For example, in an interview in the Guardian newspaper, Patricia Duncker, author and professor of
literature and creative writing at the University of East Anglia, agreed that older women are often
presented in a less than flattering light in fiction by men, where they are portrayed as sex-crazed matrons or jealous murderous hags. Nevertheless, she was reported to have little time for Transita.

This is an extract: "An imprint aimed solely at middle-aged women is a waste of time, " she says. "That's what women's interest fiction is there to do: pulp fiction to feed your fantasies. There
are plenty of wicked books by women that should be celebrated. What about Alison Fell's
Tricks of the Light, which is about being middle-aged and as passionate as ever? The heroine of my next novel, Miss Elizabeth Webster, is 70, smart and aggressive. Bring back Miss Marple: the older
woman is often a detective. Experience, intelligence and cunning are strong elements in their characters".

Professor Sir Malcolm Bradbury

In the Swinging Sixties, when he was a young don at a newly-built university outside the ancient city of Norwich, I knew the late Professor Sir Malcolm Bradbury
who set up the creative writing school at UEA. How, you may be thinking, did a journalist and romance writer come to be friendly with someone who in later life would become one of the most distinguished members of the British literary fraterntiy/sorority?

The explanation is that we were both members of the grand-sounding Council of East Anglian Writers, an organisation set up by an odd assortment of seven writers living in Norfolk, to host literary dinners (later luncheons) in Norwich at a time when
the east of England was off the beaten track as far as publishers and their leading authors were concerned. East Anglian Writers changed that and brought all the famous authors of the day to the city.

Forty years on, many of them are dead/forgotten. But Lady Antonia Fraser is still going strong. I remember her, young and beautiful in a rose-coloured suede outfit, exchanging quips
across the banqueting room at the Royal Hotel, Norwich, with the Australian author Russell Braddon. He was trying to slip away unnoticed during her speech because he had a train to catch.

I could write a book about what went on behind the scenes at the EAW events. And what fun the committee meetings to set them up were, with Malcolm Bradbury always in cracking form. As Rose Tremain said, after his death in 2000, "He was such a clever, scholarly man who
was wonderful company. He adored parties, he was always the last to leave. I invited him to lunch once and he didn't leave until 7.30pm."

Cure for insomnia

So it was with Bradbury in mind, that I set off to find out more about Professor Duncker who sounded a rather less tolerant personality. However the impression given in the Guardian that she might be the dour type of don, unlike the amiable founder of UEA's creative writing school,
was corrected by seeing and hearing her at Meet The Author. I wondered why she was wearing a raincoat with the collar turned up in a TV studio.
But her friendly expression and a mellifluous voice made me feel that, in person, she might be as likeable and jolly as Bradbury was.

Apparently Professor D suffers from insomnia and her new book Seven Tales of Sex and Death is the result of watching horror movies screened from 1.15-2.15 a.m. I should have thought reading would be a better antidote than small hours TV. But I don't like
scary movies. Five minutes of a horror movie would keep me awake all night.

I'm reserving judgment about Transita until I have read some of their books which, later in the year, I hope to borrow from the Guille-Alles Public Library on the island of Guernsey. Too many disappointments with hyped-to-the-skies novels have made me wary of buying any books by
authors I haven't test-read. With non-fiction I still take chances and have rarely been disappointed. Emerson, of whom more later, said, "Never read any book that is not a year old."

Jumping on bandwagons

I can't remember when Post-it notes first appeared. But for a long time I've attached a Post-it to the back of the book I'm reading and used it to write comments which, if the book is mine, I then stick to one of the fly-leaves, or, if it's
borrowed, remove and stick in a notebook.

At the end of my previous blog, I mentioned reading Karen Joy Fowler's The Jane Austen Book Club. On the Post-it note, I have written

  • p 51 "... which would certainly make this point, as well as alert Grigg to the lay of the land."

  • p 78 Emerson

  • p 101 "She'd assumed from this beginning that Dean was a romantic sort of guy. Her mother saw him clearer."
  • p 140 "A motor-cycle coughed and spit its way down University Avenue."

One misuse of English is forgivable. But three suggests extraordinarily careless copy-editing and proof-reading.

The note about Emerson refers to the following quote -

I am at a loss to understand why people hold Miss Austen's novels at so high a rate, which seem to me vulgar in tone, sterile in artistic invention,
imprisoned in their wretched conventions of English society, without genius, wit, or knowledge of the world. Never was life so pinched and narrow...
All that interests in any character [is]: has he (or she) the money to marry with?...Suicide is more respectable. RALPH WALDO EMERSON

Emerson's nose

I've always admired Emerson, not least for his magnificent nose and especially for the "though he build his house in the woods" view. I hadn't come
across his opinion of Jane Austen before. But here is another quote -

"According to a recent report in The Sydney Morning Herald, Jane Austen is the third most written about woman ever! The Virgin Mary takes first place and she is followed by Joan of Arc. Considering that both those women had some hundreds of years advantage over Jane, and
had the vast power of the Catholic Church promoting them, Jane Austen’s ranking is remarkable. She is also the only one of the three who gained her place solely through her own efforts."

Martin Amis seems to have been the first person to refer to "the Jane Austen industry". It's only recently that I've realised what a massive bandwagon this is. Also at Meet The Author, I found Lauren Henderson talking
about her book Jane Austen's Guide to Dating. According to Henderson, a Brit living in the US, the dating rules there are arcane, complicated and even psychotic. But her guide is a remedy for that situation.

The JA industry now includes titles such as

  • Tea With Jane Austen

  • Fitzwilliam Darcy, Gentleman: Duty And Desire

  • Pride and Prescience: Or, A Truth Universally Acknowledged

  • The Jane Austen Cookbook

  • Mr. Darcy Takes a Wife: Pride and Prejudice Continues

and many more.

Meeting Michael Marking

If you read last Sunday's blog, you may remember that I wrote about visiting the site of the Bionic Buffalo Corporation where I found a particularly attractive presentation of the story behind John O'Hara's title Appointment in Samarra and a quote from
Colin Powell's autobiography. [Hyperlinks to all three in last week's blog].

I also mentioned needing permission to quote an interesting email from someone at the Bionic Buffalo Corporation. The email was written by Michael Marking and since last Sunday we have had some more exchanges about books.

First, in response to my enquiry about the source of the painting of the horse and fallen soldier, Michael replied - "We don't know. The image came from a collection of clip art, most of which apparently were scanned from
19th century books, woodcuts, prints, and other works. There were no copyrights or attributions with the collection. Presumably, the intellectual property rights have been long since abandoned by their owners and creators.
If we knew ourselves, we would give credit or at least some information.We also use other images from the collection, and have wondered about their provenance. At this time, the CDs and documentation for the collection are in
storage, so I cannot now give you much more information. The next time the clip art CDs come out of storage, I will see what I can learn about that image. (Perhaps there are clues we missed before.) I will let you know what I find."

Unexpected literary flavour

Anne : "Your site has a literary flavour which is unexpected in view of the nature of your business. Is there a reason for this?"

Michael : "The name "Bionic Buffalo" is a reminder about our philosophy. The "Bionic" part signifies that we are natural, living beings, but that we are assisted by electronics. The "Buffalo" part comes from something
I read when I was a child. I learned that the plains Indians, especially the Kota people (Lakota, Dakota, and Nakota, commonly called "Sioux" by white people) would use all of the parts of the buffalo that they killed. The skins would make clothing and shelter, the bones would
make tools, the meat would be eaten, even the sinews would be used as thread. No part would be discarded or abandoned. Later, I learned that some part is always offered in thanks to the Great Spirit, but that is a sacrifice, not an abandonment."

Buffalo hunters often vandals and thieves

Michael continued: "Our internet domain name, is taken from "tatanka", the Kota word for "buffalo". When white "buffalo hunters" came along, they would slaughter buffalo by the thousands, discarding all of the pieces but a few which were used as trophies,
or maybe a few parts which could be sold for money. Sometimes, entire herds were killed only for their tongues. Although sometimes treated as heroes, white buffalo hunters often were merely vandals and thieves.

Later, when naming the company, the "Buffalo" part of the name was to be a reminder that the company ought to account for all of the process of the business, and not merely for the garnering of money. Capitalism has as its sole goal the accumulation
of wealth. Like the white buffalo hunters of the 19th century, capitalism in its single minded pursuit of capital abandons and wastes all that it does not want: lives; health; families; friendship; the air, water, and earth; beauty; truth; art; hope and inspiration.
The only parts which are saved are those which might yield a good return on investment or which might deprive the competition of an opportunity. When attention is paid to anything else, it is almost invariably because such attention is justified on the grounds
that it is "good for business" or "good public relations".

We want to remember the buffalo, and not to become as the white buffalo hunters who discarded much of what they killed. Commerce can be good, to be sure, but it is human beings who make and trade, not corporations. Money is the distillation of
human labour, pain, and life: to reduce life only to a set of numbers on a ledger is to steal and to kill. To be wholly human requires service not only to physical needs, but also service to the spirit. So, yes, we remember literature, music, and art. If we don't, we are not
whole, we are not human. "

Discovering Dune

Having noticed that my Spanish ISP's name is Arrakis, Michael then asked if this choice reflected my reading tastes, adding, "Dune has long been one of our favourites."

To which I replied: "I've just been checking out Dune and Frank Herbert, of whom I'm embarrassed to admit I had never heard before. But then I haven't read The Lord of the Rings either, despite being married
to a Tolkien enthusiast. Will try Dune at first opportunity."

My researches revealed that Dune is considered a masterpiece. It was the first novel to win the Nebula Award (1965), and it shared the Hugo Award in the following year (1966). "Not only are the plots and characters intricate, but also
the political, financial, religions, lifestyles, military, and honor structures are created."

In reply to my admission of ignorance, Michael wrote: "It was the first book I remember that I couldn't put down. I read through the night, and completed it almost in one sitting, over two days. The movie was good, too. It is a tiny subset of the book, but is more
or less faithful as far as it goes. There would be no way to condense that book into a movie without omitting a great deal. As a movie, it's very good, but it is no substitute for the book. All the sequels (Dune Messiah, Children of Dune, and the rest) are
downhill from Dune. I read a few then quit. The first book was a hard act to follow.

He also had some interesting things to day on the subject of newspapers, journalists and blogs. But I shall save them for another time, as this blog is getting rather long.

My first encounter with garlic

The first time I went to Paris, I was travelling on a crowded Metro train when two gendarmes joined the already tight squeeze of passengers in the space by the doors. They had the cheerful appearance of Frenchmen who have just had an excellent lunch and
they smelled strongly of garlic. Reeked of garlic would not be putting it too strongly.

In those days garlic was not much used in English cooking and the smell of it on other people's breath was regarded as unpleasant. Nowadays someone unused to garlic would probably recoil if standing next to me in a crowded train. Pickled
garlic cloves, bought from the Tuesday market in the next village up the valley, make an excellent addition to salads. For some reason they don't have the same effect on people's breath as raw garlic, added to cooked dishes, does.

A book I can't wait to read is Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise by Ruth Reichl.

"This delicious new volume of Ruth Reichl's acclaimed memoirs recounts her "adventures in deception," as she goes undercover in the world's finest restaurants. Reichl knows that "to be a good restaurant critic, you have to be anonymous," but when she signs up
to be the most important restaurant critic in the country, at the New York Times, her picture is posted in every four-star, low-star, and no-star kitchen in town."

Details of this book were in the May 4th email newsletter compiled by two guys called Bolton and Dave at
The newsletter is well worth signing up for.

I'm extremely selective about newsletters. In a future blog I'll share the names of all those I consider exceptionally good, both the bookish ones and the techie ones. That's all for this week. See you next Sunday, I hope.

© Anne Weale 2005