Monday, September 19, 2005

An encounter with P D James

Also in today's blog

More on the Yahoo dilemma
ESWN : Another perspective
The value of forum membership

Later this morning I shall be flying to England and catching the Gatwick Express from the airport to central London for five days of meetings with publishing people and other writers. I'll also be doing a day of media training. If not too exhausted by unaccustomed wining and dining, I'll tell you about that experience next Sunday.

Nine years ago I was on the Gatwick Express when a famous crime writer settled herself in the opposite seat. As she didn't open a book, I introduced myself as a former member of the Crime Writers' Association. We spent the next 30 minutes chatting. Her manner was as warm and friendly as if we had known each other for years.

Recently, having a purge on the clutter in my work room, I came across a letter I wrote to her.
17 March 1996
Dear P D James
We met on the Gatwick Express on January 27 when you were en route to speak at a writers' workshop in Florida…

The letter was mainly about books I thought
P D James might find it useful to dip into before her speech at the Romantic Novelists' Association's annual awards luncheon in London on 24 April 1996.

Towards the end of the letter, I wrote
I was so very sorry to hear you had decided quietly to withdraw from the CWA. It seems to me quite intolerable that, when you have done so much to enhance the standing of crime fiction, a very small number of members with much less, if anything, to their credit, should have spoiled the CWA for you.

P D James's new book, The Lighthouse, comes out in hardback next month. In their 9 September issue, Publishing News had a full-page feature about her headed "The Lady James – Since 1962, P D James has kept crime writers around the world stimulated and entertained, and she's not laying down her pen yet. Barry Forshaw visited her"

The profile began
"The woman most people would regard as this country's premier crime writer, P D James, is perfectly ready to admit her age which is 85. As well she might: most of us would give our eye teeth to be as fit and alert as she is at an age when many have long been taking it easy."

The persecution of P D James by a handful of CWA members was explained in a piece she wrote for The Times newspaper on 27 September 1995. She and
H R F Keating had a radio discussion about morals and crime writing on the BBC World Service. She made the point that the detective story works best for her when the setting is orderly and the criminal intelligent and capable of moral choice.

While none of the millions of listeners to the broadcast misunderstood her remarks, a member of the CWA did. He thought she had said that ethical judgments were made only by the middle classes. His letter to Red Herrings, the Association's magazine, led to an exchange which was leaked to the press.

In a batch of yellowing clippings, I found a colour supplement article dated November 1995 headed - "The knives are out in the usually sedate world of English crime writing. P D James stands accused by her fellow scribes of serious crimes against the genre. John Cornwell hears her side of the story."
"Baroness P D James, Queen of Crime Fiction, like her counterpart on the other side of London's Hyde Park, now knows what it is like for a monarch to have a bad year."

However, like the Queen of England,
P D James
weathered the storm. As she said at the time, "I have some sympathy with the originator of all this brouhaha, who lives in an inner-city area. It was not he who sent copies of the magazine to the press. But the experience has been educative for me. For a writer who has been quietly getting on with her work for over 30 years with malice towards none, it is shocking to discover how much ill-will and envy of the successful bubbles beneath the surface. But perhaps it is ungenerous to grudge a little free publicity to writers obviously in need of it, and who may feel that their royalty cheque does not adequately reflect their brilliance. I know, too,from the letters and telephone calls which I have received that most CWA members are appalled and distressed at what has happened."

Somehow I missed P D James's autobiography, Time To Be In Earnest, based on a diary of she kept between her seventy-seventh and seventy-eighth birthdays. At her official website, which visitors with dial-up connections will find extremely slow-loading, there is an excerpt from her memoir. But this warning
Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

makes me nervous of sharing an excerpt with you. I was also unable to copy the jacket to show you. Some publishers, it seems, do not welcome publicity.

With any luck, I'll be able to buy the paperback edition in London to read on the journey home. For the chance of having another interesting encounter on the Gatwick Express is small.

More on the Yahoo dilemma

On Tuesday I filled in a form at the Yahoo site. Subject: Privacy Violations
I am extremely disturbed by the news that a Chinese journalist, Shi Tao, appears to have been imprisoned for ten years as a result of Yahoo helping China's state security police track him down. Has Yahoo made a statement about this situation?

The same day I received this reply -
"Hello, The issue in China that you refer to is specific to that country and will not affect customers who have registered with Yahoo! in other countries. Just like any other global company, Yahoo! must ensure that its local country sites operate within the laws and regulations of the country in which they are based.
By registering with or using the services of a local Yahoo! web site, a person has agreed to that local country site's respective Terms of Service and Privacy Policy, which comply with the local laws of the country in which that web site is based. Yahoo! customers who are not registered with or use a Yahoo! China web site are not subject to CN data disclosure laws. Links to the applicable Terms of Service and Privacy Policy can be found at the bottom of every Yahoo! website. Regards, Yahoo! Customer Care

Was this was a deliberate misunderstanding of my message? Or was I at fault for not making it clear that my concern was only for Mr Shi, not for Yahoo users in general? Who knows?

ESWN : Another perspective

The same day, at a site called EastSouthWestNorth, I read this -
"Before a campaign is launched by the blogosphere to castigate Yahoo!, I wish to ask you to consider certain ramifications. Yet another bone-headed boycott campaign is only going to destroy the credibility of any legitimate outrage. If I have to set up some background, this is analogous to the Internet censorship issue. Yes, there is true outrage about suppression of freedom of speech. But the answer is not to say that no censorship whatsoever shall be allowed at all. There are in fact legitimate reasons for some things to be censored (for example, child pornography is universally abhorred)...If you ignore those legitimate concerns, you will just look bone-headed. I don't know how to do it, but there has to be some form of selective censorship.
Now I shall argue the Shi Tao-Yahoo! case by analogy. You don't like the fact that Yahoo! provided the information to the Chinese security apparatus to arrest Shi Tao. But do you insist that Yahoo! must NEVER EVER provide any information whatsoever to the Chinese judiciary? I suggest that if you insist this to be the case, you lose -- both to the security apparatus (who will shut your company down) as well as in public opinion (who will think that you are a bunch of morally depraved air-heads).

If you're interested in this issue, do go to the site and read everything the owner of this blog has to say on the subject. Curious about his or her identity - though my guess is that the blog is written by a man - I emailed "Hello I should like to quote from and link to the excellent piece headed "Yahoo! and the case of Shi Tao" in my next blog. But although I've spent some time looking round your website, I can't find the author of the article. I'm not clear if it is intentionally anonymous. Can you clarify please."

The reply was "There is no need to refer to any author as such. This is a personal blog in which the author is interested in neither fame nor fortune. It suffices to refer to the ESWN blog."

The value of forum membership

Now of course I'm seething with curiosity about the identity of this blogger whose views are impressively sensible. ESWN has persuaded me that it would be pointless to stop using Yahoo. But the possibility of doing so made me think hard about how important membership of various writers' forums was to me. My conclusion : Not very.

While all the forums I belong to include some interesting people whose posts are as readable as their books, there is also a good deal of instantly-deletable wittering.

The hustlers

Some time next month I'm going to discuss a book, bought in 1992, whose author and publisher I haven't, so far, been able to track down on the web. Here is a quote from the foreword.

"…with this book I intend to celebrate and remember a trade, and the people in it, before the hustlers gained control. Bad, silly men have ravaged, with their buying, selling and merging - and for greed - the book trade that I joined. They have created a 'business' where there seems no difference between the way books are sold from the way of any other commodity. They have changed the trade that I came to love, for no good reason save that they thought books were the same as shoes. They are wrong."

It's not only publishing and bookselling which have been ravaged by the hustlers. Writing has been changed too. It used to be a vocation. Now, thanks to the proliferation of "creative writing" courses, critique groups, how-to books etc., writing is seen as something anyone can do, even those who haven't bothered to master spelling and punctuation.

Next week : As my return flight doesn't land until 5.15 p.m. next Saturday afternoon, it's unlikely I'll be up at my usual early hour on Sunday. So next week's blog - an account of the week in London - may not be up till late Sunday or even Monday.

If you wish to respond to any part of today's blog, you can hit the comment button or email medirect.