Friday, May 25, 2007

Scribblers For Bread

In 1989 Hodder & Stoughton published George Greenfield's Scribblers For Bread which I bought in hardback for £15.00 and last night started re-reading.

Who was Greenfield? He spent six years in publishing after WW2 and then 35 years as a literary agent before retiring in 1986 as MD of John Farquharson Ltd.

The aim of his book was to show how, since 1945, the conditions in which novels were written and published had changed and how those conditions, and the outlets and markets for fiction, had influenced the professional novelist's aims and achievements.

In the Introduction he writes –

"In the forty years to the end of 1987, discounting reprints, new editions and translations, 90,859 novels were published in the United Kingdom. If the average thickness were an inch and the titles were stacked one on top of the other, the column would rise to a height of over 7,500 feet. But in case the reader might think that the great expansion of post-war fiction writing occurred in the early days and has been dwindling ever since, the facts are surprising. In the period 1946-50, 10,345 novels were published; in 1983-87, 14,762 novels appeared, an increase of nearly 43 per cent."

What would Greenfield make of the situation today? At the end of his book there's a chapter called 'Once upon a future time'. I've forgotten his conclusions and look forward to reading them again. More about Scribblers later.

Links to other blogs

As you may or may not have noticed, in the right-hand sidebar I've added three links to other people's blogs to the original three.

Many bloggers have long lists of links but I prefer to link only to blogs I visit regularly.

I wonder if anyone else has had difficulty posting comments to Susan Hill's blog?

Language so much worse today?

Visiting Arts & Letters Daily this morning [link in sidebar] I read an interesting piece in City Journal by John Leo in which he writes –

"At the beginning of his 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell made clear that he thought the language had become disheveled and decadent. Intending shock, Orwell offered five examples of subliterate prose by known writers. But these selections don’t look as ghastly to us as they did to Orwell, because language is so much worse today. Consider some recent usages."

John Leo also writes - "Kurt Vonnegut has said that a writer’s natural style will almost always be drawn from the speech he heard as a child. Vonnegut grew up in Indiana, where, he said, “common speech sounds like a band saw cutting galvanized tin.” He wrote: “I myself find I trust my own writing most and other people seem to trust it most, when I sound most like a person from Indianapolis, which is what I am.” "

I suppose this might be true for people who had settled backgrounds as children. I doubt if it's true for those with pillar-to-post childhoods like mine.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Misery memoirs? No thanks!

According to this week's The Bookseller, 17,856 copies of of Stuart Howarth's Please, Daddy, No were bought in the week ending 12 May, bringing this Harper Element title from No 15 on the Top 50 list to No 7.

Who are the readers who want to wallow in an account of a wretchedly unhappy childhood?

People who've have the same experience themselves?

Surely, if you've had a rotten upbringing, the thing to do is to get out from under ASAP and put it behind you?

At the Spiked Review of Books I found an article headed "An emotional striptease" by Frank Furedi, [see photo] Professor of Sociology at the University of Kent, and author of Politics of Fear, Where Have All the Intellectuals Gone?, Therapy Culture, Paranoid Parenting and Culture of Fear.

"Ignore those publishers who claim ‘misery memoirs’ are popular because they tell life-affirming stories of survival. In truth, these books are a voyeur’s wet dream."

Furedi goes on, "These days, if you pop in to your local bookshop you are far more likely to pick up yet another autobiography revealing the sordid details of a despondent childhood than to leaf through an uplifting story of human endeavour. Welcome to the ever-expanding misery memoir market. The titles weighing down the shelves of bookshops throughout Britain, and on the other side of the Atlantic too, tell their own story. Behind Closed Doors, Don’t Ever Tell, God’s Call Girl, A Child Called It, Don’t Tell Mummy, Sickened - they all point to the dark and menacing secrets of a childhood dominated by toxic parents and other assorted paedophiles. This is human degradation on display."

Later he asks, "So, why is the market in misery books booming? Over the past three decades, traditional views of childhood, the family and private life have been constantly challenged. As a social scientist I am continually amazed to find that there are hardly any positive accounts of family life in academic literature these days. Instead the family is vilified as a site of child abuse and domestic violence. Rather than treating such dreadful episodes as tragic but thankfully rare occurrences, numerous ‘experts’ insist that they are the norm. One such expert has argued that the American home is ‘more violent than any other single institution’. "

"Family life, once idealised as a haven from a heartless world, is now widely depicted as a vile and abusive institution. Child protection professionals and media commentators seem to issue endless warnings about the dangers children face from their parents. This normalisation of child abuse has given rise to the idea that all those who live in families – which is almost everyone – is ‘at risk’. In academic literature on family violence, it is frequently argued that every child is potentially at risk of harm and every man is a latent wife-beater."

Towards the end of his article, Furedi writes, "As a social scientist, I am uncomfortable with the trend for intelligent adults to present themselves as debased victims. And as a father of an 11-year-old boy, I am deeply disturbed by the ideas that he is already picking up about childhood and family life. Like his friends, he knows too much about child abuse and seems to assume that family instability and even violence are the norm. Cruelty to children is no longer confined to dramatic fairytales; instead it is a daily theme in today’s ‘Real Life’ stories. Children growing up in our misery-saturated era are encouraged to interpret their lives through the prism of abuse and failure. By the time they are adults, many of them, too, will have learned to blame their shortcomings and problems on the bad stuff that happened to them in childhood.
This is where we can see the real damage caused by misery memoirs. In line with today’s prevailing cultural outlook, people are more and more expected to blame their personal failings on their parents or siblings."

Do read the whole article.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Rachel Carson's Silent Spring

Today a party is being held at Oxford to mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of Rachel Carson, author of Silent Spring.

"Disturbed by the profligate use of synthetic chemical pesticides after World War II, Carson reluctantly changed her focus in order to warn the public about the long term effects of misusing pesticides. In Silent Spring (1962) she challenged the practices of agricultural scientists and the government, and called for a change in the way humankind viewed the natural world."

"Carson was attacked by the chemical industry and some in government as an alarmist, but courageously spoke out to remind us that we are a vulnerable part of the natural world subject to the same damage as the rest of the ecosystem. Testifying before Congress in 1963, Carson called for new policies to protect human health and the environment. Rachel Carson died in 1964 after a long battle against breast cancer. Her witness for the beauty and integrity of life continues to inspire new generations to protect the living world and all its creatures."

Yesterday I came across a clipping from Charles Clover's Earthlog column in the Daily Telegraph in which he wrote, "Liz Rothschild, with whom I attended tutorials on English literature, has written a play celebrating the aspects of Carson's life that were largely secret at the time – she never disclosed to the chemical companies on whom she declared war in the 1950s that she was dying of cancer."

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Intuition, not market research, the crucial factor

I'm deep in the most enthralling book I've read in several years.

Swimming Against The Stream [sub-titled Creating Your Business and Making Your Life] by Tim Waterstone, hb Macmillan 2006, pb Pan Books.

Although the paperback was published on 19 Jan 2007, I'm the first person to borrow it from Guernsey's Guille-Alles Public Library.

Maybe it wasn't displayed on the face-forward shelves at the top of the staircase. Had it been, I'm sure it would have been grabbed long before now. The island is awash with ambitious young businessmen and women. Though perhaps they don't use the library in their lunch breaks.

On page 5
Tim Waterstone
writes – "My own logic behind Waterstone's, when, with just £6,000 of my own left in my pocket, I founded the business in 1982, lay in the fact that as a devoted reader I found it inexplicable that a city as great and culturally diverse as London had within it barely a single stockholding literary bookshop, and certainly not one that was open past noon on Saturdays, let alone in the weekday evenings. New York had great bookshops open at every hour, and Paris too. Rome also. San Francisco. Boston. All the civilised world over. So why not London?"

He goes on, "It was intuition on my part, and intuition only. What else could it be? The business schools teach that the four hallmarks of good new business launches are these: sound market research, skilful planning, a strong customer focus and a dilegent execution performed in line with the plan. Well, I'll tell you what I think. It is difficult to argue with an orthodoxy of that sort at first glance – and yet a reliance on these classic maxims is not in the least how an entrepreneur actually operates. It certainly was not how I was thinking at that moment. And the fact that I was not gave me one of my points of advantage against the overwhelming market leader of the time, WHSmith."

"It was always so. The big corporations' simple, blind, safety-first reliance on these classic maxims is invariably a severe mistake. It disadvantages them against the entrepreneur. For what is the weakest link in it all. Market research. It always is...It is not market research but intuition that is crucial if a corporation is to enjoy continued growth in the future, find new markets, and exploit them. Intuition, and nothing else, will have to find those markets. But big corporations do not do intuition. What they do is safety. It is the reverse of entrepreneurs, who are all intuition and have contempt for safety…So, at Waterstone's we used not one jot of market research in deciding our action plan. We just did it."

This is good advice for writers as well as entrepreneurs. Today many authors and would-be authors are writing to a market defined by editors rather than following their own instincts. Sometimes the editors are influenced by the reactions of panels of readers.

Within the limits of the genre they're aiming at – crime, romance, adventure etc. – writers should write what they long to write, not what other people tell them will sell.

Boyd Tonkin review

Reviewing the hardback in The Independent Boyd Tonkin wrote -

"Tim Waterstone himself sprinkles plenty of romantic anecdotes about the early days of his chain through his handbook for entrepreneurs, Swimming Against The Stream (Macmillan, £16.99). He offers bold advice about trusting to intuition, and spurning market research: "Waterstone's was aimed at me." He delivers splendid broadsides against "the current state of capitalism". Yet the exiled bookstore Bonaparte says little about the current state of his creation.

The unromantic truth is that British chain bookselling - with Waterstone's as its battered figurehead - now looks suspiciously like a murder victim who has decided to speed up his demise by committing suicide. The pincer movement executed by the likes of Asda and Amazon has made the cut-throat discounting of a few sure-fire bestsellers the norm - with all of its risks to future diversity. Far from resisting this assault, the retail chains - and the corporate publishers whom they now bully - have opted to act as their own Sweeney Todds. At Christmas, stores worked frantically to teach shoppers that the true value of a much-publicised new book with a cover price of £18 or £20 is, let's say, £6.99. It amounts to voluntary death by a thousand cuts."

Re comment button

This seems to have disappeared. Only temporarily, I hope.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Napoleon's penis, Shelley's heart

Also in today's blog
Misuse of blog comments
Dot com address theft
Helpful anonymous comment

An interesting article [link from Arts & Letters Daily] about these famous owners' organs here.

It was written by Judith Pascoe, a professor of English at the University of Iowa and the author of "The Hummingbird Cabinet: A Rare and Curious History of Romantic Collectors."

She tells us that the penis had "supposedly had been severed by a priest who administered last rites to Napoleon and overstepped clerical boundaries".

I was more interested to read : "After Napoleon's capture at Waterloo, his possessions toured England. His carriage, filled with enticing contents like a gold tongue scraper, a flesh brush, "Cashimeer small-clothes" and a chocolate pot, drew crowds and inspired the poet Byron to covet a replica. When Napoleon died, the trees that lined his grave site at St. Helena were slivered into souvenirs."

Professor Pascoe goes on, "If, as Freud suggested, the collector is a sexually maladjusted misanthrope, then the emperor's phallus is a collector's object nonpareil, the epitome of male potency and dominance. The ranks of Napoleon enthusiasts, it should be noted, include many alpha males: Bill Gates, Newt Gingrich, Stanley Kubrick, Winston Churchill, Augusto Pinochet. Nevertheless, the Freudian paradigm has never accounted for women collectors, nor does it explain the appeal of collections for artists like Lisa Milroy, whose paintings of cabinet handles or shoes, arrayed in series, animate these common objects."

I went in search of Lisa Milroy who was born in Vancouver but lives and works in London. Not sure what to make of her painting 'Handles'.

Misuse of blog comments

On Thursday, February 15, 2007 I wrote a blog headed Flower Confidential. By chance, yesterday, I saw that it had attracted 10 comments which I hadn't read. They turned out to be all advertisements for commercial sites.

On Monday, October 03, 2005, Grumpy Old Bookman wrote the following about Comment Spam.

"You will probably have noticed that this blog offers the chance to make a comment on what the blogger has written. Some people read these comments, some don't. And some of you, of course, go to the trouble of writing a comment.

Well, it seems to be an unfortunate fact of life that any blog which attracts even a modest number of readers will also attract the attention of people who put out what is known as 'comment spam'. That is to say, the spammers make a comment (of sorts) and then add a link to some other site which they are being paid to plug.

Much of this comment spam is done by machine, and until yesterday it wasn't a problem. There was only the occasional fake comment, which I deleted by hand. However, yesterday there were 37 fake comments, and this morning there are 384."

I hope Bookworm is not about to become a target for this form of spam.

Dot com address theft

If so, it won't be this year's first unpleasant online experience. In 1999, I signed up with a US domain name, email and website hosting service, thinking it wouldn't be long before I launched a website.

All went well for seven years, although the website didn't materialise. [It went through a lot of re-designs and I hope is nearly right.] Then the email forwarding to began to have problems. At the end of 2006 I decided to cancel the contract.

Foolishly, as it turned out, I didn't sign on with another host but switched to my Yahoo email address. Then - shock, horror - I discovered my dot com address was being used by a range of commercial firms.

On March 31 I received the following alert.

"Google Web Alert for: "Anne Weale"
anne weale homes for sale at
used cars car accessories cellular cell phone deals download"

The same day I emailed to the legal department at Whois. No reply. Maybe the next step is to ask the Society of Authors if any other members have had to deal with this problem.

Helpful anonymous comment

Some kind person who prefers to be anonymous left a link to "The Edinburgh Sir Walter Scott Club"

I went to look and at the About Us page, read the following -

"The Edinburgh Sir Walter Scott Club has been in existence for over 110 years, having celebrated its centenary in 1994. It has a membership of over 350, most of whom live in or around Edinburgh and Glasgow, but there is a considerable number from other parts of Scotland, and also from England and overseas.

The object of the Club is to foster the name of Sir Walter Scott through meetings, lectures, publications and excursions and to advance the education of the public concerning his life and works.

The Club is the senior and most active of its kind and has numbered among its Presidents distinguished statesmen, novelists, historians and men of letters, including Stanley Baldwin, John Buchan, James Bridie, Alec Douglas-Home, Harold Macmillan, David Daiches, and more recently, Allan Massie, Edwin Morgan, Dorothy Dunnett, Paul Scott, Magnus Magnusson, Tom Fleming and James Robertson. In its centenary year we were honoured to have as President of the Club the Lord Chancellor, Lord Mackay of Clashfern.

Our 2007/8 President is A.N.Wilson."

I haven't read any of Sir Walter's books for years and now feel inspired to re-read him.