Friday, June 22, 2007

Writers who declined honours

Also in today's blog
Cold Comfort Farm

I was interested to read at The Independent yesterday that a number of writers had declined honours.

Alan Bennett declined a CBE for services to literature in 1988 and a knighthood eight years later. He also turned down an honorary doctorate from Oxford University in 1998, because it had accepted funds from Rupert Murdoch.

Roald Dahl refused an OBE in 1986. Evelyn Waugh declined a CBE in 1959.

Earlier this month I mentioned borrowing my public library's copy of Fathers and Sons, The Autobiography of a Family by Alexander Waugh [Headline 2004 £20].

A reader's comment about the book at Amazon UK reads –

"Evelyn Waugh is of course the hook that will draw readers into this exceptional 'Autobiography of a Family'. It would be a mistake, though, to assume that his overtowering genius dwarves the rest of the book. Beginning with Evelyn's grandfather 'The Brute' (who crushed a wasp on his wife's forehead with his whip, and made his son Arthur kiss a guncase in an effort to kindle a passion for shooting), and finishing with a letter from the author to his own son Bron, this book is totally engrossing. Alexander Waugh is the son of another Bron, the great and good, who will long be remembered for his journalism. Alexander shows in this book the same light touch, disguising deep research, that was displayed in his biography of God and 'Time'. He too is a talent to be reckoned with. This book is funny, erudite, and oddly moving - this may be an extraordinary family in terms of literary output (Arthur Waugh's descendants have published a staggering 180 books between them) but it is above all a family. Alexander Waugh shows a deep affection for his eccentric family, without ever appearing adulatory or incapable of observing faults as well as virtues."

It wasn't Evelyn Waugh who made me borrow the book. Far from sharing Nancy Mitford's liking for him, I thought EW a pain but admired his son Auberon Waugh. If there's a reference to Evelyn's rejected CBE in his grandson's book, I must have skipped that page, and I can't find anything about in the index.

Cold Comfort Farm

I've been meaning to read Stella Gibbons' famous novel since I was in my teens. Watching a video of the film version has reactivated that intention.

The Literary Encylopaedia has a good piece about SG, but it isn't possible to copy and paste an extract without going through a time-consuming rigmarole which most bloggers don't have time for, so I'll leave you to hit the link if you're interested.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Why buy new books?

Also in today's blog

Re-reading P D James

The other day I looked at our crowded bookshelves and thought, 'What is the point of buying new books when there are so many excellent books here that I haven't read for five, ten, fifteen years or longer?"

At the moment I'm re-reading Original Sin by P D James, a trade paperback published at £8.99 in 1995 by Faber & Faber.

The jacket shown here was borrowed from Amazon UK, but the copy I'm reading has a much more beautiful cover by Andrew Davidson with whom I have something in common. We both attended Norwich School of Art.

"He keeps alive a tradition which owes nothing to transitory fashions or the latest gadgetry, but which is based on the irreplaceable disciplines of objective drawing, a strong sense of design and the tactile pleasures of craftsmanship."

Do hit the link above to see some of the beautiful book jackets by Mr Davidson, including a recent commission by Paul Buckley of Penguin USA for the re-jacketing of the entire John Steinbeck series, two of them shown here.

For Original Sins, Andrew Davidson did a marvellous, rather creepy black and white drawing of Innocent House, the Thames-side Venetian-style palace owned by The Peverell Press, a fictitious London publishing house which will remind many readers of the John Murray imprint.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Publishing crazy and doomed thinks Cheetham

Also in today's blog
Susan Hill's creative writing course
Louise Doughty's "c w" course

Actually "Crazy and Doomed" is the heading on Anthony Cheetham's opinion column in this week's issue of The Bookseller. Whether he headed his piece with those words, who knows? But they sum up the content of the column.

For anyone reading this blog who doesn't know who Anthony Cheetham is, he was formerly CEO of Random Century and Orion, and now is Chairman of Quercus and The Friday Project.

He writes : "So what is the problem? Perhaps it has to do with the idea that we operate in a mass market environment; that it makes sense to sell books in the same way as socks or sausages or cheap flights. This is an illusion which persists, although we know that only a fraction of 1% of all books published could be truly classified as mass market. The industry's big players are relentlessly focused on seeking out that 1%, piling them high, and discounting them as deeply as they dare."

And later he writes : "But it's still a crazy system. Crazy because it's not an effective or efficient way of serving readers who are not a homogenous mass market, but a complex series of layered and overlapping communities with different tastes and interests. And because it's crazy, it seems unlikely to last."

Susan Hill's "Creative Writing" course

My heart sank on reading that, in September, publisher/author Susan Hill is adding yet another "creative writing" course to the long list of those already in existence.

She writes, "But more than anything, my qualification is probably a passion for fiction and a desire to nurture and encourage real talent. I don`t want there to be more novelists I want there to be more better novelists and to foster originality - not to create Creative Writing Course Clones."

Good writers are born, not made, and they don't need the kind of help offered by these ridiculous CW classes which serve only to increase the number of second- and third- rate writers.

Today, even on published writers' forums, there are people who express themselves clumsily, can't spell and have problems writing more than one-liners.

Of her year-long writing course at the Daily Telegraph, Louise Doughty wrote -

"It was Sunday lunchtime when my partner wandered into the kitchen and said, "Take a look at your message board." No fewer than 162 writers had wriggled their way through the labyrinthine processes involved to post their "The day after my eighth birthday…" sentences. To put this into perspective, under normal circumstances, a dozen letters to a columnist is considered a deluge.
By the end of the following day, we were in the high hundreds, and by the time I had to set the next exercise the following week, 1,808 people had responded and two bags of post had arrived. As I write this, there are 3,174 responses on the message board to that exercise alone.
After the initial flurry of interest, the responses, counting post and online messages, settled down to anything between 300 and 1,000 per week. A hard-core of contributors soon formed, mostly posting their responses online, where they met to discuss each other's work and, occasionally, fall out in spectacular fashion."

Does Susan Hill really want to clutter her life with a crowd of wannabes who, if they had the necessary gumption, would write a book and get it published, even in today's "crazy and doomed" publishing climate, under their own steam?

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Bookshop v supermarket customers

Also in today's blog

Bestseller charts groaning with misery-lit
Will publishers neglect the bookshop buyer?
Salman Rushdie's knighthood

Every Saturday morning I go to the Guardian newspaper site to read Joel Rickett's column, JR being Deputy Editor of The Bookseller. As well as the column for Guardian Review, he writes a for Screen international, and contributes regularly to BBC Radio 4 and 5 Live.

Last weekend, forgetting that he is away for much of this month, I found myself reading the following – So bad it's good

"The bestseller charts are groaning with real-life accounts of neglect, violence and sexual abuse. The worse your childhood, it seems, the more people want to read about it. Have we turned into a nation of ghouls? Esther Addley investigates the remarkable rise of 'misery lit'"

"Reproducing like bacteria, a new literary genre has wholly infected the bestseller charts. As much as 30% of the non-fiction paperback chart on any given week is made up of accounts of similarly grinding childhood misery."

"Tonkinson [Carole Tonkinson, the publisher of Harper Non-Fiction] says that detailed research does not yet exist, but Harper Non-Fiction estimates that about 85% of misery-lit readers are women, with four-fifths of all sales going through supermarkets. "Supermarkets as a sales channel are very, very key to the rise of this genre," she says. "Nobody really seems to have picked up on the importance of this point. They say only one in six people ever goes into a bookshop. Through the traditional channels you are only ever reaching a tiny proportion of the populace. "

"These books are reaching a different reader, by and large. It's an additional market and I think that is what is really interesting for publishers - that, actually, we're growing the readership. It's a really exciting expansion."

Will publishers neglect the bookshop buyer?

What is worrying is that publishers may become so keen to appeal to the supermarket customers that they start to neglect the one-in-six buyer who would rather not read misery-lit.

With newspapers full of gloom and doom, I long for books to cheer me up and make me laugh.

Salman Rushie's knighthood

Scottish writer Richard Havers posted the following on his blog on Saturday –

"The Queen's birthday honours list has some very strange ones this year. It adds weight to the argument that these awards are being devalued, particularly when compared with some of the ordinary people who get them.

Joe Corre the founder of risque lingerie label Agent Provocateur and his partner Serena Rees have been made MBEs. Hairdresser to the stars Nicky Clarke becomes an OBE as does the singer Joe Cocker. Perhaps most bizarre of all is Salman Rushdie getting a knighthood."

The first comment is – "He is getting his knighthood to show that standing up to islamic fundamentalists is 'in'. He's seen as a lone fighter against al queda/the Taliban/ Saddam/Iran before the rest of us cottoned on to this 'axis of evil'."

Rushdie's book Midnight's Children has been on my library list for too long. I must get around to reading it. I confess to having reservations about men who marry glamorous women young enough to be their daughters. Rushdie is 60. His fourth wife Padma Laksmi is 37, almost a quarter of a century age-gap.


Is publishing out of touch with reality? A leading publisher thinks it is.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Books about prime ministers' marriages

Also in today's blog

Shrewder than her ditsy manner suggested
Article in The Spectator
Mrs Blair's £895 bag

It was my husband who, long ago before we were married, sparked my interest in British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli.

At the time Mr Bookworm was serving in Combined Ops in Devon, spending his free time wildfowling and his evenings reading, while I was reporting for the Eastern Evening News in Norwich and longing for his next leave.

It was Disraeli the novelist, and his marriage to Mary Anne Evans, which interested me more than his political career.

"Before his entrance into parliament Disraeli was involved with several different women, most notably Lady Henrietta Sykes (the wife of Sir Francis Sykes, Bt), who served as the model for Henrietta Temple. His relationship with Henrietta would eventually cause him serious trouble beyond the usual problems associated with a torrid affair… As Lord Blake observed: "The true relationship between the three cannot be determined with certainty…there can be no doubt that the affair [figurative usage] damaged Disraeli and that it made its contribution, along with many other episodes, to the understandable aura of distrust which hung around his name for so many years."

Shrewder than her ditsy manner suggested

"Disraeli had thought Mary Anne silly when he first met her, but he came to understand that she was shrewder than her ditsy manner and non-sequiturs had led him to believe, and she was a great help to him in editing the books he wrote. He joked that he had married her for her money but would do it again for love, but the truth is that she was not really wealthy. She was some twelve years older than her husband, and he may not have known her true age, because she lied to him about it, but their romance continued until the day she died."

"Before and during his political career, Disraeli was well-known as a literary and social figure, although his novels are not generally regarded as belonging to the first rank of Victorian literature. He mainly wrote romances, of which Sybil and Vivian Grey are perhaps the best-known today. He was and is unusual among British Prime Ministers for having gained equal social and political renown."

A biography of another eminent Victorian politician, written by a politician of our day, was hardbacked by Weidenfeld & Nicolson at £25 on June 14 and I'm looking forward to reading the copy ordered by my public library.

This is how the book is described at Amazon UK.

Book Description
Life of one of the greatest British Prime Ministers - by an author who knows the scene from his years as a senior Minister in Margaret Thatcher's Cabinet.

Robert Peel, as much as any man in the nineteenth century, transformed Great Britain into a modern nation. He invented our police force, which became a model for the world. He steered through the Bill which allowed Catholics to sit in Parliament. He reorganised the criminal justice system. He put Britain back on the gold standard; he invented the Conservative Party which we know today. He sent his constituents at Tamworth the first modern election manifesto. He settled Canada's border with the United States. Above all he tackled poverty by repealing the Corn Laws. Thanks to Peel the most powerful trading nation chose free trade and opened the door for our globalised world of today. Peel was not all politics. He built two great houses, filled them with famous pictures and was devoted to a beautiful wife. Yet he was a stiff, not easy to know. 'Such a cold odd man' wrote Queen Victoria - who later became a keen admirer - and Disraeli attacked him for dishonesty. Many followers never forgave him for splitting his Party. But when in 1850 he was carried home after a fall from his horse crowds gathered outside, mainly of working people, to read the medical bulletins. When he died a few days later, factories closed, flags flew at half mast and thousands contributed small sums to memorials in his honour. He was the man who provided cheap bread and sacrificed his career for the welfare of ordinary people. Douglas Hurd, like Peel, was Home Secretary and argued for Peel's One Nation philosophy. He too lived through a time of conflict in the Conservative Party and has watched its defeat and rebirth. In this biography, with one eye on the present, he charts Peel's life and work through the dramas of nineteenth-century politics.

Article in The Spectator

Douglas Hurd's promo piece for his book, published in The Spectator earlier this month, is well worth reading.

Extracts –

"The balance between style and substance varies sharply with each Prime Minister. In a few weeks, we will see yet another swing of the pendulum. But never has the contrast been greater than in Queen Victoria’s reign.
Disraeli was the man for style — an exception rather than a model, for his combination of gifts could not be copied. The sallow, expressionless face, matched with a substantial wit and a novelist’s imagination, enabled him to destroy Peel and keep Gladstone at bay. His fame stays evergreen. Each Conservative leader sends a research assistant bustling to the dictionary or internet to find some shining phrase of Disraeli to decorate his or her own speeches."

"When Peel fell from his horse in 1850 and died in agony four days later, the political establishment was amazed at the outpouring of public grief. Crowds gathered outside his house, factories closed, bells tolled, pennies and sixpences poured in for memorial statues and reading rooms. This stiff awkward man, never a demagogue or even a democrat, had without really knowing it reached out to ordinary people. There had been no need for a revolution in Britain when thrones tottered across Europe in 1848. Peel had shown, at great cost to himself, that change could be achieved here without violence.
Disraeli, the phrasemaker, had written of Britain as two nations; it was Peel who kept them as one. The task has to be renewed in each generation."

Oh dear, I have more than doubled my intended limit of 500 words a day. But it's hard not to share things which interest one. Peel's marriage sounds as interesting as Disraeli's.

Re PMs' wives, I was appalled to see Mrs Blair using a bag said to have cost £895. Surely no sensible woman would spend so much on a bag?