Friday, 3 October 2014


There are times when you wouldn’t want to be known as a collaborator: you could get strung up from a lamp post. Sleeping with the enemy carries risks: think of the mess that undercover police operatives can get into when infiltrating activist groups, or of Ang Lee’s film Lust, Caution.

Even in literature, the transgression of boundaries that collaboration involves – the notion of the ‘individual author’ becoming unstable – makes critics uneasy. But it happens: Pound’s involvement in Eliot’s Waste Land was crucial; Conrad and Ford collaborated on three novels, Stevenson collaborated on plays with W. E. Henley and on fiction with Lloyd Osbourne. In contemporary poetry, the movement from page to stage has prompted new collaborative work (such as The Debris Field, ‘devised, written and performed by Simon Barraclough, Isobel Dixon and Chris McCabe’). And on the page too, I think collaborations are becoming more frequent. (Writing is – or can be if you want it to be – so much more a social activity than it was pre-internet.) An example of an extreme form of collaboration between Elizabeth Mikesch and May-Lan Tan – in which the writers ‘vandalise each other’s sentences until it’s no longer clear who has written what’, even to themselves – is here, in The Quietus.

The first issue of the Sonofabook magazine will contain work by two pairs of collaborators.

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Goldsmiths Prize shortlist: stickers!

For a publisher the size of CBe, that Will Eaves’s The Absent Therapist is on the Goldsmiths Prize shortlist, announced today, is BIG. Even if it doesn’t send sales rocketing, even if it may mean nothing financially. (Ken Edwards of Reality Street may have felt similar when Philip Terry’s Tapestry was shortlisted last year.)

Last year’s shortlist was almost universally (well, in the little universe I inhabit: a universe that was tired, tired, tired of the Booker) applauded. That the eventual and deserved winner was Eimear McBride’s A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing – a novel that had spent a decade being turned down by every major publisher in the land; a novel that did what it had to, irrespective of the rules of the game, and went on to win a clutch of other prizes and is now garnering reviews-to-kill-for in the US – confirmed the Goldsmiths as necessary. The timing was immaculate: book and prize, in its inaugural year, seemed made for each other.

This year the first-day responses to the Goldsmiths shortlist have been more subdued. The overlap between certain books on the Goldsmiths and the Booker lists (long, short, it’s not worth checking, it’s not important) was noted. One blogger has asked for a clearer definition of terms: Booker ‘the best novel’, Goldsmiths ‘to reward fiction that breaks the mould or opens up new possibilities for the novel form’. ‘Best’ is huh, is meaningless. ‘Breaks the mould’, you can see what they’re getting at, even if not exactly, which is the whole point. Prizes, definitions. The books come first, and then a little catching up (a little scurrying around, a little re-alignment) of how to notice them.

Yesterday night, the Forward Prizes for poetry were awarded; poetry is another camp, in which one of my feet is planted, and the Forward things are top (or go head-to-head with the TS Eliot, slugging it out year on year) in that camp, and I think they made good choices (Kei Miller, Liz Berry). I say I think because I haven’t actually read either of the books. I say good choices because of the relief of knowing that it’s not John Burnside, Sharon Olds, Simon Armitage, Don Paterson, Robin Robertson, again.

Which is deeply unfair, because those named names are excellent poets. (Not that I’d guarantee to publish them, if they were reduced to coming my way: there’s the feeling, not just mine, that I’ve read them already.) (Same goes for a number of submissions that ping in the in-box: wonderful writing, but in a mode I already know.)

There’s a demographic problem (people living longer), and literary careers going on and on while the next and then the next generation come to the party, and mainstream publishers having tight little lists, and the pressure building and ground opening up for the smaller publishers, not to mention online, and the ways in which people write also opening up, and one of the most interesting things about the Goldsmiths prize is the expectations put upon it.

Meanwhile, you can buy Will Eaves’s The Absent Therapist here and I’ll post it tomorrow, free delivery in UK. (I collected a new print run at 7 a.m. yesterday from the printer, stickered them and then lugged boxes over to the warehouse. I can’t think that there’s ever been a more interesting time to be publishing.)

Monday, 29 September 2014

Free advertising for independent bookshops

When I collected the first four CBe titles from the printer back in the autumn of 2007 I had no distributor, no trade representation, no mailing list, and the authors were all unknowns. I put sample copies in a bag and trekked around some of the independent bookshops in London. One bookseller read one of the books overnight and phoned next day with an order for 40 copies. Crockatt & Powell (remember them?) enthused about the books on their blog and also ordered. We were in business, almost.

The good will, experience and enthusiasm of independent booksellers are undervalued and underused by most publishers.

The new magazine being started by CBe – more details here – will be carrying paid-for adverts. Almost no independent bookseller has a budget for advertising. For the first issue of the magazine (and maybe others: we’ll see) I’m therefore offering a limited number of free quarter-page ads to independent bookshops. Two or three or four pages of adverts for good bookshops will be a good thing in itself; and maybe, even, the bookshops will stock the magazine. Any bookshop that is interested, please contact me on Files (82 x 53 mm; high-res pdf or jpeg) will be needed before the end of October; or a bookshop could simply send me the information they’d like the ad to carry, plus a logo if available or other artwork, and CBe will make up the ad.

Monday, 15 September 2014

New Dan O’Brien; and ‘the necessary drudgery of the novelist’

Dan O’Brien’s new poetry collection Scarsdale will be launched at the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival in early November, where he’s reading as the winner of the 2013 Aldeburgh Fenton First Collection Prize for War Reporter. You can do these things by the book – which involves having blurb and cover and proofs in place many months before publication (and in time for the submission deadlines for the PBS recommendations, etc) – or you can think, a few weeks from now the author will be over from Los Angeles and reading in front of a large and generous audience, so let’s wing it. Scarsdale is a very different book from War Reporter: it’s home-grown, for a start, though of course home can be as conflicted a place as any war zone.

On Friday of this week, I and May-Lan Tan will be reading at the Cork International Short Story Festival. I haven’t been to Ireland for a couple of decades, at least. I’m excited about this.

May-Lan will be reading, I assume, from her CBe book Things to Make and Break and maybe from her chapbook Girly. I might be reading from The Manet Girl, published by Salt last year. More likely, the pages in front of me will be from what is resulting from finding my failure to write a particular story more interesting than the story itself.

As a lapsed poet, I’m still finding my way in fiction. I remember an agent’s note, handwritten in the margins of the printout of my first attempt: ‘Where are they? The reader needs to see them.’ They – the characters – were in the Golborne Road, as it happens, which is at the tag end of Portobello Road and is probably worth describing (junk stalls, cafés, Moroccan street food) but I got no enjoyment at all from this kind of writing (and if I’m bored, then God help the reader). I’m aware that good descriptive writing isn’t just scene-setting, but it still felt more duty than play.

Virginia Woolf in her 1924 essay ‘Character in Fiction’ has fun with Arnold Bennett’s descriptive writing, of which she quotes a chunk and adds: ‘One line of insight would have done more than all those lines of description; but let them pass as the necessary drudgery of the novelist … he is trying to hypnotise us into the belief that, because he has made a house, there must be a person living there.’ Into the category of necessary drudgery I’d add ‘characterisation’ and ‘plot’ and most of the other chapter titles in the how-to-write-a-novel books – but a lovely thing about the novel is that these things aren’t really necessary at all. Short-cutting, I’ll point to Gabriel Josipovici’s ‘Writing, Reading and the Study of Literature’, his inaugural lecture at the University of Sussex in 1986 (included in his The Singer on the Shore, Carcanet, 2006), in which he recalls writing his first novel: ‘It was not that that I didn’t like the forms of description I was using; I didn’t like any form of description. What’s more, I suddenly realised, I didn’t need it. What had happened was that I had adopted not just the tone and mannners of every book I had ever read, I had also adopted their assumptions … I had made a fantastic discovery, you see. I had discovered that I did not have to do do what I didn’t want to do to, and at the same time that I could do something which a moment before I had had no idea I could do.’ This is liberating, in the way that is characteristic of my own favourite novels: oh, so you don’t have to do all the high-cheekbones, blustery-weather stuff, you can do it another way.

Ninety years on from VW’s essay, the market into which novels get pitched is still deeply conservative: the choosing of what gets published, reviewed, wins prizes. But the novel is not ruled by the market. Kate Webb, reviewing Every Day is for the Thief in the TLS in July this year, suggested that Teju Cole’s work ‘occupies a now common ground of uncertainty in twenty-first-century writing, blending fiction, memoir, observation and conjecture’. Hari Kunzru, reviewing Ben Lerner’s 10:04 in the New York Times earlier this month, suggested that the book ‘belongs to an emerging genre, the novel after Sebald, its 19th-century furniture of plot and character dissolved into a series of passages, held together by occasional photographs and a subjectivity that hovers close to (but is never quite identical with) the subjectivity of the writer’. The precedents for this date back decades, but there seems now to be momentum, and this too I find liberating.

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Free Verse: The Poetry Book Fair 2014

Top pic, near top right, the CBe table – no one behind it because I was, uh, at the opposite side of the room taking this photo. It took time to get back to it. Bottom pic, view from the CBe table. All those people. One person mentioned in passing, as if this was a perfectly normal thing to do, that she’d travelled from County Cork to London just for this event. Someone else I’d never met before offered to buy me lunch. There were readings, continuous through the day, both in a separate room in the venue and in the square outside, and then in a pub in the evening, but no speeches telling us what we were here for and why, no need. It felt like a good deed in a naughty world.

Monday, 1 September 2014

Robinson: the answers

– to the quiz posted on 21 August: here. Prize for competition with least entries: this one. I missed an obvious one (thank you, J.O.): Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of Little Pig Robinson, the story of the pig in Lear’s ‘The Owl and the Pussycat’.

1(a) Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe; (b) Elizabeth Bishop, ‘Crusoe in England’; (c) J. M. Coetzee, Foe; (d) Michel Tournier, The Other Island; (e) Robinson Crusoe on Mars, 1964 film, dir. Byron Haskins; (f) Judith Schalansky, Atlas of Remote Islands; (g) Eric Maltaite, Robinsonia (graphic novel)

2 Chris Petit, Robinson; 3 Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Journey to the End of the Night; 4 Simon Armitage, ‘Robinson’s Resignation’; 5 Charles Dickens, Dombey and Son; 6 Muriel Spark, Robinson; 7 Joseph Conrad, Lord Jim; 8 Weldon Kees, ‘Aspects of Robinson’; 9 Henry Fielding, Amelia; 10 Charles Webb, The Graduate; 11 Franz Kafka, Amerika; 12 Henry James, The Princess Casamassima; 13 Robinson in Space, 1996 film by Patrick Keiller (or maybe it was London); 14 Jack Robinson, Days and Nights in W12.

If you like this kind of thing, go here; and check out his other riffs on zebra, joke, nail, lemon, mutt, etc.

Sunday, 31 August 2014

Next thing: Sonofabook, the magazine

‘What! another literary journal?’ – Stendhal, 1822. (He was writing about a magazine started up by two people who ‘found it would it would be less boring for them to found a literary journal than anything else’.)

Magazines: why, who for, when and how and what? They’re not books; no magazine is going to be in your desert island luggage. They are secondary. But they have their place and their time: lunchtime, café time, between-times. They tease, they flirt, they make rash promises, all good things to do. They are a kind of foreplay. Through time – think Alan Ross’s London Magazine (the associated book list, London Magazine Editions, was the model for CBe at start-up), not to mention all the little magazines with odd names that everyone in the book world grows up with – they become a kind of of backplay. Either way, fore or back, they’re a form of intelligent play.

So: Sonofabook, a magazine/journal from CBe, first issue next March. Spring and autumn; prose (fiction, non-fiction), poetry. (No reviews, not least because if I open that door I will drown.) ACE have granted funding for the first three issues, so it’s for real, and I’m grateful and yes, excited, and daunted. ‘This one will be different from all the others,’ said Stendhal in 1822. They all say that but, first, none of that send-six-poems-max or one-short-story-under-3K-words: either the work is good enough to hold ten or twenty pages or more or it’s not. Second, and this is the defining feature: after the first issue, the contents of each issue will be chosen by guest editors (CBe backing off to a purely hosting role). The first guest editors will be invited from among the usual suspects – writers, critics, editors from other small presses – but if the thing gets going we can move out a bit: booksellers, bloggers, readers. As Hamlet in effect said to Horatio, there is far more literary intelligence and curiosity out there than is adequately represented by those professionally engaged within the book industry.

Each issue of Sonofabook will therefore bear the distinctive character of its editor’s interests, preferences, prejudices. (Nobody can read everything, let alone like everything; this is the point of having the magazine guest-edited.) Collaborative editorships – two or more people – will of course be fine. If the magazine continues beyond the first three issues (and the set-up can change: e.g., more issues per year if that can be made to work) it could become an occasional focus and record of what the mainstream deems not worth publishing but actually is, and here is one place where. (Mainstream is welcome too, but it will have to fight for its place.)

(Submissions. This is all a little bit different from how magazines usually work. Most of the contents of each issue are going to be determined by invitation from that issue’s editor. Very rarely will anything be held over from one issue for consideration for the next issue. Anyone can submit, of course they can, to the address, but best to inquire first and don’t even think of submitting unless you’ve got some idea of what CBe is about and of what the issue editor might be looking for.)

Print, because I like putting physical objects into the world: things that weigh a bit, that involve a bit of manual labour. As each new print issue comes out, the previous issue will become available free online. Because the ACE money will guarantee the first three issues only (including payment for contributors), I’m going to have to work at getting other revenue; invitations to take advertising space (at bargain start-up rates) will be going out this week, and anyone interested in that do please get in touch. Website page up sometime soon.

Sonofabook 1 will include new work by a number of CBe writers, plus others. Issue 2 will be edited by Nicholas Lezard, author and Guardian reviewer. Issue 3 will be edited by Sophie Lewis, translator and editor-at-large for And Other Stories. Editors of future issues will be announced several months in advance.

I think this is such an obvious idea – setting up the form, inviting some of your literary heroes to fill it with content – that I’m surprised it doesn’t already exist. (Why, for example, does the Nicholas Lezard weekly Guardian paperback column work? Both as a guide to good books arriving under the radar and as a lever for sales. Because whoever gives him that space trusts him and just allows him to get on with it. It’s one model for how the magazine may work.)

One Friday eve in early 2011 the idea of a poetry book fair in London at which the full range of contemporary poetry publishers could display and sell to everyone, anyone, also seemed an obvious idea; the first book fair, initiated by CBe and with no funding, was held the following September; then 2012, 2013, bigger each time; the fourth (I’ve now ducked out, it has its own momentum and is more than brilliantly run by Chrissy Williams and Joey Connolly) will be at the Conway Hall, London, next Saturday, 6 September, from 10 a.m. Come.