Sunday, 16 August 2015


Driving down a motorway last week – a rare thing: I don’t get out much – I had radio 4 on the car radio and there was Marina Warner (whom I deeply respect) talking about ‘story-telling’. Rag-bag stuff, punctuated by some Satie music and very actorish readings from Moby Dick and Treasure Island. I switched over.

Story-telling festivals, courses in ‘how to tell’ a story … Odd, this cult of the story, of humans as ‘a story-telling species’, the best we can do; I mean, the assumption that telling stories is a good thing to be doing. Religions favour stories; so does the right wing (‘the story of England’); so does the left wing (from what what I remember of her last book, Rebecca Solnit talks a lot about story).

Story-telling may well be a ‘natural’ thing to do – we use them to explain the world to ourselves, and ourselves to ourselves, and when we get it wrong (which is usually the case) we are reluctant to give those stories up. But stories are surely basically conservative, retrospective, an imposing of pattern on experience. They are little machines for containing things. Stories are secondary. (I deeply distrust biographies, which turn lives – which at any given point could go right or left or straight on – into simple narratives.)

I’m as fascinated by stories as anyone else; not least by the way they often turn out to be about something different from what we thought they were about when we told them. They’re not going to go away. E. M. Forster, famously: ‘Yes – oh dear yes – the novel tells a story.’ But the best novels are in at least two minds about their own stories even as they make them up, and it’s this resistance to story-telling that makes them worth reading. (Nothing new here, of course.)

Tuesday, 11 August 2015

Wise Blood

The 1970s really were amazing for films. Last night I watched Wise Blood for the first time since it came out in 1979 and it’s even better than I remembered it.

From the blurb on the DVD: ‘War veteran Hazel Motes returns from the war with little waiting for him but the hypocrisies of the over-zealous evangelists that populate his bible-belt hometown … With an upbringing of fire-and-brimstone sermons Hazel has taken enough, and so begins his own rebellious crusade with the founding of “The Church of Truth without Jesus Christ”.’

It’s funny, outrageous and unsettling. One of the reasons it works so powerfully for me is, I think, that it seems not fully in control of its material: John Huston, staunch atheist, is making a film from a novel by Flannery O’Connor, whose writing was imbued with a highly personal, distinctive brand of Catholicism, and for all their shared appreciation of the black humour of the whole set-up, and line by line in the dialogue, at some level important to the whole story they are out of sync. Oddly, the film seems to gain from this.

Another out-of-sync thing: budget constraints and the speed with which the film was made put limits on period accuracy – so that, for example, Hazel gets off a steam train (which they had free use of during filming) and jumps into a 1970s taxi. This, too, works beautifully. The film is timeless. There are bits of plot that fray to the side and aren't pulled in: again, this works.

They had a child do the lettering for the start-of-film credits; Huston’s forename is spelt ‘Jhon’ (twice) and they left it like that (see above; note also that tombstone telephone). (Any other film in which the director’s name is mis-spelt in the credits?) Another mis-spelling: Hazel stares at a tombstone on which the carved letters declare that his mother has gone ‘to become an angle’.

Pretty well all the peripheral characters – the hooker with whom Hazel stays when he arrives in town, the 2nd-hand car dealer he buys his Lincoln from, the drunks in an alleyway frightened by a man in gorilla costume – are played not by actors but by themselves: real hooker, real car dealer (and son), etc.

This was the first filmed screenplay by the brothers Michael and Benedict Fitzgerald. When they were children Flannery O’Connor wrote Wise Blood while renting a room at their family house; their father, the poet and translator Robert Fitzgerald, was at the same time translating Oedipus Rex, from which O’Connor borrowed the self-blinding. The whole film seems to have been one of those semi-magic comings-together of the right people at the right time. Brad Dourif as Hazel Motes is extraordinary. Amy Wright as the teenage girl who wants him is so off-key brilliant that I worry about myself. During filming they all played poker at the weekends.

Wednesday, 5 August 2015

Invisible writers

When I published Sister of the artist by Dai Vaughan, who had several previous books to his name, he suggested I take a copy or two to his local north London bookshop, where he was a regular customer, so I did. They’d known him for years but had no idea that he was a writer.

I once phoned up a semi-famous writer to tell him I was about to send him proofs; his then-partner answered answered the phone. ‘Oh,’ she said, ‘has he written a book?’

Those (god bless you) who follow CBe will already know about Andrew Elliott (Mortality Rate), who has a poem shortlisted for this year’s Forward Prize for best single poem. He won’t be at the do. Although the CBe book is his third collection, there is no visual evidence of AE on the net; he refuses offers of readings; I’ve never met him. ‘I prefer not to.’ He writes more poems than I know what to do with.

This staying-in-the-shadows is sometimes thought of as the old-fashioned authors’ code, compared to the look-at-me new way. That’s too simple. There’ve always been some authors who enjoy the spotlight (Dickens, obviously) and some who don’t. The difference now is the expectation that authors publicise their own work. It was OK for Salinger and Pynchon to refuse to publicise – they didn’t need to – but if you’re not a known writer and you want to get some books sold, don’t you have to?

It’s true that many publishers’ contracts now require authors to publicise. It’s true that there are workshops on how to publicise your work and how to read in public and how to start a blog and it’s true that many new(ish) – not, please, ‘emerging’ – writers feel some pressure to go along with this, but no, of course you don’t have to. You can choose. You’re a grown-up.

The whole issue has little to do with any feeling that you’re not suited to public performance (Stendhal: ‘I’m like a respectable woman turned courtesan, at every moment I need to overcome the modesty of a decent man who hates to talk about himself’), or not being good at it. It’s bigger than that. It’s about the preservation of a kind of personal space that some writing, not all, requires: a form of privacy in which writers can get on with the quarrel with themselves without being distracted by quarrelling with others. Expecting writers to engage continually with audiences and the social media denies that space.

There are ways of managing that space. Many writers agree to publicise around a publication date in return for being left alone the rest of the time. A more extreme case is Elena Ferrante, who writes under a pen name and for over 20 years refused to appear in public or give interviews – until this year, when an interview appeared in the Paris Review. At the start, ‘I was frightened at the thought of having to come out of my shell’; later, ‘I came to feel hostility toward the media, which doesn’t pay attention to books themselves and values a work according to the author’s reputation.’ She notes the animosity or bafflement that a refusal to join the circus generates: ‘the decision not to be present as an author generates ill will … The experts stare at the empty frame where the image of the author is supposed to be and they don’t have the technical tools, or, more simply, the true passion and sensitivity as readers, to fill that space with the works.’ She speaks with some anger about ‘the self-promotion obsessively imposed by the media. This demand for self-promotion diminishes the actual work of art, whatever that art may be, and it has become universal.’ For herself as a writer, ‘What has never lost importance for me, over these two and a half decades, is the creative space that absence opened up for me … What I mean is that removing the author – as understood by the media – from the result of his writing creates a space that wasn’t there before. Starting with The Days of Abandonment, it seemed to me, the emptiness created by my absence was filled by the writing itself.’

Of course her absence from activities peripheral to the work strengthens her presence in the work: ‘Remove [the] individual from the public eye and … we discover that the text contains more than we imagine. It has taken possession of the person who writes. If we want to find that person, she’s right there, revealing a self that even she may not truly know.’ And what is offered of the author within the text is ‘truer than she could be in the photos of a Sunday supplement, at a book launch, at a literary festival, in some television broadcast, receiving a literary prize … So the writing becomes intimate both for the one who produces it and for the one who enjoys it.’

Ferrante has reserved for herself a space in which, as far as journalists and festival organisers are concerned, she might as well be dead. More than dead: at least with the recently dead they have biographies, photographs, gossip to feed on. It’s a brilliant disappearing act which has required hard work, dedication, a particular form of courage (or self-belief). (Andrew Elliott too: you don’t get to publish three books and leave no evidence of yourself hanging around on the net by accident.) It hasn’t harmed Ferrante’s sales: this week her UK distributor tweeted a photo 25,000 copies of her new novel in the warehouse. Ferrante’s strategy could be called reactionary, in the sense that she’s reclaiming a space for writing that the media have invaded, occupied, rendered obsolete (and much current writing that I like a lot takes this occupation for granted); I think not.

Most people surely ignore most hype. I think there’s a turning away from the social media – not a backlash, more a sort of weariness, a lowering of the decibels, a shrug. Just as the whole literature scene has for some time been splitting into little groups (and sub-groups) – big-publisher lit, small-press lit, the work-in-translation lot, page poetry, other poetry: RIP ‘the common reader’, long ago – and there is no single, standard publishing model, there is also no one-size-fits-all way to be a writer. There never has been.

Monday, 3 August 2015

On book blurbs

Can I take a publisher to court under the Trade Descriptions Act if a book’s blurb – ‘heartwarming’, ‘unputdownable’, ‘will make you laugh out loud’ – turns out to be simply not true?

Blurbs are fiendishly tricky to write. There are certain classics: the blurb for Nicola Barker’s first short-story collection included, as I recall, ‘Her characters are short but sturdy’.) Generally I favour short rather than long – any slab of prose in small print on the back of a book puts me off immediately. Certain phrases should of course be outlawed. ‘Tour de force’, obviously, though it’s used less now than it used to be. ‘Writing at the height of his/her powers’, others. But then, aiming for short and concise, I sometimes cross a point beyond which I’m not saying anything at all.

Puff quotes from other authors now seem required. What’s to be done about these? I once saw a letter, sent out by an editor to an author on his list, not just asking for a puff quote for a book but giving three possible sentences from which the author might choose. (What would you do? Say no, at risk of annoying your editor, or go along with this?) Any quote from someone who needs to be glossed as ‘author of [book title]’ leaves me cold. But equally, any quote from an author who I seem have seen on a whole lot of other book covers.

The back of a book cover is almost as important as the front (though it’s never the thing that people want when they ask for a ‘cover image’: they just mean the front). It offers a certain space, and one of the points of blurbs is to get the text right in proportion to that space.

I once had a one-day-a-week job that involved rewriting blurbs. The UK publisher, ducking out, left the blurbs to his usually academic authors, who filled out the space with tedious essays. The publisher who distributed the books in the US shortened and sexed up the academic blurbs for his own catalogue, usually without having the books themselves to check against. The UK publisher decided he wanted a blend of both – that is, both academic and sexed up – and paid me to stir them together and add seasoning to taste.

Is anyone up for sponsoring an annual prize for worst blurb of the year? As with the Bad Sex Prize, the shortlisted candidates would be printed in national newspapers for general hilarity. Books can, surely, be oversold. No one, I think, has yet tried in book blurbs the method of the 1960s estate agent Roy Brooks, who sold houses very successfully by being ruthlessly honest in his descriptions: ‘The decor of the nine rooms, some of which hangs inelegantly from the walls, is revolting. Not entirely devoid of plumbing, there is a pathetic kitchen and one cold tap. No bathroom, of course, but Chelsea has excellent public baths’; ‘untouched by the 20th century as far as conveniences for even the basic human decencies are concerned … still habitable judging by the bed of rags, fag ends and empty bottles in one corner’; ‘Comprises 10 rather unpleasant rooms with slimy back yard.’

Anyway, today I’ve been attempting to write a blurb. I’ve got as far as this: ‘Happiness, love, some decent food – not much to ask for, surely?’

Thursday, 30 July 2015

James Agee’s to-do list

In 1937 James Agee applied for a Guggenheim Fellowship. He listed the following projects under the heading ‘Plans for Work: October 1937’, adding ‘I am working on, or am interested to try, or expect to return to, such projects as the following.’ In the following section of his application he wrote in more detail about each of the projects.

An Alabama Record.
A story about homosexuality in football.
News items.
Hung with their own rope.
Notes for color photgraphy.
A revue.
A cabaret.
Newsreel. Theatre.
A new type of stage-screen show.
Anti-communist manifesto.
Three or four love stories.
A new type of sex book.
‘Glamor’ writing.
A study in the pathology of ‘laziness’.
A new type of horror story.
Stories whose whole intention is the direct communication of the intensity of common experience.
‘Musical’ uses of ‘sensation’ or ‘emotion’.
Collections and analyses of faces; of news pictures.
Development of new forms of writing via the caption; letters; pieces of overheard conversation.
A new form of story: the true incident recorded and an analysis of it.
A new form of movie short roughly equivalent to the lyric poem.
Conjectures of how to get ‘art’ back on a plane of organic human necessity, parallel to religious art or the art of primitive hunters.
A show about motherhood.
Pieces of writing whose rough parallel is the prophetic writings of the Bible.
Uses of the Dorothy Mix Method; the Voice of Experience: for immediacy, intensity, complexity of opinion.
The inanimate and non-human.
A new style and use of the imagination: the exact opposite of the Alabama record.
A true account of a jazz band.
An account and analysis of a cruise: ‘high’-class people.
Portraiture. Notes. The Triptych.
City Streets. Hotel Rooms. Cities.
A new kind of photographic show.
The slide lecture.
A new kind of music. Noninstrumental sound. Phonographic recording. Radio.
Extension in writing; ramification in suspension; Schubert 2-cello Quintet.
Analyses of Hemingway, Faulkner, Wolfe, Auden, other writers.
Analyses of Kafka’s Trial; various moving pictures.
Two forms of history of the movies.
Reanalyses of the nature and meaning of love.
Analyses of miscommunication; the corruption of idea.
Moving picture notes and scenarios.
An ‘autobiographical’ novel.
New forms of ‘poetry’.
A notebook.

Sunday, 26 July 2015

Summertime, half a century ago

In 1965 – fifty years ago – I was packed off by my mum to a Hebridean island on a two-week camping trip. It was a boys’ thing: around 20 of us, all in our mid-teens, with maybe half a dozen ‘officers’ aged, I guess, in their twenties. It was pretty glorious: we walked, climbed, swam, fished, messed around in canoes, sang songs round campfires, got rained on, hadn’t a care in the world.

I wouldn’t have been able to date this trip if I hadn’t yesterday, for no good reason, googled ‘Schools Hebridean Society’ and found a website maintained by someone who went on other trips, in the 70s, run by that outfit. I went, I think, on three trips. Certainly to Raasay in 1965 and to Harris in 1967, because there’s my name listed: here and here. Memories, in no particular order:

– watching, from somewhere on high, a Golden Eagle flying below me, and close;
– envying the ability of my friend Mike Ackroyd (we did everything together in our teens, including ‘dancing classes’ in Bradford) to fall asleep, anywhere, anytime (the tents were basic, the ground not level);
– losing a camera my mum had bought me (I didn’t really want it) when my canoe overturned;
– getting one book of the Everyman 3-vol edition of War and Peace waterlogged, also in a canoe (I’ve never re-read it, so it must be from that year that I remember the line, spoken by some minor character, ‘Where there is judging there is always injustice’);
– taking shelter during a rainstorm in a derelict house, finding some Penguin crime books there, reading The Postman Always Rings Twice;
– in the temporary absence of fresh water, making porridge with sea water (not good);
– the high bargaining price for a cigarette (the nearest shop was 7 miles away);
– in Tarbert, waiting for the ferry to the mainland, discovering that our favourite ‘officer’ wasn’t going to be much use getting us into pubs because he drank only tea;
– on the MacBraynes ferry over to the islands, listening to men singing in Gaelic.

(Also, on the train back from Scotland to Yorkshire on a Saturday afternoon in 1966, transistor radios: we were travelling while the World Cup final was being played. But I think that was coming back from a different camp, a CCF one.)

My friend Mike Ackroyd died in his early 20s in Japan. One of the other ‘boys’ named on the Harris 1967 page is John Ryle – surely the writer and anthropologist John Ryle, whose book on the Dinka of the Sudan I worked on while at Time-Life in the 80s, it must be.

Monday, 20 July 2015

When is a novel not a novel?

There was a bookseller I knew who, when someone wanted a job in the shop, gave them a list of titles and asked where – i.e., in which section: fiction, poetry, biography, New Age drivel, etc – they would shelve them. Ah, but that was a while back, when everyone knew their place and doffed their caps and there were porters at railway stations.

Category definitions are often like round holes for square pegs. The Novella Award welcomes ‘any genre of work, provided it is fiction, in the English language and between 20,000 and 40,000 words’ – so Alice Munro could probably enter one of her ‘short stories’. (Many stories by Munro, others too, would not be eligible for most magazines that publish short stories because of their wordcount restriction.) The Novella might have welcomed Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach (I don’t know, I haven’t counted the words; in fact I haven’t even read it), a book that was shortlisted for the Man Booker, which is for ‘novels’, isn’t it? The Man Booker is sensibly loose in its definition of what’s eligible: publishers of ‘literary fiction novels’ may submit, and each submitted book ‘must be a unified and substantial work’. (Is there a word for novels over a certain wordcount?)

I’m pretty sure that if last year I, as publisher, had submitted Will Eaves’s The Absent Therapist for either the Novella or the Man Booker it would have got nowhere – despite it’s being within the Novella’s wordcounts and also, I’d say, a substantial work. (‘Unified’? Anna Aslanyan, writing for 3:AM: ‘the author’s decision to call it a novel seems justified: these confluent streams of consciousness amount to a narrative in prose where every comma is vital for the flow to run as it does . . . their arrangement is precise down to the last dropped aitch.’) It just doesn’t look like fiction, or like many people’s idea of what fiction should look like. But by 2014 there was also the Goldsmiths Prize, set up ‘to reward fiction that breaks the mould or opens up new possibilities for the novel form’, and it got shortlisted for that.

Reviewing Teju Cole’s Every Day is for the Thief in the TLS last year, Kate Webb noted that Cole’s work ‘occupies a new ground of uncertainty opening up in twenty-first century writing, blending fiction, memoir, observation and conjecture. Every Day is for the Thief is presented as fiction but is interleaved with Cole’s photographs of Nigeria, heightening the sense of actuality, and pays homage to Michael Ondaatje’s memoir, Running in the Family, about his own journey home to Sri Lanka.’ Fiction that doesn’t look like fiction has been around since at least the time of Sterne, but recently it has been coming to the fore in a way that must have booksellers, with their neatly labelled sections, scratching their heads; and blaming Sebald for this doesn’t help anyone. Where are the booksellers to shelve a book that, according to its back cover, ‘weav[es] fact and fiction, travelogue and an erotically charged game of cat-and-mouse’? (This is Emmanuel Carrère’s A Russian Novel, and I guess there’s a clue in the title, and even more so in the publisher’s stated category: ‘Fiction’.) Where are they to shelve David Markson’s This Is Not a Novel? (A sort of reverse clue in this title.) Or Jack Robinson’s Nights and Days in W12? (Which I wrote and published, and I have no idea at all what to advise them.)

It looks likely that next year’s CBe titles will include one book that’s made up of prose and poetry in roughly equal parts, and another Robinson-ish book that’s made up of fact, speculation, fiction, you-name-it. How do I list these in any catalogue? I’m thinking of putting them both under ‘Mongrel’. Other suggestions welcome.