Monday, 11 May 2009

‘Let this be it’

Weeks since the last post . . . Excuses to offer, expenses to claim? None. I’ve been reading Mavis Gallant: genius. Short stories are not chapters in novels, she warns: read one, go away and live a bit before you read another. Not easy, given the temptation of the next page and the next. How does she do what she does? Her stories are more strange and original than their fluency and apparent old-fashionedness suggests. Often the big ‘events’ – a death, a betrayal – happen offstage or between the lines, while the page is printed with ephemera – snatches of dialogue, a glance at the people sitting at a neighbouring table – that say everything.

I’ve been aiding and abetting two writers, both well-reviewed and with good sales records, who cannot find a mainstream taker for their new books and have decided to take the alternative route. Despite it being such a rocky one. A phone call this morning from a reader who praised the new Jack Robinson book and asked me how I sell – oh, a distributor, mail-outs, copies sent off to the lit eds, visits to favourite bookshops, and, I suppose, word of mouth. The response (with honourable exceptions) is sluggish. (And my occasional frustration that of the local grocer who overhears voluble support for local, small-scale businesses from people driving by to Tesco’s.)

The above picture – on the left, Robert Fergusson (1750–74), a contemporary of Burns; his first poems were published in 1771; two years later, according to the Oxford Companion, ‘he developed manic-depressive symptoms, and died not long after being shut up in the local Bedlam.’ On the right, an Edinburgh girl in the sunshine reading Natural Mechanical. ‘If you read only one poem a year,’ says the current catalogue from John Sandoe (Books), ‘let this be it.’

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