Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Three good pieces of America

Even if only 0.001 per cent of the population buy books of new poetry and non-mainstream fiction, that’s a lot more people in the US than it is in the UK – which is surely one reason why more small presses appear to be flourishing over there. For example, the Ugly Duckling Presse. Look at the books they publish and then note that they have an office, an editorial board and doubtless a water cooler too. How do they do it? One thing that helps is their network of partner bookstores, a group of bookshops that commit to buying all their new titles (and presumably some backlist too). Maybe the bookshops get a special discount. Simple idea, something in it for everyone.

There is also, I suspect, more money floating around, both private and public, and more generosity. Look at, for example this list of non-profit author and publisher groups who get grants from Amazon.com. Can you imagine Amazon.co.uk doing anything similar?

And there are more new publishing models. See, for example, Red Lemonade. It looks a bit indiscriminate, but any outfit that publishes – and in book form – new work by Lynne Tillman can’t be bad.

(Tillman, by the way, has a piece in the current issue of Frieze. Q, at a recent reading: ‘What would you tell younger writers is the most important lesson you’ve learned in your writing life?’ A: ‘Don’t expect that being published will make you happy.’)

Sunday, 26 February 2012

Telling tales


The tale of how CBe came about is told (by me, and not for the first time) in the Freelance column in this week’s TLS. Everything in there is true (except maybe for the bit about being mugged by crabs; but I did go into the sea with my wallet and come out without it), but I’m well aware of how all tale-telling mythologises, of how all tales are selective versions.

And this week – the one in which he turned 70 – seems an good moment to offer thanks and good wishes to Hugo Williams, whose occupation of the Freelance column has been so regular over many, many years that it would be easy to take him for granted. The pleasure he’s given, and the manner in which he’s done so, deserve more than that. More, please.

The above picture is of the bookshop-in-a-greenhouse at the Wapping Project on a summer evening, when they have outdoor film screenings. Miha Mazzini, author of The German Lottery,* will be reading there on Thursday, 5 April. Miha is a film-maker as well as a novelist, and because he has more faith in the English weather than I do he’ll be bringing some of his short films.

* Set not in Germany but in 1950s Yugoslavia, and a political satire to boot, but with a main character who is a young postman (who is seduced on his rounds by a woman hanging out her washing in a high wind) and altogether funnier and more kind-hearted than you might expect, and a snip at £7.99.

Sunday, 12 February 2012

Rosemary Tonks: Emir

‘If I’m to make a good job of detesting the society of poets and painters, I must first find out what it’s like.’ That’s Houda speaking, the main character of Emir (1963) – in her twenties, tramping the London streets with her notebook – or it may be the author, Rosemary Tonks, known in poetry circles for two short collections published in the 1960s and for her disappearance. Wikipedia states it baldly: ‘Tonks stopped publishing poetry in the early 1970s, at about the same time as her conversion to a form of Christianity. Nothing is known publicly about her subsequent life.’ She is, word has it, still alive.

If her novels are (Wiki again) ‘a form of fictional autobiography’, then she set about researching the society of poets and painters conscientiously: bookshops, galleries, cheap restaurants, house parties, eccentrics on private incomes, affairs. And it doesn’t seem surprising that she ended up detesting it. Conversations in Emir are witty and bitchy; the epigrams that stud each page are laced with cynicism.

A flavour of the style (quote marks only when necessary; some of these come from dialogue, some from first-person musing, some from the authorial voice):

He was delighted to see her; provided they observed the rules, each could rely on five minutes to talk about himself. / ‘You don’t know one thing about life.’ ‘It’s perfectly true I’m not involved in buying and selling and killing, getting married and having babies.’ / If mother and daughter had been of opposite sexes, it would have been true to say they were conducting a long and extremely savage love affair. / Like all sentimental people, he was capable of the most atrocious cruelty. / It was one of those moments by which women are able to find out how old they are; a calendar is merely an abstract. / I’m talking to a stale newspaper. / Below the waist, under the fold of tablecloth or paper, the body of a man descends to the claw and the hoof. / Eugene is only proud of me when I am able to hurt him. / If the way up to a publisher’s staircarpet led over my heart, you would not hesitate to tread it. / A woman only talks about herself to a man she classes as ‘safe’. / There is no one an intellectual would rather be seen talking to than a British workman. / There are few more degrading compromises than those the artist makes when he gives in to the pleasure of being read by someone he can expect to lavish him with praise he knows to be worthless. / She was confronted by an elderly man who was forcing lettuce into a great hot beard. / I am no Englishman who leaves emotion to his spaniel. / The European goes in terror of sincerity: he considers it the hallmark of a man without resources. / He winds me up in order to procure sensation for his nerves. / There are remarks which lie intact in the brain for days. They are felt but ignored, like damaged tissue, while the work of repairing vanity goes on. / One of the most complex games ever invented – that of a pleasing an artist who is under the impression he is great, without impaling yourself on his vanity. / My mother has learnt to tie a scarf under her chin and walk in the rain; but she deceives no one. / Nobody had taken the trouble to point out that the first of the natural gifts of genius is a thousand a year. / Beauty is not in the eye; it is in the pocket. / ‘I thought you were pretending to be bored.’ ‘I’m glad I succeeded in arousing your interest so cleverly.’ ‘It was simply that you looked well off.’ / I have always considered beauty to be a grocer’s word. / Within a few seconds the need to be offensive to Eugene had made him ten times more attractive. Which explains the enormous success of wasters and Don Juans. A woman will go out of her way to excite the interest of a man who has cheapened her. / Over-subtlety tends to heighten the squalor of the underlying motive. / A man out with a gun brings down a piece of the warm firmament with a squeaking fowl still alive in it. / At most of the major disasters in our lives we behave like spectators. / A poor man knows that his strongest weapon is your fear of his contempt. / Love is quite incidental to any successful relationship; even dangerous. Whereas the courteous lie is indispensable; but an admission of defeat. / A successful model gives the appearance of a radiant child dressed with extreme dowdiness. / There are women who station themselves for life at the foot of a flight of stairs. / Every now and then someone made a joke which, taking them by surprise, made them feel that perhaps they were enjoying themselves. / With the gravest possible forebodings Eugene kissed the mouth of this errand-boy – a moist crack, very black, and salty with mutiny. / The unsuccessful lover has something in common with the agnostic: each has to a certain extent given in to his intelligence. / Accuse the most austere of men of high living, and you have made a friend for life. / Here’s your twentieth-century bigot – a man whose ideals are strong enough to isolate him from the slightest tinge of humanity. / You do not begin to know a room until you have walked a hundred yards or so into it.

That’s more than a flavour, I know, but she is quotable. It’s all pretty intense; the novel is just 122 pages. Me, I like best the sentences in which she’s not trying to score points in the parlour game of cleverness. I wonder if she ever reads, now, her own books. I doubt it.

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

‘no poetry, history or literature’

Today my neighbour opened the door of his van and showed me a slew of plastic bags containing auction catalogues (Sotheby’s & Christie’s & others), thousands of them. There’s a market for these things, and with reason: there are good-quality reproductions of artworks by the big names (as well the smaller ones) that never get into the public domain, that you’ll never find either in the galleries or on google images.

I was on my way to the printer, where I mentioned this, and he said he knew a man who had worked at one of those auction places and from selling the catalogues on ebay the man had funded emigration, a new life. We were talking next to the unbound sheets of a book going through the press: buses in Malaya in the 1950s, page upon page of black-and-white photos of snub-nosed, round-cornered buses, with serial numbers and more technical info than you could dream of, a thing of beauty.

Heathcote Williams recently sent me a copy of David Batterham’s Among Booksellers (Stone Trough Books, The Old Rectory, Settrington, York YO17 8NP, 2011). Batterham is a book dealer specialising in ‘trade catalogues, fashion magazines and other illustrated journals, typography, political caricatures, architectural pattern books. The Applied Arts; no poetry, history or literature.’ The book comprises letters he sent to Howard Hodgkin while on his buying trips (to Texas, Tunisia, Barcelona, Istanbul, ‘somewhere in France’, etc, and Morecambe [‘I am in the dining room of the Midland Hotel in Morecambe. The receptionist looked at me doubtfully’]): ‘I wrote mostly in the evenings as I ate my supper, or in caf├ęs and bars, using up the lonely hours when the shops were shut; which is why I should not have been so surprised to find so many references to drink when I came to make this selection.’

(Simon Hoggart at the Guardian was also sent a copy, and picked out the bit about the Duke of Edinburgh, ‘who apparently is a bibliophile’. Batterham: ‘The duke keeps a cupboard of goodies, such as the books he buys from me, so that people who want to give him a present can choose something he is known to like. Then they buy it from him, and give it back.’ Both present and cash: class.)

This is print: under siege, I’m told, but more extensive than you’d think, if you think in just literary terms, and still with its untouristy alleyways where you might get mugged, and benefiting from new and cheaper printing technology that is prolonging its active life. It’s not ‘heritage’, yet. And it’s an interesting moment: an older generation of writers who grew up with books central to the culture, a younger generation who grew up largely online. This can’t possibly be a golden age – the centre of the city has been surrendered – but it might be a silver one.

Monday, 6 February 2012

‘The furtive and clammy touch of poshlust . . .’


There’s a Facebook thread today on the TV Birdsong, adapted from the novel by Sebastian Faulks, which I couldn’t add to (because, I think, the original poster happens not to be a Fb ‘friend’), so why not here. It started from an Evening Standard piece wondering ‘Why are all critics in love with middlebrow?’ – most of the TV critics loved Birdsong, while most of the Fb commenters didn’t. Me neither, from the 20 minutes of the first episode I endured. (‘Mud porn’, I’ve seen it called – some watchable bits, but best with the sound turned off.)

The relevant concept here, I think, is poshlust. Which might serve as a caption to the above photo, but in fact the term comes from a Russian word for which there’s no English equivalent, and it means something like cheap, sham, tawdry, but not obviously thus, and Nabokov, in a digression in his book on Gogol, shows it how breeds in literature. It is (I quote) ‘especially vigorous and vicious when the sham is not obvious and when the values it mimics are considered . . . to belong to the very highest level of art, thought or emotion.’ He’s thinking of the kind of novels that get reviewed as (he quotes) ‘stirring, profound and beautiful’. The book may be ‘a perfectly honest and sincere (as the saying goes) attempt on the author’s part to write something he felt strongly about’, and may have been written without any commercial motive – but ‘the trouble is that sincerity, honesty and even kindness of heart cannot prevent the demon of poshlust from possessing himself of an author’s typewriter when the man lacks genius . . . The dreadful thing about poshlust is that one finds it so difficult to explain to people why a particular book which seems chock-full of noble emotion and compassion . . . is far, far worse than the kind of literature which everyone admits is cheap.’

Rejections x 54


Is the above, for a writer trying something newish, dispiriting or perversely encouraging? The image here is probably too small for you to read, but what it is is the list of publishers’ rejections kept by David Markson when he was sending out Wittgenstein’s Mistress – which was eventually published (by Dalkey Archive) in 1988. For many readers, this is the Markson novel. David Foster Wallace, in a long essay written in 1989, called WM ‘a work of genius’, not least because in the face of the ‘rabid anti-intellectualism of the contemporary fiction scene’ it brought together ‘cerebration & emotion, abstraction & lived life, transcendent truth-seeking & daily schlepping’.

There are 54 rejections on the list. (Which was printed, by the way, on the back of the programme for the memorial service for David Markson at NYU; and also by the way, CBe publishes his This Is Not a Novel.) Alongside the names of the publishers, and usually an editor’s name too, Markson has noted their responses – usually just ‘NO’, but sometimes more: ‘admire writing, not love’, ‘didn’t understand’, ‘hard to stay with’, ‘brilliant’ (eight times, including one ‘too brilliant’). Years later, when asked about the whole experience, Markson replied simply: ‘Some editors are not particularly bright.’

Some editors are bright but know that they can’t get certain books past the other folk at the acquisitions meeting. Some editors are bright but prefer white wine to red. (There are many examples of editors who have turned down books that have later, with another publisher, been hugely successful – which doesn’t mean that the rejecting editor was wrong, just that the book wasn’t up his/her street.) Some editors are going through a divorce, or have been temporarily struck blind, or aren’t really editors in the first place. It’s all a bit hit-or-miss.

When I turn down the book you’ve sent to CBe you do know – don’t you? – that I’m not saying the book isn’t worth publishing, or making a judgement on the way you lead your life? Though it can feel like that. No is not a kind word.

Friday, 3 February 2012

Sister of the artist


Above is Fanny Mendelssohn (1805–47), sister of the composer Felix, as sketched by her husband Wilhelm Hensel and as pinned to his study wall and photographed on a sunny day by Dai Vaughan. Fanny, no less than her brother, had musical ability as both composer and performer. But she happened to be a woman. In 1820 her father wrote to her that while music was likely to beome Felix’s profession, ‘for you it can and must be only an ornament’. Her brother was supportive, but not to the point of encouraging her to publish under her own name: ‘She is too much all that a woman ought to be for this.’

Dai Vaughan’s Sister of the artist, set in the early 19th century, is a parallel fiction concerning a sister and brother, both talented artists. Interwoven with their story are fragments of other narratives – folk tales, let’s call them – concerning siblings, language, creativity, the obstructions these come up against.

Dai Vaughan – born in 1933, author of fiction, poetry and books on documentary film, the field in which he has spent most of his working life – is not in the best of health; so I’m pleased and proud to say that this book has jumped the queue and is available from the CBe website NOW. (And if you press a certain button at the foot of the Books page, you can get both this and the Miha Mazzini novel for £13.50.)