Friday, 31 May 2013

Last week

Mis-read ‘the Centre for New Writing’ as ‘the Centre for Not Writing’. Considered who should go there, who would benefit.

Got annoyed by someone saying Salt couldn’t sell poetry books because they didn’t have a ‘publicity budget’. Remembered, from earlier this month, when a CBe author was flown to London to read, the email from the freelance publicist (has worked for big publishers, big authors): she would find it ‘incredibly useful’ to know the date of publication of the CBe edition, and more info about the author. It being beyond her wit to click on (1) the CBe website, and (2) the author’s website, which includes a full ‘press pack’ (photos, CV, interviews, the lot). Remembered, also from earlier this month, asking big-name publisher if they’d care to contribute to the cost of wine at a reading by CBe author and one of their own authors. No: they didn’t have a ‘budget’ for this.

Wondered what hourly/weekly/project fee the aforesaid freelance publicist charges.

Wondered what hourly/weekly/project fee I might charge for editing/design/typesetting etc, and to whom I could send this invoice.

Looked hard at a postcard with a photo of the cave in the middle of nowhere where, supposedly, Bonnie Prince Charlie holed up. For a while.

Checked the cricket scores.

Discovered that if I am a member of the Society of Authors and the author/translator I want to get in touch with also happens to be a member, the process is wonderfully simple and efficient.

Went to have tea with translator. Tea extended into Campari-&-sodas.

Got sent a book to review which I didn’t take to, so suggested I do something instead on another new book that I really like. Was told OK, two reviews. Did both.

Took in PBS submissions by hand (saving on postage).

Worried that review of first book was too mean. Not much, but a little.

Drank the left-over wine that the big-name publisher didn’t have a budget for.

Wrote and sent off report on RLF Fellowship, which I could have done before but had been worrying about the ungratefulness of saying, to my hosts, that taking overseas students’ fees (up to £18,500 a year) for courses largely assessed on an ability to perform a task (writing essays) for which they are not equipped is deeply unfair on both the students and the teachers who assess them. Stopped worrying.

Watched DVD of Almost Famous. Lester Bangs (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman): ‘Be honest and be unmerciful.’ Repeated. Do I like this film just because I fancy Kate Hudson?

Watched DVD of the Coen brothers’ The Man Who Wasn’t There. Billy Bob Thornton, in that film, is my exact double.

Thought of a random number between 1 and 500 and sent a book (publishing in July) to print.

Collected new printing of hot-selling book from printer and took boxes over to warehouse, other side of London. Brought back boxes of cold-selling book of other publisher, involving delivery to storage in a legally squatted factory and subsequent visit to stationery shop close by house in which (see Nights and Days in W12, page 29) ‘Robert Graves lived in the 1920s in a ménage à quatre, where his lover Laura Riding jumped from a third-floor window (and broke her back) and Graves, in sympathy, jumped from a lower window (and twisted his ankle)’.

Met local poet, resulting in going to party at house with poets in one upstairs room, meditation in other, story-telling downstairs and music too. People named Piers and Tabitha. Woman with Indian headdress, man in horse-riding gear with whip. Left early.

Checked cricket scores.

Arranged to meet, next week, co-ingénues, not quite the right word, in the organising of the Free Verse book fair; and ditto in the organising of the pop-up shop, July; and a man, once local (that’s him in the cafe on page 107 of Days and Nights), now living in Norway, who has an agent for his novel; and a woman who has a long poem I like and who has been told by her agent that it can’t possibly be published by August, which is when it’s being put on as an opera.

Various days, queued in the post office. Wrote a long letter, by hand, with fountain pen, and posted this.

Said yes to freelance typesetting job.

Said no to several please-publish-me submissions. Started reading excellent manuscript novel, sent indirectly, which almost certainly I won’t publish but will read to the end. Also read: Nick Cave, The Death of Bunny Munro; Peter Stamm, Seven Years; Agota Kristof, The Notebook (for the third time).

Designed cover for a book I may well not publish (depends on how much they ask for the UK rights) but truly deeply madly want to.

Checked cricket scores. Had a haircut. Wrote zilch.

Paid £19.50 for two glasses of wine and a bowl of nuts. Lost crown on tooth from one of those nuts. Thought, for the umpteenth time, about the ridiculously privileged position I seem to have accidentally engineered myself into, and how to get out of this and what I might do when I do.

Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Soeur de l'artiste

This is the cover of the French edition of Dai Vaughan’s Sister of the artist, published by Arléa on 6 June. The painting, Jeune femme, is by Odilon Redon. (The blurb refers to ‘un onirisme puissant – et terriblement anglais!’)

The book is prefaced by a brief note: ‘I once found myself editing a film on which a little of Fanny Mendelssohn’s music was to be used. We asked the researcher to look out a portrait of her, and this was duly received from a commercial picture library. The caption on the back read: “Fanny Mendelssohn – sister of the composer”.’

A copy of that picture was pinned to a wall in Dai Vaughan’s flat. The music and the portrait resulted, eventually, in Sister of the artist: the brother-and-sister composers have become artists, but the manner in which their work is respectively encouraged and thwarted by the conventions of their time still holds. Layered with their story are fragments of folk tales – about language and music, about brothers and sisters, about the making of art. (As a film editor, Dai worked on Granada TV 1970s Disappearing World series, and his knowledge of anthropology – politics and literature too – was extensive; he didn’t usually have to send out a researcher, he did his own.)

The prose is immaculate. A film director on his editing of film, but he might as well have been talking about the writing: ‘No matter how hard I studied just how he had achieved such a perfectly natural flow, rhythm and emotional development in a sequence, it remained somehow beyond precise comprehension – it was always so simple, unostentatious and yet so perfect.’ Dai understood that writing – anything worth doing, really – is both art and craft. It’s certainly not a career. That the writing was separate from the day-job allowed him to write only what he wanted to, needed to: novels (allow a generous definition), essays, poems, fragments. (His publishers include Seren, Rack Press, Quartet, Y Lolfa, University of California Press.)

Dai sent me the manuscript of Sister of the artist just before Christmas in 2011; I liked it, I went to meet him, I said let’s publish next autumn; he mentioned that he was ill, I understood that he had cancer, we published the book in February 2012. He died in June. I had become, to a measure I still can’t reckon, fond of him. No reviews and few readers, but among them a freelance agent who asked if she could try to interest French publishers in the book. Soeur de l’artiste will be published, by chance, exactly one year after the day on which Dai died.

Thursday, 23 May 2013


The above photo is nicked from the very lovely Facebook page of Saturated Space.

The CB editions covers are, as you know, brown card with just type on that. No pictures. (There are one or two exceptions, but let’s not go into that just now.) The self-imposed rule (like a rhyme scheme?) for the type that goes onto the brown card is one colour plus black. A small degree of cheating is allowed: printing a colour at a certain percentage as well as at 100% (see, e.g., D. Nurkse, Voices over Water). In theory this simplifies things: it bypasses the whole argument between author and publisher – a traditional part of publishing, and hugely time-consuming – about the cover design. In practice it’s not that simple. Quite apart from what font, what size of type, we (me plus author) have to decide what colour; and to say blue or green or a kind of orangey red only gets us so far, because there are many orangey reds and only one that will be right. We may well go through as many cover roughs as publishers who do use images as well as type. And always, what you see on screen is never exactly what you get in print – because of, among other variables, the absorbency of the cover material and what happens when you add on lamination.

So to some extent it’s guesswork. But it’s still important: when I take on a book, pretty well the first thing I do – before the nitty-gritty editing, before the text design – is decide what colour it is. Until I’ve got that, it isn’t properly a CBe book.

Years ago, in Earls Court and maybe slightly drunk, a friend was talking about a girl’s yellow dress. He needed to do better than that. We wandered up and down the aisles of a supermarket: this yellow (cans of tuna), this (cerial packets), this (washing-up sponges)? We could have done the same in a bookshop but we’d have been more distracted from the immediate issue.

And today, at Tottenham Court Road tube station at around 7 p.m, there was a woman wearing such an unexpected but gorgeous combination of just two colours that I’m tempted to loosen up the one-colour-plus-black rule, or rebrand the whole thing, or at least do something.

Monday, 20 May 2013

‘So. Farewell then / Salt poetry books / With your lovely jackets …’

(E. J. Thribb, 17½)

Salt Publishing – which has been publishing around 30 poetry collections a year for the past 13 years – will no longer be publishing individual collections (but will keep their anthologies – The Best British Poetry 2013, etc – running).

Salt redrew the map, they opened things up, and they did this with style and they had marketing savvy. And then?

It’s been suggested that Salt should have published fewer books and ‘marketed’ those better. I doubt this would have made a difference. Hindsight is always tedious, and this particular hindsight downplays the extreme difficulties of the context in which Salt was working. (And by the way, though I have heartfelt sympathy for the circa 100 poets rendered publisher-less by Salt’s decision, I’ve always thought it rash for any writer to assume that if a publisher takes on one book then they have entered into a marriage that will last for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health. Authors desert publishers, publishers abandon authors. Fidelity is one option among others.)

For all publishers of poetry, the numbers don’t stack up. First, reading is no longer central to the culture (I’ve quoted before Philip Roth’s prediction that within a few years the number of people who read ‘literary fiction’ will be down to the number who now read Latin). Second, even among readers and book-buyers, poetry is peripheral. In a previous post I quoted figures from Matthew Hollis’s book on Edward Thomas and Robert Frost: a century ago, within a year of its publication an anthology of unknown poets from an unknown press ‘was in its ninth printing and was on its way to 15,000 sales’; today, despite a UK population increase of around 50% since 1912, it’s rare for a poetry collection to sell 1,000, and the great majority sell way, way under that. To look at the usual figures you may need a magnifying glass.

And yet at the same time, an ever-increasing number of would-be poets are signing up, with absolute dedication and often with talent too, to the proliferating creative writing courses; and despite the internet, for many if not most of them the printed book remains – for recognition and status and self-esteem, a necessary thing – the gold standard. At the very least, there’s a supply-and-demand problem here.

A free-market capitalist system is no less bizarre, in its dealings with literature, than any old-style communist regime that favoured socialist realism and sent other forms underground. Especially a system in which basic human concerns are increasingly measured in monetary terms; in which the value/success of a book is calculated according to sales figures; and in which the Arts Council founds its own arguments for funding on ‘economic impact’ (‘if this is the language we need to use to justify the investment we represent, then we should and we will’: Alan Davey, Chief Executive, ACE, 7 May). One of many ‘morbid symptoms’ (Gramsci) this situation leads to is the expectation that poets, competing for a share in the tiny market, self-publicise – an activity requiring wholly different skills from those required to write the stuff, and that can skew both judgement and what gets written.

Meanwhile, we muddle along: alongside Waitrose and Sainsburys, a range of little shops – they come and go – selling organic local produce to niche groups of consumers. Boutique.

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

The Gatsby Academy

Now, prompted by the above photo on the Faber Academy site, I have a new angle: it’s a costume drama. In a stately home a primary and a secondary and a guest tutor and two guest speakers will impart wise words to 15 selected writing students. Selected on the basis of submitting 1,000 words of prose and a cover letter detailing writing experience (‘if any’), but chiefly on their ability to pay £2,000 for the two-week ‘Writer’s Summer School’ (just one writer?). ‘Accommodation not included’. I’m mildly interested in what they’ll all be wearing.

(‘40 hours of teaching’: that’s £50 per hour for each student in a class of 15. ‘25 hours of designated writing time’: but you do get a view of fields and sheep, I imagine. ‘Nearly 20 hours of feedback time’: which brings down the cost per hour, but call the total 55 hours and it’s still around £36 per hour. I could buy many books for the cost of one hour. And you still have to pay for your bed & board.)

The Faber Academy courses – the Guardian Masterclasses too, which have similar fees (£350 for a weekend course on ‘Getting your book published’, £220 for a ‘one-day workshop’ on ‘Secrets of successful self-publishing’) – are insufferably exclusive. They are a money-spinning sub-section of celebrity culture: offering personal contact with semi-famous authors and agents, they sell the promise (absolutely no guarantee) of entry into a certain social/literary network. Don’t. Especially if you’re paying to learn how to ‘craft a pitch to catch the eye of your future publisher’, don’t. For a finished book that has gone through all the hurdles, many reputable publishers pay less than the course fee, and some no advance at all.

The costume-drama comparison comes to mind partly because this week we’re being saturated with publicity for the new film of The Great Gatsby (1922). I like the book, the 1920s dresses too, and especially I like the scene in which a bunch of rich people (I’m quoting myself here, from Recessional) ‘hire a room in the Plaza Hotel – Daisy, Tom, Gatsby, Jordan and Nick – where “opening the windows admitted only a gust of hot shrubbery from the Park” and they bicker about a man called Biloxi and whether Gatsby is really an Oxford man and whether Daisy ever really loved Tom, even when she married him, and then they get in their cars and drive back to Long Island, killing Tom’s mistress on the way’. But it’s not that good. Nick, the bonds-salesman narrator, is compromised and ineffective and bland to a degree that undermines the fine writing of the famous ending and this wasn’t, I think, the intention. (If there has to be another film re-make of Gatsby, transferring the basic story to a different class, a different time, might be interesting; but the backers wouldn’t be happy about losing the costumes, the music.) Compare, for example, James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1936).

Saturday, 11 May 2013

Book-keeping as Outsider art

The above pictures are from the exhibition Souzou: Outsider Art from Japan (at the Wellcome Institute until the end of June). Here’s Brian Sewell writing on the exhibition (my italics): ‘European Outsiders of 1900 and Japanese of 2000 share certain constants, of which the most notable is the obsessive repetition of the minute to make a work of larger, and even gigantic, scale. Everything begins with, as it were, a seed, but the seed does not germinate, flower and fruit, it only produces another seed, and another, and another.’

And here are some photos of pages in the ledger (I don’t do spreadsheets) in which I attempt to keep track of CB editions:

Outsider art is produced, Sewell notes, ‘by anyone who is, at one extreme, intelligent but mildly unhinged, and at the other, either entirely lacking an IQ or raving mad’.

Friday, 10 May 2013

Talking to the Big People

The process of involving the smaller presses in the Free Verse poetry book fair is usually straightforward: we invite them, they say yes/no and if yes pay the table hire and turn up on the day. But we’d like to present the full range of poetry publications, including those of the mainstream publishers, and here the process gets difficult.

For last year’s book fair, held in September 2012, I asked Faber as early as the preceding November if they’d like to take part. And kept on asking, and kept on being told they would ‘have a meeting’ and get back to me. A few days before the event, someone phoned me and said yes, they’d like a table, but they’d have a problem with staffing it because the event was on a Saturday. Bless. Too late anyway, as there were no tables left.

Cape, regarding the same event: after many attempts, I got through to someone in sales who liked the idea of Cape participating but explained that the table hire cost would have to come out of the marketing budget, not the sales budget, and someone would get back to me. They didn’t.

Chatto, this year: an editor has promised to speak to ‘someone in sales’. I’m not expecting any rapid new development.

Faber, this year: after weeks of trying to find out who will make a decision on whether they want a table for this year’s book fair – editorial? sales? marketing? – I’m told it’s the man who runs Faber Factory Plus, the sales service that a few months ago took Carcanet and Bloodaxe under its wing and has, its website boasts, ‘a keen eye for opportunities beyond the traditional book retail trade’. So a while ago I asked FFP if they wanted a table, or maybe more than one table to display the Carcanet and Bloodaxe lists as well as the Faber list, and suggested that as more than half the tables were already taken they should let us know soon. I’m still waiting.

PS: Last night there was a book party for a CBe author and a Bloomsbury author. CBe paid for the wine. I asked Bloomsbury if they’d care to contribute. No, they said, because they didn’t have a budget for this and it wasn’t agreed in advance.

Thursday, 9 May 2013

The unwritten

On a whim, I bought a book of brief essays by photographers on photographs they had not taken. Alongside some predictable pieces – the photo taken without any film in the camera, the car crash at which the photographer had to decide whether to do something useful or get his camera out – there are good ones in which the photographers appear to recognise that what they were seeking to capture simply couldn’t be done.* For a while I mused on the idea of a book of writing by writers on books (stories, poems, memoirs, novels) they had not written.

Or maybe they did start to write but gave up – because the piece fell so far short of their intentions, or because they lacked the skill or experience to carry it through, or because of something as banal as libel laws … The giving up, or the not even starting, could be accounted a failure – but because failing is what writers do most of the time, in relation to what they are seeking to achieve (at best, with luck and skill and perseverance, we fail better), that’s hardly a helpful way of looking at it. More interesting is the idea of resistance, of how a subject may not just be resistant to being written about (this happens all the time: the engagement with this resistance is why we write)** but on occasion prove wholly intractable, impossible to bring to page.

(Soldiers returning from war: it is common for them not to speak of their war experiences, even – or especially – to their families. Children who have been abused may be given crayons and paper, or soft toys, to picture or act out what they cannot put into words. And it’s not just the bad stuff that’s resistant: ‘happiness writes white’.)

Famously, some writers simply stop writing: Rimbaud, Juan Rulfo. I’d guess that many writers have unwritten books – material that continues to resist, however often they return to it. Resistance is possibly the main spur of formal experiment: if the given forms obstruct rather than facilitate what you are trying to write, you have to change them or invent new ones. (And even when a book does get written, these truisms about writing apply: that what is left out is as important as what is put in; and that though you may think you are writing about one thing, the finished work may turn out to be about something else.)

I still think this is not a bad idea for a book. I like the perverse aspect of writing about what you cannot write about. At present it remains unwritten.

* There’s an instance of not-photographing in Dan O’Brien’s War Reporter, out from CBe in September. The reporter/photographer Paul Watson is invited to attend the public stoning of a rapist in Somalia. After the man is dead, the court sheikhs are angry that he did not take out his camera: ‘Why did you not/ take pictures? Because you wanted me to./ Because this time I did not want the world/ to see.’

** It happens in translation too: the resistance of one language to being taken over into another. Anne Carson: ‘There is something maddeningly attractive about the untranslatable, about a word that goes silent in transit.’