Friday, 28 February 2014

On Mavis Gallant

I had a memory of a Donald Barthelme story cast in the form of an author interview and went looking but couldn’t find it. (Perhaps I was thinking of ‘How I Write My Songs’, which reads like a parody of the kind of ‘helpful tips’ sometimes offered to would-be writers.) But I did find Jhumpa Lahiri’s 2009 interview with Mavis Gallant (published in Granta), which in places itself reads like a story – a story in which the efforts of keen young writer to extract wisdom from acclaimed older writer are continuously thwarted, but always politely, by the older writer’s refusal to analyse. Examples:

JL: Chronologically, it [MG’s first novel] goes back and forth. Why did you decide to do that?
MG: I can’t tell you. It’s what I wanted.
JL: Can you talk about what inspired the story [‘The Remission’)?
MG: I don’t know. I just had an image of them getting down from the train, which I didn’t use in the story.
JL: This is one of many examples in your stories where at some point or another we’re in every character’s head. It’s an amalgam of points of view … Was this something that came easily?
MG: It must have, or I wouldn’t have done it.
JL: Was there any reason, when you were working on these stories, why you were going back to Montreal in your mind?
MG: I couldn’t tell you. If I knew that I’d stop writing.
JL: Why?
MG: Because it has to come from something unknown in you. If I knew that I wouldn’t bother writing. I’d be something else. I’d be a champion cricket player. Maybe I am a champion cricket player, in another life.
JL: Did you ever work in cafes?
MG: As a waitress?

The effect is comic. But JL’s questions are understandable. In the preface to the interview she remembers reading her first Mavis Gallant story, ‘The Ice Wagon Going Down the Street’: ‘at once dense and nimble, urgent and orderly, light-hearted and dark; about experience both predstrian and profound … It seemed to have been written in a radically different way than any story I’d read before’ – which is often how one feels when discovering a new writer, and one wants to know how it’s done. Mavis Gallant died ten days ago, aged ninety-one. Her stories are remarkable, wonderful, and they keep their writerly secrets. They were the subject of one of the earliest pieces, in 2007, in Chris Power’s online ‘Brief Survey of the Short Story’. Rather than get elbow strain from the Bloomsbury Selected Stories, which has more than 900 pages, I suggest the two NYRB books, Paris Stories (selected by Michael Ondaatje) and Varieties of Exile (selected by Russell Banks).

Wednesday, 26 February 2014

A short history of CBe in 41 bites

Off-cuts, paper cuts, 2007 to now:

1 After months of batting cover try-outs back and forth, one of the books still had a name spelt wrong on the cover. The mis-spelt editor had noticed this on the proofs but had assumed it was a joke. My fault.

2 Natural Mechanical by J. O. Morgan was an editor’s dream: 40 lines arriving out of the blue as an attachment to an email asking if I’d like to read more, from an author who had never before had anything published, and the book going on to win a literary prize. The title tells it true: this is Rocky’s workshop when I visited him in 2009 in Inverness-shire, during the early stages of his complete restoration of a 1929 Brooklands Riley from a rusted chassis:

3 I did a short print run of J. O. Morgan’s Long Cuts with a colour cover for a shop which said that trying to sell the standard edition was like trying to sell a brown paper bag. Some of those are still in a box – free to anyone who orders any other title from the website and asks for one.

4 Naive early error: to assume that a fair few of the people I’d worked with in publishing would buy a book or two. In fact most people who work in the trade expect to get books for free. There have been honourable exceptions.

5 Best CBe-related headline (relates to Jennie Walker’s 24 for 3, McKitterick Prize 2008, one of the first four CBe books in 2007 and now published by Bloomsbury):

6 Number of trips to Blissetts in Acton, who print most of the books, in 2013: not logged, but around 20 at a guess. Chris the printer once house-sat my cats; during that period he was side-swiped by a fork-lift truck and sent to hospital; bandaged, patched up, he bypassed the queue for painkillers at the hospital pharmacy and instead came back to the house, fed the cats, drank the malt whisky I’d left him and went back to work.

7 Speediest printing turnarounds: ordering a reprint from Blissetts one afternoon and collecting the books the next day. Sending files of a new book to the other printer, ImprintDigital in Devon, and receiving a proof copy for approval next day in the post.

8 Number of trips over to the distributor Central Books in Hackney Wick with boxes of books in 2013: 16. Regine in the upstairs office once asked me to sign copies of my own old poetry books; a warehouseman in the downstairs delivery space comments on my very occasional TLS pieces. These people read books and they care. Below, Central Books, a very fine building:

9 A box of a given size holds more slim books of poetry than 200-page novels; the slim books are also cheaper to post. On the other hand, all boxes of books, whether containing poetry or fiction, are heavy. A large proportion of peasants’ work used to consist of carrying things; this manual-labour aspect of the job is something I enjoy (which explains in part my dilly-dallying about ebooks).

10 It’s pouring with rain as I lug boxes of books from a Tube station for a book launch at Waterstones Piccadilly (it was going to be in an art college, but the author had been having a hard time and she really did need a place where she could wear a dress), and I’m running late and I’m thinking, this is OK, this is publishing, and I’m saving money. At another book launch I’m drinking in the Colony Room in Soho and because I’m happy I sign a fat cheque for membership and the club closes a few months later and this is OK too. But I could have saved a little money there.

11 Number of trips to the post office in 2013: 139. Best conversation overheard while standing with CBe book packages in the queue: woman in front of me, very loudly, to man standing in doorway: ‘And you shagged that bitch down the Askew Road and you didn’t even wear a rubber.’ Man moves forward, I think he’s going to hit her to I step between them. Man to me, quietly: ‘Fuck off. I’m having a private conversation with my wife.’

12 Highest sales out of Central Books to date (i.e., not counting sales from the website, and people/bookshops I’ve talked into buying direct) for titles published before the end of 2013: just under 1,000. Lowest: just over 10. I look at these numbers, look hard, as if they’re trying to tell me something. It’s a kind of staring competition, who blinks first.

13 Is there any other trade in which shops can order the wares and then, if they can’t sell them, return them and get their money back? With books this is standard. Except on the occasion on which I sold several hundred copies of a title to a chain of bookshops, which several months later wanted to return most of them and have their money refunded. No, I said. And because I’d sold them direct, and there was nothing about returns on my basic invoice, they were stumped. A tiny and incidental victory.

14 Most over-qualified book-carrier: Anthony Thwaite, OBE, born 1930, carrying bundles of Nicky Singer’s Knight Crew on his trial shift as a warehouseman in 2009:

15 I’m not sure that Shakespeare & Co in Paris, where the CBe authors Beverley Bie Brahic, Gabriel Josipovici and Wiesiek Powaga read on an evening in November 2010, ever paid for the books sold but it was fun. This is Sylvia Whitman, brandishing:

16 Built in 2011, a roadside shrine to St Nicholas Lezard, patron saint of small presses, whose ‘paperback of the week’ columns in the Guardian have featured seven CBe books:

17 The man in the rear-view driving mirror on the website home page is my father, 1940s I think. (He wasn’t a reader. When he was courting my mum he took her to a wrestling match; she, then working as a librarian at the Brotherton in Leeds, took him to the first play he’d seen. He died aged 51.) The children on page 70 of Nights and Days in W12 are my own, many years ago; the writer in the café on page 107 of the same book is a man I’m vaguely related to (son of a cousin) and he wasn’t just idling: his first novel will be published this year.

18 The man who was in prison for 22 years and sent me his writing from there, and then we met in a café in Shepherds Bush market. The woman who called round with her portfolio of poems and modelling photos: this one, she said, pausing at a photo in which she’s lying on a sofa and wearing about 3 millimetres of clothing, would be good for the cover? Her mother had doubts. What did I think?

19 The manuscript of Jonathan Barrow’s The Queue really was found in a drawer of his office desk on the day after his death: this is not a literary conceit.

20 Two things that give Gabriel Josipovici’s Only Joking a slight period feel: you can’t now smoke in restaurants and cafés, and the classified football results on radio at five o’clock on Saturdays are no longer spoken by James Alexander Gordon.

21 The average age of the authors published by CBe in 2010 was 80-something. I tried and failed to sell a story on this to The Oldie and Saga magazine.

22 The causes of death of over 500 writers, composers, etc, are listed in This Is Not a Novel by David Markson, who himself is one of three authors who have died since their books were published by CBe. (The youngest was Erik Houston, at the age of 37. His novel The White Room was one of the first four titles; it’s now out of print but I still stand by it. He was a concert violinist who played around the world, then teacher. He had one of those very rare afflictions. In hospital, there was a day when he was technically dead for something ridiculous like ten minutes, and then was alive again. And then, later, not. I think about Erik a lot.)

23 In the flat of Dai Vaughan – who died in June 2012; whose Sister of the artist CBe published in February 2012, a month and a bit after he’d sent me the manuscript – there were tiny sculptures that he’d made out of Edam cheese. Last year I made things out of crushed beer cans; before all this started there was a period when I made ships (and a mermaid) in bottles.

24 The CB of CBe was not intended to be just me. Long story. (Nor, at the time of the first four books, were there any plans to do more.)

25 There is a customer who has bought one copy of every single CBe book direct from the website and I have no idea who this person is.

26 Entering a book for a prize that required an author photo, I sent a photograph of the author’s poem titled ‘Self-Portrait in Shades’ because I had no other visual evidence to offer, and nor did he and nor did the internet. Offered readings, the author responded: ‘I’d prefer not to.’ I can understand this. I can understand it very well.

27 When one of the books wins a prize – to date, a fiction prize (McKitterick, best first novel by a writer aged over 40), a translation prize (Scott Moncrieff), and the really freaky thing of each of the three first poetry collections from CBe winning the Aldeburgh First Collection Prize (and each of them also being Forward shortlisted) – I feel like a parent watching their child in the school nativity play: pride, even though one knows it’s just a play, and next year there’ll be a different Mary and Joseph.

28 That some agents are willing to accept my minuscule offers for rights to publish fiction is due to the extreme generosity of larger publishers who wish to buy rights to cookery books and the memoirs of footballers.

29 The agent who accepted my offer for UK rights and then spent what must surely have been more than my offer on getting the contract checked by their legal department, which suggested I add in something about second serial rights, which I did, though I still don’t know what second serial rights are.

30 The big-name agents who simply don’t reply to emails, and the mainstream publishers too, and others. It may be company policy. More likely, in any company over a certain size there’s an assumption that receiving and opening an email or envelope is a sufficient task in itself. If anything else needs to be done, there are servants for that.

31 Or if they do reply, they do so with same degree of attention as a former literary editor of the Observer who, after I’d sent him the first four books, all prose fiction, and then followed up by sending again, assured me that he’d passed on the books to the poetry editor.

32 There is a clause in the standard contract that basically states that if after signing the author gets an offer from someone richer and better-looking, altogether more eligible, then the author is free to go off with them, as long as I can have the first four months. It’s a sort of prenuptial.

33 I’ve turned down books and seen them published elsewhere and thought, good for them, I was wrong. On the other hand, I’ve turned down books and seen them published elsewhere, by publishers posher than me, and thought, I was still right. On the third hand, I’ve turned down a book and two years later changed my mind and emailed the author at 5 a.m. in the morning to ask whether it has been placed elsewhere and by lunchtime the book was on track.

34 February 2013, letter from Arts Council England: ‘I am sorry to tell you …’ Three in a row. Ho-hum. (Can one apply to the Arts Council for cigarette money, for alcohol money? Without those two legal drugs there’d have been nothing.) The three stages of reaction: (1) slump; (2) shrug; (3) a light-headed sense of freedom.

35 What continues to surprise is how much can be done without any funding at all, and with small amounts of money. Back in 2007, £2,500 covered the printing & binding of 250 copies each of the first four books, author advances, a basic one-page website and a couple of lunches for proofreaders. CBe has been, roughly, self-sustaining ever since but only because editing, design, typesetting, time, etc, are not costed in.

36 Letters addressed to ‘The Accounts Department’ or to ‘The Reviews Manager’ or ‘The Art Director’ or ‘To whom it may concern’: the cat (one of five) who resides on my desk stirs, stretches, yawns, curls back on the low heap of manuscripts.

37 The emails asking for my ‘submission guidelines’. I honestly don’t care: email attachment or hard copy, double-spaced or single, margins wide or narrow, name on every page or not, whatever. If you write and want to send, then just do. It’s not for me to tell you how.

38 The Circulating Library – see here: the idea was to send off a bunch of free books, asking the recipients to pass on to others after reading, and so on (and thereby expand awareness of CBe and maybe generate a few sales from the curious) – was a drowned duck: no emails from happy strangers, not one (as far as I know) extra sale.

39 This desk in the living room, but also the in-town office: the café on the first floor of Foyles, Charing Cross Road. (Deals have been done there, on backs of envelopes. And all praise to that shop, which actually asked to stock the books, rather than me having to make the first move.) If it’s too busy, the Pillars of Hercules. Once, the place around the corner where you can get a bottle of wine for a fiver.

40 The two points in time at which I knew the Free Verse Poetry Book Fair was worth the effort: (1) when in 2011 I was being shown a church hall in Exmouth Market by the woman who was in charge of hiring it out and her labrador dog, chasing a ball, went skittering and scrabbling across the recently polished floor; (2) lunchtime on the day of the first fair when, out for a cigarette, I said to the busker in the street, Brooke Sharkey, there was a book fair going on, and she said she’d move on, and I suggested she come in and do a set onstage instead and she did. (The book fair was repeated in 2012 and 2013, with over fifty presses participating; from 2014 CBe is ducking out, leaving it in the more than capable hands of Chrissy Williams and Joey Connolly.)

41 The stuffed gorilla that sat outside the CBe/Eyewear pop-up shop in Portobello Road in July last year appears to be one of a limited edition made for the California zoo where Koko (born 1971) lives. How it came to a junk shop in the Askew Road, Shepherds Bush, I have no idea. (Below, Koko on the right; on the left, seated, Wiesiek Powaga, translator from the Polish of Stefan Grabinski’s In Sarah’s House and Andrzej Bursa’s Killing Auntie and other work.)

Monday, 24 February 2014

We need to talk about ‘the’

(Prompted by a Facebook post by Anne Berkeley: Ukraine / The Ukraine, etc.)

Two days a week I have a job in which I spend an unexpected amount of time reading essays by Chinese students for whom ‘the’ and ‘a’, these skimpy little things, appear to be optional extras, and usually they choose not. There are some grammatical rules; I try to explain them; they seem a bit wavery, as rules do when you try to spell them out.

Short digression here on book covers for books with titles like The Goldfinch, The Bourne Ultimatum, The Glass House, etc. Often the designers seem a little embarrassed by the ‘The’: they drag down the type-size, they de-bold it, they slip it in sideways. (One of the first CBe books was titled The White Room; I was dithering about the typography on the cover; I asked my go-to designer man and he told me bluntly that the ‘The’ is just as much a part of the title as the other words, and he was right.)

Back to close-focus nitty-gritty. Book covers often quote from reviews from The Times, The Economist, etc. There was once a copy-editor’s rule that those were the only two periodicals to have The thus, italic and upper-case T. I can guess in outline the cv of the man (I presume) who legislated. The current Oxford Hart’s Rules (subtitled ‘The Handbook of Style for Writers and Editors’) loosens up a bit: ‘It is a common convention in referring to periodicals to include an initial capitalized and italicized The in titles which consist only of the definite article and one other word, but to exclude the definite article definitive article from longer titles.’ Examples given: The Economist, the New Yorker. For the latter, I’d disagree: The New Yorker. Which is how they have it on their website (though that’s hardly the deciding factor; the Guardian and the Spectator also both include ‘The’, though tucking it back or fading it; the Paris Review has it small and italic). The first book I pull down from my shelves has four quotes on the back cover: Spectator, Evening Standard, The Times, Daily Telegraph. I suspect that copy went through an old-school copy-editor; and copy-editors are, often, of an older generation than authors, and therefore working to older habits.

All pedantic, I know, and I’m more than happy to settle for consistency as opposed to correctness. Which doesn’t help the Chinese. We could go and discuss this in the The Eagle, or the Eagle, or the Red Lion.

Sunday, 23 February 2014

On James Buchan

There was a time, long ago, when I didn’t know that my cousins were adopted, and then there was a time when I did know. I’m pretty sure that no one told me; we didn’t talk, much. I think this is how knowledge often arrives: seepage. For many, this used to be the way even the most basic knowledge of sex was acquired. It’s a process, not a simple transfer of information; it may be how we learn language.

Something of the kind happens in one of the linked stories in James Buchan’s Slide, to both the reader and the narrator. ‘I don’t know what happened that night at the Hinkleys, except what everyone else knows’: a man is found dead on the morning after a party in Kuwait; the first autopsy concludes alcohol poisoning; later autopsies find bruises ‘congruent with’ a blow or a fall; there are accusations of a cover-up; the couple holding the party, after being found guilty of of ‘possessing alcohol and staging a gathering at which the sexes danced promiscuously together’, are expelled from Kuwait. There’s a casual paragraph in which ‘I didn’t know what I was waiting up for, until I saw Bill’s head teeter to one side, mouth open, his left arm dangle, his cigarette fizz on the wet concrete. Caroline’s chair squeaked, then I knew.’ Then: ‘I know something else, but it happened much later, and I’m not sure it amounts to anything.’ Eight years on, the narrator meets the couple at Cheltenham Races; drinks with them, goes on to a party, dances drunkenly with the woman and falls: ‘I hit the chess table, and felt it sway and teeter over. The bronze horse danced. Picture lights. Mouths gape. Blue stripes. A burst of sparks. Black shoes. Kurt Axel.’

After Slide, which is the book I’ve most enjoyed this year, I’ve been on a James Buchan ride. A very simple example of seepage in Buchan’s first novel, A Parish of Rich Women: a drunk character leaves a party on a motorbike to go to a heroin dealer; at some stage during the three following pages of comings-and-goings and off-cuts of strained dialogue, I realise that the character is dead. A Parish of Rich Women juxtaposes English high-life partying with the Lebanese civil war (up to, I think, the massacres in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in 1982). These are worlds Buchan knows about: Eton, Oxford – where he read Arabic and Persian – then reporting from the Middle East. He also knows about money: his non-fiction includes a book on Adam Smith and Frozen Desire: A Inquiry into the Meaning of Money, which I raided when I wrote my own tiny Recessional in 2009. The financial knowledge pervades High Latitudes, which is set at the time of the stock market crash of 1987 and Lloyds teetering, that word again, and has passages that play with relish with the language of leveraged buy-outs, derivatives, laid-off insurance risks. Also in the mix: class and drugs, a hard-left union man, the 18th century, the Jockey Club, Margaret Thatcher, an oil spill off Alaska, the Antarctic, all in back-and-forth episodes spun around a self-made businesswoman (‘You’ll only feel worse afterwards,’ she warns the men who want to share her body as well as her business) by a remote narrator (‘I don’t know what happened next, because I can’t be everywhere’) who may or may not be the author and who claims to have written the whole thing in three weeks and I more than believe him, I’d follow him anywhere.

Buchan also knows first-hand about Iran, setting of his novel A Good Place to Die and subject of (his most recent book) the non-fiction Days of God: The Revolution in Iran and Its Consequences. So much knowledge. It isn’t ‘research’; this has been his life. In the fiction – though in High Latitudes there are explicatory, spelling-out passages: as if for the fun of it, this too I can do – it’s mostly just there in the background, as context, filtering through in asides, little jolts in the narrative momentum, brief scene-setting descriptions. He doesn't write 'literary fiction'; he takes, usually, an off-the-peg form – High Latitudes is subtitled ‘a romance’; or thriller, or ghost story – and jumps in, vastly over-qualified for the job in hand. He has nothing to lose but some reader expectations. Slide distils a vast range of experience into a series of self-contained stories (set in Oxford/London, Iran, Kuwait, Warsaw, Kiev, New York, New Mexico, Barbados, rural England) that deliver elliptically and in the end round up to something complete, a novel maybe, though that’s hardly the point. The point is in the writing. (Slide is out of print, of course. From AbeBooks, 60p + postage.)

Next up, Heart’s Journey in Winter: Germany 1983, East-West politics, deceit, blackmail, betrayal, so territory galore for slow-seepage story-telling, for bafflement and a suspicion of knowledge, too late. I first read Heart’s Journey soon after it came out and was underwhelmed; I now believe that was entirely my own failing, and that Michael Hofmann’s declarative opening sentence in his review of that novel – ‘I don’t believe this country has a better writer to offer than James Buchan’ – may be very close to the mark.

PS: a week later, Sunday evening, 2 March: nearing the end of Heart's Journey. Hofmann is right.

Sunday, 16 February 2014

Where are the keys to my Porsche?

There is so much money sloshing around in the writing world right now. If you laid all the people on creative writing courses in the country end-to-end, the line would stretch to – oh, round the world, probably. (Well, not quite: assuming an average height of 6 feet, there’d need to be 13,147,200 of them to get all the way round. But we’re heading there.) And then if you add up the fees they are paying, and add to that the salaries of their teachers, you’d get a little dizzy. You’d need a lie-down, to think about this.

Quite aside from the arguments about whether or not you can teach writing, it’s a good thing – no? – that so many people are seriously involved in writing, and are being introduced to writers they might never otherwise have come across, and are learning stuff, and are making friendships and connections. And if you’re reading this on Mars, you’re probably thinking that, given this expanding constituency, publishers are competing with ever higher advances to sign up the most talented writers coming out of the courses, and that both writers and publishers are driving around in Porsches.

So where are the keys to my Porsche? I seem to have mislaid them. Advances are low (a number of publishers don’t pay any). Mainstream publishers are risk-averse. There’s a range of small presses but most are tiny and can’t afford to pay staff, let alone themselves. Given the internet, books are a hard sell. Bookshops are closing. Where are the bright young writers coming out of the courses going to get their books published? Where, and how, are they going to live?

This post was prompted by recent attention to the housing crisis (the piece by James Meek in the LRB , a full-page review of a book on this in Saturday’s Guardian). I’m not suggesting any publishing ‘crisis’, if there is one, is in any way comparable to the housing mess, which is vastly more serious, but it would be good to have some reasonably authoritative analysis of the situation. At present I doubt we even have the basic information to make one. Neilsen records annual book sales, but the figures don’t include most books sold at public readings, nor books sold from small-press websites, nor (I think) the sales from Amazon marketplace or AbeBooks, etc. Sales from second-hand shops, of course not. Industry ‘experts’ make generalisations based on those figures. No one, as far as I know, except in a random way that includes only certain respondents, is recording income to writers. Most of the information that people have, and make decisions by, is anecdotal or hearsay.

Examples of questions I wouldn’t mind knowing the answers to (and which might be of interest to anyone contemplating a creative writing course). What’s a standard mainstream advance for a first novel (i.e., a figure not skewed by the occasional way-over-the-top one)? A poetry book? Standard mainstream sales for a first novel? Do reviews sell books? (Well, do they? If so, which reviews and where?) What does sell books? How on earth do agents make money from literary (as opposed to cookery) writers? How many people work in publishing for less than the minimum wage? (Interns, obviously – how many? – but not just those.) How much do commissioning editors get paid? (Why, why, don't mainstream publishers reply to emails?) If you don’t want to self-publicise, are you still allowed to publish? (Well yes, by me, but the overall anecdotal answer seems to be no.) Does a creative writing qualification (BA, MA, PhD) actually count for anything, make any difference at all? Point here being, X will tell you one thing and Y another, but very few people have any idea. We work blind.

All that money I mentioned that’s sloshing around – I know the fees for the courses are largely debt money, but it’s still money (Daily Telegraph headline, 4 January 2014: ‘Government to sell £12bn of student loans’). And of course for the fees of up to several thousand pounds for many of the private courses – Faber Academy, Guardian Masterclasses, etc – the government doesn’t lend, you have to pay your own way. Social selection. (Many of the courses, public and private, have on their websites a tab labelled ‘success stories’ or similar, in which they detail former students’ publishing achievements. Fair enough: this is advertising. Without any information about how much financial reward a first-time-published writer might expect, it tends towards the misleading.) Point here being, zero of this money is going to either writers or publishers.

Meanwhile the Arts Council stands on the sidelines, hamstrung by their own criteria for dishing out money. For the regular funding they contribute to a very small number of publishers which have proved themselves over time, all praise. Regarding the odd thousand pounds or so that they disburse to individual writers, publishers, festivals – what’s all that about? Tinkering. Bringing back the Net Book Agreement, or a version of that, would actually make a difference to the whole book culture, but neither they – nor any political party – is interested. Point here being, lip service is being paid, but absolutely no more than that.

Point overall being, vast amounts of money are being shifted around in the cause of good writing. Most of this money is going to the universities offering creative writing courses (which are cheaper to run than, say, art courses, which require, or used to, the provision of studio space). Neither writers nor publishers are benefiting from this (the writers who teach the courses, yes, and good for them, but the assumption that writers either can or should teach, which is what the current system is based on, is disrespect to writers). There is a disconnect between academia and actual publishing (getting an occasional agent or editor in to speak to the students is just token). There is no authoritative information available about the economics of either writing or publishing. Publishing continues to be, as it always has been, a slapdash, inefficient business, and that may be its saving grace.

PS. Suggestions. Back to the NBA. Repeat: back to the NBA. A levy of 10% on creative writing course fees to a fund for publishers (to be paid by the universities; the students are quite enough in debt already). Actually that smacks far too much of admin, so cancel. Muddle through. Child-minders are regulated, loan sharks not, publishers not.

Saturday, 15 February 2014

‘The devil’s own job’

A while ago – on 9 May of last year, precisely: here – I wrote about an imagined book of writing about not writing. (I need to watch what I wish for; I once knew a place in which a baffling amount of the quite fanciful things talked about actually came to pass – a squirrel moving in with someone, for example.) Now I’ve read The Loss Library, by the South African writer Ivan Vladislavic, in which he draws from his past notebooks ideas for stories and examines ‘why they eluded him’.

The Loss Library, I now see, was recommended to me in a comment following last year’s blog post. One of my deaf-and-blind days, it seems. I eventually came to it by a much more circuitous route: I was asked last month to review Vladislavic’s novel Double Negative (published in the UK by And Other Stories), which I liked, and so went looking for other things he’d written. Double Negative itself is not inapposite. (I enjoyed writing that.) A photograph is set up and then not taken. The narrator happens to possess a collection of ‘dead letters’ – letters sent during the apartheid years that were never delivered – each of which is itself a story-in-waiting, and a young journalist cannot understand why the narrator isn’t making some kind of project out of these: knocking on doors, asking questions, finding out. The narrator hasn’t even opened the envelopes. He takes photographs of walls but is incurious about what lies behind them: ‘I don’t want the inside story.’ The novel spans the historic change from white rule in South Africa to ANC rule, and one of its leading characters is a world-renowned photographer, but the narrator’s engagement with both is peripheral (he’s in London, avoiding military service, at the time of the actual changeover of power). The novel is in part about the gap between individual experience and ‘history’; it is also about the limits of art/writing (which may also be its strengths). The book’s refusal to make claims, to pretend that art can do the kind of transcendent things that some believe it’s there for, is attractive.

Back to The Loss Library, which of course manages to bring in many other things besides not-writing: hats, memorials, photographs, dragon lizards in the Dutch East Indies, colonialism, OuLiPo, a tour of a library containing all the books never written (conducted by a librarian with nice legs), dictionaries, book collectors … Reasons for the stories eluding the writer include the discovery that ‘he [Robert Walser] is not the true subject of my story and that is why I cannot finish it’; too much reading of an initially inspiring possible source text; ‘lack of stamina’ (‘The idea was crushing. I lay awake at night, filled with gloom and overwhelmed by tedium’); ‘too much concern with precedence’; over-elaboration; the fiction turning out to be ‘less satisfying than the factual account’; the realisation that some trunks containing possible source material are important ‘less as repositories of evidence than as objects interesting and valuable in themselves’. The Loss Library is also an object interesting and valuable in itself: the above photo shows the first of twelve collages tipped in (I think the phrase is) at the start of each section.

So where does the book go now? On the shelf, I think, with Chekhov’s Notebook, which includes many brief notes for stories that were never written (‘A schoolboy treats a lady to dinner in a restaurant. He has only one rouble, twenty kopecks. The bill comes to four roubles, thirty kopecks. He has no money and begins to cry. The proprietor boxes his ears. He was talking to the lady about Abyssinia’; ‘That the aunt suffered and did not show it gave him the impression of a trick’.) And Henry James’s Complete Notebooks, which has many of the same (on the first page I open: ‘The idea of a rich woman nuancée, condemned, who has everything – so everything to lose and give up – wanting to arrange with little poor woman to die for her: the latter having nothing to lose’). And Brief Lives by the New Zealand writer Chris Price, an anthology of fragments (which happens to include a section explicitly modelled on the Chekhov: ‘A town of small dogs and well-kept lawns’; ‘Miss E., in a writing workshop: “My friends have all told me they love this story. Are they all wrong?”’). And, why not, Will Eaves’s The Absent Therapist, reviewed by Nick Lezard in the Guardian today: ‘Here, in roughly 250 sections ranging in length from one line to a page and a half, are various mini-narratives, thoughts and compressions of stories all told by different voices about different people and places and things … The whole book is like someone deeply charismatic and charming daring you not to find them insane. It’s wonderful.’

Vladislavic: ‘Not writing is always a relief and sometimes a pleasure. Writing about what cannot be written, by contrast, is the devil’s own job. Yet words on a page make all things possible. Any line, even this one, may be a place to begin.’ So maybe it’s not all pointless. Maybe the mark of good writing is that it includes the unwritten.

Declaration of interest: CBe has been, above all else, the most wonderful distraction activity, and one of the motivations for my not taking on any new titles is my curiosity about what it’s been distracting me from. Writing, perhaps. In the early summer I’ll be going off for a month with that in mind. We shall see.

Monday, 3 February 2014

Chasing prizes

On the one hand, the four lit prizes that CBe books have won (plus watch this space), and the several shortlistings, and without the little flurries of publicity (plus a few sales) attached it would have been harder to keep CBe going.

Prizes – and the news stories they generate – help keep the show on the road. They’re ubiquitous: from the big ones that keep the riffraff out (the Booker, the Costa and the Dylan Thomas all require the submitting publisher to contribute a large sum of money towards publicity for books that reach the shortlist stage; the Guardian First Book award requires £180 just to enter) to the ones that welcome all (13,000 entries to the National Poetry Competition last year). Where there is a perception that the existing prizes reward only a certain kind of book, another one is set up (the Goldsmiths). For small presses, prizes are a traditional way of creating income: get a writer with a known name to judge, offer publication (book/pamphlet/anthology) as prize, charge a few quid entry fee, and it’s hard, I think, given the number of writers longing for publication, not to turn a profit. (The simple reason why CBe has not tried this is that I dread having to publish work that I myself don’t like.)

On the other hand … Though I read on average more than a book a week, and more fiction than poetry, I haven’t read a Booker Prize winner since 2001, and of the 65 titles on the shortlists since that year I’ve read just seven.

Prizes ritualise the element of competition that is there from the start – from the day you send off a poem or story to a magazine, and thereby compete with others for the available space; through the struggles to convince an agent or publisher that your work is more worth their attention than the other submissions; and on, after publication, to the shouting of your wares in the marketplace. But rituals, rites, ceremonies, are constructs, not real life; nor are prizes literature, though they are not unrelated.

Prizes are generally conservative: they tend to reward fine examples of forms of writing that are familiar. With any more than two judges, they are being judged by committees, which themselves tend to deliver conservative judgements. Prizes influence what is sold and read. Do they influence what is written? Indirectly, maybe. Agents and mainstream publishers follow the money; if you’re writing ‘literary fiction’, or even poetry, you may well have more luck with them if your work accords with the type of writing that wins – or is expected to win – major prizes, with attendant publicity and sales. And if that is so, then the range of writing being published mainstream is narrowed. (Just as, in schools, the measurement of success by grades narrows the focus of teaching towards the criteria by which grades are assessed, and narrows the syllabus too.)

On the third hand, I doubt that any serious writer actually sets out to write a prize-winning book. Nor do publishers at the CBe end of the scale take on books on the basis of whether or not they are potential prize material. I can celebrate prize-winners but I don’t have to take prizes literally (‘best’ book?), and I can make my own choices about what to read.

(The above picture shows, I think, a satyr play at the 5th-century-BC City Dionysia, at which prizes were awarded for tragedies. Forward Foundation: can we too please have a satyr play? Imagine entering your play and building up your hopes only to find that Aeschylus has won again.)