Sunday 20 December 2015


A lot of people are happy to spend a lot of money going to see ‘the new’ Star Wars film or ‘the new’ James Bond. On the other hand, I remember copy-editing a book by a tired author who, following the success of a particular novel, had been commissioned by his publisher to write two more with the same lead characters; replying to my copy-editing queries, he thanked me for attending so closely to ‘this awful tosh’.

Sequels are tricky things. Last year CBe published Agota Kristof’s The Notebook, which found a lot of admiring readers. This year CBe published the short follow-up novels: 2 Novels: The Proof, The Third Lie. Tristan Foster, naming his ‘top reads of 2015’ on the 3:AM blog, mentions that ‘I read the sequels to The Notebook by Agota Kristof this year and think about them often enough. About how Kristof totally upended the first and how brave I thought that was, but mainly about how shocked I was by the difference in tone and narrative style. So why aren’t they on the list? I wish I hadn’t read them at all.’

In 2013 CBe published Dan O’Brien’s War Reporter, another book that found many admiring readers. It won a prize, was shortlisted for another, and was called by Patrick McGuinness in the Guardian ‘A masterpiece of truthfulness and feeling, and a completely sui generis addition not just to writing about war but to contemporary poetry’. This year CBe published O’Brien’s New Life, which tracks the war reporter Paul Watson through the aftermath of the so-called Arab Spring and into Syria, and includes the black comedy of Watson and O’Brien pitching a TV show based on war reporters to Hollywood producers. New Life has received almost no attention, and found fewer readers than the first book. (Is this in part because of the subject matter? Have we reached a war-reporting threshold, beyond which it feels like not ‘news’ but ‘more of the same’?)

Anyway, here is a US review of New Life that hardly starts promisingly: ‘I’m no stranger to lamenting the failures of sequels … when a poet writes a sequel, it’s hard to resist the opportunity to skewer it.’ Oh, but read on: ‘This book deserves more praise than I have room – for its courage, for its innovation, for its empathy – and other critics have and will say more. But as for me, New Life left me wanting to read more from Dan O’Brien rather than more about his book. His is the type of poetry we cannot afford to neglect or neglect to return to.’

Friday 4 December 2015

Not your usual poetry podcast

Decades ago – truly – I read a piece by Peter Levi in which he argued that a test of good poetry is whether it can be read, and still claim its space, in any place, situation, context: not just sitting comfortably at home ‘with your nine drinks lined up on the side table in soldierly array’ (that’s from a Donald Barthelme story) but on an overcrowded train, in hospital, at work, at play …

A test case is here. The link is to a podcast from LA in which Dan O’Brien (above) is a guest on a podcast whose other guests – three women, one man – are all American comedy actors. It’s long: an hour and 13 minutes. Dan reads poems (from Scarsdale, War Reporter and New Life, all from CBe) at roughly 6 minutes in, 16 minutes, 34, 45 and 57 minutes. The rest of it is quick-fire banter: funny, daft, obscene. No one has time to even blink. There are riffs on racoons, dildos, the poetry-reading hmmm. The whole is a mash-up of different registers: super-witty improvised joshing and the stark, deliberated poems. You may hate it. I think it’s wonderful.

Friday 27 November 2015

Books of the Year chosen by CBe authors

I asked some of the writers published by CBe to recommend books (not necessarily published during 2015). The only rule: titles published by CBe not eligible. The name of each chooser – listed in alpha order – is followed by a link to their own book or books on the CBe website.

There are hints in the below as to how this end-of-year formula might be reconfigured. Patrick Mackie, for example, chooses not books but individual poems (most of them can be read online) – we do, in the main, first come across poems singly, not in books but in magazines or online. My only interest in the regular lists is pointers to books that have flown under the radar – the latest Ian McEwan or Carol Ann Duffy doesn’t NEED flagging up – and if I do this again that has to be the whole point. Next time (and it doesn’t have to be end-of-year) I’ll pose the question differently: a book that you think has been undervalued; a writer that no one else seems to have noticed; a book that doesn’t exist but which you’d have liked to read … Meanwhile, there are enough under-the-radar books here to have made the exercise worthwhile. Meanwhile, also: it has been a privilege to have published these choosers. Linking to their books and buying will help there to be a next time.

Alba Arikha (author of Soon)
I devoured the Elena Ferrante Neapolitan series and when it was over, I found myself mourning the loss of Lenu and Lila. Because they had become my friends, as had Elena Ferrante. The visceral, tactile, hungry quality of her writing is unlike anything I've read in a long time: the sights and smells of Naples, the noise, the food, the poverty, the violence, the way Ferrante writes about women, female friendship, that fine line between love and loss, all contribute to an unforgettable, mesmerising reading experience.

Preparing for a short story masterclass, I found myself dipping back (among many others, too long a list) into Chekhov's The Collected Short Stories – a modern visionary, a master reader of character – and John Updike's The Early Stories, 1953–1975. From 'Separating': 'Why. It was a whistle of wind in a crack, a knife thrust, a window thrown open on emptiness. The white face was gone, the darkness was featureless. Richard had forgotten why.' Doesn't get much better than that.

I found Kamel Daoud's The Meursault Investigation powerful. Narrated by the brother of ‘the Arab’ shot dead on a beach by Meursault in Camus’s The Outsider, it is written in succinct, insightful phrases, reminiscent of Camus himself.

Nina Bogin (translator of Agota Kristof’s The Illiterate)
The most remarkable book I read in 2015 was L’usage du monde (The Way of the World) by the Swiss writer Nicolas Bouvier. First published in 1963, it recounts the journey Bouvier and his painter friend Thierry Vernet (whose drawings illustrate the book) made in 1953 and 1954, when they were in their mid-twenties, from Switzerland to India via the Balkans, Anatolia, Iran, and Afghanistan – a journey that would be impossible today. The conditions they travelled in would also be considered grueling by current standards – the whole trip, over mountains and through deserts, was made in a little Fiat Topolino they sometimes had to push for miles uphill or wait weeks to have repaired. But this is no ordinary travel book. What makes it exceptional is Bouvier’s magnificent writing, exhilarating and beautifully phrased, and the generosity of his vision. I had begun reading L’usage du monde when the January terrorist attacks took place in Paris, and in the ensuing weeks it helped keep up my morale with its embrace of people – urban, rural, nomadic – stark landscapes, and night skies vast enough to allow us, in spite of everything, to continue to believe in the world and its possibilities.

It is also a tribute to a friendship between two young men which was to last throughout their lives. I read the book in French, but it is available in English in what appears to be an excellent translation by Robyn Marsack, originally published in 1992 and now available in two different editions, Eland Press and New York Review Books Classics.

Charles Boyle (aka Jack Robinson, author of Days and Nights in W12 and by the same author)
Hotel Lambosa (1993), a book of (very) short stories by the poet Kenneth Koch that sat unread on my shelves for years before, early in 2015, falling off and into my hands: I have now read it three times and each time it’s as fresh, funny and unpredictable as the time before.

Fragments of Lichtenberg by Pierre Senges: I don’t think it’s a book I will ever finish reading. Suppose that the several thousand aphorisms written by the 18th-century German scientist Georg Lichtenberg were the surviving fragments of a great Lost Novel – and suppose then that several generations of passionate, argumentative ‘pioneers, losers, casualties, freeloaders, cheaters, scholars, connoisseurs and laymen’ (not to mention dandies, lovers of puzzles, frequenters of auction houses, graphomaniacs, etc) were to dedicate their lives to filling in the blanks, to reconstructing that which is lost … You get the picture – though its frame is porous, letting in politics, philosophy, history, medicine, folklore … (Scheduled for publication by Dalkey Archive last August, this English translation by Gregory Flanders hasn’t yet appeared in the shops – it has become another lost book. And if you think I’m making this up, see below.)

Beverley Bie Brahic (translator of Apollinaire, The Little Auto, and Francis Ponge, Unfinished Ode to Mud; author of White Sheets; new poetry collection forthcoming in 2016)
Like an addict I scarf down anything in print. If I think of it, I jot book titles in my diary, with a line around them to separate them from the grocery lists. Usually I read several books at once, and mostly they aren’t hot off the press. Like Hédi Khaddour’s Treason, a collection of poems by a witty Franco-Tunisian poet translated by Marilyn Hacker (Yale, 2010). Treason has been sitting in my to-read pile for two years. I opened it in October and I haven’t put it down. It is so good I went to the Librairie Compagnie opposite the Sorbonne to buy Khaddour’s latest collection and found he has become a novelist whose latest book, Les Prépondérants (Gallimard, 2015), won the Grand Prix de l’Académie Française. His 2009 spy novel, Waltenberg (Vintage, 2009), has been translated into English by David Coward. Are his novels as good as his poems? Can’t say, but I strongly recommend Treason.

David Collard (author of About a Girl: A Reader’s Guide to Eimear McBride’s A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing, forthcoming from CBe in 2016)
Published last year in the States and earlier this year in Britain, Michael Hofmann's Where Have You Been? (Faber) is a casually brilliant and richly rewarding collection of essays, mostly about poets and poetry. The first two thirds of the book focus on anglophone writers, the final third on German (and many of latter were entirely new to me). A year's worth of slow reading and reflection, and a prompt to explore further.

J. O. Morgan's first three volumes (Natural Mechanical, Long Cuts and At Maldon) were published by CB editions. In Casting Off (HappenStance Press) is his latest book-length poem. It's a love story, of sorts, set in a remote fishing community over the course of a summer. Morgan combines a clear, fresh voice with easy virtuosity. What puzzles at a first reading subsequently dazzles.

Claire-Louise Bennett is an English writer living in Ireland. Her debut Pond (Fitzcarraldo Editions) is a collection of short stories linked by a single (and singular) narrator – her voice calm, droll, sad and scrupulous. My favourite new fiction of 2015.

Will Eaves (author of The Absent Therapist and, forthcoming in March 2016, The Inevitable Gift Shop)
I read associatively. Something leads to something else. Books I have enjoyed in this manner are not necessarily new or fun straight away. I am just beginning Arthur Golding’s translation of the Metamorphoses and wondering how Shakespeare ever got as far as the poem proper after the rubbishy epistles at the start. But then it’s perfectly true that we read out of a sense of duty as well as pleasure, or that the duty itself becomes a pleasure. You get out what you put in, I suppose. This year, then, I really enjoyed: Carl Sagan’s Cosmos (science), G. H. Hardy’s A Mathematician’s Apology (memoir), and William Golding’s A Moving Target (essays). Novels: Sophie and the Sibyl by Patricia Duncker, The Finishing Touch by Brigid Brophy, True Grit by Charles Portis and The Beginning of Spring by Penelope Fitzgerald. Poetry: Eavan Boland’s translation of the Old English elegy “The Wife’s Lament” into antiphonally rhymed half-lines. Two words – ‘pain’ and ‘tough’ – corrupt the rhyme scheme, one by refusing it, the other by extending it. She has listened to the voice of the original, which is about a woman bemoaning her exile while cleaving to it.

Best unexpected thing in the post: Peter Blegvad’s Kew. Rhone. Best book fished out of a skip: A Tale of Two Cities. Best disappointment: Howard’s End. Best next on the list: The Life of Houses, by Lisa Gorton (fine Aussie poet). Best stable-mate: Things to Make and Break by May-Lan Tan (Ed.: not allowed, I know; except as an exception that proves the rule.)

Gabriel Josipovici (author of Only Joking)
It’s a long time since a book of poetry moved me as much as Lucy Newlyn’s Earth’s Almanac (Enitharmon). She has grafted a sequence of elegies for and rememberings of a dead sister over a fifteen year period onto a Shepheard’s Calendar of the natural year. This could lead to mawkishness and sentimentality, but Earth’s Almanac is tough and complex. Often it is impossible to tell if the details of the changing seasons in Cornwall and Oxford, where the poet lives, are the occasions or the metaphors for memory. I loved it.

Peter Handke’s long poem Gedicht an die Dauer came out in 1986 and has only just been brought out in English as To Duration, in a fine translation by Scott Abbott, from the small press, Cannon Magazine. That the same person could write Offending the Audience, Essay on Tiredness, Repetition and this poem is quite remarkable. Handke is one of the shining literary lights of our time and it says a great deal about the insularity of our culture that this profound and beautiful poem has had to wait almost thirty years to appear in English.

Yevgeny Baratynsky (1800–1844) was a contemporary and friend of Pushkin's. He is practically unknown in this country, unjustly so, for he was fully Pushkin's peer, argues Peter France in the introduction to his fine translation of a selection of the poems with facing-page Russian, published by the enterprising Arc Publications as Half-Light and Other Poems. Reading this fascinating volume will transform, if ever so slightly, your sense of the nature of European Romanticism.

Stephen Knight (author of The Prince of Wails)
In The Worm at the Core: On the role of death in life, Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg and Tom Pyszczynski use compelling empirical research to show how the knowledge of our mortality unconsciously shapes our behaviour, so we seek to bolster both our self-esteem and our belief systems (psychological shields against the inevitable). A reminder of death will, for example, cause us to come down hard on those who do not share our political, religious or other view of the world. The trio coined the term Terror Management to describe the various coping strategies, and now I see it everywhere: adverts for wrinkle creams, the prize culture, recycling crates overflowing with wine bottles, splenetic below-the-line comments, BBC's Who Do You Think You Are?, house extensions, and all political manoeuvring from the local to the global. Few books change the way you look at life. This one does.

Todd McEwen (author of The Five Simple Machines)
I spent the most horrid part of my youth in a place called Palo Alto, California. You think that tells you all you need to know, but it doesn’t, because you are too interested in Steve Jobs and are unaware of the almost-too-fabulous-to-be-believed Bell’s Book Store on Emerson Street. The first book I bought there, in 1968, was the autobiography of Texas Guinan, a famous speakeasy owner. I wish I still had it. But that is the kind of book one always finds in Bell’s, fabulous books one didn’t quite know existed. Last month I rushed out seethingly with a sumptuous biography of Saul Steinberg by Deirdre Bair, and two volumes by Ludwig Bemelmans, My War with the United States, his first in English and quite odd – lonely and perverse, but he’s all there. Also Holiday in France, an anthology he edited in the 1950s, including his divine alter-ego Joseph Wechsberg. This year I read a truly wild series of essays, The Professor, by Terry Castle, who seemingly has the bad fortune to live in Palo Alto. I’ll bet she goes into Bell’s a lot. But the book that marked 2015 for me was the Collected Poems of my late friend Paul Violi. The last time we had dinner together, he spent about twenty minutes trying to convince me that the restaurant we were in was situated atop a giant underground military complex right in the middle of the West Twenties in New York. Paul being Paul, no one, least of all I, will ever know if he was serious.

Patrick Mackie (author of The Further Adventures Of The Lives Of The Saints, forthcoming from CBe in 2016)
But could it not be poems of the year instead? The definition of poetry as news that stays news is one that we all remember. But we tend to emphasise the staying, and so overlook what it means for a poem to be news in the first place. A poem wants to be a type of news in which fact and report are fused with uncanny intimacy and wildness. So a good poem is one that brings us the news that this voice or this experience or this way of making sense or this set of losses or this pack of desires can be reported on, can report, can turn out to exist at all. It was for instance news to me this year that Karen Solie in her poem 'Bitumen' could bring such Lucretian qualities of massiveness and verve to wrestling with what it means now to live on a planet that is both a frail and beautiful biosphere and a sort of lavish monster. Likewise, in a poem called 'Midsummer Loop' that is itself both loopy and summary, Frances Leviston brought the news that the most meticulous stylistic contrivance and the most distractable empirical openness could fuse to produce a new way of inhabiting time itself. In his 'Musculature' Carl Phillips fused an intellectual intensity worthy of Blake with a slickly cartoonish casualness of movement to produce a new sort of elegy for lost aspects of selfhood, one whose light lines are electrically tense with knowledge of how fluidly we think that we live now, and how stubbornly the actual reasserts itself. Rebecca Perry's 'Wasp' associates so freely on its pungently creaturely little subject that it ends up bringing us all the more news about what poetry can be as the poem reveals that it is a sort of wasp itself, splendidly reductive as well as errant, sleekly designed and neatly aggressive. Frederick Seidel has long been a sort of cosmological news junkie in his poems, and there has often been bright political vibration as well as bitter panache in the ways in which he has shown us how the great and terrible political murders of the 1960s remain in many ways news to us now. The historical vistas and ambiguities opened up by 'France Now' have become, stunningly, if anything more urgent since its publication only a few months ago, as have its fusions of inventiveness at its most lurid with sincerity at its most obsessive, its insistence on flinging these qualities, finally, at its own subject matter with a garishness livid enough to vie with violence itself.

Miha Mazzini (author of The German Lottery)
I tried to read several of Orhan Pamuk's books but I didn't get far. I quit My Name Is Red in the middle, declaring in front of witnesses that it was so overwritten and boring that it must be ripe for a Nobel prize. So, I started his latest, A Strangeness in My Mind, very cautiously, prepared to drop it anytime – and I'm still holding it after 500 pages, with a few more to go. It's funny and tender, the story of a person and a city woven together brilliantly into a single life.

J. O. Morgan (author of Natural Mechanical, Late Cuts and At Maldon)
Anne Carson's If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho and Bill Manhire's Selected Poems. I have so far read neither, and may not ever do so, not completely, but I am curiously happy (and maybe content) just to have them in my possession.

I went out of my way to buy the Carson in hardback, from America. It has the Greek, fragmented, on the verso, in red (like Jesus), and Carson's translations in black on the recto, also fragmented, but not always mirroring the Greek. I don't exactly read it; I look at it occasionally, and consider it. The UK paperback edition: not nearly so nice.

I don't like books of Selected Poems, but, for reasons I forget, in this case I made an exception.‎ I also sought out the hardback, and it's a nice heavy object, with a simple unlaminated wrapper and one of those built-in bookmark-ribbon things. I bought it on the strength of one poem I happened to read by Manhire and have since read only a handful of other pieces in the book, fairly randomly. I have not been disappointed. I am very glad to have this book.

D. Nurkse (author of Voices Over Water and A Night in Brooklyn)
I'd pick At Night We Walk in Circles by Daniel Alarcón. Alarcon is a storyteller in the ‘boom latinoamericano’ vein at a time when attention has pirouetted elsewhere. Written in English, his novel explores guerrilla theatre and the aftershocks of political violence in Peru. Alarcon is a master of displaced narrative, but the effects don't feel forced. He's faithful to his characters' volatility, to a truth that never stays put.

Leaving Atlanta by Tayari Jones, a writer who can explore ‘race and class’ without a trace of rhetoric. I think it's a classic – a semi-autobiographical portrait of a girl coming of age in a city terrorized by unsolved killings, knowing that she may be a target.

Dan O’Brien (author of War Reporter, Scarsdale and New Life)
I’m breaking the binding of two books rights now: The Littlest Pumpkin by R. A. Herman and Betina Ogden (Scholastic, 2001), which is, yes, Hallowe’en-themed. My two-year-old daughter gets stuck on the picture of a boy costumed as a skeleton. ‘What is that? What is that?’ she asks nightly at bedtime, pointing to tiny hand bones. The picture and the pointing perturb me, maybe, because we’re dealing with an illness in the family, but I suppose it’s natural for her to ask such questions, and to begin to try to learn about such things. ‘Bats fly at night,’ she also likes to say, about a drawing on a later page.

The second is Cryptozoology A to Z: The Encyclopedia of Loch Monsters, Sasquatch, Chupacabras, and Other Authentic Mysteries by Loren Coleman and Jerome Clark (Simon & Schuster, 1999). Partly I’m reading this book as research for an experimental chamber rock opera I’m endeavoring to co-write about Sasquatch and cancer. But the truth is that eyewitness testimony of any as-yet-undiscovered life – and taxonomical prose thereof – is one of a few sub-genres that helps me fall asleep at night.

Nicky Singer (author Knight Crew)
I don’t remember much these days (I think it’s the alcohol) but I do remember Vanessa Gebbie’s The Coward’s Tale (Bloomsbury 2011). It returns to me every so often with its Welsh lilt, its tenderness, its exact observation. Hailed as ‘the legitimate offspring of Dylan Thomas and Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ (that would have been a rough and tumble) and chosen as book of the year by A. N. Wilson, you’d think it would have had a shelf life. But it hasn’t. It’s just disappeared, rather like the people in the mining tragedy that lies at its narrative heart. Gebbie’s new offering (2015) is just as good and four times as quirky. Ed’s Wife and Other Creatures (illustrated by Lynn Roberts) is a book that ‘doesn’t fit’. It could have been a CB edition but it is actually a Liquorice Fish: a portrait of a marriage in bugs and bats and ... other creatures. Intimate, surprising, strange and occasionally moving. This writer should be better known.

Julian Stannard (author of What Were You Thinking?, forthcoming from CBe in 2016)
Blue Movie (Nine arches Press, 2014). Bobby Parker is a Romantic living in Kidderminster. He writes about drugs, psychic conflagration , desperation. Good. Good. Good. Come back Robert Lowell – ‘Why not say what happened?’ Or even Coleridge. It was difficult not to think of ‘Frost at Midnight’ when reading Parker’s ‘Fuck the Moon’. I didn’t go for every poem in Blue Movie – his debut collection - but I liked a great many and his moon piece seems to me a rather good introduction to the volume as a whole:

Leave the moon alone.
Give us your head; peeled, colourful, half-asleep.
We have been eating the moon since high-school.
Our bodies are weak, they need meat,
gristle and hot fat. They can barely stand.
We have overdosed on the moon; caught exotic
diseases, genital warts, spent nights in jail
with your fucking moons up our arses.
Give us strange spices, a flash of bone
from your skeleton lockers. Leave it alone!
The next time you find yourself writing
about the moon, stop. Go for a walk in the dark.
Call your mother and tell her you are sorry.

Marjorie Ann Watts (author of Are they funny, are they dead?)
The Delicate Prey and Other Stories by Paul Bowles, published by Ecco Press (with ‘Shelbourne Public Library’ printed on the inside), and picked up on the London Underground. Seamus Heaney’s choice of poems by W. B. Yeats (Faber and Faber). The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood, published by Virago. I had never read her, and was completely dazzled, went on to read everything I could lay my hands on. The Land Where the Lemons Grow by Helena Attlee, Penguin: fascinating, erudite and funny, and as good or better than actually going on holiday in Italy.

Tuesday 24 November 2015

Robinson rides again

Slow publishing, yes – see this post from last February – but sometimes fast too. Back in 2009, feeling angry at what the bankers were getting away with, I put together a short book in March/April and published it in May (Recessional by Jack Robinson, priced at £7.50 o.n.o.; now available only as a free pdf from this page). Today, a new Jack Robinson thing.

Earlier this month I left a book on a café table and a waiter came running after me. A week or ten days later, I’d scribbled around 40 paragraphs featuring the supposed author of the book on the café table, the waiter (‘Eric’) and ‘I’. It might be ‘short story’; I don’t think it is, but have no idea what else it might be. I was wary of pushing the thing further or killing it by over-revising. It’s now a small 48-page book – by the same author, by Jack – for sale on the website.

On the back cover there’s a quotation from Coleridge, nothing else. The blurb on the website page reads: ‘A book left on a café table, a waiter chasing after the customer to return it – so begins a series of riffs on the relationship between reader and writer, taking in biographies, shoplifting, launch parties, queues for the toilet at literary festivals, cover designs, endings, re-reading, dog-walking and bonfires.’

by the same author will be published properly (I mean, available to bookshops from Central Books) in January. But it’s available on the website right now, and if you’re going to spend a fiver on anyone for Christmas – half the price of a Pantone mug – consider this. (I’m perfectly aware that I’m indulging here in the processing-of-books narrative that bothers me on page 41 of the book.)

Thursday 5 November 2015

‘Beatrix Potter meets the Marquis de Sade’

The Queue by Jonathan Barrow, first published (with some of the author’s own drawings) by CBe, is picking some fine reviews in the US after its publication there by New Vessel Press under a new title, On the Run with Mary.

‘Dementedly cheerful … a rollicking catalogue of sex, violence, and acts of cartoonish cruelty’ – Publishers Weekly
‘Topping them all … an absolutely outrageous novel … about the glorious curiosities of the United Kingdom.’ – The Rumpus
‘Limericks by Joy Division, Lewis Carroll talking in his sleep, and unlike much of the avant-garde, it’s funny.’ – Daniel Genis
‘The headlong energy and happy perversity of On the Run with Mary makes one admire much of what Barrow did, and wonder with sorrow at what he might have done.’ – Sam Lipsyte

Two things about the book. First, the circumstances of its writing. The discovery of the manuscript in the desk drawer of the author on the day after his death is not, for once, a trope: it’s fact. Jonathan Barrow completed The Queue a few days before he and his girlfriend were killed in a head-on car crash; he was 22; guests invited to the wedding of Jonathan and his girlfriend at the Brompton Oratory found themselves attending instead a double requiem mass. (For a fuller account by his brother, Andrew Barrow, see here.)

Second, the book itself. It recounts the odyssey of the narrator and Mary – a stray dachshund: alcoholic, drug-addicted, nymphomaniac and pregnant – through the abattoirs, strip clubs, prison cells, lunatic asylums and sewers of England. It packs about 10 years’ worth of your recommended daily allowance of scatology and sexual malpractice into 120 pages. It’s also funny, and has a strange innocence. Andrew Barrow mentions that ‘One person who has read my brother’s book considers it “a veiled, oblique suicide note”, while another saw it as a love letter’.

Wednesday 28 October 2015

The Apprentice goes publishing

In next week’s episode of The Apprentice, the teams have to ‘create’ a children’s book. And sell it.

I know the whole point of The Apprentice is that it’s a parody of how business actually works. I suspect that the reason for the series’ success (umpteeen years) is because it often gets pretty close to the bone.

Disclosure: I am not a poet/novelist/memoirist/whatever, though I’ve published under those guises: many collections of poetry, some of them shortlisted for the Forward, the TSE, the Whitbread, a Cholmondeley prize in the mix; and a prize-winning short novel (that one I’d stand by); and a short-story collection, and other things; and it’s clear to anyone who wants clarity that I’m an also-ran. There are worse things to be. If there are winners, there are also-rans. Someone has to make up the numbers. Your’re fired. I’m fine with that. I now, by accident, publish.

About publishing, I have ‘unresolved issues’. The ‘writer’, canonised, in her/his room with a view and a dog to walk; the middle-management of publishers, their ‘expertise’, their expense-account lunches; the bookshops with their upscale stationery on the ground floor, Moleskine notebooks and Pantone mugs and their ‘staff picks’; the dreary ‘can’t wait’ on Facebook when anyone announces they’ve won some prize or are about to have a new book out; the polite applause at readings; the self-congratulatory consensus that small presses are ‘a good thing’. I despise it, and do it.

Friday 23 October 2015

Do reviews sell books?

Reviews click in during the brief period after the stage when authors attempt to get their book to publishers (a process that can take years) and before the stage, say about six months after publication, when a book becomes a has-been, an also-ran (infinity), and almost no bookshop is going to give it shelf-space. A brief window, and because it’s so brief people get a little desperate.

The whole idea being, surely, that if X or Y – neutral people, not on the publisher’s payroll – goes on public record as saying this is a book worth readers’ attention, then more people are likely to buy the thing. Reviews are a form of free advertising. (Other things also: they are a continuous forum for discussion of books; but from the publisher’s perspective, the other things are secondary.)

Do they actually work, as a lever to increase sales? Sporadically. At the top end, a review by Nicholas Lezard in the Guardian of a CBe book will add another 100 sales, often more; at the lower end, a review of a CBe poetry book in, say, Poetry Review or Poetry London may not sell a single copy; ditto, though it’s nice, a TLS review. They are good for a filleted phrase for the cover of the author’s next book, or for her application for a grant, but sales, no. What reviews primarily do (and this may seem pathetic, but it’s not) is simply endorse a book’s existence: they pay attention, and if no one pays attention then the book doesn’t even, effectively, exist.

In the given, received hierarchy of review-land, what a publisher’s publicity department is ideally hoping to net is a lead review in a broadsheet national newspaper – despite declining sales of print newspapers, and despite reduced space for book reviews in those newspapers. (Who, seriously, reads them?) Worth mentioning also, because though it seems pretty obvious to me, even in the book world I don’t think it’s generally understood: newspapers are newspapers, and their decisions as to which books to give review space to are determined more by whether a book is news (e.g., a new book by someone whose name readers will recognise) than literary merit.

At the lower end of the received hierarchy are blog reviews. I don’t need, I hope, to say that the online reviewing and discussion of books are, at their top end (invidiously, I’ll mention John Self’s Asylum, which has been running for how many years?), more informed, more intelligent, more open, than almost any print reviewing. And why blog reviews are not quoted more often on the covers of books, and above the broadsheet quotes, is simply down to the conservatism of the whole industry.

(Digression: 50 years ago, the stereotypical mainstream publisher’s office comprised: erudite but inarticulate-in-meetings editors, mostly male; bright and pretty young folk, mostly female, in publicity/marketing; hard-drinking production people; sales and accounts people, mostly male, strayed in from other possible and more lucrative jobs; and the post-room guy, best in the building. I don’t think much has changed. Mainstream publishers are basically estate agents, selling other people’s property for as much as they can get.)

What does sell books is a happy combination of the various opportunities for notice: print and online reviews, shortlistings for prizes (which by themselves make almost no difference at all), word of mouth (including Twitter).

Sunday 18 October 2015

A numbers game

To get into Frieze Art Fair (in London last week; 160 galleries showing work; visitors were advised on the website: ‘Please remember, Frieze London is an event for galleries to conduct business’ - if you were there just to look, just to enjoy the art, you were there on sufferance) cost £35 (plus booking fee, plus £5 cloakroom fee for your bag). Tickets were sold out. To get into the Free Verse Poetry Book Fair in London last month (80+ publishers) plus all events was free; ditto to the All Tomorrows’ Publishers book fair over yesterday and today (CBe table above), which included many of the UK’s most important small presses and work more adventurous and interesting than much of that put out by the mainstream.

Number of visitors to the poetry book fair, I’d guess several hundred; to today's book fair, fewer. Given that this is London, one of the capitals (both cultural and business) of the West, and given the growth in recent in recent years of creative writing courses (there must be thousands of students on these in London alone: anyone got any figures?), and given also that both events had ACE funding and the organisers put in a huge amount of work and could not have been more welcoming, these figures are pretty pathetic, no?

(All relative, of course. Tickets for next Saturday’s West Ham v Chelsea match are available at ‘from £112’. West Ham ground capacity 35,000, Chelsea 41,000.)

I don’t lose much sleep over this. I think I like it this way, while being well aware of the smugness that attaches to that (the doctor Fiddes, who works in a charity hospital, in Kennaway’s Some Gorgeous Accident, ‘wondering why he’d chosen to be the kind of doctor who makes no money: there was such awful, English arrogance in that’). But I’m still curious:

Why (in my experience) are most art students keen to attend art fairs and exhibitions, but creative writing students (in general) not interested in book fairs?
Why is there, both financially and in public interest (7.7 million visitors to the Tate galleries in 2012/13, plus almost double that online), such a gulf between the art world and the literature world?

Answers on a postcard.

Thursday 8 October 2015

Book sales, tractor repairs

Everything is written down, in columns, in a big red book. (My father ran a farm in the early 1950s: I remember seeing a ledger with numbers written down in columns in black ink – wages, sales, transport, hay bought, tractor repairs – and then the ledger was lost, and sometimes I think that the whole of CBe has been an attempt to reconstitute that ledger, which seemed to me a very grown-up thing.)

In 2013 I took some photos of my red book (one of them above) for a blog post in which I noted similarities between my columns and an exhibition of Outsider Art then on: obsessive repetition, endless tiny marks. (Outsider art is produced, Brian Sewell wrote in a review of that exhibition, ‘by anyone who is, at one extreme, intelligent but mildly unhinged, and at the other, either entirely lacking an IQ or raving mad’.)

The information in my red book is not stored digitally. (What happens if the house burns down? I was asked today. Good question. As also, what happens if the national grid goes down, if the internet implodes?)

I’ve never made a spreadsheet (I associate spreadsheets, for some reason, with motorway service stations). Can you run a publishing outfit for eight years without making a spreadsheet? And by handwriting every address label, and lugging boxes of books from printer to distributor’s warehouse on public transport, and queuing at the post office almost every day rather than using a franking machine? (And without Arts Council funding, and without interns?) Apparently yes.

I don’t want to make a fetish of this, I really don’t. Nor do I want to become Bartleby, the prototypical ledger-clerk: ‘I’d prefer not to.’ This is all just how it’s happened; my old-fogeyism wasn’t calculated, was never intended as either protest or manifesto for slow publishing. But now that Inpress (the wonderful company that represents the titles of many small presses to the trade) is equipped with the kind of database that all the big publishers take for granted, and requires digital info fed into it, and now that my columns are becoming narrower (40-odd books in print) than my eyesight is comfortable with, I think I’m going to have to, as they say, upgrade.

Monday 5 October 2015

On interns in publishing

What do interns actually do?

Maintain databases, I guess. Read submissions and write assessments. Attend meetings, write minutes. Proofread. Tweet. Serve wine at book launches. ‘Admin’. Check things, research things. Take stuff to the post office. Photocopy. Look busy. Have bright ideas. Do what people generally do in offices, which are strange places. Make tea.

I assume that if you’re aiming to get a job in publishing, applying for an internship is now the conventional first step. And often, now, the second and the third step too, because the waiting to be in the right place at the right time – when an actual job vacancy occurs – can be long. (Take a book with you.)

A lot of internships are unpaid – which means, obviously, that they’re an option only for people who can afford not to be paid, and which doesn’t do much to change the traditional profile of people-who-work-in-publishing. A few publishers do pay: Verso, for example, pays the London Living Wage, currently £9.15 per hour. Should the ones who don’t pay be named and shamed? Should authors refuse to place their books with them, and readers stop buying the books they publish, until they do pay? I think yes.

Unpaid labour has become normalised. Internships at the big publishers are over-subscribed, and the application process is as competitive and bureaucratic as it is for any actual job. This situation – hey, we can get people to do stuff without paying them! – has come about partly because of the de-unionisation of publishing. In most jobs I had in publishing from the late 1970s, the companies recognised the right of their staff to be members of a union, usually the Book Branch of the NUJ, and the annual pay review and many other things were negotiated, not imposed. The current website of the NUJ Book Branch is bleak; the last item on its ‘news’ page is dated 2009.

I get emails every week from people who want to intern (or that thing called ‘work experience’). Many are seriously well qualified – they know the publishing scene (some have already interned for other publishers), they speak two or three languages, they have read widely, they do other things too and they do them well (photography, music, film, graphic design). They want to engage. They are completely sincere and they are completely competent.

I’m hamstrung on this. I generally write replies along the lines of thank you, really, but no space, no money, and anyway I’m useless at delegating. Which is all true but is not a sufficient response to the genuine desire of many to be of help, in any way.

I don’t actually need anyone to attend meetings, make tea, take stuff to the post office. I do need help, everyone needs help. I need – with 40+ plus books in print and it’s still just me at a desk in the living room – less an intern than a deus ex machina: someone who sees both what’s being done and how it could be done better, or more efficiently, or differently at least, and runs with that, for the London Living Wage.

Thursday 24 September 2015

The Poetry Book Fair, the Forward Prizes

The handwritten date on the above is 5 October 2011. It’s a photograph I picked up from a shop in central London that was conducting an after-hours yard sale (big places go bust no less easily than small places; I once got a year’s supply of posh envelopes free from an office clear-out around Holborn), and I picked it up while walking from the Tube to the Waldorf Hotel in the Aldwych to meet Dennis Nurkse and Nancy Gaffield, whose names are also on that photo and who were shortlisted, respectively, for the main Forward Prize and the Forward First Collection Prize that year, the winners to be announced a little later that evening in Somerset House, just over the road, so not far to proceed after we’d pro-actively celebrated with champagne, jumping the gun.

I really can’t remember who won, that year. I do remember sitting in the courtyard, a little drunk, in drizzling rain, with Dennis, and bidding farewell to William Sieghart, founder of the Forwards, as he cycled bumpily off across the cobbles.

The Forward Prizes have moved on. They are now a much more public event, run with gusto by Susannah Herbert and Maisie Lawrence, with readings on the Southbank – see here for what’s happening next Monday. Back in 2011, there was a little newspaper flurry about the shortlist for the main prize comprising male poets only. In 2015, the judging panel is entirely female. Nod, sigh, bless. CBe has had a generous amount of free wine from the Forward Foundation: two poets shortlisted for the main prize (Nurkse, Brahic), three for the first collection prize (Morgan, Gaffield, O’Brien), and now this year Matthew Siegel for the first collection and Andrew Elliott for the single poem (chosen from Sonofabook magazine). People ask me who’s going to win and I wish they wouldn’t because I’ve read some of the books but by no means all. That’s the judges’ job, not mine.

The other reason I remember 5 October 2011 is because that very morning a stunningly beautiful 19-year-old woman knocked on the door and asked if a publisher lived here and claimed to be a poet and did I want to hear relationship stuff or politics, the former, but she rapped the politics too and I was seriously impressed and then we looked at her modelling portfolio and in particular the photo she thought would be good for the cover, bare millimetres of clothing, but her mum disagreed, what did I think? I thought, after careful consideration, that I probably wasn't the right publisher for her.

Publishing is about the most fun you can have during working hours. Is that why there are so many of us? There are eighty poetry publishers participating in the Poetry Book Fair at the Conway Hall in Holborn, London, this Saturday from 10 a.m., the annual gathering of the clans. Come along, if you haven’t got anything better to to do. Such as?

Tuesday 1 September 2015

Further to the preceding: authors / badgers

Longevity is an issue. And finite resources. Not just people living longer and therefore the burden on the NHS and the pensions mess but, to bring in a little self-interest, books.

Ian McEwan is 67. Think about this. If he keeps healthy, and he does look pretty fit, he’s going to write another 7 or 8 books, and they are all going to be published, because of his track record if nothing else, though I’d love there to be other reasons too and there may be, and all the books are going to get media space. At a time when the readership for the kind of ‘literary fiction’ he writes is not just precarious but diminishing, and mainstream publishers are cutting down their slots per year for this kind of work. (Slots per year: not many, and the authors with reputation have books in the queues for these slots. The question for many very good newish authors therefore becoming not how do I get published, but how do I jump the queue. Or do it otherwise.)

I’m 64 myself, same generation. Not only did my lot hog the grants for university, and all the available housing when it was just about affordable, and the jobs, and the travel to Palmyra in Syria (me above, sometime in the 70s, looking sorry for myself, how dared I) but the publishing lists too. (I haven't even mentioned class, race, gender. Do I need to?) And are still hogging.

So, yes, six books per author max. Or maybe cull us. It would free up a lot of space.

On buying books

1 Ashbery, for example. I think he’s a terrific poet. There are times when only Ashbery will do. But I’m not going to buy every new book he publishes because I think I’ve ‘got’ him, and don’t need more of him. Sometimes, browsing in a shop, I’ll pick up a more recent Ashbery than the ones I already have and open the book at random and read a poem that immediately I need, then look at the price and think there's enough Ashbery on my shelves, isn't there, for when I need him. (It’s not as if I need him every day.)

2 Not a few times, of course, while browsing, I’ve opened a poetry book at random to a poem I have to have, and bought the book, and then found that nothing else in the book lives up to that first poem.

3 Lydia Davis a bit similar to 1, above. Do I really need more Lydia Davis? A whole lot of authors who I started reading decades ago are in this category. (I mean, I think, the ones who tend to do more of the same, however brilliantly. Maybe all authors should be allowed to publish only six books, along the lines of the Chinese one-child policy.)

4 Other times, of course, I’ll just buy the damn book. It’s what credit cards are for. The decision whether to buy or not buy can depend on something as not strictly relevant as the weather, how friendly the bookseller is, how many glasses of wine I’ve had, if I’m already doing damage by taking one to the till so another won’t hurt, etc.

5 Even though I may want them now I rarely buy books when they first come out, in their plush first editions. (Besides, there’s something poncy about reading hardbacks: a statement is being made, about money and class etc, and I’m not comfortable with going there.) I’ll wait nine months, gestation period, for the mass-market paperback. If the book turns out to be a disappointment – the last James Salter novel, for example, or the Miranda July novel – then at least I haven’t overspent. Thrift.

6 Most books cost around the same as a pack of 20 cigarettes. They are index linked. This feels about right.

7 Personal recommendations from people I’ve known long enough to know that many of their likings correspond with mine. Most recent example: Shani Boianjio, The People of Forever are Not Afraid – how did this pass me by? I’ve been reading other books in the course of reading this one, so I don’t have to finish it too quickly.

8 The above (personal say-sos) influence me much more than reviews. I suspect that Nicholas Lezard is the only UK reviewer whose enthusiasm for a book actually makes any difference at all to sales.

9 While on reviews, Robert McCrum’s talk at the last Inpress conference opened my dull eyes a little: when he was lit ed at the Observer, which is a newspaper, his choice of which books to have reviewed was to a large extent determined by whether or not they were were news. A new Ishiguro is news, in a sort of socio-cultural way; a new book of short stories by someone no one has heard of is not news. I know the latter may become news, but a newspaper functions to report news, not make it.

10 While on Time (I know I’m not, but I want to get this in somewhere), the argument that no one these days has the time to read, and certainly not to read Big Long Books – an argument often trotted out by champions-lite of the short story – is just daft. Life expectancy in the UK in 1900 for women was about 50 years (less for men, as usual; and skewed by child mortality figures, but still); life expectancy in the UK in 2012 was around 81.5 years. We have more time to read, not less. If that is what we choose to do.

11 Second-hand bookshops, yes, and especially the ones with the old orange and green Penguins: the Alberto Moravias, the Penelope Mortimers, the Muriel Sparks, the Simenons. If you come across a Penguin James Kennaway or Alfred Hayes, and there are not many of these still around, buy. (A thing about second-hand shops – which also applies to charity clothing shops – is this: if there’s only one of a thing available, that in itself makes it more desirable than if there are many.)

12 If you go to a reading or a launch party (I once worked, for two days, for a magazine in which only ships were allowed to be 'launched') and get a free glass of wine, and maybe another and another, are you under some kind of obligation to buy the book that’s being read from? Tricky one.

13 Amazon own AbeBooks and Book Depository and probably your local pizza takeaway too, so it can take a lot of effort not to buy from them, but I do generally make that effort. If a book is in print, you buy from your local independent bookshop, because if you think these shops are a desirable part of any world worth living in you can’t just rely on others. (And the saving on money from buying from Amazon would buy you what, a cappuccino?) If a book is not in print, then any source is allowable.

14 A new and covetable edition of a book I already have and love (or maybe just another copy of same in a second-hand shop): yes, if the book is important to me. It means I don’t have to be so precious about lending out (and not getting back) the copy I already have.

15 A friend, when he comes across a book whose existence is not celebrated but which he wants very much to share with others, buys 10 copies (say; sometimes more) and sends them around. Exemplary.

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.

Monday 22 June 2015

On James Kennaway

I was sent the above last week.

Here’s some post-coital gallows humour. After drinking with a newspaper editor and then in a club, and after very rashly placing Susie (‘in little bruised pieces’) in the care of Fiddes and then camping out for a while in another drinking club, Link goes to see Mandy, a prostitute on whom Fiddes has performed an illegal abortion, and after they fuck Mandy tells him about a documentary she watched on TV:

Quite the scene. This is of cows going into a slaughterhouse. Great, it was. They look exactly like people, you know – there’s Aunt Maisie with her bow legs and udders brushing the gound, and there’s another who’s the split image of a silly tart that used to stand on the corner of Audley and Curzon Street, when I was in the first bloom of my youth. But most they’re like horrible housewives in Winchester or Blackheath, or maybe Wembley. Stupid, you know, not vicious, stupid. And they waddle into this slaughterhouse calm as can be, just like the supermarket; then ‘bonk!’ there’s a chisel gets hammered right through their nuts. They sway a couple of times, then fold up. It had me in stitches. It’s horrible really. But it was funny for me ’cause I knew all the cows.

The night is far from over – after being chucked out by Mandy (‘I hate sleeping with men. There’s always that meddling goes on at half past five’), Luke goes on to a police party with a couple of other prostitutes in tow, and then flies to Germany to see the son of his last true love, who was killed when she skied into an army truck – so the slaughterhouse comes almost as light relief, a welcome change of pace. All of Kennaway’s novels are short but you do need stamina (and a good head for drink).

Link, Fiddes and Susie combine to form the triangular relationship at the heart of Some Gorgeous Accident (1967), the last novel published by Kennaway before he was killed in a car crash at the age of forty in 1968. The bond between Link, a war photographer, and Fiddes, a doctor in a charity hospital (‘wondering why he’d chosen to be the kind of doctor who makes no money. There was such awful, English arrogance in that’), is already there at the start of the book: ‘When they met there were always the same ironies, obscenities, insults and jokes.’ So is the bond between Link and Susie: ‘Why, he just took the girl out a couple of times. Once for a week, a super steeple-climbing, Ritz-eating, no sleeping frayed-lovers week. Next time for a few months of hell in the Village in New York.’ The link between Fiddes and Susie is effected by Link, acting out of motives that seem sometimes innocent, sometimes not. That there’s a sexual element in the bond between Link and Fiddes is arguable: ‘A homosexual, or latently homosexual attachment, Mr Link? … If I sometimes think so, Fiddes would go on, it is only because I can find no better for such a close relationship.’ Later: ‘Is there always a moment in a triangular situation where everyone’s sex is the same?’

Formally, you could – though I can’t see why you’d want to – call Some Gorgeous Accident an experimental novel, at least mildly so. Pages in the second half of the book are taken up by transcriptions of court proceedings (someone has snitched to the BMA about the abortion carried out by Fiddes). The novel is written in brief sections under italic sub-heads (sort of); some are straightforward scene-settings or timelines (‘Meanwhile, back in Jack’s café’, ‘Later, two or three drinks later’), others very different: ‘Nerves, Linky, nerves’; ‘Yet it’s too easy to throw this scene away’. Who exactly is narrating? The stop/start of the sections might suggest that what you’re reading is more draft than finished novel, but not so. According to The Kennaway Papers (1981) by Susan Kennaway, a memoir including extracts from her husband’s letters, diaries and notebooks, ‘James used to say that for every slim novel he published he would write an average of a million and a half words, which was not an exaggeration.’ The book began as a novel set in Kashmir, then it shifted to Scotland, then to London; and at some stage it became, well, life: the Link-Susie-Fiddes triangle mirrored – though you don’t need to know this – by that involving Kennaway himself, his wife Susan and the writer David Cornwell, as documented in The Kennaway Papers.

What came before Some Gorgeous Accident was far from negligible: Tunes of Glory (1956), an army-barracks novel (later filmed with Alec Guinness and John Mills); Household Ghosts (1961) and The Bells of Shoreditch (1963), both featuring aldulterous triangles; a number of screenplays. But then the two posthumously-published novels …

They were painting the gothic corridors of the railway hotel when the economist arrived. It was about six o’clock in the evening, early in May, which is no great time to die, and it had been raining heavily.

That’s the opening of The Cost of Living like This (1969). The economist is Julian, who has cancer (and a flask of jungle juice in his coat pocket: includes heroin, morphine, cocaine); the other two in the triangle are Sally, a teenage office worker and champion amateur swimmer; and Julian’s wife, Christabel. Also featuring: a wedding party on a flight from London to Glasgow; a Scots football referee called Mozart; a painting by Lucian Freud (‘No shit, d’you know? It’s just a few leaves, and it fascinates me because when you’ve seen it you feel you’ve never looked at a leaf before’); a student demonstration, a fire, suicide. It’s about sex and death, of course. It’s slightly absurd; intricately but fluently structured (though given the high stakes and Kennaway’s gift for sparring dialogue, at times you feel that all he has to do is get any two or three of the characters in a room and let them get on with it); and the drifting first chapter especially (before ‘All three. All hell let loose.’) is a wonder.

And then Silence (1972). ‘I wish I could say I were a simple man, but none of us can say that any more.’ A doctor’s daughter has been assaulted by a man with an address in ‘the Negro quarter’ of Chicago; her husband and his rich pals, fuelled by liquor, drive there to exact justice, and the doctor goes along, though ‘he couldn’t quite believe that the boys were reacting from love of Lilian’. The man is not in the apartment, but his family are: ‘It was as if they had expected the visit and in a sad sort of way were glad their time had come.’ In the street, violence, gunfire. The doctor, with a knife wound in his side, flees, enters a building, then a room. ‘The doctor knew that he was not alone in the room.’ The doctor, and a silent woman. ‘Really, the doctor couldn’t believe that she spoke any language, except that she looked at him sometimes, very slowly, almost, almost smiled.’ She hums, smokes pot, treats the doctor’s wound, feeds him, listens to him; they play games, make mistakes; and the end (there's another cattle slaughterhouse), the end is almost unreadable, unspeakable. Astonishing, terrifying book. (Under 100 pages.)

The publishing history of Kennaway’s novels is patchy. Most were at one time in Penguin, but now not. An omnibus edition (including Tunes of Glory, Household Ghosts and Night) published in 2001 by Canongate is still in print, just about. A US publisher, Valancourt, reissued The Cost of Living like This in 2014. The climate perhaps does not favour books by men who were educated at public school and Oxford and served in the army; and novels infused (but not Silence) with the hard-drinking macho kind of masculinity that background can produce, however brilliant the writing (Kennaway writes sentences that can hurt); I don’t know.

Sunday 14 June 2015

The Dark Horse

Friday eve was the London celebration of the 20th anniversary of Gerry Cambridge’s The Dark Horse magazine. There was a party in Scotland before, there’ll be another in New York later. Music from John Lucas et al; Gerry himself on harmonica. The first issue was put together not just without funding but without a roof and four walls: the first slide in a brief introduction showed the caravan in which everything began. To have kept this thing going for twenty years – 21-gun salute, at least (or whatever’s the equivalent for those who prefer harmonicas to guns).

The second half of the readings was especially wonderful. (And as you know, I’m not generally an enjoyer of readings.) Kei Miller: simply, he’s the man. (Brecht: ‘Unhappy is the land that needs heroes’; but we’re not there yet, we’re still unhappy, and I’d follow this man.) A highlight of Clare Pollard’s reading was a long, angry, funny, heartfelt rant (but it was more than that) on, let’s say, the commodification (ugly word, but then it’s an ugly thing) of pregnancy and motherhood, not least the language it comes wrapped in: patronising, pseudo-scientific, health-&-safety prioritised, trust-in-‘experts’, product-selling, profit-seeking …

Somewhere there surely already exists – and if not, someone please write – a long, angry, funny, heartfelt rant (but more than that) on the commodification of ‘the writer’. It might best be written by an emerging writer (not yet an established writer). Someone who’s maybe had work published in a few magazines (but are they the right ones?) and thinks they should perhaps be aiming to having a pamphlet out but they’re uneasy about doing any ‘gigs’ because they haven’t done the performance skills course yet. Etc. The author photo; the festival appearances; the well-meaning articles on how to self-publicise; the contacts. So much anxiety; so much help and support on offer; and the two run around in a circle.

No point, really, in arguing with this, because it’s here to stay. But worth remembering that fine babies have for millennia been born to mothers who have done a lot worse than miss a few NCT classes; and fine poems and novels have been written, and still are, by people who haven’t had to pay for a single course for the privilege of writing them.

Also this: neither writer nor mother (I’m not going to push this analogy any further: mother wins, no question), though both part of the ‘economy’, are paid for what they do. Only J.K. Rowling and a handful of others (count them on one hand, two?) actually make a living from their writing. A century ago a writer could live off selling a couple of stories a year to Strand magazine. Now, the more the commodification of the ‘the writer’, the more she or he is reliant for income on work peripheral to actual writing: readings, festivals, hack-work journalism, and above all teaching (usually on CW courses), all of which contribute to to the aforesaid six-syllable word. Someone has flicked a switch while I wasn’t watching.

Monday 8 June 2015

2 or 3 degrees of separation

Let’s say you have written a book that’s got as far as being published (a very long way). And then what?

If you are with one of the big publishers, presumably their marketing and publicity departments (I’m still not wholly sure of the difference between those two) kick in, and your book gets reviewed everywhere and advertised on public transport and … (Or maybe not. I think it’s true that the more famous the author, the bigger the marketing & publicity budgets; if you are not already famous, the less money and effort is available for making you so.)

If you are with one of the small presses, different story. Very few of these have any money for advertising. And – speaking for myself here – even if I did have a ‘budget’ for marketing and publicity, I wouldn’t know what to do with it. I have zero professional experience in this. And frankly, like many others I’m uneasy with the whole notion of publicity, especially self-publicity. (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.’)

In practice, I send out the books to a few places for consideration for review (but the lit eds seem to change places frequently, and I can’t keep track). I’ve been known to organise the occasional reading (but many of the CBe authors are dead or abroad or, in some cases, not that interested in readings). (Aside: I once put on a joint launch with one of the big publishers; I suggested they pay half the wine bill; they said they didn’t have a ‘budget’ for this, so CBe paid the full bill; and wine, according my accountant, is not a tax-deductible expense.) I may even tweet. Luckily, a surprising number of the books put out by CBe have benefited from prize shortlistings and more – the Forward, the PBS Recommendations, the Fenton Aldeburgh, the Goldsmiths, the Guardian First Book, the translation prizes – and from the ‘books-of-the-year’ lists in the broadsheets. These are a form of free publicity. They’re one of the things that have kept CBe alive.

And maybe, at this end of the scale, a big budget for marketing and publicity wouldn’t make any difference at all. ‘Six degrees of separation’ is, according to Wiki, ‘the theory that everyone and everything is six or fewer steps away, by way of introduction, from any other person in the world’. The books world being far, far smaller than the real world, it’s likely that any potential reader of a CBe book is only three or even two degrees of separation from the book. For the negotiation of these degrees, personal recommendations, and the expression of personal enthusiasm (on the social media of course, but also on the street) may be all that’s needed. These are another thing that has kept CBe alive. Thank you.