Saturday 31 January 2015

Bookshop praise

The below is from the 'preamble' to issue 1 of Sonofabook (subscribe or buy copy here):

'A word on independent bookshops, whose quarter-page adverts in this issue were offered free. Without good small bookshops it is very hard for small publishers to get their books out into the physical world. In February 2014 the Booksellers Association reported that the number of independent bookshops in the UK had fallen below 1,000, following a year-on-year decline over the previous decade. This massacre is in part the consequence of ebooks and online buying, but a key moment was the abolition of the Net Book Agreement in 1997. The ending of the NBA – which required retailers to sell books at the cover price – led to aggressive discounting (which actually forces up the cover price of books, as publishers struggle to maintain their margins); concentrated bookselling in the hands of chainstores, supermarkets and Amazon; and forced the closure of hundreds of bookshops. The literary culture of the UK was changed overnight; but while France and Germany legislate to restrict discounting and offer good breaks to independent bookshops, none of the political parties in the UK cares a damn, this not being a vote-winning issue.

Back when CBe started up, I put books in a bag and trekked around some of the independent bookshops in London. It rained. I had no distributor, no trade reps, no reviews, no credibility and no umbrella. Johnny de Falbe at Sandoe’s read one of the books overnight and rang next day to order 40 copies; also supportive were Max Porter at Daunts (now an editor at Granta) and Matthew Crockatt at Crockatt & Powell (now with And Other Stories); and then Dennis Harrison at Albion Beatnik and Gavin Housley at Foyles and Jonathan Main at Bookseller Crow and Muna Khogali at Book & Kitchen, and others. I had never met any of these people before wandering into their shops. I owe them. The ads for bookshops in this first issue, and I hope in future issues too, are intended as more than just fillers.'

Sonofabook the magazine issue 1: mash-up

Lines from the first issue of Sonofabook magazine, out in March. Subscribe now (or buy a single issue) and I'll post within 24 hours. Contributions below from: Will Eaves, Elizabeth Mikesch & May-Lan Tan, D. Nurkse, Nancy Gaffield, Dan O’Brien, Francis Ponge, Agota Kristof, Adnan Sarwar, Andrew Elliott, David Collard, Ryan Van Winkle & J. O. Morgan, Jack Robinson.

Acoustic dark: voices and squeaks, the slide and shunt of forms. The darkness has a leathern softness, lit by brass flashes.

To be sucked through a tube is a rare kind of honesty.

Now the Age of Terror. A clique of ecstatic suicides. For each killer, a thousand steady jobs; bankers, publicists, bloggers, documentarians, Security diplomates in office complexes with tinted windows, in leafy suburbs where the streets bear no signs, custodians on server farms.

The family watched him float up through the sunroof. His crotch flowered like agave.

Her clothes were changing. / Gauzy halters. And her diet. / Slim Jims in taco sauce.

Beware of parataxis. The New Poets / (British Branch) want nothing / to do with you.

Good news about the sporadic interest / in your poems.

poetry (damn this word)

Obese women, sitting outdoors to get a bit of fresh air, will watch me pass by without a word. Filled with happiness, I’ll greet everybody.

Where’s your God now they asked. He’s not here in Kuwait and he wasn’t there in Iraq, was he?

Give me that ole time religion. / Your sorrows pin you to / this place.

where I liked to pass an hour every morning / with a coffee, a croissant, an American classic – / a Moby-Dick, an Invisible Man

Chosen genre: aesthetically and rhetorically adequate definition-descriptions. Limits of this genre: its extension. From the formula (or concrete maxim) to a Moby-Dick sort of novel, for example.

The opening line of Melville’s novel is not ‘Call me Ishmael’. This appears only after fifty pages of what the author calls ‘Front Matter’, an accumulation of fragments like the unsightly trash and clutter surrounding a whaling station, rough chunks of text roughly flensed from the body of leviathan literature.

For weeks the whale is content to hang in a column of water, to press its face to the sheen of kept-out air, to fill its cold cathedral with lament. But here, if it rains for more than you can bear, you will be forgiven if you write in your diary: stretch me no longer across this rough and presupposing world.

I hid and watched / the spider take the fly apart.

An eye, a cloak, a tremolo of creeps: cartoons, the imps and gristly disjecta of Disney, Bosch; a swarming substrate with a will.

Did you ever try to grow yourself from sand, to tongue a clam and wear the beach like a clog?

It’s an irrelevant question, like asking ‘and what sort of time do you call this?’ Into the answering silence pours the questioner’s self-doubt, his powerless pride.

feeling like a dead guest on a talk show / couch with more dead guests and a dead host who / entertain a studio audience of the dead, all for the invisible / dead who watch at home

How do the dead stay dead?

I hold my pee, and it hurts me.

I thought of how some things resist / by taking all the weight you can put on them.

They’ve got a beautiful country, we made holes in it

Lived here once, / existing from the collar up, / the sleeves out.

Here today I was going to get my head kicked in and that was going to be part of my history, part of me. Come on, then. White faces all around shouting and spitting and me in the middle.

Meanwhile Freud had continued to stare and the novelty of someone / so famous staring at my father had worn off. It was embarrassing.

There is nowhere that my father walked with me, hand in hand.

Because my father shouted at me / over the lid to the mustard jar / I made up the story in which he dies.

People don’t want stories, she says: ‘They want to be told how to do things, how to live their lives, they want advice.’ The author as agony aunt.

There’s so much I have to tell you, but I can’t open my mouth right now.

Of course, if I wish to be perfectly sincere, I do not conceive that one can validly write other than as I do.

Before the sun rises, I must speak of everything.

You might whisper to me like I’m there in your summer, panting without sound.

There are rewards for breaking all the china.

Wednesday 21 January 2015

The social history of books

There was that Kenneth Patchen 1957 Selected Poems I bought in a local Oxfam shop just before Christmas, signed on the flyleaf: ‘George Buchanan, 1959’ – the Irish-born poet, 1904-89, who published with Carcanet and whose daughter lives opposite me.

Last Saturday in another local Oxfam shop there was a treasure trove of late 1950s/early 1960s Penguins. I bought three. Inside a Moravia I found a forgotten bookmark in the form of a letter dated 7 February1961, thanking a Dr Helen Rubens for her job application and inviting her to attend a interview at a doctors’ surgery on the afternoon of the 10th – in other words, almost certainly this book was last read over a half a century ago, and perhaps the woman reading it had it with her on the day of the interview (the surgery opening times are handwritten on the back of the envelope). I googled the name and found her: her grandparents on both sides were Jewish immigrants and her parents met while working as market traders; she married a trades unionist at the age of 23, became a GP, mentored refugees studying medicine, was made a Fellow of the Royal College of General Practitioners in 1992, and died last year. For her Guardian obituary, written by her son, see here. I feel proud to have some of the books she once read.

Thursday 15 January 2015


A thing about reading many contemporary novels and poems is that often they make me conscious of doing so. That is, there’s me, the book, and the author too, saying ‘Hey, this is me writing a novel/poem, how’s it going?’

This happens at least as often, more, with work that’s conventional in form and content as it does with the kind of writing that gets called ‘experimental’.

I’d prefer the author to wander off, leaving just me and the book, but really I’m arguing against myself here, the best kind of argument. An ephemeral review of John Updike – in The Listener? late 1960s? – has stuck with me: the reviewer’s complaint was that whatever was being being described was being done so with such gorgeous resources of language that the reader’s attention was on the description, not the thing being described. And thus, as a description, it was functionally amiss.

Words, of course, get in the way. That’s their tease: see what I’m signifying or see me, me. There’s an early Alan Sillitoe novel in which the protagonist goes on a rampage against his bookshelves: I think all writers sometimes want out of it, the wordiness of it all. Shkolvsky: ‘How I want simply to describe objects as if literature had never existed; that way I could write literarily.’

Saturday 10 January 2015

The short story, in sickness and in health

Here is Philip Hensher in a Spectator review of a short-story collection: ‘Superficial signs of success and publicity – such as Alice Munro winning the Nobel, or the establishment of another well-funded prize – are widely mistaken for a resurgence. But what has disappeared – and disappeared quite recently – is the wide spread of journals willing to pay for a single story … writers in this country are reduced to giving away their short fiction for nothing, or to collecting it from time to time and persuading their publisher to bring out a volume for minuscule advances. It is scandalous that short-story writers of the talent of Helen Simpson, Jackie Kay, Gerard Woodward, Ali Smith, Shena Mackay and A.L. Kennedy have never established a firm relationship with a journal which, like the Strand with Conan Doyle, would regularly publish their stories. But there are no such magazines in this country.’

To which a fairly widespread response was: but the short story is resurgent: see the large number of readings, organisations, websites, magazines, etc, now promoting it.

Maybe both are right. Two different publishing models are being referenced here, and the differences between them are to large degree determined by money. Put simply, when writing and reading were more central to the culture than they are now, there was more of it around. In 1902 the Strand magazine paid Conan Doyle up to £620 (in today’s money, around £66,000) for a single episode of The Hound of the Baskervilles. To found The English Review in 1908, Ford Madox Ford raised £5,000 (in today’s money, over half a million). A consequence of the money was stable, long-term relationships between writers and editors, publishers, magazines. In tiny pockets this model still survives – in, for example, as Hensher points out, the long-term association between certain story writers and The New Yorker – but the new model, now that writing-&-reading have been shifted out to the periphery, is increasingly focused on competitions. The Book Trust website lists 76 of them in the UK. As Hensher points out in his Spectator piece, ‘With the funds one Sunday newspaper makes available for its annual short-story prize, it could afford to pay handsomely every week for a short story’ – but no, rather than pay many authors a reasonable sum, it chooses to pay one author a staggering sum. Competitions do many things effectively: they provide publicity for the sponsors and the genre itself; they provide money (through the entry fees) for the small presses or magazines that run many of them; they act as a filter, offering a select number of names to interested but time-strapped readers. What they do not do is foster the kind of long-term writer-editor relationship (as between, say, Carver and Gordon Lish) that was integral to the old model.

The latter kind of nurturing relationship is perhaps now more available in the creative writing industry than in publishing. This would make sense, given that it’s towards there that the money has shifted.

Monday 5 January 2015


Faber publish an anthology titled The Complete Book of Aunts. (There was also The Faber Book of Christmas, with one of my favourite indexes ever: alcoholism, death, despair, disease …) A work colleague and I once started gathering pieces for a proposed Faber Book of Trousers. Contents included a letter from Martin Luther to his tailor; Lenin’s interruption of his journey by train from exile to Russia in 1917 to buy a new pair of trousers, followed by an eye-witness account of his giving a speech in St Petersburg in which the journalist John Reed noted that his trousers looked too big; a newspaper account of Pamella Bordes scissoring the crotch out of a pair of Andrew Neil’s trousers; and the death, in Nabokov’s Transparent Things, of Hugh Person’s father while trying on a pair of trousers in the fitting room of a menswear shop.

Also this, which I remembered this week: a thank-you note from T. S. Eliot to the father of a near neighbour whose surplus clothing coupons (this was during the war) allowed Eliot to purchase a new pair of trousers. With the note, Eliot also sent two LP records of himself reading his poems. John Bodley at Faber was excited by these: one of the records was not listed in any discography or catalogue. Unfortunately the record was so scratched that it was unplayable.

Thursday 1 January 2015

New start-ups in 2015

New ventures in 2015 will include books from Jo Bell’s 52 project; the first two publications from Jennifer Griggs’s Green Bottle Press; the first books from the poetry list at Liverpool University Press, edited by Deryn Rees-Jones; and the first publication from Cécile Menon’s Les Fugitives.

More new presses? In politics and economics, this country is up shit creek; public funding for the arts is cut and cut again; and anyway, ‘no one reads books’. Yet, in just the past few years, Penned in the Margins, Peirene, And Other Stories, Eyewear, Istros, Notting Hill Editions, Emma Press … Magazines, too: print (Gorse, Bare Fiction, the reincarnation of Ambit) and online (Asymptote) and both (The White Review). Many of these presses are finding a readership for kinds of writing – work in translation by writers no one in the UK has heard of, short stories – that according to traditional publishing wisdom don’t stand a chance. Maybe, having nothing to lose, we become both more adventurous and more discriminating.

Meanwhile, according to Robert McCrum in last Sunday’s Observer, the only thing happening in literature in 2015 will be some books looking ahead to the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death in April the following year. Bless.


The novel by Nathalie Léger from Les Fugitives I recommend. ‘First published in France in 2012 to critical and popular acclaim, this is the first book about Barbara Loden: a genre-bending novel inspired by her film Wanda – a masterpiece of early cinema vérité, an anti-Bonnie-and-Clyde road movie about a young woman adrift in rust-belt Pennsylvania in the early 1960s, until she embarks on a crime spree with a small-time crook […] As research yields few new insights into Loden’s sketchy biography, the words of Duras, Perec, Godard, Plath, Kate Chopin, Melville, Beckett, Sebald et al. come to the narrator’s rescue […]’

Wanda is one of those cult movies. In the novel I happen to be reading right now, Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethowers (which throws together motorbikes, the 1970s New York art scene, and radical politics in Italy), a woman and her boyfriend are mugged outside a bar in New York at night; the boyfriend shoots the mugger’s hand and waits with him until an ambulance comes, telling the woman to go home, which she does, and turns on the TV and ‘The three a.m. movie was just beginning’. Guess which. The next pages are waiting, memories, and running commentary on the film.