Not so grumpy bookman

An rss reader (bloglines in my case) makes it beautifully easy to become involved in blogging at your own pace. You can search and sign up for blogs that might interest you, cancel subscriptions in an instant, and look at your subscriptions when you want to instead of being bombarded by emails. (And, blessedly, no adverts if you read blogs via rss, though static ones creep in occasionally and doubtless plenty of people are working on ways to disract the reader further by this method.)

It didn’t take me long to focus on a few blogs about books and book publishing that I really like. My very favourites are in the right-hand navigation bar of Petrona. One that isn’t, but will be after I’ve finished this post, is Michael Allen’s Grumpy Old Bookman. I think the only reason it isn’t there is that I don’t like the title of his blog (more on blog titles in future).

GOB is a consistently interesting blog. If you are a writer, reader, in publishing, editing and/or otherwise interested in books, I highly recommend it. The author is an experienced hand in varoius walks of life: higher education, a published author of novels, a publisher himself, etc. He has an admirably down-to-earth (I would not say grumpy) perspective on publishing and writing. He’s funny, experienced, opinionated but organized. If you read his blog entries regularly, you’ll find they form a thematic pattern; they are not streams of consciousness or relatively random pickings, as are many blogs (perhaps this one, for example, as although I am finding features to put on it, I am a long way from being happy with its content organisation).

To return to GOB. Reading blog postings as daily (or thereabouts) scans via bloglines means that consistent patterns and themes that might exist on one blog don’t readily stick in one’s mind. But Mr Allen has written a book, also called Grumpy Old Bookman, and I enjoy his blog sufficiently to have bought it and the other day finished reading it. The book is a chronological selection of his blog entries from the launch of the blog in March 2004 up to September of that same year. I thoroughly enjoyed this book, which contains a mix of reviews of books Mr Allen reads (old and new), and his observations on the publishing industry (and other things too, sometimes). The book ends with the the first hints of the now fully blown (and ridiculous, if amusing) Da Vinci Code plaigiarism case.

Some things I learned from this book:

  • If you are a writer you won’t make any money from it.
  • Whether or not a book gets published is random. (There is a series of fascinating postings about a book Fooled by Randomness, by Nicholas Taleb.)
  • If you want a good cultural grounding in your education, read History not English Literature at university.
  • Creative writing and similar courses are a waste of time.
  • Publishers can’t predict which books will sell.
  • If you are in the small "publishing circle" of literary editors of newspapers and similar, and write a book, you are likely to have it published and reviewed (glowingly), but this won’t make it sell better.
  • A good book can and probably should be short. Most books being written today are too long.
  • Authors should not write to express themselves but to arouse emotion in the reader.

This last point was the main theme that interested me about the book (though I found it all interesting). In one of his posts of 1 June 2004, Mr Allen analyses the state of alienation (in the marxist sense) many of us live in today, and leading on from these thoughts, in a subsequent post of 2 June, he quotes from a book review by Poe: "A skilful literary artist has constructed a tale……..which leaves in the mind of him who contemplates it…a sense of the fullest satisfaction. " (I recommend reading the whole quotatation, and post, to get the full effect.) As Mr Allen says, "In this one paragraph, Poe has condensed almost every important truth about the writer’s task and the role of emotion in art generally." And "To paraphrase Poe in more modern English: The writer’s job is to decide what emotion to create in the reader, and then to invent a series of events — otherwise known as a plot — which will generate that emotion."

This is why Mr Allen enjoys reading thrillers and spy novels, and has little patience with much of the "literary" fiction being published nowadays.

Mr Allen has written several thrillers and other books himself, using various pseudonyms. He’s also written a writers’ handbook (The Truth about Writing) and a collection of short stories. I think I recall from his recent blog entries that he has a new book coming out soon. I’m going to put at least some of these on my list. I also hope they are published by Kingsfield, Mr Allen’s company: it was a pleasure to read a book with decent-sized typeface and white (not grey) paper.

Dave Lull said…

I find Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s ideas about the nature of knowing very interesting, and persuasive, and the GOB’s more or less applying of those ideas in his posts that discuss publishing also very interesting.

Here is Mr Taleb (the quotations from _Fooled by Randomness: the Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets_ are from the 2nd edition, New York: Texere, 2004) on Montaigne as the "role model for the modern thinker":

"I believe that the principal asset I need to protect and cultivate is my deep-seated intellectual insecurity. My motto is ‘my principal activity is to tease those who take themselves and the quality of their knowledge too seriously.’ Cultivating such insecurity in place of intellectual confidence may be a strange aim – and one that is not easy to implement. To do so we need to purge our minds of the recent tradition of intellectual certainties. A reader turned pen pal[*] made me rediscover the 16th Century French essayist and professional introspector Montaigne. I got sucked into the implications of the difference between Montaigne and Descartes – and how we strayed by following the latter’s quest for certitudes. We surely closed our minds by following Descartes’ model of formal thinking rather than Montaigne’s brand of vague and informal (but critical) judgment. Half a millennium later the severely introspecting and insecure Montaigne stands tall as a role model for the modern thinker. In addition, the man had exceptional courage: It certainly takes bravery to remain skeptical; it takes inordinate courage to introspect, to confront oneself, to accept one’s limitations – scientists are seeing more and more evidence that we are specifically designed by mother nature to fool ourselves."
(From _Fooled by Randomness_, page xxi; also found here)

"Think of someone heavily introspective, tortured by the awareness of his own ignorance. He exhibits, on the surface, a lack of personal confidence yet has the rare courage to say ‘I don’t know’ and the greater one to write about the properties of what he doesn’t know. He does not mind looking like a fool, or, worse, an ignorant. He hesitates, will not commit, agonizes over the consequences of his being wrong. He introspects and introspects until he reaches physical and nervous exhaustion. This person you will rarely find on the literary shelves after the works of the 16th century essayist Michel de Montaigne –for the very meaning of the word ‘essay’ conveys the tentative, the timid, and the nondefinitive. You will not see much of him in the university either: Even in Montaigne’s day he could not have reached doctoral authority; his form of expression contrasted with the scholastic tradition laboring intra muros within the confines of the University. I will call such person an epistemocrat; a province where the laws are structured with such human fallibility in mind I will call Epistemocristan. One cannot claim authority by exhibiting acute fallibility. (Once in a while you encounter members of the human species with so much intellectual superiority that they can effortless manage to change their mind upon being supplied with evidence, without experiencing the smallest tinge of shame – but among the people of surviving reputation, these are so rare that only one example, Überphilosopher Bertrand Russell, comes to mind.)

"Yet, although you may almost never run into such epistemocrat in scientific conferences (he would not be invited), he is the essence of science itself. Science is a fundamentally skeptical enterprise. How? By some fallacy of aggregation (i.e., the sum is not the parts), empirical-experimental science is not the sum of scientists but the upper bound of competing results; scientists are in a ruthless contest, frequently at each other’s throat. Each individual is disciplined by a few annoying peers going after the robustness of his results, not by his own intrinsic devotion to truths, a system quite similar to the assumed role of competition in a capitalist system. In the literary world and the humanities, however, the absence of hard evidence combined with the importance of reputation makes things far more dangerous: Each individual thinker needs to be a standalone embodiment of knowledge. Thinkers do not usually compete over empirically tested results but entire systems of arguments, with all or nothing acceptance or rejection. Skepticism and the exhibition of wavering beliefs can be costly. This makes one’s public display of introspection a deadly acceptance of one’s irrelevance. Perhaps the last and only essayist of note was Montaigne, before we got corrupted by the age of certainties. Try to write like Montaigne, without the tone of authority, and not only you will be denied tenure, but you will be thrown out of the university."
(From "The Apprenticeship of a Skeptic")

*(". . . bringing to my attention the discussion in Toulmin (1990[: _Cosmopolis: the Hidden Agenda of Modernity_. New York: Free Press]). On that I have to make the sad remark that Descartes was originally a skeptic (as attested to by his demon thought experiment) but the so-called ‘Cartesian mind’ corresponds to someone with an appetite for certainties. Descartes’ idea in in its original form is that there are very few certainties outside of narrowly defined deductive statements, not that everything we think about needs to be deductive." (From _Fooled by Randomness_, page 233)

9:51 PM

Giles G-B said…

There is a ring of truth to the lessons learned from GOB but I don’t want there to be.

I find it endlessly puzzling that so many people yearn to be writers and so few can be. That this is a seeming pre-condition of existing in our society worries me.

Why is it that so many of us want and try to do this same thing of writing but the privilege of being published and read falls to so few? I know that’s a trite question but it feels so poignant to me somehow.

I’m trying to understand how this paradox relates to the long comment above – I suspect there’s a kind of answer in there somewhere…

10:07 PM

Maxine said…

Dave’s extracts were too interesting for a brief response so I have posted on those separately.

Giles, I empathise with your slight sense of melancholy. Although this is perhaps a rather pragmatic and over-simplistic response on my part, I believe that blogging and self-publishing are one answer to your question.

Blogging is a great way to hone one’s writing skills and to gain a small but focused community of readers, who, being bloggers, will comment and help for free!

Then, with the Lulu awards bringing this into focus for me, one self-publishes one’s book and sells it on Amazon. This is going to require some (but not a huge amount) of resources, and will generate a very small (but targeted readership).

The alternative is to go through the soul-destroying and ultimately random process described by Michael Allen. One might be lucky, but it sounds as if one’s psychological well-being would be better served by my suggested approach rather than relying on an incestuous publishing community.

Also, if you believe Michael Allen, book publishers will soon all be out of business anyway, unless they evolve drastically different publishing models. They’ll be scooped by other types of publisher who have evolved to deal with the web and the supermarkets.

This is why I think that bold initiatives like Macmillan’s new writers scheme (crucially, tied in with "Richard and Judy") are great. This kind of thing will break the mould and is the way the book publishing industry will survive.

(You only get a J K Rowling or a Dan Brown every so often, and they are not enough to keep a moridbund industry afloat for ever.)

Disclaimer: Macmillan is owner of the Nature Publishing Group, which is my employer.

9:15 AM