Night buses

The excellent Richard Morrison (the Times music critic but so much else besides) had a lovely article in Tuesday’s paper about his experiences getting home after reviewing a performance in the provinces. Well worth a read, but I was particularly struck by this paragraph near the end:

"To me, the night bus is a metaphor for so many useful public domains in Britain, from comprehensives and hospitals to swimming pools and parks, that are falling into terminal squalor because the middle classes have shrunk from them in horror, and decided to fund far more expensive private alternatives for their own exclusive use. The result is that Britain is increasingly two nations.I don’t like that. Which is why, as a token gesture you may consider ludicrous, I still use night buses."

I also like his subsequent paragraph:

"Besides, there’s a good chance that, among the dishelleved revellers returning from the grungy dives of Camden Town, I will bump into my own children. And as sociologists are always telling us, no father should spurn the opportunity to spend quality time with his offspring. Even if it involves lurching through the mean streets of North London as dawn breaks over Kentish Town."

Googlepage links, maybe (update: yes)

I was exicted to read a few weeks ago that Google has introduced a web page builder. I was too late to sign up, but I registered and was thrilled yesterday to receive an email from Google inviting me to try the Page Creator service, still in beta. I’ve created a couple of web pages already (and, inevitably, so has Jenny, though she finds the Google service pretty tame compared with Yahoo: Geocities, in which you can make your mouse track anything you like and generally do lots of "jumping up and down" (as I call them) things).

I’ve attempted to link to these pages in the right-hand nav bar of Petrona, but the links go to 404 errors. I don’t know if this is me or Google (as the function is still beta), and their help pages aren’t much help, as such pages rarely are.

So I’ll attempt to link to the pages from here, just to see if that works. If not, I’ll keep working on it: Clarke-Irving page and About Connotea Detective . (And, for luck, Jenny’s page.)

Note: the links don’t work (apart from the Page Creator link). I’ve sent the Google technical support people a help request, and will fix the links if I hear from them or if I otherwise have an inspiration.

Update: The links above now work, and the link to the main Clarke-Irving page in the sidebar now works, thanks to Dave Lull for the tips. The "About Connotea Detective" link in the sidebar is still being stubborn but I am working on it.)

Final update to this post: All working now.

Nostalgia already

The paucity of choice in Waterstones, etc, is a recurring theme, one with which I don’t entirely agree. But the downside has never been more clearly demonstrated to me than yesterday, when I popped in en route to an Iranian new year celebration (;-) ) to see if I could buy a book about blogs or blogging. Not a one (and not one in WHSmith either).

The reason for my attempt was because I had just read a book on the topic, The Weblog Handbook, by Rebecca Blood. It is a readable and interesting book, and one I recommend, but it was published as long ago as 2002. The famous but misattributed quote about Harold Wilson’s week being a long time in politics does not quite apply to blogging, but it was a revelation to read in this book that everyone with a blog knew each other (online), and that there were web directory sites for blogs that listed them all.

The principles of blogging so ably and clearly set out by Ms Blood still hold, but having read her book I was keen to fill in the gap to the present. I felt like an illegal alien in Waterstones. I am clearly a creature from another world now. (And have since hived off to planet Amazon where I will find what I need if it exists.)

Some words of wisdom from Ms Blood:

"Weblogs are not, as some people say, a new kind of journalism. Rather, they supplement traditional journalism by evaluating, augmenting and above all filtering the information churned out by journalists and the rest of the media machine every day. Mass media seeks to appeal to a wide audience; weblogs excel at creating targeted serendipity for their individual constituencies."

"….there are only three movitivations for keeping one [a weblog]: information sharing, reputation building, and personal expression."

"..each one, whatever its nature, provides for its readers an intimate portrait of its maintainer, a portrait drawn over time. Random observations, selected links, extended diatribes — accumulated, these elements resolve into a mosaic revealing a personality, a self."

"The Web has circumvented all the gatekeepers, and now everyone with a webpage has the means to reach an audience of like-minded individuals."

"Your goal is to attract a core audience of readers in tune with your way of seeing the world. Their number is irrelevant."

On webloggers: "I have found them to be, without exception, very nice individuals. Several of these have been webloggers with whom, politically, I could not disagree more strongly…..In each case we have met each other with great pleasure, our differences far, far outweighed by the things we have in common: a love for the weblog, the unwavering belief in the value of every individual’s opinion, and an absolute commitment to the right of each of us to publish our thoughts."

"Those who grumble at seeing the same site linked on a dozen weblogs rail against the most fundamental attribute of the Web itself — its ability to allow people to share information easily. And those who decry cross-blog talk have not yet understood the value of bringing a dozen lively minds to bear on the same subject."

Thank you, Rebecca Blood.

Literary culture

Taking advantage of a day’s holiday from work to catch up, I have read an interview with Gabriel Josipovici on Ready Steady Book, link kindly sent to me, with some excerpts, by Dave Lull.

I hadn’t heard of Mr Josipovici before (I hope that does not make me a Philistine), but he is a French writer who has spent most of his adult life in the UK. This last point is relevant becuase GJ is rather critical of the UK cultural scene; as he lives here, then that’s OK;-)

Much of the interview on Ready Steady Book is about GJ’s writing, old and new. The conversation takes a general turn:

"MT: In this country we tend to see literary novels as ‘heavy’ and popular fiction as ‘light’. Yet you have referred to the ‘lightness’ of The Iliad. What is this quality exactly? Are there modern novels that are light in this way?"

The first part of the response is one that Michael Allen would endorse:

"GJ: There may be two or three different issues here. I find contemporary works that take themselves terribly seriously a pain, as I’ve said. I’d much rather read a good thriller or a good comic novel than one that is bidding to become a Booker prize-winner (and often succeeding)."

GJ then goes on to say that (American, he says) thriller writers these days want to show that their work is important, which he calls a "disaster for their work". This is an intriguing view: which thriller writers can he mean, and why a disaster? (He doesn’t tell us.) The most famous and successful thriller at the moment remains the Da Vinci Code, and I don’t recall the author claiming it as important (though some religious organisations have erroneously taken it seriously, but that’s different). In my opinion, among the best current US thriller writers are the likes of Michael Connelly, Harlan Coben, Karin Slaughter, Philip Margolian, Robert Crais … I could go on (see Connotea Detective). My point is, I have not known them to take their work "seriously" in what they have written or said about their books. (Karin Slaughter in particular is great copy as an interviewee).

GJ’s examples of modern authors who write "light" novels are Malamud, Shabtai, Simon, Perec, Duras, Robbe-Grillet, Kundera, Joseph Heller and Peter Handke. I am ashamed to say I have not read, or even heard of, many of these. I went through a phase of reading Kundera and enjoyed a few of his, though I found I’d had enough after a while. I read one Malamud ages ago (his most famous one, called "The Fixer") but do not remember much about it. Catch 22 (Heller) I found a bit of a curate’s egg (though was only a teenager when I read it, and knew nothing about the culture or events depicted). The rest I have not read. I admit I am not a literary intellectual, so do feel somewhat intimidated by this list of "light" reading. GJ also mentions Spark, Bellow, Nabokov and Thomas Bernhard. I’ve read a lot of Spark in the past, I read one or two Nabokovs and didn’t like them (probably did not "get" them — he seems a creepy kind of person to me but I know he is much admired), and have not read the others. I guess there is little hope for me, as these days I fear I would not now have the concentration to read these no doubt extremely clever books.

Another point GJ makes, as highlighted by Dave Lull, is about the paucity of British (literary) culture:

"MT: In the past you’ve said that, from your perspective, British culture appears to be "narrow, provincial and smug". How would you say this manifests itself when it comes to literature?"

"GJ: Coming to this culture from the outside I’m amazed at how mean and provincial it is. What do I mean by that? It’s difficult to put into words. It’s like a fog that has covered the British Isles and people go about in it and think that’s how the world is. Look at the bookshops. I lived in Paris for a few months two years ago, in the Montmartre area, not a particularly intellectual quarter, but there were four independent bookshops within five minutes walk of my flat. Their owners had run them for ten to twenty-five years and, while they of course had all the latest works, they also reflected the owners’ tastes. ‘Içi, moi je suis la reine’, one of them said to me one day. Here, every town you go to has the same dreary Waterstones with the same dreary books piled high on the tables, two for the price of one in some instances, supermarket style. I wonder if it is the first time in history that the line between fashion and culture has disappeared. Disappeared in the minds of the reading public, of literary editors, of prizegivers, even of writers themselves."

Well. And again, well! Of course GJ is right to observe the sad decline of the independent bookseller (someone has made a similar comment to my chick-lit posting immediately before this one). When I moved to Kingston 15 years ago, for example, there were 7 or 8 different bookshops in the town, now there are three, and yes they are Waterstones, Borders and WHSmith. But I don’t think this is symptomatic of any problem for the consumer of books (though of course it is for the independent booksellers). Although GJ sneers at the 3 for 2s (very fashionable to do that), Waterstones and Borders offer a large choice of standard books. And where they don’t, there is online. As has so often been said, Amazon offers any book you can think of, in or out of print, 24 hours a day. (Abe books and other online booksellers similar.) I have bought more books in the past 5 years from a huge range of small bookshops and individuals in the UK (and elsewhere) than I ever did before I got hooked on the Internet. The variety is unbelievable. One of my favourite blogs, admittedly not UK, reviews "a book a day", mostly obtained from the public library. Other bloggers do the same. (Doubtless non-bloggers too;-) )

That isn’t to say that independent bookshops aren’t great — they are. Whenever I am in a town where there is one — Keswick, Tenby, Chipping Norton — and have any time (and they are open), I go in and invariably buy some books that I hadn’t previously thought to buy. There are plenty in central London too, but I tend not to go there even though, technically, I live there. It is sad that these shops find it hard to compete. But GJ is wrong, I think, to imply that their absence signifies a literary desert.

My theory is that in Paris and in other cities in mainland Europe, independent booksellers have a better time of it because the Internet has not caught on there to the extent that it has in this island nation, and becuase English is not the first language. Online retail in mainland European languages does exist, but on a much smaller scale than English. I think if GJ waits a few years he will see things change. I am not saying this is a good thing, but I think it may happen. (And I think he’s probably right that the standard of literary debate in the media is higher in parts of mainland Europe and South America than it is in parts of the USA and UK.)

GJ talks about sameness of literary prizes, and so on: I am sure he is right to imply a level of product placement and commercialism, from what one reads. But is he aware of the blog world, and the absolutely first-class standard of literary comments and debate that exists, on books old and new? He fails to acknowledge it.

So I think GJ is incorrect to say: "English literary culture, in sharp contrast to the musical and fine arts culture, has retreated into a safe little Englander mentality, imagining that merely by writing ‘about’ great events and deep subjects you are producing great and deep works of literature."

I think it is still there, just as it always was. It may not be the literary "club" of London publishers and authors he no doubt is attacking (another fashionable activity). But I wonder if he is aware of how many book groups exist – -I know of several locally, among parents of school-age children. Informal, unnoticed by anyone but themselves, yet there for the love of reading. Is the "Richard and Judy" book club beneath the notice of GJ? (It is modelled on Oprah, I believe.) I don’t watch R&J but the books they select are promoted in the dreaded Waterstones et al. I have bought quite a few for my teenage daughter, as she moves into adult reading, and she’s enjoyed them, and found that they have raised questions for her to consider. I don’t think the R&J selections are "safe choices" from well-known authors, but are quite individualistic, on the whole.

There is another aspect to GJ’s comments, but which I am not going to discuss now as this post is too long, and I am currently cooking someone’s tea, doing a load of washing and have to collect a child from somewhere. Such is the fractured life of the "attempted intelligent" person with domestic responsibilities. Petrona will have to retire for the moment.

My message to GJ is: in a culture dominated by instant, digestible media, I am constantly impressed by the variety of reading and thinking done by the people I encounter in daily life. Most of whom are completely unaware of literary prizes and the "scratch my back" nature (we are told) of book publishing. There is hope for us yet!

Note: I see that Ready Steady Book does not have a comments facility 😉

Frank Wilson said…

Many years ago, Maxine, I reviewed Peter Handke’s The Left-Handed Woman. I called it the longest 89-page novel I had ever read.

7:09 PM

Maxine said…

You give me hope, Frank!

7:21 PM

Saturday books part 2 (final)

I intended to write two postings yesterday about the Times Saturday books section, but only got as far as the first. Here’s the second.

The other item in the paper that interested me was a piece about "chick-lit", specifically a review of two books, one by Kathy Lette and the other by Gigi Levangle. As might be expected, I am not a fan of the chick-lit genre, and yes I have read some of it, not particularly being aware that I was embarking on a formula read before starting out. I don’t much like the books I have read, for example the first of what became the "Shopaholic" series, because they seem to take part in some alternative universe where the heroine is charmingly ditzy but somehow manages to make a billion bucks by accident before her boss discovers her silly mistake, which she made because she forgot she left her baby on the train or was busy applying her mascara at the time — you get the picture. The last one I read (being unaware in advance it was going to be chick-lit) was "The Ivy Chronicles", about someone in New York whose husband left her, so to regain her Manhattan lifestyle she set up as an agent to get 3-year olds into private school (or something). Despite being penniless she instantly finds a great apartment above a delicatessan shop with saintly owner, has a best friend for all emergencies, on-tap babysitting, lending gold Rolls-Royce, etc etc. So the problem with the genre is that you can tell on page 1 (ish) what is going to happen, and the deus-ex-machina plot devices remove any dramatic tension — which renders actually reading the book rather pointless.

The angle taken in the Times last Saturday is that chick-lit has now come of age. The Kathy Lette book is given as an example. I have never read a KL book, but I know of her becuase she has a knack with titles ("Foetal Attraction", etc). Her latest is called "How to Kill your Husband (and other handy hints)." Not too enticing, and not even a witty title, but I read on.

The point made by Sarah Vine, the reviewer, is that the chick-lit heroines have, 10 years later, become like Bridget Jones: older, fatter, managing jobs, children and so on. These two new books are said to break ground by showing how these "ex heroine, now married with two kids" characters cope when their husbands run off with the new generation of ditzy, mascara-applying…..you get the picture — the is tale told from the wronged woman side instead of the gay young thing side.

All sounds pretty missable, but for the reviewer’s comments about the books. (Or book as it turns out.) "Lette crystallises all the pitfalls facing the modern working couple: work tensions……sexual tensions….. — and more darkly, what becomes of two people who have lost all respect for each other." Well, OK, but that isn’t exactly an original literary theme. (Madame Bovary, anyone?) Vine goes on to say "But what really makes Lette such a pro is that, as well as insight, she provides her reader with that rarest of things, a good plot. Fundamentally, this is a well-constructed, tightly written thriller." Hmmm, I’m mildly interested, now.

I should note that the other book reviewed by Vine seems to be exactly like every other chick-lit book, so the premise of the reviewer is not borne out. In fact, why package the review as chick-lit "growing up" when the sample size is one? (Rhetorical question.)

A note on pricing: once again, Amazon (UK) has the book in hard cover at a crazy price: 6 pounds and 49 pence. The list price, quoted on Amazon and in the Times, is 12.99, or 11.69 if you buy it from the Times. I wonder if Amazon scans all currently reviewed books and sells them cheap for a set time, as it knows there will be a demand? Something is going on, anyway — half price is a whacking discount. (The book isn’t part of any special Amazon promotion so far as I can see.) Maybe it is just competition with Tesco.

Another note: on Amazon you can see the cover of the book, which is the usual pink chick-lit cover with cartoon characters and girly writing. In a bookshop I would walk past such a book on display without even looking at it. Even if Sarah Vine thinks the book is "chick-lit grown up", the publisher does not seem to agree: or perhaps it is just going for the known market irrespective of content. Or perhaps the content isn’t really "grown up". Is it worth finding out? (Rhetorical question again.)

equiano said…

Amazon of course sells things in such vast quantities that they carry the same kind of clout with publishers as Waterstones in terms of wheedling discounts out of them. While this is delightful for us as customers, it is deadly for your local lovely independent bookstore which really just cannot possibly compete…

4:11 PM

Newspapers in Trouble?

TCS Daily – Newspapers in Trouble?: "Paper is just an increasingly obsolete delivery platform. It’s expensive, and on the way out. Get rid of it, or start a new ‘paper’ without it. "

So says Glenn Reynolds. He’s probably right: publishers of newspapers, magazines and journals will probably increasingly move away from paper products. Mr Reynolds hopes, optimistically, that publishers will invest more in journalists, and in more flexibility — getting said journalists to photograph, use video clips, etc. (I suspect the publishers will be more interested in profit margins, as has been demonstrated to date, but I’m a bit of a cynic.)

With e-book functionality still not at breaktrhough yet — Sony’s product came in for some stick recently— I guess those of us who like to read their newspapers (accent on the "paper") on the way to work in the morning are saved for a few years yet. But it is sad. I read a lot online and work all day online in some form or other. I love the Internet, the Web and email (well, email is a curse as well as a blessing, to be honest). I am by no means a luddite, but "I love paper" — there, I’ve written it.

I hate the thought of having to read everything in e-form, and I don’t believe all the many people who say soon(ish) I won’t be able to tell the difference between an e-reader and paper. I think e-reading will require a compromise on the part of the (human) reader, not to mention demanding yet further adaptation of the visual system beyond that which it was designed for. I will miss that particular type of browsing that is possible when reading a paper product, which is rather different from online browsing (or e-browsing as I suppose I should call it).

Economics will out, eventually, and newspapers will die, I suppose, as everyone says they will. I for one will be very sad when that day happens.

Book publishing and the GOB

My estimable friend and colleague Giles Goat-Boy has commented on my "Not so Grumpy Old Bookman" posting. Because the comments are a bit long now, with Dave’s fascinating extracts there also, and because Giles G-B has (in my opinion) hit one nail right on the head, I’m going to copy his comments and my reply (my reply edited slightly) here. Hope that does not break some cardinal (but unknown to me!) rule of blogging etiquette.

Giles G-B said…
There is a ring of truth to the lessons learned from GOB [Grumpy Old Bookman] 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…
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! The readership of one’s blog, however small, represent people who find your content interesting and not only provide constructively critical feedback, but who will send you related links, material and ideas that they think will interest you by what they read.

Once the book is written (;-) ) ,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 (or the supermarkets and "the web" (Amazon/Google) will become the publishers and distributors) .

This is why I think that bold initiatives like Macmillan’s new writers scheme (crucially, tied in with "Richard and Judy" to select the books to publish) are great. (Michael Allen has recently been reviewing the first crop on his blog (in two tranches, here and here, with a third to come); they sound pretty readable, on the whole.) This kind of approach 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 all "conventional" publishers in a moribund industry afloat for ever, even with celebrity "auto"biographies and the like.)

Of course the idea of self-publishing and self-distributing is hopelessly uncommercial. But it gets you noticed, gives you the opportunity to build up a readership and, ultimately, an offer from a publisher who, if nothing else, is open to persuasion by a business opportunity. Plenty of authors seem to be using this approach, if the Lulu awards and other initiatives (some described on Petrona) are anything to go by. One or two authors doing or considering this approach have contacted me or commented as a result of items I have written. I’ve mentioned Val Landi, who is doing very well with his "A woman from Cairo".

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

Saturday books part 1

There wasn’t much that interested me in last Saturday’s (18 March 06) Times Books supplement. I did note a new thriller, "The chemistry of death" by Simon Beckett. Apparently there is blurb praise from Mo Hayder, which is a good sign. On the other hand, it is clearly a very gruesome book — "repulsive" the Times reviewer (Peter Millar) calls the content. The main character is a forensic archaelologist (yawn); the author’s angle is to have him living in the Norfolk Broads as a result of a tragic personal event (yawn). Cue serial killer in village, ritual murders, "doomed inevitability" of a romance. Sounds pretty routine, although Millar does say that it is a "classy debut from a welcome new British voice" so might be worth a look when it is in paperback (skipping the gory bits).

Having looked at the book on Amazon, the hardback is priced at 5.99 pounds, which is the price (or less than the price) of a paperback in the UK. The Times is quoting 10 pounds in its review (or 9 pounds if you buy the book from them). Pricing apart, Amazon pair the book with Robert Crais’s latest, a standalone called "The two minute rule" (recommended by a colleague who has just finished it). As I’ve been following Val Landi, I know now that this means the publisher has paid for a pairing with another book at a certain selling level, but was not able to choose which book. Robert Crais was a good result for Beckett, in terms of market exposure.

There is one customer review on Amazon so far (as well as the Hayder endorsement and one from Tess Gerritson, which is a very good sign); someone from Surrey in the UK (not me!) likes it a lot. Maybe I will buy the hardback at the Amazon price, then.

Incidentally, in searching for the Times link to the Beckett review, I found an archive of selected crime-fiction reviews on the Times site. I imagine most of these are by now behind the subscription wall along with the Beckett review, but here’s the link. It is a useful list of recently published books to put on your reading list, if you like crime fiction.

Giles G-B said…

It’s more related to Frank Wilson’s call for books with scientists in, but this post about chemistry and death thrillers reminded me of Easter Island by Jennifer Vanderbes. There are two scientist main characters in it, and it’s a fun read as well.

12:49 PM

Maxine said…

Thanks, Giles G-B; one more for the list 😉

12:02 PM

Insecurity rules

Dave Lull has pasted some fascinating excerpts from "Fooled by Randomness" in my posting about the not-so-grumpy bookman. (Thank you for persisting, Dave, seems like blogger has been having some technical problems.)

The first excerpt is about the author, Taleb, and his friend’s comparison of two philosophers: "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."

The second excerpt contains some thinking about science. "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."

Yet science must evolve in this direction if we are to make advances — in some key areas, at least. My posting about the future of science alluded to this necessity, in the context of biology. Biology’s future lies in "big science" — analysis of nature’s unimaginably complex systems and networks and their perturbation by chemicals, currents and other environmental factors that cause a cell to move or a protein to form, for example. Our relatively new knowledge of genome sequences is the tip of this particular iceberg. So vast is the challenge that more and more leading scientists are becoming keenly aware of the value of this uncertainty and introspection that Dave has highlighted. The science of bioinformatics has developed this way, with its roots in the open-source free spirit of the Web, but a problem for this field has been persuading the ‘at each other’s throat’ biologists to provide their data (genomes and so on) for the analyses. And who can blame the biologists, who are forced into the "ruthless contest" by the career structure in which they exist? (That’s where the Taleb extracts come into it.)

But things are changing. Systems biology is a nascent discipline but growing. And an example of the collaborative, as opposed to the competitive, approach to science is demonstrated by the Alliance for Cell Signaling , whose goal is to understand not only how cells interpret signals, but how they interpret them in context — that means looking at signalling networks and how they are affected by minute changes in circumstance. Many world-leading, ‘in competition’ laboratories have signed up to the alliance, and share out the work, as they know the challenge is too vast for one person or lab to get anywhere alone.

Disclaimer: if the above posting reads a bit incoherently, forgive me. While writing it I have also made dinner for my daughters, read an essay on Pride and Prejudice by one of them, listened to piano practice, helped the other one create a "links" page for her Fruits Basket website, and fixed up by phone for a friend to come and play after school later in the week. Networking, schmetworking — such is the multitasking life. Space to think is at a premium.

Thanks again to Dave Lull for providing these highly pertinent extracts.

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