You love Persephone Books, is your taste exactly the same as Nicola Beauman’s?

January 29, 2013 § Leave a comment

In my first week of Law at Trinity College Dublin, I bumped into a classmate of mine, outside the Buttery. We were both lost. That was the start of a long and valued friendship. Amongst the many things we have in common, is a love of reading. But our tastes are not always the same.

We really liked Suite Française; we gave up on The God of Small Things; she cried over Brooklyn and I grew impatient with it; she likes Graham Greene, but I do not.

Can anyone’s taste be exactly like another’s? I read reviews of books I like, hoping to find a reviewer who will lead me to some undiscovered author. But sooner or later, as I look through the reviews, something happens: I get offended. Perhaps he states that a book I liked was dull and badly written. Disappointed, even dismayed, I part company with this reviewer. And I am renewed in my conviction that no one’s taste coincides completely with mine or with anyone else’s.

Many people, it seems, love Persephone Books. Have they read them all? Have they read just some and loved them, and believe they will go on to love the rest? To love Persephone Books is to love Nicola Beauman’s taste in books, in fact to have exactly the same taste as she does.

You can bring a book to Nicola Beauman’s attention but she will not publish that book unless she likes it. So take away your Margery Sharps, your Barbara Pyms, and your Mary Webbs: Nicola Beauman won’t have any of them.

I have read about 40 of Nicola Beauman’s choices, not all under her imprint. There was only one Persephone book that I did not read finish, Mariana, and a few (Consequences, Bricks and Mortar, and Princes in the Land) which I, had I been Nicola Beaumann, would not have reissued. However, if publishing the books just mentioned was a condition of publishing, The Home-Maker, Cheerful Weather for the Wedding, The Fortnight in September, Every Eye, The Far Cry, The Blank Wall, Reuben Sachs, and all the Whipple novels, then I could live with that.

Nicola Beauman likes books that I don’t; I like books that she doesn’t: Barbara Pym’s earlier work & Quartet in Autumn for one. I would be very surprised if it were otherwise.


Called to account for reading defalcations

January 26, 2013 § Leave a comment

A few years ago someone said to me, ‘I must catch up on my reading.’ He was talking about reading fiction, not reading relating to a course or a job. Do people feel that an invisible reading list is handed out at birth?

Different imperatives, quite unreasoned, seem to be attached to reading. People read and review books they haven’t enjoyed. They go to the bitter end. Have they become confused between ‘Eat everything on your plate.’ and ‘Read all the words in the book.’ They may make a statement like this ‘I always finish every book I begin no matter how much I dislike it.’ Are they of a higher moral order than those of us who do not finish every book we begin?

When I was younger, it is true, that I felt a compulsion to finish books. By finishing a book, despite disliking it, I emerged the stronger for it. Is that so? You would probably be the better for doing yoga everyday even though you might not feel like doing it, but how can you be the better for reading a (bad) book that you did not enjoy?

Character building is out of context, if you read for pleasure. Why else would you read fiction? Or is there a better reason?

I took myself in hand some years ago and made it clear to myself that a book could be abandoned at any stage of reading. However, we all know that liking and disliking a book is not so clear cut. Occasionally, we feel we are deficient for not liking a book, so we read on. The book is not a bad book and we hope to like it better. Plus we have gone beyond the half way point which is sometimes beyond the point of return. We read on but we don’t enjoy the book any better, and it does not improve (or we do not improve enough to be up to it).

My decision to abandon a book is complicated by another factor. What about my reading record? Does half a book count? I must have read quite a chunk of Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood, and over half of Innocence by Penelope Fitzgerald before abandoning them. I didn’t mind so much about Cat’s Eye but I had enjoyed The Gate of Angels  and Offshore (both by Penelope Fitzgerald), and I wanted to like Innocence.

Worse still, I can’t say that I have read War and Peace. I have read all of it except a tenth. I skipped a ‘war section’, just one. I gave away that copy of War and Peace. A task awaits me; I shall have to buy another copy and read the skipped section (whichever one it is): otherwise I will never be able to say ‘I read War and Peace’—to the roomful of expectant people who will have gathered for this announcement—and my standing as a reader will never be what it might have been.

So I lay down no rule that I must read every book I begin. But I try to abandon the book early on, the first paragraph. Occasionally I make a mistake or indeed come to a section I deem that I am not up to reading. Towards the end of After Julius by Elizabeth Jane Howard, a notebook is produced, containing an account of a wartime operation that Julius undertook.

This account was about twenty pages long and I was in no mood to read it. So I skipped it, and finished the book. Then I was in a quandary; I had read the book bar twenty pages. So I hadn’t read the book. There was nothing for it but to go back and dose out that section to myself, a little like medicine—five pages a go until the course ran out. This is contrary to the spirit in which I read.

Who will I be telling that I read After Julius? Will I be attending the National Book Reading Accounting Day? No indeed. The knowledge that I have read various books will, by and large, die with me.

I have, however, noted that I read After Julius in my book-reading record. What about those books I did not finish? Should I round up all these half and three-quarter-read books? Is that the way book-reading accountancy is done?

Never say ‘Never again!’

January 24, 2013 § 2 Comments

In November when I failed to get anywhere, yet again, in a writing competition (Mslexia) I thought that was sign enough to give them up. I had lost time and money and confidence over competitions. I had written short stories especially for the competitions. The time I spent writing short stories was time I did not spend writing a novel.

But about ten days ago (14th January), someone working for Myriad Editions pointed out this competition. The closing date is 1st February;  I thought it was 5th until I checked a few minutes ago (postal entries only). I am sorry not to give more notice of it.

The entry fee is only £5.00. I hope to enter my children’s novel.

Bat out of Hell by Francis Durbridge

January 23, 2013 § Leave a comment

The estate agent was decoyed to the isolated house by his wife’s lover, killed, and the body was secreted. But then things started to go wrong . . . the body disappeared and the dead man ‘phoned his wife!  Then the police found the body  –  and the dead man ‘phoned again, proving that the body wasn’t his! As the guilty lovers prepare to escape this nightmare, vengeance catches up with them with the speed of a bat out of Hell. So goes the blurb of Francis Durbridge’s Bat out of Hell (Ian Henry Publications,1981).*

The question: is Bat out of Hell worth reissuing? One could answer this question rather generally by saying that it is as much worth reissuing as most novels are worth publishing today. But as that is not a very satisfactory answer, I shall elucidate further.

When the story opens Geoffrey, the husband, is not long for this world. We would like to know what he did to deserve being murdered. Equally why should Mark, the lover, risk so much for Diana, his employer’s (Geoffrey’s) wife? If perhaps we had learnt more about the characters, we might have sympathised with one of them. We, readers, want to attach ourselves to someone. We want to take a side. If we have no one to attach ourselves to, we cannot really orientate ourselves in the story. Who should we care for? Will this person prove worthy of our affection? These questions don’t arise.

On the first page of the story, appears the following: Now in her early thirties she [Diana] had taken good care to preserve her looks.

At this moment, I did not feel in safe hands. Did women in their early thirties in 1972 need to preserve their looks? I can’t remember when I last read of a well-preserved woman; as far as I recall ‘well-preserved’ was only used for women over forty. I don’t think Francis Durbridge could have been thinking too carefully about what he was writing.

Challenging though the management of characters and their bodies is for the writer ( I find it exasperatingly so), he must avoid the following:

Their glances met briefly, then slid away again. (page 9)

Mark forced himself to look directly into the older man’s eyes, determined not to drop his own as he nearly always did. (page 20)

Mark’s eyes had been fixed thoughtfully on the closed door. Now they swung up to the girl’s face. (page 42)

The plot is pretty good but it should have amounted to something more. Not for one moment did I see through the villain’s machinations in relation to the husband. No doubt, some of you, would have spotted at once what was going on. So if you have apprehended the author’s schemes, is there anything much of further interest?  No, I think not. The writing is not good enough to be enjoyed for itself, the characters are not interesting, and there is no humour to enliven the story. For further information about its origins, and a different opinion about its merits: see Martin Edwards.

* Bat out of Hell was first published by Hodder & Stoughton Ltd (1972). This book has been reissued by Arcturus.

When Hibernian and Albion obliquity meet American directness

January 15, 2013 § Leave a comment

Many years ago I was using a public telephone in Newport, Rhode Island. I was making a call to a woman who did not know me to ask her if she could put me and my friend up for the night. It was then late in the evening, half past ten or so. My connection with the unknown woman was this: an Irish girl I knew had been a paid boarder with her the summer before.

I am not sure what part of the call I had reached when an American man, waiting to use the phone, asked me: ‘Will you be long?’

I had been on American soil for only a few days but I knew the man’s question was to be taken literally. If my phone call were to be a short one, he would wait; otherwise, he would find another phone.

If an Irishman had asked, ‘Will you be long?’ I would have understood that I was to get off the phone at once and not keep him waiting. Had an Englishman asked the same question, I would have been uncertain what he meant: but I would have known better than to take the question at face value.

Americans may run into a little difficulty in England, if they take things too literally. Some years ago, a young American student was working temporarily in an architects’ London office. One morning, a superior of his asked him a question, along the lines of ‘Would it be convenient for you to prepare the room for lunch?’ The young American indicated that it would not be convenient. He was in the middle of some other work.

The Englishman regarded the American’s response as a piece of cheek. What the Englishman had meant, and what every other Englishman would have understood, was: ‘Please get the room ready for lunch immediately.’ The mention of convenience was just, as Henry James would say, “the mere twaddle of graciousness”*.

The American student would probably have been appalled if he had understood how his answer had been interpreted. He had not refused to get the room ready (as the Englishman thought) but was only postponing doing so, until he had finished the work in hand.

The English and the Irish are not always to be taken at their word.

* pg 234, Selected Letters of Henry James edited by Leon Edel (Rupert Hart-Davis, 1956)

A masterclass from Jane Austen

January 11, 2013 § Leave a comment

1. Titles should tantalise: “I like the name ‘Which is the Heroine?’ very well, & I dare say shall grow to like it very much in time—but ‘Enthusiasm’ was something so very superior that every common Title must appear to disadvantage.”

2. Be accurate: “there is no such Title as Desborough—either among the Dukes, Marquisses, Earls, Viscounts or Barons.”

3. Write economically: “here & there, we have thought the sense might be expressed in fewer words . . .”

4. People’s behaviour should be of an expected sort: “and I have scratched out Sir Tho: from walking with the other Men to the Stables &c the very day after his breaking his arm—for thou I find your Papa did walk out immediately after his arm was set, I think it can be so little usual as to appear unnatural in a book . . .”

5. Be realistic: “Lyme will not do. Lyme is towards 40 miles from Dawlish and would not be talked of there. I have put Starcross instead.”

6. Observe the social norms: “I have also scratched out the Introduction between Lord P. & his Brother, & Mr Griffin. A Country Surgeon  . . . would not be introduced to Men of their rank.”

7. Don’t copy the work of other writers: “I do think that you had better omit Lady Helena’s postscript; to those who are acquainted with P[ride]. & P[rejudice]. it will be seen as an imitation.”

8. Don’t write about places you are ignorant of: “Let the Portmans go to Ireland, but as you know nothing of the Manners there you had better not go with them.”

9. Write of people and things within the range of your own experience: “Stick to Bath & the Foresters. There you will be quite at home.”

10. Make sure that there is a purpose to what you write: “circumstances will be sometimes introduced of apparent consequence, which will lead to nothing.”

11. Characters should act consistently: “A woman, going with two girls just growing up, into a Neighbourhood where she knows nobody but one Man, of not very good character, is an awkwardness which so prudent a woman as Mrs F. would not be likely to fall into. Remember, she is very prudent; you must not let her act inconsistently.”

12. Are a character’s often repeated phrases necessary? “I have only taken the liberty of expunging one phrase of his [Sir Thomas’s] which will not be allowable. ‘Bless my Heart’—It is too familiar & inelegant.”

11. Don’t bore your readers with too much description: “your descriptions are often more minute than will be liked.”

13. The optimum number of characters: “3 or 4 Families in a Country Village is the very thing to work on. . .”

14. Be subtle: “Her Economy and Ambition must not be staring.”

15. Omit the extraneous: “the scene with Mrs Mellish, I should condemn; it is prosy & nothing to the purpose . . .”

16. Chose your characters’ names with care: “the name of Rachael is as much as I can bear.”

Jane Austen’s advice to her niece Anna in letters (10th August & 9th September 1814 ). See Jane Austen Selected Letters 1796-1817, edited by R W Chapman.

The slush pile, a slippery slope?

January 7, 2013 § Leave a comment

One of the most basic jobs in any publishing house—usually reserved for junior editors or outside readers who come in once or twice a week—is sifting through and sampling the ‘slush pile’: that tidal wave of novels and memoirs and diatribes about the pyramids or intergalactic travel and conspiracy theories and poems from the school of Ella Wheeler Wilcox  .  .  . It is, almost invariably, dispiriting and unproductive work, though an essential part of the publishing process: most of the offerings are irremediably bad, and instantly recognisable as such, . . . writes Jeremy Lewis (Kindred Spirits, page 63)

Editors know when they are reading the work of a literary incompetent. Jeremy Lewis (page 65) instances some give-away turns of phrase that herald a hopeless case (‘I’ll never forget the day’ or ‘What a character Jack was!’ or ‘How we all laughed!’).

Slush piles seem such a joke. If editors are so unlikely to come across anything good on  slush piles, why bother about them at all? In more leisured days, Charles Monteith read tatty submissions like William Golding’s—what was later called—The Lord of the Flies. Charles Monteith took a tolerant view of the manuscript which was yellowing at the edges and contained, I believe, rejection letters from other publishing houses (see John Carey’s William Golding: The Man Who Wrote Lord of the Flies).

Today, a typographical error in a submission might be excuse enough for the editor to cast it aside. How nervous we, unpublished writers, are when we package up our submissions. We don’t feel we can use an envelope that, although unused, is creased. We certainly can’t send out a submission for a second time because it is slightly dog-eared. Oh no, we have written the editor’s address aslant. Should we write it out again on another envelope?

Never before has so much advice on how to write been given to so many who have paid so much for it. And yet all the advice, the master classes, and the MA courses do not result in publishable material. And these unpublished writers persist in learning nothing and continue to inundate editors with stuff that belongs more on a manure than a slush pile. Can this be true?

Are all these writers really so hopeless and so unteachable? Are there so many of them? If I am competing with people who write: ‘She bit her lower lip and licked her upper lip’*,  why aren’t editors delighted to see something as sane as my sample chapters?

Seeing is believing. Would any editors dare to allow me to look at their slush piles?

*‘She bit her lower lip and licked her upper lip’—cited in publishing parody ‘Happiness’ as an example of a typically awful slush pile line. Anna Frame (Acting Head of Publicity at Canongate) on Twitter  (@annaframe,  3rd January last)

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