Monday, September 25, 2006

Chronicle of a death foretold

There’s been a bit of a creative block in these parts for a while. Half-formed thoughts. Unfinished articles. Sweaty, 5am thinking jags. Please ignore the elephant in the corner. He’s not really there. La la la la la.

The book is going to die. It’s over. Five, ten years. No more books. And we really, really need to start talking about this. We need to put in place structures for coping with this. For ensuring that authors survive, that our stories survive. I’m really not kidding.

All the publishers have absolutely no idea what is about to happen. They’re worried about Google Book Search, for Christ’s sake. Google Book Search is for indexing academic books, for redistributing academic information that’s needlessly locked up in physical locations, and whose freeing up will launch humanity on its next great evolutionary leap. Woohoo. Side effect: no more royalties for authors. No more fat advances. No more lunch money.

Also, in the mid-term, we’re going to see publishers die even before the book does. Hey HarperCollins, what does POD stand for? Random House, can you say Lulu? One of you guys, buy a POD Printer now, please, before it gets embarrassing. Invest in some tech. Start paying attention. Because one day you are going to wake up, Amazon is printing books, and you are out of a job. Oh, look: BookSurge.

We are a couple of years – quite possibly less – away from an eReader that looks like a book. It’s been so long coming we forgot it was about to happen. This whole I’ve-got-the-first-edition thing is really sweet, but do you actually use CDs any more? (Note: if you do, you’re really going to have trouble with the next bit.)

I was talking to someone about this the other day, trying to figure out where all that information now written down in books is going to go, how it will continue to present itself to us. I realised that this isn’t like the move from vinyl to CD, or CD to MP3, although it will initially appear as the latter. It’s the difference between chamber music and the gramophone, between the illuminated manuscript and the paperback. The book as we think of it now has really only been around since the 1930s, since Allen Lane. They’re not as permanent as we’d like to think. Books are about to go back to being written by monks, and the rest of us are going to have to find another way to read. A historical window is about to close.

I don’t know what I’m worried about, really. Well, the dole office. But aside from that. Should anyone apart from publishers be worried about this? You’ll keep getting stories to read. Authors will keep on writing. They won’t get paid much, but hey, they never did. In fact, there’s a chance they’ll get paid more, if they’re smart, but probably not.

We brought this on ourselves, to a large extent. For all our bleating, we’ve been substandard for a while. Cheap paperback editions, with glue that lets all the pages fall out after five years. A total disregard for quality, editorial or otherwise. A craven, backslapping literary culture. Oh well. Bye bye.

Is the format important? Will stories written for a screen rather than a page – even screens that look like pages – differ that much? There’s something bizarre and incredibly nineteenth century in the development of eReaders, a kind of cultural redundancy. We just need to get them to look enough like books in order to kill books, then they’ll look like something else. It’s just a design issue.

It’s 6am. I’m writing this on a computer. Later, I’m going to format it in XHTML and put it out on the internet for people to read. You probably don’t know me, and you probably don’t care. Salman Rushdie is going to really hate this next bit, almost as much as his publishers, but you’re not. Readers will be fine. Take hope in that.

I just want to smooth the transition. Make sure there are enough smart people in the right places so that we don’t lose too much on the way through. There’s enough of them on the web – we should be looking to the W3C, to web standards, to information technologists and engineers, to people who’ve been thinking about this for twenty years. You know, smart people. Not the ones thinking about in at quarter past six on a Monday morning. In bed.

Oh, it’s going to be fun. I’m looking forward to the first really good, genuinely collaborative novel, wiki-style. Chapters written by people on different continents, subplots by experts in their field. Proper editing. I can’t wait to be able to go travelling with five hundred stories on my eReader/iBook/USB SuperDonglePage thing, because I always take Moby Dick and I never read it. The best bit? Readers are going to decide what they’d like to read, not idiots in industry offices, or on lilac sofas. The first MySpace author phenomenon should be about next week. Please, God.

It’s the Frankfurt Book Fair it two weeks time. This should be funny. There’s going to be a man there who publishes books exclusively about angels. Who thinks he actually is an angel, or something. Everybody thinks he’s mad. In ten years time, he’s probably going to be the only one still in business. The angel people will still buy books. No one else will.

We’re going to start thinking about this. A lot. We have no idea what is going to happen, but, just like everybody else, we’d been quietly enjoying this whole internet thing, while pretending to ourselves that it was not going to completely destroy everything we were currently working on. Five years ago, I was studying Computer Science. I got a Master’s degree in Artificial Intelligence, and then went to work in dead tree publishing. I am an idiot. And, looking around, I’m not the only one. But I know what I’m talking about.

Don’t worry, we’re not going anywhere. We’re going to see this through. Because we love stories, and we love great writers, and we just need to start separating that concept from your actual, paper books. Good morning. Hello. Wake up now.


UPDATE: Ultimately, this article provided the founding stimulus for, crossposted as Birth pangs of a new literature.

tags: Book 2.0 + Debate + Publishing | permalink | 8 Comments

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Jack the Stripper: Paul did it

While we are semi-officially still on our annual August hiatus (try saying that with a mouthful of candy floss), we did appreciate a happy confluence of interests in Saturday’s Grauniad: Chris Petit’s review of David Seabrook’s Jack of Jumps. In the follow-up to his much admired (by Petit’s mate Sinclair, unsurprisingly) All The Devils Are Here, Seabrook looks at the not-quite-as-famous-as-the-other-Jack “nude murders” of West London in the mid-60s, which we’ve mentioned before in the form of Brian McConnell’s superlative (and better-named) Found Naked And Dead.

Petit clearly enjoys the book, appreciating its hard-won evocation of London as a “a city haunted as much by a lost popular culture as by its missing souls.” However, he makes virtually no comment on the facts of the case: an opportunity not missed by Stewart Home in his review of the book (as elaborated upon at a recent 3:AM event). Home considers Seabrook’s version of events both improper – he implicitly accuses an untried, and very possibly innocent, man – and unoriginal: the main thrust of the book is culled, uncited, from an old Times article.

Home also points to an earlier review of Jack of Jumps in the Grauniad‘s sister paper, The Observer, wherein the reviewer takes issue with Seabrook’s “rancid” and “lip-curling” distaste for the victims. Two reviews so far apart are unusual, and as much as we love Petit we can’t help but note that he is, like Seabrook, a Granta author.

This increasingly forensic examination of the details of past crimes brings to mind Alan Moore’s ruminations on the obsessive ranks of ripperologists he joined to write From Hell. What Petit considers “forgotten, luminous detail” (citing “On this occasion she bought a bottle of Lovibond’s Vat 30 whisky”), Moore, in the appendix to From Hell, sees as strip-mining the field, tracking over the same turned-over earth until it becomes a quagmire. Repeated investigations cross-reference one another, the amount of information increasing but it’s value dropping, forever trapped within the same area, in the manner of Koch’s snowflake; for the ripperologists it is Whitechapel, 1888, for Seabrook, McConnell, Home and others it is Hammersmith, 1964-5. Such an approach is not too distant from Petit and Sinclair’s filmic aesthetic either: the grainy close-up, the lurking camera, an attempt by art to recoup the damning immediacy of CCTV.

As such true crime accounts multiply, they increase the likelihood of others being attracted to the field. Just as it took decades for the Ripper crimes to start to auto-generate ever wilder potential murderers – the initial Jews, butchers and local psychos graduating to the police force, society painters, royalty – so it has taken 50 years to actually name a scandalous (i.e. conspiratorial, establishment) figure in the Hammersmith killings. We may now expect to see others piling in, the boundaries of West London expanding to envelop the smarter ends of Town.

For instance, it’s not hard to see how the hookers and coppers of the nude murders could be tied to that other defining trope of 60s London: the Fab Four. Much like the Ripper murders, the Hammersmith killings stopped abruptly, and in both cases criminologists professional and amateur looked to contemporary obituaries to explain such a sudden and unusual cessation of violence. Only a few years later, rumours began to surface of an even greater conspiracy: Paul Is Dead. Paul McCartney, Beatles’ guitarist, departed this earth scant months after the last known killing in West London, decapitated by the windshield of his Austin Healey on the streets of St John’s Wood. We think we should be told.


Update: For the sake of completeness, we also found this little piece of puff by Iain Sinclair in The Guardian’s summer reading recommendations (scroll down). And yes, we know Paul played the bass (see comments).

tags: Authors + Death + Debate | permalink | 6 Comments

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

The great illusion, Kinema

As is becoming startlingly common, STML stumbled back from the Fullback halfway through tonight’s Front Row, right in the middle of an interesting disquisition from Thriller writer Robert Crais. The subject was his latest novel The Two Minute Rule and the larger issue of movie adaptations, particularly when it comes to well-loved, and often long-running characters such as his own Max Holman (transcript from dubious memory):

“A book is a collaboration between writer and reader. There are a million Holmans, one for each reader, each one individually created, and if I were to allow a movie, there would be only a single Holman, and all those alternate Holmans would be lost.”

It’s a good point: how many have been distressed by the jarring experience of coming face-to-face with a favourite fictional character, only to find them distressingly different to the mental image already constructed. For some reason, Keanu Reeves in Johnny Mnemonic springs immediately to mind – William Gibson‘s exemplary, lucid memory man reduced to a monosyllabic slab of Hollywood meat, or Johnny Depp smoking opium in From Hell, a horrific reworking of the noble Inspector Abberline. I’m sure you have your own examples.

Our own choices, however, have their reasons: the concept of multiple identities, of differing versions of the same character, of fiction suits that are not fully formed – and all the more intrigueing for it – is central to much of the canon of classic SF, to Dick, Van Vogt and Delany, and common to much of the comics multiverse too – and these are the texts most often picked up for filming by the mainstream film industry. Witness the latest, terribly reviewed, adaptation of Alan Moore’s work, V for Vendetta, whose director is faintly praised for allowing the protagonist to retain his mask, while changing almost every other detail of his motives, methods, and choice on compatriots.

So, Steve, Ellis, Chris and Mark, I know we’ve taken the piss, but we need your help: what is the critical term for such an evasion? How is the fictional character constructed in the mind, and what are the results of the retelling?

Please do comment, too, if you can help. More on this to come. Probably.

tags: Debate + Film | permalink | Comments Off on The great illusion, Kinema

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Howlings in favour of Cussler

Another dispatch from the newspaper inside my head:

It’s impressive that anybody at all has exercised their critical attention on an instance of Clive Cussler’s apparent moral inattention. It’s not something one sees very often: Cussler has a critical aura of protection about him, but one cannot read one of the novelist’s works without unease. We may begin with Cussler’s more famous – and more famously ambiguous – relationship with Tom Clancy, the lapsed-NeoCon. We hold him to account for his actions – that almost goes without saying in critical circles – so what about Cussler?

Well, if the attention is for sound reasons, the only useful and meaningful way to hold an adventure writer to account would be to hold him to account according to the mores of airport novels, just as the only meaningful way to hold Clancy to account would be according to dross (as many have done – the Daily Express book pages for instance).

We can approach this by asserting that one novel (Sahara), despite being a straightforward adventure novel is surely, in essence, a call for the recolonisation of Africa, one that under its stereotyped characterisations and turgid prose is on the side of Fascism, of imperialism and racial persecution.

We can add weight to this argument by extracting from the Dirk Pitt saga the more shadowy backstory of Pitt’s sidekick, Al Giordino (while leaving aside for a moment the doubly-denied homoeroticism of their relationship). Giordino’s Italian extraction points to the regressive context of Cussler’s work: the continuation of Mussolini’s grand plan for Africa which approached as far as the Sahara desert in the 1940s before its defeat by the Allied forces, represented in Sahara by French industrialist Yves Massarde. We may also gesture wildy in the direction of the Nazi obsessions of Cussler’s first novel The Mediterranean Caper.

What we shall not address, and which perhaps might offer more interest than this critique, is why someone else – Julian Barnes, for example, or Ian McEwan – someone with apparently impeccable ethical credentials, is not in any way as enjoyable as a good Clive Cussler novel; often quite the opposite?

[Sources: 1 and 2]

tags: Debate + Humour | permalink | Comments Off on Howlings in favour of Cussler

Wednesday, November 9, 2005

“Just a bunch of Paki’s”?

My last-but-one post, which mentioned Gautam Malkani’s forthcoming Londonstani, excited some comment. Not least amongst these was, which linked it to this Independent article which (along with Publishing News and others) described Londonstani as reading like a “Muslim Irvine Welsh”, in unattributed quotes.

Now, STML does not claim a grand knowledge of Subcontinental nomenclature, but an STML reader (“Indian myself”) does, and, having read the excerpt, writes: “the author is a Hindu and it [the novel] seems to be set amongst Sikh and Hindu youth in Hounslow mostly. Well, I suppose we are all just a bunch of Paki’s – what’s the difference? It makes me laugh – the extract is about a Sikh kid getting angry because he is mistaken by a white guy for a Pakistani and that’s exactly what the media already seem to have done to the novel and author!”

“Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims have different names. Pakistani names are Arabic in origin. Gautam is a classic Hindu name – I believe the Buddha’s original name was Gautam – so it is thousands of years old. Well, I think the author might be making a point about the sectarianism amongst Asian wannabe gangster youth so it’s probably not something he is bothered about, but it’s still something to think about. Curious, that’s all, given the subject matter of the extract. It might be an interesting question to put to him, considering that it is something his characters are aware of and feel strongly about enough to kick someone’s head in for.”

Anybody care to comment?

[UPDATE 2/5/06: For the last word on Londonstani, see here.]

tags: Debate | permalink | Comments Off on “Just a bunch of Paki’s”?

Monday, September 19, 2005

Those who begin by burning books…

The picture on the left comes from It’s Perfectly Normal by Robie H. Harris and Michael Emberley, a guide to ‘Changing Bodies, Growing Up, Sex, and Sexual Health’ for kids, one of the books on the list of WPAAG, a US organisation attempting to remove scores of books from school libraries. This image is pretty standard fare for the collection (more can be seen here), and describing them as “shocking porn” (which WPAAG does) seems a little strong. Regular Litblog followers may have encountered the various battles currently being fought in the US concerning the suitability or otherwise of childrens books (over at Bookslut, Pornlit and Maud). This ongoing debate concerns both sex ed. books for kids, such as the above example, and novels, particularly those aimed at the tricky teenage market. As quickly becomes clear on reading the petition of one protestor seeking to have such books removed from school libraries (and presumably they’d prefer to have the whole lot shredded, pulped and burned too), their wrath is particularly focussed on books which promote “the homosexual agenda”.

jenny_eric The reason I find this all slightly terrifying is because in the UK, the scenario of a hysterical response to a few books leading to real, decade-long oppression is not a hazy liberal fear, it’s recent history. Jenny lives with Eric and Martin was a Danish children’s book about a young (five year old) girl living with her two dads. In 1983, our old friends the Daily Mail discovered a copy in a school library in South London. Despite the relatively tame content of the book (certainly less explicit than most of the books objected to by the protestors mentioned above), the resultant moral panic led directly to the insertion of Clause 28 into the 1987 Local Government Act.

Clause 28, which I shall resist prefacing with “the notorious”, stated that:

A local authority shall not—
(a) intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality;
(b) promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship.

(Full text here).

While the actual impact of this act has been much debated over the years, what cannot be doubted is that it made the lives of many, many gay men, women and children much, much harder in a period during which they were already struggling for tolerance and social recognition, and not least for adequate medical attention on the growing AIDS crisis. The most pernicious effect, one that is seen time and time again in the anti-gay lobbies, was to link homosexuality and paedophilia through the image of aggressive, predatory homosexual recruitment in schools (if anyone wonders why so many gay people in the UK are so vehemently anti-Tory, this legislation is the prime mover, and it was the current leader of the party, Michael Howard, who as Local Government Minister under Margaret Thatcher, supported and repeatedly defended the bill). Essentially, it scared teachers away from any discussion of homosexuality, leaving their young charges to fight it out among themselves. No prizes for guessing who suffers under that regime.

Whatever your opinion of Tony Blair and the New Labour experiment, one of their constant promises throughout their campaign for election was the repeal of Clause 28. Despite thorough, repeated and often heated resistance from the House of Lords, the religious establishment and various campaign groups, the Clause was repealed in 2003 – after sixteen years of state-sponsored homophobia in schools, and by extension, society.

My point is this: for all Britain’s sneering at the “Wild West” USA, it’s “dumb” president and it’s nutty Christian right, it happened here, and in pretty much exactly the same way: a small group of (largely but not exclusively Christian) people took offence at a number of books (books, people, not movies, not magazines, not video games, books) and persuaded the government of the time to implement legislation that made “the promotion” of homosexuality, which was taken to mean any supportive statement by educators, illegal. The arguments are the same: public money shouldn’t be spent on trying to ‘make kids gay’, a statement both implicitly homophobic and inherently contradictory. Nevertheless, Clause 28 happened, and set the cause of gay equality, which is, I believe, a benchmark for the fairness and tolerance of a society as a whole, back by a decade or more. Look out America.

(Footnote: Wikipedia has a good, well-linked page on the history of Clause 28. Jenny…, meanwhile, never went away: The Guardian interviewed the author, Susanne Bosche, a few years ago, and the book is clearly a collectors item, available from Amazon for £38).

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Wednesday, August 3, 2005

Line of Buffoons, Homophobes & Fools

Line of Beauty

Recently, the peerless Book Coolie mentioned Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty, winner of last year’s Booker, and this excellent review by Andrew Anthony.

I am a great fan of Hollinghurst, from the supreme indulgence, freedom and tragedy of The Swimming Pool Library to the frustration and self-absorption of The Folding Star, and The Line… is definitely his greatest achievement so far, blending high literary prose (including, admittedly, endless descriptions of furniture) with the most fully realised description of gay life I’ve ever read.

For example, everyone’s first kiss stays with them forever, but for gay people this moment has an extra thrill to it. Hollinghurst’s description of the jeering from a passing car as the protagonist recieves his first public kiss, sounding to his ears more like a cheer of approval, describes this moment perfectly (I apologise for not having the exact quote to hand). Certain scenes, such as those at Hampstead’s Men’s Bathing Ponds, locate in fiction real archetypes from gay men’s lives.

The book has it’s faults, of course: Nick is not the most likeable protagonist, nor are many of the characters (a common trait in Hollinghurst) and the language, as already mentioned, is terribly overblown and self-conciously Jamesian – but that is a matter of individual taste. These are minor quibbles when set against the grand sweep of the novel.

Now the BBC has comissioned an adaptation of The Line… for television, and chosen Andrew Davies for the job, lauded adaptor of Pride and Prejudice, Vanity Fair and the heaving-boson’d Moll Flanders. And then he comes out with a spew of crap.

According to The Times, Davies “balked at the idea of portraying gay sex for his latest screenplay… put off by a combination of personal distaste and a belief that, despite increasingly liberal attitudes to sex, the public still has a limited appetite for watching men in bed together”.

Personal distaste? Is it possible he was not the man for the job?

Davies goes on to add: “The gay sex makes me rather queasy.” Well, fuck you too, Mr Davies.

My mum read The Line of Beauty before I did – in fact it was her copy I borrowed – and at the end she said, “I really enjoyed it, but I don’t think I needed to know that a black man’s anal hair curls inwards.” I understood her point, but I argued it, and in the end I think she agreed with me. In a true representation of gay men’s lives, the inclusion of sex is essential. Because so many straight people deliberately turn away from representations of homosexual sex, while failing to relate this to the utter pervasion of the culture by representations of heterosexual sex, and it’s consequential appropriation of ‘normality’, it is essential that gay writers address this imbalance.

One would have thought this argument had been made clearly some years ago – Queer As Folk, among other programs, contained graphic scenes of homosexual sex (although, it must be pointed out, no more graphic than many, many heterosexual scenes in the same time slot) and the world did not come tumbling down. The argument then, and now, remains the same: sex is a part of these characters’ lives. Omit, censor or efface it and you restrict the essential truth of their existence.

Davies is, however, the man who scripted Sarah Waters’ lesbotastic Tipping the Velvet, not only keeping in the sex, but admitting to a screening panel it “excited” him to write it. Compare with “queasy”. Without getting into a discussion of the age-old conflicting straight attitude to lesbian vs male gay sex, this comment above all shows the inherent bigotry in Davies’ refusal to address gay sex in his adaptation of The Line…. Shame on you, Mr. Davies, and high praise to the BBC for stepping in to reinstate scenes. The latter is a gratifying move, as it cannot be for commercial reasons: the film will undoubtedly turn many off, but it will, I hope, turn a number on: not to gay sex themselves, but to the acceptability of gay lives.

Much homophobia stems directly from a horror of gay sex, of anal sex, of men fucking and sucking one another. ‘Cocksucker’, ‘sodomite’, ‘bugger’, ‘shirtlifter’, ‘batty boy’ and many others are sexual insults reserved for the denigration of homosexuals and those compared to them. But oral sex and penetration are staples of straight sex too, and until gay mens’ sex lives are normalised, our place in society is not fully and equally established.

STML will be away for a week or so, but feel free to discuss this in the comments section, or via email.

tags: Debate + News + Reviews | permalink | 7 Comments

Thursday, June 2, 2005

Bloody Men (sorry)

So the story of the moment seems to be that old chestnut, the fact that men only read men. This has bothered me for a while – because it rings pretty true. I can count the books by women I’ve read on my own time – i.e. when I didn’t have to – on a very small hand. Sorry.

This is all news of course because of the forthcoming Orange Prize. I am ashamed to say that I haven’t read any of the books on the list. This is particularly poor as there are two from my favourite publisher, Serpent’s Tail: Billie Morgan by Jules Denby and We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver, and I hope one of them wins. I’ve heard excellent things about A Short History of Tractors in Ukranian too.

Now, Lisa Jardine and Anne Watkins of QMC have produced a survey that pretty much nails it: if 100 male critics and writers, those with a vested interest in reading around, can’t be bothered reading women, then what average joe will?

I know I don’t. Why? Well, the recent surge in women’s writing (Zadie Smith, Andrea Levy &c.), as well as those on this years Orange list, has largely passed me by, because I don’t read anything that hasn’t made it’s way down to the All Books £1 shelf. Even if I was to read exclusively the new releases, I think that books by women are, all too often, conciously marketed at women – and I don’t just mean the pastel cover, kiddie font, flowers, legs and high heels chicklits either. Kamila Shamsie is a fantastic writer, but look at the cover of new book, Broken Verses – pretty roses! Swirly writing! Am I shallow?

Yes – added to by the fact I only read women if they’re foreign. I am a sexist xenophile snob. Sorry.

It also reminds me of the big row that broke a while back over New Writing 13, when Tony Litt and Ali Smith got into a lot of hot water for saying in their introduction:

“On the whole the submissions from women were disappointingly domestic, the opposite of risk-taking – as if too many women writers have been injected with a special drug that keeps them dulled, good, saying the right thing, aping the right shape, and melancholy at doing it, depressed as hell.”

Most of the criticism seemed to be focussed on the fact that these two Bloody Men equated the domestic with the dull – a clear attack on a woman’s right to be a woman in a woman’s context. Or something. I didn’t think the comment in any way attacked the possibilities of the domestic, simply the way in which such potential was not being fully exploited. But what do I know. I’m a Bloody Man too.

Actually, I’ve just remembered what the last book I read by a woman was…

tags: Debate + News | permalink | 8 Comments