Maps, minds and make-believe

My father bought me my three-volume copy of?Lord of the Rings in Sevenoaks Bookshop in the late-1970s. They were the first hardback books I can remember owning. These were Allen and Unwin editions – the copyright page suggests my edition came out in 1978.





Anyone who had those editions will remember the Easter Egg of all Easter Eggs that sat at the back – a beautiful fold-out map, on impossibly flimsy paper and with a complicated folding pattern which always confused?me and did again this morning. The artist was Pauline Baynes, and when I picture Middle Earth, I picture it the way she drew it.


When my first book,?The English Monster, was published, we used a map as the background image for the cover, but I’ve always wanted an actual map in one of my books – not the expensive fold-out kind that Tolkien’s publisher could afford (not yet, anyway, a man can dream), but a map that was part of the story, that informed the action and, hopefully, added some resolution to the description.

My next book,?The Detective and the Devil, is published on April 21st 2016. Part of the book is set on St Helena, an island I have never visited and maybe never will. It’s an island that lives vividly in the words of others, however, not least because St Helena was the ultimate prison (in all senses of the word) for Napoleon Bonaparte. So I had to use my imagination to go there – for me, St Helena was in a sense Middle Earth.

There are maps of St Helena, of course (though surprisingly few from before Napoleon’s arrival), but I wanted a map that had some of what Pauline Baynes added to Tolkien – a little bit of cartographical?myth, perhaps. I contacted a few illustrators, but when I came across Neil Gower – who has illustrated Bill Bryson’s new books, who provided a beautiful cover for one of my favourite books of the last few years, Lissa Evans’s?Crooked Heart – I knew I’d found my mapmaker.

So here it is – Neil’s map of St Helena, situated at the front of?The Detective and the Devil. My dad’s not around to see it, but I know he’d have found it magnificent.


Leaving Atticus in the attic

It’s the release day of That Book. You know, the Unpublished Book by the Woman Who Wrote That Other Book That Everyone’s Read.

There’s a lot of chatter this morning on the subject of?Go Set A Watchman. The reviews are a bit stinky, the numbers are off the scale, the queues are snaking around the bookshops. So, here’s my reasons for not buying or reading it.

I cannot be certain that the author intended this manuscript to ever be read by the public.

Does that matter, much? Most of the time, probably not. An author who’s written, say, a dozen books and meets a tragically early demise at the hands of a combine harvester or an alien death ray may have one unfinished work which, with a bit of spit-and-polish, might be an interesting read.

Not that it’s likely to be much good, mind. I’m a great believer in the final heave over the finishing line for a book, the author sweating away under?the whipcrack of the editor’s pen. Books improve at an accelerating rate, is what I mean, until they don’t. I won’t read The Pale King, because I don’t think it will be as good a book as it would have been if DFW hadn’t decided the lights were too bright for him to leave on any longer.

But?this?author is different.?This?author wrote a book of such one-off transcendence that she seemingly decided that she’d never write anything of the same quality again. Nowhere to go but down. There’s something sad and magnificent about that position, as if she were admitting the mystery of her own genius and her own uncertainty at ever being able to tap into it again.

But now, this new book appears. This first draft of somewhat murky provenance. The critics are giving it the thumbs down, as did the editors who first saw it. The character of Atticus Finch, a fiction of such energy that we can all picture him sitting here reading a book while we work, has been oddly and unnecessarily smeared with uncertainty. And what’s more, the?craft behind the original book has been revealed to all. Oz is no longer magnificent. He’s just an ordinary woman who, decades ago, had another stab at a book that didn’t work and somehow, perhaps to her own surprise as much as anyone’s, turned in something magnificent. And then, seemingly, said it was unlikely to happen again. She got old, as we all get old, her affairs were handled by professionals and middlewomen, and at some point one of them decided to dust off this old manuscript – which the author had not once unpacked in five decades – and decided to get it published.

So, no, I won’t be reading Go Set A Watchman.??You go right ahead. I’d rather leave Atticus and Harper where they are, unique and unimpeachable and untouched by our sordid world.

Goodreads is a pub conversation, not a literary journal

This is a follow-up post to ‘The reviews that make you sad‘, which I wrote two evenings ago after a raw encounter with a caustic one-star review. I still stand by what I said there – essentially, that people use words in online reviews which can scar, and which seem to disregard the humanity of the author while doing so.

I didn’t mention Goodreads in that post, but I did have a discussion online about it with the always reliable Archie Valparaiso and the excellent Andy Miller, in which Archie said this:

At the time, in the heat of the conversation, I thought this was an odd thing to say. But thinking about it afterwards, I think he’s got a point. I think I’ve been looking at Goodreads in the wrong way.

Goodreads isn’t a literary journal. It isn’t, actually, even a collection of reviews. It’s a collection of people, talking (and often arguing) about books. The key word in Archie’s tweet is ‘eavesdropping’. It suggests a closed conversation between people. If you think of Goodreads as a group of people round a table in a pub, your attitude to it shifts.

And this is how people use Goodreads, I think. They listen mainly to the reviews of people they trust, and when a drunk person goes off on a rant about how this book is a load of steaming turd, they ignore them. They might not even see them, to be frank, just as I’ve been unaware of the Sad Puppies thing on Twitter, even though the noise from it in some quarters is louder than a plutonium rock band from the Gagrakacka Mind Zones.

So the standard viewpoint on Goodreads is the individual within a circle of online acquaintances. But this is not the viewpoint an author has. Her viewpoint is her book, and the aggregate reviews and ratings of it. She can see the reviews as they come in – the good, and the bad – with no social context whatsoever.

This is not a good thing.

On top of that, I do begin to understand the mild impertinence of my being on there at all unless it’s at the invitation of the community (which was Archie’s point about ‘eavesdropping’). If you were chatting about a book in a pub and the author came over and sat down at your table, uninvited, you’d find it presumptuous and you’d find it annoying. As an author, I don’t want to be presumptuous and annoying towards readers.

So, my new rules for engaging with Goodreads:

  • Don’t look at aggregated reviews and ratings
  • Only join in a conversation when invited to
  • Don’t pretend to be a ‘reader’ on Goodreads when I’m in fact a ‘writer’
  • Encourage my publisher not to use aggregated Goodreads ratings in other contexts (like its own website). Without the social context, these ratings are potentially harmful
  • Trust in my books to find their enthusiastic audiences, in Goodreads and in the world, and live with the fact that some people will just hate them

I still think people’s use of intemperate language, on Goodreads and elsewhere on the Internet, is a modern plague. But that doesn’t mean I have to engage with it in a way that injures good people just trying to share their views on books.

Death of the book trade: more anecdotes released

Throw a paperback at a room full of writers, and chances are that it’ll hit someone with a grievance. Writing is a lonely trade, and success – the genuine life-changing success which follows a major literary hit – is astonishingly rare, not least because so very many books are published these days. There were more than 170,000 new titles in 2012, up almost 20,000 in three years. How many of these were hits? And what’s a hit anyway?

I’ve never encountered an industry as subjective as book publishing; we who work in it, and particularly we who write books, are dangerously prone to the fallacy that because we have observed something, it must be both true and a signifier of something wider. Because isn’t that what we try to do with our books – speak some larger truth, comment on some aspect of society, make the story resonate beyond the page? But when we write an opinion piece based on those beliefs, things come dangerously unstuck.

To quote the old saw: the plural of anecdote is not data.

Take Robert McCrum in the Observer today: he has written a piece with the provocative title ‘From bestseller to bust: is this the end of an author’s life’, which ?caused me to fear it was going to be about the suicide of a scribbler. But no, it’s about how certain authors are struggling to make ends meet. Three authors are cited, two others (Paul Bailey and Hanif Kureishi) are yanked out of the cuttings file, and the general tone of the piece can be summed up by this paragraph:

To writers of my generation, who grew up in the age of Penguin books, vinyl records and the BBC, it’s as if a cultural ecology has been wiped out. For as long as most of us can remember, every would-be writer knew the landscape of the printed word. This Georgian square was home to publishing grandees (now retired). On that high street were the booksellers (now out of business). In those twisting back streets, you could expect to find literary agents working the margins with the injured innocence of pickpockets at a synod. It was a mutually dependent ecosystem.

Publishers were toffs, booksellers trade and printers the artisan champions of liberty. Like the class system, we thought, nothing would change. The most urgent deadline was lunch. How wrong we were. The years 2007-2010 are pivotal: first, as Thomson has described, came the credit crunch. And it occurred at the very moment that the IT revolution was wrecking the livelihoods of those creative classes ? film-makers, musicians and writers of all sorts ? who had previously lived on their copyrights.

This is asserted, without any supporting evidence or data. It is just fact. Computers killed books. We’re all going to hell in a handcart. But on this specific point – that technology is killing content because of piracy – McCrum is, at least when it comes to the UK book trade, just wrong. I looked at the numbers, and I wrote about it in the?Literary Review. Here’s the piece, and here’s the Ofcom report that highlights the minuscule amount of book piracy in the UK.

Now, we might be hell-bound. But at least let’s be hell-bound with the facts straight. At least let’s point out that more books are being published than ever before, that just as many if not more are being bought (don’t believe me? Check the Publishers’ Association figures – they’ve got charts and everything). Let’s be honest that writing is and always has been a precarious business, that making money from it has always forced writers into queasy compromises with themselves and their art. Glen Duncan wrote a whole host of brilliant and critically-acclaimed books that didn’t sell particularly well. He decided to do something about it, and wrote something that did. What specifically is wrong with that?

I look around me at the writers who had their first books come out around the same time as mine. Some have been successful, others less so. Broadly, they’re being supported by their publishers (thus giving the lie to the old ‘publishers don’t support new talent’ canard). They’re all having to look at their bottom lines, calculate affordability, wonder where the next cheque is coming from. That’s freelance work, friends, and it always has been. So my anecdotes are entirely different to McCrum’s anecdotes. Who is right?

There was another (infinitely less egregious) example of this in the Telegraph, in which Jamie Fewery, a publishing fellow who knows of what he speaks, wrote that there was a crisis in reading amongst young men. It was actually an interesting piece, but it opened with the following thunderous bellow of subjectivity:

It is a truth universally acknowledged that men read fewer novels than women.
Or, at least, that?s my experience, based on over ten years of working in the book industry.

Yes, Fewery’s experience is valid (and it’s a lot more trustworthy than McCrum’s misty reminiscing). And this was, after all, a comment piece, not a piece of data journalism. But Fewery’s central point – that there was once a category of books one could broadly define as commercial fiction for men, or chaplit (my horrific neologism, not Fewery’s) – is surely provable with data. Can’t we show how Tony Parsons’ books are selling?

And as for the assertion that ‘young men are reading fewer novels than they used to’, that, surely, is also demonstrable. It may even be true, though if one were to say that one should also point out that young men are probably?reading more than ever, it’s just the format that has changed, from novels to games and social media.

But that isn’t the point I’m trying to make. The point I’m trying to make is that we should not continually play The Last Post over book publishing, particularly those of us who make their living out of it (such as Sunday newspaper literary editors). Being able to write books for even a semi-living is a privilege, not a burden. And finally, our individual stories of failure or non-success should not lead us to state, categorically, that everything is failing. We all of us sit on the precipice of obscurity and disappointment and the great majority of us, sadly, fall in.



Where does it all come from?

I’m just back from a session at the marvellous Centre for Literacy in Primary Education (disclaimer: my better half is chief executive) to see a truly fantastic talk by David Almond. The audience were primary school teachers (and me), and David gave us an insight into how he writes books that was at once modest and genuinely inspiring.

‘I’m going to give you a word,’ he said. ‘A four-letter word. When I tell you the word, you have to keep it in your head, but it can only be the WORD. The letters of the word. It can’t be anything else. Just that single word. Ready? Here it is. T-E-N-T.’

The point being, of course, that you can’t. Those four letters become so much more than a word – they become sights and smells and pictures and memories and sounds and everything you’ve ever thought or that ever happened to you that involved a tent.

And that was the theme of the talk: how our minds are vehicles for imagination and creativity, two words which, David said, he was scared of as a child, because they seemed to sonorous and difficult. I still remember my granny saying to me the morning after one of my regular nightmares ‘you have them because you’ve a strong imagination,’ so that imagination became a condition, like asthma or myopia, that made your life more difficult.

David Almond is one of those people who’s not afraid to talk about the magical side of writing, the spark of inspiration – catch his anecdote about when and where the first line of Skellig came to him, and I defy you not to shiver. I’m emotionally hardwired to be sceptical about this stuff, to poo-poo those writers who talk about the mystical side of creativity. But I’m wrong. It’s right to talk about that stuff, because sometimes what we do as writers does feel magical, or at least inexplicable. This morning I wrote two chapters, one after the other. One was great, the other so-so. I have no idea why.

But then, as a counter-balance and a mild name-drop, I did get the chance to chat briefly with David before his talk. What did we chat about? Freedom, the software which allows you to turn off the Internet on the machine you’re working on to allow you to write. So yes, even magicians like David Almond need the right environment.

One other Almond anecdote – when he writes, he writes in Page View, with the numbers of the pages and the title of the book at the top of each page, so he can see the book physically coming to life as he goes. I think that’s brilliant.

A fantastic writer and a wonderful fellow. He signed a book for me, too.


Andrew Wylie’s return from the Amazon

I missed Andrew Wylie’s interview with New Republic when it came out last week. I’ve just read it now, and have come away with two strong impressions: that he is profoundly anti-Amazon these days (for reasons, rather spectacularly, of style as much as business); and that he is incredibly optimistic about the future of publishing:

LB: Do you feel as hostile toward Amazon as you used to?

AW: I think that Napoleon was a terrific guy before he started crossing national borders. Over the course of time, his temperament changed, and his behavior was insensitive to the nations he occupied.

Through greed?which it sees differently, as technological development and efficiency for the customer and low price, all that?[Amazon] has walked itself into the position of thinking that it can thrive without the assistance of anyone else. That is megalomania.

via Andrew Wylie Interview: Literary Agent Makes Millions Off Highbrow | New Republic.

Read the whole thing. You won’t agree with all of it, or perhaps even most of it. But if you believe in book publishing and its importance, you’ll applaud the energy, ambition and refusal to be anything other than true to your own beliefs.


Sell, sell, SELL – thoughts on self-promotion


I was out and about yesterday and so missed a flurry of online activity sparked by this article on, in which Nesrine Malik described Mohsin Hamad as ‘a thoroughly sound and pleasant man who wears his literary triumph lightly’ when encountered in the flesh, but (says Ms Malik) when Hamad goes online he morphs into a praise-retweeting, review-linking-to ‘monster.’

This, it seems, is a Bad Thing:

Most of us expect writers, especially novelists of a certain stature, to be, ascetic, lofty creatures, occupied with the intricacies of the human condition ? which explains our surprise when they turn out to be hardnosed publicists seeking to maximise book sales by promoting their product as aggressively as one would push a new shampoo.

Ms Malik finishes with some advice for us writers who frequent Twitter (and, presumably, other online social media platforms, and The Internet Itself):

Literature is a commodity, but can’t be marketed as such. Writers need to either acknowledge this and assign themselves a PR detail, or refrain from unleashing themselves on Twitter if they lack the skills to operate it ? a book is too inextricably linked to its author to be promoted flat-footedly and without nuance. That said, it can be done. Here are my tips:

? Do tweet events, book signings, public readings, links to interviews etc

? Don’t exclusively tweet about your work

? Have a personality. Develop a character and a Twitter profile that is not merely a bludgeon wrought of your own brilliance

? Don’t retweet compliments. Ever. Not once

Failing that, walk away from Twitter. Take the advice of?Bret Easton Ellis‘s friend, who reportedly told him at the Vanity Fair Oscars’ party: “You need to get off Twitter. People think you’re crazy”

So, some quick thoughts on this:

  • Why can’t literature be ‘marketed as a commodity’? People have to pay for it, don’t they? I don’t really understand this.
  • Writers can’t ‘assign themselves a PR detail’ because writers cannot, generally, afford such a thing.
  • Why is it so toxic to retweet compliments? I’ve seen others say this, but they never say why it’s such a bad thing.
  • Does anybody seriously disagree that a Twitter profile that is just retweeted compliments would be a trifle dull? Is this really that insightful?
  • ‘Have a personality’. Is that an instruction? Don’t I have a personality already?
  • ‘Refrain from unleashing themselves on Twitter if they lack the skills to operate it’. What are these skills? Can I get a licence?

If there’s one thing I’ve learned about self-promotion online in the year I’ve been doing it, it’s this: you don’t need to be nearly as squeamish about it as you think you do. There is a fine and noble tradition of writers-with-books hawking them at every opportunity – if you don’t believe me, take a look at Nick Cohen’s website and twitter feed since?You Can’t Read This Book came out. He’s at it all the time. He’s relentless. He’s also fantastic.

I put this queasiness about self-promotion in the same box that I put queasiness about authors doing events ‘for free.’ There was a similar flurry about that a few months back, with some distinguished writers saying they thought it was wrong. But what those distinguished writers don’t understand is the same thing that those attacking self-promotion don’t understand, and it’s this: without an audience, a new writer is nothing. Anything that can grow that audience, even by one, is probably worth doing. There’s a very simple equation: if I can do something that grows my audience, I should do it, at least when starting out.

Which means self-promotion is fine until it’s not fine. By which I mean: don’t self-promote to the extent that you drive away the audience you already have. That’s the only rule that matters. If we’re talking Twitter followers, the calculus is brutal and elegant: if your human followers are growing in number you’re doing something right, if they’re going down you’re doing something wrong. Simple as that. End of story. Not rocket science. The same goes for your Facebook page and your blog stats and your email list – are the numbers going up? Then all is well.

You can do it with charm. You?should do it with charm. You should be yourself (unless there’s a problem with you being yourself, in which case social media is going to be a miserable experience for you). If you’re creative, be creative (see what Joanne Harris does, brilliantly, on her Twitter stream – she uses it to tell stories). Don’t be squeamish. If you’re British, don’t be British. Well, be a bit British, because that’s what makes you British. But always be aware of your Britishness, and recognise that, in this, it can hold you back.

And as for those commentators who think there is something impure about writers hawking their own wares – well, fine. You spend a year writing a book, and then you put it out there into a world where hundreds of new books come out every week, and you do nothing to promote it, and you see what happens. I wish you the best of luck.

Now, I’m off to promote my new book, in between talking about the Papal conclave and my dog’s strange DNA results. See you online.

That brilliant picture is from Flickr account unwomenasiapacific. Rights reserved under Creative Commons.


Tumbling book lists

I love Tumblr. I love the way you can have an idea to make something and it can be there, in front of you, within minutes. The type of thing which fifteen years ago required major investment, rounds of meetings, hours of Powerpoint and weeks of arm-twisting can now happen in the time it takes to drink a beer.

I love lists of books. Not just any old lists. I love lists from institutions, from teachers, from experts. I love hearing answers to questions like “what are the best ten books on particle physics for non-scientists” from scientists. One of my favourite books is called?The Best Books and basically consists of lists of books on every subject, compiled by people who know that subject.

So I decided to combine those two affections into one: a Tumblr called A List of Book Lists. It does what it says it does: compiles lists of the best books arrived at either by expertise, public acclaim or cultural importance. Already up there are the top 100 books according to the French, William Gibson’s favourite SF novels, the best New Jersey novels. Take a look, and maybe even submit your own in the link at the top.


No more sock puppets please

A bunch of distinguished authors and reviewers put out this very good statement today on sock-puppetry and fake reviews, and although I wasn’t asked to sign it (nor would have expected to have been), I support it unreservedly. The picture below is by the brilliant cartoonist Matt Buck

These days more and more books are bought, sold, and recommended on-line,?and the health of this exciting new ecosystem depends entirely on free and?honest conversation among readers. But some writers are misusing these?new channels in ways that are fraudulent and damaging to publishing at?large. British author Stephen Leather recently admitted that he used fake?identities online to promote his work. The American bestseller John Locke?has revealed he has paid for reviews of his books. The British author RJ Ellory has now confessed to posting flattering reviews of his own work and to using assumed names to attack other authors perceived to be his rivals.

These are just three cases of abuse we know about. Few in publishing believe they are unique. It is likely that other authors are pursuing these underhand tactics as well.

We the undersigned unreservedly condemn this behaviour, and commit?never to use such tactics.But the only lasting solution is for readers to take possession of the?process. The internet belongs to us all. Your honest and heartfelt reviews, good or bad, enthusiastic or disapproving,? can drown out the phoney voices, and the underhanded tactics will be marginalized to the point of?irrelevance. No single author, ? however devious, ? can compete with the?whole community. Will you use your voice to help us clean up this mess?

Linwood Barclay, Tom Bale,?Mark Billingham,?Declan Burke,?Ramsey Campbell,?Tania Carver,?Lee Child, Michael Connelly, N.J. Cooper, David Corbett, Ruth Dudley Edwards,?Stella Duffy, Jeremy Duns,?Mark Edwards,?Chris Ewan,?Helen FitzGerald,?Meg Gardiner,?Ad?le Geras,?Joanne Harris,?Mo Hayder,?David Hewson, Charlie Higson,?Peter James,?Graham Joyce,?Laura Lippman,?Stuart MacBride,?Val McDermid, Roger McGough,?Denise Mina, Steve Mosby, Stuart Neville, Jo Nesbo, Ayo Onatade,?SJ Parris,?Tony Parsons,?Sarah Pinborough,?Ian Rankin, Shoo Rayner,?John Rickards, Stav Sherez, Karin Slaughter, Andrew Taylor, Luca?Veste,?Louise Voss,?Martyn Waites,?Neil White, ?Laura Wilson.

via No more sock puppets please | David Hewson?com.

I Spotted A Sock Puppet. Matt Buck.

Does Camille Paglia really talk like this?

I missed this exchange while on holiday – Letters of Note reprinted a clattering of faxes between Julie Burchill and Camille Paglia. I’m no Burchill fan, but Paglia’s tone is so staggeringly egotistical and bizarrely sinister that I’m giving this one to the Englishwoman, on points. Here’s a flavour of Paglia’s odd attitude:

As the years pass, it will become clearer and clearer to everyone, perhaps even to you, that this was a pivotal moment in your life. You had an opportunity to move forward and to grow by making an important alliance. But instead you chose to dig in your heels, clamp down, and sulk at the new girl invading your turf. You have behaved childishly.

I could have helped you far more than you could help me. I am read and translated around the world from Japan to South America, and the basis of my fame is not just journalism but a scholarly book on the history of culture. You are a very local commodity, completely unknown outside of England, and you have produced nothing of global interest. It is you who began this fight, and it is you who will pay the price for it.The more vicious you are in print, the stupider you will look.

via Letters of Note: The Battle of the Bitches.

Alliances? Fights? What is this, literature or cage-fighting?