Savernake Forest, Wiltshire

Savernake Forest, just outside of Marlborough. November. The colour becomes intense, the light always more hazy because of the height of the sun. What a combination.

Wind runs through channels here, along the straight paths, gathering momentum, and it dominates your stride. Surprisingly, there is next to no one around; you would have thought better of people, especially at this time of year.

Some trees have given up their leaves early. Others hang on to them, greedy, still green and there is an air or arrogance about them. It’s usually the bigger ones, the rare species of oak.

The carnage is heaped everywhere, a thousand shades between red and green as if the land is flooded with them. A freak Autumn tide. A dog runs by, followed by a couple of pups. The whole family are out, bursting into bushes, tearing up the leaves. If it wasn’t for your dignity, you’d be joining them.

You appreciate the cycles of the earth a little more now. You think maybe there’s something inherently spiritual about the landscape in the south west. Maybe the druids are on to something. The city doesn’t look so big any more.



I read this and it reminded me of when I saw the real life tragedy section in WH Smiths. When I worked for Ottakar’s, you could see the invasion of this kind of book. Full of abuse, rape, torture etc. People couldn’t get enough of their Pelzers et al.

What made me interested in this, is why do readers like to read real life accounts of such incidents, yet there’s a tendency for them to want, in most genres of fiction, characters they love and want to be able to ‘relate to’, whatever the hell that really means anyway. (Some cultural bruising in the psyche, perhaps.) There’s a general desire to read about likeable characters. Loveable characters. Funny and warm and bubble-bath characters.

Are there two completely different types of people buying these ‘real life tragedy’ books and fiction? Why not have more gritty fiction sold in the mainstream mass market? Stuff that’s true to real life, and true to actual character? It seems that it’s okay for something to be abusive and cruel in text form with the general public so long as it’s in real life stories.

I dare say marketing departments have something to do with this. Or is fiction for many some kind of wish-fulfilment? Seems to me that the real tragedy is that fiction can’t be as daring and taboo-pushing as real life. Calling all editors…


Essays In Love

Now here’s an interesting one. Essays In Love, by the talented young philosopher Alain de Botton. Ever the one to expand my emotional and intellectual range (being only in my twenties, I feel perhaps there’s much to experience in life, so here’s a quick short cut to understanding), and it being some years since I last battled with a philosopher, I was drawn to de Botton’s simple “philosophy for everyday life” approach.

And what a delight it was. De Botton writes with a non-patronising, simple, humour-filled prose, so you never realise he’s holding your hand through some deeply insightful concepts. It’s written in the form of a novel, with numbered paragraphs that cover key points to take on board (much like in more dry philosophical writings). This is useful, as you’re walked through a fictitious relationship, but also through the feelings, the primitive urges, the contradictions of the human condition, the sufferings. I like the way he makes philosophy relevant, but is never talking down to the reader. You immediately feel at ease when he brings up Socrates and Kant. He’s educating you, forcing your mind to wonder about the delights and despairs of relationship from that first moment you see someone, to the sex, right the way through, pointing out most of the sensations we go through, deep analysis of our actions, and explanations about our possible motives.

A superb study of the mechanics of human relationships.


Why Do People Read? Or, Entertainment vs Art

Apologies for the incoherency of this, but it’s coming over as strands of thoughts…

Following up certain debates doing the rounds, I can’t help but think of one essential question at the moment. It might seem a bit of a tangent, but I suspect it’s central to most debates.

Should people read fiction for entertainment or for art? (By the way, Art doesn’t mean impenetrable stuff, merely something with a little more to it.)

There is a huge proportion of audiences that are demanding entertainment. Action, jokes, raunchiness, familiarity etc. On the other hand you could have deep investment in emotions, investigations into the human condition, being forced out of a comfort zone, innovation, a more striking arrangement of words in a sentence. Or (very generally) Art. Likewise, the amount of people I’ve heard slagging off literary novels for being too dull is something that frustrates me. They’re using a wrench to tackle a screw in their analysis, so to speak. “Nothing happened.” Or, “I couldn’t understand the way they wrote.” They want characters they can empathise with (likeable characters—see Adam Roberts’s blog for a fun mention of this through his reviews), rather than try to understand someone who might well be unpleasant on the surface, and complex to follow at first.

And readers speak with their wallets, which means publishers will skew their lists towards demand, which might have a long term effect on readers’ tastes. As I’ve said many a time, this is a business after all. The rise and strength of chick-lit, for example. Is this a good thing? Sure, they’re not the most intelligent things in the world (yes, I’ve read a few actually…). Take this to the extremes, and we have ‘glamour’ model Jordan, outselling the Booker Prize shortlist. Now we have the most shameful low yet. I doubt Coleen, girlfriend of footballer Wayne Rooney, had always aspired to be a writer, or indeed understands the joys of Don DeLillo, but surely this is taking reading for entertainment to the limits. This has been signed not for Art but for sales, plain and simple. She maybe won’t even write them herself. This, at the expense of other more innovative novelists. (And there’s a separate discussion to be had on celebrity status and books). What does this mean for the industry? And I want to state again that the industry reacts to consumer demand. I’m not saying one is better or worse, but those last two links are the natural conclusion for that area of fiction. I predict more trends like this. It will mean more money spent on these deals, and for a while it will limit variety. (On an optimistic note, it was fun to see so many monster publishers fail with celebrity biographies after the bubble sort of burst. Maybe the same will happen here.)

So ask yourself again, should we read for entertainment alone if this is what happens ultimately? Does people wanting entertaining books forecast lower quality in the long run, given how the market adjusts?

Personally, I’d like a happy medium in the industry, and in realistic terms, that’s where we are, although things are definitely skewing in recent times. Having read so much Fantasy and Literary Fiction, when I read in my spare time I need there to be a solid plot, and I also need to be wowed by prose and what’s going on underneath the surface of it. I can understand that not everyone will get good prose. The thing which I can’t understand is why some people don’t want to be challenged at all? Why don’t they want to think? Reading has generally been an active pastime. You are required as a reader to do some of the work. But things have become progressively passive these days, like sitting back to watch a blockbuster, having everything constructed visually for you. Maybe the industry leaning in these directions is one reason why we’ve seen such discussions across many blogs in the last couple of weeks.

Now don’t go lynching me, I’m just asking questions from a macro perspective. I’m not saying dry literary self-indulgence should take centre stage, because people spend hard cash on books so there’s a kind of contract between author and reader.

All of this: it’s just something readers should be aware of.


You Searched For What?

Someone came onto this site searching for “evangelical bookseller”. They were probably quite disappointed. If that search came this way again, perhaps a minor diversion here?


Heady Stuff

Jeff VanderMeer has a few things to say about the state of fiction today.

I was reading through an old batch of Interzones and New Worlds while Ann and I selected stories for the New Weird anthology, and I thought I caught a glimpse of something different. Perhaps I’m wrong, perhaps it’s a myopic nostalgia for some golden age that never existed, but just bear with me for the sake of argument.

What I seemed to find in those old magazines sometimes overreached, or crashed into and sank on the rocks of evangelical experimentalism…but, at its best, that fiction was altogether more adult than much of what I’ve read recently. It seemed sharper and more balanced between intellect and emotion. There was ample intelligence behind it, sometimes a cruel and frightening intelligence. It was often bracing, unexpected, and jagged.

Read on.

I feel that I should comment on the subject, but can’t seem to bring myself into it. Do I think he’s right? I probably do. Do I think we live in the age of sales and marketing and supermarket shelves of books and massive publishing houses with massive sales expectations? Surely we all know that, yes? When I worked in bookselling you could see this happening in slow motion across the whole store, every section, a kind of post-modern destruction that J.G. Ballard could write a good book about.


Writers’ Networking Evening pt 2

So, last night I was on a local publishing panel, in Derby, as part of a literature festival. There were around thirty or so in the crowd, which was quite nice for milling around and general chit chat afterwards. I got a lot of the questions. Since I’m a commercial editor, I kind of felt like a target too. The Bad Man. And once you spell out just how the industry works, and reality kicks in, I couldn’t help but think it depressing for many people, who were quite happy to sit with their dreams of glory until I opened my mouth. We live in an age where nearly everyone, rightly or wrongly, expects to achieve. Add a dash of celebrity culture, and everyone wants to be a star. That can be a dangerous path, as I explained earlier. And after reading this article in The Guardian, I really do wonder why people write at all. Last night really brought it home, just how many people of all ages, of all cultures, want to put pen to paper, and be recognised for it. Maybe it will never happen for them. In fact, I would say the odds are very much that way. Why write?

For me, and I’m most likely paraphrasing someone, most likely Hemingway, but it’s easier than not writing. It’s a safer mentality then ‘I want to be famous’ or whatever. In my position I happen to be luckier than a few, less lucky than many, many others. Last night I met some very driven people who are destined for unhappiness, most of it their own mental torture of wanting success without realising how difficult the industry is. Perhaps it’s best not to put too much importance on these things. Just let go a little.