Round-up, 25 October 2012: Murderous Self-Publishers, DRM, Supply and Demand, Handwriting, Serials

A lot of noise this week (quite rightly in my view) on how Amazon controls your Kindle content, and can shut it down at its own whim, it seems. More on this another time, perhaps, but here is the original blog that kicked up the fuss, and some other links with perhaps some of the most useful commentary:

Outlawed By Amazon (original blog)

Amazon Inspires Wave of Anti-DRM Sentiment Following Customer Kindle Shutdown (links from

I increasingly favour the DRM-free approach to publishing, at least for many aspects of content. What you give away comes back to you some way or other, I feel (but then I am a generous kinda guy, I hope). Here is an article from Publishing Perspectives describing a succesful DRM-free venture: Top SF Authors Raise $1m With Pick-Your-Price, DRM-Free E-Titles. May their success ever increase (and I love how its the genre writers who’re pioneering this).

From IndieReader, some provocative views on whether self-publishing is killing the publishing industry (basically, self-publishers need to get a bit more professional):

If indie authors are going to make their mark, they’ll need to band together, put out reputable works, and stop looking for get-sales-quick gimmicks.

And from the Globe and Mail, a pertinent discussion on the creative writing industry and whether we’re creating more writers than can or will be read, with Canadian examples: Writers: graduating by the bushel, but can they find readers? Given the laws of supply and demand, I’m inclined to think that Mexican critic Gabriel Zaid is right when he (only half?) jokes that perhaps writers need to slip a five-dollar bill into their books in order to pay their readers …

And from earlier in the week a lovely blog on the lost art of letter-writing in the Guardian. Do follow some of the links therein, and also back to the extract from Philip Hensher’s book on handwriting: Why Handwriting Matters.

And finally: I am a big fan of the idea of serial fiction, and I am enjoying the reports on Naomi Alderman and Margaret Atwood’s serialised novel The Happy Zombie Sunrise Home. I can see (see above too) I am going to have to look into Wattpad some more.


Hilary Mantel, the Man Booker Prize, and Historical Fiction

Some good coverage of Hilary Mantel winning the Man Booker Prize for Bring Up The Bodies, an event that made history for her being both the first woman and the first Briton to win the prize twice, and also for this being the first sequel to be a winner.

* BBC coverage of the prize ceremony.

* Guardian coverage of her winning the prize for a second time.

* an interview in the Telegraph, including a video interview plus video of Mantel introducing the book herself.

* The Dead Are Real – a profile in the New Yorker.

* Plus also from the Guardian a fascinating piece of personal writing on her experience of past-life regression (I do love how she is so matter of fact about ghosts in her writing: what we don’t know).

* And read an extract from the opening here.

I’ve not read the whole of Mantel’s oeuvre, but I thought Wolf Hall was fabulous, and her memoir Giving Up The Ghost is gritty and haunting, and shows she can write powerfully when she is more economical too. She’s a writer with range, who does not want to be pigeonholed, and so she shouldn’t be. When you read her, you’re aware of a significant intelligence at play behind the words.

And what words. Her syntax is sinewy and shapely, and can be thoughtful and provocative in its content. Look at the opening of Bring Up The Bodies:

His children are falling from the sky. He watches from horseback, acres of England stretching behind him; they drop, gilt-winged, each with a blood-filled gaze. Grace Cromwell hovers in thin air. She is silent when she takes her prey, silent as she glides to his fist. But the sounds she makes then, the rustle of feathers and the creak, the sigh and riffle of pinion, the small cluck-cluck from her throat, these are sounds of recognition, intimate, daughterly, almost disapproving. Her breast is gore-streaked and flesh clings to her claws.

These sentences are beautifully balanced in their variety, full of texture and reference and measurement and energy: the possibilities of simple repetitions, elemental, a cheeky bit of alliteration, a cadence. A voice. The wit, the ‘effervescent, omnivorous mischief’ mentioned in one of the Telegraph articles above.

It’s interesting too that she has stuck with Fourth Estate (and they with her) from her early books when they were an independent publisher to its iteration as an imprint of HarperCollins. Consistency is possible in publishing.

A couple of other things, though.

First, I’m never sure of the value of pronoucements about ‘the greatest modern English prose writer’. (Not least, what about the Americans, and the Irish and Scots and Indians and Australians and Canadians and the Finns writing in English and … ?) (And especially the Americans?) (And let’s not forget some of the translators, too: where do they fit in?)

And then note how various commentaters give Mantel credit for revitalising the historical novel, which is said to have had an ‘unstable’ reputation; that was the New Yorker, where I also found among its feeds (though now – sensibly – it seems to have been removed from the article itself): ‘Historical fiction used to be a humble genre. Hilary Mantel has found a way to make it exciting and relevant.’

I guess such voices want to make a distinction between what they might call bodice-rippers and literary fiction, though I might suggest that that is often a fine line (see: Sarah Waters). Mostly, though, I wonder what other writers currently active in their own fictional treatments of historical matter think of the idea that historical fiction was in need of excitement, relevance, and a reboot? Sarah Waters, of course, and how about Emma Donoghue, Margaret Atwood, Kate Grenville, Salman Rushdie, Michelle Lovric, John Banville … ? I could go on, and I am sure you’ll have your own to add to the list of writers with an ongoing devotion to fictional explorations of the past.

Sometimes, in such coverage it feels as if journalists (or maybe their headline writers) are using half-cooked hooks to manufacture a story, and in doing so either getting a bit hysterical, or revealing their own ignorance. (But: do they even care?)

And: though the discussion created by the Man Booker Prize can’t be discounted, do we always have to place a premium on prizes, on being the best, the lifesaver of the genre? Some writing has a quieter possibility. Sometimes the writing that lurks away can be just as interesting, as valuable.

Are bloggers killing literary criticism? (And: should critics watch films?!)

Peter Stothard, editor of the TLS and chair of the Man Booker judges this year, talks about ‘bloggers killing literary criticism’ in the Indy.

Now, I think we can cut Peter some slack because the Man Booker judges have selected an interesting shortlist this year. But I wish this article had a bit more substance (we have observed of late that the Indy is getting a bit more like the Daily Mail in its ratio of opinion to fact).

It does make some interesting points, e.g., that criticism is about more than simply sharing one’s taste. And even if blogging is wonderfully democratic, its access for all comers can at times beg the question of how the blogger has earned the right to be heard, and who is even listening; there are a lot of trolls and blowhards in the blogosphere, and I imagine many of their opinings are mostly unread. (Thus he opineth … In creating my own blog, I’ve hoped to avoid too much of that, and my future book reviews shall mostly be a means of making specific recommendations of resources for writers – more of those to come later.)

But the lack in this article of specific examples of both critics and blogs makes me question the basis of his observations. Surely there are many blogs that have been engaged in serious criticism, and in the promotion and discussion of quality writing, e.g., off the top of my head Beatrice, Bookslut, Complete Review, Silliman’s Blog. And what about the blogging that forms an extension of established publications, e.g., the New Yorker‘s Page-Turner, the many contributors to the Guardian‘s Books blog? Okay, there are lots of blowhards in the Guardian comments … but there are great riches there too.

And a lot of books pages and sections (when they have survived) seem just as guilty of the same sorts of gushy, cliquey, and predictable conversations about books that you find in the gushiest, cliquiest, and most predictable blogs. Plus the sort of writing used by publishers to describe themselves and their wares can be worst of all; I’m thinking of the meaningless hyperbole that could be used interchangeably for whichever recent acquisition or staff appointment they are bigging up in The Bookseller this week (‘I started reading this [insert superlative] manuscript on the train home, and was so entranced/mesmerised/captivated that I only finally looked up from it at 2 a.m. to discover I was sitting in an unlit carriage in a siding in Basingstoke’).

So the professionals can’t always be held up as shining examples; their own taste-sharing can sometimes feel quite superficial, insincere, and clichéd.

As I think about this some more, I realise that I don’t always want commentary on books to be high-falutin’ criticism anyway. Sometimes simple summaries are all I need. Even a list. I love the Top Ten lists in the Guardian (from Top Ten Literary Otters one week to Top Ten Seventeenth-Century Food Books the next). Give me a few suggestions and impressions, and I’m happy to download a free sample to my Kindle so I can make up my mind for myself.

Surely blogging is just another venue for many of the best features of traditional criticism? With lots of added features on top?

Perhaps the most curious thing to me about this article is that Stothard says he has only ever seen six films! (I wonder which six films they are?)

PS As a side note, it was depressing to note how few visitors there are in fact for the major book blogs. Am sure these are the most intelligent, diligent, and discriminating readers in the whole Interweb, but the numbers still seem disappointingly low.