Archive for November, 2009

The Importance of Indiscretion

November 29, 2009

I first came across Tom Driberg in his fictionalised cameo of Jake Arnott’s The Long Firm. His classic 1960s London crime novel introduces Lord Teddy Thursby, a hard-living peer who becomes involved with the gangster Harry Starks. At first the two hit it off – ‘His strong-arm stuff can get him respect,’ Thursby says, ‘but friends like me can get him respectability’ – but the lord soon becomes dragged into Starks’s crimes. The first hint that Thursby is out of his depth comes when Driberg, with whom he enjoys a cross-party friendship, warns: ‘Be careful, Teddy.’ It jolts him. ‘Driberg urging caution is not a good sign.’

There are passages in The Long Firm that read like homage to Francis Wheen’s remarkable biography of Driberg: the letter from Thursby’s wife demanding recompense for their sham marriage is in parts word for word the same as a letter written to Driberg from his enstranged companion. The story of ‘Chips’ Channon, with a wink and nudge, showing the new MPs where the Westminster toilets are (‘the most important rooms’) appears in both books.

Wheen’s biography is as warm and vivid as his book on Marx and his social histories, but there is a fresh, raw quality to the writing that you don’t see in his later works. It’s a tone that allows him to do justice to the life. Radical Labour MP Tom Driberg won a scholarship to Oxford and wrote prolific amounts of journalism before going into politics. The cliche of someone having a ‘ringside seat of history’ seems true of Driberg. Wheen takes us through the party decade of the 1920s right up to Swinging London.

Though he was a hedonist and gossip columnist, Driberg’s life wasn’t all vile bodies and bright young things. Like many people in the late 1930s, he wasn’t convinced that there would be a war, but unlike many observers of the time he was able to recognise the threat of fascism. It was an isolated position to be in at a time when much of the ruling class approved of the European dictators, the Daily Mail screamed ‘Hurrah for the Blackshirts!’ and Chamberlain’s appeasement policies were widely admired. Returning from the Spanish Civil War when it was clear that the republicans would be defeated, Driberg was disgusted at having to cover a celebration of Franco’s victory thrown by the general’s apologists and supporters at Queen’s Hall.

Franco was described at the meeting as ‘Our generalissimo’, ‘A military officer as honest and patriotic as any anywhere’, ‘Our ruler and guide’ and ‘The heaven-sent chieftain’. The only moment Tom enjoyed was when a meek little man stood up and asked quietly: ‘Might a member of the public denounce you as traitors?’ The answer was no: the revellers shouted ‘Throw him out!’, and out he went.  

Later, Driberg saw Buchenwald.

He was never popular with the establishment. On his death, the rightwing press smeared him as a KGB spy. Obituaries made a great deal of his sexual promiscuity. As a gay man Driberg had to deal with a society that had criminalised his love life, but he managed to enjoy rich, varied and constant liaisons despite the dangers of the time. The Torygraph‘s Paul Johnson wondered, if Driberg had to be gay, why he had to be so proud about it. Gay people worthy of respect were ‘those pathetic figures, like the late E. M. Forster, for whom homosexuality was a lifelong burden and shame, and who agonised about its moral consequences.’

At this point you have to shake your head and remind yourself this was only about thirty years ago. Johnson then compared the Good Homosexual, E. M. Forster, with the Bad Homosexual, Tom Driberg:

From first to last, Driberg was a homosexual philanderer of a most pertinacious and indefatigable kind, wholly shameless, without the smallest scruple or remorse, utterly regardless of the feelings of or consequences to his partners, determined on the crudest and most frequent form of carnal satisfaction to the exclusion of any other consideration whatever: a Queers’ Casanova.

Wheen could have gone on to point out that Johnson reflected attitudes of the time. Even the supporters of legalising homosexuality argued that it was an inferior, evil thing: why add to the miseries of gays by persecuting them through the courts? Peter Tatchell remembered that ”The tone of the parliamentary debate alternated between vicious homophobia on one side and patronising, apologetic tolerance on the other.’ Geraldine Bedell in the Observer has an illuminating piece about the 1967 debate:

No one mentioned equality or love. The consistent position was that homosexuals were pitiful and in need of Christian compassion. [Leo] Abse argues now that much of this was tactical. ‘The thrust of all the arguments we put to get it was, ‘Look, these people, these gays, poor gays, they can’t have a wife, they can’t have children, it’s a terrible life. You are happy family men. You’ve got everything. Have some charity.’ Nobody knew better than I what bloody nonsense that was.

The attitude of the reformists was: okay, we will give you equality, but you must remember that your sexuality is essentially evil, and you must hate yourself for it for the rest of your days. Driberg broke the rules: ‘the wearisomely persistent rightwing misconception’ that ‘socialists ought never to enjoy themselves’.

The conventional wisdom was that it was okay to be a deviant or an outsider, as long as one does not enjoy it. You can see the echoes of this sinister fallacy in the debate on ‘New Atheism’.

The Great Underground Myth: Why Self Publishing Doesn’t Work

November 28, 2009

My editor at 3:AM, Andrew Gallix, asked me to write a longer piece about self publishing based on this post. Here’s the result.

Update: The author Henry Baum has written a response.

The Manufacture Of Outrage

November 26, 2009

The self-appointed guardians of speaking truth to power have hosted a long piece by reporter Jonathan Cook, who compares the recent Medialens book with journalist Nick Davies’s Flat Earth News. Naturally (it would not have been published on the site otherwise) Cook raves about the two Davids’ masterpiece of conspiratorial binary thinking while dumping on Davies’s reality-based look at how the media works.

Don’t read Cook’s entire piece, it is tedious beyond belief, but in it he does make one interesting point about this year’s expenses scandal. Here it is:

It is interesting that the revelations about the British MPs emerged in the immediate wake of a far more important scandal involving the banks’ extortion of western governments to save themselves from liquidation, and the later feathering of their own nests from public finances. Whether it was the goal or not, the trickle of reports of parliamentary graft over several months very effectively distracted attention in Britain both from the banks’ shocking behaviour and forestalled a tentative debate about the profound crisis facing corporate capitalism. 

In addition, a Chomskian might suspect that the timing of the attack on our elected representatives, using information leaked to the establishment’s favourite newspaper, the Daily Telegraph, had a beneficial consequence for the embattled finance sector. With their own integrity in question, British MPs and ministers lost the moral high ground and with it any hope, admittedly already feeble, of turning on the bankers. With the parliamentary system in crisis, the banking system faced little threat of significant reform, which would have required an unprecedented assertion of political will. 

Even efforts to make the banks more accountable lost momentum during this period. In fact, while our elected representatives were being flayed by the media, the bankers quietly went back to business as normal. By personalising the issue of graft and directing popular anger at a few individuals – at first, the most visible bankers and then many MPs – the economic system itself was given a reprieve from a serious debate about its merits and failings.

This does make a certain amount of sense to me. The spectacle of a wealthy elite being bailed out by the public after gambling the future of the economy on other people’s money looked like becoming a catalyst for real democratic reform of capitalism. Then came the Torygraph‘s revelations – and the public and commentariat, stampeding with anger about Fred the Shred and the con of the free market, obediently turned round and stampeded in the opposite direction. Relatively minor public sector graft has overshadowed the greater crimes of the banks.

The expenses scandal could have broken at any time. Lembit Opik MP claimed in the Observer that ‘The expenses system was set up as a salary substitute. MPs were told that overtly.’ Welcome to human nature! (We always say we want our politicians to be human – yet we hate it, when they are.) Even the worst offenders, like David Wiltshire MP, have ripped off very little compared to the Telegraph’s owners, a pair of reclusive twins who live on a tax haven so they don’t have to contribute to a society their newspaper purports to represent.

There was a lot of big talk about cracking down on bonuses and tax havens when the markets fell. But now the champagne pyramids are back up in Square Mile bars and, at least in this country, populist reforms have been quietly forgotten. It’s business as usual, except it’s on your tab. It will be business as usual until the next huge disaster.

What does this tell us about the press? Chomsky said the role of the media was to manufacture consent. In the UK, it looks more like the manufacture of outrage.

King of the Novel

November 25, 2009

My review of Stephen King‘s Under the Dome is now available at 3:AM.

The Future Of Self Publishing

November 24, 2009

Big news in publishing this week is that US mainstream publisher Harlequin has launched a self-publishing imprint called Harlequin Horizons. If you’re not familiar with the exciting new paradigm of self-publishing, the way it works is that authors pay a publisher to produce their books, regardless of quality. In this case, aspiring writers will be paying a large corporation to produce their books.

Some of you might be wondering how this is different from vanity publishing. The answer is: ‘It just is’.

Jane Smith has written a couple of fine posts about Harlequin’s idea; she has also looked at the first tentative alliances between corporate and vanity publishing (vanity publishing is useful to suits out to make a profit, for all kinds of reasons).

She has also recommended the best comment I’ve seen on the whole self-publishing idea. It’s from a writer called Stacia Kane and derives from a earlier post of Kane’s. Read it all. It really could be the last word on the whole mess. 

When self-publishing becomes the only option, only the rich will be able to publish. When publishers can make more money taking cash from aspiring writers than by selling books to the public, writers and readers both suffer. Writers who can’t afford to publish will be lost, or we’ll have to go back to the 18th century model and whore ourselves out to rich ‘patrons’ who might agree to pay for our publishing—not pay us, but pay to produce the books themselves.

Imagine a world where the only books on the shelves are those written by people with enough money to pay to have them published. Very little quality control, no attention paid to whether or not the book is actually worthwhile. How much fun will reading be then?

We’d have books written exclusively by those who could afford it. Much like in the 18th century, when so many books were diaries of some peeress’s trip through Europe with titles like, ‘My Gleanings.’…  I know I can’t wait for a world where books written by those from other cultures have no chance to be translated into English and released here, when we become even more ignorant of the lives of those in the world outside because there’s no way to get their books in front of English-speaking audiences. Oh, and of course, given that self-published books tend to be much more expensive, thanks to POD technology, I can’t wait for a world when reading and books are even less available to the poor. When they don’t have the same opportunities thanks to their inability to get hold of books.

Oh, what’s that you say? Oh, right. The internet will provide all of that. Of course. Because I know when I want something to read I’d much rather spend hours and hours slogging around online looking for something decent than just go to a bookstore. I know people who can’t afford books totally have the money for laptops and ereaders and the internet. So in seeking to democratize literature, what you are actually doing is STEALING IT from those less fortunate than you.

We’d also have a lot more unreadable books. I’m sorry, but it’s true. For every excellent work of self-published fiction–and they are out there, make no mistake–and for every one that’s not bad, just not terribly polished or professional or interesting, there are dozens of horrible ones. Really.

Let’s not forget that the way most people learn proper grammar, punctuation, and spelling isn’t through school. I mean, we do learn those things at school, but we develop those skills by reading. So you tell me, how literate will we be as a society when there are no professionally written books? When there are no people to judge if a work is even readable or not before it gets published? When anything goes? Would you like to go back to the middle ages, when words were just spelled however they sounded? Because I wouldn’t.

The idea of self-publishing as a new, democratic, egalitarian model is one of the greatest underground publishing myths of our time.

Bad Penny Blues

November 20, 2009

My review of Cathi Unsworth’s London noir novel is now available at 3:AM.

Monkey Tennis

November 20, 2009

‘It had to be a two-word pitch,’ Steve Coogan said, ‘that created an immediate visual image.’ He’s talking about the classic Alan Partridge scene in which the TV presenter, down on his luck and living in a TravelTavern, meets with BBC commissioning editor Tony Hayers with the aim of securing a second series of his chat show. After Hayers tells him straight out that this won’t happen, Alan produces a dossier of ideas for potential programmes that get weaker and sillier as he works his way down the list. An increasingly amused and bewildered Hayers turns down all these ideas as well. In panicky desperation, Alan pushes the folder to one side and starts pitching new titles off the top of his head. Youth Hostelling with Chris Eubank, Inner City Sumo (‘If you don’t do it, Sky will’) A Partridge Amongst the Pigeons – all are rejected by Hayers. Finally, Alan gathers his thoughts and manages to summon up one final pitch: ‘Monkey Tennis?’

It’s a classic scene, one that still makes me smile when I think about it. Still, that icon of Middle England may have (needless to say) the last laugh. This week’s Popbitch features a list of real life upcoming TV shows. It may be bullshit, a mistake or a parody but somehow I doubt it. Here they are:

‘Maggot’s on a Mission’ – Maggot from Goldie Lookin’ Chain tackles environmental myths, dressed in a furry green suit.

‘Muslim Driving School’ – Hilarious tales of Muslim women learning to drive.

‘A Band For Britain’ – Sue Perkins gets to recruit a brass band!

‘Alan Yentob on Las Vegas’ – Cerebral BBC arts commentator wants a free trip to Las Vegas. Sorry, is obviously the right person to analyse Sin City.

Finally, there’s apparently going to be a reality show called ‘Clink Cuisine’ featuring cooking in prison – which was the exact title for one of Alan’s risible ideas. Apparently BBC One Controller Peter Fincham once quipped that he had ‘always said quite a few of those shows would have been commissioned’.

Cultural Advancements Make Benefit Glorious City Manchester

November 15, 2009

Kate Feld links, with justifiable triumphalism, to a Guardian piece by Jerome de Groot that raves about Manchester’s thriving litscene. Universities have brought in talented names and developed strong creative writing courses with public debates and functions. Workshops and literary magazines have flourished like bindweed. But that’s only part of the picture: ‘live and grassroots writing is where Manchester really comes into its own.’

The many writing movements in the city support speakeasies, literary salons, readings, musical events, open mic evenings, online publishing, poetry slams; there is a thriving magazine and blog scene (as the Guide observed back in 2007). The city’s literati are young, hip and hungry, and writing in an enviably diverse range of styles and media. I’ve seen short stories told by Powerpoint, cabaret and performance poetry in abandoned mills. There are radical left newsgroups and resident dreamers writing Rainy City Stories; hip-hop performers and buskers and surrealist novelists and women’s writing groups and multiple festivals and DJs and art car boot sales and exciting venues. There are excellent Manchester magazines and journals like if p then q, Transmission, Geeek, and the Manchester Review, mixing Manchester-based writing with international authors, commentators and artists.

Our city is well known for ridiculous hype but for once the hype has substance. Trust me on this.

I’m a Londoner by birth and a Mancunian by adoption. The litscene is a hundred times bigger and better than it was when I first started following it five years or so ago. The Arts Council funded, box-ticking, hoop-jumping hack slams have vanished. They have been replaced by strong and diverse nights run by intelligent, creative artists and promoters who aren’t afraid to say something serious. As a result attendance is higher and wider. The contemporary complaint about modern spoken word nights is that the venue is too small. The room is like a Glasto moshpit and chairs are lost on the three-second rule. The nights are long and intoxicated and people attend for pleasure, not duty or networking.

The people who made this possible are too legion to list. Few receive assistance from the Arts Council or any body like it. I’ll name just one: the phenomenal John G Hall.

Of course it’s not all perfect, there are duds, creeps and morons in Manchester’s litscene just like in any other place. But things are better here than I’ve ever known them.

Occasionally I feel this weird obligation to move to London. Then I remember the Cornerhouse, the cosmopolitan spine, the Fallowfield Loop in its early evening gold. And, do you know, the smoke feels a little less like the place I was born.


City of Manchester: all the other cities have inferior potassium

Pure Story

November 15, 2009

‘You have Asperger’s Syndrome.’

The woman in the bar made my head turn. Your correspondent is checking his emails over a pint of Czech Bud when she makes this observation. ‘Sorry?’

‘You have Asperger’s. But don’t worry,’ she said, ‘it’s not gonna affect you.’

It’s not often someone sees right through you, and it made me disorientated and afraid. We talked a little. She told me that she did have Asperger’s syndrome plus learning difficulties and a support worker. I explained that I’d been tested for the condition as a primary school child because of my echolalia habit. If you said something to me, I’d repeat it back. I never found out the conclusions of that test and my parents didn’t mention this to me until twenty years later when it came up during breakdown numero uno. I was angry at the time but now I think they made the right decision. It’s not good to grow up labelled, and to have a convenient excuse for your failures and mistakes.

The question of whether or not I have this autistic spectrum disorder has never been resolved and I suspect it never will be. My therapist, a intelligent and practical woman who saved my life, told me that you can find just about anyone on these spectrums. So I’ll probably never know and it probably doesn’t matter. Perhaps it’s best for some things in your life to remain unexamined mysteries.

In two days I’ll be twenty-eight – as Alabama 3 said, ‘one more step towards the grave, you know the box.’ Thing is I started thinking semi-seriously about mortality at the age of nineteen or so. I expected this feeling to intensify with the passing years but instead it’s dissipating like snow in sunshine. You still dwell on life’s impermanence but without the same urgency. Maybe because there’s so much going on that boredom is a luxury.

I can’t believe it’s been over two years since I started this blog! Two years of unreasonable attacks on various writers and politicians, mixed with ill-advised confessional autobiography and shameless promotions of my fiction and criticism. I started the weblog as an outlet for my own obsessions about what was happening in political debate; as time’s gone by it has begun to mean a little more to me than that.

Things are going a great deal better for me than they were this time last year. I feel little or no anxiety. The move to South Manchester has given me opportunities to explore more of this amazing city of ours.  I even love my new job at JLB Credit and it’s good to have some certainty about where the next rent cheque is coming from. I’m still writing, continuously, at every conceivable opportunity – that novella I talked about has colonised most weekday evenings. I feel that, like Lucky Jim, I may yet be of use to somebody.

Michel Houellebecq introduced his 2005 novel, The Possibility of an Island, by crediting its existence to a Berlin journalist called Harriet Wolff. ‘Before putting her questions to me,’  he wrote, ‘Harriet wanted to recount a little fable.’ For Wolff. the following summed up Houellebecq as a novelist. I think it can be applied to anyone who writes online.

I am in a telephone box, after the end of the world. I can make as many telephone calls as I like, there is no limit. I have no idea if anyone else has survived, or if my calls are just the monologues of a lunatic. Sometimes the call is brief, as if someone has hung up on me; sometimes it goes on for a while, as if someone is listening with guilty curiosity. There is neither day nor night; the situation is without end.

Welcome to eternal life, Harriet.

Celebrity Skin

November 14, 2009

terrorvisionThere I was thinking Peter Kay was an aberration and that most celeb books don’t earn out their advances. But Philip Stone says he can prove otherwise. He’s the ‘chart editor’ of the Bookseller and a former bookseller at Waterstone’s. In his piece he lists some huge figures for celeb sales and then has a go at literary elitists who insist that publishers should concentrate on books that the author has themselves written, or at least proofread.

Yes, when not lambasting publishers… many snobs bemoan the fact that celebrities outsell literary novelists (perhaps I encourage this a little). It is incredibly difficult to get literary fiction to sell on a large scale, short of a Man Booker win or (previously) a ‘Richard and Judy’ book club selection. Publishers know this. They know it’s a lot easier to sell 100,000 copies of a celeb memoir than it is to sell 10,000 copies of what could well be a great work by a ‘literary novelist’ (Martin Amis’ worth to UK book retailers last year: £0.2m; Alan Titchmarsh: £1.7m). So, shock horror, publishers have a willingness to publish popular books. Yes, by those boo-hoo, horrid little celebs. I know, outrageous!

All of this comes as shocking news to the snobs who are disgusted by the reality of the world we live in—a world in which Katie Price outsells the Man Booker dozen. But this is the world we live in. Stop moaning about it. Publishers give the public what the public wants. Get over it!

Publishers give the public what they want – well, up to a point. Most people I know watch X-Factor, but I can’t see them queuing up for a ghosted autobio of Alex Burke. Icons don’t always translate across media yet Stone’s numbers impress. There are actually people in the UK who will spend maybe like £18.99 on a hardback book, simply because it bears a familiar face from TV. Who knew?

I do and don’t understand the appeal. Some celebrities have interesting lives and stories to tell. Marco Pierre White’s The Devil in the Kitchen is a fascinating insight into the London restaurant trade as well as an inspiring personal story of somehow making it against the odds. And Kerry Katona is such a bizarre, chaotic personality that no publishing novelist would dare base a character on her – the editor would cut it immediately for lack of realism.

But seriously, how much insight and fun can you get from a book by Alan Titchmarsh? Dawn French? David Gest for fuck’s sake?

Whatever its secret, the commercial appeal does annoy actual fiction writers. The irritation is aesthetic, and also territorial. Stuart Evers points out that ‘Celebrity authors and novels can tie up publicity and marketing budgets, deflecting attention away from other authors.’ The disillusioned publisher in Jonathan Coe’s What a Carve Up ranted for neglected artists when he is forced to publish a worthless book by elite populist columnist Hilary Winshaw.

It’s not enough to be stinking rich, land yourself one of the most powerful jobs in television and have two million readers paying good money every week to find out about the dry rot in your skirting-board: these people want fucking immortality! They want their names in the British Library catalogue, they want their six presentation copies, they want to be able to slot that handsome hardback volume between the Shakespeare and the Tolstoy on their living-room bookshelf. And they’re going to get it. They’re going to get it because people like me know only too well that even if we decide we’ve found the new Dostoevsky, we’re still not going to sell half as many copies as we would of any old crap written by some bloke who reads the weather on the fucking television!

And there’s a suspicion in the back of the mind that most people don’t really want this shit. It’s nothing so vulgar as the manufacture of consent, more the will to belong. You feel you have to buy into a thing because you’ve been told so many times that everyone else has. If you resist, you’re an elitist, a snob, a PC bore – etc. This is Keynes’s beauty contest: ‘It is not a case of choosing those [faces] that, to the best of one’s judgment, are really the prettiest, nor even those that average opinion genuinely thinks the prettiest. We have reached the third degree where we devote our intelligences to anticipating what average opinion expects the average opinion to be.’

And yet popular culture isn’t as popular as it seems. Most young people go out on Saturday nights rather than watch Strictly – that was why the sacking of Arlene Phillips was such a PR fuckup for the BBC. Meanwhile there have been nights when televised bowls tournaments get higher ratings than hyped up reality shows.

There’s a slightly manic edge to Stone’s piece. Maybe it’s his Waterstones background. The chain built success on a philosophy of selling books as if they were cans of beans. In the last few years though, it has been hit by online retail, which is cheaper and more convenient with a far wider range. I’ve met a lot of people who worked for Waterstones. They told me stories of mass layoffs, meaningless sales training and supervisory incompetence. A bookseller friend nicknamed one manager ‘Paperclip’ because he couldn’t do anything on Word without consulting the ‘Clippit’ help icon.

There’s a potential positive side to throwing deals at tabloid characters. Alison Flood reckons that ‘The more these celebrity novels sell, the more money publishers will have to fund debut literary fiction writers, poets, biographers; the kinds of books that might not sell hundreds of thousands of copies, which in fact might barely sell 1,000 copies, but which make it all worthwhile.’

That’s the positive side – a kind of tax with the stupid rich funding the creative poor. But is that how it works in publishing today? Does anyone know?