Archive for October, 2011

Caveat Scriptor: The Brit Writers Awards

October 30, 2011

The writer Claire King has highlighted an email sent out by the Brit Writers Awards to various published and unpublished authors. The BWA is a literary prize for new writers. It’s a very glitzy operation with London ‘gala’ awards ceremonies, glossy websites and a £10,000 prize. It has been running for a couple of years, and claims to be ‘the UK’s largest writing project and awards for new and unpublished writers.’

The email, by the BWA’s Hari Kumar, continues: ‘We are still the new kids on the block, but two years on and amidst bookshops closing down and publishers resorting to celebrity deals in order to stay afloat, Brit Writers continues to scale new heights in the world of publishing and has seen our authors successfully published and even become best selling and award winning literary stars.’ BWA are now apparently offering a referral to ‘a number of partner agents’ which ‘have asked us to help them identify potential literary gems to save them ploughing through their slush pile.’ Kumar invites writers to send in a synopsis and three chapters of fiction.

I entered the Brit Writers Awards in 2010 and 2011. Last year, I pulled my entry after reading this, by the indispensable Jane Smith. Jane listed a number of concerns in her post but what really jolted me was her quote from the BWA site, on the 2010 awards:

The overall Brit Writers’ Awards winner – former Shropshire teacher Catherine Cooper for her children’s novel The Golden Acorn: The Adventures of Jack Brenin – was not only crowned Unpublished Writer of the Year 2010 and awarded with an impressive £10,000 prize, but she got an amazing surprise too. Unbeknown to anyone except a tiny handful of people, we had arranged for Catherine’s novel to be published in time for the evening, ready to be distributed in UK shops this week!

If that doesn’t scare you, you don’t know enough about writing and publishing. Cooper commented on Jane’s site and said she was happy with the deal she got with the publisher, a company called Infinite Ideas which you have never heard of. If it had been me, I would have been horrified and my agent would probably have shot me. The BWA website should carry a disclaimer: ‘Warning: we may give away your first rights to an unknown outfit, which will publish your book without your knowledge or consent.’

Several writers and bloggers have covered BWA. You can get overwhelmed by the sheer volume of material that is out there, but I will try and summarise the issues.

1) Award entrants claim to have experienced numerous admin and communication problems with confusion over status of their entries, changes of award venue, chaotic event management and lack of communication from BWA.

2) Former judges have also raised concerns about BWA. The writer Tania Hershman complained of a ‘confused’ judging process, problems with the online system and poor event administration. Another former judge, Debi Alper, said that she had ‘serious concerns about the process’ and that her name was used in BWA literature for the 2011 awards even though she was no longer judging. Alper adds: ‘I just want to make it clear that I was not involved this year and won’t be in the future.’

3) The BWA lists partnerships with schools, claims to have a ‘substantial network of experts, agents and publishers’ and even displayed an endorsement from Gordon Brown, on Downing Street letterhead, at the time of the 2010 awards. However, the letter was dated June 2010 – after Brown lost the premiership.

4) In December 2010 the BWA sent out an email asking people to apply for its ‘publishing programme’. The email stated that ‘We are looking to work with 15 unpublished authors over the next 12 months on an intensive one-to-one basis, who we guarantee will be published with a top publisher before Christmas 2011.’ All this for ‘a one off fee of £1,795’ which is ‘fully guaranteed and fully refundable if you are not published within 12 months.’

5) It is very unrealistic – Jane says impossible – to place this kind of deal in twelve months, and no publishers are named. But: Jane points to what appears to be a BWA self-publishing arm advertising promotional packages for up to £2,000. She also estimates that – at 21,000 entries with a £10.95 entry fee – the 2010 awards earned the BWA £229,950 for standard entries alone.

Let’s turn to this new venture. Hari Kumar’s email, sent October 20, had a deadline of October 25 – just five days to prepare an agent submission. No agents were named in the email. Claire comments that the BWA agent division is little more than an unnecessary middleman. After all, most agencies take unsolicited submissions direct. You can look them up in the W and A.

As Martha Williams points out, the BWA ‘service’ is, in essence, this:

Dear Writer, please prepare a submission package that is the industry norm for most agents, and send it to us. We can’t promise to pass it on, but we might.

Thanks,

Us.

So in comparison to submitting to the agent directly, what they are offering is, in fact, a postal delay?

Nevertheless, some writers did respond to Kumar’s email and have already had feedback from the BWA. You can read samples on this thread.

The responses, again from Hari Kumar, appear to be variations on a pro forma email. Kumar begins by managing expectations: ‘As you know, there are no guarantees in the publishing industry and we cannot guarantee that an agent would consider taking you on, even after a referral from Brit Writers.’ After a boost of praise for the work (‘This is a captivating, stylishly written book and is timely as it addresses current issues’) Kumar identifies problems with the synopsis, pitch or formatting that mean that ‘the assessors could not refer your work to agents immediately.’

But there is hope: ‘You need to find an experienced literary consultant/marketing expert that can help you with this… If you would like us to arrange this for you, please let me know immediately.’

Jane’s thread attracted hundreds of comments and became a riot of claim and counterclaim with various people connected with the BWA or one of its partner organisations making an appearance. When people write about this they often get BWA admins contacting them to complain that bloggers are being so negative and all the BWA is trying to do is promote new writing and provide an alternative to the corporate status quo.

However, a cynical and negative person, like myself for instance, might speculate on the possibility of a company called, say, ‘BWA Consultancies’, which authors responding to Hari Kumar’s call for agent submissions may be referred to for paid ms editing and consultancy services.

Here’s the thing. People used to make money from readers. Increasingly, though, people make money from writers. Creative writing courses, literary consultancies, manuscript editing firms, all these things basically sell the dream of publication to unpublished writers. Many novelists who can’t support themselves through their own published fiction will make a literary living by selling the idea of getting published to less successful writers. The usefulness of all this is disputed. Claire again: ‘I don’t know a single agent who would advise people to pay a consultancy to work on their synopsis and/or pitch. What counts is The Writing, The Writing, The Writing!’

But the digital revolution, the invention of the ebook and the boom in self publishing means that just about anyone can claim to offer a revolutionary new paradigm that will promote new writers against the evil corporate publishing world.

In other words, there has never been a better time to make your living as a vanity publisher.

I do not want to accuse the BWA of running a game, and am happy to assume that their staff have the best of intentions. Here’s a comment from their Head of Operations:

As this is a groundbreaking initiative we know there are lots of questions out there, but you’ll appreciate that we’re creating a new model here which we believe will revolutionise the way people get published in the future. What everyone knows for sure is that the current system is not working – as a result, the publishing industry is overly complicated, elitist and inaccessible and even the ‘top’ publishing houses are having to resort to publishing trashy celebrity novels to make ends meat, rather than find those gems THAT WE KNOW EXIST OUT THERE.

I’m happy to more or less take that as is.

But, based on what is in the public domain, and what has been written and researched by good writers and bloggers, people I respect, I would not want any involvement with any BWA project. And I would not recommend any other writer get involved.

As I say, all the spadework has been done by the bloggers listed above. I want to close with some words from Debi Alper:

I should begin by saying that gaining recognition through these awards is a great achievement and should definitely be celebrated.

I was one of the judges last year and I posted some of those 213 comments [on Jane’s site]. I had some serious concerns about the process and chose not to be involved this year, though I understand my name was still on the site until recently. BWA have some new initiatives and I’m sorry to say that my anxieties have only intensified. I’m not at liberty to go into details as the person I’ve been communicating with has asked me to keep the info confidential. All I would say is that the dreams of aspiring authors are an easy target for exploitation. Please take care.

And from Jane herself:

I’ve tried to be fair to the BWA while writing this: but I also have to be fair to writers who might be considering entering the next competition, or applying for a place on the BWA’s mentoring scheme, and with my hand on my heart I just cannot recommend that anyone gets involved with either of them at the moment.

Update: More BWA fun from Jane, including the startling news that the BWA has threatened an online writing group with legal action:

A short note to state that I have received a letter from Brit Writers’ solicitors requesting that I remove all references to the BWA from this website. I have therefore done so. I request that all Word Clouders refrain from mentioning the BWA in any way on this site. Any new posts or comments will be removed.

I reget having to take this step, but I am being threatened with legal action so have no sensible alternative. We continue to wish all writers entering the BWA Awards the best of luck with their submissions.

Please DO NOT reply to this post. Sorry!

This adds to my long lists of reservations about the BWA. Does the Booker board throw writs at bloggers who criticise its shortlists?

Again, if you receive an email from the BWA, asking you to send in your fiction, my advice would be to delete it unread.

Further update: It looks like Claire King has also been threatened with legal action.

And again: Harry Bingham – the first writer threatened with legal action – has posted a definitive list of questions raised about the Brit Writers Awards.

As you know, the Writers’ Workshop operates The Word Cloud, a social networking community for writers. That network is, and always has been, free, friendly and supportive. It has been founded on the philosophy that writers need a place to share concerns, air questions, and get advice.

Following discussions among certain writers on the Word Cloud (discussions now deleted), you asked Andersons Solicitors to write to me, Harry Bingham, threatening legal action and a possible ‘claim for damages for defamation’? (You did not tell me what the supposedly defamatory comment related to, so I still don’t know.) My understanding (here) is that you are considering comparable action against Claire King.

So my last question is this: do you believe that such legal thuggery is consistent with your published philosophy of ‘encourag[ing] and inspir[ing] unpublished and self-published writers of all ages’? (text from your website here). Do you believe that it is appropriate or honourable to use legal force to prevent unpublished writers from discussing in public whether your services and awards are right for them? Is that part of the philosophy your awards seek to embrace?

That is it. You cannot claim to be the ‘new kids on the block’ challenging the elitist corporate publishers, and at the same time bully and threaten people in the very worst corporate style.

And another: Jane Smith also received a solicitor’s letter. I didn’t want to point this out as I wasn’t sure if she wanted this made public.

It’s all academic now as the BWA appears to have dropped its lawsuit against all three writers.

I would say this is a small victory for a smart and courageous bunch of people, and a small lesson for censors and bullies.

Here’s a final word from Harry.

Yet another update: The Times (£) has now picked up the story.

It is worth the paywall for this fantastic quote from Brit Writers CEO Imran Akram:

To our recent critics, I would say: I am not answerable to you in any way.

When we do discover more literary gems that become global bestsellers, this will not only be a total vindication for Brit Writers but will also give me great personal pleasure and confidence to motivate me to scale ever-greater heights in the service of literature.

Endgame: It appears that the BWA has dissolved.

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Arguments Against Arguably

October 23, 2011

There’s a habit literary bloggers have where they fixate on a particular book and denounce everyone who reviews the book in a critical way. I don’t like it. It’s precious and childish. But I just finished Christopher Hitchens’s latest breezeblock of collected journalism. There’s a magical quality to it. You feel like you are reading Wilde or Darrow in their own time. And it made the following critiques look even more silly and facile in retrospect.

Step forward, Fintan O’Toole. O’Toole begins, obliquely (you have to go far before you find a Guardian writer who appreciates clarity) with the idea that Hitchens is trying to claim Orwell’s reputation for his own. ‘There are, at a rough count, 36 references to George Orwell in this voluminous collection of Christopher Hitchens’s journalism from the past decade. Hitchens has good claims to be Orwell’s successor.’ It cannot be that Hitchens loves Orwell, has been reading him for decades and wants younger readers to discover the pleasure and wonder of Orwell as he himself did. This is the man trying to cheat death by superseding a secular sainthood.

But who’s channelling Orwell here?

Hitchens, one of anglophone journalism’s great sceptics, aligned himself with arguably the most mendacious government to hold power in a democracy, the neoconservative clique around George W Bush. Hitchens warns in one of them against oversimplifying the political trajectory of another of his heroes, Saul Bellow, as ‘that from quasi-Trotskyist to full-blown ‘neocon’. The plea is entered, one suspects, equally on his own behalf. Without resorting to caricature, however, it is clear that Hitchens embraced the neocon project of defining the world through the ‘war on terror’. It is also clear to all but the true believers that that project was saturated in deceit, self-delusion and a language whose aim, as Orwell would have put it, was not to express, but rather to prevent and conceal, thought.

What would George Orwell have thought of the war on terror? Why, he would have agreed with me, of course!

The rest of the piece is a series of unargued assertions. Hitchens is wrong to compare al-Qaeda to Nazi and communist totalitarianism – but O’Toole won’t say why. What would have been the best response to 9/11? Are Iraqis and Afghans better off than they were? We could have a long argument about that – but we don’t get that argument.

As Norman Geras puts it:

Fintan O’Toole is relieved to report that the author’s prose hasn’t gone down the tubes, as might have been feared; mostly, and despite some blemishes, Hitchens’s writing still affords the reader pleasure. And why might we have feared otherwise? Because on certain key matters – the Iraq war, the war on terror – Hitchens didn’t take the same view as… well, as Fintan O’Toole.

That’s not how O’Toole himself expresses it, of course. He expresses it in a way conformable with the orthodoxy he upholds: the orthodoxy, namely, that there was an only – or, as one might say, a holy – truth about those aforesaid key matters.

We are back to the language of ritual, sanctity and excommunication that chokes off so much leftwing thought. O’Toole’s concluding condescension is that Hitchens is ‘a great journalist fallen, for a while, among neocons.’ 

Yet for real florid silliness and wilful stupidity, you have to turn to the master. Step forward, John Gray. Gray is an intellectual celebrity with one basic idea – that Enlightenment movements of rationalism and socialism are forms of messianic religion. He has spun this single argument into books, reviews, essays. He is the Stuart Baggs of public philosophy, a field of one-trick ponies. Consequently, his Arguably review is more about John Gray than Christopher Hitchens. From his key to all mythologies:

[For Trotskyites] America replaced the Soviet Union as the embodiment of human progress – and, it transpired, as the instigator of revolutionary wars… For Hitchens, that the Iraq war proved to be a disaster does not show the enterprise to have been a mistake – any more than the disastrous history of the former Soviet Union shows that the Bolshevik revolution (for which Hitchens continues to nurse a decidedly soft spot) was a mistake. In both cases, the human costs count for very little in the final analysis. What matters is the world-transforming revolutionary impulse that animated both experiments.

You get the idea. For Gray Hitchens’s journey was a straight line from evangelical Marxism to evangelical neoconservatism. He is ‘a believer who – like Trotsky – blanks out reality when it fails to accord with his faith.’ Saying that ‘atheists are the real fundamentalists’ may have seemed daring and original when the Guardian started doing it in 2006 or so. It’s hard to take from a man who so obviously has his pet schema, and does not mention anything that challenges this dull narrative of the world. (And Gray does not remind us that he once had a book pulped after alleging in it, falsely, that Hitchens supported torture.)

It took me two or three weeks to read this collection and after it I kept thinking of one of those Orwell references, Trilling on Orwell: ‘he must sometimes have wondered how it came about that he should be praising sportsmanship and gentlemanliness and dutifulness and physical courage. He seems to have thought, and very likely he was right, that they might come in handy as revolutionary virtues.’ There’s a place in the struggle for aristocratic arrogance. Many of these pages chronicle oppression and suffering. Change can happen when someone stands up and says, in Hitchens’s words: ‘This absolutely will not do.’

Although in many ways Hitchens is establishment to the core, he often appears as an outsider. A talented writer in a intellectual and literary world that is little more than a public school bores’ rodeo with the odd ‘firebrand’ leftwinger or ex-RCP member thrown in. A passionate atheist in an age where so many great minds have embraced the easy answers to life’s beautiful imponderables. And in a world where writers too often slip into the role of pallid observer, Hitchens is someone who has lived as well as written. As Jason Cowley writes, in another dismissive review, he ‘agitated at demonstrations by day and romped and cavorted with the daughters, and sometimes sons, of the landed classes by night.’ There’s a great account in Arguably of a fight with some Syrian fascists, who attack the writer after he defaces one of their posters: ‘I have barely gotten to the letter k in a well-known transitive verb when I am grabbed by my shirt collar by a venomous little thug, his face glittering with hysterical malice. With his other hand, he is speed-dialing for backup on his cell phone.’ Hitchens gives the lie to the stereotype that an intellectual cannot be a man of action. Everyone condemns waterboarding but only Hitchens volunteered to be waterboarded.

Like Richard Tull in The Information, when Hitchens himself reviews a book, it stays reviewed: and you get the feeling that the review will be read and remembered long after the book in question has been pulped or remaindered. It’s the same difference as with the critiques I’ve quoted in this piece – the difference between writers who will be dead long before they are forgotten and those who will be forgotten long before they die.

It Began in Africa

October 22, 2011

Was thinking of pathetic dictator ends. Mussolini shot by partisans, Hitler committed suicide in a bunker, Saddam found hiding in a hole, Gaddafi shot in a Sirte sewer. At this rate, Assad will be crushed by a falling grand piano, and Mugabe pushed out of a window by a man in a chicken outfit.

Like the man, I would have preferred a war crimes trial. This, though, is hardly a bad result. There are some monsters the world can live without. The credit that Britain is part of this result is one of the few good things to come out of the new period of Tory rule.

There has been much pious hand-flinging about the reportage of the death. I don’t see the problem. Surely we are all adults and can handle one dead body? If Steve Jobs had been working in the 1930s Mussolini’s swaying corpse would have been around the world at half the speed of light. And given our historic involvement with Gaddafi, a little tabloid triumphalism is permissible?

Anyway, I’m not going to scare your children with Gaddafi corpse footage, but share a positive story of Manchester Libyans celebrating his fall.

Manchester’s Libyan community gathered in Rusholme to celebrate freedom following the death of Colonel Gaddafi.

Hundreds gathered by the roadside, chanting and waving flags shortly after confirmation of the tyrant’s death hit their television screens.

Fireworks lit up the night sky and women used biscuit tins as makeshift drums. Passers-by beeped car horns and some drove past with flags sticking out of windows.

Others climbed on to a wall and hoisted flags in to the air. Dads carried young children on their shoulders.

Saad al-Moghrabi, 47, who was celebrating with his three-year-old daughter, said: ‘We’re really happy that this dangerous man is finished after all these years.

‘He killed people, he killed children and he made Libya poor. Everyone in the world was suffering because of Gaddafi.’

Jamal el Jabri, 43, a former Army captain who escaped from Libya in 1995, said: ‘This is an amazing day.

‘We’ve been waiting for this for years now. It’s not just Libya that has suffered but other countries have suffered as well. I am so happy for my family I want to thank all the countries that have supported us.’

Of course this was in the Manchester Evening News, and it wouldn’t be the MEN without scum commenters.

I am glad they are happy and this tyrant is gone. I wonder if any Libyans here would now go back to their homeland now that it is free or stay in England?
Now that Gaddifi has gone will we see a mass exodus of Libyans from Britain? I don’t think so the benefits are too good here.
 
Thousands upon thousands of Libyans celebrate his death and ‘freedom’ in the streets of Manchester and London. Now that the war is over when can we expect them all to return home? Yeah right!
Does this mean the Libyans of Manchester will go back home now? It would save us the British taxpayers a fortune in housing/council tax benefits, & jobseekers & incapacity benefit, child tax credits & so on & so forth.
 
For me, those comments are far uglier, nastier and more exploitative than anything that appeared on front pages yesterday.

On Readability and Compulsion

October 16, 2011

It’s been a lively week in the book award world. Poor old Sam Jordison, who seems like the most pleasant and sanguine guy ever, almost loses his temper as the Guardian‘s light and playful Not the Booker award degenerates into politicised farce. There has also been a big row over the actual Booker prize. 

There are many legitimate criticisms to be made of the Man Booker. It can promote MOR lit at the expense of real talent. It tends to be judged by timeservers and celebrities rather than writers and readers. And these judges can sometimes be precious and stupid to an incomprehensible degree. (Rabbi Julia Neuberger called James Kelman’s 1994 win a ‘disgrace… I am implacably opposed to the book. I feel outmanoeuvred.’ A working class writer walking away with the purse! Heaven forfend!)

But has the Booker, as this headline suggests, ‘betray[ed] authors and their readers?

To look at this year’s Man Booker you would not have expected controversy to arise. The shortlist was interesting with a few independent publishers thrown into the mix. The judges were mediocrities, but no more so than in previous years. In what seemed like a casual comment about the shortlist, Booker chair Dame Stella Rimington said she wanted people ‘to buy these books and read them, not buy them and admire them.’ Another judge, the ex Labour backbencher Chris Mullin, mentioned that friends had told him to ‘pick something readable this year… That for me was such a big factor, it had to zip along.’

At that point, literary London exploded. In the Staggers, lead fiction reviewer Leo Robson said that ‘I think we can all agree that if a book is to be given a prize, it ought not to be unreadable, but some of us recoil from the use of ‘readable’ to mean (essentially) ‘can be read without struggle/thinking/turning off the telly’. The Observer‘s Alex Clark today condemns ‘the self-congratulatory philistinism of this year’s panel’, which ‘has done a disservice to the writers they selected, the writers they didn’t, and the readers who are thought to be so superficial that all you need to do is convince them that a book will ‘zip along’ faster than an episode of Downton.’ There has even been the announcement of an alternate prize, which would ‘establish a clear and uncompromising standard of excellence’. Its board added that ‘For many years this brief was fulfilled by the Booker (latterly the Man Booker) Prize. But as numerous statements by that prize’s administrator and this year’s judges illustrate, it now prioritises a notion of ‘readability’ over artistic achievement.’ Critics and bloggers piled into the comments thread with heat and light on both sides.

The board’s spokesman is the literary agent Andrew Kidd from Aitken Alexander. It’s great to have more awards for writers. But there are two problems with Kidd’s thesis. One: that a serious literary novel cannot and should not be ‘readable’. Two: that readability is not artistic achievement in and of itself.

This is an important point. It is so much harder to write a good, coherent story than a ‘literary’ textual fog. When Clark and Robson talk of ‘readability’ they use the term in its dismissive prolefeed sense: Jordan autobios and Tom Clancy novels stacked like cans of baked beans in supermarkets and chain bookstores. This is a misreading and a narrowing of the term.

Readability is one of the hardest things to learn as a fiction writer, and difficult to define. It is the pace and flow of a story. It is that magical and mysterious thing that keeps a man up and immersed in a story past two in the morning, when he has to be up for a job interview at six. It is what Mark Twain called the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning. Stephen King writes that, when looking back over a first draft, ‘I’m asking myself the Big Questions. The biggest: Is this story coherent? And if it is, what will turn coherence into a song?’

The song of coherence transcends the false separation we have erected between ‘literary’ and commercial fiction. I found The Kindly Ones, Underworld and Our Tragic Universe compulsive and have read these books more than once. This is not because I have particularly sophisticated tastes and intellect. It is because these ‘challenging’ writers have mastered the art of compulsion whereas many bestselling thrillers become boring and unreadable after only a few chapters. Three-dimensional characters, complex storytelling and beautiful prose will add to this compulsion. As my friend Serena Mackesy said: remember, kids, literary is just another genre.

The board of the New Literature Prize, then, has simplified not just the idea of ‘readability’ (and check those prissy quotemarks) but also that of artistic achievement as well. It has issued a mission statement that is entirely without meaning (I mean, you’re not against ‘excellence’, are you? ARE YOU?) and it has patronised the common reader.

Still, let’s give Kidd’s project a chance, as I said it’s always good to have more prizes for writers. But it might as well be called the Samuel Beckett Prize for Impenetrability and Obscurantism. Or the First Annual Montgomery Burns Award for Outstanding Achievement in the Field of Excellence.

Booker administrator Ion Trewin has hit back at the criticisms: ‘I think I have gone on record in the past as saying that I believe in literary excellence and readability—the two should go hand in hand.’ Does he understand how weird and wonderful the British litscene can be? All this mess, anger and fighting because someone has pointed out – the very idea! – that writers should be recognised for writing books that people might actually want to read.