Reviewing books….

booksI haven’t written anything for a while, not because I lack the desire, but because there are so many ideas bouncing around that I’ve failed to keep hold of a single line of thought long enough to turn it into words. Frustrating, although at least I don’t live with a dull mind. Anyway, one theme keeps returning; it’s here again today, so I’m going to write about it before people forget I exist: A book I published in 2012, two other books and the reviews they received.

Caliente, an account of my time in Cuba has sold around one thousand copies, I haven’t kept track, and perhaps the same again in electronic format. I occasionally receive small boosts to my bank account due to people, I assume worldwide, buying it. It started as a diary, then when people liked bits and pieces, over many years it became a book. The story at the time seemed to me so alive and interesting that I had to tell it. With much help from a friend, I manfully did my best to promote it, but without a massive or even moderate publicity budget (it was truly tiny), I stood little chance of achieving big sales.

I still get emails from people who read and enjoyed Caliente, mostly travellers. At the beginning, when it was published, I got eight or so positive reviews on Amazon from friends, the other reviews, good or bad, are from genuine readers that I don’t know. I suppose everybody, even established authors, must get friends to review their books, and one thing one must always do on Amazon is try to separate the friendly from the genuine.

After a year I abandoned the publicity trail and started a novel. I have finished my novel twice and am now beginning a third rewrite which will be much longer. If I do finish it, it will almost certainly not sell. I don’t care. Some success would be good but it isn’t essential. I’m proud of Caliente and I will be proud of my novel. I appreciate the sales of Caliente and I like getting appreciative emails. I am not bitter in the slightest, but I do wonder about the reviewing process in Britain (I assume it’s the same in the USA).

In making my point I’ve chosen two books that can take a little criticism. Both have been fantastically reviewed and achieved significant sales: The Yellow Birds, Kevin Powers (2012) and In The Light Of What We Know, Zia Haider Rahman (2014). The Yellow Birds is written by a veteran of the Gulf War, so has immediate kudos which people will naturally not easily criticise. On Amazon it has dozens of reviews from famous authors, actors, broadcasters and newspapers; inside its covers are printed a choice of the best reviews. Hilary Mantel (whom I admire) described it as ‘A masterpiece of war literature and a classic’; Damien Lewis, star of Homeland, thought it ‘poetic and devastating’. It won The Guardian First Book Award.

I bought the book based on the reviews, surely so many couldn’t be wrong. I must be appallingly out-of-step. I did not like the book at all. Not only did I not like it, I found hardly a page or sentence which moved me, let alone interested me. I was bored. I thought the book was badly written, had no real purpose and never came alive at any stage. I’ve read plenty of war literature, never coming across anything as bad as this. I accept that this was written by a serving soldier, and I have no experience of war, but that does not mean that the soldier can write. I believe that The Yellow Birds is a bad book.

In The Light Of What We Know supposedly ‘wrestles with the intricacies of the 2008 financial crash’. James Wood thought it ‘astonishingly achieved…ideas and provocations abound on every page’; Joyce Carol Oates compared it to Heart of Darkness and The Great Gatsby and the writers Graham Greene, W.G. Sebald, John le Carre and Thomas Mann. At 554 pages, as opposed to The Yellow Birds’ 226, this was very hard going. Again, I read it because of the reviews. Again, I found almost nothing of interest. This is not to say that Rahman may not write a good novel in the future, but this is not it; it is an obvious first novel, with too much crammed into it and no recognisable structure to hold it all. To me, another bad book.

I am still mystified by the marvellous reviews for these books. I do not believe I am over critical or unreasonable. I am quite widely read, reading anything from Shakespeare to detective novels. I fully accept that books like Fifty Shades of Grey get published and people like them. But they do not pretend to be, or get treated as, literature. They are harmless, not to my taste, but harmless. Was The Yellow Birds taken so seriously because it was written by a serving soldier? I don’t think so; there are many better books on the subject that get much closer to the truth. Did the author merely know the right people, who spread the word? I really don’t know. In The Light Of What We Know was crammed full of ideas which ultimately went nowhere in very boring fashion. How on earth did it gain such reviews?

I would be interested to hear from anyone who disagrees with me. Have any of you read these books? Am I so out-of-touch? Or is there a strange system of reviewing, where a book is chosen and the same people choose to say wonderful things about it? The same books and authors seem to get reviewed by the same people, ad nauseam. Not all the books are bad, of course, but every week something awful is praised to the heavens. I repeat, I am not bitter, merely mystified.

Just to add balance, I would like to say that I’ve recently read: A True Story Based on Lies and Prayers for the Stolen by Jennifer Clement, A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James, Jimfish by Christopher Hope, Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys, Trespass by D.J. Taylor, Dog Soldiers by Robert Stone and A Pleasure and a Calling by Phil Hogan (among others) and thoroughly enjoyed them all, for very different reasons, gaining a different kind of pleasure from each.

They were simply good stories, well-told.

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How to write…

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I’ve always wanted to be a writer, sort of. Apparently my junior school teacher told my mother that my subject would be English. It wasn’t. It wasn’t anything. I was far too busy playing truant, misbehaving and generally having a good time. I took an interest in books in my late teens, but was still far too lazy and preoccupied to get seriously into literature. I loved foreign holidays because I’d take a dozen books with me and read them all. To me that was what holidays were for. At home I was too busy drinking, chasing girls, taking drugs and being bad, to read. I probably read as much during one holiday as I did during a whole year at home. I wanted to read; I bought loads of books – I loved them – I just didn’t read many of them.

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Times have slowly changed. Now I read a lot, have done for many years, but I still allow myself to be distracted by TV and the Internet. I write a lot too. I have actually written all my life, jotting down ideas, starting short stories, even novels, but never really sustaining anything the way real writers do. Only age has made me slow down and write and I’ve become fairly good at it: one published memoir and a novel just submitted. But it took me forever to do it. The memoir was the result of ten years’ work, on-and-off; the novel has taken me a year, although it was roughly complete in a couple of months.

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And when you come to write: How do you write? I must have read a hundred books on writing, but I’m not sure I’ve taken one bit of advice. I still sit down and write the way I always do, always have done, with some learning on the way that has been absorbed rather than learned. A sort of osmosis. And that osmosis, the absorption has come about through reading and thinking about what I’ve read, all the time; even in those lazy early days I realise that I was reading and writing and thinking and absorbing, watching people, thinking about it, storing it. And I love books. I love stories.

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But how do you write? Can it be taught? I think the churning out of stories: vampire stories, love stories, detective stories and all the other variations can be taught, especially in the techno-age. I think real writers are born, not taught: Tolstoy, Balzac, Shakespeare, Steinbeck – they wrote because they couldn’t help it, and they don’t get forgotten. They are with us always. They told great stories.

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In How I Became a Famous Novelist, Steve Hely wrote:

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But as I walked out through the shelves, I looked at the work of my colleagues. There was Hemingway – A Farewell to Arms, For Whom the Bell Tolls – all those pseudo-epic titles with women dying in the rain, bullfights, and Italian vistas. He knew the deal. He knew doomed Mediterranean romances would pay for Key West beach view and a new fishing boat. And Fitzgerald, who’d tricked the eye with an Ivy League pedigree and convinced the world that a rich guy who threw parties was some kind of metaphor. There was Faulkner, a southern huckster in the Bill Clinton mould, who suckered you in with his honey voice and tales of landscapes soaked in tragedy.

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Is this true? The great novelist as con-artist? It made me think. I like Hemingway’s short stories. I loved The Old Man and the Sea when I was very young, but found it mostly awful when I returned to it recently. I didn’t like a Farewell to Arms; it read like the script to a very bad ‘B’ movie. I liked The Great Gatsby, but not that much. It’s OK, but I’ve never understood its reputation. I’ve never read Faulkner. Con-artists? Hely continues:

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It went on back to Homer, who’d written stories so ridiculous, so full of special effects and monsters and busty, half-divine sluts that Hollywood would be ashamed to make them. And he’d pulled it off! He’s punched it up with rosy -fingered dawn and the sickeningly cloying scene of Prium begging for his son’s body. That blind old trickster probably got more chicks (or dudes) than Pericles.

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On through Dickens, with his pleading orphans and sweetheart aunts; Mark Twain, with his little cherub-faced rascals and mock rural slang; James Joyce with his whisky-soaked-stage-Irish blarney – they were all con-artists. They weren’t any better than the guys who write beer commercials or sell car insurance over the phone. They just had a different angle.

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Now, Dely is writing tongue-in-cheek here (I hope), but is there any truth in what he says? I’ve read very little Homer (I find it difficult), but I like Dickens and Mark Twain a lot. James Joyce’s early stories were great but then he lost me – I’ve tried Ulysses several times and it always defeats me. But no better than the guys who write commercials?

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Norman Mailer wrote that

‘It’s as hard to learn to write as to play the piano’.

It is. Even for the jobbing writer who turns out average stuff. Sitting down in front of a blank page is a real challenge, it can be daunting, and it was just as hard for Joyce and Hemingway. Being a writer is not easy. Take this from someone who invents fresh avoidance tactics every day. I would do anything to avoid writing. Con-artists? I don’t think so. Lucky, in a few cases, maybe, shysters, no.

But back to how to write. For all the books I’ve read on writing, I think I’ve only picked up a few rules, and I probably knew them anyway. One of them is Elmore Leonard’s favourite rule: Do not use adverbs: ‘said’ with the name of the speaker at the end of a piece of dialogue is enough, and only occasionally to identify the speaker. If I pick up a book in a shop and read ‘John said hopefully’ or ‘sadly’ or ‘doubtfully’ or whatever, I put the book straight back on the shelf. The reader does not need to be told. They can and want to figure it out for themselves. If the writing is good enough the reader will know how the words are spoken or they will work out their own version. Don’t tell them.

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Don’t tell the reader how your characters are feeling.

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Chekhov this time:

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Shun all descriptions of the characters’ spiritual state. You must try to have that state emerge from their actions. The artist must be only an impartial witness of his characters and what they said, not their judge.

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Let your readers judge character and feeling. Let them do the work. That’s half the pleasure of reading. I remember when I wrote my memoir, describing a policeman (who had caused me a lot of trouble) skidding away from a police station on his motorbike, leaving me standing in a cloud of dust. A woman who later read the account said she liked the description. Why? Because you didn’t say how it made you feel.

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Sis Field writes screenplays but his advice applies to any writer of fiction:

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Without conflict there no drama. Without need there is no character. Without character there is no action. Action is character. What a person does is what he is, not what he says.

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Action is not necessarily people fighting or shooting or special effects. It can be a knowing smile or the way someone smokes a cigarette. Elia Kazan, someone else who worked with the screen, said

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‘It’s twenty times better if violence is suggested rather than if you’re explicit. What you imagine is much more frightening than what is seen.’

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The same applies to writing novels. Take your reader into another world, tell them a story, but let them imagine the most important aspects of it.

Those are the only things I’ve picked up on from all those books on writing, and I think I knew them already. I absorbed what made good writing from the hundreds of good books I’ve read. And of course you need a modicum of talent. And the most important rule of all?

Work hard. Really hard. The aspect that I find the most difficult.

As G.K. Chesterton said, there is only one way:

Apply the seat of the pants to the chair and don’t get up until it’s finished.

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Still Reading in Bed…

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Below are two paragraphs from my December blog, Reading in Bed. I return, reluctantly, to it now.

Julian Barnes’ Booker winning novel is a beautiful object; I read it over a few nights, entirely from a prone, on my back, position. And it is not a practical object. For a very simple and infuriating reason: its inner margins are too narrow. The book requires an uncomfortable and impractical two hands to be able to see the whole of the text; in other words, without forcing the book wide open with two hands the inner text on both pages will disappear into the fold of the book; one is constantly tilting the book this way and that to read the end of the sentences on the left-hand page and their beginning on the right hand page. This is unusual with hardback books, but this is a small book.

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Although this fault is most noticeable in bed – I suppose publishers will protest that books are not designed to be read in bed (if not, they should be) – it is almost as annoying when reading anywhere in any way. If, like me, you love books as ‘physical’ objects then you will resent having to practically break their backs to read the central text. Apart from the discomfort and the detraction of pleasure, you are damaging the book, shortening its life – the act of doing this, bending the two halves of a paperback hard against its spine makes me angry; apart from the inconvenience which has been added to what should be a pleasure (depending on the book), I resent having to treat a book this way. It should never be necessary.

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When I wrote that I had also intended to include a survey of the books I owned: note the good ones and the bad ones, unmask the guilty publishers and provide some kind of guide. It proved too time-consuming and difficult and there was no consistency. The same publishers would provide both the readable and the unreadable. I was slightly disappointed that there was no pattern, nothing to complain about (except generally) to anyone.

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However I’ve recently bought two books that confirm absolutely the faults that I mention. So I’ll report on them. Perhaps others could do the same. Maybe a pattern will emerge.

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A while ago I purchased Far From The Tree from Amazon. Written by Andrew Solomon, it is about parents, children and the search for identity. The reviews were spectacular, far too many good reviews for them to have been an old-pals-act. It’s the sort of book I cannot resist, particularly as I believe there are very few decent books being published, or at least widely publicised.

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But when it arrived from Amazon, I first thought of returning it, then slotted it into my shelves, probably never to be read. It will be in a charity shop within the year. Why? 958 pages have been crammed into a too small paperback. The book measures 8.5” x 5.3” x 2” (215 x 135 x 50); its type is fairly small, but not quite too small with fairly narrow line spacing. But that is not the main problem. The problem is the inner margins and flexibility. The inner margins are never wider than a half inch and the book is not flexible enough to open flat, making it difficult at any time to view a whole page in comfort. In my view it would be impossible to read in bed; I won’t even try. As much type as possible has been squeezed into the smallest possible space. The book is published by Vintage; it is printed by Clays Ltd of St Ives, although I assume printers just follow instructions. I consider the book a useless object: Price – £11.99.

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Now, I know putting 958 pages into a readable paperback represents a challenge. I checked some of my books for a comparison. Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire has 1114 pages. It is printed in a slightly smaller paperback and has smaller type. But it is flexible. The book opens flat at any point and is easy to read, in bed or otherwise. It was published in 2005 by Penguin Classics.

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An alternative is simply to print a larger paperback. Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, Volume 1 and 2, have 1360 pages and 1288 respectively. Wordsworth Editions (God praise them) have simply published the book at 9 x 6 x 2.25 (230 x 150 x 55). It is flexible at all points and has large inner and outer margins. Heavy to read in bed, perhaps, but no fault of the publisher. Incredibly, it is available, new, at £6.99 (£5.24 from Amazon). I think Wordsworth always produce readable volumes. If I’m wrong, please let me know.

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Just to prove inconsistency, I’ve just checked my version of Anna Karenina. It’s also published by Penguin (2001). It has narrow, inconsistently sized inner margins and is not flexible. To me it’s unreadable. Off to the charity shop with it. The Wordsworth edition is £1.99, I’ll buy that one.

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The other book I bought (today) was purchased in Waterstones: Constellation of Genius: 1922: Modernism and all that Jazz, by Kevin Jackson. I looked through it and it seemed fine. On getting it home for a closer look it is not so good. It consists of diary type entries for the year 1922. The diary entries are set towards the middle of the page. That’s OK. But the inner margins are inconsistent, barely a quarter of an inch in places, making the entries hard to read. The book is fairly flexible and quite nicely produced, but why this inconsistency? On pages 250 and 251, for example, the type almost merges at the centre of the page. All through the book there are massive outer margins, just wasted space; I wouldn’t care at all if outer margins were narrow. Most of the book is fine (just), but tiny inner margins for no reason – it seems so careless The book is published by Windmill Books, part of The Random House group, at £9.99.

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According to the Amazon reviews the book may be badly or nonexistently edited too. That’s something I’ll return to another time. It seems that many publishers are only interested in rushing books out as quickly as possible, with little thought for quality.

That’s it. Rant over. Please let me know of other cases of thoughtless printing (and good printing too). I don’t suppose we can do anything about it, but we can try.

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