Monday, 30 August 2010

Booker also-rans

I've had quite a few emails in response to my last post.

One chastised me, as a known devotee of Lawrence Durrell, for not considering Constance, which is of course the middle book of the Avignon Quintet. In mitigation, I can only plead (1) that I don't think you can really consider these novels separately rather than as part of a larger whole and (2) that, while magnificent, I don't regard the Quintet as highly as I do the Alexandria Quartet. To set the record straight for poor old Larry, I should record that he did in fact win the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Monsieur, the first book of the Quintet, and that most writers would regard this as a greater honour than the Booker.

Somebody pointed out that Iris Murdoch had been short-listed no less than five times, and should therefore qualify if only on the grounds of persistence, as to which please see my recent post on Under The Net.

I will mention Barbara Pym, since I believe she is a very under-rated author, and Quintet in Autumn has all the haunting melancholy of a true masterpiece - but please don't try reading it if you are feeling even slightly depressed, or you may quickly find yourself on the phone to the Samaritans.

I've already given the game away in my first post, of course. Earthly Powers is one of my very favourite novels and, pace William Golding, I still cannot believe that it did not win. I believe it is Burgess's finest work, and that is saying a great deal when you consider that he was undoubtedly one of the major novelists of the twentieth century; any of the Enderby books or the Malayan Trilogy alone would have guaranteed that.

I should also record in passing, without climbing for too long into the saddle of my hobby-horse, that surely Patrick O'Brien was treated unfairly in never being considered.

However, I would like to leave you with two rather quirky suggestions, at least one of whom produces blank looks and queries of "who?" even from fellow book-bloggers. Let's leave him til last.

Under the Frog was the first novel of Tibor Fischer and records life under the Soviet occupation of Hungary in darkly comic terms. In my opinioin it's not as good a novel as The Thought Gang, which represented the peak of Fischer's quality output, and I suspect that the only reason that was not short-listed was because Under The Frog had already been chosen only a year or two previously.

Now for the wild card. Goshawk Squadron by Derek Robinson was short-listed in 1971, the year in which a distinguished panel including Saul Bellow and John Fowles chose V.S. Naipaul's In a Free State. Set at a Royal Flying Corps base in France during the First World War, it details the various defence mechanisms people adopt when faced with extreme and prolonged stress. Note that the Booker was not so fastidiously "literary" in those days. Other shortlisted writers around the same time included Mary Renault, William Trevor, Kingsley Amis and C.P. Snow (the latter nominated in 1974, at the age of 69, and surely in the nature of a lifetime achievment award rather than a genuine suggestion that In Their Wisdom is a great novel).

Derek Robinson is unjustly neglected, and thus very much a Pursewarden writer. In addition to Goshawk Sqaudron he wrote two similar books: Hornet's Sting and War Story. I would also commend The Eldorado Network. As now seems obligatory in the case of a good author, some of his books are out of print, and he has recently taken up self-publishing.

Tuesday, 24 August 2010

Best non-Booker winners ...?

I have come across a reading group which is inviting suggestions for its next read, the theme being books which made it onto the Booker short list, but failed to carry off the honours. Emails welcomed from fellow readers and bloggers, but I feel Earthly Powers may prove a tough one to beat ...

Sunday, 22 August 2010

"Under the Net" by Iris Murdoch

I found this book in a second-hand bookshop in Norfolk and it steadily worked its way to the top of my "TBR" pile. I must confess that I had never heard of it, and it was not until after I completed it that I found out it was in fact Murdoch's first published novel. When I did, the news did not surprise me, for it has a very different feel to it than all the Murdoch novels I have read before. It may be a very unfair thing to say of someone who has won both the Booker (for The Sea, The Sea) and the Black Tait (for The Black Prince), but I have always felt that this she was not someone who had written lots of different novels, but rather the same one many times. One always seems to encounter the same sorts of characters wrestling with the same sort of issues, but with different names and in different situations.

Under the Net is undeniably different, and it is interesting to conjecture what might have happened had her writing continued to develop in this way. It actually reminded me very much of John Braine, one of whose novels I reviewed on this blog recently. It is part picaresque, featuring a male protagonist, Jake, who is a shameless user, believing other people have been put on earth solely to assist him with finding somewhere to live (rent free), and incidental spending money along the way.

Jake is a translator of French writers, and an important part of the plot revolves around a novel which has been written by a writer he despises. Jake's translation goes missing, and it subsequently transpires that two of the other characters are planning to make an English language film of it, but cutting Jake out of any financial reward. The writer is later surprisingly (as far as Jake is concerned) awarded the Prix Goncourt, thus shaking Jake's faith in his own literary judgement. However, it all sparks a hilarious and somewhat anarchic sub-plot whereby Jake kidnaps the German Shepherd dog belonging to one of these two characters and holds it to ransom. Leftist political claptrap, rants and riots also feature heavily.

First novels are often interesting, as setting the groundwork for the writer's later endeavours (think Under the Greenwood Tree), but not particularly enjoyable or gripping, yet none of this is true in this case. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book, which I must confess is not something which I can say about all Murdoch's works. At the same time, her later writing seems to have developed in very different directions. Perhaps along with her own development as a writer went an awareness of cultural change, however. There is a lot of intellectual content which would probably be unacceptable to a publisher today (Under the Net was published nearly sixty years ago) and would require substantial dumbing down.

Perhaps surprisingly for such a good book, Under the Net is still in print (in a 2002 publication by Vintage Classics), so there is no excuse for not getting hold of it.

Friday, 13 August 2010

"Atlas Shrugged" by Ayn Rand

Some months ago I compared The Berlusconi Bonus with 1984. So might one Atlas Shrugged, though the latter is much, much longer.

Ayn Rand was born in Russia before the Revolution, but managed to escape to America in 1926, where she spent the rest of her life. She was a philosopher and historian as well as a novelist and at one stage founded an institute to promote her ideas, run by and named after her lover, Nathaniel Brandon.

In Atlas Shrugged, Rand constructs a nightmarish alternative reality which is truly Orwellian. Private enterprise and entrepreneurialism are first attacked and finally banned altogether in a rising tide of repressive regulations, driven by the unwillingness of the "moochers" to take responsibilty for their own affairs, and their envy of those who are successful in business, and the greed of the "looters" who, whether state, group or individual, would rather steal the fruits of someone else's labours than create wealth for themselves. Doubly nightmarish, in fact, since much of what she portrayed as science fiction in 1957 has largely come to pass in real life, at least here in the cuddly old European Union.

There is much more to her philosophy than that. She champions the use of reason as the only valid basis for decision on making and government policies, and the right of the individual to self-interest as long as this does not harm any third party. There is much talk of Aristotle, though I was reminded also of Kant and John Stuart Mill.

Here we find what is perhaps the main objection to the book for, though extremely well written, it is undeniably a piece of propaganda for a particular set of beliefs. She was happy for it to be referred to as "a philosophical novel", and the old question of where literary persuasion ends and propaganda begins rears its eternal head. There are long, strongly reasoned and strongly expressed speeches which sound oddly in the mouths of the characters. There are "good" and "bad" characters. There is clearly expressed "right" and "wrong".

All of which gets in the way, rather. Which is a pity because this is a very well written book indeed, which also works perfectly satisfactorily on the level of a simple narrative. A book, moreover, which every politician and regulator in the world should be forced to read, as an awful warning of what can go wrong.

The Fountainhead, her earlier novel from 1943 is now on my reading list.

Sunday, 1 August 2010

Stieg Larsson and the state of publishing

Interesting to read in the press today an extract from Kurdo Baksi's forthcoming book on his friend, Stieg Larsson.

It seems that the manuscripts were originally rejected by one major publisher when sent in unsolicited, and only accepted by the second on the recommendation of a mutual friend. Shades of Harry Potter.

It really is high time that authors started putting a page right at the front of their books saying "This book was rejected by the following publishers ..."

I think this highlights everything that is wrong with the state of publishing. It is no longer run by people who really care about books, and finding and introducing new authors, but by people who think they understand about business. Sadly, they do not. The sort of books which they want to publish are "celebrity" books, either ghosted auto-biography of a particularly nauseating kind, or diet or recipe books (what one publisher disarmingly described to me as "crap books"), or books by established authors. However, they can source these books only the cost of large up-front advances, and the heavy discounting practised by on-line booksellers means that only occasionally will any large profit on the book result. Perhaps more publishers should go to business school ...

There is actually a direct parallel here with the world of venture capital, about which I happen to know rather a lot. In VC, it is accepted that many ventures will fail to produce any return at all (about half of all companies started, in fact), but that a very small number of so-called "home runs" will more than make up for this and will actually contribute about 80% of total gains across the whole portfolio. One thing which dramatically raises the likelihood of a home run occurring is a low entry cost. Publishers please note.

If you follow this logic, then publishers should only publish books which they can source without the payment of an advance, perhaps offering a better royalty deal instead. This argues for going back to the old days of trying to find quality books by little known authors. Every so often one of them will turn out to be Stieg Larsson or J.K.Rowling, but even the others will have a chance of breaking even in these days of print on demand production and distribution.

You see, what the publishers have failed to realise is that they are selling low margin items. There are two different margins here. The first might be called the gross margin, and represents simply the difference between what an item costs you to produce and what you can sell it for. This an be improved in one of two ways: raising prices or cutting production costs.

The former has probably gone as far as it might, since cover prices are now so high as to act as a deterrent for all but the most dedicated book buyers. Is it a coincidence that so many establihsed book-bloggers are now running exercises to see how few boks they can buy this year? In any event, in many cases publishers have no control over what price the book is actually sold at - Amazon routinely discount even best-sellers by 40% or so, and the publisher usually gets only half of that - 30% of the cover price!

As regards the second, if you have committed to payiong a big advance then you have boxed yourself into a corner before you start. Assume that you pay a £100,000 advance on a book priced at £30, each of which costs £5 to produce. Assuming all were sold on Amazon at a 40% discount, then you would need to sell 25,000 copies just to break even on your production costs.

However, even this is only part of the story, since it ignores the business's operating costs such as salaries, rent and taxes, which are used in calculating the net margin. In these days of the internet, a publishing business could of course be operated (like many VC companies) from somebody's garage or spare bedroom. Instead, they feel the need of plush offices in the West End, and salaries to match. It is entirely possible that these could be two or three times the company's book production costs. Which means that, on the above figures, you are now struggling even to break even.

Speaking as one who teaches post-graduate students at business school, it does seem to me that this model is unsustainable. I know of various publishers (including the two who were at different times offering to publish my history books!) who have effectively stopped accepting new proposals and, if I am right in my analysis, the next year or two could see various publishing firms going out of business altogether. It also seems to me that there are some fairly obvious things which could be done about altering the model, but I would be happy to hear feedback on what others may think, particularly some of the publishers who I know read this blog.