Tuesday, 15 April 2014

April is the kindest month

A post largely made up of other people’s words. Review coverage in the past couple of weeks of CBe’s new titles includes:

In Bare Fiction (issue 2) Lucy Jeynes reviews May-Lan Tan’s Things to Make and Break:
‘These are bold, sensual stories of love and loss … Tan plays with form and convention in a confident, interesting way: “Candy Glass”, about a Hollywood actress, is written in a form where the dialogue is presented as a script, raising a question mark over the authenticity of self in a world where a girl who was once a boy drives a driverless car and crashes through a windscreen made of sugar into a new life.
We dive headlong into a Technicolor world populated with a lapdancer; two triplets (with a dead third brother) sleeping with the same woman; a boy and girl with the same name; a stunt double. There is sex, and drugs, and rock’n’roll – as well as murder and quite the nastiest game of hide and seek … There is an unshrinking nakedness in the depiction of self-destructive behaviour that is almost painfully honest. This is not a book to be read with a cool, objective view. Gulp it down, smear yourself with the luscious prose, inhale it.
The narrative voices of each of these eleven pieces are distinctively characterised, wonderfully subjective and opinionated in their self-reflection, telling their own self in the telling of their stories; sassy, witty, modern, international … There is a lot of sex in this book: straight, gay, loving, nasty, sensual, strange and all very explicit … But the sexiest writing in this book is not the sex, it’s the writing itself.’

– and Will Eaves’s The Absent Therapist:
‘It is always a joy to find a book that demands an intelligent engagement of the reader, and there is no spoon-feeding here … There is no obvious narrative thread or arc and the stories are all the more pleasing for that. Instead there is a drawing out of themes and motifs as each new personality arrives on the page … This collection would be a superb desert island choice – you would not get lonely with all those people to keep you company. Small enough to fit in your pocket, with enough food for thought to sustain you for weeks, and filled with the seeds of stories that you could grow into your very own forest.’

In the Times Literary Supplement, Eimear McBride reviews Agota Kristof’s The Notebook:
‘Louring over Agota Kristof’s entire narrative is the shadow of war, occupoation and the ambivalent experience of liberation for the “liberated”. The twins survive by rejecting traditional notions of identity and social order. Like a pair of self-realised Nietzchean Supermen, they make themselves of the earth, driven by the need to preserve rather than service the flesh, uninterested in abstract or unquantifiable concepts such as love or the divine. With survival as their guiding principle, they become monsters of distilled, unsentimental humanity and, by the shocking climax, invulnerable even to what has hitherto seemed their own impregnable bond.’

– and The Illiterate:
‘The security and relative material comfort of her new life cannot make up for the glaring absences inherent in the refugee experience. Her descriptions – of those with whom she escaped and whose sense of isolation eventually leads them back to Hungary even at the cost of their lives, as well as those whose sense of despair brings them to suicide – offers an uncomfortable insight into the extreme vulnerability of those obliged to seek asylum abroad. Fortunately this experience did not prevent Kristof from creating works of uncompromising intensity, which forbid the reader to overlook the terrible price her liberty to do so paid.’

Another review of Kristof's The Notebook and The Illiterate will be in the New Statesman in May.

Meanwhile, Will Eaves’s The Absent Therapist has reached New Zealand – first, from the blog Off the Tracks: ‘I’ve never read a book like it … the accumulative power of this book – of taking it all in, seeing not a hair out of place, sensing a strange and powerful madness within and around the writing and selecting of these pieces, the placement – is when you really see the magic. The writing is technically flawless, vivid, cruel and wonderful. It’s so often as good as it gets.
Whatever this is – whether novel/anti-novel or just a twisted stop-start journey of nearly short-stories – it’s a mini-masterpiece. And it contains – or is barely able to contain and control – multitudes.’

And from Page Blackmore Booksellers: ‘… a kaleidophone of voices, first-person narrative fragments, tiny stories bearing the impress of larger, untold stories; wry observations unknowingly made by unobservant people, anecdotes with perfectly deflating punch-lines, almost-jokes that meticulously leave off at being almost-jokes without aspiring to be jokes; gauche quips, mundane miseries treated with both sympathy and humour; small lives writ small and at once satirised and celebrated for their smallness; an encyclopedic accumulation of human experiences of the kind that usually evanesce without being recorded even in the experiencers’ memories let alone on paper. All these thousands of voices are captured pitch-perfectly by Eaves … with a cold eye and a warm heart, and with an unbelievably sensitive ear for what all sorts of people say and how they say it (or, what they think and how they think it)’

And Francis Ponge’s Unfinished Ode to Mud in Beverley Bie Brahic’s translation gets to the US – from LunaLuna: ‘No one before or since has managed Francis Ponge’s quintessentially French style, balancing documentary narration with classic encyclopedistism with bemused koans with grandfatherly humor. “The Crate” (page 9 in Beverley Bie Brahic’s translation) we get his special brand of Objectivism with such a pleasurable command of diction/telling: “…it is not used twice. Which makes it even less durable than the melting or cloudlike produce within.” I have no compunction about calling him magic.’

Thursday, 10 April 2014

Money. Funding. That stuff.

Stendhal, 1835: ‘The sight of a large sum of gold awakens no other thought in me than the bother of keeping it safe from thieves; this feeling has often been taken for an affectation, and I shall say no more about it.’

There was a period when I was working in an office and I kept getting cold-called by people wanting to talk to me about one of the money things – pensions, probably; or investments – and one day when the caller asked why I didn’t want to talk to him I found myself saying, politely, that I could think of nothing more boring; that I’d rather spend the next hour staring out of the window at the brick wall opposite than continuing our conversation.

This is not a responsible attitude. I don’t defend it. I think I have a problem with money – it scares me, I run away – in the way that some people have a problem with sex, or commitment, or crowds, or dirt. That’s it: about money, I’m squeamish. I’m a candidate for therapy.

I need to say up-front that I’m talking from an extraordinarily privileged position. I live in a good house in London and have no mortgage. I’ve never been out of salaried work (made redundant twice, resigned twice, each time I wandered into another job). Since going freelance (in 2005), I’ve also been fairly continuously in work. I’m of a certain generation, a very lucky generation.

This money thinking is occasioned by a lunch this week at which I was waffling about what next for CBe, magazine maybe, but quality printing and payment to the contributors so I wouldn’t be happy about going into this without £1,000 in the bank, and someone at the table rolled her eyes and said she’d send me details of a new European culture funding programme (which she did: small co-operation projects, up to 200,000 euros per project; large, up to 2 million) and added that I shouldn’t even think of applying for less than £40,000. At which point, I remembered the Stendhal quote.

Money can enable things to happen, lives to be changed. It also can fuck things up. CBe was started up with a £2,000 legacy from a deceased uncle (privilege, I know; it’s like the mad sudden thing that happens at the end of a Dickens novel) and has survived on that basis. Most money is debt, or waste: this is how the economy works. I’m completely sure that whatever CBe has done in the past six-and-and-a-bit years has been achieved not despite having no funding, from ACE or anyone else, but because of having no funding. I (you, one, we) do what I do because I love doing it. Which is worth holding on to. And equally, of course, letting go of. I don’t want to make a fetish of this.

Monday, 31 March 2014

‘a Penguin Book’

Romek Marber, born in Poland in 1925, was deported at the age of 14 to the Jewish ghetto of Bochnia. Marber’s grandparents, mother and sister were sent to the death camps, along with almost the entire Jewish community. Marber himself and around 200 others were saved by a German officer, Gerhard Kurzbach, who was in charge of a workshop employing forced Jewish labour. On a night in August 1942 Kurzbach required his workers to do overtime and locked the workshop gates; the following morning, when the labourers were let out, they found the ghetto empty.

(In 2012 Marber spoke at a ceremony honouring Kurzbach as one of Yad Vashem’s Righteous among the Gentiles – that is, non-Jews who saved Jews during the Holocaust, at risk of their own lives. [In 2002 my wife’s father and his wife were also so honoured.])

Marber came to the UK in 1946. He applied for a grant, studied at St Martin’s and the Royal College of Art, and became a graphic designer. In the early 1960s Marber was hired by the art director of Penguin Books, Germano Facetti, to give the Penguin crime series a new design. Marber recalls: ‘At the time Penguin cover design was in a muddle, drifting from one design to another, diluting Penguin Books’ identity, reputation and goodwill. I came to the conclusion that the cover design must unite the titles in the Penguin Crime series. This would be achieved by uniformity of all or some of the components that make up a cover …’

The photo above, top, shows some of the crime covers in the gallery of the University of Brighton, where last week I stumbled across a small exhibition devoted to Marber (but which made no mention of his background). Below the covers is the ‘Marber grid’, which was also applied to the non-fiction Pelicans and to fiction. The first three fiction covers below date from the early 1960s; the second two are from the 1970s, after the Marber grid was sidelined. I clearly remember seeing the new covers for the first time – a Saturday afternoon in the 1970s in WH Smiths in Harrogate. It felt like the end of civilisation as I knew it (it wasn’t). Thank you, Romek Marber, for furnishing a good part of my reading life so distinctively.

Footnote: Germano Facetti, the Italian-born Penguin art director who hired Marber, was himself arrested by the Germans in 1943 and survived the forced-labour camp of Mauthausen. Jan Tschichold, who was born in Leipzig in 1902 and came to Penguin in 1946 and set the text design rules for the following decades, was arrested by the Nazis in March 1933 and managed to escape to Switzerland the following August.

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

The cut-price Faber poetry books

For two years I’ve been buying the occasional Faber poetry book from Judd Books in Bloomsbury, where they are priced at £2.95 or £3.95. There’s a shop in Oxford where the same books can be bought for £2. It’s not far from the Albion Beatnik bookshop, run by Dennis Harrison, who is hugely supportive of poetry and runs regular readings and is annoyed, to put it mildly, that many of the same titles he has to order in at regular prices are available down the road for a song.

When one of my own in-print titles (Paleface, 1996) started turning up in Judd Books and the Oxford shop, I asked Faber what was going on. Matthew Hollis told me that he had ‘instituted an inquiry’; I suggested it might be simpler to just ask the sales manager, or walk up to Judd Books and ask where they got their stock from. The Faber Sales and Marketing Director eventually explained that ‘from time to time, we do modest stock reductions in order to control inventory and therefore costs. This is very much standard practice in the industry as I am sure you are aware. We pay royalties of 10% of net receipts on these sales.’

‘Modest stock reductions in order to control inventory’ is partial remaindering. One obvious effect is to aggravate regular booksellers who wish to keep even single titles of backlist poetry in stock.

Last November Faber sold off 50 copies of Paleface for £13.50 (that is, 27p per copy, less than half the price of a first-class stamp). I am due to receive royalties of £1.35.

Did it not occur to Faber to offer those copies to me, the author, at the same price? I’d have certainly taken some; Faber would have achieved their desired stock reduction and no booksellers would have been aggravated in the process. This seems to me a pretty obvious way to go.

(But I suspect this option wasn’t even considered. In my own experience, Faber’s communication with its authors is not good. For example, two years ago a man who taught me at university wanted to get in touch, so wrote to me c/o Faber, the publisher of my poetry and a place where I worked for 14 years, asking them to forward the letter; his letter was returned to him with the message that they didn’t know who I was. While working freelance for Faber in recent years, the publication date of a book I was project managing was postponed for a year without anyone telling either the author or myself; in another instance no one at Faber could give me the author’s contact details (I had to find them myself on the internet); for other books I worked on drafts that were not final, so had to redo the work; etc.)

The Sales and Marketing Director has offered to sell me further copies of Paleface according to the ‘same arrangement’ by which they sold off 50 copies in November (so presumably 27p per copy). The other poetry books that have been subject to ‘modest stock reductions’ include titles by Auden, Ford, Francis, Harsent, Heaney, Hofmann, Imlah, McKendrick, Muldoon, Paterson, Paulin, Riordan, Walcott, Williams. I’ve asked him if the same offer will be made to these other authors (or, if deceased, their estates), and also to poets published by Bloodaxe, whose sales are handled by Faber Factory Plus.

Partial remaindering of in-print books may well be, as the Faber S&M Director has said, ‘standard practice’. I doubt most authors or book-buyers are aware of this. I’d rashly assumed that if a publisher wanted to reduce stock (to save on warehouse costs), then as a matter of natural courtesy the books would be offered first to the author, before the remainder merchants. Apparently this doesn’t happen. So a new clause covering this needs to be added into the contracts.

Friday, 14 March 2014

CBe: next

After CBe’s lie-down this spring – that, at least, is the plan, and a space has been cleared for this by my having taking on no new titles beyond the four new ones just published – I may well be at a loose end. Except that there’s an itch that won’t go away, and I keep scratching it.

A magazine. I know the title, I know the overall look of the thing. Prose, poetry. But not, as in almost all current poetry magazines, a poem by X followed by another by Y and maybe two by Z. Sequences, series, long poems: at least, say, 10 pages per contributor. Prose (fiction, non-fiction, and all stops between) of up to, say, 7,500 words – which might comprise a single piece, or a series of short pieces, or an extract from a longer work in progress. (Any of which CBe might, or might not, take forward to book publication.) Probably no more than half a dozen contributors per issue. Probably no more than two issues per year (I can’t imagine finding enough material I feel strongly about for more than that). Reviews, no. A single initial print run for each each issue, and no faffing with reprints. Print-based, but an online/ebook presence. Quality printing, and payment for the contributors (and for rights for work in translation).

Funding, ah. I’m reluctant to knock again at the door of the Arts Council, having been turned away three times and having thereby built up a kind of perverse pride in CBe having made it through six years without any external funding. Crowd-funding: I’ve heard of both good and bad experiences. So part-funding through taking advertising is what I’m thinking of – probably not from other like-minded presses, which have no budget for this; possibly from university creative writing departments; ideally from outside the box: wine, food, shoes.

Suggestions, comments, welcome, here or to info@cbeditions.com. Especially if they’re about conjuring a bit of money out of nothing. A bit of collaboration – cohabiting with a university, sponsorship from Glenmorangie – would be good for me.

Tuesday, 4 March 2014


For a while, not a long one, I wrote reports on manuscripts for the Literary Consultancy. For a novel I’d write maybe 3,000 words, usually under suggested headings such as ‘structure’, ‘plot’, ‘characterisation’ – which were useful pegs but really had very little to do with whether I took to the book I was reading or not.

One of the stories I haven’t written involves meticulously building up a character, a ‘rounded’ character, in the usual ways, I guess – description, socio-economic background, habits, fears, desires, all tested out and demonstrated in how they behave in given situations – and then having that character act out of character.

I’ve just re-read the story ‘A Singular Occurrence’ by Machado de Assis – in which a polite, obliging woman becomes mistress to a married lawyer/politician, and they are ‘madly in love’ and he teaches her how to read and he decides to buy her a house and everything, allowing for a bit of bourgeois hypocrisy, is hunky-dory – until one night she goes out into the street and picks up a stranger (a self-confessed ‘good-for-nothing’) and has sex with him. And the lawyer/politician finds out.

Actually that’s not strictly an example of acting out of character, because the woman (‘she had quiet manners and never swore’) is presented entirely through a male narrator in conversation with another male, neither of whom is the author, so a distance is established and the reader hasn’t a direct hold on her character at all. But still, bafflement as to her motivation – ‘accident, God and devil rolled into one … Well, who knows?’ – is at the centre of the story.

[As I wrote this, the Guardian put up a piece on Hanif Kureishi, professor of creative writing at Kingston University, who apparently said on Sunday that creative writing courses are a ‘waste of time’; the Guardian piece recycled the quotes from the Independent piece of yesterday, added some soundbites from other writers opposing that view (‘Oh no it isn’t’) or defending it (‘Oh yes it is’), and threw it open to comment. This is one of the standard conventions of media coverage of bookish matters: seize upon something perceived to be a tad controversial and make out of it a binary yes/no conflict (and profit from any reduction of the issue to personalities). Character-stuff. Meanwhile, there are books to be read, and life.]

Friday, 28 February 2014

On Mavis Gallant

I had a memory of a Donald Barthelme story cast in the form of an author interview and went looking but couldn’t find it. (Perhaps I was thinking of ‘How I Write My Songs’, which reads like a parody of the kind of ‘helpful tips’ sometimes offered to would-be writers.) But I did find Jhumpa Lahiri’s 2009 interview with Mavis Gallant (published in Granta), which in places itself reads like a story – a story in which the efforts of keen young writer to extract wisdom from acclaimed older writer are continuously thwarted, but always politely, by the older writer’s refusal to analyse. Examples:

JL: Chronologically, it [MG’s first novel] goes back and forth. Why did you decide to do that?
MG: I can’t tell you. It’s what I wanted.
JL: Can you talk about what inspired the story [‘The Remission’)?
MG: I don’t know. I just had an image of them getting down from the train, which I didn’t use in the story.
JL: This is one of many examples in your stories where at some point or another we’re in every character’s head. It’s an amalgam of points of view … Was this something that came easily?
MG: It must have, or I wouldn’t have done it.
JL: Was there any reason, when you were working on these stories, why you were going back to Montreal in your mind?
MG: I couldn’t tell you. If I knew that I’d stop writing.
JL: Why?
MG: Because it has to come from something unknown in you. If I knew that I wouldn’t bother writing. I’d be something else. I’d be a champion cricket player. Maybe I am a champion cricket player, in another life.
JL: Did you ever work in cafes?
MG: As a waitress?

The effect is comic. But JL’s questions are understandable. In the preface to the interview she remembers reading her first Mavis Gallant story, ‘The Ice Wagon Going Down the Street’: ‘at once dense and nimble, urgent and orderly, light-hearted and dark; about experience both predstrian and profound … It seemed to have been written in a radically different way than any story I’d read before’ – which is often how one feels when discovering a new writer, and one wants to know how it’s done. Mavis Gallant died ten days ago, aged ninety-one. Her stories are remarkable, wonderful, and they keep their writerly secrets. They were the subject of one of the earliest pieces, in 2007, in Chris Power’s online ‘Brief Survey of the Short Story’. Rather than get elbow strain from the Bloomsbury Selected Stories, which has more than 900 pages, I suggest the two NYRB books, Paris Stories (selected by Michael Ondaatje) and Varieties of Exile (selected by Russell Banks).