Sunday, March 26, 2006

The Eternal Critic

I quoted a letter from Wallace Stevens in last week’s piece, which led a couple of people to ask me where I’d come across the quotation. Much as I’d like to be able to boast an intimate knowledge of Wallace Stevens’s correspondence, to the extent that I could, from memory, draw the volume in question from my dusty shelves and select the letter I required at will, I have to confess that I found the quotation in the book I was reading at the time, John Maxwell Hamilton’s Casanova Was A Book Lover, And Other Naked Truths and Provocative Curiosities about the Writing Selling and Reading of Books.

I enjoyed Hamilton’s book a lot, taking in, as it does, a range of topics including how to behave at an author’s launch party (It’s not a good idea to keep asking the author if he remembers you, apparently, especially if a) he hasn’t met you in a very long time or b) he has never met you at all); the etiquette of giving autographs (Mark Twain, Thomas Hardy and Edmund Wilson all disapproved of the practice, it seems. Edmund Wilson was particularly shirty about it.); and how to deal with criticism. This last one in particular caused me to shiver involuntarily, in part because I’d committed, on more than one occasion, what Maxwell appears to regard as a faux pas where critics are concerned: I’ve written and thanked a critic for a review.

I hasten to add that I wrote and thanked the critics in question for being particularly kind or generous spirited towards my books. I haven’t yet taken to writing letters to those who’ve merrily put the boot in. Oddly, if I had done so those letters would all have been directed towards fellow authors. Over the years, the worst reviews I’ve received have come from other writers, and usually writers operating in the same general genre as I.

One was a very established female author, regarded as a character and a bit of a laugh by those who don’t have to deal with her on an author-to-author basis, who seemed to feel that it was her moral duty at the time to slap down young male writers. As it was my first novel, her criticism hurt a little more than it would now, especially as I considered some of it rather unfair. (I was accused of simply using a guidebook to write about Louisiana which, after years of near poverty from travelling to research the novel, hurt more than somewhat.)

The others have all been young male authors, most recently an Irish writer who felt compelled to do that thing young male authors sometimes do after publishing their first book. They climb into the ring and begin taking swings at other writers perceived as competition. It doesn’t do them much good, apart from tiring them out and making them look silly, because after flailing around for a bit they eventually notice that they’re standing in the ring by themselves, the competition usually having better things to do, like writing books.

Anyway, back to Maxwell and his injunction against thanking critics. His opinion, and it is a valid one, is that critics fancy themselves as independent and, although - as Maxwell points out - book reviews tend to be favorable rather than unfavorable in the norm, reviewers don’t like it “when someone suggests they are pussycats, and they become self-conscious when a grateful author sends them a case of Chateuneuf du Pape”.

Hang on. Who’s sending cases of French reds? I only dropped them a note, and it was mainly because a) I was grateful to see my book reviewed at all and b) I genuinely appreciated the fact that they hadn’t cut me up too badly and had forgiven my mistakes. I wasn’t trying to buy future favors. The nature of book reviewing in newspapers, which means that my books are rarely reviewed by the same person twice, suggested that it was unlikely that the reviewer who received my thank you missive was going to be presented with my next book to review a year later. Also, it smacked of ingratitude not to acknowledge, in some form, their words about my book. (I’m not sure how much impact book reviews have as I suspect a large proportion of readers don’t bother with them, but it’s only common sense to take the view that good ones are of more help to a book’s prospects than bad ones.)

Yet I have to confess that if I was asked to recall what precisely they had said in their reviews to prompt my letters, I would be unable to tell you. I can’t remember the good things that were said about my books because, in some deep, dark place inside of me, I didn’t quite believe them and so they didn’t stick in my memory. I can, by contrast, probably recite sections of the bad reviews verbatim. They stung because in another deep, dark place inside of me, I believed that they might be true.

I don’t think I’m alone in this. A great many authors, if asked, would admit to always looking for the one person in the crowd who isn’t clapping, because that’s the person who has figured out they’re frauds. Most creative people possess a unhealthy degree of self-doubt, and those who don’t possess any should be avoided, to borrow an image from the current obsession with avian flu, like a chicken with a cough. In part, it’s what makes them do what they do. Writers are trying to prove something by writing, both to others and to themselves, but always gnawing at them is the feeling that they haven’t quite managed to pull it off. A dismissive review confirms all the worst things that they suspect about themselves. A good review is an indication that they’ve simply managed to pull the wool over another sucker’s eyes. Writers, it’s fair to say, have an uneasy relationship with critics.

So why send a note to a reviewer if you don’t believe what was written? Well, in part because it would be nice to think that it might possibly be true, even if it probably isn’t, but also because a good review is easier to stomach than a bad one. It’s that simple. A good review will cheer me up for, oh, maybe half an hour. A bad review will bother me for a week, or even longer, given that I can still recall the bad reviews for my first novel and that was seven years ago. Then again, I think I may be the kind of person who harbors grudges. I have kept all of the rejection slips that I received for my first book. I found them recently, along with a letter from an ex-girlfriend informing me, in no uncertain terms, of her fond hope that she would never set eyes on me again. This can’t be healthy. All of that worrying about the bad review will take days or even weeks off my life. A good review, meanwhile, is unlikely to make a major contribution towards my ultimate mortality. By sending a note, I’m basically saying: “Dear Reviewer, Thank you for not killing me. Best, John Connolly.”

But, from an objective point of view, I do agree with one of Maxwell’s other assertions: that the comparative lack of controversy in reviewing is contributing to a decline in interest among readers and a fall in the standards of reading and literacy. There are lots of reasons for this: a possible fear of offending a small pool of potential advertisers by giving negative reviews to their authors; the fact that the number of quality reviewers is not large, and is frequently boosted by authors moonlighting as reviewers who may be reluctant to offend fellow authors whom they might meet (a particular risk in genre fiction) or to risk having their own work similarly eviscerated at a later date (a kind of score settling that arguably occurs more often in academic and non-fiction reviewing than in the criticism of fiction, although there are exceptions); the unwillingness of newspapers and other media outlets to devote space to books and reading; and, perhaps, the rise of internet reviewing which, by giving the impression that everyone’s critical opinion is equally valid, has had the effect of devaluing criticism in general. The result is feature articles disguised as reviews, and insipid efforts at “balance” that do no favors to either the critic or the book in question.

Maxwell is right. We should get wound up about books. They should excite debate and argument. Whatever its flaws, real or perceived, The Da Vinci Code has managed to do just that, provoking discussion among ordinary readers. The controversy over the awarding of the most recent Man Booker Prize to John Banville’s The Sea led to something similar on a smaller scale, helped along by a damning review by Michiko Kakutani in The New York Times, who described The Sea as “stilted, claustrophobic and numbingly pretentious . . . (A) chilly, desiccated and pompously written book.” Way to go, Michiko! Banville, in turn, had a go at Ian McEwan’s Saturday in The New York Review of Books (“dismayingly bad”) in what was seen in some quarters as a pre-emptive strike against a potential fellow Booker nominee. Sock it to him, John!

Wouldn’t you rather read reviews like this than Keith Gessen’s review of Saturday in New York? (“(H)e has become the consummate professional novelist.”) I’m sorry, Keith, but what does that mean? Or how about Lee Aitken’s review of The Sea in People? (“Banville is a master at capturing the most fleeting memory or excruciating twinge of self-awareness with riveting accuracy. So it hardly matters that the book unfolds without much action.”) Excruciating self-awareness? Unfolds without much action? Where do I sign up, Lee? Send that baby to me today!

So I won’t write any more thank you notes to critics. I don’t want reviewers to feel beholden to me. I don’t want to contribute any further to the decline in the standards of criticism. Vibrant, reasoned, quality criticism is good for readers, good for books, and even good for authors.

Nevertheless, I would appreciate it if critics would make an exception for me, and continue to say only nice things about my books. After all, there’s a case of Chateuaneuf du Pape in it for them if they do.

This week John Read

Casanova Was A Book Lover by John Maxwell Hamilton

and listened to

3121 by Prince
Best of by Massive Attack

Saturday, March 18, 2006

The Numbers

I recently met my agent for dinner in London to discuss “the numbers.” I like my agent. To begin with, he looks like an agent, albeit an agent of the old school: distinguished grey hair and immaculate attire, with a hint of eccentricity to his dress. He’s also kind and loyal and great company, so meeting him for dinner is always a pleasure. Curiously, he bears a startling resemblance to the actor Ian MacDiarmid, who plays the villainous Senator Palpatine in the Star Wars prequels, or to be more accurate he bears a startling resemblance to the Senator Palpatine action figure. I presented him with his plastic doppelganger last year. He seemed a bit perturbed, but I suspect he was secretly flattered. There can’t be many literary agents with their own action figure.

Actually, we were supposed to meet first for a drink at the Ritz, which is very posh indeed. Now my agent is not a particularly Ritzy man, but I suppose that he remembers the days when he couldn’t afford to drink at places like the Ritz and now rather likes going to them occasionally as a treat and, since I’d never been there and it was across the street from our restaurant, it seems like a good opportunity to visit.

Unfortunately, I still haven’t been to the Ritz as the doormen wouldn’t let me in. I was, apparently, inappropriately attired. I was wearing jeans, and jeans, even in association with shiny black shoes, a black velvet jacket and a crisp white shirt, are clear evidence of the decline of western civilisation as far as the Ritz is concerned, so that allowing me into the bar would have been an act of barbarism on a par with admitting the Visigoths and allowing them to run rampage among the imitation Louis Quinze furnishings

Actually, I saw their point. I would just have made the place look untidy. I simply don’t do posh very well, although I felt a bit sorry for my agent who, after all his efforts, is still lumbered with a client who can’t be brought anywhere respectable. Instead, we discussed “the numbers” in the Wolseley, which is actually very respectable but is more inclined than the Ritz to value its customers’ comfort over its own.

Authors live or die by “the numbers”, the quantity of their titles bought over the counter by paying customers. At least, writers of popular and commercial fiction do. Literary authors have a little more leeway, I think, and a significant few have enjoyed quite respectable careers based more on the strength of their names and the kudos they bring to their publishers than on any actual sales.

There was a time, in the dim and distant past, when the numbers didn’t matter quite so much. The main reason for this was that it was probably a lot harder to find out what the numbers actually were, since it was much more difficult to determine what happened to books once they left the warehouse for remote stores across the country. Now POS (point of sale) information and the main book tracking systems have made it significantly easier for publishers, retailers and, for better or worse, authors to track their sales. A bookseller in a chain store can log on to a computer and tell the author exactly how many copies have been sold that week not only in that particular store, but right across the group (and it always sounds like a lot less than it should be, let me tell you). Those number are carefully recorded, and will determine the quantity of the author’s next book that will be ordered by the chain.

Meanwhile, Nielsen Bookscan, using information gathered from the stores it monitors, can come up with a pretty accurate weekly tally of sales nationally, and it’s their figures that most of the main newspapers use to compile their bestseller lists. (In the US, the situation is a little more haphazard, to the extent that a placing on some lists is based on a combination of copies ordered, rather than copies actually sold, and what various bookstores choose to admit to selling when they are asked for their weekly figures.) In a nutshell, though, the numbers rule.

Authors can be divided roughly into three categories. The first includes those who care about nothing but the numbers. They want to sell like John Grisham does and woe betide anyone who gets in their way. They are, needless to say, kind of irritating to be around, mainly because they’re not as good as the rest of us at hiding their obsessive quest for success. They also tend to talk about money a lot while pretending to their fans that it’s the last thing they think about, and the only people who talk about money a lot, in my experience, are those who have too much of it rather than too little. Most authors with an ounce of common sense stay away from the number fanatics.

The second group consists of those who claim not to care about the numbers at all. They are either a) liars; b) liars who used to be published but aren’t any more; or c) poets. Everyone cares about the numbers. I suspect even poets care about selling more than other poets, but I don’t want to spend more time with poets badly enough to find out.

The third group consists of everyone else, those who care about the numbers but also care about doing good work, maybe even creating art, and who try to balance the two demands as best they can.

So there is no escaping the numbers. Thankfully, the numbers for the paperback of The Black Angel are good, both in the UK and the US. (The US figures, once again, are considerably more difficult to interpret than the UK figures, to the extent that I’m tempted to recruit a passing genius child to explain them to me, but my editor’s scribbled comment above them to the effect that they’re “great” ensures that my blushes are saved. Don’t ask me what they mean, though. I just don’t know. This is why I’m a writer and not, say, a rocket scientist, or even a checkout clerk.) The book has made the list in both Ireland and the UK, and is also on the Publishers Weekly list in the US. This is as good as I’ve ever done and I’m very pleased, if only for a couple of minutes.

Because this success raises another issue. Most writers, if they’re honest, want to make the bestseller list. If the numbers aren’t high enough to do that, then they may feel a little let down. (For “a little let down”, read “almost suicidal.”) Meanwhile, if the numbers are good enough to enable the author to make the list, then that brings a whole new set of problems. How high did it go? How long will it stay there? Who else is publishing over the next week or two who might knock me down a place or two? In Ireland, a fellow crime novelist is about to see her first book published in paperback. I want her to do well, but preferably not while I’m in the list. Can’t she just wait a few weeks until I’m gone? Is that so much to ask? There’s a new Kathy Reichs paperback on the shelves too. Couldn’t she have held off? I mean, doesn’t she have some corpses to attend to somewhere?

So I’ll watch as the numbers inevitably drop as the weeks go by. I’ll console myself with the fact that I made the list once again, and the numbers are up on the last book. The numbers mean that my career lives to fight another day. I’m not being facetious either. Walt Disney used to say that he made movies so he could make more movies. Art and commerce are inextricably linked, and to continue doing what I want to do I have to sell enough copies to make it worthwhile for my publishers. It’s the dilemma that all full-time writers face if they want to remain full-time writers, and I’d be a fool to ignore the realities of the marketplace.

In an odd way, though, perhaps the only writers who are free from this quandary are those who don’t rely solely on their income from books to support themselves. There are some of them who may want to be full-time writers, which is another issue entirely, but having another income, however ordinary, brings a certain freedom. Wallace Stevens once wrote, in a letter to a friend:

“A writer faces a point of honor that concerns him as a writer. He must apparently choose between starvation and that form of publishing (or being published) in which it is possible to make money. His problem is how to support himself while engaged in the most honorable capacity. There is only one answer. He must support himself in some other way.”

Does this mean, I wonder, that it’s dishonorable to care about the numbers? Was I ever as free in what I wrote as I was when I was a journalist, struggling to find time in the evenings to write my first book?

In the end, perhaps it’s a question of balance. Even Stevens wanted to be published, I think, and to be read. The income that he earned from sitting at his office desk in Hartford almost until the day he died enabled him to achieve the balance that he sought. I’d like to think that I too have achieved a balance with which I’m content. I’m fortunate that what I want to write, maybe even what I need to write, has so far appealed to enough readers to enable me to continue doing it.

So my agent and I ordered a nice bottle of wine to celebrate books written and yet to be written. But under the table, I touched my fingers to the envelope containing the numbers.
Please, I prayed. Just a few more weeks. Just a few . . .

This week John read

Shepperton Babylon
by Matthew Sweet
Good News, Bad News by David Wolstencroft

and listened to

by Keren Ann
Morph the Cat
by Donald Fagen

Monday, March 13, 2006

Cover Story

This week I received the cover art for The Book of Lost Things, which we should have on the website by early next week. I think it’s a small work of art. It’s quite beautiful, one of those instances where an illustrator - in this case, the wonderful London-based illustrator Robert Ryan - seems to have perfectly understood the writer’s intention with the book, which is rarer than one might think.

It’s a curious thing, but that old adage about never judging a book by the cover applies pretty well to most things in life, with the exception of books themselves (and possibly cobras and scorpions, but that’s another matter entirely.) In fact, most browsers in a bookstore are probably attracted to new authors by the cover image of the books in question. The title plays a part too, obviously, but it’s interesting that a literary medium should rely so much for its primary impact upon a visual stimulus. For that reason, writers do fret a lot about their covers, and publishers offer them varying degrees of input. Sometimes, the author may feel that it’s not his or her place to offer suggestions about the cover, but I’ve found that, by and large, design departments are at least open to an author’s ideas, as long as they’re not completely off the wall.

In the past, I’ve tended to have more to do with the U.K. covers than the U.S. covers. For Every Dead Thing, The Killing Kind, and The White Road, I provided illustrations that I thought might be particularly striking, most of them from 16th and 17th century sources. Looking back, they were rather skeletal, and not a little gruesome, but they certainly stood out.

The problem, though, was that they were putting off some readers, particularly female readers. My UK publishers decided to go with a new look, that was much more neutral, for Bad Men. Unfortunately, that didn’t quite work either, as the covers went a bit too much in the opposite direction and looked rather bland as a consequence. So, for the publication of Nocturnes and The Black Angel, the covers were redesigned again, and I think the right balance has now been struck. Obviously, different readers will have their own opinions, and I still hear from those who were fond of the initial designs, but there’s very little point in writing and publishing a book that puts people off picking it up because of the cover.

The changes in the U.S. have been more gradual, but Atria, my American publisher, has put a lot of thought into the presentation of the books. In fact, U.S. book covers in general have improved a lot over the last ten years. For a long time, it seemed that American publishers, or certainly the big publishers of commercial fiction, didn’t care about much more than making sure that the author’s name and the title of the work were visible on the front of the book. Now they rival, and sometimes better, their British equivalents. It says a lot about Atria, though, that when the British cover was presented to them they saw that it was stronger than their own, and a decision seems to have been made to go with the British cover, or a version of it, in the U.S. as well. I suspect that many of those who publish the book in translation may follow suit, and so The Book of Lost Things will have a single identity across countries and continents. That thought leaves me feeling both happy and relieved. It’s a strange little book, but very personal to me, and for that reason I am very protective of it. It seems to have been born for its cover, and I imagine it will be comfortable in that skin.

Anyway, one more important step has been taken on the road to its publication. Next month, the proofs - the soft bound copies of the uncorrected final text - will begin to filter out to booksellers and others in the trade, and I’ll start to get an idea of how others feel about it. The book, for so long known only to me, then to a handful of people in the British and American publishing houses, will slowly become public. It is a difficult time, perhaps more difficult even than the initial presentation to the editors and my agent. After all, if they are unhappy with it they can send it back. Changes can be made. Nobody will be any the wiser, apart from perhaps three or four people, and it will be in all their interests to remain quiet about the book’s history, troubled or otherwise. Out in the public domain, though, the book has no such protection.

There’s a pair of lovely verses, close to the end of Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde, where the poet writes:

Go, litel bok . . . /
And red whereso thow be, or elles songe,
That thow be understood, God I biseche!

It should be the author’s prayer: Go, little book, and wherever you are read, I ask God only that you be understood.
And so I’ll say that prayer now for The Book of Lost Things.

This week John read:

The Janissary Tree by Jason Goodwin (uncorrected proof)

and listened to:

Fox Confessor Brings the Flood by Neko Case
Fab Four Suture by Stereolab

Monday, March 06, 2006

The Fatal Books

I’m touring at the moment, so this post may be a little shorter than usual. It struck me, though, that for last week’s post I’d read only one book - Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men - while the week before I read six. Now admittedly four of those books were relatively short, and I did take two airline flights that week, but it was still quite an achievement. I’m not quite sure what happened last week. I mean, the McCarthy book wasn’t hard going by any means, but I made slow progress on it.

I suppose I’m conscious of the fact that more and more books keep appearing in my house, and my reading isn’t keeping pace with my purchases. In an ideal world, I’d be book-neutral, in much the same way that one can contribute to the damage done to the environment by one’s airline flights through contributing to forestry and climate friendly energy projects. (And FYI on this, one short haul flight contributes as much to global warming as driving a 1.4 litre car for three months, according to Unless, of course, you’re a member of the US Department of Energy, in which case it’s all lies and you should just go ahead and upgrade to that SUV.)

Anyway, in the last two weeks I’ve bought ten books and read seven, so I’m still plus three on the book front. The problem is that the space I have for storing books is not getting any bigger. It’s not as if I own Doctor Who’s Tardis, which is bigger on the inside than it is on the outside, in which case I could accommodate potentially infinite numbers of books. Instead, it’s as if my books are breeding. Every time I read some, more appear. It distresses me mildly that the cover for one of my heaters in my dining room has become a bookshelf due to lack of space, and I can now no longer turn on the heat in that room for fear of damaging my books. Books are potentially contributing to my future ill health. Worse, they’re potentially damaging the health of my visitors, who are blameless and don’t deserve to suffer arthritis or flu simply because their host feels that the well-being of his books are more important.

There was a time when I wouldn’t get rid of the books that I’d bought, even after I’d read them, but that time is now gone. I’ve become quite ruthless, and my local Oxfam bookshop has been the main beneficiary, but I still haven’t quite managed to cull my shelves to the extent that I should. For example, I have two copies of a particularly well-loved collection of Donald Barthelme short stories. One is a paperback, the other a signed hardback bought more recently. In theory, I should be able to get rid of the paperback, but I can’t. I remember buying it. I remember being struck by some of the stories in it. I associate not just that book, but that particular copy of it, with a certain time in my life. I can’t get rid of it. In fact, I probably have less affection for the more expensive signed copy than I do for my mauled, broken spined paperback.

That’s the dilemma, in a nutshell. There are books that I have read, and that I will probably never read again, and yet I can’t part with them because those books mean something to me, not just as abstract ideas or memories but as physical entities. So I guess I will just have to resign myself to the fact that my shelves are destined to become more untidy, that increasingly unlikely corners of my house are going to be pressed into service for book storage and that, at some point in the future, I may well end up as one of those old people who are found dead after an unfortunate incident with a dodgy pile of books or an overburdened bookshelf, much like Leonard Bast in E.M. Forster’s Howard’s End.

And do you know what people will say about me if that happens?

“It’s how he would have wanted to go.”

Well, let me tell you now: no, it’s not. To quote that lovely joke, I want to die in my sleep like my grandfather, not screaming and crying like his passengers . . .

This week John read:

Fiddlers by Ed McBain
Will Storr Vs The Supernatural by Will Storr

and listened to:

That Striped Sunlight Sound by The Go Betweens