Sunday, June 25, 2006

The Master of Go

I was browsing in a Dublin bookstore when I found a book for which I’d been casually searching for some time: The Master of Go by Yasunari Kawabata, which was recently nominated, by an English newspaper, as one of the 50 greatest books ever written about sport.

What strikes me about that last sentence is the phrase “casually searching”. You see, I could have ordered The Master of Go from Amazon, or from ABE, or I could simply have asked my local bookshop to order it for me. But there was part of me that wanted to search for it, because there is a pleasure, in this age of instant gratification, in waiting a while, in taking the time to search for something, even if it means a little effort and a little frustration along the way. When I found the book, I felt a kind of joy: it wasn’t earth shattering or life changing, but it felt like one of those small gifts that life occasionally offers us along the way, the kind that ultimately makes day to day existence tolerable. It was a book that I had wanted to read - not urgently, and not because I felt that my life would be empty without it, but because it sounded interesting enough to check out - and after five or six visits during which there had been no sign of Kawabata’s novel, there it was.

I suppose the concept of instant gratification has been on my mind ever since reading an article about Google in a newspaper last week. Google, as some of you may know, rather fancies making every book ever written available to people on the Internet: just press a button, and the text will appear on the screen before you. It is, I suppose, the way of the future, but it seems to me that it spells a slow death for the idea of browsing and searching, at least in a way that does not involves browsers and search engines. In my darker hours, I wonder sometimes if, a generation or two down the line, there will even be bookstores to visit.

I wonder also how people will stumble across unexpected gems in this cold new age of virtual texts. The book that I read last week, Lawrence Osbourne’s The Accidental Connoisseur, was found, rather appropriately, by accident while browsing in the American Imports section of a bookshop. I had never even heard of the book, but I took it down from the shelf, read the jacket, and decided that it was something I would probably enjoy.

Would I have done the same thing had Google, or even Amazon, offered it as a suggestion based on a book that I happened to have glanced at before? Probably not. In fact, I rarely buy books based on such suggestions. (I’m not even very good at reading books that other people give me and insist I’ll enjoy. It brings out the stubborn side of me.) After all, I glance at lots of books, but I don’t buy them all, and I certainly don’t want their peers tapping me on the shoulder and demanding attention on that basis alone.

I’m not even sure that an algorithm, or whatever it is that websites use to determine my tastes, can even capture just how awkward, fly-by-nightish, half formed, and generally illogical my tastes actually are. At no point had any website registered the fact that I wanted to read The Master of Go. I don’t browse sporting books generally, and I simply hadn’t informed any website of this particular nagging desire. But it was there. I was aware of it. And each week I would browse the shelves on my city’s bookstores for The Master of Go ( if I remembered, and if I didn’t then it really didn’t matter too much) until one day, there it was.

Don’t get me wrong here. I use Amazon, particularly for research books, and I’ve been grateful to it for more than one CD or DVD that otherwise I would never have been able to find in a store on this side of the ocean. But I don’t want websites and Amazon and Google to be my only option when it comes to seeking out a book that I want to read, and I suspect that, deep inside, I appreciate more the books and music that I have found myself by taking the time to stare at the spines on a bookshelf or flick through the CDs in a rack.

Even now, a week later, with The Master of Go beside me on my desk as I write, I still feel a kind of happiness, and a satisfaction at the presence of this book among the others in my house. I searched for it and I found it, not with a computer or through a website where millions of titles exist but no books, but by waiting and looking and, ultimately, finding.

And, in a strange way, I think Kawabata himself might have appreciated that.

This week John read:

Vicious Circle (uncorrected proof) by Robert Littell
The Master of Go by Yasunari Kawabata

and listened to:

White Bread, Black Beer by Scritti Politti
No Word From Tom by Hem

Sunday, June 18, 2006

The Proof of the Pudding

Over the last week or so, my British publisher has begun sending out proof copies of The Book of Lost Things to various people in the trade: booksellers, reviewers, literary editors, and the buyers for the big chains.

It is the next step in a gradual process that began when my editor and agent saw the initial manuscript back in October 2005, a process that will conclude with the book's eventual publication in September 2006. With each step in the process, more and more people have been exposed to the book, but it is the point at which the proofs become available that the author (or this author at least) begins to fret in earnest.

After all, those who read the book in the earlier stages - the people at the publishing house whose task it is to turn my manuscript into a book that people might want to buy - were probably reasonably predisposed towards it. They hoped that it would be good. They wanted to like it, because if they liked it then their jobs would be a bit easier. There is, I imagine, little joy for an editor or agent who has to go back to a writer and say "Um, well, this needs some work . . . " which, as any fule kno, is subtle code for "Um, well, this isn't very good at all . . ." or, to put it bluntly, "You screwed up. Badly."

Thankfully neither my editor nor my agent said any such thing, so the first potentially major obstacle to publication was safely crossed. What happened next was that the manuscript was circulated throughout the publishing house, so that people in marketing, sales, art and publicity could read it. Since they would all be intimately involved in its publication, it was important that they got a chance to read it and offer their input. I've had feedback some of those people who liked the book and were kind enough to take the time to say it. Still, there remained that niggling voice in the author's mind that taunted: "Well, they would say that, wouldn't they? They're hardly going to tell you it's a stiff." (I suspect that they would probably maintain a diplomatic silence, to be honest. They're very nice that way.)

Occasionally, a manuscript may find its way out of the publishing house and into the hands of someone not immediately connected with the details of its publication - a bookseller who particularly likes the author's work, for instance, or a reviewer who might be relied upon for some supportive word-of-mouth - but for the most part it stays within the confines of the house. In the case of The Book of Lost Things, Lawrence Jackson, the brilliant producer who looked after the Nocturnes stories for BBC Radio 4, read the book in manuscript and wrote a note back to my publishers expressing his enthusiasm for it, which was good for everyone, I think. It meant that someone outside the house, someone who was liked and respected, shared their opinion of it.

But the proof stage marks the point at which the book moves into a more public domain. About 1500 copies have been sent out by Hodder in the UK and Ireland, with more circulating in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and all of Hodder's international markets. Soon the Americans will follow, and thousands more will pop into mailboxes in the USA and Canada. I've already received emails from booksellers and buyers letting me know that they have a copy. Some of these people I know well, while others I have never have met. They have no reason to butter me up, and I know from experience that they are tough critics. They approach a book both as readers and as individuals who have to sell that book on to other readers. There is some room for sentimentality, but not much.

Oddly enough, the way in which books are sold means that orders have probably already been placed for The Book of Lost Things, even before copies were available to read. To a degree, its initial impact on the shelves has already been decided. The book trade works so far in advance that chain and independent buyers will, in the weeks to come, be looking at the Christmas catalogs (and it's hard to feel festive in July). But, in truth, the response to the proofs will determine to a large degree whether The Book of Lost Things lives or dies on the shelves. It is a book that will rely greatly on the enthusiasm of those who read it, and of booksellers in particular, to persuade others to pick it up. There is only so much that the publishers can do to make that happen.

So now I wait. It's a difficult time, rendered more painful by the fact that this book is, in many ways, rather unlike what I've done before, although there are themes in it that have reared their heads in my earlier work. I won't hear back from some of those who've told me that they have proofs, and that will trouble me. Did they read it? If they read it, and I haven't heard from them, then does that mean they haven't enjoyed it? Did they think that it stank? Is that what they're telling people? Would I be happier if they wrote back and told me that they didn't like it? Probably not, but at least I'd know. Is that what I'm going to read on the Net in the weeks to come: that it doesn't work?

Because that's the other matter to consider. There was a time, not long ago, when it took rather longer for word-of-mouth to filter through on a book or a film or an album. In fact, writers and filmmakers and musicians could rely on a certain grace period during which their work would have time to find an audience, a period during which the mass of critical opinion would be formed. That is no longer the case, and a film or a book can be damned even before it has a chance to reach, respectively, its potential audience or readers. In years past, a writer might only encounter negative criticism beyond the pages of a newspaper or journal if he was unfortunate enough to encounter that semi-mythic, and much feared, figure, the Man on the Clapham Omnibus, an individual practically simmering with rage at the time and money he had wasted on a the writer's work and just itching for a chance to tell the miscreant in person. Now critical opinion comes in thicker and faster than ever before, and it can be hard for an author to avoid. Bad news travels quickly, and has many willing messengers.

I have to put these concerns aside, because I have other work to do. I'll continue to improve the current draft of The Unquiet, and I'll hope and pray that The Book of Lost Things, a book, truth be told, of which I'm incredibly fond and protective, will be received positively. The genie is out of the bottle now, and this little book will have to stand or fall on its merits. I think it's a good book. I just hope that others think so too.

But - and here's the thing - even if it were to be rejected by all, selling only a handful of copies and provoking general muttering and finger wagging from the disenchanted, I wouldn't have written it any other way. If it comes back to me head bowed, like an unsuccessful child at the end of school sports day, it will still be mine, and nothing that has occurred will diminish my affection for it, or the quiet pride I may feel in having written it.

Come along, come along. There will be other days . . .

This week John read

The Accidental Connoisseur: An Irreverent Journey Through the Wine World by Lawrence Osborne

and listened to

Fear Is On Our Side by I Love You But I've Chosen Darkness
Fisherman's Blues (Deluxe Edition) by The Waterboys

Sunday, June 11, 2006

The Reluctant Critic

I can't remember why I decided to detail, at the end of each of these columns, the books that I'd read and the CDs to which I'd listened during the previous week. I think it was because I was often asked what I happened to be reading, or what I was listening to, so it just seemed like an easy way to answer those questions.

Recently, someone posted a message on the forum asking me why I didn't include my opinions on the books and CDs. It was easier to answer the question in relation to the music than to the books: I was worried that if I began writing lengthy pieces on the CDs then I might become distracted entirely by them. I love writing about music, but I do have a book to finish so it seemed like a good idea not to add any more distractions to those I already have (and, given that the World Cup has just commenced, I have some six hours of extra distractions to deal with for the foreseeable future).

The question is a little harder to answer when it comes to books. Some, but by no means all, of the books that I read are mysteries. Often, they've been written by authors whom I know, or whom I meet occasionally at conventions or events. One of the unusual things about the mystery genre is the degree of interaction between writers, and, in turn, between those writers and their fans. It's not something that is found in, say, literary fiction, where common ground between writers and readers may be harder to find.

On the one hand, that sense of community is to be cherished, but on the other hand it means that the act of criticism needs to be handled with diplomacy. I've learned from experience that to criticise a mystery author's work, or even statements made by an author on a related subject, even in the most general or respectful of terms, is to invite a response that, in terms of the sheer umbrage taken, ranks with questioning the author's parentage or his mother's sexual proclivities. Even when discussing the work of dead authors at bookstores I've been taken to task by those who perceive any criticism as an entirely negative act.

For example, I've never cared for The Nine Tailors by Dorothy L. Sayers, largely because it seems to posit a "bad things happen to bad people for a reason, ergo if something bad happens to you it's because you're a bad person" view of the universe to which I don't subscribe. It's not common to all of her books, but it's there in my reading of The Nine Tailors. Neither am I a huge fan of Agatha Christie: I can admire the intricacy of her work but it leaves me cold, and I find in it an unwillingness to engage with the complexities of human behaviour, particularly in the way in which most of those who die in her books appear to have brought their end upon themselves through a perceived moral laxity. (As someone once commented of such books, what lies at their heart is not murder but contributory negligence.)

Both of those positions have, in the past, earned me the kind of finger wagging gestures of disapproval more commonly associated with maiden aunts who catch their nephews swearing. They were regarded as personal attacks upon the authors in question, rather than reasoned criticisms of their work. And those were dead authors! Imagine the furore that would arise if similar comments were made about current bestsellers. In fact, I don't have to imagine it: I've experienced it, and the results have made me very reluctant to even attempt to engage with the work of fellow authors in this way again.

In part, this can be attributed to the rather protective attitude that some readers have towards their favourite writers (and, to be perfectly frank, that some authors have towards themselves), but it is a protectiveness, and a sensitivity to criticism, that persists throughout the genre to this day and has undermined its claims to an equal footing with other types of fiction writing. After all, the ability to countenance, and support, criticism is an indication of the maturity of both a writer and a genre. It's an attitude that I think is still lacking in mystery fiction.

True, we have been ill-served by criticism: the tendency in most media outlets is still to relegate mystery fiction reviews to 'catch-all' columns, each book meriting a paragraph of consideration but rarely more than that, the space given over to it ever more limited. Yet the same could equally be said of fiction in general. Increasingly, serious newspaper coverage of books is dominated by non-fiction, in part because non-fiction reviews are perhaps a little easier both to write and to read, and have the benefit of an easily understandable 'tag' upon which to hang a review piece.

Still, the coverage of literary fiction tends to be a more robust affair than the consideration of mystery fiction which, with some exceptions, continues to err on the side of fandom. (And I remain unconvinced that everyone is a potential critic. Everyone has an opinion, which is not quite the same thing, and the Internet has rather blurred the distinction between serious criticism and the simple dissemination of a variety of opinions.) There is also a tendency to invite writers to review other writers in their field which, given the closeness of the members of the mystery community, rather suggests that objective reviewing could, at the very least, prove challenging in some cases. Many writers may feel a natural empathy towards a fellow author, a 'there but by the grace of God go I' belief that what they visit on others may well be visited upon themselves at some point in the future that causes them to pull their punches somewhat. Finally, even among quite respected mystery critics, there is a kind of "criticism by exclusion", whereby reviewers tend only to consider those novels to which they are sympathetic, or that they have enjoyed, excluding the rest from coverage and thereby avoiding the necessity of saying anything negative about them in print.

That's not to say that there aren't exceptions to the above, from intelligent Internet critics to fair and supportive newspaper reviewers, from columnists who feel no compunction about skewering authors with their disdain - sometimes confusing objectivity with hostility - to authors who rarely hesitate to stick the knife into the competition when the opportunity arises. In the end, criticism isn't a perfect science: it is rife with prejudices, a worthy effort to attempt to frame the subjective with objectivity, to make what is personal general.

So it's probably just easier for me if I keep my opinions about what I've read to myself, or at least refrain from putting them in print, even if it does make me part of the problem instead of part of the solution. And, to be honest, I'm getting better at setting aside books that I am simply not enjoying, leaving them forever unread, so the books I list are books that I've enjoyed enough or have been stimulated/ infuriated/ intrigued enough to finish, and that, in a sense, is a recommendation in itself . . .

This week John read

Assassination Vacation by Sarah Vowell
The Pusher (for the second time) by Ed McBain

and listened to

The Trials of Van Occupanther by Midlake
Has A Good Home by Final Fantasy
Aja by Steely Dan
The Warning by Hot Chip