Archive January 2006
My books have been translated into seven languages: Chinese, French, German,
Japanese, Norwegian, Thai and Turkish. Every time a book moves from English into
another language the question arises as whether the translation is an accurate
reflection of the original. Thus I read with interest the article in the Weekend
Australian by Nobel laureate J.M. Coetzee titled Speaking in Tongues:
“This leads to my final question:
Is there a high road (a highway) to excellence in translation, and might that
high road be provided by a theory of translation? Would mastery of the theory of
translation make one a better translator? There is a legitimate branch of
aesthetics called the theory of literature. But I doubt very much that there is
or can be such a thing as a theory of translation - not one, at any rate - from
which practitioners of translation will have much to learn.
seems to me a craft in a way that cabinet-making is a craft. There is no
substantial theory of cabinet-making, and no philosophy of cabinet-making except
the ideal of being a good cabinet-maker, plus a handful of precepts relating to
tools and to types of wood.”
|Colin Cotterill short-listed for Dilys Award
Congratulations are in order for Colin Cotterill. His novel Thirty Three
Teeth published by Soho in New York City has been short listed for the Dilys
Award. Thanks to Sara
for bringing this nomination to my attention. I wrote about Colin Cotterill's Thirty Three Teeth last November 2005.
This is an important award as it is given by the book independent booksellers
who vote on the novels they found most enjoyable. That is stiff competition and
this is certainly an audience that every author hopes to please.
|PATTAYA PEOPLE CHANNEL INTERVIEW
A couple of weeks ago Richard Ravensdale, Vice President of the Pattaya expat
Club, interviewed me for Pattaya People Channel. A copy of that interview can be
viewed at http://www.cgmoore.com/life/index-tv.htm
interview with Richard (which takes place on Beach Road, Pattaya, with the sea
nearby) I answer questions about the Calvino series and the literary novels.
The interview ran several times a day for a week on Pattaya People
Channel. It is difficult to think of another place in TV-land where an author
interview runs five times a day for a seven-day period.
|HEART TALK 3rd Edition – Publication date: Summer 2006
I am finishing
the third edition of Heart Talk. Here is the cover for the new edition
and I'd appreciate feedback from readers. It isn't certain whether Heaven Lake
Press will bring this latest edition out in paperback or hardback. I've had
readers say they like the hardback format as this is a book that people keep in
their library (or bedroom or bathroom) where it can be easily grabbed when
appropriate jai phrase is required.
The new edition is a major
rewrite and reorganization with over 200 new jai phrases. I've re-written most
of the existing definitions, bringing in new material, new examples and culled
various errors and mistakes in the second edition. Given the amount of time and
energy needed to finish the 3rd edition, I could have written three new Calvino
novels. Still there is satisfaction in returning to the world of jai
words. In a small way, Heart Talk is one writer's effort to bring to a
larger audience the meaning of expressions that are central to understanding the
Thai language. Each time out, I seem to come closer to realizing shades of
meaning and context that had been elusive.
The 3rd edition also has
illustrations and a new chapter on jai proverbs.
Look for the 3rd
edition of Heart Talk to be released in the Summer 2006.
|Book on Lan Na History and Culture
One feature of Thai history are the smaller kingdoms that pre-date the formation
of what is now known as Thailand. The Northern region also known as Lanna has a
distinctive language, culture, food and the local royal system of tribal chiefs.
While the local tribal chiefs are now part of history, the language, culture and
food continue to survive.
For 200 years this region was under the
control of the Burmese. Now there is a book translated from Thai into English
that explains this rich history. This is the first book on this subject in 100
The History of Lan Na, by Sarasawadee Ongsakul, translated by
Chitraporn Tranratanakul (2006) published by Silkworm Books.
and translator are members of Department of History, Faculty of Humanities of
Chiang Mai University.
Stephen Leather’s Private
Dancer now has 11,000 copies in print. Originally offered as a free down
load on Stephen’s website, the print edition has attracted lots of local
readers. Private Dancer is a noir story of betrayal set in Bangkok’s nightlife
venues. Set in 1996, the Year of the Rat, Pete falls in love with a pole dancer
and finds himself in a world he’s ill-equipped to understand. Stephen Leather is
an internationally acclaimed writer of thrillers. Private Dancer is a highly
recommended introduction to the hall of mirrors that awaits most farang
after they fall in love with a go-go dancer.
Jake Needham’s The
Ambassador’s Wife, set in Singapore introduces Inspector Samuel Tay. The
inspector is a twenty-year veteran of the police force and in this first case
he’s searching for the killer of a mystery woman found dead in a five-star
hotel. Another murder occurs in Bangkok. This time the victim is the wife of the
American Ambassador to Thailand. It turns out the dead woman in Singapore is the
wife of the American Ambassador to Singapore. The FBI comes into the case. The
release date is 27 March 2006. Published by Prime Crime Press, Hong Kong, ISBN
974-93750-8-4 UK export edition, full-sized with paper covers 396 pages, £10.99
|Novels about Southeast Asia
Some of the enduring novels written about Southeast Asia are Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, George Orwell’s Burmese Days, and Anthony Burgess’ The Malayan Trilogy. Following later and in a similar
tradition were Paul Theroux’s Saint Jack. With the exception of Theroux, the authors of
these novels are English and the story line draws heavily on colonial experience
at a time of political upheaval.
The Quiet American and The Malayan
Trilogy were written in the 1950s as Britain’s empire was winding down. A
generation before Orwell captured the colonial administration of Burma in
The world of Greene, Orwell and Burgess was
different in substantial respects from the present world in Southeast Asia with
the high band-width Internet connections, cable television, regularly scheduled
flights, and the globalization of commerce. Even Saint Jack written in
the early 1970s seems much closer to Burgess and Orwell than to contemporary
fiction. Their world appears distant and remote as if lost in time. Reading them
makes you appreciate exactly how much Southeast Asia as changed and how much the
world has changed as well.
It is remarkable that these novels are almost
never mentioned in local book reviews. They should be a touchstone of good
writing, story telling, as well as literary landmarks of their time. Letting
them pass out of the consciousness of readers, reviewers, and pundits is a
mistake. Forgetting the past is always a danger. Forgetting great books is part
of that process of converting all experience into the eternal now. There is a
rich past history to understand and draw up, and in doing so we are better able
to judge the current writing about the region.
These books form the
backbone of expat literature since World War II. They should be read and reread
to enrich your understanding of a culture, history, and politics of Southeast
Below is a passage from The Malayan Trilogy, which captures
the tone and texture of the book.
“After the death of Sultan Iblis there
was trouble again. Five chiefs claimed the throne, only one of them – the Crown
Prince Mansor – with any right. The bad days of anarchy returned, the kris
whistled through the air and lopped innocent heads, there was pillaging and
arson in up-river kampongs, the Bugis appeared again – a portent, like
the anti-Christ Danes at the time of Bishop Wulfstan – and even the Siamese, who
already held Patani, Kelantan and Trengganu, began to be interested, It was now
that the British intervened. Mansor fled to Singapore, imploring help from the
Governor. Yes, yes, he would most certainly accept a British Resident if he
could be guaranteed a safe throne, a permanent bodyguard and a pension of
$15,000 a month. And so the wars gradually died down like a wind, though not
before some British blood had been spilled on that inhospitable soil. The state
began to prosper. Rubber throve, and the Chinese dredged for tin with frantic
|Location, Location, Location: Cities in Fiction
Does it matter where the novel is set? A recent report by Bowker, the world's leading provider of
bibliographic information, examined 13,000 works of fiction. They found 1,500 of
the novels had an identifiable location. It is unclear how the vast majority of
books had setting so obscure as not to indicate the location. The press release
is silent on this issue.
Bowker found that the favourite settings
included: ”England, Scotland, Wales or Ireland. New York topped the list of
cities, followed by London, Los Angeles (including Hollywood), Chicago, San
Francisco and Washington D.C.” In the top ten list, the only non-American cities
were London and Rome.
There was no mention of an Asian city: Tokyo,
Beijing, Singapore, Shanghai or Bangkok.
The fastest growing market
sector was fiction with African-American and Hispanic characters.
|Pool And Its Role in Asian Communism
A new novel by Colin Cotterill was reviewed and given the thumbs up by Nicholas
Grossman in Thai Day The novel is something of a first blending humor in a
story about child trafficking. Grossman’s summary of the story is: “…a laugh out
loud and poignant story about a sharp-tongued, skinny, trafficked Lao woman who
teams up with an incredibly dense, obese African-American widower to solve the
mystery of her past. Set in 1970s America…it’s an implausible buddy tale
narrated n a colloquial American voice that mixes countrified slang and
Pool and Its Role in Asian Communism (2005) is
301 pages long, published by Asia Books and retails for Baht 450 in Thailand or US$11.54 if
ordered from the Asia Books website.
|Darwin’s Theory applied to the Book Trade
Lang, the author of a private-eye series featuring Fred Crockett and who
maintains a website called Hardboiled
Heaven has kindly passed along his comments on the subject of how books are
selected for publication and the longevity of books once they are published.
“While I don't know that it would be of specific interest to my readers
(they might even take it the wrong way, if they see a parallel between old
movies and "old" books), I found it interesting. I happen to be one of those
readers who only reads what he likes, regardless of whether or not it's a
current bestseller, so I don't contribute to the feeding frenzy for whatever's
new. I think there's more going on with that experiment than just the fact that
the subject matter of the books may have been out of date. I suspect, in fact,
that if you sent manuscripts of chapters from even more recent books (as long as
their subject matter didn't identify them as being from current novels) out to
publishing houses, the majority of them would get rejected, too. The reading
process at most publishing houses is not set up to discover new authors; it's
set up to eliminate as much as possible from the "slush pile" as quickly as
possible so that the top level editors can spend their time trying to land the
latest hot author rather than developing new talent that might serve them well
for years to come.
Still, I agree with you that many novels published in
the 70s probably aren't very relevant today. By the same token, there are
probably a few unpublished works that might have been enduring classics had some
agent or reader been a little more open or spent a little more time with them.
The book publishing process is a curious one, and I guess we can be thankful for
print-on-demand and ebooks! Still, to me it's more satisfying to read something
that has actually been printed and bound and looks like it might be worth
keeping in a bookcase somewhere. It says that somebody had enough faith to spend
a little money on it, rather than just digitizing the thing and asking the
reader to invest in the paper and ink!”
|Published and Forgotten: The Life and Death of Edward Whittemore
There are many motives behind the decision to write fiction. One reason is to
secure a legacy by producing a number of books that will be read and treasured
by later generations. Often this is a pipe dream as many books do not survive
the life of the author. Editors and agents apparently don’t recognize chapters
taken from the books of Booker award winning books. I have already discussed
this issue in an earlier blog entry, Our Collective
Memory of Books.
Don’t think that having extraordinary talent is a
guarantee that the author’s book will be read by more than a handful of people
after his death. A case in point is Edward Whittemore, an American expat writer,
who has been dead more than ten years. Never heard of him?
Edward Whittemore's story began in Portland, Maine where he was
born and went to high school. After he graduated in the 1950s from Yale, he
joined the marines. He was stationed in Japan. Recruited by the CIA he worked
undercover as a reporter for The Japan Times between 1958 to
1967. Living abroad was in his blood. Writing was his passion. He wrote five
Quin's Shanghai Circus (1974)
The Jerusalem Quartet:
o Sinai Tapestry
o Jerusalem Poker
o Nile Shadows
o Jericho Mosaic (1987)
His sales according to one site never exceeded 3,000 copies
of the hardback editions and 10,000 sales for the paperback editions.
Another site the number was 5,000 hardback copies. By New York or London
standards in place today these sales would have doomed him.
loved him. “’Reviewers and critics compared his work to the novels of Carlos
Fuentes, Thomas Pynchon, and Kurt Vonnegut. Publishers Weekly called him
"our best unknown novelist.’ Jim Hougan, writing in Harper's Magazine,
said Whittemore was ‘one of the last, best arguments against television ... He
is an author of extraordinary talents ... The milieu is one in which readers of
espionage novels may think themselves familiar, and yet it is a totally
transformed by the writer's wild humor, his mystical bent, and his bicameral
perception of history and time.’"
He refused to give interviews and his
favorite word was “inscrutable” (a word that might have applied to him).
Christian Science Monitor characterized Whittemore’s writing,
“Stylistically, Whittemore's novels are hard to classify. Some readers describe
them as having a blend of the enigmatic qualities of the works of Jorge Luis
Borges with the exoticism of the novels of Laurence Durrell. (Borges and Durrell
were Whittemore's two chief literary idols.)”
In 1995 he died in New
York City. At the time of his death, Edward Whittemore was working in a New York
law office making photocopies.
He died in poverty and largely
|Writing and Selling the First Novel in Asia
New York, London and Toronto may be the first places where readers, authors and
others in the publishing business think of as the place for publishing an
English language novel. Obviously, in these cities you will find the major
English language publishers. But they aren’t the only place where a book can be
published. There are English language publishers in Southeast Asia who do take
on English language fiction. This is a small but growing market.
writer who has broken into the Asia market with this first novel, The Good Daughter, is Bjorn Turmann. Bjorn is a Canadian, born
and raised in Vancovuer. His novel was published in 2005 by an independent
publisher owned and run by an American living in Jakarta.
recently in North America looking for a literary agent. Bjorn’s background is in
marketing and he is the master of the cold call. While in New York City he was
able to arrange meetings with six literary agents by simply calling up their
office and making an appointment.
His impression was the New York
literary agents were less interested in new authors. Their interest in fiction
from Asia was limited to China and India. The message repeated was that
publishing was a business first and foremost and for agents the book business
was a reflection of what was covered on the front page of the New York Times.
Bjorn also met with literary agents in Southern California and had a
different impression. The LA agents were more receptive to new authors, new
ideas, were willing to take on books that didn’t fit the existing standard of
what publishers were talking about at the moment. He found them to be more
willing to take a risk on an unknown author. Also, Bjorn felt the LA agents were
more interested in and aware of fiction set in and about Asia than are New York
Here is Bjorn’s checklist for a writer wishing to break
in to the Asian English language fiction market.
1. Take advantage of the incredible culture, history and people
of the region in writing the book.
2. Be willing to promote your book in
and outside of Asia.
3. Market yourself by seeking out venues to speak,
whether book clubs, expat clubs, bookstores, etc.
4. Read other authors
and make that part of your job. Set aside one to two hours a day to read and
study other writers. Learn from those who have achieved an audience.
Have a third party who is willing to read and criticize your book before you
submit it to an agent or publisher. No one will look at an unedited manuscript
these days. Agents and publishers want professionals who give them a finished,
6. Use the Internet to research small and medium sized
publishers in Asia which publish English language fiction. Be prepared to travel
to where they are doing business to meet them.
7. Persistence is the key
to success. Never give up or take no for an answer.
8. Be willing to
work with the publisher and provide cover design ideas.
Chris Mitchell at Splinters provides the right kind of encouragement:
“Bangkok-based author Christopher G. Moore, who I interviewed a few months ago, has
been writing a great author blog on his website for the last few months. It's a
perfect example of how an author should be publicising their work by writing
more around it, finding new angles to approach their favourite topics. Recent
posts include authenticity in films and books and our collective memory of
books. Great stuff.”
Also on the Splinters website you will also find in depth
profiles of many well-known authors such as Will Self, J.G. Ballard, Alex
Garland, Arthur C. Clarke, Douglas Coupland, William Gibson, and P.J. O’Rourke.
At Sticky Rice, Henry has written a long profile about my books.
Henry says, “He is responsible for various bestsellers and cult classics such as
‘His Lordship's Arsenal’ which gained critical acclaim in 1985 and was the very
first book he had written, the highly popular "Vincent Calvino Private Eye"
series, most recently, the novel ‘Gambling on Magic’”.
|The End of paper-based books
The Guardian has an article about the impending end of the
traditional publishing paradigm. Cutting down trees for paper to print books
will last at least another 14 years (assuming the forests can hold on that long)
and will be replaced by a new and improved digital book format. This new format
will end the traditional way that books are published. That will have far
reaching consequences from how books are published and distributed. What will be
the fate of bookstores after this technology revolution has taken place?
Here is the take of Microsoft’s Dick Brass:
Almost every IT
expert in the world agrees that the book faces a revolutionary challenge from
e-books and e-paper. According to Dick Carr, a retired Microsoft vice-president
with wide experience of e-readers, “In the next five to 10 years, maybe much
sooner, we'll see a decent, ultra-lightweight, portable e-paper device that
allows book lovers to download titles straight from the internet, either legally
or illegally….Tablet devices are getting lighter and cheaper. Eventually, and
I'm betting it will be before 2020, one of these devices, like the iPod in
music, will offer an experience close enough to paper to shift the paradigm to
digital distribution. That will mark the beginning of the end of the age of
One of the leading translators of Indonesian fiction is Noriaki Oshikawa, a
professor in the Faculty of International Relations at Daito Bunka University.
In an interview with Hisashi Kondo, Professor Oshikawa makes the
point that unlike Latin America where the Spanish language has allowed for the
creation for a common literature, in Southeast Asia there is no equivalent of
Spanish to thread together a literature for the region.
The life of a
writer in Southeast Asia has never been an easy one. “Many Southeast Asian
writers have gone about their craft under harsh conditions. They have had to
contend with restrictions on their freedom of expression such as censorship or
prohibition of sales of their work, and restrictions on their physical freedom
including imprisonment or exile.”
According to Professor Oshikawa,
authors in the region who drew from religious and heroic stories had changed
between 1910 and 1930 when the novels morphed into nationalistic tales often
about colonial oppression.
As for contemporary literature, he observes
that the new novels from Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines and Singapore
feature characters who “seem to laugh and love without fear.”
|Finding an Audience or Literary Death
An author walking the plank is a common fate. Here's the story of how one
well-known English author was one book away from swimming with the
Grumpy Old Bookman recounts how Ian Rankin was an eyelash away from being
dropped by his publisher when he had a break out novel in 1997 that saved him
from being dumped into the North Sea wearing a cement suit.
indeed. Not only was the ground fragile for Ian Rankin, but it was ground that,
ten years later, few writers are going to get the chance to walk on. Not many
publishers these days are going to give you half a dozen chances to find an
audience. Today you either make a big impression with your first book or you can
go fuck yourself. Not, of course, that anyone in publishing would put it that
way, because they're all far too well bred; but that is pretty much what it
|New York Art Show for Chris Coles
The Agora Gallery at 530 West 25th Street, Chelsea, New York is holding a
reception for Chris Coles’ Vivid Perspectives. The show runs from February 1 to
images are from the nightlife in Bangkok. He creates a noir world with
surrealistic beings, splashed with bright colors, and drenched in atmosphere. He
is one of the first artists to explore the scenes in Nana Plaza, Soi Cowboy, and
Patpong. His portraits look behind the mask of those in the scene. They are
powerful and haunting images. If you are in New York in February, I urge you to
stop into the Agora Gallery to have a look.
|Vampire sighting in Phuket
Jim Newport will read and sign copies of his latest vampire novel Ramone, the
Return of the Vampire on 17th January 2006 from 7.00 p.m. to 8.30 p.m. at
the Phuket Boat Lagoon Marina located 10 minutes outside of Phuket on
Thepkasattri Road Koh Kaew, Tel. 076 239 730. I have heard Jim, who makes his
living as a set designer in Hollywood, read from his books before and he puts a
lot of drama and emotion into the exercise.
Mark Schreiber who writes from the Japan Times, among other publications, has
written a Foot Note on the Yellow
Peril. In this profile of author Clay Van Ash, an Englishman, living in
Japan, with two Fu Manchu novels to his credit, and as a 17 year old had
interviewed Sax Rohmer, the successful author of the Fu Manchu stories from the
1930s. Over the years Hollywood produced Fu Manchu movies starring the likes of
Warner Oland, Boris Karloff, Henry Brandon, Christopher Lee, and Peter Sellers
(in a comedy version).
“Few writers of fiction have ever actually seen
their most famous character, let alone under such exotic circumstances. Yet for
Sax Rohmer, the pseudonym of Arthur Henry 'Sarsfield' Ward, this hair-raising
glimpse of an obscure Chinese—shall we say, businessman?—was to inspire the
creation of one of the most enduring characters in popular English literature:
The Yellow Peril incarnate, Dr. Fu Manchu.”
|Authenticity in Books and Films
The question for authors is whether they have an obligation to be faithful to
the culture, language, geography and history of the place where they set a
story. Should readers who have no knowledge about a place care whether the
details are correct? My answer is that they should. Once literature becomes
disconnected from the reality, the story has no real anchor. Over the weekend I
had the chance to interview Philip Cunningham, an American author, professor,
journalist and expert on Asia. Philip speaks and writes fluently some very
difficult languages including Chinese, Japanese, and Thai. He has lived and
worked in Asia for many years. I asked him for an opinion on what to look for to
judge whether Stephen Spielberg’s Memoirs of a Geisha is authentic. While
Philip hasn’t seen the movie, he has seen the trailer, where Hollywood loads the
best, hottest scenes to lure the audience to see the whole movie. Philip says he
has no interest is seeing the film after having seen the trailer. Here is a
seven point checklist to remember when you see the film.
1. The film
isn’t shot in Kyoto. Geishas and Kyoto are inseparable. The film is not shot in
Kyoto, and that disconnects the culture of geishas from the place where these
artists lived. Think of a Japanese movie about Al Capone and the roaring 1920s
bootleg industry set in Fargo, North Dakota.
2. There aren’t any actual
geishas in the movie. That can be forgiven. No one expects actual gangster to be
cast in the Godfather. But has the film re-created the geisha and her
place inside the Japanese culture during World War II. The trailer suggests this
isn’t the case.
3. There has been controversy about casting Chinese
actresses in the lead as the central characters who are geishas. Should anyone
outside of Asia care whether the geishas in the film are Chinese or Japanese
actress? In the early Vietnam war films, Hollywood often cast Thais as the
Vietcong. For anyone living in Asia, listening to the “Vietcong” speak to each
other in Thai had most people confused or rolling around the floor with
laughter. In North America no one seemed to care. There is an inherent racism in
such casting decisions. It isn’t a conscious decision to insult the national
pride or ethnic background of anyone but a combination of insensitivity,
ignorance, availability of cast, the box office record of an actor that comes
4. Does the director of the movie have experience and
knowledge about the country? There is no indication that Rob Marshall was hired
because of his deep knowledge of Japanese culture, history, or language. He
needed a translator to give directions to the Chinese actresses on the how to
behave like a geisha. This is the level of authenticity better suited to making
a film like Chicago or King Kong where it is clear the audience is entering an unreal
world of fantasy.
5. The movie takes place in a World War II setting but
the politics of that dark period are absent from the film. Think of Cabaret shot without any reference to the Nazis.
The make-up and costumes are wrong. The geishas wore cake make-up, which made
their faces chalk white. The costumes are Hollywood versions, brighter, more
colorful than in reality. The geisha was taught to be subtle, stylistic,
understated in gestures and word. This appears to have been lost in the film.
7. The dialogue is Americanized. A geisha would unlikely uses phrases
such as “I love you” or “I miss you.” Such Hollywood inventions might work to
make a North American audience feel warm and happy but it is like having the
Vietcong speaking Thai in a film about the Vietnam War. People in Asia who know
Japan simply scratch their heads and wonder what kind of drugs the screenwriter
had been taking.
Tash Aw's The Harmony Silk Factory has won the Whitbread 2005 Best First
Novel Award. Aw who is Malay/British, tells his story through the eyes of three
narrators, each of whom provides a perspective on the elusive Johnny Lim,
Chinese silk merchant, who in the 1940s depending on the point of view is
heavily into the black market, acts as a Japanese secret agent, and organizes
the communist movement in Malaysia. Silk merchant and killer, Johnny Lim’s life
is filtered through the prism of three people who interpret his actions and
Aw was born in K.L. and has lived in England since his teens. He graduated
from law from Cambridge University and worked in a law firm before taking up
writing. The Harmony Silk Factory had rave reviews in England and was on the Man
Booker short list for 2005.
For more on the 2005 winners of the
Whitbread the BBC has filed a report.
After the Booker, the Whitbread is arguably the most important literary award in
Britain. The beer company that has lent its name to the award since 1971 is
pulling out of the award. A new sponsor is sought. The short-list includes has
pulled out of one of the literary world's most prestigious prizes which it had
sponsored since 1971. Each winner walks away with 5,000 pounds sterling.
A new sponsor is being sought, and the short-list of new sponsors in
line to take over from Whitbread include: Premier Travel Inn, Brewers Fayre,
Beefeater, Costa, T.G.I. Friday's and David Lloyd Leisure, and a strategic
investment in Pizza Hut (UK).
Winning a Pizza Hut (with extra cheese)
Award for Best Novel may be on the horizon. Home delivery included.
|Our Collective Memory of Books
An enterprising journalist in England typed out a chapter from V.S. Naipaul’s
novel A Free State (ranked 309,000 on Amazon) and from
Stanley Middleton’s Holiday (ranked 1,768, 662) and submitted them under
different names to 20 editors and agents. Of the submissions, he received
rejections from all agents and editors but one. The results of this “test” were
published on 1st January in The Times.
The literary biosphere has been
gnashing teeth and gums since on the meaning of these results. Both the rejected
books were published in the 1970s and won the authors a Booker Prize. No one
recognized the submissions as the writings of Naipaul or Middleton. It was as if
they no longer existed in the collective memory of those working the coal face
of publishing. Vanished into thin air. If you look at the amazon rankings it is
apparent the books sell very poorly. That has to say something about current
As thirty-five years has passed since the novels were published,
V.S. Naipaul’s observation that time has passed on may be a good explanation. We
like to think that fine writing like fine wine gets better with age. The reality
is that most fiction dates quickly and is forgotten. The best fiction writers
are able to channel the cultural and social air streams that define their age.
They express the truths, biases, frustrations, trends, and values that define a
generation. The recognition of an award demonstrates that the judges believe the
novelist successfully captured something that others have not. The award is not
a guarantee of longevity. Go back to the list of Booker nominees and winners,
and ask how many of those books remain in print? My guess is many are no longer
available. Why this should come as a shock or surprise to anyone is a mystery.
Each generation produces authors, painters, musicians that define their
era. From F. Scott Fitzgerald to Bob Dylan, in the cultural arena, buyers of
books, art and music wish to discover images and visions and interpretations
that are relevant to their life. When Tom Wolfe writes a novel I am Charlotte Simmons set on a college campus there is
a large wince factor. The observations come from an outsider looking in rather
than an insider reporting out.
What is being published and read
(becoming increasingly two largely disconnected events) in 2006 will not be the
same as in 1971. What will appear immediate, clever, well-written, and poignant
in 2006 will likely have no or little audience in 2056. There is an assumption
that fine or good writing transcends time and like ancient folklore is handed
down from generation-to-generation. When a reader buys a book fifty years from
now it won’t be on the basis that it won a Booker Prize in 2006. He or she will
buy the book (I am assuming books will be in the same form as today and that is
a big assumption) because it reflects the hot buttons of that time, places our
emotions in a larger context, and makes the map of our existence more accessible
as the right has marked the paths, roads, canals and sign posted the hazards.
Who is being published and who is publishing is also vastly different in
2006 than in 1971. Go back and look at the number of publishers in London and
New York and ask how many of them are still organized in the same fashion as
opposed to being swallowed up by one of the large media companies. The POD
(print on demand) technology is changing the face of publishing. With many more
thousands of people finding a means to write their novel.
On The Edge many
thinkers have been asked to answer this question: What is your dangerous idea.
My dangerous idea is that the overwhelming number of novels will never
(and should never) survive the generation in which they are published. It would
be outright dangerous if all of these books did survive. No one has time to read
what was published in 2005. Imagine hundreds of years of books in your
bookstores and libraries. Like cemeteries the dead would soon overtake the
Novels are for the living. At least the living who would have
time to read. Each year that is a smaller group.
The few novels that do
manage to sell generations later, is some evidence that the rare author finds a
niche in his or her time and underneath the thin layer of the present, a
universal theme and language communicates to a story that transcends any one
time and has the capacity to touch lives of future generations. This doesn’t
mean that we shouldn’t read and read widely what is being published.
Though Darwin would suggest that in literature as in all kingdoms,
extinction is the ultimate fate unless the species can adapt to new, and
different environments. Whether novels adapt to an Internet filled with millions
of books, letters, notes, memoirs, and digital images and sounds unfolding in a
future culture that we can only see the vague outlines or go the way of the Dodo
bird, no one can be sure.