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Blog 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.

Translation 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.”

Posted: 1/31/2006 2:37:46 AM 


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.

Posted: 1/31/2006 2:36:08 AM 



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

In the 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.

Posted: 1/30/2006 3:27:30 AM 


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.

Posted: 1/29/2006 11:54:27 PM 


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 years.

The History of Lan Na, by Sarasawadee Ongsakul, translated by Chitraporn Tranratanakul (2006) published by Silkworm Books.

The author and translator are members of Department of History, Faculty of Humanities of Chiang Mai University.

Posted: 1/27/2006 4:08:42 AM 


Bangkok Book News

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

Posted: 1/26/2006 5:57:55 AM 


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 Burmese Days.

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 Asia.

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 industry.”

Posted: 1/24/2006 11:48:45 PM 


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.

Posted: 1/24/2006 3:08:00 AM 


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 self-deprecating humour.”

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.

Posted: 1/24/2006 3:06:37 AM 


Darwin’s Theory applied to the Book Trade

Brad 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!”

Posted: 1/20/2006 2:45:13 AM 


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?

Most readers haven’t.

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 novels:

Quin's Shanghai Circus (1974)
The Jerusalem Quartet:
    o Sinai Tapestry (1977)
    o Jerusalem Poker (1978)
    o Nile Shadows (1983)
    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.

The critics 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 forgotten.

Posted: 1/18/2006 4:29:14 AM 


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.

One 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.

He was 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 literary agents.

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.

5. 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, polished book.

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.

Posted: 1/17/2006 3:38:36 AM 


Blogging from Asia

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’”.

Posted: 1/17/2006 3:35:52 AM 


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 paper books.”

Posted: 1/16/2006 2:24:34 AM 


Southeast Asian Authors

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.”

Posted: 1/13/2006 2:01:58 AM 


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 fish.

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.

“Yes, 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 amounts to.”

Posted: 1/12/2006 5:36:48 AM 


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 February 21.


Chris’s 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.

Posted: 1/11/2006 12:02:43 AM 


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.

Posted: 1/11/2006 12:01:00 AM 


Finding Dr. Fu Manchu

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.”

Posted: 1/10/2006 11:57:25 PM 


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 into play.

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.

6. 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.

Posted: 1/9/2006 10:12:23 PM 


Asian Whitbread Winner

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 life.

Tash 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.

Posted: 1/6/2006 1:44:08 AM 


The Whitbread Award

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.

Posted: 1/6/2006 1:41:02 AM 


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 taste.

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 living.

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.

Posted: 1/5/2006 3:05:01 AM 



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