Television on Books

There was an article in yesterdays Daily Telegraph entitled: “BBC must have a show about books”.

The article went on: “The BBC’s lack of books coverage is  ‘an absolute disgrace’ according to Robert Harris, the novelist and chairman of the Costa Book Awards judging panel.



Robert Harris

Announcing Helen Macdonald’s memoir H is for Hawk as the £30,000 Costa Book of the Year, Harris used his speech to criticise the corporation.  He pointed out that in the 1970’s, when the prize was launched, the BBC had two dedicated book programmes on its main channel.  Now it has none.  ‘It is an absolute disgrace that the BBC, a publicly funded organisation shouldn’t do a bit more to help our books business’, he said, to cheers from authors and publishing industry figures.  ‘Come on, Tony Hall, if you’re watching this on BBC news.  Do a little bit more for the books trade, please.’  He added, ‘In the 1970’s there were two book programmes: The Book Programme with Robert Robertson and Read All About It with Melvyn Bragg.  Both were running at the same time when we only had three channels.  We now have 300 channels, but we don’t have any dedicated book programmes.’

The Book Programme was dedicated to ‘books, authors and the literary life’.  From what I can tell it ran on several BBC regional radio stations, as well as on TV.  My search on Google failed to find a reference to Read All About It as a BBC programme or as a reference under Melvyn Bragg.  Perhaps the BBC’s archive does not go back far enough.  The BBC does, however, give full coverage to Robert Harris’ remarks.

As I think about media coverage of books, I tend to agree that more coverage of books and the literary world would be desirable – provided that the coverage is targeted at the right audience, through the right medium.  It seems to me that television is most effective when it presents changing or moving images.  If the programme were to feature books, the images would mostly be of authors talking, presenters commenting or book covers.  Radio could be nearly as effective as TV in presenting literary subjects.  To justify its cost as a medium, television needs to attract a mass audience, but is there a mass audience for literature? Given the many genres, styles, authors, and critics, it seems to me that attracting a large audience to books, in general, would be difficult.

My conclusion is that a weekly radio show of, say half an hour, in the early afternoon, could be quite interesting.  It would feature trends and developments in literature (including writing, publishing, marketing and distribution) as well as brief, stimulating interviews with authors, publishers and critics.  And, of course, the presenter would have to be both knowledgeable and a good entertainer.

What is your view?

Personification of Evil

Sometimes there are evil characters in novels.  How do we create them and why?


To get at the answers to these questions, we first have to understand what we mean by ‘evil’.  My Chambers Dictionary defines evil as ‘something which produces unhappiness or misfortune’.  But suppose we are considering a situation where a love affair has ended.  Is the one who ended it evil?  Most of us wouldn’t consider a married person evil if s/he ended an extra-marital affair, but one (or both) parties to the affair may be very unhappy.  Or consider someone who went to Las Vegas and lost £10,000 in a night of gambling.  S/he may consider the event a real misfortune, but I doubt that most of us consider gambling to be ‘evil’.  ‘Foolish’?  Yes.  To be avoided?  Yes.  But not ‘evil’.

For me, ‘evil’ is the creation of sin, and ‘sin’ is the act of intentional harm to another human being.  Notice the use of the word ‘intentional’.  With the use of ‘intentional’, the person who ended the affair did not commit a sin in ending the affair if s/he ended it without intending to hurt the other person.  The other person may indeed be hurt, but causing hurt was not the motivation for ending the affair.  Similarly, the gambler did not intend to hurt himself by continuing to gamble and lose.

I think it is fair to say that I tend to consider ‘evil’ as a semi-religious term, and, as such, it has extra significance.  For me, things and actions which are ‘good’ are God-given, while evil things and actions arise from God’s antithesis – call him the devil, if you wish.  We human beings are in the middle, pulled in both directions, but having free will – the freedom to choose.

Two of my novels deal with these themes.  Sin and Contrition has six characters, three boys and three girls whom we follow from the age of 13 to about 52.   Amongst them, they commit most of the available sins, except such violent sins as rape or murder.  (One of the characters, however, does go to war.)  There is always at least a weak intention to commit the sin, and generally a certain amount of repentance, but the character and his/her motivation is viewed in the unique situation in which they are found, so that I, as the author, try not to judge them.  Rather, I let them judge themselves, with, of course, the input of the world around them.  My expectation is that the reader will judge them.  The point I’m trying to make is that sometimes evil and sin are very clear, but often ‘extenuating circumstances’ make them less clear, and that this is what life is: challenging, a bit foggy and uncertain, even though there may be a beacon – often barely visible – to show the way.

The other novel is Sable Shadow and The Presence, which deals more explicitly with the ‘beacon’.  Sometimes the beacon is a God-send, but often it is not.  Who guides us and why?  Part of the answer is who and what we are as people: our identity, over which we have a great deal more control than we sometimes like to believe. Henry, the principal character in Sable Shadow and The Presence, uses his identity and a particular beacon to achieve a great success.  When multiple tragedies strike, he must change both his identity and his beacon!

Plot vs Theme

I think we all understand what is meant by the plot of a novel.  It is the story line; the summary of what happens.  The theme is the message that the author is trying to get the reader to think about.  It is the philosophical/theological/social/psychological message of the novel.  The theme may not be very clear; it may be quite subtle or implied, because the author wants to present the reader with a puzzle: something important to consider.

It is probably fair to say that every novel has a plot, but not every novel has a theme.  For example, my novel, The Iranian Scorpion, is a thriller, and as such, it has a plot, but I didn’t intend it to have a theme.  I suppose, considering the novel retrospectively, one might say that its theme is the near impossibility of banning addictive drugs such as heroin, but I didn’t intend to write the novel to make that point.

Consider To Kill a Mockingbird, one of the great novels of the 2oth century.  The plot is quite complex.  It involves two young children, Scout and Jem, who live with their widowed father, a lawyer, in a small Alabama town in the 1930’s.  The father, Atticus, is appointed by a judge to defend a black man who is accused of raping a white woman.  In the course of the trial, Atticus establishes that the white woman and her father are lying.  Nonetheless, the black man, Tom Robinson, is convicted by the jury.  Tom is killed in escaping from jail.  What follows is an attack by Bob Ewell, the accused’s father, on the children at night.  Boo, an elusive and mysterious neighbour, intervenes.  Bob Ewell is thought to have fallen on his own knife and died.  The plot itself has elements of uncertainty: the evidence presented at trial, the attack on the children, the motivation of Boo.

The overriding theme of the novel is the racial prejudice which existed in the American South in the ’30’s.  But there is also the idealistic courage of Atticus and his children in the face of prejudice.  In addition, there are issues around social class and gender which are touched on.

I think it is fair to say that the plot, while it reflects some of the author, Harper Lee’s, childhood experiences, is constructed so as to develop the themes for the reader.  Harper Lee took two and a half years to complete the novel, and during that time, she became so frustrated that at one point she threw the manuscript out a window into the snow.  (Her agent made her retrieve it.)  In my view, To Kill a Mockingbird is the best example of compelling plot and themes beautifully integrated.

A lesser example would be my novel, Sable Shadow and The Presence, which has as its themes the overriding importance of identity for us as human beings.  Identity is who, why and what we are.  It is critical in determining how happy we are in the life we lead, and our identity can be changed under certain circumstances.  The plot is the life of a bright, but introverted male character who grows and develops into a ‘great success’, only to see his success evaporate, and having to build a new identity.

Mark Zuckerberg on reading

James Walton has an article in yesterday’s Daily Telegraph which is entitled: ‘Reading Books is not a duty, Mr Zuckerberg’.



Walton begins by saying:

“Books,” according to the chick-lit author and  former Member of Parliament Louise Mensch, “were what we used to do before the internet.”  Now, though, it seems that these ancient artefacts may be making a comeback.  No less a figure than Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s founder, has declared 2015 “A Year of Books” and is inviting his website users to join him in his New Year’s resolution of reading and discussing one a fortnight.  His first choice is Moisés Naim’s The End of Power, which explores the growing power of ‘anti-political’ movements such as the Tea Party and Ukip – thanks, as luck wold have it, to their use of Facebook.  Zuckerberg launched his project by announcing, with what sounds almost like surprise, that books are “intellectually fulfilling” and “allow you too explore a topic . . . in a deeper way than most media today”.  For old school book lovers, the literary reference that springs most readily to mind is “no —-, Sherlock”.

Walton continues: You might also be tempted to imagine a world in which there had been 700 years of internet, before, in the Nineties, somebody invented books.  It would surely seem a miracle that, instead of trawling acres of semi-reliable information, you could have a guaranteed, portable and inexpensive source of knowledge from someone who knows both how to write and what they’re talking about.  But it appears that in his shock discovery of books potential, Zuckerberg is not alone.  A recent article in The Wall Street Journal praised a new campaign of “slow reading”, whose members meet once a week in a café, turn off their phones for a whole hour and read in silence.  Such quiet reading, the headline declared, can “benefit your brain” (again, not a revelation that would have startled Sherlock Holmes.)  While today’s bibliophiles might want to pounce on anything that smacks of good news, I can’t help wondering if using books purely as a means of self improvement – with elements of self-congratulation thrown in – misses the point of reading.

Walton goes on to make the point, via Nick Hornby, that people should read books for enjoyment and should not bother to finish the ones they don’t enjoy.  “Every time we pick up a book from a sense of duty, we’re reinforcing the notion that reading is something you should do, but television (or, presumably, surfing the internet) is something that you want to do.”  He makes the further point that Zuckerberg has fallen into the philistine idea that books should be relevant to your life.

I certainly agree with Walton, but I’m surprised that he doesn’t mention that Goodreads is owned by Facebook.  All the more reason for Zuckerberg to promote reading.  And I agree that it’s good for us to expand our intellectual horizons by reading something entirely new to us.  My wife recently finished reading Do No Harm, a book by neurosurgeon Henry Marsh about his life and practice.  She recommends it, and since I know nothing about the subject, it’s at the top of my To Read list.