The American Family

I had a call from a friend of mine.  He said, “I found one of your manuscripts.”  (This is a friend to whom I’ve given early drafts of my work.)

“Did you, Peter?” I coaxed.

“Yes, and I think it’s very good indeed.”

“In what way?”

“Well, it depicts the American family in a way that’s both real and stimulating.”


Typical American Family?

I thought: I haven’t written anything about the American family. He must be looking at someone else’s manuscript.

Are you sure it’s mine, Peter?”

“Yes, it’s Sable Shadow and The Presence.”

So, I thought, he must have picked it up again three or four years after I sent it to him.

“Do you want it back?”

“No that’s fine, Peter.  You can keep it.”

This incident got me thinking about that particular novel.  It isn’t really about the American family. Rather, it’s the story of one man’s struggle with good and evil, success and failure.  But at the same time it is populated with characters, all of whom are American, and who make up his extended family.  His mother is a rather distant woman, more concerned with her social life than with her children.  Henry’s father is an alcoholic who has failed in his career ambitions, and while seemingly remote from his children is intensely proud of them.  Henry’s sister is bright, aggressive and with all the self-confidence that Henry lacks.

Henry’s wife, a psychologist, is also unsure of herself, but she places all her confidence in her husband.  Their children are William and Helen.  William is adored by his father, and represents ‘all that I wish I could have been’ in a reflection of the relationship between Henry and his father.  Helen is a blonde gay beauty who goes through the agonies of coming out to her parents and finding unexpected acceptance.

Henry has two domineering grandfathers: one very wealthy who manages to lose it all, and the other an autocrat who dedicates himself and his family to his alma mater, Notre Dame.

Apart from the family there are several positive role models for Henry and two malignant influences.  These two are the last CEO of the corporation for which Henry works, and a female employee who has sexual designs on Henry.

Putting these characters together was not a difficult task.  They seemed to come alive on the page.  Perhaps this process was facilitated by similar people and relationships I have experienced, though the novel is not autobiographical – even though it is told in the first person.

Authors Prohibited from Writing Blurbs

Brooke Warner, of hybrid publisher She Writes Press, recently posted a blog on the HuffPost Books US website in which she was very critical of traditional publishers.  What happened was that a traditionally published author agreed to write a blurb for a book that was to be published by She Writes Press.  The author checked with her editor at one of the big five publishing houses and the blurb was pulled.


Brooke Warner

The reason for the decision is that there is a difference in ‘values’ between traditional publishers and other publishers: traditional publishers believe that “publishers should invest in authors, but authors should not invest in themselves”.

My reaction: this makes no sense at all!  Why should authors be prohibited from investing in themselves?

Ms Warner said: “What should matter about a book is how well written it is–not the author platform or brand or how many followers a would-be author has. And yet, from a business perspective, of course it makes sense that this is what publishers today must focus on–or risk decimation. I left traditional publishing after a particularly symbolic experience, when I was actively discouraged from acquiring a book I believed in wholeheartedly but then met with excessive enthusiasm (and a large advance to back it) for a proposal propelled by a fancy agent, celebrity endorsements, and a whole lotta hot air. It wasn’t cannon fodder, and it ended up doing well for the company, but I’d compromised. I left three months later.”

She continues: “If you are asked to blurb a book, what should matter is whether you believe in it. If you don’t, you don’t blurb it. If you care enough about the author or the book, you offer your endorsement. End of story. It’s your choice. A blurb is a gift to the author. Authors do not pay for blurbs. They work hard to get them because the industry tells authors that they matter, that they sell books. She Writes Press authors have scored amazing blurbs–blurbs from New York Times best-selling authors and champions of people’s dreams. A publishing company, in my opinion, does not have the right to mandate whom its authors advocate in an attempt to control its reputation or to distance itself from “the other.” To do so smacks of elitism, one of traditional publishing’s lasting and detrimental flaws. We’ve already arrived at a place where people judge books on the writing, not on how those books make it into the marketplace. It’s time for traditional publishing to catch up, to pull its head out of the sand. That it’s lost sight of publishing’s mandate–to champion good books–speaks to its values. And those are values I certainly don’t share.”

Ms Warner – she was apparently quite angry when she wrote the blog – then mentioned a specific example of the ‘values’ of the big five: “Simon & Schuster has a self-publishing imprint called Archway, run by Author Solutions (of very questionable ethics who’ve been sued by authors and whose track record you can Google), which, awkwardly and oddly, is owned by Random House/Penguin. (Apparently Simon & Schuster has no qualms about the self-publishing arm of their business being owned by their biggest and direct traditional competitor.) One of the great promises of Archway is that you might get published by Simon & Schuster–if your book sells well enough. But their traditionally published authors apparently can’t and won’t blurb you. So there you go–you’re the pissed-upon little sibling. They happily run a self-publishing imprint, but they do whatever they can to distance that “subset” from the preferred children.

The war between the traditional press and the ‘upstarts’ is heating up!

Review: Remains of the Day

This ‘modern classic’ was first published in 1989, and won the Booker Prize that year. While I had heard of the novel, I had never read it; I was further motivated to read it as a Booker Prize winner and by the author being a Japanese writer I didn’t know.

Kazou Ishiguro was born in Nagasaki, Japan in 1954 and moved to the UK at the age of five. He has written six novels, all of which have won prizes or received major recognition. He currently lives in London with his wife and daughter.


Kazou Ishiguro

The novel is told in the first person by Stevens, who was the butler in Darlington Hall, which was the residence of Lord Darlington in the 1930’s. Darlington Hall was a grand place, with many servants, Stevens having overall responsibility. Lord Darlington was a man of considerable wealth and influence, both socially and politically. He died after the war, and Darlington Hall was sold to an American, Mr Faraday, who has downsized both the staff and the use of the Hall.

Much of the book is Stevens’ recollections of events that took place when his lordship was in residence, and we learn that Stevens is preoccupied with the extent to which he was (like his father) a top butler. Stevens comes to define a top butler as a true professional who carries great dignity to his profession. The descriptions of relationships (and dialogue) among staff and with the lord of the manor are brilliant: they convey clearly the culture of the English aristocracy in the 20’s and 30’s.

Mr Faraday plans to be in the States for an extended period, and he suggests to Stevens that he take the motorcar on a sightseeing trip. Stevens accepts his offer and coincidently decides to call on a Miss Kenton who was the one who supervised all the housemaids at Darlington Hall. Miss Kenton left the Hall years ago, and has married. Now, Stevens wonders whether he can persuade her to return to the Hall, as there are hints that her marriage is in difficulty. The working relationship between Stevens and Kenton was very formal, but one cannot help but wonder if there is an unacknowledged attraction between them.   In the last chapter, they meet again, and the message of the novel is revealed: Stevens muses: “After all, what can we ever gain forever looking back and blaming ourselves if our lives have not turned out quite as we might have wished?”

The novel moves at a very leisurely pace, with very little action. Major events are recounted by Stevens factually and without emotion. The characters, the setting and the story-telling all completely support that retrospective, self-doubting theme. In spite of Stevens’ wordiness, his character shines through in a way that he is able to maintain the reader’s attention.

If one is looking for tale with plenty of action and excitement, The Remains of the Day would not be a good choice. But if one would like to curl up with a superbly-written story, immersed in history, and long-forgotten characters, a story that succeeds admirably in making its point, then Remains is for you.

As a sort of aside, I would add that the criteria for winning the Booker Prize may have shifted over the last twenty-five years. It’s hard to imagine that a novel with little overt physical or emotional action could win, given the level of current competition.

The Guilty Secretes of E-book Readers

There was an article in The Daily Telegraph last week which reported on the popularity of titles of e-books vs titles of physical books.

“A newly published list of’s biggest selling e-books of the year features psychological thrillers, misery memoirs, Mills and Boon and a book by the Tory MP Nadine Dorries, whose first work was memorably described by a Telegraph reviewer as “the worst novel I’ve read in 10 years”.  Notably, 18 of the top 20 authors were women, including thriller writers Angela Marsons, Fiona Neill and Rachel Abbott.

“However a parallel list  of physical books compiled by Waterstones to cover the same period is significantly more highbrow, and features four times as many male authors.  They include Richard Flanagan, author of the Man-Booker Prize-winning The Narrows Road to the Deep North, and Anthony Doerr, with his All the Light We Cannot See.  There were also books by Colm Toibin, Ian McEwan and Victoria Hislop.  The print list is topped by Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, which does not make the Amazon e-books list.

“There is some overlap.  Paula Hawkin’s runaway bestseller The Girl on the Train, and the latest risqué offering form E L James appear in the top three of both lists. But the disparity between the books we put on show and those we download suggests that e-book reads can be ‘guilty pleasures’.

“Benedict Page of The Bookseller said: ‘There are certain kinds of books that people like to own.  If they have a favourite heavyweight literary author who they have followed for many years, they are likely to want to possess the printed book because it’s beautiful and durable and represents a readerly commitment.'”

I think that Page’s analysis is probably correct in that we tend to regard e-books as disposable, and printed books something to be retained. The high proportion of female writers on the e-book list is interesting.  My theory would be that at least some of the female authors on the e-book list write primarily for women, and are more interested in achieving volume than literary recognition.  I’m also guessing that more women than men own e-book readers.  These two theories seem to converge on the supply and demand sides.

What’s your view?