Has Television Killed the Novel?

The Daily Telegraph had an article by Anita Singh, Arts and Entertainment Editor on January 3 in which Neil Cross, creator of the TV police series Luther, claimed that television has killed the novel.  He says that the 20th century was blessed with novels like Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Lolita, The Colour Purple and The Handmaiden’s Tale that changed the way we see the world, bu that there are no equivalents in the 21st century.

Neil Cross

Neil Cross was born in Bristol in 1969; he graduated from the university of Leeds with a degree in English and Theology.  His initial career was solely as a novelist, and his first novel, Mr In Between, was published in 1998 and later made into a film.   He has written seven titles for TV, the longest running of which is Luther; two screen plays and nine novels.  He lives in Wellington, New Zealand.

The article says: “Cross, who has written several novels of his own and a well-received memoir, said, ‘I like books, but I can’t think of a novel published since the year 2000 that is as culturally important as The Sopranos or The Wire or Breaking Bad.  I just think that the narrative function of television is supplanting the novel.’  He went on: ‘I think the way that television is being watched is replacing the societal and cultural function of the novel.  We consume television like we used to read books.  Instead of a chapter before I turn off my light, it is now one more TV episode before I turn the light off.’

“Cross argued that episodic television is ‘fulfilling a similar function’ to novels of the Victorian era ‘in the way that people talk about and analyse the characters’.  Writers including Charles Dickens and Henry James released their work in instalments, with readers keenly awaiting the next update.

The Sopranos, which began 20 years ago next week, was named by the Writers Guild of America as the best-written television series of all time.  The Wire and Breaking Bad, also US television dramas, were adored by critics and audiences alike.  Meanwhile the sales of literary fiction have been falling since the mid-Nineties.  The biggest sellers published this century have included The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown, the later Harry Potter stories, the Fifty Shades of Grey books and The Twilight Saga.”

I think Mr Cross is neglectful when he says, ” I can’t think of a novel published since the year 2000 that is as culturally important as The Sopranos or The Wire or Breaking Bad.”  Just have a look at this list complied by the BBC:  http://www.bbc.com/culture/story/20150119-the-21st-centurys-12-best-novels.

I do agree, however, that “We consume television like we used to read books.”  But, I’m not sure it follows that television is killing the novel.  If we break ‘novel’ down into its genres, it is possible, in my view, that television is having an impact on the sales of thrillers,  But literary novels have their own problems: see: https://www.newstatesman.com/culture/books/2018/01/slow-death-literary-novel-sales-crisis-afflicting-fiction.

 

Review: The Choice

My wife read this book – an autobiography of an Auschwitz survivor – and recommended it so highly that I had to read it.  Dr Edith Eger, the author, was born Editke Elefant in Kosice, Slovakia (then part of Hungary) on 29 September 1927.  In early 1944, the Nazis occupied Hungary and forced Edith, her two sisters, Magda and Clara, her mother and father into the Kosice ghetto.  In May, 1944, when Edith was 16, she, her mother, father, and sister, Magda, were loaded onto cattle cars and sent to Auschwitz, where her mother and father were murdered; Clara, a violinist, is away from home at a concert, and survived the war with a false identity.

Edith Eger

Edith is made to dance by the infamous Dr Mengele.  Together, Edith and Magda endure the terror, famine, forced labour,and extreme hardship of Auschwitz; in late 1944, they are moved by train to Germany where they work as slave labourers in factories.  They are moved again to Austria.  Of the two thousand prisoners who were forced on a death march to Gunskirchen, the sisters are two of only one hundred who survive.  Edith was discovered in a pile of the dead, more dead than alive, by a US soldier in May 1945.  The sisters are nursed back to health and travel to Prague, where they are reunited with Clara.

They return to Kosice, and find their old house which has been occupied and looted.  Edith meets Bela Eger, a wealthy Jew, who has survived the war as an anti-Nazi, and they are married.  Many Hungarians feel threatened by the Communist take-over of Hungary and cast about for a safer refuge.  Clara emigrates to Australia, Magda chooses the US and Bela has made arrangements to start a business in Israel.  At the last moment Edith decides to take her baby daughter to America, and Bela goes, too, first to Brooklyn, then Baltimore and El Paso.  They face low wages, poor accommodation and discrimination.   Bela finds work as and accountant, and Edith gets her masters and doctorate degrees, becoming a clinical psychologist.   She has three children and now lives in La Jolla, California.

There are poignant descriptions of Edith’s journey to Hitler’s castle in the Bavarian mountains where she slept in Goebble’s bed, of her return to Auschwitz, and of her counselling sessions, particularly with soldiers suffering from post traumatic stress disorder.

The title of the book, The Choice, is derived from Edith’s belief that we cannot change the external events in our lives; we can only choose how we respond to them.  She and Magda chose to survive against all odds.  She also highlights a piece of advice from her mother: “They can never take away what you put in your mind.”

Perhaps the most important passage in the book occurs on page 307: Edith is recalling that on entering Auschwitz, Dr Mengele asked her, “Is she your mother or sister?”  She replied, “Mother,” and learned later that this choice effectively condemned her mother to death, as all those over 40 or under 14 were executed.  She says, “Could I have saved my mother?  Maybe.  And I will live all the rest of my life with that possibility.  And I can castigate myself for having made the wrong choice.  That is my prerogative.  Or I can accept that the more important choice is not the one that I made when I was hungry and terrified, when we were surrounded by dogs and guns and uncertainty, when I was sixteen; it’s the one I make now.  The choice to accept myself as I am; human, imperfect.”

This is a timeless book, well-written, that speaks constructively about life, death, humanity and uncertainty.

Creating An Author Persona for Interviews and Live Events

A post with the above title appeared on The Creative Penn blog back in September, and it caught my eye.  The Creative Penn is a business started by Joanna Penn, author, speaker and creative entrepreneur.  Her website says she is a New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of thrillers and non-fiction, and an international professional speaker and entrepreneur voted as one of The Guardian UK’s Top 100 Creative Professionals in 2013.

Joanna Penn with some of her books

“First let go of your belief that writers get to simply clack away at the keyboard, spinning tales and immersing themselves in story.  Most successful authors have social media accounts and go on blog tours, but they also complete interviews, participate in panels, set up book signings, and maybe even deliver keynote speeches.  These are great ways to build an audience, but a far cry for the reality most of us imagined when we dreamed of becoming authors.

“Shannon Baker has published seven books and says she still finds it difficult to network at conferences and meetings ‘Often, I’m hovering around the outskirts of conversation groups, feeling awkward and dull-witted.  Then, I get tongue-tied or flat-out say the wrong thing,’ Shannon says.

“Fortunately, there is a way for an introvert to navigate this situation and maintain her sanity: create an author persona.  Jess Lourey, an author of sixteen books says she received some of the best writing advice early in her career.  She says, ‘It came from Carl Brookins, a gruff, Minnesota mystery author with a background in television.  He said that to survive, I should create an author persona.  I told him I was no actor.  He said it’s not acting: it’s taking that gregarious, unique person we all have somewhere in us, and shoving her on stage,’

“The steps:

  1. When creating your author persona, try to keep your mask as close to your real face as possible, but make the public one more cheerier and more upbeat.
  2. Make a conscious decision about whether your public persona will discuss (online and in person) politics, religion, civil rights. i.e. important polarising issues. Shannon avoids these areas, Jess does not.  You have to decide what your comfort level is, but make the decision consciously and early so your audience knows what to expect.
  3. Choose one quality that you like about the real you, and amp that up in your author persona.  For Jess, it’s humour; for Shannon, it’s being an excellent listener.  Deciding what organic quality of yours you’ll rely on in public situations keeps it authentic while also giving you comfort.
  4. Finally, have a special wardrobe that  you save for author events.  Don’t go out and buy something new and expensive.  Rather, use your regular wardrobe, but make it a little more fun.  Some authors are know for wearing hats, or a scarf, or blue shoes.  The item/wardrobe signals to you that you’re about to perform.”

I think this is good advice, and I’ll welcome the opportunity to putting it into practice.

Yesterday, I received notification that my latest novel, Achieving Superpersonhood: Three East African Lives, was the winner, Inspirational, in the Beverly Hills Book Awards, 2018.

 

“Don’t Call It ‘Chick Lit'”

There was an article in the 20th October issue of The Daily Telegraph, written by Camilla Tominey, titled: Don’t refer to women’s fiction as chic lit, says author’.  “Books should not be referred to as ‘chick lit’ because more women than men read novels – and it should be men’s fiction that is the ‘sub-category’, the author of Big Little Lies has said.  Liane Moriarty, who sold the rights to the book to Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon for a blockbuster TV series, said women’s fiction should never be treated as a sub-genre because women read more than men.”

Ms Moriarty’s page on Goodreads says: “Liane Moriarty is the Australian author of six internationally best-selling novels, Three Wishes, The Last Anniversary, What Alice Forgot, The Hypnotist’s Love Story and the number 1 New York Times bestsellers, The Husband’s Secret and Big Little Lies.  Her breakout novel The Husband’s Secret sold over three million copies worldwide, was a number 1 UK bestseller, an Amazon Best Book of 2013 and has been translated into over 40 languages. It spent over a year on the New York Times bestseller list. CBS Films has acquired the film rights.  With the launch of Big Little Lies, Liane became the first Australian author to have a novel debut at number one on the New York Times bestseller list. An HBO series based on Big Little Lies is currently in production, starring Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon. . . . Liane lives in Sydney with her husband, son and daughter. Her new novel, Truly Madly Guilty, will be released in July 2016.”

Actually, the first series of Big Little Lies completed in April of last year, and a second series was announced in December. Ms Moriarty has since written Three Perfect Strangers.

Liane Moriarty

Most of the rest of the Telegraph article deals with Ms Moriarty’s excitement in meeting Nicole Kidman, reaching an agreement on the sale of rights, and of her creation a a character to be played by Meryl Streep, whose real name is Mary-Louise, we are informed.

But to return to the main point of the article, I certainly have some sympathy for the name given to what Wikipedia calls ‘genre fiction which consists of heroine-centered narratives that focus on the trials and tribulations of their individual protagonists”, because ‘chick lit’ has become a somewhat pejorative term.  Wikipedia goes on to say, “While chick lit has been very popular with readers, critics largely disapproved of the genre. Reviewer Alex Kuczynski, writing for The New York Times condemned Helen Fielding’s novel, in particular, writing ‘Bridget is such a sorry spectacle, wallowing in her man-crazed helplessness, that her foolishness cannot be excused.’ Writer Doris Lessing deemed the genre “instantly forgettable” while Beryl Bainbridge called the genre ‘a froth sort of thing’.

As I mentioned in an earlier blog, there are literary agencies which specialise in chick lit, though they don’t specifically say so; their focus is immediately clear from the covers and titles of their authors.  Chick lit is big business!

It seems to me that if Ms Moriarty doesn’t like her work to be called chick lit, she should change her subject matter and style or she should invent a new name for her genre – something like ‘Good Women’s’.   It certainly doesn’t classify at Literary Fiction.

To argue, in effect, that the chick lit genre should be deleted because women read more fiction than men – while it is true that women read more – doesn’t make sense.  How are we going to distinguish serious female writers like Kate Atkinson from writers like Helen Fielding?

London Literature Festival

My wife and I attended two events at the London Literature Festival: readings by Carol Ann Duffy (the Poet Laureate,) ‘and friends’; and an interview with Salman Rushdie, both at the Southbank Centre, London

Carol Ann Duffy was the last of four readers; the other three were Imtiaz Dharker, Keith Hutson and Mark Pajak.  Ms Duffy, born 1955, is a Scottish poet and playwright. She is Professor of Contemporary Poetry at Manchester Metropolitan University and was appointed Poet Laureate in 2009. She is the first woman, the first Scot and the first openly gay to hold the position.  Her poems address issues such as oppression, gender, and violence in an accessible language that has made them popular in schools.

Carol Ann Duffy

Of the four poets, I liked the readings of Mark Pajak best.  His poems were quite ordinary in their subjects – the one I liked best was about removing dead birds from a hen battery – but he has a way of expressing emotions with unique yet powerfully descriptive phrases.  This is a talent which I aspire to emulate.  Mr Pajak is quite a young poet, currently completing an MA in creative writing at Manchester Metropolitan University.   My wife’s preference was Imitiaz Dharker, a Pakistani-born, English poet in her mid-sixties.  Ms Duffy’s concluding poem was a bad-language rant against the corrupt elite using seven key words.  It was intended to be clever but for me, it came across as bombastic.

Salman Rushdie was interviewed by Erica Wagner, and American-born (1967) author and critic, who was literary editor of The Times from 1996 to 2013; she has written several books, including a novel, a collection of stories and a biography.  She has served twice as Booker Prize judge.

The discussion with Salman Rushdie began with Midnight’s Children, which he characterised as a history.   He made the point that one writes an historic novel, one must have a road map of places and events to be covered before one starts writing.  This road map makes the task of writing quite different than when one starts with a character-based novel, and lets the development of the characters control the flow of the novel.  He confessed to being very torn between Midnight’s Children and Children of Midnight.  After writing both titles down repeatedly on a sheet of paper, he woke up the next morning and realised that Midnight’s Children is the better title.  He said that while in Italian and Spanish, there is a similar choice between the two constructions, in French there is only one, so one has to be attentive to the advice of translators.

He confessed to be a reader who is ‘not anxious to turn the page’, and this confession reminded me of my criticism of Rushdie’s writing: that it is sometimes too verbose.

The narrator of his latest novel is a young man called René, and he made the point that it is an important decision for an author to select the narrator: there have to be good reasons for the selection.  I agree.  He then spoke about the difficulty for a seventy-year-old writer in getting into the head of a hip young New Yorker – though he didn’t mention his technique for the transformation.

Much of the dialogue with Ms Wagner was about The Golden House, Rushdie’s most recent, which is a parable of American politics, written after the Obama inauguration.  There is a Trump-like character who likes to refer to himself as The Joker.  Rushdie said, “In a deck of cards, only two of them don’t behave properly: One is the trump and the other is a joker.”  He read from The Golden House: “It was the year of The Joker in Gotham and beyond, as America had left reality behind and entered the comic-book universe. . . Suddenly lying was funny, and hatred was funny, and bigotry was funny.”

Suggesting that perhaps Donald Trump, The Joker is insane, Rushdie said, “people backed him because he was insane, not in spite of it. What would have disqualified any other candidate made him his followers’ hero.”

Most of The Golden House was  written before Trump was president, so it was prescient in predicting the outcome. “The book knew,” Rushdie joked.

Having met on several occasions, Rushdie and Trump are acquaintances, though there is some doubt that Trump has read the novel, not being much of a reader.  “I’m still waiting for that tweet.” Rushdie said.

Writing a Negative Review

Susan Violante, the Managing Editor, of Reader Views, places a post with this title on the Reader Views blog.  Since, as you know, I like to write reviews, and have occasionally been quite critical of what I have read, I was interested in what she had to say.

“Let’s face it, being a reviewer does not mean liking all books. There is a big chance that a book will not live up to the expectation of a reviewer, and thus result in a negative review. Other books simply do not even meet publishing standards in writing, editing, or production, in which case reviewers have trouble even completing the book. Being an author and a reviewer, I get both sides of the coin, and I have written many editorials from the author’s point of view about receiving a negative review of their title. This time, I want to focus on the reviewer’s end in hopes of helping reviewers write honest negative reviews, while remaining respectful and professional. Here are some tips on writing negative reviews:

“Do not let it get personal or be biased.  Actually, reviewers pretty much review only what they choose themselves. There is no need to take the author’s opinions personally and reflect that in the review. A review should be just an opinion of the storyline, the writer’s craft, and the book’s production.

“Being a reviewer is not all about reading; it has a lot to do with communication and the ability to express an opinion to an audience in writing. The success of a reviewer is actually measured on the size of their following audience, not on the number of reviews under their belt. This indicates the importance of the quality of their writing skills. If a reviewer communicates honestly and skilfully, the audience will look for that opinion before deciding to purchase a book. Readers want an impartial opinion about titles that will communicate to them the positive and negatives of the book as a product, so that they can decide whether to buy and read it.

“Enjoy reviewing. There are two kinds of reviewers. The ones that read because they love it, and get into reviewing; and the ones that won’t read unless they are reviewing. To the second type I say, please just stop. As a bookworm (writing and reading), I got into reviewing because I not only love to read, I also love to write, and even more, I love talking about what I read! Because I am having fun doing reviews, I will always find a positive and a negative in everything I read. Actually, sometimes I only find positives…but my point is that since I am reviewing only what I like to read, I will always be able to find a positive worth mentioning in my reviews, even when writing a negative review.

“Even if the book had flaws, or did not live up to the reviewer’s expectations, a reviewer needs to be respectful of the author’s efforts by choosing their words carefully when pointing out those flaws. There is no reason to be offensive when being honest, and reviewers who are passionate about books and reviewing will enjoy the process of writing a review that will be honest, yet respectful.”

I agree with what Ms Violante says.  I would add that keeping the format of the review professional can also keep a distance of professionalism between the author and the reviewer.  I usually start out with why I selected the book, and then give a summary of the story line in neutral language.  After the summary, I begin with what I liked about the book, followed by what I saw as its weaknesses.  It’s on the subject of weaknesses that tact needs to come into play: if in mentioning a weakness, I feel fairly certain that the author would understand and agree, I simply state the weakness using neutral language.  If I sense that it is just my opinion, or that the author might well disagree, I will say, “In my opinion . . .” or “It seems to me that . . .”

I usually end the review with a general positive recommendation, but if I don’t think that would be honest, I will say what kind of readers would like the book.  As far as I can remember, I’ve written only one one-star review, and that one ended without a recommendation.

 

Review: Midnight’s Children

Having finished the books I brought with me to Sicily, I went to the local bookstore which has a small selection of English language books, but I found nothing that intrigued me.  Looking on the bookshelves in the house, where guests occasionally leave books, I found Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie.  Mitigating against reading it were its length (647 pages), and its author (I’ve read The Satanic Verses and admired it, but didn’t particularly enjoy it).  The main factor in favour of reading it is that it is twice the winner of the Booker of Bookers: the best Booker Prize winner in the last 25 years and 40 years.

First Edition

The story, written in 1981, deals with the recent colonial past of the Indian subcontinent, its independence and its partition into two states: India and Pakistan.  The narrator is Saleem Sinai who was born at midnight, the precise moment of India’s independence, and who is telling the story to his future wife, Padma.  Saleem is born with a huge, dripping nose with exceptional olfactory powers, such that he is able to read thoughts and identify intentions.  He learns that all the children born at the moment of independence are gifted with extraordinary powers, and he forms a Midnight Children’s Conference to try to influence events, including political developments and subcontinental wars.    In particular, allegorical style is used to critique the governance of Indira Gandhi during the ‘Emergency’ period.  Mrs Gandhi brought a suit against Rushdie, not for his slating of her administration, but for a single sentence criticising her family relationships; this sentence has been removed from current editions.  As well as the Conference, the tale involves Saleem’s extended family: mother, father, sister, grandparents, aunts, uncles and his infant son.  The style of the book is magical realism, not conforming to any particular genre, it is factual, comical, suspenseful, magical, surreal, historical and mythic.

In his introduction to the 2006 edition, Rushdie says, “In the West, people tended to read Midnight’s Children as a fantasy, while in India, people thought of it as pretty realistic, almost a history book.”  Though I have traveled to India three times, and know something of its history and culture, I read the book primarily as a fantasy, which is a shame: I feel I have missed an important dimension of the book.  It must be said that Salman Rushdie is an extraordinary story-teller: he has great imagination and invention, and sometimes I felt that he has invented himself into a corner – how can he get out of this one?- only to read a clever, smooth and sensible transition out.  His command of language is breath-taking, leaving one with the clearest possible image of what is happening.  Occasionally, though, I felt left out by his use of Hindi (or other native) words and expressions which are undoubtedly appropriate.  There were also times when I felt that his excursions into descriptive fantasy were too lengthy, and yet, long as it is, I wanted to read on.

So, for me Midnight’s Children is a literary masterpiece, and there is much to learn from Rushdie’s skill as a writer and a story-teller.  But did I enjoy it?  Not particularly, having missed too much of it,

Review: Living Buddha, Living Christ

My wife read this book by Thich Nhat Hanh, and when I ran out of handy books (we’re on holiday), I decided to read it.  The subtitle is “A revered meditation master explores two of the world’s great contemplative traditions.”

The author is a Vietnamese Buddhist monk, born in 1926; he is active in the peace movement, promoting non-violent solutions to conflict.  He has written more than 100 books, including over 40 in English.  He is fluent in French, Chinese, Japanese, Sanskrit, Pali, English and Vietnamese.  He is based in Plum Village in Dordogne in the south of France, and has established Buddhist facilities in Vietnam, France, USA, Germany.  He is a Zen Master of Buddhism and a teacher of mindfulness (meditation).

Thich Nhat Hanh

This book does a very credible job bringing the teaching of Jesus Christ in line with the teaching of Buddha.  If these two men were to meet, one can suppose that they would have gotten along well.  More on this below.  Contact with the Holy Spirit is suggested to place one in a similar state of near nirvana to Buddhist mindfulness or meditation.  In fact there are references to the benefits of mindfulness on nearly every page, and although Thich Nhat Hanh is a master teacher of Buddhist mindfulness, and he has written books on the subject, there is no prescription for reaching near nirvana.

(When I was much younger, the company I worked for put its sales people on a course in meditation taught be a man named Jeff Coats.  The reason for the course was that sales people needed to have a constructive escape from the stress of selling.  I can recall reaching a meditative state only once, but it was quite sublime.)

The author takes issue with the Roman Catholic church on its implied position that it is the only true religion.  He makes the point that this can lean to real conflict and it inhibits constructive dialogue.  I agree.

While the ethos of Christianity and Buddhism may be similar, there are two important points on which the two diverge,  Buddhists do not believe in an immortal soul; Buddha taught that the soul, like the body is constantly evolving and therefore impermanent.

Thich Nhat Hanh says, “A good theologian is one who says almost nothing about God, even though the word ‘theology’ means ‘discourse about God’.  It is risky to talk about God.  The notion of God might be an obstacle for us to touch God as love, wisdom and mindfulness.” and “The Buddha was not against God.  He was only against notions of God that are mere mental constructions and do not correspond to reality, notions that prevent us from developing ourselves and touching ultimate reality.”  It seems to me that there are several problems with this.  Christians believe that Jesus, as part of the Trinity, is God, and He is not a ‘mental construction’.  Thich Nhat Hanh seems to accept the reality of the Holy Spirit, also part of the Trinity; is the Spirit a ‘mental construction’?  In the last sentence quoted above, the author uses the word ‘reality’ twice, without being clear about what ‘reality’ he is referring to.

When I imagine a meeting between Jesus and Buddha, I don’t think it would be entirely friendly.  In my scenario, Jesus chastises Buddha for being a ‘man of little faith’.

For this reason, I found Living Buddha, Living Christ to be a book of little value: it focuses on relatively minor similarities while ignoring the important differences.

Lemn Sissay

Lemn Sissay was interviewed by Stephen Sackur on BBC’s Hard Talk a few weeks ago.  At the time, I was impressed by this man who lifted himself from ignorant child immigrant to intellectual star in the most adverse circumstances imaginable.

Lemn Sissay

Sissay’s mother, an immigrant from Ethiopia and pregnant with him, arrived in England in 1966.  He was born in Wigan, Lancashire in 1967.  The social worker responsible for his mother renamed him ‘Norman’ and gave him to foster parents with the suggestion that they should consider it an adoption, while his mother went to Bracknell to finish her studies.  She refused to sign the adoption papers, saying that she wanted her son back when she was more settled.  Social services ignored this.

Sissay’s adoptive parents, being strongly religious, wanted to rename him Mark after the Christian evangelist and give him their surname: Greenwood.  They were very strict parents, but kind in their way.  When Sissay reached the age of 12, he became somewhat difficult to manage.  The Greenwoods, who by then had three children of their own, decided he was possessed by the devil, turned him over to social services, and announced that they wanted nothing more to do with him.

From the age of 12 to 18, Sissay was held in four childrens’ homes where he was physically, emotionally and racially abused.  When he left the care system, he was given a flat with no bed; the head of social services said he should be taught a lesson, but what was the lesson?  Sissay asked to see his files from social services; he had no family, no papers and no photos.  His life history was contained in those files.  He was given only two documents.  One showed that his real name was Lemn Sissay.  The second was a letter his mother had written to the social worker when Sissay was one, pleading for his return.

He continued to request his files.  In 2015, after being told that the files were in remote storage and had been lost, he was given his files and an apology by Wigan Council.

In 1988, after a long search, he met his birth mother in Gambia where she was working for the UN.

At the age of 17, Sissay used his unemployment money to self publish a pamphlet of poetry .  He released his first book of poetry in 1988 at the age of 21 and he has been a full-time writer since the age of 24, performing internationally.  He has written eight books, and eleven plays, four for BBC radio, many featuring his maltreatment as a child.

In 2009, he was made an honorary doctor of letters by the University of Huddersfield and the following year he was appointed an MBE (Member of the Order of the British Empire).

In June 2015 he was elected Chancellor of the University of Manchester for a term of seven years.  In January 2016, Sissay wrote an article for The Guardian in which he said, “How a society treats those children who have no one to look after them is a measure of how civilised it is. It is scandalous that a prime minister should have to admit, as David Cameron did last autumn, that the care system ‘shames our country’ and that Ofsted should report that there are more councils judged as ‘inadequate’ than ‘good’ for their children’s services.”

Simon Hattenstone, a journalist with The Guardian, said, “Sissay is an old friend of mine. He is one of the funniest and warmest people I know, extraordinarily animated with a life-affirming laugh. He is also one of the most damaged people I know, suffering paralysing depression that forces him to withdraw into himself and disappear for months at a time, sometimes longer.”

During the Hard Talk interview, Sissay made the following observations which I think are memorable:

  • Our families are the repositories of our histories and therefor of our memory.  Without family we are amnesiac.
  • Forgiveness of the injuries we have suffered leads to healing of those injuries.
  • “Define me by my healing not by my suffering.”
  • “Forgiveness lets you live in the present.”

 

Judging a Book by its Cover

In the May/June issue of The Independent magazine, there is an article Converting Book Browsers to Book Buyers by Kristin Fields, Associate Editor.

Kristin Fields

The article is quite lengthy, but the part that I found particularly interesting concerned cover design.

Ms Fields says, “There are two deeply held misunderstandings about the nature and role of a book’s “cover” in trade publishing. First, that its main purpose is to be “liked,” when, in fact, its primary role is to motivate browsing. One of the “ugliest,” least liked covers Codex has ever tested was Tina Fey’s Bossypants (featuring Tina Fey with what appear to be massive, hairy, man arms), and yet it had phenomenal browsing impact and became the #2 overall bestselling book on Amazon for its publication year.

“Second, it’s essential to understand book buyers use the cover as the book’s message, relying heavily on it to tell them what the book is, why they should be interested in it, and to judge if it’s worth the effort of browsing—very similar to the role of a strong campaign slogan in politics—conveyed through word and image combined.

“Book publishers consistently make the mistake of undervaluing the cover as simply a piece of decoration, when in fact the data is very clear that it’s the combined impact of title, subtitle, reading line, author name, blurb, and design that together either move, or more often dissuade, a book consumer from browsing. We have to continually remind ourselves that book people are “word people”; they love and respond to words first and foremost. Nearly 15 years of Codex testing has consistently shown that a book’s title, subtitle, or reading line copy are in fact almost always the most important conversion factor in a book’s cover, not the art. While great cover art brings a very important added dimension, amplification, and visual recall to a book, great cover art alone rarely drives the book consumer to act, except in breakthrough examples like Bossypants.

“Here are some examples of past Codex Preview testing case studies to provide additional insight into some key findings on book conversion (buying decision):

“In a rebranding project on the For Dummies series, for example, two message options were tested: Staying Young for Dummies and Healthy Aging for Dummies. Because the Dummies brand audience skewed 55+, the “Healthy Aging” message spoke more powerfully to that audience, best fulfilled the brand’s values, and had the highest conversion.

 

“In another Preview test, when it comes to blurbs, less can be more. While one test version of the cover for The Freedom Broker by K.J. Howe was plastered with over a dozen “blurbs to die for” from some of the biggest names in thriller writing, category fans were skeptical, less hype with a single quote and an emphasis on the title.

 

“Using faces on a book’s cover can also be unpredictable. The biography of Apple co-founder and inventor of the personal computer, Steve Wozniak, is a good example. Codex results confirmed that few book buyers were even familiar with the author’s name, let alone his face. One test treatment featured a photo of a young Wozniak from the 1970s, which motivated far less browsing than a text-based presentation that emphasized the message “The Inventor of the Personal Computer Speaks at Last” highlighted by Apple’s iconic rainbow stripes. Faces can be unpredictable conversion drivers because of they may be unrecognizable, distracting, or unrelateable. It’s best to pre-test before committing if you’re unsure.

“While publishers and designers are deeply involved in a cover’s development over weeks or months at a time, it’s important to remember that a book browser typically relies on just a split second gut reaction to make a browsing decision.”

For the indie author, whose books do not usually appear in bookstores, the issues are slightly different, because decisions are not quite so instantaneous.  But, the indie author should still be trying for a cover which says, “Here’s what I’m about” and “Read me!”