Backwards Books

Qualifying for an obscure facts about books award, is an article in The Daily Telegraph with the title ‘How Book Lovers Turned Things Around’ by Anita Singh.  Appearing on 19/4/17, it said:

“If you want to display books on shelves the traditional way, try turning your books back to front.  Placing books on shelves with the spines facing outwards is a relatively recent phenomenon, according to Mark Purcell, former libraries curator for the National Trust who now oversees the research collections at Cambridge University Library.

Mark Purcell

“‘Until fashions changed in the 18th century, book titles and authors were not printed on the spine but written in ink on the edge of pages.  The turnaround happened when the wealthy decided having titles embossed in gold leaf would add a certain cachet.  If you’d gone to almost any library in England, Wales or Scotland until 300 years ago the books were kept backwards,’ Purcell said at the Hay Festival.  ‘In those days the cultural supposition was that books had the title printed on the edges of the pages in ink.’

“The first known English book with a title gilded on the spine was printed in 1604, he said, and that was considered ‘cutting edge’.  Then followed, in the 17th and 18th centuries, what historians call ‘the great turnaround’, where the method of display was reversed.”

I suspect that a change in binding technology may also have been partially responsible for this change.  It may have simply been more difficult to print the author’s name and the title of the book on spine of the book.  But, judging by the picture above, it is easy to see why book owners preferred to display their possessions with the title and author’s name on the spine.

 

‘Banned’ books

There were two recent articles in The Daily Telegraph regarding the ‘banning’ of books by Holocaust deniers.  The first article, by Olivia Rudgard, reads:

“A Cambridge college has removed a David Irving book from display in its library after a visiting Jewish academic complained.  Churchill College, Cambridge, said the Irving’s biography of its namesake, Winston Churchill , would now be held in a ‘closed access’ area with borrowers only able to read it on request.

“Dr Irene Lancaster, formerly a teaching fellow in Jewish history at Manchester University, encountered the books written by the Holocaust denier on display.  She said: ‘They certainly weren’t hidden away – they were sticking out like reference books.’

“A spokesman for the university said: ‘Holding banned or challenged books in no way endorses the views or scholarship of the authors.  Rather, they are accessible to scholars to allow them the opportunity to challenge and refute their contents’.  The spokesman added that the library was used by college members and visiting academics and not the general public, and therefore the books had not been on ‘public display’.”

Wikipedia says this about Irving: “Sixteen years after an English court discredited his work and the judge called him ‘antisemitic and racist’, the historian David Irving claims he is inspiring a new generation of ‘Holocaust skeptics. On the eve of a major new Bafta-nominated film about the trial, Irving, who has dismissed what happened at Auschwitz concentration camp during the second world war as ‘Disneyland’, says that a whole new generation of young people have discovered his work via the internet and social media. . . . Irving v Penguin Books Ltd was one of the most infamous libel trials of the past 20 years. An American historian, Deborah Lipstadt, had accused him in her book, Denying the Holocaust, and Irving, then a somewhat respected if maverick historian, sued her and her publisher.”  (And lost.)

I had a look on Amazon where there are plenty of David Irving’s books.  His book, Churchill’s War, The Struggle for Power, has nine five-star reviews and one three-star review.  The 3-star review complains about non-delivery of half of the e-book.  The five-star reviews focus on the depth of research and the quality of historical writing.  Many of the reviews mention Irving’s reputation, but say that this work is not biased.

The second article, by Robert Mendick:

“Amazon has bowed to public pressure and quietly removed from sale dozens of anti-Semitic books that deny the Holocaust.  An outcry followed news it was profiting from titles such as The Myth of the Extermination of the Jews, by Carlo Mattogno, which was available as a download.  Dr Nicholas Terry at the University of Exeter, said Amazon had last week withdrawn form sale more than 30 books.  The expert on contemporary Holocaust denial added: ‘This is a major blow for Holocaust denying authors.  Amazon has been a major outlet for their sales’.  Despite the decision, Amazon still sells anti-Semitic literature through its website, and it is unclear what rules determine what material is acceptable and what is not.  The company refused to comment.”

I would make three points about all of this:

  1. Non governmental organisations should be free to exclude material which they consider objectionable.  The government should not have any such freedom.
  2. Amazon ought to be transparent about it’s policies, which should err in favour of exclusion of objectionable material.
  3. Any policy should be intelligent and selective, leaving ‘on the shelf’ quality, constructive books by objectionable authors.

National Book Foundation

There was an interview in Time magazine a couple of months ago with the first black female to be named executive director of the National Book Foundation.

By way of background, the National Book Foundation website says:

“The mission of the National Book Foundation and the National Book Awards is to celebrate the best of American literature, to expand its audience, and to enhance the cultural value of great writing in America.

“History: On March 16, 1950, publishers, editors, writers, and critics gathered at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City to celebrate the first annual National Book Awards, an award given to writers by writers. The American Book Publisher’s Council, The Book Manufacturers’ Institute, and The American Booksellers’ Association jointly sponsored the Awards, bringing together the American literary community for the first time to honor the year’s best work in fiction, nonfiction, and poetry.

“In 1986, the publishing community established The National Book Foundation, a not-for-profit organization to oversee the Awards, diversify their base of philanthropic support and expand their mission. The Foundation board then hired Neil Baldwin—an author, and Manager of The Annual Fund at The New York Public Library—to become the Founding Executive Director of The National Book Foundation and help determine its agenda for the future. ”

Wikipedia says this about Lisa Lucas: “Lucas was born in New York City and grew up in New Jersey.  Lucas attended the University of Chicago, where she studied English.  Reporting on Lucas’s 2016 appointment to executive director of the National Book Foundation, NBC said: ‘With Lucas at the forefront of the National Book Foundation and Awards, the future of publishing looks very bright.’  The Los Angeles Times said Lucas ‘is clearly poised to bring the organization to a new level…ideally suited’ to promote the foundation. She is the third director in the history of the foundation, ‘one of America’s key literary institutions,’ and the first woman and the first African-American to lead the organization.”

Lisa Lucas

In the Time interview, Lucas was asked: “What’s going to be the role of American literature in the new political era?”

Lucas: “People keep saying we’re postfact, and I think that books are the special place where we can go to understand the world we live in.”

Time: “In 2014, 27% of Americans didn’t read a single book.  How can we change that?”

Lucas: “People who make and market books probably assume that 27% of people aren’t going to bother with our product.  That’s the place where you first start correcting.  Assume everyone reads.  Lately, people have been talking a lot about book deserts, places where there isn’t access – how do we encourage people to open bookstores in these communities?”

Time: “What book would you recommend to our President?”

Lucas: “We were so lucky to have such a wonderful reader in President Obama, who said that reading novels helped make him a better citizen.  I can only hope that President Trump is as interested in our stories, lives and literature.  I’d recommend some books that have recently been celebrated by the foundation: Claudia Rankine’s Citizen; John Lewis, Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell’s March; Arlie Russell Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land; and Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning.

The full interview is on page 48 of the January 30, 2017 issue.

Literary Agent, David Miller

I would like to meet a literary agent for a face-to face discussion.  I’ve never met one.  I’ve corresponded with dozens of literary agents, some of whom have even been kind enough to send me brief notes of refusal.  Therefore, when I saw the obituary of David Miller, literary agent, who died, aged 50, on December 30 last year, I had to read it.  What sort of person was he?  Would I have gotten on with him?  More importantly, would he have liked my books?

My pre-conceived notion of the ‘standard personality’ of a literary agent is: a slightly unattractive, introverted, intelligent, sensitive, artistic person with an emotional intelligence approaching zero.  I would expect him or her to look up from a cluttered desk, behind which the shades are drawn, peer at me over half-moon spectacles, and inquire, “Yes?”

Having read the obituary of David Miller that appeared in the Daily Telegraph two days ago, I have concluded that my ‘literary agent standard personality’ is – at least in David Miller’s case, pretty far off target.

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David Miller

The obituary says: “The son of a chartered surveyor, David Miller was born in Edinburgh on February 6, 1966, and educated at King’s School Canterbury, and at Girton College, Cambridge, where he read theology.  After a short spell at a City recruitment consultancy, where he learned his formidable telephone-bashing skills, Miller joined the literary agency Rogers, Coleridge & White in 1990.  One of the many ways in which the agency bucked tradition was to hire a succession of presentable young men to take calls and occupy the front desk.  Miller, in his slender, younger days, equipped with a matinee-idol forelock and an expression that was somehow both sardonic and guileless, fitted the bill perfectly.

“He quickly became an agent, and set about  building a stable of authors.  His first client was the Booker-shortlisted novelist Nicola Barker.  She later described him as ‘too wayward and funny and complex either for fiction or for real life.  An absolute one-off.’  Some (of his clients) enjoyed considerable sales, notably Victoria Hislop, but Miller had the rare gift of seeming to care about money neither too much, nor too little.  And if this was something of an act – posthumous revelations about him having one phone for his ‘wonga’ clients and one for the rest would have pricked several authors’ amour propre – it was a useful and educational one.

“Business was generally conducted over lunch.  Miller would arrive all of a kerfuffle, like the White Rabbit.  His personal style had evolved into a rather Doctor Who-ish blend of elegance and scruff _ moleskin, swirling scarves, on occasion even a fedora hat – a certain clerical sleekness combined with a tangible air of mischief, he would . . . after a rapid gossip download, produce a book proposal or a chunk of manuscript, marked up with a proper fountain pen.  In the conviviality of what ensued, at the end of which authors would find themselves deposited on a pavement somewhere in west London, the late afternoon sunshine stinging their eyes, it was easy to overlook the rigour that Miller had brought  to the preceding couple of hours.

“Ferdinand Mount writes: ‘David Miller wasn’t just and agent, he was a personal battery charger.  Just to hear his thrilling stage whisper over the phone or to see him bounce round the corner in a huge jersey too heavy for the time of year with a bundle of manuscripts under his arm set you up for the day.  He always knew how to persuade you to write a book you hadn’t particularly thought of writing, or how  to rewrite it when it didn’t work, because he knew more about books than any publisher and himself wrote better than most of his clients.  . . .  He was fearless, unquenchable and the kindest man you could ever hope to meet.'”

I would say that David Miller was attractive, extroverted, intelligent, brash, artistic, with a sky-high emotional intelligence.  I would have loved to have lunch with him even if he turned down my book proposal!

Audio e-Books

There is an article in the December 2016 issue of the IBPA Independent magazine which caught my eye.  Entitled ‘Engaging Readers Through Sound’ it is written by Cameron Drew, who is Vice President of Publishing, Booktrack Ltd.  The article says that he is a veteran of the publishing industry with extensive experience in online retail and B2B commerce publishing.  Booktrack is based in Auckland, New Zealand.

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Cameron Drew

I quote from the article:

“When we first began pioneering an immersive audio-enhanced experience at Booktrack, independent authors and publishers were among the first early adopters.  Independent publishers know what it’s like to navigate challenging environments, and they know how to stay focused on providing the best possible experience to readers.

“Booktrack is a reader-focused platform that allows users to dive deeper into the narrative worlds through the addition of a synchronized, movie style soundtrack.  As users read their favourite books on our platform, our technology tracks their reading speed ans enables ambient noise, sound effects and background music to play at precisely the right points in the text.

“It’s something new on an industry that loves tradition.  It’s prefect for publishers and authors who want to offer their readers something more than text but don’t want to take anything away form the beauty of the written word.  Because the soundtrack enhances a reader’s sense of place rather than taking them our of the narrative, Booktrack actually improves reader engagement and enjoyment of the text.  The Booktrack versions of titles aren’t meant to replace the paper-based versions, or even the straight e-pub versions.  The Booktrack experience is not for every reader; it reaches the readers who are ready for something outside the norm.

“The platform is also designed to be accessible to publishers and authors at all levels.  Self-published authors who want to try their hand at soundtracking their own work can use our creator tool for free to create a Booktrack version of their work.  Some authors have taken to using Booktrack as a promotion tool by embedding a Booktracked version of the first chapter of their work on their website.

“For our premium content from our publishing partners and top indie authors, our trained sound engineers create fully customised soundtracks.  Publishers and authors review the soundtrack at several points throughout the production process to ensure the soundscapes we create match the mood, tome and lot of the story.

“We currently have more than 200 premium titles for sale across all genres, half of which came from partnerships with top independent publishers including Sourcebooks, Skyhorse, Orca Books, Mighty Media, Light Messages, and Canelo.”

When I first read the article, I had the mistaken impression that Booktrack was repeating the written word – like an audio book.  Actually, what is added on the soundtrack is music or sound effects.  The soundtrack is ‘synchronised’ to the reader’s speed by the rate at which he or she is turning pages, and the soundtrack can be re-synchronised to the text by touching a word in the text.  The wearing of head phones may be an advantage for some readers in that ambient noise is excluded.  Use of the technology is free to authors, but I suspect that a finished book can be sold only through Booktrack to their 2.5 million ‘engaged readers’.  If an author wants to to have Booktrack add the soundtrack, they say they will do it at an average cost of $1000.  Reportedly, Booktrack has 20,000 tracks from which to choose.

A clever idea.  I have no idea how it works in practice, or how well it will sell.

Promotion

Now that I have a new novel out, it’s time to think about promoting it, right?

Actually, one has to think about promoting a novel before one starts writing it.  Probably, the first question to ask is: who’s going to read it?

Let me give you a summary of my experience using various promotion channels.  And I should confess that while I have a marketing background, I would much rather write than promote (because I think I’m better at writing than at selling and I enjoy writing more)

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Press Release: My publisher writes a draft press release which I edit and it goes out to ‘thousands of libraries, book shops, media outlets’.  Fortunately, it’s in an electronic form, so that no trees are actually killed (not even from recipients printing it out, which, as far as I know, has never happened).

Website:  I have a website (www.williampeace.net), which I share with the publisher.  At the moment, I’m waiting for the publisher’s IT guru to add Seeking Father Khaliq.  Then, I’ll ask my IT handyman to add some real content.  Essential?  Yes.  Has it sold any books?  Doubtful.

Blog:  Here we are!  For me the main value of a blog is the work I have to do each week – other than writing – to prepare something which might be stimulating.  And, I very much enjoy it when someone responds!

Twitter:  Pass.  Unless you’re a big name author and people want to know what you had for breakfast, I doubt that 140 characters per day sells many books.

Goodreads & Amazon Author Pages:  Yes.  They even run my blog down the side – as does my website.

Facebook Pages:  Yes.  I have a personal page, an author’s page and there’s a page for each of my books.

Advertising:  Yes.  Five of my books have regular advertisements on Goodreads.  What I’ve got to do now is to revisit the advertising copy on some of the ads because the click-through-rate is too low.  There have been quite a few books added to readers’ lists.  Currently, I’m running a Facebook ad which covers the commuter homebase north of Manhattan.  Lots and lots of ‘Likes’.  Sales?  Hard to say.  The Facebook ads are expensive.

Giveaways:  I ran a giveaway on Goodreads last year.  Over one hundred people applied for ten books.  After I sent the books out, I got one semi-literate review, instead of the ten I should have received.  Don’t they do book reports in school any more?

Brick & Mortar Bookshops:  Bookshops will carry books only if they are bought on a sale or return basis.  That way, they get left with zero unsold stock.  My publisher offers a ‘deal’ where the author underwrites the cost of returns from bookshops.  When I pointed out that since they had something to gain from sales to bookshops, they ought to participate in the underwriting.  Their response was to put a cap on my potential exposure.  I signed up to that for a while, but there was no evidence that any bookshops bought copies.  I’ve offered to carry the stock for several independent bookshops in London, but there was no interest in even a sample book. I approached Barnes & Noble about carrying one or two of my books in selected stores.  No interest.  With (very) rare exceptions brick and mortar bookshops buy from traditional publishers.  Period.

Book Signings: A few years ago, my publisher would arrange book signings.  In fact I was offered a signing at a rural bookshop in Maine, but I had to buy and carry 50 books with me.  This service has since been discontinued.  In fact, I have the impression that book signings work only for non-fiction accounts of a juicy scandal written by one of the perpetrators.

Awards:  This is a semi-major project area for me. I’ve stopped submitting to the outfits that run multiple contests with unidentified judges.  That still leaves about one contest per month, and I’m getting recognition about half the time.  (No serious money yet.)

Reviews:  You may know that Amazon has cracked down on pay-for-review outfits: they won’t let them post reviews.  This makes some sense in that the money might be trying to buy a good review.  The problem is that there isn’t enough review capacity in the industry.  Willing and educated reviewers tend to flock to the best sellers.  Bloggers who offer  reviews typically have a very long waiting list.  Reciprocal reviewing services are an option, but, to be fair, one has to reading some marginally interesting stuff to win a hasty review.  Recently, I tried a different approach to the literary editors of large newspapers.  I had previously sent a few of them samples of my latest book.  No response.  I identified about fifteen literary editors of major newspapers in the UK, US and Canada, and I sent them carefully crafted messages about Seeking Father Khaliq, inviting them to review it.  There were two polite ‘no thank you’s.

So let me end with a fantastic offer!  If any of my readers would like to receive a free copy of Seeking Father Khaliq with an obligation to publish a brief, learned review, please email me at  bill(at)williampeace(dot)net!

A Writer Unmasked

You may have read that the New York Review of Books’ investigative reporter Claudio Gatti has unmasked best-selling novelist Elena Ferrante.

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 Perhaps it is best to quote from an article in The New Yorker by Alexandra Schwartz:
“The news that the true identity of the writer Elena Ferrante has, allegedly, been uncovered was published on the blog of The New York Review of Booksat 1 a.m. on Sunday—the Internet’s witching hour, when salacious tidbits are unloaded online to greet the unsuspecting citizens of Twitter bright and early in the morning. It was met with widespread consternation from Ferrante fans. People are pissed. The sleuth, an Italian journalist named Claudio Gatti, has gone beyond the efforts of previous Ferrante truthers, who have generally tried either to compare the biographies of various Italian writers with what is known or inferred about Ferrante’s life or to match their literary style with hers, and used forensic accounting to uncover a money trail that, he believes, leads straight to the source. The process has taken him months. If only someone had got him interested in Trump’s tax returns during the primaries, just think where we might be today.

“I hate to do it, but in the interest of clarity, here, briefly, is what Gatti claims. Ferrante, he says, is Anita Raja, a translator who lives in Rome with her husband, the Neapolitan writer Domenico Starnone. For many years, Raja has translated books from the German for Edizione E/O, the publishing house that puts out Ferrante’s work. Gatti says that payments from the publisher to Raja “have increased dramatically in recent years,” in line with the increase in revenues that Edizioni E/O has enjoyed as Ferrante has become an international literary star, and thus “appear to make her the overwhelming beneficiary of Ferrante’s success.” (He obtained information about Edizioni E/O’s revenue and Raja’s income from an anonymous source.)

“To this evidence Gatti adds the further proof of Raja and Starnone’s real-estate dealings. In 2000, the year that Ferrante’s first novel was made into a movie in Italy, Raja bought a seven-room apartment in what Gatti assures us is an expensive neighborhood in Rome. In 2001, she bought a country house in Tuscany. This past June, Gatti reports, Starnone bought an eleven-room apartment “on the top floor of an elegant pre-war building in one of the most beautiful streets in Rome,” not far from Raja’s apartment. Gatti, after making a brief foray into Italian tax law to explain his suspicion that it is Raja who has purchased the new apartment in Starnone’s name, reminds us that most translators do not earn enough from the sweat of their labor to be able to afford such nice things. Raja has risen suspiciously above her station.

“The part of Gatti’s claim that has unavoidable meaning for readers is that Anita Raja’s biography does not at all correspond to that of Elena Ferrante as gleaned from her novels, or as described in “Frantumaglia,” a work of autobiographical fragments that first appeared in Italy more than a decade ago and which will be published in the United States on November 1st. In that book, Ferrante writes that she grew up in Naples, the daughter of a local seamstress. Raja’s mother, Golda Frieda Petzenbaum, worked as a teacher, and was born in Worms, Germany, into a Polish Jewish family that fled to Italy in 1937. She married a Neapolitan magistrate, but the family moved to Rome, in 1956, when Raja was three. If Raja is Elena Ferrante, that would mean, among many other things, that she has no firsthand knowledge of the postwar Naples milieu that she evokes with such fiercely unsentimental strokes, the oppressive rione on the city’s outskirts that anchors the Neapolitan novels and gives them their extraordinary texture of lived truth.”

Ferrante, through her publisher had said: “I have my private life and as far as my public life goes I am fully represented by my books. . . Thanks to this decision, I have gained a space of my own, a space that is free. . . . To relinquish it would be very painful.”  For me, the appalling aspect of all this is the character of Gatti.  He seems to be motivated entirely by selfish interests: enhancing his career, making money, putting himself in the limelight while injuring the interests of another person.  His allegations that Raja (if indeed it is she) was engaging in a kind of publicity stunt, and that eventually she would be found out.  He seemed to imply that she was asking for it.

I sincerely hope that Gatti will continue to be showered with approbation and that other ‘investigative journalists’ will not try to follow in his footsteps.  Life is about making choices; it is not about frustrating other people’s choices.

Designing a Cover

I probably wrote about this subject quite a while ago, but it’s close enough to my heart that it warrants a re-exploration.

My publisher will produce two cover designs, and the author can have his/her choice.  To facilitate the process, there is a questionnaire for the author to fill out.  It includes such questions as:

  • what is the book about?
  • what ideas do you have for the cover?

I usually respond with a fairly detailed cover idea.  In the case of my second novel, Sin & Contrition, I didn’t have an idea, and I probably told the cover designer that the cover should reflect sin and repentance.  What came back was amazing, and I liked it immediately:

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But with the five novels that have followed since, I have had to make more of a personal effort.

My latest novel, Seeking Father Khaliq, is a modern allegory about one man’s search for spiritual fulfillment.  It is set almost entirely in the Middle East, and many of the issues involve Islam.  As the title implies a difficult search, I told the designer that I wanted a Middle Eastern maze with the Dome of the Rock (the famous mosque in Jerusalem) positioned at the end of the maze.  What came back was a modern, three-dimensional maze with the Dome of the Rock floating on the horizon.  It just didn’t work.  Next, I found two, antique two-dimensional mazes to choose from, and I suggested that the Dome of the Rock (in miniature) be positioned at the success point in the center.  This also didn’t work; I gave up on the maze.

While browsing dreamstimes.com’s collection of mosque photos, I came across a single photo of some people ascending a long flight of stairs toward the Dome of the Rock.  That’s it.  But meanwhile, my wife, who has a much better eye for things artistic than I, had objected to the font proposed by the designer for the cover: “It’s a dated Western font; there’s nothing Arabic about it!”  So, on a page offering ‘free Arabic fonts’, we found one we liked.

What came back from the designer was a lot better, but I asked that the photo be enlarged and positioned at the top of the cover, and that the white highlights be eliminated from the font.  We’ll see what comes back, and I expect to introduce the book and its cover to you when it goes to press within a month.

It is true that one can’t judge a book by its cover, but the cover can play an important role in introducing the book to the reader!

Review: The Satanic Verses

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I decided to read this novel by Salman Rushdie because I had not read any of his work, because this particular novel is famous, and because of my interest in better understanding Islam.  The novel is famous for the fatwa issued by the Ayatollah Khomeini calling for the death of Rushdie for having committed blasphemy and for mocking the Islamic faith.   There was a bounty of £2.8 million on Rushdie’s head and several failed assassination attempts; others associated with the novel were not as fortunate: Hitoshi Igarashi the Japanese translator, was stabbed to death on 11 July 1991, and a number of attempts were made on the lives of others.  The novel was published in 1988, and it was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, but won the Whitbread Award for novel of the year. The fatwa was issued on 14 February 1989.  In the UK, 13 Muslim barristers drafted an indictment for the High Court attempting to justify a charge of blasphemy.  This attempt failed and blasphemy is no longer an offense under English law. For years, Rushdie lived at no fixed abode under Special Branch protection.  In 1998, Iran issued a conciliatory statement and Rushdie declared he would no longer live in hiding.   The Iranian state news agency reported in 2006 that the fatwa would remain in place permanently since fatwas can only be rescinded by the person who first issued them, and Khomeini had since died.

In the context of blasphemy, it is worth a brief description of the origin of the term ‘satanic verses’.  Muhammad was living in Mecca at the time and he was experiencing difficulty persuading powerful Meccans to accept that he was the prophet of God.  There is a theory – repeated in Rushdie’s novel – that, as a concession to these men, he gave brief permission for prayer to three popular idols.  What is certain is that Muhammad originally recited several verses naming the idols, praising them and indicating that they should not be neglected.  Muhammad then inserted three replacement verses which say that the idols are only ‘names’ and that ‘God revealed no authority for them’.  His explanation for the change was that Satan had managed to slip in the verses without him knowing it.

In the novel, Muhammad (called Mahound) comes across as a weak, indecisive individual who uses religion for his own benefit.  But the sequences in the novel involving Mahound are contained in the dreams of the character, Gibreel Farishta, who is mentally ill and who believes that he has become the archangel Gabriel, so these characterisations cannot be said to represent the author’s personal views.

The central plot of the novel is that two Indian Muslim actors fall from the sky over the English Channel when the flight they are on is blown up.  Miraculously, they both survive, and they take on the personalities of the archangel Gabriel (Gibreel Farista) and the devil (Saladin Chamcha).  Each of them has difficulty being accepted in London, each finds to a prior love, and each returns to his previous occupation.  Chamcha seeks revenge on Farista for having deserted him after their fall from the sky, and he stokes Farista’s pathological jealousy, destroying his love relationship.  Farista realises what his colleague has done and he forgives him.  Nonetheless, Farista kills his lover, Alleluia Cone, and commits suicide.  Chamcha returns to India and is reconciled to his dying father.

The novel – at 547 pages – has a great deal beyond this simple plot, including dream sequences involving the prophet Mahound.  There are also sequences involving relationships of the primary characters with lovers, friends and acquaintances.

This is not an easy book to read.  The sentences are long, sometimes complex, and the references to characters, places and things unfamiliar.  There is one sentence 146 words long.  Being somewhat familiar with Islamic history, I recognised some to the dream characters, but I could have benefited from a working knowledge of Indian mythology.  It is also not easy to follow what is going on: is this part of a dream or reality?  Having said that, I did find much of the writing uniquely engaging.

The feelings one encounters in reading the book are doubt bordering on hopelessness with some offsetting glimpses of humour.  The doubt has to do with the purpose of life, religion, acceptance as an individual, and perception vs reality.

 

 

Manuscript Editing

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Yesterday, I received the edited copy of my seventh novel back from the editor.  For me, the way it works is that I – as the author – am responsible for professional editing of my books.  The publisher will arrange for editing, but the author has to pay for it as a part of the co-operative publishing  deal.  On one occasion, I used the publisher’s editor, but never again.  It was a less expensive fee than my usual editor, but a lot more costly in my time and aggravation.  That editor didn’t understand that her job was just to check the grammar, spelling, punctuation and syntax of the manuscript.  She did that (sloppily), and many of the changes she made were incorrect, and had to be reversed.  This made me wonder how competent she was at finding the real errors I made.  But what really irritated me was that she made changes to the text so that the meaning I had intended was lost.  Clearly, she didn’t like the characters or my plot.

Vonda works for a large editing company and she has edited the other six of my novels, including my latest, which is 108,000 words.  (That will work out to be about 250 pages, and her company’s fees were just under $1000.)

To give you a sense of what she wanted me to change:

  • too many commas
  • too many colons
  • English English to American English spellings (my publisher is American)
  • removing the hyphens from compound noun; for example hang-dog becomes hangdog
  • catching instances where two-letter words were wrong; for example: ‘in’ appeared in place of ‘it’ or ‘is’

The above changes were made after I had read through the manuscript at least three times and my wife had read it once!  Sometimes we see only what we think should be there!

And then there were her really useful comments:

  • there were two cases where I misspelt the name of the Egyptian president as ‘Al-Sisi’ when I had previously spelt it correctly as ‘el-Sisi’.
  • Similarly, in later paragraphs, I had misspelt the Anglicized version of an Arabic surname.
  • In one case she questioned the identity of the speaker (it could have been either of two characters).
  • And one case where she questioned my translation of an Arabic word.  (She was right.)

She made the following general comment: “This is somewhat of a departure from your previous works — more philosophical and thought-provoking.  The characters are, as usual, well-drawn, believable and sympathetic, and your descriptions of all the places Kareem visits made me feel as if I were right there with him.”

There is another step of editing: when the manuscript is laid out for printing, there are inevitably new errors – particularly in format – which creep in, and I will have to read it again carefully.

I haven’t told you much about this latest novel, because it hasn’t been formally copyrighted yet, but please ‘stay tuned’!