Review: Istanbul: Memories and the City

I wanted to read a book by Orhan Pamuk, who won the Noble Prize for Literature in 2006, but when I looked at his recent novels, I was put off.  My Name is Red is 688 pages; A Strangeness in my Mind is 764 pages.  To me, this seems a disproportionate amount to time to devote to one author.  (Perhaps, I’m like a teenage boy: so many girls, so little time.)  So, I chose Istanbul: Memories and the City (336 pages), which was written in 2005, and appealed to me because I visited Istanbul, briefly, on my honeymoon.

Orhan Pamuk is a Turkish writer, screenwriter and academic, born in Istanbul in 1952; he has sold 13 million books in 63 languages.  He is a Professor of Humanities at Columbia University, where he teaches courses in writing and comparative literature.

In 2005, Pamuk made a statement regarding the Armenian Genocide that  “Thirty thousand Kurds have been killed here, and a million Armenians. And almost nobody dares to mention that. So I do.”  An ultra-nationalist lawyer brought a law suit based on Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code which makes it a crime to insult Turkey or the Turkish Grand National Assembly.  The suit resulted in a lengthy battle with the Turkish legals system in which the European Union took an interest because of its implications for the freedom of speech in Turkey.  The Turkish Justice Ministry finally declined to back the trial on a technicality, but gave no support to Pamuk, who said that he mentioned the genocide not to call attention to specific numbers of deaths but to demonstrate the lack of freedom to discuss taboo subjects in Turkey.

Orhan Pamuk

Istanbul, translated by Maureen Freely, is one of five non-fiction works by Pamuk in English.  It is, as the subtitle suggests, a reflection on the Istanbul the author knew as a child together with his family memories.  There are black-and-white photographs on every couple of pages, some dating back to the mid-nineteenth century, and some as recent at the 1960’s; most are of ‘old Istanbul’ but there are family photographs, as well.  The ‘old Istanbul’ photographs are a vehicle for commentary on the writings of European and Turkish literati regarding the culture, style, history, art and visual perspectives of the city.  Clearly, Istanbul was (and is) a unique city: its rapid growth, its human crossroads of East and West, its unique wooden architecture (which frequently went up in smoke), the presence of the Bosporus with all its maritime energy, and the air of melancholy (húzún) arising from the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, the subsequent economic decline, and the cultural ambivalence between East and West.

Perhaps what is surprising about this book – part travelogue, history, autobiography, artistic and cultural commentary – is that it is an integral whole, seamlessly shifting themes without confusing the reader.  This, I think, is all down to Pamuk’s fondness for his city and his skill as a commentator and a writer.  One can set the book aside for a day or two, but one is drawn back into its dream-like flow.  The attraction is, in large measure, due to the characterisation of the boy, Orhan, his brother, his mother and father, the larger family and their declining circumstances.  The one criticism I have is that a map of the city should have been included.  There are frequent references to districts in Istanbul by their Turkish names, but one has no idea of the geography which is an omission for a piece of writing which is otherwise so visual.

Istambul is a very pleasant reading experience.

Lessons from a 20-Year Career

In the IBPA Independent magazine, December 2017, there is an article by Ron W Mumford about the lessons he has learned on his 20-year path through the industry.  He certainly has a sense of humour and some good advice to offer, so I’ve quoted excerpts below.  Ron has written a non-fiction book, Finding Your Soulmate, God’s Way, a thriller, Gray Justice, and a fantasy trilogy: Wayne’s Angel, Betwixt, and Z-Gen.  As a businessman, before his started writing books,  he had taken a company public on NASDAQ, become a licensed financial consultant with two of the largest brokerage firms in the US.

Ron W Mumford

He says, ” During the 1990’s I wrote my first novel: 800 pages double spaced, 200,000 words.  I was so proud of myself.  The work was sure to win the Pulitzer Prize!  Sound familiar?  After my first edit by a professional editor, the work was cut in half with a notation from the editor, ‘Ron, you have written two books in one and you ramble.’

As regards the publishing industry, he says, “What a new and different industry full of well-wishers, scammers and instant-success gurus, all looking to take your money while promising the bestseller list and delivering nothing.  I queried literary agents for two years, finally found a couple, and, again, got nothing.  Finally I decided I would become a literary agent and go to New York and Hollywood to learn first hand how this crazy industry worked. I picked up several writer clients and headed to New York City with client manuscripts in hand.  All the Big Five publishing companies rolled out the red carpet to a new literary agent from Texas.  I spent half a day at Simon & Schuster and even met Stephen King’s editor.  I asked each editor, ‘What are yo looking for?’  They all replied, ‘Great writing.’  I asked, ‘Define ‘great writing.’  Again, each editor replied similarly, ‘We’ll know it when we see it’.

‘”What a cop out!  What they should have said in complete honesty was, ‘We are looking for well-known authors and celebrities with a huge following so we can sell hundreds of thousands of books.  Your chance of being published by us are about 100,000 to one.’

“My last stop in lower Manhattan was at Warner Books, where I was granted an appointment with a vice president/editor.  When I entered his office and gave him my card, he snapped, ‘What gives you the audacity to think you can be a literary agent?’  This guy did not know Texas audacity.  I took a deep breath, leaned on his desk and replied, ‘The same audacity that told me I could swim with the sharks on Wall Street.  Do you want to talk books or what?’  Needless to say, Warner and my literary agency didn’t do any business.”

Ron says that he sent out 100 client manuscripts a month to small and medium sized publishers and he managed to get 12 books published.  He mentions that he got one client a seven-book deal, and that the client later got a five-book deal with HarperCollins.  “After my money and my passion hit new levels of low, I passed her (the client) on to a great literary agency.  There are good lit agents out there.

“I sent emails to every IT/social media guru that I personally knew, asking them, ‘How do you mass market books?’  I got no replies.  I talked to one guy that guaranteed a best seller.   I asked him how he does his marketing and how much he charges.  Answer, ‘For 30 days, I send out tweets on Twitter, I charge $3000.’  I passed on that offer, even for a ‘guaranteed bestseller.”

Unfortunately, Ron does not offer any sure-fire solutions to the achievement of mass book marketing at an affordable price.

 

Rules for Writing Fiction

On the Guardian website, February 20, 2010, there is an article, Ten Rules for Writing Fiction Parts 1 & 2, which caught my eye, mainly because of the writers who were offering their opinions.  In this post I’ve picked out some that haven’t been covered before in this blog, and with which I agree or disagree.

Illustration: Andrzej Krauze from the article

Is this a metaphor for writing fiction or for the opinions about it?

  • Hilary Mantel: “Description must work for its place. It can’t be simply ornamental. It ­usually works best if it has a human element; it is more effective if it comes from an implied viewpoint, rather than from the eye of God. If description is coloured by the viewpoint of the character who is doing the noticing, it becomes, in effect, part of character definition and part of the action.”      I agree!
  • Michael Moorcock: “If possible have something going on while you have your characters delivering exposition or philosophising. This helps retain dramatic tension.” and “Carrot and stick – have protagonists pursued (by an obsession or a villain) and pursuing (idea, object, person, mystery)”   Good point.
  • Will Self: ” You know that sickening feeling of inadequacy and over-exposure you feel when you look upon your own empurpled prose? Relax into the awareness that this ghastly sensation will never, ever leave you, no matter how successful and publicly lauded you become. It is intrinsic to the real business of writing and should be cherished.”    I find this quite interesting; I had only feelings of pride for my first book when completed.  More recently, with my eighth, I do feel that sense of inadequacy.
  • Zacie Smith: “Tell the truth through whichever veil comes to hand – but tell it. Resign yourself to the lifelong sadness that comes from never ­being satisfied.”     This is very similar to Will Self’s comment.
  • Rose Tremain: “Forget the boring old dictum “write about what you know”. Instead, seek out an unknown yet knowable area of experience that’s going to enhance your understanding of the world and write about that.”    I did just this with my last two novels.   By the way, when one does this, one has to be connected to the Internet – contrary to the advice of several authors.
  • Sarah Waters: “Writing fiction is not “self-­expression” or “therapy”. Novels are for readers, and writing them means the crafty, patient, selfless construction of effects. I think of my novels as being something like fairground rides: my job is to strap the reader into their car at the start of chapter one, then trundle and whizz them through scenes and surprises, on a carefully planned route, and at a finely engineered pace.”     I like the analogy.
  • Jonathan Franzen: “Write in the third person unless a ­really distinctive first-person voice ­offers itself irresistibly.”    I think this is probably good advice.  Luckily the two novels I’ve written in the first person are distinctive.
  • Esther Freud: “Cut out the metaphors and similes. In my first book I promised myself I wouldn’t use any and I slipped up ­during a sunset in chapter 11. I still blush when I come across it.”   I don’t agree with this; I think that a whimsical, unexpected metaphor can be very enlightening.
  • Neil Gaiman: “Fix it. Remember that, sooner or later, before it ever reaches perfection, you will have to let it go and move on and start to write the next thing. Perfection is like chasing the horizon. Keep moving.”  I thought it was jut my compulsive self: noticing a problem in an earlier chapter and immediately rushing to find and fix it.
  • P D James: “Increase your word power. Words are the raw material of our craft. The greater your vocabulary the more ­effective your writing. We who write in English are fortunate to have the richest and most versatile language in the world. Respect it.”   I think this is an excellent point and it is contrary to some who encourage the use of common words or discourage the use of a thesaurus.

Artistic Ladder

A good friend of my wife’s and mine is an only child and when her father died, he left her a large industrial site on the outskirts of a major city.  For some years, she thought to sell it to a developer, but the area is not ideal for a residential – or commercial – development.  She is an art lover and gradually, she began to put on exhibitions by two or three eclectic artists in the buildings.  The site became known as an art venue and she developed a mailing list of ten thousand ‘members’ who pay a small fee to be advised of events and are admitted for free.  Recently, she put on an exhibition by three prominent artists in different disciplines from three different countries.  One of them is thinking of establishing a studio on the site.

I asked her what she could do with a grant of one million euros.  Her face lit up and the ideas came tumbling out, but then she stopped and said, “But I haven’t any idea how to raise one million euros.”  We talked about it further, and she agreed that grants in that size can be obtained with the right connections and a persuasive proposal.  She certainly has connections in the art world, if not the actual fund-raising skills.

She also said that her surname will die out with her and she wants to somehow leave her name attached to whatever she does in the art world.  We talked about a way to do that, and then she was back on the subject of the kind of exhibitions she might put on.

I asked her to give serious thought to providing same ‘ladders’ for aspiring, but unknown artists with talent.  I pointed out that in every art discipline (including my own – literature, and including sports) there tends to be an enormous gap between the well-known, well-paid, big names and the skilled but unknown, and unpaid beginners.  I suggested two possible ladders for her to consider when possible.  The first was to put on an aspiring artists exhibition, at least once a year, with exhibitors selected by a panel of experts, and prizes being awarded to those judged to be ‘the best’ by another expert committee.  Perhaps provision could be made for the public to buy individual pieces, or for a gallery to pick artists to carry.  The second ladder was to establish an artist’s workshop space in the premises where young artists could come and paint or sculpt, where they could exchange ideas, and minimise the loneliness of their trade.  Maybe a small coffee shop would be opened to serve them, and perhaps interesting events could be organised.

As those of you who have been following this blog know, I feel that there are not enough ladders to success for aspiring artists of all disciplines.  In fact, in literature there are structural disincentives for the advancement of new talent: the tight grip of the traditional publishers on whom to select and promote.

Review: Absalom, Absalom!

William Faulkner is a novelist I had never read until now – perhaps because I grew up and was educated in the northeastern US.  Now that I have read Absalom, Absalom! I can understand why Faulkner is considered one of the greatest American writers of the 19th century.

Faulkner was born in Mississippi in 1897, was raised by a black nanny, lived most of his life in Oxford, Mississippi, and attended the University of Mississipi (Ol’e Miss).  His family, upper-middle class; his mother was a literature buff who read to him and introduced him to the classics.  Friends and extended family often told tales of the Old South, the Civil War, slavery, and the Ku Klux Klan.  Faulkner received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1949 and his last novel, The Reivers (1962) was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1998.  Faulkner died in 1962 after the fall from a horse.

William Faulkner

Absalom, Absalom! (the title relates to the return of the central character’s son, Charles; Absalom, according to the Jewish bible, was the third son of King David.  A handsome, high-living man, Absalom killed his older half-brother for the rape of their sister) is set in the early to middle 19th century, mostly in Mississippi.  The central character, Thomas Sutpen, a rough, ungentlemanly fellow, appears in a small Mississippi town with 20 slaves and considerable funds of suspect origin.  He acquires 100 square miles of property 12 miles outside the town, builds an enormous mansion, grows cotton, marries the town shopkeeper’s daughter, and has a son, Henry, and a daughter, Judith.  Sutpen had married the daughter of a Haitian sugar planter, who bore him a son whom he named, Charles Bon.  When Sutpen discovered that his new wife has negro blood, he pays to have the marriage annulled under obscure circumstances.  In his mid-twenties, Charles Bon suddenly appears at the U of Miss. where Henry is attending and the two become friends, though Henry does not learn Charles’ identity until later, when Charles begins to realise who his father is.  Henry and his mother begin to promote the marriage of Judith to Charles.  Sutpen travels to New Orleans (where Charles first appeared) and learns who he is.  On his return, he tells Henry that Charles is his half-brother and the marriage will not be permitted.  Henry refuses to believe that Charles is his brother.  The Civil War intervenes.  Charles decides to break the impasse by marrying Judith, and Henry kills him.  Other deaths follow until there is no mansion and no living heirs to the Sutpen name.

This is an intriguing story, deeply coloured with the culture of the Old South.  Falkner’s story-telling technique is quite oblique: he makes use of different narrators to illuminate parts of the story that they know first-hand, have heard from others, or suspect, so that the reader is able to gradually pick up the thread.  This technique creates a sense of mystery, uncertainty and ambiguity about a story which was nearly a century old.  Faulkner’s writing is a poetic, erudite, stream of consciousness by the narrator, particularly when the subject is what a character is thinking or feeling; not infrequently, these dissections of a character’s motives can go on for two pages or more, and they are not easy to read, because they lack fluency and are full of parenthetical statements.  Sentences can go on for half a page.  Nonetheless, a careful reader will, at thinking and feeling levels, understand the character.  There is almost no dialogue in the novel; nearlyh all is revealed by the narrators.  Interestingly, the narrators never set the scenes: what the town, the battlefield, the mansion looked like.

The characters are all clearly drawn.  I found it somewhat surprising that all of the female characters were presented as passive.  One gets a clear sense of what life was like in the Old South, particularly before the Civil War, from the point of view of the wealthy few, the middle class and the slaves and poor whites. The slaves themselves had various classes.  As a literally minded person, I found it difficult to accept that Thomas Sutpen could have acquired the wealth he had as the overseer of a Haitian sugar plantation: something is missing.  Similarly, it is doubtful that Sutpen, 20 unskilled slaves and a French architect could have built the huge, elaborate mansion ‘Sutpen’s Hundred’.

Absalom,Absalom! is not an easy read, but it should not be overlooked if one is interested in distinctive American writing – particularly about the Old South.

Review: One Hundred Years of Soliude

Having never read of any of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ writing, I decided to start with One Hundred Years of Solitude, which is thought to be his greatest novel, a classic, and one of the best by a Latin American author.

Gabriel García Márquez was born on 6 March 1927 in Aracataca, Colombia.  García Márquez’s grandmother, Doña Tranquilina Iguarán Cotes, played an influential role in his upbringing. He was inspired by the way she “treated the extraordinary as something perfectly natural.”   The house was filled with stories of ghosts and premonitions, omens and portents, all of which were studiously ignored by her husband.   According to García Márquez she was “the source of the magical, superstitious and supernatural view of reality”.  He enjoyed his grandmother’s unique way of telling stories. No matter how fantastic or improbable her statements, she always delivered them as if they were the irrefutable truth. It was a deadpan style that, some thirty years later, heavily influenced her grandson’s writing.  Marquez began his career as a journalist while studying law.  Throughout his life, he was left-leaning politically, adopting socialist thinking, and he held that socialism and democracy are mutually dependent.   García Márquez said, “my grandfather the Colonel was a Liberal. My political ideas probably came from him to begin with because, instead of telling me fairy tales when I was young, he would regale me with horrifying accounts of the last civil war that free-thinkers and anti-clerics waged against the Conservative government.”   In 1955, Marquez published fourteen articles in the El Spectador newspaper based in his interviews of the lone survivor of a shipwreck.  In the articles he made the case that the ship wreck of a Colombian Navy vessel was the result of improperly stowed contraband, rather than the government’s story that the tragedy was due to a storm.

García Márquez received the Nobel Prize in Literature on 8 December 1982 “for his novels and short stories, in which the fantastic and the realistic are combined in a richly composed world of imagination, reflecting a continent’s life and conflicts”.  Marquez wrote 6 novels (Solitude is his second), 5 novellas, 6 collections of short stories, 8 pieces  of non-fiction, and 26 films.  He once remarked: “Most critics don’t realize that a novel like One Hundred Years of Solitude is a bit of a joke, full of signals to close friends; and so, with some pre-ordained right to pontificate they take on the responsibility of decoding the book and risk making terrible fools of themselves.”  Due to his newfound fame and his outspoken views on US imperialism Garcia Márquez was labeled as a subversive and for many years was denied visas by U.S. immigration authorities.  After Bill Clinton was elected U.S. president, he lifted the travel ban and cited One Hundred Years of Solitude as his favorite novel.  García Márquez died of pneumonia at the age of 87 on 17 April 2014 in Mexico City.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez

One Hundred Years of Solitude is the story of seven generations of a prominent Colombian family living in the fictional town of  Macondo which was founded by the family patriarch, José Arcadio Buendía.  Initially, the town is isolated from the rest of the world, but with the arrival of the railroad, it becomes connected.  Among the many family characters, there are themes of inherited traits, incest, selfishness and licentiousness.  In keeping with the style of magical realism, there are some startling events: five years of non-stop rain and one year of contagious insomnia, for example, which are presented as unremarkable in a laconic tone.  There are many references to real events in Colombian history: a long-drawn-out civil war, colonization by an American fruit company and the cover-up of the massacre of workers.  Each of the characters is distinctive and memorable, principally for their actions, which, in some cases, are outrageous, rather than their beliefs.  Life is not presented as a happy, constructive experience, and memory in not to be trusted.

This is clearly a great classic in its innovative style, its extraordinary imagination, fluid writing, and in the complexity of the human issues on which it touches.  Paradoxically, while I found it difficult to read – to follow the thread of the author’s imagination, I could not put the book down: I had to find the conclusion.  (The family and the town die out.)  At over 400 pages, it is not a short book, but it is also intense and dense.  Often, the novel is written in stream-of-consciousness style, with breathless transitions from one event to the next.  There is very little dialogue to relieve the narrative, and the narrative itself can be quite complicated.  There is one sentence in the book which goes on for a page and a half.  To do One Hundred Years of Solitude its due, one needs to be in a position to read it deliberately, without distraction, so that the dots – or at least most of them – are connected.

How do they decide? Booker shortlist.

In my last post, I argued that critics tend to look for innovation in writing, rather than ‘quality’.  This argument appears to be validated (at least in part) by the shortlist selections for the 2017 Man Booker Prize.

There was a commentary in the Evening Standard on September 13 written by the Literary Editor, David Sexton, from which I quote.

“This year’s Man Booker shortlist is a total surprise.  The two most obvious contenders from the longlist failed to make the cut,  Colson Whitehead’s vivid, inventive novel about slavery, The Underground Railroad. has already won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and the National Book Award in the United States, and been warmly endorsed by Barack Obama and Oprah Winfrey.  Now it has been discarded by the Booker.

“Sebastian Barry’s lyrical ballad about a young Irishman and  his partner fighting through the Civil War in America, Days Without End, won him the Costa Book Award last year – but it doesn’t figure either.  Booksellers will be clasping their heads today.

“Could the judges, chaired by Baroness Young of Hornsey, have possibly been influenced by a desire not to be seen to be following the other big prizes and so seem behind the pace?  Surely not, because the prize’s one criterion is to find ‘the best novel of the year’. regardless.  The problem is that the five judges change every year, so there is no consistency and rarely any clear agreement, producing the erratic decisions that the Booker is famous for – including many terrible eventual winners.  When Julian Barnes dismissed the prize (before he won it) as ‘posh bingo’, he did it too much honour.

“The committee system is simply not a good way of determining ultimate literary value.  If you rope together five individuals and they charge off eagerly in different directions, they are likely all to end up flat on their faces – as I know from my own experience.  Camels are animals designed by committee, and Booker shortlists are compromises.

“Lola Young emphasises that the judges have discovered ‘six unique and intrepid books that collectively push against the borders of convention’.  Perhaps that is all convention ever deserves, to be intrepidly but collectively pushed against?

“The shortlist is certainly great news for the debut novelists, Emily Fridlund. 38, and Fiona Mozley, 29.  Our reviewer called the latter’s novel, Ehmet, ‘a wonder to behold’ and hoped this David would conquer the Goliaths of the Booker.  However, of the novels that have survived this eccentric winnowing, the favourite to win, if it is determined on merit, must surely be Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders, a writer who first came to prominence here through being awarded the Booker’s rival, the Folio Prize, for his short stories.  It’s and extraordinary invention: voices from limbo, counsel from the afterlife, heard as President Lincoln grieves his 11-year-old son, Willie, in 1862.  ‘A dark imagination in service of a tender heart’, said our reviewer Johanna Thomas-Corr.  Properly unique.”

The shortlist for this years Man Booker Prize is:

  • Elmet, by Fiona Mozley
  • Autumn, by Ali Smith
  • 4321, by Paul Auster
  • History of Wolves, by Emily Fridlund
  • East West, by Mohsin Hamid
  • Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders

Publishing Industry Standard

Angela Bole, CEO of the Independent Book Publishing Association, has introduced an Industry Standard for a Professionally Published Book in the July issue of  IBPA Independent magazine.

Angela Bole

In the article, she says: “IBPA has been championing independent publishers, big and small, self and otherwise, since 1983.  That’s over 30 years of advocating for indie voices in the traditional publishing industry.  Over this time, we’ve seen a thing or two.

“Recent changes in the publishing industry have created enormous opportunities for self-published authors.  It’s now possible to produce a professional-quality book outside of the Big Five conglomerates.  Unfortunately, this opportunity has come at the cost of a deepening divide between how traditionally-published and self-published authors are treated.  Too often, IBPA has noticed a bias against self-published authors, independent publishers and hybrid presses when it comes to choosing titles or authors for review consideration, book award contests, association memberships, and inclusion of independent bookstore shelves.

“There is no reason for this bias.  While it is true that not all books are created equal, when they are, it’s important that the industry treats them as such.  That’s why the IBPA’s Advocacy Committee recently published an Industry Standard for a Professionally Published Book – a two-page document developed to support independent publishers and self-published authors, but also to urge an industry in flux to acknowledge that books ought to be judged on their substance ranter than their business model.  If used appropriately, the checklist gives both authors and book industry professionals an at-a-glance method by which to gauge the professional presentation of a book.  The goal is that the checklist becomes a future guide that reviewers, contests, membership associations and bookstores turn to when deciding which authors merit consideration.

“You can download the checklist at: ibpa-online.org/standardschecklist .

“During BookExpo last June, I had the privilege of discussing the checklist with other industry organisations.  I met with the American Booksellers Association, the Authors Guild, Publishers Weekly, Foreword Reviews and many more.  I’m glad to say that the reception was warm.  Those industry professionals paying attention know they’re missing quality books be using gatekeeping tactics attached to business models; they just haven’t figured out how to consider books without opening the floodgate to unprofessionally produced content, as well.  They seemed to appreciate that the checklist is a needed first step toward figuring this all out.

“Today’s independent publishers and self-published authors represent a diverse array of voices and backgrounds, often speaking about specialised issues that are marginalised by larger presses, often because their books are being judged on the business model and not on what matters, which is the content of the books.  Just as publishers, self, or otherwise, are responsible for producing books that adhere to industry standards, the book industry as a whole is responsible for creating an environment that allows for equal evaluation of all published works.”

Amen!

The Bestseller Code

The Bestseller Code, by Jodie Archer and Matthew Jockers, St Martin’s Press, 2016, comes to some unexpected conclusions.  The book was reviewed by Sandra Elliot in the June issue of The Florida Writer.

“Through an analysis of recent best sellers, Authors Jodie Archer and Matthew Jockers claim to have identified the elements that move a novel to the top in sales.  They begin with an overview of what makes people read, including insights and quotes from Stephen King’s On Writing.  He says no one really knows what makes a story a hit, and advises would-be professionals to choose topics they know and blend in others like relationships, sex and work.  The Bestseller Code authors arouse reader interest by debunking King’s adages.  No sex in popular novels?  No, they say, and use their research findings to support their statements.

“. . . One of their first questions: themes that promote or limit a story’s commercial popularity.  Sex, drugs and rock and roll are among those tested and found wanting.  Few bestsellers are based on these themes.  What about Fifty Shades of Grey?  . . .  Not the sex, they say, but a living, breathing side of the narrative that readers feel it like the thrum of nightclub music.  The Da Vinci Code is the only other book to have such a powerful rhythm, they add.

“. . . (The book) identified John Grisham and Danielle Steel as authors who used themes of interest to many readers.  Grisham’s signature theme is ‘Lawyers and the Law’, Steel’s ‘Domestic Life’.

“Overall, bestselling authors allocate a third of their novels to one or two themes; less successful authors include more. . . . These findings are particularly relevant for debut writers who tend to write about too much.  An in-depth story is easier to follow than writing heavy with description and detail.  More women than men gain popularity with their debut novels.  Does a feminine writing style have payoff?  No, it’s not gender but an understanding of audience and language that pays, that, and the nurturing of skills through practice.

“Gender differences were noted.  Protagonists in recent female-oriented novels are internally complex and externally challenged, odd or different gals with power and motivation.  Characters in bestselling novels, male or female, are high-energy people who set out to achieve what they want to be.”

A three star review by EVS on Amazon.com says, in part: “I found myself simultaneously impressed with the depth of the research and disappointed with the triviality of the findings. Moreover, as much as the authors hope that their formula will open publishing industry to new writers overlooked otherwise, I have a feeling it will only serve to build more, higher walls, imprisoning writers in even tighter cells. Ironically, what would mediate the potential for abuse is making the formula available to the public in the form of a readily accessible test. It’s just the question of time until application of this or similar math becomes obligatory among agents and publishers. If the potential success or failure of an artist’s project is going to depend on a formula, the artist should have the right to face his accuser.”

I tend to share EVS concerns about agents and publishers using this, or a more ‘perfect’ algorithm in selecting works for publication and thereby building higher walls and imprisoning writers in even tighter cells.  But, I also guess that it will indeed be helpful in coaching overlooked authors to better hit the mark.  And I suspect that, in any case, there will always be a writer who finds a route to success that the algorithm overlooks.

In view of all this, I am motivated to get a copy of the book and report to you in more detail.

Review: The Rover

My blog of April 17, Review: Today, concerned a novel by David Miller on the death of Joseph Conrad.  Since I had never read any of Conrad’s work, I bought Selected Short Stories and The Rover, by Conrad.  As well as The Rover.  the book includes eleven of Conrad’s twenty-six short stories, selected and commented on by Dr Keith Carabine of the University of Kent.  In his introduction to the stories, Dr Carabine says that Conrad’s great distinction “lies in his ingenious and rigorous exploration of the undiscovered possibilities latent in one of the genre’s most familiar forms, namely the framed short story in which a first-person narrator (who is sometimes a member of the group) introduces, comments on and encloses another’s tale.”  As Dr Carabine says, the theme of most of the stories is man’s fate, and they are often “teasing and enigmatic”.  The framed construction of these stories introduces uncertainty in that the main narrator and the teller of the tale may have different interpretations of the events, leaving the reader to draw his own conclusions.

Two other general points I would make about Conrad’s writing.  First, he does not take great pains to capture the interest and attention of the reader at the beginning of a story.  The beginning may be a page of detailed description of the opening scene, with little information about the character who is present, and a considerable, almost poetic word picture of the setting.  In fact, Conrad’s word pictures of scenes are remarkable in their shaping of the mood of the story: mysterious, uncertain, uncommon, unusual.  Moreover, Conrad is lavish in the extent of his descriptions throughout a piece.  Some of this may be attributable to his writing for commercial publication in up-market magazines, where his compensation would be based, at least partially, on the word count.  Each of these stories has at least one principal character who is confronted with some sort of existential challenge and has defects in his character which contribute to his downfall.  Nonetheless, the reader is drawn into his predicament, hoping all the while, that the right solution will be found.

The principal character in The Rover, which is set in the immediate aftermath of the French Revolution, is an ageing, sea-faring, privateer who has come ashore in the south of France to take his ease.  There is also a dim-witted and committed old revolutionary, a young woman who has been psychologically damaged be the horrors of the revolution, a royalist French naval officer, and an aspiring young British naval officer, each of whom seeks his/her own solutions in the world. Who will succeed?  The ingredients in the story include a plan to deceive the British fleet, as well as a search for love, and a re-ordering of the world between revolutionary-royalist lines, and a rough but beautiful Mediterranean sea coast backed up against a traditional rural society.

One comes to have sympathy for the dilemmas of each of the flawed but real characters, and one can sense the tensions between them, as well as having a sensation of being on the rough bucolic scene, or on board one of the ships.  The Rover is an engrossing tale.  The one aspect which I found annoying was the slow pace of the conclusion.  One cold feel it coming, but Conrad was in no hurry to jump into it.  There was much detailed scene setting and character back-story telling.  We were familiar with the scenes, and the character enhancements should – I think – have come earlier.  Nonetheless, The Rover is a satisfying and interesting tale.