The Espresso Book Machine

There is an article in the September, 2017 issue of the IBPA Independent magazine, ‘Can the Espresso Book Machine Save the Indie Publisher?’  It is written by Peter Goodman, the publisher of Stone Bridge Press in Berkeley, California, and a member of the IBPA Independent Editorial Advisory Committee.

The article tells us that “the EBM is a self-contained, on-demand printing and binding machine that can produce a single perfect-bound book from a digital file in 5-8 minutes.  A product of On Demand Books in New York City, the EBM promises ‘Books Printed in Minutes at Point of Sale for immediate Pick-up and Delivery’.

“Currently there are about a hundred EBM’s installed in stores and libraries, mostly in the US and Canada, but in other countries, as well.  Through On Demand Books’ own servers and tie-ups with other publishers and with Google and Lightning Source, over 7 million titles are currently available in multiple languages for on-demand printing at these locations. ”

The article also mentions that the machine can be promoted to anyone who simply wants to get unpublished written material into a printed and bound format: family cookbooks, memoirs, school projects first novels, etc.

“An EBM prints books – perfectly bound only – one at a time on an integrated Xerox D95 toner-based printer.  Available formats range from 4.5″ x 5.0″ to 8.25″ x 10.75″ with page counts from 40 to 830 pages.   Covers are produced on heavier tabloid-size stock using four-colour digital printing.  As the book pages print, the cover is output and positioned below the book block.  The EBM then scrapes and applies glue to the spine of the block and presses the  block down onto the back surface of the cover.  The book is finished as soon as the block and its attached cover are turned and trimmed on the side and front edges.”

Espresso Book Machine

“Publishers contract with On Demand to make books available through the EBM network database.  The finances are straight forward: the EBM operator arranges with On Demand  for leasing and maintenance, and then pays a licensing fee for each book printed.  The publisher receives 25% of the price of the book to the customer; the publisher sets the price, as long as it exceeds a calculated amount to cover production costs, licensing and profit to the bookseller.”

Turning now to an article from Publishers Weekly, On Demand Books emphasize that the EBM is “not a POD ( print on demand) solution: it is a sales solution”

“Another reason that book machines have started to come into their own is that publishers are looking for ways to support bricks-and-mortar stores. Publishers cannot afford to lose retail distribution. So they also see this as a mechanism for the distribution model.  The desire to keep indies in business is translating to a new willingness to make content available. To date, most of the books that the machine can print have come from deep backlists.  Most frontlist titles are from smaller presses and open source publishers.

“A question put to attendees at Xerox’s first Thought Leadership Workshop about the EBM in Rochester, N.Y., last month indicates another possibility for the machine’s growing popularity: Amazon. “We need to compete with Amazon,” says Linda Gregory, who handles Web site and order fulfillment for Colgate Bookstore in Hamilton, N.Y.

“Statistics from On Demand are tantalizing: within the first three months of having a machine McNally Jackson Books in New York City has gone from zero to 1,000 books a month. At Harvard Book Store in Cambridge, Mass., which added a machine in October 2009, owner Jeffrey Mayersohn expects to surpass 2,000 books a month this summer. “Digitalization is the salvation of the neighborhood bookstore,” he declares. He regards Amazon’s infrastructure as “20th-century” and believes that the key competitive issue is inventory, not price. With the EMB, Mayersohn says, “The store becomes a well-curated showroom with books published to specification—and a manufacturing operation in the backroom.”

In doing some research for this post, I found that the price of an EBM is $185,000, but I feel sure that On Demand’s preference is to enter into lease and maintenance agreements.

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.

Internal Dialogue

“Internal Dialogue: the Greatest Tool for Gaining Reader Confidence” by Elizabeth Sims appeared in the June 2017 issue of The Florida Writer.  Ms Sims introduces the article with  a discussion about how con artists work.  “The best con artists don’t begin by asking for your confidence – they give you theirs first.  Here’s my story. I want you, you especially to hear this.  The request for help comes later.  But before either compassion or greed can be exploited, the mark must feel something for the con artist.  When you think about it, what is fiction but one beautiful long con?  The reader – the mark – opens a book craving a good story, thirsting to be part of something special.   We, as writers, do everything possible to gain the trust of our  readers so we can entertain, shock, delight and amuse them all the way to the end.

“And the greatest tool for gaining reader confidence is internal dialogue.  Because when a character reveals his thoughts, he’s confiding in the audience.  I’m counting on you to understand me – and possibly even help me understand myself.   Suddenly readers are in the thick of it; they feel involved and invested.

“Internal  dialogue is the inner voice of a character, which is a metaphysical subject.  In most modern cultures – and, consequently, most  modern literature – there’s a dichotomy within the self: there’s an I and a me.”

(I, the objective pronoun which takes the action and me, the subjective pronoun to which the action is done)

Ms Sims goes on to say: “with internal dialogue, you can:

  • Establish your characters and their unique voices
  • Show the difference between what a character thinks versus what she says or does; this can fuel tragedy or comedy
  • Trace a character’s growth and development, or a character’s degeneration
  • Develop you plot
  • Reveal things below the surface: pain, secrets, hopes, fears . . .
  • Create and develop suspense.  Especially when the reader knows more that the character
  • Change the subject.  A character’s thoughts may drive your story in a new direction
  • Reveal a character’s opinions
  • Describe.  A character can look around and comment on his surroundings; he can observe and analyze
  • Develop and reveal character motivation.  Why are they doing what they’re doing?
  • Reflection.  Let your character think through a problem or process an event to whatever degree she is capable of. A character can be a tad less smart than the reader, thus permitting the reader to feel on top of things.
  • Adjust the pace.  Let your character pause and reflect.  It will slow things down and let the reader absorb what just happened.

“Internal dialogue typically takes three basic forms: first-person narration (I thought . . .), third-person narration (She thought . . .), and direct thought-speech (where the character seems to speak directly to the reader).  Then there’s the issue of tense. . . . You’ll find that the majority of internal dialogue is written in the present tense, no matter whether the rest of the work is in the past.  As to format, the only rule is to avoid quotation marks, single or double, as they’re associated with spoken aloud dialogue and can confuse the reader.  It used to be the convention to put inner thoughts in italics . . . Now the trend seems to be to keep everything in Roman text, the idea being that italics are intrusive and unnecessary.”

Ms Sims mentions several pitfalls to avoid:

  • Making a character’s inner voice into a wisecracker,  “Such a voice can be entertaining but only if used sparingly.”
  • Head hopping among various characters
  • ‘I thought to myself . . .’  “Who but oneself does one think to?”
  • Telling chunks of backstory by having a character remember it
  • Putting in anything that doesn’t serve the story

I think this makes clear the power of internal dialogue, but, like any other written vehicle it must be used in a balanced, appropriate way.  My personal preference is to write internal dialogue in the first-person present and to use italics, which I don’t think is confusing.

Ms Sims quotes the following passage from Beyond Black by Hilary Mantel:

The encounter, though, had bruised her.  Gavin was the first person, she thought, that I was ever really frank and honest with; at home, there wasn’t much premium on frankness, and she’d never had a girlfriend she was really close to, not since she was fifteen.

I would write this as:

The encounter, though, had bruised her.  Gavin was the first person that I was ever really frank and honest with.   At home, there wasn’t much premium on frankness, and she’d never had a girlfriend she was really close to, not since she was fifteen.

The Florida Writer says: “Elizabeth Sims is the author of the Rita Farmer Mysteries and Goldie award-winning Lillian Byrd Crime Series.  She’s also a contributing editor at Writer’s Digest magazine, specialising in the art and craft of fiction.  Her instructional title, You’ve Got a Book in You: a Stress-Free Guide to Writing the Book of Your Dreams, has helped thousands of writers find their wings.

Elizabeth Sims


Seeking Father Khaliq has been awarded first place, Religion/Spirituality in the Royal Dragonfly Literary Awards, 2017

The synopsis of Seeking Father Khaliq is as follows:

Kareem al-Busiri is a tenured professor of philosophy at a prestigious Egyptian university.  A woman whose eyes alone are visible, invites him to meet a Princess Basheera.  After doubt and discussion, he agrees.  Princess Basheera asks al-Busiri to find Father Khaliq, who is apparently her very old father, and she suggest that he find him on the Hajj.

Kareem is a secular Sunni Muslim, a widower, with three children: Naqib, the oldest is a leftist lawyer and secret member of the Muslim Brotherhood; Wahida, like her late mother is a Copt, working for the Red Crescent; Kalifa, a handsome, principled conservative plans to be an army infantry officer.  Adeeba is a winsome widowed Copt, Kareem’s late wife’s best friend, professor of archaeology, and an expert in ancient Coptic history, culture and language.  Adeeba’s younger adult daughter, Sagira, has a romantic interest in Kalifa.

On the Hajj, which Kareem undertakes with Hafez, a busy-body, agnostic colleague, there are near encounters with Father Khaliq.  The religious fervour of two million pilgrims, and the mystery of the Hajj make an indelible impression on al-Busiri.

Princess Basheera encounters Kareem on several occasions, appearing unexpectedly, wearing casual clothing, but always a niqab, exposing only her eyes.  She discusses his findings, she suggests new pilgrimages, and there is often an exchange of views on the ideas of important Arabic philosophers.  Kareem wonders: Is she real, or do I imagine her?

On a trip to Medina, al-Busiri visits the Prophet’s tomb and finds that, next to the Prophet is a vacant tomb reserved  for the second coming of Jesus.  He narrowly escapes a suicide bombing in the Date Market, and hears a woman crying out for Father Khaliq.

Persuaded to go on Arba’een, the pilgrimage of over twenty million to the Shia shrines in Karbala, Iraq, Kareem joins eleven Shia scholars from the University of Bagdad.  He becomes caught up in the intensity of the emotion at the tomb of Ali, the Prophet’s grandson and Shia icon.  During the return to Bagdad, the professors are taken hostage by a violent ISIS cadre and held for ransom.  Locked in an abandoned house in Ramadi, they are rescued by a Shia militia in a bloody shoot-out during which four of the Iraqi professors are killed.

On his return to Cairo, Kareem finds that Kalifa has been posted to north-eastern Sinai, where the army is engaged in almost daily skirmishes with Wilayat Sinai (the ISIS affiliate in Egypt).  Wahida suspects that her older brother’s law firm is providing material support to the terrorists.  Kareem reports the law firm, anonymously, to Egyptian intelligence, and meets with his son in an attempt to moderate his increasingly strident views.

With Hafez, on a trip to Jerusalem, the great mosques on the Noble Sanctuary, the Western Wall, the Jewish Quarter, and a Druze settlement on the Golan Heights are visited.  Again, there is the illusive Father Khaliq.  Kareem walks the Via Dolorosa with a Christian guide.

Kalifa and Sagira are married in jubilant Coptic and Islamic ceremonies.

Adeeba takes Kareem on a trip to Rome where he is impressed with the splendour of Christian pageantry, music and art, and the two become lovers.  She tells him she has found that ‘Khaliq’ is one of the lesser-known of Allah’s ninety-nine names.

Kalifa is killed in an attack on his base with a rocket which Wilayat Sinai was not known to have.  Wahida suspects that Naqib was involved in the supply chain.  Kareem washes his son’s body for burial; a grieving Naqib appears at the burial.  Wahida finds damning circumstantial evidence, which she passes to an intelligence officer, of Naqib’s involvement with the terrorists.  Naqib, and his law firm partners, are arrested, tried in secret, sentenced to death, and hung.  Again, Kareem washes the body of his son.

Kareem is grief-stricken, and visits his mosque for prayer.  He hears a voice offering reassurance.  Is it Allah?  Adeeba, whom he has now married, suggests that he must seek a new identity in his remaining family and his profession.  In a vacant classroom, Princess Basheera appears once again.  She debates with him the meaning and relevance if an idea of the philosopher Ibn Sina.  Kareem understands her message; she disappears.

Seeking Father Khaiiq  have recently won another award: the Pinnacle Book Achievement Award, Spiritual Fiction, 2017:


What Is a Novel?

When I first started writing, and someone asked me the question, “What is a novel?”, I would have replied, “A good story.”  But frequently, brief replies don’t really enlighten the questioner, and the more I write, the more I understand that a ‘good story’ is actually very complicated indeed – at least when it is written down, printed, publicised, sold to the general public, and liked by its readers well enough to earn its writer more than a trivial income.

So what does a ‘good story’ consist of?  There are a number of qualities of a ‘good story’, and while some may not be directly measurable, they are all, at least scrutinisable and subject to opinion:

  • The Plot:  A plan of what happens in the story.  Is it interesting?  Is it predictable or unpredictable?
  • The Characters:  The fictional people who populate the story.  Do they come alive?  Do we care about (like or despise) them?  Are they active or passive? Are their relationships to one another interesting?  Do the characters’ beginnings and end points support the Message?
  • The Setting:  The time(s) and place(s) in which the story takes place.  Is the particular setting of interest to the particular reader?  Is it easy to place oneself as the reader comfortably into the setting?
  • The Message:  What, in an overall sense, is the author trying to say to the reader? If nothing, do we care?  If something, is it clear?  Does it make us think?
  • The Tone:  The kind of emotion which is inherent in the language the author uses.  Is it sad? angry? melancholy?  matter-of fact?  Does the tone seem to support the Message?
  • The Narrator;  Who’s telling the story?  Is the choice of narrator supportive of the above five characteristics?
  • The Tense:  Is the story told in the present or the past tense?  Is the story supported by the choice of tense?
  • The Action:  Exactly what happens.  Is it credible?  Is it attention grabbing?  Is there too much or too little action?  Is the action relevant to the Message?

And then, there are the variables which define how the story is told:

  • The Language:  At what educational level is the story pitched (toddler vs college grad)?
  • The Words:  Do the words convey an exact (vs approximate) meaning?  Are there cliches?  Are there too many or too few words?  Do they convey appropriate feelings as well as facts.
  • The Sentences:  Does the author use correct grammar and punctuaton?  Do the sentence structures facilitate understanding?   Are they readable without difficulty: not too complex; not too simple?
  • Realism vs Fantasy:  Is the author’s choice of realism vs fantasy supportive of the story overall.  If there are elements of fantasy, does the reader automatically suspend disbelief?
  • Dialogue vs Backstory vs Narrative:  Is there a balanced use of these techniques?  Does their use support the story?
  • Tension:  How much tension does the author build into the story?  Does it support the plot? is there too much or too little tension?

Perhaps there are some variables I’ve overlooked.  Please don’t hesitate to mention them.


‘Revise’ has a number of synonyms, including: improve, reconsider, update, rewrite, amend and modify.  With my current novel, having finished writing it, I am doing all this and perhaps a bit more.  It is a tedious process, but, to my surprise, I’m enjoying it, because, as I get closer to the end – I’m now about half way through – I’m feeling an increasing sense of pride in the output.

You may recall that in an earlier post, I said that I would print each chapter out in an unusual font and read it aloud, marking anything that jarred on my senses for later correction.  I have done that, and I would recommend it for any author before submitting his/her manuscript for final editing.  Before I started my reading aloud process, I had made a list of ‘lingering concerns’: issues which I felt had to be addressed.  For example, I thought that I had left the characters’ feelings to much to the reader to interpret: they needed to be clearer.

So, here is what my revising process included:

  • Restructuring:  My draft manuscript was 16 chapters long, each about 17 pages.  I thought it would be better to shorten the chapters, particularly because there is a lot that happens in the book.  I’m in the process of reducing the chapter length to about 10 pages, so there will be over 25 chapters.  I also wanted to have a title alluding to the content of each chapter, believing that this would add to reader interest and attention.  The hard part was deciding where to separate the chapters, because previously, I didn’t worry much about that.  As a compromise, I have some material which relates to the topic of a preceding or a following chapter an the beginning or the end of some chapters, but I decided that this was a better solution than having some chapters as short as 6 or 7 pages.
  • Voices: Apart from the narrator, there are two other anonymous, contrarian voices.  I did not want their identity to be obvious, so I have reduced their roles.  But, at the same time, I wanted to reinforce the relevance of these voices to the characters, because they are part of the theme.  I’ve been doing this by having the characters make oblique references to the voices.
  • Characters: I have sharpened the characters so as to make their personalities more unique by having them do or say unusual things which are still in keeping with their individuality.  There are also two minor characters which are too neglected in the original manuscript.  As I’ve mentioned above, clarity of the character’s feelings is essential.  I’ve had to add passages which define the character’s thoughts or actions which reveal feelings, or something about their body language.  I’ve tried to avoid writing ‘the character felt . . .’, but I will let the narrator clarify the character’s feelings without using the word ‘feeling’.
  • Theme:  There is a theme based on Nietzsche which has to do with the development of the individual.  I felt that this theme was well introduced but faded in the later parts.  So, I’m bringing in reminders.
  • Dialog: I have been told that I write good, believable dialog, but I know it can be unnecessarily long.  There is a lot of pruning going on.
  • Unnecessary wording: Like the previous point, I have been unmerciful in deleting text which does not contribute to the reader’s understanding.
  • Time line: The story takes place over a period of about 15 years, but I sensed it was becoming difficult to keep a strict time line in order.  I’m deleting all references to sequence or the passage of time, believing that these milestones tend to be a distraction for the reader.
  • Consistency: I’ve found that I called a restaurant ‘Poseidon’ in the early chapters and ‘Neptune’ in later chapters.  I confess to being hopeless at remembering the names of people and places.  Similarly, in one chapter a terrorist organisation was called Dhul Fikar (Sword of the Prophet) and Dhul Fakir later.  The first spelling is correct.
  • Clichés: When one is reading aloud, clichés tend to reverberate, and they can be re-written
  • Inadequate words: Similarly, an adjective or a verb or even a noun can sound and feel inadequate in best defining the character’s feeling, the situation, or the setting.  Thesaurus to the rescue!
  • Typos: I’ve read the original manuscript three or four times, but I’ve still found (a few) typos!

Making Oneself Clear

Do I Make Myself Clear?: Why Writing Well Matters by Sir Harold Evans Was published in May, this year, and there was an intriguing interview with Sir Harry in the June issue of Time Magazine.

The first two questions caught my eye:

Q: You discuss many writing evils in your book, from pleonasms to pesky pronouns.  What kind of bad writing upsets you most?

A: Writing that is deliberately designed to deceive – insurance policies, political statements.  Business verbosity wastes money, confuses millions.  I find myself getting much more angry about the moral obligation of fairness than I do about a misplaced semicolon.

Q: And do you believe in freedom from the language police?

A: The language police are a bloody nuisance, some linguists in particular.  The English language got corrupted by pettifoggers.  Do you know that word pettifogger?  It is somebody who stumbles over a neck, but misses the body lying on the floor.

Sir Harold Matthew Evans (born 28 June 1928) is a British-born journalist and writer who was editor of The Sunday Times from 1967 to 1981 when he had a falling out with Rupert Murdoch.  He moved to the United States in 1984 and was naturalised as a US citizen in 1993.   He had leading positions in journalism with US News and World Report, The Atlantic Monthly and the New York Daily News.  He has written various books on history and journalism, with his The American Century (1998) receiving particular acclaim. In 2000, he retired from leadership positions in journalism to spend more time on his writing. Since 2001, Evans has served as editor-at-large of The Week magazine and he has been a contributor to The Guardian and BBC Radio 4 since 2005.  In 2004, Evans was knighted for services to journalism, and he became editor-at-large of the Reuters news agency in 2011.

Sir Harry Evans

In a New York Times book review in May 2017,  Tim Holt says: “As a master editor and distinguished author, Evans is well qualified to instruct us on how to write well. But can he delight us in the process? After reading this book, I can affirm that the answer is yes. For the most part. Up to a point.  ‘What really matters is making your meaning clear beyond a doubt,’ Evans tells us. And the key to clarity, he insists, is concision — a virtue allegedly less honoured in the United States than in the author’s native land: ‘Newsprint rationing in wartime Britain enforced economy in language, a conciseness not required in American print journalism, where acres of space invited gentle grazing.’

Holt continues: “I also enjoyed Evans’s history of the ‘readability’ movement, launched by 19th-century American reformers who wanted written sentences to be shorter and easier to understand (especially for immigrants); his witty choice of quotations, like Winston Churchill’s gibe that Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald had ‘the gift of compressing the largest number of words into the smallest amount of thought’; and his various lists of pet peeves — pleonasms like ‘close proximity’ and ‘self-confessed,’ abused pairs like ‘discomfit/discomfort’ (to discomfort is to make uneasy; to discomfit is to defeat or rout), and ‘flesh-eaters’ like ‘We are in receipt of’ for ‘We received’.

In a Financial Times article in May 2017, Matthew Engel writes: “He is a sworn enemy of . . . the lonely modifier  — which means one had better explain what he means by a lonely modifier. His example is a sentence in the New York Times where presidential ‘advisers’ and the crucial fact that they were taken ‘by surprise’ were separated by 36 words of the same sentence, all irrelevant parenthetical detail. He is also a welcome enemy of two of my own hates. One is the ludicrous non sequitur, found most abundantly in American newspaper obituaries: ‘A keen golfer, he leaves three children.’ The other is what he calls monologophobia, a phrase he credits to Theodore Bernstein of the New York Times, who described a monologaphobe as someone ‘who would rather walk naked in front of Saks Fifth Avenue than be caught using the same word twice in three lines’. This is the widespread practice (also known, too kindly, as ‘elegant variation’) whereby sports writers, having said Federer once, have to refer to him thereafter as ‘the Swiss’, ‘the 35-year-old’ and ‘the seven-times Wimbledon champion’ before they dare use his name again — even if the reader ends up forgetting who is under discussion.

At the very least, Sir Harry has a keen sense of humour!

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.