Writing Advice

On their website, The Writer’s Workshop say: “When you send your stuff off to an agent, 9 times out of 10 your work won’t actually be read. It’ll be ‘looked at’.  What does that mean? It means that an agent (or junior reader) will simply glance at the first page or two of your submission. In a large majority of cases, authors will give themselves away as amateurish in the opening chapter.  If you’re one of them, then the agent will read no further. Sure, the agent doesn’t know about your story, your characters, or your brilliant ideas. The fact is that if your writing style is poor, then those things are irrelevant.”  The website goes on to give lots of advice about writing style and techniques.  This makes sense: after all The Writer’ Workshop is selling their editorial services.  Their message is, ‘use our service and agents will read your manuscript’.

On the iUniverse website, there are tips from fiction authors, and I found it somewhat surprising that there were only two tips that mentioned writing style or technique.  These are:

“Interesting verbs are seldom very interesting.” — Jonathan Franzen, and

“Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose. If you have the knack of playing with exclaimers the way Tom Wolfe does, you can throw them in by the handful.” — Elmore Leonard

I wonder what Franzen means by ‘interesting verbs’.   If he means ‘unusual verbs’, why not say “Unusual verbs are seldom very effective”.  In which case, I agree.  I’m not sure Leonard’s advice is actually helpful.  What is ‘the knack of playing with exclaimers’?  And if there is a knack, why have a quota?

iUniverse is a self-publishing company, so maybe they want to be associated with important authors.  Anyway, here are some of the tips that caught my eye:

“In the planning stage of a book, don’t plan the ending. It has to be earned by all that will go before it.” — Rose Tremain  I agree!

“Always carry a note-book. And I mean always. The short-term memory only retains information for three minutes; unless it is committed to paper you can lose an idea for ever.” — Will Self   Maybe I should start carrying a notebook, but I doubt I would use it.

“It’s doubtful that anyone with an internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction.” — Jonathan Franzen; and “Work on a computer that is disconnected from the internet.” — Zadie Smith  I disagree.  If one is writing fiction that is intended to be’real’ in time and space, how can you do it without Google?  Unless, of course, ‘good fiction’ is not real in time and space.

“Read it aloud to yourself because that’s the only way to be sure the rhythms of the sentences are OK (prose rhythms are too complex and subtle to be thought out—they can be got right only by ear).” — Diana Athill  I’ve got to do more of this.

“Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” – Anton Chekhov  Beautiful.

“The writing life is essentially one of solitary confinement – if you can’t deal with this you needn’t apply.” — Will Self   Very true.

“Be your own editor/critic. Sympathetic but merciless!” — Joyce Carol Oates   A necessity.

“Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.” — Neil Gaiman   True, except for publishers’ editors.

“The main rule of writing is that if you do it with enough assurance and confidence, you’re allowed to do whatever you like. (That may be a rule for life as well as for writing. But it’s definitely true for writing.) So write your story as it needs to be written. Write it honestly, and tell it as best you can. I’m not sure that there are any other rules. Not ones that matter.” — Neil Gaiman  This sums it up.

 

Writing Every Day

There is an article on How to Write Every Day by Leo Babauta in the February issue of The Florida Writer.  I found it interesting to compare my experiences with his.  Leo Babauta is a ‘simplicity blogger’ and author.  He created zenhabits.net, a Top 25 blog with a million readers. ‘Zen Habits is about finding simplicity and mindfulness in the daily chaos of our lives. It’s about clearing the clutter so we can focus on what’s important, create something amazing, find happiness’. He is a best-selling author, husband and father of six children.  In 2010 he moved from Guam to the San Francisco Bay Area.

Leo Babauta

Mr Babauta says “I write (a) journal, blog posts, courses for my Sea Change program, books and e-books.  For fun, I’ve written 50,000 words of a novel NaNoWriMo, and another year I wrote 110,000.  For years, I wrote newspaper articles and opinion columns.”

For me, writing consists of writing about 125,000 word novels and 50 blog posts per year.  The motivation for me to write is the joy of creation, and not – as a retiree – my means of making a living.

Mr Babauta lists the following benefits of writing every day:

  1. My writing skills have improved with the years
  2. I’m able to write faster, type faster, with so much more practice
  3. I can clarify my thinking better because of writing regularly
  4. I able to think from the reader’s perspective, which helps me in a lot of life situations
  5. I am forced to reflect on my life, which deepens my learning
  6. I am forced to figure out how to motivate myself to write regularly
  7. I learn to create a regular practice, as I do with meditation, exercise and eating healthily
  8. I learn to overcome perfection and put things out there to be judged, which helps me to embrace failure and messiness
  9. I learn to overcome distraction and procrastination.

I agree with most of his benefits, but since I do not write for a living, I am not forced to write regularly.  Typically, I write for about three hours, four days a week; this leaves time for my pro bono charity consulting, exercise, household chores, etc.  With respect to number 8, I think that most novelists strive for perfection.  We get one chance to impress our readers: when the novel is published; it is not a give and take business in the way that blog creation is.

Mr Babauta lists these actions writers can take to write daily:

  1. Most important: Have a good reason. . . . “If it’s because is sounds fun, sounds cool, sounds nice, you’ll abandon it when you face discomfort. If you want to do it to help someone else, to make the world a better place, to lift someone’s spirits, to reduce your pain, to find a way to express your deeper self, then you can call on this deeper reason when things get difficult.”  (I agree completely)
  2. Block off undistracted time.  “All you need is ten minutes a day.  But you have to block off those ten minutes.”  (I agree about undistracted time, but for me, anything less than an hour is insufficient.  I find that I need to get in touch with the feel of the novel, and ten minutes certainly isn’t enough.)
  3. Don’t let  yourself forget (the time you’ve set aside).              (This isn’t a problem for a seasoned novelist: there is a passion to keep going!)
  4. Do it in a sprint.  “Some people think they need to write for an hour or two to make it count.  But a task that big will seem daunting.”     (Two hours isn’t daunting at all, if you’re committed to writing several hundred pages.)
  5. Practice mindfulness.  “You can treat writing as meditation.  It’s a way to put everything aside but you and the writing, to let your thoughts become words on the page. ”     (I agree completely!)
  6. Practice gratitude.  “As you practice mindfulness, notice the awesomeness of this moment of self-expression.”   (Right on!)
  7. Embrace imperfection.  “Writing is about letting go of our ideals, and just doing anyway, even if we can’t have perfection.”   (This is a difficult one for a writer of literary fiction.  One concedes that achieving perfection is impossible, and one knows that it’s counter productive to fuss too long over a phrase or passage, but ultimately, that phrase of passage has to feel ‘right’.  Edit, edit, edit.)
  8. Don’t let your mind run away (for a little while).  “Your mind will want to run away from writing.  This is normal.  The mind doesn’t like uncertainty and discomfort. . . . Don’t run.”    (This is what’s known as ‘writer’s block’.  The more one writes, the less of a problem it becomes.)

Review: Today

In my post of 3 March 2017 on the obituary of David Miller, literary agent, I mentioned that he wrote one novel: Today.  I have now read it, and share the consensus of other readers that it is a little gem of a novel.  Today concerns the gathering of friends and family of  Joseph Conrad on a bank holiday weekend in 1924.  Jessie, Joseph’s wife had recently been discharged from a nursing home.  During the weekend, Joseph dies unexpectedly.

Joseph Conrad was born into a Polish family in what is now Ukraine in 1857.  He traveled around Europe, and eventually settled in England, where he learned English.  He applied for and was granted English citizenship in 1886, but he remained a subject of Russia until he was granted a release from obligation to Tsar Alexander III in 1889.  Conrad had a nineteen year career in the merchant navies of France and England, rising from apprentice to captain. But in 1894, he gave up the sea, partly because of ill health, partly because of the lack of ships, and partly because he had become fascinated with writing.  Almost all of Conrad’s writing was first published in influential magazines and newspapers: The North American Review, The Saturday Evening Post, and The Illustrated London News, for example.  Nonetheless, financial success eluded him for much of his career, although a government grant of an annuity of £100 per annum greatly eased his situation.  His fame increased greatly with the publication of Chance in 1913, which is, ironically, thought to be one of his weaker novels.  Many of his novels include a maritime theme, and he is believed to be a writer who sailed rather than a sailor who wrote.  His writing style is thought of as poetic prose; his work is marked by exotic style, complex narration, profound themes, and pessimistic ideas.  He suffered from gout, malaria and depression.  Conrad wrote some twenty novels and a long list of stories.  His best known novels include: Lord Jim, Heart of Darkness, Nostromo, The Nigger of the ‘Narcissis’, The Secret Agent, and Under Western Eyes.

Joseph Conrad

Coming back to the novel, Today, it is written by a man who clearly admired Conrad and his work.  But Joseph Conrad, as a living character, never appears in Today.  Nonetheless, one feels his remote greatness by the way other characters react to him.  Today is a short, historical novel (160 pages) about the passing of a great author in 1924.  The setting and the culture of the time are accurately reflected.  The writing is fittingly oblique but engaging.  The characters, many of whom were real people – including Conrad’s son’s Borys (a disappointment to his father) and the younger, John; his wife Jessie, an ordinary, working-class, English girl, who was 16 years Conrad’s junior, and who was looked down upon by his friends, but was probably the supportive companion he needed.  And there is the middle-aged Miss Lillian Hallowes, Conrad’s loyal secretary.  At the end, Lillian receives not the typewriter on which she transcribed most of Conrad’s work, but, secretly, from John, the fountain pen by which the original manuscripts were written.  Did it really happen?  We don’t know: this is fiction.

I would certainly recommend Today.  Though it’s subject is death, it is largely about life.

‘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.

Review: Days Without End

This novel, by Sebastian Barry, was the Costa Book of the Year in 2016.

Wikipedia says: “Sebastian Barry (born 5 July 1955) is an Irish playwright, novelist and poet. He is noted for his dense literary writing style and is considered one of Ireland’s finest writers.

Barry’s literary career began in poetry before he began writing plays and novels. While he was once considered a playwright who wrote occasional novels, in recent years his fiction writing has been more successful than his work in the theatre.

He has twice been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize for his novels A long Long Way (2005) and The Secret Scripture (2008), the latter of which won the 2008 Costa Book of the Year and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize. His 2011 novel On Canaan’s Side was longlisted for the Booker. In January 2017, Barry was awarded the Costa Book of the Year prize for Days Without End, hence becoming the first novelist to win the prestigious prize twice.”

Sebastian Barry

Days Without End is a poetical, historical novel, set largely on the American frontier in the mid nineteenth century; its themes are love and survival.  The two principal characters are Thomas McNulty, the narrator, an Irish immigrant, aged about 15, initially, and John Cole, a homeless boy of about the same age, from New England.  Their tale begins as dancing girls – yes, boys dressed as girls – in a mining town saloon where they offered the apparent fantasy of women to rough, woman-less men.  They then join the army, which meant growing up with soldiers in hostile geography made all the more dangerous by the presence of Indians, a largely unwilling enemy. Thomas and John face near-constant hardship of savage fighting, bad weather, poor food and non-existent pay, but they find a mission and true comradeship in the army.  An Indian girl is captured, domesticated by the fort commander’s wife and assigned as servant to Thomas and John, who are then drawn into the Civil War, fighting on the Union side through battles which amounted to human slaughter.  At the end of an army enlistments, Thomas, John and Winona, the Indian girl, who is treated as John’s daughter, settle temporarily in Grand Rapids where they are entertainers, but they are drawn back into the Civil War, leaving Winona in Grand Rapids.  They are taken prisoners by the Southern Army, and live through terrible hardship, but eventually find their way back to Grand Rapids, from which the three of them set out to help a homesteader in Tennessee.  But peace is elusive: Winona is wanted in a hostage exchange for the daughter of the fort commander.  Thomas accompanies her, and, after a bloody fight in which he kills an army officer, he returns her to the Tennessee homestead.  But then, Thomas is arrested for having left the army before his papers were signed.  In custody, it is revealed that he killed the officer, and her faces the death penalty.  I won’t reveal the conclusion.

The characters are well drawn, including minor characters: army officers, soldiers, entertainers, Indians and miscellaneous blacks.  From what I remember of my American history, it paints an accurate picture of America 150 years ago.  I’ve called this ‘a poetic, historical novel’  because the narrator, Thomas, speaks in the most picturesque language, which is un-accustomed but very effective.  It does, however, make the process of reading a little more laborious.  Also, Thomas, occasionally draws on vocabulary which in very doubtful for an uneducated immigrant boy.

Having said that, Days Without End is a unique reading experience, and a good story, well-told.

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.

Review: Seeking Father Khaliq

The following review of Seeking Father Khaliq was posted on Amazon.com by amts:

“This is another wonderful book by author William Peace. Fascinating discussions of theology, philosophy and politics all melded in to an intriguing and mysterious plot. Who is Father Khaliq and why does this perhaps Saudi Arabian princess hire Professor Kareem al-Busiri who teaches at the American University in Cairo to find him? An indifferent Muslim, he is intrigued by her offer. Looking for Father Khaliq takes him on a variety of religious pilgrimages from the Muslim Hajj to the Shia Arba’een, to a trip to Israel and to Rome. Not only does one encounter a treasure trove about each of these places and pilgrimages, but one is treated to stimulating discussions about the three major religions and their approaches to essential questions about the meaning of life, about who is God, and what role the divine being plays in each of our lives.
The politics of the Middle East is handled plot wise in the lives of two of the professor’s sons. The elder, Naquib, wants radical change and becomes a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. The younger, Kalifa, chooses to join the army and to work for change within the system. The choices each makes leads to a tragic outcome that is unforeseen. During one of Kareem’s pilgrimages he comes in contact with Daesh and are held hostage. The scenes involving Daesh are not easy to read, but anyone familiar with the work of ISIS, as Americans refer to Daesh, will not be surprised. Their eventual rescue is one of the most exciting scenes.
Kudos to Mr. Peace for providing us with a book full of strong women characters. Although he is a widower, we learn about the strength of his former Peace Corps American wife who stayed in Egypt after her tour ended and later became a Coptic Christian. He is a realist; she an idealist, but they accepted and respected each other and she was able to exert her quiet influence on him in many ways. Naquib’s wife, Anisa, is the wage earner while Naquib is in school and takes care of the children while she is at work. Kalifa is unmarried, but later marries the daughter of another strong character, Adeeba, a friend of his wife’s whose husband had died about eighteen months before Elizabeth. Adeeba is a professor of Egyptian history also at the American University and the author of several books. She has strong opinions and is not shy about expressing them. The romantic relationship that eventually develops between Kareem and Adeeba is one of mutual respect and admiration, but also one with passion. The final strong female character is Wahida, Kareem’s daughter who works for the Red Crescent and presents the viewpoint of a young Moslem woman challenged by life as a Moslem in the modern world and in a Middle Eastern country.
This book has much to offer the reader – a fast moving plot, stimulating ideas to ponder, insight into the contemporary Middle Eastern world, and well developed characters both the main ones and those whose places are more peripheral. I recommend it most highly.”

Seeking Father Khaliq has received an honorable mention in Reader View’s annual literary awards.

Rape & Freedom of Speech

On Tuesday evening, my wife and I went to a piano concert at Southbank Centre.  As we approached the entrance, staff diverted us to another entrance around the corner.  When we turned the corner, we found we were in the midst of a demonstration, complete with portable loudspeakers, signs and angry people – mostly women.  We hurried through and found an entrance at the far end of the building.  I couldn’t help wondering what in the world a demonstration at Southbank Centre would be about.  On the way home that night, I picked up a copy of the Evening Standard, and found what was the issue: Tom Stranger and his ex-girlfriend, Thordis Elva were going to tell their story of rape and reconciliation.

The story is this: at the time of the rape, 20 years ago, Stranger, who is Australian, now married and a youth counsellor, was on an exchange trip to Iceland.  There, he met Elva, an Icelander who was 16 at the time (he was 18), and he became her first teenage romance.  The Evening Standard article continues: “The pair went to a Christmas party, and, wanting to impress him, Elva tried rum for the first time.  She became very drunk and spent the night being sick in the toilets – staff at the venue wanted to call an ambulance to get her home but Tom volunteered.  She was incapacitated and remembers how grateful she was to him for removing her vomit-stained dress and high heels, and how alarmed she suddenly felt when he started to go further.  He raped her.   She remembers it being painful.  She never reported what happened because it didn’t fit with her idea of what rape was.  Or his, he says: ‘I presumed that after a night out with your girlfriend, a boy is deserving of sex.  I sanctioned my own perceived needs and sexual urges, and had no regard for Thordis’ well-being.  I did not have an intent to hurt Thordis, but that is what I did.’

“Nine years after the rape, Stranger, long since back in Australia, all thoughts of Elva buried, received an email. ‘It was detailed and clear.  Her words took me back to that room nearly a decade earlier.  They told me what really happened and revealed the effects my actions had on her. . . . But I also felt I was being offered something really rare, something that needed to be understood, respected and not questioned. . . . He wrote back and they spent the next two years corresponding in long emails, unpicking the events and repercussions of that night.”  She proposed that  ‘in six months time we meet up with the intention of reaching forgiveness, once and for all.  In person.’

“They met on neutral ground – a hotel in Cape Town.  Talking was difficult.  At one point Stranger broke down. ‘I’ve come to understand the damage that I caused.  It’s been a long journey for me to be totally able to acknowledge that it was rape, and to comprehend how Thordis has had to live with the effects of my actions.’

The two have written a book: South of Forgiveness, published by Scribe.

Tom Stranger & Thordis Elva

Their appearance at the Women of the World festival at Southbank Centre last Saturday was cancelled.  2364 people objected to his appearance, but it was rescheduled for last Tuesday.  The petition to cancel said: “By giving the rapist in question a platform to relay their narrative the event will inevitably encourage the normalisation of sexual violence, instead of focusing on accountability and root causes.”  Those who opposed the appearance said it would set a precedent in which rapists can be applauded simply of admitting their crime, “and may even encourage rapists to contact survivors, an action that would severely disrupt their process of healing.”

Stranger says he disagrees with the female judge who warned that drunk women put themselves at higher risk of rape.  “I would say that’s a continuation of victim-blaming.  Once again the scrutiny is on the actions of women. . . . I would not speak about the choice of women in that way.  I want the focus to be on the young men making their choices and why they do what they’re doing. . . . It’s about time we started looking at sexual violence as a men’s issue.  It’s very clear – unless it’s a mutual thing, unless there’s consent, then it’s wrong.”

In reading the Evening Standard article (which covers two entire pages), the writer, Stefanie Marsh, leaves one with the impression not only that Stranger is contrite, but he understands why he is a hate figure, and is willing to suffer abuse to get his point across: It’s a Men’s Issue.

As to whether the Women of the World appearance should have been cancelled, I take a neutral view: it’s up to the management of the festival, and more generally, I think it depends on the time and place.  What I would object to is if the government were to interfere in the decision.  Having said that, I have an issue with the protest petition.  My issue is not about freedom of speech but about willingness to listen.  It seems to me that there is an increasing tendency in our society today when a subject is introduced to say: we don’t want to hear about that!  There are three words in the petition to cancel that make me believe this is an example of refusal to listen.  Narrative: have the petitioners considered what Stranger’s narrative might be instead of assuming what it is?  Accountability: the petitioners want to focus on accountability; that’s exactly what Stranger does: his own.  Root causes: Stranger identifies the root cause as being a men’s problem.  Is that not correct?

Illiterates?

There was a brief article in the Daily Telegraph recently entitled: “One in five Britons can’t name a single author of literature”.

It went on to say: “A fifth of Britons cannot name a single author of literature, while one in four has not read a literary work in the past six months, a survey has revealed.  In the Royal Society of Literature survey, 15 per cent believe classical writing is too difficult, and yet 67 per cent said literature had brought them comfort in stressful times.  In a vote in which almost 2,000 people were asked to pick a writer they considered to be a literary figure, a staggering 20 per cent could not name a single one.  One in four had not read any literature in the previous six months.  The most commonly named writer was Shakespeare with Dickens a close second.  War Horse author Michael Morpurgo warned: “There seems to be a gulf that shuts off 20 per cent of people from the benefits of literature.”

In 2015, The Guardian published the following list of the 100 best novels written in English:

1. The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan (1678)

A story of a man in search of truth told with the simple clarity and beauty of Bunyan’s prose make this the ultimate English classic.

2. Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe (1719)

By the end of the 19th century, no book in English literary history had enjoyed more editions, spin-offs and translations. Crusoe’s world-famous novel is a complex literary confection, and it’s irresistible.

3. Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift (1726)

A satirical masterpiece that’s never been out of print, Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels comes third in our list of the best novels written in English

4. Clarissa by Samuel Richardson (1748)

Clarissa is a tragic heroine, pressured by her unscrupulous nouveau-riche family to marry a wealthy man she detests, in the book that Samuel Johnson described as “the first book in the world for the knowledge it displays of the human heart.”

5. Tom Jones by Henry Fielding (1749)

Tom Jones is a classic English novel that captures the spirit of its age and whose famous characters have come to represent Augustan society in all its loquacious, turbulent, comic variety.

6. The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Laurence Sterne (1759)

Laurence Sterne’s vivid novel caused delight and consternation when it first appeared and has lost little of its original bite.

7. Emma by Jane Austen (1816)

Jane Austen’s Emma is her masterpiece, mixing the sparkle of her early books with a deep sensibility.

8. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (1818)

Mary Shelley’s first novel has been hailed as a masterpiece of horror and the macabre.

9. Nightmare Abbey by Thomas Love Peacock (1818)

The great pleasure of Nightmare Abbey, which was inspired by Thomas Love Peacock’s friendship with Shelley, lies in the delight the author takes in poking fun at the romantic movement.

10. The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket by Edgar Allan Poe (1838)

Edgar Allan Poe’s only novel – a classic adventure story with supernatural elements – has fascinated and influenced generations of writers.

11. Sybil by Benjamin Disraeli (1845)

The future prime minister displayed flashes of brilliance that equalled the greatest Victorian novelists.

12. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë (1847)

Charlotte Brontë’s erotic, gothic masterpiece became the sensation of Victorian England. Its great breakthrough was its intimate dialogue with the reader.

13. Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë (1847)

Emily Brontë’s windswept masterpiece is notable not just for its wild beauty but for its daring reinvention of the novel form itself.

14. Vanity Fair by William Thackeray (1848)

William Thackeray’s masterpiece, set in Regency England, is a bravura performance by a writer at the top of his game.

15. David Copperfield by Charles Dickens (1850)

David Copperfield marked the point at which Dickens became the great entertainer and also laid the foundations for his later, darker masterpieces.

16. The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne (1850)

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s astounding book is full of intense symbolism and as haunting as anything by Edgar Allan Poe.

17. Moby-Dick by Herman Melville (1851)

Wise, funny and gripping, Melville’s epic work continues to cast a long shadow over American literature.

18. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll (1865)

Lewis Carroll’s brilliant nonsense tale is one of the most influential and best loved in the English canon.

19. The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins (1868)

Wilkie Collins’s masterpiece, hailed by many as the greatest English detective novel, is a brilliant marriage of the sensational and the realistic.

20. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott (1868-9)

Louisa May Alcott’s highly original tale aimed at a young female market has iconic status in America and never been out of print.

21. Middlemarch by George Eliot (1871-2)

This cathedral of words stands today as perhaps the greatest of the great Victorian fictions.

22. The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope (1875)

Inspired by the author’s fury at the corrupt state of England, and dismissed by critics at the time, The Way We Live Now is recognised as Trollope’s masterpiece.

23. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain (1884/5)

Mark Twain’s tale of a rebel boy and a runaway slave seeking liberation upon the waters of the Mississippi remains a defining classic of American literature.

24. Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson (1886)

A thrilling adventure story, gripping history and fascinating study of the Scottish character, Kidnapped has lost none of its power.

25. Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K Jerome (1889)

Jerome K Jerome’s accidental classic about messing about on the Thames remains a comic gem.

26. The Sign of Four by Arthur Conan Doyle (1890)

Sherlock Holmes’s second outing sees Conan Doyle’s brilliant sleuth – and his bluff sidekick Watson – come into their own.

27. The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde (1891)

Wilde’s brilliantly allusive moral tale of youth, beauty and corruption was greeted with howls of protest on publication.

28. New Grub Street by George Gissing (1891)

George Gissing’s portrayal of the hard facts of a literary life remains as relevant today as it was in the late 19th century.

29. Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy (1895)

Hardy exposed his deepest feelings in this bleak, angry novel and, stung by the hostile response, he never wrote another.

30. The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane (1895)

Stephen Crane’s account of a young man’s passage to manhood through soldiery is a blueprint for the great American war novel.

31. Dracula by Bram Stoker (1897)

Bram Stoker’s classic vampire story was very much of its time but still resonates more than a century later.

32. Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad (1899)

Joseph Conrad’s masterpiece about a life-changing journey in search of Mr Kurtz has the simplicity of great myth.

33. Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser (1900)

Theodore Dreiser was no stylist, but there’s a terrific momentum to his unflinching novel about a country girl’s American dream.

34. Kim by Rudyard Kipling (1901)

In Kipling’s classic boy’s own spy story, an orphan in British India must make a choice between east and west.

35. The Call of the Wild by Jack London (1903)

Jack London’s vivid adventures of a pet dog that goes back to nature reveal an extraordinary style and consummate storytelling.

36. The Golden Bowl by Henry James (1904)

American literature contains nothing else quite like Henry James’s amazing, labyrinthine and claustrophobic novel.

37. Hadrian the Seventh by Frederick Rolfe (1904)

This entertaining if contrived story of a hack writer and priest who becomes pope sheds vivid light on its eccentric author – described by DH Lawrence as a “man-demon”.

38. The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame (1908)

The evergreen tale from the riverbank and a powerful contribution to the mythology of Edwardian England.

39. The History of Mr Polly by HG Wells (1910)

The choice is great, but Wells’s ironic portrait of a man very like himself is the novel that stands out.

40. Zuleika Dobson by Max Beerbohm (1911)

The passage of time has conferred a dark power upon Beerbohm’s ostensibly light and witty Edwardian satire.

41. The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford (1915)

Ford’s masterpiece is a searing study of moral dissolution behind the facade of an English gentleman – and its stylistic influence lingers to this day.

42. The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan (1915)

John Buchan’s espionage thriller, with its sparse, contemporary prose, is hard to put down.

43. The Rainbow by DH Lawrence (1915)

The Rainbow is perhaps DH Lawrence’s finest work, showing him for the radical, protean, thoroughly modern writer he was.

44. Of Human Bondage by W Somerset Maugham (1915)

Somerset Maugham’s semi-autobiographical novel shows the author’s savage honesty and gift for storytelling at their best.

45. The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton (1920)

The story of a blighted New York marriage stands as a fierce indictment of a society estranged from culture.

46. Ulysses by James Joyce (1922)

This portrait of a day in the lives of three Dubliners remains a towering work, in its word play surpassing even Shakespeare.

47. Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis (1922)

What it lacks in structure and guile, this enthralling take on 20s America makes up for in vivid satire and characterisation.

48. A Passage to India by EM Forster (1924)

EM Forster’s most successful work is eerily prescient on the subject of empire.

49. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes by Anita Loos (1925)

A guilty pleasure it may be, but it is impossible to overlook the enduring influence of a tale that helped to define the jazz age.

50. Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf (1925)

Woolf’s great novel makes a day of party preparations the canvas for themes of lost love, life choices and mental illness.

51. The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald (1925)

Fitzgerald’s jazz age masterpiece has become a tantalising metaphor for the eternal mystery of art.

52. Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner (1926)

A young woman escapes convention by becoming a witch in this original satire about England after the first world war.

53. The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway (1926)

Hemingway’s first and best novel makes an escape to 1920s Spain to explore courage, cowardice and manly authenticity.

54. The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett (1929)

Dashiell Hammett’s crime thriller and its hard-boiled hero Sam Spade influenced everyone from Chandler to Le Carré.

55. As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner (1930)

The influence of William Faulkner’s immersive tale of raw Mississippi rural life can be felt to this day.

56. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley (1932)

Aldous Huxley’s vision of a future human race controlled by global capitalism is every bit as prescient as Orwell’s more famous dystopia.

57. Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons (1932)

The book for which Gibbons is best remembered was a satire of late-Victorian pastoral fiction but went on to influence many subsequent generations.

58. Nineteen Nineteen by John Dos Passos (1932)

The middle volume of John Dos Passos’s USA trilogy is revolutionary in its intent, techniques and lasting impact.

59. Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller (1934)

The US novelist’s debut revelled in a Paris underworld of seedy sex and changed the course of the novel – though not without a fight with the censors.

60. Scoop by Evelyn Waugh (1938)

Evelyn Waugh’s Fleet Street satire remains sharp, pertinent and memorable.

61. Murphy by Samuel Beckett (1938)

Samuel Beckett’s first published novel is an absurdist masterpiece, a showcase for his uniquely comic voice.

62. The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler (1939)

Raymond Chandler’s hardboiled debut brings to life the seedy LA underworld – and Philip Marlowe, the archetypal fictional detective.

63. Party Going by Henry Green (1939)

Set on the eve of war, this neglected modernist masterpiece centres on a group of bright young revellers delayed by fog.

64. At Swim-Two-Birds by Flann O’Brien (1939)

Labyrinthine and multilayered, Flann O’Brien’s humorous debut is both a reflection on, and an exemplar of, the Irish novel.

65. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck (1939)

One of the greatest of great American novels, this study of a family torn apart by poverty and desperation in the Great Depression shocked US society.

66. Joy in the Morning by PG Wodehouse (1946)

PG Wodehouse’s elegiac Jeeves novel, written during his disastrous years in wartime Germany, remains his masterpiece.

67. All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren (1946)

A compelling story of personal and political corruption, set in the 1930s in the American south.

68. Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry (1947)

Malcolm Lowry’s masterpiece about the last hours of an alcoholic ex-diplomat in Mexico is set to the drumbeat of coming conflict.

69. The Heat of the Day by Elizabeth Bowen (1948)

Elizabeth Bowen’s 1948 novel perfectly captures the atmosphere of London during the blitz while providing brilliant insights into the human heart.

70. Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell (1949)

George Orwell’s dystopian classic cost its author dear but is arguably the best-known novel in English of the 20th century.

71. The End of the Affair by Graham Greene (1951)

Graham Greene’s moving tale of adultery and its aftermath ties together several vital strands in his work.

72. The Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger (1951)

JD Salinger’s study of teenage rebellion remains one of the most controversial and best-loved American novels of the 20th century.

73. The Adventures of Augie March by Saul Bellow (1953)

In the long-running hunt to identify the great American novel, Saul Bellow’s picaresque third book frequently hits the mark.

74. Lord of the Flies by William Golding (1954)

Dismissed at first as “rubbish & dull”, Golding’s brilliantly observed dystopian desert island tale has since become a classic.

75. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov (1955)

Nabokov’s tragicomic tour de force crosses the boundaries of good taste with glee.

76. On the Road by Jack Kerouac (1957)

The creative history of Kerouac’s beat-generation classic, fuelled by pea soup and benzedrine, has become as famous as the novel itself.

77. Voss by Patrick White (1957)

A love story set against the disappearance of an explorer in the outback, Voss paved the way for a generation of Australian writers to shrug off the colonial past.

78. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (1960)

Her second novel finally arrived this summer, but Harper Lee’s first did enough alone to secure her lasting fame, and remains a truly popular classic.

79. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark (1960)

Short and bittersweet, Muriel Spark’s tale of the downfall of a Scottish schoolmistress is a masterpiece of narrative fiction.

80. Catch-22 by Joseph Heller (1961)

This acerbic anti-war novel was slow to fire the public imagination, but is rightly regarded as a groundbreaking critique of military madness.

81. The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing (1962)

Hailed as one of the key texts of the women’s movement of the 1960s, this study of a divorced single mother’s search for personal and political identity remains a defiant, ambitious tour de force.

82. A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess (1962)

Anthony Burgess’s dystopian classic still continues to startle and provoke, refusing to be outshone by Stanley Kubrick’s brilliant film adaptation.

83. A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood (1964)

Christopher Isherwood’s story of a gay Englishman struggling with bereavement in LA is a work of compressed brilliance.

84. In Cold Blood by Truman Capote (1966)

Truman Capote’s non-fiction novel, a true story of bloody murder in rural Kansas, opens a window on the dark underbelly of postwar America.

85. The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath (1966)

Sylvia Plath’s painfully graphic roman à clef, in which a woman struggles with her identity in the face of social pressure, is a key text of Anglo-American feminism.

86. Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth (1969)

This wickedly funny novel about a young Jewish American’s obsession with masturbation caused outrage on publication, but remains his most dazzling work.

87. Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor (1971)

Elizabeth Taylor’s exquisitely drawn character study of eccentricity in old age is a sharp and witty portrait of genteel postwar English life facing the changes taking shape in the 60s.

88. Rabbit Redux by John Updike (1971)

Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, Updike’s lovably mediocre alter ego, is one of America’s great literary protoganists, up there with Huck Finn and Jay Gatsby.

89. Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison (1977)

The novel with which the Nobel prize-winning author established her name is a kaleidoscopic evocation of the African-American experience in the 20th century.

90. A Bend in the River by VS Naipaul (1979)

VS Naipaul’s hellish vision of an African nation’s path to independence saw him accused of racism, but remains his masterpiece.

91. Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie (1981)

The personal and the historical merge in Salman Rushdie’s dazzling, game-changing Indian English novel of a young man born at the very moment of Indian independence.

92. Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson (1981)

Marilynne Robinson’s tale of orphaned sisters and their oddball aunt in a remote Idaho town is admired by everyone from Barack Obama to Bret Easton Ellis.

93. Money: A Suicide Note by Martin Amis (1984)

Martin Amis’s era-defining ode to excess unleashed one of literature’s greatest modern monsters in self-destructive antihero John Self.

94. An Artist of the Floating World by Kazuo Ishiguro (1986)

Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel about a retired artist in postwar Japan, reflecting on his career during the country’s dark years, is a tour de force of unreliable narration.

95. The Beginning of Spring by Penelope Fitzgerald (1988)

Fitzgerald’s story, set in Russia just before the Bolshevik revolution, is her masterpiece: a brilliant miniature whose peculiar magic almost defies analysis.

96. Breathing Lessons by Anne Tyler (1988)

Anne Tyler’s portrayal of a middle-aged, mid-American marriage displays her narrative clarity, comic timing and ear for American speech to perfection.

97. Amongst Women by John McGahern (1990)

This modern Irish masterpiece is both a study of the faultlines of Irish patriarchy and an elegy for a lost world.

98. Underworld by Don DeLillo (1997)

A writer of “frightening perception”, Don DeLillo guides the reader in an epic journey through America’s history and popular culture.

99. Disgrace by JM Coetzee (1999)

In his Booker-winning masterpiece, Coetzee’s intensely human vision infuses a fictional world that both invites and confounds political interpretation.

100. True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey (2000)

Peter Carey rounds off our list of literary milestones with a Booker prize-winning tour-de-force examining the life and times of Australia’s infamous antihero, Ned Kelly.

I count that I have read 29 books on the list, which I regard as a pretty low achievement.  I’ve decided to order Song of Solomon right now, as it’s author is unknown to me and the topic looks interesting.

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!