Monday, 28 February 2011

Rumours of Huck’s Demise

Recently a controversial new edition of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which aims to render the novel less offensive to the modern reader by changing its language, was published by NewSouth. Most remarked upon is the fact that in each of the more than 200 instances that Twain used the word “nigger” it has been replaced with the word “slave”. Clearly Huckleberry Finn is an important book and one that should be available for children to read. But it is a complicated novel even for adults to comprehend, and one that has grown more problematic over time.

Jonathan Arac’s 'Huckleberry Finn as Idol and Target’ tracks the changing perceptions of Huck Finn in both the popular and the critical imagination. His account of the work of many critics of American literature is simply damning. Most appalling is Arac’s observation that many critical accounts refer to the character Jim as “Nigger Jim”, despite the fact that this phrase is not used even once in the actual text. One critic, charged with writing an extensive re-evaulation of the American classic supposedly distanced from previous criticism, instead provided a reheated account whose lack of original thought was made embarrassingly evident by his use of this epithet. With undeniably racist attitudes entrenched even in what one would hope was an arena for progressive thinking, one questions both the motives for the outcry against the NewSouth edition and the possibility of Twain’s novel ever being examined in a disinterested fashion.

How old should children be when they are first introduced to Huckleberry Finn? The youth of Twain’s protagonist has meant that in the past it has been widely used in the classroom, but I would not be so keen to recommend it as a text that should be studied by everyone together at a certain age. Arac describes teachers defending their use of the text in the classroom, despite parents complaining that it had led to racist bullying. The NewSouth edition has prompted a rallying cry that the books should make its return to school libraries, although I remain unconvinced that there ever was a concerted effort to remove it, but more likely a gradual ceasing to its use as a class reader for obvious reasons of sensitivity.

Certainly the book has fallen out of favour; that happens to many pieces of writing. As part of my Masters’ dissertation I researched the changing fortunes of Harriet Beecher Stowe and Uncle Tom’s Cabin, from the bringer of emancipation to peddler of toxic caricatures to quiet feminist heroine. As the angle at which we look at the past changes, texts appear differently. Toni Morrison’s Beloved might be the most frequently assigned novel in American college classrooms, but it too will wax and wane. I think that the changing perception of texts over time is fascinating, and I believe that this new edition speaks of America’s yet remaining unease over the concept of race.

Many of the reports on the new edition simply seek to shake up feelings of outrage that “American Classics” (for this read a fairly small collection of texts, all by white men, that people have read ever since American literature became an accepted field of study) are being sidelined for other works, with their implied lesser status. They suggest that it is only by being “sanitized” that Huckleberry Finn will be accepted by the PC police and make its return to schools. I think that it is important not to cover up what the novel was, and that this includes our desire to shield ourselves from the difficult truth that even a book written with the intention of championing freedom has such an uncomfortably compromised ending. Despite Huck’s compassion, Jim becomes the mere plaything of Tom Sawyer, and the fate of the family he leaves behind remains unspoken. Unless you address the ending, your reading will be revisionist even if you use the unexpurgated text.

The novel remains thought-provoking, and could prompt revelatory discussions for an exceptionally bright class with a thoughtful teacher. But I do not think that every child or indeed every teacher would be capable of this, and I do not see why Twain’s original language is necessary for children, who often read abridged and age-appropriate versions of novels or plays. Depressingly, Michiko Kakutani actually argues in the New York Times that the word “nigger” has been “reclaimed...from its ugly past“ by rappers, and that not teaching books like Huckleberry Finn “relieves teachers of the fundamental responsibility of putting such books in context — of helping students understand that [the novel] actually stands as a powerful indictment of slavery (with Nigger Jim its most noble character)”. This lazy, ill-considered and unreconstructed opinion would seem to prove me right in thinking that unless you are willing to commit your intellectual integrity and strive for a balanced, nuanced interpretation of Huckleberry Finn instead of a knee-jerk reaction one way or the other, it’s probably better not to read it. If a journalist for one of America’s most respected newspapers can’t do it, why are fourth-graders expected to?

Thursday, 6 January 2011

The Books of 2010

2010 was the first year I actually decided to keep a record of the books I read. Until I compiled it I had not even a rough idea of how many books I read, and looking over the list reminds me of what I was doing at the time I was reading each of them - I was reading 'The Rehearsal' when I went to the Van Gogh exhibition, 'The Remains of the Day' when I went to Paris. When I was doing work experience at Ebury I was reading 'Arthur & George', when I was at HarperCollins, 'Freedom'. One of the things I love about books is how they become bound up in life, how books not only tell stories but also begin their own. Tracing the publication history of Richard Wright's 'Native Son' for my course at Oxford was a fascinating task, but even more interesting is the personal histories that are written when we give or recommend books. My find of the year would have to be Kelly Link, and her disconcerting but brilliant collection 'Pretty Monsters', illustrated by the fantastic Shaun Tan. It was such a success with the friend I gave it to that she bought several copies for her friends. Hopefully we won't be waiting too long for another book, but in the meantime I have plenty of other things to be reading; with my discount and my exposure to so many great new books, my reading rate has sadly not managed to match my acquistion rate...

Armadale – Wilkie Collins
2. A Tale of Two Cities – Charles Dickens
3. The Killer Angels – Michael Shaara
4. The White Tiger – Aravind Adiga
5. The Rehearsal – Eleanor Catton
6. Then We Came To the End – Joshua Ferris
7. The Braindead Megaphone – George Saunders
8. The Suspicions of Mr Whicher – Kate Summerscale
9. When Nietzsche Wept – Irvin D. Yalom
10. The Death of Sigmund Freud – Mark Edmundson
11. The Unnamed – Joshua Ferris
12. The Corrections – Jonathan Franzen
13. The Remains of the Day – Kazuo Ishiguro
14. Arthur & George – Julian Barnes
15. Beyond Black – Hilary Mantel
16. Jude the Obscure – Thomas Hardy
17. Carter Beats the Devil – Glen David Gold
18. When God Was A Rabbit – Sarah Winman
19. The Blair Years – Alastair Campbell
20. Predictably Irrational – Dan Ariely
21. The Dark Lord of Derkholm – Diana Wynne Jones
22. Eleven – Mark Watson
23. Charmed Life – Diana Wynne Jones
24. Room – Emma Donoghue
25. How I Escaped My Certain Fate – Stewart Lee
26. The Perks of Being a Wallflower – Stephen Chbosky
27. Voodoo Histories – David Aaronovitch
28. Freedom – Jonathan Franzen
29. Middlemarch – George Eliot
30. Mathilda Savitch – Victor Lodato
31. Blackmoor – Edward Hogan
32. The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil – George Saunders
33. Beware of Pity – Stefan Zweig
34. Solar – Ian McEwan
35. The Little Stranger – Sarah Waters
36. To the Lighthouse – Virginia Woolf
37. The Naked Jape – Jimmy Carr and Lucy Greaves
38. Iola Leroy – Frances Ellen Watkins Harper
39. Pretty Monsters – Kelly Link
40. Archer’s Goon – Diana Wynne Jones
41. Ten Stories About Smoking – Stuart Evers
42. The Lives of Christopher Chant – Diana Wynne Jones
43. The Help – Kathryn Stockett
44. Conrad’s Fate – Diana Wynne Jones

Sunday, 12 December 2010

Tweet Tweet

“Using Twitter is beneath the dignity of the published author.”

Ned Beauman’s provocative statement drew some laughs when he made it at an author event hosted by the Society of Young Publishers, but also a great deal of frustration. Agents complained that he was shooting himself in the foot by refusing to promote himself; no doubt publicists were irked by the author’s later qualification that promoting his books through this medium was acceptable, just as long as he didn’t have to be bothered by it while he was busy doing important, authorly things.

The other authors in attendance disagreed; David Whitehouse stated that he had been advised by his publisher to join Twitter, and could see why it was important, while Evie Wyld argued that Twitter provides an essential means of connection for authors hoping to get their names out. I wondered what the point of a Twitter feed entirely composed by some poor publicist might be, given that Twitter’s appeal is a genuine, real-time connection with other people, even if it does make you realise the famous can be as banal as anyone else.

Beauman’s point, of course, was that the extra obligations publishers often put authors under, which I explored earlier on this blog in “Meeting Your Heroes”, are a bad thing. I wouldn’t necessarily disagree with that. But the way in which he framed his argument betrayed contempt for the people who are working hard to promote his work, and for people who can’t afford such finer feelings as they try to share what they do.

I used to think talent was rare; now I’m not so sure. I know many brilliant people, but I don’t know when or even if their talents will ever be widely recognised. When I’ve just read a fantastic book, I like to tell people about it, and if it’s not a bestseller, people usually haven’t heard of it or of the author. There isn’t time to read all the books that deserve to be read, and that’s just the ones I know about. That’s one of the reasons I am so disappointed by books, because time spent reading one you don’t enjoy and get nothing out of means one less book that will change your life. There are many terrible books out too: anyone can create something. Fewer people can create something worth sharing, and fewer still manage to actually share it. I revised my opinion. Talent isn’t rare, but talent with the means or inclination to develop and promote itself probably is.

This is why I’m so fond of Shakespeare. Yes, he was exceptionally eloquent. Yes, he created some of the most memorable and moving characters in literature. Yes, he handles complex moral dilemmas with a subtlety that has given them power for centuries. But if nobody had seen his plays, that would have been beside the point; I would argue that his shrewd business sense is the most unsung aspect of his genius. Art and money are often imagined to exist in separate realms; mixing the two is deemed somehow unseemly. But writers live in the same world as everyone else; if they didn’t they wouldn’t have anything real to say to us. I bet Shakespeare would have tweeted.

Friday, 5 November 2010

Budgetary Concerns

Back in the days of the Net Book Agreement, books had a cover price which people paid, no questions asked. Haggling in shops, particularly chain shops where prices are clearly marked, is still somewhat unconventional. Unusual, but not unheard of, as I discovered the other day, when a man accosted me at work.

“How much is this one?” he asked.

“It’s £8.99.”

“Can I have a discount?”

“Why?” I said, nonplussed. “It’s in perfect condition.”

“Yeah,” he said. “But I was wondering if you could just... take some money off.”

“It’s on three for two,” I said. “So if you got three books of the same value it would effectively be a third off.”

“I just want this one.”

“I’m sorry, but that’s the offer. As a single book it’s £8.99.”

“Can’t you come down a bit on that?”

“No.” I said. “I’m afraid not.”

People actively expect to pay less than the full RRP for books, and feel now feel ripped off when booksellers ask for this. In a 2007 survey of six countries which also included the USA, Ireland, the Netherlands, Sweden and Finland, the average selling price for a book in the UK was £6.34, which was the lowest of the six countries in the survey, bringing the lowest gross profit per book: a mere £1.60. The Netherlands, which still operates a price-fixing agreement, had the highest average book price in the survey at £13.29.

I think that this is a thorny problem, and one that could get worse. While it’s only fair to give bookbuyers the best value for money, if booksellers, desperate to compete on price, continually squeeze the publishers, the same editorial and production standard simply won’t be maintained. And while Waterstone’s once benefitted from the collapse of the Net Book Agreement, which allowed them to benefit from economies of scale unavailable to their smaller competitors, using deals like their 3 for 2 offers to secure a bigger market share, they are no longer the biggest bookselling fish. Their focus must switch to knowledgeable staff and good customer service; but with the current mood of austerity, it is likely that cost will prevail as the most important deciding factor for many.

A book buyer for Asda questioned whether offering a product with a certain cultural significance, like a book or a CD, for less money, would make people place less value on it. “In fact, I think I would love it even more," she said. Certainly books are facing increased competition with other forms of entertainment, such as computer games and DVDs, and price is one way to grab potential customers’ attention. But in ‘Predictably Irrational’ Dan Ariely reports the results of psychology experiments involving food which suggest people do enjoy the same thing more if they believe it is more expensive. More incredibly, subjects told that a certain new painkiller cost $2.50 rather than ten cents found it much more effective; it was a sugar pill. Pay more for a book and enjoy it more? Maybe. But you won’t enjoy it at all if you don’t get to read it.

There are no discounts just yet for customers with the chutzpah to ask for them. Not even if you’re asking, as my customer was, for a discount on ‘Whoops!’ by John Lanchester. Subtitle: “Why everyone owes everyone and no-one can pay.” Well, quite.

Monday, 18 October 2010

Meeting Your Heroes

Poor Jonathan Franzen has had a rough few weeks here in the UK: wrong version of ‘Freedom’ printed, glasses stolen and held to ransom, Giles Coren carping about him in The Times for not knowing that Denmark use kroner rather than euros. Maybe having a readily accessible internet connection is beneficial to the fiction writer. Or spending slightly longer than a cumulative eleven days out of nine years doing research.
This was one of the revelations disclosed at a Guardian Book Club event last week. Interviewed by John Mullan of UCL, Franzen took a while to open up. While he blamed this on fatigue and jet-lag, I felt that it was as much down to Mullan’s interviewing style, which was to direct a stream of his own (very clever, obviously) impressions of the novel at Franzen, adding a question mark at the end as though seeking his assent. One could barely discern a question in the things he said, and they didn’t really leave much room for Franzen to expand. The author fared much better later on with the more direct, open-ended questions posed by audience members.
After the talk Franzen stayed on for more than an hour, talking to readers and signing copies of his books. I found myself wondering when this publicity cycle became a regular part of an author’s job; one hardly imagines Sylvia Plath and Ernest Hemingway doing promo stuff. But it’s a vital part of publishing now. While I can understand the frustration of authors who simply wish to communicate through their work, there are so many books published each year that you need to spark public interest to get people reading your book in the first place. While writing thoughtful and engaging work is clearly important, published authors are far outnumbered by those aspiring to be published, and authors have everything to gain from a professional approach.
By the time got through most of the queue to sign my book Jonathan Franzen was flagging. The “Hi, how are you doing?” he greeted me with was so defeated and unconvincing I actually felt a bit sorry for him. He did perk up a bit when he saw I had a proof copy, and asked how I got hold of it, repeating the same brief, banal exchanges hundreds of times over was obviously wearying. I thanked him for signing my book and was on my way.

Thursday, 30 September 2010

This Isn’t a Library, You Know!

According to a recent article in The Bookseller, Amazon is considering charging customers for the use of its Look Inside! feature. Apparently they are tired of hosting a free browsing service. Well, Amazon, so are booksellers in the physical world. Not only do high street booksellers have higher overheads in order to cover staff and rents, but they also have to contend with browsers who come to look at the books, damage them, and then purchase pristine, unshopworn copies on Amazon, “because it’s cheaper”. And actually feel no embarrassment about saying so. The problem is, Amazon already gets a browsing service from its competitors, and it’s the competitors who have to pay for the costs this incurs.
Like Google, Amazon is one of those internet companies whose rapid and slightly sinister market dominance is overlooked because many people still view them as the new kids, the plucky outsiders. In the row over e-books (of which Amazon had an eye-watering 90% of the market in 2009), people often believe that Amazon is looking after their interests in the face of the big bad publishing companies after fatter profits. The role of the publisher is often forgotten in this squeeze, and the bulk rates Amazon demands as such a prominent buyer are a real difficulty, especially for independent publishers. But without publishers, Amazon would not have books to sell. Amazon doesn’t invest in new literature, new art, new products (unless they have very obvious benefits to Amazon as with the monopoly-enhancing Kindle). They aren’t looking for the next big thing or the key niche title themselves, they just want to offer it a massive Amazon discount.
Amazon has simply conditioned people to expect to pay less for books. A mere fifteen years after the collapse of the Net Book Agreement, people are often astounded when they are asked to pay the full cover price for a book. So when it comes to Look Inside! I don’t imagine they would take kindly to paying for what they used to get for free, or the implication that they have been parasites on the site, using the service but not paying their way. One wonders, if this move goes ahead, whether Amazon would take all the money raised on the basis that it covers the hosting costs for the service, or whether publishers would demand a cut for the use of their products. There would clearly be consequences to the introduction of this measure; it would provide financial incentive for people to go down to their local bookshops and browse there (too bad for people with limited mobility), and perhaps the increased footfall would help physical sales. It would make people aware of the costs to companies of browsing; there is a loss, even though nothing physically is taken. It could also be bad for physical bookshops, furthering their use as museums of display copies, while customers return to Amazon, having gleefully outwitted both retailers.
As a bookseller, I read this story with a distinct sense of schadenfreude. If put into place, this proposed move would provoke an outcry among online shoppers, would show that profits are more important than providing a good service, and would be a terrible PR move for the company. It would make one thing very clear: Amazon is only interested in looking after Amazon.

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

‘Freedom’ by Jonathan Franzen

The wait is nearly over. There have been numerous customer enquiries, and the books, which arrived about a week ago, are safely sitting on the embargoed shelf. After weeks of intensive publicity in which it felt as though one could probably have picked up an issue of ‘Birding World’, ‘Girl Talk’, or ‘Classic Motor Monthly’ and found an article about it, Jonathan Franzen’s ‘Freedom’ finally goes on sale tomorrow. Much of the coverage for ‘Freedom’, predictably, focussed on the intensity of the coverage. Lionel Shriver (who had not then read the book) complained that it would not have received anywhere near as much attention had Franzen been female, and perhaps she has a point, when one considers the comparatively modest fame enjoyed by, say, Joyce Carol Oates, whose output is simply astounding in terms of depth, variety and sheer quantity. But you take nine years to write something, and it starts to feel like more of an event, so here we are. Thanks to my privileged position as a bookseller, I have already been there, read it, literally got the Tshirt.* And I loved ‘Freedom’.
The epigraph for ‘The Corrections’ could be Philip Larkin’s poem “This Be The Verse”. ‘Freedom’ also covers the tragedy of the succeeding generations of a family trying to correct the mistakes of their parents and becoming further entrenched in their own. Fuller, richer, more compassionate than ‘The Corrections’, I enjoyed it far more. If comfortable and exciting are not mutually exclusive terms, that is how I would like to describe it. Warm and often funny, Franzen’s prose was for me the chief joy of the book, and dipping into it on Tube journeys and lunch breaks was like sinking into a squidgy sofa.
Writers have a very fine line to tread when it comes to respecting a reader’s intelligence and making plain what they want to communicate. The acclaim that ‘Freedom’ has been enjoying suggests that Franzen has got the balance about right, although he does err on the side of over-enunciation. The concept of freedom is quite explicitly addressed by several characters; Walter sees freedom as unrestricted growth and a way to destruction, a variation on his father’s view that freedom is only the freedom to go to hell, and Joey envies others for their freedom from the rules of argument while Patty is stuck in the bubblegum consistency of her sister’s looping logic. As in ‘The Corrections’, Franzen gently but insistently circles round his topic, repeatedly leading his readers back to the same point from different angles.
Perhaps when reading a novel everyone secretly does want to read about themselves, but with Franzen I am always very consciously afraid that he will start writing about me. ‘The Corrections’ seemed to be so exactly about my grandparents it was almost disturbing and the scrutiny he put the characters under was so harsh I did not really care to recognise myself in any of them. With the partial exception of Enid I found the women in ‘The Corrections’ flat and unreal, but Patty is a triumph. Jessica is not so well realised as the other characters; intelligent , independent and well-adjusted, her mother does not pay a great deal of attention to her, and neither does Franzen. But perhaps this only started to bother me when he started to describe her irritation at Joey’s easily amassed fortune set against her struggles in the unlucrative field of literary publishing.
I had my first taste of ‘Freedom’ from the New Yorker, which featured an extract about Patty’s early life in the form of a short story, titled “Agreeable”. Narrated in the third person, it comes as a shock that Patty is actually the writer of this piece, which forms part of an autobiography written on a therapist’s instructions. Instead of being a character set out for us to observe, like a butterfly pinned to a board, she is given the freedom to narrate her own story. Within the novel, Franzen has his characters reading books that so closely reflect who they are, and one wonders whether he is trying to suggest that their narratives form the structure through which people understand themselves. ‘Walden’, after all, reads like a personal mission statement for Walter, while Milkman Dead, the protagonist of Toni Morrison’s ‘Song of Solomon’, like the best novel Joey has ever read, is a model of aggressively defended masculinity who dismisses his childhood lover and abnormally fixated mother.
‘Freedom’ took Franzen nine years to write; like Donna Tartt’s books, it has a certain weight to it, a sense that it has been rounded and honed. Such books reward rereading and reconsidering, because the detail has been so carefully planned out. I was given my copy of ‘Freedom’ two weeks before running a reading group on ‘Middlemarch’, which I had not started; by the time of the meeting I had finished them both (‘Freedom’ first – it was irresistible). There were marked similarities, both in their scope and in their uncompromising portrayals of unhappy partnerships straining over time. Despite its flaws, ‘Freedom’ is a classic in today’s idiom.
*I really didn’t think I would get to read an advance copy when our former manager poached it before leaving and kept conveniently forgetting to lend it to me. The Fourth Estate people laughed hollowly when I asked for another one, telling me it was rather popular and they were fresh out. But they did send Tshirts to my shop. Stacks and stacks of Tshirts. Huge massive enormous thanks to Jurgita, the best colleague in the world, who managed to track down a proof for me.