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.

Sunday, 5 September 2010

A Rose by Any Other Name

Or, How Titles and Subtitles Can Change Everything

Shortly before I left for California, an author came into work to ask if the shop would stock her book. Personal requests like this are not unusual; the books will often be self-published, and one approaches them with caution. There is less of a guarantee of editorial control, and the look and feel of the book is likely to be less slick and have less appeal to most book buyers. As it is all done at the author’s expense, they are unlikely to provide a proof copy for booksellers to read, so it is difficult to get behind the book. Conversations with these authors can be difficult. Usually an author will only turn to self-publishing because has been unable to find an agent or a publisher, and they are understandably very frustrated that they have put so much work in and have not been published, and have since paid for publication but now cannot get shops to stock the book. While it is a difficult situation, the shop has a strict budget and cannot afford to buy books it won’t be able to sell.
However, my meeting with Isabel Losada turned out to be something different. Although neither were in stock, in this shop alone the titles ‘For Tibet, With Love’ and ‘A Beginner's Guide to Changing the World’ had together sold several hundred copies. They were the same book, she said, but the publisher had been disappointed by its sales performance and changed the name, thinking that the “Tibet” in the title was putting people off. This was a mistake. Although rebranding can often be helpful, it is doubly risky. If it isn’t successful, the older brand identity has also been lost, and for nothing. Re-titling the book did not help sales figures, and while bookshops had made ‘For Tibet, With Love’ part of the stock ordered automatically, this did not apply to ‘A Beginner's Guide to Changing the World’. Although the title was later changed back, it was too late. Losada now had to speak to the individual booksellers to try to get them to stock her book.
The incident set me to thinking about the importance of titles. Clearly the publisher felt that the potential gain the new title might bring was worth the risk of making the change. Publishers seem to do relatively little market research, and yet books are clearly aimed at specific markets; this is often reflected with a change in title for international editions of books. John Heilemann and Mark Halperin’s book on the 2008 American election bears the title ‘Game Change: Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the Race of a Lifetime’ in the U.S. edition. The title of the British book, ‘Race of a Lifetime: How Obama Won the White House’, seems more appealing to an audience with less general interest in American politics, as it states more explicitly that it is about the presidential election. Some changes are less easily understood. Chris Cleave’s ‘The Other Hand’ is known as ‘Little Bee’ in America, and one wonders why the change was thought necessary. The change from ‘Harry Potter and the Philospher’s Stone’ to ‘Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone’ certainly seemed ridiculous when the film version was made and some scenes had to be filmed twice. Sometimes the difference is counterintuitive: Christopher Hitchens’ ‘God is Not Great’ is subtitled “The Case Against Religion” in the U.K., but in America becomes the rather more inflammatory ‘God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything’. Although this is a more controversial statement to make in the United States than in Britain, the publishers seem to be calculating that it would not alienate anyone likely to buy the book, but rather that they would be attracted by the provocative subtitle. Was this a gamble that paid off? It seems impossible to be able to say for sure. Unfortunately for publishers, it can be difficult to gauge public tastes, and harder still to know why specifically readers respond to some things and not others.

Tuesday, 24 August 2010

Not a Toilet Book

‘How I Escaped My Certain Fate: The Life and Deaths of a Stand-Up Comedian’ by Stewart Lee

Faber, £12.99

‘How I Escaped My Certain Fate’ is brilliant. Brilliant. It is part memoir, part comedy history lesson, and includes the transcripts for three of his shows. I laughed loudly and in public. I quoted bits to my family, and then quoted bits at them. This book has made me want to seek out some of the comedians he mentions and watch the fantastic documentary ‘The Aristocrats’ again. But as it’s the tenth most-reviewed book in the newspapers this week, according to ‘The Bookseller’, I thought I would share my perspective as a bookseller instead of simply writing a review.
I was amused to see that ‘How I Escaped My Certain Fate’ is published by Faber. It’s an interesting direction for the house, which is of course better known for publishing writers like Samuel Beckett and Sylvia Plath than stand-up comedians. But it fits, because Lee’s ambitions put his work into the realm of art. Characterised by its intricate structure and repetition, I have often thought that like Walter Pater’s description of the Mona Lisa, Lee’s stand-up might just work as verse. And although the three transcripts are in prose, we do get verse in ‘How I Escaped My Certain Fate’, in the long narrative poem “I’ll Only Go If You Throw Glass”, included in the appendices. This was apparently rejected for ‘Sit Down Comedy’, a book of writing by various comedians, until Lee took out the commas and resubmitted it as prose, but Faber are evidently less worried about putting off potential buyers.
Faber have produced some stunning books in recent years, including Thomas Levenson’s ‘Newton and the Counterfeiter’ and ‘Samuel Johnson: A Life’ by David Nokes and Chris Daunt. With the growing popularity of the ebook, there seems to be a new focus on the book as an object in itself, which has been really interesting to see. ‘How I Escaped My Certain Fate’ is both an embodiment of the new book beautiful and a step in a different direction. The well-designed but restrained cover of the B-format paperback distances the book from the rather more conventional presentation of comedians' books, with their bright shiny covers and large colour photographs (see Richard Herring’s ‘How Not Grow Up’) or indeed the sort of celebrity memoir Lee has made merry sport with (And Lee might be gratified to know about the 20+ copies of the latest Clarkson book at my bookshop that haven’t sold since we got them in for Christmas, and won’t be able to shift since it’s now out in paperback. But then it’s not exactly the right sort of market).
A publisher at Faber mentioned at an event held by the Society of Young Publishers mentioned that authors will often accept lower advances as the Faber name carries such prestige, and the house hasn’t the reputation for the marketing muscle of its larger rivals. But it looks as though the relationship between author and publisher is a symbiotic one. Although Lee mentions in occasional asides that he does not expect the book to be a commercial success, one can’t help but think that this is not one of Faber’s most risky ventures, given Lee’s BBC television show, his loyal fanbase and the amount of coverage the book has generated. I hope it does well.

Thursday, 5 August 2010

‘Room’ by Emma Donoghue

Picador, £12.99.

‘Room’, one of the highest profile acquisitions of 2009, is finally published this week. Already longlisted for the 2010 Man Booker prize and lauded by critics and other authors, I wanted to keep my reading of the novel as separate from these raised expectations as possible.
Five-year-old Jack has lived his whole life with his mother in a twelve by twelve foot room, held prisoner by a man they call Old Nick. This name turns out to be a macabre joke, as Jack confuses him with Santa because he occasionally comes into the room to bring them things. Inanimate objects in the room are proper nouns, capitalised and given genders, because apart from his mother, they are his only companions. Despite the presence of a television set, Jack is wholly unaware of the existence a world beyond Room’s soundproof walls until his mother enlightens him and then tells him that he is their only means of escape. It’s a bold idea, but Donoghue has the skill to pull it off. Jack’s voice is more or less believable as that of a young child who has had plenty of opportunity to build an unusually wide vocabulary (we see him parroting voices on the television) but has only had to make himself understood by one person. He doesn’t use correct verb forms but instead has developed an internal grammar with its own rules. Although at times this was annoying, it felt quite credible and never became so distracting as to be off-putting. There is a sort of duality to reading ‘Room’ as the reader fills in the gaps and mistakes in Jacks understanding of the world. Donoghue uses this dynamic masterfully, with Jack’s lack of awareness of the dangers he faces adding to the tension of an already suspenseful plot.
Because Jack does not yet understand the scale of the world, he cannot grasp the concept of fame, which is what awaits them when they emerge. Through snatches of conversation Donoghue effectively conveys the rabid media attention, which is almost as troubling as the original crime. Jack overhears people on television talking about him as a kind of noble savage, or a spectator of culture’s shadows flickering on the walls of Plato’s cave. This is perhaps a swipe at literary overanalysis, but could also be read as underscoring the place of fiction. ‘Room’ raises important questions, but this scene forces us to question our right to treat the real suffering of other people as some kind of thought-experiment.
The relationship between Jack and his mother is perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the book. Although at times he unwittingly hurts her because he is so ignorant about the world, he has been the main purpose in her life since his birth. Because he is so young, he has a complete lack of empathy with the people around him, even his mother, and at times has moments of pure selfishness. He tells Ma that she should have asked Old Nick for candles rather than the painkillers for her teeth, because it is only her who needs them, which fills her with shock and horror. Through Jack’s eyes a portrait of this woman gradually emerges: determined, resourceful, and devoted to her son. From the naive nineteen year old student she was at the time of her kidnapping, she has become an adult woman. Still, she has been deprived of a normal existence for seven years, and has emerged to find her contemporaries at another stage in their lives. While she is simply “Ma” to Jack (we never find out her given name, which would presumably be as recognisable as that of Natascha Kampusch or Elisabeth Fritzl), we see her struggling to reconcile her multiple identities as the student she used to be, the woman and mother she became and the sudden celebrity that she has been turned into.
I thought the novel’s ending was fantastic, almost perfect in its inevitability. Although the subject matter is exceedingly bleak, Donoghue closes on a hopeful note, moving without being saccharine.

Saturday, 31 July 2010


This looks familiar, I thought, on first unloading Michael Burleigh’s ‘Moral Combat’ from a tote at work. Wait a minute... Having attended a covers meeting whist on work experience with a publisher, I can tell you that every aspect of cover design is taken very seriously. Are the colours inviting? Does the image convey the warmth and humour of the book? Could we give the paperback a wider appeal if we make it look less literary? Did this book not sell because the colours were dreary? Will this stand out from all the other books on the shelf? So I can only imagine the horror in the HarperCollins and Penguin camps when they realised that they had used exactly the same image for the covers of ‘Moral Combat’ and the paperback edition of Andrew Roberts’ ‘The Storm of War’, published within weeks of each other. I had found the cover of the latter particularly stunning; its moody colour scheme is enhanced by its striped matte and shiny finish, and a pixellated image really cannot do it justice. Unfortunately, side by side it is upstaged by the stark simplicity of the Burleigh book.

I put them on opposite ends of the History table.

Friday, 23 July 2010

‘Eleven’ by Mark Watson

Simon & Schuster, 19 Aug 2010

How does David Mitchell do it, I used to wonder. I see and hear him on television all the time, even in the advert breaks, and he’s an acclaimed writer too? Then I found out there were actually two David Mitchells, which was disappointing and relieving in equal measure. But Mark Watson, who is about to publish his third novel at the intimidatingly young age of thirty, is indeed the comedian Mark Watson. And ‘Eleven’ is really, really good.
As one might expect from a comedian, Watson has an amusing turn of phrase. The book was quirky and fun to read, but you do get the impression that Watson has Something to Say. Although he quite definitely lays down his ideas on the importance of taking responsibility for the people around us, the book sparkles with suggestions of ideas that demand further thought. In Watson’s world, failure to act is portrayed as an active rather than a passive evil, and as such there are consequences. We see what drives the characters to act the way they do, but nothing can stop the relentless chain of events that follows on from the central character Xavier’s failure to intervene when he sees a boy being beaten up. Meanwhile, Xavier gets a cleaner called Pippa, whose forthright ideas clearly mirror Watson’s own. She tells Xavier that his actions matter more than he thinks they do, and that simply passing by when others might need help is an act as significant as any other. A former champion discus thrower forced to abandon her athletic career and work as a cleaner, Pippa has vowed to be the best cleaner ever, and is relentlessly positive and pro-active in her approach to life. I did begin wonder what kind of cleaner Mark Watson would have made had the writing and comedy not worked out.
The panoramic scope of the novel makes it feel like a film, and there are obvious similarities to ‘Love Actually’ in the way it follows a diverse cross section of loosely linked characters. But where Richard Curtis’s film is trite and cloying, Mark Watson’s book does not offer easy reassurances. While Curtis’s antagonists (devil woman trying to tempt Alan Rickman to cheat on his wife being the prime example) seem to have little reason to behave as they do other than to push the plot along, the characters in ‘Eleven’ were much more skilfully drawn, even the least sympathetic. And while Curtis reveals a real streak of nastiness in the way he treats some of his characters (the sister of the Portuguese woman, who falls in love with Colin Firth, fat and still single at the end of the film, obviously should have learned to say no to those biscuits), by contrast Watson casts a compassionate eye on them all, including an estate agent desperate to treat his bad breath and gain the respect of his colleagues, and an obese teenager fruitlessly trying to lose weight.
Watson’s world is a closed system where there is one fixed cause to each event, which neatly goes on to spark another. It’s not the subjunctive, the mood of possibility, that Alan Bennet explores in ‘The History Boys’ ; rarely in real life are cause and consequence so well-defined. But it works, because one can take the novel as the world in microcosm, and Watson seems to be playing with the idea of the author as God. This is his world and he knows the fate of all the characters in it, from the Indian shop keeper who will die in three years, and the neighbour boy who will grow up to make a major medical breakthrough. Within this frame of destiny, the choices the characters do make are of paramount importance. Based on the evidence provided by ‘Eleven’, I think that were we to nominate someone to play God, Watson might do a fair job. There is an endless optimistic move to empathy and responsibility; the unpleasant restaurant owner will eventually come to consider and regret the unfair sacking of the teenager who washed his dishes, while the television personality comes to regret her affairs and value her husband once more. Every character is treated with respect and understanding, and even when a character does something terrible, we understand why. It is this deeply human aspect that makes ‘Eleven’ so appealing.
With the recurrence of fate and destiny in the novel, it comes as no surprise that the narrative loops around and the diverse consequences of his original (in)action eventually come unknowingly back to Xavier. Having fallen in love with Pippa, and faced her contempt for giving advice on late night radio while choosing to ignore the struggles of his neighbours, he is forced once again to make a decision. The ending did come as a shock, visceral enough to make me gasp on a crowded Tube train. Although at times it seems a little simplistic, ‘Eleven’ has a certain lingering quality, and is as unsettling as it is entertaining. As much as I love goofy and endearing Mark Watson the comedian, it is the author who really shines.

Saturday, 10 July 2010

Book Group: Then We Came to the End

More than a week to go until the book group meeting, and I’ve already had a complaint about the selection.

“It reads like a supplement,” says Jane. I am apprehensive, although some of the best discussions have been about books that most of the group disliked. In February eight people showed up to slaughter Joyce Carol Oates and had a great time. Jane, however, does not come to the meeting to refine her opinion of ‘Then We Came to the End’ as “trite” or “superficial” or “forced”.

A few days later a customer comes in and remarks on the book group flyers. “I recommended that for my book group, it’s one of my favourites,” she enthuses. “Everyone else hated it, though.”

“I hated this,” Carlotta announces proudly at the meeting. Really? “I couldn’t finish it.” What was wrong with it? “I’m a real character person, and I felt that this didn’t go into enough depth.” I do think it’s a bit overwhelming at first, I say, there are so many characters. I think Ferris is trying to evoke starting a new job and that brief period when you’re learn everyone’s names and it’s hard to keep them clear in your mind. But stick with it. I did think the characters were very well drawn, once they emerged from that collective “we”. Carlotta remains unconvinced. “It just didn’t appeal to me.” How far did you get? “Umm, first sixty pages?” Oh. “And the ending. Since we’re talking about it.”

What did everyone else think? Quite liked it, is the general consensus. The bit with the chair was funny, but it’s bit too close to home sometimes...

“I think that’s what I didn’t like about it,” says Carlotta. “It reminded me of my first job. I would check the clock on my computer every thirty seconds or so...time and life ticking away. It made me feel uncomfortable.”

“Doesn’t that make it a success, then?” someone says.

“Yeah, maybe,” ponders Carlotta.

“I thought he did a really good job of creating that workplace atmosphere.” Mary says. “The pettiness, the bureaucracy...”

Where do you work? I ask.

“A publishing house.”

Funny you should say that, actually...

“I suppose it is a book for our times. More poignant now...” says Carlotta.

When was it written? There is a general scramble for the publication information at the front. 2007. Ah, prescient.

“It must always have been harder in America though,” says Carlotta. “Because there’s so much less support over there if you’re unemployed.”

Someone asks if Ferris has written anything else, and I say that I didn’t think ‘The Unnamed’ was anywhere near as good. I did enjoy reading it in that it felt like being in the company of an old friend, but I didn’t really think it was that clever or dazzling. The highlight was a sweet and funny bit with a father and daughter watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Everyone laughs. The ending wasn’t so great, I say. Kind of like the ending to this. I actually really hate it, I confess: “just you and me”. Awful. I think he balances the “we” perspective really well throughout, but to end it like that is just cheesy and gimmicky. I think he might have been aiming for thought-provoking, like, “Who’s you? Who’s me? Who are we all anyway?”, but I can’t even tell. And yet the closing paragraph before the epilogue just gave me chills:

“In the last week of August 2001, and in the first ten days of that September, there were more layoffs than in all the months preceeding them. But by the grace of god, the rest of us hung on, hating each other more than we ever thought possible. Then we came to the end of another bright and tranquil summer.”

It’s the way it anticipates September the 11th and all that followed without directly stating it. This is an era silently drawing to a close. When you look back on America of the late 1990s and very early 2000s there’s a sort of listlessness and an innocence. But maybe that’s because we’ve redefined it after that watershed moment.

“Interesting. But I didn’t even notice that,” says Mary. There is general agreement.

Maybe I’m reading too much into things, I say.

*Names have been changed.