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.

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