Sunday, March 19, 2006

Not so grumpy bookman

An rss reader (bloglines in my case) makes it beautifully easy to become involved in blogging at your own pace. You can search and sign up for blogs that might interest you, cancel subscriptions in an instant, and look at your subscriptions when you want to instead of being bombarded by emails. (And, blessedly, no adverts if you read blogs via rss, though static ones creep in occasionally and doubtless plenty of people are working on ways to disract the reader further by this method.) It didn't take me long to focus on a few blogs about books and book publishing that I really like. My very favourites are in the right-hand navigation bar of Petrona. One that isn't, but will be after I've finished this post, is Michael Allen's Grumpy Old Bookman. I think the only reason it isn't there is that I don't like the title of his blog (more on blog titles in future). GOB is a consistently interesting blog. If you are a writer, reader, in publishing, editing and/or otherwise interested in books, I highly recommend it. The author is an experienced hand in varoius walks of life: higher education, a published author of novels, a publisher himself, etc. He has an admirably down-to-earth (I would not say grumpy) perspective on publishing and writing. He's funny, experienced, opinionated but organized. If you read his blog entries regularly, you'll find they form a thematic pattern; they are not streams of consciousness or relatively random pickings, as are many blogs (perhaps this one, for example, as although I am finding features to put on it, I am a long way from being happy with its content organisation). To return to GOB. Reading blog postings as daily (or thereabouts) scans via bloglines means that consistent patterns and themes that might exist on one blog don't readily stick in one's mind. But Mr Allen has written a book, also called Grumpy Old Bookman, and I enjoy his blog sufficiently to have bought it and the other day finished reading it. The book is a chronological selection of his blog entries from the launch of the blog in March 2004 up to September of that same year. I thoroughly enjoyed this book, which contains a mix of reviews of books Mr Allen reads (old and new), and his observations on the publishing industry (and other things too, sometimes). The book ends with the the first hints of the now fully blown (and ridiculous, if amusing) Da Vinci Code plaigiarism case. Some things I learned from this book:
  • If you are a writer you won't make any money from it.
  • Whether or not a book gets published is random. (There is a series of fascinating postings about a book Fooled by Randomness, by Nicholas Taleb.)
  • If you want a good cultural grounding in your education, read History not English Literature at university.
  • Creative writing and similar courses are a waste of time.
  • Publishers can't predict which books will sell.
  • If you are in the small "publishing circle" of literary editors of newspapers and similar, and write a book, you are likely to have it published and reviewed (glowingly), but this won't make it sell better.
  • A good book can and probably should be short. Most books being written today are too long.
  • Authors should not write to express themselves but to arouse emotion in the reader.

This last point was the main theme that interested me about the book (though I found it all interesting). In one of his posts of 1 June 2004, Mr Allen analyses the state of alienation (in the marxist sense) many of us live in today, and leading on from these thoughts, in a subsequent post of 2 June, he quotes from a book review by Poe: "A skilful literary artist has constructed a tale........which leaves in the mind of him who contemplates it...a sense of the fullest satisfaction. " (I recommend reading the whole quotatation, and post, to get the full effect.) As Mr Allen says, "In this one paragraph, Poe has condensed almost every important truth about the writer's task and the role of emotion in art generally." And "To paraphrase Poe in more modern English: The writer's job is to decide what emotion to create in the reader, and then to invent a series of events -- otherwise known as a plot -- which will generate that emotion." This is why Mr Allen enjoys reading thrillers and spy novels, and has little patience with much of the "literary" fiction being published nowadays. Mr Allen has written several thrillers and other books himself, using various pseudonyms. He's also written a writers' handbook (The Truth about Writing) and a collection of short stories. I think I recall from his recent blog entries that he has a new book coming out soon. I'm going to put at least some of these on my list. I also hope they are published by Kingsfield, Mr Allen's company: it was a pleasure to read a book with decent-sized typeface and white (not grey) paper.