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Wednesday 16 February 2011

Apolaustic – And Other Words

One niggling business in editing is the sentence that just will not read right. There is nothing particularly wrong with the sentence. All its words are in good order, the sentiment is not complicated but a reader will trip on it. I include myself as one of those readers.

It can be down simply to how people see when they read. The word ‘inexpensive’, for example, should not end a sentence. In the run of reading, a lot of people, myself included, tend to see ‘expensive’. This is something well known to advertisers – ‘Not’ is a no-no in a slogan. ‘Not fattening’, for example. The opposite impression is left in the mind of a consumer.

I have had some relief from the necessary fiddle of editing because my husband recently gave me the Penguin collection of all five novels about Richard Hannay written by John Buchan.

The most famous of these is of course the first, The Thirty-Nine Steps. I had read two others, Greenmantle and The Three Hostages. The two I had not read were Mr Standfast and, the one I am going to mention here, The Island of Sheep.

In Chapter Six – Sundry Doings at Fosse – Richard Hannay calls in on MacGillivray and finds him reading Greek, ancient Greek that is. Though MacGillivray is in his rooms in Mount Street , he works at ‘the Yard’ (Scotland Yard). He refers to and translates from Herodotus and in his description of Lancelot Troth, the man Hannay is interested in says ‘- he leads the apolaustic life, and that’s an expensive thing nowadays.’

Vocabulary in those ‘nowadays’ was different from these ‘nowadays’. I think I’m on pretty safe ground in saying that not many thrillers published this year will include the word ‘apolaustic’ (devoted to pleasure). I have no idea how many high ranking officers at ‘the Yard’ now seek consolation and wisdom in the classics.

In any case I very much doubt that ‘apolaustic’ was in common usage in 1936 either, but presumably Buchan thought that his younger readers could always look it up in a dictionary.

No, I am not going to defend ‘apolaustic’ or say ignorance of its meaning will prevent a full and happy life. We get along reasonably well without it and not many of us want to suggest something short of hedonism but, as it turns out in the novel, the kind of enjoyment that involves having a six hundred ton yacht. I can think of other terms for a person like that.

It will happen to us all, of course with time, but one of the incidental pleasures of reading Buchan is the sometimes sniffy attitude of his hero Hannay. Forget the six hundred ton yacht, this is more from the first class lounge of an ocean liner:

“I pondered long over that letter. The first thing that struck me was that it was not written in Sandy’s usual fastidious style. It was frank journalism and must be meant to appeal to a particular audience.”

And I am particularly fond of “the most sumptuous of Lombard’s possessions” – referring to Mrs Lombard. “As a girl she must have been lovely, and she was still a handsome woman of the heavy Madonna type – a slightly over-coloured Madonna. Being accustomed to slim people…I thought her a little too ‘fair of flesh’, in the polite phrase of the ballads.”

Now in Washington Shadow, I let an African character give Buchan something of a going over, particularly as regards Prester John. Buchan could be and was, as someone has limply said, ‘as racist as his time.’

Buchan’s fluency of style and wide vocabulary are a saving grace? I admire them but that’s not my point here.

History is a tracing back to see how we are what we are. To deny the inconveniences of a text – as in the new, modern version of Huckleberry Finn, (see here and here) in which vocabulary and expressions from the original text were changed - is a mistake. It’s particularly a mistake in Mark Twain’s classic because it bowdlerizes the text of Twain’s irony.

It is even more patronizing to the reader than Buchan could be to some characters.

Wednesday 2 February 2011

Getting Branded - ASLA day and John Murray Authors Party

I’ve been very busy editing Blacklight recently – a consuming occupation - but in between, I have taken a couple of forays out from behind my laptop.

On Thursday (20 Jan) I attended a Professional Development Day: ‘Working as a Writer in the 21st Century’, organised by ASLA (Association of Scottish Literary Agents), and held at Sandeman House, the home of the Scottish Booktrust in Edinburgh. I had taken part in an excellent ‘Web Workshop’ two years ago in London organised by my publisher for a small group of writers (just six of us), so I was interested to see what this one had to offer.

This was much bigger - there were about 60 people there – and covered more areas. Apart from the first talk on the new media by Julian Westaby from Creating Sparks, the day also included: a panel with representatives from Scottish publishers (Jan Rutherford from Birlinn and Polygon, and Jenny Todd from Canongate) and from a bookshop (Rosamund de la Hey, owner of The Main Street Trading Company in St. Boswells); an author panel with Barry Hutchison, Janet Paisley and Sara Sheridan, ‘discussing the merits, practicalities and impact of blogging, tweeting, linkedin, social web sites - and other income streams including ghost writing, copy writing etc, and finally a panel composed of Aly Barr (Creative Scotland), Alistair Moffat (BookNation and the Borders and Lennoxlove Book Festivals) and Caitrin Armstrong (Scottish Book Trust) on the different opportunities they offer authors.

A large part of the time was spent on how writers can use the new media to create awareness of their work and make contact with readers. Some of the authors there were very practised and media savvy, had websites, blogs, were on Facebook and/or Twitter and were expert on-liners. Others were still at the stage of thinking about it all. I consider myself to be somewhere in between. I have my website and my blog. I don’t do Facebook or Twitter, but have an author page on the reader networking site Goodreads. I’m not sure I would have time for anything more.

There were a number of interesting aspects for me that arose as I was talking to other writers. First is the question of what different writers aim for with their websites, and what people look for when they visit a writer’s website; the second is the question of the author’s ‘voice’. Obviously writing content for a website or a blog is not the same as writing a book, but Julian Westaby told us in his talk that ‘an author is a brand like any other’. From the shifting in seats and murmurs around me, this obviously made some writers decidedly uncomfortable. A ‘brand’ has the idea of creating an image – ‘manipulative’ muttered the person sitting beside me. ‘Just be yourself – you are your brand’ said someone else. ‘Which self?’ said another voice. The possibility of straying into philosophical notions of self hovered momentarily, - and marketing took over again.

A few days later, on 25 January, I went down to London to the John Murray Authors party held in their historic Albemarle Street house – the home and office of the original John Murray, publisher of many eminent names. The house is remarkable in itself as the room where the party was held has been preserved as it originally was, down to the paintings on the walls, the books on the shelves, the furniture and curtains – and the proof is there to see in a painting of the room including the first John Murray together with Byron and Walter Scott among others. An enjoyable evening, chatting to authors I knew and meeting others for the first time.

On my way out after the party I shook the hand of a slim, elegant elderly gentleman, who described himself as ‘the doorman for this evening’ – the present-day John Murray.