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Sunday 28 August 2011

ASLA Party Edinburgh Book Fest.

This year I haven’t been to anything at the Edinburgh Book Festival - I’ve been following it from afar, partly due to various visits and other occupations - but last night I went to the party hosted by the Association of Scottish Literary Agents. In spite of the rainy evening there was a pretty good turnout (though some habitual faces missing - where was my acquaintance and fellow writer from Inverness, Erica Munro who I chat to every year at this party?). I have to admit that, as I was going in, I was relieved to see someone bearing a tray with glasses of wine rather than the cider of the previous year. A good move.

I had interesting chats with familiar and new faces too many to mention (learning along the way that the South Africans are preparing themselves to set up a tabloid press ... ), but including, Bob McDevett of Hachette Scotland, and author, agent and E-book expert extraordinaire Allan Guthrie. Interesting times – instructive and illuminating conversations with both of them. I also had a lovely long chat with agent and ASLA Secretary Lindsey Fraser, finally met Nicola Morgan, and was delighted to see that the talented Shona, formerly intern for my agent Maggie McKernan, is beginning to make her way in the publishing world. And of course, as ever, young Leo Gordon, son of Maggie, about to start secondary school at the Edinburgh Academy, handing round the plates of smoked salmon with panache, soaking up the info in the conversations, and(the only one being paid!) negotiating the price of his services with his mother. One to watch for the future.

Tuesday 23 August 2011

I Confess

I am rapidly becoming a fan of the Los Angeles Review of Books. It is, reportedly, the first major book review to be launched in the 21st century. The site’s first post, The Death of the Book, by Ben Ehrenreich, heralded the start of what is in fact a celebration of the continuing life of books – and the serious consideration of books.

It was started by Tom Lutz, and American writer and literary critic, presently Professor of Creative Writing and Media and Cultural Studies at University of California Riverside, in response to the shrinking space allotted to book reviews in the newspapers, to challenge the New York-centric emphasis on the literary world in the US and to include the diversity of literature being produced beyond the boundaries of the NY publishing world.

What you can view now is the temporary site, but when the full website is launched later this year, it will include an array of multimedia content, embracing new technologies for delivering books and ‘fostering the conversation about books and culture’.

While recognising the excellent contribution made by online blogs, the LARB’s aim is to make good use of professional journalists and critics who have been casualties of the reduced newspaper space, and to produce a ‘curated’ site, including different reviews, opinions and viewpoints, of new, classic and forgotten works by famous and unknown contributors from all over the world. They ‘hope to be of national and international interest, and to cover the national and international book scene’.

What is particularly refreshing for me is the eclectic nature of the content and the even-handed seriousness and respect that is given to widely different material and genres.

So far on the site you can find content ranging from philosophy to noir fiction, from biography to comics, from Heinrich Böll to Keith Richards, from Buster Keaton to Simone Weil, from Ross Macdonald to Nancy Mitford, from David Foster Wallace to Stephen King, and covering books published by publishers as varied as Virago, Little Brown, Busted Flush Press, Yale university and Black Lizard.

See for yourself. You will certainly find something you are interested in if you look – and if you are as curious and open-minded as the LARB, you may come across something you didn’t even realise might attract you.

I read recently of something called the Heffington Post – a Daly Mail-backed and very belated response and alternative to the Huffington Post. No sign in Britain yet of anything as remotely energetic and inclusive as the LARB.

Thursday 4 August 2011

Eggs – Class and Genre

Thanks to Donna Moore at Big Beat from Badsville for pointing me towards Philip Hensher’s piece in the Daily Telegraph on genre fiction, and for her subsequent reaction to it.

For what they are worth here are a couple of reflections from a grandmother who writes.

From time to time I meet up for coffee with another John Murray stablemate who lives in Edinburgh. Now there are very savvy writers who aim for a market. Rather more innocently we both began just writing a book and were later a mix of surprised, intrigued and just a little wary that both our novels had been classed as ‘thrillers’.

Genre left Aristotle a long time ago, certainly by the time bookshops started. Now there are as many genres in novels as types of pop music. There is a kind of marketing taxonomy. After a little research, I note my books get ‘thriller’, sometimes preceded by ‘war’, sometimes by ‘political’, but also contemporary fiction, general and literary, modern fiction, historical, crime and mystery – and others depending on where you’re looking.

I see that Philip Henshers’ latest novel King of the Badgers, published 31 March 2011, is variously described as campus comedy, social portraiture, black comedy and satire, contemporary fiction, and general and literary fiction.

At one level the classification is supposedly a guide to help possible readers. At another marketing people are not there to undersell. A little accuracy might help however – grand or misleading claims don’t encourage this reader.

The point is however that everything is now genre. Even ‘literary’. See above.

Of course, this being Britain, the genre system meshes in with the class system. Class has always been of inordinate interest in the UK. It attracts notice and can induce frothing at the mouth.

I don’t want to say that Mr Hensher was writing to annoy. He was writing to be talked about. In the same way, Martin Amis has a tendency to go public with a suggestion or two around publication time. If I remember, the last one was to put euthanasia booths at street corners.

Mr Hensher was also writing around the time of the ‘broadening’ of the Booker Long List. It’s called talking up, getting people’s interest, nominally at least, pointing towards books.

I am pretty sure some of the best-selling authors mentioned in such articles – Lee Child and Ian Rankin, for example, - know this very well and play their part. I am not suggesting for a moment that they are insincere. But they do get talked about.

Now I hesitate to call the genre debate a load of old eggs but the curate has been pretty busy and I am now calling time, for me anyway, on any more.

Or to put it another way, if this debate were a book, I’d have put it aside.