Welcome to Suzi Feay's home on the web

I read over 100 books a year. Here are my thoughts on the best (and worst).

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Fairtrade for books?

Support your local bookshop before it's too late. I was talking to a major fiction publisher yesterday who spelled it out in the starkest terms: fewer outlets = fewer books published in future. They're already downsizing. Amazon is a brilliant sales model, but can it support authors who need to eat, clothe their children and pay the mortgage in a world that wants books but doesn't want to pay much for them?

Now there are those who might say it wouldn't harm the publishers to shrink a little, not least in the waistband. Down with all those long lunches! Isn't publishing just filled with middlemen, living fat off the talent? The regular comparisons with the music business miss the mark; writers, by and large, are not working for 'the man'; you won't see them daubing 'slave' on their cheek or turning their names into unpronounceable symbols.

But writers do not necessarily resemble exhibitionist pop stars or musicians; they certainly can't have a second revenue stream in the form of gigs. You can make a bit of money on the speaking circuit, but it robs time from your core pursuit. Of all the creative arts, writing demands the most time spent alone, writing and thinking; not blogging, or doing your own marketing, or being seen in glamorous places, or packing up boxes of books, or speaking to printers, or talking to book groups, or ringing round bookshops, or negotiating film rights. I know I'd rather my favourite authors just crack on with it.

Yes, e-books will take over the world; publishers of all people were early adopters because they mean you don't have to cart round forty manuscripts. There's a big battle going on over e-book pricing, to ensure that writers are fairly compensated for the work they put in creating the books we love. They'll do doubt carry on anyway; that mysterious magic called human creativity can't be easily stifled by mere lack of loot. But for the sake of fairness we have to find a way of supporting them.

We understand the value of fairtrade products which guarantee workers in the third world a safe environment and a decent wage; why not extend the principle to writers? A fairtrade product is an item of quality, like a garment from People Tree which has been hand-dyed, woven and embroidered by real people (I got a great pair of woolly socks which came with a tag with the name of the woman in Nepal who'd knitted them - a lovely touch). Odourless, tasteless, intangible, e-books don't have that sort of appeal.

So why not let Amazon sell the e-books to those that want them; and for people who demand something a little more special, how about fairtrade publishing? Publishers could band together to sell hard copies at real prices, via a website which explains, for the increasing number of people who just don't get it, how writers have to earn a proper wage. It could work especially well for poets: 'Just ten copies sold will help Kathleen Jamie buy a winter jumper!' 'Hugo Williams needs a new coat...'

There will always be people who just want to eat cheap, exploitative chocolate. But fairtrade writing, like Green & Blacks, could be chic, responsible and desirable. What do you think?

Friday, February 18, 2011

Where are all the female reviewers?

Benedicte Page has written a very interesting blog on the subject of gender in book reviews on the Guardian website. (http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2011/feb/04/research-male-writers-dominate-books-world?commentpage=last#end-of-comments) The figures are hard to refute: a survey analysing the LRB, TLS, NYRB and newspaper books pages found startling imbalances. In some cases, 75% of the books reviewed in a publication were written by men, with a preponderance of male reviewers also.

It's not a new observation: Mslexia magazine regularly analyses the British press and comes to the same sorry conclusion. So what's going on? Literary editors loftily dismiss the notion that they could possibly have a prejudice in favour of men, though Sir Peter Stothard's comment, 'The TLS is only interested in getting the best reviews of the most important books,' rather begs the question. Having commissioned a lot of book reviews myself, I have a few thoughts.

I don't think literary editors, when commissioning, ever really consider the author's gender when deciding to review a book or not. We're interested, or we're not, in the specific book; it's suitable, or not, for our readership. When putting together the pages I would often find that there was only one book by a woman being reviewed that week (and, as often as not, on the fiction pages). I'd then either hunt around for another review of a woman's book, or more likely, promise to do better next week. But it never happened the other way around. 'Gosh - not enough men this week! Must try harder...'

Occasionally your own editor will notice and comment that your pages are a bit too male; but that's often because the rest of the magazine or supplement is already weighted towards men and the books pages are expected to lean the other way. (Incidentally, only once in my career, after about three weeks of lead novels by women reviewed by women, was I ever told the pages were getting a bit too female.)

On to the question of male vs female reviewers: I used to have a ledger in which I recorded all the books sent out, and to whom. I could fit roughly 12 entries to the page. It would have been so easy to let this settle to a 9-3 ratio in favour of male reviewers - and frequently it did. But if I noticed that the first six books had gone to men I would then bestir myself to find female reviewers for the next five or six. It seemed to take an extra effort - why?

Can it be unconscious prejudice? Do we secretly think that men are more weighty, more serious? That men are Mankind, speaking to everyone, and women are just women, talking to their own sort? There's another interesting Guardian blog contrasting the review coverage of writers Allegra Goodman and Jonathan Franzen in America: she's great, while he is... Great. There is probably something in this, although the trouble with unconscious prejudice is that by definition you wouldn't be aware of it if you had it.

There may be a tiny clue in a recent experience I had trying to find writers to nominate a book of the year - the ubiquitous Christmas/New Year exercise in filling up books pages for free. You'd think it would be a pretty easy ask: a nomination for a (not the) book of the year. Yet in the first fortnight, not one female author approached said yes, while virtually all the men did. They had no trouble believing their views were worth having. I have no way of knowing why the female writers declined; but the gender split was absolute.

Turning to reviewers, one argument is that female critics are just more diffident than men about offering their services. From my own experience this is broadly true. Women tend to be more bashful, more modest about their skills. Of course there are exceptions; but the broad trend is there, and is probably the reason why it's such an effort to achieve gender parity in the books pages.

This leaves commissioning editors with a problem. I'd be loath to recommend women to get pushy. There are enough self-assertive male critics out there and  no one wants to have yet more phone calls and emails. I am very thankful that the headmistressy female academic who, on being told the fee for a proposed piece, crisply said 'Oh come on! You can do better than that,' is in the minority. (This is a terrible way to get work, incidentally. When her piece came in, I immediately felt like ringing up and saying: 'Oh come on! You can do better than that.')

Women generally do seem to have self-esteem issues. I recently had a exchange of emails with a funny, brilliant, successful and delightful novelist who so clearly felt unequal and unworthy to perform the literary task I was asking that it was painful to observe. I doubt Peter Carey, Hanif Kureishi or Salman Rushdie would have had the same problem.

Many reviewers are authors themselves, and here I have one cautious observation to make. Again, it must be stressed that this is a generalisation, but overall women novelists seem more likely to vanish into the world of their imagination, peering over their battlements only reluctantly - to be, in short, a little bit precious. Perhaps it's time for them to consider, when approached by newspapers for their views, getting out there and taking one for the Sisterhood?

Monday, February 7, 2011

Who's for the dark?

I must have read hundreds of ghost stories when I was a child. For years they were my favourite reading; I especially enjoyed the Armada collections for children, in which I encountered classics like 'The Monkey's Paw', a brief tale that never loses the power to shock. M R James is the supreme master of the supernatural tale, and the impact of 'Lost Hearts', augmented by a terrifying TV adaptation, resonated for years. I loved ghosts, but eventually moved on to the looser category of the supernatural or 'strange' story, where nothing so straightforward as an errant spirit explains the action.

Such tales are fiendishly difficult to pull off; the best must combine literary elegance, a degree of novelty and most of all a devastating payoff. Reading voraciously, I tended to remember stories, not authors; two in particular took up permanent residence in my brain. In one, 'The Inner Room', a young woman visits a strange house which, she gradually realises, resembles a doll's house she possessed as a child. I couldn't even remember the name of the other story, but it involved two female hikers, a house by a railway line and a murder. Both stories were hauntingly unresolved. It wasn't until years later that I rediscoved them, and found that they had both been written by the same man: Robert Aickman.

With the collection The Wine-Dark Sea I dipped into a rich and compelling oeuvre. Although he is the least formulaic of authors, many of the stories involve the simple device of a person moving to a strange environment and finding there the perfect setting for their undoing. 'Never Visit Venice' breathes new death into that hackneyed (in literary terms) city, as an unwitting tourist accepts a free gondola ride. (Robert Girardi's superb ghost novel, Vaporetto 13, is a longer riff on the theme.) In the title story, a man discovers a Greek island suspended in a dreamlike state of hedonism; 'The Trains' (so that's what it's called) clearly went right over my head first time round with its brooding atmosphere of sexual coercion and perversion, and 'Into The Wood', perhaps Aickman's masterpiece, is a novella worthy of Thomas Mann, about a woman who discovers an eerie sanitorium for people who never sleep.

The more I investigated, the more small masterpieces I found: 'The Cicerones' features a man who encounters a series of peculiarly insistent guides in a cathedral near closing time, with a glorious last line; 'The Swords' and 'The Same Dog' seem to break all the rules of weird fiction and indeed the laws of physics. Neil Gaiman has aptly commented that with Aickman, it's as though a magic trick is being performed; not only do you not know how the trick has been done, you don't even know what the trick is. One of Aickman's characteristics is to put in a great deal of seemingly irrelevant backstory, which has the effect of having you search fruitlessly for clues (he isn't going to do anything as obvious as plant them there). But the elaboration all forms part of the total effect, adding richness and depth. His method is always oblique.

Aickman is so good at creating horrible images from purely verbal effects that it had to be pointed out to me by a fellow enthusiast that he can also be very funny. The predicament of the tourist in 'The Cicerones' is comical as well as horrifying, and there is a dark humour even in 'The Trains', although it's the godlike humour of an indifferent creator laughing at his creations.

Elizabeth Jane Howard was a close friend to this rather odd fish and collaborated with him on an anthology, We Are For The Dark (1951). Her story, 'Three Miles Up', about a hellish canal journey, is thoroughly Aickmanesque in tone, worthy to set alongside the master. As he also wrote books about inland waterways, its subject is also clearly an affectionate homage.

Aickman has always been a hard author to track down, a name murmured only by the conoscenti. Faber Finds has come to the rescue and reprinted some of his collections at a modest price. They are highly recommended. Part of me wants everyone to read him, and part of me wants to keep him as a secret known only to the few.