Tag Archives: grauniad

Publish and be ignored

A couple of years ago I entered the manuscript of my unpublished first novel All My Own Work into a competition run by two small UK publishing firms called Publish and be Damned (PABD) and UKA Press. I’d first heard of PABD through an article in the Guardian about publish-on-demand (POD; basically an affordable kind of vanity publishing) a few months before. The prize was several copies of your book “published” by PABD, to be offered for sale on their site as well as Amazon’s and UKA Press’s, and surrounding publicity. I recommended the contest to my mate Chris Bell, whose excellent and equally unpublished first novel Liquidambar had been unaccountably passed over by regular publishers. Both of our novels were shortlisted for the prize, and Chris’s went on to win.

Sadly the prize turned out to be incredibly disappointing, with production errors in the “finished” book, PABD and UKA Press doing very little by way of promotion, the title not turning up on Amazon for months and royalties and sales apparently unaccounted for. Chris is still, nearly two years later, embroiled in a dispute with PABD over all of this; PABD have now incidentally moved to Canada, as you might do if people were chasing you for money.

This would be bad enough, if perhaps predictable for the kind of smalltime, amateur outfits that PABD and UKA Press have sadly turned out to be. However, you might not expect almost as poor treatment at the hands of a national newspaper of the quality of The Guardian. Not long after Chris won the contest and received copies of his book, I offered to send one to the Guardian’s weekly books supplement, Guardian Review, on his behalf – not that I have any special contacts there, but the Review is based (like me) in the UK and Chris in New Zealand, and as mates we’d long agreed to do whatever we could to help promote each other’s books.

While PABD were not (and still aren’t) a regular publisher of the sort that the Review normally reviews, in May last year I’d noticed a new section in the supplement called Footnotes, apparently edited by ex-Bookseller supremo Nicholas Clee, which reviewed a selection of quality books from the small presses. This, combined with Chris’s newsworthy competition win and the Guardian’s own apparent interest in POD from their article that had brought PABD to our attention in the first place, made it seem reasonable to bring Liquidambar to Clee’s attention.

I wrote him a nice letter (in retrospect at two pages it was probably overlong, but I wanted to give him as much relevant information about Chris and the competition win as possible) and sent it with a copy of the book direct to Clee at the Guardian’s Farringdon, London address.

To be honest I’d guessed Clee’s most likely response would be a swift “thanks, but no thanks”, not because Chris’s book isn’t excellent but because he and the rest of the Review would no doubt be inundated with these sorts of author-attempts-at-getting-foot-in-door approaches. What I didn’t expect, though – however naievely – was to not get a response at all. When I’d heard nothing after two months I wrote Clee a much shorter letter reminding him of the book and asking again if he would consider it for the next Footnotes section.

By the end of September I’d still heard nothing from Clee, so as much as I hate going over people’s heads, it seemed a letter to the editor of the Review would be in order. Their name was not published anywhere in the Review or listed in the contacts section of the Guardian’s website, but it was given in my Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook (albeit the 2004 edition) and on Wikipedia as Annalena McAfee, a.k.a. Mrs Ian McEwan.

Guess what.

By November I’d still not heard anything at all from Clee, McAfee or anyone at the Review, so by now fuming at their total lack of any form of courtesy whatever – by now even a letter telling me to fuck off would have been better received – I decided to go right over all their heads and ask the Guardian’s editor-in-chief Alan Rusbridger what was going on.

Funnily enough, this appeared to help.

Finally, just before Christmas, I received a reply, although not from Rusbridger or even McAfee, but the deputy editor of the Review, Georgina Henry, who firstly said McAfee had not been the correct person to write to, as she was not the “literary editor”. The fact that I had deliberately written to the editor-in-chief seemed to escape her, as had the tautology of there being a “literary editor” on the staff of a literary supplement. Nonetheless, she did say (for the record and anyone who cares) that said “literary editor” is Claire Armistead (note the spelling) and that (although she was apologetic) she was unable (or unwilling) to reconsider Liquidambar for review, saying their original decision not to review it should stand.

This letter to me was followed in January this year by another, this time from McAfee herself. I managed to control my excitement at receiving a letter from the wife of Ian McEwan, although this was quelled anyway by her comment “because of the large number of books coming in to the office we are unable to give feedback on individual submissions”. This is exactly what I’d thought would be their reaction in the first place – but how was I to know that if they didn’t tell me? If this is their official position, surely it might be a reasonably bright idea to photocopy it onto a few hundred sheets of Guardian headed paper, or (to be more eco-friendly about it) store it as a standard email, and just send one out to everyone who submits unsolicited books for review? I know the Guardian sends out unsigned, anonymous standard letters, because I’ve received three or four over the years from their “People Department” when I’ve been turned down for jobs at the paper. In fact, if the Guardian employed me to do nothing but send out these letters or emails, that might kill several birds with one stone.

McAfee then went on to say that it had been a further mistake to address the book to Nicholas Clee because “Nicholas writes for the Review on a freelance basis and is not involved in the commissioning of book reviews”. Apart from the fact that Clee had appeared to be “in charge” of the Footnotes section, and I was trying to avoid going round all the houses by sending Liquidambar direct to him, you might have thought that an organisation of the size of the Guardian could manage to get an envelope addressed to an important contributor, even a freelance one, to the man himself without too much trouble.

Finally McAfee said “can I suggest that any future books are submitted to our Literary Editor, Claire Armitstead [sic].”

McAfee obviously could do with someone to proof-read her letters before they go out (something else I could do around the office, perhaps!) as shortly after writing to me she also wrote to Chris, addressing his letter to “Auckland, Australia”.

I reckon all this should be a warning to an
yone wanting to get published: either be Ian McEwan, or be married to him, because everyone else may as well fuck off.

Chris’s own account of the whole sorry farce can be found here

Let them eat sausages

…or not. The Guardian reported on Saturday that a huge consignment of sausages and other “food aid” sent by the UK to the US for Katrina refugees has been rejected by the US authorities over fears about mad cow disease. The aid cost nearly £3m of UK taxpayers’ money. As I wrote in a letter which the paper published yesterday, I don’t know what annoys me more, the rejection or the fact that we sent food to the US in the first place. That the refugees needed food is not in dispute. That the richest, most powerful and most obese nation on earth needs our food is.

Getting the blues

I suppose I hardly need add to the column inches (or digital equivalent) laying into the US government’s pathetic response to the Katrina tragedy, but it surely can’t be said often enough that the way the refugees of Louisiana have been treated beggars belief. Yesterday George Bush denied the response was slow or that being black (the affected people, that is, not Bush of course) had anything to do with it. Like Tony Blair denying that the bombings in London on what we must now call 7/7 had anything to do with the war in Iraq, it makes you wonder how it is that the only people who believe the bullshit are the very people we trust to tell us the truth.

Anyway, I’ve been following the series of letters in the Guardian in recent days about the old blues songs about the Louisiana floods of 1927, which documented the same effects of the same sort of disaster on the same poor, black people of the same area. Correspondents have also highlighted Bob Dylan’s “uncanny prescience” in his 2001 song High Water. Although this song was inspired by the work and experiences of Charley Patton, one of the original bluesmen in question, the fact that Dylan had now been brought into the discussion prompted me to look up an old Aaron Neville album called Warm Your Heart (which I was just about to get rid of, oddly enough) which features a cover of Randy Newman’s Louisiana 1927. In honesty I didn’t know who was US president at the time of the original floods until I read the lyrics and found there the reference to Coolidge. Doubting that an ultra-literate songwriter like Randy Newman would have got such a fact wrong, I nonetheless double-checked the reference in Wikipedia before sending the letter above. As my initial link to the Guardian letters of 12th September attests, the reference by the original correspondent to Hoover has now become a matter for the Guardian’s Corrections & Clarifications department. (I also didn’t know what “crackers land” meant, and therefore felt a bit uneasy quoting it, but it was taken from the official Randy Newman site, so should have been correct, and in fact the Guardian, when printing my letter, added an apostrophe – i.e. “crackers’ land” – indicating that “crackers” were the residents of the area in question.) Altogether therefore I feel a bit embarrassed about all this, but this whole story seems to prove that, with the internet as powerful as it is, we’re all experts now.

All of which brings me to the image of my letter at the top of this post. As part of its recent relaunch in “Berliner” format, The Guardian is offering its excellent digital edition of the paper free until 26th September. It’s really just a very trendy version of the website, as all Guardian stories can be read for free on the main site anyway (the standard text version of my letter is on this page for instance), but the digital edition allows you to click on a story and read a PDF or JPG version of the actual paper as printed, from which the above is a clipping. Like a great many things these days I think a digital Guardian is a bit of a luxury (if you’re going to ordinarily pay through the nose for such a service you might as well read the paper and be done with it) but it’s nice nonetheless.

The Berliner Guardian incidentally is very cool but the smaller size feels weird, as if something’s missing. When I went to buy the launch edition at the paper stands in WH Smith I couldn’t find it to begin with – I thought it must have sold out already, until finally it turned up looking a bit sorry for itself in a compartment designed for a normal-sized broadsheet. And it’s still too big not to fold in half when you’re carrying it or laying it down somewhere, but because of the dimensions it feels wrong being folded either horizontally or vertically… but I feel I’ve strayed from the point somewhat. To round off therefore and return to my original topic, here’s a link to a withering attack on the US Federal Emergency Management Agency’s handling of the Katrina disaster, with a mention in it of Russell Hoban‘s Riddley Walker no less. As one of my Hoban friends commented when she saw this, “‘Riddley Walker’ and FEMA on common ground — this is eerie.” Or maybe just scary.

Ian Jack – ‘A sentimental education’

Granta editor Ian Jack, writing in today’s Guardian Review, “deplores the media’s role in fomenting grief on the death of public figures”, most recently in the form of the Pope.

However, having said “It is impossible to equate the Pope with the Princess”, Jack does exactly that in a spurious piece which says very little about the Pope and a great deal about his contempt of Princess Diana and her mourners.

As far as I can see the only difference between mourning Diana or the Pope and mourning a relative or friend is that most mourners of the Pope and Diana never knew them personally. Newspaper columnists, however, tend not to criticise people for grieving for relatives and friends. Funny, that.

So what if people feel upset or want to pay their respects when a Pope or a Diana dies? Surely Jack isn’t so lacking in imagination that he can’t understand that millions of ordinary people identify with such larger-than-life figures?

The criticism of those who grieved for Diana has become legitimate not because her legacy is “little more than a dysfunctional memorial in a London park” but because of her mass appeal at the time of her death. But those masses, that spectacle, consisted of individuals with any number of personal reasons for grieving. Those reasons were as simple as a gut feeling and as complex as anything you can imagine. The reporters weren’t out there asking every one of them why they were there, they were just saying “Wow, look at these crowds.” Which makes it very easy for people like Jack to tar everyone who felt differently to him with the same brush.

Jack writes that “not to grieve [for Diana] was to be odd, cynical, wicked”. I don’t remember meeting anyone at the time who felt that way. You felt how you felt, you grieved or didn’t grieve in your own manner and it was nobody else’s business either way. Certainly nobody attacked anybody for showing insufficient grief, or too much – except in the left-of-centre newspapers, of course.

And if you did perchance find yourself embracing a complete stranger, was this such a bad thing? Was it any different, fundamentally, from the embrace you find yourself giving the fellow mourner of a relative or friend whom you barely know? Was it any different, in fact, from hugging a stranger in joy because your team won the football?

I also don’t remember meeting anyone who did not express some regret at Diana’s death. I remember walking down Kensington High Street and everybody talking about it, the signs in all the shop windows saying they were shutting on the day of the funeral, the handwritten tributes on the flowers in Kensington Gardens saying things like “God bless you, sweetheart”. There is no escaping the fact that people were personally affected.

Jack’s beef, finally, is with the media and the way they report such events. Sorry to spring this on you, Ian, but when someone famous dies, it’s news. And for the record, the Guardian was hardly the only newspaper whose coverage of the Pope’s death could be described as overkill.

‘Sad am I’

A nice article in Saturday’s Guardian Review on a new book about Billie Holiday:

In November 1956, Holiday was interviewed by Tex McCreary. She sounds heavy with alcohol and whatever drugs she might have been using, and the conversation is slow and awkward. The interviewer obviously feels it’s no good going on with the questions and she was in no fit state to sing, but he has a sudden inspiration. He asks her to recite one of her songs. “I want you to close your eyes, Billie,” he says, “and speak the words like a poet. What about ‘Yesterdays’?”

Without a moment’s hesitation she does what she has been told to do. She recites the words with an almost unbearable languor, but with all the power and authority of a great theatrical monologue. Her voice sounds like a song, so musical in its resonances that as you listen you seem to hear a band playing with her:


Days I knew as happy sweet,

Sequestered days,

Olden days, golden days,

Days of mad romance and love.

Then gay youth was mine,

Truth was mine,

Joyous free and flaming life,

Forsooth were mine.

Sad am I, glad am I,

For today I’m dreaming of,