Nicola Vincent-Abnett

Nicola Vincent-Abnett
"Savant" for Solaris, Wild's End, Further Associates of Sherlock Holms, more Wild's End

Thursday 31 July 2014

Let’s Talk About Sex, Baby: National Orgasm Day

Yep, it’s come to this... pardon the pun.

Today is National Orgasm Day.

Of course it’s a ruse of sorts. It’s about commerce. It’s a way for a sex toy manufacturer to do more business, and that’s fine.

Frankly (and forgive me if I’m sharing too much) as far as I’m concerned, every day should be an orgasm day, but then I adore the husband and I’ve been in a relationship with him for a very long time. 

My problem with National Orgasm Day is that it focuses on the destination, and we all know that the journey is where the good stuff happens.

We all look forward to our holiday, whatever, wherever it may be, but the looking forward is part of the fun, so is the packing, and so is the travelling. The destination, arriving, and finally lying on that beach are only a small part of the over all experience.

Few of us genuinely prefer to travel alone, but does that really mean that travelling with strangers is a desirable option? Some of us can get where we want to be by jumping on a train or taking a quick car ride. Some of us prefer to travel light. We all need different things.

Of course to get where they’re going some people need luggage up the yingyang and hours or days of travel, and that’s okay, too.

Phileas Fogg
by Alphonse de Neuville & Léon Benett (1873)
Phileas Fogg took his journey with Jean Passepartout, and a mighty undertaking it was too. In order to arrive at their destination they travelled for eighty days by foot, rail, steamship, balloon, horseback, on an elephant and by several other means. They travelled light, but they topped up on supplies along the way. That’s some dedication! I can’t help admiring their ambition.

I’m sure Mr Fogg took other journeys, but, who knows? Perhaps he never reached his destination again.

Almost five percent of women never reach their holiday destinations. That doesn’t mean they’re never prepared to set out on their holidays, and it doesn’t mean they don’t thoroughly enjoy the anticipation or the shopping for new clothes, or the packing or travelling. So why on Earth should they be denied those things? They shouldn’t... Of course they shouldn’t.

Anyone who has to pack more or travel for longer, or take a more circuitous route should be perfectly at liberty to do so. It’s his holiday. The key thing is that he negotiate with the person he’s travelling with. 

It really matters, in the end, who we choose to take our holidays with, whether it’s a weekend getaway or three months circumnavigating the globe. A drive in the country can be a miserable experience regardless of whether all the people in the car manage to reach the agreed destination.

So the next time it crosses your mind to take a holiday think first about who you want to go on holiday with. Think about what you want to pack and how you’d like to travel. Negotiate those things. Once you’ve got all that sorted out the destination shouldn’t be much of a problem at all.

Now off you go and have a fabulous time.

Wednesday 30 July 2014

The Man Booker Prize

OK, here I go making myself unpopular, yet again.

I can’t help myself. 

I try not to say what I’m thinking, but somehow it slips out anyway.

I’m sitting here metaphorically scratching my head and wondering when inclusivity becomes monopoly. Is that what I mean?

I’ll explain.

I was reading about the new rules for the Man Booker Prize.

This year the prize has been extended to include pretty well anyone who writes in the English language.

On the face of it, I’m absolutely fine with that. Let’s give prizes to the best books!

Previously the prize was for writers from Commonwealth and former Commonwealth countries. There are more than fifty of them. That’s a lot of writers with very various experiences of the World, and with a wide variety of choices for writing subjects. 

There are only so many places on any book prize list. The judging panel has to read the books for judging. It’s a pretty big task.

This year, with the inclusion of writers in the English language from countries outside the Commonwealth, and let’s not pretend we’re not talking about the Americans, there are vastly more eligible authors, but there are the same number of slots to fill.

Wiki lists 236 American literary awards. It lists 64 British literary awards, and, not for nothing, it lists just 8 Commonwealth literary awards, including the Man Booker, which, of course, no longer exists in this format. 

Many writers living in Commonwealth countries have small audiences at home for their work. Let’s look at Australia as an example. Everybody’s heard of Australia. We’re all familiar with the culture. It’s a first world country with an active, lively and talented writing community. DBC Pierre, Peter Carey (twice) and Thomas Keneally have all won the prize since I’ve been following the lists. If you expand the region, include New Zealand and call it Australasia, you can add Eleanor Catton and Keri Hulme to those men and redress the gender balance into the bargain. 

The combined population of Australia and New Zealand is about twenty-seven million people, and they live on the other side of the planet from most of the big publishing houses. That causes a couple of problems for writers from that neck of the woods. Firstly, their home audiences are small, so domestic advances and royalties are small. Secondly, bigger markets, the UK and America are secondary, and therefore more difficult to gain access to. And, not for nothing, books are expensive in Australasia, because paper is bloody heavy, and imports have to travel a very long way.

Don’t forget I’m not talking about Trinidad and Tobago... Yes I know you’ve heard of it, but it is a little more obscure than Australia. I use it as an example, because VS Naipaul, who won his Man Booker prize in 1971, has his origins there.

The Man Booker shortlist for 2013 looked like this:
We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo, who is from Zimbabwe. Her contemporary novel is set in her homeland.  
The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton, who is from New Zealand, and went on to win the prize. Her novel, which takes place in the 19th century is also set in her homeland.
Harvest by Jim Crace, who is English. His novel takes place in 18th century rural England.
The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri. She is often described as Indian American. She was born in London and her parents were from West Bengal, so I suppose she might also be loosely described as British Asian. Her novel is set in India in the 1960s.
A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki, who is Canadian, and set her novel in modern Tokyo.
The Testament of Mary by Colm Toibin, who is Irish and set his novel in the biblical Middle East.

We don’t have the Man Booker shortlist for 2014 yet, but we don’t need it. Or, at least, I don’t need it in order to make my point.

What we do have is the Man Booker long list for 2014. On it, there are thirteen books. The list looks like this:
To Rise Again at a Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris.
The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler
The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt
J by Howard Jacobson
The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth
The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell
The Lives of Others by Neel Mukherjee
Us by David Nicholls
The Dog by Joseph O’Neill
Orfeo by Richard Powers
How to be Both by Ali Smith
History of the Rain by Niall Williams

That’s more than double the number of books on the 2013 shortlist, but we can all clearly see how dramatically the diversity has been cut. This list contains six British writers, two from Ireland, four Americans and one Australian. There are no representatives from the Indian subcontinent, from Canada or from anywhere in Africa. Only one of more than fifty countries currently part of the Commonwealth (Ireland no longer belongs) is represented. 

The four American novelists all essentially write about modern America in the books that are listed, because we don’t get enough of that already! (Yes, people, that was sarcasm). Perhaps I should simply be grateful that two of them are women.

I’m going to backtrack, and say that I’m sure all of these are fine novels. Not for nothing, they’re on the Man Booker long list. 

This is critical.

Publishers may only submit a limited number of books published between specified dates. The number of submissions a publisher may make is dependent on how many of its novels appeared on previous lists. 

A publisher with two fabulous, worthy books next year cannot submit both of those books, even if they are published between the specified dates, if it does not have a book long-listed this year. That publisher will have to choose one book and submit it. 

Chatto and Windus, and Sceptre had two long-listed books each in 2014, so in 2015 they can each nominate two novels for next year's prize, increasing their chances of getting more books on next year's long list. If they had more books on the long list they’d be able to submit more books for the next prize. Publishers with no long-listed books get one shot next year.

So, any agent worth his salt will take his best books to those publishers with the best listings records. Those authors might well be encouraged to take smaller advances for those books in the hope that they’ll be nominated and potentially long-listed, and make money off the back-end, by which I mean royalties. Those writers will be told that it’s all swings and roundabouts. It isn’t.

I'm putting my face here, because after this blog
I doubt you'll ever see it next to the words
"Man Booker nominated author"
In the end, my fear is that the long list will end up being dominated by two or three publishers, and we can all guess which publishers they will be. Chatto and Windus belongs to Harper Collins, and Sceptre belongs to Hodder and Stoughton, which also has a book on the long list. 

I’m sure you take my point.

It isn’t easy to get a book published, and when a book is published it isn’t easy to get it noticed. That becomes more difficult when you add gender and ethnicity to the mix. Being long-listed for an award makes a huge difference to the visibility of a book to the reading public.

It isn’t difficult to find American books in any book store in any city in any country on the planet. But there are great writers, writing in English in a vast range of cultures. Many of them live in the Commonwealth.

As a general rule, I’m in favour of inclusion, and I believe that talent will always rise to the top.

I wonder if the new rules for the Man Booker prize rather mitigate against diversity and inclusivity. I don’t question the organisers' intentions, and I hope that I’m proven wrong, but, honestly, I’m not terribly hopeful.

Oh, and just for good measure, two of the six judges for the Man Booker this year are also American, another is a pure scientist and AC Grayling, who is chairing the panel is a philosopher. Well... OK then.

Tuesday 29 July 2014

Guardians of the Galaxy Premiere

So, we went to London on Thursday for the European premiere of Guardians of the Galaxy. It’s the latest offering from Marvel Studios, and the first of its cosmic adventures made for the big screen.

The husband and the dort,
looking fabulous for the premiere
The Guardians have been around since the late sixties. The husband got his hands on this Marvel comic book in 2008 and wrote it for a couple of years. The movie was based on his incarnation and on his team, although Nicole Perlman prepared the first draft for a film on the Marvel Writers’ Program. James Gunn, who also directed the movie, devised the story and wrote the screenplay.

The husband was invited by James Gunn for a couple of set visits. He met the director, cast and crew, read the script, saw concept art and was on-set during some of the filming. James Gunn couldn’t have been more generous or inclusive, and the husband had a fabulous time.

It was rather a thrill to be invited to the premiere... all of us, the husband, me and the dort. We went... Of course we went.

We decided to make a day of it, and booked into a hotel on Leicester Square. 

Things started to ramp up pretty early. There was a mass of digital hoardings playing shots and character profiles from the movie, the red carpet was laid out (OK, so it was blue, but you get my drift), and the crowds, and boy were there crowds! began to gather in their thousands.

A couple of hours before showtime, I took a walk around. If I was going to have to walk up between those barriers holding back mobs of fans, I wanted to be prepared. Yes, I know they weren’t there for me, but still, they were a sight to behold.

Me and the husband looking pretty relaxed
at the premiere
It was a bright, beautiful day. The paparazzi were out in force, in their cordoned off area, announcements were being made to the crowds, and camera crews were stalking the carpet, interviewing the stars.

Thankfully, we had a short route up the carpet and into the theatre towards the beginning of the hoopla. We were in our seats, watching most of the blue carpet madness on the big screen.

So many famous faces!

James Gunn was there with producer Jeremy Latcham. Chris Pratt was there, along with Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Karen Gillan and Vin Diesel. Vin Diesel is the voice of Groot, in the movie, and Groot is a tree, so Diesel walked the carpet on stilts, which was pretty impressive. Also present were Mark Hamill, Chris Hemsworth, Steven Moffat and Joss Whedon. I shook Joss Whedon’s hand... Like you do.

We were sitting watching the action on-screen in the theatre when a host of minor celebs got their photo ops on the blue carpet. The dort thought it was rather hilarious to see her old pal Josh Zaré of Kingsland Road up on the screen. She texted him. He texted back. You’ve got to love a coincidence.

Finally, and let’s not pretend that the public stuff doesn’t take about as long as the movie takes to watch, we were all sitting comfortably in the movie theatre. We had all been provided with bottled water and snacks and our eyewear, and the screen went dark. Oh... did I mention that we were in the IMAX 3D screening?
The dort making me laugh!

James Gunn introduced the stars, and talked a little bit about the movie, the lights went down and the opening sequence began.

The rest was a rollercoaster.

The movie flew by. It was fast-paced, action-packed, funny, irreverent, tongue-in-cheek and, at times, rather moving.

I’m not the target audience for this type of movie, but I thoroughly enjoyed it. It’s a great family blockbuster, and I’d recommend it to anyone. As a matter of fact, I plan to see it again myself.

I suppose, in a way, I have a vested interest in this movie. Those five characters: Star Lord, Gamora, Drax, Rocket Raccoon (yep there really is a talking raccoon in this film and he’s a snarky little bugger) and Groot the sentient tree... Those five characters were put together as a team by the husband six years ago. He set the tone for their adventures. He made them funny and feisty, and he had a hand in making Marvel Cosmic popular. 

James Gunn saw that and he did something fabulous with it in his own medium. He made a fun, funny, exciting space adventure movie that’s going to be a big hit... And if you don’t believe me, read the reviews. I’m not the only one who thinks so.

Not for nothing, I’m the sort of person who likes to sit through the credits of any movie, just as I like to know who wrote the latest story I’m reading. Credit where credit’s due.

James Gunn is a generous, inclusive film-maker. And, yes, I do know that I’ve said that twice now. He talked about his cast and crew, about making a family, when he introduced the movie to us in the theater. He clearly believes what he says.

At the end of the movie, I sat and watched those names scrolling down. I was thrilled, if a little surprised to see the husband’s name. James Gunn had acknowledged Dan Abnett in the credits of his movie. He didn’t have to. It was incredibly generous of him. I can’t tell you how much the husband appreciated it, or how proud I was to see his name on that screen. 

Wednesday 23 July 2014

Premieres and Party Frocks

So, tomorrow we’re off to the London premiere of Guardians of the Galaxy.

For those of you who don’t already know, the husband wrote the Marvel comic book run, back between 2008 and 2010 that the movie nods vigorously at. It’s not an adaptation of the book, but it uses the same line-up of characters and it’s very much in the same spirit.

The husband was invited by director James Gunn on a couple of set visits. He met cast and crew, saw concept art and read the script. It was, and is, all very exciting.

The three of us, the husband, the dort and I are off to the movies. I haven’t been to this sort of red carpet event before, although the husband did take the dort to one of the Superman premieres a few years ago.

There are, of course, preparations to be made.

The director and the stars will get gussied up. I’ll look forward to that. I love a good frock and a bit of bling. The rest of us have been advised that ‘business casual’ is the order of the day. Not a problem.

We went shopping yesterday for something for the dort to wear. She loves clothes. I bloody love clothes, too.

Is anyone surprised that I didn’t want to buy a new frock?

I plan to wear a dress. I’m not much of a separates person, except for jeans. I wear jeans in various guises a lot. I do own a few skirts, but I like a frock. I’ve got a lot of them.

Apparently, though, I’m not like other women.

When I heard about this event, I trawled through my already fairly extensive wardrobe for the right frock. I selected four possible dresses to choose from. The dort added a fifth, something very summery, since, you know, it’s very summery right now.

I did try on a couple of dresses while I was shopping with the dort, and I did buy one, but not for this event. I bought one because I liked it. I’ll wear it in the autumn when the weather’s a bit cooler. I’ll wear it when I’m not wearing it for the first time to an event.

I understand that everyone likes to look her best at a big do. I like to look my best too. I also like to feel comfortable and secure in a frock that I trust. I’ll buy a new frock for a big event if it’s a family wedding or something where I’ll know everyone. That’s fine.

This is a public event and I won’t know anyone except for the people I came with, the husband and the dort. The frock is a sort of security blanket. The frock has gone down well before. It’s a proper grown-up, serious frock. It hasn’t ever frightened the horses, or been sniffed or laughed at. Once or twice I might even have been complimented on my frock.

There are other advantages, too. I know it doesn’t chafe or ride up. I know it doesn’t show anything it shouldn’t, crease badly when I sit in it, make me sweat or itch, or... I don’t know... glow in the dark.

Last, but not least, I like quality clothes, and I’m not prepared to splash out quite large sums of money for the hell of it. I have to really like something to invest in it. The dress I have chosen to wear is ten years old and I’d put good money on the fact that no one else will be wearing one like it tomorrow.

There will be other middle-aged women at the movie premiere, and you can bet that when they shopped for their dresses they tried on the same frocks in the same shops that I selected yesterday. If I’d bought one of them, there’s a pretty decent chance I’d have been duplicating something that someone else is bound to be wearing. I really didn’t want to be responsible for embarrassing another woman or myself at an event like that, now did I?

So, tomorrow, I’ll be wearing a ten year old Hugo Boss frock. It’s one of my very favourites. I have fond memories of wearing it on several occasions, including at a very fine dinner in Paris. In fact, I like this dress so much that I have it in two sizes. I got the second massively reduced in a sale at my favourite boutique.

I love a good frock, and this one’s just the trick for this event.

Call me weird, if you like. Perhaps I am a bit weird, but I know that I shall be confident in my frock, and that all will be well with the World.

Not for nothing, I did buy new shoes to go with the frock.

Friday 18 July 2014

Women Characters in Comics

I generally don't talk about comics. They're not my thing. I'm going to make an exception today.

I recently learned that Thor is now a woman.
Read more about Thor

There’s a statement I never thought I’d make. I don’t suppose I ever thought about it at all. 

I am, of course, referring to the comic book character, not the Norse god. OK, Marvel’s long-running character is based on the legends, but you know what I mean, I’m sure.

The comic reading fraternity is... Well, it’s precisely that: a fraternity. The comics industry is male-centric. Men write and draw comics and boys and men read them. It was ever thus. There are girls and women who are comic book fans, and so there should be. Comics are a wonderful medium for telling stories, and I wouldn’t suggest for a moment that women are as rare as hens’ teeth, but anyone who’s ever been to a small, local comic convention knows of what I speak.

My observations also suggest that when women buy comics they’re more likely to buy outside of the mainstream superhero comics. They’re more likely to buy Vertigo titles, for example or Indie comics. It would appear that Batman is a little too boys-own for their liking.

It seems to me to be a shame. 

I suspect that Marvel Studios are doing a little better with their movies. I know that Robert Downey Junior’s portrayal of Tony Stark/Iron Man is pretty popular among women movie goers. I also read this blog yesterday bemoaning the fact that there are so few strong female leads in superhero movies.

The fact is that the big two superhero comic producers have plenty of female characters. DC in particular has familiar standalone heroines that it would not be difficult to deploy, and they do it. They simply don’t do it well, or certainly not well enough. We’re all familiar with Batgirl, Wonder Woman and Cat Woman whether we read the comics or not. And what on Earth happened to Marvel’s The Scarlet Witch?

Trust me, eventually I will get to some sort of point.

So... Thor is a woman.

What a lot of nonsense.

Can you tell that I’ve got a problem with this?

I was discussing this with the husband and the dort yesterday, and, sadly, I couldn’t come up with a coherent argument for why. This is simply an instinct, it’s intuition, but here I go, anyway.

Thor is essentially, quintessentially masculine. It makes no sense to me to make him a woman. The same applies to Wonder Woman (although, to be fair, she comes from a race of women, so it’d be tough to have a male equivalent). The same also applies to Harley Quinn. Harley is a quintessentially feminine character. It would make no sense to make her a boy. I feel the same way about Aquaman, for no other reason than because I do. A female Robin, no problem. Supergirl, fine. 

Let me use Batman as an example. Batman is intelligent, resourceful, troubled, authoritative. These are all character traits and are equally likely to occur in a man as in a woman. Superman is humble, gentle, noble, righteous, again, all universal traits. Robin is impetuous, bold, naive... You’re beginning to get it. 

One of Thor’s key character traits is his masculinity. Strip him of that and Thor simply isn’t Thor any more. The same goes for Harley.

I’m all for gender equality.

My thing is this. The genders are not the same. We must be equivalent, but we should also be different, and we should celebrate the differences, not undermine them.

I don’t know what the point is of making Thor a woman. I don’t know how the story is planned or what the outcome will be. There’s a good chance I won’t read this book. Having said that, I rarely read comic books. For the most part, comics don’t appeal to me very much, just as they don’t seem to appeal to very many women.

I suspect that the reason comics don’t appeal to a great many women is because, where it matters, women have very little input into comics.

There are more and more women getting jobs in the offices of comic book publishers, and thank heavens for that. It’ll take them a while to have real influence as they climb the ladders. I hope they stay around long enough to earn their promotions and begin to have their say when it comes to commissioning stories, writers and artists. It’s going to take some time, and it’s going to take some pretty impressive women to have what it takes to penetrate as deeply as they will  need to into this industry for us to begin to be represented equally with men in superhero comics.

There are a few notable women in the industry, including writers like Gail Simone and Kelly Sue DeConnick working on superhero comics right now.

It’s interesting, though, isn’t it, that Gail Simone has written Birds of Prey, featuring an all-women cast, as well as Wonder Woman, Batgirl and Red Sonja. It rather lacks imagination on the part of commissioning editors to think that we need a woman writer to write women characters to attract female readers. I haven’t read Kelly Sue DeConnick’s runs on Captain Marvel or Avengers Assemble, but I’m sure they’re very good. 

As a writer married to a very successful writer, I know how tough it can be to stand in that particular shadow, and I admire KSDC hugely for stepping out of her husband, Matt Fraction’s shadow. It’s easy to be referred to as ‘the wife’ and it’s easy to be accused of nepotism. It’s also much easier to meet other professionals and to network when you already know someone in the industry. It also makes sense to use your contacts. It’s called networking and we all do it if we’ve got the sense we were born with. 

I’m English and we don’t have that sort of sense.

I’m pro Gail Simone and Kelly Sue DeConnick and I hope they continue to write comics that both men and women want to read. I hope that they’ll also encourage other women writers to bang on industry doors to be let in and bring their stories to the collective comic book table. 

Sexual politics in comics won’t change by turning Thor into a woman. It is time they changed however. Bringing new creative blood into the industry is the only way to shake things up, and some of that creative blood really has to be female. I hope that some of it will also come in from a multitude of cultures and ethnicities and from the LGBTQ community too. The more the merrier, I say.

Thursday 17 July 2014

Professional Writers’ Incomes part ii

Coincidentally after writing yesterday’s post about the median professional writer’s income being a paltry eleven grand, I saw this on a friend’s FaceBook status:

Never do it for the money, but never do it for free.

I think that’s a pretty good philosophy for any artist to live by. I think it’s also a good route to success. If an artist is true to himself and he’s good at what he does then there’s a chance he’ll be successful at it. Any artist who tries to follow a trend, jump on a bandwagon or anticipate what will be popular with the consumer is, in my opinion, asking for trouble.

Yesterday, I said that art is a consumable. The contradiction is that it’s a consumable to the consumer. To the artist, his art is his life’s blood. 

I also suggested, yesterday, that if a writer is good he ought to succeed, and there’s a contradiction there, too.

I once gave one of my novels to a publisher to read. He told me that he couldn’t publish it. He told me that although it would probably win a fistful of awards, it would only sell six hundred copies. It was good, but it wasn’t commercial.

Some of our best writers, some of our award winners, and, let’s put them all in one bracket and generalise horribly, and say that all of our poets have to work full time, and you all know that I’m not talking about writing full time.

Good is not always popular. Good is sometimes too esoteric, too clever, too demanding, and in the case of writing, too literary to be commercial, to make the author or the publisher or anyone else a crap-ton of cash.

I’ve got a book in the drawer that I bang on about on this blog all the time. It might be the best thing I’ve done, certainly it is one of the things I’m most proud of. It’s a little novel called Naming Names. It was runner up to Rosie Garland’s The Palace of Curiosities for the inaugural Mslexia novel prize. Rosie Garland landed a six figure book deal, her novel was well-reviewed, hit the charts and was longlisted for the Desmond Elliot Prize. My novel is yet to be published.
Rosie Garland's latest novel
out today

Bloody well done Rosie Garland. I hope her second novel Vixen, out today, is equally successful.

My novel has not been published because the subject matter is considered too difficult. It is about maternal sexual abuse. The comments I got from the editors who saw it at the publishing houses were extraordinary. I have kept them to remind me of the value of this book. I doubt it will ever be published. It was worth writing it.

I stand by my statement.

The point of the writer is the reader.

A great many people, the majority, will never read Chaucer or Shakespeare. They will never read Virginia Wolf or Keats. That’s no reason those works should not be in the canon. 

Personally, I am a big fan of some current writers who work full time jobs. I am very happy that they continue to write.

They are happy to continue to write, and, while they struggle, many of them take rejection on the chin and move on, because they are writers. They can’t help themselves. They don’t do it for the money. Neither do they give their work away. When they sell a story, they celebrate, and so do their fans. If they are anything like me, their fans also spread the word, and urge readers to pick up their work, because it’s good.

I don’t know how many of these people thrash about calling themselves professional writers, and I don’t know how many of them moan to the press about how little they earn. I suspect they are too busy feeding their families and paying their mortgages, and writing their wonderful stories in the few hours that remain to them in between.

I read somewhere that the smallest minds have the biggest mouths. I don’t know how true that is. 

Being pushy, whining and arrogant simply produces so much hot air. Mediocre writers, however good their personal publicity machines are still going to produce mediocre work.

Sometimes the best writers won’t make the most money. That won’t always matter to them as much as being published, being paid and having an appreciative audience matters. Perhaps they have something else on their side. Perhaps they have longevity. Perhaps there’s a legacy in it for them. 

I’m reminded of Alice Munro, the Canadian short story writer who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2013. She ran a book shop with her husband, and was a writer in residence at the University of Western Ontario. She produced a volume of stories every four years or so.

To be good and commercial... I guess that’s another story entirely.

Wednesday 16 July 2014

Professional Writers' Incomes

I learned this week that the median income of the professional writer is currently eleven grand a year.


No wonder so many writers have second jobs. By which I mean that a great many writers seem to have first jobs and then write as a hobby. I wonder if that makes them professional writers at all?

Writers have always had jobs.

It’s a travesty.

One hundred and fifty thousand new books were published in the UK in 2011 and 229 million books were sold. There’s been a lot of talk about the death of the book, about the fact that no one buys books, but that sold figure is a forty-two percent increase on 2001. So, someone’s buying books. (On a side note, if you divide sales by books published you get a figure of around 1500, so an awful lot of books aren’t selling at all).

The median income of the writer has dropped by 29% in the last decade, so the writer isn’t getting his share of the money.

It’s a thorny problem.

I wonder if it’s about that word ‘median’ and about polarisation?

Of course, I’m speculating. I’m theorising. I don’t actually know, and I’m not a statistician. I wonder if it’s about how we define professional writers?

This Article from the Guardian givesanother perspective
The Society of Authors accepts members who have self-published on the condition that they have sold 300 print copies or 500 electronic copies of their work in a year. I assume that qualifies these writers as professionals. The term ‘professional’ is, I suppose determined by the writer.

Sometimes, I call myself a writer, if asked. More often, I say that sometimes I write. I’m not going to tell you how much I’ve earned this year from writing, but I will tell you that I don’t have a first job or a second. I’ve never referred to myself as a professional writer, so far as I remember. Freelance writer is probably as far down that road as I’d be prepared to venture.

I want writers to be paid well and treated fairly. Of course I do. There is another side to this, though. And this is something I say a lot.

The point of the writer is the reader.

This is a supply and demand business. I read that Mal Peet said he could ask for a £25 thousand advance on a book. Good, lovely, wonderful. He then went on to say that his book might not earn out for five years. That means that the publisher has invested £25 grand in a book that takes five years to sell £25 grand’s worth of books, and that’s before we consider publishing costs. They’re not going to see that money again for five years. What is the use of them giving that writer another £25 grand to write another book? For all sensible purposes the book was not successful, because it didn’t sell. Mal Peet went on to say that his royalties for the second half of last year were £3 grand, so that if he lived off his royalties, his income last year was only £6 grand. Again, this suggests that his books weren’t terribly successful. He only sold enough books to earn that amount of money. Of course I don’t know what his royalty percentage is, but I’m sure his agent fought for the best possible deal. I also know that Mal Peet is an award winning writer.

The question is, what went wrong for Peet?

The answer is that his books didn’t sell fast enough or weren’t popular enough. His award suggests that he’s a decent writer. Of course, awards are given by the industry, by selected readers for all sorts of reasons that might have nothing to do with the end users. That said, Peet might still be producing good work. So, either it’s good work the reader doesn’t want, or it’s good work the reader isn’t seeing.

Either way, there isn’t sufficient demand for his stuff.

We’re talking about writers here, but the same is true of any art form. If a painter doesn’t sell a picture, he doesn’t get paid. If a musician doesn’t get booked, he doesn’t get paid, and if he doesn’t fill a concert venue, he doesn’t get booked again.

Culture has become a product, like any other consumable.

The problem seems to me to be that we all want the same thing. We all want what the person standing next to us has got. It was ever thus. Remember the seventies when we all watched the same tv shows on Saturday nights? Books are like that. Think about Harry Potter. What else did you or your kids read while that particular phenomenon was in full swing? If you only saw one film last year, was it the big blockbuster, or the wonderful indie flick no one else had heard of? If you bought one album was it somewhere at the top of the album charts?

I’m guessing the answes to those questions is probably ‘yes’.

In publishing, the mid-list is a horrible place to be, and it appears to be getting worse. Self-publishing might be to blame for some of that. Books are getting cheaper all the time and the monopolies are screwing everything down to the bone. Did you know, for example, that one of the biggest outlets no longer takes reprints? They only want to shelve new books. How insane is that? If a publisher wants to continue to print a book it has to decide whether it’s worth putting on a new cover and isbn number and reissuing it instead of just reprinting. With the advent of the social media, a lot of mid-listers are also required to do a great deal of their own publicity, which is a pretty specialist skill, and it’s time-consuming and demanding.

On the other hand, writers are choosing to take the advances they’re offered, and the royalty deals. Of course, they don’t have to. Let’s face it, many of them are adding their writing incomes to their full time earnings. They can complain all they like, but they’re spinning extra cash out of what is, essentially, a hobby.

It’s tough out there, and anyone who pretends otherwise is lying. I meet people every day who want to write, who think they can do it, and who honestly believe they’re going to make a fortune at it. Most of them won’t, can’t and won’t see eleven grand a year let alone their first million. They’re probably not going to be a prima ballerina or a fighter pilot either. Go figure.

Monday 14 July 2014

A New Campaign to Highlight Domestic Violence

A few days ago I learned of a new campaign to raise awareness of domestic violence.

This is a good thing. It’s always a good thing.

This latest campaign is by the artist Saint Hoax and is titled "Happy Never After". I’ve seen work by the artist before, and a lot of it revolves around politics, violence and gender. Saint Hoax is from the Middle East. The artist is referred to as ‘He’ in several reports that I read about this latest work, but I couldn’t actually find evidence of that specific gender. I suppose it doesn’t matter, but on Saint Hoax’s website the artist is referred to only by that pseudonym.

Gender along with gender and sexual politics can be complex issues. Enough said.

This campaign against domestic violence depicts the faces of four Disney princesses on four separate posters: Aurora from Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, Jasmine from Aladdin and Ariel from The Little Mermaid. They each have a black eye, a bloody nose, a split lip, a torn cheek and a bruised shoulder. The configuration of injuries is essentially identical in each image, and the strap line for each poster is “When did he stop treating you like a princess?”

I say again, highlighting domestic violence can only be a good and positive thing.

This is a simplistic view of domestic violence for any number of reasons. Of course people in intimate relationships are sometimes treated like this. Men and women sometimes sustain black eyes and split lips, bloody noses and torn cheeks, because they are beaten by their partners, who might also be either men or women.

These are the domestic violence cases that are easiest to spot and define, and potentially the most straight forward to resolve. Thank goodness. 

What about the blows that don’t leave marks? What about the body blows that leave marks that are covered by clothes? Many abusers, most abusers are far too astute to leave a battered face every time they choose to attack their partners, or any time they choose to attack their partners.

The physical abuse is also only a small part of the story.

What about the abusers who belittle, snub, pour scorn on, berate and overwhelm their partners with myriad forms of psychological mistreatment? 

What about the fear of saying the wrong thing? Or of putting the wrong meal on the table? Or of putting it on the table ten minutes late, or ten degrees too cold or too hot, or of there being a water mark on a piece of cutlery? 

What about the coercion? 

What happens the day you realise that you have no friends, because one by one your partner has driven them away, because they’re ‘dull’ or ‘a bad influence’ or just because your partner doesn’t like them or their other-half or their kids? Or because the person you love would rather spend time with you alone than in company with other people?

What do you do when you sit in silence all evening and when you’re getting ready for bed your partner picks a fight? How do you sleep after that? How do you ever get over the fatigue? How do you live with the tension?

We live in the twenty-first century, and I don’t believe that most of us want or expect to be put on a pedestal, whichever gender we happen to be. I suppose we might want to look like a prince or a princess the day we walk down the aisle or stand in a fancy hotel ballroom or on a beach somewhere to say our vows, but that’s about as far as that dream goes. 

The Disney princess theme is, in its own way, degrading to strong, independent, intelligent, modern women. They are not passive, and do not belong to the kinds of traditional female stereotypes peddled by Hollywood in general and by Disney in particular. But they are victims of domestic abuse.

I believe that most of us go into longterm relationships, whether we take formal vows or come to our own arrangements organically, hoping to form strong bonds with partners who are our equals. We want to be treated fairly, with love and respect, and I think we expect to treat our partners the same way.

I think that’s true of couples of all kinds between all genders, regardless in which combinations they happen to be. 

We are not fools. We are not princesses. We do not expect happily ever after.

We can expect many things from our relationships. Some of those things will be wonderful. Some of them will be painful and difficult. That’s life. Go figure.

What we should not expect, any of us, ever, and what we should never for a moment tolerate, let alone accept, is abuse. Sadly, much of the physical abuse that occurs in the home and in intimate relationships does not occur in a vacuum, and when it does occur the victim is often already suffering from stress, fatigue and low self-esteem. These conditions make it easy for the abuser to strike out, and very hard for the victim to leave the relationship.

Saint Hoax has taken a direct, simple approach with the “Happily Never After” campaign. I’m not convinced that it’s art. I’m not convinced that it’s really a campaign to highlight domestic violence so much as it’s a self-serving shock tactic. And, sadly, I’m not at all sure that it’s very helpful.

I’m going to give it the benefit of the doubt, though, because if one young woman watched one of those Disney movies over and over again when she was a kid, and spent a year or two of her childhood desperate to be one of those princesses... If she is being abused and one of those posters gives her the impetus to stop that abuse and get out of her situation then any judgement I might want to make is utterly redundant.

For help with domestic abuse: UK: and in the USA:

Sunday 13 July 2014

Shoes and Bags and LBDs

I got on the train yesterday morning... The early train, very early. Yesterday was Saturday and I was already on my way to London before eight o’clock in the morning after about three hours sleep.

I know! right?

Anyway, to wile away the hour, I bought the Guardian. I bibbled through the review section, did the soduko, and flicked through the magazine. I couldn’t face the news. Who can face the news before... I don’t know... brunch time?

Anyway, I like clothes. I’m not exactly a fashion victim. I’ve got clothes older than my children that I still love (the clothes, not the children (OK, it's true, I love the children more than the clothes)), but I like nice things that suit me, and I like quality.

As a consequence of my liking for clothes, I do, from time to time, check out the style sections of the weekend papers. Saturday’s Guardian has a regular column by one Jess Cartner-Morley. She’s young and blonde and good looking, and there’s always a photo of her accompanying her half page article. I rarely like anything she showcases in her pictures. I’m not saying that she chooses things that aren’t perfectly good, on trend, appropriate or classy. I’m only saying that, for the most part, her tastes and mine don’t tend to mesh.

Flicking through the magazine today, I landed on her article, and I thought that Jess Cartner-Morley had never looked better. She was wearing a very simple, very flattering black, figure skimming dress. No fuss, no frills, no anything. Everything about it looked right on her from the neckline to the hemline. ‘At last’ I thought, 'she’s finally got it right. I can finally get onboard with this woman. She looks elegant and grown-up. I’d buy that dress.'

I started to read the article. It began with a bit about the Irish Elk. OK then. Pretty quickly, it became clear that the article was actually about the It bag. It was about the sheer size of the It bag, in particular, in proportion to the size of the average WAG. 

I wondered where this was going. When was JC-M going to get to the dress? Two more paragraphs, three, and she was still discussing handbags: statement handbags, fun handbags, small handbags... The entire article was about the handbag.

I don’t really ‘do’ handbags.

Some of the shoe and boot boxes
in my not terribly well-organised
dressing room
I have thought about this. I have a shoe collection that spans decades, and I mean that literally. I keep shoes in their boxes and bags, if they come with cloth bags. I clean them and I have them cobbled as necessary. I have suede brushes and I know how to steam clean shoes and remove stains. I have specialist polishes for special leather finishes. I do not mess about with shoes, and I have a lot of them. As a child, I am told that I would insist on taking new shoes to bed with me.

Handbags, not so much. The husband bought me a very good handbag a few years ago. It is my everyday handbag and I use it... every day, for every thing. I do not anticipate needing another. If I look after it, which I do, this bag could last me for two or three decades. I have two other bags that I occasionally use for... Well, occasions. I also have one larger bag for those odd times when I need something approaching hand luggage... And that’s it.

I had not noticed that there was a handbag in JC-M’s photograph. In fact, it would appear that the reason that JC-M had chosen the plain black dress was in order to showcase the bloody bag. Odd that, because what she actually did was showcase herself to her very best advantage... OK, her stance was a little awkward in that slouchy, pigeon-footed, fashion-y way that appears to be popular, but that’s fine. She looked good in that dress.

The handbag looked like the sort of thing I might have bought the dort when she was nine or ten. I suppose it was cute in its way... or macabre, depending on your take on it. It was a cartoon head. It was Lucy’s head, in fact: Lucy from the Snoopy cartoon strip. It didn’t look like a grown woman’s handbag. Perhaps that's sort of the point. We don't have to be serious all the time. Even properly grown-up women, looking fab in sexy dresses can have a sense of humour, and accessorise with their tongues firmly planted in their cheeks. I certainly hope so.

The dress was definitely grown-up.

I checked the details at the end of the article. You can buy both the dress and the handbag from Urban Outfitters. The dress is by Cheap Monday and costs £20- (I know, I was surprised too. It’s hard to tell from the pic, but I’m guessing it might be made from t-shirt fabric, so it’s probably one for the very brave, or very toned, but still... £20!) The bag is by Rodnik X Peanuts and costs £95-

As I’m wont to say under these sorts of circumstances: Go figure.