Category Archives: Reading


Morning coffee chat with colleagues at the day job, we ended up talking about ‘wonder’ and whether everything is rationally explicable. Two of us against the psychologists felt that there was still some room for mystery in life, the something that cannot be explained within the constraints of language.

Then I went back to my office and started writing a lecture on creativity and education, when I found this from Philip Larkin:

[Poetry is] born of the tension between what he non-verbally feels and what can be got over in common word usage to someone who hasn’t had his experience.



Slipping away

I’ve had a post about rejection lined up to write and post for a couple of weeks now, which is why there haven’t been any posts in the interim, but yesterday something happened and I want to write about that. Iain Banks died.

I met Iain Banks precisely once, at a reading in Waterstones in Leeds. He was charming, intelligent, and funny. (There was also a man at the reading dressed all in black carrying a cane with a silver death’s head as the handle. That outfit is waiting to appear in a story.) I met him briefly when he signed the book he was there to promote. I was pleased. Not all your favourite authors are as great as their writing.

Banks wrote a socialist utopia in the form of the Culture. He wrote satires on modern life, and he wrote wonderful liminal genre-bending mind-bending fiction. Some things he wrote were uncomfortable to read, but they were always powerful. He had the big ideas and the tiny ones. I’m looking forward to buying his last novel, The Quarry, when it comes out in ten days’ time. He asked his publishers to bring it forward so that he could see it. I find it unbearably sad that he won’t see it in the shops, but he did get to see actual copies of it.

I’m not sure how it is that these people, some of whom you may never meet, manage to make such a big impact on our lives, so that we grieve for their passing. In some ways I think it’s because when you read what someone has written, you get an instant pass to the inside of their head. They may not know us, but we know them. Not in the easy how many sugars do you take in your tea way, but in the slightly sinister rummaging through an empty house when everyone’s gone out for the evening kind of way. And sometimes you find, rummaging in that house, that there’s a person you wish you knew.

Most of all, though, there’s the mourning for the words they’ll never write. The books we’ll never get. The stories that stayed inside their heads and didn’t make it into ours. Because they wrote stories only they could write.

Iain Banks was the kind of writer I want to be.


I once said on the radio that I had grown up in a house without books and my father happened to hear the programme and he phoned me to say I was a liar.

‘We did have a book,’ he said. ‘I remember it. It was green. It sat on top of the fridge for ages.’

‘That was the Kilmarnock Telephone Directory,’ I said, ‘which doesn’t count as a proper book.’

Andrew O’Hagan (2013): Can You Make an Artist?, Changing English: Studies in Culture and Education, 20:1, 29-33

Does the person matter?

I know that no matter how much you like someone as a person, if their writing is truly terrible, you’re not going to buy their second book. But is the opposite also true? If you really like an author’s work can you continue to buy it (and therefore support them financially) if as a person that author is making what you consider to be reprehensible and even repulsive statements in public?

A fairly well-known indie-published author who has subsequently signed a traditional publishing deal for paperback wrote a blog post which he has subsequently deleted, in which he relayed a quite reasonable story of his own negative reaction to someone he met, but ended it with a misogynist/ somewhat sexually threatening remark. He has retracted and apologised, so I’m not going to name him here, but I had read the blog post – it was in fact the first thing I’d ever read by him. I had heard about him and thought about buying his book. This weekend I was standing in WH Smith’s, looking at this paperback and thinking about buying it. But I couldn’t bear to – the author had intruded too much into my image of the novel.

Similarly a fairly famous American sci-fi author whose novels I have read and loved in the past has made some fairly inflammatory remarks against gay marriage recently. This puts me in more of a quandary – in the first case I’m never going to know what I’m missing, but in this case I do and it hurts, partly because I’m the kind of person who finds an author they like and then reads EVERYTHING that person has ever written. But I don’t agree with him on this, and it’s not just a case of not agreeing, it’s a case of finding the way he has expressed himself in public – using his status as a well known author – to be extremely offensive and narrow-minded.

So, should the way an author behaves or believes affect my book-buying, if that author doesn’t put those behaviours or beliefs into their book-writing? I am afraid that for me, I cannot separate the author from their work. I am not bothered by differing politics, or differing beliefs, just extreme and offensive ones. I know that I am making a commercial decision when I buy a book, and my money is going more or less directly to the writer, or some portion of it is. I was interested to find that I feel this way. But these two authors have lost me as a reader.

Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow

Last weekend was one of my favourite yearly-if-I-can treats: a double bill of my favourite Shakespeare company, Propeller. They are an all male company, but that isn’t, I don’t think, the main thing about them: they have a very physical, committed approach to Shakespeare. Their key focus is on the clarity of action and words. They make each play a theatrical event. That sounds like it’s obvious, but it really isn’t, and it’s not true of all Shakespeare productions these days.

Anyway, that was a fun day – a gripping production of Taming of the Shrew that I didn’t like/ agree with the interpretation of, and a fabby production of Twelfth Night which I previously saw in Coventry during its first week, and loved, although it had got even better by this weekend. So, in summary, if you can go see them, do. 

Shakespeare carried on being on my mind though, when I saw a comment on the Kboards discussion forum, on a thread about how to promote indie published literary fiction. Basically the consensus was that literary fiction just isn’t going to make you the big bucks. One commenter, the indie author J Gordon Smith, had the canny idea of getting a title for your novel by simply reading through Macbeth until you’d found a short quotation you could use or adapt. I loved the cynicism of this – after all, I thought, it worked for Faulkner.  But I wondered how many other people it had worked for. Turned out, more than you knew. Just try to avoid ‘the seeds of time’ and ‘all our yesterdays’. I was quite intrigued to see, however, that one of my favourite authors, Diana Wynne Jones, also had a book title attributable to Macbeth – Charmed Life. Shakespeare had all the good lines, apparently!

Will I shell out cold hard cash for indie-published books?

So I read The Emperor’s Edge by Lindsay Buroker. And I really enjoyed it. It wasn’t perfect, but it was pretty good. It was certainly as good as many traditionally published novels which I’ve read. A couple of clunky sentences here and there which might have been removed by an experienced editor – but which might equally not. A couple of reviews on Goodreads condemned the plot for being linear – which I guess it was, but no more than many novels.

I think it’s unlikely that I would have paid out money for The Emperor’s Edge as an e-book. If I’d had the chance to flip through the book in a store, I’d have taken a chance on an unknown author – but the point about the new world of internet shopping is that it is very difficult to do that. But now I’ve read it, am I going to buy the sequel? The answer is, I already have. And what is more, I paid the higher price to order both the book I’ve read and the next two in POD (print on demand) paperback. I want to lend them to people who I know would enjoy them.

Buroker has made a highly intelligent marketing move in making her first book free. Of course, she can also write, which always helps. If she couldn’t, no matter how many free downloads, she would simply never translate those into sales.

Over on The Passive Voice someone commenting on a post suggested a good move for the big book chains would be to install POD machines in some of their flagship stores. I think it’s a genius idea. The real value of the ebook revolution is the availability of absolutely anything you could want – everything, as I said previously, getting the chance to find its audience. POD in store would give the people like me – and there are many of us – the opportunity to have the same range of choice in hard copy that we have over the ether. The only question is whether traditional models of book selling will catch up to this revolution before it pins them to the wall and shoots.

Finding your niche

One of my favourite authors in all the world is Victoria Clayton.  A few years ago I picked up a book in Oxfam called Dance With Me. I read it rapidly and then sought out every other thing Clayton had written. I bought Dance With Me for friends and relatives. I made my mother and my sister read the books.

Broadly falling into the romantic fiction category, Clayton is a rather unique author. Her stories are set in the 1970s, featuring down-at-heel aristocrats and art history geeks, embarking on hilarious and unconventional love affairs and adventures. They have the occasional swear word.  They are all beautiful. They don’t sell enough to keep them in print. Although they are wonderful books, they are not quite enough like anything else for them to be easily pigeon-holed.

I’ve just finished the most recent book, Stormy Weather. Clayton self-published it as an e-book on Kindle. I loved it, and devoured it at the same rate as her earlier works. I’d have preferred it in print. But I’m glad there was somewhere for her to go when no traditional publishing deal was forthcoming. It seems to be one of the main advantages of the indie publishing (as self-publishing is now known) revolution: everyone can find their niche, because no matter how small it is, it is now worth the effort to publish. Books can stay ‘in print’ forever, so they can take their time to find their audience.

Having said that, I’ve resisted buying Stormy Weather for some time. It’s the fact that I’m paying the same amount of money for an e-book that I’d expect to pay for a paperback (although frankly that I expect to be able to get a paperback for £5.99 is probably a mark of growing up in the 80s). It was worth every penny, but I can’t help feeling that an e-book isn’t an object in the same way paper is. The reviews of the book on Goodreads suggests that others feel the same. There will no doubt be some kind of settling down into the new world order at some point. We shall see. In the meantime I’ve downloaded a e-book by the self-published but well-respected Lindsay Buroker. It’s the first in her series. It’s free. We shall see if this leads to further actual spending…