I love using Twitter – I follow people who post all sorts of interesting articles, and learn a lot. Like everyone else, I laughed when the Waitrose hashtag campaign backfired, resulting in some very witty tweets. But there’s long been a side of the system that bothers me.
My problem was highlighted this week. I’ve been following various political events, especially the hard Right’s attempt to derail Cameron’s policies on Europe, immigration and gay marriage, and the rise of Nigel Farage’s UKIP party, which for overseas readers is a sort of slightly more guarded version of the National Front, the fascist organisation that gave us the cult of the skinhead.
Yesterday I used Twitter to mention my concerns that the Hard right could derail Euro-policies, and received a tweet back from a Mr Jeremy Jacobs, suggesting I should go and live in a Socialist Superstate. I thought Aha, we’re going to be in for an interesting debate here, so I replied that I felt the Far Right wished to retreat to a nostalgic view of England that doesn’t and probably never did exist.
He responded by telling me how wonderful Monte Carlo was because there were no working class people there, then blocked me from replying.
Mr Jacobs is, of course, entirely entitled to his views, even though his profile suggests that he doesn’t have a real job. (He also retweets without endorsement, which rather suggests he does’t understand the point of RT.) But banning debate is the oldest of hard Right tricks. Famously, when Mary Whitehouse took questions from the audience in her Festival of Light censorship debates, she had them delivered in advance and censored them. When we initialise Twitter, we tend to follow those whose opinions match our own. We create a consensual world in which we all agree, warm bubbles of comfort in the Twittersphere.
I have a habit of following those with whom I don’t agree, because I can learn more from them. I’ve had arguments with very intelligent, hardworking US Republicans who can explain and justify their opinions, and in the process they have changed mine. I believe that Socratic debate furthers intelligence. On Twitter – as on much of the internet – it’s hard to do that without the whole thing descending into a slanging match. And placing your hands over your ears and going ‘La la la’ when someone replies to provocation typifies the UK’s political debate right now.
This is Chris Bryant, a magazine editor. He and his partner were violently beaten up by six men and left with severe head injuries on Saturday night as they walked home from a birthday party through Bromley, South London. With the gay marriage bill expected to pass today despite hard Right opposition, Mr Bryant said he feared homophobic attitudes were being legitimised by politicians.
The other day I overheard a lady at King’s Cross station tell a friend that she ‘wished all this gay talk would just go away’, and I can sympathise with her – there has been a lot of discussion, not just here but around the First World in the last few months. But we know that when the discussion goes away, problems return. According to figures published last year, there were 4,252 gay hate crimes recorded by police in Britain between 2011 and 2012.
Last week, a gay man was shot dead in the street near New York’s Stonewall Inn. Police said it was a hate crime linked to a rash of recent homophobic attacks in NYC. There are powerful hate-crime rises now in Russia, which is now seeking to legally discriminate, state by state. Rights are not enshrined forever – they can be rescinded, whether it’s abortion, women’s rights or immigration laws.
Twitter is fun. It could also be used as a tool for much greater good. Does anyone know if there’s a good intelligent debate site where commenters can answer each other in a paragraph rather than 145 characters?
A couple more nice reviews for ‘Film Freak’ in the national press…
‘Film Freak is a homage to pre-digital cinema, an elegy for the vanishing London of almost half a century ago, and a tribute to friendship, gonzo-style. Two thumbs up for this triple-billing.’ – Financial Times
***** This is the sort of book that should be prescribed as a pick-me-up on the NHS. Film Freak is gold-plated writing: uproarious, then dark, and surprisingly moving. Above all it’s a fabulous evocation of a London and a way of life, now almost gone forever.- Mail On Sunday
As well as garnering raves, this ran in the Independent’s arts pages:
Congratulations to The Independent on Sunday‘s “Invisible Ink” columnist Christopher Fowler, who is shortlisted for three awards at this year’s CrimeFest. The HRF Keating Award is for the best biography or critical book related to crime fiction published between 2008 and 2012, and Fowler is nominated for the book of his “Invisible Ink” columns. His novel Bryant & May and the Invisible Code is also nominated for both the Goldboro Last Laugh Award, for humorous crime novels, and the eDunnit award for crime fiction published in both paper and ebook formats. If he were to win in all three, Fowler stands to take home up to £1,000 in prize money and three commemorative Bristol Blue Glass vases, to which Between the Covers promises to add a big bunch of tulips. CrimeFest (crimefest.com) is in Bristol from 30 May to 2 June. Good luck, Chris!
Writers don’t get much feedback, and good wishes do affect us. I was so chuffed I nearly ate an entire packet of chocolate digestives.
Wilton’s Music Hall is a hidden London gem, a unique building and a bugger to find when you’re in a hurry and the show’s about to start. It comprises a mid-19th Century grand music hall attached to an 18th Century terrace of three houses and a pub, originally an alehouse dating from 1743 or earlier. It’s off the East End’s Cable Street, under the wing of the DLR, then down an alleyway. And yes, it looks like the picture above.
John Wilton bought the business in 1850 and opened his ‘Magnificent New Music Hall’ in 1859. He furnished it with mirrors, chandeliers and decorative paintwork. In the thirty years Wilton’s was a music hall, many of the best remembered acts of early popular entertainment performed here, from George Ware who wrote ‘The Boy I love is up in the Gallery’ to Arthur Lloyd and Champagne Charlie, two of the first music hall stars to perform for royalty.
Wilton’s survived the slum clearance schemes of the 1960s and was grade 2 listed in 1971. It reopened as a theatre and concert hall in 1997. Most of London’s music halls were not so lucky, as unscrupulous property developers colluded with corrupt councils to make money. Down came history-filled halls like the Putney Hippodrome and the Camden music hall, which you see in the film ‘The London Nobody Knows’ – the sad thing is that had they not been torn down, they would now be making a fortune.
Instead of getting the gold-and-red-wallpaper treatment most theatres get when they’re fixed up, Wilton’s was restored in shabby-chic style, which is much nicer. It’s now the home of variety, opera, pop, comedy, fringe plays and art events. On Saturday night I went to see Marc Almond perform Mark Ravenhill’s ‘Ten Plagues’, a song cycle about the London plague years which I must say was one of the more painful atonal avant-garde experiences I’ve ever sat through begging to be let out of, but there’s no doubting the commitment of everyone involved in staging it.
Venues like these were once in every borough, with the concentration being in the poorest neighbourhoods, because music hall was a cheap if rowdy night out. The Ealing film about the life of Champagne Charlie was partly shot in Wilton’s, I believe. All of the other halls faced the wrecker’s ball. Open Christopher Booker’s book ‘Goodbye London’ and you’ll see a catalogue of some of the buildings that were lost to incompetence and corruption in the 1970s. The one remaining building in central London is the Cafe De Paris, and is still in operation as a club and events space.
I very rarely write SF because I don’t think I’ve good enough to compete with the likes of the brilliant hard SF writers I admire, like Iain Banks and Paul McCauley, but once in a while I come up with a nice idea that I think will make a good story. This is the case with ‘OFF’, which is now appearing in the second issue of the newly reincarnated New Worlds magazine which was formerly run by Michael Moorcock. It’s great to have the magazine back, and inexpensive to download. You can get a taster here.
Following our recent discussion about book formats, I took a quick trawl through my bookshelves to confirm my suspicions; that over the past few decades books have become ever longer and ever more bloated.
I’m afraid to say this at the risk of upsetting fans, but it would seem the rot set in with Stephen King’s lengthy doorstops. Never one to use a word when twenty would do, his mass market paperback edition of ‘The Shining’ certainly split a few pockets and soon became the norm. If we go back to past classics we find this:
Shirley Jackson’s ‘The Haunting of Hill House’ – 189 pages
Ira Levin’s ‘The Stepford Wives’ – 116 pages
Virginia Woolf’s ‘Orlando’ – 218 pages
Evelyn Waugh’s ‘The Loved One’ – 127 pages
JG Ballard – ‘The Drowned World’ – 170 pages
Thornton Wilder – ‘The Bridge of San Luis Rey’ – 124 pages
James Vance Marshall – ‘Walkabout’ – 125 pages
EM Forster’s ‘Where Angels Fear To Tread’ – 138 pages
These page numbers make the Jackson appear positively overblown. Now compare those to:
Stephen King’s ’11.22.63′ – 752 pages
Dean Koontz’s ‘Watchers’ – 512 pages
Well, I don’t need to go on – the point is made. Virtually every big popular novel tips the 500 page mark now. Publishers often push writers to go beyond the natural page limit for their pitched novels – I’ve been asked to do this many times (although never by Transworld, who don’t dictate the length of my books).
‘The readers expect value for money’ is the usual reason given – but since when was lazy over-explanatory scene-setting and random verbosity commensurate with good storytelling?
King, for whom I have the greatest respect as an ideas man, once said; ‘Description begins in the writer’s imagination, but it should finish in the reader’s,’ doesn’t follow his own advice, but neither does anyone else now – perhaps because the publishers simply don’t trust their audience to accept that, in a good writer’s hands, less is usually more.
Left to right: Mass market, trade paperback, hardback and ebook – why do we need all four?
A new report in from the US indicates that e-books made up a fifth of overall book sales there last year, and the figure is climbing fast, mainly in the area of adult fiction but also in YA and children’s fiction.
Sales of hardcovers and trade paperbacks remained steady in 2012, but the mass market paperback continued its decline. That format is particularly affected by competition from ebooks, because ebooks are released at the same time as hardcovers while mass market paperbacks are released a whole year later.
I find this both understandable and slightly mystifying. Personally, I hate trade paperbacks; they’re cumbersome, pointlessly large and very ungainly. There are hardly ever any attractive editions you would want to keep, and they exist purely for the sake of profit margins. Trade paperbacks and hardbacks act as a barrier against the mass market edition in the same way that the profitable theatrical release of films holds up the arrival of the home entertainment window. They exist to provide an added revenue stream.
Really, though, the system seems to have evolved awkwardly because there’s really no such thing as a mass market paperback anymore. Those items were exactly that, small cheap volumes you could tuck into a pocket or bag. During the war, the US produced copies printed vertically so that they could be slipped more easily into a uniform. Modern mass market copies are markedly larger than the old ones, and really function as trade paperbacks to the point where it would make sense to get rid of one format, and simply call the trade paperback a mass market edition. Hardbacks exist because there is a small steady market of hardback buyers who purchase books as gifts and keepsakes.
I would ideally love to see a beautiful hardback, a small paperback and an electronic version (the Kindle is weak at replicating non-fiction books with glossy inserts). The trade paperback trims a few quid off the hardback, and was created to allow purchasers to be early readers without having to pay full whack for the hardback, but now that the e-version exists for that purpose it seems the trade paperback has become a bit of a tonsil.
Publishers are understandably reluctant to abandon it while sales hold steady, though I have a feeling buyers do so simply because it’s there. If you removed it and released a mass-market edition simultaneously, surely hardback sales and mass market sales would climb? The year-long wait for a more portable paper edition seems utterly absurd, and must be driving more and more readers away to ebooks.
I’d love to see some research on this, but have yet to find any. Generally authors with large back catalogues are making money from e-sales now. I was talking to Michael Moorcock last night and he told me his revenue has gone up (sorry, I just had to say that! Another childhood hero met!) But that only works if your old publishers have put out your backlist as ebooks – which mine haven’t done.
So, three formats or four? What do you think, fellow readers?
Where in Central London is this and what does it have to do with a state in America?
The London of the Kray twins has pretty much gone now. I was reminded of this while watching Peter Medak’s excellent film again last night.
It’s official; in terms of property, London is the most expensive city in the world. (Not for the cost of living – that’s Tokyo.)
The problem is that it’s pulling away from the rest of the country at lightning speed. And the cost of living is rising sharply – cinema and a bowl of noodles for three is around £100, theatre tickets are hitting £80, a beer is close to £5.
And all around me in King’s Cross, this is what I see. The skyline bristles with cranes, dipping and turning all day long, yellow-jacketed workmen swarming like beetles over steel frameworks.
A new city is rising from the old one. Until recently a film partly set in the 1930s like ‘The Krays’ could be shot in the East End of London without having to change a thing. Now there’s barely anything left of that world at all. Surrounding me are rows of new apartment buildings, coated not in red London brick or bricks made from the city’s distinctive yellow clay, but clad in rippled steel plates. They look like corrugated iron nissen huts, constructed by architects with no memory of what that look implies – war and deprivation.
It’s hard to escape the sense that we are creating future slums, or at the very least a housing bubble that will burst like that of Spain. Another question arises – just how many people can London accommodate? The city’s new residents get travel and housing upgrades, so the infrastructure is fast-tracked while in the rest of the country it sinks into decline. The two-tier system is self-perpetuating; more people are attracted as the city improves itself.
The Tories are determined to support those who can afford it, so the new Google HQ has started to appear despite no plans having been submitted to residents, and untaxed companies fill the streets with plasticky new office blocks. Would things be any different under Labour? Given the weak opposition team we currently have, probably not.
After rewatching ‘The Krays’ I found its documentaries on gangsters and the London police tucked in the extras, and these proved a refreshing reminder of the Bad Old London, of corrupt coppers on the take and witnesses too frightened to give evidence in court. Over thirty people saw the shooting in the Blind Beggar pub, and not one would testify.
The old lawless, houseproud London has been replaced by faceless businesses and polyglot temporary residents – let’s not allow nostalgia to cloud the issue, though. What’s important is whether the quality of life has improved, even at the expense of character.
Just a reminder that on Thursday May 16th, Michael Moorcock, Peter Milligan, Mike Carey, Roger Langridge and I will be helping to launch TRIPWIRE 21 and an exhibition at Foyles in Charing Cross Road, London at 6.30pm, price £5 / £3. I shall be attempting to avoid geekiness and hide my awe at the illustrious company and failing again, probably.
Hope to see you there.
I have a confession to make.
While I was working on this year’s seemingly prolific output, I was also quietly writing another novel.
One thing I’ve noticed about the review copies that come through my door is how many claim to have sold 3 or 4 or even 10 million copies. It’s pretty depressing when you know you’ve never hit those giddy heights in the entire course of your career. So I set out to write the kind of thriller even the legendarily dim stockists at WH Smith would put on shelves between the free Galaxy bars and porn mags. I’ve never been stocked there in over forty books. It was a challenge, and we like challenges here at Fowler Towers.
I thought I could manage my own take on the mainstream blockbuster thriller. I crafted it carefully with a killer hook, short chapters, plenty of action, a bit of sex, clearly delineated characters. The writing was a boring chore that just had to be done. Then I came up with a quirky way of presenting all this information to the reader.
My agent liked it a lot and thought it would sell, and sent it out to professional readers. After three months we looked at all the notes we got back. Not one of them wanted to take the book as it stood. Now, which word in the above account, sank it?
I just couldn’t help myself. I had to stop myself from being bored so I added a little something, okay? The publishers’ readers thought the format was too tricksy, and that it needed to be simpler for their lists. Simpler! The only way I could have written more simply would have been to draw accompanying pictures to every sentence. There is a bestselling author I know who’s a terrible, dreadful writer, but who protects himself from bad reviews by constantly reminding everyone about the veracity of his research. That’s one way to do it. Another way is by being a great networker in the critics’ fraternity – I know someone who does that, too.
To my mind, a writer lives or dies by the word. If you fail, it should be because the story isn’t good enough, not because you didn’t attend the right dinners. Even Dan Brown, an absurd writer, knows that and writes according to solidly appealing principles. ‘Inferno’ will slip down a treat, especially now that we have Kindles and nobody need know we’re looking at it, like porn.
I know my story was good, but the publishers’ readers may be right and the format – a Q&A between two unreliable narrators and a cop – might be too distancing for readers who like things plainer. Fair enough. But it makes me realise that the book industry now correlates to London and its relationship to the rest of the country – we have a two-tier system. On one side, the wealthy panoply of fine literature and on the other, books for poors.
My novel has gone into a drawer. I’ll take it like a man and rewrite it at some point. It doesn’t matter. There’s a new adventure always waiting to be written.
NB James Hadley Chase was not dumb, I just liked the cover.