Thursday, 30 July 2009

When is a comment an article? - and vice versa

At Harrogate I met a great many amazing writers; but the person I most wanted to speak to wasn’t around when I was. That was Simon Kernick, a writer I very much enjoy, but would not normally go in to bat for. That was, however, before someone from Marketing Week decided to put their ill-informed and utterly ridiculous opinion across, and I lost it.

My response was, perhaps, longer than the article itself. And while I don't back down from what I said, I don't like the shrillness of the tone, and really hate the fact that I called the author a lazy journalist. But she was. The author of that article, Ruth someone, desperately tried to make it appear that the good people at Transworld were fricking eijits, but in her clamour to do only proved how little she knew about book marketing.

But on balance I am resasonably happy with what I wrote ; I am, however, unhappy about Marketing Week publishing it on the web as an opinion piece with my email address under it. Name: fine; email address: not good. I spoke to the editor and he seemed to broadly understand my issues with what they'd done. And it's a legitimate issue. My comment was used not only as a web article, but also as a whole page in Marketing Week . If I’m honest, I just wanted to get paid, but at no point did Mark offer this as an option. He did however concede that this is an odd situation.

Who do your comments belong to? Are they yours, or a web operative's? If you post something on my site, am I allowed to take control of it? Does anyone know of the legality of this? I complained and my comment has been taken down. Not much of a shock there, I guess, but it's still mental. What happens next?

Tuesday, 21 July 2009

Borders Crossing into Night

After a pleasant chat on BBC Radio Scotland, I found myself in the luxurious position of an afternoon off in the centre of London. Somewhere on Great Portland Street I paused and wondered exactly how I would fill my time, which attractions I’d visit, which exhibition to go and see. I plumped for the Photographers’ Gallery, only to find it closed on a Monday. Instead of hitting the bars and reading, which would be my default position in usual circumstances, I remembered that Borders were having a closing down sale and set off for their Oxford Street branch.

The first Borders I ever visited was in Glasgow, a huge and beautiful shop set in an old library or some such other municipal building. It was light and breezy, and had that effortless preppy chic that all the best American stores possess. It looked like the future to me, all those floors, all those books. It was the first time I'd come across Life: A User’s Manual too. I remember writing down the author’s name and reminding myself to order copies of his books for the Dillons store I worked at in Birmingham.

When I moved to London early the next year, I used to wander the shelves of their Oxford Street branch for inspiration, and more than a few times to use their bathroom. It was a good focal point, a landmark, and a place to imagine you’d find an attractive girl who’d see you browsing the novels of Bulgakov and perhaps invite you to discuss them over a glass of wine at a Soho bar. Walking through the doors yesterday, however, put paid to any romantic notions: they were playing Kings of Leon; it should have been the soundtrack to Requiem for a Dream.

The place was a gigantic upended library, a shop shook up like a snow globe. Bargain hunters with the fixed gazes of porn stars flicked through the racks of cds, picked up books and dropped them wherever they fancied Where once the books tessellated at the front of store, they were drunken and haphazardly slung; the stickers on their jackets redundant, the new books uneasy next to the ones parachuted in from other stores in the hope of getting rid.

On the first floor, it was even worse; a ghost ship of a fiction section presided over by two red-shirted Borders employees who looked with terse venom at anyone who dared come near them. Mostly they were asked one of two questions: “Why?” And “Can you tell if you’ve got a book in stock?” To the former they gave a brief prĂ©cis of the whole sorry debacle, to the latter they just shrugged their shoulders and gave a rueful smile. Talk about twisting the fucking knife.

I spent a thoroughly depressing hour in the store, an hour picking books up and putting them down, an hour wondering what the hell just happened. This was supposed to be the future, wasn’t it? A shiny new one, not some dystopia where books were left on abandoned trolleys, Marie Celeste like, as though everyone just abandoned ship once the announcement to close was made.

I took my purchases and joined the queue. There were more till staff than I’d seen in recent visits. When a cashier became available, they would wave their arms to attract the next punter, something I’d last seen at the Bruce Springsteen show at Hyde Park. Not waving, but drowning.

The woman took my books and I said how sad it was. “How do you think we feel?” she replied. I said I felt for all of them, and I do. In an afternoon when I’d banged on about the role of publishers in the digital age, and about twitter and blogging and and all kinds of other bullshit, I wondered if any of that mattered at all if bookshops were simply left to fester, to become laughably kitsch. In ten short years, Borders, for all its innovation, for all its coffee and range, and dvds, and three-for-twos has seen the future taken from it. And I want it back.

Sunday, 19 July 2009

Font of all evil

Last week I picked up a copy of the new David Szalay novel, which I'm reviewing later this month. It's a quite different beast to his debut, London & The South East. Set in the testosterone and cigarette saturated sales-halls of the capital, it was a deft and utterly believable novel let down by a weak last third. Nonetheless, it seemed the novel of someone to watch keenly - so it's a real shame that just thirty pages into it I can't stand it.

It's not that I don't like the writing or the plot. On the contrary, everything is shaping up nicely; a dual narrative exploring one man's changing attitudes to the Communist world around him, his relationship with his best friend that is not quite as strong as it once was, a patient he is treating for total amnesia. All tautly written, all strong material. The problem is that half of the thing is written in Courier. And I hate that font. I fucking hate it.

There is no excuse for writing in Courier New. It's ugly and bruising, a bully of a typeface. It's also got a touch of arrogance about it, a swagger from its lineage: it positively growls, look at me I'm like a Remington typewriter, you know like fucking Hemingway used to use. It's nasty and there is simply no excuse for it.

In fairness to Szalay, I think he's trying to suggest that we're reading a typewritten journal. But since when do we need a special typographic reminder to let readers know how the document would have originally looked? If that was in any way necessary then Richardson's Clarissa and every other epistolry novel would have to written in some kind of handwriting style just in case we dumb readers couldn't get the concept.

Why Szalay has decided to butcher his novel in such a perverse way, I don't know. All I do know is that if I'd flicked through The Innocent at a bookshop, I'd have put it down like a flaming turd. Without a word read either, all because of an unnecessary stylistic tic. And while I'm enjoying what I've read so far, I can't help but feel that Szalay's going to have to take some staggeringly good literary wickets to get past the swathes of that clunky, typewriter-mimicking font.

Friday, 17 July 2009


This is the first post. It is informative.

I will be on BBC Radio Scotland on Monday 21 July, talking about books and Twitter. It starts at 1.15. Listen here .

I will be reading a new short story on 4 August at WordPLAY. Details here.