Monday, 21 May 2012

Russell Kane | Comedian turns lit fic novelist | The Humorist

Russell Kane is everywhere at the moment. He's on BBC3. He's on Dave. He crops up on panel shows, stage shows, end of the pier shows. I half expect he'll also star at Crufts. He's won Fringe accolades, performed as Beyonce in a charity Stars in their Eyes Special and posed naked for Cosmopolitan mag. And now he has written a novel.

“It is so depressing the prejudice that exists under that canopy of comedian as author,” Kane says. “There is a kind of dread when people pick up a comedian’s book, [an assumption] that it is going to be light, insubstantial and pointless or pretentious and missing the mark. But for me the two worlds are completely separate.”

Yet The Humoristis set in the world of stand-up. The lead character, Benjamin White, is a comedy reviewer physically unable to laugh. At anything. Yet he stumbles on the secret of comedy and finds that it can kill. Many reviewers have noted that despite this the novel is short of a few, er, laughs. Which riles Kane because he insists that being funny was the last thing he was trying to do.

“I’d be very surprised if anyone is laughing at this, although I suppose there are bleak black laughs in there,” he concedes. “I know I will get mauled by the critics. There was one in The Observer that said ‘The humour falls flat’. Well what humour? I wasn’t trying to be funny. I guess if you have jester’s hat on and you are trying to do brain surgery forget it, no one will let you near their head.

“I have used the stand up comedy world as my subject matter because I’m too busy and too lazy to do any research, but it could have been anything. It could have been about watchmaking. The first person narrator is the opposite to me in every way. Not everyone is going to get it though and I understand that.”

A full version of this interview is in this week's The Big Issue magazine. Buy it from a vendor today.

Waterstones sign Kindle deal with Amazon | e-books on the High Street

James Daunt, the MD of Waterstones, has announced a deal to sell the Kindle through the chain of bookshops.

Waterstones is the only big player left in books on the British High Street. The immediate reaction has been one of shock and disbelief. Many seem to think that the arrangement is great for Amazon, terrible for Waterstones.

James Daunt, Managing Director of Waterstones, said: "At Waterstones, we are committed to improving our bookshops quite radically to offer the best possible book buying experience. It is a truly exciting prospect to harness also the respective strengths of Waterstones and Amazon to provide a dramatically better digital reading experience for our customers.
"The best digital readers, the Kindle family, will be married to the singular pleasures of browsing a curated bookshop. With the combination of our talents we can offer the exceptional customer proposition to which we both aspire."

Jeff Bezos, Founder and CEO, said: "Waterstones is the premier high street bookseller and is passionate about books and readers - a dedication that we share deeply. We could never hope for a better partner to bring together digital reading and the physical bookstore."

The pessimistic take is that Daunt appears to be inviting book buyers to browse his bookshops, then buy what they like the look of on their Kindle. This may well be why the chain is investing heavily in coffee shops. People will want to buy a coffee while they are at Waterstones. They may not be buying books.

The really surprising thing about the deal is that Daunt has made it clear in the past that he isn't an Amazon fan. The Telegraph reported comments in December in which he likened the Internet behemoth to Old Nick himself.

Most of Twitter seems to have decided that this is a terrible one. But perhaps it is inevitable. Most ardent readers will embrace the Kindle in the same ways as people embraced paperbacks: as an inexpensive, convenient medium to read books. The challenge for the likes of Waterstones but perhaps even more so for the publishers, is to stay relevant in this new arena.

Saturday, 19 May 2012

Millionaires' Club | Books that sell in seven figures | Rowling yes, Amis no

Love this article in The Telegraph about the so called millionaires' club. Books that have sold over a million copies in the UK. There are surprisingly few and the authors who  have sold more than one of these are in teh single digits -- Rowling, Larsson, Brown, Fielding.

I was intrigued by this line:

only McEwan’s Booker-shortlisted Atonement(2001) has sold more than one million copies (1,558,242) since 1998, earning £10,610,098.44, of which the author would get an estimated 10 per cent. Barnes’s 2011 Booker winner The Sense of an Ending has sold 233,545 copies, while Amis’s most recent book, The Pregnant Widow(2010), sold just 55,126 copies.

A good reminder that lit fic might carry the cultural gravitas but it seldom has the commercial chops. But it begs the question. Why do people prefer non literary books when it comes to buying them when all the critics are telling us that it is the lit books which are more worthy. The article contains a good answer.

Catherine O’Flynn, author of What Was Lost, Kevin Barry: "...most people like a mystery – be it love, murder, or an unreliable narrator – suspense turns the pages, and that’s as true in Mills and Boon as it is in The Sense of an Ending. If a book makes you want to know why, generally you will enjoy reading it. And if you enjoy reading it, you will recommend it to others.”

Thursday, 17 May 2012

Harry Potter and the Academic Conference | High brow literary theoreticians dig deep into Hogwarts

Harry Potter goes to University? A two day conference with 60 scholars is being held at St Andrew's University about JK Rowling's seven book series.

This will divide people. The fans will be decided the books are being taken seriously -- the knockers will loathe the fact that yet more hype is being given over to those silly kids books about magic...

This is from the press release:

The man described as ‘the Dean of Harry Potter scholars’ will explain why the series is worthy of academic study at the first conference on the subject in the UK this week (17-18 May 2012).

John Granger, author of The Deathly Hallows Lectures, will be joined by sixty scholars from around the world to examine the J K Rowling books as literary texts in their own right at the event at the University of St Andrews.

In an intense series of almost 50 lectures over two days, experts on the series will discuss how they deal with death, the role of empathy and the influence of writers such as C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. Other papers will deal with paganism, magic and the use of food and British National Identity. 
The event, A Brand of Fictional Magic: Reading Harry Potter as Literature, aims to redress the lack of direct study of the body of work as a literary text.

The conference is organised by John Patrick Pazdziora from the University’s School of English, and Fr. Micah Snell from the University’s Institute for Theology, Imagination and the Arts (ITIA).

Pazdziora explained, “We can't avoid the fact that Harry Potter is the main narrative experience of an entire generation - the children who quite literally grew up with Harry Potter. The Harry Potter novels are simply the most important and influential children's books of the late-twentieth and early-twenty-first centuries. 

“For very many people, this is their first experience of literature, and of literary art. So they want to think about it, and analyse it, and talk about it.  It's important because people care about it, and care very deeply.”

The wide-ranging event will cover the influence of other literary figures such as Chaucer, Shakespeare and Jane Austen, as well as more homespun Scottish folklore.

Pazdziora continued, “J.K. Rowling has put so much detail, so many literary and folkloric and cultural references, it's a tangle or a puzzle picking it all out. People find that they like the elements of Scottish folklore they see in the series, or Tarot and ritualism, or social justice concerns, and they go off and become enthralled and fascinated by that. The series opens up new worlds to its readers…and this is also partly why it's so imaginatively and culturally important.”

John Granger, widely hailed as the leading authority on the series, and described by TIME magazine as "The Dean of Harry Potter Scholars", commented, “The Hogwarts Saga is the most loved story in the history of publishing by quite a margin and, consequently, it is a natural and important subject of study for anyone interested in the literary arts.

“I take exception to the unexamined and misinformed assumption that the books are ‘light on literary merit.’ Ms. Rowling's works are comic, certainly, but it's a great mistake to think they're simple or haphazard story-telling. The seven books are each and taken together a remarkably intricate ring composition for one thing, with every chapter having a parallel analogy with another in the same book. "


Monday, 14 May 2012

The Bridge is the new Taggart | Scandi crime inspired by Scotland?

The Bridge, which concludes on BBC4 this weekend, is a crime thriller made in collaboration by funky modern Swedes and Danes set in the modernist houses and offices of Copenhagen and Malmo.

So what has that got to do with the now defunct Taggart, the STV cop drama set in Glasgow? More than you might think...

A few years ago I wrote the definitive history of Taggart -- 25 Years of Taggart -- for Headline. It involved watching an awful lot of murders, even though I'm not convinced anyone at anytime actually says There's Been A Murder.

One murderer
Like the current Scandi-hit The Bridge, and its fore runner The Killing aka Forbrydelsen, Taggart offered convoluted multi victim murder sprees scattered with red herrings and a plethora of suspects. The early Taggarts weren't the quick fix whodunnits they became.

The original team of Glenn Chandler and producer Robert Love wove long stories that ran across three two hour episodes. So that's six hours of screen time, minus the ads, to track down one murderer.

So one of the innovations of the new Scandi crime shows is actually to revert to Taggart's old format and make those investigations even longer, even more convoluted.

Saga, Lund, Martin... and Jim
Like Saga, who appears to have a form of Aspergers, Jim Taggart lacked a degree of empathy. He was Scottish, after all, and a man.

Saga: [in front of entire office] "I didn't have sex with your son!"
Jim Taggart: [to his sidekick, who had fallen in cow dung] "Go and get a wash, you're honking!"

Like Forbrydelsen's Lund, Taggart was single minded and his questioning could be blunt. And rather like Martin Rohde in The Bridge, he had a complex personal life. He hadn't had the snip, but he did have a wheelchair bound wife (who wrote a book about their sex life), a feisty daughter (she dared to speak back to him, this was the 1980s which in Glasgow terms meant the 1950s).

And like all of them, he had issues when it came to his partners, be they poncy Edinburgh university types or weirdy Christian teetotallers. None of them tried to kill him though. Or sleep with a witness. No, I tell a lie, pretty sure DS Macpherson did sleep with a witness or two.

The black glove
I almost fell off my chair watching the first few scenes of The Bridge. The black gloves were back! They were back!

Taggart fans will know the significance. It became a tradition in the programme that when the killer was shown, all you saw was a pair of black gloves. They did it countless times, memorably when a young magician was burned alive inside a sun lounger.

The Bridge has resorted to the Black Gloves numerous times as it reveals the activities of the murderer without showing his face.

Copenhagen, Malmo and Glasgow
The Danish capital was a major factor in the success of Sarah Lund's The Killing. It was stunning to look at and shot in a moody, film noir style. The trick is being repeated with The Bridge, but in keeping with the modernist lines of the bridge itself, the directors have gone for stark modernist settings. Martin Rohde's home for instance. In both cases, the setting is very much a character in the show.

It was exactly the same for Glasgow. Back in the 1980s when Taggart first appeared places like Glasgow's east end with its bombed out streets and dingy closes weren't featured on TV much. But they were on Taggart and became a major factor in the programme's success.

Glasgow looked like a dystopian future when in fact it was crumbling Thatcherite Britain's post industrial present. In later shows, the programme makers emphasised the glamour of the West End and Glasgow's burgeoning 'yuppie' scene (folks wi' jobs), contrasting them with the poverty also prevalent in the city.

Sunday, 13 May 2012

Iain Banks | When Science Fiction is electoral suicide

I met Iain Banks about 26 years ago. I'd stopped by the Byres Road branch of John Smith's bookshops on the way to a lecture at Glasgow University and saw a small, modest handwritten sign declaring that the author of The Wasp Factory was coming by to sign some books.

I waited, deciding that I would spend a fiver on his new paperback, The Bridge (nothing to do with a Scandinavian serial murderer).

Banks arrived looking like a friendly geography teacher. I was the only person in the shop remotely interested in saying hello and having a book signed. He was charming, and a bit bemused that I'd even bothered. Perhaps he just expected to sign copies and leave.

Stonemouth - new novel
Nearly three decades later Iain Banks has just published Stonemouth, his 26th title in 28 years. “You never get that thrill of seeing your first book on the shelf,” he told me in a phone interview for The Big Issue. “I suppose the thrill must get less, by degrees. But I still marvel at the fact I can write books for a living.”

Banks is both a mainstream author writing about contemporary Britain, often Scotland, and a major figure in the bizarre realm of Space Opera. “I enjoy writing the science fiction more, it’s a lot of fun, but I get more satisfaction out of the mainstream novels,” he says.

The Culture
Those science fiction books feature his alternative human universe called the Culture – an anarchist, socialist utopia in the stars populated with characters with names like Horza, Kraiklyn and Perosteck Balveda.
They have a dedicated following, regardless of the fact that the genre is never quite in fashion. I was amused to read Iain Gray, the former Labourleader in Scotland, admitted in a newspaper article that he had long been a huge Culture fan but that his party spin doctors had always blocked him from publicly admitting it.

“Isn’t that just so New Labour? And they wonder why no one votes for them, they can’t even be honest about what they like to read.”

Sci -Fi isn't just uncool, then, it's deemed political suicide. As if enjoying Asimov means you believe in little green men.

Banks once cut up his British passport and sent it to Tony Blair in Downing Street as a protest over the Iraq war. He now supports the SNP and dreams of a yes to independence vote in 2014.

The Crow Road
Stonemouth is in part a return to the kind of family drama territory he exploited so well with The Crow Road (1992). 25-year-old Stewart Gilmour, a hip young London-based lighting architect – could a job be trendier and less substantial as floodlighting the outside of buildings - has returned to his home town in Scotland’s north east for a funeral, stirring up a lot of, well, issues, as he does so.

*  Stonemouth by Iain Banks is out now (Little Brown, £18.99)

Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Chinaman by Shehan Karunatilaka | A novel about cricket?

A novel about cricket? You’re kidding, surely. Where’s the plot in a dozy afternoon in front of the pavilion? At least tell me it is a murder mystery: who killed the spin bowler? Was he poisoned by cucumber sandwich, stabbed by a stump?

Scrub that. Chinaman by Shehan Karunatilaka (Vintage, £8.99) has all the passion of a 20-20 match while still managing to be longer and more complex than a five day test.

Hey did you see what I did there? With a novel like this, even a cricket ignoramus like me can get the gist. You really don’t have to be a Test Match Special obsessive to get this book, hailed by some as The Great Sri Lankan Novel. And who am I to argue?

Karunatilaka takes cricket as his central theme – the story concerns a dying sport journalist’s quixotic quest for a Sri Lankan enigma, a spin bowler par excellence called Pradeep Mathew – but along the way manages to serve up far, far more. Perhaps his entire country – and its bloody conflicts.

The narrator, WG – or Wije as he is known – is a shambolic drunk, the kind of hack who would have elt at home in an old Kingsley Amis novel. He’s a rogue, happy to gamble his TV production budget in the hope of doubling it, but of course loses. He can’t help but notice a young woman’s mini-skirt, then bristles when she calls him Uncle.

The book is set, in part, at the height of Sri Lankan cricket power, when they won the 1996 Cricket World Cup. But his search for Mathew, a bowler who only appeared a few times for the national side, sets him against Sri Lankan history.

This was a country in the throes of a highly damaging, and often under reported 26-year long civil war with the separatist group the Tamil Tigers. Although here it is viewed through the bottom of a whisky glass, it is clear that Pradeep’s identity as a Tamil is as crucial as his ability with a cricket ball. 

* This review and others appears in The Big Issue, no 999, week beginning May 7

The Night Circus | Erin Morgenstern's Hugely Entertaining Novel of Magic and Illusion

Just when I thought that perhaps, just perhaps, the magic thing was beginning to lose steam, someone recommends to me Erin Morgenstern's novel, The Night Circus. Think Harry Potter for grown ups, Gaiman but more... erm, girly? (On her website Erin says she is a fan of both JK Rowling and Stephen King). Add some seriously cool fashion sense, on the gothy side of the spectrum perhaps. A bit of stargazing. A hint of predestination. You begin to get the idea.

I was undeniably gripped. Morgenstern flits from character to character, scene to scene, time zone to time zone, with a pace and a lightness of touch that is both impressive and breathless.

There are times when I found my brow knitting at her phrases, which occasionally leaned to far towards the general, the vague. Characters 'speak of other matters'... have 'something else to attend to'. It's gloriously polite and gentlemanly but with a twist of the exotic. [Morgenstern is from Massachusetts, perhaps that shows a little. Her London is an American's London.] It's a sort of literary burlesque. The women wear corsets and fabulous gowns. They strut and perform remarkable feats -- turn books into birds or tell the future -- and men fall in love with them. Men wearing fine grey suits and hats. (Love those Victorians for their hats.)

The Night Circus is a glamorous, fantastical creation. The perfect circus, unfettered by the laws of gravity or science, where you can walk on clouds and see the impossible. If the book has a fault it is that it relies too much on its inner logic. We are asked to believe that two magicians must joust -- performing feats of magic in opposition to one another -- until a clear winner is declared and the other is killed. Why? Because that is the magical contract... But why couldn't they break it? They just couldn't, you see. That is what is at stake, one of them must die.

You'll either go with that. Or you won't.

It is in the same territory as Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. But without the heavy, fauz 19th Century novel prose.

Morgenstern paints a wonderful picture of The Night Circus and she had me utterly absorbed if not completely convinced with her contest. Structurally this is a complex novel that asks you to pay attention, to sit up straight -- though in the end, I felt, it was not so complex. Where I thought there was a labyrinth was actually a simple enough pathway. She essentially uses two time frames to tell the story of Celia Bowen and Marco on the one hand, and of Bailey on the other. Bailey is by far the smaller of the stories, in a sense really just an important cameo -- and actually he is just one cameo among many. These cameos add to the sense of mystery...where is this leading, who is he, why, her? Ultimately though, this is Celia and Marco's story. A love story, in a Circus. What are you waiting for?

PS, it will make lovely television. Or perhaps a film.

The Night Circus is out in paperback on May 24. It has been nominated for both the 2012 Orange Prize and the Guardian first book award.