Book Rage

I've been away in Oxfordshire, visiting an old friend, and wondering, incidentally, how so many people can afford to live in such beautiful houses. The train journey (Glasgow, Birmingham, Oxford) was tiresome as only such journeys can be - every time I travel any distance by train in Britain, it occurs to me that we will never be persuaded out of our cars and onto public transport until the powers that be find some way of improving the various overpriced and uncomfortable alternatives. Whoever, for instance, thought of situating the public lavatories in Glasgow Central (Station of the Year!) well below ground level, so that a visit involves hauling your case down two flights of stairs, struggling to get it through the narrow turnstile, and then into a cubicle the size of a dog kennel. The main problem, mind you, still tends to be anti social fellow travellers. And there's not a lot that can be done about them.
Perhaps it was this perception that resulted in what followed. All looks yellow to the jaundiced eye. To while away the journey, I had bought myself two paperback novels . For the purposes of this blog, they had better remain nameless. I'm not in the business of slagging off fellow writers. But I'll just say that they were widely publicised and prize winning books, by widely publicised and prize winning authors. I had heard them praised to the skies. They were obviously walking off the shelves in their millions.
And I found both of them virtually unreadable.
I managed some fifty pages of the first, finding it more and more objectionable - a whinging confection of unrealities, - until it occurred to me that I wasn't obliged to waste time on this drivel, so I gave up. It did occur to me to leave the thing on the train, but I had a horrible suspicion that somebody would run after me shouting that I had left it behind, and besides, I didn't want to inflict it on anybody else. This is a book that has been so widely promoted (and no, I'm not talking about the Da Vinci Code, which I rather enjoyed, as a readable, fast moving adventure story) that I could hardly believe the turgid prose I found myself wading through. Fortunately my friend told me that she felt exactly the same. She had read it for a local book group, and loathed it. I turned to my second choice, quite a different book, one would have thought, to find that equally unreadable. Fifty or sixty pages into it, I ground to a halt again. I think it was around the second time a character surveyed him or herself in the mirror. This is the prose equivalent of characters in plays telling each other things they already know, for the sake of the audience, and it always sets my teeth on edge. I persevered for a bit, but it was the cliches that finally got to me: so many, that I was smitten with what I have come to think of as Book Rage. Had there been a bonfire handy, both books would certainly have gone in. As it was, I left them, sneakily, in my friend's spare bedroom, for the next victim. Maybe they will have more luck than me.
But like Wogan, I have begun to wonder 'Is it me?' And is this why, increasingly, I find myself turning to old favourites. I'm rereading Pride and Prejudice for the umpteenth time, but every single reading brings some new appreciation of the text and the sure intelligence that informs it. And yet this is by no means a 'difficult' book - it is a love story, told with acid wit and close attention to detail, (Jane's take on her fellow travellers) in the most lucid prose imaginable. When I take stock, I find that I have been faintly, or sometimes hugely disappointed by almost everything contemporary I have read this year so far. It must be me. Age and grumpiness must finally have overtaken me. That must be the explanation. It couldn't possibly be that the books are carelessly written and barely edited, in response to current publishing fashion, could it?

The Inland Revenue, Agents, Authors

The world of authors has been shaken to its core by the weekend revelations that the Inland Revenue are fighting a court case against Richard and Judy, to close a 'loophole' which allows 'celebrities, authors etc' to claim agents' fees as an allowable expense. The Revenue look set to win, at this point, whereupon they intend to claw back the tax on these fees for the previous six years as well. To add insult to profound injury, the Revenue will exempt musicians and actors, because they 'need an agent in order to work.' But not writers. Oh no. We get the shitty end of the stick again. Richard and Judy will no doubt appeal to the House of Lords and that is when all hell will break loose. The Society of Authors is girding up its loins for a fight. And no wonder.
What price Labour's support for the creative industries now?
The problem with being a writer in this benighted country (and I'm talking UK here, and not just Scotland) is that the tabloid view prevails. The general public seem to think that we are all in the JK Rowling or Dan Brown class when it comes to income. Nothing could be further from the truth. Of course I'm talking about real authors here, and not those B list celebrities who suddenly decide that they would like to write a book, find an agent, publisher (and ghost writer) within a matter of days, and then spend countless interviews telling us how it feels to be a writer. Not half as pissed off as this writer, I can tell you. No. I'm talking about those of us who have chosen to make a career out of writing, and then spend the rest of our lives scratching to make a meagre living, and doing all kinds of other jobs just to keep the ravening wolf from the door.
So a few facts for Mr Brown, who really should know better. (And to think I rather liked him as a putative prime minister!)
Writer need agents just as surely as actors or musicians. A quick scan of a publication such as The Writers and Artists Year Book will show you that the vast majority of publishers (I think there are about three exceptions) won't even look at a manuscript any more unless it comes via an agent. Even the three exceptions have slush piles the size of Big Ben. Similarly, almost no TV or film company will look at unsolicited scripts, for fear of being sued for plagiarism. They have a nasty habit of sending them back stamped as 'unread' or not sending them back at all.
The world of creative writing is full of horror stories of writers who have signed contracts without the help of an agent, only to find themselves having signed away all kinds of subsidiary rights.
Our agents are our friends in times of need. Often they act as editors, discussing our work, shaping the way we write, and all of this unpaid until the time when they finally manage to place a piece of writing for us.
When we say that an agent helps us, we are not talking about large sums of money. We are talking about the difference between being offered £500 for an 80,000 word novel, and being paid £2000 with the help of an agent who then takes his or her 10%. According to the Society of Authors, the average working writer manages to earn around £5000 in any one year, of which Mr Brown - not content with his fair cut - is now looking to claw back even more.
As usual, people in the creative industries are soft targets and writers are softer than most. But if we take this one lying down, one wonders what will be next. Other small businesses should take note. If they win this one, the way is open to all kinds of other presently allowable expenses, accountancy fees included. The pen may be mightier than the sword but unless some fairly broad exemptions are made to this ruling, the only solution for many writers will be to do what most of us think about from time to time: give up the unequal struggle and head for a country like Ireland, which (although the tax breaks are not what they once were) actually seems to value its writers, according them a modicum of respect and enthusiasm which - from this side of the water - begins to seem increasingly attractive.

Talking to the Critics

Mark Fisher, who has written extensively about theatre in Scotland, gave this blog a recent mention on his own theatre blogspot, so I will reciprocate - mainly because I think he is right. There should be a dialogue between all kinds of people associated with theatre, audiences and critics as well as practitioners, instead of the habitual 'them and us' stance that infects so many of us (me included if I'm honest). The convention is that the critic criticises and the playwright pretends to ignore whatever is said. You don't of course. You smart a bit and get shirty. Or at least sometimes you do. Sometimes you rejoice in the good review, until your insecurity devil whispers in your ear 'Can it possibly be true?'
There are some critics whose words can (whisper it who dares) be rather helpful and perceptive, so that once the initial impulse to indignation goes away, you have to acknowledge that they might have a point. But then, you want to ask questions. Why on earth should the playwright have to go on pretending that (a) he or she doesn't read the reviews and (b) isn't affected by them. Because plays are always works in progress, you so often feel that it would be good to talk. You can't possibly write to please everyone, and only a fool would try. But sometimes it would be nice, as Mark says, to get some kind of dialogue going and the internet is surely the place to do it.