Archives for category: Writing

What’s the shortest paper ever published in a scholarly journal? Several contenders for the title are shown at Paperpile. (Link via The Digital Reader.) There is a surprisingly large collection of impressive contenders.

I quite liked this one:

The Passive Voice reprints a substantial extract from a The Paris Review article entitled What writers and editors do by Karl Ove Knausgaard. There’s a link there to the whole piece.

Whether writers are depressives or alcoholics is not, despite the Passive Guy’s commentary, the main point of this article.

Mr Knausgaard, reporting on his dismay at the critical reaction to some of his books tells us “It feels almost as if there are different books, one belonging to the editor, another to the critic, and for the author this can be difficult.” But isn’t it a bit of a current commonplace that there are as many versions of a book as there are readers. Isn’t what the author is aiming at actually a sort of silent conversation between themselves and each one of their readers, with each conversation being unique?

Mr K obviously has a good relationship with his editor — no surprise there: with an important author you’re unlikely to remain editor for long if the author doesn’t like you! They discuss a lot on the phone. The editorial pencil is not in evidence — pencils probably feature less and less in our digital world. He says he has a special, almost unexplainable relationship with three people: his mother, his wife and his editor. The basis for this special relationship seems to boil down to trust.

Trust may well be the basis for excellence in editorship. Mr Knausgaard mentions two “great” editors: Gordon Lish, apparently almost a co-author for Raymond Carver, and Maxwell Perkins who might be said to have taken a tea-chest-full of paper and quarried it into Of Time and the River. One of the problems with the idea of a great editor is that, as with design, the essence of great editing is that it should be undetectable. If an author suspects you are out to “put your mark” on a book, trust is obviously not likely to be forthcoming. New York Review of Books’ authors used to be gobsmacked to receive phone calls from Robert Silvers in the middle of the night proposing a grammatical or a structural change in their latest piece. He was always right, and they all trusted him implicitly. In my youth I worked for Michael Black in Cambridge. His judgement about new subject areas to move into was daring and prescient; his work on manuscripts discrete and authoritative. Anyone who knew him trusted his editorial judgement absolutely.

Have things changed? Mr Knausgaard suggests they have. “For anyone harboring ambitions of becoming an author in the late eighties and early nineties the way to do it was this: you wrote a book and submitted it to a publishing house, after which you waited a month or two before receiving a reply in the post, very likely a rejection”. Nowadays Mr Knausgaard claims editors are more likely to contact a young author on the basis of a short story or an essay seen in a magazine. If this is really true, and who am I to doubt it, then it might be put down to an acceleration of life, and an increase in informality brought about by our move online. Maybe: though I suspect this insight of change may be more of an artifact of Mr Knausgaard’s experience than a real trend. Maybe many books are now floated on the basis of an outline and sample chapter, but this isn’t really a new development. And Michael Farris Smith tells us he wrote Nick in its entirety before submitting it in 2015 for instance.

According to The New York Times someone is stealing unpublished book manuscripts. There appears to be no motive for this — or at least, no consequences have yet been observed although the scam has been going on for at least three years. Could this just be criminal joie de vivre? “Look I can do this, so I’ll show you that I can do it”? Disruption of authorial equanimity (if such a quality exists) is about all that it appears to have achieved.

Once upon a time this would have been a more serious problem — and probably impossible to pull off. When you had to write your book by hand the loss of the manuscript would have been rather terminal. Even after the invention of the typewriter an author would have been reluctant to let one of their two (maybe) copies out of their sight. There used to be a man in Cambridge who was always seen with a sheaf of paper under his arm. He was rumored to have lost the manuscript of his life’s work on the Liverpool Street train, and to have spent the rest of his days trying to put it together again. The loss of just another digital copy is the loss of next to nothing. “Who steals my purse steals trash; ’tis something, nothing.”

Could this just be an aggressive acquisition push by The Brautigan Library, the library of unpublished manuscripts? I suppose there is a tax deduction for manuscript donations.

Although they use a “western” QWERTY keyboard for their computers there are people in-putting Chinese characters who are actually able to type much faster than those for whom the keyboard was designed. This represents an incredible turnaround. When computers first arrived in China they appeared to present an overwhelming challenge to the very existence of Chinese script. No way could you get 70,000 characters onto a keyboard with space for about 70. Clearly getting the efficiencies offered by computers would involve adopting an alphabet, wouldn’t it?

To avoid this loss of heritage, the key turned out to be to “spell Chinese characters, not by sound, but by shape”. Professor Wang Yongmin broke the structure of Chinese characters down into 125 elements. Think of early mobile phones with numbers-only keypads on which you could access letters by hitting each number key once, twice, thrice and selecting the letter you wanted when it was displayed — using this technique for all the keys on the QWERTY keyboard Professor Wang managed to create a working computer QWERTY keyboard for his 125 Chinese character elements: select the first element you need for the character you require, then move on to the second element and so on. He demo-ed his keyboard at the UN in 1984, to general incredulity.

One consequence of this method is that different people can use different keys to carry different information based upon their speciality. Chinese QWERTY keyboards, many of which don’t even have any symbols on them, can be and are programmed in a variety of different layouts. Predictive text and auto completion arrived on Chinese computers before we got them — when you type a text message or do a Google search, you get these prompts suggesting to you what word the computer thinks you’re trying to type, and even the next word which you’ll come up with. A bit annoying perhaps, like the related Auto-correct “service”, but an efficient use of artificial intelligence. They were already doing this in China in the 1980s: key in a bit of a character shape, and the machine will suggest how you might want to complete it. Select the correct suggested target and Bob’s your uncle.

By the 1990s the Chinese government had decreed a move to Pinyin transliteration of Chinese, and many computer keyboards now work using Pinyin. However lots of people are still using the Chinese character keyboard — which is more universal than the Pinyin one. Pinyin which is a transliteration of sounds, will look different in different dialects. These dialects/languages use the same script system but pronounce the characters differently, so output from a keyboard with character generation will look the same all across the country, where Pinyin-generated text may be regionally incomprehensible. Another of script input’s big advantages turns out, paradoxically, to be speed. Using the multiple-elements-per-key technology allied to autocompletion and predictive suggestion has resulted in a typist being able to “type” 244 characters/words per minute at a 2016 input contest in Beijing. An extraordinary typist in English can get to 100wpm.

National Public Radio’s Radiolab program tells the story at The Wubi Effect. You can listen to the broadcast there, or, via a tab, go to a transcript of the program.

Do we have to make some allowance in such typing speed trials for the fact that many Chinese words are represented by a single character, whereas the average length of an English word is 4.7 characters? Some maybe, but probably not all that much since the characters are of course the problem: they’re rather complex, and probably more complex than that average 4.7 letter long word.

I wonder if speed is sufficiently important for us to try to emulate the Chinese by coming up with a more efficient method of keyboard entry. We know that when we read rapidly we are tending to recognize word-shapes rather than the individual letters which make up the word. Just because we have an alphabet doesn’t have to mean that the alphabet is the best way to reach any reading or writing destination, does it? But do we need to tread carefully? If you just use predictive text you might go fast, but would you be typing what you wanted or what the cloud thought you should want to say?

See also Setting Chinese, and Chinese typewriter.

  1. The Dumas Club by Arturo Perez-Reverte
  2. Lila, Lila by Martin Suter
  3. A Ladder to the Sky by John Boyne
  4. In Praise of Lies by Patricia Melo
  5. Death by Publication by Jean-Jacques Fiechter
  6. The Surgeon of Crowthorne by Simon Winchester
  7. Flaubert’s Parrot by Julian Barnes
  8. Hocus Bogus by Émile Ajar
  9. Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
  10. The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

Well, one of them isn’t actually a novel, it’s true-crime, but this is Antoine Laurain’s list of the top ten books about books, published in The Guardian. Mr Laurain is the author of another one, The Reader’s Room, which modestly he doesn’t include in his list. (Link via LitHub.)

Of course one might argue that any (serious) novel is to some extent about the way to write a novel. A notable recent full-frontal example is Martin Amis’ latest, Inside Story: A Novel, a very conscious meditation on life-writing and fiction. It took reading the Economist review for me to realize that Inside Story actually has a proper subtitle. The jacket carries only the quasi-subtitle/catchline A Novel, as does the title page, but buried away on the half title page and nowhere else is the full title + subtitle, Inside Story: How to Write. Even the CIP information calls it Inside Story: A Novel, though the Canadian version omits A Novel. This coyness about the subtitle has to be significant* doesn’t it?

Hate that logo!

In a charming note lower down the imprints page we learn “This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental”. Boilerplate, but bullshit. Characters in the book include Martin Amis, his wife, disguised by the use her middle name only, Christopher Hitchens, Saul Bellow, Philip Larkin, Kingsley Amis and his wives, etc. etc. Lots of real people are there as large as life, however fictionalized some of what they say and do may be. Now it seems to me (and all dictionaries) that a novel is a work of fiction. And while I don’t really care what the author decides to designate his book as, I did feel a little bit curious about this one. I dare say I’d never have read a memoir by Martin Amis (never really warmed to him as the saying goes) so I guess I have to be grateful for the category shuffling as I’m glad I read the book. If this is really a memoir masquerading as a novel, is that as bad as James Frey‘s novel masquerading as a memoir? Not sure it matters in either case, but I keep wondering why Amis would do this. It can’t be, can it, that presenting his personal history as quasi-fiction makes it easier for him to be frank about things? The book copes with three deaths: the Essayist thread (Christopher Hitchens) is the most affecting: the Poet (Philip Larkin) and the Novelist (Saul Bellow) are less shattering. The heart of the book is a telling of Christopher Hitchens’ death. Little Keith (as the Hitch would call him) clearly loved his friend, and writes movingly about the awful. Maybe pretending this pain was fictitious is a mechanism enabling him to bear it. I’m not sure however that I can believe my suggestion here: Martin Amis is after all a very experienced writer, and such subterfuges are surely unnecessary for him.

At the start of Chapter 5 the author addresses us “The book in your hands calls itself a novel — and it is a novel, I maintain. So I want to assure the reader that everything that follows in this chapter is verifiably non-fiction.” Does a novel have to consist of fiction? I rather think it has to, and as I don’t know Martin Amis I find it hard to determine where fiction ends and non-fiction begins in this work. I assume Phoebe Phelps is fictitious — I hope she is — but of course I can’t be altogether sure M.A. didn’t hang out with something like this. The Daily Mail claims that she’s real: apparently someone called Antonella Gambotto-Burke claims she’s the pattern, but her claims seem too modest and restrained to match up to Phoebe Phelps. So here be fiction I suspect.

The book is structured as if we, the reader, had come round for a chat with the author, a chat which we appear to have solicited, and which is going to unfold in extenso: we’re going to stay the night. Amis chats directly with us in his introductory chapter and in his final chapter, pretentiously entitled “Preludial” and “Postludial”, promising to give us concrete advice on writing and then bidding us goodbye: “Goodbye, my reader, I said. Goodbye, my dear, my close, my gentle”. Advice he does indeed give us along the way: valuable insights like “don’t worry about splitting infinitives” and “everyone’s got a book in them” are fortunately accompanied by a whisky or two. That’s too harsh, and is actually unjust: his bits of advice, uniformly good, are set up perhaps more to demonstrate that it’s not so much the direct advice that’ll help, it’s more the surrounding story-telling and the thinking about books and writers and reading that are important. The index provides a list of his writing advice, and if you stick with those precepts you’ll do OK. Of course it’s the story-telling that’s the vital bit, and while we may indeed all have it in us, it’s tough to clear away the overlying debris in order to get at the novel buried in there.

I wonder if the two strands of writer’s manual on the one hand and the fiction/nonfiction issue on the other don’t in the end coalesce. Maybe showing us how to write a memoir which you can get the world of publishing and criticism to accept as a novel is the ne plus ultra of authorial cleverness. Follow my lead and you too can do anything you want: even write a novel which isn’t a novel. They say it’s not Amis’ best, but Inside Story is well worth a read.

A rather less obvious example of a novel as a book about writing a book is John Williams’ Stoner, which I wrote about in these terms a couple of years ago.


* In a footnote — yes this novel has footnotes, as well as several photographs, and an index! — Amis tells of a brilliant crossword puzzle clue: “Meaningful power of attorney”, the answer being “significant” — sign-if-I-can’t. Not bad, I thought.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be too quick to criticize typos. They happen even in the best regulated houses: even our own.

It’s well known, from all of our own experience, that it’s tough to proofread one’s own writing: well, it may actually be all too easy — the hard part is detecting errors. Wired assures us rather flatteringly, “There’s a good reason why we’re so terrible at catching these typing errors, and it has to do with our brains being a little too efficient.” (Link via Mental Floss). Apparently because we are so smart, and our brains are running way ahead of our dumb old bodies, we are always anticipating the right word. Accordingly we run the risk of seeing the right word even though our laggard fingers may actually have typed the wrong one. 

Well, OK. If that makes you feel good, run with it. For my part I suspect it all has a bit more to do with vanity — what I type must be great — but it doesn’t really matter; we tend to have difficulty noticing our own errors. One might note that Autocorrect often gets into the act. Reread slowly, carefully and often. 

In this context, might I direct the reader to a recent exchange of comments with Charles Foster about Susie Dent’s book, Word Perfect? You need to scroll down, since Mr Foster commented at the “Comments” tab, which a few others have done before, so our conversation is quite a way down.

I am conscious of committing a typo or two on this blog. I do read and reread, but stuff slips by. (I just noticed that the second paragraph above began “It’s well know . . . ” No doubt this is a survival from the first version which probably said “We all know”. History shows me I’ve read this piece 23 times already!) Other typos do get by though. Perhaps I can ask frustrated readers to attribute these errors to the fact that my brain is super-efficient, not to any carelessness or lack of attention on my part!

See also Proofing.

Map by Steven Melendez, Atlas Obscura

This interactive map, delivered by Atlas Obscura, allows us to follow literary journeys around America. (You have to go to the Atlas Obscura site to access the interactive map: the picture above is just a photo of it.) The map compiled by Richard Kreitner and Steven Melendez includes place names from fourteen travel books from Mark Twain’s 1872 Roughing It to Cheryl Strayed’s 2012 Wild. Click on the link and you can select individual routes and enlarge the map to see detail: Scroll plus Command keys will enlarge/shrink it.

Mr Kreitner describes the effort as quixotic, but his map does have a charm. And seeing where various trips overlapped does provide interest, as do the little quotes from the books which you can find by clicking on the dots. You can compare and contrast what Mark Twain and Jack Kerouac had to say at Ogallala, Nebraska for instance. Conclusions from such a comparison may be a bit hard to draw though.

Via The Digital Reader comes this CNN story about the publishing of 25 works by women under their real names, rather than the male pseudonyms they originally used.

The Reclaim Her Name series is being financed by Baileys, to celebrate 25 years of the Women’s Prize for Fiction which they now sponsor, and they are getting a bit of stick from many quarters. The Guardian runs down these critiques.

Now I dare say some women were “forced” to use male pseudonyms, but I always thought that the decision was largely one of pseudonymy rather than of gender concealment. After all ladies writing novels was by no means unheard of, nor indeed unspeakable, when George Eliot was writing. Of course you could no doubt find one or two ladies who’d mutter disapproval, but you can always find someone to disapprove of anything. Charlotte Brontë did however write “we did not like to declare ourselves women, because — without at that time suspecting that our mode of writing and thinking was not what is called ‘feminine’ – we had a vague impression that authoresses are liable to be looked on with prejudice.” Mary Ann Evans was clearly a shrewd business woman: one probably has to assume she thought it more likely that books written by men would sell better than ones by women.

Whatever the inadequacies in execution it’s nice of Baileys to do this. And just think — when the books are donated to libraries as planned nobody will be able to find them, because who’d look under Dupin for a book by George Sand, etc.? Maybe clever librarians will think to cross reference and/or shelve non-alphabetically.

In my post on Pseudonymy I did discuss the case of J. K. Rowling, though CNN takes this instance even further. Pseudonyms were (are) far from uncommon. The king of disguise would appear to be Søren Kierkegaard who apparently wrote under about twenty pseudonyms.

Here’s a relevant infographic from Mashable.


Everyone, or every reader, I probably should say, in Scotland knows our two national poets. Robert Burns is obviously one of them, and William McGonagall is the other. To outsiders the work of the latter may be unfamiliar. He is rarely referred to without the tag “the worst poet in the English language,” which is a little unfair, though he’s undoubtedly a contender.

Lapham’s Quarterly has an appreciation in which they opine that McGonagall was born in Ireland and moved to Dundee as a little boy. (Link via Lit Hub). The Scottish Poetry Library however tells us he is “thought to have been born in Edinburgh”: keep your hands off our national treasures, Lapham’s! In the “Brief Autobiography” printed in the edition of his works which I have, McGonagall himself tells us he was born in Edinburgh in 1830. He was however a determined self-promoter, and maybe scholars have learned not to trust his words. His dates are usually given as 1825-1902.

After eighteen months’ schooling, at the age of seven he was set to work as a handloom weaver. He would give performances of scenes from Shakespeare to his work mates, and later gave public recitations. He tells us “The most startling incident in my life was the time I discovered myself to be a poet, which was in the year 1877. [This would make him 47 by his own account, five years older according to Lapham’s.] During the Dundee holiday week, in the bright and balmy month of June, when trees and flowers were in full bloom, while lonely and sad in my room, I sat thinking about the thousands of people who were away by rail and steamboat, perhaps to the land of Burns, or poor ill-treated Tannahill,* or to gaze upon the Trossachs in Rob Roy’s country, or elsewhere wherever their minds lead them. Well, while pondering so, I seemed to feel as it were a strange kind of feeling stealing over me, and remained so for about five minutes. A flame, as Lord Byron has said, seemed to kindle up my entire frame, along with a strong desire to write poetry; and I felt happy, so happy. . . ” At once the newly fledged poet answered the “voice crying, ‘Write, Write!'” by penning an Address to the Rev. George Gilfillan which he submitted to the Dundee Weekly News who at once published it, as they appear to have been eager to do with the rest of his oeuvre. The poet’s first steps began, somewhat differently from the version linked to above:

Rev. George Gilfillan of Dundee,
    There is none can you excel;
You have boldly rejected the Confession of Faith,
    And defended your cause right well.

Nothing too objectionable in that I think. But the Poet and Tragedian often rises to heights of banality and triteness which end up being quite impressive. His subject matter is often a disaster of one kind or another, so his form might be held to be quite appropriate. A favorite poem of his to have a go at is “The Tay Bridge Disaster”, and the Lapham’s piece goes for it. I rather prefer his earlier celebration of the construction of the bridge. The first two stanzas read:

Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silvery Tay!
With your numerous arches and pillars in so grand array
And your central girders, which seem to the eye
To be almost towering to the sky.
The greatest wonder of the day,
And a great beautification to the River Tay,
Most beautiful to be seen,
Near by Dundee and the Magdalen Green.

Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silvery Tay!
That has caused the Emperor of Brazil to leave
His home far away, incognito in his dress,
And view thee ere he passed along en route to Inverness.

The rest may be found at McGonagall Online.

What explains the survival of McGonagall’s poetry? There were after all lots of other poetasters getting their stuff published in local newspapers — a phenomenon surviving even into my childhood. Robert Crawford in his invaluable, if immensely long, Scotland’s Books says “his verse is so earnestly and elaborately bad that deservedly, despite all naysaying, it has ensured his immortality”.

For myself, I seek an explanation more in publishing business history than in any badness of the verse. Dundee is a center of traditional non-traditional publishing. Oor Wullie, The Broons, Desperate Dan, in other words The DandyThe Beano and above all The Sunday Post all originate with D. C. Thomson in Dundee and have for generations engendered many spin-off books. Publishing a book of the verses of a local phenomenon would be a logical step in such a business climate. The title page of my copy of Poetic Gems has a double imprint, Dundee: David Winter and Son Ltd., 15 Shore Terrace, and London: Gerald Duckworth & Co. Ltd.,3 Henrietta Street, W.C.2. The bibliographical history tells us it was first published in two parts in 1890, First published as one volume 1934, and that it enjoyed its Fourteenth impression in 1966. It’s printed on yellowing groundwood, though it’s holding together fine. Mr McGonagall tells us that on his abortive visit to Balmoral in hopes of meeting with Queen Victoria he sold a copy of his poems to a serving girl for the price on 2d (tuppence). In 1966 I had to lay out 5/-, only 30 times more.


*Robert Tannahill (1774 – 1810), another weaver poet, who drowned himself in Paisley Canal.


None of my ancestors was smart enough to create a character who became known to almost everyone in the (English-speaking) world, so maybe I’m not in a position to judge those thus favored. Nevertheless I find it hard to understand holders of ancient copyrights trying to suppress new fictions making use of a character their granddaddy invented. Surely the more stories, books, movies there are featuring Scarlett O’Hara, or James Bond, or Atticus Finch, or Sherlock Holmes, (or even Mickey Mouse dare I say) the better for the sales potential of “the real thing”. Yet with certain properties the impulse to reject any copyright request or to hunt down any parody or fan fic seems impossible to resist. Just stealing the damn thing and offering it for sale is one thing, but someone who has gone to the effort of writing a novel — or making a film —featuring a character we all know and love has surely made enough of a creative effort that they should be allowed to go ahead and make whatever sales they can. The publicity they stimulate will only help sales of your properties.

The Estate of Arthur Conan Doyle is suing Nancy Springer, Legendary Pictures, PCMA Productions, and Netflix over a Holmesian movie, Enola Holmes. The majority of the Sherlock Holmes stories are in the public domain but ten stories written from 1923 to 1927 remain protected by copyright. The claimants allege that words from those stores are used in the film. As The Independent puts it “the suit also claims that Enola Holmes incorporates the ‘human connection and empathy’ that were only displayed by the detective in the copyrighted books”. Give me a break: Sherlock Holmes didn’t display any human emotions prior to 1923, so if he gets upset, that obviously must be an infringement of copyright! All sounds like a bit of a Hail Mary.

Presumably the Estate has been content for Nancy Springer to have published six books already featuring Enola, Holmes’ niece. As Wikipedia tells us “This pastiche series borrows characters and settings from the established canon of Sherlock Holmes, but the Enola character is Springer’s creation and specific to this series. The first book, The Case of the Missing Marquess, and the fifth, The Case of the Cryptic Crinoline, were nominated for the Edgar Awards for Best Juvenile Mystery in 2007 and 2010, respectively.” I guess now that big bucks are possibly available with the making of a movie the Estate has decided it’s worth their while to act. Whatever the weakness of their case, maybe to Estate can be persuaded to go away with a little bit of a kickback from the movie’s producers.

LATER: The Verge reports on 20 December that the case has been settled out of court. This means we don’t know whether Holmes’ empathy can or cannot be copyright — the court case didn’t get that far.