Archives for category: Writing

Self-reflection is a basic part of writing a memoir. Self-regard is the pitfall awaiting the self-indulgent author of a memoir.

Witty picture from The Millions, Pulp Nonfiction.

“Write what you know” — maybe because everyone says it — is a piece of advice attributed to many originators. Whoever may have first said it, it can’t be true, or at least can’t be sufficient. No harm in writing about what you know of course, but no harm either in using your imagination. I always thought it was E. M. Forster who said it. Goodreads tells us it was Mark Twain. Literary Hub has a piece with advice from multiple sources dealing with the diktat. In the end, I conclude that almost everyone has said it: and far too many people seem to be taking the advice literally — the memoir is omni-present nowadays.

Remember the furore over James Frey’s memoir, which was discovered in 2006 to have been partly made-up? I find it hard to get too worked up about this. Do you really expect the whole truth and nothing but the truth in a book just because the publisher has labelled it non-fiction? After all who among us has perfect recall of what happened a few years ago let alone in early childhood? The mind can play tricks: even real memories can turn out to be made-up memories. I suspect that the appropriate attitude toward any memoir or autobiography is to suspect that some of the apparently firm details may in fact be wishful thinking.

I’m not sure I’ve ever read something described as a memoir. Maybe Shaun Bythell’s Diary of a Bookseller counts? Teffi’s Memories comes deceptively close, at least in its title. I suppose Partick Leigh-Fermor’s accounts of his European journey could be called memoirs. Is Walden a memoir? My feeling is that there’s something necessarily light-weight about memoir as against autobiography. If your life’s interesting enough, you can do an autobiography. If you think it’s only worth a memoir it might be better to keep quiet.* And is there any real meaning behind the category “creative nonfiction”? I suspect not. If you make it up surely it can’t really be nonfiction, can it?

Still, I suppose that we keep being offered memoirs because we keep buying memoirs. Can I link the rise in memoir as a literary form with the rise of social media? We live in a world where self presentation in “print” has become an every day activity. We’ll grow out of it I’m sure.

The Guardian has a piece about authors who have lied. Most touching is perhaps the story of a teacher who, finding a lack of available fiction about teenage immigrant Muslim experience to use in his classes, wrote his own. Which seems to have worked. His big mistake was to submit some of his fiction to the BBC, using a female Asian nom-de-plume. Success brought public scorn.

It is interesting to reflect along with The Guardian that “Memoirists who lie are often in breach of contract with their publishers. Novelists, however, sign a contract to promise that their book is lying.” However, I rather doubt that memoir writers really have to bind themselves contractually not to exaggerate or mis-speak: they’ve got to write something after all!


* With slight embarrassment I have to confess to having written a memoir myself. It was basically designed to tell my granddaughters what it was like to be a child in Scotland in the forties and fifties of the last century. And of course some of the posts in this blog are open to the charge of actually being memoirs, especially those located under the index heading “CUP memories”.

Golden Goose Publishing brings us the poems of Donald J. Trump, compiled from presidential tweets — literary productions which surely secure the place of our first gentleman (!) as our first poet. As the publisher describes the work:

“Combining the measured contentiousness of Thoreau, the terse poignancy of Hemingway, and the incisive social commentary of Ta-Nehisi Coates and Toni Morrison, Donald J. Trump has emerged as one of the leading poets of his generation. Together with contemporaries such as Rupi Kaur and Haruki Murakami, Trump has helped bring about a revolution in twenty-first-century literary expression. Considered one of the most inventive poets in a digital world, Trump masterfully uses technology and the written word to reflect and shape the hearts and minds of his culture.

His words, at times inspirational, often fractious, always display a brilliant creative mind for linguistic inventiveness. His work continues to challenge the boundaries of what language is — as well as what it is capable of. 

This collection sheds light on the depth of his creative genius as well as the breadth of his mastery of a wide range of topics and his ability to deftly communicate across the emotional spectrum. We, the collectors of this volume, humbly present this collection of works in hope that it may move you, enlighten you, inspire you, and — above all — that you will appreciate the poetical genius of our time, Donald J. Trump.”

$39 (+ freight) required to obtain your own a copy.

We owe knowledge of this important addition to our nation’s literary heritage to Book Patrol. (A search of Amazon reveals that there are a couple of other publishers who have already had the same idea.)

In a related creative adaptation of presidential tweets, we acknowledge President Supervillain (@PresVillain on Twitter) a melding of the president’s actual words into pre-exisitng comic book artwork: e.g.:

Now publishing a selection of someone’s tweets rearranged into verse form might seem to raise a question of copyright. Are Golden Goose laying themselves open to a law suit from our tippy-topmost litigator over copyright infringement? Government communications are not copyrighted, but of course many (most/all? I don’t study this) of the author’s tweets are coming from his personal account. While the consensus seems to be that tweets are not copyrightable, the opinion rests on their brevity and specific subject matter, which it seems to me might not be directly relevant here. WIPO Magazine has a short description of the situation. The trouble of course is that new technologies come up with new ways of creating content, some of which cannot of necessity be covered by copyright law, having been no more than a gleam in someone’s eye when the law was complied. A revision of copyright law will obviously address this, and lots of other, issues.

One might argue that President Supervillain gets by on the basis of parody, an exemption to the need for permission under our current copyright law. Maybe Golden Goose can argue the same. The trouble, as ever, with copyright law exemptions is that you’ll never know whether you are right or not until you’ve been sued.

The fact that it is happening via our computers may make us think crowdsourcing, or more narrowly crowdfunding, to finance the publication of a book is something new, but books have been being “crowdfundeded” since the invention of printing from movable type. It’s not the thing that’s new; just the word. The Oxford English Dictionary and Wikipedia agree that the word “crowdsourcing” was first used in 2006 by Jeff Howe in Wired.

The Guardian provocatively touted Kickstarter, which started in 2009, as one of the world’s biggest powers in publishing , but this surely implies an exaggeration of the novelty of the collection of grants and subscriptions for books. Here’s John Aubrey, author of Brief Lives, discoverer of the Aubrey holes at Stonehenge, and the first to recognize Avebury as an archaeological site, reporting in 1693 on his lack of success at collecting donations for his Monumenta Britannica. “. . . I think I will have to print it by collecting subscriptions instead. I have begun gathering them already and have been lucky so far. And I have sent a copy of my prospectus for publishing my book to Mr Wood. I hope he can find me some new subscribers . . . So far I have only 112 subscriptions for my Monumenta Britannica, which is not enough, so I must ask if the University will subsidize the printing of it . . . I need to find more subscribers or my manuscript will never be printed . . . It seems more and more unlikely that my Monumenta Britannica will be printed. I despair of the manuscript ever becoming a book in four volumes.” The book was in fact not published till 1980 when a quasi-facsimile edition, edited by John Fowles and Rodney Legg was issued by Little Brown and Company. Crowdsourcing was even harder back then.

Crowdfunding is a subcategory of crowdsourcing, which Wikipedia demonstrates can cover a wide range of non-finance operations. See for example Crowdsourcing content, which makes it obvious that when it comes to books you can crowdsource more than just money. Lots of money does get raised this way: according to Wikipedia “In 2015, over US$34 billion was raised worldwide by crowdfunding.”

This Observer piece tells us that Maris Kreizman is Kickstarter’s publishing ambassador. One assumes that the publishers she’s interested in are mostly self-publishers and small indie operations. The gathering of grants and subsidies can become a part of an academic publisher’s work when some complex scholarly research just cannot be published without financial support. I doubt, however, that traditional publishers are too busy crowdfunding, though Ms Kreizman does tell us she talks to them.


Why do academics write even though their papers attract relatively few readers? Leiden Arts and Society Blog speculates on this. They come up with there reasons: 1. academics think everyone will read and refer to their self-evidently brilliant work; 2. having lots of articles will look good on a resumé; and 3. they believe in the importance of what they are doing.

To me this seems to omit the main reason — academics write because they are paid to do so. Not well (I intended “well” to qualify “paid” here, but some might want to make it refer to “write”), but in a research university it’s part of teachers’ notional job description, so they do it. Maybe Socrates used to sit around engaging in verbal debate, but at least since the 19th century academic discourse has been conducted in writing, not only by verbal debate — which still goes on of course in formal as well as informal settings. It has become essential for any kind of research results or intellectual insights to be communicated in writing so that people who might not have been there as you held forth in the seminar room or at high table can also be informed, and take part in the critical debate about your findings. This is how knowledge advances. It is absolutely irrelevant whether the research results are communicated in elegant prose or not — as a minimum we might be allowed to demand the elimination of any ambiguity — but as long as your fellow specialists can work out what you are saying, that’s just hunkey dorey. Here the differences between the sciences and the humanities rear their head. You won’t ever hear members of the public beefing about the difficulty of reading a journal article on nuclear physics, but historians better look out. The finding that 82% of historians’ journal articles are never cited should not depress historians; it just means their work is used in a different way from that of physicists or even economists.

See also Monograph publishing.

The Folger Library’s blog, The Collation has an interesting account by Kathryn Vomero Santos of her detective work on an annotated copy of John Minsheu: A Dictionarie in Spanish and English, A Spanish Grammar, and Pleasant and Delightfvll Dialogues in Spanish and English (London, 1599).

In 2010/11 Professor Santos was examining all nine of the Folger Library’s copies of this work when she found copious annotations in one of them. She observed that “something fascinating happened: the Spanish-to-English dictionary section was removed from its original binding, interleaved with new sheets of paper, trimmed, and rebound. These new sheets of paper were ruled to mirror the three columns of the dictionary entries now on the opposite page. In various places throughout these ruled columns, a reader then inscribed a series of two or three numbers that correspond to words in the dictionary. Where the dictionary lacks a particular word, this user has added entries and numbers on the opposite page.”

You can click on the image to enlarge it.

Professor Santos’ solution to the mystery of why anyone would have gone to the trouble of interleaving the book and adding apparently cryptic numbers turns out to be that the reader in question was creating a dictionary or a concordance of Don Quixote. The numbers correspond to Part number and page number in some edition of Don Quixote of the word thus indicated on the facing page. Who exactly it was who was doing this work is uncertain. The book was part of the library of John Hunter (1728-93), Scottish surgeon. His older brother William it is for whom The Hunterian Museum at the University of Glasgow is named. John however is commemorated in the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons, and is also name checked in The Hunterian Society in London.

The handwriting of the annotations doesn’t however match that of John Hunter or his wife Anne. One might speculate that the book was marked up by someone who was planning to publish a concordance to Don Quixote, or a dictionary containing all the words used in that book, and that the Hunters acquired it when the job was done. Was there such a concordance or dictionary published?

My 1959 edition of Chambers’s Twentieth Century Dictionary, still to my mind the best one-volume dictionary because of its policy of nesting*, charmingly tells us that it aims to include “all words used in Shakespeare and the Authorised Version of the Bible, in the poems (and many those in the prose writings) of Spencer and Milton, and in the novels of Walter Scott.” I choose to think that these handwritten annotations in the Minsheu volume were done for an eighteenth-century Chambers’s Spanish Dictionary with analogous aims.


* Nesting refers to the arrangement of entries all together under a single root heading. It can be thought of as a typographical matryoshka doll set. Saves space, but also occasionally provides quaint and interesting juxtapositions. They don’t do it any more I regret.


I guess I’d never really thought about it — if I’d even heard of it I think I must have filed Steampunk away as some sort of distant cousin of Starbuck from Moby-Dick, Steerforth from David Copperfield, or Steerpike from Gormenghast.* But steampunk it turns out is a sub-genre of science fiction, based upon technology and aesthetic designs inspired by 19th-century industrial steam-powered machinery. BookRiot alerts us to a recent BBC News post about a Steampunk festival held in Haworth, the Yorkshire home of those wild-in-a-different-way Brontës.

Photo PA Media

As may be seen from the photos, aficionados go whole-hog. According to the piece about a Lincoln festival linked to at the Haworth story, steampunk has been described as “nostalgia for what never was”. Steampunk Magazine puts it neatly “It’s about ‘steam’, as in steam engines, and it’s about ‘punk’, as in counter-culture.”

As an example the blurb for the first volume in the Steampunk Red Riding Hood reads: “When London’s brightest tinkers and alchemists come up missing, Red Cape Society Agent Clemmy Louvel is on the case. To help Clemmy get the problem in hand, Queen Victoria assigns her a temporary partner — a werewolf with knightly history and a tendency to be far too flirtatious for either of their good. Can she trust him to help her chase down the monsters they’re hunting? Wolves and Daggers is a retelling of the Little Red Riding Hood fairy tale set in Melanie Karsak’s bestselling steampunk universe.” In the first paragraph of the book members of London guilds are seen leaving a meeting and getting into “steam- and coal-powered autos”, and off we go.

Steampunk Magazine‘s issues may be downloaded at their site. The Ranting Dragon recommends the top 20 steampunk books.


* Mervyn Peake it seems is often regarded as a steampunk precursor.

The Passive Voice has a wise and sensible post about keeping alert while signing with an agent. Beware: individuals die; organizations (tend to) survive. Literary agents are individuals, and as he suggests, it’s probably the skills of that individual which motivated you to sign with the agency (which may of course in any case be a one-person operation). Unless there’s a cancellation policy specified in the contract, the “agency” will continue to represent you even after the agent you liked has moved on to another company or world.

Click on the Agency link just above the title of the PV post to access a range of advice about agents. The law is the Passive Guy’s area of expertise — not forecasting the future of book publishing. If you are thinking of signing with an agent or publisher you should read this and some of his other advice first.

200px-Pickwickclub_serialPart publication was quite common for novels in the nineteenth century, as The Hartford Courant informs us. We all know about Charles Dickens doing this, and perhaps tend to assume that he was unusual in taking this route: he did after all edit a weekly. His first novel was The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club, and it did indeed meet the public in monthly installments. He was initially hired by Chapman and Hall to provide copy to go along with a series of illustrations of comic sporting activities which they had commissioned. Dickens quickly subverted that arrangement leading the story down trails he favored with the illustrator forced to follow Dickens’ story rather than the Chapman and Hall template. The first three parts sold about 400 copies. It wasn’t till part 4 that sales started to take off, reaching 40,000 by the final, 20th installment. For the lucky ex-bootblacking boy things never looked back. The Paris Review has an interesting piece on the subject.

The reason for the sudden popularity was alleged to be the introduction of Sam Weller, seen here in Phiz’s illustration showing Sam’s first appearance in the story, in Chapter 10. The bootblack at the White Hart Inn in the Borough is cleaning eleven and a half pairs of boots (one of his customers has a wooden leg, which contrary to the Paris Review‘s account, Weller does not pronounce “vooden”).

The bump in sales can’t really have been so sudden if the reason is really Sam Weller’s introduction. He plays a pretty low-key role upon his first appearance. (Maybe it’s just me. The Pickwick Papers never rang my bell.*) I suspect the reason might have more to do with distribution and promotion and any question about this might better be addressed to Chapman and Hall’s marketing department. However, popular it did become, remaining the most beloved of Dickens’ novels throughout the nineteenth century. John Ruskin claimed to have read it so often he could recite it from memory.

For myself I never really cottoned to the v-w transposition which represents the speech characteristic of Sam Weller and other Londoners like Mr Venus taxidermist extraordinaire from Our Mutual Friend. (Now there’s a novel!) I suppose I have to accept that Cockneys in the nineteenth century did speak this way, though I’ve never been conscious or noticing their twentieth century descendants doing this. I have to confess though that I am open to the accusation of not having spent much research time in the East End. The Dialect Blog confirms that the v/w switch didn’t survive into the age of recorded sound. This makes suspicious me wonder if it ever had any more reality that in Dickens’ mind. Mr Weller’s amiable dialog also gave birth to the contorted clichés called after him, wellerisms, such as “Out vith it, as the father said to his child, when he swallowed a farden.”


* Perhaps the most interesting feature of the book is that it has two “official” titles. The Modern Library edition I have carries on the jacket and on the front and spine of the case The Pickwick Papers, while on the title page it says The Posthumous Papers of The Pickwick Club. Are there other books with two titles?

Apparently in Germany and France there are laws obliging publishers to pay translators a royalty. The fact that there’s no specific percentage level at which royalties must be paid, or, after payment of an advance, at what sales level they will become payable, means in effect that few translators ever reach a royalty paying plateau, and even fewer make any significant money. Unsurprisingly some publishers twist and turn in complex attempts to avoid or minimize such payments.

A couple of years ago Tim Parks published a meditation on this question, entitled The Expendable Translator at The New York Review of Books blog, NYR Daily.

His take on it is a reasonable acceptance of current reality plus a suggestion that translation rates might be negotiated to reflect the difficulty of translating this work as against that one. Clearly Finnegans Wake is going to be harder to translate than say 50 Shades of Gray. Should their translators be paid differently? Paying a royalty implies that the translator should be remunerated, like the author, in proportion to sales, but this would obviously result in this case in the easier task being better rewarded, which doesn’t seem right either. And how would one assess the correct payment relationship between a very short very difficult text, and a very long easy book?

While I heartily agree that translators should be better remunerated, I can’t see any real justification for a royalty for translators, a payment which would treat them effectively as co-authors. Translators are not co-authors, though there are many cases where author and translator sit together doing the job together: such situation would one hopes be credited by the author. Imagine Joseph Conrad sitting with an English speaker, say, Edward Garnett, whispering in his ear as he was writing Almayer’s Folly. This, although it didn’t actually happen, would of course not constitute a co-authored translation, as Conrad didn’t write the book in Polish and then English it. (Who translated Conrad’s books into Polish? — It was actually his niece, Aniela Zagorska. Conrad seems to have taken a hands-off attitude, telling her “it is better to interpret than to translate”. Conrad has been accused of “auto-translating”, writing an English almost set up for putting into Polish. I have no wish/ expertise/ competence to debate this.) Too much collaboration presumably and you end up with a coauthored book, though if you were to call it that wouldn’t you have to include under that rubric books which received a thorough editing too? As Mr Parks says, a translator is doing a job, and while it’s a job that calls for skill and knowledge, it’s still a job. After all, nobody ever suggested that the copyeditor should be cut in for a small royalty, or the editor, or the designer. And the jobs that they are doing have more in common with translating than authoring. The fact that authors’ earnings are already under pressure, doesn’t inspire one to think that translators are mysteriously going to get a pay raise, however much we might wish for such an outcome.

The problem with all this money stuff, like so much that gets debated about publishing, is that what’s “right” is not necessarily what’s doable. Even if it was straightforward to adjudge whether this translation deserves to be better paid than that translation, there is always the overarching problem that there’s a budget for any publication. If it costs too much to get a book translated it just won’t be published. In other words if potential sales and possible retail price taken together fail to deliver a profit to the publisher, the publisher will, naturally, invest their money elsewhere. However desirable it may be to publish this or that item, it remains true, as I keep saying, that publishers have no moral obligation to publish any particular thing. They do it, as they must, to make money: and most of the commentators who inveigh against publishers are, one suspects, upset at a refusal to publish their own pet projects. The energies of the 3%-ers would be better directed at encouraging governments or charitable organizations to provide funds to support translations. This is of course happening: many governments sponsor organizations whose job is to fund translations.

I suspect almost everyone nowadays agrees with these commonsensical injunctions to disregard the boring old rules we were taught in school. This is all fine; but I part company with the purists who not only object to the rules but also object to the teaching of rules and the teachers who drum these things into young heads. I do think breaking rules is a good thing to do, but if you don’t know what the rules are . . .

The infographic was sent by The Digital Reader, and created by The Expert Editor, an Australian editing company.