Thursday, 28 May 2015

The curse of genre fiction

I've just been listening to Kazuo Ishiguro and Neil Gaiman on Radio 4's 'Today' programme. They were talking about social attitudes to literary and genre fiction.

Now no-one's about to invite me to discuss literary trends on 'Today', but some of the ideas seemed a little familiar. So, for those of you who don't do Radio 4 in the mornings, here's a slightly revised re-run of a blog I wrote for the lovely Jenny Kane earlier this year.

I write historical novels. I am therefore, apparently, not a writer to be taken seriously. Kazuo Ishiguro used military historical novels (which may well include Burke at Waterloo) as an example of a genre which is not respected though, as he pointed out, Patrick  O'Brian's books, for example, are well written novels with complex and developed characters. So why are there so many people happy to say (with a certain smug superiority) that they never read historical novels?

It’s annoying, but don’t we all have these gaps in our reading experience? For me, it’s Historical Romance. I can’t face it. I’ve tried – I’ve really tried, but I just can’t make it through to the end. She notices his well-turned calf, the sweat glistens on the muscles of his arm or her heart beats at the thought of his tender yet manly kiss and I give in and read no further. And the awful thing is that the author may not even have used any of these clich├ęs, but there’s something about this particular genre that has me imagining them whether or not they are there on page. I admitted this in public and was taken to task by a Historical Romance writer who pointed out that her stories are well researched, nicely written and featured often quite complex characters in interesting social situations. She was right and I’m wrong. I am going to give her books another go, but I suspect that, once again, I will give up.

Why do we all have genres that we just don’t read? The obvious suggestion is that it has something to do with “books for men” and “books for women”. In my case, though, this is far from being the case – I love contemporary Chick Lit: Bridget Jones sits proudly on my bookshelf. (Not the actual Bridget Jones, of course, though the idea is quite appealing in a disturbing sort of way.) Perhaps it’s the background to the stories? But I write historical novels myself and I read other people’s historical novels set in all sorts of periods. So why this mental block with Historical Romance?

The problem does seem to be with the genre and not the book. This is particularly clear with people who sniffily announce that they would never read, for example, Harry Potter because “I don’t read books for children.” Publishers responded by putting an “adult” cover on the Harry Potter series and, lo and behold! adults were suddenly happy to read them. The same result can be achieved more subtly: my wife, for example, doesn’t read Science Fiction, unless “it’s someone like Ursula Le Guin, who’s writing really good books – not really just Science Fiction.” Well, yes, Lord Copper – up to a point. What, I think, the most honest of us will eventually decide is that if the book is a “good” book but placed in a genre that we don’t read, will simply reclassify it. So Bridget Jones is not Chick Lit, it’s Social Comedy; John Grisham doesn’t write rubbishy Crime Stories, he writes the altogether superior Legal Thrillers.

Part of the reason that we are so strict about what genres we will and won’t allow ourselves to enjoy is, I think, that the books that we will admit to reading – displayed on our bookshelves (or, according to Ishiguro, our coffee tables - is the man stuck in the 1970s?) say something about us. In a world where mass entertainment is, arguably, increasingly democratised, books are still one of the great class markers. I have a friend who runs an online group where people can discuss their reading matter. Apparently all these people read massively more James Joyce, Chekhov,  Peter Ackroyd, HE Bates, Guy De Maupassant, and Albert Camus than they do Agatha Christie or Dan Brown. (I swear I’m not making this up and nor are members of the group all graduates from an English Department.) Ishiguro argues that this reflects the fact that literary fiction carries a far greater social cachet than the books that most of us actually read and I'd say that he's right.

Admitting to liking genre fiction marks you out as somewhat less cultured than fans of literary fiction. And within genre fiction, there are levels of social acceptability. The genre is far more important than the book.

We see the same applied to individual writers. “Oh Dickens is such a wonderful author.” Well, many of his books certainly are fine examples of English literature. It doesn’t take a particularly critical reader, though, to see that some of them are definitely better than others. But to explain that you consider this or that book to be deserving of critical approval and another one to show signs of having been written to a deadline on a bad day, calls for more discussion and analysis than we can tolerate when deciding whether people do or don’t fit into our social group. What we want in social markers is a straightforward way of deciding whether we are in or out of the Magic Circle of social acceptability.

I know a couple of writers who provide a particular example of the importance of keeping our genres separate. Both write (among other things) Contemporary Romance – Chick Lit if you will – where we follow a young woman through the unfolding of her relationship until we reach, hopefully, a happy conclusion. But both also earn the odd crust (sometimes lavishly spread with butter and jam) by writing what an earlier generation quaintly called 'naughty books'. Both are careful to write the more lively novels under a different name. Mills and Boon, faced with the same problem, put their – actually rather well-written – erotica under a completely different imprint. After all, when my maiden aunt tells me that she really enjoys Mills and Boon, it’s important that I know exactly what sort of Mills and Boon she is into.

I suspect, then, that this is at least part of the answer of why we will respond warmly to some genres and reject others out of hand. Like so many things in England, it’s a matter of class. And now I am aware of that, I hope that I will try to restrain my prejudices. If I’m faced with a Historical Romance in which credible characters form realistic relationships against an authentic historical background, I will persevere. I might even come to love it. Perhaps we should all try to read things outside the genres that we are comfortable to say that we like. Reading, after all, should be about broadening the mind. So let’s try to broaden our own minds.

There you are: all the cultural improvement offered by Radio 4 and no need to wake up in the morning to listen to it.

Tuesday, 26 May 2015

Telegraphs and semaphores

A couple of months ago I wrote a piece about the news of Napoleon's escape from Elba reaching Paris. I quoted from the journal of one of the French king's bodyguards, Col Marie Antoine de Reiset:
An astounding piece of news arrived yesterday. We learnt, by Telegraph, that Bonaparte had landed at Cannes, near Frejus.
Somebody commented on the blog to say that this had to be a mistake, as the telegraph had not yet been invented. The first commercial electric telegraph was installed on the Great Western Railway in 1838 and it was used on many railways built in the UK in the second half of the 19th century. However, at the same time Samuel Morse was developing his own electronic telegraph. He patented his electric telegraph in 1837. His system used the dots and dashes of Morse Code, rather than moving needles to point to letters of the alphabet as the British system did, and the speed with which telegraphists could code messages meant that it came to dominate electric telegraphy.

I was concerned about the obvious error and went back to look at the quote again. I had not seen the original source (it came from the University of Warwick's excellent site on the Hundred Days) but Anthony Brett-James' book on the Hundred Days, which uses eye-witness accounts, also refers to the news coming by telegraph.

So what's going on?

The answer is in the word 'electric' slipped in before 'telegraph' when referring to Samuel Morse's invention. A check in the trusty Complete Oxford Dictionary (invaluable for historical novelists) gives the original meaning of the word 'telegraph' as: "An apparatus for transmitting messages to a distance, usually by signs of some kind. ... The name was first applied to that invented by Chappe in France in 1792, consisting of an upright post with movable arms, the signals being made by various positions of the arms according to a pre-arranged code."

In Britain, semaphore was used to communicate between London and the fleet. (Note that the English tend to prefer the word 'semaphore' to 'telegraph' but they are the same thing.) Lines of semaphore towers were constructed. The first ran from London to Deal, Chatham and Sheerness and they were completed by the end of January 1796. The system was judged a great success - signals were said to have travelled from Dover to London, via Deal, in less than seven minutes. A line to Portsmouth, the home of the Navy, was completed in August 1796.

Chatley Heath Semaphore Tower

Semaphore can actually prove a remarkably efficient means of communication. Because of the importance of accurate time-keeping in navigation, it was important that the fleet had access to a reliable time signal and semaphore was used to mark the time at which the Time Ball was dropped at the Greenwich Observatory (marking one o'clock). By 1806, the semaphore line had been extended to Plymouth and the one o'clock signal was sent to the port there and acknowledged back to London in three minutes, an impressive achievement for a round trip of four hundred miles.

The semaphore system was envisaged as a war-time measure, to be abandoned after the defeat of Napoleon and, indeed, it was run down as soon as he was sent to Elba. Napoleon's escape, though, led to the system being restored to full effectiveness and it was then kept running until it was superseded by the electric telegraph.

The history of the telegraph, then, plays an important role in the history underpinning two of my books. In 'Burke at Waterloo', the original telegraph brought the news of Napoleon's return to Paris, while the electric telegraph arrived in India just in time to allow the British to communicate across the sub-continent during the 1857 Mutiny. It was telegraph messages that warned the British as soon as the uprising started (the operator who sent the first message was killed for his pains) and without it, events may well have turned out differently and 'Cawnpore' might have had a very different ending.

Photo credit: "Chatley Heath Semaphore Tower - - 18673" by Nigel Richardson. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons -

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Sheep in the City

Every so often I blog here about something completely random. It usually ends up being tango. This time, though, it isn't.

I thought it would be fun to share something of the amazing day I had on Saturday.

London does keep generating strange but fun new stuff to do. For a few years now, there have been regular events where artists and celebrities design sculptures on a theme and these are dotted around London. Eventually the sculptures are auctioned off and money is generated for the charity. Meanwhile, Londoners enjoy some eccentric new street art.

At the moment, London is playing host to various incarnations of Shaun the Sheep, a character from the popular Wallace and Grommit 'claymation' films. The people who make the films have set up their own charity for children in hospital and that's where the money's going. (You can make your own donation HERE.) The sculptures are scattered here and there but 48 of the 50 are in the centre of town, mainly clustered in some of the main tourist areas. So an afternoon walking round some of them is a nice way to visit some of the more attractive parts of the capital. Lots of people seem to be doing that and the people who put the whole thing together have produced four walks to encourage people to see some of them in an afternoon's stroll

Of course, if you were to do them on skates, you could see all 48 in a few hours.

Let's start in Trafalgar Square.

Yes, Shaun the sheep as Nelson with the column in the background.

And this one is practically next door.

Trafalgar Square is a nice central meeting point and from there we went to Leicester Square, where the sheep seem to come in pairs.


And on to Chinatown ...

... Covent Garden ...

... Tower Bridge ...

... and the Tower of London. There are two sheep at the Tower. One, quite properly, is a Beefeater, though you can hardly see him for skater fans.


St Paul's seems to have a whole flock of Shauns.

In Paternoster Square, next to the cathedral, Shaun has been joined by some other, rather posher, sheep. (The sheep that aren't Shaun are a sculpture by Dame Elizabeth Frink, which made for the original Paternoster Square in 1975 and mounted in this spot when the new square was developed.)
Not Shaun
Some of the sheep are sheltering from the English weather and hiding indoors. (Saturday was a beautiful day, but there has been some rotten weather lately.) At Hamleys an excitable greeter at the door was desperate for us all to pile inside, and we were happy to oblige.

Amazingly, the other places which sheltered the Shauns were all remarkably tolerant of a whole bunch of skaters invading their premises.

The British Film Institute

At Ripleys Believe it or Not (Piccadilly)
Barbican Centre

Several of the sheep that were not in especially iconic locations reflected famous aspects of London life. There was a guardsman (guards-sheep, I suppose, really)

... a Chelsea Pensioner ...

... and a Pearly King.


These were some of the highlights. Obviously there were more.

Many, many more ...

I had some notion of maybe putting up photographs of all the sheep we saw that afternoon, but I kept falling asleep. Looks like if you want to see them all, you'll have to take yourselves to town and visit them there.

Shaun in the City runs until 31 May.

(Thanks to Aymeric Figureau, Anna Himiona, Peter Carr, Geoff Yang, Jacek Kustyk, and Muhayman Jamil for the photographs.)

Monday, 11 May 2015

Buy books. Use real money.

The harsh realities of publishing economics have led to a lot of angst and breast-beating amongst writers lately. Last month, the Authors' Licensing and Collecting Society claimed that the median income of professional writers was £11,000. Cue howls of anguish from would-be novelists complaining that the world was unfair to their creative genius.

I think I might be forgiven for joining in. Burke at Waterloo will be available on Amazon from Thursday. I started writing it just over a year ago and, during that year, I’ve read a lot of modern and 19th century accounts of the battle and books and papers about the background to it. I’ve visited military museums in Winchester and Paris and been to a two-day conference on Waterloo at Sandhurst. I’ve corresponded with an expert on 19th-century firearms and had long discussions about the speed of travel by horse in this period. I've worked with two editors and a proofer. A cover designer has put on a beautiful cover and the whole thing has been set so that it can be enjoyed electronically or as a paperback book. I don't know exactly how much the book will be selling for, but the two previous Burke books cost less than £2 each on Kindle. I’ll leave it to you to work out how much of that comes to me and what that equates to per hour of work.

So, yes, I agree that the world is unfair. On the other hand, it's probably rather more unfair to a lot of other people than to the essentially comfortably middle-class educated types who are ever going to see their words in print. And nobody, after all, was ever chained to a word processor and told that they couldn't work in a hospital or factory but they must, instead, suffer the indignity of writing for a living. It's a sobering thought, nonetheless, that you can go online and buy the result of a year’s worth of my effort for less than the price of a cup of coffee.

Of course, even a small payment per book sold will give me a decent income (though probably not £11,000) if I sell quite a lot of them. But in this incredibly crowded marketplace, how do I do that? One option that many writers take is to promote their books by giving them away either free or at artificially low prices (yes, apparently, £1.99 isn't artificially low). This has led to further cries of pain, partly because you don't make any money out of a book that is given away for nothing, but also because many writers feel that this devalues the worth of their novels and hence, by extension, their writing and themselves.

I think the first thing to do is to separate out two different aspects of the question. The first is: does it make economic sense to give books away? The answer here is that it’s a commercial decision. I am published by one of the UK’s larger independent publishers (Accent Press) and they decide on how to price and promote my books. One reason I don’t self-publish is that I suspect that they know more about the commercial realities of publishing than I do, so I leave it to them. I don’t like seeing my hard work given away for nothing, but if they think that they’re setting a sprat to catch a mackerel (gosh, I haven’t heard anyone say that in a while) then I’m happy to sacrifice the odd sprat.

The second question is: are writers undervaluing themselves by pricing their books cheaply? This isn’t just a problem for writers. Musician friends are always posting on Facebook to complain that they are asked to play gigs for ludicrously low fees or even for no money at all. Unfortunately, in a capitalist free market things are worth what people are prepared to pay for them and, alas, people are not prepared to pay sensible amounts of money for books. I have a friend who has said that she is happy to read my books and happy to buy me a drink when she sees me, but she's not prepared to pay the price of a drink to buy her own copy of the book. Electronic publishing and piracy have made books into something that many people simply think should come without a price tag. Paying for books (like paying for music) has become something that a lot of people nowadays just don't do.

It seems that if writers want to feel valued, they are going to have to measure their worth in terms other than cold hard cash. Which, in many ways, is fair enough. Writers get fan letters (yes, even me). They get to read reviews where people publicly praise their work to the world at large and how many other jobs is that true of? They do something that they chose to do, which is personally fulfilling and which still commands a degree of respect from people at parties. Do they really need money too?

Well, for many people, the answer is clearly, ‘Yes.’ As Shakespeare asked, in another context: ‘If you prick us, do we not bleed? … If you poison us, do we not die?’ And, more to the point, if you neglect to feed us, do we not starve to death? For most people, earning a living is something they just have to do. This means that writing is increasingly the preserve of the old (living off their life savings) and the privileged (living off the backs of the poor – or a loving spouse). There are, of course, dedicated souls who do all their writing after an honest day’s work, but they don’t tend to have fulfilling full-time jobs, or families, or, indeed, lives.

Does it matter if writers are drawn from a small section of society? Does it matter if the young and the poor don’t get to write? Given that writers are all slightly mad anyway, is it a concern that most people with a family and a full-time job wouldn’t be able to write, even if they wanted to?

Perhaps it should. Perhaps a vibrant culture should represent everyone, not just those privileged to be in a position to put in the hours it takes to produce a decent book.

So what should we do? We could give state subsidies to writers, but in countries where this happens, the State almost inevitably ends up telling writers what they should write.

One approach used in the UK in the past was the Net Book Agreement. This was essentially a price-fixing agreement so that you just weren’t able to buy cheap books. If you wanted a book, you had to pay what the publishers had agreed was a reasonable price – an amount that authors could live on.

I think life has moved on since those days. Such an assault on the values of the free market would not be tolerated in 2015. Nor was it without its problems in the days when it operated. The abolition of the Net Book Agreement led to a collapse in book prices which has meant far more reading. More people buying more books is surely a good thing and I think it's sad when authors, desperate for some way to keep a reasonable income stream, espouse a cause which will reduce the amount of reading happening in the country.

I’m assuming that if you’ve got this far you think that reading is a good thing. You probably think that the government should support the arts more. You like public libraries. You agree that something should be done! But what?

Here’s an idea. Remember way back at the beginning of this post, when I said that if I sold a lot of books, even at a low cover price, I’d make enough money to make it worthwhile? That goes for other writers too. So if you care about the future of writing in the UK, next week (and every week thereafter) just forgo one cup of coffee (or one pint of beer, or one jumbo chocolate bar) and spend the money on a book. Think of it as your contribution to culture.

It doesn’t have to be my book – but make it something that isn’t a best seller (that charmed circle are the only authors who don’t need the money). You don’t even have to read it, though you may be pleasantly surprised if you do.

Burke at Waterloo will be published on Thursday.

Monday, 4 May 2015

Pawing and scraping: a taster from 'Burke at Waterloo'

'Burke at Waterloo' climaxes, unsurprisingly, at the eponymous battle. Burke is fighting with a Belgian cavalry regiment and I was describing conditions as they settled down for the night before the fight. The horses were, as horses do when they are fretful, scratching at the ground with their hoofs. When other animals do that, it is described as 'pawing' and the word can be used of horses, but it seems wrong because they don't have paws. I asked for help from horsey people on Facebook and, within minutes, I had 'scraping' as an alternative word and that's what I went with.

Several people have replied to this, some favouring scrape, others sticking with paw, with the odd mention of scuff or hoof. Many thanks to all who replied. I thought I'd better show you the context of the question.

The night before the Battle of Waterloo was very wet - something that decisively influenced the outcome the next day. Most of the troops had to rest the night in the open. It was a horrible way to spend what would be, for many, their last night on earth. This description of the experience of one cavalry regiment is a fair representation of what was happening all along the Allied line.

The problem with being a Staff officer was that you were denied the right to moan about conditions. All around, he knew, captains and lieutenants were muttering to each other about the imbecility of their commanders. As a member of the Staff, Burke was, in the view of the lesser beings who did not share his privilege, a representative of the very commanders being complained about. He must conduct himself so as to convince the 8th Hussars that any hardships that they might have to endure were completely justified by the military necessities of the situation.
Duvivier beckoned him over. ‘In weather like this, the French cavalry often sleep in the saddle. It spares the riders a night on wet ground, but it tires the horses. I won’t have it in my regiment. Spread the word.’
Burke moved through the column. Most of the men had served under the French and, as Duvivier had anticipated, many of them had no intention of dismounting. Burke could understand their feelings. The bad temper of the men was picked up by their horses: they fidgeted and scraped at the sodden ground, turning the area around them into a quagmire.
‘Captain! Colonel Duvivier requests that you order your men to dismount to rest the horses.’
A dozen times he gave this order to a dozen young officers, who responded with varying degrees of ill humour as their troops cursed Napoleon, the weather, and their colonel but, Burke noticed, not in that order.
The horses were under no orders to rest on the ground and, being intelligent creatures, did not do so. Instead they stood morosely in the rain, tethered to pegs hammered into the mud. The mud, of course, did not provide any real grip on the pegs, so the horses often pulled them clear from the ground and wandered off in search of fodder. Burke decided to take advantage of the liberties that came with his Staff rank and wandered off himself to see if he could find anything for his horse to eat. Once fed, it might not pull out its tether and, if it stayed still, Burke would try the cavalry trick he had seen of sleeping in the shelter of his horse. He had been assured that a well-trained horse never trampled a man lying beneath it and he was desperate enough to get out of the rain to believe the tales of men with more experience of war horses than him. In the event, though, there was no fodder to be found. While the withdrawal had been orderly, it was too much to hope that the provisions would have arrived at the same time as the troops.