Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Should Single Short Stories Be Sold Or Given Away Online?

Here is a blog I did for the Huffington Post. 

I will be blogging there about (mostly) books on a regular basis.

Thursday, 24 November 2011

What did the Internet ever do for us?

1: Not Having To Go To Tesco Ever Again

Yeah, I can hear you screaming. With your baggy trousers, ethnic hair twists and stringy dogs. I've been kettled in Oxford Circus. I was on the criminal justice bill march in '94. I reclaimed the streets with the best of them. But the forces of evil are not just dark they are devious. When they double up your club card points on toys just before Christmas and give you ninety quids worth of toys for nineteen quid and you are an impoverished ex-bookshop owner with the re-employment prospects of a melted mars bar well what do you do? That's right, you sell right out and shop at Tesco with everyone else. Until they invented the Internet. No more battling down the aisles, swerving amongst the day-breed, dodging the pointy elbows of old ladies with their magnifying glasses out searching for the cheapest chickens for me. Oh no. Now I order online and they deliver to the door. So they substitute stuff now and then. You get to know that cheese slices with chilli in are kind of weird but also strangely nice. I can live with that shit. Like I said at the top. What did the Internet ever do for us?

Friday, 11 November 2011


Another chunk of cliff had fallen away. The newly exposed surface was studded with fragments of shell, obscenely white, like splinters of bone protruding from a compound fracture. John ran his hand over the crumbling soil and felt a jagged sharpness. 55 million years of stillness then a crack of revelation as an edge of land disintegrated into sea. He found a complete shell and pulled gently until a piece of the cliff it was embedded in broke away. He placed the lump and the precious fossil into a compartment in a plastic toolbox then moved on, scanning the ground intently. He found a beautiful specimen: a single valve of a bivalve Artica. In contrast to the crumbly light-brown Upnor formation soil from the cliff this was in gray clay from the Thanet formation. He broke away as much of the surrounding matter as he dared before adding the shell to the toolbox.

A lyrical rushing, splashing sound raised his head. The tide was turning. The area he was walking on would soon be back underwater and the North Sea would gnaw away at the cliff once more, exposing further fossils. He looked out across the brown waters into a whiteness of low cloud. Seabirds called; gulls and now the mournful cry of a Curlew. The previous day a strong northerly breeze had snatched moisture from the clouds and hurled it as freezing drizzle into their faces. Today the wind had dropped but the main contrast was family. He was alone now and able to think.

He considered the shells and what 55 million years underground might mean to them. A gradual increase in pressure over the millennia as layers of sediment built up and sea became land, then sea once more. An era of dinosaurs came and went. There were ages of ice. The first people arrived, mastered fire, then advanced with technological violence toward the Romans where their well-built fort at Reculver guarded the Wantsum Channel, itself nothing but a silted memory by the time Barnes Wallace used the shallow waters to test bouncing bombs. The touch of his fingers on an ancient shell; a communion of something once living with something alive after a length of time that was, quite frankly, incomprehensible.

When he first met Sally he described himself as an artist. Nowadays, if anyone thought to ask, he was a teacher. What he used to consider his real work hardly existed any more. The geological pressures of monthly mortgage repayments and childcare had buried the art.

He smiled as he thought of his children dashing around on the beach.

“Dad! Dad! Look at this!”

Sally smiling, wrapped in layers of clothing, happy to be doing something as a family. He had acted out of love but the gesture had been misunderstood. His son was into dinosaurs. His daughter loved the sea. He remembered beach combing with his wife in France or on remote Scottish islands, searching for the most perfectly rounded pebbles or anything else washed up that took their fancy.

Is everything a lesson these days?”

That's what Sally had said when they got back to the car. The children were crying. One was cold whilst the other had dropped the last of their sweets into a muddy puddle. John was silent but furious. They had found nothing. It was impossible to look with the required intensity when the children were around. He had wanted to find a fossil, to feel they were learning something about the world from him, but his plan had dissolved beneath the onslaught of their small demands.

As he cycled home he thought about the shells and wondered how long a sea-creature like that lived for. A year? Ten years? An instant alive and then gone. Only the shell remained and now, after 55 million years, it was in the world again; touched by his fingers, inspiring these thoughts.

At home he showed the fossilized shells to the children. He told them they were 55 million years old and very delicate.

Did they have dinosaurs then?” his son asked.

Yes” John said.

He was unsure whether this was strictly true but hoped that somehow he could find a way to impress this five-year-old boy with these muddy treasures.

Wow! Can I watch some telly?”

John grabbed his son and hugged him close. His daughter let out a competitive roar and he circled her with the other arm, pulling her in against his chest. They giggled as he nuzzled them, smelling their hair. Instinctively they knew what mattered to everything was the here and now. 55 million years ago was interesting but not vital. No matter how hard you tried, you couldn’t fit all that time into your head. The children though were growing, living things. They were happening and they were now. His fossilized art would still be there when the children were demanding to be left alone. Perhaps everything is a lesson he thought.

Thursday, 3 November 2011

"Well-Written" and the Algorithms of Choice

So how do you choose what book to read next? Amazon and lots of other websites use the "if you liked this you might enjoy that" model, a truly revolutionary step that has led many an unsuspecting punter down the Long Tail from Coldplay to Royal Trux. I prefer the more complex algorithms of my life so, for example, the book I am reading now came to me via the following process.

1: Roy Hodgson, then Fulham manager, mentioned JP Donleavy in an interview. It was 2008 and we had just beaten Portsmouth on the last day of the season to stay in the Premier League. At the end of the game Roy strolled over to the adoring fans and mouthed "have a good summer holiday" at us. Summer holiday? Roy, we just pulled off the greatest escape EVER. We are not jumping around like a bunch of loons because we're looking forward to our holidays... A few weeks later my FFC and book buddy Richard Allen lent me a copy of The Ginger Man that I read and loved.

2: I was in a second hand bookshop in Faversham accompanied by my sleeping daughter in her buggy. My wife and son were watching the new Tintin film. The shop was well stocked but very small and soon I found myself physically trapped in a corner next to the "D" part of the fiction section. Whilst attempting to extricate myself I saw a copy of The Destinies of Darcy Dancer, Gentleman and decided to buy it.

So there you go, the Bookselector is the same as Amazon but different, when it comes to choosing books.

It is now that we come to the first part of the title of this post. (If you think that was confusing then you should give up now, despite the fact that the best parts are yet to come!) What do people mean when they say a book is "well-written". I have worked in some of the poshest bookshops in the country. I am familiar with the types who stride about, not always in pink shirts, and hold books aloft bellowing about how bloody well-written they are. I know what they mean too. They mean - "I like this and I am super fucking intelligent or just super rich and I like it so it must be written well" - but I fear that takes us no closer to the Truth. Then I was reading an article in which Geoff Dyer praised Denis Johnson (see previous post) whilst also saying that Johnson clearly had no idea what a sentence was and probably couldn't even write.

And this, dear reader (I am assuming you exist though the fact you never bloody comment makes you a lurker even if you are there), is where the two parts of the title collide, explode and become:

"The first minor casualties were the Slasher sisters. Two raving redheads, who both fell off in a deep flowing brook. Smiling, they remounted, water spilling from their boots and wet hair flying. And lips loosing rather not nice words. They charged up the hill. Fighting Murphy the Farmer was next. His horse going down at the gallop in a rabbit hole. And poor rider, he was flung like an arrow head first into the ground. Where he lay, believed to be soundly dead. Till someone hoping to borrow a nip from his small brandy bottle awakened him."

...and so on, all the way through the book. I mean, is that "well-written"? Whatever, it's JP Donleavy.

I think it's beautifully written. And I think Denis Johnson writes great sentences. So. There...