July 2008


One of the books that I’ve read and really enjoyed recently is A Million Little Pieces by James Frey. It is the author’s memoir of his life up to the age of about 23, at which point he is in a rehabilitation centre for severe drug addiction and alcoholism. It is therefore mostly about his experiences struggling to face up to, and overcome, his addictions, and is very powerfully written. The writing style is unusual: all the sentences are short, some monosyllabically so, and nothing is disguised or embellished. This very direct way of writing fits his personality and attitude perfectly: stubborn, determined and open. He captures his own self-loathing perfectly, as well as giving a real sense of what it is like to be in the grips of a serious addiction. He is scathing of ‘programs’ such as ‘The Twelve Steps’ of the AA, seeing the religious focus of such support groups as merely replacing one type of addiction with another, and prefers to rely on his own sheer will-power and the threat of the knowledge of his own death if he were to relapse.

Some of the scenes described in the book are shocking in their detail – the vivid dreams he has about relapsing and the cravings he has for any, all and as much as possible, drugs; the violence he himself has perpertrated whilst on drugs in the past; the abuse some of the friends he makes at the centre have suffered – but this is part of the strength of the book. I think anyone who has ever experienced even less than one percent of this type addiction will find echoes of it in this book, and those who have never experienced it will gain a far greater understanding of just exactly what it can be like.

There has been a fair amount of controversy surrounding this book. It was very publicly endorsed by the media machine that is Oprah Winfrey, who then just as publicly withdrew her endorsement when it emerged that some of the details of the book – for example, the arrest warrants he is wanted for in different states – were innacurate. A big hoo-ha was made about this because it was meant to be a ‘memoir’, and therefore a factually accurate account of his life – some people even went as far to claim their money back because they said they had been misled.

Personally, I think such people have a little too much time on their hands, and are perhaps a little jealous of the author’s success. Yes, it is marketed as a memoir, but there is a subtle difference between a memoir and an autobiography or biography, which are designed to be non-fiction, straight-forward accounts of someone’s life. A memoir also has to be a story; therefore, if the author chooses to interpret certain events in a certain way, to include, exclude or adapt certain facts in order to make the story and themes he wants to tell more hard-hitting and memorable, I don’t see anything wrong with it. How is it any different to films which are ‘based on a true story’ changing the facts of someone’s life to make a better film? A Coen Brothers film which I can’t remember the name of said it was based on a true story when in fact it was completely fictional and no-one complained or asked for their money back. No-one complains about Laura Ingalls Wilder adapting the story of her childhood in order to make more enthralling and readable children’s novels.

Whilst it has to be said that, for every person who demanded their money back, the controversy surrounding the book probably meant there were several more who went out and bought it out of curiousity, I don’t think such controversy should detract from the essential power of this book. It is incredibly well-written, insightful and engrossing and I thouroughly recommend it. Every author has a right to an ‘artistic licence’ and I would argue that James Frey has used his to incredible effect.

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Science Fiction and Fantasy Fiction are, I think, often seen as a rather geeky and esoteric book genres read only by Star Trek fans who frequent nerdy conventions and rarely go out. But I am not ashamed to admit that a lot of my favourite books would probably fall into these categories, and I can’t quite see what the fuss is about. After all, many of the most successful children’s authors (and certainly my favourites – Diana Wynne Jones, Susan Cooper, Tamora Pierce, Paul Stewart and Chris Riddell, as well as J. K. Rowling) are essentially fantasy authors, so it seems a logical progression to me to progress onto ‘grown up’ science fiction and fantasy.  All these ‘childrens’ authors are also still eminently readable age 20, and I plan to still be rereading them in 50 years time!

I’ve been thinking about this this week because I just re-read Nimisha’s Ship by Anne McCaffrey, a very popular and influential but easily accessibly science fiction author, then today at work I was reading a children’s manuscript which was, in essence, science fiction: set in a future world similar to but eerily different from our own, where wierd and wonderful things can happen. This is the best thing about science and fantasy fiction, in my opinion: you can create completely new worlds and societies by creating parallel worlds or by setting your action on a far away planet in the distant future. This gives you completely free rein to let your imagination run wild – you don’t have to be constrained by historical or contemporary fact, but you can take an element of a modern or historical social trend or technological development and ask ‘what if’ to infinity. Some of the best science fiction, such as the Ender’s Game and Ender’s Shadow series by Orson Scott Card (although I wouldn’t recommend his other works as his religious views colour them far too much) are fantastic precisely because the future they imagine is so deeply rooted in our present, and the philosophical and moral dilemmas they explore are often very recognisable in ourselves. Not all science and fantasy fiction is moral, of course, which is often what makes it such an enjoyable, fast-paced and imagination-boosting experience, but even Dr Who has qualms about committing genocide against the Daleks!

I could rave and rave about any and all of the authors I’ve named above, and more besides, but I’ll spare you for the moment – do get in touch, though, if you’d like to dicuss them or want some recommendations for a bit of sci fi or fantasy!

Nearly the end of week 2 and I feel like I’ve been there forever! Most of my job has been more of the same, though I’ve had less time just to read – I’ve been compiling a list of all the UK TV and Film Production companies and what type of programmes they produce for one of the agents. It’s part of the agent’s job to also try and sell the rights to a book or its idea/plot (called ‘optioning’) to be made into a film or TV series, so of course it’s useful to know exactly which production companies would be most suitable for a particular project. It was a slightly frustrating task today though, because I did the classic thing of not saving my work often enough, so when my document froze on me, I lost the past 2 hours of work and had to start again! In the end I took a break from it by starting to look through the latest pile of submissions selected by their reader and sent back for further consideration. 

I’ve also been gaining (or rather gleaning) an understanding of the financial/business side of an agency, which is incredibly useful and interesting for me, too. I think a lot of people tend to think of publishers, editors and agents only in the glamourous sense of reading books all day and occasionally gracing a book launch party with your presence, but it’s clear that to succeed in this industry you need to always have it in the front of your mind that publishing IS a business, and ultimately, although you may be doing it because you are passionate about reading and books, your goal is to sell books to make money. This always therefore has to play a role in decision-making at the earliest stage. An agent can often literally only afford to take a risk on a very skilled new writer if they already have several successful commercial authors earning them money already. A lot, if not most, of an agent’s work is done before a book is sold, and therefore before there is any guarantee that the book is going to sell – and you could put twice the amount of work into one book than into another and yet earn half the amount the second book earns you. It therefore does sometimes happen that an agent might really enjoy a book they get submitted to them, but if the editors won’t buy it, then the booksellers won’t buy it, and the general public won’t buy it. Perhaps it’s a harsh reality but I believe in going into things with my eyes open!

I don’t want to give the impression, however, that all agents are hard-hearted money-greedy limpets clinging to authors – when you are working in such a competitive market, you have to be incredibly, genuinely passionate about the product to want to do it. And that means loving books!

Quite a while back I wrote about Literary Agencies, and mentioned that I was going to be working this summer at a literary agency  for five weeks.  This week was my first week, so here’s an update on my experience so far.

I’m really really enjoying the placement; the people in the office are really friendly and, crucially, not at all patronising, but seem to be making a real effort to treat me professionally and make me feel welcome.  I feel the work I am doing is making a positive contribution and that they appreciate me being there, which is so important – there’s nothing worse than being given pointless tasks just for the sake of giving you something to do.

My main tasks so far are: answering the phone and forwarding the caller on to the appropriate person, taking a message or dealing with their requests for information (normally about the submissions procedure) myself.  I also have to do the same thing with the general info email account.  I sort the post when it arrives in the morning and frank all the post to be sent out in the afternoon.  I’ve done some filing of expenses reciepts and finance reports.  But best of all, I have to read draft manuscripts of books they’re working on or which have been submitted to them and write reports on them – does the plot work, are the characters realistic and well-portrayed, is the writing style good, have I got any suggestions about how any awkwardnesses could be improved, do I think it would sell, to what market … and so on.  When you write a report on a book and your comments are praised and then forwarded straight to the author so she can consider them, it feels pretty good!  I feel it’s really honing my reviewing and editorial skills – it’s quite a different thing in some ways to read a book with an eye to what changes could be made to improve it – develop a character here, get rid of a useless side-plot there – but it’s really fuelling my determination and passion to work either as a book editor or a literary agent.  I’ve been looking at a wide range of things as well – from a crime thriller about a serial killer, to historical fiction, historical non-fiction, philosophy non-fiction and children’s short stories – which again is really good because each different type of book has to be thought about in a different way.

So more to come over the next five weeks about literary agencies, how they work and what it’s like to do a summer placement in one!

You may or may not remember my post on new website BookRabbit.com; if not, take a look and read it here before reading this!

So here’s an update: BookRabbit is now live, and as I had some free time with nothing better to do on sunday, I took photos of each shelf of my books (I have 12 shelves of books, 8 of which have two rows of books on them, which makes 20 individual rows!), signed up to BookRabbit and started uploading! The layout looks pretty good and seems easily navigable, but I had thought from what I read before that they were going to have some fancy software which would at least attempt to read the spines of the books automatically: either I haven’t found it yet, or that’s not the case. Instead, it’s a bit like tagging people in photos on Facebook: you draw a box round each book, search the title and the author and click on the right book when it comes up. Then, when you run the mouse over the photo, each book pops up at the side so it’s easy to see. It works pretty well, but as you can imagine it’s very labourious when you have to do 20 shelves one book at a time, so it’s going to take me a while – I’ve done 2 1/2 so far. The site also seemed to be very slow on Sunday and kept not responding, which I imagine is either because my connection is too slow, or because the site can’t deal with all the traffic it gets.

Nevertheless, I’m looking forward to exploring the site more. There are forums for discussing and reviewing books, interviews with authors and extracts from books; you can add friends and send messages; browse bookshelves and buy books. There is a section which tells you how many ‘bookshelf connections’ you have: any other user who has at least one book in common with you. The idea behind this is that if they have several books in common with you, you might like some of the other books they have and might be tempted to buy. It acts as a form of personal recommendation, which is so crucial to book buying, and it is a handy way to ease you in to the massive number of site users quickly and conveniently.

On the same lines of personal recommendation, they have a limited offer for new users at the moment. If you sign up soon, they’ll send you a free book (ostensibly) based on their analysis of your tastes. It’s a very good idea, because if they get it right, you’ll be more likely to trust recommendations made through the site and to buy through them. So did they get it right? My book arrived today; I haven’t read it yet but it looks interesting enough. It’s Disgrace, by J. M. Coetzee; it’s set in South Africa and, according to the blurb, explores the ripples and ramifications when a bored, twice-divorced university professor has an affair with a student, amidst the turbulent and ever changing political situation of South Africa.

It interests me enough that I will definitely read it. I wouldn’t necessarily have bought it if I were browsing in a shop, but I guess that’s the point of recommendations: to get you reading you wouldn’t normally choose. I also have family links with South Africa, which makes it even more intriguing, though BookRabbit couldn’t have known that! However, when I showed it to my dad, he said he’d already got it somewhere and that he hadn’t been that enthralled by it, so we’ll see.. definitely worth a try!

Meanwhile, take a look at BookRabbit, maybe sign up and add some bookshelves, if only so I can start adding some friends there! And if I continue to be impressed with the site, I may well start linking any book I mention over there rather than Amazon!