When Authors Go Astray

I had intended to sit down today and write a piece on what happens when your favourite author writes something you really don’t like; that is so unlike the thing you’ve been buying into all these years in terms of genre, style and content that you are left feeling really let down and, well, reeling from it all.

And then along came the advance copies of Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, the sequel to her global bestseller, To Kill a Mockingbird, revealing that our beloved Atticus Finch is really a racist, a bigot. And it has shattered our dreams.

I haven’t read it yet, but I’m reading reviews where people are clinging to the fact that this novel was written earlier than Mockingbird. They are using all the words beginning with D to describe it: ‘disorienting’, ‘disturbing’, ‘distressing’, with New York Times’ critic Michiko Kakutani summarising it thus:

“How could the saintly Atticus – described early in the book in much the same terms as he is in ‘Mockingbird’ – suddenly emerge as a bigot?”

Well this weekend I finally finished The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro, and could have summarised in a similar way, “how could the Man Booker-prize winning Ishiguro, consistently found to be a writer of great lyricism, melancholy and unrequited feeling – suddenly emerge as an author of a Bad Novel?”

The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro (Faber)

The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro (Faber)

I hadn’t been aware of any bad reviews at the time because I was (and am) a huge fan who doesn’t want to hear anything negative said about Ishiguro’s novels until I’ve read them myself. When I went back to look, I came upon the blasting from Adam Mars Jones in the LRB, concluding: “From the reader’s point of view it’s like excavating the supposed site of a medieval abbey and discovering the ruins of a multiplex cinema.” I can’t disagree.

From my friends and social-media acquaintances, there was a resounding silence on the book. A few had started it but couldn’t carry on, others had it gathering dust on a shelf (they knew they *should* read it but had been aware of the LRB review) and some just doggedly stuck to the ‘it must have had something brilliant in it that went over my head’ response.

No, guys. It’s just that a great literary novelist has tried to go ‘off-brand’ and written a poor novel. It happens. Let’s give the man a break and hope the Real Ishiguro comes back to us.

I started thinking that there was a pattern emerging between my favourite novelists (curiously all men) who’d all let me down a bit with a bit of a duffer. I could have cried when I started reading David Mitchell’s Black Swan Green, which treated the ’80s with the same shoehorned-in references to the culture as Titanic (the movie) did with its clunky ‘What would Dr Freud’ make of this?’ script. Where was the classy surrealist who blew my mind with Ghostwritten and Cloud Atlas? Having a break by writing something so utterly pedestrian I had to pretend it didn’t happen. I’ve got The Bone Clocks on my shelf to read next – don’t let me down, David.

Black Swan Green by David Mitchell (Sceptre)

Black Swan Green by David Mitchell (Sceptre)

Then there was William Boyd and his sudden switch into the crime novel in Ordinary Thunderstorms. Stupidly, I loved Boyd so much that I chose this for my book club, thinking I’d wow everyone with his talent for an epic, sweeping storyline, as seen in Restless or Any Human Heart. Nope – it was as though he’d asked his editor if he could ‘have a go’ at crime-writing. Some people didn’t turn up to the book club I hosted because the book was so bad. Thankfully, Waiting for Sunrise signalled a return to form.

Ordinary Thunderstorms by William Boyd (Bloomsbury)

Ordinary Thunderstorms by William Boyd (Bloomsbury)

And then Niall Williams and History of the Rain. This too, is on my bookshelves, but as I read about fifty pages in, that familiar feeling hit me. Gone was Brand Williams – lyrical, surreal, magically real, poetic – and in came a story written by someone I didn’t know, possibly because he was writing in the voice of a young girl, Ruth Swain. I wonder if that had put me off Black Swan Green, too, written in the voice of a thirteen-year-old boy. These books are more YA than anything (and incidentlally, Adam Mars Jones thinks the same could be true of The Buried Giant.)

History of the Rain by Niall Williams (Bloomsbury)

History of the Rain by Niall Williams (Bloomsbury)

I think this is what happens when authors writing into a particular genre, veer off in another direction without their readership knowing they’re going to do it. Publishers are culpable, in that they package the books in a similar fashion to their authors’ backlists, hoping they won’t frighten the horses.

I’d much rather they said, ‘literary fiction giant pens young adult/crime/fantasy novel for the first time’ in big letters – I’d still buy it, just to see what they’d done with it, and I wouldn’t feel as though I’d been hoodwinked into reading something ‘off brand’. I can understand an author’s urge to break out of a genre, just like bands do when they go all experimental in later years. The fans may waiver and yearn for the early days, but they do stick with them to see if their favourite band will return to form.

When they don’t for a while, we’re very reluctant to say so, it seems. We need to be able to voice that disappointment and move on, retaining the hope that one day the writing we love so much will come back to us. We do talk about film franchises being disappointing (hello Star Wars prequel) or albums being a disaster, but it just feels to awful to admit that a brilliant author has gone astray, let alone tell all our bookish pals about it. I was told that I was ‘controversial’ for giving Ishiguro one star on Goodreads.

Not controversial, just telling the truth.

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A Meeting of Minds

I’ve just attended the IT as a Utility (ITaaU) conference in the Solent University Conference Centre, Southampton, as a guest of the co-ordinator, Steve Brewer (@SteveITaaU). It is a community of researchers, practitioners and policymakers from a range of disciplines who investigate ways in which IT can help services, businesses and communities thrive.

Steve Brewer opening ITaaU conference (photo via  Clare Hooper)

Steve Brewer opening ITaaU conference (photo via Clare Hooper)

As a publishing consultant, I’m not an obvious delegate for this, but I’ve been to enough conferences to know that the real value is in meeting outside your usual network. I was piqued by sessions on interactive storytelling and the future of libraries so I decided to go. And hey – spending two days in Southampton isn’t half bad.

As somewhat of a lay-person when it comes to IT the themes and trends I picked up were fairly broad brush, but I did think there were some ideas and threads that were common to people working in any medium, which I’ll share here.

The Rush to Digitise

Something that resounded with me in publishing was the rush to digitise existing content, without any thought to how it may be used in the future. It’s something that’s hamstrung the NHS and they are busy looking at ways to unpick the mass PDF-ing of documentation. I thought of how we all rushed to convert our backlists into ebooks back in the day, and how a few voices were heard crying out, ‘wait, wait, what if we need to apply digital thinking to all our processes?’ and their voices dying in the wind. It’s only now that I’m hearing people in publishing say that digital is part of their everyday thinking and is no longer thought of as a separate department.

ITaaU programme day 1 (Photo via John Rooksby)

ITaaU programme day 1 (Photo via John Rooksby)

Fail Early and Fail Fast

From the presenters from ustwo and The Bakery to a surgeon at the University Hospital Southampton breast-cancer unit, all were united in their ‘fail early, fail fast’ thinking to projects. It made me think about how that is anathema to the long-winded publishing industry in many ways, and how real innovation has come from outside the corporate world in companies like Nosy Crow and Made in Me.

In publishing, one often finds books set on immovable tracks, set on a timescale to launch that doesn’t take in any sort of agility or ability to stop and think, ‘are we doing the right thing here?’ The thought of scrapping a book package and starting again because it’s not working – how many of us would be prepared to work through the night with a bunch of hacks to get it right? We’d be worried that the jacket was ‘already out there’ in sales kits and we’d confuse retailers and consumers with our switching.

Agility is something that we’ve weeded out of our thinking because of our need to hit Nielsen deadlines 7-9 months before publication. We have to wait until the paperback to get a second bite of the cherry, but then, our sales may have been damaged by the hardback package. Anyway…

Hackathons 

In publishing, we’ve had two very successful hackathons that I know of – one in the US in 2013 and the last in the UK in June 2014 (Futurebook Hack). I was struck at ITaaU by the way that the hack is at the very heart of most of the organisations that presented. Coming from a holacratic way of working, everyone is invited to the table to innovate, and I was particularly struck by the way in which people innovated on things that were already in front of them (Periscope was developed from porn-video technology).

One speaker used the overhead projector right in front of him to present, placing his iPhone on it and touching the screen to show his app. I thought, ‘that’s innovation, right there’. (He’d also hastily scribbled his name and job title in biro on a bit of paper which he shoved under the projector – brilliant). It made me think of how I’d used a secret Pinterest board to tell my career-in-publishing story at an SYP event because I couldn’t get Prezi to work. I innovated! A hackathon has to be at the heart of everyday life for it to really have an effect, not just once a year at a big publishing conference…

Makerspaces – the new libraries?

I discovered that a makerspace is the new library. Libraries in the US, and to a certain extent in the UK are now not only places where books are housed, but where information is exchanged and the tools for innovation are housed for communities to use, including 3D printers and laser cutters. Of course I’m behind the #saveourlibraries campaign, but I do believe that they need to adapt and expand their brief (even change their brand name) to be more relevant to today’s community needs. (They’ve never been just about books – we know that.)

I met the inspiring Ross Dalziel who has been working on Cloudmaker, which explores the gap between online Minecraft gaming and the real world, with communities of kids seeing their constructions printed out in 3D, and the mindblowing ‘Minecraft of Things’ in which messages are passed to and from objects in the real world and the Minecraft game. Astonishing levels of creativity and ‘beyond the brick’ thinking.

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Ross Dalziel’s scribblings from our libraries break-out session

Social Machines

I learned about the power of humans as social machines from Elena Simperl, professor of Web and Internet Science at University of Southampton. I hadn’t heard about Project Gutenberg, which aims to digitise public domain texts using projects such as Distributed Proofreaders, which divides out-of-copyright ebooks into individual pages to be proofread and copy-edited by the a volunteer ‘crowd’. Or the Streetbump app that collects data on potholes in Boston by collecting GPS/smartphone data from volunteer users in order to improve the community’s roads. The idea that real people do the creative work whilst computers do the administration is at the heart of good crowdsourcing activity.

Interactive storytelling

Blending storytelling, wearable tech and interactive theatre, Zoe Philpott brings the story of Ada Lovelace to life as a mathematician, Babbage collaborator and author of the world’s first computer programme. Determined that this incredible woman will not be written out of history, as she nearly was, Philpott is bringing her one-woman show to non-theatre venues, wearing a dress made of 500 LED lights and conductive thread, which is controlled with a glove. I started to think of the ways she could collaborate with museum people I know and made the connections on Twitter immediately. People shouted out names of potential venues from the audience, inspired by this single innovative idea.

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Zoe Philpott telling us about Ada Ada Ada (photo via Alana Wood)

As I walked to the station with a clutch of business cards, new friends and ideas swimming around in my head, I recalled Zoe’s words: “we didn’t know what we needed to know until we came here.”

I Don’t Know Why I Love the Tour de France

I don’t know quite why I love the Tour de France so much. These days I never get on a bike, and when I used to do it, I chose mountain-biking, not road-cycling. That was, until a move to the city put paid to my weekend forays into the countryside.

As the TDF once more hoves into view, starting this Saturday in Utrecht, I prepare myself mentally for the ITV coverage, with the highlight show on each night over the twenty-one stage route, with its bewitching Kraftwerk-a-like theme tune and the glorious sound of Actual Liverpudlian Accents providing the commentary.

I do think my love of TDF is something to do with the easy camaraderie from commentators Phil Liggett, Chris Boardman, Gary Imlach and Ned Boulting. Imlach’s beautifully crafted summarising is nothing short of genius. Every year I get a crush on this man who is invisible to the world until these precious three weeks come round, when, with perfectly coiffed hair blowing gently in the Alpine winds, Gary provides us with the all-important summary to the day’s proceedings.

The Imlach Image: Cycling Weekly

The Imlach
Image: Cycling Weekly

Then there are the cyclists themselves. Nearly all of them are on Twitter, a practice established by Lance Armstrong who called out tweets to his manager in the car alongside as he was going. We now get to follow their commentary as they put themselves through what must surely be one of the most gruelling tests of human endurance on the planet. I do follow them during the rest of the year, but during the TDF, it’s something special. A heightened state of tweeting.

It’s also something to do with their bizarre names. I don’t think there’s any other sport where you get a smorgasbord of names like Thor Hushovd, Tejay Van Garderen, Edvard Boasson Hagen and Ryder Hesjedal listed continuously by a range of Scouse accents. And don’t get me started on the weird and wonderful team names, with Cofidis fighting it out with Etixx-Quick Step, Movistar, Katusha, and Orica Green-Edge. I love the music of all of this, as the battle makes its way towards the final stage at the Champs Elysées.

Then there’s the unexpected detail en route, with the overhead cameras suddenly alighting on an interchangeable European hilltop monastery, followed by a quick soundfact from The Liggett. And the crowds surging in towards the riders as they climb the vertiginous Mont Ventoux or Alpe D’Huez, when I find myself shouting at the TV at some dolt in a polka-dot onesie attempting to get a selfie with Andy Schleck.

Image via Gunaxin

TDF regular, ‘El Diablo’ aka Dieter ‘Didi’ Senft (Image via Gunaxin)

Talking of polka dots… Which sport chooses to put its heroic top mountain-climber in a polka-dot jersey? Cycling. Somehow it doesn’t quite go with the scale of the achievement, but at least you get two beautiful French women kissing your cheeks while you’re wearing it at the end of the stage (not my favourite bit of the TDF, I might add).

Frenchman Anthony Charteau celebrates on the winner's podium after winning the polka dot jersey for top mountain rider at this year's Tour de France in Paris on July 25, 2010.  Spaniard Alberto Contador won the race, his third Tour de France title in the last four years.   UPI/David Silpa

Anthony Charteau on the winner’s podium after winning the polka dot jersey at Tour de France 2010. UPI/David Silpa

Those climbing sequences are my favourite. The never-ending twists and turns of the Alps, the expressions on the faces of the riders as they initiate a breakaway from the main group or ‘peloton’ to take the lead, or stay doggedly behind the leader (Maillot Jaune), riding in his slipstream. How they unzip their tops to reveal scrawny bird-like chests on the way up, and zip-up on the way down, grabbing protein bars and water as they go from the cars beside them while negotiating the crowds.

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Chris Froome climbing Mont Ventoux in 2013 (Image: Getty Images)

Then come the moments when the sprinters burst through on the flat sections, their bikes lurching like pistons from side to side as they try and secure the Green Jersey. I love how the teams support their sprinters, or their hill-climbers, to make sure their guys win a particular stage that is designed for their personal skillset. Froome’s support of Wiggins in 2012 was nothing short of legendary.

Bradley Wiggins brings it home in the Maillot Jaune in 2012. From left: Tejay Van Garderen, Bradley Wiggins, Peter Sagan, Thomas Voeckler (Image: CNN)

It’s the one sport where I don’t particularly care about nationality. Yes, I loved it when Bradley Wiggins won, but when I attended the Grand Départ in Yorkshire last year, I loved seeing Vincenzo ‘Nibbles’ Nibali winning the Sheffield stage. What was exciting was seeing the power, skill and determination in a group of athletes, while being part of a bit of France on tour – they even imported the gendarme to police the race in Yorkshire.

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Me in the VIP area in Sheffield Arena, at the TDF14 finishing line

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Vincenzo Nibali hammering across the Sheffield finishing line in #TDF14

So, really, I *do* know why I love the Tour de France and I can’t wait for TDF15 to begin. It’s the Eurovision of sport, and event TV is its genre. Oh, and did I mention that some of the guys are really good-looking?