Wednesday, 31 December 2008

“Anche questa notte passerà.” (Giuseppe Ungaretti)

“This night will also pass away.”

I feel I should be bashing out a Books of the Year, or 100 Best Books of 2008, or 1,000 Best Books of the New Millennium list, as it’s becoming more and more common at this time of the year.

But the truth is I’ve never believed in this sort of charts – so, forgive me, I won’t give you one. I don’t think you can claim that Dante is “better” than Shakespeare or Shakespeare “better” than Milton. In the same way, I don’t think it’s fair to say that Jane Eyre is “better” than Wuthering Heights or viceversa. No BBC-poll- or red-button-produced list will ever convince me that one author or one book is ranked higher than another one in any all-time chart.

I believe that a book speaks differently to different people at different ages. For example, when I was younger, I was strongly influenced by Keats, Yeats, Dylan Thomas, Dante and Ariosto, to name but a few. These days I only go back to Dante on a regular basis, and rarely read from the other four. I have also developed a kind of aversion to Yeats which was unthinkable a couple of decades ago.

If you had asked me to name my favourite three books in the genres of poetry, fiction and drama back in 1990, I would have answered, without hesitation: The Divine Comedy, The Idiot and Macbeth. If you were to ask me the same question today, I would be completely at a loss.

Not only have I read hundreds and hundreds more books since then, but my knowledge of certain languages and their literatures (as well as the context they fit in) has changed, and as a result of my daily editorial job I am a lot more critical and exacting. Keats was a demigod for me in my twenties – now he’s much more human, and I can see a lot of the flaws (even linguistic ones) in his poetry that other authors such as TS Eliot have pointed out.

So my personal chart is an ever-changing affair. But my new year’s resolution is to try and talk, on these pages, about some of the authors and books that I love or influenced me most.

Happy New Year!


Tuesday, 30 December 2008

Where are the Dickenses?

Very good points, Sean. The centuries-old battle between the ancients and the moderns seems to have been degraded to a conflict between mainstream and non-mainstream, with the former signifying the commercially successful and the latter encompassing any literary production that doesn't sell.

But what is mainstream? Ahem. You'll be delighted to hear that has just released its top ten best-selling books for 2008, and these are:

1. The Tales of Beedle the Bard (JK Rowling)
2. Dear Fatty (Dawn French)
3. Jamie's Ministry of Food (Jamie Oliver)
4. Delia's How to Cheat at Cooking (Delia Smith)
5. A Thousand Splendid Suns (Khaled Hosseini)
6. Jamie at Home (Good Old Jamie again)
7. The Book Thief (Marcus Zusak)
8. Dreams From My Father (Barack Obama)
9. Aliens Love Underpants! (Clare Friedman – I want to read this one to my kids)
10. A Quiet Belief in Angels (RJ Ellory)

So there's only three fiction titles in there, and six celebrity titles. Where are the Dickenses? Where are the Dostoevskys? Where are the Prousts and Joyces?

I listened to the discussion about the relationship between mainstream and avant-garde culture (Radio 4, 29th Dec). Hari Kunzru and Tom McCarthy pitched their arguments very well to the middle-brow listener, but it says a lot about the BBC that we're only having this discussion now – when culture is at least 20 years into its 'post-avant-garde' phase – and at 07.47, on the 29th December, when no one's listening except farmers having their first tea break. A few years ago, this discussion would have been allowed to unfold over a half-hour slot at a reasonable hour (on the Late Show, say, chaired by Michael Ignatieff…) rather than used to fill a fallow news period.

In his Foreword to the 2006 edition of Infinite Jest, Dave Eggers puts David Foster Wallace forward as epitomising a kind of literature that speaks to both mainstream and what we used to call 'avant-garde' audiences; in other words, that encompasses accessibility and difficulty. It's a pity the discussion didn't touch on DFW's work, especially as, half an hour before, George Saunders and Jonathan Frantzen had discussed it on the same programme, in carefully crafted literary obituaries. What was needed, at this point, was someone in the chair to point out that DFW was precisely that intersection of mainstream and non-mainstream sensibilities that the discussion between McCarthy, Kunzru and Stewart Home seemed ready to explore. What's needed is a discussion that explores what we mean by 'accessibility' and 'difficulty': whether, by the latter, we still mean 'something one has to read a dozen times to "get"', 'not pandering to received wisdom' and so forth (in which case, why bother?), or whether contemporary artists are working to new paradigms of difficulty. The problem with what is called 'avant-garde' or 'experimental' writing is that it behaves as though the war against received wisdom has already been won, as though the opposition between accessibility and difficulty really did come out in favour of difficulty – ignoring the fact that the best writers have always arbitrated between private and public wisdom, between the world-views of citizen and populace.

“Thoughtless as monarch oaks that shade the plain.” (John Dryden)

“Patients to rate and review their GPs on NHS website” is the leader on today’s The Guardian. Aghast, I glance over the article and find exactly what I was dreading to read: Ben Bradshaw, the Health Minister, claims he wants the site “to do for healthcare what Amazon has done for the book trade … providing positive and negative feedback, warts and all, from consumers.”

Great idea, Ben, well done! This is the stuff of great policy-makers! We should all take example from Amazon, who have brought so much light, joy and happiness in the book world.

I know you’re too busy thinking up more epoch-defining reforms such as this, but I want to tell you a little story about Amazon’s book reviewing.

Pushkin Press published, a few years ago, Antal Szerb’s masterpiece, Journey by Moonlight, in a wonderful new translation from the Hungarian by Len Rix. Pushkin have exclusive rights for this work across the English world. Now, some US professor – without the shadow of a contract with the Szerb Estate or a publisher – took it upon himself to make another translation, called it The Traveler and self-published it using a large print-on-demand publisher. Then he reviewed his book – or had it reviewed by some of his students – two hundred and seventy-four times on That’s right, two hundred and seventy-four times. These are long, glowing reviews of the professor’s translation, at times with a positive mention of the professor’s other unpublished works, and disparaging references to Len Rix’s translation.

Since the title is different from the canonical one, it was difficult for Pushkin to spot it in the Amazon jungle, and it took them years to notice it. The problem came to a crux this year. Pushkin sent a polite letter to Amazon and to the publisher, asking them to remove the book from their websites and giving the reasons. They got back a furious letter from the professor, with threats of a legal suit if they tried to prevent his book being on sale, because he claimed he was in possession of a valid contract from the Szerb Estate. The professor’s son is a lawyer, so it didn’t cost him much to resist any legal challenge.

To cut a very long story short, the result was that Pushkin had to hire a US lawyer and pay a lot of money to bring the matter to a close, as neither Amazon nor the publisher would do anything about it otherwise. In the end, the book was temporarily removed from, and the US professor was silenced and forced to disclose the sales figures of his edition. Pushkin received no compensation for loss of sales. As I write this post this morning, I see that The Traveler is back there online, with all its fake 274 reviews, warts and all.

Whoever thinks that this is the exception rather than the rule is wrong. I know that most authors ask their friends to review their book positively on Amazon on the day of publication. Many of the “impartial” reviewers are in fact people with an agenda of friendship, self-promotion, spite and rivalry, or a secret grudge against the author or the translator. Over the years, we had to ask to remove quite a few moronic or nonsensical reviews of our books. Some are still there, for all our complaints. The only thing you can do, in that case, is to bury the bad or spoof reviews under a mountain of fake positive ones. So we end up feeding the system and wasting an inordinate amount of time on a “meaningless popularity contest”.

Where do our politicians live, I often ask myself? What have we done to deserve such inanity and short-sightedness? Cannot they see that Amazon, Facebook, Wikipedia and the like can be easily manipulated and abused? We need someone to check content, dear Minister, and it’s your job and that of your colleagues – not ours – to check the credentials and the performance of GPs and hospital staff.


Monday, 29 December 2008

"Which, from the carcass of the old world free, Creates a new world." (John Donne)

Just a quick note to alert you to a very interesting Radio 4 discussion about "mainstream" and "avant-garde" between the experimental writer and anti-novelist Stewart Home, Tom McCarthy (at one point author of the bestselling novel "Reindeer") and Hari Kunzru.

You can find it here (it's the 7:47 slot, ten minutes long):

They all expressed valid points. Unfortunately, when the subject is so vast and the time so limited, speakers cannot avoid making broad generalizations.

My own point of view is very similar to Hari Kunzru's, but I also agreed with Tom's idea of "vanguard", although I didn't know any of the names or works he mentioned, with the exception of Joyce's Finnegans Wake.


Sunday, 28 December 2008

“Mal tu par l'encre même en sanglots sibyllins” (Stéphane Mallarmé)

“Badly silenced by ink in sibylline sobs.”

I’m often asked “How do you select your books for publication?” or “What do you look for in a novel?” This is a question that I find rather awkward to answer in a few words.

I believe that publishing is an incredibly subjective business, and that publishing programmes are an idiosyncratic expression of their publishers’ tastes. Having said that, I also believe that there are – or at least there should be – some recognizable and universally accepted standards concerning grammar, style, characterization and plot.

For me, a book must work on a number of levels: be ambitious in terms of themes and scope, but not over-intellectual. Style is certainly the most important variable in the equation, and what I generally look for is a distinctive voice, like an artist’s brushstroke.

I am not particularly keen on experimental writing, with multi-perspectives and stream of consciousness. I don’t like conceits such as a turtle or a dog being the narrator. I think that the simpler and the more linear the narrative, the more satisfactory is the result for the reader. What I also love is to detect a touch of humour – so long as it doesn’t verge on the clownish, the grotesque or the absurd.

I’m not interested in detective stories and gory thrillers. Science fiction doesn’t turn me on – I usually find historical novels boring. I prefer third-person narratives to first-person ones.

Whenever I receive a submission, I try to read it cold, without looking at the author’s CV or any endorsements. If the work is good, it should grab my attention and sustain my interest from page one. I hate anything that is predictable or formulaic.

Above all, I try not to follow the general taste or any particular fashion, and to be as critical towards a new work of fiction as I would be towards a classic, continually asking myself: “Would this stand the test of time? – Or at least ten, twenty years?”

So, you see, it’s actually pretty easy after all.


Saturday, 27 December 2008

“This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.” (William Shakespeare)

One of the most frequent questions I am asked is: “What brought you over to England?” I generally say, to keep my answer short and simple, that Elisabetta and I wanted to set up a publishing house, and decided to do so in the UK, where we could see a gap in the market for short classics in translation. But this is not strictly true, and if I wanted to be more accurate I should answer that it was a combination of things.

Our love of the English language and its rich literature certainly had a great part in it. I originally came to the UK because I was offered a PhD in comparative literatures at Leeds University, which I then turned down to work in London as a translator and bookseller. The title of my proposed thesis was going to be ‘Erasmus’s influence on Shakespeare’s plays’ – a grand project on which I would be probably still working if my underlying diffidence of academia had not prompted me to decline the post.

Another factor in our choice to live in Great Britain is our rejection of many Italian attitudes such as clientelism and nepotism. It would have been difficult for us, with our mentality and approach, to fit in a society that doesn’t promote talent and is not based on fairness and merit. And probably, in ten years, we wouldn’t have achieved a fraction of what we have achieved in UK.

But I believe that the real reason of our move to Great Britain is much more difficult to pin down. A few weeks ago, I chanced on an old letter which I wrote to a German friend when I was around eighteen. In it, my idea of moving to England was expressed for the first time. This document suggests I must have been thinking about moving abroad from very early on. Elisabetta, on her part, spent most of her summers in UK from the age of fifteen onwards, and has always adored English language and culture above any other, so moving to UK was for her only a natural consequence.

So the real answer to the question “What brought you here?” – if we are totally honest with ourselves – has nothing to do with publishing. Publishing just happens to be the job we are in at the moment, and one of the ways we express our ideas and the values we believe in. The real, simple answer is probably that, as many other things in our life, it was just written in the stars.


Friday, 26 December 2008

“Man only is the common foe of man.” (William Godwin)

Or, as Hobbes put it, after Plautus, "homo homini lupus".

The quote is from the epigraph to William Godwin’s The Adventures of Caleb Williams, one of my favourite English novels of the late eighteenth-century. William Godwin – for those who don’t know him – was Mary Wollstonecraft’s husband and Mary Shelley’s father, a fine novelist and an important anarchist thinker.

I am hoping to reprint some of Godwin's lesser-known works in the next few years. If you haven’t read Caleb Williams, Godwin’s masterpiece, I warmly recommend it – especially if you are a thriller fan, as this novel is considered by many to be the forerunner of the genre.


Thursday, 25 December 2008

“More hearkening to the sermon’s horrid sound.” (John Keats)

A quick Christmas report from the religious front. Yesterday we went to the 5:30pm mass at St Elizabeth’s Catholic Church in Richmond, and I was surprised to find the church completely packed. By a rough count, I reckon there must have been at least three hundred people, if not more.

It is a sign that if the Anglicans are struggling to fill their churches, the Catholics are experiencing a kind of post-modern resurgence, despite the financial crisis and “Ratzo” Ratzinger’s recent pronuncements.

So the old boys appear to be back in business – at least for a day – and judging by the substantial offertory proceeds (which must surpass the takings of many retailers these days, and certainly have better margins and no taxation), there is every indication that the Catholic franchise will be brought to more locations near you in the not too distant future.

Happy Christmas again,


Wednesday, 24 December 2008

“I also like to dine on becaficas.” (Lord Byron)

I love Christmas in England. Not so much because of its atmosphere, but because we receive massive boxes full of goodies from Italy. Over the years, we have managed to set my parents against my in-laws in a kind of secret competition, so that they try to outdo each other in terms of quantity and quality. I’ll give you an example. This year, my parents sent us a huge box containing:

2 Kg of Grana Padano parmesan
1 piece of pecorino romano
5 chocolate torroni
5 almond croccanti
7 bags of ciambelle al vino
2 bags of bussolani (local handmade sweets from my area near Rome)
2 pangialli (ditto)
1 pack of fettuccine
plus a few presents for our children

But they came a clear second to Elisabetta’s parents, whose shipment contained:

7 Kg of parmigiano reggiano (!)
20 litres of olive oil
various cheeses
a 1-Kg prosciutto piece
2 salami
assorted chocolates
3 packs of taralli pugliesi
2 packs of orecchiette pugliesi (fresh pasta)
1 handmade panettone
1 big box of figs wrapped in dark chocolate (imagine that)
various presents for our children

You will think that there are enough provisions here for twelve or fourteen months – wrong. By the end of January, maybe with the exception of the olive oil, we’ll be already scraping the barrel. Matter of fact, we spent a very busy morning at the Borough Market today to stock up our larder, just in case.

If you were to assume, from the above, that Italians love their food and can’t talk about anything else, you’d be absolutely right. Now, if you will excuse me, it’s time for me to go and prepare tomorrow’s lasagna.

Happy Christmas,


Tuesday, 23 December 2008

“We will ride on the dust of days.” (Vladimir Mayakovsky)

Last day at the office. I am glad to see the back of 2008: it’s been an incredibly challenging year, full of ups and downs, hellishly busy. It’s been the year of Barack Obama’s historic victory and the year when the Great Western Bubble burst. The year of Beijing’s Olympics and the year of my younger son’s first word. A year which brought us hope and uncertainty, happiness and worries in equal measure.

Here’s hoping – from me and everybody else at Alma – that 2009 will not be so gloomy as many Cassandras have foreseen, but bring prosperity to everybody in their private and professional life.


Monday, 22 December 2008

“Uomini siate, e non pecore matte.” (Dante)

“Be ye as men, and not as silly sheep.”

If we needed another proof that man is a brother to the sheep, this week’s news of a twenty-five-year-old song being propelled to number one and two in the UK charts by its fleeting appearance on a TV singing competition, and the simultaneous crowning, on both sides of the Atlantic, of JK Rowling’s book – or, rather, non-book – The Tales of Beedle the Bard, will certainly convince any remaining sceptics.

A bookseller once told me in Sharjah: “If OUP were to publish completely blank dictionaries, people would still buy them.” We live in a society where the name – and the celebrity aura or the brand associated with it – is more important than the content itself. The old medieval idea, nomina sunt consequentia rerum, has been turned into its exact opposite: now anything seems to be stemming from a name. . . and it has no existence if a big name doesn’t bestow grace from above. That’s human evolution for you.

A sonnet I wrote over fifteen years ago – entitled The Sheep – says:

Who does not see being herded as sheer bliss,
noticing life is oh so comfortable
for sheep today? Who does not feel the pull
of blessed bleating self-forgetfulness

on meadows the good shepherd has picked out;
to graze uninterruptedly and browse,
and tamely ruminate, and even drowse
like a domesticated fireside cat.

To live this way – no trouble to be taken,
and with no need for thinking in the least –
I would be happy to be milked and fleeced.

The ancient wisdom’s very much mistaken:
better a hundred years spent sheepishly
than live as lions do one troubled day.
(transl. J.G. Nichols)

At least The Tales of the Beedle, Dawn French’s Dear Fatty and Stephenie Meyer’s books have ensured that sales this year don’t look as bad as they should. But who’s benefiting from it?

Not me – not you, dear Reader – not your children.



Sunday, 21 December 2008

'The Okey Cokey' (extract from 'Sunsets and Dogshits')

Every other Wednesday I take my nephew to the Juniper and Barnardo Club on Cable Street for an evening of song and dance, a fortnightly revisitation of all those East End classics – ‘Roll Out the Barrel’, ‘Any Old Iron’, ‘Do What You Do Do Well’ – that always ends with that most edifying of spectacles, ‘The Okey Cokey’. My nephew’s favourite bit is when “you put your whole self in and take your whole self out”. I suspect that this is because Uncle Sean, though keen and committed when it comes to putting his whole self in, is, if he’s being totally honest with himself, a little bit slow at taking it out again. His right arm and his left arm, his right leg and his left leg, he can manage pretty well: these he is able to offer and retract with comparative ease, with almost as much agility as anyone else. But when it comes to the insertion and retraction of his entire corporeal being, well, no one struggles more than he. And no sooner has he finally contrived to remove his whole “self” from the ring of revelry in the traditional fashion (i.e. by jumping backwards), than the words to the song oblige him to insert and remove it again, double-time, almost at once! With the result that, while the other participants are going “in-out-in-out, shake-it-all-about”, Uncle Sean has fallen even further behind, is only just taking his whole self out again; and when, with excellent slapstick, he has finally executed this almost impossible manœuvre, this simultaneous insertion and retraction of his entire twenty-stone bulk, and is just on the point of “shaking it all about”, everyone else is going “Oooh the okey-cokey-cokey!” and waving their arms in the air. This spectacle of Uncle Sean marooned now in the middle and now outside of the ring, like the ever-excluded single-set in a Venn Diagram drawn specifically to illustrate his motor incoordination, is a delightful one to my nephew, for it always culminates in yours truly singing “Knees bent, arms stretched, rah-rah-rah” and performing the accompanying moves all on my own, in complete silence, the needle catching on the record’s lead-out grooves in mockery of this indefatigable soloist.

Heaven forbid that I should ever resolve to master ‘The Okey Cokey’, for to master it would be to diminish the achievements of my peers, would be to imply that anyone was capable of doing it – that no skill or style were necessary. To inflict such a heresy on the Juniper and Barnardo Club would be unthinkable, and would rightly result in my immediate exclusion. And yet, any such success, or even slight improvement on my part, would already be tantamount to my exclusion, for no longer would I have a role to play. I would become invisible; we would all become invisible, subsumed into a single unit of tight, flawless choreography. I am determined to prevent that. Determined.

Next week we will look at ‘Heads, Shoulders, Knees and Toes’.

The Hamilton Journal of Contemporary Dance and Physical Theatre, 2001.

Saturday, 20 December 2008

“Che di non esser primo par ch’ira aggia.” (Petrarch)

“Furious that he's not given pride of place.”

I was at another literary party yesterday evening. As it happens, it was in Richmond this time, so for once I didn’t have to worry about driving above the limit on my way back home (joke). It was a very good party, and I met a number of writers and other interesting people, among them Carole Seymour-Jones, Neil McKenna and Yvonne Antrobus.

The host, Naomi May, is an ex-Calder author and a fine writer. I have heard from John Calder – not the most reliable of sources, I must say – that he was about to publish her third novel when Naomi’s daughter, who was an agent, decided that it should be submitted simultaneously to several publishers. A new publisher did not materialize, and in the meantime Calder’s list had moved on and was bursting at the seams with new authors. The result was that Naomi’s third novel never saw the light of day. She continued to write over the years, and penned a number of other novels which remained unpublished – but that accident knocked her off her stride and practically killed her career as a writer. It is a great shame, as she is a talented novelist, but I suppose in modern times writers must keep one eye on their pens and the other on their tracks.

In the last few years, it appears that managing your writing career is almost as important as the quality of what you write. Aspiring authors are desperate to have their breakthrough and be published, believing that this will be the end to all their frustrations, and that success will follow almost as a matter of course. They are wrong. Being published once doesn't mean you'll be published again or be able to write another work, because as soon as you get published the stakes are raised and the pressure increases – pressure to sell, to make yourself heard among the hundreds of thousand of published authors, to secure a new contract, to write the “big” book, to win some prize, to write a bestseller.

Whether you are a debut novelist or an established writer, once you’ve received a good advance and the book has not performed to your publisher’s or agent’s expectations, be sure you will be in the firing line. If your latest book has been moderately or even decently successful, you’ll be expected to do better with your next one – and if you don’t, you’re dead in the water.

These days I am receiving more and more submissions – very often unagented, which is worrying – from published writers who have been dropped after their first or second book. They come to us with very good credentials: they have been published by Cape, Chatto, Faber… they’ve won prizes and their books have been translated into many languages. Still, their publishers have lost faith in them and let them go.

This kind of authors are usually more desperate than unpublished writers – firstly because they feel they are entitled to be taken more seriously than the amorphous rabble that has yet to make it into print, and secondly because they believe that – having published their first book – they can now make a career out of their writing and build their life around it.

I think this is one of the worst mistake a writer could do. Extremely few authors are able to make a living out of writing, so to believe that your first book gives you promise of a steady income for years to come is to live in cloud cuckoo land. If you are an aspiring author, my suggestion is that you don’t try and make it into a profession, but keep is as a hobby or as your second or third job – both for your mental sanity and the health of your finances.


Friday, 19 December 2008

“A book’s a book, although there’s nothing in’t.” (Lord Byron)

I’ve always thought that publishing was – first and foremost – a craft, almost an art. How mistaken I was. The reality, in our cynical, money-driven world is totally different. You see all sorts of books printed on the cheapest papers and full of unpleasant "orphans" and "widows", not to mention typos and editorial mistakes of all kinds. This lack of care is criminal. By lowering the production quality of a book, you devalue the quality of the author's work. I think there should be – as in other industries – some minimum acceptable standards (especially for the paper: FSC-approved is not enough, in my opinion), in the same way as you cannot build a house with non-approved building materials or by dodging planning, architectural and construction rules.

As the founder of Hesperus Press and the production manager of Alma Books, Oneworld Classics and Pushkin Press – all imprints that pride themselves on going the extra mile in order to foster a different reading experience among readers – I believe that the quality of the contents should be reflected by the quality of the typesetting, paper and printing.

For many years I have used the National Press of Jordan, because they are excellent people, because their prices are very good and they care about the detail. Since they invoice in dollars, when the pound was strong it was ideal for us. More recently, because we have more than quadrupled our output (we now print almost a hundred titles a year) and turnaround times have become a sensitive issue when scheduling and managing the list, we have been forced to move all printing back to UK.

I have discovered that there are some very good printers in this country, and my personal recommendation is Cox & Wyman (part of the CPI Group) for mass-market B-format paperbacks and TJ International (based in Padstow, Cornwall) for hardbacks and higher-quality paperbacks. They really care about quality, at every step of production – and it shows. Also ScandBook in Sweden – who have printed only a few of our books so far, with great results – can ensure quality at a very good price. A big plus with them is that their printing is long-grain, which gives the book a superior feel. Unfortunately, with the plummeting pound, they’ll find it tricky to remain competitive in this market.

Obviously, as you may have gathered from my morbid ramblings about paper and typesetting, the digital age has not quite arrived for any of our imprints. Perhaps I am too old-fashioned – perhaps I’m living in denial – but I tremble at the thought that my children might prefer reading or studying a book using a Kindle-like appliance rather than pick up one of our lovingly produced volumes from the shelves.


Thursday, 18 December 2008

“Tie up the knocker – say I'm sick, I'm dead…” (Alexander Pope)

Can we all bring back the phone, letters and paper submissions? Can we lobby for the abolishment of email in the workplace, please? Yesterday – which was a very quiet day in many ways – I screened the email traffic on my computer at work: 65 emails received (18 with attachments), 48 emails sent. About a dozen of the messages that hit my inbox were submissions: three from some geezers who must have fished my email address on one of those magazines or websites for aspiring writers; two from UK agents; the rest from foreign publishers and agents. I don’t have a Sony Reader, nor do I intend to get one, so these electronic submissions can be easily messed up (because I print only the first few pages), overlooked or not considered properly. Significantly, the last two books we signed were good old-fashioned paper submissions. Agents, publishers – send me a hardcopy please!

I have always believed in technology, and tried to make good use of it without becoming enslaved by it. I was one of the first people in Italy – or certainly in my neck of the woods – to have an email connection. Back in 1990 or 1991 I think it was. I still have my first, prehistoric modem tucked away somewhere at home – and I am sure one day it could make a fortune at Sotheby’s. But I think many people still don’t know how to use it properly, especially in the workplace. Rather than being time-saving, most of the time email becomes wasteful. And it generates even more work, and consequently stress.

The direst consequence of some of the most recent innovations that have taken a firm place in our life – mobile phones, Chat-rooms, Networking Sites, Ipods and Blackberries – is that our brain is constantly under fire and at risk of being interrupted – or rather disrupted – in its normal operation, which is thinking, reflecting, imagining and remembering. Our attention span has been reduced, and we have become restless. Sitting down and reading a book for pleasure is becoming more and more difficult. Finding the “mental space” to think and write even more challenging. Constantly under pressure, we end up making some important choices in a split second, and often making mistakes, not thinking enough – as we realize when it’s too late.

But there’s a cure: being selective in what you do and how you do it. “Forgetting” your mobile phone, and leaving it at home every now and then, for example, is a good starting point. So is switching off your Blackberry during meetings or shutting down your email program for long periods during the day, even in the office – especially if you are doing something that needs attention.

Maybe, if we learn how to use technology properly, without being overwhelmed by it, we’ll be able to find it more useful and get to enjoy our life a bit more, as in the good old days – ten years or so ago.

Wednesday, 17 December 2008

"In the room the women come and go..." (T.S. Eliot)

More catastrophic news from the publishing world, with Woolworths closing down all of its stores – and probably bringing down Bertrams in its downfall – Faber reporting a sharp decline in sales and Quercus putting growth plans on hold. The atmosphere was completely different at yesterday’s British Council Christmas Party, where I had the pleasure of meeting many friends and acquaintances, including the charming Paul Marsh of the Marsh Agency and his wife Susie Nicklin, the Director of Literature for the British Council. Christopher Maclehose was there too, but not his faithful dog Mishka, who probably did not pass the tough, Star-Trek-like security system at the entrance.

The mood was upbeat among the many writers, publishers and literati who attended the party: there were lots of smiling faces around – not to mention red noses – as well as many exceptionally good-looking girls. There are those who will tell you that publishing tends to attract total toads. I think this is a filthy slander, and I would welcome your comments, and your personal experiences, regarding this point.

During the party, I met Laura Chernaik, who I think has one of the coolest jobs in the world, as she looks after the Poems on the Underground. I would exchange my position for hers any day, and she can be sure she’s going to receive quite a big pack from us early next year.

Among the many writers I met there, the performance-poet Michael Horowitz told me a couple of funny anecdotes. I’ve been following his work for a few years now, and if you’ve never seen him perform his poetry and you happen to be in London, I highly recommend his event at the Calder Bookshop on Thursday 12th February.

When all is said and done – because of the people who attended, because the room was spacious, the white wine cool and the speeches short, and because the atmosphere was not as depressing as it might have been, given the recent news from the industry – I think this was one of the most agreeable literary parties I’ve been to in years.


Tuesday, 16 December 2008

“Ché saetta prevista vien più lenta.” (Dante)

"The arrow, seen beforehand, slacks its flight."

I was pleased to read John Calder’s piece yesterday. John Calder on the net? It was a weird, almost anachronistic moment, as if I were hearing Jonathan Swift on the radio or seeing William Pitt on TV. His article, and the news of Bernard Madoff’s giant fraud, brought back to my mind an episode I had completely forgotten. It goes back more than twenty years ago, when I still was in Italy.

My best friend came to me with a kind of pyramid scheme, whereby a large number of people at the base of the pyramid were to post ten thousand lire – the equivalent of ten or twenty pounds today – to the address of the person at the top of the pyramid, in the hope of getting promoted to the next tier and eventually, with more players to be actively recruited and persuaded, reach the top and get showered with money. It was obviously a simple but very effective fraud, of the kind you can easily fall for when you are a naive youth of sixteen. But the fact that this opportunity came from my best friend (who was also hit by the con) made me even more willing to part with my money. My family tried to dissuade me, but I thought that it was worth gambling my savings, as the rewards could be huge, and went for it. I never got my money back.

This reminded me of a passage from Gulliver’s Travels, which I am rereading now:

“There are some laws and customs in this empire [Lilliput] very peculiar, and if they were not so directly contrary to those of my own dear country I should be tempted to say a little in their justification… They [The Lilliputians] look upon fraud as a greater crime than theft, and therefore seldom fail to punish it with death. For they allege that care and vigilance, with a very common understanding, may preserve a man’s goods from thieves, but honesty hath no fence against superior cunning. And since it is necessary that there should be a perpetual intercourse of buying and selling, and dealing upon credit, where fraud is permitted or connived at – or hath no law to punish it – the honest dealer is always undone, and the knave gets the advantage.”

Very true in the case of Bernie Madoff. You certainly go to jail if you steal an apple (well, maybe you used to go), but it is more difficult to bring you to justice if you swindle fifty billion dollars. Our laws are funny.

I must admit I have always had a soft spot for conmen and fraudsters of the Madoff or Abagnale type. They are almost romantic figures. A few years ago, I wrote a novel called Grand Tour, and its hero – or rather, anti-hero – was a conman wreaking financial and emotional havoc across Europe and getting away with it. The idea had come years before reading a short article on an American chap who had six or seven wives (and lives, and jobs) in different states. You wonder how exciting the life of such individuals must be… until they are discovered.

But what is really worrying is that many financial (and some non-financial) institutions – as well as entire governments – seem to be run on the same principles used by Bernie Madoff in his colossal scam. Borrowing against what you don’t have should be illegal both for the individual and the State. Good old Napoleon said:

“It is unjust for a generation to be indebted to the previous one; a loan should be limited to fifty years. Why should the people, who are not responsible for the debts of the deceased king, not have the privilege of the crown? A means to preserve coming generations must be found, without having to resort to bankruptcy.” (Aphorisms)

We must accept that the boom-or-bust model of capitalism is not only financially but also morally bankrupt. Rather than borrow and spend more and more, rather than force growth and inflation with debt, we should re-educate ourselves and teach our children to avoid excess and waste of resources. Greed is an animal instinct, and it should be curbed. Then life on our planet may become sustainable again, and possibly fairer.


Monday, 15 December 2008

"A patched-up affair, if you ask my opinion." (T.S. Eliot)

Reading blogs about the position of publishing and all matters that touch the book, reading, the distribution of information, knowledge and culture quickly blends into the prevailing worldview of a period of growing catastrophe that anyone with the ability to think should have seen coming a decade ago.

Everything tries to imitate nature in Schopenhauer’s sense. That is to say that things get bigger and bigger and inevitably worse and worse because nobody can understand something that is too big. Every bubble must burst one day and plenty turns to waste. Schools are throwing out their libraries to make more space for computers, television sets and all the other placebos that replace reason based on thinking and the ability of minds to be individualistic. It is no surprise that fundamentalism is returning, not only in religion, but in political and economic ideology. Who reads the great thinkers of the age of enlightenment, from Voltaire, Hume and Burke to Darwin, Marx, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Shaw, Freud and Russell? Who even has the will to look them up in reference books to get an inkling of what they had to say?

Every age and every part of the map of our planet has known two cultures, one of knowledge-seekers (not necessarily for a humanitarian or worthy or moral cause, as greed is often as much a motive as a sense of right and wrong) and one of those who simply want to float through life without doing other than satisfying the appetites for nourishment, pleasure and empty entertainment. Only a small minority of homes possess a dictionary, let alone any other book. The treasures of great literature, music, art and intellectual culture are known to only a few, ignored by those elected to govern, neglected by education. More than any other factor it is those treasures that divide human beings, after millions of years of evolution, from the lower animals, even those we love as pets who share some of our potential for understanding the world about us.

That we are moving backwards in evolution can no longer be doubted. The world, with few exceptions, has become ungovernable because the most intelligent among us have decided not to waste their short lives in arguing causes that people are not willing to try to understand. In many parts of the world to be known as intelligent or to express opinions is too dangerous. Huxley and Orwell have given us different, but highly probable, predictions of the future and in some cases of the present. Weaponry is capable of destroying us all and fanaticism is willing to use it.

What has this to do with publishing? If publishing has any function it is to educate us to know what is best for us. Fashion, manipulated by those seeking profit or power, has nothing to do with education. The state cannot educate, but the individual can educate him- or herself. Making us want to learn, to know, to think is what education is about, and nothing can replace the book to focus attention and concentration, which no longer is encouraged in the young. But one must always hope for change, and the present economic crisis, which will continue for at least a decade unless a world war or totalitarian regime forces us to face reality, may bring about a change of mind. The bursting bubble will bring much pain, but it might also bring relief. What is needed are a few great minds able to find a way to understand our situation and make us face the real world, not the chimera that press, politicians and ignorant celebrities put in front of us.

John Calder

Sunday, 14 December 2008

"Un bel tacer non fu mai scritto..." (Italian proverb)

A decent silence was never put in writing. . .


Saturday, 13 December 2008

“Martyrs of pies and relics of the bum.” (John Dryden)

Or fish-and-chip wrappers, as we would call them today. If publishers are in deep crisis, newspapers – especially serious newspapers – appear to be on death watch. This week we heard of major cuts and redundancies at the Telegraph, the Independent and the Guardian. The book-review pages are shrinking by the day, and literary editors are being laid off.

In a world where content and speed of communication have taken over, information quality is not so valued any more. “Real-time” and “ready-at-your-fingertips” are the new bywords. Accuracy is so passé. Enter Wikipedia, the great revolution of twentieth-century Western knowledge, and a paradise for self promoters. In it, an unknown living artist will look much more important and influential than a fifteenth-century master. Lack of context, rules and critical approach – this is Wikipedia – the epitome and the highest achievement of the world wide web.

If there’s a free web encyclopedia that everybody uses and accepts as the Bible, then only a fool or an idealist will invest in a traditional encyclopedia. The result will be cuts in commissioning serious research and a monopoly of reference information, with no one in charge of content and no one checking the quality of the information provided. My knowledge is extremely limited, but whenever I use Wikipedia, I can spot hundreds of mistakes, inaccuracies, generalizations, oversemplifications, slants and deformations of the truth.

With the Internet pouring out a gazillion words every day, is it any surprise that traditional newspapers are going under? People don’t really care whether they are reading a self-published, self-styled online journalist who has copied and pasted information from other unchecked sources or a commissioned piece by a respectable author. They just want easy headlines – now. But by destroying hierarchy and authority in the name of democracy, we are also transforming knowledge into hearsay, information into gossip. Printing news on paper is still very important. Buy the paper next weekend, don’t read it online.

The publishing world will probably suffer a similar decline in the next few years. This is not necessarily bad – some people will think – as it might cure our generation of the recent excesses we have witnessed. But it is much more likely that the decline in books will simply mean less investment in risky or literary projects, and fewer and fewer people reading fewer and fewer “big” titles. Oh well – have a nice weekend.


Friday, 12 December 2008

“But where the dead leaf fell, there did it rest.” (John Keats)

My desk, on my return from the States, was not a happy sight. Unfortunately there is no publishing fairy who clears the bumf off your desk in your absence. On the contrary, bills, invoices, letters and submissions seem to pile up faster than ever the minute you walk out of your office.

Somehow or other, I managed to plod through the day – a long, tedious day besieged with computer glitches and annoying interruptions. As a reward, in the evening, Elisabetta and I joined some of our Spanish literati friends for a lovely evening at Tapas Brindisa in South Kensington. If you don’t know this place, I highly recommend it for its atmosphere and the quality of its food.

The mood among British publishers is certainly as black as across the Atlantic. There were rumours of cuts, closures and redundancies, and the feeling that a Big Freeze is going to sweep over the publishing world early next year. Luckily enough, there were enough literature enthusiasts there (and enough Tempranillo wine) to chase the shadows away: Bill Swainson of Bloomsbury, Carole Welch of Sceptre, Kirsty Dunseath of Weidenfeld and Nicolson, and Christopher Maclehose, who was accompanied by Mishka, the mostle gentle and well-behaved dog that ever barked in a public place.

Martin Schifino was there too. After being in touch with him by email and having heard of him so many times, it was a pleasure to meet him in the flesh. Unfortunately, he has already planned his getaway from gloomy London to sunny Barcelona via Argentina next month. I think we will all miss his passion and enthusiasm, but greater challenges beckon to him, so best of luck to him!


Thursday, 11 December 2008

"But wonder how the devil they got there!" (Alexander Pope)

In my rare contacts with the Italian publishing mafia before my move to England in 1997, I have often asked myself this question. The people I met during my occasional visits to publishing houses in Milan and Rome as a poorly paid translator invariably gave me the impression of happening to be there rather than wanting to be there – to have landed their job almost by chance, not because they had followed their true vocation.

During my ten years as a bookseller, translator, editor and publisher in UK, that initial impression has not substantially changed. Of all the thousands of people I have come across in UK or during my many trips abroad, only a few dozens or so – as far as I can remember – appeared to be motivated by a sincere love of literature or, if not literature, books.

It is therefore always refreshing to get to know a real enthusiast such as Barbara Epler of New Directions. Barbara is one of those people who still cares about books, authors and words. She can get passionate about a novella by an unknown young Cuban writer, or stop by their archive room on the way out to give you two of her favourite books. Her office looks like John Calder’s basement den on a bad day, only it’s at the top of a high building on Eighth Avenue, with wonderful vistas of New York’s financial district, so it’s not half as depressing. Still, you have an obscure feeling that, were you to sneeze in her room, you’d be facing certain death by paper, and be found only weeks later.

Another great enthusiast is John Oakes, the founder of Four Walls Eighth Windows and, more recently, Atlas Books. I had the good fortune of spending some time with him and to meet his family and some of his friends. This afternoon, he made me a big present when he invited me to meet Barney Rosset, “the most dangerous man in publishing”, as a big feature on the latest issue of Newsweek describes him.

The publisher who brought Waiting for Godot and Tropic of Cancer to America is now a frail – but lucid – eighty-six-year-old who, I am told, is on his fifth marriage and doesn’t have a nickel to his name, having blown away fortunes on Grove Press, the publishing house he founded in the early Fifties and lost in 1985 to some oil heiress of the Getty family. He’s an old friend and rival of John Calder, so it was delightful to sit next to him and share with him some gossip over a glass of red wine (at 3:30 p.m…).

Like Calder, he hasn’t stopped writing, publishing or being politically involved. A book of memoirs is forthcoming from Algonquin, and a new venture – a sort of publishing co-op – will be launched next year by him and some of his friends.

This chance meeting, after the gloom and doom of the previous days, has left a very sweet aftertaste to my US trip, and I look forward to coming back to New York in May – hopefully with my wife Elisabetta – and enjoy again the company of some of my new American friends.


Wednesday, 10 December 2008

Nunc est bloggandum!

So here’s my first post – from New York City, where I arrived last Thursday under the threat of snow and Labrador temperatures. After spending Friday and Saturday with friends in New Jersey, I moved into a lovely hotel off Fifth Avenue, on 32nd Street. For the past two days, I have been doing the rounds and meeting publishers and agents, and can report that the general consensus is that the US publishing industry has officially entered a period of unprecedented crisis and uncertainty. The recent news of Houghton Mifflin’s problems and the large cracks suddenly showing in Random House’s granite temple on Broadway – with Doubleday to be subsumed into the remaining imprints – have sent powerful shockwaves all over Manhattan, and beyond.

Although during my meetings I tried to talk about books, my interlocutors invariably turned to the subject of recession – and asked whether in my view the same will happen in UK. My answer to them was – yes, the same will happen in UK too, and it may be even worse than in the US.

The way I look at it – and this may be a gross generalization or misinterpretation – is that most problems stem from the rotten methods and lack of principles of the corporate world. It’s known to everybody that the CEOs and CFOs of most big and medium-sized corporations receive huge salaries and obscene perks. What is less known is that they tend to be old pals coming from a similar background (possibly the same schools) and who have rubbed each other’s shoulders for a very long time. In order to justify their astronomical salaries – and those of their cronies – they’ll do anything to push sales through the roof during the period they are in charge. They’ll show great results to their shareholders, and substantial profits, and will go on and on with their lavish and wasteful ways, trying to achieve unrealistic growth rates.

The same applies to publishing. Most CEOs, publishers and CFOs have a similar pedigree. And in publishing it’s extremely easy to fiddle with numbers: sales can be overstated in many ways, you can give your stock an exaggerated value, allocate royalty payments to the previous or following period, and other thousand little tricks to make the company’s books look healthier than they really are. This is fine until there is cash washing through the company: the minute cash stops, the cracks begin to appear – and no fiddling can help: people have to go, companies have to fold.

Why is it that if you ask any impartial observer, he’ll tell you that it’s almost impossible to make money in publishing, and that most publishing houses – small, medium and big – are losing money all the time? People seem to be aware that this is happening – that publishing is a genteel way of losing a lot of money. Yet nobody, inside the ivory towers of publishing, is willing to admit this, and everybody keeps looking for the next Harry Potter, the next Da Vinci Code, the next big thing. They might as well play the National Lottery.

Most of the people I talked to – and I saw around twenty publishers and agents – claim that this is all for the good: that we are going to learn from our mistakes and be cured from our excesses. Well, I have my doubts – and I’ll be curious to follow the denouement of the current crisis when it hits the white cliffs of Dover at full force after Christmas. Goodnight for now. AG.