Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Act of Faith

Perhaps I'm being over-sensitive, but in general I avoid telling people that I write a blog. When I have told anyone, I feel very uncomfortable, as if I've just announced an interest in Dungeons and Dragons, or a penchant for Genesis.

Most people I tell assume that I'm a frustrated writer, but nothing could be further from the truth. I have occasionally harboured musical ambitions but never literary ones, thanks to two decades of bookselling.

When I joined the original Waterstone's (which was still run by Tim Waterstone) as a lowly bookseller, one of my jobs involved sitting in a dark cupboard, tearing up books. Most of these books were unsold first novels, which the publisher had deemed worthless. Rather than pay for the whole book to be returned, it was agreed that it would be more cost effective to just tear off the front covers and return them in a jiffy bag.

I remember sitting on a kickstool, with a black bin liner between my legs, throwing away novels that had often taken years to write. Some of them looked very good, but for some indefinable reason - a lack of reviews, poor marketing or an off-putting blurb - the books hadn't sold.

There was one particular new novel that I really liked. I had read a proof copy and expected the book to attract a lot of broadsheet reviews, but it was published almost by stealth and I don't remember selling a single copy. A few months later, the author committed suicide.

Whenever I have a fleeting urge to start writing a book, I think of that dark cupboard and the thousands of unsold books I've returned to publishers over the years.

I was reminded of this when, last week, we received a consignment of discontinued stock from Belfast's public libraries. Most of the books were popular novels published between the 1950s and 70s. It was like looking at a collection of books from a parallel universe. I didn't recognise a single name.

Do any of these authors ring a bell?

Vian Smith
Dave Wallis
John Verney
Kathleen Sully
George Shipway
Robin White
Doreen Wallace
Frederic Wakeman
Dal Stivens
Herbert Simmons
Jayne Viney
Joyce Porter
Gerda Rhoads
Malissa Redhead
Marshall Pugh
Clare Simon
John Pollock
Simon Waldron
Katharine Sim
Grace Phipps

I haven't come across modern editions of works by any of these writers and over half of them have no Wikipedia entries. It's as if they never existed.

Seeing so many forgotten books could have been a depressing experience, but does every novel have to be written for posterity? In their time, these authors were rated highly enough to be published and enjoyed a wide readership, which is all any aspiring writer can hope for.

Very few women read 'The Women's Room' these days and I doubt whether many will read 'Bridget Jones's Diary' in 20 years, but that doesn't diminish the impact these books had in their day.

By the time I'd finished wading through box after box of obscure novels, I felt amazed, but also grateful, that people wrote and published books at all. It seemed an act of faith that flew in the face of reason, and we are all better for it.


Anonymous said...

Wow! What a perceptive peek into the world of book publishing! I think we all know deep in our hearts that if we write a book, it will probably languish on the vine unpublished and unread. Still, if the bug to write strikes, we have no choice but to write something in spite of the dire predictions. And who knows -- once in awhile, it may be lightning which strikes and an unknown like JK Rowling hits the big time. So we all keep plodding away. Because hope really does spring eternal. Cheers!
Canadian Chickadee

David said...

There's nothing wrong with having an interest in Dungeons and Dragons...

Kári Tulinius said...

Both Genesis and Dungeons & Dragons are hip now. How the world turns.

And yeah, posterity is overrated as a judge. Too many great writers almost got lost but for pure happenstance. And there are lost works that were almost certainly masterpieces. To take two examples from antiquity, almost all of Catullus would have vanished if not for one manuscript that languished in a monastery, and we have but scant fragments of Sappho's poetry. Posterity is a terrible judge.

Oh, and speaking of... what was the name of the author whose novel got lost in the shuffle?

Steerforth said...

Wrong, no. But I'd still keep quiet about it ;)

Steerforth said...

Genesis are hip? Are you talking about the early, prog rock Genesis (which I secretly like, which is why I included a link), or the later, Phil Collins backing band Genesis?

Is D&D cool now? I want evidence.

Lost in the shuffle - Patrick White?

You're right about posterity - up to half of Bach's works were lost after his death.

Kári Tulinius said...

Yeah, it's Gabriel era Genesis that have gotten hip. I've heard people make arguments for Phil Collins era Genesis too, but that's rare.

As for D&D and hipness... well, I guess it's more that lots of hipsters play role-playing games with regularity. Also board games. It's a pretty good Sunday brunch activity. This may be an American thing that hasn't made it across the pond. Lots of hipsters were geeks in their youth (and still are).

Patrick White? The Australian Nobel laureate?

JRSM said...

I have 'Corner Boy'! Looking at its Amazon page, a few people are still raving about it. I bought it after it got an enthusiastic write-up in 'The Rough Guide to Cult Fiction'.

Anonymous said...

To answer your question, yes, one of those names rings a bell -- George Shipway. I'm fairly certain I read his novels The Paladin and Knight in Anarchy (published in the U.S. simply as The Knight), way back in the late '60s, early '70s, from our local public library. So at least one of them is not forgotten. :-)

~ A fan of your wonderful blog

Martin said...

I'm still surprised at the number of people who don't know what a blog is. That uncomfortable feeling is familiar, though. I wonder how many established authors feel slightly uneasy about their own blogging activities?

I think I've always fancied the idea of writing a novel, but it's not an obsession. If it ever happens, it happens. And with that degree of commitment, it just might. Sometimes, you can want something too much.

Incidentally, my extensive and eclectic music collection is a Genesis-free zone.

Finally got around to reading the David Karp, by-the-way.

Junie said...

This reminds me of one of my favorite fictional characters, Millicent Gentle from P.D. James A Taste for Death.

In case you aren't familiar with her, she's an elderly romance novelist (!) whose work no longer sells. She lives in near-penury with only her dog for company. Yet she is cheerful and grateful for all she has. She says, "I have my health, my old age pension, my home and Makepeace [her dog] for company. And I still keep writing. The next book may be the lucky one."

Would that we all could look forward to such a stalwart and serene old age.

Steerforth said...

Kári - there is a board game thing going on over here (I'd probably be joining in if I wasn't surrounded by people who hate playing games), but I haven't seen any D&D - don't the games last too long?

I don't know. I've only played D&D once and actually won the game, but it was a hollow victory because I had no idea how or why I'd won it.

James - I knew you'd recognise at least one of the authors and I thought it might be Simmons, as none of the others looked as if they'd qualify as cult fiction.

Thank you Anon - I'm glad you like the blog and it's good to hear from people who recognise any of these authors. They seem to have disapeared from bookshops in the 160s, but survived in public libraries.

Three cheers for the public library!

Steerforth said...

Martin - yes, I'm surprised by the number of people who still haven't heard of blogs. I was trying to explain to my mother, but I saw her eyes glaze over and then she changed the subject to someone's recent operation.

I hope you enjoy the David karp.

Junie - I hadn't heard of Millicent Gentle. I can think of quite of few authors who are like her - on the verge of being dropped by their publisher, but still in print due to a loyal following in the public libraries.

I agree with you, there are worse ways of getting old.

zmkc said...

John Verney was my hero and the hero of many of my childhood friends - we loved Friday's Tunnel, February's Road and Ismo (not sure if that's the right spelling) by him and discussed these at length on the bus to and from school. He also invented the Dodopad (a kind of diary much loved by Sloanes).

Jim Murdoch said...

I think this is one of the problems I have as a writer. I imagine that everything I write needs to be worthy to pass the test of time which is why I actually produce so little because I set ridiculously high standards. I see many of my fellow bloggers chucking out stuff almost daily some of them that’ll get scanned by maybe a hundred people and read by perhaps a dozen and then it’s onto the next post. And that saddens me. I’m not suggesting it’s wrong to set out to produce a work that will only have a short lifespan – journalists do it daily – but I find it hard. I suppose it’s an ego thing – I mean, aren’t we always told that being egotistical is bad? – but if we don’t believe in ourselves, who will? I’m sure many of those authors in your list will be more philosophical about it, shrug, and go, “Ah well, at least I had my day in the sun.” I suppose the good thing for your list of authors is that they wrote at a time when more people read and there was less to read than there is now and so they likely had a bigger audience than many contemporary writers. That’s something.

Anonymous said...

I wrote my MA thesis on Laurence Hope (pseudonym) the forgotten Anglo-Indian poet. In her day, her real name was Adela Florence Nicolson, she impressed D.H. Lawrence and her family were known to the Kiplings (I'm recalling this memory so not sure of the details). There is some scattered work on work and more information to be found relative to some of these authors. Her poems also survived as parlour music for a little longer than most poems do which is something. The book-seller John Jealous died whilst I was writing my thesis and his wife kindly sent me all his Hope books. They are stunning books and you can find copies on Ebay but the whole thing was so disheartening to work on that I have since changed my entire discipline from English to Philosophy.

Steerforth said...

zmkc - You've whetted my appetite. I'm going to look at the John Verney novel when I get back to work.

I must admit, I hadn't heard of the Dodopad. Here's the link, for anyone else that hasn't: http://www.dodopad.com/

Jim - I agree, blog posts are disconcertingly ephemeral (not as bad as tweets), but I'm still excited that anyone is reading something that I've written.

Even if I managed to publish a book, the likelihood is that it would only be read by a few thousand readers. I remember an article that compared the sales of a Booker Prize-shortlisted novel (2,300) with the circulation of Angler's Weekly (17,500).

But of course, I can quite understand why you want to write something that will last. There's nothing like a real book.

Steerforth said...

Paul - judging by your blog, you made the right move. Fascinating stuff, most of which was way over my head, but it's good to be stretched.

Anonymous said...

Being a tomboy, I not only played D&D at uni (the only girl in the Wargames Club) but I loved the Gabriel era Genesis.

As the Fairport song says, 'It all comes round again' but probably not 'Again and again' as Quo say in the case of most of those books. Sorry - the Genesis mention has turned my brain back to 1978ish!

Roger said...

Why are surplus books from Belfast libraries being sent to South East England to be disposed of? It seems a long way to send them

Steerforth said...

A good question, Roger. I think we just offered the best price.

Gaskella - I can see you now, dice in hand, with The Battle of Epping Forest on in the background ;)

Janis Goodman said...

John Verney was a writer of some of my favourite children's books too -all borrowed from the library - one of those writers whose fictional world I spent a lot of time inhabiting - I'd love to see how they read now but suspect that none of them have been reissued. I've been reading and enjoying your blog for a long time but think in the past I thought you had to have a blog or a google account to post. Glad that's not/no longer the case. I had wanted to post on the subject of where to send old diaries having heard a radio 4 programme on the subject but eventually someone did post you that information.

The Poet Laura-eate said...

This reminds me of the story of thousands of Mills and Boons being used to help build that road of dreams; the first toll motorway in Britain


How sad about the failed author who killed himself. Why couldn't he see it as a failure of marketing rather than quality of product and put some effort in to address the matter?

Then again, perhaps becoming a novelist is also an act of fatalism.

You are a superb writer Steerforth, but I do understand your reservations about it in view of your background. And you are certainly not wrong that it's a tough haul to make it as a successful author, particular when many publishers are giving 80% of their budget to the likes of Dawn French, leaving them only 20% to share among their other authors in increasingly tiny advances, let alone sufficient budget to publicise their entire stable of publications.

Good point re the long-forgotten writers and the success they enjoyed in their time. Anyway they've gone one better than wiki now if they've found resurrection on The Age of Uncertainty!

Zoe said...

I love the cover images you've selected. Very much of a time. I guess a copy of each of them is in the British Library? I know I wouldn't mind ending my days there.

Steerforth said...

Funnily enough, Laura, the business I work for is probably one of the major contributors to the motorway extension, helping thousands of people to drive across the complete works of Dickens.

(I should add that we do everything we can to save books, but there are some editions that nobody wants).

You're right, it is a tough haul to make it as an author and I've seen too many good books fail and bad ones thrive to believe that the book world is always a meritocracy. And as you say, it doesn't help when a huge chunk of the marketing spend goes on a Dawn French title.

Steerforth said...

Zoe - it's funny that you should mention the British Library. I have a post on them coming up shortly.

I love these covers too. I'll try and post some more.

Lucy R. Fisher said...

Steerforth - you have what a lot of writers don't: something to write about. I have actually written (shudder) one or two (or three) novels. I'm so happy I no longer feel the need. I destroyed all trace of them. Re blogs, my sister said "I don't mind, as long as I don't have to read it." Didn't know I had to ask anybody's permission!

Anonymous said...

Such an interesting post! This is something I've thought about a lot. It isn't just popular novels that fade into obscurity, but canonical writers and works as well. (Does anyone read the hugely influential Chateaubriand, for example, now? - I know some people do obviously, but when did you last see a copy of René or Atala on the shelf?) The story about the author who committed suicide is terribly sad. Are we right to judge the situation from a consumerist / market point of view alone? In other words, if an obscure book has truly enriched a few lives, is that book worth less than a celebrity book that's sold thousands of copies, made a lot of money for some, been consumed (or not) by lots of people one Christmas, and added very little to anyone's inner life?

Matroskin said...

I have mixed feelings about this topic. Some novels might have lived their time but you never know, not having read them. There's an English publishing house called Persephone which reissues novels that were popular in their time. I've read about 5 titles and they were all very good. I had never heard of the authors before.

My husband just stayed with relatives without a book and took some obscure 70s novel from their shelves, and liked it a lot. It's sad to think how many interesting novels one misses altogether because they are no longer in print or in the library.

Matroskin said...


Anonymous said...

Great article. I have a paperback copy of Corner Boy. I haven't read it though. It was published by Ace Books I think, the UK company, not the more famous US one with the same name.

broken biro said...

I'm just visiting (from Martin's blog) but your post struck a chord. I just started working in a library and I always feel sad when I come across books that haven't been borrowed for ages... especially as we have to get rid of them to make space for new releases.

So many books, so little time!

Lee said...

You've provided exactly one of the reasons I can't be bothered to chase a publishing contract!

Matroskin said...

PS: Several of Joyce Porter's books have been translated into Finnish. The latest reprint is from 2003.

Steerforth said...

Richmonde - Three novels? I'm impressed. Published or not, the mere act of completing a work of fiction is, I think, admirable.

Christine - I agree. Market forces would just give us Dan Brown and his ilk. I think a lot of publishers have got the balance right between mass market and literary titles, as the former usually subsidise the latter, but I don't like the huge advances that are being awarded to celebrity authors.

I'm ashamed to say that I've never read Chateaubriand, but I probably will now thanks to your recommendation.

Brokenbiro - I often see library books that have never been taken out. They're usually "good" books, which makes the whole thing even sadder.

Matroskin - It's odd that Joyce Porter is still popular in Finland, but I think that some authors are better in translation.

I used to work in a town with a large German community and had many customers ask for Noah Gordon, who was apparently a bestseller in Germany. The first time I was asked, I'd never heard of him and I remember the anger and incredulity that this successful, English-speaking author wasn't available in a British bookshop. But he wasn't popular here and when I eventually found one of Gordon's novels, I could see why.

Lee - Publish and be damned!

Anon - thanks for the comment re: Corner Boy. This book seems to have made a lasting impression on several people, so I'm intrigued.

Anonymous said...

I also remember reading George Shipway's novels, borrowed from my local library as a teenaged boy. The historical ones had just the right mixture of sex and violence to appeal to a 14 year old..
"The Chili Club" was a bit of an oddity; a reactionary fantasy of the said club of retired cavalrymen -like the author- doing away with stock right-wing hate figures (a black power activist, a liberal bishop...) and it culminated in Stonehenge being vaporised in order to do away with the fellow-travelling Prime Minister! They don't write them like that any more, probably for very good reasons.

Ryan MCFC said...

I love your blog and this post, but I have a different feeling about this. I worked at an independent bookshop for ten years and saw all the best (in my opinion) books go unloved by the masses. Most only kept in stock because I manipulated the computer count to make it look like it sold once or twice. Yet, I never thought of it as sad in the way that you are saying. I kind of thought it was great that the book even existed and I connected with it. Sure maybe some of those books had very few fans like me, but they connected with somebody in an important way. That seems incredibly powerful to me.

Now I illustrate books that have a very(extremely)small audience so far. I am nothing but happy about the experience though. After each book the author and I have heard from a handful of kids who really connected with it, and they have made it all worth it for me. Maybe they will protect my books the way I protected those others. Maybe the numbers of dedicated readers will never grow, but I couldn't really ask for anything more than the chance to put my vision out there and find a another person who can understand and appreciate it.

I'm not only not discouraged by the process, I'm now enjoying writing two books of my own. In fact, I love the process so much that it will be worth it whether they are published or not.

For some reason my blog is completely different though. It is difficult and feels like work. It is also all about the number of visitors reading it. I can't explain why I feel that way, but there you have it.

Anonymous said...

I too loved John Verney who wrote Fridays Tunnel, Ismo, February's Road, etc, I still enjoy his writing. He has a sensitivity and depth of feeling.