Books: The crackers that failed to go pop
Kate Figes asks publishers to nominate the books from their lists that failed to perform as expected - then gives her own verdict
London-born Kate Figes is the author of two novels and five non-fiction books, mostly about family life and relationships. katefiges.co.uk. Her latest book ‘Our Cheating Hearts: Love & Loyalty; Lust & Lies’ has just been published by Virago
Sunday 19 December 1999
Everything You Know by Zoe Heller (pounds 9.99)
"There was a unanimous buzz of pleasure when we bought Zoe Heller's first novel - everybody here loved it. It is laugh-out-loud funny, dark, clever and totally unexpected, in particular in that it is mostly narrated by an ageing male screenwriter inhabiting the underbelly of the Hollywood writing world. We were thrilled with our first reviews from magazines like Tatler and Harpers & Queen, so imagine our surprise when the newspapers almost universally trashed it. There was something vicious about the nature of the reviews, as though journalists were taking revenge on another journalist for daring to wander outside her genre. Was it envy or jealousy? I still don't know. The book sold perfectly well despite the reviews but the author and I are still reeling."
KF: Heller's reviews do seem to have been particularly unkind, given that this is not that bad a novel. In fact it's a great deal better than numerous other sloppily written, romantic, thirtysomething twaddle penned by journalists in recent years that have been surprisingly well reviewed. Journalists are notoriously obsequious and over-kind when they review each others' work, for who knows what favours they may need off each other in the future. Perhaps over the years she has made more enemies than friends in her own copy, or maybe it's just the fact that she has dared to tackle the grand theme of The Meaning of Life in her first stab at fiction, when she lacks the genius of John Updike. But it's a promising start and the poor woman deserves praise for her efforts, not a hammering. Willy is middle-aged, a womaniser and failure as a family man. He was imprisoned and later released on appeal for killing his wife in a domestic, and his daughter committed suicide in her early 20s. When the daughter's journals turn up after her death, Willy learns that she loved him in spite of all his failings. Heller is at her best, though, when she writes about the writing business itself, and the new genre of confessional memoir. Willy made and cleared his name from a highly fictionalised version of his marriage and his wife's death, and then has to suffer the humiliation of being an unpaid writing hand on his own screenplay, injecting even more dramatic licence to suit Hollywood's taste.
Philip Gwyn Jones, HarperCollins:
The Happy Hunting Grounds by Nanne Tepper (pounds 12.99)
"You're always making a leap in the dark with a translation but I was thrilled with the result. I knew that it was different and dark, but it was far funnier than I expected and felt that would give it strength in the younger market, that it was wisecracking and sarcastic enough to sit alongside James Hawes, for instance. I also thought that the harrowing theme (incest) would buy it some attention but it got only one review in the Daily Telegraph. I do think there is still a great resistance to translation; the literary pages are fantastically insular and narrow-minded in a way that their readers aren't. Even the pages around them such as fashion and living embrace European figures far more."
KF: This is not an easy or an uplifting read, but it is a convincing portrayal of an intoxicating incestuous relationship between a teenage brother and his sister on the Dutch northern marshlands. There is no judgement of their actions here, but a tender portrait of their love for one another, how they unite for emotional nourishment in the face of inadequate parenting and the guilt that subsequently engenders. It is also an unusually honest depiction of adolescent obsession with sexual experimentation, where young girls find sex intriguing, but disappointing because they lack knowledge of their bodies. However there is a dreary, suffocating feel to this novel, which is only occasionally alleviated by the humour that Gwyn Jones alludes to. These two siblings live in a dull, flat and largely brown part of the world, they cannot escape the power they have over each other; and I found Tepper's literary style abrasive rather than seductive. Fiction in translation is notoriously difficult to get past reviewers or the casual browser in bookshops, but with a subject matter this taboo and packaging this poor (a dreary mud-brown cover and unenticing, ethereal back cover copy), Tepper's curious tale never had a hope.
Peter Straus, Picador:
33 Moments of Happiness by Ingo Schulze (pounds 12.99)
"We published in May 1999 at an attractive hardcover price. We hoped by publishing like this - and sometime after the Americans who did achieve copious review coverage - we could generate good review attention and sales. However despite obtaining a quote from the newest Nobel prizewinner, Gunter Grass, which we put on the front cover, it only generated reviews in the TLS, Literary Review, New Statesman, the Irish Times and the Times. No other British national reviewed it, despite Schulze being chosen by the New Yorker and featured therein as one of the five writers under 30 to watch out for."
KF: Now this is what I call a book worthy of translation. These 33 short stories capture the essence of St Petersburg and the quirky, contradictory nature of Russian life with wit and imaginative flair. Mafia shoot-outs, crime, icons and the power of religion, that enduring, desperate struggle for survival through harsh winters and empty shops, the nourishment ordinary people gain from literature - it's all here. Nothing escapes Schulze's journalistic eye. His descriptions are lush and generous, reminiscent at times of Gogol and Chekhov, and then there are moments when he descends into sublime surreal fantasy worthy of Bulgakov. Every story is a gem and this book has been lovingly published; it's aesthetically pleasing with an eye-catching surreal image of well-wrapped Russian children watching a man in a swimming costume about to dive into the frozen sea, as well as high quality design and production. Schulze is an exhilarating and original writer and I am surprised that he has been so overlooked, for dipping into just one or two stories reveals that this is a major new European voice that merits a closer look. But he is young, this is his first book. With a bit of luck, the publication of his first novel Simple Stories in June will earn him wider acclaim.
Christopher Potter, Fourth Estate:
The Hours by Michael Cunningham (pounds 6.99)
"When Michael Cunningham won the Pulitzer Prize this year for his fourth novel The Hours I thought it was just the break we needed. This was the third time a Fourth Estate title had won the Pulitzer and it certainly hadn't done any harm to the sales of Annie Proulx's The Shipping News or Carol Shields's The Stone Diaries. Both have sold hundreds of thousands of copies. Sales figures for The Hours have been less spectacular. We decided to release an early paperback and bring the author over. With the Pulitzer under his belt, interviews in the Telegraph, Guardian and Time Out were promised. The Telegraph pulled their interview and the Guardian has yet to run theirs. Are we too proprietorial of Virginia Woolf to allow an American to apprehend her? Certainly The Hours seems otherwise to have everything going for it."
KF: Writing this elegant and profound did not go unnoticed by the literary editors and it was rightly hailed by the national broadsheets. However, the absence of word-of-mouth recommendation, which is how sales get pushed into the big time, is surprising. Cunningham uses Mrs Dalloway as a springboard for a rich tapestry of meditations on the nature of life, creativity, sexuality and death by describing, in immaculate detail, one single day in the lives of three women: Woolf herself writing Mrs Dalloway; a reader of Mrs Dalloway, living in Los Angeles in 1949; and the modern equivalent, perhaps, of Woolf's creation living in New York at the end of the 20th century. Clarissa has been with her lesbian lover for more than 18 years, she has a daughter as a result of artificial insemination and she is planning a party to celebrate the fact that her friend Richard has just won a literary prize. He is dying of Aids. This is a profound, original and exquisite read, a remarkable testament to the power of the word, on both the writer and the reader. But I wonder how many copies of Mrs Dalloway are sold each year and whether perhaps the Woolf connection pigeon-holes this book as "Bloomsbury" rather than general fiction. Those who have never read Mrs Dalloway are bound to be put off.
Roland Philipps, Hodder:
Total War 2006: The Future History of Global Conflict by Simon Pearson (pounds 18.99)
"I acquired Total War 2006 in early 1998, and so many of the predictions in the outline (such as the bombing of a US embassy in Africa) started to come true that it was eerie. This is a cracking read, totally plausible (so much so that the author was told that he would have to resign from the RAF, where he was on a golden path, to publish it), nimbly characterised and very alarming. It got two (very good) national reviews in the Guardian and the Independent. The Independent, much the most open-minded of the papers, did an interview. It was widely taken up by radio and TV, but the main selling tool, reviews, was lost. I think there was a snobbish element with this - Simon Pearson is not a recognised military name, and the subject doesn't grab the more bookish. Which is a shame, because he's a good thinker and an inventive and entertaining writer."
KF: This is an absolute must for military buffs, packed with detailed descriptions of the devastating impact of weaponry. Sentences such as "By 2003 there were no fewer than 800 Type M-9 and M-11 missiles targeted at the `errant province' of 23 million Taiwanese" will no doubt make subscribers to military magazines salivate. The trouble is, how does he know? One can't help asking that question continually throughout this terrifying apocalyptic vision of our future. All the worst-case scenarios of current international events seem to come true: Islamic fundamentalism takes over; Russia enjoys another revolution in 2003, led this time by disaffected military; North Korea invades the South and American Might hits back. Europe sees failure of its social and economic policies leading to mass civil unrest and the resurgence of extreme right-wing forces. And in the great war of 2006, huge swathes of the Middle East including most of Israel are wiped out by biological weapons - a plague of gangrenous smallpox. Whether this is a work of fiction or prophetic fact only time will tell, but it is a timely reminder of the fact that nothing ever stays the same. Fifty years without world war can make us complacent, and just as unforeseen forces shaped changes in the world order in the last century, so they will in the next.
Alison Samuel, Chatto:
The Rose Grower by Michelle de Kretser (pounds 10)
"We published at the beginning of November to disappointingly few reviews. It's a gorgeous and very unusual first novel, by an Australian writer (ex-editor with Lonely
Planet) who was born in Sri Lanka (from the same kind of Sri Lankan Dutch background as Michael Ondaatje). It's a wonderful novel, a delicate sideways look at history, which happens to be beautifully written and immensely readable at the same time. It seems to me that not only do the author and the book deserve to do well, but that there are a whole lot of readers out there who would love this book, and its mixture of history and horticulture. Sales reps and booksellers have responded well to it, but it would be gratifying to see more reviews."
KF: We have had a spate of historical flower books about tulips and orchids in the past year, so I can hear literary editors groaning at the prospect of roses being added to the list. It won't be long at this rate before there's a nice shelf in the gardening section of bookshops stocked with novels about everything from buddleia to wisteria. This is an endearing, gentle read, a love story about three aristocratic sisters sitting out the French Revolution in their country estate. Sophie is the rose grower, a passionate gardener who produces spectacular hybrids. She is in love with Stephen, an artist who is having an affair with her married sister, and Joseph, the local doctor and supporter of the Revolution, is in love with her. The sweeping changes brought by the Revolution barely touch their lives, their idle pursuits and gastronomic indulgences continue almost unchecked until Sophie ventures out from her fine prison to help nurse in the local hospital run by Joseph. The rose, that singularly aristocratic flower, lives on with its exquisite finery. Given the splendour of the subject matter, I am surprised by the penny-pinching two-colour cover. A lush, glossy cover would help generate interest and casual sales.
Philippa Harrison, Little, Brown:
Earth Odyssey by Mark Hertsgaard (pounds 9.99)
"We were really disappointed by the lack of press attention for Earth Odyssey. The one review it got was wonderful and Mark was shortlisted for the prestigious BP Natural World Prize. This is not a sensationalist account, but the fruit of nearly 10 years' research on the front line of the environment - from the traffic-clogged streets of Bangkok to the polluted but economically advancing cities of China. What surprised us was how difficult it was to get environmental editors to address the book, while literary editors - with the exception of the Times - obviously left it to their environmental counterparts to do so. Does this mean that people simply don't care about the vital issues raised in a book like this?"
KF: No. It just means that it fell between two stools; which is a great shame, for this is an important book, a brilliant mix of travelogue and reportage which could convince the most complacent optimist of the pressing need to take environmental concerns seriously. Hertsgaard has diligently and passionately chronicled the state of the world. In Africa, starvation and infectious diseases are on the increase because of drought and global warming. The traffic jams in Bangkok are as bad in the middle of the night as they are in the day, and the air pollution so bad "it seemed to have a tactile quality: you felt you could scoop up a handful of the stuff and splatter it against the wall like a dirty snowball". Russia's rivers and air have been so heavily intoxicated by nuclear waste that rising numbers of people have been affected by cancer, leukemia, birth defects, reduced immunity and high rates of morbidity. The accident at Chernobyl released about 200 times as much radiation as Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined. Hertsgaard talks to the people who have been affected by these environmental catastrophes about their hopes and fears, and to politicians and environmental activists around the world, and concludes that only a radical change in attitude, where resources are shared more equally between the First and the Third World, and a massive investment in the production of greener products will prevent decimation of human life and irrevocable altering of the Earth as we know it.
Julian Loose, Faber:
It Cracks Like Breaking Skin by Stephen Foster (pounds 9.99)
"I first read Stephen Foster's work in a superb collection of half a dozen stories he'd done as part of his degree at the Norwich School of Art and Design. They were at once colloquial and lyrical, mostly about growing up in Stoke-on-Trent and they were clearly written by someone who'd done many things other than sit in a room and write. It's always an issue, how to get a first book review attention. This problem is magnified several times when that first book is a collection of short stories. When we signed Steve, he was on the point of going to the creative writing programme at UEA, so we mentioned that when the book came out. Thanks to our publicity department the book was reviewed widely but for many reviewers it was as though the name UEA provided a licence to be rather severe. Steve is a fabulous writer and we're looking forward to publishing his novel. But in future we will probably keep silent about UEA."
KF: This slight collection of stories received an astonishing amount of coverage for a first book, and I suspect that mentioning that the author had just graduated from UEA on the inside back flap helped generate those reviews. Literary editors must find it hard to ignore students of this prestigious programme when it has produced some excellent writers, such as Ian McEwan and Rose Tremain. So it is a bit rum for Julian to complain when his plan backfired slightly, given that there was no way any reviewer could tell from the book that the stories were written before the author went to Norwich rather than as a result of it. Two reviewers in the Times and the Sunday Times decided to stick the knife in and I have some sympathy with them, for the writing, particularly in the first two stories, is at times self-conscious and unpolished, reminiscent of student English essays. First stories in any collection need to hit the reader with a bullet. These ones left me feeling unsatisfied and slightly embarrassed by their naivety. However as the stories mature, the writing blossoms and intrigues, as it presents snapshots of a young man growing up in Stoke- on-Trent. One of the best captures the excruciating awkwardness of that first date to the cinema from both the boy's perspective as well as the girl's in just a few pages. There is a fresh, raw and vital energy to Foster's language and use of imagery. Tiny details of daily life explode across the page. I have no doubt that his first novel will be well worth reading and that we have a very good and original writer in the making.
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