Snobs, yobs and modern manners: Truss sparks publishing war

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Lynne Truss's "second album", as she likes to call her sequel to the punctuation bible Eats, Shoots & Leaves, was never destined to pull punches. The literary world was promised five months ago that it would be a "guide to good manners", a book as unforgiving of bad etiquette as her first offering was of the misplaced possessive apostrophe.

Lynne Truss's "second album", as she likes to call her sequel to the punctuation bible Eats, Shoots & Leaves, was never destined to pull punches. The literary world was promised five months ago that it would be a "guide to good manners", a book as unforgiving of bad etiquette as her first offering was of the misplaced possessive apostrophe.

But only yesterday did the full force of Truss's indignation about yobbish behaviour become clear when her publisher, Profile, revealed its hand in a literary war on etiquette with at least two rival writers trying to steal her thunder this year.

Even the title of Truss's book rails at a culture in which, she says, rudeness is considered amusing. It is to be Talk to the Hand, half of a saying which ends " 'cause the face ain't listening". (In today's teenage lingua franca, it is often accompanied by a gesture in which the arm is held, palm forward, at the speaker.) Truss's subtitles are more to the point: The Utter Bloody Rudeness of Everyday Life, or Six Good Reasons to Stay Home and Bolt the Door.

The objects of Truss's invective will range from the nephew who "never thanked you for that perfect Christmas present" to builders ("What makes him think he can treat you like dirt?" Truss asks) and utility firms ("When you phone a utility with a complaint why can't you ever speak to a person who's authorised to apologise?).

And there are digs at a certain type of teenager. "If you skateboard through Marks & Spencer's, slaloming between old ladies while shouting obscenities into a mobile phone, I feel you deserve to be shot," Truss says, in her 224-page offering, same length as Eats, Shoots. Truss, who is still writing the book, made it clear traditional notions of etiquette do not interest her. "Personally, I don't care much about the etiquette of forks, and you can say 'serviette' at me all day, I won't even flinch," she said. "This is the perfect time to reinvent the notion of manners, now standards of behaviour can be divorced from class."

The book, aimed at "anyone who is naturally too scared to confront the yobs", is to be published in October, in time for the Christmas lists. That hands a head start to the publishers of several spoilers, including Simon Fanshawe's The Done Thing, a reworking of Erasmus's De Civilitate Morum Puerilum to be released in July.

Fanshawe's argument will run on lines strikingly similar to Truss's. It does not matter if you pass the port to the right or the left so long as it goes in one direction, he says, so everyone gets a drink. You may hold your knife any way you want except as a weapon so strangers will not feel threatened at your table. In fact do anything you want, so long as you respect other people.

In September, Thomas Blaikie, author of You Look Awfully Like the Queen, will throw in his offering, to be published by Fourth Estate. Blaikie, who studied English alongside Truss at University College London, in the late 1970s, will be giving a more practical guide on how to avoid the vacuum of uncertainty and embarrassment that social situations increasingly seem to induce. "I've been working on this for ages," Blaikie told The Independent recently. "It's almost finished now, and ought to come out before hers. I feel galvanised to get it done now I've heard of the competition."

"Lynne's book seems to be like her punctuation one was: a zero-tolerance approach. Mine is more of an attempt to liberate people from uncertainty. I will be calling for the abolition of thank-you letters." Profile seems quite prepared for all the competition. It has just reissued Truss's three comic novels and collection of writings, taking her finances well beyond the derisory state they were in when she bumped into the publisher over Christmas 2002 and suggested the punctuation idea. At the time, her latest novel, Going Loco, had flopped and she had just remortgaged her house.

The same day Talk to the Hand is launched, Profile will also publish the first paperback edition of Eats, Shoots, the hardback of which has sold 2.5 million copies worldwide and remained in the UK bestseller list for 2004 and much of 2005.

The paperback is being touted as a "a practical manual" rather than a mere "zero-tolerance guide". In what Profile considers to be a publishing first, it will contain a "punctuation repair kit", sets of adhesive stickers for sticklers to use to correct especially egregious punctuation errors. "Greengrocer's beware," the publisher has warned.

WHAT NOT TO BEAR

Germaine Greer

Everybody these days, or so it seems to me, will say "Is there any milk?" for their coffee, rather than "May I have some milk?" I answer, "Yes, there is some milk. Would you like some?" ­ to give them the opportunity to answer "Yes, please". I have become a cantankerous old biddy, but old biddies are cantankerous precisely because so much behaviour seems to us plain rude.

Janet Street-Porter

Even the basics of the old etiquette, like thank-you notes, are falling by the wayside. Now people eat walking along the street, bray loudly in restaurants, and smoke in your face. If you travel on a train crammed together like peas in a pod, what chance does etiquette really have?

Claire Rayner

When I was young, I would never have dared answer an adult back if they told me off. Nowadays, if you object to a kid doing graffiti, they'll probably tell you to fuck off. We have loosened up like fury, and it's getting more scary for many. The more the world changes, the more you feel the need of a self-help book to understand it.

Comments