The queen of commas turns her attentions to a book of manners

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Just when it seemed safe to misuse the semi-colon in public again, a troubling piece of news arrived yesterday for those who are inclined to express themselves exactly as they please.

Just when it seemed safe to misuse the semi-colon in public again, a troubling piece of news arrived yesterday for those who are inclined to express themselves exactly as they please.

Lynne Truss, the avenging angel of the possessive apostrophe whose book Eats, Shoots & Leaves is topping US best-seller lists and is well on its way to 2.5 million sales worldwide, is now to turn her attention to the subject of manners, her publisher revealed.

Precisely which forms of etiquette she intends to focus on is evidently yet to be decided, but one thing has been made perfectly clear: she will be as zero-tolerant of overlooked Ps & Qs as she was of the misplaced commas in her punctuation bible.

Pressed on the contents of the new book, which is to be published in autumn 2005, the publisher Profile Books provided hints yesterday that telephone etiquette is something which clearly exercises Truss.

"Certain situations, like getting through to music when you ring a number and being kept on the line" might incur her wrath, said Kate Griffin, marketing director at Profile, the small publishing house which remains in a happy spin over its writer's unlikely publishing phenomenon.

The use of mobile telephones in public places may also not go down too well. Nor behaviour in other "modern situations" such as "talking too loud in the presence of others". Truss, currently in the last throes of a US promotional tour that Profile claims has drawn up to 500 devotees to some talks, has been at a loss as to how she might follow her wholly unexpected first success.

At the Hay-on-Wye literature festival six months ago she told The Independent that she was planning to return to her roots as a sports writer with a football book "in time for the World Cup" (the 2006 tournament, presumably). It was to be typically caustic and "anti-Nick Hornby in style and content". "This is going to say, as someone with four years' experience as a sports journalist, that football is, essentially, boring," she disclosed.

But she and her publisher evidently cannot wait 18 months to hunt for more success. At the beginning of last year Truss was in despair over her finances after her last comic novel, Going Loco (1999), had flopped and she remortgaged her house after discovering that writing radio plays for the BBC could barely keep her in cat food.

At Hay, she said that the overnight riches which Eats, Shoots had bestowed upon her (£750,000 in the first year) had engendered a feeling that she could "write really whatever I like now". An exposé of manners is the most obvious extension of the niche she has stumbled upon, since Truss argues in Eats, Shoots that proper punctuation is similar to good manners - a system for making your intentions clear.

But while Britain's punctuation might have needed a dust-down, some sociologists question whether our manners really do. Professor Frank Furedi, Kent University's distinguished sociologist, insisted yesterday that people's manners were not important. "It's not people's manners that are significant but the fact that we need to have certain informal, unspoken rules about each other's behaviour," he said. "There's a very self-obsessed element [in society] where we feel 'I make my own rules.' I've been shocked by the way some young people look at their shoe laces if somebody old gets on the Tube [and needs a seat.]" The writer Penny Palmano made a similar point in her recent book Yes, please. Thanks!, an examination of children's behaviour. "The fact that people now go out of their way to say how well a child behaves shows just how far our expectations have fallen," she said.

But Truss's publishers remain unmoved. "The main thing, we feel, is that it is a great subject for her," said Ms Griffin. "It's a subject that people feel strongly about and it lends itself to a zero tolerance approach - and to humour. Now, as with the future of punctuation, we can be optimistic about the future of courtesy."

THE TRUSS FORMULA

Eats, Shoots & Leaves began life as a BBC Radio 4 series lamenting the increasing misuse of the English language. Lynne Truss had not intended to write a book but over Christmas 2002 she bumped into the publisher of Profile Books, and he suggested the idea. It received rave reviews, was top of the bestselling non-fiction list for five months and won this year's British Book of the Year Award. It has sold two million copies worldwide and transformed the fortunes of author and publisher. Truss remains startled at its popularity: "It's really surreal. You do think that somebody is having a laugh here."

Comments