GIFT HORSES

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The Independent Culture
"It's the best idea of my life," fizzed Jeffrey Archer. "For 16 months I've had to remain very quiet. It is such a simple idea. There is nothing clever here." This is the nugget that earned him pounds 15 million pounds (initially reported as pounds 35 million) plus a possible film deal. His story of Maxwell and Murdoch is the first ever "novelography", Archer boasts.

It's a bit difficult to understand the wild enthusiasm of publishers sometimes. Take Nick Evans's The Horse Whisperer (Bantam pounds 14.99), sold for mucho money on the strength of another "simple idea". Girl falls off horse. High-flying journo mom hears tell of mysterious Montana mountain man with healing gift. Man strong, brave, silent, etc heals girl, horse, and more besides. The writing style ...? Well, the first line runs: "There was death at its beginning as there would be death again at its end." Oh, and there's a Taoist epigraph: "Pursue not the outer entanglements..." (as if we would). Is that worth pounds 4 million (pounds 2m from the American publisher, pounds 2m for the film deal)?

The key words are of course, "mom" and "Montana". One assumes the American setting is a naked ploy for big bucks and not merely the artistic choice of a latter-day Henry James in reverse. Most important of all, the bland, vanilla-yogurt prose style won't scare off Hollywood's vanity film-makers the past-it players like Eastwood and Redford who love starring roles for wise and wrinkled men. A glimpse at the first few paragraphs yields "fleeting shadow", "dull glint", "cluttered shelves", "looming faces" and "muted roar". Well, it might be horse sense, but it ain't literature.

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