Goodness, what a fuss

The Booker shortlist is announced, to predictable screaming and whining. What, no Hollinghurst? What, no Barry, no Ali Smith, no this no that no the other? Boyd Tonkin in the Independent writes that we need to ‘fix’ the prize, which has apparently gone woefully astray, in order to ‘issue a final, authoritative verdict on the year’ (that is a quote from someone, possibly Julian Barnes, although it’s not quite clear).

Oh yeah? And how do we do that? Who does that? Whose finality? Whose authority? They’re books. It’s a matter of taste, for God’s sake, I want to scream (and sometimes do, but quietly, so as not to frighten the horses).

Hollinghurst wasn’t chosen. Well, the earth has obviously tilted on its axis. Even if you think The Stranger’s Child was perfection (and I didn’t – the opening section was astonishing, and then it just faded away to a series of random encounters) – even if you did think it was perfection, it was one of hundreds of books, and there were only six slots. It’s like the annual newspaper story of the student with umpty-eleven starred A-levels who doesn’t get into Cambridge. Well, no, says rationality; s/he didn’t, because there were another couple of hundred students with umpty-eleven starred A-levels too. It doesn’t mean the student’s no good, or the novel’s no good, just that there are a finite number of places and a combination of taste, circumstance and sheer bloody random chance selected others for the slot.

We can’t ‘fix’ the prize, because it’s perfectly obvious (or it is if you’re not required to churn out the annual newspaper column of angst) that this is the deal: this bunch of people chose that bunch of books; another bunch would chose something else.

There is no final, no independent authority. Much like life, really. Which may be what people really object to.

Update on boy-scout reviewing: Amazon drummed out of the corps

I posted yesterday on Amazon’s policy of promoting ‘helpful’ reviews – positive reviews for books get their reviewers freebies, while negative reviews don’t. Today’s Amazon gem is that they are offering a horsetrade on what in the publishing industry are known as blurbs – those sentences on the cover that say ‘I couldn’t put it down – Leo Tolstoy’. Amazon it has been revealed (here) is sending Amazon-published books to authors, and asking for blurbs, offering to promote the blurbing author’s work in exchange. So now, every time Leo T. sends in a puff, War and Peace and any other books he has written (I believe there were some) get promotional pushes from Amazon.

As with the reviewing, it’s a question of who benefits, and as with all monopolies and single supply-chains, it is not the consumer. When consumers receive promotional material saying Leo T. is the best thing since Fyodor D.’s book about sibling rivalry, there is no way for them to know it is because Leo wrote a puff saying Amazon’s self-published book on the Siege of Leningrad was tops.

It doesn’t really matter if it is tops or not. It’s the lack of information. When a publisher asks Leo to blurb a book, the publisher doesn’t do it by sending a letter saying ‘We’ll push your book harder’ – apart from anything else, because the publisher has no real way of doing that: publishers don’t own bookstores, don’t have control over reviews. It may be that Leo supplies blurbs because he wants to be ‘in’ with that publisher/editor; it may be that he does it because he wants his name connected with that particular book or author; it may even be that he does it because he likes the book. But there is no tangible reward, no kick-back.

The editor/publisher may think more kindly of him. (That and a dime will get him a cup of coffee, in my experience.) It may do him some good if the book does well, as more people will see his name. But there is no secret pay-off: it’s all there, open, on the cover of the book in front of the consumer.

Certainly, if there is secret backscratching going on, I’ve never been offered any. Which is, of course, outrageous.

Points for ‘helpfulness’: Boy-scout reviewing?

OK, we’re back on reviewing. Everyone has (rightly) been wary of Amazon’s ‘reviews’ — an agent highlighted one review a few weeks ago where the ‘reviewer’ gave a dismissive one-star review to a book that s/he admitted to not having read. (S/he didn’t like the idea of it, apparently.) But on the whole, many people still skim down a line of reviews, looking at the overall positive/negative feedback, even while accepting that many of the reviews are negative ‘because I couldn’t identify with any of the characters’ or similar reasons that will have no effect on any other reader.

However, it is also worth remembering that the ‘top’ Amazon reviewers are also receiving free books and merchandise, and their position as ‘top’ reviewers is contingent not merely on the number of reviews that they write, as I had previously thought, but on the positive nature of their reviews. Amazon says quite straightforwardly that ‘overall helpfulness’ should be the focus of the reviews. And, not surprisingly from a retailer who makes its substantial pile from selling books, ‘helpfulness’ does not equate to a review that says ‘Save your pennies, this book is a steaming pile of shite.’

So instead, the reviewers, who not unreasonably since they are unpaid, want their free books, beaver away as some sort of literary version of P. G. Wodehouse’s Edwin the Boy-Scout, performing last week but one’s Daily Act of Kindness. The problem is, they are being kind to Amazon, not to the users of the site. Those people are being suckered into spending money on things that the reviewer doesn’t actually like: not kind at all.

I have a suggestion, although it’s an odd one. Why don’t readers rely on reviewers who get paid, and whose reviews appear in independent forums? I know, we could call them ‘book review sections’, and they could be printed in, mmm, perhaps newspapers and magazines? Just an idea.

Nah, probably won’t work.


Slutwalks? You (haven’t) come a long way, baby!

Three thousand women turned out in London this weekend for a ‘Slutwalk’. This movement to assign responsibility for rape to its perpetrators, not to its victims, was triggered originally by a Canadian policeman, whose primary advice to women on how to avoid being raped was, ‘Don’t dress like sluts’. As one of the signs so pithily pointed out on Saturday, ‘A Dress is Not a Yes.’

But the policeman was only one in a long line who blamed women and how they appeared, how they presented themselves, for the violence and ‘unwanted attentions’, as it used to be called, inflicted on them, simply for being in a public place.

I have been reading 19th-century books on prostitution in London (well, a job’s a job), and one of the sanest (which isn’t saying much) authors says that he and a friend had ‘counted 185 [prostitutes] in the course of a walk home from the Opera to Portland-place’. Short of accosting each one, it is hard to know how he knew the 185 he counted were in fact sex-workers. Some, perhaps many, of the women may have spoken to him, offering their services. It is just as likely, though, that he was making his judgments based on the women’s dress, manner, whether or not they met his eye: in other words, the woman who dressed or behaved in a way he and other men considered inappropriate were by definition whores. The men got to judge.

Even more closely resembling the ‘slutwalk’ campaigners’ complaints was the story that played out in the pages of the Times in the 1860s. ‘Paterfamilias’ wrote to the editor (letters from members of the public were often signed with only a sobriquet, frequently in Latin, such as ‘Pro Bono Publico’) to complain that on a trip to London his daughters had been followed down Oxford Street by ‘scoundrels’ who stared at them and passed comments. ‘Puella’ replied that she frequently walked down the same street and was never accosted; perhaps, she said, the girls’ country dress or outgoing rural manners had encouraged these men? ‘Paterfamilias’, by return, was indignant: his daughters were not in bright clothing, still being in mourning for Prince Albert. He was backed up by ‘M’, a day-governess (one who went from pupil’s house to pupil’s house). She too was frequently accosted by ‘middle-aged and older men’.

Others joined in, on both sides of the question. So much interest was aroused by this correspondence that the following month the Saturday Review carried an article: because prostitutes frequented fashionable shopping-streets, if women dress nicely, they must expect to be looked at, but nonetheless, ‘the remedy is in their own hands…If they will be seen in the well-preserved coverts, it is for them to be careful that they do not look like game…Let them dress thoroughly unbecomingly. Let them procure poke bonnets, stint their skirts to a moderate circumference, and cultivate sad-looking underclothing. Any woman thus armed, and walking on without sauntering or looking about her, is perfectly safe even from amorous glances.’ (Note that even badly dressed women still needed to keep their eyes down and walk briskly.)

So then as now, unwanted attention is all our fault, ladies — we just need to put on our poke bonnets, take up as little space in the world as possible, keep our mouths shut, our eyes on the ground, and if we’re very lucky, we can go about our daily business. Oh brave new world!

The Murder of the Century: The Gilded Age Crime That Scandalized a City and Sparked the Tabloid Wars, by Paul Collins

History is filled with stories that enthralled newspaper readers for weeks or months at a time, that were the currency of thought and speech for everyone and then suddenly vanished. Excavating these episodes—excavating the right episode—can bring to life a period, creating a microcosm for exploring attitudes and ideas of times long gone.

In “The Murder of the Century,” Paul Collins focuses our attention on a New York murder that created a sensation in the summer of 1897. One afternoon a group of boys playing by the East 11th Street Pier found a flashy red-and-gold parcel in the water. They excitedly unwrapped it, but instead of finding something to eat or sell, they discovered a man’s torso. The next day another part of the body was found in an isolated rural area of the Bronx, near 170th Street along the Harlem River.

The inept, corrupt Manhattan police of the time wanted to write the discovery off as a medical-student prank. But the newspapers had put themselves on the trail, in particular Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World and William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal. Pulitzer, whose populist crusading had once put him in the vanguard of journalistic innovation, was fast being overtaken by the rich and rambunctious Hearst, their struggle propelling the era of yellow journalism ever faster toward sensationalism.

When the torso discovery was made, a reporter from the New York Herald overruled the police at the scene and went for the coroner. A rival at the World, for his part, hunted down retailers of the exotically patterned red-and-gold oilcloth, even as officials made sweeping statements based on nothing: “The murderer is a Sicilian or possibly a Spaniard or Cuban. Maybe a Spanish spy has been put out of the way by the Cubans.”

Pulitzer’s paper offered a staggering $500 reward to any reader “who could deduce a solution”; Hearst then offered $1,000. Hearst had been topping Pulitzer for some time, spending more money and willing to field more resources. Now he was beating him with technology, too, as the Journal reproduced a facsimile of the oilcloth—the first time color had been used in a news story.

Meanwhile, a journalist at the World had a hunch, based on his viewing of the torso at the morgue. The combination of strong muscles and soft, well-cared for hands sent him heading for the Murray Street Baths, where, sure enough, a masseur named William Guldensuppe had failed to show up for work. Despite this brilliant leap of intuition, Pulitzer was pipped to the post when one of Hearst’s reporters located the man who had sold the oilcloth. This breakthrough, in turn, took the reporter to the apartment of the buyer, one Augusta Nack, landlady and lover to Guldensuppe, and a local midwife. As Mr. Collins notes, she had a brass plate claiming that she was “licensed,” even though no licenses were necessary, or available, to midwives. She was, it emerged, a back-street abortionist.

Once at police headquarters on Mulberry Street, Mrs. Nack was giving nothing away, despite a quickly unraveling story. It turned out she had been involved in a love triangle with Guldensuppe and his fellow-lodger, Martin Thorn, whom Guldensuppe had recently treated to a beating. Everything now seemed set for a quick, if thrilling, trial, with only one possible result.

Indeed, neither the perpetrators nor the result are in doubt from the early pages of “The Murder of the Century.” It is therefore greatly to Mr. Collins’s credit that he keeps the narrative interesting, moving from investigation, to trial, to sentencing and after. The pace is admirable—he ensures that the reader is up to speed on details of current court procedure, or the politics of fin-de-siècle New York, yet he never becomes bogged down in unnecessary side-issues. His exploration of the newspaper world, at the very moment when tabloid values were being born, is revealing but also enormously entertaining.

One wishes, therefore, that the writing itself rose above the pedestrian. The book too frequently reads as though Mr. Collins was writing hurriedly. Repetitions and verbal tics abound. Baseboards were burned in “a fit of evidence-room housecleaning”; case files were destroyed “in a fit of housekeeping.” The police station “bristles” with wires on its roof, just as a newsroom is said to be “bristling,” this time with telegraphs and typewriters. Too many sentences run on without focus: “Mulberry Street was a bewildering place, the nerve center for over 100,000 arrests a year and uniformed officers issuing curt commands from the telegraph offices in the basement all the way up to the Lost Children Department on the top floors.”

As disruptive are words and phrases that simply do not mean what the author intends them to mean. One character has “blond hair pompaded high.” (Pomaded? In a pompadour?) Another “squandered a series of jobs”—one can squander the money that jobs bring, or the opportunities they offer; one cannot squander jobs. Sometimes the imprecision brings about a surreal humor: The impresario Ziegfeld, Mr. Collins reports, went to see Thorn accompanied by his “personal mistress.” (An impersonal mistress doesn’t really bear thinking about.)

Given the many strengths of “The Murder of the Century,” it might seem unkind to belabor these points. But it is because of the strengths that weaknesses are worth mentioning. Mr. Collins has a clear eye, a good sense of telling detail, and a fine narrative ability. If only he, and possibly his editor, had spent more time on the nuts and bolts of creating a book, “The Murder of the Century” would have been of more than ephemeral value.

Help write Victorian history

What fun. The British Library (here) is calling all budding Victorianists to join them on 4 June for a massive edit-in. The idea from the library’s point of view is to help spread the word about the depth and breadth of the various Victorian collections quietly waiting for readers at the BL, by adding new Wikipedia entries, or updating and expanding already existing ones, and particularly focusing on their special collections: Dickens, boys’-own stories, penny-dreadfuls, the Lord Chamberlain’s Plays.

‘Access’ is changing. When I first started to write, if I needed a date, I checked it in an encyclopaedia, on the shelves across the room. Spelling, a dictionary, on the other side. A page reference? It was jotted down on a ‘to check when I’m next in the library’ list.

And now? Dates are online, either Wikipedia for the biggies, the Dictionary of National Biography for the UK figures, accessed via the London Library (blessings on your head, LL!) or a dozen other websites. Spelling, OED via the Westminster Public Library. Page reference? Google books. Checking citations, Project Gutenberg. And every day it still seems like a miracle. My ‘to check in the library list’ is now vanishingly small.

One of the greatest developments is also the BL’s, its digitization of hundreds of complete runs of 19th-century newspapers. This has opened up huge new research areas, and is quickly changing our views of British history, turning it from a London, Times-centric research base, as has been the default, to a broader view, geographically, politically and socially.

The one caveat is that it is only free if you are physically in the BL, which strikes me as very peculiar. If you have a reader’s ticket, and can key in your number, why not free to any registered BL reader, as with so many libraries?

A girl can dream…

‘Where does I go in?’ she cried

The Guardian, supposedly a left-of-centre, republican-leaning (that’s non-monarchist to you USA-ers, not Republican with a capital ‘r’) newspaper, has joined in the royal wedding media barf-fest.

Truly. Yesterday they had a double-page spread on Kate Middleton, who has, as far as anyone can tell, done nothing of any significance in her life, apart from being about to marry well: no job (no, three weeks working for a clothing chain and a nominal job with mummy and daddy do not count), no career, no apparent aspirations beyond marriage and (we assume) children.

All fine and good — these are acceptable aspirations, if of interest only to the holder of them and her family. But as they are not being kept private, it is worth noting their, um, shall we say, scantiness.

So, back to the Guardian. Two pages on someone with her attainments is a tough ask. But the heroic Patrick Barkham proved worthy. ‘Middleton dresses herself’, according to ‘one royal source’. Hold the back page! (And her sippy cup: there is no evidence that, although she is obviously a whizz with buttons, she can manage a glass yet.)

When I was two or three my mother decided I was old enough to dress myself. She left me sitting on the floor surrounded by my clothes. Ten minutes later she came back to check progress. She found me, still naked, turning my vest round and round in my hands, fretting, ‘Where does I go in?’

Kate Middleton’s found where she goes — and that’s fine. I’m just not sure why the Guardian followed.

Critical thinking: reviews redux

I know, I know, I go on about reviews and reviewing, but apart from personal feelings, they matter. I was recently criticized in a chat-forum (link omitted for reasons of taste) for being ‘mean’ to some of the New York City Ballet dancers who appeared in London on a tour (I said they weren’t very good). The feelings of the post-ers was that the some of the dancers I had mentioned were young, and replacing more senior dancers who were injured and unable to appear. This of course is a chronic problem for dance companies.

But in a way, as a reviewer, it is none of my business. Instead, the question for me as a reviewer, is who am I writing for? The dancers? I don’t think so: not my job. My job, is to give my opinion and (hopefully) an informed perspective based on wide viewing over (ahem) four decades, to explain why I think something is good, bad or indifferent; but it is also to say to potential audiences, ‘go/don’t go’. The top price tickets at the Coliseum for that tour were £90: give or take, $150. My responsibility is not to be kind to dancers, but to say, ‘Yes, spend your money here’; ‘No, don’t bother, not worth it.’

I covered the Royal Ballet’s most recent Triple Bill last night (reviewed here). I had recently seen their new Alice in Wonderland, and didn’t much care for it (review in TLS forthcoming). But the Triple was a thrill, and I left the theatre remembering why it is I am so passionate about this art-form. My review is not so much a review, as an attempt to recreate that thrill: I was giving a little of the history of Ashton’s Rhapsody, to be sure, but also saying, ‘God, yes, rush right over and grab a fistful of tickets! This is the performance and the dancer you want to tell your grandchildren you saw!’

And I think most people recognize that these are the elements of reviewing. There is a fascinating piece today in the WSJ (here) on the truly farcical situation the Cleveland Orchestra has got itself into. Short version: the Cleveland Orchestra hated the reviews that the Cleveland Plain Dealer’s critic was writing about them. Instead of kicking the newspaper around (my preferred method), it kicked the newspaper’s hierarchy around. And the newspaper responded by getting rid of the critic. The story is long and messy and depressing. But the upshot, apparently, is that the orchestra has now hired itself a pet: a ‘critic-in-residence’ to produce a blog filled with bright and shiny features about their wonderfulness.

He writes on his (orchestra-approved) blog: ‘Comment on the concert you are about to experience. Review if you wish, if you must.’ Where to start with those sentences? Listeners/audiences should comment before they hear the concert? Comment on what? The performance that hasn’t happened? Then they should review it, ‘if you must‘? — that is, if you can’t control your disgusting impules to prefer one style over another, commend some artistic decisions while feeling others have not succeeded? According to the WSJ, this c-i-r’s own judgement is nuanced and delicate: one piece ends: ‘As my 18-year-old jock hip-hopper college freshman would say, “What a beast!”‘

Readers and audiences are not fooled by this kind of non-criticism, and even more, they are not interested in it; the blog is garnering about three comments a month. Being criticized is no fun. I know. I’ve been there, and no doubt will be there again. But I’m a big girl, and as long as a review is about my work, not about my haircut, my morals or my nasty habit of eating cashews with my mouth open, it’s fine. Not fun, but fine. I’ve even learnt from reviews, and taken things on board in my next books.

I’m sure those NYCB dancers I was ‘mean’ about are fine too. And probably the Cleveland Orchestra musicians are too (if not their trembly bosses).

And do go and see Sergei Polunin in Rhapsody. You won’t regret it.