Elmore Leonard said: I have a character in one of my books tell how she used to write historical romances ''full of rape and adverbs.''

Thursday, 24 July 2008

I THINK I'M IN LOVE... (not really)

Spot the difference:

"I can't think of a nicer place to sit this spring over a glass of rosé and watch the boys and girls in the street outside smiling gaily to each other, and wondering where to go for a nosh."


"I can't think of a nicer place to sit this spring over a glass of rosé and watch the boys and girls in the street outside smiling gaily to each other, and wondering where to go for nosh."

Yes, that's right. Well spotted. There's an indefinite article missing in the last sentence of the second passage.

This indefinite article was removed from restaurant critic Giles Coren's review by a foolhardy sub. The result is an epic 1,000+ word rant emailed to the guilty parties.

Starting with a benign 'Chaps,' (I love it), Coren continues, I am mightily pissed off...

I don't really like people tinkering with my copy for the sake of tinkering. I do not enjoy the suggestion that you have a better ear or eye for how I want my words to read than I do...

It was the final sentence. Final sentences are very, very important. A piece builds to them, they are the little jingle that the reader takes with him into the weekend....

There is no length issue. This is someone thinking "I'll just remove this indefinite article because Coren is an illiterate cunt and i know best".

Well, you fucking don't.

Of course, Coren goes into great detail at this point to explain exactly why this was "shit, shit sub-editing." It really is too good not to share in its full, virulent glory.
1) 'Nosh', as I'm sure you fluent Yiddish speakers know, is a noun formed from a bastardisation of the German 'naschen'. It is a verb, and can be construed into two distinct nouns. One, 'nosh', means simply 'food'. You have decided that this is what i meant and removed the 'a'. I am insulted enough that you think you have a better ear for English than me. But a better ear for Yiddish? I doubt it. Because the other noun, 'nosh' means "a session of eating" - in this sense you might think of its dual valency as being similar to that of 'scoff'. you can go for a scoff. or you can buy some scoff. the sentence you left me with is shit, and is not what i meant. Why would you change a sentnece aso that it meant something i didn't mean? I don't know, but you risk doing it every time you change something. And the way you avoid this kind of fuck up is by not changing a word of my copy without asking me, okay? it's easy. Not. A. Word. Ever.

2) I will now explain why your error is even more shit than it looks. You see, i was making a joke. I do that sometimes. I have set up the street as "sexually-charged". I have described the shenanigans across the road at G.A.Y.. I have used the word 'gaily' as a gentle nudge. And "looking for a nosh" has a secondary meaning of looking for a blowjob. Not specifically gay, for this is soho, and there are plenty of girls there who take money for noshing boys. "looking for nosh" does not have that ambiguity. the joke is gone. I only wrote that sodding paragraph to make that joke. And you've fucking stripped it out like a pissed Irish plasterer restoring a renaissance fresco and thinking jesus looks shit with a bear so plastering over it. You might as well have removed the whole paragraph. I mean, fucking christ, don't you read the copy?

3) And worst of all. Dumbest, deafest, shittest of all, you have removed the unstressed 'a' so that the stress that should have fallen on "nosh" is lost, and my piece ends on an unstressed syllable. When you're winding up a piece of prose, metre is crucial. Can't you hear? Can't you hear that it is wrong? It's not fucking rocket science. It's fucking pre-GCSE scansion. I have written 350 restaurant reviews for The Times and i have never ended on an unstressed syllable. Fuck. fuck, fuck, fuck.

I absolutely love point 2, Coren going into lengthy detail to explain his mightily unamusing and laboured 'joke.' This conceit is only equalled by his drawing parallels to his restaurant review and a renaissance fresco. Bless.

Lest we think Coren is losing his grip on reality, his continues on an ameliorative note:

I am sorry if this looks petty... but i care deeply about my work and i hate to have it fucked up by shit subbing... I woke up at three in the morning on sunday and fucking lay there, furious, for two hours. weird, maybe. but that's how it is.

Now this kind of wins me over. And, in case you think it can't get any better than 'fuck fuck fuck,' Coren concludes with - wait for it -
Sorry to go on. Anger, real steaming fucking anger can make a man verbose.
All the best

I am charmed.

This is not the first time Coren has let loose on a sub. In 2002, the bastardization of the sentence 'The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog' led to a less epically proportioned (though no less impassioned) email, which concluded
never ask me to write something for you. and don't pay me. i'd rather take £400 quid for assassinating a crack whore's only child in a revenge killing for a busted drug deal - my integrity would be less compromised.

I confess, I didn't know Coren from Jack until this afternoon, and I don't really want to know any more. There is something hugely amusing about a curmudgeonly, self-important, articulate man with an ax to grind. Romance is crying out for a Giles Coren! (any suggestions?)

Also, writers, writers of any kind, does the editing process ever reduce you to Coren-like levels of spittle-flying, eye-bulging, vein-popping anger?

Friday, 4 July 2008


...Yes, this is still a blog about romance novels and to prove it, I'm going to go Covers Crazy.

As I might have mentioned here and there, I'm a huge Goodman fan ("ever since I picked up My Reckless Heart eight years ago..."). Like any self-respecting fan, I've made a concerted effort to read the Collected Works and, Goodman being obliging enough to have started out in the early 80s, that makes it a grand total of twenty-eight full length novels, with another due out in September.

Out of those twenty-eight, I've three left to read (Velvet Night, Violet Fire and Scarlett Lies - there's a whole topic on titles right there), and last week I bought these remaining books. Glancing over what I own already, I couldn't help but think how, over the course of a quarter of a century, Goodman's covers encapsulate the many make-overs and questionable face-lifts historical romance has endured as a genre.

From the traditional bodice ripper of the eighties and early nineties, I've picked some of my favourite examples

I don't know if it's the passing of time, or knowing what comes later, but I have a certain fondness for these covers. The garish colours, the shirtless hero with his wavy mane; the loosened bodice and heaving bosom... it's very old school. Also, say what you will, the covers had some relevance to the story: each of the above depict a scene, or a location in the book. Again, knowing what follows, I appreciate these little details.

Come the mid-nineties, something happens. I'd love to get my hand on that memo, because, half-way through the Dennhey Sister's series, the covers go BLAH.

It's like they vomited birds, flowers and ribbons all over the books and the result - whilst still garish - just becomes a little sad and uninspiring. I wonder what happened in this period to bring about the change - market research, re-branding the genre to move away from the now unpopular 'bodice-ripper' connotations? In any case, between 1994 and 2000, the covers are of this ilk.

Titles, too, change. So the first two Dennhey novels are tempestuously entitled Wild Sweet Ecstasy and Rogue's Mistress and the last three are sweeter - Forever in my Heart, Always in My Dreams, Only in My Arms (mid-series!)

The Hamilton Series in 2000 heralds another change. The front remains twee, but the back cover gets a makeover. The Clinch is back!

Wavy hair? Check! Bosom? Check! Canoodling? Check! Of course, it's a lot more tender and whimsical - less wind-blown-high-seas-adventure-with-forced-seduction and more rose-tinted-let's-make-gentle-love-and-talk-about-our-feelings. Still, there's a sense that change is afoot.

Which is why the next three are a puzzle. The first three books of Goodman's well received Compass Club series get some of the blandest covers I have ever had the privilege to own. And the last one - in a complete change of style, goes retro.

Note, the title changes too. I begin to wonder if Zebra gives a crap about consistency.

The next three books - 2005 onwards - though not part of an official series, are nonetheless connected in time period (regency), location and characters. The first two continue the latest full body clinch...

... but not the third (remember, same author, same publishing house, books linked by time, theme and characters)...

If His Kiss is Wicked, possibly Goodman's most successful book to date, has a cover that departs dramatically from those before it. We all know hot men sell, and this cover appears to have done the job. It's in keeping with a general trend I've noticed, one that either decapitates the heroine or cuts her out of the picture entirely.

You'd think Zebra would be sticking to a successful formula. Think again.

The Price of Desire is due out in September, and they've opted for the Headless Heroine.

The titles shift 'subtly' once again. 'Wicked,' 'Sinful', 'Forbidden:' from emo, we're moving onto something a little more sexy and dangerous.

Spanning almost twenty-five years, Goodman's books provide an interesting record of the trends the genre - and a publishing house in particular - have undergone in that time. It would be interesting to compare with the backlist of an Avon author, just to see if it follows the same general pattern, whether changing the look and tone of a series mid-way through it is normal, and what influences affected those changes.

Thursday, 3 July 2008


George Gissing is an useful writer if you're after late Victorian fiction less involved with the minutia of character (Henry James et al ) and more concerned with the wider social issues of the day. He writes in broader strokes, is far more accessible than most of his contemporaries, and his depiction of a generally overlooked class - the lower middle class - is both enlightening and refreshing.

I've read three of his books. The Odd Women, based around the question of the New Woman, New Grub Street, and Born In Exile. Gissing's portrayal of genteel women, caught in the trap of poverty with no realistic means of escape (too posh for labour, untrained for the 'male' professions, so their only recourse is to accept degrading and pitifully paid jobs in the limited professions open to them - governesses and teachers) is deeply moving, even when his general attitude to the emancipated woman remains ambivalent.
Similarly, New Grub Street explores the lower rungs of the literary world, how society rewards opportunism and networking over genuine literary endeavour.

Born in Exile, which I have just finished, is also his most striking - and provoking. Its main character, Godwin Peak, a fiercely intelligent and proud man born to a vulgar, lower middle family, seeks to improve his social connections and find an idealised perfect woman by becoming a member of the clergy. The year is 1884 and Godwin is a committed atheist, both by nature and training, yet the only way he can gain equal footing with men he considers his intellectual equals (the upper middle class), and the woman he considers his ideal, is through the social mobility offered by the church.
"There is a case in which a woman will marry without much regard to her husband's origin. Let him be a parson, and he may aim as high as he chooses."

Godwin is an egotist, a snob, proud to the point of self-destruction and one of the most unlikeable characters I have read about in a long time. I got through the first half of the book only because I longed to see his comeuppance. Yet, the sneaking suspicion came upon me that Gissing actually sympathised with Godwin's plight - that this hypocritical, self-justifying egotist was in fact the hero of this bitter, strange novel. The crazy thing is, by the end, Gissing had almost convinced me of it. Not wholly, but I sympathised with Peak - a man frustrated by his class and lack of means in finding a natural place for himself within society.

The double standards to which Godwin is subjected become clear when his dishonesty is denounced as vile, hypocritical and inspired by greed; social-climbing of the most dishonorable order, yet clergymen like the handsome and well-born Bruno Chilvers, who has patently little, if any, actual belief in Christianity is feted as a great, 'broad minded' man, a credit to the modernising church. This is highlighted in an amusing, somewhat heavy-handed exchange between the two men.
[Bruno]'The results of science are the divine message to our age; to neglect them, to fear them, is to remain under the old law .... Less of St Paul, and more of Darwin! Less of Luther, and more of Herbert Spencer!'

'Shall I have the pleasure of hearing this doctrine at St Margaret's?' Peak inquired.

'In a form suitable to the intelligence of my parishioners, taken in the mass. Were my hands perfectly free, I should begin by preaching a series of sermons on ~The Origin of species~. Sermons! An obnoxious word! One ought never to use it. It signifies everything inept, inert.'

Did I mention how objectionable I found Godwin Peak? Here is a sample of his views on womankind:
Conventional women--but was not the phrase tautological? In the few females who have liberated their souls, was not much of the woman inevitably sacrificed, and would it not be so for long years to come? On the other hand, such a one as Sidwell might be held a perfect creature, perfect in relation to a certain stage of human development. Look at her, as she sat conversing with Moorhouse, soft candle-light upon her face; compare her on the one hand with an average emancipated girl, on the other with a daughter of the people. How unsatisfying was the former; the latter, how repulsive! Here one had the exquisite mean, the lady as England has perfected her towards the close of this nineteenth century. A being of marvellous delicacy, of purest instincts, of unsurpassable sweetness. Who could not detail her limitations, obvious and, in certain moods, irritating enough? These were nothing to the point, unless one would roam the world a hungry idealist; and Godwin was weary of the famined pilgrimage.

Popular culture (of a book that has gained widespread appeal):
'...I couldn't read a page. Whatever the mob enjoys is at once spoilt for me, however good I should otherwise think it. I am sick of seeing and hearing the man's name... This book seems to me to have a bad smell; it looks mauled with dirty fingers. I despise Oldwinkle for his popularity. To make them laugh, and to laugh ~with~ them--pah!'

Working class Londoners:
But the London vulgar I abominate, root and branch. The mere sound of their voices nauseates me; their vilely grotesque accent and pronunciation--bah! I could write a paper to show that they are essentially the basest of English mortals.

In a character, these attitudes are startling and unpleasant, but when you suspect that they are the voice of the author - well, it's difficult as a 'modern reader' to adjust to it, to accept with a blithe 'oh, well, it was different then.'

Still, what is extraordinary about Gissing for me is how very real he makes the experiences of these Victorians, with their economies (absorbing to read about the cost of a meal, rent for a room, the price of meat - survival. And then to compare it to the aristocrats I regularly read about in romances, with their thousand pound Worth gowns and flashing jewels). He makes the London fog real (for the best description, there's an incredible passage in The Odd Women), and the petty struggle of maintaining a social standing; the rigid immobility of the late Victorian class structure. The problematic reception to the 'emancipated woman,' and 'radical politics' - in other words, the spread of democracy, which necessarily meant bestowing rights and powers upon the 'unenlightened mob' Godwin so despises. Fear and loathing of commercialism, consumerism and the 'dumbing down' of culture pervades his work.

Most astonishing of all (though perhaps I am being naive) is the battle between science and religion that raged over a century ago, and shows no signs of abating even today. That the debate is alive and well, and its parameters so unchanged seems incredible. Reading Gissing, I feel I can reach out and touch these faraway people, the space of years reduced by the similarity of our day to day struggles, both material and otherwise.

A troubling, infuriating writer, but worth the effort, I think.


A snippet from a review of Gissing's biogrpahy:
Orwell, who admired him, once proposed that every writer eventually produces a book whose title summarises their attitude to life. Gissing's, you suppose, would be Born in Exile, but the gate-keeper who barred him from the paradisal park of his imaginings - a thousand a year, intellectual company and a "lady" to love - was substantially his own inner self.

Here’s a bio on the Victorian Web

And a website devoted to all things Gissing.