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Monthly Archives: January 2014

The ‘science’ of novel success

Call me naive.  Call me ill-considered.  Remark that I am not a professional author, nor a professional editor, reviewer, or bookseller.  Go ahead.  I accept all accusations. I am not a professional.  But I am a reader.  I read at a rate of more than a book a week, which I think by anyone’s standards means I am allowed to comment on books…. I think.

And, as a reader, I don’t like to feel I am being ‘tricked’, or like there is some magical mathematical algorithm that can predict what I will buy, read an enjoy.  I know the whole aim of the publishing industry is to find great books, edit them to make them better and then sell them to me.  But I like to think it is the variety in these wonderfully written and edited books which keeps me going.  Sometimes a little fiction, sometimes non fiction, modern, historical, Asian, British etc.  And I like to think that on other days, or the same day, for other reasons, or the same reasons, other readers make similar, individual choices.

So the idea that there is some kind of formula to attract both me and other readers disturbs me, a lot.  So, The Telegraph has not really made my day (then again – an aside -when has the Telegraph ever made my day?)

Scientists find secret to writing a best-selling novel

algo

Apparently we like books with lots of conjunctions and lots of adjectives and nouns.   The researchers at Stony Brook University basically tell us that people like books which:

  • include full sentences (hard without conjunctions)
  • include a lot of nouns (so we know what the thing we are reading about is)
  • include a lot of adjectives (so we can develop a mental picture of the noun we are reading about)
  • don’t have as many verbs and adverbs (literate creatures like  emotions more implicit, delivered by the nuanced – thanks to all the adjectives – characters)

I am tempted to write ‘duh’. (Ok, I just did).  Also, phew.  I feel my individuality has been preserved.  I am also a little confused about the 16% of books to which this algorithm did not apply.  But then again, I think of Kerouac and Joyce (though the researchers didn’t stress the need for punctuation, I note) and I start to understand….

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Some more thoughts on men and books

I have been doing a bit more thinking about men, and the books they read.  And having thought about this, I would like to posit a couple of questions and add some thoughts.

1) Most of the men I know read a lot of non-fiction.  Specifically pop pol and techy books.  They tend to like to read about their interests. When I asked one colleague he informed me they also ‘looked better on the train, or the coffee table.’  I imagine most of these are written by men.  Am I right?

2) Equally a lot of men seem to read science fiction and crime books.  I haven’t tested the coffee table / train theory on these.  But again,  I think a lot of these are written by men too (though I know some great female crime authors).  Again, am I right?

If the two above suppositions are right, maybe the ‘do men read books by female authors’ debate is more about a combination of men’s interests as cultural norms and ideas of ‘manliness’ than men necessarily looking down on or disapproving of ‘female’ literature.

manly men

A quick peak at Esquire’s ‘Greatest Books Every Man Should Read’ seems to back up this idea.

http://http://www.esquire.com/the-side/feature/80-books#slide-1

So maybe in some ways #readwomen2014 have got it right and men should be more open to women’s literature.   However, in other ways a lot of the pieces on this subject may have the emphasis subtly wrong, and should be emphasizing the stereotyping of men as much, if not more, than that of women.

An Elegy for my Kindle

kindle

I used to carry books around

My shoulder drooping to the ground

Complaining, whining, mystified

How to keep my brain satisfied?

I’d try to travel light enough

But quickly I’d run out of stuff

Nobody could fill my need

I never had enough to read

Three years ago I solved my quest

I put a kindle to the test

And lo I solved my reading lack

(And also saved my aching back)

Though others tell me “real books” rule

I felt happy, content (and somewhat cool)

Kindle had won my needy heart

I feel lost when we’re apart

But there’s a fact I can’t deny

My kindle aged, I watched it die

Its beauty dimmed, its actions slowed

It wouldn’t turn off sleeping mode

Last night the fight came to an end

And I lost my kindle friend

An empty spot I always see

Til Kindle 2 arrives to me

Correlation versus causation: why I don’t support the year of reading women

Time for a small rant (ok, when isn’t it time for a small rant?)

I read books, good books (mostly, I hope).  I read fiction and non-fiction, books from all over the world (though sadly only those in English, due to my own personal failings).  I read short books and long books, prose and poetry, books by men, women and occasionally children.

I select the books I read based on a number of factors, I think, in this order:

  1. Is it an author I already like?
  2. Is it a genre / style I am in the mood for?
  3. Did a person I know, and trust to know the type of book I might like to read (even if they have a different opinion) recommend it to me?
  4. Did a site / person I don’t know, but trust from experience recommend it?
  5. Am I just taking a punt on something new because I feel like it?

At no point, ever, do I think ‘is this book by a man or a woman?’  Does anyone?  Honestly?

And that is why the #readwomen2014project, the below Guardian article and all the other associated paraphernalia frustrates me so much:

http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/jan/22/year-of-reading-women-2014-bias-male-writers?CMP=twt_fd

It is equating correlation with causation.

correlation

Has anyone thought:

  1. Maybe high profile book reviewers aren’t women because they aren’t interested in the profession or aren’t as good?  Or maybe they just don’t happen to write for the London or New York Reviews of Books (which, incidentally, most big readers – including myself – I know, hardly ever read, because they are too pretentious).
  2. Maybe books by women aren’t as good?  Even if women write the same number of books as men (or more) that doesn’t make them worthy of high profile reviews.

Also, in terms of providing evidence of the need for this, it is pretty scant:

  1. Joanna Walsh, one of the founders of this movement lists Zadie Smith as one of her top undiscovered women.  Zadie Smith (!), winner  of multiple honours for her first novel, including the 2000 James Tait Black Memorial Prize for fiction, the 2000 Whitbread Book Award in category best first novel and shortlisted for The Man Booker Prize in 2005 for On Beauty?  That Zadie Smith?
  2. As ‘evidence’, the article quotes an author and journalist who tried this last year and found his results ‘inconclusive’ (in sum, some women writers were good and some weren’t – quelle surprise) and adds that his favourite male authors remain his favourites.
  3. Pritchard at ‘Critical Flame’ who is publicising this process (and therefore may not provide the most neutral commentary) states that the white male is still the default.  I assume he hasn’t noted the Women’s Prize or last year’s Man Booker Longlist, on which 8 of the 13 authors were female or non-white and three were both.

I think it is such a shame we are focussing on reading women or men, white or other or any other ‘category’ of novel.  Surely, the wonder of a good book is that it transcends the author (especially in the age of the kindle, where often I can’t remember the author or title of the book I am reading and never see the cover)?  This seems unnecessary, retrograde, ridiculous and just a little sad….

 

These are a few of my favourite things

The blog is branching out.

As you can imagine, I am frequently sent book images, films, and the like.  I love loads of them – though a few are horribly trite.  So I thought it might be nice, occasionally, to share a few of them with you, dear reader.  And please feel free to send in suggestions.

Below are my recent favourites.  Though if you do one thing, check the video.  That’s my favourite book thing ever!

books 5 books 4 books 2 books 1

Popular is Good: Why I Unashamedly love Jodi Picoult

There’s something deeply grating about people who dislike things because they are popular.  And the irony it is not lost on me that those who jump on the ‘anti-popular’ bandwagon often look, sound and act more similar than those who prefer some popular things.  But, I digress.  My main point is things are (not always, but often) popular because they are good, they are done well.

This is all designed as a precursor to me telling you that I love Jodi Picoult, despite, or maybe because of, her popularity.  And I know, there is nothing cool about that.  But books shouldn’t be cool.  They should be curl up in a cosy chair – lose the day – tell your friends about it – dream about it engaging.  They should make you want to turn the page because you are so worried about what will happen to the character next.  They will stop you in your tracks – in surprise, or enchantment, or pain.  And Jodi Picoult does that for me.

And for millions of others.  It is not for nothing that she hits the top of Bestseller lists, time and time again (and, according to Wikipedia, has sold 14 million copies of her books worldwide).

I think The Storyteller is her best book since My Sister’s Keeper (quite the feat, as she is nothing if not prolific).  It tells three intertwining stories and, as is the way with Picoult, mixes fact, fiction and that grey area inbetween.  Despite focussing on the tried and tested 2nd World War / concentration camp formula, it brings something new to the table, setting over a third of the action in modern day America.  And it is a page turner, with a twist, as you would expect of Picoult.  But also a love story, which you wouldn’t necessarily.

story

Of all Picoult’s novels, I found this one of the more touching.  The characters and their relationships were pretty unusual, but somehow this contributed to making them feel more genuine and less trite.  Also, I guess it touched me because it was close to home.  My Grandma was a holocaust survivor (although never experienced a concentration camp) and the Grandmother in the book had much of her character.  One quote in particular struck me:

“My grandmother lived a remarkable life.  She watched her nation fall to pieces; and even when she became collateral damage, she believed in the power of the human spirit… she clung to tomorrow when she couldn’t find footing on the rock ledge of yesterday.”

But I think this book will touch most people.  Try me.