That email from Amazon about the Amazon-Hachette Dispute

So I got THAT email this morning. The one that compares the contract dispute between Amazon and Hachette to WW2 and Orwell and I don’t even know what?

Here are my thoughts:

Dear KDP Author, Could you not have used my name? Seriously? I’m in your KDP program!

Just ahead of World War II, there was a radical invention that shook the foundations of book publishing. It was the paperback book. This was a time when movie tickets cost 10 or 20 cents, and books cost $2.50. The new paperback cost 25 cents – it was ten times cheaper. Readers loved the paperback and millions of copies were sold in just the first year. Hurrah for paperbacks. Didn’t stop hardbacks from being sold though, did it?

With it being so inexpensive and with so many more people able to afford to buy and read books, you would think the literary establishment of the day would have celebrated the invention of the paperback, yes? Nope. Instead, they dug in and circled the wagons. They believed low cost paperbacks would destroy literary culture and harm the industry (not to mention their own bank accounts). Many bookstores refused to stock them, and the early paperback publishers had to use unconventional methods of distribution – places like newsstands and drugstores. The famous author George Orwell came out publicly and said about the new paperback format, if “publishers had any sense, they would combine against them and suppress them.” Yes, George Orwell was suggesting collusion. CITE YOUR SOURCES. This seems like a really bug-eyed view of this period of literary history, and also I quite respect George Orwell as an author so, you know, I’d think he probably had some rationality behind his reasoning. 

Well… history doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme. The first part of your email is irrelevant. Great.

Fast forward to today, and it’s the e-book’s turn to be opposed by the literary establishment. Amazon and Hachette – a big US publisher and part of a $10 billion media conglomerate – are in the middle of a business dispute about e-books. We want lower e-book prices. Hachette does not. Many e-books are being released at $14.99 and even $19.99. That is unjustifiably high for an e-book. With an e-book, there’s no printing, no over-printing, no need to forecast, no returns, no lost sales due to out of stock, no warehousing costs, no transportation costs, and there is no secondary market – e-books cannot be resold as used books. E-books can and should be less expensive. I generally agree with this BUT. I buy ebooks for a wide range of prices. The value is dictated not by the format, but by how much I love the author. I’ll buy Robin Hobbs books at any price. Pretty sure this is true of most readers. JK Rowling can charge more than me: that’s kind of how a creative industry works. 

Perhaps channeling Orwell’s decades old suggestion, Hachette has already been caught illegally colluding with its competitors to raise e-book prices. So far those parties have paid $166 million in penalties and restitution. Colluding with its competitors to raise prices wasn’t only illegal, it was also highly disrespectful to Hachette’s readers. 

The fact is many established incumbents in the industry have taken the position that lower e-book prices will “devalue books” and hurt “Arts and Letters.” They’re wrong. Just as paperbacks did not destroy book culture despite being ten times cheaper, neither will e-books. On the contrary, paperbacks ended up rejuvenating the book industry and making it stronger. The same will happen with e-books. Already happened, frankly. If you want low-priced ebooks, you’ll find them on amazon, by KDP authors. And lots of people are buying them. For once, the marketplace is working. We’ve got erotica for all tastes, genre fiction by the bucketload, and we’ve got a platform for many of the voices that traditional publishing has often been adverse to broadcasting (e.g. minorities, LGBT, etc.) Ebooks are an important and disruptive force — but Hachette aren’t trying to stop ebooks. They just want to set the price for their own ebooks that they are publishing. 

Many inside the echo-chamber of the industry often draw the box too small. They think books only compete against books. But in reality, books compete against mobile games, television, movies, Facebook, blogs, free news sites and more. If we want a healthy reading culture, we have to work hard to be sure books actually are competitive against these other media types, and a big part of that is working hard to make books less expensive. This bugs me. The video game market supports 99c iPhone games right up to $60 AAA games. Both models are viable. TV is supported by adverts, and Netflix is supported by subscriptions. News sites are in a bit of flux at the moment, but you have ad supported, subscription supported and paywall supported all co-existing somewhat peacefully. The point is, different audiences want different things.

Some people want cheap ebooks and are prepared to wade through the self-pubbed stuff that isn’t professionally edited etc. Some people want to buy paperbacks. Some people want to buy ebooks from a traditional publisher… and are happy to pay a bit more, knowing the quality control was there. Some people like to try new authors and some people only read Stephen King/Jodi Picoult and will pay whatever to get that latest novel by that specific author. 

Moreover, e-books are highly price elastic. This means that when the price goes down, customers buy much more. We’ve quantified the price elasticity of e-books from repeated measurements across many titles. For every copy an e-book would sell at $14.99, it would sell 1.74 copies if priced at $9.99. So, for example, if customers would buy 100,000 copies of a particular e-book at $14.99, then customers would buy 174,000 copies of that same e-book at $9.99. Total revenue at $14.99 would be $1,499,000. Total revenue at $9.99 is $1,738,000. The important thing to note here is that the lower price is good for all parties involved: the customer is paying 33% less and the author is getting a royalty check 16% larger and being read by an audience that’s 74% larger. The pie is simply bigger. Give us the source data. There’s nothing more annoying than cherry-picking a few facts and figures to make an argument. As the saying goes ‘lies, damned lies, and statistics’. 

In fact, give KDP Authors more data generally. We’re using your system and we don’t even know what our conversion rates are! The day I get A/B testing is the day I’ll be able to make marketing decisions based on real data. 

But when a thing has been done a certain way for a long time, resisting change can be a reflexive instinct, and the powerful interests of the status quo are hard to move. It was never in George Orwell’s interest to suppress paperback books – he was wrong about that. Ebooks have already disrupted the market. You are emailing the millions of people who took the self-publishing route. We’ve ALREADY enacted the change. 

And despite what some would have you believe, authors are not united on this issue. When the Authors Guild recently wrote on this, they titled their post: “Amazon-Hachette Debate Yields Diverse Opinions Among Authors” (the comments to this post are worth a read).  A petition started by another group of authors and aimed at Hachette, titled “Stop Fighting Low Prices and Fair Wages,” garnered over 7,600 signatures.  And there are myriad articles and posts, by authors and readers alike, supporting us in our effort to keep prices low and build a healthy reading culture. Author David Gaughran’s recent interview is another piece worth reading. It’s almost like people are diverse and have different wants and needs. And it’s almost like businesses can target different niches and support those differing wants and needs!

We recognize that writers reasonably want to be left out of a dispute between large companies. Some have suggested that we “just talk.” We tried that. Hachette spent three months stonewalling and only grudgingly began to even acknowledge our concerns when we took action to reduce sales of their titles in our store. Since then Amazon has made three separate offers to Hachette to take authors out of the middle. We first suggested that we (Amazon and Hachette) jointly make author royalties whole during the term of the dispute. Then we suggested that authors receive 100% of all sales of their titles until this dispute is resolved. Then we suggested that we would return to normal business operations if Amazon and Hachette’s normal share of revenue went to a literacy charity. But Hachette, and their parent company Lagardere, have quickly and repeatedly dismissed these offers even though e-books represent 1% of their revenues and they could easily agree to do so. They believe they get leverage from keeping their authors in the middle. Basically Amazon made a number of PR moves that would have meant Hachette would not have been able to pay their editors, cover-designers, proof-readers and everyone else involved in bringing a traditional-published ebook to market. But let’s get this straight, this is a contract negotiation. Nobody ‘has’ to give in. Both companies can choose to walk away and deal with consequences to their business. Both parties can choose to accept and deny terms. 

We will never give up our fight for reasonable e-book prices. We know making books more affordable is good for book culture. We’d like your help. Please email Hachette and copy us. Wait, wait, are you asking me to troll a work-email? 

Hachette CEO, Michael Pietsch: Michael.Pietsch@hbgusa.com

Copy us at: readers-united@amazon.comApparently you are. Great job. A multibillion dollar, international corporation has just taken the disruption tactics of people who genuinely don’t have voices, and used them against another corporation.

You know when it’s valid to call for mass emails? When you’re emailing a political party claiming to represent your interests or when it’s consumers speaking against damaging corporate behaviour. NOT when it’s one corporation negotiating with another corporation. 

Please consider including these points:

– We have noted your illegal collusion. Please stop working so hard to overcharge for ebooks. They can and should be less expensive. 
– Lowering e-book prices will help – not hurt – the reading culture, just like paperbacks did.
– Stop using your authors as leverage and accept one of Amazon’s offers to take them out of the middle.
– Especially if you’re an author yourself: Remind them that authors are not united on this issue. You just asked your authors to ask Hachette to stop using their authors as leverage? Ummmm. Pot, kettle? 

Thanks for your support.

The Amazon Books Team Did you just make up a ‘Books Team’? 

P.S. You can also find this letter at www.readersunited.com

So there it is. A complete clusterfuck of an email, that has completely undermined any respect I once had for Amazon.

Old Man Goriot: 100 novels

I am reading the Telegraph’s “100 novels everyone should read” list, and my latest review is about Old Man Goriot. You can follow my progress on the twitter hashtag #100novels. This review will contain spoilers.

Old Man Goriot

Old Man Goriot focuses heavily on three characters: Rastignac, a young student determined to break into Paris high society; Vautrin, a jovial criminal who takes Rastignac under his wing; and the titular Goriot himself. Despite being the title character, we get very little from Goriot and see his tragedy play out mainly through the eyes of Rastignac.

The novel is one of those rich, meandering tapestries full of mesmerising detail. Indeed, Balzac is generally credited with founding realism in European literature. The book is not stylised or romanticised in any way, but rather depicts the thoughts and actions of people who may as well be real.

As such, it makes for a depressing read. Goriot’s story is not a happy one. A hardworking small businessman, he makes enough money to ensure his daughters are ‘well married’ and they enter a higher social strata. They quickly snub their father, except when they need more money. Goriot sacrifices more and more of his own well-being to try and help his daughters with little reward. Eventually, penniless, he suffers a stroke and dies slowly – but his daughters are too busy attending an important high society ball and do not visit him before he finally dies. They also do not attend his funeral, choosing instead to let a medical student and Rastignac (his fellow boarder) organise a paupers grave.

The way this desire to ‘go up in the world’ and achieve greater wealth and fame corrupts people is played out again in the character of Rastignac. From a poor rural area of France, he has high ambitions but quickly realises you need wealth and connections to even be noticed. He takes money from his family, that they can ill afford, and even contemplates becoming an accessory to murder.

Despite the fairly horrible actions of the characters, they are well-fleshed out and surprisingly sympathetic. Poverty is shown to be a grim and horrible thing, and it is no surprise that people are desperate to escape to the glittering world of wealth and good fortune.

Indeed, with our own inequality of wealth rising, this book has some surprisingly poignant moments. The poverty of the boarding house, the desperation of most of the characters to escape, and the prejudice the wealthier class has against the poorer ones – even to the extent of daughters turning against their father – all feels sadly modern.

Buy Old Man Goriot

Eugene Onegin: 100 novels challenge

I am reading the Telegraph’s “100 novels everyone should read” list, and my latest review is about Eugene Onegin. You can follow my progress on the twitter hashtag #100novels. This review will contain spoilers.

Eugene Onegin

So there comes a point on any 100 novels list when you hit something like this: Eugene Onegin. A Russian novel written entirely in verse.

In verse.

Purely from a technical viewpoint this felt like a bad idea. I can’t read Russian. Translating poetry is notoriously difficult, and this was a mega-poem of 389 stanzas.

From a personal perspective it also felt like a challenge. I don’t ‘get’ poetry. You can blame it on the education system, I guess. Or on a culture that is rapidly replacing oral communication with text. For whatever reason, reading poetry fills me with a deep terror.

So I did what any self-respecting former English student would do. I procrastinated. I read Vonnegut and 87th Precinct  novels and occasionally told people that I was still deciding which translation to get.

Eugene Onegin - operaIt wasn’t until I had a weekend that involved spending eight hours on a train that I decided to to tackle Eugene Onegin. I downloaded it onto my kindle and sallied forth.

Turned out that once I had started I couldn’t stop.

As a poem it is unpretentious; written in a witty but down to earth voice that quickly pulled me into the story. There is little in the way of dense and tangled imagery. Instead, Eugene is a rather straightforward tragic love story. There’s a couple of passionate letters, a duel that ends in murder, and a love affair that ends up unrequited for both people involved. There’s also, in the style of old books, a few amusing digressions – such as several stanzas all about feet.

I sniggered out loud a couple of times, which is pretty good going for a book written in the 1800s. I also felt genuinely sad for the characters, caught up in rigid social niceties that prevented them from achieving anything like a happy ending.

In short, it was everything I could have wanted from a train read.

It is generally considered a classic in Russian literature, and there is something haunting about it. Despite the witty, almost irreverent language, the actual story is horrible. Nobody wins – except, perhaps, Olga?

Overall, if you are looking to get into your classics, Eugene Onegin is a good place to start. I’m almost inspired to attempt a visit to the Opera!

Buy Eugene Onegin: A Novel in Verse (Penguin Classics).

100 novels: The Golden Notebook

I am reading the Telegraph’s “100 novels everyone should read” list, and my latest review is about The Golden Notebook. You can follow my progress on the twitter hashtag #100novels.

This review will contain spoilers.

The Golden Notebook

Buy The Golden Notebook on Amazon

This is going to be one of the most difficult novels for me to write a review about, because I’m still not sure I really understood what it was about.

First up, Doris Lessing won the Nobel Prize for Literature, and The Golden Notebook is generally considered to be her most influential book. It’s also a ‘feminist classic’, although Doris distances herself from that title in her introduction, saying:

But nobody so much as noticed this central theme, because the book was instantly belittled […] as being about the sex war, or was claimed by women as a useful weapon in the sex war.

I have been in a false position ever since, for the last thing I have wanted to do was refuse to support women.

The central theme she refers to is that of ‘breakdown’ or ‘cracking up’. In other words, what we now refer to as ‘mental illness’.

And yet, reading through The Golden Notebook, it is easy to see how people arrived at the conclusion it was about the plight of women; the way women are driven by mad by circumstance and by the double standards they are held to. She also, in her introduction from June 1971, mentions her belief that:

the whole world is being shaken into a new pattern by the cataclysms we are living through: probably by the time we are through, if we do get through at all, the aims of Women’s Liberation will look very small and quaint.

Alas, reading the book in 2014 we seem to be tackling many of the same issues: endless (confusing) wars, a complete lack of faith in any ideological movement, an absence of hope… and of course, the same old problems of racism and sexism.

The solution that the central character arrives at is to go mad; perhaps the only sane response in a world of increasing horror.

And yet, despite tackling issues still alive today, such as racism and sexism, the book does seem to be written from a time long long ago. An enormous gulf separated me from the central characters. Their obsession with the Communist Party, for a start. Few people I know would ever invest much time and energy into supporting a political party. We are too aware that they are all corrupt, all ‘as bad as each other’. We support certain aims, we accept that one might be slightly less evil than another about issues we care about. But on the whole, nobody really believes politicians care about the country, or the citizens of a country… let alone the state of the world.

So where are the solutions? We face a crisis in terms of climate change, with people already dying. We are so addicted to petroleum that we are prepared to blow up swathes of the country to extract it. And the level of inequality between the wealthiest and the poorest is such that the top 0.7% of people own 41% of the worlds wealth.

We can’t trust our political parties to sort it out, revolutions rarely work and have a high cost in blood shed and violence, and peaceful protest is ignored.

If there is an answer, I believe it lies in each of us striving to be better, to think outside our own circle of friends and family, to use whatever power and privilege we have to push forward our collective wellbeing.

In The Golden Notebook, however, Anna — and to a large extent Doris — is dealing with the failure of the dreams of peace and plenty that the Communist Party promised. In it’s own way, as well, it’s about the loss of teenage naivete. We all believe we can change the world when we are teenager, and then we grow up and find ourselves trapped in the same patterns of power that our parents dealt with. Yet I think, for that generation that came of age during the Second World War, it was a far more crushing blow.

In many ways, The Golden Notebook is a depressing, hopeless book. Several characters make reference to the silent despair of the majority, quietly going crazy all across London. Yet perhaps there is some hope, that complete breakdown and reformation is the only solution… and in that, the breakdown of Anna Wulf and Saul Green represents the greater breakdown of society. When they give each other the first lines of the next novel, it is the formation of something new.

I found the book tough going. The characters are not sympathetic. Doris accurately represents the part of mental illness that has you endlessly circling the same ideas and motifs, again and again… and again. By the third ‘affair with a married man’ you are frustrated and slightly bored with the whole scenario. And yet, despite that, I found myself unable to put the book down. It opened my ideas to a world very different from mine, and forced me to think about things that made me uncomfortable.

All in all, I would recommend The Golden Notebook to others, with the caveat that you probably won’t actually enjoy it.

Other reviews of The Golden Notebook

How do you choose what book to read next?

In my last post I wrote about some of the things I am reading when I’m not working my way through the 100 novels I’ve challenged myself to read.

As a kid finding something new to read was never a problem. I used to raid my parents bookcase and the library and choose whatever looked interesting. I soon found my favourite authors and genres. It helped that I had a limited pool to choose from. It only took a few minutes to run along the shelves and pick the next book out.

Nowadays, with over one million books sitting on Amazon’s limitless shelves, and hundreds of thousands more being added every day, I don’t find it so easy. On the one hand, some of my favourite books have been little-known, obscure novels I would have never found if someone hadn’t donated it to a charity shop or market stall. On the other hand 90% of the books for sale I can be pretty sure I won’t enjoy. I’ve read a few self-published novels at random and most of them have been… well, pretty awful.

But I don’t want to miss the not-awful ones!

I could only read authors and specific genres I know I already like. But books are meant to broaden the horizon and make you consider new perspectives. Sometimes you need a new voice and a different set of themes to tackle.

I like to read classics, sure, but I also like to read modern novels. Ones that reflect on my own time, or the near future. The question that plagues me is… how do I find them?

How do you choose what book to read next?

What do you do? Do you use Goodreads recommendation tool? Do you get friends and family to suggest ideas? Do you scour the book reviews in newspapers? Do you have a particular book blogger whose opinion you respect? Is it even possible you buy books when some author sends you a tweet begging you to?

Let me know in the comments (or on facebook/twitter!)

Also, a shameless plug, but if you stumbled on this post looking for something to read… why not give my own short novel a try? The Rising Wind.

(By the way, here’s the full-sized version of that awesome flowchart at the top of the post)

What I’ve been reading lately

Whilst I am ploughing through the 100 novels challenge, the truth is I don’t just read the books on that list. I frequently intersperse my reading with some slightly less worthy works of fiction; the genre fiction which I love.  I grew up on crime novels and science-fiction, and as you will see, I always return to those genres… much like comfort food.

Blackbirds

First up, a very modern, somewhat racy novel, Blackbirds by Chuck Wendig. I love Chuck’s blog, terribleminds, where he dispenses foul-mouthed wisdom from the lofty tower of writer-that-earns-a-living. I loved two of Chuck’s earlier books – Shotgun Gravy and Bait Dog, and was expecting to love Blackbirds. Truth be told, although many of the elements were there – razor-sharp writing, interestingly damaged characters, sex, violence and some paranormal shiznit – I came away feeling unsatisfied. Chuck has said that he’s been kicking this novel around for a few years, and it shows, the scenes feel as though they’ve been patched together with some pretty flakey story-glue. I’m going to steer clear of the other Miriam Black novels, but give one of Chuck’s other books a go.

87th Precinct

The Pusher by Ed McBain book coverThen some re-reading. I’ve been ploughing through Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct novels, of which there are many. Ed more or less invented the cops-and-robbers genre, as far as I can tell. I read these as a teenager, and they influenced my writing style quite a lot. Short, staccato like sentences, a heavy focus on dialogue, and plenty of intrigue and violence. Of course, they are dated now – access to a cellphone would resolve many of the plots – and the women are all sexualised to the point of parody. However, the stories still rip along, the characters are still broadly sympathetic, and I’ll confess, I forgive a good crime novel pretty much anything.

Never Far from Nowhere

I also belong to a book club, and the most recent novel on the list was Never Far From Nowhere by Andrea Levy, which deals with race issues in the 1970s. Andrea Levy is an important writer, being one of the few black historical authors for the United Kingdom, and she charts a uniquely English racism which makes for uncomfortable reading – because most of it is still true today. With that said, this book is less than subtle, and I found the characters fairly one dimensional. This was her second novel, and it was her fourth, Small Island, that won most praise from reviewers. I think there is nascent talent evident in Never Far From Nowhere, but it hadn’t quite gelled yet. I’ll be glad to read her later works, however.

Inverted World

Inverted World book coverAnother recent read was Inverted World, a science fiction novel by Christopher Priest. Inverted World is a brilliant novel in science-fiction terms… the ideas are interesting and the science is good. Like a lot of sci-fi, the characters exist mainly to serve the idea, rather than the other way round and the writing is flat and unevocative. The different points-of-view don’t add much to the story; it could just as easily have all been written from 3rd person, and might have been better for it.

Flashman

I’ve also been re-reading the Flashman novels. Historical novels set during the 19th century, the Flashman novels are that rare thing… books which features a thoroughly unlikeable main character, which nevertheless succeed admirably. It is partly a critique of the victorian novel, by undercutting any sense of nobility or bravery, the Flashman novels show the Empire building of Britain as the rapacious, violent, incompetent and greedy exercise it was and sheds a less than flattering light on the major players of the time.

The Great Gatsby

The final book on my list is The Great Gatsby, which I grabbed because it was free on kindle (and a week before payday I am out of money for new books to read!) I read this many years ago, and apparently liked it enough to award it five stars on Goodreads. Whether the book will stand up to a re-read I will soon discover.

What have you been reading lately? Got any good books to recommend?

Photo of books by shutterhacks.

100 novels: Under the Net

I am reading the Telegraph’s “100 novels everyone should read” list. You can follow my progress on the twitter hashtag #100novels.

This review will contain spoilers.

Under the Net


This was the first book on the 100 novels list that not only had I not read before, but I also had never really heard of it. I had a vague idea that Iris Murdoch was a crime writer, similar to Agatha Christie. I have no idea where I came up with that!

Under the Net turned out to be a witty account of a young writer-slash-translator’s struggle with relationships and philosophy, and ended up with him realising that no matter how much he tries to understand the people around him, he can never truly know who someone is.

The beauty of Under the Net is in the set-pieces, odd characters and backdrops that frequently border on the surreal, conversations laden with wit and dramatic irony, and Jake at the centre of it all, analysing and over-analysing every sentence. The language of the novel is fantastic, it’s just funny enough to distract you from the philosophising, which could – left alone – swamp the book.

The book felt quite adolescent. The free-spirited, no-money, bumming a couch from friends lifestyle smacks of someone who is a perennial teenager. At one point in my life I found that idea immensely attractive; and I used to love novels that featured those kind of protagonists. Just go where the wind takes you, and see what happens! Drink, swim in the Thames, buy a movie dog, don’t commit to anybody.

Now that I am a bit older, I feel like my priorities have changed. I had less sympathy for Jake than I might once have had. Whilst he had enough self-awareness to make him interesting, I still couldn’t help but judge him for the way he took advantage of his friends. The point he (finally!) gets a real job, and discovers that real life is the thing that actually grists a writers mill is less a triumph and more of a sigh of relief. In some ways, that made for uncomfortable reading as it forced me to reflect on the way my own self has changed with the passage of time.

Overall, this was a fun read, and reminded me somewhat of Cold Comfort Farm in tone. I would definitely read other books by Iris Murdoch.

100 novels: The Tale of Genji

I am reading the Telegraph’s “100 novels everyone should read” list. You can follow my progress on the twitter hashtag #100novels.

This review will contain spoilers.

The Tale of Genji

I wanted to love this book.

It is, reputedly, the first novel ever written. Written in the 11th century by Japanese noblewoman Murasaki Shikibu, it is a book that is incredibly important for its impact on novel writing as we know it today. It is important in what it tells us about court life in Japan in the 11th century.

Initially I quite enjoyed it. It read more like fan-fiction than anything else, with Genji the ultimate in fantasy men, as he falls in love with various court women and eventually marries someone who is – according to literary scholars – a stand-in for Murasaki herself.

I will confess, I abandoned the story before this marriage.

The problem is not that it isn’t good; it is a deserved classic. The problem is that taking on a sprawling novel set in an ancient Japan is quite a challenge. It is a novel about domestic intrigue and power-play in a world so utterly different from the one I live in that it becomes almost impossible to relate. The characters communicate with each other by writing poetry, a form of writing I find difficult at the best of times. There is no plot, it is simply a musing on human relationships.

It is hard for me to write a fair review of this book. Many people will love it; many already do. But for me it was simply a step too far from my comfort zone.

 

100 novels: Cold Comfort Farm

I am reading the Telegraph’s “100 novels everyone should read” list. You can follow my progress on the twitter hashtag #100novels.

This review will contain spoilers.

Cold Comfort Farm

This is one of those super quick reads that you can blaze through in an afternoon. It is, nonetheless, a richly detailed story full of the use of symbolism. A parody of rural novels of the time, it contains the infamous “something nasty in the woodshed”. The book as a whole is a bracing ‘stop wallowing about in your emotions, get over yourselves and clean this mess up’, but is delivered with a fair amount of humour and flair so I didn’t really mind.

Weirdly, there is a sort of science-fiction element to it. Aeroplanes dropp by to people’s homes, Flora talks to her significant other using a phone/television hybrid straight out of Star Trek (yet the rest of the time communicates by telegram) and the book references fictional wars that happened in the future (at least from the perspective of the time the book was written). It doesn’t appear to add anything to the plot, and could easily be completely missed. It just seems to be there to make the book a bit ‘quirky’.

My one argument against the book, which is otherwise a fun read, is that Flora encounters almost no resistance in her bid to clean up Cold Comfort Farm. At the start we have this beautiful set-up, of a chic, London ‘lady-of-leisure’ coming into this chaotic farm, and then each of her plans – getting Elfine married, turning Seth into a movie star, convincing the Aunt to stop flailing in bed and go on a holiday around the world – come off without a hitch. Those that might oppose her plans are easily dealt with (the most notable of which is Urk, who, upon hearing that the women betrothed to him since childhood is to be married to someone else, does not throw a fit, but instead turns to the nearest single woman and says ‘you’ll do’)

The result is that Flora herself does not seem to be at all changed by her experience, and the other characters become merely pawns that allow themselves to be pushed around quite willingly. Once you realise this, the rest of the story contains no suspense, and the jigsaw puzzle pieces are extremely obvious (Flora knows a film producer, Seth is a smouldering bombshell who loves the ‘talkies’, well, hey, look what happens!)

Having said that, the book is amusing enough and satirical enough that it gets away with it, and being such a quick read is well worth a try.

 

100 novels: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

I am reading the Telegraph’s “100 novels everyone should read” list. You can follow my progress on the twitter hashtag #100novels.

This review will contain spoilers.

 Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy


I will preface this review by noting that I am, in fact, a massive John le Carré fan. I think he is an expert writer, an absolute master of suspense, of drawing you into a character and making you root for them whilst at the same time showing you their flaws. He writes about political intrigue, intelligence work, and violence that feels realistic enough to make you genuinely angry and sad at the world.

With that said, I’m not sure why the Telgraph picked Tinker, Tailer, Soldier, Spy as the ‘greatest’ of his books. True: it features his infamous Smiley, and true, it fictionalises real events. On the other hand it is a dense, paranoid and complicated web of stories that is easy to lose the thread of. I had read it before, and yet I still found myself backtracking to try and remember who the different people were and how they related to each other. On the one hand this is definitely ambitious storytelling – a narrative pieced together from flashbacks, old files, witness statements, and the drifting memories of various spies. We open and close with Jim Prideaux, whose near-fatal mission is the heart of the story and yet he hardly figures elsewhere.

On the other hand it’s a tough read, without a big payoff at the end. It focuses heavily on well-educated white men. I found it hard to identify with any of the characters, and the cold war is a distant threat at this point.

My favourite le Carré book is The Mission Song,  which is far more modern, more fluidly written, and has a more approachable protagonist. I feel that Carré is at his best when writing modern novels that tackle the politics and corruption occurring today. He is not afraid to go head first into controversial topics, and at the end of The Mission Song I was in tears. You can tell that le Carré outrage over the injustice of what is happening in Africa is absolutely genuine. With his other books it is easy to dismiss the cold war bickering as ‘the bad old days’, whereas his modern novels do a great job of lighting a fire-cracker under your arse and making you want to change what is happening today.