Friday, 28 January 2011

Jamie Oliver - the Patron Saint of Publishing

Pause for a moment to consider what the name Jamie Oliver means to you. Undoubtedly, you could come up with a variety of words to describe him - chef, media personality, campaigner, philanthropist. All these indisputably and accurately illustrate the trajectory of Jamie Oliver’s career since he first burst onto our TV screens as The Naked Chef in 1998. But the latest string which has been added to his bow, that of record-breaking author, has caught many by surprise, not least, one assumes, Mr Oliver himself.

The figures for total annual book sales for 2010 have recently been released - and the numbers tell quite a story. Jamie’s latest cookbook, 30 Minute Meals, sold a phenomenal 1.2 million copies last year, making it the fastest selling non-fiction book of all time. This achievement is even more remarkable when one considers the fact that the book was released quite late in the year, at the end of September.

These astonishing sales figures make Jamie Oliver one of the most successful British authors ever, second only to JK Rowling. It is unprecedented that a non-fiction book, and a cookbook at that, could post such huge sales. Not bad for a dyslexic boy from Essex who famously said, “reading bores me to death, I’ve honestly never read a book from cover to cover in my life.”

All this has been like manna from heaven to the publishing industry. At a time when pundits are predicting the demise of traditional publishing, Penguin (the publisher of 30 Minute Meals) has posted record profits. A recipe for success other companies will be keen to replicate.

No doubt there will be some purists out there who will take exception to the fact that a cookbook, of all things, has been lauded as the saviour of the UK’s publishing industry - and to some extent they have a point; a recipe can hardly be described as high literature, can it? However, in these straitened times, let’s just be thankful that people are buying books, no matter what genre they happen to be.

Lastly, let's spare a thought for Jamie's arch-rival, the foul-mouthed Gordon Ramsay, who may now be regretting his catty, if somewhat prohetic, remark: "Jamie Oliver inspires me with what he has done - with his publishing arm."

Yeats's Parting Shot

Today marks the anniversary of the death of Irish poet and playwright, William Butler Yeats. He died in 1939 in the small town of Roquebrune on the French Rivera, aged 73.

Prior to his death, Yeats left specific instructions regarding his burial. According to his wife Georgie, the poet, in his own inimitable style, said:
"If I die, bury me up there [at Roquebrune] and then in a year's time, when the newspapers have forgotten me, dig me up and plant me in Sligo."
And this is exactly what happened. WB Yeats was buried quietly in France a few days after his death, and his body was eventually repatriated to Ireland and interred in his native and beloved Sligo. (This is in stark contrast to the fate of Yeats’s compatriot James Joyce, who languishes in a cemetery in Switzerland to this day – see previous post.)

Given the fact that death is a pervading theme in Yeats’s poetry, it is hardly surprising to learn that he had given a lot of thought to his own death. Aside from the burial instructions, he also left specific directions regarding his tombstone: “no marble, no conventional phrase”.

And so, it seems rather fitting that the epitaph engraved on his simple granite headstone in Sligo was taken from one of his more elegiac poems Under Ben Bulben:
Cast a cold eye
On life, on death.
Horseman, pass by!

Thursday, 27 January 2011

Ding Dong! The Book is Dead ... or is it?

The book, as we know it, is dead. As a dodo. Kaput. At least that’s what the countless doom-mongering naysayers who populate newspaper columns and the internet would have us believe. Citing the inexorable rise in popularity of e-readers like the Kindle and the iPad, pundits have been predicting the demise of the humble paperback with increasing fervour.

Why the clamber to relegate the book to the annals of history? The current fashion of bestowing on the book the status of relic seems to me somewhat short-sighted. In their haste to declare the book dead, an artefact of the innocent, halcyon days of the pre-digital era, the anti-book brigade has overlooked one key fact – the printed word has a proven track record when it comes to longevity. It has, in fact, been around since the invention of the first printing press by Johannes Gutenberg in 1440. Dear reader, can you envisage the Kindle still going strong in 570 years? I think not.

That is not to say that e-readers are not mounting a serious challenge to books in their traditional form. There is, however, no reason why the printed word and its digitised cousin cannot co-exist happily in this brave new electronic world. There will always be those who prefer one form over the other, and that is the very reason why books and e-readers will never become mutually exclusive. We do not live in a homogeneous society, so why should we settle for homogeneous choices?

This particular debate will, no doubt, continue to rumble on for years to come. Perhaps next time we are tempted to write off the book (excuse the pun!), we would do well to remember the words of the equally immutable Mark Twain:
“the reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.”

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

On This Day ... Notable Anniversaries

19th January:
Edgar Allan Poe, American writer and poet, was born on this day in 1809.

Paul C├ęzanne, French post-impressionist painter, was born on this day in 1839.

The Second Coming of Sherlock Holmes

Sherlock Holmes is enjoying something of a revival of late. A spate of new television and movie adaptations has brought Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s ingenious literary creation to a whole new generation of audiences, proving yet again that the detective has enduring appeal. It is hardly surprising then that the Conan Doyle estate has decided to capitalise on the renewed appetite for all things Holmesian by authorising a new, full-length story to be penned by the author and screenwriter, Anthony Horowitz.

The commission marks the first time Holmes has been officially recalled to action since the death of Conan Doyle. The last we heard of the great detective, he was enjoying a quiet and secluded retirement in rural Sussex, immersing himself in the study of beekeeping, far away from the dastardly deeds of London’s criminal underworld. Apart from a brief return to the fray during World War I to engage in some covert espionage at the behest of the Prime Minister, we have heard nothing more of Sherlock Holmes – until now.

Fans will be relieved to hear that the new story will remain faithful to Conan Doyle’s vision. Unlike the recent BBC dramatisation, the imaginatively titled Sherlock, there will be no attempt to modernise the narrative or change the setting. Horowitz has promised "a first-rate mystery for a modern audience while remaining absolutely true to the spirit of the original”. The author's confirmation that his story will see a return to the setting of Victorian England has elicited a collective sigh of relief from innumerable Sherlock Holmes fans across the world.

The resurrection of Sherlock is controversial and certainly a gamble for the Conan Doyle estate. If this new addition to the annals is perceived to fall below the high standard set by Conan Doyle, it will prove extremely unpopular. This is not, however, the first time a literary hero has been revived long after the original author has shuffled off this mortal coil. James Bond famously survived the death of his creator Ian Fleming in 1969, thanks to a number of (largely successful) continuation novels written by authors as diverse as Sebastian Faulks, Charlie Higson, and Kingsley Amis – a formula the Conan Doyle estate no doubt hopes to emulate.

So, what do we know of this man who is entrusted with breathing new life into the iconic character? Horowitz is a prolific author, having published over 50 books, including the popular children’s detective stories The Power of Five and Alex Rider. He has also written extensively for the screen, adapting many of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot stories for television. Certainly his credentials are impressive, but one does not envy him his task; he will undoubtedly feel burdened by the heavy weight of expectation from Holmes's legion of fans. Walking in the hallowed footsteps of Sir Arthur would be a daunting prospect for any author, no matter how accomplished. Let's hope Horowitz manages to emerge from the shadow of Conan Doyle to produce a story worthy of the great detective.

Long live Sherlock Holmes!

UPDATE: The House of Silk by Anthony Horowitz was published in late 2011 - and gets a resounding 'thumbs up' from this particular reader.  Book review to follow shortly.

Friday, 14 January 2011

Picasso and Dali: The Best of "Frenemies"?

I've recently been musing on the fraught love/hate relationship between Pablo Picasso and his fellow countryman, Salvador Dali. It can be best summed up by the following quote, where Picasso succinctly offers his opinion of Dali's work:
"He paints the smell of shit better than anyone"

Thursday, 13 January 2011

A Notable Anniversary

On this day (January 13th) 1941, James Joyce, the Irish novelist and poet, died in Zurich, Switzerland. He was three weeks shy of his 59th birthday.

In what can only be described as breathtaking short-sightedness, the Irish Government reportedly declined an offer by his wife Nora to have his body repatriated to his homeland. Consequently, he is buried in Fluntern Cemetery in Zurich.

Despite being an inveterate dipsomaniac, Joyce produced a considerable body of work in his lifetime, including A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Finnegan's Wake and the collection of short stories Dubliners. Joyce's fondness of the odd drink did nothing to stem the flow of creativity nor did it adversely affect his work ethic - he once said that he spent 20,000 hours working on Ulysses, the stream of consciousness masterpiece for which he is best remembered.

Interestingly, Joyce and fellow modernist writer Virginia Woolf, the two writers most associated with stream of consciousness narrative, share more than a talent for experimental prose - they were also born and died in the same year (1882 and 1941 respectively). Unfortunately, Woolf, who read Ulysses while writing Mrs Dalloway, did not hold Joyce's offering in very high esteem. She wrote in her diary:

"I have read 200 pages [of Ulysses] so far - not a third; & have been amused, stimulated, charmed, interested by the first 2 or 3 chapters [...] & then puzzled, bored, irritated, & disillusioned as by a queasy undergraduate scratching his pimples. And Tom, great Tom [TS Eliot], thinks this is on a par with War & Peace!"
A harsh critic, indeed!

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Literary Vandalism

Mark Twain seems to be everywhere these days. The publication of his autobiography last year to mark the 100th anniversary of his death garnered many headlines. Recently, however, the great American author has been making news for entirely different reasons. Or rather, one of his most famous creations has.

A few days ago, it was announced that a small US-based publishing house called NewSouth Books is preparing to bring out an edition of Twain’s classic novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn with some notable changes. Any reference to the word “nigger” is to be replaced by “slave”, and (inexplicably) “injun” is to be erased in favour of “Indian”.

The man who originally advocated these changes is Alan Gribben, an English professor at the University of Alabama and a noted Twain scholar. That any person associated with teaching English literature would call for changes such as these is quite unbelievable, and by a man purporting to be a Twain scholar is unconscionable.

Gribben’s rationale for expurgating Huck Finn is his belief that today’s readers have become uncomfortable reading words with such negative connotations. He argues that teachers increasingly find it difficult to explain the context of such words to their students, and teenagers are confused when confronted with them. He believes the language of Huck Finn is the reason why the novel has dropped off curriculum lists all over America.

In today’s society, there is no question that the word “nigger” is objectionable and highly offensive. The word, with all it’s associations with slavery, racism and segregation, has become a toxic throwback to America’s ugly past. But is this a reason to expunge the word entirely from the classics of American literature? (Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird has also come under heavy criticism for the use of the n-word). Surely not! If anything, these novels, in their original form, serve to highlight how far America has come since the awful years of slavery and segregation. These books provide a snapshot of American life in the late 1800s and early 1900s, and should be preserved - sanitising them only serves to dilute their message.

And as for Gribben's assertion that the non-inclusion of these novels on national curriculums is a direct result of the offensive language contained there-in, I would argue that it is better for the book to be read in it's true form by a few, than a censored version to be read by the masses.