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Adventures in the book – and shirt – trade (David Cohen)

14 Mar

People who work in small independent bookshops often find themselves going to great lengths to satisfy customers, no matter how idiosyncratic their tastes might be. But the truly dedicated bookseller must even be willing to go beyond his or her jurisdiction and tackle non-book-related requests in order to please a customer, or potential customer.

Take the following case.

Some years ago I worked in a Perth bookshop which opened late seven days a week. Around 9.45 one Friday night, the shop was empty and I was in the middle of assembling a dump bin. This was in itself something of a challenge. The dump bin comprised two cardboard trays mounted, one on top of the other, upon a cardboard base. A number of hooks folded out of the base, their purpose being to lock into corresponding perforations in the trays and thereby hold the structure together. But every time I hooked one of these hooks into its slot, a hook I’d already hooked into a slot somewhere else invariably came undone.

As I wrestled with the dump bin, I happened to look up and notice a young man patiently watching. It seemed he’d witnessed the entire performance.

‘Having a bit of trouble there?’

I stood up. ‘Stupid things. Can I help you?’

‘Yeah. Do you have any shirts?’

‘Shirts?’

‘Yeah – out the back or something.’

I explained that we didn’t have any shirts, and that he might want to try Myer when it re-opened for business the following day.

‘No,’he said.‘You see, me and my mate want to get into the nightclub up the road, but the bouncers won’t let my mate in without a proper shirt.’

It turned out they’d been up and down the street, trying to buy a shirt, but, apart from the bookshop, the only places open along the strip at that time of night were cafes, restaurants, and a cinema.

‘Where’s your mate?’I said.

He called out:‘Tony! Get over here!’

Tony appeared from behind some shelves. He was wearing an All Blacks top.

‘This is Tony. I’m Lachlan.’

There were introductions all round, and then Lachlan pointed to Tony and said:‘See? He can’t get in with that.’Tony looked suitably forlorn. I said that while I sympathised, we simply had no shirts on the premises.

We stood there trying to figure out how Tony might get hold of a shirt at five past ten on a Friday night in Leederville. Then Lachlan had an idea.

‘Hang on a sec, he said to me.‘You’re wearing a shirt.’

Being in no position to deny that I was wearing a shirt, I replied:‘That’s

true.’

‘And you guys look about the same size. How about we do a swap?’

‘A swap?’

‘Just for now. We’ll bring it back tomorrow. Plus we’ll throw in half a carton of VB.’

Although it was an unusual request, I felt no attachment to that particular shirt, which I’d bought at Target for $24.95 some months earlier. Besides, maybe my good deed would inspire them to purchase a book. So we adjourned to the rear of the store and exchanged garments. Tony and Lachlan, now both suitably attired for the nightclub, were exceptionally grateful and said I was a‘top bloke’.

‘While you’re here,’I said, as we walked back out into the shop,‘how about a book?’

‘Nah, that’s okay,’said Lachlan. ‘Maybe next time. But you’ve got half a carton of VB coming your way, all right?’

‘Don’t lose that jumper now, bro,’said Tony on the way out. The All Blacks top obviously meant a lot more to him than my polyester shirt did to me.

Or perhaps not. Lachlan and Tony didn’t return to the bookshop the following day, or at any time after that. Whether I was the victim of an elaborate scam designed to rob people of cheap casual menswear, or whether they’d simply overindulged at the nightclub and Tony woke up in a strange shirt with no recollection of how or why, will never be known for certain. All I could be sure of at the time was that I now had an All Blacks top in practically mint condition. I seemed to have come out ahead on the deal.

The All Blacks top is in my wardrobe to this day. Every now and then I put it on to commemorate the night I went above and beyond the call of duty in the name of customer service – even though this didn’t actually culminate in the sale of books.

But two questions remain unanswered.

(1) Whatever happened to Lachlan and Tony?

And more importantly:

(2) Where is my half a carton of VB?

The poet said fuck on stage (Tiggy Johnson)

10 Jan

The poet said fuck on stage. It doesn’t sound like anything extraordinary and nor would it have been, but for the context and the fact that her mother sat in the front row. I admit I looked over to the poet’s mother when I heard the resounding, almost yelling of ‘fuck’ on stage, and she didn’t really react. Not that I’d met her before so it would be hard for me to know. Even as I realised the mother didn’t react, I was aware that perhaps she felt so self-conscious that she was using all her energy to indeed appear to not react.

Then the poet said masturbate.

It wasn’t said with the gusto she’d said fuck, nor the clarity, but rather a touch of speed and an almost-muffle, but it was there. I heard it, others heard it, and I imagine her mother heard it.

Again, her mother failed to respond.

I know it sounds odd that I’m surprised she didn’t react, or more that I’m surprised the poet said fuck and masturbate on stage when she knew her mum was there. Even I’m a little surprised I’m surprised.

On the same stage almost two years beforehand, my own mother sat near the front as I performed my first featured poetry set, and I said fuck too. More than once.

Fuck is a word my brothers and I got into trouble for saying when we were kids. Mum used to say shit all the time and I said it once when I was starting high school. Mum wasn’t impressed and before she dished out consequences I reminded her that she said shit all the time and asked how she could expect us not to. I didn’t get into trouble that day, nor any other time I said shit.

But Mum never said fuck and it seemed, even by my own argument, fuck was off limits.

When I was planning my poetry set I knew I was going to say fuck in front of her. Of course, as an adult, I had no disillusions of any consequences, although I didn’t want to make my mum feel uncomfortable, or myself, for that matter.

When I got to the bit where I had to say fuck I chose not to look in her direction. Same the next time I had to say fuck. I tried not to imagine her reeling a little, perhaps sitting up straight all of a sudden and wondering whether she worried that people were staring at her. Though I suspect, unlike the other poet’s mother, my own did reel a little, whether or not it was because I said fuck or whether it was the context in which I said it. Though I didn’t say masturbate in front of her, nor do I think I would. (Although I realise it’s to say this when that word does not feature in any of my own poems. To date.)

Even considering this and knowing I would again say fuck in front of my mother for the sake of poetry, it still surprises me that this poet did it.

Perhaps it’s some crazy double standard, or maybe it has something to do with me having a good understanding of my own relationship with my mother and knowing nothing about this poet’s with hers. Maybe it has something to do with the age gap between the poet and myself, which makes me almost old enough to be her mother. Though really, I suspect it has more to do with context.

By that I don’t mean that I said fuck in the middle of a humorous piece about being in labour while this poet said it in a more, let’s say, aggressive, piece that suggested she less than loves her life, or more specifically, one aspect of it. Although that does have something to do with it.

I don’t remember the context of her saying masturbate, other than, as I’ve already suggested, it seemed rushed, like she was aware her mother was listening and hoped she could somehow disguise it so her mother mightn’t notice. Maybe she didn’t feel comfortable saying it at all.

I do recall the context of the poet’s message though, the thing the poet, through the various poems she delivered as part of her featured set, was trying to say. She hates being a parent.

No two ways about it, considering the context of her overall performance, I have no doubt the poet hates, more than anything else on this earth, the responsibility that comes with caring for a dependent child.

At least she did when she wrote the poems.

A poem that involved no swearing was perhaps the most disturbing she delivered. It was the kind of poem that, as I listened, I wondered what would happen in the future, when her toddler grew up, could read, could ask questions like, ‘Why did you hate me so much, Mummy?’, ‘Why didn’t you want to play with me, Mummy?’ and ‘Did having me really ruin your life Mummy?’

Because this poet is angry. Angry about being a mum, angry about being responsible for a dependent child, angry about not getting enough time to herself to be herself, angry about her marriage breaking up, angry that her life isn’t what she hoped it would be. Angry that she was tricked into the responsibility of being a parent when she had a completely, albeit naive, expectation of what it might be like. Angry with society’s attitudes toward mothers.

I feel for her. I’ve been her. I feel the pain she’s suffering. I feel the pain her daughter may suffer in the future. I feel for her mother who sat and listened to her daughter’s pain, unable to do a damned thing but sit still and listen.

I understand where the poet is coming from, the things she feels right now, the desperate need to break out of it, at all costs. I’ve been there, although not so publicly. I felt ashamed of such thoughts, struggled to come to terms with them in the safety of my lounge room instead of belting them down a microphone in a dimly lit suburban pub. On one hand, I admire her for being brave enough to say some of the things I wasn’t, even though I’m all for getting the messages out there. I mean, half the reason she feels like this to start with is because talking about the things she’s expressing are taboo, but that’s a separate issue.

I think her poems are important. I agree the world needs to know what it can be like for new parents, how it can be difficult to adapt to new responsibilities, particularly when, as she pointed out in one of her poems, you become invisible to the rest of the world when you have a baby. But I’m not yet decided whether she’s brave, or whether she just needs some help. Even if she doesn’t need help, perhaps her poems will show others that many new mothers do. And that they often don’t know how to get it. I look forward to the poems she’ll write next.

I hope she’ll write some that offer the right balance to give these dark ones the strength the message in them deserves. The kind of poems that show the light side of parenting, that show she learned something valuable from this dark place she’s in.

While I could argue that other poets write about the happy times and this poet’s experience provides the balance, I can’t help but feel that without her providing a balance herself, the audience, instead of hearing her message, will just think of her as the poet that said fuck on stage. And masturbate.

Anatomy of the Blurb (David Cohen)

14 Sep

If you can’t judge a book by the cover, can you judge it by the blurb on the cover? Whether supplied by a fellow author or lifted from a review, the blurb plays a critical role in the marketing of any title. The following introduction to the art of blurb writing (and blurb reading) will, to quote author and celebrated blurbist Oliver Herford, fill a much-needed gap.

A blurb’s primary purpose is to tell us that the book is good and we should buy it. One way of saying a book is good is to describe it as ‘readable’, as in ‘intensely readable’, ‘hugely readable’, or perhaps even ‘compulsively readable’. Clearly, ‘readable’ means ‘good’, even though you might think that being readable is the very least a book can do. If a book fails in this capacity, then there’s not much it’s good for, except perhaps propping up a rickety shelf. But it would be counterproductive to describe a book as ‘compulsively prop-up-a-shelf-able’, no matter how excellently it performs this function.

Perhaps a step up from ‘readable’ is ‘gripping’. The best way to convey that a book is gripping is predict the reader’s response to the actual pages in the book. Take these blurbs on Joseph Finder’s thriller Vanished. Note that they have been penned by other thriller writers.

‘I dare you to read the first page. You won’t be able to stop’ – Tess Gerritsen

‘Open one of [Finder’s] books and you won’t be closing it until the last page is turned’ – James Rollins

It can be inferred that, while a readable book will stimulate you to turn the pages at a regular speed, a book like Vanished will compel you to turn the pages slightly faster. Blurbs on thrillers can be enhanced by inserting words like ‘chilling’ and ‘spine-tingling’, or asserting that the book involves a ‘web of intrigue’.

Still another way of praising a book is to employ the elegant phrase ‘life-affirming’. Philip Ardagh’s Guardian blurb describes young-adult novel Numbers by Rachel Ward (not the actor) as ‘Intelligent and life-affirming’. Another YA novel, Before I Die by Jenny Downham, is considered to be ‘Incredibly inspiring, uplifting and life-affirming’ (Exepose), ‘Incredibly life-affirming’ (lovereading4kids.co.uk) and ‘Ultimately… life-affirming and uplifting’ (JUNO). ‘Life-affirming’ can be interpreted in two ways: (1) having read this book, the blurbist has decided to go on living; or (2) the blurbist had already intended to go on living, but this book has reinforced that intention. Either way, it’s a useful phrase which can be applied to almost any book (think twice before using it on euthanasia manuals).

What about humorous books? How do we say a book is funny? There are two possible approaches. The first is to say: ‘I laughed out loud’. Sometimes this is written in upper-case letters, as in novelist Matt Dunn’s review of Robert P. Smith’s debut novel Up a Tree in the Park at Night with a Hedgehog: ‘I LAUGHED OUT LOUD, while cringing in guilty recognition.’ The other way is to describe the book as ‘wickedly funny’, as in ‘Augusten Burroughs’ new book is wickedly funny, painfully honest’ (you could achieve a similar effect with ‘painfully funny, wickedly honest’).

But what if you want to be a bit more imaginative with your blurb, and at the same time advertise your credentials as a serious reader? An effective strategy is to use what I call the ‘If’ technique. Here, the blurbist attempts to convey the flavour of the book by invoking the work of two or more other authors. Take this evaluation of David Guterson’s Snow Falling on Cedars from the Independent on Sunday: ‘If Truman Capote, Arthur Miller, Harper Lee and John Grisham all washed up on a desert island together, they might well come up with something like this…’

Here’s another from Sydney Morning Herald writer Erik Jensen on Kenneth E. Hartman’s prison memoir, Mother California: ‘If Charles Bukowksi had committed a murder and done time, this is what he would have written.’

Martin Amis himself has used this formula. Here he is on Will Self’s short-story collection, The Quantity Theory of Insanity: ‘If a manic J. G. Ballard and a depressive David Lodge got together, they might produce something like The Quantity Theory of Insanity.’

The benefit of this technique is that it enables you to show off your knowledge of other authors. The downside is that if the potential book buyer (PBB) has not also read those authors, they will be left none the wiser, and their resulting level of interest in the book – what can termed their post-blurb enthusiasm – will fall slightly below or at best remain equal to their pre-blurb enthusiasm.

A technique often used by master blurbists like Stephen King and James Patterson is the sweeping statement. Here, the writer uses simple wording to make a huge claim. The claim may be based more on personal taste than genuine authority, but it’s formulated in a way that leaves no room for argument. Below are two from Patterson. Pay careful attention to his use of the word ‘best’.

‘Her best yet’ (Look Again by Lisa Scottoline)

‘Koryta is one of the best of the best, plain and simple.’ (The Silent Hour by Michael Koryta)

Stephen King, perhaps one of the most prolific blurb writers in the publishing industry, uses the technique to great effect in this pronouncement on Neil Gaiman’s Coraline and Other Stories: ‘[Gaiman] is, simply put, a treasure house of story, and we are lucky to have him in any medium.’

King and Patterson harness the latent power of seemingly innocent phrases like ‘plain and simple’ and ‘simply put’ in a manner unmatched by anyone, anywhere, at any time.

But what about when a book is really, really good and you want to bring out the big guns? It’s difficult to go past ‘A tour de force’, or, even better, ‘an absolute tour de force’. On the other hand, is there a more unequivocal statement than ‘a classic’, except maybe ‘an instant classic’? ‘Extraordinary’ is also hard to beat (note the economy and power of a one-word blurb). However, most experts agree that you simply can’t top ‘a triumph’, except, once again, when it’s written in upper-case letters. The Guardian’s well-known review of Paul Torday’s The Girl on the Landing combined several of the above techniques (‘EXTRAORDINARY… A TRIUMPH’), guaranteeing huge sales.

Thus far we’ve examined the blurb as a straightforward endorsement. But every now and then the situation may arise where, for whatever reason, we are called upon to provide a blurb for a book we don’t really like. How do we tackle this problem? A neat example is supplied in the case of Will I Think of You?, a book of verse and photography by noted poet Leonard Nimoy, published in the 1970s. To begin with, the ‘blurb’ on the back cover is not attributed to any person or publication. Then the ‘blurb’ itself asserts that Nimoy’s book is: ‘…written with mature conviction and illustrated with extraordinarily appropriate photographs taken by the author himself.’  Note that it avoids any indication of whether or not the book has merit, focusing instead on the author’s good intentions; after all, any book, no matter how terrible, could be written with mature conviction. But the real stroke of genius is the phrase ‘extraordinarily appropriate’ to describe the photographs – not just because it diverts our attention from the poetry, but because it is a masterful example of a technique I call the ‘extreme cop-out’, in which the blurbist appears to be making a strong assertion while in fact saying nothing.

The technique is also used by Publishers Weekly in its assessment of Robert J. Sawyer’s sci-fi novel Wake as ‘wildly thought-provoking’. It disguises the cop-out ‘thought-provoking’ (translation: I can’t think of anything good to say about this) with an explosive adjective (see also: ‘compulsively readable’). Both are superb pieces of non-committal and yet extraordinarily appropriate blurb writing.

Returning to our study of unambiguously favourable blurbs, let me conclude with an absolute tour de force. I speak of Tom Clancy’s four-word masterpiece on Clive Cussler’s The Wrecker. It simply says: ‘The guy I read’. By making himself the blurb’s centre of attention, Clancy has not only torn up the rule book, he has taken to it with a blowtorch and stomped on the charred remains. It’s a risky move, and only someone of Clancy’s stature can pull it off. Whether or not Cussler is any good is beside the point; what matters is that Clancy reads him. And it cannot be overemphasised that Cussler is not just a guy Clancy reads, but the guy – the implication being that Clancy doesn’t read anyone else, at least no other guys. But even more importantly, we know from the sort of books Tom Clancy writes that he is an extremely tough dude. If he reads Cussler, then obviously he’s telling us to read Cussler, and I, for one, am not about to disobey Tom Clancy.