Sue Wilson looks at the problems faced by up-and-eoming writers. and picks out a few names to watch
The first novel. fora writer perhaps the biggest landtnark in a budding literary career. is often seen by publishers as something of a necessary evil. The difficulty of persuading readers to part with hard-earned cash for a book by someone they've never heard of means that they are usually regarded as an investment for the future rather than a viable project in themselves. ‘With most publishers. it's a question of balancing their list.‘ explains Jean McNeil of Serpent's 'l‘ail. who. as one of the few independent publishers left in these conglomerate days. maintain a firm commitment to new writing. ‘Some books support others: you'll
make a decision to publish some overtly
commercial titles. or more established writers. in order to fund other projects you want to pursue.‘ Commercial considerations aside. debut novels are dogged by a reputation for being little tnore than thinly-veiled (and often poorly written) autobiographies: all too many young writers assume that an account of their first sexual experience at Oxford is what the literary world has been waiting for. ‘I do see a lot of first novels which are very obviously autobiographical .' agrees .lean McNeil. ‘but that’s not necessarily a problem in itself; some people have very good stories to tell. Others are able to inject another dimension — the real task is somehow to transform the personal into something that makes a larger. more resonant impact — Oranges A re Not The Only l’ruit. for instance. is blatantly autobiographical but it had something that a lot of people responded to.‘ Apart from the life-stories. other trends are discernible in the themes and subject matter currently being tackled by new authors.‘ seeing a lot of books which are exploring. in various ways. the very urbanised and highly 1 complex. delicate social structures we live in.‘ says McNeil. ‘A lot ofwriters are focusing on things like alienation in the city. disease. especially AIDS. sexual politics. ethnic minority experience. regional differences. the urbanrrural divide. There’s also a lot of knee—jerk irony aroundzl think people have a adopted that tone. often in quite an intense way. as a way ofcoping with
everything that's going on.‘
While new writing is generally agreed to be a vital part of a thriving literary scene. it is also the most vulnerable sector to any economic downturn. ‘l’ublishers become very. very cautious in a recession.’ says McNeil. ‘When money’s tight. they're far less willing to take a chance on an unknown name. (‘onglomeration hasn't helped either. as a lot ofsmaller houses that used to go after new writers have been swallowed up. Every publisher will claim to have a commitment to new writing. but if you look at the actual numbers on their lists. you‘ll find they‘re very small.'
McNeil also believes that more could be done in other ways to foster new talent. ‘.\’ew writing isn't supported awfully well at a grassroots level in Britain. by literary magazines and journals. grants. prizes and so on. In North America. for instance. these kinds of things are funded quite gener‘ously by the state. Because that's where people really get their start. they have to gain the confidence from having something published. even just a story here. a story there. before they get to the point where they‘ll be considered by a publisher.‘
Despite the hostile climate. a few dedicated. lucky souls still succeed. The first novels on Serpent‘s 'l'ail's spring list include TH!Ils‘NlinU/l. by Atima Srivastava (out this month). which examines the issues of AIDS and media exploitation. James Lansbury's Korzettiow'ski (March). a sophisticated literary detective story centred on Joseph (‘onrad‘s The Secret Sharer which features Sigmund Freud and Ramsay MacDonald. among others. and the newly-translated .llimoun (March). by Spanish writer Rafael ('hirbes. which follows a bored
Esther Freud teacher in his pursuit of adventure through Morocco. a search which yields disturbing results. Looking through other publishers‘ lists. new names to watch include Ethan (‘anin. w hose debut novel Blue River (Picador. just published ). following on from his acclaimed short story collection Emperor oft/1e Air. is generating a lot of excitement. Jess Mowry taps into the growing concern about US urban warfare with tiny l’ast (‘ool ((‘hatto & Windus. June). a violent journey through the dangerous streets of ()akland's black ghetto. while Guardian reviewer (‘hristina ls'oning puts a new spin on the eternal triangle in .-l .llild Suicide (Methuen/ Lime Tree. February ). l-‘aber and Faber‘s Introductimts series continues to provide an important (and well-respected) seed-bed for new talent: Introductions 1/ . due out in July. includes stories by eight writers from whom you can expect to hear more in the future. Esther Freud's Hideous Kinky ( l lamisb Hamilton. 30Jan) is a quirky and distinctive debut. related by a small child who dreams of a normal upbringing as she is dragged around Europe by her hippy mother. while from Ireland comes Michael (‘ollins's 771(’.W('(l! Iiaters (Jonathan Cape. March). a collection of colourful. surreal and vividly characterised stories already prompting comparisons to Joyce and Beckett. How many of these hopefuls find a place in future catalogues is anybody‘s guess. but it‘s worth remembering that even Serpent's 'l'ail. who produce more first novels than most. publish only a tiny fraction ofthe hundreds of manuscripts they receive; in making it thus far. all these writers have already succeeded where many others have failed.
_ l Shades of 3 blue
‘lt's really hard to talk about anything i you care about. And I wrote this because I care about those guys.’ Stanley Booth made his hardback debut five years ago with The True Adventures Of The Rolling Stones, but he's not talking about that ten-legged profit machine today; it's their musical forebears, the Memphis bluesmen, who are celebrated in his new book, Bythm Oil (sic).
Collected from articles written for various magazines over a 25-year period, the book is a landmark in the chronicling of rhythm and blues. So passionately and vividly does he write |
about Memphis that you can almost smell the place, and his portraits of the musicians are exquisitely written. Booth’s great advantage was that, living there, he knew the turf, knew the protocol and knew the musicians. Just as importantly, he explains, ‘The only thing I’m trying to do is not write about music first of all. I’m writing about people who happen to be musicians.’ Articles like his classic portrait of Furry Lewis and his account of Mississippi John Hurt’s funeral — both powerful, evocative pieces- are validations ofthat approach, going above and beyond the call of duty to music journalism. ‘It wasn’t journalism that l was primarily interested in. As any editorwill tell you, I’m nota journalist, because journalists meet
deadlines. The writers I loved were people like Camus and Hemingway, people who seemed to me to write when they had something to say, and when they didn’t have something to say, they didn't write. Little did I know, itwas impossible to live a file that way.‘
Lucky for purchasers of Rythm Oil that it didn‘t prove entirely impossible. Now, its completion has freed him to work on the novel he‘s long intended to write; a tale r' order in Georgia. the state ofhis. wspired by tales he heard as a Chit adi, after so many years in Memphis, how easy will it be for him to go home again? (Alastair Mabbott) Rythm Oil by Stanley Booth is j I published by Jonathan Cape at £15.99.
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