Price and Prejudice: Are Books Really Too Cheap?

First_floor,_Waterstones_Reading_Broad_Street,_UK_-_20150707

Recently, Philip Pullman, President of the Society of Authors, announced that the organization will be launching a campaign for publishers to stop damaging authors’ earnings by discounting bulk sales to book clubs and supermarket. The author, who is perhaps most famous for the His Dark Materials series, has personally slammed the cut-price culture which pervades in literature today.

However, in the age of stagnant wages and an ever-rising cost of living, is Pullman, a man of considerable fortune and whose books have grossed millions of pounds in profits, simply out of touch with the modern market?

After all, as paper books face stiff competition from the links of ebooks and Kindles, as well as the ease with which readers are being lured away by audiobooks and TV streaming, low prices are keeping the industry alive. Combined with the convenience of buying books at the same time as groceries, low prices lead readers to become more adventurous and explore new genres and styles.

Also, it is clear from the profits made by many publishers and huge authors (including Pullman himself) that the low prices of mainstream literature are justifiable, and although this may mean that some up and coming authors struggle, the fact is that there are other avenues to pursue to ensure profitability. Almost all of the creative arts offer low wages and many earn significantly less than Pullman and other members of the Society of Authors, which makes this petty argument simply distasteful.

As my recent post has demonstrated, physical books remain popular, and this is, in part, due to the ease at which they can be purchased- unlike films or songs, which now need to be downloaded and often synced to a device, books are easy to buy in many places, including supermarkets. Whilst Pullman and his cronies want to see supermarkets banned from bulk buying books, the reality is that the convenience of being able to buy a paperback at the same time as stocking up your kitchen cupboards is driving sales in the literature market.

Ultimately it is my belief that low book prices are not crippling the industry, but driving it. Whilst there are often loss leaders, particularly among hardback sales, book prices are always calculated to make a profit, and although authors are often paid a measly proportion of that money, this is the reality with many creative arts. Those who work in these industries do it out of love and passion, and there are many other markets in which workers are underpaid, such as the NHS, which need far more urgent attention. Pullman and his moaning pals should concentrate on pushing the literature market forward and encouraging and supporting new writers, rather than trying to line their own pockets.

Nepotism: Is it Killing Literature?

brooklyn beckham

Recently there has been a huge furore about David Beckham’s son being given a book deal, which saw him showcase his poorly taken, often out of focus photographs, alongside lame captions designed to be witty one liners but coming off as smug social media snippets. I have been watching this row in fascination, finding it hilarious that so many people are missing the reason behind Brooklyn Beckham’s book deal; that nepotism is at the heart of it, and that it will always remain in every faction of the arts, no matter what we say.

The Beckham’s are famed for sliding themselves into industries where they don’t fit with varying degrees of success; from David’s stilted cameo in Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur to Victoria’s successful fashion empire, the power couple and their offspring have used their fame to worm their way into markets where others have had to strive and sacrifice to survive. Frankly, they are not the only ones. Everywhere you look there is someone getting their child into their industry on the merit of their name alone, or sliding into a new space with no talent, training or knowledge simply on the strength of their fame in another market. Models and sports stars, whose careers are notoriously short, often move into other spaces, and writing, alongside acting, is one of the most common thanks to the idiotic notion many have that both are easy.

This causes issues for those who have actually grafted to get where they are today, and resent being usurped by the untrained and often untalented. Brooklyn’s book attracted the ire of writers and photographers alike, with both factions arguing that his book deal highlighted the lack of respect for those who actually work for their success. Whilst this is, in part true, in reality the issue is society’s appreciation of celebrity, and the increasingly corporate nature of the creative arts. Whilst many were quick to pan What I See and mock Brooklyn’s poor attempts at both photography and writing, there were many who bought the book simply because of his second name.

Anyone who has tried to get a book published will be particularly wrangled by Brooklyn’s easy access to a high value deal- it can be almost impossible for even brilliant writers to get their work out there, resulting in many turning to alternative platforms such as Kindle or self publishing. With this in mind, it can be tough to reconcile the notion that Brooklyn got a deal based on the success of his parents, however the subsequent outcry from both reviewers and the general public proves that we still have good taste when it comes to both writing and photographs, and are not willing to settle for anything less than the best of either.

Fundamentally, nepotism is always going to exist throughout the arts, and I doubt that we will ever be rid of it. As such, the best way to handle the issue is simply to support those who are genuinely grafting to create legitimate, exquisite art, drawing on their skills and expertise, rather than on the accomplishments of their families. There are many great authors out there and we need to be buying their books, listening to their readings and watching their shows.

Why Summer is the Best Time for Reading, Especially Crime Fiction

Reading a book at the beach

Summer is great for loads of reasons. Better weather (ha ha), time off (if you’re lucky), holidays, ice cream, and of course, all the good books come out. Bookshop shelves heave with new title as we move into proper summer and publishers push to increase sales by appealing to those facing the prospect of long flights and days spent lazing on the beach with nothing to do but indulge in a good book.

It is a particularly great time to be a Crime Fiction fan, as the biggest names in the genre are releasing their new novels in time for the summer rush. Everyone from Ian Rankin to Peter James, and even Lee Childs, is bringing out a new offering to get people reading over the summer. Some new names are also bringing out new novels soon, giving a great range of choice for anyone looking for a new read to indulge in while the weather’s fine.

It’s not just readers that have a good time during the summer; film fans get a boost too, with many great blockbusters released as the award’s season looms. Wonder Woman is brilliant, and there are some other great films coming up, and many are on streaming sites. Netflix is a great place to catch many awesome thrillers, from great classics such as The Babadook, The Human Centipede and The Wicker Man (the remake, sadly) through to their own originals such as the brilliant The Circle, and the not-so-great You Get Me featuring model Bella Thorne (not sure which one she is, they are all generically pretty) and a load of posing white guys. The only scary thing is the predictability of the plot (spoiler alert- the pretty one night stand did it- this crazy girl trope came in with Gone Girl and has now been watered down and rehashed so much it’s unreal).

Despite this poor offering there remain many awesome options out there, both in terms of film and books. Readers and movie goers alike can feed their passions on the latest offerings as award’s season looms and both markets rush to impress before the judges make their final selections, as well as seeking to reach consumers who find themselves with spare time on their hands and a yen for an improving book or invigorating film.

So overall, now is a great time to race down to the shops and snag yourself a great novel to read over the summer, no matter how you’re spending it. Whether you’re sunning yourself on some far-off beach or sneaking a few chapters in between shifts, summer is a great time for grabbing a really great thriller hot off the press.

As Harry Potter Turns Twenty, Is it Time We Go Back To Basics and Re-Read the Books?

harry potter

Harry Potter has become a cultural icon over the past two decades, and nowadays there is everything from Harry Potter bars and clothing lines through to wand shaped makeup brushes and theme parks dedicated to The Boy Who Lived.

What, I fear, is being lost among all this obsessive marketing, is the sheer simple joy the novels bought to children and the adults who paid for and read them on their behalf. I myself was only a small one when the books were becoming popular, and I used to love being read them so much I memorised whole chapters. There was always someone you could relate to, whether you liked reading, were forgetful or were scared and confused, or all of the above.

The focus on friendship was strong but not in your face, and Rowling has a way of writing novels which are both deeply relatable for young people and completely unpatronising. There was a nice message at the end of every novel, and, perhaps uniquely, the novels grew with their audience. As we reached our teens and started to crave more gore and grown up messages, Harry and his friends delved into ever more dangerous situations. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban was the turning point for me; when I read that novel I found that these had ceased to be kid’s books and had morphed into real literature.

This was another great aspect of the series; its combination of wizardry, classical tropes and latin phraseology made the novels intellectually stimulating in a way that many children’s series can only aspire to be. Young readers were galvanised into voracious appetites thanks to the Harry Potter novels (I for one was driven to seek out ever more complex books to read or have read to me).

It was when the novels were made into films that people started to obsess; I was not a big fan fiction reader for many years, but now I can see that with the visual representation of the books fanaticism started to become mainstream, and Harry Potter is one of the few obsessions which is actually cool these days. The films became cult viewing and the merchandise that they spawned is now almost endless. You can buy literally anything Harry Potter related, from baked goods right through to condoms and toilet seats (for the utterly obsessed). However, I do feel that we are now missing the point. Many people who have never indulged in the sheer joy of receiving the latest novel for Christmas or a birthday and having to graciously sit around and small talk with the gift giver before sneaking off at the moment it is polite to do so to devour three chapters, racing through to find their favourite character, can never count themselves as a true fan and will never understand the childlike joy these books evoke without the merchandising and the product placement that followed in the wake of their success.

I am also dubious about the constant addition of new information provided via author J.K Rowling’s fan site, Pottermore, as well as various reissuing of the books which add new revelations. Recently we found out the Professor Sprout and Professor Flitwick had a fling, as well as the revaluation a few years ago that Dumbledore is supposedly gay.  Whilst I do not entirely agree with Roland Barthes’s notion that the author is dead once their work has been published, and that their opinions and thoughts on the work are entirely irrelevant, I find this constant meddling in the world of Harry Potter to simply be a ploy to incite continued fascination, which will eventually impede on readers’ enjoyment. There is something to be said for simply reading or re-reading the novels and finding enjoyment and revisiting happy memories, and I do not think that corrupting them with pointless pieces of information which do nothing except slightly alter our perceptions of the novels is worthwhile.

Overall, now that the books are a cult phenomenon, there is something to be said for going back and just re-reading them. Ignore the Harry Potter bedspreads and the Golden Snitch fidget spinners; behind the bullshit there are some truly lovely messages to be found.

Writing Good Thrillers: Are Unreliable Narrators the Way to Go?

moshin hamid

During both my English Literature degrees my favourite module was always post-colonialism, as it exposed me to great writers I would otherwise have never even thought about, as well as some fantastic writing and new cultures. I learned to love writers such as Nadine Gordimer, J. M. Coetzee and Moshin Hamid.

I had only read Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist until recently, but I found my as yet untouched copy of Moth Smoke a few weeks ago (I haven’t even bought Hamid’s latest, Exit West, or his third book, How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, yet, which is testimony to how behind I am in my reading) and decided to delve in. I was not disappointed. As thrilling, tense and direct as The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Moth Smoke is an equally challenging thriller with a similar style, and a selection of equally unreliable narrators. As with the previous novel this is written mostly in a first person narrative, but with various narrators many of whom are contradictory and conceited, each believing themselves to be more right than anyone else. It is these narrators that form the backbone of the tension that remains taut throughout the novel; from the moment the reader enters the murky world of Lahore’s middle class society to the novel’s tense conclusion.

Despicable, unreliable and downright disgusting characters are a key trope in Hamid’s work. In Moth Smoke, the three core protagonists are all vile; Ozi is a spoiled little rich boy with a corrupt father and a manipulative nature, his wife Mumtaz selfish and bitter. Central character and main first person narrator Daru is morally corrupt and incredibly bitter about the increased good fortunes of his this wealthy, privileged couple, and it is his bitterness and jealousy that sets off a downward spiral in his own life.

So, are unreliable narrators the secret to truly great thrillers? Recently I have been searching for thrillers that are not driven by merciless violence, gore and a strong police presence and coming up decidedly short. Some of the greatest thrillers from the last year, such as The Girl on the Train, rely on unreliable narration to fuel the tension and drive the reader through the narrative, steering them towards incorrect conclusions. In standout brilliant thriller series such as Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy, readers are made to disbelieve the central characters and distrust their motives, and it is this that fuels their interest in the overall outcome.

Overall, I am inclined to believe that whilst unreliable narrators should feature heavily in thrillers, it would be nice to see some new, original tropes such as setting featuring more heavily in modern thrillers. Moth Smoke encapsulates modern Lahore but, unlike many great thrillers such as Henning Mankell’s novels or Tayeb Salih’s stunning Season of Migration to the North, setting is not used as an additional character, which is what really makes these novels stand out. I would like to see additional uses of key thriller tropes in more modern novels as I continue to play catch up on myself and visit the latest novels of some of my favourite writers, many of whom combine post colonialism perfectly with thrilling stories to create books which stand the test of time and prove to be true classics.

Kenneth Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express Trailer: My Thoughts

Murder on the Orient Express is an iconic novel, although I personally have always found it overrated. The novel is stunningly crafted right until the end, when we are left with a very strange conclusion in which there is no single murderer.

There’s no conclusive evidence that Branagh’s version of the film will remain true to the novel’s plotting, but I imagine this would be the case; there is no point in changing the ending, as this is what makes the novel truly revolutionary and unique.

I have awaited this film adaptation with bated breath ever since it was announced; I am a fan of Branagh’s thanks to his fabulous, if a little dreary, adaptations of Mankell’s Wallander novels, as well as his brilliant Shakespeare work. His cast is impressive; everyone from old favourites such as Judy Dench, Penelope Cruz, Olivia Colman and Derek Jacobi through to shiny new faces such as Star Wars’ Daisy Ridley and Sergei Polunin is in this star studded adaptation, as well as box office favourites Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer and Willem Dafoe.

All this money and flummery cannot make you a good Agatha Christie adaptation, however. No matter how hard you try, the atmosphere and tension need to be there; without this there is no intrigue and without intrigue there is no point. The trailer is certainly visually stunning, and the voiceover is captivating (although I have to question Branagh’s accent).

Which brings me on to the casting. Pfeiffer is excellent in her brief appearance as Caroline Hubbard, and making the character vampish was a great choice for Hollywood. Depp is uninspiring as ever, and I question Judy Dench’s casting as the Princess- she doesn’t have the shabby, slightly seedy feel you get from the character in the book.

The big question is Poirot himself. Branagh has a hilarious moustache, which makes him look more like Peter Ustinov than David Suchet, the ultimate Poirot. His voice is very forced but it his lack of presence throughout the trailer that bothers me. Although a small man in stature, Christie’s Poirot takes up a great deal of space as he assimilates himself into new situations and generally draws attention to himself in his pursuit of the truth. Although this may simply be artistic imagery used to attract attention during the trailer, I am concerned that the great detective may be reduced to a walking, strangely talking prop in his own case for the sake of a good film.

Only time will tell as to whether I enjoy this film but for now I’d be fascinated to hear the thoughts of any Christie fan: do you think you’ll enjoy the new adaptation?