★ “I’m Shot! Is He Called Todt?”

Last Wednesday found your digit­al cor­res­pond­ent in Exeter, sit­ting in the garden of a German friend. He com­pli­men­ted me on the prose style of my second nov­el, Flashback — lovely — before drop­ping this bomb­shell: “Of course, there are…well, a few typos in the German phrases.”

Oh? Man with one ‘n’, that kind of thing?”

My friend made a wounded, apo­lo­get­ic sound.

I gagged on my Campari.

It turns out that the German phrases in Flashback are not the nuanced, nat­ive- checked won­ders that I had remembered put­ting the book. They are, in fact, mon­stros­it­ies spawned of the half-remembered, ves­ti­gi­al for­eign-lan­guage centres of Hocking’s brain. During draft­ing, stage one was the “shoot German from the hip” meth­od. This pro­duced sen­tences like the fol­low­ing (spoken by a man after a life-or-death struggle):

Ist er Todt?”

Stage two — which would have involved check­ing this with a nat­ive German speak­er, such as the one I reg­u­larly have break­fast with — nev­er happened. I must have been re-routed before I got to that bit of the flow­chart. Stage two would have cor­rec­ted the above to:

Ist er tot?”

In oth­er words, the char­ac­ter would have gasped “Is he dead?” instead of “Is he called Todt?”

I will not deny that the ori­gin­al, incor­rect ver­sion ser­i­ously weakened the dra­mat­ic tone of that scene for read­ers who under­stand German.

Possibly apro­pos of this, sales for Flashback in the German Kindle store have been dis­ap­point­ingly flat.

Now, read­er, there was a time when I could speak for­eign tol­er­ably — the twenty minutes or so of my GCSE French aur­al exam. Immediately after­wards, this inform­a­tion was jet­tisoned with a little ‘pfft’ sound sim­il­ar to that accom­pa­ny­ing the release of waste mat­ter from a space­ship. In my defence, I have picked up some German over a series of some­what cryptic Christmases in Bavaria; how­ever, the great­er part of my con­ver­sa­tions involved me repeat­ing Monty Python jokes or lines from Dinner For One.

I do like for­eign words; and I just came across this Guardian art­icle, Say ‘non’ to phrase­book for­eign lan­guage in fic­tion, by Daniel Kalder. Here’s a quote:

On the whole though the prac­tice of leav­ing for­eign words untrans­lated in a text is symp­to­mat­ic of poor writ­ing- shoddy; lazy; it’s a cheap bus tick­et to bogus exoti­cism. It sig­nals to the read­er that the author does not know the cul­ture he is describ­ing very well, or oth­er­wise com­pletely ordin­ary words would not rattle around in his con­scious­ness demand­ing to be inscribed in ital­ics so they really stand out. “Look, look at me! Look at me now! I know the German word for atten­tion is achtung! See how pro­found my grip of German cul­ture is?”

Putting my aca­dem­ic hat on for a moment (it’s suede with leath­er patches), the dis­tinc­tion between English and for­eign words is a dif­fi­cult and per­haps point­less one to make. The English lan­guage is rather like a portly child released in the dir­ec­tion of a buf­fet fol­low­ing a peri­od of food depriva­tion and expos­ure to Saturday morn­ing TV adverts for sug­ary snacks. The portly child tastes everything; and the things he hasn’t tasted will be fingered to such an extent that oth­er, svel­ter lan­guages will smile politely and say they’ve already eaten.

Shoddy, Mr Kalder? Lazy? Dogmatic bol­locks, sir. Hemingway dropped for­eign speak into his prose a great deal. So does Cormac McCarthy. If it’s good enough for them, it’s good enough for moi.

Brace your­self for an illus­trat­ive quote from Flashback (note that the ori­gin­al ital­ics aren’t rendered here):

As the bus came par­al­lel to the Lancastrian, Cory saw sun­light flick­er down each of her twenty-five sil­ver yards. Her engines were loud and blar­ing. Just fore of the cock­pit were the words ‘Star Dust’. Her raised nose was open. A ramp led to the gap, through which ground staff passed sacks of mail. There was a crew­man vis­ible inside the cock­pit. He waved to the man in charge of the chock cable. The man waved back, then indic­ated the approach­ing bus with a tick of the head. Cory watched this exchange and envied its camarader­ie. Never more intense was the feel­ing of being shang­haied. He was isol­ated from the good people at Project Deja Vu, among whom he had been a favoured son.

Miss Evans parked upwind of the idling engines. She slipped from the vehicle to sta­tion her­self by the wing. The pas­sen­ger door was a roun­ded rect­angle in the fusel­age covered by the G of the aircraft’s huge regis­tra­tion code, G-AGWH. The door opened and a uni­formed officer emerged.

Please approach First Officer Cook dir­ectly, ladies and gen­tle­men,’ called Miss Evans.

Zu viele Koche,’ muttered Harald Pagh, elbow­ing Cory. ‘Sie ver­der­ben die Suppe. Mr Atalah, don’t you agree that too many Cooks spoil the broth? You have a sim­il­ar idiom in Arabic, of course.’

I am Chilean, Mr Pagh,’ said Atalah. His coat whipped in the pro­peller draught and he fussed with the hem. ‘We do have a pro­verb about cook­ing, how­ever. Nunca defeque mas de lo que come.’

Pagh looked at Cory. ‘What did he say?’

”Never shit more than you eat’.’

Pagh gasped, then erup­ted in laughter that rivalled the Lancastrian’s engines for volume. ‘Is that so, Mr Atalah?’

You had that com­ing,’ said Jack Gooderham.

A pen, Jack! It might prove prof­it­able.’

I’d argue for legit­im­ate use in this excerpt. I’m not show­ing off (any more than writ­ing is already a show­ing off) but using for­eign malar­key to cre­ate tone, com­mu­nic­ate some­thing to the read­er, and ulti­mately engage them.

Arguing against ‘a bit of the for­eign’ reminds me of those read­ers who suf­fer brain infarc­tions when they see a verb oth­er than ‘said’ use to indic­ate that someone has spoken. ‘Replied’, ‘respon­ded’, ‘scoffed’ et al. are ver­boten.

Up the Workers

Another inter­est­ing piece in The Guardian about self pub­lish­ing (this is the term they’re apply­ing to inde­pend­ent ebook pub­lic­a­tion) by Alison Flood.

This caught my eye:

Publishing has always been a quasi-mono­poly built on the lock pub­lish­ers had on paper dis­tri­bu­tion. Digital dis­tri­bu­tion has broken that lock, but leg­acy pub­lish­ers are still behav­ing as though they have mono­poly power,” believes Eisler. “They’re run­ning their busi­ness with two gen­er­al imper­at­ives in mind: (i) main­tain the primacy of paper (in sig­ni­fic­ant part, by delay­ing the release of digit­al books and pri­cing them too high); and (ii) offer pun­it­ive fin­an­cial, cre­at­ive, and oth­er terms to authors. Or, to put it anoth­er way, pub­lish­ers are cur­rently run­ning their busi­ness in a way that pun­ishes both their end-user cus­tom­ers (read­ers) and their pro­viders (authors). This was sus­tain­able when pub­lish­ers faced no mean­ing­ful com­pet­i­tion. They do now, and will have to adapt or die, because yes, more and more authors are eschew­ing the leg­acy mod­el in favour of self-pub­lish­ing and in favour of the emer­ging Amazon hybrid mod­el.”

I, and many oth­ers, have com­men­ted on the art­icle. Brace your­self for the some­what arrog­ant mode, but I’m respond­ing to some counter-inde­pend­ent com­ments. It runs:

Interesting art­icle. I like the data (indeed, I’ve blogged on Scott Pack’s blog ‘Me and My Big Mouth’ a couple of times about my own ebook pub­lish­ing exper­i­ences, where I’ve tried to be trans­par­ent about my sales).

Whether ebooks will be good for the pub­lish­ing industry is a moot point. It is cer­tainly good for me. In my case, my first book was pub­lished by a small press and went nowhere because, back then (in 2005!), you had to get your book into a high­street book­seller or oth­er­wise die on your arse. Over the years since then, I’ve had count­less agents and pub­lish­ers rave about my work and then mut­ter some­thing about marketing/categorisation/effort and not pub­lish it. Clearly they thought it was not the both­er. I dis­agree, and I’ve now sold more than three thou­sand cop­ies since March.

Again, it’s a moot point wheth­er this is good for pub­lish­ing. I will be forever indebted to Amazon, who man­u­fac­tured and pushed the Kindle when every­one (includ­ing me, at first) was pour­ing scorn on it. They’ve giv­en me the chance to have people read my work. That was nev­er going to hap­pen with UK pub­lish­ers.

Are my self pub­lished books crap? Quite pos­sibly, but I don’t think so. Both were pro­fes­sion­ally edited and both have good cov­ers (the first my own, the second pro­duced by a pro­fes­sion­al). Both books have mean rat­ings great­er than 4 on Amazon. But, more than this, dozens of people a day are down­load­ing my books; a large per­cent­age of them will be read­ing them.

That’s the revolu­tion: being able, as an artist, to reach the end point of the cre­at­ive pro­cess.

Up the work­ers.

Tacitus Schmacitus

Scott Pack replies to a Guardian piece by Stuart Jeffries that (accord­ing to Scott; I haven’t read it) is anoth­er ‘why can’t book­shops be like the old days’ art­icle.

Among oth­er things, Scott writes:

Less than a dec­ade ago it would have been pos­sible to walk into a branch of Waterstone’s, espe­cially some of the London shops, and ask for the best­selling book in the coun­try only to dis­cov­er that they didn’t stock it because ‘it wasn’t our sort of thing’. I remem­ber an occa­sion when one branch refused to unpack a sci­ence fic­tion pro­mo­tion because ‘our cus­tom­ers don’t like sci fi’. The same shop would com­plain whenev­er we ran a Jacqueline Wilson offer as ‘she’s a ter­rible writer and our cus­tom­ers can’t stand her’. I am not mak­ing any of this up. Is this what Jeffries wants? Really?

I’m not entirely con­vinced that this is a bad thing. When — years ago now — I was hawk­ing my own book around branches of Waterstone’s, I had assumed (along with the pub­lic, I think) that such book­shops are essen­tially autonom­ous. However, on every occa­sion, I was told that the manager/manageress lacked the power to make buy­ing decisions (or was too wor­ried to exer­cise it), even when the decision centred on four or five books of a loc­al author. So if there was a time when the man­agers of Waterstone’s branches were less tim­id, I’d say wind­ing the clock back would be no bad thing.

He goes on to say:

Waterstone’s has branches in towns across the land. In some of these places a new Andy McNab nov­el will sell 20 or 30 times more than a new Martin Amis. The stock and mer­chand­ising of the shop should reflect that.

Which I agree with. I can’t stand Martin Amis and thor­oughly enjoyed Bravo Two Zero when I was a teen­ager.

There is an inter­est­ing ques­tion at the heart of this debate. What do you or I want in a book­shop? Personally, I don’t really want book­shops at all. I want the recom­mend­a­tions of my friends and a web browser that gets me to Amazon.

Literature and the shops that sell it are two dis­so­ci­able entit­ies. As are, I think, words and books them­selves.

Tacit agree­ment | theBookseller.com