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Comment from the book world in May 2011

May 2011

Writing biographies

30 May 2011

'If you get to hate them you should give up the book! But it is a bit like being married. You have days when you feel fed up and days when you feel passionately in love. Dickens did terrible things in his life. But a good thing about being old is that you've seen it, you've done it. You know we all do terrible things...

There are a lot of authors, like John Updike, for example, who hated the idea of a biography of themselves. I can understand that, because here comes some blundering fool who thinks they can explain away the life and work. So (the key) is tone: have affection and respect, but also a sharp eye, and put people in the context in which they lived.'

Claire Tomalin, author of nine biographies, with Charles Dickens : A Life coming later this year.

A dismal future for bookshops?

23 May 2011

'The inevitable disappearance of the vast majority of bookshops will remove a main marketing channel and will seriously undermine the power of publishers. It will also increase the scary dominance of Amazon. Book printers will, sadly, mostly go out of business, and physical books will become more expensive as a consequence of reduced economies of scale. Public libraries, as repositories of physical volumes, will disappear...

English-language publishers and authors may well reap huge benefits from the upheaval. There are about 600m native English speakers and 1.4bn who read English. Most don't buy English-language books now because of the barriers inherent in physical goods. But they would read books in English if they were widely distributed online and cheap. These are incremental sales that UK and US publishers should be pursuing aggressively right now.'

UK investor Luke Johnson, former Chairman of Borders UK, in Publishers' Lunch

Is writing 'work'?

16 May 2011

'I've always had uneasy loyalties about the relevance of the term 'work' to the activities I perform every day, and which occupy the hours when most other people are in fact "working". I write novels and stories and essays for a living. And while I fairly mindlessly refer to what I do as "work"... it's hard for me to think that work is what I really do.

Work, after all - to me anyway - signifies something hard. And while writing a novel can be (I love this word) challenging, (it can also be tedious in the extreme; take forever to finish; demoralise me into granite and make me want to quit and find another line of work), it's not ever what I'd call hard. A hard job, okay, would have to be strenuous and pressurised (writing's almost never that way)...

Indeed, a smug, self-aggrandising part of me doesn't really understand how anybody who's not a writer gets along in life. Not only is writing easier than almost any occupation I know, but you also run your own operation; you have at least a chance to admire what you do and feel a kinship with the greats; you get to make excellent use (by sticking it in your work) of the constant flood of life's jetsam - the daily freshet that drives most people crazy; and you have a chance to please total strangers with your efforts, and at least potentially, marginally make the world a better place... True, you usually don't make a lot of money, which is a drag, but I associate making a lot of money with jobs that are so tedious (and hard) that only big money would make you do it. My little job I'd do for free - and often have.'

Richard Ford in the Guardian

Choosing your subject matter

9 May 2011

'How do you choose your subject matter? Indeed, do you choose it or does it choose you? Should you follow the adage "write what you know", or should a writer engage with the world beyond their back-yard? How important is research? Are you "allowed" to write a story that doesn't "belong" to you, for reasons of race, class, gender and so on? Is it possible to "own" any story, even the story of your life, given that others who intersect with it (your parents, your lover) will have a different "truth" to tell?...

By the time I got down to the writing, I was following the advice I gave my students: write the book that you are compelled to write, stay true to that and only that, draw the curtains, close the door.'

Monica Ali on writing Untold Story, her novel about Princess Diana, in the Bookseller

On murder

2 May 2011

'It's a unique crime, the only one for which we can never make reparation to the victim. There is an invisible line that the murderer steps over, and which divides him from or her forever from the rest of us. Murder is an extraordinary act. It is quite different from anything else a person is capable of. I think the majority of us could commit quite atrocious sins, but I do believe that very, very few of us are capable of deliberately planning the death of another human being.'

P D James in the Sunday Telegraph