Skip to Content

John Jenkins Dec 09


The December column from the former editor of Writers' Forum

John JenkinsAs a publisher and editor I have been answering queries from writers for something like 20 years and as a result I have recently published a book FAQs and the Answers for Ambitious Writers.


It’s Happy Listmas time again

By John Jenkins

'Tis the season of good cheer, goodwill to all men – and news paper lists.

Have you noticed how today we are being beset by lists: The 10 best books for Christmas: the 20 best books for children, the fifty best books as presents and the Daily Telegraph which has kicked off the Listmas season by giving us 100 books to mark the decade?

Notice how we always receive a nice round number. Not the nine best books of the decade or the 43 best for five years?

This same rubbish has invaded our TV screens: The 20 best comedy moments from Morecambe and Wise or the ten best shows by the Two Ronnies: Or the 10 sexiest ads from Swedish Television.

It’s known in the trade - my trade and I hang my head in shame – as Churnalism, as distinct from journalism.

It’s cheap, it’s easy to do, advertisers like it and it performs no useful function whatsoever. Even worse, from the books point of view, are the potted reviews which often go with these titles.

It gives a golden opportunity for what we call log rolling.
Log rolling in the book trade is nothing less than dishonesty. It’s a review which states that Moby Fred, or Lieutenant Vermicelli’s Banjo is the best book since Don Quixote.

But who wrote the commendation? Was it a fellow author who shared the same literary agent? Was it an author who shared the same publisher? Was it the girl friend of the author in a publishing house? Was it a TV producer who wants to get his daughter’s book published?

In return, the recipients of such praise will be asked to return the favour at a later date. All very cosy and the only journal to highlight this pernicious practice is Private Eye, which has a keen literary nose for this sort of thing.

I once read a glowing list of recommendations for a new author printed on the book jacket which persuaded me to buy it, although I did wonder how they came to know the writer as this was her first book. The book wasn’t just bad it was terrible. It was so bad your toes curled with embarrassment as you read it. I deposited it in the litter bin at Fleet Service station on the M3. Burning would have been too good for this tosh.

But let’s look at this list in the Telegraph. I must confess that I have not read the full 100 although duty has compelled me to read more than a fair share.
Brian MacArthur, who compiled the list, is himself a highly competent writer. He kicks off with JK Rowling – and on volume grounds alone you cannot argue with that. She is a phenomenon. He points to the huge effect of the Richard & Judy Show which launched many titles into orbit, including the talented Audrey Niffenegger.

Clever man that he is, MacArthur doesn’t call them the best books of the decade – only that they marked the decade.
But poor old Mac soon ended up with egg on his face. One of his 100 was The Intimate Adventures of a London Call Girl. Coyly he suggested that this was the work of a middle-aged male journalist.

Days later it turned out to have been written by Dr Brooke Magnanti, a 30 something blonde who is a research h scientist at Bristol hospital. Dr Brooke will not be returning to prostitution, she says, and you can be sure this story will run and run and that her book will certainly be
remembered from the decade long after the memoirs of Cherie Blair and the letters of Ted Hughes decorate the shelves of the charity shops. And you can be sure that other followers of the oldest profession will soon be cashing in with their stories.

Entering into the Spirit of the Lists here are my best and worst five from MacArthur’s list:

Top of the bad list must be The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst, surely one of the worst books ever to win the Booker, A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson, so superficial it is unbelievable, The Return of the Naked Chef by Jamie Oliver, a poor recipe for a book, A
Million Little Pieces,
a total lie by James Frey, and My Defence by footballer Ashley Cole.

The best five? No Expenses Spared by Winnett and Rayner on the MPs’ thieving, Eats, Shoots and Leaves by Lynne Truss, The No 1 Ladies Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith, The Ghost by Robert Harris, Boyhood and Youth by J.M. Coetzee.

But enough of lists.

Perhaps the biggest scandal in the book world is the evidence to show that the BBC banned Enid Blyton for 30 years. I don’t care if she played tennis naked, had 44 affairs or looked upon a lesbian arrangement as a hobby.

She thrilled millions of children with her stories and encouraged many of them to go on reading. The JK Rowling of her day. But how dare the BBC act as censors?

There’s also a new book out entitled: Poisoned Pens, literary invective from Amis to Zola by Gary Dexter. One can only wonder at man’s inhumanity to man and I think author’s invective to fellow authors runs it close.

Of course, the big targets are the big successes. George Bernard Shaw talks of Shakespeare’s complete intellectual sterility. But little of Shaw’s own writing survives. There’s a nice musical called My Fair Lady based on his class-conflict parable Pygmalion and occasionally one of his plays surfaces but the only things he wrote worth reading now are the prefaces to his work.

Philip Larkin calls Dylan Thomas 'snivelling and grovelling' but I would suggest that Larkin is not fit to tie up a Thomas couplet. Then Nabokov, who wrote Lolita, summed up Hemingway as 'bells, bulls and balls'. At least Hemingway had balls which is something Nabokov’s books often lacked. There’s a neat little verse from Humbert Wolfe which goes like this:

You cannot hope
to bribe nor twist,
Thank God! The
British journalist,
But seeing what
the man will do
unbribed, there’s
no occasion to.


To avoid this kind of criticism the BBC has appointed 14 people at a salary bill exceeding £2 million a year to ensure standards and objectivity. They range from Dominic Coles, Chief Operating Officer, Journalism, salary £257,000, down
to Fraser Steel head of editorial complaints at a modest £85,000.

And yet three times this week I have heard on BBC broadcasts murders described as executions. I wonder if any of the reporters or exalted 14 know that an execution is a judicial killing which follows a trial?

Surely the BEEB cannot seriously want an increase in the licence fee?



If you have a question you would like John to answer please email it to:

The latest book from John Jenkins is FAQs and the Answers for Ambitious Writers

Related Items in our Amazon Store

Publisher: Cooper Johnson Limited
Kindle Edition
Sales rank: 1,480,471