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John Jenkins Nov 09


The November 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.


Booker winner Mantel
deserves the accolades

Books are news. After Super Thursday when 800 books were published on the same day as publishers launched a campaign for Christmas sales, attention switched to the winner of the Booker Prize.

This year the winner – and a popular one – is Hilary Mantel for her historical novel Wolf Hall.

For once the prize has not been bedevilled by political correctness nor the influence of literary luvvies who often forget that one essential ingredient of a successful book is entertainment.

Mantel faced some stiff competition – notably from Summertime by the South African writer Coetzee who has already won the Booker twice, and The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters.

Others which made the short list were The Children’s Book by A S Byatt – a distinctly mannered writer - The Quickening Maze by Andrew Foulds and The Glass Room by Simon Mawer..

Not a bad list on the whole.

The odd thing is that none of the judges is in the first rank as a novelist. The chairman, James Naughtie, is a radio broadcaster on the Today programme, noted for asking questions which are always longer than the answers. He is the master of the subordinate clause and the Latin trick of signalling what kind of answer he expects.

Nevertheless, he has written a couple of books, neither of which caused a tremor in the sales charts and he is on the advisory boards of several good and great organisations devoted to the arts.

Another judge, Lucasta Miller, has written two books and contributes as a critic to the Guardian Review.

John Mullan is Professor of English at University College London and one of his books is called How the Novel works. I must get a copy and compare it with various good books on the subject by David Lodge, an academic who has made a great success with his own fiction.

The Booker organisers always like the common touch which explains perhaps why Sue Perkins is on the panel. Who she? Sorry to sound like a High Court judge but apparently she is a broadcaster and a comedian. She stars in Supersizers Go in which she eats offal and cow brains in restrictive corsetry.
All I can say about her judgement is that the mind boggles. Probably the stomach, too.

The final judge is Michael Prodger, Literary Editor of the Sunday Telegraph. So none of them has ever come close to writing a book to challenge any Booker shortlist.

Then again, you don’t have to be a sheep to judge the quality of wool. Hilary Mantel is not only a far better writer than any of these can hope to be, she is also a much more interesting person.

She has been building up a steady following of fans during which time she has written eleven books. So this is no overnight success – it is the result of hard work, clever research and talent.

Mantel’s book tells the story of Thomas Cromwell, spin doctor to Henry VIII – not to be confused with Oliver Cromwell, quite a different kind of man: more of a doer than a spinner.

Thomas Cromwell made himself indispensable to Henry, who, you will recall, could never find the right wife and incurred the wrath of Rome by seeking annulments and divorces on spurious grounds. They have long memories in Rome and you may have noticed a shrewd move to get some of their own back recently. But I digress.

Tom Cromwell’s antics for Henry led to the formation of the Protestant Church of England and the split with Catholicism. Cromwell – born of lowly stock – was a chancer and villain. But the king found him useful.

Rich ground for a novelist. Like all good writers of historical fiction, Mantel uses enough factual history to make her story believable. Of course, the Tudors have always provided rich pickings for fiction. You may have recently enjoyed a film entitled The Other Boleyn Girl.

Mantel had the first glimmer of the idea for her book 30 years ago, which is encouraging for all you wannabee writers who have an idea at the back of your mind. All you have to do is find the will and the stamina, not to mention ability – to write it.

Mantel’s fifth novel was A Place of Greater Safety, about the French Revolution and Robespierre. Compared to him Cromwell seemed almost cosy', she joked.

Mantel sees our Tudor Dynasty as just that – a sort of national soap opera:

'The reason we keep coming back is its archetypal quality. You’ve got this great lecherous brute who won’t accept that he is ageing. You’ve got a first wife who is saintly but obstinate - and we’ve all known people who hang on to a dead marriage. And who hasn’t known the mistress on the make? It’s all so recognisable in terms of modern family dynamics and yet it’s all so much nearer the bone because the stakes are so high.'

David Mamet once said that you can’t write about the blues unless you’ve had the blues. Well Mantel knows all about dysfunctional families.

Her own father was ousted from the family home when she was 11 and she took her stepfather’s name. She never saw her real father again. Then she was wrongly diagnosed with several illnesses, including mental instability.

Fortunately she recovered. Her condition was properly diagnosed and treated and she married at the age of 20. Happily. She still suffered with her health and says it is work that has kept her going all the years. It would have been easy to slide into doing nothing very much but if you have driving ambition and ideas it tugs you along..

Her secret as an author? To keep a notebook and to write every day that she possibly can.

The £50,000 prize means a lot to her and the knock-on effect in sales of her previous books will be enormous.

Brought up as a Catholic she is slowly working on an epic about the dismantling of Catholicism in England.

Meanwhile Wolf Hall will be on many Christmas lists as a present. It’s nice to be in the same class as Thomas Keneally, Paul Scott, Kingsley Amis, William Golding, Peter Carey, Roddy Doyle and Yann Martel.

Nevertheless, Hilary Mantel would swap it all for perfect health.

Wolf Hall seems a very filmable story and I can see no difficulty in attracting major stars for the lead roles.

Many good – and many great – writers go through life without ever getting close to the Booker award. It’s nice to see one winning who thoroughly deserves it.

There will also be an audio version of the book – which adds another 10 per cent to sales for the author – and it is the first Booker winner which may find itself available on Kindle.

This is an electronic book reader, rather like a palm top computer, which can hold 1500 titles. It is battery operated and is seen by many at Amazon as the ultimate tool for the reader. Personally, I loathe the idea and I’m pleased to see Lynne Truss shares my prejudice.

For me, I love not only reading books – but the smell of books, the feel of books and the joy of browsing and choosing. I will be giving Wolf Hall as a Christmas present for two of my daughters – but as an e-book  for the Kindle, no thanks.

I’m not that cool baby.


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

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