Friday 23 December 2011

2011, a Review of the Year in Books and Comics, 1: Insufferable Navel-Gazing

Well, it's that time of the year again, when we all down tools, decamp to whichever godforsaken corner of the world we hail from (suburban south London in my case, via Surrey and Essex), and get set to munch our way through an overcooked bone-dry bird of some description, hand out gifts we ordered off Amazon, receive IOUs denoting the Amazon-ordered gifts we would have received if the bloody things had turned up on time, and fall asleep in front of whatever tripe is on telly this Christmas.

But wait! The advent of the festive season means it's also time for Existential Ennui's Review of the Year in Books and Comics! And in a frankly welcome change of programming from last year's overlong extravaganza, this year I'll be foisting just three end-of-year posts on you, instead of the previous six. T'other side of Christmas I'll have 2011's version of the Bloody Great List of books I read this year, and after that I'll be choosing my favourite books from that list.

Before all that, though, and as is traditional on Existential Ennui, I'm going to completely ignore the momentous events which have shaken the wider world – Arab spring, tsunami, radioactive emergency, a referendum, riots, recession and a royal wedding – and instead cast a critical eye over a topic which is very dear to my heart: me. Or rather, me, as filtered through Existential Ennui. Last year I posted two EE-centric missives in amongst my end-of-year round-ups, one an overview of EE in 2010 and the other a guide to what I reckoned were my best posts last year. I shan't be attempting the latter this time for the simple reason that I think my posting this year was pretty consistent, at least in terms of depth and breadth, if not quality (only you can determine that); my advice, if you fancy sampling 2011's posts, is to click on whichever subjects in the "Abiding Preoccupations" tag cloud down there in the right-hand column pique your curiosity.

Instead, let's take a more general look at Existential Ennui in 2011. And if 2010 was the year of Donald E. Westlake/Richard Stark, then 2011 was the year of the espionage novel. Spy fiction loomed large over Existential Ennui this year, from February/March's Spy Fiction Fortnight right through to my still-ongoing series on spy series, with a number of other author-focused runs of posts in-between, featuring Len Deighton, Anthony Price, Adam Hall, John le Carré, Sarah Gainham, Donald Hamilton and William Haggard.

And indeed runs of posts on various subjects came to increasingly characterize Existential Ennui this year. Aside from the spy fiction authors mentioned above, there were series on Peter Rabe, Elmore Leonard's Raylan Givens stories, Oliver Bleeck (Ross Thomas), Mark Billingham, Ross Thomas (him again), Michael Moorcock, P. M. Hubbard (two runs on him), Donald Westlake's science fiction short stories (two runs of those as well), Patricia Highsmith, political diaries, signed editions and post-apocalyptic fiction.

One thing there was rather less of on Existential Ennui this year was comics coverage. I managed a handful of Notes from the Small Press posts, and a post on the DC Comics New 52 relaunch, but while I continue to buy comics on an almost-weekly basis, I find I have little of substance to say about them. At this point my comics habit really is just that: a habit, rather than a passion. And given how disappointing that DC initiative proved, plus my faltering interest in Marvel's wares, it's a habit I intend to wean myself off of in the new year. (Perhaps after the Avengers vs. X-Men event...)

There were, I think, three blogging-related moments which really stood out for me in 2011. The first of those arrived in April, when the British Library contacted me asking if they could archive Existential Ennui. Coming, as it did, completely out of the blue, the request represented, to my mind, the tiniest vindication of all the effort I'd been putting into Existential Ennui; if an institution as esteemed as the British Library could see some worth – however small – in my ill-informed ramblings, then I must be doing something right. Existential Ennui's dedicated page on the Library's UK Web Archive can be found here (it's already been updated once).

The second stand-out moment came in July, when I got to meet and interview spy novelist Anthony Price. I'd discovered Price's work early in 2011, and thoroughly enjoyed his books, so when I realised he was still with us, and that there were no interviews with him online, I decided to do something about it. My two-part interview with him can be found here and here, and both parts continue to receive hits daily.

The third memorable moment actually had more to do with another blog rather than this one – i.e., the one on The Violent World of Parker website. As of August I became the official co-blogger on Violent World, posting alongside proprietor Trent on all things Westlake, Stark and Parker. I've received a very warm welcome over there, and I don't believe Existential Ennui has suffered as a result, not only because I've been re-posting my Violent World pieces on here too, but also because having to come up with regular(ish) content for TVWoP has meant that I've kept up 2010's level of Westlake-related posting in 2011.

Taking all of that into account, plus other stuff like excellent guest posts from Michael Barber and Paul Simpson, a short Q&A with Dexter creator Jeff Lindsay, and my breaking the news of the return to print of Donald Hamilton's Matt Helm novels, it's been a pretty good year on Existential Ennui. Certainly EE is seeing increasing levels of links and comments coming in and currently attracting well over double the volume of traffic it did this time last year – around 3,500 hits per week at the moment. A percentage of that is obviously spam, and a further percentage repeat visits, and in the grand scheme of things it's still pretty small beer... but for a books blog – and an esoteric, idiosyncratic and frequently unreadable one at that – it's not too bad at all.

Mind you, some things remain unchanged: I still write in the same infuriatingly prolix and pompous fashion I always have. But since it's me who is the driving "creative" (using the term loosely) force behind this blog, there's not a whole lot can be done about that. And if you can stand my abstruse "style" (again, using the term very loosely), there is at least some occasionally useful information on Existential Ennui these days, on authors, cover artists, publishing, and more besides, all of it searchable from the little box just below right of my glorious masthead. Pop in a search term and give it a go, why don't you.

Merry Christmas, and I'll see you all again after the festivities.

Wednesday 21 December 2011

Donald E. Westlake's Farewell to Science Fiction: Responses by Frederik Pohl, Westlake, and Others

(NB: a version of this post also appears on The Violent World of Parker blog.)

This, I'm sure we'll all be relieved to hear, will be my final Violent World of Parker cross-post for the year. Fear not, however (or, possibly, fear greatly): there's plenty more to come from me on TVWoP in the new year, not just on Westlake but also on some other writers whose work intersects with the Great Man's. But let's round off this year's run of Westlake posts (on my part, anyway; I'm sure TVWoP proprietor Trent will be along over there before too long) by returning to Donald E. Westlake's science fiction stories one last time, and in particular to his controversial farewell to SF in Pat and Dick Lupoff's early-1960s fanzine Xero – reprinted in The Best of Xero"Don't Call Us, We'll Call You".

Last time out I detailed the content of that essay, but what's perhaps most striking about it is the effect it had on SF fandom and on Westlake's fellow professionals. The repercussions of "Don't Call Us, We'll Call You" would reverberate through the remainder of Xero's run, with letter after letter either agreeing with or dissenting from Westlake's negative view of the SF field. One of the more notable responses came from one of the targets of Westlake's opprobrium, Frederik Pohl. Westlake had related the following story: 

...when Frederik Pohl took over Galaxy, my agent suggested that I aim a story at him... So I researched. I read the introductions to all the Pohl-edited Star Science Fiction series, and I reread the first and last sentence of every Frederik Pohl story I had around the house... and then I wrote a Frederik Pohl story. "The Spy in the Elevator." 

A Pohl title and a Pohl story, and a very silly inspid story it was, but by that time I was getting cynical. Pohl bought it.

Frederik Pohl, however, offers a contrasting take on this episode. According to Pohl, Westlake's agent, Scott Meredith, sent Pohl a different story, which Pohl wanted to buy for a different SF magazine. Meredith insisted that the tale should appear in Galaxy, so Pohl offered to, if he could, buy another story of Westlake's for Galaxy instead, "up to and including working with him on revisions if necessary (something I seldom do, on principle; I don't believe in editorially dictated revisions in most cases)." Shortly after, Meredith submitted "The Spy in the Elevator", which Pohl read, "discovered it was harmless confetti, shrugged over and bought. It wasn't particularly good, but it wouldn't actually stink up the magazine, and there certainly was little hope of making any great improvements in it through revision."

Remember that one of Westlake's major complaints in "Don't Call Us, We'll Call You" was that the editorial policies of the SF magazines of the era – and consequent requested revisions – meant that, as he put it, "I cannot sell good science fiction" (although it was Analog's John W. Campbell who was the chief target of his ire, not Pohl). Pohl's version of the genesis of "The Spy in the Elevator" suggests that matters weren't so clear cut. Pohl pulls Westlake up on the notion that Pohl would automatically buy a Pohl-like story, and points out that "the story was all but sold before it was written, so if ever [Westlake] had a chance to write For Art, this was the chance". He adds, "If what turned out was a 'silly insipid story' – as Westlake puts it – this may reveal something about the author himself, then, but I assure you it says nothing about the editorial policy of Galaxy", before noting: "To write good science fiction requires a certain amount of gutsiness; those without it are probably better off in other fields, where the standards are lower anyway."

Straight after Pohl's rebuttal comes a note from L. Sprague de Camp. In "Don't Call Us...", Westlake had asserted that many writers had left the SF field out of frustration, de Camp among them, and that furthermore de Camp wasn't "doing much of anything". De Camp refutes this, and lists the various books and magazine articles he's working on. But more interesting is the next response, which comes from Avram Davidson. Davidson suggests that Westlake's issues with science fiction might have more to do with Westlake not being a science fiction writer in the first place, but rather "a mystery writer who wandered into sf by error" – Westlake having stated in his original article that he was now "a full time mystery writer".

Further rebuttals follow, including another from Frederik Pohl and a letter from Richard Kyle, reasoning that Westlake's storytelling in the Analog short "Look Before You Leap" – which Westlake had used as an example of John W. Campbell's egomaniacal interference – was already shonky and that Campbell's requested revision probably made it more readable.

Finally, Westlake himself wades back in to the fray. Addressing Frederik Pohl's points first, Westlake explains that he hadn't intended to suggest he was attempting to imitate anyone's style, merely that he was "aiming at the market and nothing more. In other words, the story I had written had no merits other than as an example of aiming at a particular market. And so, a lousy story." He then moves on to Avram Davidson's notion that he isn't actually a science fiction writer at all. "This idea had never occurred to me before," he writes, "but now that it has been suggested, I must admit it might be true." He reveals that he "gave up Perry Mason for science fiction when I was fourteen, and read science fiction voluminously for the next six years" (I'd always figured that Westlake must have been, at some stage, a fan of SF, so it's good to see that confirmed), and so when he decided to become a professional writer, SF was naturally what he turned to.

Here we reach a more personal admission as to why Westlake stopped writing SF. He states that the initial stories he sold in both the science fiction and mystery markets were "drab droll dreck", but that he eventually improved – at least in mysteries. His sense is that he never got past the "slanting for the market" stage of SF writing, and that therefore, even though he "was more interested in science fiction", henceforth it would be mysteries he'd concentrate on. And addressing Frederik Pohl's remark about standards being lower in other fields, Westlake calls the idea "balderdash" and lists the non-SF editors "so obtuse as to buy stories and/or books from me", such as Random House's Lee Wright, Pocket Books' Bucklin Moon, and Ed McBain.

There's plenty more to read in Westlake's follow-up letter, and indeed in the various responses to Westlake's original piece (not to mention the non-Westlake material in The Best of Xero; I'd strongly recommend getting a copy if you have an interest in SF), all of which paint a picture of a writer at a turning point in his creative life: moving on from science fiction, finding his feet in the mystery and crime field. But more than that, Westlake's two articles afford a glimpse into his motivations for writing in those early days; how he developed and grew as an author; and how willing he was to forcefully argue his corner when he cared passionately about something. And what he cared about most passionately was, quite simply, good writing.

And with that, my regular posts for this year are done. Next: the Existential Ennui Review of the Year in Books and Comics...

Monday 19 December 2011

Len Deighton's London Dossier (Penguin Paperback, 1967)

Having blogged about Len Deighton's first two Secret File novels, The Ipcress File (1962) and Horse Under Water (1963) – and thanks are due for their assistance with those posts to Rob Mallows, Edward Milward-Oliver and everyone who left a comment – for this Deighton bonus post I have a splendid book of non-fiction, one which I was alerted to by the ubiquitous Jeremy Duns...

Len Deighton's London Dossier was first published in the UK in 1967 simultaneously by Jonathan Cape – in hardcover – and Penguin – in paperback, which is the edition you can see above. I say "first published", but in fact that should really be "first and only", because those two editions represent the only appearance of the book, which has been out of print for decades. Consequently, London Dossier is in very short supply in either edition: there are no copies at all on Amazon Marketplace at present, and only ten on AbeBooks, only one of those – a Cape hardback – from a UK-based seller. So any Brits wishing to get themselves a copy have a slight problem... although, if you're quick, you could always swoop in on this eBay auction for a Penguin paperback, which ends just before 6.30pm on Tuesday 20 December.

And it is worth getting hold of, not least for the terrific cover, which was designed by Len Deighton's friend, Raymond Hawkey. Hawkey designed the covers of both editions of the book, and while his concoction for the Cape hardback dustjacket, which replicates the notices you'd often find in a public telephone box, is inventive – you can see it on the book's dedicated page on Rob Mallows's Deighton Dossier website – the Penguin cover is, to my mind, equally alluring. It's actually a double-cover, comprising an outer front cover with a die-cut keyhole, and an inner cover bearing a photo of famed model Twiggy's face, whose left eye peeps through the keyhole. It's an innovative piece of design, and foreshadows Hawkey's slightly later "bullet hole" covers for Coronet's line of Richard Stark "Parker" novels.

As to the book itself, it's a collection of essays by Deighton and others on London – a kind of tourist guide, if you will. Deighton provides an opening general guide to London – with lots of helpful advice, such as this for umarried couples: "British hotels... (being primarily concerned with the proprieties), prefer you to [book in as] Mr and Mrs even if you are sinning" – and another dozen or so short pieces, sprinkled in amongst essays by the likes of journalist and noted Soho boozer Daniel Farson, photographer Adrian Flowers (who took the cover picture of Twiggy) and thriller author Eric Clark. For my part I was pleased to spot mentions of my old Soho haunt The Coach & Horses, as well as The Colony Room – Michael Andrews's evocative 1962 painting of which (part, I recently discovered, of the permanent collection at the Pallant House Gallery in Chichester) can be seen below – both of which were frequented by one of my favourite writers, Jeffrey Bernard (I sat next to him at the bar of the Coach a few times, and saw Peter O'Toole play him in Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell) – that's him in the white shirt on the left of Andrews's painting.

The essays are fascinating, idiosyncratic and often hugely entertaining, and last year the book as a whole acted as a springboard for a series of columns in The Londonist, taking each chapter in turn and looking at how London has changed since. It's tough to beat the original, though, which has obviously dated in some respects, but still contains plenty of information on the capital which will prove useful to the befuddled tourist. That's if they can find a copy...

And with that, I'm done with Mr. Deighton for now, and almost done with the regular posts for this year as well. But there should just be time to squeeze in a Violent World of Parker cross-post before I get to my long-dreaded – I mean, awaited – end-of-year-review posts, so look out for that soon...