50 Shades of Grey Area by Jan Needle

Phenomena like the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy are a constant fascination to me. What they seem to show is that no one has any idea at all why some books take off and some don’t. Quality doesn’t seem to have anything to do with it at all. Crap novels become best sellers, wonderful novels become remainders. The big publishers throw money at some of their titles, and they still bomb. Word of mouth is meant to be king, yet everyone I know who has read Fifty Shades etc (or claims to have done so) is lukewarm. How many sold? Twenty million?

Thus I now crave your indulgence as friends, real and virtual, to name two books by two authors you won’t have heard of, and give you tasters of their work. This is done, naturally, with their full permission, and I have absolutely no commercial interest in either of them. One is a friend called Margaret, the other a friend called John. John’s book is a police procedural called No Place for Dinosaurs, and the other a weird and wonderful short novel called only ‘J’.

Policeman's lot. Kindle cover by Matti Gardner
John – whose full name, and writing name, is John Morrison – is an ex-detective inspector with a northern police force, whom I met when I ran a writing class/group a couple of years ago. The book was only two or three chapters then, and he read it out to us as he went along. Everybody threw in their two-pennyworth, and I threw in my ‘experience and expertise’.

We all thought that this book was something special (despite some eccentric punctuation, which will soon be fully ironed out.) Its USP to a lifelong fan of police procedurals like me is its extraordinary authenticity. John’s detectives, and his ‘victims’, and his evocation of miserable, early morning crime scenes, the reactions of a pair of parents when told their sixteen year old daughter has been raped and murdered, the social milieu of fellow cops and journalists, the drunken, needy landlord of the all night boozer they frequent – all these things are touchable, feelable, tasteable.

It has the peculiar effect of making time go slowly. Unlike most detective books, it is not telescoped to make it race along. From day to day the investigation sort of grinds. The parents, the police, everyone, is worn down by the complex hopelessness. You can see and feel people falling to pieces. It is not, to put it simply, romantic. Not in any way. It has the ring of awful truth. It feels as though you are an exhausted, hung over policeman, struggling constantly not to go under from the pressures. You understand how awful it must be, sometimes, to be a policeman. And although time goes slowly, the book is truly gripping. You know it happened. And is happening still…

My other book is harder to categorise, and I honestly don’t know how most people will react to it. It tells the story of an art student called J, who takes a job in a café to eke out her existence. She lives in an Edwardian terrace in Liverpool, and her landlady, she realises, is a ‘madame’. The gentlemen go in and out, quiet and respectable, and J watches them. And wonders.

One evening, after work, ‘Chef’ at the café invites her to share a bottle with him. Almost without her knowing why or how, J is full length on her back on the cool steel table, being…well, you name it, J really cannot. She knows she enjoys it, she does not know why, and it is not discussed. Again, there is a weird authenticity. Something inexplicable is happening, and the next night, it happens again – still inexplicably. She does not even know if she likes it, or whether she is doing something ‘wrong.’ At the end of every chapter, a different voice comments on the action, in the third person. And gives us some indication of J’s life before the brothel and steel table, the family life that is possibly so normal it is strange.

Frank, exotic, and disturbing
The friend who wrote it is not called Margaret McCann, and she is in fact a well known northern artist. She, like me, is not completely sure about what the book says, or means, and she is afraid some people might find it pornographic. Certainly the sex is extraordinarily frank, and extraordinarily detailed, and (to little old down-country me?) amazingly exotic. Quite honestly, I did not know some of the practices and devices ‘inflicted’ on J by Chef (and later her landlady) existed. Exotic, yes.  Erotic? Well, I’m not so sure. And while J herself is brutalised, exploited, prostituted – she never feels that she is a victim, or that Chef and his friends are abusing her. Whether or not it is anything like Fifty Shades, etc, I’m not likely to find out. But if that trilogy is dull, J is not. It is gripping, throat grabbing, and disturbing.

It went the usual dreary round of the ‘profession,’ with agents and publishers making the usual claims about how 'mega' it could be. No one published it, though; you know the story - it's the story, probably, of Shades of Grey. It’s due out now under my imprint Skinback Books, which is a label and a logo intended to act as a focus in an overcrowded world. Any money it might earn goes straight to Margaret McCann.

The criminal side of crime
I’ve sorted out some extracts of both these novels, to feature on my website janneedle.com with blurbs and pointers.  Have a look. See if you mght agree. 

In the meantime, onwards and upwards. I spend so much time in the virtual world these days that I still haven’t finished the sequel to Kicking Off   But it won’t be long now.

And a PS from the ‘real’ world. I’ve just read a book called Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn. It’s astonishing, and uncategorisable. Except to say that if you love Kate Atkinson (and I do, I do, I do!) you’ll love this too. It kept me up all night.

No Place for Dinosaurs


Skinback Books:

Kicking Off

Review of Kicking Off: http://indieebookreview.wordpress.com/category/thrillercrime/page/2/

Skinback Books - and me - are also on Facebook


Lee said…
Since nobody seems to have any idea whatsoever why one book becomes a commercial success and not another, the conclusion I draw is to forget the whole business of success and concentrate on the writing. Yes, I do know that I'm repeating myself!

Thanks for the reading suggestions. I'm always on the lookout, like everyone else here, for stuff that's new to me.
Jan Needle said…
not only repeating yourself, but probably talking nonsense, i'm afraid. have you ever met a writer who doesn't concentrate on the writing? has anybody? what does it actually mean - that some people write while cooking chips or flying a jumbo jet? have you ever met a writer who wouldn't like his/her work to be recognised as being worth reading by other people? have you ever met a writer who doesn't do her/his best?

i've mentioned these two books because i think they're of unusual interest and/or 'value'. and i hope by mentioning them i might give other people the 'pleasure' of reading them. commercial success, believe you me, is not in many writers' minds.
Lee said…
'commercial success, believe you me, is not in many writers' minds'

Are you really so sure?
Stephanie Zia said…
Thanks for these recommendations, Jan. Will be checking them both out, intrigued by J and love the cover too.
Jan Needle said…
Thanks Stephanie. The woman who wrote 'J' is worried to death about how people will respond to it. It's been in her mind for many years, and investigates an area of experience that has always fascinated her. I failed to persuade her to use her actual name - and she might be right!

Lee, of course I'm not really so sure. I'm not really so sure of anything. Which is possibly why I'm a writer.

Margaret McCann, incidentally, is an artist. Do you really think she'd stop if she didn't make money at it?
Lee said…
Jan, it's really hard to outguess people's motives, and I'm not sure it's especially relevant here. The only thing that worries me is how much effort is expended in these posts on attracting readers.

Have you followed the uproar over Jonas Lehrer's reusing big chunks of his own writing? (Here's a link if you want to have a look: http://www.edrants.com/how-jonah-lehrer-recycled-his-own-material-for-imagine/)
Whatever his reasons may be, it does appear that he's not giving it his best. Writers are probably like everyone else: and most, or at least many, are satisfied with good enough - which as far as I'm concerned ist just not.
Lee said…
PS I've already downloaded Gone Girl. It's passed the first paragraph test!
Jan Needle said…
i expended the effort to attract readers to gone girl, by an american writer i'd never heard of and who i'll never meet, which expenditure of effort you say worries you.

but you downloaded it, and now it's passed your 'first paragraph test'. which leaves me struggling very hard to work out exactly what your problem might be.

so please, everybody. i expended the effort in my blog to give you the chance of checking out, for free, two more books which have nothing to do with me, and which i consider extremely interestng. do me a favour, lee.
Dennis Hamley said…
Jan, these books sound amazing and I shall download them. About a definition of success - I've never even expected great financial success. I don't want to sound smug and maybe I'm daft, but to be honest I've never been skint since I was in my 20s so money from writing, though nice and sometimes surprising, had never been something I've particularly worried about. It's critical success I crave: respect from peers and pleasure for readers. I always try to make everything I do as good as I possibly can. I'm not satisfied with 'good enough'. But I know that very often it's the limit that I can achieve.

Lee, I'm not aware of Jonas Lehrer's re-use of chunks of his own writing but I do know that once or twice I've recycled the material into a different context. For example, a real occasion which happened to me when I was 15 - I went on a gliding course ands crashed a glider. That seemed, many years later, a scene which, used fictionally, could have some significance. This was in the third novel I ever wrote. Three years ago I found myself using it again, simply because it fitted into a story I was writing for a school series. The characters were different, the period was different, the significance was different. It had become a different metaphor, so I had no compunction about using it again. I couldn't have done it any other way. rtevisiting is not necessarily a bad thing.

Anyway, enough of such banal thoughts. Jan, you pose a question in comments on my blog yesterday and I shall answer it. I well remember the first time we met. It was about 1980 during the Book Week held at the Longmore Teachers' Centre in Hertford. 'Book Week' and 'Teachers' Centre'. Two more obsolete concepts. You were on a discussion panel which I chaired. Bob Leeson was on the panel and there were two others, but I forget who they were. It was on 'realism in Children's literature.' I remember you talking about My Mate Shofiq and a teacher, Rex Harley (later himself a fairly successful young adult writer with Gollancz - like Deutsch also unhappily obsolete) got up and said he'd used it with a class and they said it was boring. You sprang to your feet and shouted, 'Nobody's ever said a book of mine is boring' and for a moment I thought I'd have to intervene and separate you both. Instead you both sat down and glowered at each other for the rest of the evening. The person from Deutsch who brought you must have been Pam Royds because I'd invited her and she was there. Bob was introduced (not by me) as another Andre Deutsch author. Bob expostulated angrily and Pam said in a rather too-loud voice, 'I wish you were.'

You never told me about the rum. I thought an old sea dog like you who have consumed hundreds of gallons of it since then. I hardly think it affected your performance! It was quite a memorable occasion.
Lee said…
Dennis, I happen to agree with you that there's nothing wrong with reusing one's own words, but there seems to be a lot of disagreement about this, particularly when a writer is repurposing his words for different periodicals i.e. when he's being paid each time for ostensibly new material.

Jan, obviously I don't object to anyone pointing towards interesting books to read: it's what I perceive as an over-emphasis on readership and/or success which disturbs me. I'd rather see a bit more talk about what it means to write well for an electronic medium (which I do not believe is the same as for print) .But since this discussion threatens to become strident, I will of course do you the requested favour.
Lee said…
One more point: Jan, it does seem to be rather disingenuous for you to write: 'i expended the effort in my blog to give you the chance of checking out, for free, two more books which have nothing to do with me...' Correct me if I'm wrong, please, but isn't Skinback Books your own imprint?
CallyPhillips said…
As I understand it the purpose of this blogsite is for writers to write whatever they like about their experiences, thoughts, views etc with relevance where appropriate to 'electronic medium'. What it 'means' to write well for electronic medium is a pretty nebulous request. I think in general terms though, the writers are free to write about what they like and if it doesn't cover the ground that a 'reader' of the blog likes then perhaps they need to be looking for other places more suited to their 'desires'. I know some of the 'debates' we've had about 'writing well' have provoked the kind of argumentation which is frankly just wearisome - these little boxes are not the place for people to discuss such big issues, and I think our focus is more on 'what writing for electronic medium means for me' (for each contributor) is more what it's about than a debate about what 'writing well MEANS' (And I'm one who is keen on 'meaning') I for one am very happy finding out what my fellow writers are up to and thinking about and working on, and don't feel a need to disagree or argue the toss with other people's opinions on a regular basis. There's plenty of sites where one can go to debate 'good writing and what it might be defined as' so if this one doesn't fit the bill...
Jan Needle said…
Dennis,if I really shouted 'Nobody's ever said a book of mine is boring'I must have drunk even more rum than I thought I had. Poor Pam - the car must have smelled like Marley's own 'backyard in Trenchtown'!

In fact, I've always been more surprised by the discovery that many young people DON'T find my books boring. My finest hour came on my first day as writer in residence at a Bradford comp when the teachers chose to show all three parts of my Falklands TV drama as an 'introduction' to the new superstar in their midst.

I embarrass easy, so I didn't go. But walking up the stairs towards the hall after the showing, I heard this exchange between two of the released prisoners. They didn't know the man they were barging past was me, of course. Probably thought Jan N was a female.

'What d'you reckon to that, then?'

'It were shite.'

'Aye. Shite.'

And believe it or not, Lee, I was delighted. I stayed on two years in the end, and had a truly wonderful time.

Bad mistake telling me you're rich, though, Hamley. From now on the beer's on you. I'm off to me sister's on Thursday. If the weather's half decent, what about that sail?
CallyPhillips said…
Lee.. if you read carefully you'll see that Jan has no FINANCIAL incentive to mention Skinback books (other than his own) because each writer is financially independent. And seriously, it sounds like you think there's some kind of a conspiracy going on. There isn't. Most of us AE authors have never met the others and if we like someone's work we are happy to 'recommend' it that's all. Why not? I don't see what there is of dubious ethics in what we do and seriously, if you don't like who we are, what we write and how we do it and the way we write for this site, I just don't see why you keep coming back?
Jan Needle said…
A couple more punters had sneaked in before I got to read your latest, Lee.

Just to clear up the point, which I thought was clear enough in the blog, Skinback Books is only my imprint in that it was my idea. So fsr there are three of us, and any money that is earned goes to the individual writer whose book has done the earning. All I get out of it is the expenditure of a minimal amount of time.

The idea is that anyone who likes one of the books or authors will latch on to, and like, the others. The alternative, if a book is hated, is presumably that the other two authors will also be burned in effigy. Serve us bloody right.

Disingenuous or not, neither John Morrison's book, nor indeed Gillian Flynn's, has anything to do with me, or Skinback Books, whatever. And the extracts of Dinosaurs and 'J' on my website are free for anyone to read, and cost only me the only minimal time it took to put them up.
Jan Needle said…
Cally's got it wrong as well. I'd like to make it clear that I am in fact a millionaire financier, and Skinback Books is a plot to take over the world, starting with SCOTCHLAND, which me and my mate Donald (the Haircut) Trump plan to denude of the indigenous population and repopulate with a million homeless ex-Rangers fans, led by Sid and Doris McBonkers. What's more, all people who own dogs and quad bikes are in very serious trouble.

She is, however, right in saying I have never met any other writers, least of all Dennis Hamley, who I believe does not exist, and who is actually stalking me. If he does happen to turn up on my brother in law's boat this week, he must face the consequences. Especially as I don't have a brother in law, and in fact am eking out my final days locked in a darkened cellar entirely on my own save for a couple of hundred drinking companions and a ceilidh band. (OMG! Ceilidh is an anagram for Cally. She's right - it's a CONSPIRACY!!!!)

I hope my position is now crystal clear. Dennis, it's your turn to buy the drinks again. Mine's a rum.
CallyPhillips said…
Jan, Your long reach has already been felt. Not more than 10 minutes after my last 'comment' and you've sprung into action kidnapping both my dogs! And jamming the car brakes... so that an hour was spent till they were finally found trotting along THE ROAD oblivious to the dangers! I shall never speak intemperately again on any subject.
And Dennis (from yesterday) ah wisnae chiding ye, jist pointin' oot a fact ye micht no hae kent! Let love and harmony re-prevail. And I missed the end of the golf Jan, so your plan backfired because it meant I was spared the indignity of watching the scot come in third (as usual!). Now, who's to say we've got off the topic of the day? Time for dinner. And tomorrow lets all play nicely. While heated debate is all well and good I think that the expression 'if you can't find something nice to say, don't say anything at all' has some mileage. As does my husband's favourite 'better stay quiet and have people think you're an idiot than open it and let them know for sure!'
I would like to make it very clear that I saw Jan's planned invasion of SCOTCHLAND coming all along, and only joined this group in an undercover capacity so as to gain intelligence regarding his machinations.
Jan Needle said…
but i've developed a cunning way of hiding under my own kilt, while still marching at 180 ppm and playing the (Irish) bagpipes.

You're doomed, I tells ya. DOOOOOOOOMED!
Lee said…
Hi Cally, my suggestions are merely that - suggestions. Why bristle so wholeheartedly? It comes across as awfully defensive on your part, as well as on some others' - particularly Jan's here.

Frankly, a blog like this can use a devil's advocate. A recent blog post elsewhere (Gav Reads), much read and commented on, pointed out why reviewers don't review self-published books. Group blogs which tend towards mutual admiration are not particularly helpful in fighting this prejudice. (Don't get me wrong: I do understand the need for mutual support, which is not necessarily the same thing.) But it is only my view, and if everyone feels I shouldn't comment here any longer, I will certainly respect your wishes despite our shared interest - good epublishing.

I never suggested that Jan had a financial incentive to promote Skinback publications, and if you read my comments carefully in sequence, you'll note that my main point has to do with the question of success i.e. since it's essentially unpredictable, there's not all that much any of us can do to conjure it.
Jan Needle said…
talking of devil's advocates - if you ever get a book published, lee, can i review it? only joking.
CallyPhillips said…
Lee, what you read as defensive is actually people just getting pissed off with having to 'defend' themselves instead of engaging positively with the posts as written. I'm not sure this blog DOES need a devils advocate, but that's because I don't think this blog is a mutual admiration society. It's a bunch of folk who are writing about their experiences and often these turn out to be similar which leads to empathy/agreement for which no apology should be necessary. Because the 'folk' are generally writers who have earned a living from their craft in traditional media and are now 'exploring' epublishing. I fail to see the connection between this and 'why reviewers don't review self published books.' What reviewers? Most reviewers are PAID to review and that's why they do it (and don't review self published books) or they don't review sp books because they are written by people without track records or 'professional' credentials. That's not relevant to AE authors. I don't think many if any of us feel we need to 'prove' we are good enough to be reviewed. Perhaps the chips on our shoulders are not the same chips as on your shoulders?
The 'problem' of your comments (in my opinion) is that perhaps they try to be a devils advocate where none IS needed. And they come across as just either nit picking or personally insulting. If you think that AE is just a mutual admiration society then I do suggest you look elsewhere because it's not and if you perceive your 'role' as being someone to throw sand in the face of a bunch of smug self satisfied writers on a regular basis, I suggest it's not actually either something the benefits the site or the authors at all or even other readers of the blog. So many times the actual substance of the debate in the posts gets lost (as this one has) in sniping and side swiping rather than focussing on the important issues. AE is a community of professional/independent writers usually with substantial track records and thus a combined set of experiences on which they draw and about which they talk - with the greatest respect, it doesn't seem that your experience is similar to many of ours in a number of ways and therefore you may not be the best 'devils' advocate we could have if we did need one. Maybe it's a communicative mismatch - but I don't feel we should be working hard to prove to you (or anyone else) that we are not a mutual admiration society or 'defending' ourselves and our professional reputations against constant comments which seem often at best ill-judged and at worst plain rude.
Lee said…
Jan, you're welcome to review my books right now, since there's never going to be a conventionally published one! I never censor reviews or comments, and there's plenty to criticise. In fact, I'm quite happy to post anything you write at my blog, if you feel like bothering. Check my About page at my website, or my Barnes & Noble reviews [http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/mortal-ghost-l-lee-lowe/1029199081?ean=2940000690130] or the Amazon ones [http://www.amazon.com/Mortal-Ghost-ebook/dp/B001VNCPJY/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1342542091&sr=8-1&keywords=B001VNCPJY] for lots of scathing comments, some of which are absolutely spot on.

Cally, we obviously have a difference of opinion about what is rude and what is critical. In my view, for example, it would be rude of me, as a guest here, to comment negatively on any of the books published by members of the blog. I do feel, however, that the refrain 'look how much I experience I have' does not excuse mediocre writing of any sort, from any source, and the more someone waves such a banner, the less it tends to convince potential readers.
Lee said…
And, Cally, I do agree that the main point of this post seems to have got lost in all the comments. My original point referred to Jan's first paragraph, and since it lead the post, I perhaps mistakenly assumed it was important to him.

And Jan, thanks for the clarification of your role at Skinback Books. Though you clearly state at your website (News page) that you have no financial interest in any of the two featured books, you write '...I’m happy to have published it on my Skinback Books imprint.' Italics mine - and hence the source of my misunderstanding.
Jan Needle said…
sorry about the sloppy use of the possessive, lee. i once got smacked in the gob by a feminist i went out with when i referred to her as 'my' girl-friend. perhaps i should be a professional footballer, then i could get away with anything.

i must admit though, that even after several looks and a cup of strong tea i can't make head or tail of your first bit. "My original point referred to Jan's first paragraph, and since it lead [led?] the post, I perhaps mistakenly assumed it was important to him."

i shan't review your books, of course - that was a joke (in quite poor taste, i reckon) - because i might not like them, and i have no interest at all in saying hurtful things about other people's heartfelt work. and that IS important to me, flibbertigibbet though i surely am.

but as you seem to actively relish bad reviews, or scathing comments, you leave me at a loss. we'll just have to settle on that beer next time i'm in germany, i reckon. okay?
Dan Holloway said…
JAn, your coyness leaves me somewhat at a loss as to the subject of J though it sounds a fabulous bok - should I assume that I wouldn't be far off the mark if I thought Fatty Arbuckle?
Jan Needle said…
you'd be quite a long way off the mark, whether or not you think fatty was innocent or no. the protagonist has all sorts of things introduced to her (he said coyly), but she'd be the last one to complain. altho somewhere inside her head...it really is a very, very complex story. anyway, you're not allowed to mention coca cola, are you? the sponsorship deals with the olympic games are legally very unforgiving!
Lee said…
Sorry about that, Jan. Typo: I meant 'leads' or as you suggest, 'led' the post i.e. first paragraph contains the most important point aka pyramid structure in constructing a piece/report/article. I'm in a rush for an apppointment, so all I'll add is that you're on for the beer - and it'll be at my invitation, of course!
Jan Needle said…
ah come on, dan. i've been looking forward to a response all over breakfast! the ins and outs (not intended as a joke) of the arbuckle case have always raised enormous (philosophical and well as legal) questions about the nature of consent/sexuality/the pinning down of truth/what truth might be/what lies might mean...shall i go on? remember bertolt: truth is a black cat in a windowless room at midnight/and justice a blind bat. margaret mccann's book is deeply embedded in this whole quagmire.

lee - i think i've finally worked out the disjunction between you and some of the other people on this site. you think it's an ongoing tutorial about creative writing, with you as moderator! very american, but to a disparate gang of very successful writers perhaps a tad patronising, even offensive. just a thought.
Dennis Hamley said…
We've been away for two days - in Liverpool, a visit which actually made us feel that there may after all be hope for the human race. So i've missed the comments which have been sprouting away since we left. Jan, you didn't look, sound or act as if you'd had a few too many but you DID say 'nobody's ever said my books are boring.' I can check that with Rex, with whom I'm still, albeit sporadically, in touch. I seem to remember, by the way, that the beer was on me last time. Or some of it anyway. And please don't put me forward as the AE milch cow. I only meant that even without the books my family wouldn't actually starve.

There's so much I could say about the way these comments have developed. But I won't because it's old hat now and I doubt if anyone is going to read this. Suffice it to say that if I end up reviewing a book by someone I know and like, I'll give it the review it deserves except if it would have been a bad one, in which case I won't do it. I respect the craft of writing too much and understand too well what goes (or should go) into the writing of any novel to denigrate the efforts of one of my peers. My only exception is when the TES used to pay me not so much for the review as for my opinion (when it counted for something!)and if my opinion was low I was in honour bound to say so. But if it was high, I said so even thought I might know personally and dislike intensely the author. Even my enemies are allowed to write well.
Jan Needle said…
dennis, i don't doubt i said it, but it would have been nice of you to have shot me on the spot! and i MUST have been full of rum to be so crass, surely? i need now to check when bob marley died, to see if the dates compute. then we'll know. or not, of course....
Lee said…
'Even my enemies are allowed to write well.' Terrific line, Dennis! I'm going to steal it. Not that I have any enemies, mind.

Dan Holloway said…
Jan, I can't comment on the complexities of the Arbuckle case but have used the phrase "to go the full Fatty Arbuckle" to refer to sex with a bottle in a piece I wrote last year about hybristophilia for a website called Games Perverts Play (with one of my other hats I write transgressive fiction - all of which is in (life:) razorblades included) - GPP is currently offline so I'll see if I can dig the piece out and put it on my blog
Dan Holloway said…
here you go - the ins and outs of hybristophilia

Jan Needle said…
thanks dan. (is that the right response?)! i think i'll go out and have a pint first.

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