Nine Bean Rows by Jan Needle
There's been a fair amount of silence on this site recently about the ethics of e-book publication. I haven't heard the word sock-puppet mentioned for ages, although the perennial problem of Amazon reviews and which of them to take any notice of at all clearly hasn't gone away. Why would it? We all believe, possibly with very little evidence indeed, that lots of five-star reviews lead to lots of sales. Look up Fifty Shades of Grey, or the latest Dan Brown, and I bet you'll find a million reviews, or possibly a squillion, but they won’t have shifted any extra copies. One of the most fascinating byproducts of the social media has been a mass outbreak of critical diarrhoea. Everybody has an opinion – that hasn't changed – but now everyone can not only express it, but get it up in lights. And the critical kind, like most forms of diarrhoea, is almost always shite.
Look at the beating poor old Harper Lee's been getting over Go Set a Watchman. I happen to think that To Kill a Mockingbird is one of the greatest books of the twentieth century, and I have absolutely no intention of spoiling it for myself by reading Watchman. I suspect that a fair amount of kicking should have been done to all the round-eyed innocents who tore it reluctantly into the world. Like Joseph Heller's sequel to Catch-22, it shouldn’t have been written. It’s not as if either of them needed the money, or indeed any more acclaim. On a lighter note, try reading the Daily Mail online comment thread every time there's a story about immigrants. Literature it ain’t. I'd go so far as to say that literature and the social doodah are mutually incompatible. And I can't even finish off with LOL these days, I'm told. So ha ha bleeding ha.
One point about books that some writers think involves ethics is republishing older works, and changing them in the process. I must say I fell on the possibility of revisiting, reworking, and (hopefully) improving, like a dog on a very scrumptious bone. There are many books from my past that I still reckon are quite good, and I have been slipping them out on Amazon assiduously. I’ve also been assiduously kicking seven kinds of (that word again!) out of them where I’ve thought they needed it – and some people disapprove, which I find incomprehensible. I’ve always felt that a book that goes before the public needs to be as good as the writer can make it at the time of publication. If the writer decides to republish, surely it is an incumbent upon the writer to make it as good as possible this time round?
It’s not just a question of quality of prose, either. As I’ve got older my ideas of mine and other people’s prose-quality has altered drastically. I can remember thinking that Catcher in the Rye was transcendentally beautiful, for God’s sake. It’s like anachronisms. Many writers are terrified of them, while many realize that they’re impossible to avoid, so does it really matter? I remember before the age of Google deciding to drop the word sledgehammer from a novel because it sounded much too modern to have been around in the time the book was set. In the end, I rang up my friend Francis Wheen, whose level of education is stratospheric. I can’t remember exactly when the first reference he found to sledgehammer was, but let’s say the eleventh century or thereabouts. I was in the clear!
Recently, I discovered incontrovertible evidence that the mobile phone has been around for far, far longer than writers will allow. Mobile phones are a funny one, incidentally, because they make many of the nuts and bolts for thriller writing practically impossible. On television, of course, it is even worse. And there’s the sidebar problem that on TV there is always, ALWAYS, a perfect signal when it’s needed. Real criminals, I hope, have experiences more like the rest of us. Anyone who thinks a life of crime is easy has never tried a heist on the Yorkshire moors when good communications are absolutely vital. Strangely enough, there must have been a good signal in the wilds of Connemara at least 120 years ago, as my picture proves. Think how much easier the Riddle of the Sands would have been to write if Erskine Childers had only known. And why didn’t he, indeed? He was Irish, after all.
Stray anachronisms are something I deal a lot with in my William Bentley historical naval novels, which I am bringing out at the moment with Endeavour Press. For instance, when was the lateen mizzen replaced with a gaff-rigged sail? How many horses did an officer need to ride from London to Portsmouth, and what did he do with the ones he’d finished with? (Cowboys, for instance, each had a ramada of six or seven. While you rode one the others ran free, and when each ridden pony tired, you switched to a fresh one. Good eh?) Sadly, in the age of t’internet, there’s always some pillock to send you a rude message – or even a one-star review – if you say a main course was made of cotton instead or flax (but only up to a certain year, naturally.) Life’s sometimes hardly Live Worthing, any more (and make sure you put Worthing in the correct bit of Sussex.)
The more interesting 'problem' I’ve been grappling with (an interesting word, incidentally, in an 18th-century sea context) is my own prose. The first book in the series, A Fine Boy for Killing, stood up very well to the passage of time, I thought. In fact, at risk of sounding just a teeny-weeny bit boastful, I thought it was bloody marvellous, although I did do a bit of tinkering and cutting with the lumpy bits. But then I threw myself into number two, The Wicked Trade. The first thing I noticed, was that I have a nervous tic, for want of a better word, which involves far too many subordinate clauses crammed into far too many sentences. Also the use of dashes to isolate some of these clauses and render them parenthetical, until I found it genuinely irritating. If I found it irritating, God knows what the poor reader thought. And over the years, this book has sold very many copies. There were other things as well, and removing or refining them took a pretty large amount of time. When I finished, the book had dwindled by several thousand words, and moved a damn sight faster. Luckily the third one, The Spithead Nymph, wasn't beset by the same disease, and is proceeding apace. Interestingly, it was shorter to start with. Maybe I was suffering from verbal diarrhoea myself when I first wrote (bad joke alert) Number Two.
Right then, let's get back to ethics. If somebody paid quite a lot of money for The Wicked Trade in hardback or paperback, do they have any right to feel aggrieved that the e-book version is shorter, faster, and better? Quite honestly, I don't know, and even more honestly I don't care. Writing is surely a living process, and if it ain't, wouldn't we be better off dead?
I'm assuming the man on the donkey cart with the mobile phone was saying 'Forget it, Seamus. An anachronism isn't worth a row of beans.'
Or if you want to be literary about it, nine rows of beans. And a hive for the honey bee.