In which our editor rambles about things he’s read recently. Also a catch-all for random posts.
Friday, 16th June 2017. Comments are closed.
Penguin’s Little Black Classics are a collection of short books (mostly around 64 pages, although some are longer), originally published in 2015 as a series of eighty volumes, to celebrate the 80th anniversary of the founding of Penguin. These first books were priced at 80p each. The volumes cover short stories, poetry, miscellaneous bits and pieces, and the odd slice of non-fiction. All are older works, largely from the 19th century; but with some going much further back, and the odd volume creeping in from the early 20th century.
The first eighty volumes did rather well: within a year combined sales of these little books had comfortably exceeded two million copies, and so in 2016 Penguin added a further 46 volumes (the first Penguin Classic was published in 1946, you see). Now they dropped the 80p business, with the new titles priced at £1, or £2 for a few slightly longer volumes. In 2017 the United States Constitution was published as a sole additional title, making the total number of Little Black Classics in print today 127.
This isn’t the first time that Penguin Classics have bombarded us with tiny little books: the 1995 anniversary was celebrated with Penguin 60s: those cost 60p, and totalled 180 volumes covering a range of subjects including biography, travel, classics, and sixty more modern stories from the likes of Martin Amis and Muriel Spark — perhaps Penguin had more of a budget for licensing and royalties in those heady 1990s. (The full list of Penguin 60s is on Wikipedia.) In 2011 they marked the 50th anniversary of Penguin Modern Classics with fifty ‘Mini Modern Classics’, a series of slightly more recent volumes at £3 each.
Getting back to the current series, when the first volumes came out I took note, vaguely hoped to find a cheap boxed set of all eighty books somewhere, and then forgot all about them. I must admit, I expected them to disappear quickly. Not because they’re not worth buying (they certainly are), but because in the days of online free postage and real bookshops with squeezed margins, small very cheap books didn’t seem particularly practical. But as the list has grown, and been embraced by millions of readers and at least some bookshops (my nearest Blackwell’s has a full bay of them; or did until I got my hands on it), perhaps it bears revisiting.
For writers in particular, the Little Black Classics series is a fantastic resource. It’s vital that writers read as widely as they can, and familiarise themselves with as many authors, styles, and ideas as possible.
Anthologies are one great way to do this, whether they’re specific themed collections of periods or genres, or attempts to take in a wider picture, like the two-volume Penguin Book of the British Short Story that Philip Hensher edited a few years ago (and there are of course still wider pictures than just British short stories). As a quick overview, these anthologies are terrific; and for obvious reasons, The Fiction Desk likes anthologies.
Anthologies generally only contain one story by each author, however, and while these individual stories might bring a writer to your attention, they can only tell you so much about their work. The logical next step, the single-author collection, will take you much deeper into an author’s work, but it’s impractical to read as many of these longer collections as you might want to, particularly when you’re also trying to keep up with more modern writers.
The Little Black Classics come somewhere in between, usually containing two, three, or four stories by the featured author. Having these extra stories on hand gives you just a little of the context and depth that you normally need to go to a collection for, but the price and size makes them much more accessible, much easier to take a chance on.
Here then is an opportunity to find out whether Mark Twain’s humour still hits the spot, and think about why it succeeds or fails in the modern era; to take a look at how Arthur Conan Doyle’s supernatural fiction compares to the Holmes stories (sometimes Conan Doyle is surprisingly good, and sometimes he’s surprisingly bad); to examine HG Wells’ ability to spin a gripping tale with economy and vitality (Wells is one of the few authors to be honoured with two volumes in the series); to finally take a look at the short fiction of Thomas Hardy (another one); or Balzac or Washington Irving or whoever else you’ve not quite got around to yet — or whose work you need to revisit to freshen your memory.
I’m concentrating on the short fiction because that’s what we do here; the poetry and non-fiction volumes in the series offer similar delights and, again, further opportunities for exploration and discovery.
The Little Black Classics are available from some online outlets, but not all: Amazon has them in both paperback and Kindle form; The Book Depository — whose ‘free worldwide delivery’ seems to steer them away from any book costing under about £2 — have only the boxed set of the first eighty volumes. But ideally, you want to find a physical bookshop in your area that has them there on the shelf, where you can browse properly and make a habit of picking out a volume, or a handful, whenever you happen to be passing.
It would be great if the series could be expanded to include slightly more recent work, as was the case with the Penguin 60s, but there’s still plenty here to be getting on with. You’ll find that one of those nasty plastic fivers can be converted into a lot of nice black books.
— RobAn A-Z of Possible Worlds. It was a highly entertaining read, but also an exciting piece of publishing: the elaborate production, involving a boxed set of 26 booklets, was both eye-catching and perfectly suited to the material.
While An A-Z… might be Roast Books’ most elaborate volume, it’s be no means the only one: they started with a series of paperback novellas and short story collections called Great Little Reads, and more recent publications include Nik Perring’s collection of flash fiction, Not So Perfect. Their most recent book is Dogsbodies and Scumsters, a quirky collection of short stories by Alan McCormick with illustrations by Jonny Voss. Here’s the trailer:
With such a diverse and interesting selection of publications, I decided it was time to find out more about Roast Books and their plans, so I got in touch with their publisher Faye Dayan…
For a young publishing house with relatively few titles, you’ve managed to create a wonderfully diverse range: from the Great Little Reads with their textured covers, to the simple square of Nik Perring’s book, through to the extravagant A-Z of Possible Worlds, I’m not sure that you’ve tackled any two projects in the same way. What made you decide to take this approach?
Each book of short fiction Roast Books has published has deserved its own approach because we try to match form to content. I think it’s important that the shape and character of a book can reflect and relate to the stories inside.
Will you be revisiting the Great Little Reads series?
The novella is such a great genre, and often overlooked I think, so I would love to revisit the Great Little Reads series, although for the moment Roast Books is focused on short story collections.
Is it challenging to create a strong identity for Roast Books when you’re using a variety of formats? As opposed to, say, Peirene Press, who have one very distinct look to their titles.
You are right, this presents a challenge in creating an image for Roastbooks, but it is the philosophy of production, rather than the production itself which is consistent across all our books. The creative process of working with an author and collaborating on the design is very rewarding and something I would like to believe that our readers acknowledge and appreciate.
I’m sure they do. Your list is very focussed on short stories and novellas—a focus I can strongly identify with! I can see how short stories would be a logical choice for an experimental publisher like Roast Books, because the reading experience of shorter works can be more flexible than that of longer novels, where the book perhaps needs more to disappear more behind the writing. What’s the attraction for you in publishing short stories?
The genre of short stories is extensive, and there are fewer accepted publishing traditions associated with them. So firstly, as you said, as a new publisher, it gives more flexibility to experiment. Secondly many short stories are appreciated as they provide light bites of entertainment and stimulation, and the book format can be something which enhances this rather than detracts from it.
Do you see Roast Books moving into ebook publishing, or would you prefer to focus on the physical reading experience?
It’s interesting because the physical aspect of the book is intrinsic to Roast Books, so we will not release digital books without their physical counterpart. Having said that, we are developing an exciting little e-project which will give users the ability to self publish and distribute.
That’s interesting. More traditional publishers seem to be getting involved with self-publishing projects these days. It used to be very much a no-no, causing issues with credibility and conflicts of interest, but that certainly seems to be changing. How do you plan to reconcile the two very different types of publishing with Roast Books?
I agree it is changing. The type of self publishing where publishers put out a physical book in return for a hefty fee isn’t the only model any more. With ebooks, authors can create and distribute their own book online, in a speedy and cheap process, and this is something which part of our e-project will facilitate. Aspiring authors can bring their ebooks to the attention not just of potential readers but also potential publishers. There won’t necessarily be any overlap between this and our physical books at all.
How have you found the experience of entering the publishing industry? Do you think it’s a receptive world for new independents? Have you had any particular frustrations or pleasant surprises?
As you know things are changing very rapidly in the book industry and there is a lot of speculation about where it’s headed. But i have been certainly met some people within the industry who are extremely supportive and genuinely want new independents to succeed. It’s undoubtably tough, but you just have to keep going and see what’s around the next corner. We have just sold the film rights to My Soviet Kicthen by Amy Spurling, to Tailormade productions, which was an unexpected but welcome development.
What kind of team do you have? Do you work with a lot of people, or are you largely self-sufficient?
I work with the same designer, editor and publicist on each book, so its a very small operation, but I think this has its benefits! We work quickly, and it’s a lot of fun.
Are there any other emerging independent publishers that you particularly admire?
lol The Fiction Desk! Various Authors introduces a really interesting spectrum of new talent and I’m really enjoying it.
Thank you! I wasn’t fishing, I promise… Finally, what’s next for Roast Books?
We have some great projects planned for 2012, all collections of short stories, and also the development of our self publishing platform.
Find out more about Roast Books at their website, www.roastbooks.org.
An email newsletter just arrived from Charles at CB Editions, containing full details of the poetry book fair that he’s been planning.
It’s on Saturday, 24th September, from 10am – 5pm. There are readings through the day, and the fair is being opened at 11am by Michael Horovitz.
Publishers in attendance will be: Anvil, Arc, Carcanet, CBe, Donut, Egg Box, Enitharmon, flipped eye, HappenStance, if p then q, Nine Arches, Rack Press, Reality Street, Salt, Shearsman, Sidekick, Waterloo, Ward Wood, Waywiser, and zimZalla.
They’re not getting any external funding, so if you like the sound of this and you’re in London, it’s worth going along and showing support.
Here’s the flier:
The poetry book fair is part of a project CB Editions is running called ‘Book Now’. You’ll find more information on the CBe site, here.Peirene Press.
Peirene launched their first titles in 2010. They publish translated novellas, “that can be read in the same time it takes to watch a DVD.” We reviewed one of their titles, Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman, last year.
I’m sure many of this blog’s readers are already familiar with Peirene, but for those that aren’t, would you like to start by telling me a little about your latest title, Tomorrow Pamplona?
Tomorrow Pamplona by Dutch author Jan van Mersbergen is a road movie in book form. It tells the story of two men, a family man and a boxer, who take a car journey from Amsterdam to Pamplona where they join in the bull run. It’s a book about men, their aggression and desire for freedom on the one hand, and their need for intimacy on the other.
Was it really only last year that Peirene published its first title? You’ve done a great job of establishing Peirene in a relatively short time. Part of that I think is down to the distinctive branding: the cream paperbacks with the cropped images and flaps. Could you tell me a little about how you settled on that design?Thank you for the compliment. From the start I knew that I wanted to go for a strong branding. I initially had a different designer and design, but that was before the first book was printed. I wasn’t happy with it. Then I found Sacha Davison-Lunt, Peirene’s current designer. She is great and we work well together because she understands to combine quality and elegance with individuality.
I think it would make me nervous to have one consistent design like that: What if I got bored of it? What if people stopped responding? Do you have any plans to publish in any other formats, or can you imagine doing so? I’m thinking of perhaps a hardback edition of a special title, as Hesperus have done a couple of times, or a radically different one-off cover design—say, as CB Editions did, breaking their distinctive typographic cover style for Knight Crew and Marjorie Ann Watts’s book.
Our design is very flexible. Next year will be Peirene’s Year of the Small Epic, short books with over 30 chapters each. Although the design will still be recognizably “Peirene”, the covers will reflect the annual theme.
Do you have any plans to release ebook editions of your titles?
Yes, we have just signed a contract with Faber Factory who will do the ebook distribution for us.
That’s interesting. What made you decide to work with another publisher on the ebooks?
About 60 publishers have already signed up with Faber Factory. They will do the e-book distribution for us. Since they are experts in that field, it’s much better that they do it for us rather than we trying to do it all by ourselves.
When do you expect to release the first ebook titles?
And in terms of content, can you see Peirene every publishing a book of short stories, or a longer novel, or even a book written originally in English?
Peirene No 6, Maybe This Time by Austrian Alois Hotschnig, which will be published in September, is a collection of short-stories. As for an English novella? If a well-known English language author has a novella in his or her drawer, I’d be delighted to have a look.Speaking of translation, one thing that worries me as a publisher about translated fiction is in the editorial side, the fact that one loses the immediacy of being able to work directly with the author, because effectively, however good the translation, the author and the publisher are always looking at different texts. This often wouldn’t apply to you, as I know you’re multi-lingual, but is that lack of an immediate connection ever an issue?
No, I wouldn’t say that. The original book and the translation are of course two different texts. I love texts. What is important to me is to present the English reader with a text that is true to the essence of the original but at the same time is a perfect English text, “as if it were written in English”, without of course changing names, street names etc.
Aside from the publishing, you also run a regular Salon. Could you tell me a little more about these events? Would you say they have played a big part in Peirene’s success to date? Do you have more plans for different types of event, perhaps touring the salon around the country?
The Peirene Salon is our flagship event. They take place in my own house, where I invite up to 50 people – readers, book lovers, critics, colleagues. Some people I know, others I have never met before. These Salons very much represent what Peirene stands for – to build a cohesive community of booklovers and readers. The evenings don’t present boring readings but are parties with performances, conversation, dinner and wine. In fact the Salons are now funded by The Wine Society and so the hospitality is always excellent. We are always booked up with a waiting list in place. The majority of the guests leave around 11pm but some stay on until 2 or 3 in the morning, drinking and talking. It’s wonderful. We also run regular Coffee Mornings in a local cafe. There we reach out to a different readership. Even children are welcome. And then we also have an event series called Peirene Experience where we present books in unusual places and different ways. For example, in March we held an event with the actor Jack Ellis and our German author Matthias Politycki in a bookshelf designer shop. The evening was a huge success.
Overall, how have you found the experience of entering the publishing industry? Any particular frustrations (naming no names, of course!) or pleasant surprises?
It’s an incredibly exciting journey because the book market is changing so fast and no one yet knows where it will take us. And to be right in the middle of this is a huge privilege.
And finally, just so that I’m absolutely certain, how exactly does one pronounce “Peirene”?
Watch the movie below and the mystery will be revealed…
This brief quote from Somerset Maugham will come in handy if you’re the kind of person (like me) who can’t be bothered to read the latest Big Novel:
I have learnt by experience that when a book makes a sensation it is just as well to wait a year before you read it. It is astonishing how many books then you need not read at all.
It’s from the opening paragraphs of his story The Voice of the Turtle, in volume one of the Collected Short Stories.
Here’s another interesting publishing project that I’ve come across recently.
Broadsheet Stories print a monthly broadsheet—a single short story on one side of A3 paper—and distribute them to a selection of cafes and bookshops, mostly in south-west England, where customers are free to read them on the spot or take them home. (The photo above was taken in the Martello Bookshop in Rye.) Each venue begins with the first story and moves on one month at a time, meaning that there will be a different story available to read depending on where you are.
The stories are all necessarily short, coming in at just under 2000 words. Since starting in 2009, they’ve printed stories from a wide range of authors, including our own Matthew Licht.
Most of the stories can also be downloaded from the Broadsheet Stories website, but I think that takes away the fun of it: if you’re in the right part of the country, drop by one of the venues (listed here) and see which story they’ve got available this month.
Monday, 16th May 2011. There are no comments.
I’ve been meaning to post something about Slightly Foxed for a while now, but something kept getting in the way. Since getting Various Authors off to the printers, I’ve had a little more time, and finally found the chance to open their Spring 2011 issue, no. 29.
Literary publications can approach their content in one of two ways: they can provide a range of essays, fiction, and poetry (Stinging Fly, The Paris Review, Granta etc.), or they can specialise, aiming to do one thing well. For The Fiction Desk’s anthology series, I decided to focus only on short stories. On the other hand, Slightly Foxed prints nothing but concise, personal essays about old books, both classics and forgotten gems.
Volume 29 contains 17 essays on titles as diverse as The Phantom Tollbooth and On The Origin of Species. They’re very well crafted, personal essays, of the sort that we encounter (and in my case, write) all too rarely on book blogs. The editors actually describe the content very well on their own website:
Slightly Foxed is more like a bookish friend, really, than a literary periodical. Companionable and unstuffy, each quarter it offers 96 pages of personal recommendations for books of lasting interest, old and new. It’s an eclectic mix, covering all the main categories of fiction and non-fiction, and our contributors are an eclectic bunch too. Some of them are names you’ll have heard of, some not, but they all write thoughtfully, elegantly and entertainingly.
The cumulative effect is that of visiting the best kind of used book shop, where you spend all day hanging around, talking to everybody that comes in and leaving with an armful of books. In fact, the publishers of Slightly Foxed do also have a bookshop, Foxed Books. I was in there once, a long time before I’d read the quarterly, and liked it very much.
The books themselves are beautifully produced, with very nice paper used throughout: the feel of each edition is more than enough to justify the relatively high price tag (a four-volume subscription costs £36). As you can see from the picture above, they also put a great deal of care and thought into the packaging.
As well as the quarterly, there’s a series of attractive limited edition reprints of lost or forgotten works, known as Slightly Foxed Editions.
All in all, Slightly Foxed is a must-read for literature lovers. Try it at least once, or you’ll never know what you’re missing out on.
Regular readers of this blog might remember my review of Sabra Zoo, Mischa Hiller‘s excellent debut novel based around the 1982 massacre in Sabra Camp. I concluded that review by saying how much I was looking forward to Hiller’s next book.
Well, his next book is here now, and it doesn’t disappoint.
Shake Off is set in 1989 and is narrated by Michel, a young PLO agent living undercover in London as a student. Sabra rears its head here, too: Michel is both a victim and a creation of that event, which claimed the lives of his family and led to his adoption by a PLO operative who arranged his education and later his training in espionage. Now he lives alone in a bedsit, addicted to painkillers and shunning human contact. His life, from what he does to how he lives, has essentially become a complex coping mechanism for his past. The enforced solitude and paranoia of his work create a noise that blocks out the past from his days in the same way the codeine gets him through the nights:
So you have to be on continual alert: every public place is a potential meeting place; every alley or public toilet could be a dead-letter drop; every street, store and restaurant needs to be assessed for its counter-surveillance potential. You need to be constantly on the look-out for places to cache money and documents. Everyday objects must be considered potential concealers of microphones or cameras. Every person you meet could either be an agent wanting to get close or a possible recruit to the cause. Every woman that talks to you wants to trap you with the promise of sex. Every postcard has a hidden meaning. Everybody behind you could be following you, and it is your job to shake them off.
But while Michel is good at what he does—and we get plenty of insights into the tricks of his trade—he is still an unwitting pawn, and the comparison that kept coming to mind was Alfred Hitchcock. Michel is very much a Hitchcock innocent, drawn into a murky underworld that he shouldn’t have anything to do with—even if that drawing-in has taken place years before the story is set. The story too has a Hitchcockian feel to it: the tense but witty set-pieces involving counter-espionage in Foyle’s on the Charing Cross Road, or the move from the London of the opening chapters to a climax set in the wilds of Scotland. The novel as a whole feels like one of Hitchcock’s better films, and I doubt that the cinematic appeal of the book is entirely coincidental. Hiller certainly knows his cinema—his screenplay for Sabra Zoo won the European Independent Film Festival script competition.
That said, it doesn’t do this book justice to simply praise it as a cinematic book, or an embryonic movie. The writing is strong and confident, even when the narrator is not: Michel and his world are vividly evoked. Hiller is, I think, an excellent writer. Sabra Zoo went down well, and Shake Off is getting positive reviews absolutely everywhere. Well-written enough to please the serious reader, and fast-paced and engaging enough for the beach (if summer ever comes), Shake Off deserves to do very well.
Books aren’t always the most likely material for computer game adaptations. Classic (and public domain) characters sometimes make it across, like Dracula or Sherlock Holmes, but more direct book adaptations tend to be limited to speculative fiction titles: I remember playing The Hobbit on my rubber-keyed ZX Spectrum, and there have been a series of games based on Lord of the Rings and the Discworld series. Games like Blade Runner probably owe more to the film adaptations than to the source material.
A tongue-in-cheek exception to the rule is this new video game adaptation of The Great Gatsby, produced in the style of an old-school NES platformer. Level one involves battling your way through Gatsby’s party, picking off waiters and flappers with your incredible boomerang hat; level two is a train chase sequence climaxing in a battle with the disembodied eyes of Dr. T. J. Eckleburg (see right). I can’t tell you what happens after that, because Eckleburg got me (see right again).
The Great Gatsby game is a free-to-play Flash game: go over to greatgatsbygame.com and give it a try. You’ll probably do better than I did.
US-based independent Madras Press publish small books, containing one or more short stories, and donate the proceeds to charities nominated by their authors. The books themselves are very nicely done, attractive little square paperbacks. The first titles were released just before Christmas in 2009, and over the recent holidays they published their second series, which includes a new story from Andrew Kaufman.Andrew Kaufman is a McSweeney’s contributor, and has two novels published in the UK by Telegram: All My Friends are Superheroes and The Waterproof Bible. He has a whimsical style, perhaps reminiscent of somebody like a Richard Brautigan, which probably works better in small doses like this than it does in his more extended work. Maybe for that reason, I enjoyed The Tiny Wife more than anything else of his that I’ve read. It begins with a bank robbery, in which the thief takes one item of sentimental value from everybody present. As a result of these losses, (more…)