Friday, 17 October 2008

Dear John, I'm Confused.

John Irving looking cool in black tee shirt

John Grisham looking cool in black tee shirt

From Ali to Zadie. I'm confused again.

An insect's best house.

It’s amazing how well ‘the novel’ holds its own in this modern world of television and internet. Supermarkets now stock them, book shops seem to be booming and in the big airports the shelves are laden. The penny novel started out on railway stations in the steam era and surprisingly it continues to thrive, albeit now much thicker and more pricey.

What a great bandwagon it is for an author churning out popular novels. If you can get a foot in the door. With about one in a thousand novels offered to publishers ever getting published and most of these then disappearing without trace, success can be elusive. If though you hit the right buttons with a good agent who sells to the right publisher and markets you well, then you’re on a roll.

Becoming a published novelist is thus as chancy as making it big in Hollywood, but the rewards can be as good. Even J.K. Rawlings who wrote those Barry Potter books would tell you she’s made a buck or two and now the poor woman can’t go anywhere in the street without being mobbed.

Books are as commercial a product as everything else and when a publisher takes on a new novelist they have to be actively marketed as a brand. The writer then churns out a book a year in exactly the same genre, which is hardly a recipe for creativity. And each one has to be four or five hundred pages or whatever; usually far too long for my liking. The author thus has to grind out several thousand words a day, padding out the story as best they can.

Sometimes it’s their early novels that were worth reading but soon they become formulaic. I often wonder what the point of the story is. Why care about these cardboard cut-outs as their cliff hanging predicament will be artificially resolved when the author pulls a few fluffy rabbits out of the hat in the last few pages.

You see the main character, Leonard wasn’t really Leonard at all but was Christian’s second cousin, who was in fact poisoned by Darcie, and even though Tom thought he was Lilian’s son, he wasn’t, which makes it alright for Jack who therefore hasn’t been having an incestuous relationship his little sister as you suspected.

That’s all very clever but what the hell!

There used to be a few big names around like Huxley and Maugham and Greene, but now there’s just too many writers which gets me confused.

Was it Zadie Smith, Ali Smith or Monica Ali who wrote Hotel Lane, White World and Brick Teeth? And which best seller was written by Lynda Laplonque, Karl Hyacinth, Jodie Pickle or Minette Waters. I’ve read something by all of them but am not sure what.

Then there’s John Irving and John Grisham.

Recently I exposed my ignorance of the Johns by getting them confused in a comment I posted on the Thaivisa forum. I said I liked ‘The Painted House’ by John Irving and was quickly put to rights. It’s by Grisham.

Big hitters respectively for Random House and Transworld Publishers, they’ve done extraordinarily well as buyers keep coming back for more, but I do find it easy to confuse them. Despite identical, wry smiles and the black tee shirt in their photo shoot, you can just distinguish them as Irving has a little more hair. At least he did have when his picture was taken twenty or so years ago.

There are some other differences too as Grisham’s titles always begin with the definite article. Thus his books are called, ‘The Summons, The Rainmaker, The Client, The Partner, The Firm, The Chamber, The Testament’… ad nauseam and all the way to the bank.

I give him some credit though for writing not about sex, sex and more sex but about lawyers, hardly everyone’s first love. Being a lawyer myself I did read one of his legal books but that was enough. I’ve also read a rare Grisham that begins with the indefinite article, ‘A Painted House’, which I thought was very well written. About a family’s struggle to survive as farmers in the bad old days of the dust bowl or the Depression in Arkansas (or was it South Dakota) the book was utterly memorable. It was up there in the same league as “The Grapes of Wrath” by Steinbeck, yet another of the American Johns.

Irving’s perhaps a more varied read than Grisham and he writes nicely but I found ‘The World According to Gripe’ pretty indigestible. Our puppy found “The Fourth Hand” indigestible too and only managed to eat the bottom right corner of the book. On the other hand an insect loved ‘A Painted House’ and made a mud nest on it, which means I can’t have opened it for ages.

I don’t trust the critics though and in my view when it comes to novels, there are no real absolutes. It’s a personal thing and you either enjoy a book or you don’t.

For me it’s the story telling comes first and that’s why I’d choose my old friend Stephen Leather over many more seriously rated novelists. For example, that famous guy whose name escapes me (the one who wrote, ‘Atonement’,) gets off on fine writing but his stories are so plodding. In his recent novel set in London in the new millennium (in which he calls an East End low-life ‘Baxter’ like a prep school boy instead of ‘Wayne’ or ‘Dave’), it takes a jet liner flaming down into Heathrow about thirty pages not to crash. Fast moving narrative or what!

Sour grapes this may be, but one absolute I do know is that “Thai Girl” by Andrew Hicks’ is his finest novel.

My second book, “My Thai Girl and I” just happens to be non-fiction.

Good books, both of them? Pity about the covers!

I don’t have Random House or Transworld behind me to do the marketing and the most difficult bit has been writing my own book covers. Doing the descriptive blurbs is tough enough but it’s writing the comments from independent reviewers that I really struggle with. With no ecstatic hardback reviews to quote, just how good can I claim to be?

Book reviews of course are a genre in themselves, sometimes pseuds’ corner incarnate. They don’t have to read a book to do a review… just deliver a torrent of adjectives and sizzling assertions that draw attention to themselves as a clever writer.

The April Fools review of my never-to-be novel, “The Kandinsky Lode” (which you can Google or find on at 'Other Stuff',) is a tribute to the book reviewer’s tacky art. In writing this spoof, all I had to do was come up with a Dan Brown story line, then paste in words and phrases taken from reviews in the front pages of commercial fiction. They’re adjectivally retentive and I find them hilarious and deeply dishonest.

Inside John Irving’s “The Fourth Hand” there’s a pseud’s corner of the finest quality, several pages of it.

The following reviewers comments are typical.

“The Fourth Hand” ‘oozes readability in abundance. The pages flick over, you bask in the light of gentle companionable decency, smiling, chortling even. Then comes its final epiphany, and you glide on a sometime ripple of transient pleasure, shutting the book with a great two-handed thwack of explosive satisfaction.’ THE SCOTSMAN.

“Here is a splendid gallery of endearing grotesques, of fallible characters swept along the seas and muddy waves of fate and coincidence and a delicate fresco of frailties and tenderness… a beguiling tale of love and redemption.” TIME OUT

“Grief, loss, abortion, amputation, sex, children, America’s political history and the power of foresight are all explored here.” THE OBSERVER

“Joyfully exotic… You’ll find yourself shaking with laughter.” THE SEATTLE TIMES

EVE also found it, “Sharp, funny and as deep as the sea.” UNCUT thought it “sharp and very, very funny”, and THE LIST says that Irving, “lays bare sexual relations, the media and dog poo in humourous and biting style.”

Less forgiveable perhaps, Transworld tell us that Irving’s novel, “A Son of the Circus” is ‘an extraordinary evocation of modern India’. Is it really? Irving himself admits he had never even been to India.

The mega publishers can thus say and do they like, can find fawning reviewers and get reviews of their books published in the top journals. They then edit the best snippets from these reviews for the paperback edition and where’s the honesty in that?

As for me, I have to write my own cover pages and reviews!

“THAI GIRL” thus is “surely the best backpacker novel so far.” “A totally compelling novel, I was either in fits or in floods.” “Not just another rehash of the Bangkok bar scene, this is a serious book.” My friends read a draft and told me so!

My new book about my life in Thailand with Cat, “MY THAI GIRL AND I” is described by me on the back as, “One of the funniest books I’ve read all week,” “A feast for feminists!” and “Hicks at his best”.

Which I think sets the tone and deceives no-one.

For the second printing of THAI GIRL I was able to insert some real quotes from the media that it’s, “one of the top selling English language novels ever published in Thailand,” and “the definitive novel about relations between foreigners and Thais”.

I didn’t reprint the cover though as a new set of colour plates costs a fair bit. Nor did I get it reviewed in The Scotsman, Time Out or The Observer. I don’t have that much clout as an author, not yet at least.

For really independent comments from real readers you should look at my READERS FORUM on Here you’ll find all the rude comments I’ve received, along with the nicer ones, and what could be more transparent than that.

Selling books is like selling beans so of course you say they’re sweet and tender on the can. Powdered milk may only be suitable for making plastic tops for kitchen tables though, so caveat emptor! Caveat lector too.

At least this blog, like all the best things in life, is free.

Copyright Andrew Hicks The “Thai Girl” Blog

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