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The Editor's View February 06


John Jenkins

John Jenkins' monthly column from Writers' Forum magazine

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Agatha is down to maths . . . Monsieur

l’amour flourishes in Hollywood . . .

are awards a crap shoot?


IT SEEMS that the secret of best-sellerdom can be reduced to a mathematical formula. Or, if that is too simple for you, to a physiochemical response which causes people to read and re-read the same novelists.

Apparently Agatha Christie’s techniques are similar to those used by hypnotherapists . . .

"she uses a repetitive core vocabulary and plain English, shunning clever wordplay to force readers to concentrate on the plot and clues."

Don’t take my word for it. It’s all the work of clever computer analysts at Warwick, Birmingham and London universities.

Dr Robert Kapferer, the project leader, says: "It is extraordinary just how timeless and popular Agatha Christie’s books remain."

Right on Bob.

"These initial findings indicate that there is a mathematical formula that accounts for her phenomenal success. I am convinced that our research has moved one step closer to defining what it means for a book to be unputdownable."

Can’t agree with you there Bob.

"Our next step is to replicate these experiments with other leading authors to discover whether their writings cause similar neurological activity among readers.

"Whether Christie herself was aware that her words contained such powerful neural triggers is another matter for debate and may well remain an enduring mystery in itself."

Long may it remain so.

* * *

STILL on the subject of bestsellers we have to take note of Monsieur Marc Levy, purveyor of romantic novels who has notched up 10 million sales. He is French. He was the head of an architectural practice in Paris and a few years ago wrote Just Like Heaven. (That’s the title of his first book, not a comment on his style).

Hollywood liked it and you may have seen the film starring Reese Witherspoon.

There’s more. He is well dressed, has designer stubble, sips green tea and pontificates.

And he came to London to escape the celebrity thing. Well, you would. Now he is offering us chaps advice on how to seduce our women.

What with the Common Agricultural Policy and this, the French don’t do much to help themselves to be liked, do they?

* * *

AWARDS for literary works have had a bashing recently. John Humphreys, after his stint as a Whitbread judge, decided that because a book was shortlisted for a prize it did not necessarily mean that it was a good read. Well done, John.

Then we had that colossus of the biography trade, Peter Ackroyd, telling Penny Wark in The Times:

I have absolute contempt for all awards ceremonies. I find them utterly banal and worthless. I have won some awards , but I hope quite fervently that I never win another one as long as I live. I find the whole system deeply unpleasant and reprehensible. It’s this competitive culture we live in, this list culture, this celebrity culture, this sensationalist culture.

And Ian Rankin speaks up for crime writers. Why are they excluded from literary prizes?

If you want further confirmation, look at the bestseller lists at the end of last year. Where was the Man Booker winner, The Sea? And can you recall the winner of the 2004 award?

Unless judges get out of this rarefied loop and reflect well-written books which entertain or inform the reading public all awards will become, in the words of a famous Australian award winning writer, now based in the States, "nothing more than a crap shoot."

I can see their point for national awards but lower down the scale awards provide a useful boost for beginners. In early days writers need encouragement to keep going and a highly commended or minor prize is often sufficient to persuade somebody to keep going in the face of rejections slips.

* * *

GOOD news for Welsh author Phil Carradice. Writing in our November issue he urged readers never to discard a manuscript and recounted how he regretted destroying a manuscript many years ago.

But a Writers’ Forum reader and an old friend of Phil’s, read the article and got in touch with him and said: I’ve got a copy. Don’t you remember giving me one?

OK Phil, get revising. That must be worth a bottle of scotch to your old friend.

* * *

ONCE more we are reminded not only of the loss that the King James Bible and Thomas Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer has been to the spiritual comfort of the nation but also their loss to literature.

The Chancellor of York Minster has condemned much of the language used today in our churches and contrasts it with the majesty of the Bible first used in 1611 and Cranmer’s work of 1662.

Now much in the bible is tedious beyond belief, particularly those family trees in the Old Testament which consists of generation upon generation begatting. But read the Songs of Solomon or the Book of Kings and most of all the Sermon on the Mount in St Matthew. Any student of English can only marvel at the expression of the sentiment.

* * *

AT CHELTENHAM an abiding memory was provided by the appearance of Maya Angelou.

She held her audience spellbound as she read from her biography, in particular describing how as a result of being raped as a child she lost her voice and became mute for six months.

A kindly friend who took her to a library and had her reading poetry saved her. She told Maya that she would never love poetry until she spoke it and suddenly the girl found her voice, memorized 60 Shakespearean sonnets and the works of several black poets. The collected Autobiographies of Maya Angelou are published by Virago at £20. Inspirational.


John Jenkins, Publisher, Writers' Forum


Read the article about setting up WritersServices which was originally published in Writers' Forum magazine.

© Writers International Ltd 2006. Reproduced from Writers' Forum magazine by kind permission of the editor.