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The Editor's View November 06


John Jenkins

John Jenkins' monthly column from Writers' Forum magazine

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Barnes unworried by posh bingo. . .

Can men write romance?

Three cheers for New Orleans

AFTER my piece in the October issue on Conan Doyle two readers rang to ask if I had read Julian Barnes’ excellent book, Arthur and George. I had not. But after watching Gavin Esler interviewing Julian Barnes at 4.30a.m. (I enjoy insomnia) I couldn’t wait to get a copy.

The book is based on Conan Doyle’s one foray into crime as a real-life detective. He set out to right a miscarriage of justice and succeeded brilliantly.

Barnes has resurrected this forgotten case - a cause célèbre at the time - with a wonderful mixture of fact and fiction. George Edalji, a myopic Parsee solicitor, was wrongly convicted of mutilating livestock and sentenced to seven years.

He served three years before Conan Doyle secured his release but that was not good enough. Unless George received a pardon he could no longer practise as a solicitor.

Doyle wrote a series of articles on the case for the Daily Telegraph and waived copyright. So any other newspaper could re-publish them with no fee.

That he won is only part of the story. Barnes, with his immaculate fluency, creates a story which resonates today with that particular British brand of semi-humorous racism, Government mendacity and spin.

Many good judges think he should have won the Booker last year but Barnes regards all such awards with detachment and regards the Booker as posh bingo.

* * *

WHY gender issues surface in the literary world I can never understand. The latest slice of nonsense – you are entitled to disagree with me – is that men cannot write about romance.


This argument re-surfaced after a claim by Daisy Goodwin, presenter of BBC programme, Reader, I Married Him.

Leaving aside a bit of byplay about semantics – "they can write about love but not about romance..." I remain unconvinced.

Name the three greatest romances you have ever read.

Or put it this way, are there any greater romances than Romeo and Juliet, Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary?

Shakespeare, Tolstoy and Flaubert were pretty good at it.

* * *

HOW many times do you read through a piece and smile with satisfaction at a sparkling new word or phrase you have used? It’s not vanity.

An author needs a certain amount of ego, for anybody who writes expects that somebody somewhere will read his work and enjoy it.

Without aping Will Self or Martin Amis, who always seem to disappear up their own cleverness in a cloud of obscure polysyllabic vocabulary, you should aim to lift your prose above the ordinary.

Wordsmith Michael Quinion has just produced Gallimaufry, a hodgepodge of our vanishing vocabulary published by the OUP at £12.99.

Try to translate this: The sumpter was suffering from red flux but he still taught us to play able-whackets before he had to go for a stegnotic.

What a cheeky little devil!

AUTHORS take a lot of trouble with titles – more than they would like to admit. However, if you miss the point of their title – no matter how obscure – they will look at you with scorn and look for somebody else to talk to at a book launch. Most collections of short stories take as the title one from the collection. Not Margaret Atwood with Moral Disorder. Eleven stories.

Countless clues to the title but what is the answer? That all families are dysfunctional. I’m not sure but I have a feeling that Atwood would look at me over the top of her spectacles and move to somebody else to talk to.

* * *

NEW ORLEANS is one of the world’s cities which holds a special place in my memory. It breathed jazz, good times and ol’ Miss and its paddle steamers holding on to its traditions.

Hurricane Katrina destroyed that city and coastline and showed up the less admirable parts of the Land of the Free.

Hence I was glad – and surprised – to pick up my November copy of the Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine and see that every story was taken from a New Orleans or Louisiana writer. And that six pages of advertising were devoted to charities helping the city and its people to get back on their feet.

The magazine has been a good friend to British crime writers. I trust they will be good friends to New Orleans. See


John Jenkins, Publisher, Writers' Forum


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