The odd case of The Bookshop

2018 film tie-in cover

I was drawn to buy Penelope Fitzgerald’s novel, ‘The Bookshop’, because of the arresting image on the cover of actress Emily Mortimer as the novel’s heroine, Florence Green. Mortimer is dark, attractive, bookish, brooding, in stylish retro orange shirt and striped skirt standing outside a quaint small-town bookshop (which, let’s face it, every lover of books has once or twice fantasised about owning). The novel was published in 1978 but is set in 1959 Britain, in the small East Anglian town of Hardborough. The novel has been reissued a number of times, most notably in 1997 where it was reviewed favourably in the New York Times.

If I thought the novel was going to be actually about opening a bookshop, I was sorely disappointed. If I thought it was going to be about a strong, independent woman standing up to sexist forces against her, I would also be wrong. Why it has now been chosen as material for a film, is also perplexing to me. What does it have to say to audiences in 2018? If the crowd of women of, shall we say, a certain age at my local cinema is any indication, it is presented as one of those quirky films about starting over in a picturesque place somewhere like rural France, Tuscany, a Greek island etc. etc. meeting resistance, and finally being accepted. Casting Bill Nye as the curmudgeonly recluse who warms to Florence, suggests the filmmaker intended to move the film in this direction, but I think she was trying to be faithful to the source material, so this felt false and was, quite frankly, excruciating.

2003 cover

So back to the novel. I found this short novel (156 pages) to be extremely frustrating, continually subverting expectations. It was nominated for the Booker prize in 1978 (Fitzgerald won it the following year for ‘Offshore’), surprising for such a weird, inconsistent and improbable tale. Many critics view it as a comedy of manners but I think this misses the mark – there are certainly comedy-of-manners aspects to it, the society party thrown by Violet Gamart where Florence is subtly belittled, is one, as is the bizarre tea party between Florence and Mr Brundish (Bill Nye’s character) – but the tone veers wildly from comedy to realism to satire, even to the supernatural, so that the reader is pretty much always at sea.

Speaking of sea, I find it quite interesting that the covers for the earlier editions depicted scenes of nature at the seaside (the film, also has Florence often sitting on the wintery beach when, really, she should have been running her bookshop!) In the book she only goes once or twice, but these scenes are very brief and she is certainly not a communing with nature, again the reader/viewer wants Florence to be something that Fitzgerald is just not going to let us have.

No character in ‘The Bookshop’ is without flaws, even Florence herself. The most venal is Violet Gamart, who, on a whim, wants the building that Florence has bought and partially renovated, for her own pet project of an arts centre. Florence stands her ground but then seems to forget she has created an enemy. Raven, who is a nature man, gets the sea scouts he leads to help Florence through putting up shelves and painting, yet he also sets up an eleven-year-old paid assistant for her resulting in Florence falling foul of labour laws (Florence has previously worked in a big bookshop where she met

1978 cover

her late husband so she should have known better). We also meet Miles North, a BBC type, who spends his time in a cottage with his girlfriend avoiding actually doing any work. Miles is weak, is emotionally abusive to his girlfriend, and a sycophant to Violet, yet Florence inexplicable befriends him, and even, when she loses Christine her underage assistant, agrees to employ him part time (Why would someone who works for the BBC want to work for Florence, especially as we know he is a lazy sod? Why would Florence employ him when we know, at this stage, she is in financial difficulties? Why would any bookshop owner in her right mind order 250 copies of ‘Lolita’ to sell in a small town? Why would a bank manager lend Florence the money to purchase the premises when everyone in town knows it is riddled with damp?) There are many improbabilities that pile up to conspire against Florence. She meanwhile contents herself with writing silly letters to her lawyer and being duped by everyone. Mr Brundish in a fairly ineffectual way tries to warn Florence but she remains oblivious. He takes it upon himself to confront Violet – the only positive act in the novel to help Florence – but in a final stroke to frustrate and annoy the reader, this comes to nothing.

The final sentence, I suppose reveals Fitzgerald’s cynical and satirical intent: ‘As the train drew out from the station she sat with her head bowed in shame, because the town in which she had lived for ten years had not wanted a bookshop.’ No, Florence, wrong. You are not a heroine, not a fighter for a greater purpose, you are the victim of the malice of one privileged person and your own passivity and misplaced trust. You are a fool who acted on a whim, and didn’t have the sense or fortitude to carry it through. It is quite clear that the town did want a bookshop, as initially the shop did well. Florence made some bad decisions on the stock, the people she employed, and the condition of the building. If anything, this is a cautionary tale of capitalism: it’s dog eat dog and you have to be tough to survive. That’s why we all dream of owning a bookshop, and leave the actual running of them to people who know books are a commodity. Poor Florence.

Margaret River Short Story Competition

Congratulations to the winners of the Margaret River Press Short Story Competition 2018. I’m pleased to say my story ‘On Either Side’ was shortlisted and will appear in the anthology that comes out in June this year. Margaret River is a small press but has a good reputation for publishing interesting titles. Their yearly anthology of short stories is one of the few remaining ones that come out in book form (I can think of ‘Best Australian Stories’ and ‘Award Winning Australian Stories’ …). The complete list of shortlisters and winners is below.

MRP 2018 SHORT STORY SHORTLIST

  • Jessica ANDREATTA – Ring Pull Art
  • Judith BRIDGE – Foodies
  • Abigayle CARMODY – No Harm Done
  • Zoe DELEUIL – Setting Sail
  • Penny GIBSON – Small Fish
  • Ashley GOLDBERG – Soap
  • Cassie HAMER – Habitat  *Second Prize*
  • Tiffany HASTIE – The Chopping Block  *Southwest Prize*
  • Tee LINDEN – Bounds
  • Miranda LUBY – The Sea Dragon
  • Helen RICHARDSON – On Either Side  
  • Fiona ROBERTSON – Descent
  • Sue ROBERTSON – Le Micocoulier de Provence
  • Andrew ROFF – Pigface  *First Prize*
  • Kit SCRIVEN – The Fate of Angels
  • Warwick SPRAWSON – Cracked Head
  • David Thomas Henry WRIGHT – Living with Walruses

Big Issue Fiction Edition

Currently available from your friendly Big Issue vendor – The Fiction Edition 2017. This comes out once a year and is a best seller for The Big Issue and great for the writers involved (including yours truly this year) because it has a wide readership. As well as some ‘big names’ like Matthew Riley, Elliot Perlman and Toni Jordan, other writers are selected through a submission process – there are 14 stories in total. I got stuck into my copy, reading the other writers’ stories on the long commute home from the launch, and was totally absorbed. The short story is a really great way to fill in time this way. What a pity, then, they are not included regularly in magazines and newspaper as they were in the old days (I am always amazed when I read about the writing life of authors in the 50s, 60s and 70s and they seemed to have actually been able to make a living from selling short stories to these outlets). Now you have to submit to the rare anthology by people like the Margaret River Press, to competitions or to literary magazines – all of which have fairly small readerships.

Stories that stood out for me in this issue were Toni Jordan’s beautifully paced and atmospheric ‘Sound is a Pressure Wave’ (gorgeously spooky) and Nina Cullen’s acute and funny story about a mother and daughter trying to overcome misunderstandings while doing a meditation session together, called appropriately ‘Breathe’. I also liked Emily O’Grady’s ‘Blue India’ where your sympathy is first with the father/grandfather who visits his son’s family for Christmas from his care home, but as the story progresses your sympathy is tested. On a similar theme of aged care, Allison Browning writes a beautifully poignant story about one partner of an elderly gay couple having to make the awful decision on behalf of the other. Couples is also the theme of

Nina Cullen and me (r) with BI vendor.

Romy Ash’s story ‘I Bought These Dogs to Show Him How to Love’ where a young city couple encounter a rough-around-the-edges older couple who are selling their service station business to them ‘in the middle of fuck-off nowhere’. The young couple are maybe seeing their future in the bickering older two, but nah, they’re not like that. Understated and done mostly through dialogue, this is great short story craft.

The the Big Issue vendors will keep a few copies of the fiction edition to sell alongside with the usual editions over an ended period of time.

Jack of Spades – Joyce Carol Oates

spadesWriters like to write about writers and the hero of this comic thriller is Andrew J Rush, a successful mystery writer. Rush is quite chuffed when a reviewer calls him the gentlemanly Stephen King but as becomes more and more apparent as the novel progressives it’s probably the Stephen King likeness rather than the gentlemanly, that he values. Unbeknownst to his wife and his agent, Rush has an alter ego in the form of ‘Jack of Spades’, the name he uses as a pseudonym for  other books he publishes. While Rush’s other writing is ‘gentlemanly’, Jack of Spades’ work is brutal and crude, so much so that when rush’s college student daughter spies one of the Jack of Spades books in her father’s study and decides to read it, she is appalled.

Things start to unravel when someone called C W Haider sues Rush for plagiarism. The depiction of the flash New York lawyer that Rush’s publisher assigns to defend him is skewered beautifully by Oates, as is the machinations of Haider, who turns out to be a serial litigant (and, yes, she has also accused Stephen King of stealing from her [Haider’s] self-published works).

Rush, who, when we first meet him as a successful, controlled individual would have let the lawyer do his worst, and not become involved. But Rush has started drinking and can’t sleep: Jack of Spades is whispering in his ear, and by degrees, he starts to bThe_Museum_of_Dr._Mosesecome indiscreet and obsessed by Haider, and his carefully compartmentalised life begins to fall apart.

This is a slight book, but satisfyingly written. The spoof on writers, success, fans and publishing is spot on.

Oates’ dark edge is not so obvious here but is very evident in The Museum of Dr Moses, a creepy collection of stories I recently read by her.

Mocking-bird or why I won’t be reading Go Set a Watchman

watchblueWhy I won’t be reading Go Set a Watchman.

I have been watching the reviews of Watchman and waiting for someone to call a spade a spade, but the first reviews were insipidly, mildly positive, only commenting on the shock to readers that Atticus Finch, now 72, has turned racist.

Anyone taking an interest in how the manuscript was ‘found’ and the present life of Harper Lee must have smelt a rat, or to use a current turn of phrase, it doesn’t pass the sniff test. We know that Harper Lee is elderly, deaf and with diminishing eyesight. We know she lives quietly in Monroeville, the town on which To Kill a Mockingbird’s Maycomb is based, and has lived there since the 60s. We know that Lee has not given interviews over the years and that Lee had a protective sister, Alice (a lawyer), who died last year.

We also know that the manuscript for Watchman was ‘found’ in a safety security box a few years ago along with Lee’s will.

It is also evident that had Harper Lee wanted to publish Watchman she could have done so at any time in the last 50 years and she would have then been able to rewrite, revise etc. Obviously, given that the depiction of Atticus (reportedly based on her father) would have been hurtful, she may have been loath to do so, yet, also obviously, she was prepared to publish in the late 50s when she presented the manuscript to a literary agent.

At the time of first writing Watchman Lee was living in New York – a young woman trying to make her way as a writer in the big smoke and, we can assume, attempting to break away from her roots in Monroeville at a time of the growing civil rights movement.

WatchorangeAfter the phenomenal success of Mockingbird, Lee retreated from public life and returned to live quietly in Alabama.

From all accounts Watchman is not a polished work but retains many of the hallmarks of a draft novel.

What writer would be happy to have a preliminary novel published without the chance to revise? It is also reported that Lee did not want anything changed on the manuscript.

One may ask oneself, who wins from this publication? Not Lee and her reputation as a novelist. She must already be a wealthy woman and so would not need the money. The novel reportedly is critical of Monroeville, albeit, in the 60s, yet Lee still lives there, and is now embroiled in the controversy that has arisen from the novel.

As they say, follow the money trail.

Of course a lot of people will read Watchman out of curiosity but if you are going to spend your money on a novel why, oh why, not spend it on the hundreds, thousands, of other brilliant novels out there by new, emerging or mid-career novelists. Yes, I know the argument that when multinational publishers (HarperCollins in this instance) have a bestseller, it fills their coffers and they can then support (take a punt on) new writers. I’ll counter that with, when a reader buys a book that is hyped up and they are then disappointed with it, they may not be willing to buy another.

I am not sorry that Watchman has been shown the light of day. It is important for literary scholars and, as many have said, it does give a fascinating insight into the antecedence of To Kill a Mockingbird and how rewriting and ‘re-envisaging’ can work so well.

The best review I have read so far is by Robert McCrum in The Guardian http://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/jul/19/go-set-watchman-harper-lee-review-literary-curiosity.

The Great Unknown

The Great Unknown_edited by Angela MeyerPlease keep a look out for the anthology of ghost, fantasy and horror stories The Great Unknown edited by Angela Meyer and published by Spineless Wonders (and which includes my story ‘Navigating’). These stories were all inspired by the Twilight Zone television series and so are creepy, uncanny and scary. What more do you want for those cicacda-filled nights in the beach house over summer? In bookshops now or from Spineless Wonders. (or click the image below in the sidebar).

From Angela Meyer’s blog Literary Minded:

‘In Paddy O’Reilly’s ‘Reality TV’, a guest is confronted with her husband’s infidelity under bright lights, while Ali Alizadeh’s ‘Truth and Reconciliation’ satirises American talk shows and a cultural obsession with sporting ‘heroes’. Chris Flynn’s ‘Sealer’s Cove’ has a nudist caught in a time slip. Carmel Bird evokes Edgar Allen Poe when oversized hares incite the folk of rural Victoria to commit criminal acts, and in ‘Sticks and Stones’ Ryan O’Neill has an academic attacked by a demonic alphabet.

There are darkly seductive artworks, disappearances and reappearances, altered realities, future visions, second chances, clever animals, knowing children, and strange presences in photographs and abandoned motels, in these stories by established and emerging writers. Contributors include Marion Halligan, Krissy Kneen, AS Patric, Damon Young, Chris Somerville, PM Newton, Deborah Biancotti and Kathy Charles.’