Thursday, 21 February 2013

Inside Out-Rage: How Hilary Mantel’s words on the Duchess were twisted by the British Press

by Catriona Troth, @L1bCat

It would be easy to lose count of the number of times that the British Press has put itself beyond parody.  But it is nonetheless disappointing to see the Press I usually trust – such as the generally reliable Independent – fall into the same trap as the tabloid trash.

When I first caught the headline view of what Hilary Mantel had supposedly said about the Duchess of Cambridge in her LRB lecture, my first reaction was ‘what a silly cow’.  But unlike a lot of those who have jumped on the indignation bandwagon, I thought I’d better read what the author had actually said before making a judgement. 

What I found was that her words had not just been taken out of context but twisted round into almost the exact opposite of what she had actually said.

Mantel’s comments about the Duchess, it turns out, are one small element of a speech that addressed the treatment of royal women from the hapless consorts of Henry VIII, via Marie Antoinette to the late Diana, Princess of Wales.

Let us be crystal clear: Hilary Mantel does NOT say that Katherine Windsor, nee Middleton, Duchess of Cambridge is, in and of herself, ‘a plastic princess fit only to breed’.  What any half-way intelligent reading of the speech makes clear is that what we are invited to see, through the lens of the very media that is now throwing up its hands in hypocritical horror, is a plastic, breeding princess.

And Mantel reminds us what happens when the adulations slips and the beast turns on hollow idol it created.  “We don’t cut off the heads of royal ladies these days,” she writes, “but we do sacrifice them.”

Now, it may have been a risky choice to make a point like that using a living person as an example.  She could have played it safe and stuck to history.  But Mantel wanted to show that the way women in the public eye are treated has changed a lot less than we might like to think.  And the press have obligingly made her point for her.

Whether Mantel stirred up this hornet’s nest unwittingly or with deliberate intent isn’t known.  For her sake, I hope she knew what she was doing.  Then she might have been braced for the attacks that have included slurs on her weight and her childlessness – both, it should be remembered, the result of the painful and debilitating illness, endometriosis.

This whole ‘scandal’ has been a story of lazy journalism, beefed up by people from the Prime Minister downwards who were ready to jump in and comment without reading or listening to the LRB lecture, and then soured by personal attacks that should sicken every one of us.

Maybe we can’t expect any better of the tabloid press.  But please let us at least hold the rest of our journalists to a higher standard than this.

We know Words with Jam readers like to make up their own minds; so listen to the speech, or read the full transcript here:

Wednesday, 6 February 2013

An Interview with Jane Gregory, Literary Agent

With our February 2013 issue out tomorrow themed Crime Fiction, I took the opportunity to interview  literary agent Jane Gregory.

Jane Gregory is now the sole owner of Gregory & Company Authors' Agents. The agency offers extensive editorial advice and guidance to ensure that a typescript is in its best possible form before being submitted to a publisher. They purposefully keep their list of authors small to ensure sufficient time is devoted to each author. Gregory and Company are known as the foremost agents for crime and thrillers although they handle many types of fiction and general non-fiction and their interests are wide-ranging.

Can you tell us a little about how you became the UK’s leading crime fiction agent?
I do not think I would call myself this, but we do represent some truly wonderful crime and thriller authors, and a number of them are bestsellers.

I began agenting by selling British rights on behalf of a large US publishing company. I needed to build up a list of UK authors so I then brought in Lisanne Radice and we formed a partnership, Gregory and Radice. Lisanne has an encyclopaedic knowledge of crime fiction and I could see that concentrating on this genre it would be a great marketing ploy and distinguish us from the many other agents already in existence. Lisanne joined as the editorial partner, whilst I handled the sales and the business. We were the first agents to have an “in-house” editor. Lisanne left in 2001, and by then I was completely seduced by the genre, it is so very varied. Basically I love great stories well told.

How did you get involved in the Crime Writers’ Association, and The Harrogate Crime Writing Festival?
I am an associate member of the CWA. As I am not an author I am not a full member. However, I am a co-founder of the Theakston’s Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival at Harrogate. This crime writing festival began because The Harrogate Music Festival wanted to set up a literary festival to run alongside it. It was suggested that as there were already so many literary festivals in towns and cities all over the UK in order to make this literary festival special why not concentrate on crime – Agatha Christie did “disappear” in the Old Swan hotel. We set up the original committee – an author as the Chair, Val McDermid, a publisher, Maria Rejt of Macmillan now Mantle, a representative from the Harrogate Festival office and a part time administrator and me, a literary agent. The committee now includes a reviewer and the Reader in Residence and the Festival office has grown to cope with what has become a hugely successful festival.

Traditional publishing is undergoing a series of rapid and dramatic changes. Which elements make you optimistic and which pessimistic?
On the plus side wonderful authors are still being published and previously out of print books are being made available again as ebooks. On the minus side, books and ebooks are being underpriced and therefore probably undervalued.

How will the role of agents change, do you think?
The role of the agent has been subtlety changing for some time. We are there to represent and protect our authors, our role has changed in that we probably are needed more than ever to guide and manage an author’s career.

Where does Gregory and Co. find its clients? Do you ever make ‘slush-pile’ discoveries?
Yes, we take our slush pile very seriously. We may only find one in 5000 submissions but it is worthwhile. Many clients are recommended to us.

When considering an author, what other factors besides their writing do you take into account? Eg, online profile, personal history, platform etc.
First and foremost is the writing, everything else is secondary. Part of an author’s “job description” is a willingness to talk on radio, television, festivals, book launches. If an author does not wish to do this it will not affect whether or not we wish to represent an author but it will definitely affect their profile and their earnings.

Is there such a thing as a typical day for you? What might it look like?
Almost the best thing about my job is that days are not typical! However, I suppose I usually arrive in the office at around 8.30 am and once I have made my green tea I will start dealing with emails. Colleagues arrive at 9.30am. The rest of the day is spent dealing with emails, telephone calls, reading contracts, updating the database and discussions formal and informal with colleagues. Rarely do I have time to read typescripts in the office. If I have an evening appointment I leave the office around 6pm otherwise around 7pm.

Writers often say they’ve become more critical as readers. How does it work for agents? Can you take off your ‘work’ persona and enjoy a book?
Yes, I still enjoy reading a good book. However, if I am not enjoying a book I will definitely give up on it sooner and more readily.

Interviewed by crime writer JJ Marsh

Monday, 4 February 2013

Murder in the Library

The theme for the February edition of Words with Jam is Crime.  By coincidence, a new exhibition has just opened in the Folio Society Gallery of the British Library:  Murder in the Library – an A to Z of Crime Fiction.

According to the sign at the entrance to the exhibition, one in every three novels published in English around the world today is Crime Fiction – an astonishing indication of the enduring power of the murder mystery.  But where did it all begin?

The exhibition is arranged alphabetically, not chronologically.  But I found myself wondering back and forth between display cabinets, trying to piece together a timeline from the clues left by the curators.

Herodotus, the apocryphal Book of Susannah in Bible, Virgil and 13th Century China are all suggested as possible sources of the ‘first’ murder mystery.  But the story that is generally considered to be the first piece of modern crime fiction is “Murders in the Rue Morgue” by Edgar Allan Poe. This was published in 1841, one year before the first plain clothes policemen were employed in Britain and two years before the word ‘detective’ first appeared in the Oxford English Dictionary.

Seven years later, Recollections of a Police Officer, purportedly written by a real life policeman by the name of Thomas Waters, whetted the public appetite for stories of detection.  But it was the notorious Road Hill House murder in 1860 that whipped that appetite to a frenzy.

If you’ve read Kate Summerscale’s The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, you will know all about Road Hill House – the true case of a child murdered in an English country house. Lady Audley’s Secret, published the following year, was based on the story.  It gave rise, too, to ‘G,’ the heroine of The Female Detective in 1864.  Wilkie Collins based Sergeant Cuff in The Moonstone on Jack Whicher, the Scotland Yard detective who investigated the murder.

If ‘G’ was the first female detective in crime fiction, then the first female crime writer was Anna Katherine Green, who created Ebenezer Gryce of the New York City Police Force in 1878. And long before Kay Scarpetta or Temperance Brennan, the first forensic scientist to lead a fictional investigation was Dr John Thorndyke, created by R. Austin Freeman in 1907.

The 1930s were an extraordinary decade for lovers of crime writing.  I’ve written about the Golden Age of English detective fiction in the February edition of the magazine.  In America, the reaction against stories that were simply intellectual puzzles led to the ’hard-boiled’ style of Dashiel Hammett and Raymond Chandler.  

At the same time, Dennis Wheatley and JG Links were producing ‘murder dossiers’ – volumes that contained witness statements, letters and even forensic items such as fibres and matchsticks, which you could pour over in an attempt to solve the crime.  The authors’ own solution would be held in a sealed envelope.  The solution to Walter Eberhard’s Jigsaw Puzzle Murder was literally revealed in a jigsaw that must be solved by the reader. Books like this were used as dinner party games.

The exhibition is dotted with some glorious treasures – a handwritten manuscript for Conan Doyle’s “Adventure of the Retired Colourman;” a film script for Murder on the Orient Express; John Gielgud’s own press album, open to show photographs of himself with John Thaw and Kevin Whately in an episode of Morse.

The last cabinet contains a first edition copy of Josephine Tey’s The Franchise Affair.  Alongside it are the proceedings of the case against Elizabeth Canning, the subject of two notorious trials in the 18th Century and the inspiration for Tey’s novel.  In the first trial Canning accused two women of robbing her and holding her prisoner in a house which she could apparently describe in detail. Following an investigation by trial judge Sir Crisp Gascoigne, the guilty verdict from that trial was overturned and Canning herself convicted of perjury and transported.  The story could provide the model for a whole genre of miscarriage of justice stories, and you can follow the proceedings for yourself at Old Bailey Online (just enter Canning’s name in the search function).

Catriona Troth:  The Library Cat @L1bCat

Murder in the Library runs until the 12th May.  Admission Free.