Literary Review

Shed and buried

X.Trapnel on cakes, fakes and stocking fillers

Over on the bestseller lists, publishers are beginning to see what might shape up to be their Christmas hits. Topping hardback and paperback charts is medic-turned-comedian-turned-writer Adam Kay, whose account of his life as a junior doctor, This is Going to Hurt, has spawned a seasonal sequel, ’Twas the Nightshift Before Christmas. Also doing well are pop stars Elton John and Andrew Ridgeley, the Queen’s dresser Angela Kelly, and national treasure Billy Connolly. The only political book to feature on the current hardback chart is by Led By Donkeys, the group who take over advertising hoardings to hold politicians to account.

A shot across the bows, perhaps, for David Cameron, whose memoir, For the Record, does not feature, despite the excellent spadework done by his ghostwriter, Daniel Finkelstein. Which just goes to show: you can blow all the money in the world on a modish shepherd’s hut in which to contemplate the blank page, and it will all be for naught when you’re faced with Bill Bryson.

Sandi Toksvig’s Christmas-friendly autobiography-cum-bus-travelogue Between the Stops might have had a boost from an unexpected quarter. Among the more creative insults that have met Boris Johnson on the campaign trail came in Somerset, when a heckler informed him the QI and The Great British Bake Off presenter and co-founder of the Women’s Equality Party should be prime minister. Not so much One Nation Toryism as a vote for the right to enjoy jokes, sponge cakes and collective political action.

A matter still to be settled is the growing belief that the Booker Prize Foundation should revamp its entry fees

Triumph at last for Lucy Ellmann, who has won this year’s Goldsmiths Prize, which rewards fiction of an experimental vein. Ellmann was one of the writers shortlisted for this year’s Booker Prize, controversially split between two winners. As the dust has begun to settle on that fiasco, the argument that the prize’s administrators would have been well within their rights to dismiss their recalcitrant panel and determine the matter themselves has strengthened.

That ship, however, has sailed, suggesting that this year’s runners-up — like Ellmann, whose novel Ducks, Newburyport was the most overtly avant-garde of the six — will have to content themselves with other trophies.

A matter still to be settled, however, is the growing belief that the Booker Prize Foundation should revamp its entry fees, with small independents such as Galley Beggar Press, Ellmann’s publisher, not having to stump up quite so much cash — which includes a £5,000 contribution to publicity costs should a work be shortlisted — as the vast conglomerates. Watch this space.

One of the first to cheer on Ellmann’s victory was the Booker’s joint winner Bernardine Evaristo, who tweeted “Congrats to Lucy Ellmann for winning @GoldsmithsPrize, for her magnum opera of words #ducksnewburyport. Another deserving winner would have been Deborah Levy for her amazing #themanwhosaweverything. #leadingbyexample”.

Much to the chagrin of many readers, who view it as one of the books of the year, Levy’s novel did not make it past the longlist stage.

Farewell, then, Andrea Newman, author of A Bouquet of Barbed Wire, the TV adaptation of which scandalised straitlaced viewers in the 1970s with its depiction of middle-class bed-hopping (and a hint of incestuous yearning served up by Frank Finlay). But Trapnel remembers her best-known novel more fondly for its now sadly outdated view of the literary world.

Here’s Peter Manson, the paterfamilias and publisher, contemplating one of his editors: “He wore suede mustard shoes and no tie and was smoking a cigar, giving it occasional quite unnecessary taps on the ashtray in front of him, and in between these dropping ash in generous amounts on Manson’s carpet. It made Manson laugh just to look at him: not at him, but simply out of sheer exhilaration that characters like Rupert existed outside fiction.”

Rupert’s cigar comes after a trying lunch trying to foist an unscrupulous contract on a debut novelist, whose work he describes as “a sort of melange of Jane Austen, God rest her soul, and Ivy Compton-Burnett, and Iris Murdoch. What more could anyone ask? Good intellectual stuff but with a nicely bubbling cauldron of evil beneath its voluminous skirts.” What more indeed?

 Still with us, however, is the Canadian Nobel Laureate Alice Munro, despite the announcement on her death on Twitter and a subsequent outpouring of sadness and approbation.

Like Mark Twain, however, the 88-year-old writer was the victim of fake news, by a connoisseur of the form — Italian journalist Tommaso Debenedetti, whose repeated hoaxes serve, he claims, to highlight the credulousness of social media users.

Previously, he has prematurely mourned the passing of Fidel Castro and the Pope. As the title of one of Munro’s collections might respond, “Who Do You Think You Are?”

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