Shylock Must Die by Clive Sinclair


Clive Sinclair was a valued contributor to Contrappasso. His final book is now available from Halban Publishers.

Here is the blurb:

Since his first public appearance in the late 1590s, Shylock has been synonymous with antisemitism. Many of his bon mots remain common currency with Jew-haters; among them “3000 ducats” and the immortal “pound of flesh”. But Shakespeare, being Shakespeare, was incapable of inventing anyone so uninteresting; instead he affords Shylock such ambiguity that some of his other lines have become keynotes for believers in shared humanity and tolerance.

Following Shakespeare’s example these stories – all inspired by The Merchant of Venice – range from the comic to the melancholic. Many pivot on significant productions of the play: Stockholm in 1944, London in 2012, and Venice in 2016. Some are concerned with domestic matters, others with the political, including one – more outrageous than the others – that links Shylock via Israel with the American presidency; most combine both.
Running through these linked stories – of which there are seven, like the ages of man – is the cycle of family life, with all its comedy and tragedy.

Clive Sinclair (1948-2018)


This week we mourn the loss of our friend and contributor Clive Sinclair.

Clive’s stories ‘Billy the Yid’ and ‘STR82ANL’ appeared in Contrappasso, as did his essay on the film Custer of the West in our special Writers at the Movies issue. We also ran, as an online exclusive, his short piece on ‘The Café Lumière at the Hotel Scribe’

You can also read our long, career-spanning interview: El Hombre Valeroso.

Clive’s forthcoming book of stories Shylock Must Die, will be published by Halban in July.

El Hombre Valeroso: An Interview with Clive Sinclair



Matthew Asprey Gear

Clive Sinclair was born in England in 1948. He is a recipient of the Somerset Maugham Award, the Jewish Quarterly Prize, and the Macmillan Silver Pen Award for Fiction. He holds a doctorate from the University of East Anglia and is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.

Sinclair’s novels include Blood Libels (1986), Cosmetic Effects (1989), and Meet the Wife (2002); his stories have been collected in Hearts of Gold (1979), Bedbugs (1982), and Lady with the Laptop (1996). Sinclair’s most recent books are True Tales of the Wild West (2008), an experiment in the new genre of ‘dodgy realism’, and Death & Texas (2014), a fourth collection of stories.  

The following interview is based on a transcript of a long conversation at Sinclair’s home in London in early 2011. More than a year later the raw transcript was edited and supplemented by further questions conducted by email. An initial version was published as ‘El Hombre Valeroso’ online at the Los Angeles Review of Books and in print in Contrappasso #2 in 2012. In 2016 Clive Sinclair and Matthew Asprey Gear revisited and expanded the interview to create this final, definitive text that will soon appear as a limited edition chapbook.


MATTHEW ASPREY GEAR: The first book you published was Bibliosexuality (1973). It’s a very obscure title. I’ve never seen a copy. Do you want to tell me anything about it?

CLIVE SINCLAIR: I’d rather not but, since I can see the thumbscrews bulging in your pockets I’ll oblige … The title is a neologism, of which I remain rather proud, and look forward to one day seeing housed in the OED. Bibliosexuality describes a disorder of the senses in which a perverse relationship with a book is not only desired, but also achieved. In short, the novel offered the world of letters as a substitute for the real thing. The main influence on it would be my time at the University of East Anglia, where I encountered the likes of Malcolm Bradbury, Angus Wilson, Jonathan Raban, and the Sages—Lorna and Victor. I had no idea what I was getting into. I went there in a completely arbitrary fashion, and as a complete innocent. The aforementioned practised what was then called New Criticism, which insisted that the text be examined as an artefact entire unto itself. The very opposite of structuralism, unknown (at least to me) at the time. You—the critic—ask about the author’s intentions and intentionality. For example, that yellow vase on the shelf. Why yellow? You assume everything is there for an artistic purpose. The book that I produced as a consequence was immensely self-conscious. Of course it was heavily influenced by Nabokov. It was full of linguistic resonance and also the sex element, to put it roughly. Portnoy’s Complaint had just come out in ’69. So it was a mishmash of influences. It could have been brilliant. It wasn’t, but it could have been.

How old were you?

Twenty-one when I wrote it. The only part of it I would now preserve is the mock-scholarly appendix called ‘St John’s Complaint’, which purported to be a theory of literature. Now I can confess that it was also wishful thinking, since it posited the author as an ace seducer. The working model was the Gothic Novel, in which a monster in human form typically attempts to condition reality in such a way that a triple climax is magicked: sexual, dramatic, and sublime. Nabokov was one of the people I quoted in pursuit of my argument. It was an extremely obscure quote, recently recalled (so I read) in a book by Eric Naiman called Nabokov, Perversely. It goes something like this: “The book I make is a subjective and specific affair. I have no purpose at all when composing my stuff except to compose it. I work hard, I work long, on a body of words until it grants me complete possession and pleasure. If the reader has to work in his turn—so much the better. Art is difficult.” And also sexy.

There’s a very Nabokovian story in your collection Hearts of Gold (1979).

Yes, ‘Uncle Vlad’, the first short story I ever wrote. I remember rushing round to my friend Judith—a smart girl—to get her reaction as soon as it was done. She approved, and I was on my way. Its main character is a butterfly collector who is also a vampire. The narrator is his nephew, who has no idea that vampirism is unnatural. A cruel dinner party serves as its climax, during the course of which crepes aux papillions are served. As well as making my name this story also introduced me to Yosl Bergner, the Israeli artist, who just happened to have produced a canvas in which a family tucks into a plate of butterflies. I’m not so sure about Nabokov these days, but Yosl remains a great painter, and a great friend. Incidentally, another of his forenames is Vladimir (after Lenin). So he has become, over the years, a second Uncle Vlad.

Has Bibliosexuality ever been republished?

Good God, no.

You wouldn’t allow it?

In the brief period when I had the opportunity to republish it? No, no, no. The general belief is that my first book is Hearts of Gold. And that’s fine.

You’re not the only one who had early books they wished forgotten. There was a story that Graham Greene would buy up all the secondhand copies of his earliest novels to destroy them.

Well, I only hope that he rises from his grave and bites the people who’ve remade Brighton Rock.

So in the early days your short stories appeared in journals and magazines before they were published in book form.

I finished Bibliosexuality in ’71, and it came out in ’73. I received a hundred and fifty pounds advance from Alison & Busby. Clearly it was going to lead nowhere. But I was determined to be a writer, so I started writing short stories. The truth is I’ve always been a short story writer rather than a novelist. Bibliosexuality was originally a collection of short stories about a certain David Drollkind. Margaret Busby said she would publish it, if I could find a way of linking them. That’s how it became a novel. So I began, as you said, trying to sell stories individually. In those days there were numerous small magazines, and you could send them stuff, which either got returned in a self-addressed envelope or accepted. Eventually I found a mentor of sorts, Anthony Thwaite, who at that time was literary editor of the magazine Encounter, which unbeknownst to me was a CIA front. But it wouldn’t have made any difference—they wanted to publish me! If Der Stürmer wanted to publish me I’d have considered it, so desperate was I to be published. But anyway, Thwaite started publishing my stuff and it was quite brave of him in a way, if anyone in our small world can be spoken of as brave. I mean, he wasn’t going to be beheaded. But some of his readers were offended by the rudeness of my stories. He published them on a regular basis and this was a huge help. An even bigger boost would have been the existence of a pulp fiction culture over here. That would have been the ideal way to learn the trade, as Elmore Leonard did—you’re working all the time, you have the reward of seeing your work in print, but it’s utterly disposable. That’s how you learn to be Raymond Chandler—or Elmore Leonard—or, better yet, yourself.

That’s a pity. I imagine you would have enjoyed writing Westerns. We see that interest not only in Clive Sinclair’s True Tales of the Wild West (2008). There’s a John Ford-type director in Cosmetic Effects (1989).

Mostly John Ford, but also a little bit of Howard Hawks. Hence the name Lewis Falcon. My first American car—which I purchased when I went to California in 1969—was a Ford Falcon, and a falcon—like a hawk—is a kind of raptor. The Lewis, incidentally, is a little nod towards Bunuel. And, yes, I’ve always adored Westerns, ever since my father took me to see my first one in the 1950s.

Which other writers did you value early on?

Neither of my parents went to university, but we had bookshelves in the house, and even books to fill them. As a matter of fact my father would have gone to university, had his immigrant father not been forced to make a living by selling second-hand shoes off a hand-cart. And my mother was always taking me to the public library in Mill Hill, after she picked me up from my primary school. I don’t remember how I discovered Rider Haggard, but once I did I rejoiced whenever an unknown title appeared on the shelves. Reviewing Lionel Davidson’s The Rose of Tibet, Graham Greene said he hadn’t realized how much he had missed the genuine Adventure story. So imagine what it was like to discover them for the first time. Later I began to borrow my father’s books, the most significant of which was Budd Schulberg’s The Disenchanted. This in turn led to the collected works of Scott Fitzgerald, and a switch from lost horizons to lost love. Soon I began to augment these borrowed volumes with Penguins I purchased randomly at the bookshop—WH Smith & Sons—which sat conveniently between my house and Hendon Central station. Sometimes my choice was directed by the jacket or the blurb; at other times by reviews in the Observer. A rave alerted me to Saul Bellow’s Herzog. This opened my eyes to that secular yeshiva known as Jewish-American literature, and its other patriarchs; Malamud, Roth, and Mailer. Who knew that the stuff that went on in my home, not to mention the stuff that went on in my brain, could also be the stuff of literature? At the same time I was strongly attracted to books that touched upon more forbidden things. I mean the gothic tradition, with its outrageous glories: The Monk, Dracula, and Frankenstein. It never occurred to me that all of the above was anything more than outlaw literature. To discover otherwise at UEA, to discover that it could be the subject of serious study, was akin to a revelation. My time at UEA was in reality an apprenticeship. For better or worse I left fit for nothing but writing. And this is not to be confused with the creative writing courses, which came much later. This was the straight English & American Studies course.

Did your relationship with UEA terminate on graduation?

Not exactly. My younger brother studied there in the early 70s, and my son in the late 90s. As for myself … Well, I returned in 1977 to complete a doctorate begun in Santa Cruz and tinkered with at Exeter. That was when I met Angela Carter, who introduced me to my first literary agent, Deborah Rogers. Kazuo Ishiguro was taking the MA in Creative Writing at the time. I still remember some advice Angela gave me. Ish is going to be a star, she said, try not to be envious. I wasn’t adverse to issuing the odd prescription myself. Don’t write off your USP, I said to Ishiguro, think Japanese. Not bad advice. Having been dubbed Dr Sinclair I taught courses on a part-time basis at UEA; on Shakespeare, gothic fiction, detective fiction, Jewish fiction, and I don’t remember what else. Later still I returned for three years as a Royal Literary Fund Fellow, on a mission to instruct native speakers how to construct sentences and build arguments.

Presumably it was at UEA that you met W. G. Sebald.

It must have been in the late 1980s that I received an invitation from a Professor Sebald (a name then unknown to me) to address his seminar on Holocaust Literature in Norwich. He asked me if I could talk about David Grossman’s See Under: Love, which I had recently reviewed for the Independent. Although the seminar was not a great success we bonded over dinner afterwards, perhaps because we were both what you might call Bulgarian optimists. The Bulgarian pessimist says, ‘Oy, things are so bad they cannot possibly get any worse’, to which the Bulgarian optimist replies, ‘Oh yes they can’.

Despite being long domiciled in Norfolk, Max’s un-English moustache advertised his continental origins. In fact, he was born in a Bavarian village in a bleak year. It was during his schooldays at Oberstdorf that he first became acquainted with his nation’s crime against the Jews, when his class was abruptly shown a newsreel about Belsen. It was presented and received in silence, a silence to which Max felt morally obligated to respond. At the time I assumed his response was primarily through academic means, such as the Holocaust seminar.

After that we met for lunch whenever I was in Norwich. We both liked to belly-ache. He belly-ached about the increasing vicissitudes of academic life, while I belly-ached about the writer’s lot. It was not until George Steiner chose Schwindel. Geruhle by a certain W. G. Sebald (Max was a diminutive of Winfried Georg Maximillian) as one of his International Books of the Year for the TLS that I had any inkling of my friend’s secret life. Yes, he confessed, he was that man, he was a writer too. It was a vocation (I soon learned) that occasioned much anguish, always expressed with the self-deprecation of a true Bulgarian optimist.


W. G. Sebald

Do you have a favourite amongst his books?

That’s a hard call. Perhaps The Rings of Saturn, because its controlling metaphor exerts a gravitational pull on the entire oeuvre. The book itself is a record of a peregrination around Suffolk undertaken in 1992. So what has this to do with the outskirts of a planet light years away? Well, it seems that Saturn’s rings are the debris of a decayed moon, now spinning silently in the void. It is, the reader understands, the promised end of all endeavour. But debris can also be deciphered and reconstructed, if only out of words. That is the task Sebald set himself, both in Suffolk and among the ashes of Europe. This was surely a task only a Bulgarian optimist would contemplate. And Max was that man par excellence. I only wish I could fully reconstruct our last meeting, which took place in the Senior Common Room at UEA. Max had recently returned from a trip to Europe, which involved a change of trains. Having disembarked my friend noticed on the same platform a colleague, a Professor of Chemistry (or something similar), whom he had never previously addressed. He thought it would be rude not to at least acknowledge the unlikely coincidence of two colleagues waiting for the same train on the platform of an obscure station in the middle of nowhere. There followed an exchange that caused Max to roar with laughter as he retold it. As a final memory it would be perfect, if only I could remember his words.

I believe you shared the 1997 Jewish Quarterly Award for Fiction; he for The Emigrants, you for The Lady with the Laptop.

Yep. Someone leaked the fact that I was on the shortlist. Then I heard that Max was too. Naturally, I kissed the prize goodbye. But a Judgment of Solomon was made, and the prize divided. Afterwards one of the judges told me that she thought Max should have won outright, so I can only assume that another of the judges argued the opposite with equal fortitude. Of course I would have voted for The Emigrants. A few summers ago I was invited to lead a creative writing workshop in Jerusalem. I selected three stories to discuss: Milan Kundera’s ‘The Hitchhiking Game’; Poe’s ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’; and the first story from The Emigrants, ‘Dr Henry Selwyn’. Accustomed to regarding Max’s stories as a delicate weave of memory, history, and fiction, it came as something of a shock to recognize the unmistakable ties between Roderick Usher’s dwelling, and that of Dr Henry Selwyn. How had I missed them? By concentrating on the tale’s philosophical aspects, and forgetting the tenets of New Criticism, that’s how! I had once sent Max a postcard I knew he would love. It depicted Goya’s etching of a perplexed donkey seated at a desk and staring at the open text resting on it. I was right. Max pinned it to his office door. I should pin it to mine too.

After your early books of fiction you published a non-fiction study on The Brothers Singer in 1983.

Yes. As a matter of fact it was my doctoral thesis. Isaac Bashevis Singer was someone else I read extra-curricular and enjoyed. Through him I came across his brother, Israel Joshua—hence the title—who wrote more traditional novels, such as The Brothers Ashkenazi, in which families—and cities—rise and fall. He was much concerned with social justice, something his younger brother gave up on very early. His subject was more the society of the soul.

Does he remain high in your estimation?

Oh yes. I interviewed him in 1978, and still stick to the rule he gave me then: Never begin a story until you are convinced that you are the only person who can write it. Certainly, there’s no mistaking a Singer story. On the whole I rate the stories more highly than the novels. Not that there aren’t some great novels, especially The Slave.

How about Enemies?

Yes, Enemies is good. But I would say that, having written the introduction to the Penguin edition.

Was Kafka important to you?

Are you kidding? I even flew to Israel one time, just to meet his Hebrew teacher, Puah Ben Tovim. Kafka was tall, you know—so was Singer, incidentally—a fait accompli he did his best to hide by always walking with his head bowed. Or so his Hebrew teacher said. Anyway, you are talking to someone who spoke to someone who spoke to Kafka. His stories made a great impression upon me, with their microscopic focus, and their single-minded pursuit of a particular image or a singular metaphor. The one story of mine where the feel is most Kafkaesque is ‘Bedbugs’. The whole plot unfolds from the single image that opens the story. And I guess the intensity of that experience is something I’d like to emulate. I haven’t given up yet.

And Borges?

Borges was another revelation. I heard him speak at the Institute of Contemporary Arts back in the early ‘70s. And of course I read every word that I could geat my hands on. Parts of Bibliosexuality are nothing but Borges lite. I still admire him enormously, but no longer try to write like him. These days, if you will, I try to find my own way out of the labyrinth.

Your work is particularly cosmopolitan. The second part of Meet The Wife (2002) is set in San Francisco. Did you live there?

Not quite. More like Santa Cruz, some 80 miles to the south. I was first there as a student in 1969-1970, missing the summer of love by a year, though I did meet A, midwife to my writing career. A decade later, and I was back again thanks to a Bicentennial Arts Fellowship, fall out from the success of Hearts of Gold. For five years the British government paid creative types like me to live in the USA for twelve months and a day. We were wampum to the natives, gifts to the American people in honour of their Bicentennial. By the time we left Bury St Edmunds—where I was working on my doctorate—my wife, Fran (a contemporary at UEA), was pregnant. So we smuggled our son with us, as it were, in embryo. Lucky thing, he was born in Santa Cruz, and automatically acquired American citizenship. Thanks to Seth I’m an American citizen by reverse adoption. Recently he reclaimed his birthright, and moved to LA with his wife, where they intend to make their names in the Business. As for me, I look upon Santa Cruz as my second home. I’m just not in residence very often, which is a pity, because Santa Cruz is a place where the human and the natural mesh most harmoniously. Looking out of my study window at 225 9th Avenue I once saw a grey whale passing by.

And ‘Las Fiestas de Navidad’, the first story in Lady with a Laptop (1996), is set in Mexico City. I spent quite a bit of time there recently.

I envy you. Over the years I’ve visited most of Mexico. I first drove down when I was a student in 1970, with A among others. We drove thinking we would reach Mexico City. You look at the map, and Mexico looks fairly compact compared to the United States, but when you start driving through it you realise your mistake. On that journey we got as far as Guadalajara, which wasn’t a bad shot at Mexico City. And we drove through some fairly rugged and unknown parts not visited by many tourists. I finally made it to Mexico City in 1990 or ‘91, when I was invited to a conference there. That visit inspired the story you mentioned. Later still I did a little tour of the Yucatan, where I became known as the hombre valeroso, on account of my immunity to the hottest of chipotles.

The violence of the drug war is a disaster.

I hear Juarez is horrible these days.

Three thousand murders in 2010.

In 1970 we crossed the border at Juarez. At Easter time, too, just like in the Dylan song. We were driving the aforementioned Ford Falcon. I had long hair then. The border police on the El Paso side were unbelievable. They just wanted to catch us as drug smugglers. They almost took the car to pieces. Took all the seats out. Let the air out of the tyres. Didn’t find anything, of course. I thought there was something weird about being in Texas. People were slightly alien-looking. I couldn’t figure out why. And then I suddenly realised they had these things protruding from the sides of their head. Ears. I’d been in California and I hadn’t seen ears in months. Times change. Recently I’ve been getting into Texas Swing, thanks to the Hot Club of Cowtown.

And there’s another story in Lady With A Laptop set in Egypt.

Egypt bowled me over. I was only there three or four days, but I absolutely adored the place. I went in the summer of ’94, with my son, and our friend Pamela. It was a difficult time, to say the least: between the death of Fran, and the commencement of my own period as a dialysand. I carry an evil gene—a sort of in-house antisemite—which occasions polycystic kidney disease or PKD—not to be confused with a Palestinian revolutionary cell. Anyway, there was something about Luxor—with its spoilt grandeur—which put me irresistibly in mind of Chekhov. You can guess which story in particular. But I wanted to write it in my own way, and was stuck, until I remembered a character I had met at that conference in Mexico, a Middle Eastern dramatist. As a matter of fact, I had seen him previously in Stockholm, accepting the 1988 Nobel Prize for Literature, on behalf of its winner, Naguib Mahfouz. Anyway, I borrowed his voice—a very distinctive one—and he became my narrator, and my laissez-passer into Egyptian society.

You’ve been called the English Philip Roth.

Let me tell you a little story. Not mine, but one I’ve borrowed from the Hasidim. There was once a man who was constantly measuring himself against others. In the end it got him down, and he sought consolation among the tzadikim, men wiser than he. “Zusya,” said one, “in the world to come they will not ask you: ‘Why were you not more like Moses?’. They will ask you: ‘Why were you not more like Zusya?’.” I think I managed that in a few of my books; got to be more like myself.

Jewish concerns are at the centre of your work.

Another thing that’s in the genes. I grew up in a Jewish area, and in my innocent years thought England was a Jewish country, populated exclusively by Jews, save for a few cleaning ladies. It was safe, but it was very suffocating. As I grew less innocent, I really wanted nothing to do with that world. I was a non-violent resister at Hebrew classes, a Gandhi among the Cohens—I simply refused to learn. Though I must have learned enough to pass my bar mitzvah—a sort of Jewish driving test—but after that I planned to have nothing more to do with Jewishness or Jewish people. How God must have laughed. First I went to East Anglia, where I found myself in a minority of one, and felt myself more Jewish than ever before. Then there was the Six Day Way, which turned me into a Zionist overnight.

To what extent in your life have you been a victim of antisemitism?

Only once directly. Our grammar school was located in a rough area. One afternoon, when walking to Burnt Oak station with my buddies, we passed some goyim loitering outside a shop. “Fucking Jewboys,” was their verdict. Turning around I said, “I beg your pardon?” Whereupon one of the antisemites leapt upon me like some predatory beast, issuing the following war cry: “Did you say, ‘Bollocks’?!” My friends, bless them, kept on walking, without once turning their heads. Perhaps we’d been studying Orpheus and Eurydice in Latin, I don’t recall. Luckily my assailant wasn’t very talented in the fisticuffs department. To my shame I just stood there, without even dropping my briefcase. However, as a supporter of Wingate FC, the only Jewish club in the Football League, I was much more vocal in our defense, especially when we played the dread Cray Wanderers. At university, some upper class kid in a bar said: “We don’t have any money—is there a Jew around, so we can borrow some?” And then they looked around and saw me and, were incredibly embarrassed and apologized. If you ask me, antisemitism in England is very overrated.

I remember reading a section of Philip Roth’s The Counterlife set in England. He lived here, I think.

At that time—the mid 80s—I was literary editor of the Jewish Chronicle. We hung out a bit, though I was more acolyte than friend. We had numerous lunches without incident, but in one of his books—perhaps Deception—he describes a visit to a restaurant, when he overhears an upper class woman at a nearby table demand of the waiter: “Open the window—I can smell a Jew.”

Did that strike you as unbelievable?

Well, maybe it happened. But it just shows he was going to the wrong restaurants, or mixing with the wrong set. On the other hand, I don’t want to deny the undercurrents …

Let’s talk about your 1985 novel Blood Libels.

Well, it’s not a friendly book. It does not deal kindly with either the Anglo-Jews or the Anglos who accommodate them. In fact it sets the one upon the other. This may seem to contradict what I have already said, but the novel is a fantasy, a vision of what could happen in the land that—albeit long ago—first gave the world the idea of the blood libel. Let me remind you that when I first went to Norwich in 1966, its cathedral still displayed a brass plaque commemorating the murder of little William in 1144, supposedly at the hands of Jews. Like me, the book’s narrator worked for a Jewish newspaper that fancied itself the most important Jewish mouthpiece in the world, a world that it sees as essentially antisemitic. Well, in Blood Libels, I take those paranoid fantasies literally. But I am no misanthrope, God forbid. My unfriendliness is directed exclusively at those I see as enemies of the Jews, some of whom happen to be Jewish, and—even worse—in charge of Israel. Alas, those in power today are even worse, an even bigger danger to Israel’s future, not to mention the rest of us. They are worse than criminals. As you can tell I thought I was writing a tragedy. Imagine my surprise when Blood Libels was greeted as a comic novel.

You published the non-fiction book Diaspora Blues: A View of Israel in 1987. What would an updated edition focus on?

Alas, as I have just intimated, the problems that occasioned the Diaspora blues haven’t gone away. So the book could almost be republished as is. If anything the situation feels worse, even if there have been genuine advances, such as treaties acknowledging the two-state solution. The situation feels worse because at one time peace seemed as close as Gatsby’s green light, and now it appears as but a distant glimmer, receding with every day that passes. In a reissued Diaspora Blues I would express more anger at the enemies of peace; not only at Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran, but also at the baleful Israeli government, and the fascistic settlers who provide its backbone. Not that I spared them in Blood Libels and Cosmetic Effects. Ian Black, the Guardian‘s Middle East editor, said that the situation—depending upon your point of view is either a crime or a tragedy. I am still sufficiently enamoured by the creation and making of Israel to see its unmaking as anything other than a tragedy.

I would append these thoughts to Diaspora Blues Redux in an appendix, set not in the disputed territories, but in the diaspora itself; in London’s revived Globe Theatre to be precise. In one essential way the theatre serves as a metaphor for Israel, being the brain child of another Jewish obsessive—Sam Wanamaker—who, like Herzl, did not live to see him dream become reality. And, just like Israel, it was born of a text; its Bible being the First Folio, of course. But I would write about only one of the dramas that folio contains: The Merchant of Venice. I would describe what happened on a summer night in 2012, when the Habima Theatre of Jerusalem brought their production of The Merchant to South London. In order to enter the theatre that night it was necessary to pass through a security check, manned by policemen borrowed from the Houses of Parliament. Opposite the would-be audience, as it shuffled along the line, were a bunch of sorrowful Englishmen whose banners identified them as Christian lovers of Zion. Further away were a score or more of sterner-looking citizens bunched under Palestinian flags. At their head was some Marianne who tunelessly sang songs of freedom. Thirty-seven different nations were taking their turn to present one of the canon, a cultural appendix to the London Olympics. Only when it came to The Merchant of Venice was it deemed necessary to turn the theatre into an airport, complete with bag searches, sniffer dogs, and full-body scans. It is a curious turn of events when Jews insist upon seeing an antisemitic play, whereas antisemites (among others) try to get it banned. The production itself was chiefly notable because it was performed in the language not of Shakespeare, but of Shylock. When he came to deliver his great speech (I translate)—”I am a Jew … If you prick us do we not bleed?”—a blackbird alighted on the very summit of the Globe’s gable and began to accompany him. Shylock continued—”… If you poison us do we not die? and if you wrong us shall we not revenge?” At which point a third voice was heard from among the groundlings: “Palestinians are human beans too!” Or something like that. Muscular men, employed for the night, removed the heckler. Other interruptions followed at intervals—”Shame on you Habima!”, “Freedom for Palestine”—and each time the protester was seamlessly evicted. You know, rather than create a disruption, these small disturbances actually added another layer to the theatrical experience. As a matter of fact I probably sympathized with many of their views. After all, antisemites aren’t a priori wrong on everything.

Nonetheless I found it worrisome that Israel should be subject to a unique cultural excommunication, that Shylock was being vilified not from the historical depths, but because he spoke the language of Israel, the sign of his eventual vindication. And what I couldn’t abide was the unspoken assertion that if you were not with the hecklers, then you were a latter-day Shylock yourself, demanding your pound of Palestinian flesh. Had I encountered one of these self-righteous citizens of England I should have quoted them some unconsidered line from the end of Shylock’s challenge: “The villainy you teach me, I will execute, and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction.” Look to your own histories, in other words, before criticizing mine. As the theatre emptied I found myself being filmed by a fierce-looking mullah. It felt like a threatening act to me, so I approached a policeman and complained. The good officer replied: “Well, sir, may I suggest that if you don’t want to be photographed by the gentleman, you move away from him.” But that is just what I cannot do. One look at the mullah was enough to show me that his mind was beyond my reach. But maybe my voice may still have some resonance among the more reasonable. If the voices of those who would push forward Rabin’s policies are not heeded, then I fear that Shylock’s posthumous triumph—the production received a standing ovation— may be short-lived. In any event, Shylock was last seen shuffling off-stage with a battered suitcase, a once and future refugee.

Do you still spend a lot of time in Israel?

Some of my best friends are Israelis, and I try to visit them at least once a year. Among them, needless to say, is Yosl Bergner. [Sinclair points to Bergner’s painting Butterfly Eaters above the mantlepiece.] Behold the cover of Hearts of Gold.

The same artist whose work appeared on many of your dust jackets.

He’s in his nineties and still painting. Yosl Bergner’s father was a Yiddish poet named Melech Ravitch. In the thirties he was president of the Yiddish PEN society in Warsaw and effectively the foreign secretary of the Yiddish Speaking Union in Europe. And he was very cognisant of what was coming down the pike. He travelled the world in the 1930s, trying to find a place of refuge for the Jews of Europe. The Northern Territory in Australia was one such location.

Well, there’s a novel right there.

As a matter of fact, I wrote a long article for a magazine called Wasafiri on that very journey. It prompted quite a response, given its small circulation. Melech Ravitch kept a journal, written in Yiddish naturally, which a friend of mine translated, and he took a lot of photographs. Many years later his son Yosl produced a series of paintings based on the photographs. These were my sources. Fortunately, Ravitch heeded his own counsel, and quit Europe before it was too late. He settled in Melbourne with his family. After the war Yosl Bergner became one of the founding fathers of modern art in Australia. There were the Angry Penguins, who believed in art for arts sake, and there were the others. Bergner was one of the others. He was a communist with a great belief in a political component, or a social component. He was the first to portray Aborigines as people, as souls lost in urban misery, rather than as figures in a landscape.

Did you teach at the University of Uppsala, Sweden, in the 1980s?

Almost. I was a writer in residence. I was expressly not allowed to teach. I was a resource. I’d heard of Sweden, but I’d never had much of an urge to go. I had a sort of vague notion it was cold up there, that the Swedes liked sex, and that they had one great film director. I had absolutely no notion of what Stockholm looked like. And I was completely seduced. Its one of the most beautiful cities in the world. It’s a sort of half-water, half-land dreamscape, sort of ethereal. Wherever you walk there’s water. You have a sense of the vastness of the world just beyond. You can actually see the curvature of the world beyond the ships tied up. And I became a big admirer of the Swedish character. No one in Sweden ever said to me: “Don’t worry, it might never happen.” Every citizen is an iceberg. Sweden also provided one of my most pleasurable working experiences. I wrote in the empty apartment in the morning, when Seth was at the local school, and Fran elsewhere. And in the afternoon I went to my office in the university, and used the electronic typewriter to translate my handwriting into something like sense. That’s how Cosmetic Effects got written.

Augustus Rex is on a Swedish theme.

After living in Sweden—though we were only four months in Uppsala, alas—I really wanted to write a novel set there. For some reason, now lost even to me, Strindberg seemed the ideal vehicle. Perhaps on account of his very equivocal relation with Jews. He loved some and hated others. He loved them because his publisher was a Jew. And his most prominent intellectual supporters were the Brandes brothers, a pair of Danish Jews. The Jews he loved were the international Jews, the rootless cosmopolitans. Those he hated were identified in an essay called ‘My Anti-Semitism’. They were the ones who had became more Swedish than the Swedes, more English than the English, more Australian than the Australians. And because he loathed Swedes, those Jews who were more Swedish than the Swedes, he would of course loathe especially. Augustus Rex opens with the great playwright selling his soul to Beelzebub, and ends with his come-uppance: metamorphosis into a fly.

Most of the time you write in the present tense. Tell me about that choice. It contributes to the distinctive tone of your voice.

I guess it’s because you can see the narrator screwing up—and most of my narrators do—before your very eyes. You feel you ought to be able to save them, but for some reason your hands are tied. Also I want the reader to believe that a) it’s the truth and b) the narrator doesn’t know any more than the reader what is going to happen next—if anything the reader knows more. There is the related issue of the first person. I like the impression it creates: that writing is also confession. If a guilty conscience could ever rupture—like an appendix—I’d be in big trouble. Additionally, by using the first person you sort of implicate the reader—the reader inexorably becomes the person they’re reading about.

Do you write every day?

Not in the way you mean. I admire and am extremely envious of writers who do. A great writer —A. B. Yehoshua, I think—said writing is like having a shop. You go in every day and do something in there. Sometimes you don’t sell anything and other times it’s a gold rush … but every day you go in and do something. I can’t do that. If I have nothing to write—I’m talking about fiction—then I can’t see the point of writing. So I write in insane bursts. But the other time is hardly unused, it’s usually filled with writing reviews. Or reading.

So when did you start writing for the TLS?

  1. I’ve had various incarnations: Swedish expert, Jewish expert …

And also Westerns?

Yep. These days, I’m their Western correspondent. I persuaded them to let me review Western movies.

There’s not too many these days.

No, it’s not exactly gainful employment, but its usually fun. Most Westerns, since they’re so few and far between are interesting, even Cowboys & Aliens. They’re not made casually any more. And each one is regarded as a revival of the old genre.

What do you read these days?

I read a lot of Israeli fiction. As America had Bellow, Malamud, and Roth, so Israel has Oz, Grossman, and Yehoshua. I read very little English fiction. Maybe Shena Mackay and Angela Carter, wonderful short story writers both. But mainly I read American writers. I continue to read Philip Roth. I’ve read all his latest books, and I’ve reviewed many of them. I am not convinced they are all masterpieces.

The Humbling was pretty terrible.

Oh, yeah.

But Sabbath’s Theater was a great book.

Well, that’s a transitional one.

And the last funny book.

I thought The Plot Against America was pretty good, the first two thirds. Then I think Roth chickens out. I suspect he couldn’t bring himself to imagine a Holocaust, when his great friends Primo Levi and Aharon Appelfeld had lived through the real thing. It would have been a sacrilege of sorts. And Nemesis wasn’t bad. But these books lack the fire and the fireworks of their predecessors. Then again, what else can Roth do? If he writes he’s still alive, like Descartes and thinking. It’s like when someone’s kidnapped and there’s a sign of life—a finger or something. Roth is chopping off his own fingers and sending them out.

He strikes me as someone who is probably one of the most gifted comic writers, but he’s not interested in being funny.

I told you I thought Blood Libels was a tragedy. I hope it doesn’t sound like I’m denying Roth. God forbid. I owe him big time; both for his own novels, and for the series he edited for Penguin in the 70s and 80s: Writers from the Other Europe. Thanks to him I discovered the wonders of Bruno Schulz, Danilo Kiš, Ivan Klima, Tadeusz Borowski, and the marvelous Milan Kundera.

But more and more I’ve come to dote upon Chekhov. I’ve always liked Chekhov, but now I sort of idolise him. What could be better, apart from attending an Arsenal home match—my own love for football goes back more than sixty years—than to see a good production of Chekhov. The most moving experience I had in the theatre in many a year was when attending the Maly Theatre of St Petersburg’s production of Uncle Vanya. Just miraculous.

It came to London?

It would be no point seeing it in Russia. It comes to London and they have surtitles.

Have you only just recently moved to London?

This is actually the first time I’ve ever lived in my entire life in Central London. I grew up in the northwestern suburbs and skedaddled as quick as I possibly could. Though it does seem to have its own gravitational pull. I raised my son twenty miles north of London, above the major unexcavated Roman site in Britain, a place called St Albans. So this is my first immersion in Central London, really. I share a house in Islington with Haidee Becker, another great painter, whose forte is portraits and nature mortes. Some of her best work is on permanent display in her son’s Soho restaurant: Bocca di Lupo.

Is contemporary London a good place to be writer? Obviously the literary culture is enormous.

I don’t really think it makes much difference where you are, so long as you speak the language.

Which is the favourite of your own books?

You could phrase it the one I loathe the least. My favourite book of all as a physical object is the Japanese translation of The Brothers Singer. I know I wrote it because it’s got my name on the jacket, but I cannot understand a single word of it. All the prose looks pristine, in a beautiful but incomprehensible script, and best of all I am blind to the mistakes. I love it—power without responsibility. But in terms of what you meant, I think it’s between two of the books of short stories, Lady with the Laptop and Hearts of Gold, for which I retain a fair bit of affection and respect. So those are the two. Bedbugs is quite good, as well. And—since you asked—I quite like Meet The Wife.

How do you think your writing has changed over the years, if at all?

Difficult question. I don’t think it has, terribly much. For example, the other day I wrote maybe 1000 words, and judged the day to have been well spent. Until on reappraisal the words seemed naggingly familiar, and gradually the horrible realization dawned upon me that I had written the same couple of pages—give or take—twenty years earlier. That said I think my writing is now less self indulgent. Much more conscious of what the story requires and what it doesn’t require. I have more editorial skill. But at the same time some of the madness goes out of what you write. The frenzy that you had as a younger person is gone. Another big change is that I’ve gotten to like Texas.

As anyone who has read Death & Texas will already know, you are not yet done with ‘dodgy realism’. I’m pretty certain I know what it means, but perhaps you could confirm my understanding; from the horse’s mouth, as it were.

Well, by some miracle Dodge City’s historic Front Street managed to survive well into the 1970s. By then a Disney-style replica had been established near the supposed site of Boot Hill, and was shamelessly billed as ‘Historic Old Front Street’. With such a replica, who needed the original? Especially when it was located excatly where a Dodge dealership—of all things—wanted to build a parking lot. So down it went, leaving the facsimilie to masquerade as the real thing. Hence ‘dodgy realism’. As it happens, the titular story concerns Davy Crockett. In this a manuscript comes to light which proves he was no John Wayne at the Alamo, but a lily-livered yellow-belly who begged Santa Anna for his life. Among the many dilemmas the hero of the story faces is whether to make this fact known, or to preserve Crockett’s reputation. Truth or dodgy realism? All I can vouchsafe by way of an answer, is that the hero makes the wrong decision.

As the editor of Contrappasso, I was thrilled to publish two of the other stories from the book. Those two stories alone jumped all over the world—Atlanta, Israel, Germany, the USA. Where else does the new book take us?

As you say, the stories in Contrappasso had itchy feet: one rambles from Atlanta, GA, to Brinkley, AL; while the other starts in London, looks in upon New Mexico, then moves to Jerusalem, Passau, Germany, before finally coming to a halt back in London. Other locations in the book include Texas, as you know, New Orleans, Machu Piccu, and Shylock’s Venice. Perhaps I am best characterized as a travel writer too shy to embrace the locals, therefore forced to people the exotic locations with my own inventions. This has been my MO for many years now. These days when I glance at my older stories I am no longer certain what really happened and what I made up. Addressing one of the narrators a character sums it up nicely: “Did we really do all the things you said we did, or was it just wishful thinking?

I was happy to meet Kinky Friedman and Fess Parker in ‘Death & Texas’.

Not half as happy as me. I first encountered Fess Parker on a big screen in a grand old cinema (long since demolished) on Oxford Street, in the heart of London’s West End. In those days there were long queues to see popular movies, which only sharpened the anticipation. Of course movie stars are called stars for a good reason; their images are transported on rays of light, and they live light years away from ordinary mortals. Or at least that was how Fess Parker appeared to me as he defended the Alamo in the guise of Davy Crockett. So imagine my excitement when I discovered that, having quit acting, he ran a winery and a hotel a few hundred miles from my temporary residence in Santa Cruz, CA. How could I not go? And how could I not include the encounter in my story about Davy Crockett? Looking back upon it, the occasion still seems as unlikely as an ancient Greek taking tea with Achilles. I’d been a fan of Kinky Friedman & the Texas Jewboys for years, long before I interviewed its lead singer in London. Who could resist lyrics such as this: “No, they ain’t makin’ Jews like Jesus anymore,/ We don’t turn the other cheek the way they done before.” When researching for True Tales of the Wild West—back in 2003—I visited the Kinkstah on his family ranch, near Medina (the one in East Texas, not Saudi Arabia). Needless to say, after the visit I played his songs all the way to San Antonio. I had just finished teaching a course on Holocaust Literature at UCSC. To the best of my knowledge Kinky Friedman remains the only country singer to have penned a song on the subject : “Ride, ride ’em Jewboy/ Ride ’em all around the old corral/ I’m, I’m with you boy/If I’ve got to ride six million miles.”

How did you connect with the book’s publishers; Peter and Martine Halban?

Well, the Adam and Eve of my writing career were Clive Allison and Margaret Busby. We had a lot of fun in those early days, especially with Hearts of Gold and Blood Libels. In a way I’m looking to repeat the experience with Martine and Peter, another bookish duo. When I was with a larger outfit there was an expectation that everything—from book design to marketing—was assigned to professionals, who would handle everything with the flair of Saville Row’s bespoke tailors. This was not always the case, to say the very least. Now, if the book doesn’t read well or look good I have only myself to blame. I am looking to recapture that sensual experience—that bibliosexual moment—you are never going to get with a kindle.

It’s been a long while since you published a novel. Do you now regard yourself as a short story writer?

I have been thinking more and more that the short story—or the novella, at a stretch—is my natural form. At any rate, it is what I do best. By which I don’t mean better than anyone else—God forbid—but better than my own longer fiction. When I write I try to thread together well-made—even beautiful—sentences. I do this because I remain enamoured of my raw material: viz. words. And the way they strike the five senses: the sight, the sound, the smell, the feel and the taste of them. But there is a constant balance to maintain between the felicity of the prose, and the efficiency of the narrative. In the short-story the scales can be more pleasingly biased toward the former. What makes The Great Gatsby so great is that Scott Fitzgerald found a way of so vitalizing his exquisite prose that it actually motored the narrative; each image being not only decorative, but also functional. But The Great Gatsby is a rarity: more often such hyperactive prose in a novel tends to bedazzle its readers, until in breathless admiration or sheer frustration they lose the plot. This is less likely to happen with a short story. The same applies to the intensity of emotion a short story can contain. Put all that in a novel and the poor reader would be in great danger of sensory overload, like Barbarella in the Orgasm Machine.

There’s another reason that, alas, has to be faced. When you enter your sixties you’re also entering the stadium—how many more laps to go? So you write about your fear of falling, and about those who fall in front of your very eyes. Illness becomes a subject. Not in a gruesome way, I hasten to add, or a lascivious way. But again, you’re given a privileged view of these things. I try to counter these horrors with humour, and no self-pity. I count self-pity as a capital offense, along with sentimentality.

So will the follow-up to Death & Texas be another collection of short stories?

Most likely. I’m working on a set of stories, each of which owes its origin to Shakespeare’s play about Shylock and his nemesis, and to the city in which the drama unfolds. The first is called ‘Shylock Must Die’. The second is a melancholy tale, set on the Lido, in which a necklace goes missing. My model for that one is Herge’s The Castafiore Emerald. Now there’s a real writer. I’m on the fourth so far.

But what I’m really looking for is a money spinner. And it seems that the only way for me to write a money spinner is to write a genre book. And the genre which I’m most equipped to write is a detective novel. My detective doesn’t have a name, but he has an illness, he has a weakness. Every detective has to have an Achilles’ heel. My detective’s Achilles’ heel is his kidneys. He’s a detective who’s on dialysis, which I was on for a year, before my transplant. In that situation he’s doubly vulnerable. He’s completely vulnerable when he’s on the machine. It’s an out of body experience. And of course he’s vulnerable if he’s captured or kidnapped, because he has to get back to the machine to preserve his life. So this incorporates a tension already. On the other hand, the dialysis unit offers space to think, to solve the problems of life and death. But detectives are two a’penny. A master criminal is much harder to invent, especially if you rule out serial killers, which have become revolting cliches. I confess: I’m still waiting for my Moriarty.



Contrappasso Archives: Noir Issue

cp noir front cover raw

From the archives: Here is the introduction to our special 2013 issue on Noir in film, fiction, and other arts. It has never previously appeared online.

The issue was edited by Noel King and Matthew Asprey Gear. Contributors include Luc Sante, Suzanne Lummis, Nicholas Christopher, Barry Gifford, Morris Lurie, Dahlia Schweitzer & Toby Miller, Andrew Nette, and Matthew Asprey Gear. We also feature interviews with Dennis McMillan and Adrian Wootton.

The Noir Issue remains available in print form at, for Kindle, and in other ebook formats at Smashwords.



When we decided to do this special Contrappasso noir issue—a grab bag of essays, interviews, and new and classic poetry—we were aware that some time ago two critics whose work we greatly admired, Luc Sante and James Naremore, had expressed fatigue with the term. In 2004 Sante told our colleague Peter Doyle, “noir is a category badly in need of a twenty- or thirty-year moratorium, at least in films.”

Naremore’s wonderful More than Night: Film Noir in its Contexts (1998/2008) ends by saying:

Given the current situation, debates over whether specific films are “truly” noir, or over the problem of what makes up a film genre, have become tiresome. There is, in fact, no transcendent reason why we should have a noir category at all. Whenever we list any movie under the noir rubric, we do little more than invoke a network of ideas as a makeshift organizing principle, in place of an author, a studio, a time period, or a national cinema. By such means, we can discuss an otherwise miscellaneous string of pictures, establishing similarities and differences among them. As I argue throughout this book, every category in criticism or in the film industry works in this fashion, usually in support of the critic’s or the culture’s particular obsessions. If we abandoned the word noir, we would need to find another, no less problematic, means of organizing what we see.

Naremore’s book is now widely accepted as a canonical text; Tom Gunning described it as “the first study of film noir that achieves the sort of intellectual seriousness, depth of research, degree of critical insight, and level of writing that this group of films deserves.” Gunning continues:

The basic paradox of film noir lies in the fact that no one who made the original series of films ever heard the term; it has always been applied ex post facto, in contrast to the way other genres (such as the musical or the western) were used by Hollywood to plan production schedules and distribution strategies. Instead film noir is, as Naremore puts it, a discourse, a way of processing and thinking about films as much as a pattern for their production.

While Gilles Deleuze referred to film noir unproblematically as a “great genre” in Cinema 1: The Movement-Image, and the late actor-director Dennis Hopper felt able to call it “everyone’s favourite genre” while he was directing The Hot Spot (1980), film critics have spent the last forty years debating whether film noir is a genre, a sub-genre, a film style, or a film movement.


Whatever the case, if film noir was not a genre at the time of its first appearance—if by genre we mean a film industry-recognised way of producing and marketing films—it has certainly become one, in the industry and the academy, in our time. International mainstream movie makers, makers of art cinema, and independent filmmakers alike have their work defined as “neo-noir” or “noir-influenced,” which no longer has to imply corny pastiche; convincing recent Hollywood examples include Drive (Nicolas Winding Refn, 2011) and Killing Them Softly (Andrew Dominik, 2012). Noir, when it rises above a series of clichéd filmic gestures (trenchcoats, fedoras, cigarettes, lipstick), seems to be the language to express the darkness at the heart of our troubled times.

Meanwhile film courses around the world have devoted themselves to the film noir, accompanying the surge of scholarship since the late 1990s. On the film-critical front there has been since that period a deluge of books on classic film noir (roughly 1941-58) and on whatever we call the films noir that emerged from the sixties onwards.

In 2001 Foster Hirsch both published Detours and Lost Highways: A Map of Neo-Noir and updated his 1981 account of classic noir Film Noir: The Dark Side of the Screen. There are many other important new books: a few include those by Edward Dimendberg (Film Noir and the Spaces of Modernity, 2004), Wheeler Winston Dixon (Film Noir and the Cinema of Paranoia, 2009), Vincent Brook (Driven to Darkness: Jewish Émigré directors and the Rise of Film Noir, 2009), Alistair Rolls and Deborah Walker (French and American Noir: Dark Crossings), Dennis Broe (Film Noir, American Workers, and Postwar Hollywood, 2010), Gene D. Philips (Out of the Shadows: Expanding the Canon of Classic Film Noir, 2011), and Mark Osteen (Nightmare Alley: Film Noir and the American Dream, 2012).

Some excellent material was gathered in a special issue of Iris (no. 21, Spring 1996) devoted to “European Precursors of Film Noir”. Fine anthologies of essays include Alain Silver and James Ursini’s Film Noir Readers (1996-2004) and Eddie Muller and Donald Malcolm’s ongoing Noir City Annual (collecting the best of the Film Noir Foundation’s quarterly e-magazine, formerly the Noir City Sentinel). And as the British Film Institute series of Film Classics and Modern Classics (now combined into one series) trundles along it delivers new forays into the world of noir and neo-noir.

Film noir is seemingly everywhere—on our screens, in the academy, and in the hearts of movie lovers. But we’re also interested in looking at how the notion of noir is travelling in other cultural contexts.

We looked, for example, at Lars Nittve and Helle Crenzien’s Sunshine & Noir: Art In LA 1960-1997 (1997), which contained Mike Davis’s essay ‘A Double Funeral’ on the race rivalries and gangs of Latinos, Koreans, and African Americans inside and outside LA jails. Catherine Corman’s photographic book Daylight Noir: Raymond Chandler’s Imagined City (based on her photographic exhibition at the 2009 Venice Biennale) might have had trouble spelling Fredric Jameson’s name correctly but it came in a clear line of descent from Alain Silver and Elizabeth Ward’s photographic rendering of the world of Philip Marlowe’s LA, Raymond Chandler’s Los Angeles: A Photographic Odyssey Accompanied by Passages from Chandler’s Greatest Works (1989).


In her introduction to Manila Noir, Jessica Hagedorn said, “it made perfect sense to include a graphic noir since one of the many ways I learned to become a writer was through the Filipino horror komiks of my childhood.” In 2013 we are abundantly aware of Hollywood’s enthusiasm for graphic novels, especially those with a noir slant (Sin City, V For Vendetta). Darwyn Cooke’s recent graphic novel adaptations of the Parker novels deserve a mention, too, because they’re more faithful to the mood of the classic noir novels of Richard Stark (Donald E. Westlake) than anything Hollywood has yet come up with. John Boorman’s classic film Point Blank (1967) creates a rather different noir mood—as Adrian Wootton informs us in this issue, Boorman never actually read its inspiration, Stark’s The Hunter (1962)—and Taylor Hackford’s Parker (2013) is perhaps best skipped over entirely.

Recent generations of Batman comics are practically synonymous with noir. Frank Miller steered the comic franchise in this dark direction in the 1980s; the latest collection illustrated by Eduardo Risso, Batman Noir (2013), is a another fine example. We also looked at anthologies such as Dark Horse Books’ Noir: A Collection of Crime Comics (2009). We could have easily devoted an issue to the subject of comic book noir, which attracts many of the best contemporary illustrators and has an enormous fan base.

The noir sensibility has found expression in video games. An Australian contribution was Team Bondi’s hugely successful L. A. Noire (2011), the first video game officially selected for the Tribeca Film Festival. The game inspired a spin-off ebook anthology of noir short stories edited by Jonathan Santlofer.

In noir matters literary and poetic we felt on secure ground.

Noir fiction is now a distinct category within the crime genre. It wasn’t always that way, at least in the United States. Paperback publisher Black Lizard, founded and edited by Barry Gifford in the 1980s, played a crucial role by reviving mostly forgotten mid-century American hardboiled crime novels (which were much more enduringly popular in France, published in translation through Marcel Duhamel’s Série noire from 1945). Moreover, Gifford focused on republishing crime writers with a distinct noir sensibility. Noir fiction turned out to be something slightly different from the masterful hardboiled detective tales of Chandler and Hammett. The prose of James M. Cain, Jim Thompson, Charles Willeford, and David Goodis was certainly hardboiled, but their narratives focused less on tarnished heroes and more relentlessly on the self-destructive, the hopeless, and the insane.

Luc Sante—who examines a series of haunting New York City police photographs in this issue, revisiting the terrain of his book Evidence, an inspiration for Australian writer-researchers Peter Doyle and Ross Gibson—once wrote in the New York Review of Books of how

[James M.] Cain spawned a genre. The ingredients of compulsion, self-destruction, revenge, and blind chance awakened a kind of poetry in pulp writing, and in the movies adapted from it.


In 1997 the Library of America, under the guidance of then-Executive Editor (now Editor-in-Chief) Geoffrey O’Brien, published a two-volume anthology of Crime Novels: American Noir, attempting to establish a canon of the subgenre. The first volume (The 1930s & 40s) collected authors James M. Cain, Horace McCoy, Edward Anderson, Kenneth Fearing, William Lindsay Gresham, and Cornell Woolrich; the second volume (The 1950s) featured Goodis, Willeford, Thompson, Patricia Highsmith, and Chester Himes.

To this tradition of American noir fiction should be added writers such as Paul Cain, W. R. Burnett, Richard Hallas, James Ross, Peter Rabe, John D. Macdonald, Gil Brewer, Elmore Leonard, Richard Stark, Lawrence Block, Leonard Gardner, Floyd Salas, James Ellroy, Kent Anderson, Walter Mosley, Andrew Vachss, Ed Gorman, Denis Johnson, Christa Faust, James Sallis, Duane Swierczynski, and Megan Abbott.

Many new noir stories have found a home in independent ebook and print-on-demand journals such as Beat to a Pulp, Thuglit, Noir Nation, and Melbourne’s Crime Factory. Independent publishers New Pulp Press and Stark House Press are doing important work publishing new and vintage noir, respectively. And we decided the work of independent crime publishers Dennis McMillan and Matthew Moring deserves attention; interviews with each appear in this issue and point the way to unjustly-neglected writers in the noir tradition.

We were aware of early American poetic noir offerings, from Kenneth Fearing’s Dead Reckoning (1938) and Stranger at Coney Island and Other Poems (1948) to Joseph Moncure March’s The Set-Up and The Wild Party, both from 1928, which were jointly republished in 1968 in a revised form that removed “ethnic references” thought to give possible offence to a 1960s reader. Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel rendering of The Wild Party (1994) restored those excised textual elements.

We had long admired Nicholas Christopher’s poetry. Two of his early poems, ‘Film Noir’ and ‘John Garfield’, appear herein with his kind permission. Noir has long been an animating influence on Christopher’s work. His verse novella, Desperate Characters (1989) was nicely blurbed as “The Lady from Shanghai as rewritten by Proust,” and his novel Veronica (1996) is in many ways neo-noir. Christopher’s Somewhere in the Night: Film Noir and the American City (1997) is his account of noir and the fascination it holds for him, from the initial moment of encountering the great Out of the Past (1947) in a small Parisian cinema off the Rue de Rennes after he had taken some opium, through to his long New York years which saw him diligently work through all 317 films listed in the Film Noir Encyclopedia (1988). In fact, he added extra titles, based on his own viewing, which he felt deserved inclusion.

We had hoped to set alongside Christopher’s ‘Film Noir’ another poem of that title found in Lourd Ernest H. De Veyra’s collection, Insectissimo! (2011) but couldn’t run him to ground in time for this issue to obtain reprint rights (i.e., your editors failed as gumshoes). We also liked Michael Atkinson’s lovely poem about John Garfield in his collection One Hundred Children Waiting For A Train (2002) and enjoyed Kevin Young’s long poem Black Maria (2005). Young’s noir poem series tells us it is “produced and directed” by him and it contains all the right noir props—ashtrays, gunsels, femme fatale, the set-up, the sucker, the speak-easy, the grift, the frame, the dive, the payback, and so on.

LA-based Suzanne Lummis has been running a noir poetry workshop for years; we are delighted to reprint two of her noir-themed poems in Contrappasso.

In short, we have to agree with James Naremore when he says that we now inhabit a “noir mediascape” (he borrows the term ‘mediascape’ from Arjun Appadurai). This is apparent from a casual encounter with the world of book publicity. Recent crime writing is referred to variously as “casino noir” (James Swain’s series of books beginning with Grift Sense) or “surf noir” (Kem Nunn’s Tapping the Source and later books). When he was reviewing a Joe Lansdale book, the great Daniel Woodrell described it as “backwoods noir”; both that descriptor and Woodrell’s self-applied “country noir” fit his own work (Tomato Red, Give us a Kiss, the excellent Winter’s Bone). We have feminist writers describing their works as “tart noir” and lesbian writers self-describing as “dyke noir.” And while we were completing this issue Jim Kitses urged us to read James Salter’s 1956 Korean War novel The Hunters as an instance of “military noir” (he urged us to read it in any case).

So settled is the term in publicity usage that we have noir by national location—”tartan noir” to describe some Scottish crime fiction, even “Australian noir” (see the essays in this issue by Andrew Nette and Mick Counihan). There is noir by US state, as in “Florida noir.” The vibrant series of city-focused noir anthologies from Akashic Books, an independent Brooklyn-based press founded by musician Johnny Temple, has now expanded beyond the US to focus on cities from New Delhi to Havana (Los Angeles Noir and Manila Noir are reviewed in this issue). In each anthology, noir stories and sometimes bits of graphic novels emerge from specific neighbourhoods. The noir sensibility is truly international.

As we finish up this introduction, news comes that Lou Reed has died. The venue seems appropriate for us to remember him for one of his many great songs, ‘Femme Fatale’.

We hope readers of this special issue of Contrappasso enjoy our explorations of noir in its many guises.


Contrappasso Goes to the Philippines: A Final Recap

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Contrappasso has a special relationship with the literature of the Philippines through the enthusiasms of our frequent contributor and occasional guest editor Noel King.

Earlier in 2016, we journeyed through the contemporary Filipino literary scene via in-depth reviews of recent books, interviews with key writers, short stories and novel extracts, as well as Noel King’s presentations at the Sixth International Philippine Literature Conference held in Davao, Mindanao on September 20-21, 2015.

Here is a final round-up of all the installments of that special online series. Some pieces had never before appeared in our publication, while others had appeared in earlier issues. The various pieces constitute, in a way, a special virtual 10th issue of Contrappasso.







Much of My Own Fictional Work Has Dealt With Low Life: An Interview with Jose Dalisay by Noel King

Jose Dalisay and the Marcos Period: An essay by Noel King

Killing Time in ’73: An essay by Jose Dalisay

Killing Time in a Warm Place: An extract from the novel by Jose Dalisay




Smaller and Smaller Circles: An Interview with F. H. Batacan (and Andrea Pasion-Flores) by Noel King


zamora linmark


Dear Jesus: A short story

Three Poems:

A Letter to Claire Danes from a Fan in Manila

After Douglas Sirk’s Written on the Wind

Twelve Short Takes on Montgomery Clift




Love in Mini-Stops:  A short story




Fat Elvis in Kamias: A poem



World Publishing Today by Noel King

Books Beyond Borders by Noel King


Bringing in the Evidence: Mia Alvar’s In the Country: A review by Noel King

A Woman of Mystery, A Femme Fatale: Manila Noir: A review by Noel King

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[Header image: Pasig City by Yacine Petitprez. Image altered. Reproduced under a CC licence.]


Contrappasso Extra: ‘Literary Prizes and Reviews’ by Noel King



This text is based on a presentation given by Noel King at the Sixth International Philippine Literature Conference held in Davao, Mindanao, on September 20-21, 2015. This version includes some material added after that presentation.


The Australian dollar currently is worth around 75 cents of a US dollar, and the average income for a writer in Australia is $12,900 a year, which is why so many writers and creatives, in Australia as elsewhere, drive cabs, work in restaurants, or teach. That amount of around $13,000 is not a living wage (Steger, 2015). Accordingly, winning a literary prize can be a windfall for a writer, permitting him or her to devote themselves undiverted to their craft for a certain measure of time.

On the general matter of writing and money, and using film adaptation as an example, however complicated critical discussions can get concerning the relation of a literary work to its film adaptation, one thing is certain: if the budget for the film is sufficiently large then the author’s percentage after first day of principal photography will permit him or her to feel secure about a comfortable short-to-mid-term future for their writing. Much as William Faulkner’s literary career benefited from the money thrown his way by Hollywood and Howard Hawks, allowing him to stay home in Oxford, Mississippi, to write his celebrated novels and stories, so Daniel Woodrell benefited from the $35 million budget attached to Ang Lee’s Ride with the Devil (1999), based on Woodrell’s 1987 book, Woe to Live On. Woodrell’s portion of that money funded his next five years of writing, giving him the time to try different things and directions, one of which was Winter’s Bone, which sold better than all his previous work and also was adapted into film.

In The Economy of Prestige: Prizes, Awards, and the Circle of Cultural Value, James F. English cites the Nobel Prize for Literature’s beginning in 1901 as the start of literary prize culture. Australia’s only Nobel Prize winner, Patrick White, was privately wealthy and so took the $80,000 dynamite money he received in 1973, tossed in an additional $20,000 of his own, and established the Patrick White Award. Given annually to an Australian writer who is regarded as having made a significant contribution to Australian literature across the body of their work, the prize brings with it $23,000. It is given to an oeuvre rather than a one-off work. The 2015 recipient was Joan London, a writer based in Fremantle, Western Australian. Previous recipients have included Amanda Lohrey, Christina Stead, Randolph Stow, and Elizabeth Harrower. London’s most recent novel, The Golden Age, also won the 2015 Australian Prime Minister’s award with its tax-free amount of $80,000. So, together with her Patrick White award, London will have $103,000 to fund her writing over the next few years, independently of whatever royalties she earns.


John Berger

We should recognise up front that one sideshow aspect to literary awards concerns scandals, as English notes. Scandals can be a lot of fun. In 1972 John Berger presented the BBC’s Ways of Seeing series, which was accompanied by a little book that must have sold vastly well across decades, being course-adopted in the UK, US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, into great numbers of undergraduate degrees in art history, visual arts, and media studies. Berger favoured blue shirts but for reasons of television film cameras and the use of blue screen, that wouldn’t work, so he had to duck outside the studio and buy some shirts without blue in them, as producer Mike Dibbs explains: “He arrived back with what has provoked much comment over the years, a pair of identical cream and reed ‘chain-mail’ shirts, circa 1971. We didn’t give them a second thought then, and now they’re iconic!”. At the height of this paisley-shirt-wearing fame Berger won the 1972 Booker Prize for his novel G. He refused it, saying he would donate half the money to the Black Panthers and use the other half to fund his writing of A Seventh Man, his and Jean Mohr’s study of migrant workers in Europe. In 2015, Verso put up on its website the text of Berger’s speech, and the following quotations come from there:

The competitiveness of prizes I find distasteful. And in the case of this prize the publication of the shortlist, the deliberately publicised suspense, the speculation of the writers concerned as though they were horses, the whole emphasis on winners and losers is false and out of place in the context of literature.

Nevertheless prizes act as a stimulus – not to writers themselves but to publishers, readers and booksellers. And so the basic cultural value of a prize depends upon what it is a stimulus to. To the conformity of the market and the consensus of average opinion; or to imaginative independence on the part of both reader and writer. If a prize only stimulates conformity, it merely underwrites success as it is conventionally understood. It constitutes no more than any other chapter in a success story. If it stimulates imaginative independence, it encourages the will to seek alternatives. Or, to put it very simply, it encourages people to question…

One does not have to be a novelist seeking very subtle connections to trace the five thousand pounds of this prize back to the economic activities from which they came. Booker McConnell have had extensive trading interests in the Caribbean for over 130 years. The modern poverty of the Caribbean is the direct result of this and similar exploitation. One of the consequences of this Caribbean poverty is that hundreds of thousands of West Indians have been forced to come to Britain as migrant workers. Thus my book about migrant workers would be financed from the profits made directly out of them or their relatives and ancestors.

It’s similar to those Hollywood Academy Award moments of refusal of best Acting Oscars: from George C. Scott, who in 1971 refused his Best Acting Oscar for the Francis Coppola-scripted Patton and called the Awards a “goddamn meat parade”, and Marlon Brando’s declining of his 1972 Best Actor award for his role as the titular character in Coppola’s The Godfather, sending in his place a beautiful Native American woman, Sacheen Littlefeather.

If we broaden the notion of “scandal” to include “hoax,” then Australia has a distinguished record in this regard, from the 1940s ‘Ern Malley’ hoax where two Australian writers, James McAuley and Harold Stewart, concocted sixteen poems meant to ridicule then-current trends in modernist poetry, and submitted them to Max Harris in Adelaide who edited a journal devoted to new currents in modernist writing, Angry Penguins. The fake poems appeared in the Autumn 1944 issue of that journal. Inevitably, once the hoax played itself out, Harris’s reputation suffered for a while, but the poems became celebrated and continued to be published, a line from one of the fraudulent poems even giving Australian cultural critic Humphrey McQueen the title for his book on Australian modernist painting, The Black Swan of Trespass: The Emergence of Modernist Painting in Australia to 1944. It’s a bit like a literary version of the ‘Sokal Affair’ visited on the Duke University Press journal, Social Text, in 1996 when a physicist submitted an article to the highly regarded US cultural studies journal in order to demonstrate that C. P. Snow’s “Two Cultures” were no closer to getting together.

In Australia in 1994 the ‘Helen Demidenko Affair’ occurred in which the fraud concerned a University of Queensland student named Helen Darville, whose parents were English immigrants. Darville won the Vogel Prize, the Gold Medal of the Australian Literature Society, and the Miles Franklin Award for a novel whose authorial name was ‘Helen Demidenko’ and whose father allegedly was an illiterate Ukrainian cab driver who had emigrated to northern Queensland. This novel, The Hand That Signed the Paper, purported to be an account of the treatment of Ukrainians by neighbouring Jews during the Ukrainian famine of WWII, and also an account of Ukrainian participation in the Holocaust. Demidenko later went on to postgraduate study at Oxford University.


In the case of the allegedly Aboriginal writing of ‘Banumbir (or Birimbir) Wongar,’ whose 1977 collection of twelve short stories, The Track to Bralgu, gained international attention from Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, and was published in the US in 1978 by Boston’s Little, Brown & Co, the author was found to be Sreten Bozic, a Serbian anthropologist who lived in Melbourne, and who at one point said criticism of his literary-authorial deception should be tempered by the fact that he had been treated as an Aborigine throughout his life, i.e. treated badly. By the way, has anyone ever traced the “real” identity of B. Traven?

And last – but only in terms of random examples from Australia – in 1980 Paul Radley won the inaugural Vogel Award (for an unpublished manuscript by writers under the age of 35) with his book, Jack Rivers and Me, which sixteen years later he said had been written not by him but by his great uncle, Jack Radley. In one sense we should probably align scandals such as these with those routine media stories whereby the work of a canonised author (Patrick White, Henry James, Jane Austen) is sent off to a contemporary publisher and inevitably declined for not being quite what the publishing house is after. I think these instances and the Sokal incident indicate that some people have too much time on their hands, whereas the other scandals are more intriguing.

The US has seen instances of plagiarised or invented pieces of writing succeed in winning prizes, such as Stephen Glass’s journalism, only then to be exposed and shamed, only for that moment of humiliation to generate a further confessional publication in a mea culpa vein which sees even more books sold, this time by a penitent, disgraced author. This puts us awfully close to the stunts used by P. T. Barnum, as reported in Daniel Boorstin’s 1962 book, The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America. Boorstin says, “Barnum was perhaps the first modern master of pseudo-events, of contrived occurrences which lent themselves to being widely and vividly reported.” In 1835 Barnum “exhibited Joice Heth, an aged negress whom he advertised as the 161 year old former nurse of George Washington. For a while he made fifteen hundred dollars a week from her.” Heth later died at the age of eighty but not before Barnum had shown “his mastery of the art of compounding pseudo-events” by writing to newspapers denouncing his own exhibition as a hoax and claiming that Joice Heth was not a human being but “simply a curiously constructed automaton, made up of whalebone, india-rubber, and numerous springs ingeniously put together and made to move at the slightest touch, according to the will of the operator. The operator is a ventriloquist.” Boorstin’s interpretation of Barnum’s exercises in early publicity is to say, “Contrary to popular belief, Barnum’s great discovery was not how easy it was to deceive the public, but rather, how much the public enjoyed being deceived.”

The United States also has tossed up some instances of fictional works masquerading as non-fictional works, simply because non-fiction was deemed a better-selling genre, again leading to shaming and exposure, but of course the book sales had already happened. In 2008 Pete Ayrton, publisher of Serpent’s Tail Press (see short history below) commented on this trend: “Like that woman, Margaret Jones, who wrote about her life with a Chicago gang. It would have been a good novel but it would have got nowhere and she felt she had to re-cast it as non-fiction. And the same thing happened with that life of a boy soldier. Nowadays everybody has to make their story non-fiction and true.” Around that same time Ayrton wrote a piece for the April issue of Author in which he said:

Fiction writers are forced by the pressure of publishers and agents to present their work as non-fiction and are discredited when the truth comes out – Margaret Jones’s Love and Consequences about Chicago gangs would have made a great novel. Unfortunately, she felt the need to present it as fact and was exposed by her sister! Because it is the author that is fêted and not the book, today’s readers are in danger of losing the ability to read fiction.

A rather different, more solemn example of a scandal or controversy concerns the fact that Michel Houellebecq’s most recent novel, Soumission (Submission), was released in 2015 on the day of the Charlie Hebdo murders in Paris. The utter coincidence of this overlap of an already controversial writer whose latest novel seemed to share a ‘content’ with ongoing anxieties and debates about Islam, ISIS and terrorism, generated much critical-cultural debate. And this controversy can only have been exacerbated by the tragedy of the recent acts of terrorism in Paris and Brussels.


In this next section I will act as a conduit for opinions expressed on some of the topics we have addressed in some of our Davao conference sessions, by quoting some opinions from several of the publishers I have interviewed over the last twenty years. This way you get to hear the opinions of professionals working in the field. One of the questions I asked each of the small-independent presses with whom I was fortunate enough to speak was whether a particular literary prize and/or a favourable book review had led to a spike in their sales. As they gave their various answers they sometimes mentioned other things that had benefited their commercial enterprises, and I mention some of these below.

In 2006 Ray Coffey of Fremantle Arts Centre Press in Perth, Western Australia, four to five hours by plane from east coast Australia, pondered whether the seemingly ever-increasing Australian literary prize culture had helped FACP secure more sales, and concluded:

Prizes have been very important, particularly in the early days. Operating from Western Australia, working away from the centres of Melbourne and Sydney, has always had its difficulties, but there has been some advantage to that. In the early days, particularly, for our size and the small number of books we did, we were really very successful in the number of reviews we got from around Australia. Maybe it was novelty value.

We found with literary prizes, from the outset, that unless it costs a fortune to enter, you enter! Because opinion-makers judge prizes and even if you don’t win, if you are attempting to draw attention to your list and key people are reading for this poetry prize, or that fiction or history prize, then they’re seeing your books regularly. And they talk to other people. And then when you win one every now and then, it helps the editors of the literary pages of journals and newspapers, dailies, weeklies to start looking more closely at your titles. And with some prizes there are advantages in terms of direct sales. Some more than others. In our experience the Miles Franklin is the one that leads to the biggest number of sales. After that it would be the NSW Premier’s and the Victorian Premier’s awards on about a par. In terms of the response from readers, with most prizes sales drop away pretty quickly but you do see an initial little sales-spike here and there. In Western Australia we have the WA Literary Awards and we’ve had several winners of these. While that doesn’t affect Australia-wide sales, it certainly affects the local market. Because, let’s face it, when you walk into a bookshop, you can be overwhelmed by the choice. I’m in the trade and I’m overwhelmed! They’re all saying ‘buy me!’, but it can be the Tower of Babel with so many voices of relatively equal pitch, so you can be drawn to whatever little badge or stripe is on a book, or a to a quotation from someone famous.

The other big prizes are the Children’s Book Council Book of the Year Awards. Even being short-listed there is good because children’s librarians, teachers, parents buy off those gold and silver badges. So even short-listing can lead to a significant jump in sales. And to win means a very big jump. Yes, prizes are important.

In London I have been very lucky, across a couple of decades, to interview Pete Ayrton of Serpent’s Tail Press on a regular basis, getting his changing assessments of how these things factored in to his press at a given moment in its publishing history.

Serpent’s Tail Press was established in August 1986 when Peter Ayrton and John Hampson got together to set up a publishing press based on the models of late 1960s radical political presses in France, Holland, Germany, and Italy. Ayrton was the publisher and Hampson the sales manager. They had met while working at Al Saqi, a leftist press specialising in books on the Middle East and each had experience with other left-leaning presses, Ayrton at Pluto and Hampson at Verso. In the beginning, the press was based at Ayrton’s house and they worked with a team of freelance translators, designers and illustrators, producing their first books in August 1987.

In 1987 Marsha Rowe left her co-editor position at Spare Rib to become Serpent’s Tail’s fiction editor. In 1989 Serpent’s Tail won the Sunday Times Small Press Publisher of the Year award, edging out Verso Books, Bloodaxe Books, and Element Books. By 1992 Serpent’s Tail was publishing about thirty books a year in print runs of up to 5,000, seeking to represent marginal, dissenting voices of various kinds. For example, in the wake of the notorious Section 28 of the Local Government Act (which prohibited local authorities from “promoting homosexuality”) Serpent’s Tail strengthened its list of gay and lesbian writing, publishing Ian Bartlett’s Who Was That Man?, a mixed-genre discussion of cultural shifts from Oscar Wilde in the 1880s to late 1980s British gay culture, and the Simon Watney et al non-fiction anthology, Taking Liberties, a book which showed how various institutions discriminate against people with AIDS.

Serpent’s Tail Press very soon was sufficiently successful to be able to move from Ayrton’s house to a small renovated terrace in Blackstock Mews, a short walk from Finsbury Park tube station. In their first seven years of publishing, they translated innovative fiction from Spain, Germany, and Argentina, instituted a cultural studies list, and experimented with the publication of some books of political photo-journalism. This was the Serpent’s Tail context when I first interviewed Pete Ayrton back in 1992, asking him how he was managing to survive as an independent publisher. He said:

It’s a very exciting business to be in because it must be the only business left in which minnows like us can take on multinationals and have more or less the same chance of getting a lead review in a national newspaper. Whereas, with the other cultural industries, like music or films, you need millions of pound or dollars to start. You can start in publishing by doing one book. For instance, recently there’s been a self-publishing of a Jamaican thriller called Yardie, which has sold 10,000 in a month. They just put it in the bookshops and it goes. That’s what makes it an exciting business to be in at the moment.

The success of that book by Victor Headley, detailing a Jamaican subculture of gangs and drugs, saw its author go on to publish another four novels with larger presses. It is a moment that seems to have come full circle and wound up in New York, where, thirty years on, authors like K’wan Foye and Vickie Stringer have replicated the success of Yardie. As Neil Munshi explains, Foye’s self-published novel Gangsta was sold “out of the trunks of cars, through street vendors, beauty salons and barbershops in Harlem and black neighbourhoods on the east coast” and had sold 80,000 copies “before it saw the inside of a Barnes and Noble.”

Foye hooked up with Stringer by way of the email address she had on the back of her self-published book, Let That Be The Reason, written while she was “serving a seven year sentence for selling a kilo of cocaine to an undercover cop.” Stringer had an imprint named after her former drug crew, Triple Crown Publications, and offered to publish Gangsta. Foye accepted and his next book, Road Dawgz, came out with St Martin’s Press. This sub-genre is called “street lit” and “urban fiction,” and it makes a lot of money, selling in the 100,000s for those who get to the top of this particular pulp pile. But Munshi says that mainstream publishing avoids it. If the success of Yardie recalled the moment of Perry Henzell’s The Harder They Come (1972), then Gangsta and its world might recall Spike Lee’s early hour-length film, Joe’s Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads (1983).



No doubt you are all aware of the most lucrative international literary awards, such as Dublin’s IMPAC Award, worth 100,000 euros. In their 2013 piece for The Sunday Telegraph, “Top 25 Literary Prizes,” Jon Stock and Kealey Rigden list a host of UK prizes that range from £60,000 (the Man Booker International, offered every two years) to £50,000 (the annual Man Booker) to £40,000 (the David Cohen Prize for Lifetime Achievement, the Folio Award) to £35,000 (the Costa Award) to £30,000 (The Women’s Prize, formerly known as the Orange Prize), and so on. In 2012 Hilary Mantel scooped several of these awards, winning the Man Booker and Costa Book Award for her novel, Bring Up the Bodies, as well as £40,000 from the David Cohen, taking her total winnings to £125,000. In 2015 the BBC adapted Mantel’s first book in this series, Wolf Hall, into a six-part drama series and no doubt more will follow.

Australia has a great many literary awards. Each state has its own set of Premier’s awards with prize money ranging from $10,000 to $100,000. In the case of these state literary awards, the categories are usually the familiar ones of poetry, fiction, non-fiction, young adult, children’s, and a supervening Book of the Year award which can go to any of the winning entries in the sub-categories to give that title a further $10,000. There is also a Prime Minister’s Book Award, alluded to earlier, which carries a tax-free prize of $80,000.

A la the UK’s Women’s Prize, Australia offers special awards for female writers, and an award for writing by women which offers a positive depiction of women and/or girls. These prizes bring with them $23,000. In 2016 the Stella Prize, given to a book written by an Australian female writer that is deemed “original, excellent, and engaging,” was worth $50,000. Writers short-listed for this award received $2,000 and a two-week paid Writer’s Retreat to help them develop their fiction.

In her piece, “On Literary Awards,” for Inside Story website, Susan Lever says:

This plethora of prizes may be overwhelming to readers, but for writers in Australia, an English-speaking country with access to the literary publishing of the rest of the world, they offer a little financial support and, sometimes, help in building a reputation and boosting sales. It remains difficult for a literary writer to make any kind of living from publishing in Australia.

But the relation of prize-author-press-money still requires some teasing out. Courtesy of some national and state autobiography awards, a friend of mine, John Hughes, won $40,000 for his memoir, The Idea of Home. He was also invited across from Sydney to Perth and hosted to some lovely food and wine by Janet Holmes à Court down at Western Australia’s Margaret River region.

It is also true that on some occasions the press which has published an award-winning writer might not see much increase in book sales as a result of the award. We know that it is not always the case that winning the Booker Prize – an award established by Jonathan Cape Press – will generate sales. Famously, in 1994 James Kelman won the Booker with How Late it Was, How Late, written in a Scots dialect, and his book sold scarcely any copies in the wake of his award success. That is, some prizes benefit the writer a great deal and the press scarcely at all, while some other prizes benefit both.

Fiction translated into English is always helped by winning a major award. When Austrian writer Elfriede Jelinek became a Nobel Prize winner, Serpent’s Tail sold 100,000 of The Piano Teacher and 25,000 of the other books of hers they had in their list. Prior to that they had sold 4,000 copies of all of her works on which they held English translation rights. So it seems to depend on which prize you win. I remember the year of the Academy Awards when Phil Kauffman’s excellent film of Tom Wolfe’s book about Chuck Yeager and co, The Right Stuff (1983) was up for seven awards. The studio was desperate to win some awards and generate more financial life for the film. But the four awards given were in the technical areas (Film Editing, Tom Conti’s Music Score, Best Sound, and Best Sound Effects) as opposed to gaining awards for acting, cinematography, director and best film. In 2016 we might now see 1983 as a watershed year in Academy Award prize culture. Receiving those awards had a negligible impact on The Right Stuff’s box-office whereas there now seems a much greater general interest among filmgoers in the technical, geeky aspects of filmmaking. As the latest embrace of 3-D by filmmakers and film viewers indicates, most viewers of James Cameron’s Avatar were deeply involved in analysing and appreciating its technical features, as opposed to earlier ineffective, sporadic experiments with forms of 3-D that had accompanied cinema from its birth through to the 1950s.


In Australia two things usually follow on from a book winning a major award or even from being short-listed. First, a host of local state municipal libraries acquire it, as do university libraries. The absence of any strong library system at municipal or university level in the Philippines means that this flow-on factor wouldn’t work here.

Second, in Australia, such prize-winning works sometimes find themselves adopted onto state-based secondary education curricula and when this happens many private secondary schools – Australia’s equivalent of the English “public school” – invite the author to address their students who are studying this text. The text in question is thus humanised and personalised for this elite cohort of student-readers, and the author is healthily remunerated.

A different perspective on these issues of literary celebrity, prize cultures, and book sales comes from a long-time friend and wonderful Australian writer of fiction and non-fiction, Amanda Lohrey (cited earlier as a recent winner of the Patrick White award) who said, in an email:

A few Australian writers have succeeded in constructing themselves as a brand – Tim Winton, Peter Carey, Helen Garner – but for most other Australian writers it’s tough. Buyers of literary fiction are one of the demographics most adversely affected by economic trends over the past two decades – ask librarians who are the real trackers of who reads what and why, and who used to buy and now borrows. Publishing literary fiction continues to be a form of high-class gambling, and you can pass this along to any aspiring young writers you know.


In March 2002, when Michiko Kakutani gave a rave review in the New York Times to the Hobart, Tasmania-based Australian author Richard Flanagan for his novel Gould’s Book of Fish, Flanagan was, in very quick succession, interviewed by a Los Angeles radio programme and hurried by his publisher across to the US for a whistle-stop coast-to-coast tour of book readings and book signings – all to capitalise on one review. London-based publisher François von Hurter, one-third of Bitter Lemon Press, which specialises mainly in translated crime fiction, said that a single review in The New York Times had great impact on sales, much more so than any single review in any English newspaper.

Pete Ayrton’s take on this question was:

I think this is more true in the States where a full sized review in the New York Times will cause something to really take off. I don’t think there is one place in the UK so I don’t think that is so much the case here. The thing about the New York Times is that it’s the only national newspaper in the US, apart from USA Today, which is unimportant for books. Whereas here we have the Guardian, the Independent, the Times, the Telegraph, and so on. I think what’s important in Britain is if you can get five or six or seven reviews. Joe Boyd’s White Bicycles: Making Music in the 1960s, upon publication, was reviewed more or less everywhere, and that causes people to notice. But I don’t think there’s any one place in the UK where one review or interview will crack it.

In the UK and Australia the increasing prominence of TV book shows is another factor granting visibility and prestige to literary works. Everyone remembers that Oprah had enormous impact on book sales in the US, guaranteeing an additional million copies sold for each title selected, and allowing for the scandal in 2001 that accompanied Jonathan Franzen’s baulking at Oprah’s endorsement of his The Corrections, and his reluctance to have Oprah’s stamp on his book.

When mulling over the impact that UK book shows had exerted on Serpent’s Tail titles, Pete Ayrton said that it was the televising of these awards that was having the greatest influence and then added that readers’ groups had become very important to book sales:

Richard and Judy is pretty mainstream. They select good books but they’re not going for ‘edgy.’ Of our books they possibly would have selected Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin but they didn’t. And Richard and Judy are probably the sort of people who don’t like the maternal ambivalence in the book, the fact that a mother could be questioning her role and her love of her children. TV programmes like these have grown enormously in importance, and literary prizes have as well: the Booker Prize, the Orange Prize, the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction, they now all have much greater visibility because they’re televised, and they can really push sales. The other thing which has developed on a very large scale since we last spoke is readers’ groups. This is a big, big phenomenon.

People meet in bookshops, libraries, peoples’ homes. It’s almost 95% women and obviously that means certain books will meet the demands of that particular market very well. A book like Kevin is absolutely ideal for readers’ groups. I’ve been with Lionel Shriver to groups of 80 and 90 people, most of whom haven’t read the book, and they are saying, ‘I have a Kevin,’ ‘my son’s like Kevin,’ ‘the mother was quite right, I’ve sometimes felt like that,’ ‘was it nurture, was it nature?’ Any kind of book that poses these kinds of questions is ideal for readers’ groups, and they are a very fast-growing phenomenon.

In the US that is called “the water cooler debate.” At one point Kevin had sold 600,000 copies in two editions and was selling 1,000 copies a week. US writer Shriver has been a long-term London resident and reviews books regularly in the London press. In 2011 Kevin became a film starring Tilda Swinton and no doubt further sales piggy-backed on the circulation of the film.

The most recent big selling success for Serpent’s Tail is their importing of the US book, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves which, as of November 2015, had sold 750,000 copies in print and ebook. Earlier in its career Serpent’s Tail had experienced great success with what Ayrton referred to as “posh porn,” by which he meant English language translations of French author Catherine Millet’s The Sexual Life of Catherine M, which sold 50,000 in trade paperback and 150,000 in mass market. Serpent’s Tail followed this with the translation of another sexual confession, this time by a very young Italian woman, Melissa P’s 100 Strokes of the Brush Before Bed, and that also did very well, selling 35,000 in trade paperback for Serpent’s Tail, and eventually selling 2 million worldwide.

In respect of television literary chat shows and their place in all of this, from 1975 until 1990, France had Apostrophes as a weekly ninety minute television literary talk show, hosted by Bernard Pivot. The viewing audience was between 3 to 6 million and the show helped generate considerable sales for the books and authors it discussed. According to the New York Times, Roland Barthes sold 80,000 copies of one of his many books after appearing on the programme. Australia currently has Jennifer Byrne’s hosting of the ABC’s Book Club. The format sees Byrne moderate a discussion with two regular guests, Marieke Hardy, granddaughter of celebrated Australian Communist writer, Frank Hardy, and Jason Steger, Books Editor for Melbourne’s The Age and Sunday Age newspapers. Each week these three are joined by writers who might be Australian or might be overseas writers visiting as guests at one or other of Australia’s literary festivals. So it’s a celebrity book chat show and there are clear limitations to the terms in which books can be discussed. Even so, it was from watching this programme that I discovered how brilliant Colm Tóibín, David Malouf, and Richard Flanagan are at explaining a book, contextualising a piece of writing and making a serious case for it, so at its best The Book Show exhibits a flexible format.


To take the notion of “awards culture” in a slightly different direction, in the case of Australia we must mention the widespread adoption over the last twenty-five years of postgraduate degrees in the creative arts, along the lines of the US’s MFA and Doctorates in Creative Writing, and of opportunities for funded Creative Writing postgraduate study in the UK at places like University of East Anglia, set up more than four decades ago by Malcolm Bradbury and Angus Wilson. Now such degrees are available all over the UK. The flourishing in Australian tertiary education of the Doctorate of Creative Arts (sometimes called PhD by Unconventional Format) has permitted many creative writers, across all media (fiction and non-fiction writing, graphic novels, poetry, drama, radio-sonic, film-TV, digital), so long as they are Australian residents, to receive three and one-half years funding at $25,000 a year plus whatever additional funds are available at a given university for assistance with the candidate’s general research needs and occasional need for conference attendance.

When I was pitching this avenue of funding to various writer friends, from the mid-1990s to around 2010 or so, trying to persuade them to come on down, I always characterised it as an “alternative arts council grant,” and this often proved persuasive. This was a perfect storm of institutional and individual self-interest whereby many people who might otherwise have stomped around banging on about “the school of hard knocks,” denouncing the privileged safety of “the groves of academe” while saying “those who can, do, and those who can’t, teach” suddenly were very happy to come in and be funded for three and one-half years. Since the average income of a writer in Australia, as indicated at the start of this presentation, is $12,900 a year, the creative writing doctoral scholarship money was both substantially more than that – almost double – and also more than any book advance the writer was likely to receive. The result was a large number of postgraduate completions in this new area of Creative Studies across all media forms, one of whom was the Filipino Miguel Syjuco who did his doctoral study at the University of Adelaide. And under the Australian system these scholarship holders would have no academic fee debt because that was looked after by the host institution.

International Postgraduate Awards and Vice Chancellor Awards are funded generously at Australia’s “Group of Eight” universities (e.g. Sydney University, Melbourne University, ANU, UNSW, UWA etc.) but of late the Humanities is far less likely to receive this money than are the hard science departments. So this little industry has been complicated by issues of residency/visas, and punitively high tuition costs for overseas students that increasingly cash-strapped Humanities areas of Australian universities are most unlikely to fund. Add in rising costs of medical coverage for overseas students and we have reached a point where this formerly safe harbour now finds itself being ravaged by the rapacious idiocy of neoliberalism that everywhere blights the Australian tertiary education sector, as it does the UK tertiary educational system. The US system is hugely competitive in terms of being able to receive fully funded places in Creative Writing at eminent institutions (only six places available at Johns Hopkins University and so on) but their system, now definitely straitened, always had many other cards to play in this context of funding postgraduate study: from full scholarship to tuition waiver or offering in-state tuition to an out-of-state student, to undergraduate teaching contracts for the duration of the higher degree being undertaken, and so on.

In the wake of Mark McGurl’s book, The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing (2009) – reviewed twice in the London Review of Books – a conversation has started on the history of tertiary education creative writing courses in the US. Chad Harbach’s edited collection MFA vs NYC (2014) introduces the topic of whether being in a major US city (New York, Chicago, L.A., San Francisco) and attending writing classes and literary events might be as worthwhile as incurring a considerable debt to have university letters after one’s name. Juliana Spahr and Stephanie Young’s Los Angeles Review of Books article, “The Program Era and the Mainly White Room,” tells us that one of the article’s authors incurred a debt of $27,000 to undertake her MFA, and has repaid $30,000 so far with $13,000 still to go. Her co-author had, the year earlier and twenty years after graduation, made her final payment on a debt of more than $70,000 required to acquit her original loan of $30,000. As they explain:

Creative writing programs really started to take off in the 1990s. Prior to the 1990s, many writers taught in higher education and this shaped the aesthetics of American literature, as the scholar Mark McGurl has shown in his The Program Era. But it is not until the 1990s that the idea that one should necessarily turn to higher education if one wants to become a writer becomes an idea that more than 6,000 people have each year.

They argue that “prior to the 1990s and the intensifying financial pressures that brought about the corporatization of the university, English departments tended to have a studious lack of interest that bordered on disdain about the teaching of creative writing.” This is very similar to the circumstances that obtained in Australia at the same time, when creative writing began to consolidate itself at postgraduate level at most Australian universities. Their meticulous description of the university management practise of shaving margins that sees predominantly adjunct teaching staff used to teach increased numbers in courses like these that are deemed “cheap to run (no studio space or lab space required, low technology needs, very deep adjunct pool) and tuition generating” applies equally to the Australian university context. And the fact that D. G. Myers’s 2006 second edition of his The Elephants Teach: Creative Writing Since 1880 finds him debating points made by Asian-Australian Paul Dawson in his Creative Writing and the New Humanities (2004), results in a brief, informative sketch of the differences and overlaps between these two national university systems’ embrace of creative writing as a tertiary education money-spinner.

To conclude, an anecdote concerning one person I persuaded to come into PhD study at the University of Technology, Sydney – John Hughes, whose book, The Idea of Home, published by Sydney independent press Giramondo, won $40,000 in literary awards. That was done as his doctoral thesis on full scholarship across three and one-half years (exactly like Miguel Syjuco’s doctorate undertaken at the University of Adelaide). Earlier in his career John had received the Shell Scholarship in the Arts – only one is awarded in all of Australia – to undertake postgraduate study at either Oxford or Cambridge. He chose Cambridge, stayed four years working on his doctoral topic, “Tropes in Literary Criticism from Coleridge to Derrida,” but did not submit his thesis. His supervisor urged him to stay on at Cambridge and work as a postman but he declined and returned to Australia, working as a rural fireman and tutoring in Humanities courses at a polytechnic in my home town, Newcastle, where he had done his Honours degree in English prior to winning the Shell Scholarship. It was in Newcastle that I got to know him and very gradually, over several years, I persuaded him to re-enter the academic world by way of a doctoral scholarship at UTS. He agreed and after a very easy supervision – his prose was perfect – in which I suggested some books and articles, he won the UTS Vice-Chancellor’s Award for Best Dissertation in the Humanities, and that became the book Giramondo published. For a few years after that I tried to lure John from his job teaching English at an all-boys’ school, Sydney Grammar, into a University post. That dance continued a while until John and his wife unexpectedly and late in life had a baby, and his deal at Sydney Grammar meant that so long as he taught there his son would receive a private school education for a tenth of the usual price. He then became the school’s Librarian and his only teaching duty involved running two special tutorials, one on European Literature for a small group of very intelligent boys most of whom would go on to do Law and Medicine at University.

One day, as we were catching up over a beer in a local pub, I asked how much Sydney Grammar paid him as a Librarian and Senior Teacher in order to compare it with my salary as a Senior Lecturer, and see how plausible was my attempt to lure him into the world of Australian tertiary education. He told me his salary and I told him it was what a full Professor in the Humanities would receive at an Australian university. He already knew his work conditions were far better than anything that would obtain in our neo-liberal tertiary education system.

So I left John Hughes to his Librarian duties at Sydney Grammar School, a job which allows him plenty of time to read the work of other librarians- such as Philip Larkin and Jorge Luis Borges – whenever the mood takes him.


Texts Cited

Peter Ayrton, “We Need To Talk About Fiction,” Author (UK) (April 2008).

John Berger, “’I have to turn this prize against itself’ — John Berger on accepting the Booker Prize for Fiction, 23 November 1972,” reprinted in a blog by Sarah Shin (November 5th, 2015).

John Berger, Let Seven Men Write Your Poem: A Season in London (London: artevents, 2005).

Daniel Boorstin, The Image: A Guide to Pseudo Events in America (1962) (New York: Vintage, 2012).

Paul Dawson, Creative Writing and the New Humanities (London: Routledge, 2004).

‘Helen Demidenko’/Helen Darville, The Hand that Signed the Paper (Sydney: Allan & Unwin, 1993).

Mike Dibbs, “On Documentary: Re-Seeing Ways of Seeing,” in John Berger, Let Seven Men Write Your Poem: A Season in London (London: artevents, 2005): 26-30.

James F. English, The Economy of Prestige: Prizes, Awards, and the Circle of Cultural Value (Harvard UP, 2005).

Chad Harbach (ed.), MFA vs NYC (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014).

Michael Heyward, The Ern Malley Affair (Brisbane: Univ. of Queensland Press, 1993).

John Hughes, The Idea of Home (Sydney: Giramondo Press, 2004).

Michel Houellebecq, Submission trans. Loren Stein (London: William Heinemann, 2015).

Noel King, ‘’The Main Thing We Book Publishers have Going for us is the books themselves: An Interview with Pete Ayrton of Serpent’s Tail Press, Islington, London 12 July 2006,” Critical Quarterly 49, 3 (Autumn 2007): 104-119.

Noel King, “A bridge between all these literatures that we love: Interview with Francois von Hurter, Bitter Lemon Press, London 10 July 2006,” Critical Quarterly 49, 1-2 (Summer 2007): 62-80.

Noel King, “’I Can’t Go on, I’ll Go On’: Interview with Ray Coffey of Fremantle Arts Centre Press” Westerly, 51 (November 2006): 31-54.

Noel King, “An Exciting Business to be in at the Moment”: Interview with Peter Ayrton of Serpent’s Tail Press, Euphoria Cafe Bar, Blackstock Road, London, 25 September 1992.

Susan Lever, “On Literary Awards,” Inside Story, 13 May 2016.

Mark McGurl, The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard Univ. Press, 2009)

Humphrey McQueen, The Black Swan of Trespass: The Emergence of Modernist Painting in Australia to 1944 (Sydney: Alternative Publishing, 1979).

Neil Munshi, “We gonna make books our hustle,” The Weekend Financial Times (14-15 November, 2015): 1-2.

G. Myers, The Elephants Teach: Creative Writing Since 1880 Second Edition (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 2006).

Juliana Spahr and Stephanie Young, “The Program Era an the Mainly White Room,” Los Angeles Review of Books (September 2015).

Paul Radley (Jack Radley), Jack Rivers and Me (Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1981).

Jason Steger, “At $12,900 a year literary fiction does not pay: study,” The Sydney Morning Herald (Thursday, October 8th, 2015): 29.

Jon Stock and Kealey Rigden, “Top 25 Literary Prizes,” The Sunday Telegraph (15 October 2013).

“French TV Show on Book’s Ending,” New York Times (September 5, 1989).

“Banumbir/Birimbir Wongar”/Sretin Bozic, The Track to Bralgu (Boston: Little, Brown & Co, 1978).



NOEL KING has worked in many Australian universities, in a variety of media and cultural studies contexts: at Griffith University (1977-1980), the South Australian College of Advanced Education (now the University of SA, 1980-1986), Curtin University (1986-1989), UTS (1989-2001), the University of Tasmania (2002-2003), and Macquarie University (2003-2012). He has co-edited two special issues of Contrappasso on Noir and Writers at the Movies.

[Header image: Book by Jan Murin @Flickr. Used under this CC licence.]

CP Goes to the Philippines: ‘Fat Elvis in Kamias’ by Lourd Ernest H. de Veyra



You will never see Graceland – The Bible

Fat Elvis drags his fat ass across dark Kamias Road,
Downed by Demerol, drunk with Emperador, and the fuming memory of fame past,
Humming a lost tune that goes something like
Snapping his fingers, taking long drags on his Hope,
Sniffing incessantly, nasal drip as if on dope,
But nope– Fat Elvis has got no cash for that.
Garbed in his gold lamé suit with ruffles
Like the wings of a famished vulture.
Fat Elvis walks past closed meat shops, beauty salons,
Massage parlors, sari-sari stores.
Then he swaggers into a cheap videoke bar with cheap beer and cheaper girls.
Fat Elvis barges through the door,
And arrogantly demands for Red Horse, tokwa’t baboy,
Chicharon bulaklak, and the microphone.
But the waitresses simply ignore him.
“That fat jerk is here again,”
One of them snorts, craning her neck for the bouncer.
Fat Elvis is infuriated. “Don’t you know me?”
Don’t you know who I am?!
I am Elvis! I live forever.
I live in the hearts, livers, and spleens
Of every man who has ever loved and shaken his booty,
Every man, from Graceland to Grace Park, Kalookan.”

The pride and anger of Fat Elvis
Now visible beneath the faint shower of red lights.
Pasty skin mottled like yesterday’s newspaper.
You don’t believe me?
He proceeds to croon Are You Lonesome Tonight
And forgets half of the lyrics, messes up the choruses.
Gets a score of 70 and is booed off the place,
Pelted by peanuts, pork ears, and chunks of ice.
Fat Elvis hits back at the hecklers
By flashing a dirty middle finger and hurling a chair.
And not too long before the sharp climax of the song
He’s chased outside by a bouncer wielding a balisong.

They say he prowls the all-night convenience stores
On the other side of the world, pumping gas
In desolated stations at night where the desert wind howls.
Or maybe singing folk songs in a flea-bitten beer house where drunken jeepney drivers demand
Eddie Peregrina and Tom Jones classics,
Or straddling the length of Aurora Boulevard peddling balut with a smooth baritone
Or he could be one of the shirtless mestizo pushers chain-smoking in dark alleyways of Project 3
Or a tricycle driver dozing off in the strange blue night waiting for passengers never to  arrive,
Or a bank security guard stretched on a bench dreaming of afternoons tense with silence,
Or a cook in a 24-hour burger stand lost in the fumes of seared beef and hotdogs,
Or a disc jockey in a radio station spinning love songs for the loveless at 2 a.m.
Or a motel room attendant changing soiled sheets, pointing cars to their garages,
Or a pimp along Quezon Avenue shoving girls into taxicab windows
Or maybe a drag queen with wild orange wigs and denim shorts,
Spreading fearful boa feathers in the air.


For Fat Elvis had never suffered
For Fat Elvis had never suffered for his art–
For Fat Elvis never believed that rock and roll can save the world,
Only that rock and roll will destroy you soon,
That rock and roll will come crashing into your life–
A stranger who becomes your friend at the first instance
A buddy slapping your back
And uncapping a beer for you, rolling a joint for you,
Chopping up thin cocaine lines across the glass table for you,
The frightful fastness of this friendship
Fits a rollicking three-bar tune
Riding on clanging drums and gritty guitars,
Fuelled by speed and cheeseburgers and whiskey
And the promise of movement through electric air,
Charged by ten thousand squealing women,
Hysteria breaking out when your hip gyrates,
Teary teens catatonic and fainting,
Tumult from the swinging pelvis,
This is rock and roll–this is rock and roll.
Your torch songs scorch countries and continents,
They melt radios and hearts
And they cross oceans and lives
Then come rushing back to your door
Like a swinging wrecking ball.

Fat Elvis perhaps floating in the big black bardo void of now,
The busy, tragic boulevard of Kamias, Omnipotent Fat Elvis–
Those electric sideburns, the big aviator glasses,
The karate moves, Olympic god muscle-stretching,
Sweat on forehead seething golden under the Las Vegas lights
Leather pants, rhinestone Captain Marvel jumpsuit,
Fat Elvis could be wearing anything, in fact,
And Fat Elvis could be anywhere,
Fat Elvis was once hungry,
Hungry and thin, then he became the king of the world,
Then fat, as all kings become,
And still believed he was king
Even though he was fat, and soon forgotten,
And when he died,
The Pistols sneezed “Good riddance to bad rubbish.”
They didn’t know he was still alive.
He lives in your heart, your liver–
Fat Elvis, Dead Elvis, Saint Elvis,
President Elvis, Sergeant Elvis,
Professor Elvis, Father Elvis,
Kuya Elvis, Tito Elvis, Mang Elvis,
Architect Elvis, Senior Police Inspector Elvis,
Maestro Elvis, DJ Elvis, MC Elvis, Boss Elvis
Holy Immaculate Infinite Almighty Fat Elvis pray for us
Save us from our frightful selves,
The tedium of ourselves,
Fat Elvis– those overpaid, overfed, incandescently bloated
Oafs singing on Sunday noontime shows,
Fat Elvis Poor Elvis Shabby Elvis
Hungry Elvis Desperate Elvis Depressed Elvis
And all the world’s a stage groaning under the weight of ten thousand Fat Elvis impersonators
And we watch and watch and we laugh and clap
And become Fat Elvises ourselves
Slurping up the pig-slop of everyday reality

Fat Elvis, icon, idol, king– THE KING!
King of the Dead and the Swollen
King of Sorrows, King of Memory,
King of Heroin Apostles,
King of Undeserving Martyrs,
King of Profuse Lager and Whiskey
King of All Saints
Singular Vessel of Idiotic Devotion
Tower of Untruth
Imperial Impertinence
High-rise of Triglyceride
Chalice of Cholesterol
Ark of Lard
Archangel of Adipose
Soldier of Sodium
Crusader of Sugar
Sultan of Starch
Tub of Butter
Midnight Star
Broken Record
Ancient Jukebox
Defective Disk
Sour Wine
Mystical Hangover
Curse of David
Lord of Lipids
Swine of Jesus
Lamb of God
Seething in an open charcoal pit, slathered in garlic and mint sauce with extra rice
Fried peanut butter-and-banana sandwiches, barbecue, mash potatoes, peas, apple pie and meatloaf,
All the nuclear calories in the planet
All arteries silting up like the Ongpin estero

Slugging across the intersection of Kalayaan and Kamias,
Fat Elvis, swarthy, saturnine, tries to hail a cab
And they just kept zipping by,
He might have looked too weird–
Too visibly drunk, or just too fat
Dammit–can he fit into a car?
Face round like a moon?
Can he fit into a coffin?
Belly like a hot air balloon?
It had been a life too high, too soon, too fast
No Colonel Parker to pick him up or stab him in the back.
Fat Elvis, effete, but still moving with earthly effrontery
Fifty thousand fans can’t be wrong! Fifty thousand fans can’t be wrong!
Fifty thousand ghosts, spectral echoes,
Waves of screams by packed stadiums long gone to ashes,
Swarms of kisses from hyperventilating matrons long gone to ashes
Tomorrow is a long time–tomorrow is a long time
Fat Elvis– thunder and lightning
Fat Elvis– stinky longganisa burp and fart
Fat Elvis– nobody sends text messages on his cellphone,
Missing the ‘Return to Sender’ ring tone,
Fat Elvis–can’t send no text messages ‘cause he’s ran out of credits a long, long time ago

Fat Elvis– lonely and fat
Fat Elvis– abscess in the history of mankind
Fat Elvis– once beautiful now moving with the grace of oven grease
Fat Elvis– hustling with P50-a-trim beauticians, demanding for a free rebond,
Fat Elvis– of sequined sleeves reeking of moldy leather and tricycle smoke
Fat Elvis– arguing with pedicab drivers over the fare from Sikatuna to Aurora,
Fat Elvis– scandalously demanding free plates of rice from the cornerstore carinderia,
to go with desperate half-orders of pinapaitan and isaw
An act of plain hubris, thinking the place privileged,
To be able to announce:
“Fat Elvis Presley Ate Here”
A place that is both plain and strange at the same time.
But waiters know, the way the whole world knows:
He ain’t nothing but a hound dog.
Every dog has its day.
Fat Elvis was once famous and rich.
Every dog is a son of a bitch.

     #     #     #

This poem originally appeared in Insectissimo! (University of Santo Tomas Publishing House, 2011). Copyright © 2011 Lourd Ernest H. de Veyra. Reprinted by permission of the author. All rights reserved.

[Header image: ‘Elvis’ by Kevin Dooley @Flickr. Unmodified. Used under this CC licence.]

CP Goes to the Philippines: Featured author Lourd Ernest H. de Veyra



Lourd Ernest H. de Veyra is a Filipino poet, musician, novelist, journalist working in radio and TV, blogger, and activist. He graduated in Journalism from University of Santo Tomas and his first volume of poetry, Subterranean Thought Parade was published by Manila’s Anvil Publications in 1998, in a dual edition book with fellow Filipino poet, Ramil Digal Gulles, whose section was called The 25th Fly. De Veyra’s second volume of poetry, Shadow Boxing in Headphones, appeared in 2001, from University of Santo Tomas Publishing House, as did his third volume, Insectissimo!, in 2011. His first novel, Super Panalo Sounds!, about a rock band and the Pinoy music scene more generally and mythically, came out in 2011 from University of Santo Tomas Publishing House. Two collections of his blogging at have been published, both from Summit Press in Mandaluyong City, The Best of This is a Crazy Planets (2011) and This is a Crazy Planets 2 (2013). In 2014 Summit published Lourd de Veyra’s Little Book of Speeches and in the same year Anvil Press published his book on drinking and food, Espiritu.

He has won the Don Carlos Palanca Memorial Award for Literature, the Free Press Literary Award, and the inaugural National Commission for Culture and the Arts Writers’ Prize for Poetry. In 1999 he formed the jazz-rock band Radioactive Sago Project, which blends spoken-word poetry, bebop jazz and punk.

We are reprinting de Veyra’s poem ‘Fat Elvis in Kamias’ as the final installment of our Contrappasso Goes to the Philippines online special. And here is a gallery of book covers:

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Link: Mia Alvar speaks to Hazlitt


A few weeks ago, as part of our ongoing Filipino literature special, Noel King reviewed In The Country, the debut short story collection by Mia Alvar, recent winner of the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize.

Here’s a link to a recent interview with Alvar at the online publication Hazlitt:

‘It’s Powerful To See Someone Who Looks Like You On The Page’: An Interview with Mia Alvar By Anshuman Iddamsetty

CP Goes to the Philippines: World Publishing Today by Noel King



This text is based on a presentation given by Noel King at the Sixth International Philippine Literature Conference held in Davao, Mindanao, on September 20-21, 2015. This version includes some material added after that presentation.

“Most trends in the book industry are accompanied by countervailing ones. As the conglomerates get bigger there is a new optimism among enterprising independent houses … who believe that they can offer distinctive titles that the giants, with their concentration on the mass market, overlook.” – Nicholas Clee, “End of the Book Postponed,” Prospect Magazine 135 (June 2007).

“Sales of physical books rose in the UK for the first time since 2007, with Nielsen BookScan figures for January-November up 5.4 per cent on the previous year. Add to this the British chain Waterstone’s pulling unwanted Kindles from its shelves and Amazon opening a bricks and mortar bookshop and it did seem like the future might not be entirely digital after all. The stuff of fantasy? We will see.” – Lorien Kite, “Books of 2015,” Financial Times Weekend (28-29 November, 2015).


First, it’s both an honour and a pleasure to be participating in the Sixth Philippine International Literary Festival, the first to be held outside Manila, here in Davao, Mindanao. This admirable, conscious attempt to shift a little the Manila-centric literary-cultural viewpoint to include other, more distant regions of the Philippines certainly resonates with me and my presentation today.

“I come from the land down under,” Australia, with a population of 24 million, most of whom are clustered in capital cities on Australia’s coastline, or if somewhat inland, on a river. In Australia the publishing industry is concentrated in our largest city, Sydney, where I live, and in our second-largest city, Melbourne. Sydney is said to be the home of international, conglomerate publishing while Melbourne is said to have more small-independent presses (Rosenbloom, 2007). The one exception to that account of Melbourne is that Penguin Australia is located in Ringwood, an alcohol-free suburb of Melbourne.

There is a history of cultural rivalry between Sydney and Melbourne whereby Sydney, with its warmer weather, lovely beaches, its obsessive relationship with real estate and money, is regarded as some kind of aspirational L.A. whereas Melbourne – quite recently voted the “most liveable city in the world” – is regarded as more intellectual, more cultural, certainly possessed of more venues for live music. At one point this civic rivalry was cast in terms of “St Petersburg vs. Tinseltown,” and I will leave it to you to decide which designation goes where.

A few weeks ago Sydney was listed as the third most expensive city in the world to live in, coming up a couple of places from its fifth place of several years ago. Real estate prices are very, very high, as accordingly is rental accommodation, and the everyday cost of living is very expensive. All for no particular reason, beyond opportunity and avarice. Even so, a former Labor Party Prime Minister, Paul Keating, once said, “If you’re not living in Sydney, you’re camping out.”

Further afield from this Sydney-Melbourne duelling capital city duo are three other capital cities, each of which has a significant role to play in Australia’s literary-cultural life. Adelaide, South Australia, now home to South African Nobel Prize Winner, J. M. Coetzee, likes it made known that its original settlement included no convicts, unlike the rest of Australia’s white settlement origins as an English penal colony. Frequently described as a “city of parks and churches,” it boasts a longish tradition of being very cultural, with an International Writers’ Festival, a Fringe Arts Festival, a World Music festival, film festivals, and the South Australian Film Commission, which was a crucial part of Australia’s revived feature filmmaking industry in the early 1970s, producing films such as Sunday Too Far Away, Gallipoli, and Storm Boy. It also has a history of enlightened political lawmaking. It was the first Australian state to legislate against rape in marriage. And it was at the University of Adelaide that Miguel Syjuco completed the PhD that would result in his 2008 Man Asian Prize-winning novel, Ilustrado (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010).


Stepping further westward, across the long expanse of the Nullarbor, we reach Perth, Western Australia. Perth is a four and one half hour plane ride for those people who aren’t camping out, who are living in Sydney, and is home to celebrated Filipina Rose Hancock and also to Janet Holmes à Court. It is the home state of former Labor Party Prime Minister Bob Hawke, and the Labor Party Education Minister, John Dawkins, who introduced profound changes to Australia’s tertiary education system; home also to the late Alan Bond, disgraced businessman who spent some time in gaol and who will forever be admired by Australians for having, in 1983, wrested the America’s Cup yachting trophy from the US after it had spent 132 years in the New York Yacht Club’s possession. Those races were won to the tune of Men at Work singing “Land Down Under,” and this historic victory obliged the US to challenge – successfully, as it turned out – to regain the Cup by sailing in the waters just off Fremantle, near Perth. Fremantle is home to Fremantle Arts Centre Press, and is where one of Australia’s most commercially and critically successful writers, at a national and international level, lives – Tim Winton.

Fremantle Arts Centre Press was established in 1976 and has as its mission the publication of only those writers who are connected to W.A., either by having come from there, having once lived there, currently living there, or by having moved there to live. In the 1980s this proudly regional, small-independent press surprised itself by publishing two books that went on to sell a million copies apiece. First came A. B. Facey’s A Fortunate Life, a memoir of a hard-scrabble life in Australia in the first part of the twentieth century, published in 1981 and adapted for television in 1985, the money from which enabled FACP to build a warehouse to store their various titles. This TV adaptation came about when a local freelance film-TV worker, Ken Kelso, approached FACP to see if they would allow him to pitch the Facey book to TV people he knew. On the basis of the fact that he was a local they agreed and this encounter with Kelso proved doubly beneficial, leading not only to a goodly sum of money on the first day of principal photography but also to a meeting with a friend of Kelso’s who was struggling to complete her first book. Her name was Sally Morgan and the book this Western Australian Aboriginal artist-writer eventually finished with the help of FACP, My Place, published in 1987, became the press’s second million-copy seller.

The writer who got away from them, through no fault of their own, was Tim Winton whose first novel, An Open Swimmer, won the 1981 Vogel Book Award (for an unpublished manuscript by a writer under the age of thirty-five) which brings with it publication by an east coast press, Allen & Unwin in Sydney. Otherwise, it is quite likely that FACP would have published Winton, much as they published Elizabeth Jolley, who taught Winton briefly in some creative writing courses he took at Curtin University. And speaking of distances from margin to centre, it was always a delight throughout the 1980s and later to see Elizabeth Jolley, from a city deemed the most remote capital on earth, reviewing books in the Gotham-centric New York Times Book Review.

A sixty minute plane ride north of Sydney is Brisbane, capital of Queensland, and home to an important Australian press, the University of Queensland Press, which began in 1948. For many years UQP was lucky to have on its books two highly-regarded, strong-selling authors: Brisbane-born Lebanese Christian David Malouf and Melbourne-born Peter Carey. Carey used to spend time in Byron Bay, writing very successful commercial jingles for Australian television, so perhaps it was Byron Bay’s proximity to Brisbane that saw him fetch up at that press. Certainly, when he took himself elsewhere, to Balmain in Sydney, then to New York, and found other publishing outlets, UQP’s bottom line dropped dramatically, a minor version of the fluctuations experienced by London’s Bloomsbury Press in a non-Harry Potter year.

In the 1970s and 1980s, I taught at universities in Brisbane and Perth and got to know a little of the cultural-political life in each place. When it first opened in the late 1970s, Griffith University in Brisbane had an artists-in-residence scheme which saw Australian writers spend some time on the campus. Two such writers-in-residence were Steve Spears – at that time enjoying international success with his play, The Elocution of Benjamin Franklin – and Helen Garner – whose novel Monkeygrip (which was adapted into an Australian film) brought her a cultural prominence she has maintained for several decades with an output of fiction and non-fiction works. The arts section of the Sydney Morning Herald of March 2, 2016, announced that Garner had received a Yale University Windham-Campbell Prize of US $150,000 “in recognition of her non-fiction writing.”

In Perth one can still buy postcards that depict only the vast landscape of Western Australia and indicate all space east of W.A. as “unknown territory.” And W.A. and Queensland share some similarities, at least in the way they are regarded by Sydney and Melbourne as wilder, more cowboy, frontier environments than the trio of genteel states that separates them: South Australia, Victoria, N.S.W. For example, Queensland has a political history of folksy right-wing rural populism roughly analogous to the career of Huey Long in 1930s Louisiana when he was regarded, until his assassination, as a serious possibility for a tilt at the White House. Long was immortalised as Willy Stark in Robert Penn Warren’s great novel, All the King’s Men. As it happens, the favourite book of Brian Burke, disgraced politician and former Labor Premier of Western Australia, was a biography of Huey Long, so you can appreciate that the broad comparison between W.A. and Queensland and the American Deep South has some purchase. For a few years, in his early time as Premier, Burke’s manipulation of the media to convey, very successfully, his Labor party’s policies and programs made him the envy of east coast Labor Party politicians like Neville Wran, Labor Party Premier of NSW, and Paul Keating.

I’m well aware that no Filipino needs to be advised about the ways of political corruption, connivance, and compromise. Suffice to say that you are geographically proximal to Malaysia, the nation said to have perfected the first instances of credit card fraud. But as you ponder how best to establish important cultural infrastructural works in your country, from Manila to all your regional capitals and beyond, you might like to file away a remark from Huey Long, a line which so far as I recall, did not make it into Penn Warren’s novel, nor did it appear in either of the film versions: “We got graft, but we got roads. The other states, they just got graft.”


All I mean by this lengthy preamble is to impress upon you the fact that all Australians are well aware of what one of our historians, Geoffrey Blainey, once called “the tyranny of distance” – and that phrase describes the internal distances within our “wide brown land,” coast to shining coast, as much as it does Australia’s physical distance from its initial northern hemisphere coloniser, England (Blainey’s original point), and its later soft-power coloniser, the US, with whom we share various trade and military alliances.

For the remainder of my talk I will hurry through some features of the international publishing scene as it seems to me to be configured at the moment. I speak here as a non-expert but rather as someone who has, over the last twenty years, interviewed a number of publishers in Australia, London and the US, trying to determine how a series of small-independent presses whose books I liked, managed to survive and thrive in an industry that increasingly conducted itself in a Hollywood, conglomeratised fashion. When I was doing my interviews, probing the idea of “cultures of independence,” I used an analogy that works well up to a point: a comparison of mainstream presses and smaller-independent presses along the lines of contrasting mainstream Hollywood films, blockbusters, to smaller-independent films.

By the 1990s US trade publishing had been completely Hollywoodised. Eighty per cent of book profits came from twenty per cent of the books published. Imagine a Dickensian spread sheet along the lines of “Annual income, one pound, annual expenditure one pound and sixpence, result misery,” as we consider the fact that most films and books don’t make money. In the 1990s, as the chains – like Barnes & Noble – edged towards “superstore” status, it cost $10,000 a month to have your book displayed in the front window of the store, hoping to attract the literary gazes of passers-by. It also cost $10,000 a month to have one’s book placed within an oh-so-casually-and-carefully-disordered array of books placed in the bin just inside the store as one entered (see Lauren J. Miller, Reluctant Capitalists). The somewhat dismaying term for this act of purchasing publicity was “co-op,” a short hand term for “Co-operative advertising dollars.” Terminology aside, these strategies seemed to me very close to Hollywood’s practice of buying saturation TV ads to build what they ridiculously called “pre-awareness” of the blockbuster film about to be released.

André Schiffrin’s memoirs, The Business of Books: How the International Conglomerates Took Over Publishing and Changed the Way We Read (2001) and Words and Money (2010), both published by Verso, and Jason Epstein’s The Book Business (2001) from Norton, reveal how, for quite a long time, US trade publishing functioned in a manner that seems to me very close to the model of the mature Hollywood studio system as it operated from the 1930s until the late 1950s and early 1960s. The so called Classical Hollywood studio system practised cross-subsidisation on films such that the profits on a Rin Tin Tin movie would allow the studio to make a historical drama with Bette Davis.

For much of the publishing lives of Schiffrin and Epstein, bestsellers and fastsellers by authors whose names not many of us now remember permitted a trade press to publish a big ‘L’ literary writer who would sell in vastly fewer numbers but who would be an excellent advertisement for the press’s commitment to ambitious, challenging literary writing. Think of an author like William Gaddis in the several decades of, and between, The Recognitions in 1955 and JR twenty years later.

In his pamphlet A Life With Books, Julian Barnes extols the printed book over the e-book, while acknowledging the economic lure of the latter, using the instance of his own most recent novel which was five pounds or so cheaper as an e-book. Barnes recalls a period from the late 1960s to the late 1970s when he was an avid book collector and frequenter of second-hand bookshops and storehouses with job-lots of used books, a time very different from contemporary circumstances with “the ferociously fast turnaround that modern central management imposes,” an insistence that creates a context in which “the average shelf-life of a new hardback novel – assuming it can reach a shelf in the first place –is four months.”

When those publishing conglomerates alluded to above arrived, so did an army of bean counters working out precisely how many copies of front, middle, and back-list titles were being purchased. The patrician, gentlemanly, amateur days of trade publishing were swept aside and when BookScan arrived in January 2001, to do to the book business what SoundScan had done to the record industry back in March 1991, it really was game over for earlier understandings of mainstream trade publishing.


US artist-essayist-writer-publisher Russell Chatham lived just outside Livingston, Montana, for almost forty years, having left California in the 1970s when it became too expensive, heading up to Montana to visit his friend Thomas McGuane. In the early 1990s Chatham founded Clark City Press, initially simply to keep in print some of his own books but soon enough he started publishing works by some of his writer friends in Montana, like Jim Harrison and James Crumley. Chatham’s press had very high-end production values and after a while found itself deeply in debt. Rather than go bankrupt or offer one cent in the dollar to his creditors Chatham interrupted Clark City’s publishing side for several years as he slowly sold enough of his backlist to pay off his creditors, and then started publishing books again.

Clark City’s debt had been incurred in part by overly optimistic claims for potential sales from sales representatives and by what Chatham called “very irresponsible buying” from the big chains, safe in the knowledge that they would be protected financially courtesy of a practice developed by Alfred A. Knopf in the Depression era of the 1930s which allowed impoverished bookstores to acquire stock with no initial upfront financial outlay, on the understanding that they would sell whatever number of books they could, and return those not sold. When this practice became industry-standard Knopf is alleged to have said, “This is insane. I call it, gone yesterday, here today.” (Chatham, 2005). (As an aside, having just finished Mia Alvar’s wonderful collection of stories, I’m very confident that the ghost of Mr Knopf will rest easy as In the Country generates very healthy sales, or “moves a lot of units,” as later locutions might put it). Hearing Russ Chatham’s reference to the hyper-optimism of his sales reps caused me to think of an excruciating scene in the Maysles Brothers great documentary, Salesman, where one of the bible salesmen stands up at a group meeting and announces how much better he will do in the coming year, how many more sales he will make. It truly is a cinematic version of the Conradian “fascination of the abomination.”

At a talk he gave in Missoula at the 2005 Montana Book Fair, Chatham provided his gloss on the Knopf “gone yesterday, here today” adage: “So you have 8,000 orders and you send out 8,000 books and you think, wow, we got it, and then a year later, 7, 999 of them come back and you’re done.”

By way of contrast England had a Net Book Agreement in place for almost one hundred years from the 1890s to 1995, and across that historical period also resisted any notion of a “sale or return” deal for booksellers. This “made for cautious ordering by bookshop managers,” as John Sutherland puts it in his little book, Bestsellers: A Very Short Introduction. Since 1995 the English and U.S. systems have become very similar, as the following remarks made in 2007 by Francois Von Hurter make clear:

It’s the only business in the world where a sale isn’t a sale. You’re paying the author, let’s say, or the translator, 5,000 in advance, you’re doing this and that, and a year later your book comes out, then three months later it’s in the store, and then two years later half of the books come back, and you kind of think, who’s financing all of this? A Martian would say, you guys are nuts, and if you really look at the cash immobilised, you end up realising it’s a silly business model, but you have to do it out of love. You know what you know, and occasionally you might be lucky with a blockbuster, but it’s a work of love, it’s not a work in which you make your fortune. The only good publishing business model is that of scientific journals. There, people subscribe to very expensive journals, you don’t pay the authors anything, everyone wants to get in Nature or Science. So it’s the opposite of us. The publisher gets the money in advance from subscribers, and has source material at zero cost. That’s how those guys get rich. Michael Heseltine, he’s in that business.


I will now move in a leisurely manner toward my conclusion by saying why I think the codex book will survive during the era of the e-book and the i-book, and why examples of very impressive literary work will continue to come from marginal, eccentric, unanticipated-by-the-majors areas.

First, the arrival of the e-book and the threat it posed to the codex form seems to have abated. 2014 figures report that hard-copy book sales are on the rise. The tech-head excitement that greeted the 2007 moment of Japanese cell-phone novels (keitai shousetsu) – novels composed in that medium to be read in that medium – was followed by the information that when those cell-phone fictions were published in conventional book form they accounted for 50% of Japan’s best-selling titles. And many here would remember that Stephen King’s e-book venture failed because people chose to pirate it rather than pay him the one dollar he was requesting.

So it is not self-evidently the case that a new publication medium necessarily obliterates an older medium, and writer-publisher Peter Ayrton of Serpent’s Tail press in London is sceptical about drawing too close a comparison between what has gone on with music downloads and what might happen in the book industry. In 2006, Ayrton said:

I think people in publishing are quite lucky because a book isn’t like a CD, where people will just download a couple of tracks. The concept of a CD is almost alien to my kids and their friends, they just want a couple of tracks! I can’t see people who are into books just reading a couple of chapters. They’ll want to read the whole book. So I don’t think we have to worry about the Ipodisation of reading. I think e-books will develop slowly but it will be best sellers and classics. So if you are publishing Jane Austen you might be in trouble, but I don’t think it will be the latest book by Gary Indiana or Lynne Tillman, because the kind of people who are into those books want to be able to put them into their bag or their backpack, they want to hold them, fold them, read them in bed.

The following are some relatively recent examples of critically-commercially successful books that have come from unpredicted, unanticipated spaces.

Paul Harding’s novel Tinkers won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize after having initially been published by Bellevue Press, a small press associated with New York’s oldest public hospital, attached to NYU’s Department of Medicine (this hospital is mentioned in one of the stories in In the Country). Harding’s next book, Enon (2014), was sold to Random House and here we might remember that Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain was published in 1997 by a small press (Atlantic Monthly Press), won the National Book Award in the year Don DeLillo’s Underworld was up for that award, was adapted into a big budget Hollywood film, and sold 3 million copies. After this independent success Frazier’s second book, Thirteen Moons, went to auction based on a one-page outline and fetched $8.25 million from Random House, and $3 million for the movie rights from Scott Rudin. Did we mention earlier some of the consequences of the Hollywoodisation of US trade publishing?

A second instance of eccentric publishing success concerns Melbourne-based Greek-Australian gay writer Christos Tsiolkas who published his fourth novel, The Slap, which was adapted very successfully to Australian television. The book sold 300,000 copies in Australia, where a best-seller is 30,000 copies but no UK buyer wanted the book. So Tsiolkas’s friend, the multi-talented gay Irish writer Colm Tóibín, published The Slap in his boutique press, Tuskar Rock, set up by Tóibín, his friend Peter Strauss, and Hannah Westland in 2011, and now housed with Profile books alongside Serpent’s Tail Press. Tuskar Rock had published “collectors’ editions” of some novels – Tim Winton’s Breath, 350 copies at $850.00 a pop – and Tóibín had said that Tuskar Rock was trying to tap “into the same phenomenon as people listening to vinyl records” in a digital age. At the time Tóibín said Tuskar Rock did not expect to make a lot of money from Tsiolkas’s novel: “Let’s just say that we don’t think we’ll make much money, but it’s not about losing lots of money either.” The Slap went on to sell 1.2 million copies and win the 2009 Commonwealth Writers Prize, at which point the larger London presses that earlier had knocked the book back, came looking to secure it, wondering how they had missed it in the first place. They had also missed another Tuskar Rock success story, Don Patterson’s volume of poetry, Rain, which sold very well. This is not quite of the order of picking J. K. Rowling’s first Harry Potter manuscript out of a waste paper basket but it is a nice example of why small, marginal, alternative publishing spaces continue to be important contributors to international literary-cultural life.

Third, a few days ago I read in The Guardian that a first-time book, The Loney, by Andrew Michael Hurley, was first published by Tartarus, a small Yorkshire Press in a print run of 300 copies. After that it moved to a larger press, John Murray, and went on to win the 2015 Costa Award for First Novel.

These few examples encourage me to believe that small print runs, small-independent presses, small bookstores – that fragile coalition that constitutes such a valuable culture of independence – will continue to exert a positive cultural influence around the world. In respect of small bookstores, think of how one of your diasporic own, Jessica Hagedorn, honed her poetry-writing skills by hanging out in San Francisco’s City Lights bookshop, the book enterprise begun by Lawrence Ferlinghetti that sits a hundred yards or so up a slight street incline from Francis Coppola’s pizza/pasta restaurant that stocks Coppola wines. The restaurant is the street level part of a beautiful, old, triangulated building whose upstairs rooms once housed people like Wim Wenders when he and Coppola were making Hammett (1982) for an early iteration of Coppola’s Zoetrope film company, which, you would be aware, publishes Zoetrope: All Story. In the issue of All Story “designed” (they prefer that word to “edited”) by Wim Wenders, one finds a wonderful story from Vietnamese-Australian writer Nam Le, “Love and Honour and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice,” that was later included in his best-selling, prize-winning collection, The Boat. Readers who long have been awaiting a second collection or a novel from Nam Le have been delayed by his having discovered a way to make $200,000 a year from casino gambling and since that money would be tax-free it is the equivalent of an annual income of $400,000. Why teach at Harvard?


Speaking very much as an outsider it seems to me that three clear publishing opportunities exist either for a university press or a trade press in the Philippines. Each is based on an existing overseas format that simply needs to be modified to suit the Philippine situation. The British Film Institute’s series of small, 96 page books devoted to films deemed classics and/or modern classics was devised by Edward Buscombe in 1992 with a view initially to having the books connect with an archival film restoration project then being undertaken by the BFI of 365 films deemed classics of world cinema.


BFI Film Classics

The BFI classics volumes were written by novelists like Salman Rushdie and Alberto Manguel, journalists, TV presenters (Melvyn Bragg), film critics and film academics, and were pitched at that famously nebulous entity, the “non-specialist but educated, interested reader.” Eventually Buscombe thought that when, across the course of a year, a screening of the 365 restored films would see the history of cinema flow in front of spectators’ eyes on London’s South Bank, many copies of the supporting volumes would be sold. It was an idea that was quickly ripped off by other countries that duly produced series called ‘Australian Film Classics,’ ‘Canadian Film Classics,’ and ‘Hong Kong Cinema Classics.’ It also generated a range of other iterations of the small format film analyses of a single film. In the ‘Deep Focus’ series published by Soft Skull Press (which includes books on Heathers and Death Wish), Jonathan Lethem writes about John Carpenter’s They Live, while Arsenal Pulp Press in Vancouver publishes its ‘Queer Film Classics’ with books on Death in Venice, Strangers on a Train, I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing. Cult cinema is targeted by Wallflower Press’s ‘Cultographies’ series which includes books on Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, Donnie Darko, Blade Runner. A ‘Pop Classics’ series from ECW Press has a book on Showgirls, while Auteur Publisher’s ‘Devil’s Advocates’ series has titles on Witchfinder General, Suspiria, Carrie and many others, and a ‘Controversies’ series from Palgrave Macmillan has books on Straw Dogs and Basic Instinct, among others.

The BFI later expanded its original format to publish analyses of celebrated UK and overseas television series (Edge of Darkness, Boys from the Blackstuff, Buffy the Vampire Slayer).

Why not adopt this format here to generate a series of similarly packaged volumes devoted to Philippine cinema? And why not unashamedly define the reach of the series to include films made here by, say, US filmmakers as well as your own acts of filmmaking? For your first volume, contract an appropriate Filipino writer to write on Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. You would be aware that this film already is the subject of some film classics series (it was the first volume in Bloomsbury Press’s excellent but short-lived series), along with coverage in studies of Coppola and Zoetrope. Eleanor Coppola’s diary of her husband’s film shoot, Notes, became the documentary Hearts of Darkness, which could be addressed in your putative volume as well. Once published, this volume automatically connects your fledgling series with international film publications and film courses whose libraries certainly would order copies of this distinctively national take on a modern classic, and would link with the fan base that follows writing on certain cult films and television series (UK examples would be Dr Who and The Avengers).

You could also commission a volume on Weng Weng’s pint-sized James Bond activities, as in For Your Height Only (1980: Dir: Eddie Nicart), currently available on DVD in the UK and US, and that volume could also address the documentary made by Australian Andrew Leavold, The Search for Weng Weng (2015). And why not include a volume or two on some of the Roger Corman films shot in the Philippines?

Another small format series could imitate the 33 and 1/3 series – initially published by Continuum Press and now published by Bloomsbury Press – in which a small volume is devoted to an iconic or cult pop album (Pet Sounds, Let it Be, Highway Sixty-One Revisited, Exile on Main Street, The Kinks are the Village Green Preservation Society) and once you started publishing your Filipino versions of these, they could circulate within the Philippines wherever music and cultural studies courses were taught and obviously would attract interest from overseas fans, musicologists and music teachers. Maybe Freddie Aguilar’s “Anak” could be the opening volume.

And there seems no reason a university or trade press in the Philippines shouldn’t publish a version of U.S. Random House’s Crown Journeys series of little books that have a writer talk about a town or a locale. Sometimes the writer is strongly associated with a city or a neighbourhood – Kinky Friedman writes about Austin, Texas, Ishmael Reed writes about Oakland, Chuck Palahniuk writes about Portland – while on other occasions a prominent writer will write about a locale that means something to them: so former head of the Iowa Writing School and author of Stop-Time, Frank Conroy writes about walking around Nantucket, and Michael Cunningham (The Hours) writes about Provincetown. In Australia we have “borrowed” this idea by having local writers write about our capital cities. As yet, we have not ventured into the “neighbourhood” level of the Crown Series, but it surely cannot be too long before some press asks Tim Winton to take a walk around Fremantle and commit it to paper. Why not ask ‘Butch’ Dalisay to write a similar volume on Romblon and why not approach an appropriate local writer to do a volume on the city in which we now find ourselves, Davao?

One final suggestion. Even allowing for what I sense is a very strong Philippine tradition of privileging high literary forms, poetry, the literary novel, serious historical non-fiction, the fact that you also have a strong tradition of comix – comics or graphic novels – and of late have started to produce very strong contributions to international crime and noir fiction, makes me think you should organise a special Philippine section of the next available Bouchercon crime fiction conference. Bouchercon 2016 takes place in New Orleans from September 15th to the 18th, and in 2017, it occurs in Toronto from October 12-15th. In 2018 it travels to St Petersburg from September 13th to 16th, and in 2019 returns to the US, to Dallas, from October 31st to November 3rd. In 2020 it shifts to Sacramento from October 15th-18th.

Bouchercon delivers you a huge, ready-made audience, much like the Frankfurt and London Book Fairs, so it would be easy to work out suitable representatives from here in the Philippines and from Filipinos living and working overseas, and you would be guaranteed to make a splash as the latest new thing. As you all well know, literary festivals and film festivals are endlessly in search of the new entity, the new hot thing to showcase. There is no reason for the Philippines, with its great range of writers, graphic novelists, filmmakers and musicians, not to benefit from that.

Works Cited

Julian Barnes, A Life With Books (London: Jonathan Cape, 2012)

Geoffrey Blainey, The Tyranny of Distance: How Distance Shaped Australia’s History (Melbourne: Sun Books, 1966)

Russell Chatham, “Gone Yesterday, Here Today”: Presentation on Clark City Press, Montana Festival of the Book, Missoula, 23 September, 2005 (unpublished paper)

Nicholas Clee, “End of the Book Postponed,” Prospect Magazine 135 (June 2007): 72-74.

Frank Conroy, Stop-Time (New York: Viking, 1967)

Michael Cunningham, The Hours (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998)

Jose Dalisay Jr., Soledad’s Sister (Manila: Anvil Publishing, 2008)

Jason Epstein, The Book Business (New York: Norton, 2001)

A.B. Facey, A Fortunate Life (Fremantle, W.A.: Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1981)

William Gaddis, The Recognitions (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1955)

William Gaddis, JR (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1975))

Helen Garner, Monkeygrip (Melbourne: McPhee-Gribble, 1977)

Paul Harding, Tinkers (New York: Bellevue Literary Press, 2001)

Noel King, “’I Can’t Go on, I’ll Go On’: Interview with Ray Coffey of Fremantle Arts Centre Press” Westerly, 51 (November 2006): 31-54.

Noel King, “’Independent, Emerging, and Satisfying’: Interview with Publisher Henry Rosenbloom of Scribe Press, Melbourne,” Metro 152 (2007): 154-158.

Noel King, ‘’The Main Thing We Book Publishers have Going for us is the books themselves: An Interview with Pete Ayrton of Serpent’s Tail Press, Islington, London 12 July 2006,” Critical Quarterly 49, 3 (Autumn 2007): 104-119.

Noel King, “A bridge between all these literatures that we love: Interview with Francois von Hurter, Bitter Lemon Press, London 10 July 2006,” Critical Quarterly 49, 1-2 (Summer 2007): 62-80.

Lorien Kite, “Books of 2015,” Financial Times Weekend (28-29 November, 2015): 1-2. Also available at:

Malcolm Knox, “The Interview: Colm Toibin,” Sydney Morning Herald (May 15, 2010).

Nam Le, The Boat: Stories (New York: Knopf, 2008)

Lauren J. Miller, Reluctant Capitalists: Bookselling and the Culture of Consumption (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007)

Sally Morgan, My Place (Fremantle, W.A.: Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1987)

Robert Penn Warren, All The King’s Men (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co, 1946)

Andre Schiffrin, The Business of Books: How the International Conglomerates Took Over Publishing and Changed the Way we Read (London: Verso, 2001)

Andre Schiffrin, Words and Money (London: Verso, 2010)

Steve Spears, The Elocution of Benjamin Franklin (Sydney: Currency Methuen Press, 1977)

John Sutherland, Bestsellers: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: OUP, 2007).

Christos Tsiolkas, The Slap (Tuskar Rock, 2010)

Wim Wenders, Zoetrope All-Story 10, 2 (Summer 2006)

[Header image: ‘Book’ by Sam @Flickr republished unmodified under this CC Licence.]