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December 6, 2011

Great expectations for brand Dickens

Filed under: Authors — Tags: , , , , — Bookblurb @ 8:07 pm

Charles Dickens

Charles Dickens’ bicentenary next year is set to make a fortune.

By Arifa Akbar

There is a cartoon of Charles Dickens from 1868, when he was filling theatre halls to the rafters with the most sensational, most lucrative of book tours across America. He is shown standing with his manager, George Dolby, disgruntled as he counts the skyscraper-high piles of dollar bills on the table, and ruing the fact he has not earned more.

The Victorian writer was, by this time, in his commercial stride, a celebrity earning the equivalent of around £30,000 a night in a dynamic one-man act in which he regularly knocked out his “greatest hits” – scenes from A Christmas Carol, Oliver Twist and Nell Trent’s death from The Old Curiosity Shop – to the delight of rapt audiences. This snide, satirising cartoon, that now hangs in the Dickens Museum, reflects how the American press came to see him by the end of the tour – as an author who did little to hide the sharp commercial voracity that ran alongside his abundant literary talent.

Little has changed since 1868. The Dickens brand is as big and as powerful a cultural export as ever, beloved abroad and on the verge of making yet more skyscraper-shaped piles of cash for his bicentenary next year, which coincides with the Olympics and the Queen’s jubilee, and which is being globally marketed alongside these two mammoth events.

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October 8, 2011

Nobel literature prize for poet unable to speak for the last two decades

AFP/ GETTY IMAGES Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer at his home in Stockholm

By Arifa Akbar

Swedish poet who all but lost the power of speech after suffering a stroke more than 20 years ago plans to accept the grandest prize in literature by way of a piano recital.

Tomas Tranströmer, 80, was announced as the winner of the Nobel Prize in literature after the Swedish Academy praised him because, “through his condensed, translucent images, he gives us fresh access to reality.” The poet, who lost the use of his right arm after the stroke in 1990, is a keen pianist. Swedish musicians have adapted for him compositions designed to be played with one hand.

Neil Astley, the poet’s friend and the founding editor of Bloodaxe, Tranströmer’s British publisher, said the Swede often expressed himself through music, and anticipated a performance at the Nobel ceremony.

“I imagine he’ll be in a wheelchair, and he will speak to people through the piano,” he said. Mr Astley said Tranströmer’s latest poetry collection had sold out within hours of the announcement. More than 300 orders were placed straight away. The writer had previously sold around 4,000 poetry collections in the past 25 years in Britain. more

The Poet Laureate, the ode to an Achilles and a pair of Beckham’s boots

Carol Ann Duffy has been assured David Beckham's boots are on their way

By Arifa Akbar

When the Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy struck a deal with David Beckham – she would send him a handwritten poem about his ankle injury if he sent her a pair of his football boots in return – she expected a package to turn up six months ago.

Last week, in an interview on Radio 4, she revealed her frustration with the footballer who had evidently forgotten to post them, pleading: “Can I have the boots by Christmas, please?”

But now, in an interview published in today’s Independent, Duffy appears to have calmed down: “Beckham saw the poem [“Achilles”, about the injury that kept the former captain out of the 2010 World Cup] and got in touch [to] ask if he could have a hand-written copy of it. And I said, ‘Yes, but only if I can have a pair of your boots.’ The boots apparently, are on their way. He’s had the poem.”

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July 26, 2011

A longer shelf life for seasoned scribes

P D James has just collected an award, aged 90, but ageism is still all too common in the literary world, says Arifa Akbar.

Murder in mind : PD James

The magnificent P D James received an Outstanding Contribution to Crime Fiction award at the Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival last week. Five decades of outstanding contribution to be precise, and still going strong, aged 90. Speaking about the honour on Radio 4, she admitted that she had been troubled by ageism: “There was something rather valedictory about The Private Patient. I had been very reluctant to begin a long detective story because I feared two things: that I might die before I finished it, and that there would be a falling off in quality, so reviewers would say ‘considering she was 91 or 92, it is a remarkable achievement, but hardly vintage P D James’.”

“A remarkable achievement for her age” – the barbed compliment implies that it’s a marvel for her to be writing at all, when she should be sitting in a high-backed chair by the window. And though James intimated that the worry of any “falling off in quality” was her own, it isn’t helped by a literary culture that tilts horribly towards the cult of youth.

In 1983, Granta magazine published the first of its “best young authors” under the age of 40 lists. These line-ups have now become a tradition. The New Yorker brought out its own “20 under 40” list last year. While these rightly draw attention to fledging talent, why must brilliance be confined to the under-40s? And why pluck out for commendation an exceptional debut writer aged 25, over an exceptional debut writer aged 60?

Philip Hensher was picked as one of Granta’s 20 Best Young British Novelists in 2003 (then aged 37, he had already published five books). It was gratifying to be selected, he says, but he still regards such age-related line-ups as artificial and particularly unfair to women, whose writing careers can be delayed by motherhood. “Not everyone begins to publish in a routine way”, he says. “The classic example is Penelope Fitzgerald, who published for the first time aged 60, and her last book, aged 83, was a masterpiece. I’d very much like the Granta list to shift from people under 40, to people publishing for the first time in the last 10 years.” more

January 5, 2011

Modern novels: They’re big, but they’re not always clever

Filed under: Books — Tags: , , , , — Bookblurb @ 8:53 am

When did the modern novel get so long and unwieldy? Sometimes the best things come in small packages, says Arifa Akbar.

Does 'Freedom' justify its 562 pages?

The biggest publishing event of last year saw Jonathan Franzen’s doorstopper, Freedom, garlanded as the “great American novel” by one half of the world and hailed as a modern-day War and Peace by the other. Yet after nine years of gestation and the most fastidious of working methods (the earplugs, the blinds, the disabling of internet portals), one wondered whether, if Franzen had given us something far less Proustian in length, the critical reception would have been quite so breathless. What if he had produced a sleek, 150-page novella? The idea that a work of fiction so short and sweet could gain the same critical attention as a 562-page tome is an unfamiliar one, even though several contemporary novels might have been greatly improved by more rigorous editing….read more

November 19, 2010

Bad sex please, we’re British: Can fictive sex ever have artistic merit?

Filed under: Books — Tags: , , , — Bookblurb @ 12:54 pm

By Arifa Akbar
When the unexpurgated Penguin edition of Lady Chatterley’s Lover was finally cleared of obscenity, three decades after DH Lawrence’s death and a highly-publicised trial, it marked a victory for literary freedom. Those who had not already got their hands on a contraband copy rushed to exercise their right to read of Lady Constance and her gamekeeper lover, in flagrante, uttering previously unprintable words. Readers were not the only ones forming a hasty queue. In the decades following November 1960, writers exulted in their new-found Lawrentian rights to express their erotic imaginations before critics began questioning the artistic merits of this modern-day deluge of explicit sex in literary fiction.

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