Friday, September 28, 2007

The hyphen humbled

There was a time when it appeared that there was no stopping the hyphen. From hyphenated surnames, to hyphenated Chinese first and middle names, to hyphenated nationalities, the humble hyphen appeared to rule the world. But in the story, Small object of grammatical desire, Finlo Rohrer writes in the BBC News Magazine, the days of the all conquering hyphen is coming to a end.

'Leapfrog' is reported to have lost its hyphen, and rightly so I should think. It is a specific kind of motion. A 'leap-frog' should refer to a kind of frog, don't you think? Don't even think about 'leap frog' -- sounds too close to a leap year.

According to the story, the sixth edition of the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary has knocked the hyphens out of 16,000 words. 'Fig-leaf is now fig leaf, pot-belly is now pot belly, (and) pigeon-hole has finally achieved one word status as pigeonhole'.

I never did like the hyphen much, probably because I could never use then properly. It looked very tentative and it looked as if I was using it because I was not sure. That was true. Most of the time I was no sure. (Not as bad as the semicolon, but close -- is that word hyphenated too?)

Coming back to the article though, I cannot understand why some articles should be divorced and forced to become two words. We all know what a 'testtube' is, but why should it become 'test tube'. We know exactly what it refers to. Is it because the closeness of the two 't's in the middle makes the eyes go wonky? "Get away from there you two! You are getting too close, and in public too."

Apparently, all this can be blamed on electronic communication ... 'we no longer have time to reach over to the hyphen key.' (!!!) And since English doesn’t have a central governing body (not there are no, self appointed, language Nazis), anything goes.

But even I have to admit that the hyphen cannot be entirely done away with. Whether it is 'e-mail' or 'email' is a quibble. They both mean the same thing and the latter is easier to write. But a 'walking stick' and a 'walking-stick' are quite different. If you come across the former: run.

Full story:

Man Booker finalists' sales figures

Chesil BeachI had a bit of a shock reading the UK sales figures, quoted by Mark Sanderson in his Literary Life column in the Telegraph, for this year's six Man Booker finalists. Only Ian McEwan's slim volume On Chesil Beach appears to be doing fairly well (according to Nielsen BookScan August 18th figures) with 110, 615 copies sold. The sales of the much-praised Mohsin Hamid's The Reluctant Fundamentalist stood at 2918 copies and Lloyd Jones' Mister Pip, close behind,  at 2802 copies. (We presume that they were all in hardback. But you will get the perspective when you consider that, considering purchasing power parity, the hardback in UK costs half of what a paperback costs locally.) In fact the five finalists' combined sales, besides Ian McEwan's, comes to 10,155 copies sold.

And this happened after the announcement of the long list. The sales figures in April were: Ian McEwan, 99,660 copies. Mohsin Hamid, 1519 copies. Lloyd Jones, 880 copies.

So what gives? Of the six short-listed books I have only read On Chesil Beach. While it is competently written and does have its moments, which is the least I would expect from an author like Ian McEwan, I am afraid I was not terribly excited by it. In fact, I don't even know if I would call it a novel. It is part of a much longer story perhaps, like a starter with no main course and no desert -- and I am not a very happy person when they overdo the lettuce in the salads, anyway. (Don't get me wrong; I will be taking quite a few sentences from that book and calling them my own.)

Do we really have a really bad crop this year? Have writers and publishers completely lost the plot? Or is it the end of the world?

Book marketing in Kenya

When I came across this story by Wanjiru Waithaka in Business Daily Africa, Is it time to change the way books are marketed in Kenya ? I wanted to ignore it. Then I thought, "What do they know about marketing that we don't?" It appears they don't. Many of the gripes of the industry over there is the same as it is here. Books are, probably, the only commodity marketed by people without product knowledge. Would you buy a computer from a salesman who knows nothing about computers? Or music from a salesperson who does not listen to music? Or rice from a merchant who does not eat? You get the drift.

Here are some excerpts from that article. (Why does it all sound so familiar?)

(Publishers focus) on school texts (because) publishing is a business like any other. "Publishers want to make money and textbooks is where we can get volumes, take for instance the 7.5 million children in primary school because of free education."

Publishers say the problem is that Kenyans don't read ... (they) also say that potential authors do not write stuff that is relevant for the Kenyan reader ... "They should write stories with the audience in mind. But 90 per cent of manuscripts we receive are written as though for a foreign audience."

Kenyans don't prioritise buying books outside of the school system and have a preference for foreign books. "The Kenyan psyche of believing that everything foreign is good is a big problem."

"People who say Kenyans don't read are not right but very few publishers do market research to find out what will sell. They publish then hope it sells. This is a challenge for publishers to take up. We should take a little money from the revenues textbooks generates and invest in other areas ..."

Then there is this one:

"Publishers should market books more aggressively rather than just publishing a book and throwing it out there ... Look at the hype created by JK Rowling"s books (Harry Porter series) even before they came out, this was done by her publishers ..."

So, they are not all that different from Malaysians in this respect. And, by the way, if you want to make money like Ms Rowling without too much effort -- with much higher odds than she ever had when she started -- there is one sure way (and, it is guaranteed, no writing skills will be required for this) ... it is called the lottery ticket.

Full story:

Monday, September 17, 2007

Rejection letters

Animal FarmDavid Oshinsky writes in the New YorkTimes - No Thanks, Mr Nabokov

No can scoff at Alfred A Knopf's record of producing 17 Nobel Prize
winners not to mention 47 Pulitzer Prize-winning volumes of fiction, nonfiction, biography and history. For most of the 20th century, Knopf was the gold standard in book publishing. It still is and will probably continue to be. But some of the rejection letters (and reasons for rejecting certain works) sent out by the publisher are hilarious:

Pearl Buck's novel The Good Earth: rejected on the grounds that Americans were 'not interested in anything on China.']

George Orwell's Animal Farm: the rejection came with an explanation that it was 'impossible to sell animal stories in the U.S.A.'

Others included:

Jorge Luis Borges : '... utterly untranslatable'
Isaac Bashevis Singer: '... it's Poland and the rich Jews again'
Anaïs Nin: '...there is no commercial advantage in acquiring her, and, in my opinion, no artistic'
Sylvia Plath: '... there certainly isn't enough genuine talent for us to take notice'
Jack Kerouac: '... his frenetic and scrambling prose perfectly express the feverish travels of the Beat Generation. But is that enough? I don't think so'.

And Knopf also turned down manuscripts by Jean-Paul Sartre, Mordecai Richler, Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita ('too racy') and James Baldwin’s Giovanni's Room ('hopelessly bad').

And the clincher: The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank -- 'very dull ... a dreary
record of typical family bickering, petty annoyances and adolescent emotions.'
(The Diary of a Young Girl was rejected by 15 other publishers but went on to sell 30 million copies.)

Full story:

Roald Dahl beats Harry hollow

Roald DahlFrom the Guardian Unlimited

Roald Dahl -- birthday 13th September -- died in 1990 (seven years before the publication of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone and a good decade before the madness started) but remains the most popular children's author among young adults in the UK. The survey has found that JK Rowling is only the fourth most popular author. This is a surprise because the latest and the last and the most successful in the series, Harry Potterand the Deathly Hollows and the latest movie, were only published less than two months ago. Looks like all that hype could only push the teenage wizard up that high in a survey of readers between 16 and 34 years old commissioned by ITV3. (Guess the operative word is readers.) One wonders where on such a list he will feature five years from now? (Those of you who did not join the HP midnight queue at a mega bookstore on the 20th July and surrender your life's savings for a copy of the Deathly Hollows, but who are nevertheless kiasu enough to want one, this is a piece of useful info: the latest HP was spotted in the 'bargain bin' at Czip Lee's in Bangsar Baru earlier this week. Check it out.)

The top ten:

1. Roald Dahl
2. CS Lewis
3. JM Barrie
4. JK Rowling
5. Anthony Horowitz
6. Jacqueline Wilson
7. Dr Seuss
8. Philip Pullman
9. Francesca Simon
10. Enid Blyton

Full story:,,2166909,00.html

Antibooks and guy books

Book of BondSherman Young writes in the Sydney Morning Herald – Leave the antibooks on the shelf.

The good news is that we are not the only ones lamenting the demise of a reading and writing culture. The bad news, of course, is that we never really had one.

The report states: In Australia in 2004, 32 Australian novels were published by mainstream publishers, down from 60 in 1996. This is mirrored in our spending on Australian fiction, which dropped from $125 million in 2001-02 to $73 million in 2003-04.

Sherman Young attributes this to the rise of the 'antibook': ... printed objects motivated by mammon rather than ideas. The key to an antibook is a hook designed to convince us to part with a few dollars. A hook that contains a life-changing promise, a movie tie-in, a catchy, timely premise or an author who is famous for just about anything except writing. Beyond the hook, there need not be much at all.

Meanwhile, in an article titles 'Guy books' are most coveted rarities by Michelle Pauli in Guardian Unlimited finds that The Great Tool Emporium and Cab Forward: the Story of the Southern Pacific Articulated Locomotives are some of the most sought after books in the United States. These are amongst the most requested titles on Also on the list are: The Book of Bon, or, Every Man His Own 007 by Kingsley Amis, and Football Scouting Methods by Steve Belichick. And as if to counterbalance the male domination The Principles of Knitting, Knitting Lace and I Do: Achieving your Dream Wedding by Jessica Simpson is also much sought after.

And the most sought after fiction: Nora Roberts' Promise Me Tomorrow. Ahem. And I looked for a hardback edition of Umberto Eco's Name of the Rose.

Read more:,,2168191,00.html?gusrc=rss&feed=10

Saturday, September 01, 2007

The lament of the Great Malaysian Novel - again

From The Star: What an amazing setting Malaysia is; It has all the ingredients for a great novel and there are peoples from all cultures, castes and creeds. But just where is the Great Malaysian Novel and why does Malaysia feature so little in literature?

So we had another, 'aw, shucks, why don't we have a Great Malaysian Novel' article in a local newspaper. Again. 'Aw, shucks, why doesn't someone in Malaysia win a Nobel prize, aw, shucks, why don't we win the football World Cup, aw, shucks, we are such a great country, aw, shucks ...'

Unfortunately 'aw, shucks' alone is not going to cut it. Maybe that's what we do best - daydream. We have the (once) tallest buildings in the world not because we built it, but because we bought it (and paid a bunch of foreigners one hell of a lot of money for it too - boy, they must really think we are suckers), so let us not kid ourselves. We have had Malaysians parachute down the North Pole (we bought that), a Malaysian man is scheduled to be in space soon (we have paid the Russians a lot of money for his ticket) and we probably have more shopping malls per square kilometre than any other place on earth (or the universe). Money we can manage - we have not been known as Suvarnabumi for nothing. Work is another matter.

The Great Malaysian novel (or the great Malaysian anything) is going to happen when somebody does it, not when somebody talks about it, or we wait for a government grant, or organise another competition (which we are so fond of) ala Akademi Fantasia. It will happen when the air we breathe becomes less poisonous. It will happen when we are willing to open our windows and let sunshine in. It will happen when we stop patting ourselves in our backs for coming out 189th in a class of 200. (Look, there are people worse than we are. Aren't they disgusting?) It will happen when media stops self-emasculation for profits and political largesse and starts reporting news again. It will happen ...

Full story:

Pakistani Literature

MohsinHamidFrom:Guardian Unlimited

While the world continues its love affair with Indian Literature in English, one wonders what happened to its Pakistani counterpart? Why have Pakistani novelists failed to achieve the same high profile? With the inclusion of The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid in this year’s long list for the Man Booker Prize, there is hope that this might change.

Apart from Sadat Hasan Manto's Mottled Dawn: Fifty Sketches and Stories of Partition (which is translated from Urdu) the only Pakistani writer I have read is Hanif Kureishi (and I don't think he qualifies because he was born in Kent). I have had Aamer Hussein's The Other Salt on the shelves for a while, but have not got round to reading it. Of course, I have read Bapsi Sidhwa's Ice Candy Man. And how about Nadeem Aslan's Map for Lost Lovers (which I have not read yet)? Come to think of it I have probably read more than a few but I have not seen them as such. Pakistani writers probably face the same problem Canadian artists (especially musicians) face: being lumped
together with their larger neighbour.

But I suppose it should not come as a big surprise (considering our own experience in Malaysia) that Anglophone writers in Pakistan should be marginalised by 'majority' nationalist sentiment. English is the official language, that is language preferred by the officials, while Urdu is the national language, the one preferred by everyone else. And then let us not forget censorship.

Which is all a shame. With one associating Pakistan primarily with 'bombs and mullahs', one would have thought a little more written in English might help the world see that another side exists. Fortunately for them, I believe Pakistanis probably have somewhat more testicular fortitude than Malaysians. Things can still change.

Full story:,,330565912-99930,00.html

The Poetry-only shop

Open PoetryFrom Seatle P-I.

Imagine a bookshop of just 480 square feet stocked with 9,000 titles, all poetry. How on earth do they survive? But some how poets J.W. Marshall and Christine Deavel do. They actually make a living running one of two poetry-only bookstores in the US.

Called Open Books: A Poem Emporium, the bookstore which is located in the basement of a bungalow has managed to make a profit for twelve years it has been in operation, with sales described as steady. And one of the co-owners is always there at the front desk. "It is part of our home life," Christine, 49, says in the story.

She adds: "Most people in the book business know they will not make a lot of money ... we find other rewards. There are still poetry lovers ... that is a form of payment for me."

Visit their website: