Coming up at Backstory
Free live music every Thursday evening, 6pm-8pm. This week: Héloïse Werner and Colin Alexander
No need to book, just turn up at our bar from 6pm on Thursday evenings
Tuesday 19th September, 7.30pm
Who better to guide us through the mess we find ourselves in than the public policy editor of the Financial Times? Foster considers the real costs of leaving the EU and shows what a better future for Britain might look like.
Wednesday 11th October, 7.30pm
We’re so lucky to host these two dazzling writers for an exclusive launch event for their new anthology of food writing, from Nigella Lawson to Salman Rushdie.
Wednesday 18th October, 7.30pm
That Peckham Boy is an extraordinary book about what it means to be young, black and poor in London, by Kenny Imafidon who was wrongly accused of the murder of a 17-year-old boy. He’ll be talking to FT columnist Stephen Bush.
Coming up at the Non-Fiction Book Club: Tim Marshall (The Power of Geography), Philippe Sands (The Last Colony), Caroline Knowles (Serious Money: Walking Plutocratic London), Christina Lamb (Our Bodies, Their Battlefield)
Coming up at the Fiction Book Club: Julia Armfield (Our Wives Under The Sea), Rebecca Wait (I’m Sorry You Feel That Way), Bobby Palmer (Isaac And The Egg)
SOLD OUT: Poetry with Hollie McNish and Michael Pedersen, 30th August, 7.30pm
Team pick of the week
Megan recommends: Take What You Need by Idra Novey
Idra Novey’s latest, Take What You Need, took me completely by surprise. Centred around the lives of Jean, a complicated artist living in rural Appalachia, and her estranged stepdaughter, Leah, the novel traces the complications of family, grief, artmaking and pain in a deeply felt and compassionate way.
I read it hungrily, and can’t get it out of my head. - Megan
I READ A BOOK IN THE BATH YESTERDAY. Nothing unusual in that: a good soak is one of life’s great pleasures, best enjoyed with an excellent paperback. When I say “I read a book”, though, I don’t mean a chapter or two, I mean the whole shebang. It’s the new Claire Keegan - out this Thursday - and, at a mere 47 pages, it’s the best accompaniment to a bath since somebody invented those little yellow ducks. Radox ought to be worried.
These Claire Keegans get shorter and shorter. Small Things Like These was a slim but powerful 128 pages. Chunky, though, in comparison to the 96 pages of Foster, published a decade ago but enjoyed by most this year after discovering Keegan via Small Things. Now she gives us So Late in the Day, almost half as brief again. They could market it as “the perfect commuter read” or perhaps bundle it with a cookbook to give you something to do while your soufflé rises. And put it this way, nobody is going to be complaining about the font being too small.
There’s an art to brevity. As a daily newspaper hack, I was quickly inducted in the opposite skill: how to pad out a news story based on a single fact to fit the 500-word space between the ads. Those four paragraphs attributed to a “spokesperson for No 10” are more often than not as much about getting rid of the remaining white space as about “balancing” whatever claims have been made above.
So it was a relief at The Economist to be confronted with a different challenge: how do you say this thing in as few words as possible? Summarise a week’s worth of Brexit wrangling? “Oh, I’m sure you can do that in 500 words.” The past, present and future of American-Chinese relations? “Yeah, you’re right, that might need 2,000 or so.” Often, that meant short, clipped, Anglo-Saxon phrases and lots of sentences beginning “Yet”. The fun bit was trying to smuggle in a dash of spirit without creeping over the word count. (Ann Wroe, who writes the weekly obituary, is the often unsung master of that. Her new book, Lifescapes: A Biographer’s Search for the Soul, is out this week and, ahem, available from all good bookshops.)
Five years there made me a much better writer, but also a very impatient reader. With non-fiction in particular, I find myself aching to get out the red pen and ask “do we really need this paragraph/chapter/book?”
The easy answer is that a book should be as long as it needs to be and not a word more. The harder bit is who decides that. Unsurprisingly, it is a subject on which the author and the reader have strong - and not always complementary - opinions.
Andrea Elliott’s Pulitzer Prize-winning masterpiece, Invisible Child, in which she follows the life of a child growing up homeless in New York over the course of a decade, stretches to 624 pages. Some in our non-fiction book group doubtless groaned when the book thwacked onto their doormats, but Elliott told us that she felt passionately that if presidential biographies are great tomes, her subject deserved no less thorough a treatment.
It’s an excellent read that more than repays the investment, but I can’t help but wonder if her extraordinary reporting would have reached a greater audience if she had managed to shave 100 pages or so. Sathnam Sanghera would certainly think so: he told a later meeting of our book club that he kept the central narrative of Empireland under 300 pages so as to deter as few people as possible from engaging with his themes. So too Katherine Rundell, who feels that her dazzling 300-odd page ode to John Donne, Super-Infinite, is still on the long side. The same debates play out for novels: Caleb Azumah Nelson told our fiction book club that his initial draft of Open Water, a slender 160 pages, was even shorter, but that his editor asked for more.
There is definitely a trend towards shorter novels. A lot of proofs I am sent, especially for contemporary fiction written by 20- and 30-somethings, run to 200 pages or less. This development is popular with readers, if Backstory’s customers are anything to go by. A common request is for something short, something not too heavy literally as well as in subject matter. Book club members who pick up their copies each month often beam when they discover the next book is a short one. But there is a floor beneath which a volume is deemed somehow unsubstantial. Publishers know that readers expect a certain heft in return for their cash.
What makes Keegan exceptional is nobody would say her stories are unsubstantial. She needs only a phrase or two to make characters real in a way many novelists fail to do over several hundred pages. As Hilary Mantel put it, ‘a single one of Keegan’s grounded, powerful sentences can contain volumes of social history. Every word is the right word in the right place, and the effect is resonant and deeply moving.’
I won’t spoil So Late in the Day by telling you too much about it - any précis would be almost as long as the real thing. But I will say that it again pulls off the trick of being both small and big, of being the story of one man and one woman and one evening on the outskirts of Dublin but also of love and regret and the long shadow of patriarchy.
Anyway, this newsletter is quite long enough. (Too long, eds?) I just want quickly to thank the very many of you who tested out our new website and sent me your feedback. Should you want to buy So Late in the Day - or any of September’s big hitters like the new Zadie Smith and Richard Osman, Clive Myrie’s autobiography or, ho hum, the Nadine Dorries book everyone’s waiting for - you can pop into the shop or, if you’re further afield, order online now, with free delivery anywhere in the UK. Please encourage your friends and family to try out the website as an indie-friendly alternative to Amazon, too.
And with that, this newsletter is off for a fortnight’s holiday. (But which books to pack? Agh!) See you in September.