Sunday, 11 June 2017

Margot Honecker The Purple Witch of the East

Post aus Chile  ISBN 978-3-360-51041-9
Schumann, Frank; Honecker, Margot. edition ost. Kindle Edition.
I bought this book as part of a background research for a planned Cold War novel and as a follow-up to Erich Honecker’s biography. I was really excited by the prospect of finding a glimpse of the real Mr stony-faced Honecker, a wisp of humanity and humility in the memoirs of his wife Margot, mellowed maybe by all the years in Chilean exile? I didn’t hope for much. A sideline maybe, a small sign of redemption to show me that there actually were two humans under that impenetrable ideological crust. No such luck!

This exchange between Frank Schumann and Margot Honecker is nothing but an embarrassing whitewash attempt for an utterly rotten and failed state, its architects and hangers-on; the tedious correspondence between two old hard-line Marxist/Leninists, counting the mourners at the funerals of their ever dwindling numbers, looking for an angle to present their long lost cause to another publisher. Schumann at least can see the irony in it. As for Margot, she went down fighting windmills to the end. “Wir haben von unseren Gegnern kein Entgegenkommen zu erwarten.” We can’t expect any favours from our enemies. Sadly, she gave none and got none back.

Margot Honecker was sometimes called the purple witch because of her tinted hair. She died May 6, 2016 in Santiago. She never accepted any blame for her or her husband's part in the East German state sponsored killings of "escapees" or the Stasi inflicted torment of families separated by the wall.

Saturday, 3 June 2017

The Wartime Notebooks of Marguerite Duras

I had to read Duras for High School French. I remember thinking what a cool chick she must have been, long before such a phrase even made sense. Born to French parents in Vietnam, she left her (reportedly abusive) family after a never fully explained affair with a Chinese man at the age of 17 to study in Paris. She joined the Communist Party and worked for the Vichy government as well as the French Resistance during the war. Her first husband was interned in Buchenwald. He survived the war but they divorced soon after. Marguerite Donnadieu chose the pen name Duras for her first publication towards the end of the war and stuck with it for life. She didn’t have to invent much. Her own life already was a novel, full of contradictions, affairs of the heart and substance abuse. She survived alcohol but the smokes got here in the end. She died of throat cancer in 1996, aged 81.

I never went back to her writing after High School. I guess she was the “it” girl in French literature by the time our French teacher made us read her. I missed the point of the hype then. I could gladly have finished my days without ever hearing her name again. But the other week I went to the local flea market and there she was on the cover of a secondhand book, posing in front of a typewriter, a few pages of a manuscript and a packet of Gauloises cigarettes next to it .
When I began to read the English translation of her wartime notebooks it came back why I remembered her from the French lessons from forty years ago: Duras is easy to read, even in a foreign language. I don’t pretend to like all her stories and I could never stand her films  but I love her simple and straightforward style of writing. This becomes even more poignant in the telegram style of her rough drafts. I’m glad I found Duras again. I won’t be going back to her novels but I urge every aspiring writer to get a copy of “Wartime Notebooks” as a reminder that it doesn’t take big words to tell a story – just the right ones.  

Thursday, 1 June 2017

Kindle - The Incredible Shrinking Book

When is a book a book? Actually, if it’s bound with a cover, a spine and a back. A Kindle is not a book. It’s a manuscript on a screen.  It might have 300 pages but it’s simply formatted that way. An average print novel has around 85,000 words. The average eBook on Smashwords comes in at 35,565 words, trending downwards.
Ebooks are getting shorter fast. Why? Because e-publishing platforms encourage authors to write more. If one sells, write two more.  If none of them sell just keep pumping out more until one catches on and you’ll make a killing with your back catalogue.  (Insert laughter here)
Never mind the subject; hacking out five 85,000-word books a year is beyond all but a handful of freaks. The solution is simple: write five instead of one!
And so they do. I followed one particular Amazon author who had amassed 25 titles in 4 years. Insane! Amazon doesn’t publish word counts, in line with everything else they don’t want us to know. The page count Amazon lists is meaningless because pages can be any size. The writer in question formatted her work into a 300 page ebook with sixty chapters that amounted to around one page in an average print book. I calculated the word count to be around 18,000 per book. In other words, around 5 of her ebooks equate to one average sized print novel and her output in 4 years is equivalent to 5 average print books. It made me feel a lot less inadequate.
If a print book takes off, the author invariably suffers a bad case of verbal diarrhea and no editor will be game enough to rein in the flood. Fair enough, the poor author probably spent half a lifetime trying to bend his/her writing into editor-conform prose just to get accepted. Now let them see what damage I can really do!
Ebooks don’t follow that pattern. If they take off, they get shorter. An Indie author has a huge advantage over the trad pubs: he/she can fire off the follow-up book immediately instead of going through the extended traditional production process.  No more testing the water with a “pilot” – just hit Amazon with the complete, yet to be written, series.  Some fire up, some flame out – the process of finding readers has not changed, only the method of delivery.
As a relatively new convert to Indie publishing I have to admit that there is something to be said for the incredible shrinking book, just as there was a case to be made for the incredible shrinking newspaper in the 80s. I was part of the team that set up USA Today in Europe. Grabline boxes, graphics, colour, Tweets before there was such a word - nothing was really new about the five or so second rule to grab a reader’s attention. The method of delivery via satellite, the multiple print sites and thus the improved distribution were new. Sounds familiar? Yep, Amazon is USA Today, only much further reaching than anybody could have envisaged.
So what if Amazon serves up fast food made up of garbage and gems all mixed into a big fat stew? Most trad pubs are there with their bestsellers – so is everybody else with a Word document. Financial success is still the exception but some Indie authors do extremely well without ever selling a single print book.  Editors, agents and assorted literary glamouristas will just have to accept the fact that they are no longer in sole charge of the Holy Grail.