Friday, August 17, 2007

Literary Idols & A Bit of Research

from Jacqueline

I have never watched American Idol on the TV, though by default I know more or less what it’s all about. From what I gather, it amounts to Simon Cowell pouring insults on would-be rock stars and sending most of them into the deep blue yonder with wounded egos. Mind you, what do you expect, if you’re a contestant setting yourself up for that sort of thing? The show originated in the UK, and was imported “over here” by producers trying to meet the collective insatiable hunger for anything amounting to reality TV. If newspaper reports are anything to go by, the blush is off that particular rose and the TV companies are looking for more substantial fodder with which to addle our brains. Fear not, I can report here that there’s something in the offiing that will curdle your innards (well, it did mine ...).

Simon Cowell has a big brother, Tony. And what do you think Tony is launching over there in the old country? The literary equivalent of American Idol. Following his brother’s footsteps into reality TV, Cowell the Elder is set to launch “Bestseller,” which has already been nicknamed “Book Idol.” Basically, first-time authors present excerpts from their unpublished novels and set themselves up for the same sort of masochistic diatribe that comes forth from Cowell the Younger on American Idol. Says Tony Cowell, “The formula is hugely successful, so why not bill our would-be authors in the same way as pop stars?” He goes on to comment, “It’s a harsh truth, but writers have to be able to sell themselves like singers to make themselves marketable.” To someone who is tone deaf, that scares the heck out of me. Even if he does have something of a point.

Who knows if this little idea will take off on either side of the pond? In the UK the Mann Booker Prize Awards are televised to a substantial audience, so a “Book Idol” would probably do quite well. And we also have to remember that the whole “Quills” idea – a literary Oscars – doesn’t seem to have gripped the public imagination here in the States yet. If we’re honest, as writers we are in the entertainment business, so perhaps I shouldn’t take umbridge at this development. But there’s something about it that doesn’t sit well with me. I’ve been at enough writers’ workshops, both as a student and faculty member, to see the enormous leap of faith it takes for a first time writer (or second, third and fourth, come to that), to share their work. But no one twists your arm to get up and do your song and dance routine on a television show, so good luck to those who can make that particular leap. And as all good agents say when they decline your manuscript – one’s response to any book is a subjective thing. Bit like one’s response to music, so I hope Cowell the Elder has a more compassionate manner than his brother.

As a final note on this subject, according to the newspaper reports, “Bestseller” is due to be aired in Britain early next year, in time for the winning book to become a summer blockbuster (my, that’s fast publishing). The winner will receive a six-figure advance and a deal with a major publisher in the UK and America. At time of writing, TV producers were lining up to buy the rights to the U.S. version of the show. Part of the attraction of talent shows is the color and sparkle, so one wonders what the contestants will be poured into in the way of costumes. By the way, Jackie Collins is one of the show’s “mentors.” Not surprising, really – she sells one heck of a lot of books - and maybe this show will have the public flocking to the bookstores in Harry Potter-like numbers.

And onto other things. We’ve talked about research before, each of us sharing something of the background work we do to bring color and depth to our characters, and to engage the reader with a finely drawn sense of time and place – we hope. Patty races around in fast cars, Paul visits agricultural shows, Cornelia delves into all sorts of dark places in the interests of authenticity, and Jim is his own research - and as we know from yesterday's post, he is more on the edge of truth on a day-to-day basis than most writers. As my novels are set in the first half of the last century, I have to go back in time. Sometimes that means walking around London in a sort of zone wherein I see the buildings, but as they were in the 1930’s. I look at shops and wonder what it felt like to make a purchase in another age – and I wonder about the sounds, the smells, the air at that time. To that end, I will leap at any opportunity to travel on a steam train. I have written about a particular journey by steam train on my website (, but last weekend I had a heck of a great time with my parents on that same railway line. To celebrate my Mum’s 80th birthday (well, to cap quite a few celebrations), I took my parents for lunch on the Kent & East Sussex Railway’s Pullman dining service, a four-course gastronomic experience served by attentive waiters – all of whom are volunteers – on board a train that has changed little since its 1930’s heyday.

It was the most relaxing meal I have had in a long time, chugging along through the English countryside while being waited upon hand and foot. This was not third class. So, what do I remember? The huge wafts of coal steam as the train pulled into the station – oh, and white is not a good color to wear, as the steam throws out splats of coal dust. I remember the soothing way the train moved from side to side, as if rocking a cradle, and the sssshhhhhhh ...ker-chuf, when she stopped. Here are some pictures, just to take you back:

And here are the family pics ...

Have a lovely weekend!


  1. Ah, what lovely pictures, Our J. Literary Idol may not make it in the U.S. but we still have a sub-culture of train enthusiasts. I once rode on a private railroad car that belongs to a friend of mine from Chicago to Minneapolis. The car used to be owned by the Woolworth family. My friend still hooks it up to bigger trains all over the world. On my trip, it was attached to the back of the an Amtrac, so I spent some time sitting on the platform outside, waving to people. When I got to the hotel in Minneapolis, my face looked as if it had been exposed to a month in the Florida sun. Not a tan. Dirt.

  2. Oh, Patty - I am so envious of your train journey. I just love trains, especially old ones! And vintage and classic cars - have you ever been to the Nethercutt Collection in Sylmar? The cars are just amazing - good for the research - and they even have an old train, again, that belonged to an heiress - lovely, it was.

  3. Wonderful train pictures, Jackie. And what a great idea for a gift.

    On the notion of a reality show choosing a "bestseller," it frightens me to imagine the caliber of a book that could be "pitched" in this kind of format. That's not the kind of book that I most enjoy reading.


  4. I wonder at the potential damage that could be done to fragile brilliance, when that germ of brilliance is sacrificed on the bloody altar of the 'reality TV' arena, just because flashier, more tv-crowd pleasing 'talent' appeals to a barely literate audience. It takes a hell of a lot of guts to bare your written work knowing that you can be publicly flamed for how bad, or even how 'too good for current trends of simple minded entertainment' it might be. I wouldn't enter that if you paid me.

    I love the train pictures, Jacqueline! We just ordered our rail passes for England for the end of September. Sigh. Got to get Japan out of the way first though. However, I'd much rather be tooling around the English countryside looking for examples of lonely old pubs at crossroads: my mystery novel setting is taking shape. :-D We live in hope.


  5. I'm with you on "Bestseller," Our J. Didn't they already do something like this on TV in the UK--Lit Idol? Can't quite remember the details.

    I am very envious of your train trip. LOVE traveling by train (except for Amtrak, though I did once get to go cross country by rail here with my grandparents, when I was about eight--wonderful, as we had actual beds. I remember ordering chicken croquettes in the dining car, as we headed up into the Rockies).

    I once found a website about a train trip you can take through India. All the cars are former private ones, belonged to maharajahs and such, and the food is supposed to be exquisite. Would love to do that if I ever win the lottery.

    I tried to set up a train trip from Delhi to Bombay to Goa to Bangalore, IIRC, back in '98 when my husband had a business trip there which coincided with our tenth anniversary. Much more down to earth accomodations, but still wonderful. We got to Bombay but then there was a national train strike so we had to bail after that.

    Your lunch trip sounds magnificent!

  6. I think we all wonder about what constitutes a winning book on a show for "Literary Idols." Writers, generally, do not have the same level of personal interest for the general public as rock stars - with a few exceptions, we are not made of the stuff that constitutes "celebrity," which is what these shows seem to be all about.

    So, to get away, let's all go away on a train. My father spent his 80th birthday on board the same steam train service, only his treat was the special "Mystery Dinner," where passengers are treated to an on-board murder mystery, complete with a Sherlock Holmes and a raft of characters - and they are all volunteers! Mum and Dad had a fantastic time on that one, and at the end, my mother said she was having such fun that she didn't really care who the murderer was!

    Oh, and Cornelia, I would love to do that journey through India you talked about - roll on that lottery win. Maybe we should have a group ticket!

  7. Our J, I don't think this is the same train I first read about, but it looks pretty spiffy:

  8. looks pretty good, too, and here's a site that lists vintage train trips around the world:

    I like the sound of this one:

    Colonial Crafts Open site in a new window - Offers restored private railroad passenger car that may be chartered on Amtrak routes to San Diego, Oakland, Seattle, Denver, Chicago, New Orleans, and beyond.

    Maybe we should do a Naked Tour someday and book a car? We'd all have to get our pub dates synchronised... I'll start buying lottery tickets in the meantime.

  9. Love the Naked train idea.WOOOO WOOOO!

  10. Maybe we could do the annual "Naked Authors Rally" on board the train, with readings from guest authors (or maybe even a few literary idols, even). Who needs to win the lotto - we could make it happen, rent that car, as Patty suggested (well, maybe we'd need the serious money for India). We could choose a different theme every year ... oh, the planning mind boggles. Cornelia and Paul could be in charge of the cocktails.

  11. Sounds perfect--just be careful to keep me away from the plans. I am a disaster at planning. Much better at last-minute inspiration and frantic catchup with a soupcon of travel serendipity. Cocktails I can handle, though.

    I remember hearing about a tour my publisher did with a bunch of their mystery authors years ago, aboard a bus cross-country. "The Magical Mystery Tour," I believe. Trains are SO MUCH COOLER than buses. I think we could have a hit on our hands. Naked Whistlestop...

  12. 'Umbridge' should be 'umbrage'

  13. I know that authors are very supportive of one another, but what do you do when you are asked to write a "blurb" of a review for a book that isn't so good? I really hate it when authors that I admire endorse an awful book. Jackie Collins is a huge success but an incredibly horrendous writer! I guess we mere mortals will never truly understand the publishing world. I love NAKEDAUTHORS!!

  14. Allie - how right you are! You get this week's prize for finding my deliberate mistake. Seriously, I was writing this piece with a thumping migraine, and looked at that word ten times wondering what I'd done wrong - of course, I couldn't actually read a dictionary as my eyes were not functioning properly, and it wasn't picked up by the spell-check (hmmm, interesting) Thanks for the correction. I think we all have our blind spots, don't we?

    Anon - do not worry, I think that most people in publishing do not entirely understand the business. Its a creature with a mind of its own and is at the mercy of all sorts of influences. The issue of blurbs is always a tricky thing, unless one is over-the-moon about the book, and I think all authors have ways of dealing with requests to blurb books that haven't quite grabbed their imagination. Again, it's that subjective view. For every book there is a reader, hopefully a raft of readers - a blurb should help make the match.

  15. My $.02 is that there is ALWAYS something good you can say about a book. ALWAYS. Let's start with, this person sat down for let's say two years of her life and poured her heart and soul into the page. And this turn of phrase on page 312 is nice. And there seems to be some kind of ending attached. And when she could be doing other, presumably easier things, she didn't. Just sayin'!

    Also, Cornelia, I don't think you have to buy any more lottery tix, from what I'm hearing about AFOD.

    And could somebody please get Sting away from me? Thanks.

  16. Rebecca,

    If you come back to this post - and I hope you do - you are absolutely right, there is always something good you can say about a book. When I finally completed my first novel, I vowed I would never say a negative thing about a book again because I finally understood what it meant to complete a manuscript. I don't care whether it's a romance, a classic, a mystery or self-help book - someone sat down to write page after page and worked hard to get from page one to "the end." And there's something to be said for that leap of faith and honoring one's creativity, which means it deserves all the good points you can find it you've agreed to blurb the book.

  17. Oh I'm glad I did come back! I thought this was a great thread. Honestly I just heard that someone who I never thought I'd convince to blurb my book is going to do it and I'm about to fall down in gratitude. That's exactly it, right, just having sat down day after day with nothing, NOTHING to hang on to, and doing the work -- it's like becoming a parent. Very hard to look at people the same way, once you know what they've gone through...
    Amen, GF, Amen.

  18. Oh and PS, my brother-in-law used to have a writing group on the Amtrak line he called Trains of Thought.