Not Finishing Books

old books

In Latest Readings Clive James, a writer whose brilliance, wide-ranging literary tastes and seriousness some of us have appreciated too late, reads back through books that amused, interested, inspired or frustrated him in his earlier days. James has a playful turn of phrase those of my generation recall from his TV career and his musings on literature are very enjoyable. This, in turn, got me thinking about those books we put down due to lack of time, impetus, disinterest or disgust. Is this acceptable? Late in life James finds new meaning in the writing of Joseph Conrad, reads back or remembers Twentieth Century novel sequences- Olivia Manning’s Fortunes of War Trilogy and Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time. Books put down long ago are read again and James revels in the greater appreciation and understanding his maturity gives them.

James also laments the loss of books sold on or lost. His collection ran to tens of thousands – not a suitable number for a dying writer and his family took action to relocate his office from London to Cambridge. Many are bought, some covertly, for a second time. James hides them from his wife and daughter having discovered that his terminal illness is slow in reaching its inevitability.

This got me thinking about books I have either failed to finish or have given away over the years – artefacts that disappear from life. Indeed, James’ own Cultural Amnesia is one I proudly bought in hardback and never really appreciated or read in full. It was sold on with little thought and I’d love to read it now.

I recently found my crumpled Flamingo edition of William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch. A book which frustrated me to the extent that I vowed to rip it up or throw it at my bedroom wall. I never reached the end but the book survived. That is ok. Maybe I’ll read it again one day.

Those with a large reading pile – for example literary agents – face a Sisyphean task in getting through a reading list. There are submissions – solicited and otherwise, first drafts from clients, further drafts, edits in response to the agent’s editorial comments, trade articles, newspapers and review columns, websites and published books which are sent or need to be read to keep up with the market. Do emails belong to this group? This volume poses a problem even for the most dedicated reader. The bedside pile grows until it swamps furniture.

Over the years I left left unfinished books by Sebastian Faulks, Murray Bail, Henry Miller and too many others to admit. I left the Sebastian Faulks novel on the roof of a car and drove off – actually glad to see the back of it. I have left untouched books bought or given to me by writers as varied as Javier Marias, Donna Tartt and Bernardo Atxaga. Dickens’ Selected Journalism has defeated me a dozen times. It seems to bring on bouts of sleep or distraction. Selected Writings of William Hazlitt fell by the wayside long ago. At the same time I have read too many Maigrets, Mankells, Larssons, waded through too much average later Philip Roth and read some books many times over as guilty pleasures.

I have come to believe that leaving books unfinished is ok. Clive James has made me realise that they can be read further down the line in life and probably read better. I need not allow unread spines to psych me out, as they’re trying to as I write this blog (Call It Sleep by Henry Roth). I recently picked up a book I love: The Wild Places by Robert MacFarlane. I feel an affinity for this book, especially the essay Holloway that deals with an area of Dorset I know well. Yet on re-reading it I realised I’d hardly read it at all – perhaps only two chapters and a few others scantily. The book has been part of my life for ten years and I have recommended it to several people. This realisation made me understand Clive James’s point that it is the quality and understanding of the reading that counts. Don’t let your reading list dominate you, as you’ll fail to do it justice if you feel intimidated by it. A book, an article or a blog will receive the reading it deserves in the end. The size of the pile should not be significant.


A Ki Christmas


What’s our holiday reading this year?


I’m reading some clients’ work (a couple have just delivered some exciting new projects). The non-client book on my bedside table right now is Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses. It’s not something I would have sought out, but a friend insisted I read it. I’m enjoying how evocative it is, how it makes me experience a very particular time and place… and how well his unfeasibly long sentences work.
The book I’m giving several friends for Christmas is Frances Hardinge’s The Cuckoo Song, which was a wonderful discovery this year.


We are away this Christmas and I am taking Deep South by Paul Theroux, whose writing I always find interesting. As we’ll be in Majorca I am also taking Wild Olives: Life in Majorca with Robert Graves. Graves settled in Deia in 1929 and was absent for 10 years during the Spanish Civil War. This is a wonderful memoir by his son, William, of the family’s return to Deia in 1946 and life with this great polymath. Graves’ legacy is clearly evident in Deia today.
A book I’d like to receive this year is Trunk Books- The Art of Smallfilms- The Work of Oliver Postgate and Peter Firmin. A wondrous illustrated book on the genius of two gentlemen who lived locally to my home.

And in other media?


It’s the run-up to the voting for the BAFTA awards, so I’m bingeing on movies right now. I love watching as many films as I can fit into one day, although after a week of this it makes you a bit funny in the head. Special favourites this year include Carol, Brooklyn, Suffragettes and Ex Machina. The new Charlie Brown movie also gets a big thumbs-up for honouring the original material while making it feel fresh.


In other media I’ll be catching up on the Swedish crime drama Beck, starring the understated Peter Haber and adapted beautifully for television from the books by Per Wahloo and Maj Sjowall.
Film wise I’ll be forcing my other half to finally watch the original Star Wars trilogy so that we can go and see The Force Awakens in January. I also have rediscovered the George Stevens film Shane and will be giving it a close watch. It’s a film in which much of the narrative goes unspoken and is much more than a ‘Western’ which it is often referred to as. It’s an absolute classic and I understand now why it was shown in English literature classes at school.

And what Christmas tales do we treasure?


For me, Christmas is about big long classic movies. What will it be this year? So often, we get served up The Sound of Music, which I had a troubled relationship with (is there enough insulin in the world to cope with so much sugar?) until I saw it again as a grown-up and noticed its vein of cynicism. This year over the break there’s Gone With the Wind, whose qualities are often overlooked. It’s such a good tale of coming to self-realisation that I find it a salutary reminder never to underestimate my own occasional blindness.


For nostalgia I often read Dickens’ Christmas Stories around this time of year but I prefer Truman Capote’s A Christmas Memory. This is a perfect short story of a young boy, Buddy, and his close friend who is also his much older cousin and their yuletide habits. The two are sadly removed from one another by time and circumstance. It’s an exercise in moving, symbolic concise writing, sentimental, brilliant on friendship which crosses boundaries and truly beautiful.

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Hard at work!

As some may have noticed, we’ve been a bit quiet on the blog front. We bought another agency back in April, and have been paddling hard like the proverbial duck while attempting to look serene.

The easiest part of the process was doing the deal with my agent friend. She was great and furnished me with all sorts of information: spreadsheets of current licences, contact details, email addresses of royalty departments and so forth. Granted, the deal was on the basis that the agency couldn’t accommodate a large number of new clients – not with the level of attention we like to give.

What I’ve learned in the process:

1. Agents carry a very large amount of information in their heads. You think you’ve put everything down on paper, but it’s a whole nother thing to come along as a newcomer to this information.
2. Some people need telling twice. Some people are still trying to send money to the old agency. There will be people I have to remind more than twice, I can already tell.
3. You have to take the time it takes to establish good relationships. This applies to the new clients as well as new co-agents and publishers. It’s well worth it.
4. Change makes everyone anxious. Of course.

We’ve worked out who needs what tax forms, who’s writing what and for whom, and what money hasn’t arrived. It’s also been important to work out the new clients’ preferences in style of agenting, from the ‘professional only and don’t ask me about my new dog’, to the ‘I’d quite like an opinion on everything I’ve ever written’, to the ‘I miss old-fashioned publishing lunches and I’ll be really happy if we can linger till four in the afternoon talking about old friends and bad books’.

A few things have gone by the board lately, which we should apologise for. We haven’t been as responsive as we’d like to submissions, in particular. But everything’s now getting back onto an even keel. Still paddling hard, though.

The Fetish of Bookishness

Recently I was looking at the Twitter timeline of a local author. The tweeter described themselves as a ‘crime writer’ although I could find no evidence of either published works or, in fact, any attempt to get published. Such was this writer’s personal confidence and dominance of their local writer’s group that publication seemed a secondary aim. Forceful airing of views on writing craft, plot and the industry of publishing seemed to be enough. The writer had fetishized being part of a trade they could, at best, be deemed to exist on the periphery of. Curious at this self assured timeline I continued to find literary agents recommended to other potential authors by this unagented tweeter, rallies to other writers to ‘just write!!’, ‘edit edit edit’ and ‘research!!’. I was struck by this rock solid self-belief and wondered whether bookishness has become a fetish. One that perhaps eschews the entire publishing process?

With bookishness in mind I continued to examine the competition element in local writing groups and found that number of books read and owned appears to be a key factor in setting oneself apart from other unpublished writers. As someone who recently took a year out of publishing one of the most rewarding things I found was reading for pleasure and without pressure- what a joy! I would urge any writer wishing to be published to read less but increase quality and relevance. Yet writing groups appear to pressure their members to read at a volume I’d expect on an MA course list. A writer belonging to an amateur writing group setting themselves a public reading challenge seems intimidating in its one-upmanship. One could wonder whether it’s really a form of very vocal protest from someone who reads very little- in other words a fetish for writing and for books and all that entails. The process of submitting work becomes secondary because that involves, at some stage or another, rejection.

Form of writing; longhand or Macbook- (it’s always a Macbook), purchase of notepads and pens, hours worked, tweeting and favouriting latest Kindle deals., bellowing about every open submission deadline, vigorously agreeing, disagreeing and befriending agents on social media appear as a feature of this ungraceful trend. The book fetishist is aggressive and defensive in equal measure.

This is why I am skeptical about Bookaday a recent book blog appeal to ‘Read one book a day for each day of the summer vacation’. Bookaday’has been successfully running for six years and my doubts will not halt its popularity. For myself I’d rather hear about one affecting book in a lifetime than the seven someone read competitively this week. The idea of averaging out at one book a day for six weeks (sometimes three a day, sometimes none) is appallingly reductive to me. Read lots, if that’s what you enjoy, but do not feel a commitment to do so. Of what value is the skim reading of one book per day?

I thought of one of my very favourite books: JL Carr’s A Month In The Country. It is a decade since I last read Carr’s immersive story of the renewal and healing of soldier Tom Birkin in the peaceful summer of 1920. Yet it remains vivid to me. Imagine if I had read it in a day- slim though it is. Would I have noticed its beautiful rhythmic (slow) pace or the beauty of Carr’s writing? I loved it so much I didn’t want it to end. Even so, I’ve never felt the need to read it again.

I therefore announce the Ki Agency book lovers appeal. Here are the tenets:


Strive over the next year not to listen to recommendations about the volume or regularity of your reading.

Don’t be pressured by a voluminous stack by your bed.

Don’t, in fact, allow a stack to develop at all.

Limit yourself to one book on the go at any time.

Try to find a book every six months that you will remember for years.


Write less but write better.

Read the market segment you are aiming for and read the best books in that segment.

Spend less time reading and more time thinking of your potential reader.

Pass on books you’ve read and declutter- keeping only the finest writing to adorn your home.

Don’t enter into any debates about Kindle vs hard copy.

Understand that the materials you use to write with are not important. It’s the writing that counts.


What’s everyone looking for?

Today’s issue of Broadcast focuses on what the various commissioners at ITV are looking for. Most of them say they don’t want to be too prescriptive. The drama controller thinks there’s room for more crime, as long as it doesn’t include grizzled detectives, dead prostitutes and abused women.

Producers, publishers, and agents are often asked what they’re looking for right now, and the only genuine answer is rather formless: something fresh and character-led. ‘Character-led’ means that the characters are well drawn, and we like them enough to care what happens to them. It’s also important that what happens to them is interesting.

You have to take a conservative view of ‘fresh’: this often means a fresh angle on a well-known genre. It must not so far away from what an audience has seen recently that no one knows how to market it, but not something we feel we’ve now seen a hundred times. It’s a tricky balance. ‘Fresh’ doesn’t mean gimmicky, for instance, a grizzled detective who also happens to be in a wheelchair. One example might be Emma Adams’ play, Ugly, about climate change. You’d think that commission was career suicide, but Emma looked at the issue from the point of view of how people treat each other when resources get scarce. Still bleak, but a dimension we haven’t looked at much.

In this competitive world, a thoughtful creative choice means a writer is much more likely to get a commission.

Meet Daniel!

116The amazing and talented Daniel Bouquet has joined the Ki Agency as an agent!  Here’s a chance to get to know him:

What was your first job in publishing?

“It was as an assistant to three directors at a literary agency, Watson, Little Ltd. It’s great that it still thrives but is today shaped so differently. ”

How did you become an agent?

“I had a useful background to be an agent. At the end of my time at Quercus Books Meg approached me about joining her at Ki. It took us a while to get to know each other better and in the end the attraction of working with Meg and Ki was too great to ignore.”

How long have you been at Ki and what was your previous job?

“I’ve only just arrived at Ki Agency. My previous job was as Head of International Rights at Quercus Books.”

What are the key skills an agent needs to do their job?

“The unoriginal but correct answer is: The ability to keep a large number of irons in the fire and to always believe that each work that comes your way could be genuinely original.”

On a day to day basis what is the most challenging aspect of your work?

“At this early point in my career at Ki, when I am seeing so much new writing, it is a challenge to be controlled enough not to leap at everything I like but to wait for those works that are truly saleable.”

Who has most influenced you in your career
Is there anyone in the book/film/tv industry you particularly admire?

“Most recently I would say Christopher MacLehose, the former Publisher at Harvill Books and now at his own imprint, MacLehose Press where I looked after his rights. Christopher is a true maverick and committed contrarian who publishes books I want to read- and which I sought to read before I ever met him. I have a large collection of Harvill Books. When you consider who he has published you can’t help but be awed. Murakami, Mankell, Hoeg, Richard Ford, William Maxwell, Anna Polytovskaya, Raymond Carver, Javier Marias, Jose Saramago, Roberto Saviano and Stieg Larsson to name a mere handful! He’s a hands on Editor, a relentless traveller and having achieved everything is still vigorously at it! I’m happy to say he is also a friend and someone from whom I can and do seek advice. ”

If you hadn’t become an agent what would you be doing today?

“Running a business of some kind- the shape of businesses small and large interests me: a record shop, a bookshop, a coffee shop, a small publisher, if viable, a combination of all? If earning a living was no issue just living on an island and near water. I’d like to live on the North coast of Mallorca.”

Who is your favourite writer?

“At the moment it is Ernest Hemingway. I am stunned by his craft. An old favourite is Robert Graves: Goodbye To All That is truly brilliant and very modern for its day, although not now very fashionable! In truth, my favourite writer changes constantly. When I was young I loved Paul Auster and Ian McEwan whom I now find barely readable. Sometimes it is Murakami. For craft I also admire William Maxwell, Georges Simenon, Jose Saramago, Paul Theroux, Roger Deakin and Henning Mankell. For exuberance I like Pedro Juan Guttierez. The things I read need to be enriching or have a point.”

Who is your favourite fictional character?

“Even though he frustrates I like Toru Watanabe from Murakami’s Norwegian Wood or the mysterious Major Quive Smith from Geoffrey Household’s Rogue Male.”

Do you have a favourite quote?

“The Reverend Sydney Smith’s Advice on Low Spirits to Lady Georgiana Devonshire. It’s too long to quote here but I advise anyone to look it up.”

[Meg says: here’s the link ]

What is your favourite book/film/tv show/computer game?

“A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway- masterful in its concision and the best book on Paris in the 1920s. I also regularly re-read The Man Who Planted Trees by Jean Giono and Dubliners by James Joyce. As you may tell, I like concise books and unelaborate writing. TV wise I like Scandinavian drama- especially Yellow Bird’s Wallander. It has to be with Krister Henrikson in the title role.”

Name a book you couldn’t finish.

“Fools Alphabet By Sebastian Faulks, which was recommended to me. Books I can’t finish seem to behave badly around me and lose themselves- this one was left on a train. I bought it a second time and left it on the roof of a car as I drove away.”

Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?

“If writing commercially, identify a readership which makes your writing viable. Keep a journal. Write every day. Less is more in everything. Write a good first line.”

Do you write yourself? If so where?

“I don’t have the compulsion necessary to be a real writer- I prefer to leave it to professionals…”


What Was I Doing, Again?

I’ve been pondering (in short bursts) the effect of modern life on our concentration. When I was a kid, I’d spend a whole afternoon reading. Now, a minute seems like a long time if I’m not shifting between emails, phone calls, making notes on a contract and drafting a submission list for a new project. Looking around on the train, everyone’s checking messages and Facebook while reading short articles in the paper.
We spend a lot of time wondering how to attract someone to a book, programme or film, but it feels like an even bigger challenge to keep their attention. Does writing need to change, in response?
TV has long been viewed in relatively short periods, broken up by commercial breaks and trailers. We’re also used to thinking of it as a background to making a cup of tea, having a conversation and playing a game on our tablet. Television is the medium where the drama is slow enough to dot all the I’s and cross the T’s; lots of redundancy so we don’t miss too much. If you do, the catch-up services are good enough (and will soon be even better) that you can relax and have another look. Or, conversely, watch it in a glorious binge.
It’s harder not to be fully immersed in a film, since a screen that large is kind of hard to miss (although some people manage it – you see the annoying lit screens of their mobiles as they text).
Some books can still make me miss my stop, and I wonder if that’s what it takes now to keep someone riveted to the page: cliff-hangers, plot twists, vivid characterisation, outrageous wit – and perhaps the pacing, too, as if writing in sprints can mesh with a reader whose concentrating in sprints.
I’d hate to suggest to writers that they change their style, but perhaps it’s worth bearing this tendency in mind.DSC_0261ap (2)