RIP John Updike


Updike, John. Self-Consciousness   

Self-Consciousness opens with the author’s protest that his reason for writing this memoir was that he had heard that ‘someone’ wanted to write his biography, ‘to take my life, my lode of ore and heap of memories’ from him. This disingenuous apology for writing is merely an excuse for self-indulgence (like all memoirs) and probably the most dishonest thing in the book. Of course one might say that Updike is being ironical, but why bother? You want to indulge yourself, then go ahead! You don‘t need to excuse yourself.

I was prompted to re-read this book after listening to a radio play, ‘Mrs Updike’,by Margaret Heffernan broadcast the other night on BBC Radio 3. The play focussed on Updike and his mother’s final years together and had to my mind a distinctly feminist bias. Updike retreated into books to avoid domestic responsibilities. Now, who reading the memoir of this august personage and friendly sociable type as he appears in the book would have guessed that? That’s a story we’d not been told before.

In the Rabbit books Angstrom comes across as a healthy party-going type with his eye and indeed hand on the ladies. In the memoir Updike spends 50% of his time worrying about his skin, his teeth, his stutter and his appearance to others. He’s as neurotic as they come. Yes, he’s been much praised for his honesty; but what about his wallowing in personal insecurities? Was his real motive in writing this memoir, one of purgation? Don’t get me wrong – I love the Rabbit books and most other writings of this workaholic wordsmith, who, as has been said, feels guilty about every minute not devoted to his oeuvre, but the phrase ‘agony memoir’ was not far from my feeling about this book.

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Small Prizes: Why you should enter your book


Small Prizes:  The Way Ahead  


   Why go in for Prizes?


I write to please myself, not for others.  We’ve all heard that mantra, and many of us believe it.  But there are prizes out there, some very large, many quite small.  And in your heart of hearts you know you covet recognition: a good review, a warm response, a pat on the back.  Above all you want readers – apart that is from friends and family.

However, I do get a little tired of reading about ‘award-winning’ authors and wonder about the nature of the award, not to mention whether the award is for this book or one of the writer’s earlier efforts.  Once an award winner, always an award winner!  Nevertheless, I must be at least marginally impressed.  For the small-time author, such an accolade is a great comfort.  For the apprentice writer it’s the first step on the road to what we think of as success.  Even to be short-listed is a treasure in itself.

Yes, there are hundreds of prizes and awards of all kinds advertised on the net, but there are also thousands of writers, both seasoned and neophyte, and the number grows by the minute. Unless you are already attached to a publisher or are backed by a reputable agent or a well-known sponsor, the Booker is out; in any case Rule 3(d) clearly states ‘self-published books are not eligible where the author is the publisher.’

But to come down to earth: James Minter gives a useful list of Fifty Book Awards Open to Self-Publishers.  This could be a good place to start your search.  All genres and types of writing are open to budding writers here, from the prestigious ForeWord, the Ippy and the Rubery awards to flash fiction, cookbook, first novel, first chapter and even prizes for the first page.  So don’t be shy of entering.  We all have to begin somewhere.

Unless you are submitting to your local writing group’s monthly or yearly prize you should expect to pay an entry fee.  After all it takes time to read and assess the value of a book or even a flimsy manuscript.  Fees naturally vary enormously, from gratis to $80 per title; and so do the prizes, from an offer of journal publication to the Writers Digest 23rd Annual Writing Competion for Self-Published Book Awards topping the list at $8,000.

Of course it’s a rule of thumb that the higher the fee, the higher the sought-after prize.  Winners of  high profile Gold or even Silver medals are frequently garlanded with offers of book deals, free air passages to attend humungous ceremonies, with much bolstering of ego and promises of gold in store.  But the most your also-ran can expect is a book report – of vastly varying quality in my experience.  Thus a judge of my road novel Paris Bound had clearly not read much of the book, spending all his time savaging the cover.  By contrast, five years later the same company awarded me 100% in 4 out of 5 categories for my novel about a girl boxer, Punching Judy.  Prize-hunting is a bit of a lottery.  One man’s meat and all that.

Rejection is par for the course, so you have to get used to it.  There may be many reasons why your work doesn’t quite hit the mark, including the obvious one of your not complying with the guidelines.  First, check past winners to ensure you have not submitted, for instance, literary fiction where crime or romance is the speciality.  No point either in sending in manuscripts or galleys to Mom’s Choice Awards.  Next, you should examine the credentials of the judges.  Are they likely to be sympathetic to your subject or approach?  Having checked that you have done all that the gatekeepers have demanded, take a close look at the judge’s report.  The tastes and values of the judging panel may not be yours.  If not, go elsewhere.  Next time widen or even narrow your field.  Or cut and come again.

The most obvious reason for rejection is often overlooked by the enthusiastic writer.  It’s simply that your work is not good enough.  That’s a tough thing to tell yourself, but it may well be true.  Having accepted that fact, do you give up or try again, getting a little closer to the required standard?  If you’re a writer of course you write; you revise, reshape or scrap.  If you really believe in your manuscript or book you perhaps need to take advice from a fellow professional.  There are plenty of literary consultants to be found on the net.  They may well be able to set you straight.  In this regard I found Fiction Feedback very helpful.

Book festivals are another avenue the serious writer might explore.  There are hundreds of these spreading across the globe.  Almost every major city seems eager to promote new writing, from Beverly Hills to San Francisco, from the Beach Book Festival to London, Paris  and New York.  Once again large prizes await the lucky winners and some of these festivals have as many as 40 different categories.  More and more of these jamborees are now open to digital as well as paper books.  Watch the dates and submit to as many as you can afford!

Far less prestigious awards or simply publication on the websites of social medea such as Authonomy, Youwriteon, The Book Shed or Year Zero Writers are ways of keeping in contact with other writers and readers.  Random House and Orion review their Top Ten Budding Authors on Youwriteon monthly throughout the year.  Listed authors can sell their books direct from the website.  There’s always somebody looking for your book and as a writer these days there’s really no excuse for not having a go.  This way you circumvent the traditional publishing process with its agonising delays in response time.  You are in charge, you are respected and with a bit of luck you are even earning money.

So, although we may look up to the stars and envy those who have landed a 6-figure contract for their book, the majority of us are struggling on the lower slopes of Mount Parnassus.  We are for the most part the humble toilers in the field and need to accept that fact.  That doesn’t mean that we don’t strive to make our work as good as possible, nor does it mean that we don’t shoot for the top prizes on occasion.  But we accept the fact that sometimes small can also be beautiful.


David James is the Promoter of The Quagga Prize for Literary Fiction


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The Quagga Prize 2015

You’re a writer, right? And you’ve a few copies or maybe more in boxes around the house. Not too many readers? Well, why not send one off to Quagga, just to see if you’re as good as you once thought – or maybe even better? You’ll get reviewed – eventually, maybe in 6 months time. You might even become £300 richer; you’ll certainly have made a step on Jacob’s long ladder.

But before you do I’d advise you to look at the website

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Bacon, Ali. A Kettle of Fish

Ali Bacon’s debut novel sits happily in the Young Adult category. It presents the reader with a typical family drama, in which the feisty heroine, Ailsa, is left virtually fatherless and being cared for by an incompetent hypochondriacal mother. Her first boyfriend Ian is a fishmonger’s son. Her next is a lecherous dealer in picture rights and towards the end she takes a shine to Danny, her best friend’s prospective fiancé. Ailsa herself becomes engaged to her fishman, but breaks it off. What she really needs is a dad.

The plot is convoluted by the ‘fact’ that her father, who left home in disgrace after having had carnal knowledge of a pupil at his school. Whether has or has not committed the foul deed is the question hanging over his head throughout the story. Ailsa is strangely ambivalent about this ‘fact,’ at times furiously telling herself he is a rapist; at others feeling sorry for him in having to contend with her mother. Things appear to have righted themselves when she reads an official letter informing mother that her husband is now dead and that family support payments will now cease.

But … is he really dead? Is he, or was he, a villain or a misunderstood good guy? Can Ailsa find out, and if he’s alive will she and he become reconciled? Will Ailsa find a suitable life’s partner? The book has enough compulsion for the reader to want to find out. The book is appropriately written in the first person with plenty of explicit sex and strong language. The reader will not need recourse to a dictionary.

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Birthday Present/Farewell

Birthday with Rose

While we are washing the cups the hall clock stutters out eleven gongs and Rose turns to me with a shrug.  ‘Looks like we’re alone together for the night,’ she says, winking at me, jerking her head towards the stairs.

‘Maybe we’ll just have one drink together, before we say goodnight,’ I say, my heart again pounding with the bold suggestion.

‘Just what I was thinkin’ meesen’ she says.  She bends down and fumbles about in the lower reaches of a cupboard.  I hear bottlesclinking.  She looks up, wide-eyed.  ‘Vodka and lime, all right?  Or you prefer a whisky and soda?’

‘Whisky’s fine for me.  Forget the soda.’

She makes a mock-surprised hum with a rise in her voice.  ‘Oo, a real man’s drink!’

‘You wouldn’t’ve guessed it,’ I rejoin.

‘Oh, you never know, do you?  These strong silent types.’

I watch her hand shaking as she pours out a generous slug of spirit into my glass, and tops up her vodka with what looks like tomato juice.

‘Can we have it here in the kitchen?  It’s more homely somehow.’

‘You can have it wherever you like,’ she chips in saucily

She turns to me and we clink glasses.

I take a sip, but before I know where I am I find my hand slithering over her skirt, stroking the fattest bum I’ve seen since that of Leila Harakat at the swimming pool in Sousse.

‘Sorry, I’m afraid I just can’t resist women in full skirts,’ I tell her.  ‘I’d never look twice at a woman in trousers.’

‘Go on, I can’t believe it.’

‘It’s true though.’

‘Then not much attracts you these days.  Most of us is in trousers these days.  It’s so much warmer and a damn sight more convenient.

I consider the question of dress.

‘Really?  I find skirts much more convenient.’

By now my hand is inside her knickers, squeezing that soft spongy rump, not long either before we’re both bottom naked on the kitchen floor, rolling about, wriggling, squealing and panting like a pair of dogs in the street.  Well, sometimes you have to, don’t you?  No harm done and maybe, who knows, quite a lot of good.

Besides, it’s my birthday, isn’t it!  And, anyway, Midge shouldn’t have left me alone with such a lovely lump of lardy flesh for my supper.  We don’t need to tell her though.  Not a word to Bessy!  Never mind, she’s probably guessed anyway.

A key grates in the front door lock.  Yvonne and Christine are back from the theatre.

‘Ay oop me looves.  So what sort of time d’ye call this?’

The girls have had a great time. Christine flushed and happy.  Yvonne cool and smirking, as if she knows something.  She’s quite mature and I wonder – and old enough, and since every woman is a potential mate, well, it needs thinking about.

I manage to slip away, leaving them screeching with laughter.  Yvonne covers her mouth, shrieking as she points to the kitchen cupboard.  Mum’s drawers are on the floor.

Farewell to Christine

It’s dark in the room when I begin.  The bottle table-lamp with its coolie-shaped shade casts a green circle on the side table.  Her long bare legs are tucked up under her exquisite derrière.  I have made us fresh Irish coffee with copious spoonfuls of brown sugar and topped with cream.  She’s sipping it through a rainbow-coloured straw and for some reason my heart is jumping in an erratic way and I’m unusually tongue-tied. The night is set for seduction.  All things have conspired in my favour.  Yet I’m impotent, both in fleshly desire and no doubt potential performance.  I desperately love her youth and her eagerness to engage.  My sulky girl is now the model of devotion.

‘I don’t know where to start.’

‘Start wi’ moother.  ’Ow ya met ’er, that’s the start.’

‘It’s a long story.  I mean …’   How explain, how shape and cut to pattern?  ‘Help me!’

‘Were it loove at first sight?  Know what I mean?’

I laugh, thinking of the night on the kitchen floor, a censored item, though crucial.

‘I wanted to put her into my story, you see.’

She wrinkles her nose, not believing a word.  ‘What makes ya write about real people?  Will ya poot me in ya story?’

‘No.  I mean… I hardly know you, do I?  For a fully-fledged character, you need …’   Lies again.  ‘How about another drink?’

She accepts – not Coke or orange juice, but the forbidden vodka this time, plentifully diluted with lime.

I suppose I must have told her more than she expected, or even wanted.  Under questioning I confessed that I believed in nothing, least of all that ephemeral thing called love.  Did I not believe in God, then?  No longer, I tell her.  You can’t read Nietzsche, Sartre and so many others, intelligent scientists, anthropologists,biologists, psychologists, and still cling to the tatters of faith, can you?  Not God, not love, not the family, not scholarship, not art, not friendship, not progress, not even morality or the essential goodness buried seven fathoms deep in the heart of man.  Only believe and thou shalt see?  Only believe, only trust what the Elizabethans called Mutability.

She clenches her teeth, jerking her head in spasms, shaking her muzzle like a dog just emerged from the pool.

‘So what d’ya want?  What d’ya hope for?’


‘So you believe in nothin’?’

‘Nothing.   Except, well, I suppose, the impossibility of ever knowing the truth.  We much prefer lies.’

Seeing only bafflement or distress in her collapsed face with its trembling open mouth, I retract a little.  I still yearn for her, and, at this moment, feel I would die to make her happy.

‘Forget what I’m saying now, Chrissy.  Tomorrow the sun will warm us.  Tomorrow there’ll be joy in our hearts.’  Important to part on an upbeat note, to have happy memories if nothing else.

In the end I dry her tears, aware of my hypocrisy. I turn away, stifling a sob and thinking of Eliot and Ezra Pound and all those fragments we cling on to save ourselves from drowning.    But in the face of crises like this, academic work, research and scholarship are surely useless and senseless.

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Gits of Love: Three Episodes from The Scholar’s Tale (2014)

1)                                    MAVIS AT CHRISTMAS



A rat-a-tat-tat on the front door downstairs. I trundle down three flights to find on the doorstep a bespectacled woman in a shiny black Macintosh, whom I at first take for my long-lost sister, and then for a Jehovah’s Witness. But it turns out to be Mavis Townsend, with a leather bag under her arm. As there are kids playing electronic games in the lounge I invite her up to the only other heated room in the house, my den at the top. I precede her slowly, pausing at the bends in the stairs, just to check. She has a gamy leg as well as this large unwieldy bag and the winding stairs treads are a bit on the narrow side, the higher up you go.

Once I’ve managed to install her in the love-seat, I take her coat and think about hot drinks. But that would mean a descent to the kitchen, so I offer wines and spirits, which she declines with a grimace. Making a determined attempt to be hospitable I insist that she has something nice and hot. Would she like tea or coffee? No, really, no trouble at all.

She smiles and assures me she only has a minute, but she just wanted to wish me well on my trans-Atlantic venture.

‘Sue’s told me all about it,’ she says, leaning towards me and staring in rapture at my face as if it were a selection of Cadbury’s Milk-tray chocolates. I tell her it’s not exactly a vacation, but that I’ve been invited to address a conference of scholars about a book I’m working on. Which is all quite safe enough since nobody here understands anything about conferences and I imagine very few could care less about the kind of books I deal with.

‘I haven’t seen you lately at the club,’ I begin.

‘That’s because you haven’t been.’

I suppose that’s true, but I feel the tone is slightly imperious and reproving. Nevertheless, for some inexplicable reason I find myself thinking about what might be under Mavis’s surprisingly short skirt. It’s stretched out now, tight across her knees, showing the outline of her thighs, and if I lean back a little and gaze up that dark tunnel, I might just catch a glimpse of … but she’s smiling at me now, almost as if she know what naughty boys think about in the presence of a female. To explore the cracks and crevices concealed under the garments of this old biddy might be a worthy enterprise for some, but not really for RM at this time in the morning. No, really, better try to concentrate and be sensible. Anyway, she’s talking now, beaming at me as if the sun shone out of my rear end.

‘Well, isn’t it?’ she says brightly.

‘Isn’t it what? I’m sorry, I didn’t quite …’

‘Isn’t it marvellous to be an author? Do you know I don’t think I’ve ever met an author before – I mean, not face to face, that is.’

‘Well, I’m afraid I’m not a true author, not yet anyway. I just edit other people’s work.’

But she’s not about to be put off. ‘Well, that’s absolutely wonderful! So you read their books and then you – what did you say exactly?’

‘I edit them. Or at least I’m one of a very large team of editors.’

She leans forward eagerly. ‘So, what does all that actually entail? Lots and lots of close reading, I’ve no doubt. But doesn’t it strain the eyes? Oh, but it must do, mustn’t it?’

‘No, not especially … though I do occasionally have recourse to a magnifying glass.’

‘So, they’re in handwriting – like those medieval scripts – you know the decorative things the monks used to make in their cells.’

I smile at this. ‘Ah, you’re talking about illuminated codices. No, mine are mostly Elizabethan, not always holograph of course – that’s to say handwritten by the known author. Medieval works of course are mostly anonymous.’

‘Wonderful!’ I’m not sure what she means exactly, but surely we’ve spent sufficient time on the prolegomenon. She must be waiting her chance to give me the promised Christmas gift, delaying the moment to prolong the tension. It’s certainly surprising to find such unexpected enthusiasm though – if not exactly wonderful. Especially, as now she’s asking if she could actually see a specimen of my work on George Peele’s The Old Wives Tale.

I tell her that I’m simply responsible for the two introductions – a general one and a textual one. I feel obliged to continue with my eager pupil, to explain about the nature of variant readings, the near impossibility of establishing a ‘right’ reading of any particular version, the changes in sense that a rogue comma might induce, and even the obvious mis-readings of original works by well-meaning critics, famous writers and later playwrights and poets who think they know what the author really meant.

‘Roy,’ she says at last – after we’ve spoken of compositor error, so-called ‘improved’ readings and the literary critic’s cavalier attitude to textual accuracy – ‘I do hope you find your visit to America profitable. And thank you so much for opening up a new area of study for me. To think that so much of what we read depends upon people like you devoting their lives to such a good cause!’

All of which is slightly embarrassing. One gets so used to scathing comment, when there’s any at all, that one comes to expect nothing even remotely positive.

After a pleasant enough hour or so I escort Mrs Townsend down to the front door, promising to reserve for her a signed copy of the volume whenever the combined auspices of the University of Nebraska Press and the Humanities Research Association have approved the authoritative text – perhaps next year, the year after or on some as yet undefined date.

‘That’s so very kind of you, Roy! And now I really must give you your Christmas present.’

She unzips her bag and withdraws from it a large manila envelope, smilingly laying it on the desk before us. ‘Not to be opened before the 25th of course.’

My curiosity is too great to wait, so, once I sight the old lady fumbling with the latch at the garden gate I tear open the package and find that it contains several packets of identical raffle tickets, distinguishable only by the serial number at the top. The rubric tells me that these tickets are in aid of cancer research. I remember now that Buster Townsend quite recently passed away with liver cancer and feel duty bound to make a contribution.

Before I forget I open my cheque book and write out a cheque for a substantial sum, even though I’ll be thousands of miles away when the Grand Draw is made. There are in fact a range of prizes on offer – a Datsun motor car, a Super-max LG television set with high definition facility, a free-range turkey and a bundle of vouchers for exchange in local stores – but I know I’ll not be going door-to-door to try to sell the tickets.









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The Quagga Prize

OK, so the next chance to win the Gold Medal for The Quagga Prize is January 31, 2015.  Any independent author may submit a paper book which may be literary (mainstream) or genre. It matters not that your book is already published or that it has a

What is Literary Fiction?

The Quagga Prize 2014

The shortlist:

-John C Bird – Alby and Me

-Enver Carim – The Price of an Education

-E.N. Obiang- The Special Ones

-Marisha Pink- Finding Arun

-Linda Proud- A Gift for the Magus

-Philippa Rees – A Shadow in Yucatan

-Richard Wm Short- I am Mata Hari

The Quagga Prize for Literary Fiction (£300) is given annually to the best novel submitted.  If in doubt whether your novel qualifies as ‘literary’ (see Terms below) submit it anyway.  It  could well be  awarded  a  silver  medal  (£100)  or  receive  an  honourable mention (£50).

Entries are accepted from January to June 30, 2015.  All entrants will receive an email  acknowledgement on receipt and a Judge’s Report (not a critique) in November 2015.  Short-listed entries will be published here (as above).

lready been awarded a prize elsewhere. Do not delay in getting your work recognised!

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