When the Macmillan New Writing imprint was announced late last year, a fault line developed in UK publishing. Hurrahs on one side, boos on the other. Why the rumpus? The imprint is dedicated to the publication of new writers, often unrepresented by literary agencies, who submit their manuscripts through the MNW website. Some commentators have claimed that the books received minimal editing, but a little bird tells me that some titles have received a great deal. It is, however, true enough that the authors command no advance. Critics see this as the birth of a worrying trend towards coolie labour. Supporters, meanwhile, hail it as the future of publishing, now.
The advance guard of the MNW assault comprises six titles of various genre. The publicity cocktail – one part hoopla, two parts fracas, and placed in the apoplectic hand of the literary establishment – ensured that the MNW party got to a flying start, coverage-wise. The length of time it remains airborne, however, will be determined by the sales of its books, and, with luck, the quality of those books.
Late in February, 2006, I requested, via a quiet email, a copy of Roger Morris’s Taking Comfort. Imagine my surprise when all six hardbacks arrived. Lesson one: The full horsepower of the Macmillan marketing machine has been applied to the New Writing Imprint. Fears allay: the lack of advanced payment has not hobbled the publisher’s motivation to get behind these titles. We should expect to see their appearance in the bastions of literary review.
Lesson two: The books are beautifully rendered. Hardback, stitched. And the dust jacket even has those shiny highlights what proper books have. There is no evidence here that the MNW authors have been poorly treated. All the cover designs, too, are professional and attractive. Moody, thoughtful author photographs are found on the inside back cover for those moments when a look at their face might help decipher a particularly weird passage.
So far, this is circumstantial evidence for the legitimacy of the new imprint. Recall that the more serious charge has been levelled at the degree of editorial support. Does the content measure up?
Taking Comfort is the first novel of Roger Morris. He lives in North London and works in marketing. Rob Saunders, the closest thing Taking Comfort has to a protagonist, lives in North London and works in marketing. So we have a novel with an autobiographical flavour. He – Rob – is about to start a new job as a marketing executive with an insurance behemoth called Diamond Life.
The story opens with Rob waiting for his morning train. He’s on the platform sizing up women and hefting his new briefcase, the Di Beradino classic, a king among briefcases. He notices a Japanese girl arguing with a platform guard and, just as his train arrives, watches her leap in front of it. In the chaos that follows, Rob takes her Snoopy ring-binder and continues to his new job, where he arrives late and spends the day in a cloud of befuddlement. The book proceeds in a riff-like fashion from this opening; it finds echoes in further, traumatic events, and Rob develops an obsession for the everyday objects associated with disaster.
There is much to recommend in this novel. The prose has an urgency that persists until the close. Morris is adept at repetition, and manages to harness the mesmeric quality of twisted, rehashed sounds without tiring the reader. He keeps us bound to his characters, even as he skips from one to the next. We are rapidly initiated to the worldview of a given character: the woman who sits beneath the lone tree in the foyer of the Diamond Life building, and who loves her compact; a police officer, who takes pride in his flak jacket; and the protagonist Rob, who finds security in the heft of the Di Beradino classic briefcase, and perhaps some comfort in the trophies he pilfers from those visited by trauma. In short, Morris can write, and write well.
However, the novel has some shortcomings. While we can identify with the protagonist (thanks to some verbal virtuosity and keenly-observed situations), our anguish at his downward spiral is limited because we do not have the opportunity to know Rob before he reaches the crisis point of the Japanese girl’s suicide. Because this progression is absent, there is a difficulty in interpreting Rob’s motivations towards the end of the novel. Was Rob mad, in some sense, at the beginning of the story, or was he driven mad from a sane start? We know the Rob of extraordinary circumstances better than we know the Rob of everyday life. As circumstances become extraordinary, and Rob’s behaviour becomes bizarre, the writer must work extra hard to ‘sell’ the scene to the reader. Later in the book, I confess that I just didn’t buy it.
Another problem comes in the form of coincidence. Bad stuff just seems to happen to Rob, and in another book these events would bear the fingerprints of a clumsy writer. I say ‘another book’ because Morris’s very theme is related to the randomness of life and our attempts to control it through our collection of superficially comforting objects (consumer products, yes, but I suspect Morris would widen these to relationships and jobs). That said, I was uneasy about the chronic bad luck of the main character. Yes, randomness is part of life; yes, it illustrates the disconnection between form and meaning, but it has the paradoxical effect of reminding the reader that this is a work of fiction, that there is a writer puppeteering madly.
Other elements of the book work well. It is conducted entirely in the present tense, and this adds immediacy where, in less capable hands, the reader would grow irritated. Each chapterette is given a consumer item as a title, and Morris uses the item – for example, The Tracy Island movie tie-in toy – as an anchor point around which he moves a character. This technique is effective, but does fade with use, and has greater impact earlier in the book. The insertion of advertising copy is a nice touch. It serves to underline the superficiality of, for example, the Di Beradino classic: it promises to make your life better, but it does not.
Classic styled briefcase from Di Beradino hand crafted in beautiful vegetable tanned leather with satin finished solid brass fittings.
Is Macmillan New Writing the future, now? The shifting sands of publishing are capricious enough for the nay-sayers or the optimists to win. Any vaguely new method of publication (though its novelty is more apparent for the struggling writer than the reader) needs a dose of luck, and if Taking Comfort by Roger Morris is representative of the range, MNW have succeeded in loading the dice. The book is not without faults; it is somewhat experimental; it is often self-conscious. But it aims at literature, and knows the power of small things: not just consumer items like the Di Beradino classic, the Tetley teabag, or the Sabatier Au Carbone chief’s knife, but the Marvelon swallowed by Rob’s girlfriend or the tear-stained Benjys napkin of a betrayed lover. From these, small comfort is drawn.