Monday, December 31, 2007

Dangerous Books for Boys

The Guardian's round up of the 100 bestsellers of 2007 is a dispiriting list in one sense, scant on literary fiction, and with both the mega sellers of recent years (J.K. Rowling) and the standard bearers of popular fiction being high sellers. The remarkable power of the Richard and Judy book club acts almost as an A&R department for fiction (mainly fiction), whilst celebrity books from everyone from Russell Grant to Peter Kay to Nigella Lawson to Jeremy Clarkson also do well. But there's a couple of things, behind the figures, that are worth commenting on. Given the sheer piles of rubbish that dominate the bookshop shelves - "toilet books" as we used to call them, combined with a mass of celebrity books - fiction dominates the list. Also, I'm beginning to think that the real dangerous books for boys - to take that bestselling title literally - is fiction for men; of which there is surprisingly little. I commented a few weeks ago about being unable to find a decent book at WH Smiths for a train journey, and looking at this list what is clear is that pretty much the only books selling to and for men are detective thrillers (to women as well, of course) and non-fiction. Bill Bryson, Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Dawkins are the writers du jour for the male half of the population it seems. I think the publishers are clearly missing some kind of trick here. In the 70s, presses like Virago and the Women's Press were developed both to rescue fallen female authors from history's dustbin, but also to respond to an audience of women who were not being particularly well served by the publishing industry. I'd say its pretty clear that the same industry is providing a disservice to men these days. The high water mark of "High Fidelity" and "Trainspotting" for instance, just brought on a subgenre of "endorsed by Hornby/Welch" books that had none of the brio of those originals. If men aren't particularly drawn to female authors (though I would draw most men to Nicola Barker, for instance, and say, "read her"), then its the male writers who are failing to engage, and publishing seems able to find one offs like "Vernon God Little", far easier than it can nurture a writer or two who could be as prolific as Burgess, Amis senior, Mailer or DeLillo. More writers like (but not "like" since they are all their own men) Will Self, David Peace and David Mitchell in other words - writers not afraid to change and experiment from book to book, but with a sensibility that might just appeal to that other half of society currently avoiding Jeremy Clarkson's mullet.

Friday, December 28, 2007

More books, more films

Two more films from books that I saw last night, and just a brief comment about each. "The Kite Runner" is well worth seeing, if only for the glorious cinematography. The book, by Khaled Hosseini, I've not read, but was an international bestseller - one of that new breed of one off books that seem to hit a chord everywhere. What's interesting about the story, as its portrayed in the film at least, is how if a writer tried to do a similar story in the contemporary west would be deemed melodramatic. Perhaps it inevitable that in writing about a part of the world in turmoil - I watched this film about Afghanistan, with many scenes set in Pakistan, merely hours after Benazir Bhutto's murder - you have to focus on a small human story. Like "Atonement" its a story about a child getting things wrong, and dealing with the consequences much later. Its positively Dickensian in its coincidences and sentimentality - so perhaps an acquired taste.

"Control" on the other hand seems to have been with me all my life - Joy Division were the turning point in my musical education, though Ian Curtis was already dead (aged 23), and though a "cult", apart from "Love will Tear us Apart" they were unknown to the mainstream. That small discography of theres has grown in stature ever since. "Control" has deservedly won awards, but its as small a film as you might imagine - a film about divorce, and epilepsy (its from Deborah Curtis's memoir, at least partially) as well as music. It does that rare thing, makes some sense of a suicide; and you never feel that it is the "doomed" Ian Curtis of legend, but a young man struggling with problems he feels are insurmountable. The lyrics, carefully applied across the films, come across as poems of the soul, relating to real events rather than some adolescent doom-mongering. There have now been 3 films (this, 24 Hour Party People and the recently released Joy Division documentary) about this story, as well as numerous books. Each has to recreate the classic scenes - The Sex Pistols at the Free Trade Hall, the appearance on "So it Goes" - as imitations, and make up the rest, so little footage of the band survives - and with the dead all around Joy Division: Martin Hannett, Rob Gretton and now Tony Wilson, these also have to be imitations.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Perils of Adaption

I caught "Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy" last night on TV. I grew up with the books and the BBC TV series (yeah, I know it started on radio, but what am I, stone age man or something?) and they are in my psyche. I never expected much of the film, I guess, but it was the utter pointlessness that got me. The first half hour is okay, but its then flitting from planet to planet like a bad episode of Space 1999, and though its clearly far bigger budget than anything the BBC could ever do, you get the feeling that Douglas Adams inspiration was partly the inventive naffness of BBC space sets, whilst putting things into space that were never quite meant to be there. Its prescience - Wikipedia as the guide anyone? the Babel Fish? - is strong, but never as important as how down-to-earth it is. Phrases like "Don't Panic", "The answer is 42" and "Life, don't talk to me about life", have a kind of universal usage. The Vogons of the film were even bigger bureaucrats than the books - and for a vaguely anarchic child - part of Hitchhikers appeal had been that it really laughed at the nonsense of British life (and it is a very British film), whilst celebrating a certain adventurous eccentricity. In contrast, the American version has Zaphod, with a rubik's cube of heads rather than the extra one that the BBC gave him (more realistically I thought), Trillion's entirely unconvincing as a brunette rather than a blonde, Marvin looks less like a real robot than some advert for toilet cleaner, and the overriding aesthetic seems to have been taken from the later (i.e. not v. good) Monty Python/Terry Gilliam movies. The story arc of the books was bulked out alot with the extracts from the Guide itself, and these get less space in the film; the TV series covered the first 2 books after all. Perhaps they were hoping for a series of sequels? One can only wonder at the utter wastefulness of it all. No wonder Douglas Adams died.

In contrast, I'd seen "Children of Men" recently. I read the P.D. James novel years ago, and despite a great premise, always felt the book left a lot to be desired - certainly no classic of dystopian literature. In truth, she's not a writer I've ever found particularly readable. The film isn't quite as good as some of the reviews would have it, but it comes close - getting quite deeply into the psychological jolt of what a world without children would be like. In some ways, though, you can almost imagine we're already there - in that I know so many forty somethings who either haven't got, or don't want or can't have children. One does wonder if the anarchy and loss of hope that the film portrays as the result of no more children being born, could exist for particular groups of society even as the rest of the world keeps procreating away happily.

With the BBC triumphant again with "Cranford", and the Coen brothers apparently having a return to form with a literary adaption, its always fascinating to see how different works have different after lives. I've read definitely sniffy reviews of "The Golden Compass" and "The Kite Runner" for instance; yet "Atonement" is tipped for an Oscar, despite it proving as curatorially eggy as past McEwan adaptions.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

End Games

The year comes to its end game - earlier it seems each time. With Christmas being next Tuesday, a whole week away, I find myself in the unusual position of finishing a week early - me, a usual Christmas eve worker. But this year, I'd some holiday to use up, and I've various things to do before xmas, so that's me done. I realise that I've been so busy the last couple of months that virtually everything has lapsed: from paying bills to writing Christmas cards, never mind the more creative end of things. But the little annoyances have piled up the last week or so, and I guess I'm a bit at end of my tether - time to finish off. Will probably end up spending xmas working out whether I can take Amazon to the advertising standards for advertising a 10 CD David Bowie box set which they clearly have no intention of ever sending me, (or even having in stock.) Arguing with Amazon is probably like arguing with the air. They usually shake their virtual shoulders and go "it's not me, mate." But with all the talk of eCommerce etc. if even the market leader can't actually say what it says on the tin, then perhaps the "e" world is at its creaking peak. I don't know. I was asking a 20 year old last night what her favourite single of the year was: she looked at me like I was strange, after all in iPod world - what's a single? The charts is full of Christmas downloads this year. Its democratic capitalism in action.

The lit. story of the year may well have been the Eagleton v. Amis debate - but since they didn't debate for real, then not sure that it was a story after all. Saying all Muslims are terrorists is plain silly, but calling someone a racist for saying that there's a problem somewhere is also plain silly. (And yes, I know that simplifies, and misrepresents again, again, again, but I've neither the time or energy to get between those too colossi) And news that Eagleton is being sacked/removed from University of Manchester because of its ongoing funding crisis (such a selling point as it tries to become a world class university! Three nobel laureates in Economics and it can't budget properly...)feels like the endgame, whether its related or not, deserved or not. I'm not particularly looking forward to Amis's "campus" novel (a genre I despise), after all, you can probably write it yourself, "Ahmed, leader of the newly formed Sons and Daughters of Islam - a feminist-terrorist Islamic sect - supped furtively on the officially forbidden (but necessary for "cover") Boddingtons bitter as he looked with a lot of contempt, and not much less lust, at a row of nubile female students, off their tits, and pole dancing to Grease Lightning."

I've enjoyed writing and recording some music again this year - and will continue to do some for a bit yet - when I get the time. My poetry has fallen away a bit - I need a little mental space for it, and fiction remains difficult when I'm so time poor. Oh, I turned 40 as well, which means that bits of me have started falling off. Everything in my life is too tentative to be anywhere near middle age, whatever the clocks says. Yet, hankering after music and books, and some distant aim around them, is surely either prolonged adolescence, or wistful nostalgia, and I'd have generally said I don't do adolescence or nostalgia. Perhaps they are the same thing. The Booker shortlist is waiting for me at Xmas, so I'll try and read a few of the zeitgeist books, though I'm pretty sure the exciting stuff in literature is now so far away from the "official" version that it might be twenty years before someone gets round to mapping it. The fabulists, the crime tellers, the science-fictionists, the graphic novelists - are these our golden writers now? It hardly feels like an Edwardian age, but perhaps it has some of that period's safety and security, at least in middle England, and we're wanting our "Heroes" and "Battlestar Galactica" and "Dr. Who" as much as they wanted King Solomon's Mines and War of the Worlds. Once I work out how to get a vampire into my Mancunian novel, I'm sure the story will fly.

So, I'm sitting here, writing a longer piece than I intended, because I've a million things to do over the next few days, and this is the least important, perhaps, sitting here, whilst a ham simmers a way in the kitchen and the frost outside disappears in a bright wintry sunshine.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

The play's the thing

Interesting piece by David Edgar in the Guardian wondering why new writing in theatre is no longer an arts council priority. He talks about the "supply side" - i.e. lots of actors wanting to come out of university and do more physical based theatre. It's hard to know whether this is an issue or not - audiences certainly want (or can be more engaged by) a range of types. I'm more interested in written drama but even here there's such a variety - or possible variety. I've seen both "Shopping and fucking" and "The Weir", and though the latter was entirely traditional and the former was far more "modern", I felt that Ravenhill's play was already a little past its sell-by date when I saw it in Manchester. It may well be that by the time I'd seen it, I felt I'd seen so much of this kind of in-your-face funny-urban-trauma drama, on film, on stage, in performance. The dark sleepy ghost story of "The Weir" still stays with me however. As Edgar points out, there's lots being written - but is there an appetite for new plays? As Fictionbitch recently pointed out there's a question mark about who goes to new theatre (at least outside of London.)I guess my own instinct, at least up here, is that there is more of a performance based ethos, but its not necessarily a lack of writers, but a tendency to need regional or local theatre to have an educational or social purpose as well as a literary or dramatical one - always a dangerous game. I remember having a small piece performed at the Contact one time, and because the actors were young, working class Mancunians, it changed the piece - which was basically set in a school less urban, and more middle class. Not necessarily for the worse, but it wasn't this writer's intention - and in the end I didn't finish the play, because I could see it would have very little hope of being put on in one of the youth orientated theatres I was aiming at. Over the last few years Manchester's 24/7 festival has taken some of the techniques of street theatre ("Lets just do it!" "Lets have a festival!") and opened it out to dramatists and directors. Never has there been so much new writing put on in Manchester. The question is, who's watching?

Monday, December 10, 2007

My Other Blog's a Porsche

It's been quite a while since I've made any of my stories available on line, and I guess, having a few people asking me about my writing recently, it's time to let a few see the light of day. So, if you'd like to have a Christmas read, there are 3 new (but old) stories ready to download on my other blog. "The Personals" is a little experiment in form; "A Cold Night for Drowning" appeared in "Lamport Court" a few years ago, and "The Counter" is that perfect story for Christmas, a little modern ghost story.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Christmas overkill

Its not just that you need to start preparing for Xmas earlier each year - its just that there's so many things to fit in before then. I've got a lot to do at work, including chairing a panel next Thursday night; we've got our Christmas party the following Tuesday; I've got to go visit my sister and see her newborn; I've got to get everyone's presents; I've got a hospital appointment; and I'm already exhausted! The idea that I might glug gluwein at the xmas market, catch a carol concert, read the Guardian's books of the year; watch "Bee Movie" or go to see the Pogues or any of those other perennial Christmas shows is laughable. Where do people find the time? The Christmas meals have been packing out the pubs all week; last night I was one of 10,000 seeing Ian Brown at the old GMex (yeah, I know its called Manchester Central, but nobody knows what that is!) and today has been a right-off as a result. I feel it should be wind-down time, but I'm just feeling a bit wound-up and exhausted. I haven't even thought about Christmas cards, or stamps, or wrapping paper or when's the last day to buy anything off Amazon. In fact I've still got my overnight bag unpacked from going down to Birmingham a couple of weeks ago. Has it been a good year? Too early to make those kind of assessments; head's still in a blur. As noted elsewhere, its probably the time of the year when you start thinking "I haven't got time to blog anymore!" At a recent event in Manchester, Will Hutton, speaking for the Work Foundation, talked about the different nature of creative economies, and the creative individuals that make them up. Until we can put a value on a writer, a musician, a creative, we won't really value what they are genuinely adding to the economy in the same way as a retailer or a manufacturer. Whether its me, Elizabeth Baines, or J. K. Rowling (i.e. the unpublished, the recently published and the massively successful), the monetary value can be anything from nothing to that of a small corporation. My "brand" - e.g. this blog etc. - might be utterly worthless, but we just don't know. There will somewhere be a blogging Kafka, asking for his executors to delete all his files (and being refused by the monolithic Google); and somewhere a blogging Keats, career stymied by a bad blog post. I would imagine the economic value of Kafka to Prague, Czech Republic, Europe and the world is probably more than say, BMW, - from the books themselves to the Kafka coffee shops, to the influence on other cultural artefacts, to the Kafka key rings and mugs, to the tourists and the airlines. How much "value" will the BBC's production of Cranford, add to the Cheshire tourist industry, for instance? Of course, there's too many wannabe poets, writers etc. but that's like saying there's too many banks, insurance companies etc. - overproduction is a symbol of a successful industry not a failed one. You could argue, that more should be published, in order to increase the chance of new brands coming up that can displace brand Harry Potter or brand Stephen Fry. Literature and pop music are the two art forms we are really good at (unlike, say, visual art or classical composition, at which our successes are fitful) and yet neither receives much in the way of public funds. Yet these are the things that we can be distinctive at; and, even if they don't go global, a local success (the 10,000 people at Ian Brown last night) is not only a real one, but one which can't easily be "imported". In other words, the knowledge economy requires putting a real value on creatives and creativity. That Santa Claus, for instance, what a brand he is!

Thursday, December 06, 2007


Since I was at school during a time when it wasn't an ideological debate but just something that you did (if you happened to be between the ages of 5 and 16) it always seems (a) amazing that I turned out to learn anything and (b) that most of my classmates also learnt things (like being able to spell and write etc) without ever coming close to an exam. So the Comprehensive system kind of worked; it didn't exactly push people like me - but we did our exams okay - and the less able weren't that badly disadvantaged (example: a few years ago my dad was getting new double glazing and the cheapest quote was from a firm owned and run by one of my peers, who, when I knew him, was an archetypal thick as shit skinhead thug.) So what is one to make of this most bizarre of studies from OFSTED. If ever there was a bureaucracy less likely to stand up for poetry, you'd think OFSTED was it, yet, apparently, maybe this is where bureaucracy has its uses - against the very nothingness that it usually inspires. Apparently, poetry in schools is taught badly, that a very narrow and unchallenging number of poems is popular, and most teachers don't understand it.

Our kids are being taught this "classic" from Alfred Noyes -:

"The wind was a torrent of darkness among the gusty trees,
The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas,
The road was a ribbon of moonlight, over the purple moor,
And the highwayman came riding-
The highwayman came riding, up to the old inn-door."

Which is purple prose to make even a beetroot blush. Poetry is an unforgiving beast, but there are good poems out there in the world that probably deserve to be central to the curriculum.

I wrote this WHEN I was eight-:

"When the world was young and full of love
Down came God from the world above
He gave Pandora a magic box,
Pandora, who, was sly as a fox,
Tried to open the box, but no!
She tried again, and lo!
The box was open and out had flown,
All the evils, she gave a grown,
They stung her friends as they flew past
And evil was in the world at last."

It's still the only poem of mine I can recite word for word, and I remember even at the time hating the fakeness of that "and lo!"

Which is to say, that poetry is not la-la-la stuff but a challenging thing, and stuff like Spike Milligan (funny) and Walter De La Mare (pretty) isn't really where its at. I'm not entirely sure at which point you should introduce Keats and Donne, but surely if even OFSTED thinks we're getting poetry wrong, we can begin to see where the problem lies about appreciating it later in life...

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Strange Inspirations

Though perspiration is famously more vital to writing than inspiration, I'm convinced that it's inspiration that matters. That's why I hate the idea of "morning pages" - writing every day, to what purpose exactly? Yet, I guess, when you work full time at a demanding job, like I do occasionally (it's always full time, occasionally, and recently, demanding), perspiration be damned, you need some inspiration to sit down and free the muse. I'm reminded that, inspiration be damned, a nice red wine also helped free the muse (doesn't it sound like a Facebook group? 38 members.) But inspiration's what I've been lacking of late. I've had "ideas" but not "imperatives" which is not the same thing at all. I guess, the imperative for alot of writers is probably a cheque in the post or a competition, but without that, then you need to develop different ones - and I always used to be quite good at coming up with something; yet it's that which I've been lacking the last couple of years. And what, pray, is my imperative now? It's not that simple, of course. But it seems I need to have a sense of innovation to my writing to really compel me to start writing again. A few years ago I wrote a story, "I am no one" which was so non linear that it stopped me writing for a while - since how could I go back to "normal" stories after going out on the edge? The answer of course is finding some middle ground. Earlier in the year I read quite a bit, a few books like "The Damned United" and "The Book of Dave" being contemporary novels with the innovation I've been longing for - add in a bit of sci-fi and a sprinkle of Borges - and I've thrown off the straitjacket that I'd grown into, and starting writing something interesting again. Yes, that's the key. So for the first time in years, I've written 3 short stories in a matter of weeks, all very different, but all notably different, interesting, even experimental (though I use that word with a peg on my nose.) A bit of sci-fi here, and a bit of wine with a friend here, and a bad day at work over there, and voila, the chef is back in the kitchen. Or something.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Waiting for some mundane SF

I was fascinated to read that next summer's issue of the venerable Interzone will be a "mundane SF" edition. I hadn't heard the term before, but I kind of like it. Very of its time, I think.

"What makes a story mundane? A few simple rules:

• no FTL travel or communications
• no aliens
• no time travel
• no parallel universes
• no immortality or telepathy"

Not quite sure what FTL travel is - it reminds me of the bus service around Stoke (the immortal PMT!) With Geoff Ryman, one of our more interesting writers, in the seat it should be a bit of a ride anyway.

For more on this sub-genre of a sub-genre check out the Mundane SF blog. Interesting that the universally panned "The Carhullan Army" from Sarah Hall has won a prize. I thought it sounded quite an interesting book, but read the first page, and went "hmmmm". Anyway, the blog's very articulate author makes the point that "mainstream literature is doing an end-run around the outside of SF to connect with the real future of life as we will come to know it. Clearly the world is ready for this kind of thing, even if most SF writers are incapable of such imagination. What it is going to do is leave SF behind playing with its 1950's dated tropes of space ships and little green men." He's probably right. I went looking through the 60 or so stories I've written in the last ten years - a flurry of sci-fi ish ones about 10 years ago, then nothing much, but then the last couple of years, I've been a-dabbling again. Of course, just as I've written a new sci-fi story that is definitely mundane, I discover that I've missed another boat, cos the closing date is already gone. Ho-hum. But maybe not. I'm beginning to think that we may be at the beginning of some kind of revival of imaginative fiction. I blame the Booker; it usually helps to do so! But, really, what I'm saying is that the published genre fiction has for a long time been so far up its own genre (and badly written?) that its been difficult for people like me (though there are no people like me) to pick up those books - whilst the mainstream lit writers take on it (with the honourable exceptions of Will Self and David Mitchell) has been like your uncle dancing at a wedding (or a dalek salsaing at carnival if you prefer). The world from now on is straightforward: the crap that's going on - terrorism, global warming, et al - and the bitter, post-modern, uber-unrealistic alt. realities of "The Mighty Boosh", "Spooks", M.I.A., Burial...etc. and ALL in the same book. Now, fools, go on and write it.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Why Don't We Love Science Fiction?

"Why don't we love science fiction?" asks Brian Appleyard in the Sunday Times, partly in response to the release of a new version of the Brian Aldiss edited anthology "A Science Fiction Omnibus" in Penguin Classics. At nearly 600 pages its a must-have, though you have to wonder whether "bulk" is really the best way to read science fiction - after all it is the short novel, the novella, the short story, even the micro-short story that has characterised the highlights of the genre. My NELs, Savoys and Pans seem slightly grubby, but ever so accurate. The best of the genre of course began in trash magazines, and I guess if I'd been twenty years older, I'd have those as my most treasured possessions. Appleyard makes the valid point that Sci-Fi is the necessary counterpoint to science, and mirrors the new developments in scientific fields, whether its Asimov's robots or Gibson's cyberpunk. That said, its a lazy article, that you feel could have been written without change pretty much any time in the last 20 years. I feel that my generation - the Star Wars generation, if you like - have no problems with sci-fi, are simply not snobby about it; along with the noirish detective story its as much a part of my literary upbringing as anything else. I've written here before of how many mainstream writers, rather than being snobby about sci-fi, have been turning to it - Michael Cunningham, David Mitchell and Kazuo Ishiguro in the last couple of years alone. The old story of Rushdie's "Grimus" being withdrawn from a sci-fi award (and imagining a parallel world with, one presumes, no fatwa, no "Midnights Children", just a reputation as a slightly odd sci-fi writer, certainly sounds appealing to those of us who've never been a fan....) because it would "label" him, would probably happen to any writer even today, hence the M. in Iain M. Banks. Yet Appleyard also points out that we're happy to like fantasy (speak for yourself Brian!) as childrens books for adults. He's right in wondering whether China Mieville is sci-fi, or just plain weird. I guess when I recently read the very enjoyable "Perdido Street Station" I felt that it was essentially a crime noir in another world, and since we neither knew or cared where that world was (in space? the future? another dimension? behind a wardrobe?) what we lost in allegory we gain in versimillitude.

I was thinking about my own writing and wondering which of it I'd even class as sci-fi? Very little, in the space opera sense (and perhaps I should write some more), but much of it in the Harlan Ellison or Borgesian sense - of a world of possibilities. Aldiss argues that we're living in a sci-fi world; Appleyard disagrees, saying that science fiction comes into its own as the most "hardcore realism." I'll drink (moloko? pan galactic gargle blasters?) to that.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

No Books for Sale

I was at Leeds station on Thursday coming back to Manchester after a conference and hadn't got a thing to read. I'd read the Guardian on the way over, so thought, I may as well pick up a book from W.H. Smiths. Not something I'd usually do given that my house is papered with unread books. Its all buy one, get one half price, trying to sell you two of something when you only want one, of course, which seems a bit strange since surely most railway station purchases will be "impulse buys" for the train etc - and yet the standalone price of paperbacks, £8.99 or whatever, is getting a little steep. (Digression: I bumped into a production manager from Harper Collins last night and bemoaned the quality of paper of most contemporary paperbacks. There was a reason for it, he said, but the answer, alas, is lost in the alcoholic haze...) Anyway, I hadn't long, so I looked through the bestsellers etc. Amongst the identikit covers of the top ten (all pastel, with flowing script, like "get well" or "sympathy" cards) there were only 2 books that weren't explicitly aimed at women readers, "Brick Lane" at number one, and "Atonement" at number three. And of course, I've long ago read both of these books. So there I am, looking for a book, in a bookshop and there's nothing for sale. Yes, there are shelves and shelves of other titles, but again, with Christmas coming, its more humour, gifts etc. than anything real. And thinking about it, I couldn't think of any writers I'd just pick up there and then had they been for sale. Meeting a bookseller friend last night, he said that they sell books mostly by samizdat methods now, getting them into the shops almost under the cover of darkness, putting them on the shelves out of season, pointing out good titles to prospective customers. In short, what the job used to be, before it was reduced to piling them high and selling them cheap.