Why I self-publish my books

Trying to publish a book used to be straightforward. You came up with an idea, spent months, if not years, writing it, then sent it off to an agent or publisher who rejected it by return. Life was simpler back then. We all knew where we were. Rejection wasn’t necessarily based on the quality of the work. Literature is a subjective business. Lord of the Flies earned William Golding 20 rejections. James Joyce, Jack Kerouac and Joseph Heller suffered similar fates. Marcel Proust was rejected so many times that he decided to pay for publication himself. The much-repeated industry statistic is between 1 and 2 per cent of manuscripts are

‘You cannot begin by calling me France’s most famous living artist!’: Sophie Calle interviewed

‘You cannot begin by calling me France’s most famous living artist!’ Thus Sophie Calle objected to the first line of the obituary I wrote for her, commissioned for the enormous exhibition, À toi de faire, ma mignonne (‘Over to you, sweetie’), that currently occupies the whole Musée National Picasso-Paris. But modesty aside, it is a fact that no other French artist alive today is so celebrated, loved, debated, denounced and, indeed, imitated, around the world as Calle. Having long mined her own life for her work, Calle now happily mines her death This year is the 50th anniversary of Picasso’s death and that his most important museum should officially mark

Hannah Tomes

Comedy of the blackest kind: Boy Parts, at Soho Theatre, reviewed

There’s something mesmerising about watching a good mimic. And Aimée Kelly, who plays fetish photographer Irina Sturges in Soho Theatre’s Boy Parts, is a very good mimic. Across the 80 minutes of this one-woman performance, she inhabits the bodies of dozens of characters, each a carbon copy of the worst kind of person: oleaginous city bankers; shrill, hysterical twenty-something women; ‘Andrew Tate-core’ men. An unnamed boy ends up as nothing more than a severed head Her sneering representations of these characters instruct us to see them (whether we want to or not) as Irina does: pathetic and deeply undesirable. It’s uncomfortable. Irina is a narcissist which is enforced, immediately, by

With John Nichol

35 min listen

John Nichol is a former RAF Tornado navigator who, during the first Gulf War in 1991, was famously shot down, paraded on television and held prisoner by Saddam Hussein. John wrote movingly about his experience in his first book, ‘Tornado Down’, and has gone on to write fifteen more best-selling books. His latest, ‘Eject, Eject’, is out now. He also loves food, is very fond of cooking and often posts pictures on social media of his many and varied culinary creations. Presented by Olivia Potts.Produced by Linden Kemkaran.

On the trail of Roman Turkey with Don McCullin

The genesis for our book Journeys across Roman Asia Minor was hatched in the autumn of 1973, when Sir Donald McCullin was a young man. He had been assigned by the Sunday Times to work with the writer Bruce Chatwin on a story that would take them from a murder in Marseille to the Aurès highlands of north-east Algeria. It was an emotionally gruelling journey and they rewarded themselves on the way back by stopping off to look at a solitary Roman ruin. No photographs were taken, but the memory of this place from all those years ago remained embedded in Don’s imagination. Three decades later, that seed bore fruit,

New York hotels with a literary twist

‘You really ought to read more books – you know, those things that look like blocks but come apart on one side.’ Perhaps F. Scott Fitzgerald was aiming for a motivational tone – literature was his livelihood, after all. He was also a seminal figure in the writers’ movement that began in 1920s New York and, over the following decades, took root in hotels across the city. Hot on the heels of Spectator Life‘s guide to London’s literary hotels, here are five New York hotels with their own tales to tell. The Algonquin Hotel The Algonquin’s association with the infamous Round Table of the 1920s has provided it with more

Don’t cancel Beatrix Potter

I spoke too soon. Beatrix Potter, I suggested in an afterword to my 2016 biography of the author and illustrator, had escaped the distortions of sexual and racial revisionism that now blight so many eminent and long-dead British writers. But no longer. Last week a specialist in postcolonial literature at a northern university accused Potter of failing to acknowledge her indebtedness to an oral storytelling tradition of enslaved Africans working on American plantations. Welcome, please, a new Potter for the 21st century: exploitative, colonialist, dishonest. Potter’s concealment, claims Dr Emily Zobel Marshall, ‘[feeds] into a damaging and recurring appropriation of Black cultural forms that continues today’. Blimey. Zobel Marshall’s hypothesis

In praise of goths – the most enduring of pop subcultures

More than 40 years on, every town still has them, wandering the streets with pale skin, more make-up than you can find in Superdrug, swathed in acres of black fabric. Goths, rather unexpectedly, have turned out to be the great survivors among pop subcultures. Others have risen and faded, but the goths – laughed at, ignored, dismissed – have endured, seeing their style and their musical tastes slowly incorporated by everyone else (there’s even a goth version of hip-hop, known as ‘horrorcore’). Goth was a fitting name for the music: overbearing and foreboding; delivering ecstasy through the building and releasing of tension rather than through major chords and primary colours;

Alison Roman: ‘My desserts are consistently imperfect’

Alison Roman’s cooking is a counsel of imperfection. She serves dinner late (fine, as long as you have snacks), gets her guests to pitch in on the washing up and won’t make her own ice cream – ‘it simply will never be better than what you can buy, sorry’. ’Her ‘pies leak, cheesecakes crack and pound cakes are pulled from the oven before they’re fully baked. Lopsided and wonky, occasionally almost burned, unevenly frosted, my desserts are consistently imperfect’. In her new book, Sweet Enough, Roman wants to free the home cook from the dessert ties that bind them. ‘My hope for you,’ she tells her reader, ‘is that you

London hotels with a literary twist

There’s something rather wonderful about the idea of settling down for the night in the spot where one of your favourite writers once slept, played or dreamed up a plot. There are a range of hotels across London with a vast array of bookish associations: some have played host to writers both famous and infamous, while others have been commemorated in novels, poems and short stories. Their present-day owners are all too happy to show off their literary heritage, should you ask nicely. Here are six with the most interesting tales to tell. Hazlitt’s There are few London hotels with so existential a literary connection as Hazlitt’s on Frith Street

The best coronations in literature

‘In her big, white dress the Queen looks like a balloon that’s about to float up to the roof of Westminster Abbey and bob about up there amongst the gilded arches and roof bosses. To prevent this happening people keep weighing her down with cloaks and robes, orbs and spectres, until she’s so heavy that bishops and archbishops have to help propel her around.’ This is the coronation of Elizabeth II in 1953 as described by one-year-old Ruby Lennox in Kate Atkinson’s Behind the Scenes at the Museum. These observations might seem preternaturally advanced from a narrator not yet old enough to walk and talk, but that is consistent for

Read all about it: 12 of the best novels about journalism

A recently published novel, Becky by Sarah May, is the latest in a long tradition of fiction based on journalism – and a good excuse to think again about the great books from that sub-genre. May’s is a curious hybrid of the life story of News UK CEO Rebekah Brooks and a repurposing of Vanity Fair. George Cochrane, reviewing it for The Spectator, called Becky ‘a good novel dwarfed by a great one’.  He was referring to the Thackeray, but he might just as easily have been talking about another classic English novel: Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop. That comic masterpiece from 1938 is the book against which all other fictional evocations of journalists and journalism are judged

Why adults should read children’s books

During a recent family trip to South Africa, there was one book from my holiday reading pile that I simply couldn’t put down. It had everything: suspense, mystery, humour, fantasy, plot twists, heroes, villains and, ultimately, a happy ending. It also contained talking animals, unicorns and fauns. Because this wasn’t the latest bestselling crime or psychological thriller – my usual genres of choice. It was The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, the children’s story by C.S. Lewis that I’d first read almost 40 years earlier. Given that I have a nine-year-old son who adores books, you might imagine that my motivation for re-reading it was to do so aloud to

How the Kindle lost its spark

With the recent news that Kindle and other e-readers are automatically updating Roald Dahl’s books to sanitised versions, an entire era has come to an end for readers like me. Who in future will feel safe buying an electronic copy of anything? Publishers’ plans here may be modest, but the point about the puritan is that their work is never done. Martin Amis, Evelyn Waugh, Nancy Mitford, George Orwell, Charles Dickens – any one of them feels vulnerable now. If in copyright, the author and their estate can be strong-armed by the publishers; if out of copyright, laying your hands on the right edition will be a minefield. Nor does

After Dahl: what the sensitivity readers did next

Sensitivity readers have been busy lately, first rewriting the works of Roald Dahl, and then trimming Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels, ostensibly making them less offensive to modern readers. So what will they edit next – and how might they bring it into line with modern mores? Winnie-the-Pooh by A.A. MilneA honey-loving bear goes on a macrobiotic diet, and his best friend Eeyore is prescribed anti-depressants. Christopher Robin receives anti-psychotic medication to alleviate the delusion that animals are talking to him. Othello by William ShakespeareA black military commander is tricked into believing that his wife Desdemona has been unfaithful, so they both enter couples’ counselling, and he undergoes anger management

The rewriting of Roald Dahl is an act of cultural vandalism

The vandals have come for Roald Dahl. His books for children are to be cleansed of their ‘offensive’ content. Sensitivity readers – what we used to call censors – have been employed to pore over his works and expurgate any word or passage that might hurt a kid’s feelings. If you weren’t worried about cancel culture before, surely this egregious assault on some of the best-known children’s books of the modern era, this posthumous purging of an author’s output, will change your mind. Dahl is being well and truly Ministry of Truthed. Puffin essentially tasked the sensitivity readers with morally improving his stories so that no child will ever feel

Why we need a biography of philosopher Bryan Magee

When I was a philosophy student at King’s College London in my early twenties, I came across a book called Confessions of a Philosopher by Bryan Magee. A history of western philosophy told through the story of the author’s relationship with it, it opens with a three- or four-year old Magee trying to catch himself falling asleep every night. Try as he might, he can never experience himself crossing the threshold from wakefulness into unconsciousness, a conundrum that keeps him in a state of ‘active mystification’. Magee spent the rest of his life like this, wrestling with the mysteries inherent in everyday experience. Far from being a fusty academic discipline

The unstoppable march of the celebrity author

The anticipation surrounding the release of a certain memoir today obscures a bigger question about the changing face of our publishing industry. Why does every Tom, Dick and Prince Harry think they can write a book these days? Figures last week showed the number of independent bookshops in Britain reached a ten-year high in 2022, thanks to a reading frenzy fuelled by pandemic lockdowns, the mushrooming of book groups and, perhaps most of all, the incessant, unstoppable march of the celebrity (not to mention royal) author. It is good news that there are now more than 1,000 independent bookshops in Britain and Ireland, the culmination of six years of growth

Books to look out for in 2023

After a fair-to-middling 2022, it’s not unreasonable to hope that 2023 will see several stars burn brightly in the literary firmament. Whether what promises to be the most talked-about book of the year, Prince Harry’s Spare (out tomorrow with Bantam), is included in this number remains to be seen. On the plus side, the Prince has the estimable J.R. Moehringer as his ghostwriter; on the negative side is the fact that his every public appearance over the past few years has been so combative that we might expect little more than a 416-page exercise in score-settling. More reliable pleasures await. Pamela Anderson’s memoir Love, Pamela (Headline, January) should be a revelatory and fascinating dive

The best new year celebrations in literature

Literature presents many different ways of observing the new year. Much like real life, the options range from big parties to quiet stay-at-home gatherings… and existential crises. In Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, Meg and Jo March attend a New Year’s Eve party at the home of their family friend Mrs Gardiner. ‘Down they went, feeling a trifle timid, for they seldom went to parties, and informal as this little gathering was, it was an event to them.’ This is the moment that Jo converses with Laurie for the first time and sparks fly as they watch the New Year’s Eve party from their shared point of refuge in a