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Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Photographic Memory

I'm sorry to read of Bloomsbury Publishing - of Potter fame - putting Judith Kelly's blatant copying down to her "photographic memory". As if there was even a chance that such wide-ranging copying could 'emerge' in a writer's own work without them realizing it.

Absolute codswallop, and what  is any self-respecting editor doing with such criminal gaps in her own reading?

Kelly has been totally busted which is a shame because her Rock Me Gently sounds a moving story, clearly based on fact but now utterly compromised by the simple fact that the lady either cannot or will not write, preferring to scrounge snippets from such unknowns as Graham Greene's Brighton Rock, the prize-winning Hilary Mantel, and even Brontë's Jane Eyre.

For sheer chutzpah read the side-by-side quotes in the Independent report.

Two things depress me about this: that it was not caught at editorial stage, and the breathtaking arrogance of author Kelly herself to assume Greene and Brontë to be too obscure for us ignorami Joe Reading Public to have come across.

Well, she's being punished for it now, and no need to hit her when she's so far down. For an author to lose credibility is the worst of fates: over time, the readers might forget it but not so the in-house editors who have to tackle the *next* manuscript, nor the serialization crowd who'll eventually be asked to buy an extract, nor the literary editors nor the reviewers to whom her next book might be sent for assessment.

I've dealt with writers and, sure, the odd catchy phrase might slip through or have been used so often that they've come to believe it's theirs, but basically they know. And if they don't, the editors will.

Speaking of editors, I have actually worked with the best. What about this for an Obituary, composed by the Managing Director of Secker & Warburg, for whom I had the honour to run their publicity department and hence worked with John:

The Bookseller: 28-Nov-97

John Blackwell, Publishing editor

Tom Rosenthal writes:
"John Blackwell, who died aged 60 last Guy Fawkes day, spent, after Jesus College, Cambridge, the Royal Navy's Russian Course on National Service and a spell as editor of the Iron & Steel Institute Journal, the whole of his professional life as an editor at Secker & Warburg.

He was hired by Fred Warburg. I was lucky enough to inherit him after Fred's retirement in 1971. He and David Farrer gave Secker an editorial strength and integrity to be found, even then, in few other houses. When David Farrer died in harness, John took over Angus Wilson, Malcolm Bradbury and Melvyn Bragg, and grafted them on to his own list of writers such as Tom Sharpe, David Lodge, Michael Moorcock and Louis de Bernières.

A polyglot who corresponded in Russian with Andrei Vosnessensky, he often improved the English versions of Günter Grass or Italo Calvino when their principal translators worked in American.

In an era when many glamorous commissioning editors are glorified account executives with great lunch money and access to a large chequebook, John was a backroom beacon of logic and sanity. He sat in his chaotic Soho attic (how he hated the move to immaculate Michelin House), editing and improving manuscripts. His arcane, sometimes bizarre erudition would stun even academics who were supposedly masters of their subjects. His acerbic contributions to editorial meetings were also sardonic, laconic, invariably true and almost as funny as his internal reports.

He was also a particularly generous and scrupulous trainer of other editors. John was a formidable consumer of Gauloise cigarettes and most forms of alcohol. He preferred pubs to restaurants, and many an author would have his book sorted out in the Nellie Dean or some other more or less salubrious pub, with the tutorial ending only at closing time; whereupon John would, sometimes almost miraculously, cycle home safely to Clapham.

I once asked him why he disliked a particularly eminent non-fiction author he was editing. "He drinks half pints and buys them too - when he can't escape his round," said John, as if the hapless fellow was a paedophile. John never did anything by halves.

With David Farrer and Diana Athill he was one of the great literary publishing editors of our time."
Amen. He was my future wife's first boss, and he was our Best Man.

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