Sit in a room and read — and read and read. And read the right books by the right people. Your mind is brought onto that level, and you have a nice, mild, slow-burning rapture all the time. This realization of life can be a constant realization in your living. When you find an author who really grabs you, read everything he has done. Don’t say, ‘Oh, I want to know what So-and-so did’—and don’t bother at all with the best-seller list. Just read what this one author has to give you. And then you can go read what he had read. And the world opens up in a way that is consistent with a certain point of view. But when you go from one author to another, you may be able to tell us the date when each wrote such and such a poem—but he hasn’t said anything to you.
Notes on PEN’s Annotated First Edition Auction
This week’s sale of acclaimed first editions signed by their authors, which I’ve helped organise, invites a few questions – which I’ve set out to answer here
My bookselling colleagues wonder if I have gone walkabout, my business colleague Peter Grogan shrugs his shoulders, my bank manager phones solicitously. How am I? Where am I? What have I been up to? I don’t mind, I’ve been having a ball.
This is partly due to finishing a book, which is just out, but more the result of organising – over the last year – a charity auction on behalf of English PEN (at Sotheby’s: 7:30 on the evening of May 21) which is called “First Editions, Second Thoughts” – or, though I generally hate acronyms: FEST.
We asked major contemporary writers to annotate a first edition of one of their most famous (and valuable) books. In each case I chose the book, rather than asking which the author might want to contribute. The reason was simple: I chose the one most likely to fetch a high price at auction. (It was pleasing that the writers almost unanimously accepted the brief, though a couple suggested that they might have more to say about a different title, which of course we allowed).
“Feel free to scribble second thoughts, marginalia or drawings throughout the work in whatever fashion moves you, thus singling out this particular first edition and making it even more desirable for a reader or collector to want to own.”
When asked to elucidate what this actually entails, I stonewalled with Humpty Dumpty’s wise view, that a word (such as “annotate”) can mean whatever you want it to mean. (He adds: “when I make a word do a lot of work like that, I always pay it extra.”) It is not up to me to determine how an author responds to his or her own work. And different writers did markedly different things, as you can see from the following extracts:
John Banville underlines the word “flocculent”: “My use of such words drives reviewers to distraction. Must use more of them, more often.”
Julian Barnes: “Rather too much research showing here – tho’ it was I remember a hard passage to write. Make the history of the Metropolitan line a metaphor for what happened to the human soul in suburbia without it showing too much. Not easy.”
Helen Fielding: ”Mmm. Hungry now. Bored by writing notes. Slightly puffed up by thoughts of PEN people reading notes, rather as if I am Ernest Hemingway or something, though obviously not dead.”
Seamus Heaney on the poem At a Potato Digging: “Anthony Thwaite once described me (to my face) as ‘laureate of the root vegetable’.”
Kazuo Ishiguro on a passage describing the rise and fall of butlers: “Melvyn Bragg commented in print that this passage was really about the London literary scene. I think he was right!”
Hilary Mantel on Wolf Hall: “Just for the record – I made up the affair between TC + his sister-in-law. Not without reason, but because it seems to reflect the semi-incestuous knot that Henry himself got into … “
Ian Rankin on Knots and Crosses: “I seem to remember I planned to kill Rebus off at the climax; glad now I changed my mind.”
Tom Stoppard: ”I wanted to call the play ‘Exit Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’, but for the bad grammar – ‘Exeunt R and G’ I didn’t like as a title, so settled for ‘are dead’.”
Jeanette Winterson on Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit: “Is this character Jeanette, me? I really believed I could write myself as a fiction. And stories seem to me to be the truth of life. And growing up. Better to nail yourself as a fiction than as a fact.”
These results are terrific: wry, direct, very informative. The full list of the 50 authors taking part is mind-boggling. Since that time I have been suffering – you will have observed this already – from superlatives overload. Marvellous, wonderful, terrific, amazing. It makes me wish I had something understated and restrained – something, well, more English, more elegant and Julian Barnes-ish – in my nature and verbal armoury.
The response has been tremendous, not least in the Guardian, but there are few questions about the nitty-gritty of the process that have gone politely unasked by journalists, though I have had answers – or evasions – ready for most of them. And, since no one has pushed me on these topics, here they are.
How did you choose which writers to approach? An initial group of us, including the literary agent Peter Straus (who conceived this idea some years ago), Ion Trewin, administrator of the Man Booker prize, and PEN’s ex-director Jonathan Heawood, drew up an initial shortlist. This was, given the background and interests of three of us, heavily weighted towards Man Booker winners and shortlisted books. There is, after all, a very active market for these in the rare book world, and it seemed a good place to start. (Eventually, 16 winners and a number of shortlisted books were included.)
After a while, though, this seemed too limited, and clearly left out a number of books that would do very well at auction. So we tried (with great success) to fill the following categories: children’s books, memoirs, poetry, thrillers, illustrated books, plays. We tried, too, to get outside the “literature” category, though with limited success.
Great List of writers! But who said “NO?” We were turned down in two different ways. First, by writers who simply did not respond. (I worry that the initial emailed request – headed “Favour for English PEN” – may sometimes have been rejected as spam.) And second, by writers who wrote politely to decline, most on the grounds that annotating a first edition of one of their works – whatever you take that to entail – was uncongenial to them.
Are you going to name names? Nope. It seems to me understandable enough to say no to such a request. It’s a hard ask, and writers do not annotate their books in the normal course of events. Some found they enjoyed the process, others found it trying. What surprised me was how many agreed, a clear testimony to the esteem in which PEN is held in the literary community.
Which of the books is your particular favourite? As soon ask which of my children is … The major fun of the whole project, in fact, was in those first moments of exposure to the annotated texts, which were like a peep into something deep and private, yet freely shared. But if you ask which of the books was most astonishing to open, it was Ralph Steadman’s revisiting of Hunter S Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, first published with his illustrations in 1971, which he has reanimated with more than 50 additional, brilliantly free, ferociously amusing illustrations.
Isn’t there something artificial in this post-publication annotating? A couple of writers asked about this. I suppose the answer is that all annotating is post-hoc, part of the process of reflection about what and why and how one has written something. Writers have opinions about their works. Why not – after all – write them in the books? That these reflections are prompted seems to me an undamaging accusation. Much writing is prompted. Agents and publishers suggest topics for books, literary editors commission articles and reviews. The creative process is complex and collaborative. And worth reflecting back upon.
When I look at the online PEN catalogue, and the hard copy Sotheby’s one, why are there so few examples of annotation by each author? It is frustrating, and partly intended to be. In each case, we cite how many words of annotations there are, and on how many pages. (Wolf Hall: 2,650 words on 123 pages.) Then we quote one or two of the more enticing sentences. This is something of a taster, and perhaps a tease. It makes potential buyers want to know more, and actually to examine the books at Sotheby’s on the pre-sale viewing days (May 20 and 21). Anyway, there’s not much room to cite more, and it also protects the copyright of the author’s annotations.
Why are there no estimated prices in the catalogues? We went back and forth on this one. Unlike normal auction sales, charity auctions do not print estimates, though we can see that potential buyers will want to know what ballpark a winning bid might be in. The problem with doing written estimates is simple: all our writers have obliged us mightily, and similarly. It would, we think, be invidious for one book to bear a low-ish estimate, and another to have one of many thousands. Of course writers know that some books sell better than others, and that a few are avidly collected. But it is seemly to leave their prices to the market forces on the night. (Having it both ways caveat: we do have a set of informal estimates that are available on request).
So: How much are the individual books likely to fetch on the night? From low hundreds to very high thousands. I would not say your guess is as good as mine – it isn’t – but I have no confidence that I will predict most of them accurately. (I am going to try though: Peter Straus and I have a bet on an item-by-item basis. Loser pays for lunch).
Where will the books go? There will be serious interest from some major libraries, and the rest will go to dealers or into private collections.
What will PEN do with the money? It’s hard to make plans to spend money when you don’t know how much there will be. That will be a matter for the PEN board to decide later.
How much income is likely? Some hundreds of thousands of pounds, for sure. Not clear, though, how many.
It all sounds like remarkable, astonishing and marvellous doesn’t it? For sure.