Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Someone with an Axe to grind?

I've been accused of a shocking crime, compared to a Blairite government minister, described as a child of New Labour’s crass privatisation of everything. Thanks to me, apparently, Dostoevsky has been "privatised and sold off for the gain of others: a very neoconservative modus operandi".

The charges are made in a South African newspaper, the Mail and Guardian, where Darryl Accone asks:

"How many readers who have never heard of Dostoyevsky will work out, from the epigraph and “acknowledgement” [in A Gentle Axe], that the very fine Porfiry Petrovich and his search for psychological motives are really a protagonist and ideas that belong to someone other than RN Morris?"

I am even accused, slyly, of not knowing how to spell Dostoevsky's name. In fact, Mr Accone creates a spelling mistake ('Dostoesky') and inserts the term [sic], to imply that the mistake was mine. Mr Accone's preferred transliteration of the name is Dostoyevsky. I spell Dostoevsky without that 'y' in the middle, which is an acceptable transliteration widely used; I do not omit the 'v'.

Oh, and the decision to put the acknowledgement at the back was made by the publishers, not me. It is at the front in the American edition.

Leaving that petty and rather cheap trick aside, I am actually very flattered by Mr Accone's article. This quote was particularly gratifying:

"Morris has very imaginatively continued Petrovich’s career after the resolution of the Raskolnikov axe murders in Crime and Punishment. In stealing from the best, he has at least shown intimate knowledge of the original: “his” Petrovich is psychologically consistent with Dostoyevsky’s, and employs analogous methods of investigation and deduction."

Thank you, Mr Accone, that's actually the nicest thing anyone could have said.

You can make your own mind up by reading the whole article yourself.


David Isaak said...

The reviewer has some acute things to say, but his idea that this is some sort of 'neocon theft' is laughable. I'll take him seriously when and if he also takes Jean Rhys to task for "The Wide Sargasso Sea," which is of course a prequel to "Jane Eyre" and is typically read as a scathing indictment of colonialism and traditional gender relationships.

And Jean Rhys didn't mention "Jane Eyre" or Ms. Bronte at all, and left it entirely up to the reader to recognize the story being told and sort out whose original creation was being recycled.

Jean Rhys, Neocon Tool? Oh, please.

The reviewer has things exactly backwards. The truth is that great characters gradually become part of cultural mythology, available to one and all. This is the precise opposite of 'privatization.'

David Isaak said...

And, as long as I'm ranting already:

1) I'd doubt there exist many readers of novels who have never even heard of Dostoyevsky;

2) The American edition of the book (I can't speak for the others) cites Dostoyevsky and Crime and Punishment in very large print as the first paragraph of the inside flap cover;

3) The Acknowledgments are in fact up front in the American edition (though this is not usually the case, and is actually a practice I dislike);

4) Blaming an author for the location of Acknowledgments, or the choice of font, or the cover design, shows a pretty limited understanding of how publishing works;

5) Attacking "Gentle Axe" but giving Dibdin and the other people who've used A Conan Doyle's characters a free pass on the grounds that these were 'affectionate' is inconsistent and a bit silly.

And finally, as a novelist, I can't imagine any greater tribute than having someone snatch up one of my minor characters 125 years after my death and turn him into the protagonist of a novelistic homage. We should all be so lucky.

Roger Morris said...

Thank you, David, for your wonderful defence! The location of the acknowledgements wasn't down to me - this was a point I meant to make in the original blog post but some of the text dropped out, or I forgot to write it, or something. Also, embarrassingly, in the blog post I did spell old D's name wrong! Freudian self-sabotage or what.

I'm really grateful to you, David. You're not a lawyer are you, by any chance?

crimeficreader said...

How funny! And how mixed. Shame on you for "stealing" Porfiry Petrovich, but what you've produced is actually quite gripping and good...

Personally, I'd say you've at least purloined and at most adopted a character for which rights have now expired. You've also chucked some further rays of an economy light bulb in the 21st century on Dostoevsky. I'm sure there will be a few who will read your accessible novel and now drop their guard and seek to read the original inspiration, previously fearing that the classic work was not up their street.

I think Accone's criticism is due to the lack of obvious acknowledgement in his copy, if I read him correctly.

But he (she?) also has two things to say in that article that I wholeheartedly agree with:

1. "It is de rigueur for the literary minded to pour scorn on genre fiction, be it crime/detective/mystery or science fiction or fantasy. That knee-jerk is not only pernicious snobbery but it is wrong-headed too."

That is so on the ball.

2."Furthermore, The Oxford Companion to English Literature is less sniffy than the wannabe literati, noting in its recent sixth edition (again incisively edited by Margaret Drabble) that “crime has been a staple of storytelling since its beginnings”."

True. Even Adam and Eve had trouble because of a snake, if you choose to go down that route...

As for the comments: "'And to Fyodor Dostoesky [sic], I can only apologise.' That sounds very much like a Blairite government minister, allowing for a measure of regret that might be said to construe a hint of apology. Well, RN Morris is perhaps a child of New Labour’s crass privatisation of everything." - Accone is clearly far away from the UK. Anyone actually living here and who has lived through this New Labour spin-at-costs-experiment would realise that the comment was more likely to be "Hell, Dostoevsky, what a cool guy and one of us, didn't you know?"

I think not. He'd have stood up to them at all costs and anticipated their next move every time...

David Isaak said...

"You're not a lawyer are you, by any chance?"

Nope, 'fraid not. Though I served my time in academia. More than my time, come to think of it.

Lucy McCarraher said...

Hi Roger.
For the record, there are two letters in the Russian (cyrillic) alphabet, one which looks a roman e, but is pronounced "yeh"; and one which is written like a Greek e backwards, which is pronounced like our e, "eh". As you say, it's perfectly acceptable to transliterate either with just an "e", especially when you can't help pronouncing the transliterated word Dostoevsky as if there was a y between the o and e.
Russian transliteration is a pretty free and easy thing. On some of my daughters' Russian documents, they took our name "McCarraher", transliterated that into Russian (difficult, as there is no 'h' in the Russian, only the more gutural 'xa'), and retransliterated that back into English - with interesting and variable results.
Anyway, the other criticism is rubbish - the book is out of copyright and the characters are in the public domain anway. (Not that I'm a lawyer either).
And finally, I'm tagging you. This probably isn't the right way to do it.
Please go to my blog, copy the last post (20 questions)into your next post, delete my answers and put in your own. David (Isaak) did this to me, and I'm supposed to pass it on. And so are you, to five other writers....
Well, I've done my bit - hopefully something wonderful will now happen to me in the next half hour.
Lucy x

David Isaak said...

Don't blame me, Lucy, it's Faye's fault.

BTW, RN, I dropped a few words on "Axe" over on my blog. Nothing earthshaking.

Roger Morris said...

Thanks cfr, David and Lucy. The more I think about it, the more I think he must have his tongue firmly in his cheek. I mean I'm hardly the first to have taken on someone else's character. And he does say some very positive things about the book.

But all that new labour, neocon stuff... that really hurts!

Matt said...

Thanks for your comment Roger.

The novel has been a very rewarding reading experience, with the nuanced characterization, the many leads, and convolutions. When I found out about the release from the local paper, (SF Chronicle Book Review), I knew I had to get it and not to wait until trade paperback comes out!

I vaguely perceive the possible significance of the names Vera and Sofiya when I dropped my suspicion again Virginsky. It's very witty of you.

Alan said...

Congrats on the NYT review. I'm green with envy!


Anonymous said...

Yes, brilliant NEW YORK TIMES review today: (you have to log in - free registration)

Don M.

Roger Morris said...

Thank you alan and Don - and nice to see some new commenters!

I'm hugely relieved.