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Kate Sidley

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Sav blanc makes a good glue

Why the popularity of the book club? For a start, “I’m going to book club …” sounds better than “I’m going out drinking with Sharon …” and is almost as unassailable as “I’m working late …” Because there are books, this is a quasi-intellectual endeavour, not casual self-indulgence. But if books bring folks together, it’s the clubbiness that keeps them coming back.

If you love yours, a helpful post on www.middleclasshandbook.co.uk warns of five things likely to kill your book club.

First up, the over-opinionated friend. Book-clubbers often mutter about the know-all who never lets anyone get a word in while she holds forth on the unreliable narrator, or whatever. It’s rude and boring, and someone might be tempted to put arsenic in your chardonnay.

Over-ambitious theming is second on the list – apparently nothing frightens off members like having to make book-themed dinners. My own book club has never considered such an outlandish idea, but I see on southafricanbookclubblog.blogspot.com that others do. A Port Elizabeth book club called Shakespeare’s Sisters has hosted meetings in pjs, soccer outfits and Alice in Wonderland dress-up and members obviously love it, so I guess it depends on your crowd.

Third on the list of no-nos is “too much sauvignon blanc”. Hmm. Interesting. Popular wisdom has it that sav blanc is in the “pro” column. It may even be the pro column. Yet the Middle Class Handbook posits that too much wine leads to off-topic discussion (husbands, exes) and terrible mid-week hangovers, and thus contributes to book club death.

Laziness, No 4, is certain to bring a book club to its knees. Once you can’t be fagged to bring the books, or you find yourselves going to the movies instead, it’s not really a book club anymore and it will soon disintegrate.

Finally, the death knell: Middlemarch. Here’s how it goes down, according to our Middle Class friends: “Someone will confess ‘I’ve never read Dickens’ and it’s only a short hop from there until ‘we should try the classics’ rears its fearful head. Attempt anything pre-1900 and over 450 pages and your book club will shrivel up and die.”

Might I add some others, picked up from disgruntled book-clubbers? (Not in my book club, obviously. We all love our book club, which suffers from none of the trials above or below, let me be clear.)

1. Going on about yourself constantly. Book club is not your own personal therapy session. It’s fine to share your issues, but if you go on month after month, sucking up all the air in the room with your needy self-obsession, you will likely find your book club “taking a break for a while”.

2. Bringing arbitrary people along. A book club is a fragile thing with a delicate dynamic. It requires a good fit between members, balancing common ground and diversity. New members should be recommended with caution and never, ever, be invited without consultation.

3. Choosing horrible books. OK, that’s a bit subjective. But if you’re expecting literary fiction and you get chick lit (or vice versa) you won’t stick around long. There may be rare book clubs that can accommodate Anthony Beevor and Maeve Binchy in one room but it’s usually best to agree upfront on the kinds of books you will be reading and talking about.

4. Taking offence. Rejection of one’s favourite books is tough. It’s tempting to sulk just a little bit if people don’t want to read them. It’s not pretty. Don’t do it. You might destroy your book club.

You’ve been warned, people.

Kate Sidley is the Sunday Times Book Columnist

What’s in the Next Chapter

Book lovers can look forward to some interesting and exciting developments this year.

Short books

With the advent of e-books and e-readers, there’s precious little reason for a book to be 300 pages. If you often find yourself saying, “well, nice idea, but it went on a bit …”, you’ll welcome the availability of “shorts”. Quick to market, they are great for non-fiction on topical issues. Locally, check out www.mampoer.co.za for smart non-fiction mini-books/long-form journalism. We may see something similar in the fiction market too, with novellas and short stories getting a boost.

The bookless library

Hold on to your buns, librarians. The first bookless library is scheduled to open in San Antonio in the US this year. It’s the first of a new type of “library”, branded BiblioTech, that lets readers check out e-readers and electronic titles. It will include meeting rooms, study areas, interactive zones for kids, computers – but no actual books.

Eco-themed books

Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behaviour and Karen Thompson Walker’s The Age of Miracles are just two recent examples of books where environmental/climate disturbances play an integral role in the narrative. Prepare for more novels in which Earth is under threat or has already succumbed to some environmental evil or climatic apocalypse.

Sex

2012 will be remembered as the year that explicit sex went mainstream. Fifty Shades of Grey pushed erotica up the bestseller lists, onto talkshows and into the limelight. Knock-offs are already on the shelves; expect more. There will be some close copies – bondage, good-looking millionaires – but more adventurous authors will be trying to create new niches.

Bullying

It’s on the rise in the real world, and in fiction too. According to the editors at Scholastic, who have listed their predictions for top trends in children’s literature, bullying is a topical issue that has resonance with kids and that many children’s authors will be tackling. Still with Scholastic’s top trends – Dystopian novels are here to stay. We’ll see plenty of tough, smart, resourceful girls à la Katniss in Hunger Games. Non-fiction, a growth area for adult books, will be hot for kids, too. Adventure fantasy books are set to remain big, but I expect we’ll see the slow demise of vampires and werewolves. Maybe that’s just wishful thinking …

History

War seems to be a perennially popular topic, and this year will be no exception. I’m looking forward to William Dalrymple’s new one: The Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan, about the first Anglo-Afghan War in 1839.

Quirky

Each year, the Andrew Lownie Literary Agency surveys leading publishers and editors to find out what kinds of books they are looking to acquire in the coming year. A number of fiction publishers said they would look for quirky, genre-busting, left-field type stories. Combined with strong characters and good writing, these are books that can capture the imagination and sell really well.

Self-publishing

Authors dream of the kind of success Hugh Howey found with Wool. Howey self-published the first instalment of this post-apocalyptic e-book on the Kindle Direct system in 2011. He got some traction, sold some overseas rights, got a movie deal and the print book rights were picked up by major traditional publishers. Self-publishing your e-book is the fast, cheap, guaranteed way to get your book to market and keep a big chunk of the revenue. In certain genres, they are losing the stigma of being badly written and poorly edited.

Kate Sidley is the Sunday Times Books Columnist

Paper Weight: More bothered than hot

Nancy Huston has overcome stiff opposition to win the 20th annual Literary Review Bad Sex in Fiction Award for her novel Infrared, about Rena Greenblatt, a photographer who likes to snap close-ups of her lovers during sex.

Huston won over the judges with vivid descriptions, viz: “flesh, that archaic kingdom that brings forth tears and terrors, nightmares, babies and bedazzlements”.

The trouble with writing about sex is that you are forced to choose between being brutally graphic and ridiculously metaphorical.

Graphic isn’t recommended – best to avoid too much solemn description of the ins and – um – outs of the act. There’s no need to be anatomical. Urethra is not a word that should appear in an erotic passage. Maybe I’m squeamish, but I feel the same about long descriptions of ejaculations. And vivid descriptions of the colours of various body parts. Also, whining about your hand cramps.

Similarly, would-be sex writers should be wary of dialogue, exclamations, cries and noises. “Ah. ah. ah.” Really, we need that? Can’t we just imagine the puffing and panting for ourselves?

With the prosaically graphic out of the running we are left with metaphor. Sea breezes ruffling mossy banks of whatever, blah, blah. Here are some favourite approaches. Ripe and juicy fruits (plums and peaches, mostly. Almost never pineapples.). Archeological and geological investigations, as in Noughties by 2012 runner-up Ben Masters: “We got up from the chair and she led me to her elfin grot, getting amongst the pillows and cool sheets. We trawled each other’s bodies for every inch of history. I dug after what I had always imagined and came up with even more.” Aaargh! I’m not sure that grot is even a word in modern usage. I’m absolutely certain it isn’t a word you want to see in a passage about sex.

Also, there are animals. Usually horses. There are veritable herds of them, sometimes actual horses, sometimes horse-riding accoutrements – saddles, whips – sometimes lame comparisons between . Oh, you don’t need me to tell you. There’s a dreadful horsey one from 2012 runner-up and 2004 winner Tom Wolfe (a great writer, but some of his sex scenes really do give you the shudders. Not in a good way), which you can find in Back to Blood or on the shortlist. Honestly, it’s so horrible, I just can’t .

Also, stars. Very popular, the heavens. Take this nice astrological bit from Infrared: “. the carnal pink palpitation that detaches you from all colour and all flesh, making you see only stars, constellations, milky ways, propelling you bodiless and soulless into undulating space where the undulating skies make your non-body undulate .” (that was only about half a sentence, by the way. Sex writing features a lot of flowing stream of consciousness sort of description that just goes on and on and you’ve sort of forgotten where it all started or why and before long you’ve lost your will to live).

The awards ceremony is held at the Naval & Military Club in St James, better known as The In & Out Club (puns are inevitable when English people and sex are gathered together). The winner receives “a semi-abstract trophy representing sex in the 1950s” depicting a nude woman draped over a book. Congratulations to Ms Huston, who presumably has it on the mantelpiece in her nipple-pink boudoir, pungent with the mossy scent of desire, where she pleasures her many … Oh, sorry. Enough of that.

Postscript: Wondering where 50 Tones of Yawn was in the run-up? Nowhere. The prize rules out pornographic or intentionally erotic literature, so EL James was not eligible.

For the shortlist and samples, go to www.literaryreview.co.uk/badsex2012.php

Kate Sidley is the Sunday Times Books Columnist

Now all I Need is Sparkle

For some years now, I’ve wanted to write a novel. But like most writers, I have found myself daunted by the huge stumbling block that has stymied novelists since the dawn of storytelling – finding the right name for my protagonist’s dog.

That’s all over now, since I’ve discovered the random pet-name generators which – who knew? – proliferate online, and which assure me that the ideal name for my protagonist’s male Labrador is Sunny.

It’s a relief to have that sorted, and it leads me to think, why stop there? What about character names? It’s so difficult to find the right name and when you come up with something original with just the right tone and ring to it – Miss Havisham, Philip Marlowe, Humbert Humbert, Molly Bloom – you discover, Sod’s Law, that someone has already used it.

This vexing problem has been solved by the advent of websites that simply generate new names. Some of the apps will let you choose nationality or genre, even species (elves, leprechauns, and so on).

One site invites you to put in your name and it will create a “terribly British” version. Kate Sidley translates into Charlotte Garside in Terribly British.

Not sure that Charlotte is more Terribly British than Kate, but the whole package has a nice Georgette Heyer ring to it. On rumandmonkey.com, one can request an assassin name. Apparently my very own murderous moniker is Jade “Poison Ivy” Bradley.

Personally, I think inserting “Poison Ivy” shows a lack of originality and effort. You could just go about inserting “Cat o’ Nine Tails” and “Ebola Virus” in inverted commas between any old first and last name, and Bob “Kalashnikov” is your uncle.

Nonetheless, this generator thing is quite amusing and a lot less trouble than actually writing, which is what I would be doing otherwise, so I devoted the afternoon to research and generated a stripper name for myself (Sparkle Titties) and a Japanese name (Katsue Hideyoshi). The site even Mormonised my name – apparently as an adherent of the Church of the Latter Day Saints I would be Parkarette Brimley. I’d love to share with you my name as kindly provided by The Goddamn Rock Solid Ghetto Shiznit Name Generator, but it’s a bit rude.

But where are Parkarette and Sparkle and Katsue going to live? you ask, hands wringing. Fear not, aspiring novelist, for on inkalicious.com you will find the pseudo-Elizabethan place-name generator, offering such bucolic villages as Wolstonloch, Grimblereach and Thursbyshaw.

There are loads of generators for science fiction and fantasy writers. One might venture that if you’re not up to thinking up a suitable place name, or character name, creating an entirely new world might be beyond your writing capabilities. But who’s to say?

World-creating being so challenging, why not go the whole hog and get the plot generated too. And Strew’s Bob (thank you, random South Effrican slang generator) if you put “plot generator” into Google, you’re set. Having done as directed, “Click here for a compelling plot,” I am tossing up between: “When a natural disaster threatens, a group of stranded aliens goes on a spending spree,” and “A wily college professor is in debt to an irrational hermit.

The story takes place in a high school in Rio de Janeiro. It ends with someone doing laundry.”

Difficult decision, no? But I guess that’s where authorial creativity comes in.

Kate Sidley is the Sunday Times Books Columnist

Losing the e-motion

Every morning I deliver children to their various places of learning and see scores of little hobbits scuttling about, bent double under the weight of giant backpacks full of books, sportsgear and kitchen sinks.

The books, at least, will soon be a burden of the past, as schools switch to tablets, a move that is already being phased in in certain schools in the leafy suburbs.

This prompted “Look at these spoilt brats with their iPads” stories in some of the newspapers, but it’s a no-brainer. Need we mention Limpopo, where you’d be fortunate to have books to schlep at all, let alone an e-reader, loaded with textbooks, to slip into your pocket?

In India, learners will soon have access to the Aakash 2 tablet computer, which features a 7-inch screen, a USB port and Wi-Fi capability.

The first 100000 are being delivered to schools and colleges at a government-subsidised price of 1130 rupees (about R180), which is half of what they would cost in store (not to mention, outrageously cheap compared to a single textbook!). In India, school books are standardised and the text in the public domain, so transforming them into e-books would be a doddle.

In South Africa, too, e-reader prices are falling and options are growing in time for Christmas spending. Kobo has just launched the black-and-white, touch-screen Kobo Touch eReader, with Pick n Pay as its retail partner. The Kobo device boasts a catalogue of 3 million books, of which a million are free. The cost? R1000.

Around the same time, Kalahari.com announced a partnership with Bargain Books to sell the gobii eReader for R799 through its 58 outlets. Customers will be able to buy their e-books from Kalahari.com.

Of course the e-reader to beat is the Kindle. Yes, I know, Amazon is the evil beast that’s killing the book business as we know it, but having destroyed two Kindles (one stopped working on its own and one stopped working when someone’s foot went through the screen), I can attest to the excellence of their customer service.

The first time, they sent me a replacement Kindle. The second time, they sent an upgraded version, for which I had to chip in the difference. (In a contrasting anecdote, I tried to return a hair straightener to a local chain store when it ceased to work after a couple of months, and they wouldn’t accept it because I hadn’t kept the box and the slip and a signed affidavit witnessed by one of the 12 apostles. OK, just the first two.)

Let us not be drawn into bitter tales of poor service; we’ll be here all day. Back to the topic at hand, which you will recall was that of digital publishing. A “don’t-quote-me” estimate from an industry insider is that digital accounts for 7% of book sales in South Africa, and that this figure is expected to double in the coming year.

In the US, the figure is 20% of the overall market and growing at a rapid rate. Publishers have recognised the inevitability of it, and most are now publishing e-books simultaneously with print editions. Although I’m still predominantly a print reader – mostly because that’s how review copies arrive on my desk – digital just has so many advantages (instant purchase of books, price, fewer dead trees, more efficient storage, less risk for publishers) that it seems inevitable that it will dominate.

Impossible as it seemed a couple of years ago, that’s starting to feel OK. Just remind yourself, it’s about the content.

Kate Sidley is the Sunday Times Books Columnist

Saved by the Brits

It’s a sad day for word lovers, indeed, when the Oxford Dictionaries choose “gif” as the Word of the Year, USA.

Gif is an acronym for graphic interchange format, which is a compressed file format for images. Look, don’t ask me – I’m a books columnist, for heaven’s sake. Go google it. So, back to the gif. It is no doubt handy in our internet age – without it, we would not be able to revel in the boundless delights of cat videos – but Word of the Year? I don’t know.

For a start, the term is 25 years old. Also, it’s not that interesting. Nor is it handy in day-to-day conversation. In the interests of research I tried to use it today “Pass me that gif, will you?” and “Can I help you with that gif?” and all I got were funny looks.

According to the rules of the award, the chosen word should have significance to the year, and capture the zeitgeist. In a year that featured a hard-fought presidential election, Gangnam Style, the massive superstorm Sandy and the ever-teetered-on fiscal cliff, that’s the best they could come up with? They could have considered some of the more interesting words that made it as new entries into the Merriam-Webster dictionary this year – cloud computing, say, or earworm; gastropub or sexting. There’s even a new element, which glories in the name copernicum. Gif? They are simply not trying hard enough.

Fortunately, we have the Brits. It must be said that when it comes to smart, funny use of words, the British are naturally blessed. Just the occasional glance at the headlines of The Sun will tell you that.

The Word of the Year for the UK in 2012 is (drum roll, Her Majesty descends from the sky – oh, sorry, I’m getting my Big Moments in British History muddled up). The Word of the Year is omnishambles. Oxford University Press defines the word as “a situation that has been comprehensively mismanaged, characterised by a string of blunders and miscalculations”. It’s a super word, gratifying to say, evocative and oh so very useful, especially in a year when the Brits had their fair share of them. Gaffe after stuff-up after stumble, it feels like, from minor ones – the Cameron daughter left at the pub – to the grand disasters like the News of the World phone tapping, the Olympic security company that wasn’t, and the disgraceful BBC palaver. Omnishambles galore!

The word omnishambles was first heard uttered by the spin doctor in the TV series The Thick of It. It caught on almost immediately (there being so many opportunities for it, I guess) and has proved handy already, morphing into such delights as Romneyshambles and Olympishambles. I’m with the Brits. The Word of the Year should cheer us up in the face of Eurogeddon. It should make us LOL (laugh out loud) – after all, YOLO (you only live once).

So, what would you put forward as South Africa’s Word of the Year (not to say that omnishambles wouldn’t prove appropriate and very useful in daily life).

Here are a few of mine, but I’m not sure they’ll make you LOL:

Compound

Bladerunner

Spear

e-toll

Mangaung

Outa – this, from the Opposition to Urban Tolling Alliance, but I’m thinking it needs to be verbified and used to describe the klapping of the powers-that-be in court, as in “We’re going to outa them if they don’t deliver those textbooks.”

If you’ve got better ideas, e-mail them. Text only please. No gifs.

Kate Sidley is the Sunday Times Books Columnist

Sweat to put a spin on it

There are many health problems that afflict writers. Carpal tunnel syndrome. Sore necks. Hunched-up shoulders.

Pain in the lumbar spine. And then there is a terrifying condition called “writer’s butt”. Writer’s butt has one noticeable symptom – a large and unattractive spreading of the derrière – and you get it from sitting on your ass all day doing a bit of light typing in between toddling off to the fridge for a snack. (Toast and marmalade this morning, for elevenses.)

Writers are not, by nature, very quick to put on the takkies. Most people come to writing via reading and when the other kids were off doing, you know that game with the funny curved stick thingy and the little ball, what’s it called again? I forget. Anyway, while the other kids were doing that, we were reading.

I’m ever-so-slightly more vain than I am lazy, so I resort to regular exercise, including the world’s most pointless thing – sitting on a bicycle, pedalling like the clappers, without going anywhere.

In writing terms, spinning is like typing enthusiastically all morning with not a word appearing on screen or paper. Difference is, with spinning, you get glutes like a finely shaped pumpkin; with writing, you get glutes like knaidlach.

This is clearly a common concern. There is a Facebook group called Writers on the Move, which explains its mission thus: “This is a group of writers who strive to move it to lose it – a free group where everyone’s exercising-as-a-writer experience is welcome.

Thanks for inspiring us by inspiring yourself and then sharing your experiences. We look forward to getting in shape and eating healthier with you! We are using this group to help motivate us to get off our duffs and get moving, whatever that means to each of us. Our goal is to eat healthier, exercise more, and write on!”

Because I’m an optimist, or maybe just a judgmental person, admittedly with excellent quads, I immediately scrolled through the posts, looking for evidence of good writing. I have to say, it was disappointing. The usual bland sort of earnest exclamation-point-heavy stuff you get on Facebook, but without the cat videos and certainly without the irony.

Walking or running is the most popular exercise among group members. Makes sense. It is, after all, cheap, solitary and contemplative. “All truly great thoughts are conceived while walking,” wrote Nietzsche (a thought which, presumably, came upon him while he was walking).

It’s true that walking (or running or swimming) has a meditative quality that opens the mind to creative ideas. When swimming, I start off with an antsy “Oh, this is so boring.” feeling, but when the mind settles, there comes a free and fast flow of ideas for columns and other writing, interspersed with ideas for what to have for lunch.

Running and writing have much in common. The importance of rhythm. And endurance. The solitary struggle. The urge to pack it all in and do something easier. The continual counting of words or kilometres to measure progress.

One famous writer/runner is Haruki Murakami. In What I Talk About When I Talk About Running he describes his experience of running an ultramarathon – the physical and mental pain, and the extraordinary feeling of the home straight. His description of the “wall” runners hit puts one in mind of writer’s block or the 30000-word hurdle that novelists complain of.

Not all novelists feel the same, of course. Mark Twain apparently eschewed exercise, saying: “I am pushing 60. That is enough exercise for me.”

Kate Sidley is the Sunday Times Books Columnist

Old geezer hits the spot

There are only two stories: a man goes on a journey, and a stranger comes to town.” So said someone. Not me, I’m only repeating. Clearly that’s nonsense, you say.

It would cover, say, The Odyssey, but what about the one where the woman got taken up in a space ship and got pregnant by an alien? Oh, yeah, that would be “a stranger comes to town”. Or how about the guy who went to live with the elephants? Uh huh, stranger comes to the bush. Fifty Shades? Yup, stranger with handcuffs. Drug stories? Journey to the dark self.

You see? Riffle through your mental catalogue of books read, but you’d have a hard time identifying a story that could not be encompassed by a sufficiently broad definition of strangers and journeys.

In fact, come to think of it, those two – a man goes on a journey and a stranger comes to town; familiar person in new place and new person in familiar place – are really one story: the clash of old and new. So there you have it. Given a generous dollop of definitional flexibility, there is only one story.

Let’s consider an example that would stand up to a rather narrower definition of journeys – The Hundred-Year-Old-Man Who Climbed Out of a Window and Disappeared, by Jonas Jonasson.

I have had rather enough of peripatetic old folks, having recently read The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, which lots of people liked but I found rather, well, plodding, if you’ll excuse the pun.

Also, The Hundred-Year-Old Man is Swedish and one is not automatically drawn to Scandinavian novels, which generally feature gruesome murders and the translations of which can sound as if one is being shouted at by a slightly deaf Scandinavian person.

I’m glad I gave it a chance, though. It’s one of the more unusual, amusing and enjoyable books I’ve read this year. The hero, Allan Karlsson, climbs out of the window of his old-age home on the morning of his 100th birthday, leaving assorted dignitaries, TV crews and a large cake behind. He does a runner on impulse and without so much of a whiff of a plan.

While waiting for a bus to wherever it might take him, he steals a suitcase. Luckily for us, it contains money belonging to a criminal gang. Allan and an expanding motley crew of accomplices are soon being chased across Sweden by a gang of hardened criminals and some comically inept policemen.

This caper with a cast of delightful geriatrics is interspersed with flashbacks, detailing his involvement in key political events of the 20th century, from the Manhattan Project to the Spanish Civil War and hobnobbing with historical figures, from Mao to Churchill to Stalin.

Allan’s character has been likened to Forrest Gump, and it’s a fair comparison. He’s oddly unaware of the world around him, and remains calmly unperturbed and gently optimistic no matter what bizarre situation he finds himself in.

Throughout his strange adventures and mishaps, he is protected by improbable good luck and a sort of dumb innocence. Also, perhaps, by vodka.

If you are in the mood for picaresque satire, not Nordic noir, give old Allan a whirl. He is a man on a seemingly arbitrary journey and if you follow him, you will enjoy an adventure into an inventive and very funny world. And after all, who among us has never had the urge to exit the window, leave their life behind and journey forth?

Kate Sidley is the Sunday Times Books Columnist

‘Filled With Wry Insight’

If you have kids, you will know that when the end-of-term report arrives, you need to read between the lines.

“Enthusiastic” means, “Have you considered medication?” “Shows leadership potential” means, “bossy little madam”. The same can be said about the blurbs on a book cover from other authors and reviewers.

A compliment from a heavy hitter can boost sales dramatically, but there’s an obvious flaw in the system – not all books are really that good.

If the reviewer or author in question is kind, related to the writer, a good friend, or shares an agent, he will gamely try to find something nice-ish to say. That’s where words like “bold” and “inimitable” come in handy. Bold is all very well, but there’s an implication that the author, while soldiering on with a certain admirable feistiness, didn’t actually write a particularly fine book. After all, “bold” is not the same as “well-written”, is it?

Careful editing can transform a lukewarm reviewer into a devotee. Thus “this bondage/vampire novella is a brave and foolish attempt to find something original in a glutted market” becomes “brave . . . original”.

Critic and author Joe Queenan was in the Wall Street Journal recently saying: “I absolutely refuse to read books that critics describe as ‘luminous’ or ‘incandescent’.” This impressed me, because I, too, am filled with querulous and unsubstantiated prejudices and have a list of words that, should they appear in a cover blurb, put me right off.

“Dazzlingly” and “dizzying”, for example. How much dizzy-dazzling does a reader want? “Quirky” and “charming” imply a talking rabbit or some painful and unnecessary Jane Austen derivation. “Passionate” means flowery and over-written. The only thing less appealing on a cover than the word “passionate” is a pair of stilettos. Actually, lemons. No, hang on, a dog. Oh, and petals.

Or “unflinching”. Surely flinching isn’t all bad? There’s a time and a place for it. When it comes to a certain sub-set of popular hard-core crime fiction, or even soft-core grey shades, one can’t help but feel perhaps a bit more flinching might have been in order.

A “roller-coaster ride” means, “I had no idea what was going on.” “Surprising” means the author didn’t either. Any book described as “epic”, “sweeping” or “a tour de force” is best avoided, I find. These are all cover blurb synonyms for “long”. In non-fiction, beware of “meticulous”, unless you like footnotes.

Spare a thought for the pour souls who have to write the blurbs. Quentin Crisp, apparently, had a standard response to requests for a book blurb: “Please feel free to quote me as saying anything that will promote sales of this excellent work.”

John Cleese, according to an unsubstantiated internet source, has a standard form letter apologising for his unwillingness to assist with a blurb because “I’ve never read any Thackeray, Dickens, Austen, et cetera, and as I am 65 years old in a few months and therefore likely to be dead soon, and as I really do want to read some Thackeray, Dickens, Austen, et cetera before I die, there is no way I can accomplish this if I read the books sent to me by extremely nice persons like your good self.”

No doubt Cleese’s school report complimented him on his politeness and eager devotion to literature.

Kate Sidley is the Sunday Times Books Columnist

Legends Over Breakfast

There have been lots of “literary couple” jokes since my husband, Steven Boykey Sidley, and I both published our first books in the past year.

“It’s like one of those New York plays,” said a friend. “The two writers, maybe Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn, saying clever things at breakfast.” That’s us exactly, if you consider “Did you feed the cat?” to be a clever thing. And half a pawpaw, eaten standing up while making school lunches, to be breakfast. I suspect it might make for a rather boring play.

I’m fairly certain that if you were to happen upon, say, cognitive scientist/ author Steven Pinker (The Blank Slate) and his wife novelist/philosopher Rebecca Newberger Goldstein (36 Arguments for the Existence of God) at breakfast you would get a better class of conversation. The meaning of life, perhaps. A short diatribe on evolutionary biology. Maybe a witty allegorical tale featuring a rabbi. But then they don’t have young children, indubitably the great leveller of all couples.

Jonathan Safran Foer (Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Everything is Illuminated) and Nicole Krauss (Great House, The History of Love), New York power couple of note, have two. She found writing and motherhood to be compatible, and told an interviewer that the emotions she felt on becoming a mother found a home in her books. He admitted in an interview that his creative output cut back when he got married, and even more so with the arrival of their first son.

Writers Ayelet Waldman and Michael Chabon were engaged within weeks of meeting, have been married for 16 years and have four children. Both are involved parents who work hard in the family and both have written about marriage, parenting and family.

Her mystery novels feature a biographical thread – lawyer married to a writer, who overcomes her boredom with babies by doing some part-time sleuthing – and in her nonfiction she has written extensively and personally and often controversially about her motherhood and parenting. Her Bad Mother: A Chronicle of Maternal Crimes, Minor Calamities, and Occasional Moments of Grace and his Manhood for Amateurs: the Pleasures and Regrets of a Husband, Father and Son pretty much cover the territory.

You have to go a long way to find a couple to match the cool, the talent, the success and, let’s face it, the outright gorgeousness of Zadie Smith and Nick Laird. She is a famous fiction writer (White Teeth), he is a prize-winning poet. They read and edit each other’s work. In an interview in The Telegraph, Smith talks about having her husband crit her work: “It hurts a bit, but the person is trying to save your face in front of many more people. Of course, within a marriage, you’re constantly thinking: are you saying this because I didn’t wash up? I suppose I fundamentally believe Nick is on my side, because I’m fundamentally on his side, and he was being honest, and he’s a good reader.”

Modern writer couples seem to fare better than those of previous generations. The likes of F Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda, Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, set a rather disastrous precedent of passionate, doomed relationships. Revelation is almost irresistible in some cases. You don’t have to read too closely to see the devastating combination of Hughes’ philandering and Plath’s depression revealed in their work. The Fitzgeralds did their own “He said, she said” novels – hers, Save me the Waltz, his, Tender is the Night.

I hope we won’t have to go there.

Kate Sidley is the Sunday Times Books Columnist