New Star Blogs

Take a free cruise on Sweet England

|

A cou­ple of years ago, New Star pub­lished Sweet Eng­land, the third nov­el by Steve Wein­er. Steve’s pre­vi­ous books, The Muse­um of Love and The Yel­low Sailor, had been pub­lished by some of “the big boys” (Blooms­bury; Over­look).

The Muse­um of Love was gen­er­al­ly well reviewed, and — remark­able for a debut nov­el — was a final­ist for the very first Giller Prize back in 1994 (juried by Alice Munro, Morde­cai Rich­ler, and David Staines). Pre­sum­ably because of its treat­ment of homo­eroti­cism, it was wide­ly and respect­ful­ly reviewed in gay pub­li­ca­tions. The title of The Muse­um of Love sug­gests some kind of vaca­tion-friend­ly rom­com, but the nov­el is in fact a dark hal­lu­ci­na­tion, and any read­er pick­ing it up on the implied promise of the title and the Giller endorse­ment was sure­ly head­ed for baf­fle­ment, or pos­si­bly enlight­en­ment.

The Yel­low Sailor was, if any­thing, even stranger than The Muse­um of Love. The back­ground for its nar­ra­tive arc — a young, unformed man try­ing to gain his bear­ings in a soci­ety that is bewil­der­ing to him — is Ger­many, in the debris of the First World War. No Giller nom­i­na­tion this time; and no groundswell of inter­est in the gay press, the homo­erot­ic themes in this one being more mut­ed / con­strained / mar­gin­al.

Com­mer­cial­ly, nei­ther book made much of an impact. The print edi­tions are unavail­able (though Blooms­bury has reis­sued The Muse­um of Love as an e-book).  I’m a lit­tle embar­rased to admit that I bought my copies of both books off remain­der tables. At least I bought mul­ti­ple copies. I had no choice with The Yel­low Sailor: I nev­er saw a copy until it made its debut on the remain­der table. Most book­stores (no doubt after con­sult­ing their Book­Man­ag­er or Word­Stock for Muse­um of Love sales) nev­er ordered it in the first place.

The reviews of both books tend­ed towards baf­fle­ment, as if the review­er felt oblig­ed by the publisher’s imprint or the Giller nom­i­na­tion to notice the book, but at the same time to not fail to notice that The Muse­um of Love and The Yel­low Sailor both fell well out­side of the bounds of con­tem­po­rary main­stream lit­er­ary fic­tion.

You are begin­ning to see why New Star Books was cho­sen to con­tin­ue the work begun by Blooms­bury and the Over­look Press. It wasn’t the reviews that count­ed against Steve Wein­er when it came time to find a pub­lish­er for his third nov­el; it was the sales fig­ures.

Sweet Eng­land is unam­bigu­ous­ly a work of art. Steve Wein­er is using lit­er­ary devices — nar­ra­tive, descrip­tion — in the ser­vice of reveal­ing some­thing about our­selves, and about the anthill we have derived for our liv­ing, that can­not be cap­tured using more straight­for­ward tech­niques of expos­i­to­ry prose. He relies upon the same semi- and un-con­scious effects that poets work with. It also incor­po­rat­ed a sub­tle polit­i­cal under­tone, pos­si­bly not even inten­tion­al, as the read­er can’t help rec­og­nize Weiner’s Lon­don as a city shaped by neolib­er­al­ism.

Tech­ni­cal­ly, Sweet Eng­land is a tour de force, a 150-page seam­less nar­ra­tive with­out any breaks (“He awoke the next morn­ing feel­ing .. .”), even though the action appears to take place over a few days. And, despite the fre­quent typos in his man­u­script (Wein­er has to fight through arthri­tis to get to the key­board), the nov­el was as pol­ished as any­thing we’ve seen here.

It was obvi­ous to our read­ers that Steve Wein­er was not so much a nov­el­ist, as an artist whose medi­um was lit­er­a­ture, and that he is work­ing in a tra­di­tion whose prac­ti­tion­ers were peo­ple like Beck­ett, Angela CarterDavid Mark­son, and (one of Weiner’s acknowl­edged influ­ences) Ben Okri. Weiner’s influ­ences are as like­ly to be film­mak­ers (Broth­ers Quay, who pro­vid­ed the Sweet Eng­land cov­er; Jan Svankma­jer) as writ­ers. One review­er com­pared Wein­er to Todd Haynes.

New Star did not sell Sweet Eng­land effec­tive­ly into the inde­pen­dent sec­tor of the book trade. Our sales reps at the Lit­er­ary Press Group did bet­ter with Indi­go-Chap­ters, obtain­ing a pret­ty decent ini­tial order — respect­ful num­bers that expressed con­fi­dence in Sweet Eng­land as a sol­id lit­er­ary title but not nec­es­sar­i­ly one that was going to be a best­seller. With the reviews and pub­lic­i­ty in hand, we could con­fi­dent­ly point towards their stores to sat­is­fy con­sumer demand. And — one fine fea­ture of chain book­selling — if a book starts to sell, the com­put­ers will notice, and order more books.

This did not hap­pen. New Star, with its admit­ted­ly lim­it­ed pub­lic­i­ty resources, was not able to bring Sweet Eng­land to the atten­tion of the review­ers, blog­gers, prize jurors, &c. that leads to read­ers. Amaz­ing­ly, we are aware of but a sin­gle review of Sweet Eng­land, in the Review of Con­tem­po­rary Fic­tion (pay­walled; but there seems to be a copy here).

Not that it should mat­ter, but Steve him­self was born with­out the self-pro­mo­tion gene, isn’t on Twit­ter or Tum­blr or Face­book or even MyPage, he doesn’t hang around a cir­cle of writ­ers who review each other’s books, he’s not one for the read­ing cir­cuit (though he is a troop­er, and I expect he’d do his best if he ever was invit­ed to one of the pro­lif­er­at­ing writ­ers’ fes­ti­vals). He’s just an artist, sit­ting at his work­bench, painstak­ing­ly mak­ing his art.

Did we get this wrong? Have we wast­ed our time, wast­ed Steve’s time, wast­ed the taxpayer’s lat­te, on Sweet Eng­land? Here’s your chance to make up your own mind, at absolute­ly no cost or risk to your­self — we’ll send you a free copy, just for ask­ing.

Through­out 2011 and 2012, we received returns of Sweet Eng­land from Indi­go-Chap­ters. These returns include numer­ous copies that are not, strict­ly speak­ing, in “resal­able” con­di­tion: they show obvi­ous signs of shelfwear and/or poor pack­ing for jour­ney back to the publisher’s ware­house. We’ll send you one of those, absolute­ly gratis. Send us your name and address, and we’ll send you a free copy of an excel­lent, under­noticed, under­ap­pre­ci­at­ed work of art, at no charge, and with no oblig­a­tion.

All you have to do is send us an e-mail at info@NewStarBooks.com with your mail­ing address, and we’ll send you a copy of Sweet Eng­land by Steve Wein­er. Sor­ry, offer good only in USA and Cana­da.