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 Carter, David 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 [email protected] 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.