Interview by Richard Davies
Michael Allen is Grumpy Old Bookman – the UK’s leading book blogger at grumpyoldbookman.blogspot.com. Thousands of people bookmark his site for a daily update of news and comment about books, literature and publishing. His books include How and Why Lisa’s Dad Got Famous, King Albert’s Words of Advice and other Extraordinary Stories, and Grumpy Old Bookman: Essays and Criticism.
When did you start blogging?
I started blogging nearly three years ago, on 22 March 2004.
What is your day job?
I retired from full-time employment some years ago, so technically I don't have a day job. However, I regard myself as a writer, in the sense of trying to write fiction (mostly) in addition to the blog.
Why did you start blogging?
Good question. I can only say that it seemed like a good idea at the time. I think that a more sensible answer to the question is this: For many years I have sat here reading things and thinking thoughts about those things, and feeling that I really ought to tell somebody what I was thinking (apart from my wife, that is). But of course, until blogging became possible, there was really no way to communicate one's thoughts to any significant number of people.
I have mentioned on the blog before that, when I was an undergraduate at Cambridge, I was told by a very eminent professor that it was important to publish the results of your research, otherwise what you have learnt is lost for ever. And while my blog could not possibly be confused with serious research, I think the same principle applies - namely that unless you write down and publish your thoughts, such as recommendations for books, ideas about narrative technique, and so forth, no one is ever going to know about them.
Naturally, these thoughts and ideas of mine may turn out to be entirely useless, but that is for others to judge; and at least a blog gives them the chance to make a decision.
Like diaries, some bloggers start off well and then the posts tail off – does posting every day or at least regularly ever become a problem?
Posting every day is not any kind of a problem, in the sense of finding material. There is far too much that I would like to write about, and so the problem is time.
At first I tried to limit the blog commitment to an hour a day. But that has now drifted to trying to limit it to the morning only. Quite apart from reporting on material that I have dreamed up for myself, quite a few readers now send me suggestions for web sites to look at, books to read, and so forth. Just keeping abreast of this e-mail correspondence can be difficult.
What’s the very essence of blogging – are you all would-be journalists or something else?
I think that the essence of blogging depends on who's blogging and what they are blogging about. In my case the essence is educational. Which probably sounds painfully pompous. However, the plain fact is that for about 10 years I was schoolteacher, and for the rest of my working life I was an educational administrator. I even wrote a serious book about the purpose of universities. So a great deal of what I do in the blog is trying to pass on to others such information as I have aquired about the art of writing and about the book business in general. It's trying to help people to avoid making the same mistakes that I made.
Is blogging addictive?
No, it isn't addictive. But as time goes by, you tend to collect a substantial number of regular readers, and you do acquire a sense of responsibility to them. In other words, they will be expecting you to produce something, so there is a kind of quiet pressure to keep up the standard which has attracted those readers in the first place.
What impact do you think book blogs are having on the mainstream publishing and bookselling industries?
Difficult to say. They are certainly having some impact. For instance, I suspect that many of those working in publishing are now picking up most of their trade gossip from blogs rather from the trade magazines, as they did as recently as five years ago.
Are you ‘courted’ by publishers keen to influence you?
Not really. A few publishers have put me on their mailing list for newsletters giving details of forthcoming books, and I have been able to request review copies on occasion. On other occasions my requests for review copies have been ignored. Most bloggers have audiences which are too small to make a significant impact.
Has blogging ever got you into trouble?
Once, and quite recently. Since I live in England, and have been involved with books and publishing for a long time, I am only too well aware of the risks of libel, and I think very carefully about what I put into print. But I recently had a lawyer contact me because her client was unhappy. The complaint was not so much about what I had written, as about what someone else had written in a comment. We agreed, amicably, that I would delete not only the comment but the original post as well.
What blogs (about books and anything else) do you visit regularly and why?
I regularly visit the following (not in any particular order): Blog of a Bookslut , The Literary Saloon, Maud Newton, Buzz, Balls & Hype, Galleycat, Creative Commons blog and Madame Arcati
I also take a fairly frequent look at loads of others, such as Bookworm on the Net and the Charkin Blog.
Does your blog have any high profile readers?
I am tempted to say that all my readers are high profile. Certainly all readers are equal. I never know who they are unless they write to me, and certainly I have had emails from some known names.
You don’t actually seem that grumpy… Is the glass really always half empty for you?
The 'grumpy' thing began as a joke. When I started, the phrase 'grumpy old man' was just beginning to be heard in the UK. Now it is everywhere - as the title of TV programmes (plus Grumpy Old Women) and endless variations. So it's kind of become a bore.
In my time I have been really seriously pissed off with the state of UK publishing. And I am still deeply unimpressed by it. Individually, virtually all book world people are very nice to know. But collectively they are more or less clueless. Publishing, as an ex-publisher once said, is a barely rational business.
What are your thoughts on authors who blog?
I think blogging is dangerous for authors. The main problem is that it takes away time from the work. It has some marginal value as a means of getting known, particularly for those who are not yet published. But I would advise against any established author starting a blog. By all means use other people's - make comments, get yourself interviewed, et cetera. But let others do it.
What books are piled up by your computer?
Far too many, if you mean books waiting to be read. If you mean what books do I have on the shelves above the computer, near at hand for easy reference, they divide into various classes.
On the top shelf there are about 30 books on the technique of writing for various media: fiction, plays, and movies. This is the cream of many hundreds of such books that I've read over the last fifty years.
Lower down are 'file copies' of everything that I've ever published.
And on the right are reference books: dictionaries, books on grammar, Hart's Rules, Fowler, Gowers, and so forth.
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