Pen In Hand- Tim Parks (Alma Books 2019) – A Books About Books Review



Tim Parks’ latest non-fiction work is very much a companion piece to “Where I’m Reading From” which I read and reviewed last year. Subtitled “Reading, re-reading and other mysteries” it is a collection of articles written either for the New York Review Of Books or the New York Times between 2014 and 2017.

 These articles are linked by a Foreword in which Parks encourages us, in a bid to make us more active readers to always have a pen in hand whilst reading and not to be afraid to annotate and highlight the book and note down our thoughts on what we are reading whilst things are still fresh.  Needless to say, my overwhelming desire to finish a book with it looking as pristine as when I started it means that I could not do this with Parks’ work but I certainly can see where he is coming from.  I don’t think I would ever be able to borrow a book from him as he says; “These days, going back to reading the novels and poetry that have been on my shelves since university days, I see three or four layers of comments, perhaps in different coloured pens.”

What he is getting here is a rich resource on his observations upon the work and how  they might have changed over time.  For those of you like me who would find writing on a book difficult,  the E-Book, where markings can be erased and altered so easily may be the answer.  I do often highlight when reading on my Kindle but do not always go back to those highlights and never provide the running commentary on the text which Parks deems so beneficial.

 Elsewhere he covers a lot of fascinating ground on how to read and what it is to be a reader.  He admits that the same sources do tend to come up as examples and that is probably only to be expected – Primo Levi, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Elena Ferrante are amongst those who come under scrutiny and an author I found my interest piqued by – Karl Ove Knausgaard, who has to date passed me by and who in the articles evolves from someone who Parks feels everybody seems to be reading to one who is assumed to be a best-seller by those in the business but whose sales outside his Norwegian homeland do not reflect this.  I found myself considering taking out his “Death In The Family” from the library as a result of Parks’ focus, but then decided to leave it until another time. 

Parks does have a very Euro-centric view having lived much of his adult life in Italy and working as a translator and as in “Where I’m Coming From” I found his views on translated fiction the most fascinating.  In fact, the section on translations which comprises of articles on retranslations of existing translated work, comparing the work of translators on the same text and whether translators should be paid royalties made me wish I had kept up with languages and had been a translator of the written word myself.  A French A-level 30+ years ago would probably not cut it these days- so I think I’ve missed my chance!

 Despite this work being formed from articles I found that it did read well as a whole more cohesively than his 2014 collection.  I found many of Tim Parks’ ideas stimulating and some challenging (but still withheld and temptation to scrawl my objections in the margin as he would have wanted me to do).  What I haven’t done yet, and this is with a shimmer of guilt as I mentioned this last time round is to read any of his novels to see how this feelings about the world of fiction and the needs of the reader has been incorporated into his own work. But I will.



Pen In Hand was published in hardback by Alma Books in May 2019.  I would very much like to thank the publishers for doing their homework and finding out that I had read and enjoyed Tim Parks in the past and sending me a copy of this to review.

Where I’m Reading From – Tim Parks (2014) – A Book About Books Review



Tim Parks is a Booker shortlisted British novelist who has developed a global following.  This has come about from a lengthy career of 16 novels, for his non-fiction work, from journalistic pieces in Italy where he has lived for many years, for his translations from Italian to English and as a contributor and columnist for the New York Review Of Books where these essays first saw the light of day.

His emphasis here is on reading and writing and he posits many thought-provoking ideas on these subjects.  How we behave as readers and how writers behave as writers are both examined.  I couldn’t help but notice that Parks differs from me very early on.  He’s a one for not finishing the books he is reading and I can follow the reasoning behind “if only because the more bad books you finish, the fewer good ones you’ll have time to start”.  I personally find it very difficult to give up on a book, I’m not sure when I would have last done this but it would have been, quite frankly, years ago.  Parks attributes my particular reading behaviour to some throwback to my childhood when finishing a book felt like such an achievement that it was to be celebrated and that I’m still in that mindset many years on.   Okay, maybe that could be the case but I also feel that finishing a book I haven’t enjoyed helps me clarify exactly what I like/don’t like about books.  Maybe, also my Magnus “I’ve started so I’ll finish” Magnusson approach is because of the respect I hold for the achievement of the writer of getting the book to the finished and published stage, whatever the quality.  

But wait a minute! Parks also advocates that it is permissible to give up on a book you are enjoying if you feel that you have reached a natural place to finish, even if it is not the end.  What?  This sounds to me like eating a piece of cake and thinking “I’m really loving this but I’ll think I’ll leave it there and not eat the rest”. That’s not going to happen with me but I suspect Tim Parks would do so.  He’s going to be much slimmer than me too isn’t he?

An area I found interesting was his views on the globalisation of the novel.  As worldwide markets grow authors are writing books without the local colour and themes which might restrict their sales markets.  This is happening both in English speaking markets and also translations where too much region-specific writing and ideas may prove problematic for translators and lessen the author’s chances in selling worldwide.  I know that one of my regular contributors to this blog, Monika, would find Parks’ views on translations interesting as they reflect ideas which she has aired herself on here in the past.  To be honest, I’ve never really given that much thought about the art of translation and I was interested by the author’s viewpoints.  As an aside to this book what Parks mentions is happening in the world of literature is also now prevalent in popular music where streaming has led to a globalised market.  Watching a chart rundown recently it was impossible to tell where artists come from as (and I don’t think it’s my age here) it was all sounding pretty much the same.

I’ve never read any of Tim Parks’ novels but reading this book I feel that I should and it is hard not to be mentally adding works by other authors he references onto the to-be-read list.  I found this an interesting set of insights about reading behaviours and attitudes and just what book writing and publishing will be looking like in the future.


Where I’m Reading From was published by Vintage, an imprint of Penguin Books in 2014

Giles Coren: My Failed Novel -Sky Arts (2016) – A What I’ve Been Watching Review



As part of Sky Arts’ “Failure Season” (as good a season as any other to have I suppose, it seems a very British thing to celebrate failure!) came this hour long documentary in which journalist, restaurant critic and TV presenter Giles Coren recalled his failed attempt at the literary novel.   Back in 2005, Coren, with a £30,000 advance (a very healthy amount for  a debut literary novel- his high profile helped) had published “Winkler”.  The experience put him off novel writing. 

He knew he had a failure on his hands once he saw the reviews but was shocked to discover during the programme that his total ten year sales were 771 in hardback and 1400 in paperback.  His agent tried to reassure him that these were acceptable figures for a literary debut (staggering that) but perhaps not one from a high-profile figure with a publishing company keen to recoup their advance.  During the programme Coren had to face up to different aspects of the failure of his novel – a tale of “an angry young man who hates everyone…………a sexually frantic coming of age novel.”

Along the way there were a number of revelations especially from Alexandra Pringle, Editor in Chief of Bloomsbury who said; “Quite a lot of books that are published are no good, let alone the ones that don’t get published” and “It’s perfectly possible to publish a book and not get any reviews at all” a fact which those of us who indulge in the mad scramble for titles with review allocators such as Netgalley will no doubt register some surprise.

Coren went to visit a reviewer who had savaged his book, having read “some of it” and sorted through his knife drawer! He met author Rachel Johnson at her book launch who said; “People want the same thing over and over again.  Don’t ever try to do anything new.”  Jeffery Archer talked about his god-given talent, drive and determination (!) all of which he felt that Giles Coren lacked and Archer certainly bucks the figures of the average author’s earnings of £4,000 a year.  Hanif Kureishi, David Mitchell, Rose Tremain and William Nicholson also gave their views.

By this time I was feeling sorry for Coren, squirming as a book group found his work challenging (but in the marvellously constructive way of book groups thought he had it in him to write a better novel) and students from a MA Creative Writing course were so sniffy it made for excruciating viewing and with lack of success almost guaranteed for most of them it did make you wonder why they just didn’t do Geography instead!   Coren looked at the effects of literary prizes but acknowledged his sole accolade (The Bad Sex Award) hadn’t really helped sales.  He also admitted that he hadn’t thought about his readers at all when he wrote the novel (obviously the most resounding nail in his literary coffin) but felt that the process of re-examining failure might just have re-lit a tiny literary flame within him.

This was actually a fascinating hour and Giles Coren is open and likeable enough for the viewer to feel amused, annoyed and sorry for him.  I’ve revealed more than I would normally do regarding the programme details because tucked away on Sky Arts it’s likely that this did not attract that large an audience and I think there were a lot of very interesting points made.  Let’s hope the audience figures were higher than the number of purchasers of his book.  For the many of us with at least one finished, unpublished novel stuffed into a cupboard this was essential viewing.


Giles Coren: My Failed Novel  was first broadcast on Monday 29th February on Sky Arts.  It is currently available on Sky catch-up services