Fiction (and poetry) update

It’s been a while since I posted a fiction update – Jan 2017 to be precise. The one before that was two years ago. Alas, the pattern of outlets I write for ceasing to exist continues.

Reviewing those last two updates, not much happened. However I have submitted a story and a poem to Non-Binary Review’s anthology of pieces inspired by Dante’s Inferno. And I am trying to think something up for the “Still On Patrol” call I blogged about earlier.

And I have also retooled a couple of stories which have been bounced back a few times by various publications – submitting one to Willow Zine and one to Fabula Argentea. So let’s see what . happens!

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“Still on patrol”

I came across this call for submissions for an upcoming anthology by Otter Libris:

There is a tradition in the United States Navy that no submarine is ever truly lost at sea. Those boats and the crews who don’t return to port are considered “still on patrol” in perpetuity. Active duty sailors would never dream of leaving their still on patrol shipmates behind, so every year, usually at the Christmas holiday, sailors manning communications hubs ashore and at sea send out a message. They send holiday wishes for health and happiness to those they know will receive it, and the same wishes to those listed as still on patrol.

What if those submariners who never returned are still out there? What if it’s the energy of the yearly good wishes that keeps them going on their eternal patrol? And what if their eternal patrol protects the living against threats more otherworldly than mundane wars between nation states?

What about other military men and women, disappeared or lost at sea, in the air, or on land? Is there a Roman Legion still manning Hadrian’s Wall? Are there ghostly flight crews who herd hapless aircraft away from the Bermuda Triangle? Tell us stories about military men and women who continue to protect humanity long after they’ve taken their last breath. Tell us what happens when they take the oath to protect their people not just from threats foreign and domestic, but supernatural as well.

I hadn’t come across the “still on patrol” concept before. From Wikipedia, here is a memorial plaque from the Independence Seaport Museum in Philadelphia:

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It sounds like an interesting anthology at the very least….reminds me of J G Ballard’s One Afternoon at Utah Beach (the text of which is not, as far as I can find, available online)

You are not a product: Phil Lawton on Dublin as a hyper-competitive city

Back in 2015 I attended the inaugural symposium of the Health Research Board’s Trial Methodology Research Network (TMRN), which I blogged about here. The meeting (which was excellent) was in the Gibson Hotel in Dublin’s docklands. I found walking this part of Dublin somewhat eerie – within a short distance of some of the most deprived areas of the North Inner City we had this rather sterile, pedestrian-free, street-life-free zone.

As it happened, that day I came across a post by my friend Philip Lawton  which helped me understand some of my unease in what is, after all, my native city. I suppose Sue King-Smith’s post on writing in the age of person-as-product brought this back to my consciousness. Anyway, here are Phil’s opening paragraphs:

 

Dublin is so caught up in a maelstrom of ‘hyper-competitiveness’ that it barely has time to even think about what it is or what it means. At the centre of this is the tech industry, which influences everything fromlivable city agendas to housing discussions. It is a form of competitiveness that is presented in manner that makes it seem almost matter of fact or inevitable. When faced with this, the responses to recent announcement that the up-coming Web Summit will leave Dublin come as no surprise. The common mantra from various media sources (here and here) is one of ‘loss’, ’embarrassment’, and a sign that we must improve our infrastructure to cater for and attract events such as this. In a manner that would seem almost absurd to many, The Irish Times even went so far as to publish an opinion poll asking ‘Is the loss of the Web Summit a blow to Ireland’s reputation abroad’. In as much as such approaches are so dominant, it becomes completely accepted that the response must be for Dublin to reaffirm itself and ‘stay in the game’ or lose out. There is little reflection on what the level of mobility and ‘choice’ afforded to contemporary companies or organizations means for the city and for thinking about long-term sustainable approaches to economic development.

There are a number of factors worth remembering here. For one, the Web Summit is part of a culture of expectation, where every want and need is answered. If not, there is every chance that the relevant companies will move on. This reality is made explicit in this case, with the Web Summit blog stating: “We know now what it takes to put on a global technology gathering and we know that if Web Summit is to grow further, we need to find it a new home. Our attendees expect the best.” Thus, with one foul swoop, the birth-place of the Summit is rejected, with pastures new willing to cater to the wants and needs of the tech world. This is a world that is held aloft as proclaiming the arrival of a new world order of progress and betterment. Although most of us never experience it, it offers a luring image of inventiveness, youth, and progress all framed in a chic background of converted shipping containers and bright colours. Yet, in as much as this industry needs constantly innovate to remain competitive, it makes for a highly unpredictable outcome for host cities.

The Web Summit also forms part and parcel of a form of competitiveness that perceives and believes that any small dent in the shiny and glossy image of the city will end in a catastrophic result. It is yet another element in the firm belief of a ‘trickle down’ approach to economic betterment, even if we don’t know where it’s trickling. It is so normalized that it now presents itself as common sense – ‘we’ must fight for this agenda at all costs because these the outcome is ‘good’. As is nearly always the case, there is little to no questioning of why pursue this approach in the first place and of possible demerits.

 

 

 I stumbled across this post randomly.

Just as when reading Adam deVille discussing late stage capitalism, I am not totally sure if “neoliberalism” is quite the right term for what King-Smith describes, but she certainly captures perfectly a certain pseudo-toughness many writers and literary folk affect that masks a sense of powerlessness:

 

This ideology dominates the publishing/writing ‘industry’ at present (as well as many other arts ‘industries’ and the entertainment industry, generally), where it manifests in many ways, including:

  1. Writers are nearly always defined as individuals, not movements or collectives (if they are collectives, they are rarely taken seriously). Publishers are always looking for the next best seller. Often books that are frivolous novelty items sell better than books that explore the deeper dimensions to society and subjectivity. Writers are no longer nurtured and developed by publishers over time to develop a mature and sophisticated body of work. There’s less capacity in the current publishing industry to subsidise important books that don’t sell in high quantities.
  1. Writers and other artists are always expected to be in competition with each other for the limited paid publishing opportunities available. Writers are told they have to be thick skinned, determined, tenacious and prepared to sell themselves. Writers are told to develop two personalities – a business self and writing self. NOTE: Many mainstream representations of creativity involve competitions of some sort e.g. shows like The Voice, X-factor, So You Think You Can Dance, etc.. Even cooking, which should be a way for people to come together and connect, is now depicted in competitive terms (e.g. Masterchef, MKR, etc.). We consume our culture in the form of competitive battles. Therefore, as a writer, if you aren’t successful, it is because you are not competitive or driven enough.
  1. A writer’s success is largely measured in terms of whether they make money or not. Now, I’m not saying that making a living isn’t important, but the vast majority of writers don’t make a living and for those that do, it’s usually pretty paltry. To measure our success by these terms means most writers feel like failures – even if their work is innovative, beautifully-crafted and says important things about the world

Most writers wear this paradigm and I think it makes us feel very powerless.

Of course, to a certain degree this pseudo-toughness on the part of literary agent is also a defence against being bombarded with not very good work.

My impression is that in the last 20 years or so literary types have become afraid to express anything that even smacks of Romanticism – or indeed a sense of vocation – about what they do. This manifests itself in this kind of rhetoric about “the industry” and a valuing of external achievements – this hypercompetitiveness indeed does deserve some kind of label. But is neoliberalism quite the mot juste? King-Smith’s article is worth reading in full.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“the conformist anti-conformity of the books marketed at my generation” – my thoughts on “record store books”, March 17th 2005 SAU Blog

On St Patrick’s Day 2005 this piece appeared on the SAU Blog. It is somewhat in the spirit of my grumpy thoughts on book clubs from 2006 in the same online publication. Re-reading it, I didn’t lake for definitive pontification – see my dismissal of Catch-22 below.

Have things changed? Alas, conformist anti-conformity is even more prevalent now. Of course, the record store is now an endangered species. James Hamilton’s comment, the first on the site, is on one level of its time, on another as relevant as ever in our age of bourgeous-bohemian virtue signalling:

I too have wondered why record shops should stock those books in particular. I can only come up with one, rather weak, explanation. The supersized record shops of today sell what approximates to every CD, in every genre. Thus, everyone shops there at one point or another. How to stay “edgy” and countercultural, therefore? The books serve as a sign to the customers that the (huge, corporate) store they are in is, in spite of appearances, against “the man”; it’s as young and fancy-free as they are.
I’ve never actually seen anyone buy a book in one of these places, which lends some substance, if not much, to that view of things.

Anyway, here is the review:

“Airport novel” is a derogatory term conjuring up images of the latest Danielle Steel or Tom Clancy schlockbuster piled up high in Terminal B. It is shorthand for a weighty pot-boiler with just enough sex and violence scattered throughout to make Heathrow to JFK bearable. Mass travel has brought about changes in reading habits – the French had their romans du gare. My own reading is perhaps too much influenced by commuting on the bus. If there was such a thing as the “bus novel”, it would be a bitty work, divided into handy chunks that one can read between stops, with a typeface large enough that one doesn’t lose one’s place when jostled.

“Airport novel” seems an obsolete term now, although the masters of the genre continue to churn them out; anyone who has been in an airport recently will know that the bookshops now resemble the average high street emporium. Surprising, serendipitous titles may not lurk on every overlit shelf, but neither do airport book stores stock only the soon-to-be-a-major-movie books. There are a lot of self help books of varying quality, from the sensible to the silly, and how-to-make-a-million-by-next-week type books – but after all every bookshops’ Mind, Body, Spirit section (what a curious formulation!) is equally groaning with stock.

Record stores, increasingly, don’t just sell musical recordings. Video games, DVDs and assorted hi-fi paraphrenalia are also available; indeed, Our Price dropped “Records” from the end of their name some years back to emphasise the fact that they sold far more than records. “Record store” is, therefore, perhaps something of a misnomer nowadays. Nevertheless, the record store gives a good idea of what media is aimed squarely at the all-important yoof demographic.

Most largeish record shops now sell books. And far more than “airport books”, record store books share a grim homogeneity and sameness that depresses, especially when one considers that this, one supposes, is in someway characteristic of “my generation” (I’m 26).

There is a surface diversity to the subject matter of record shop books. Naturally, there are a lot of books about popular music. The vast majority are either bland pap or wildly pretentious pap, although there are some gems (such as Peter Guralnick’s rise and fall of Elvis diptych – Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presleyand Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley) amongst the dross. It is always an interesting exercise to pick up any magazine devoted to popular music – especially the more ostentatiously “intellectual” of them – and read the reviews therein. Adjectives pile up, awkward metaphors and similes congeal together – lacking the common language that enable writers on classical music to at least communicate something, however imperfectly, about the music they described. As Truman Capote said of Kerouac, it’s not writing, it’s typing.

But just as music is less and less important to the activities of the record store, books about music are less represented in bookstores than one would assume. Increasingly dominant are books about gangsters, drugs and football hooligans. Some, such as Howard Marks’ hugely popular Mr Nice, combine one or more of these categories. Someone once told Alan Coren that the most popular categories in publishing were golf, cats and Nazism; thus his next work was entitled Golfing For Cats and featured a putter-wielding moggy wearing a Nazi uniform on the cover. I presume a book on a drug-dealing gangland boss-cum-football hooligan has been done – if not, a fortune looms for the reader who wishes to steal the idea.

Novels sold in record stores are either written by stand-up comedians or are “cult” novels. “Cult”, of course, has become a completely meaningless term. In Your Face Here, their rather repetitive account of various “cult” British films (repetitive because it follows a predictable pattern – underappreciated British genius makes transcendent film underappreciated at the time only to gain later “culthood”), Ali Catterall and Simon Wells describe how the makers of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels deliberately set out to make a cult movie. “Cult” novels include some awful stinkers, such as the wildly overrated Catch-22 (the same not terribly funny joke told again and again and again. And again.) and such ludicrous “counter cultural” tosh as The Dice Man.

Then we come to the what could be called the anti-Bush, anti-capitalist shelves. Michael Moore is one of the great capitalists of our age, for he has made a wildly successful career through giving the people what they want. The shelves of all bookshops groan with his many imitators, all hoping to get in on the immensely lucrative isn’t-America-terrible-bandwagon. A few years ago, most of these books would have had slickly-designed covers and been written by photogenic young women (cf. Naomi Klein), and decried the West’s suicidal obsession with slicky-designed, photogenic branding and such evils. Now, would-be zany cover montages and clumsily wacky titles abound. The anti-American bestseller now is a cousin of the McCarthy’s Bar type book, a constant and ingratiating barrage of jocularity that ultimately exhausts.

There are some other categories of book one comes across in a record store. Tower Records have shelves groaning with occult manuals of various kinds, and books about tattoos. They also have a section of erotica, which looks to be anything but erotic in any meaningful sense.

Why is all this so saddening? For all the surface variety of theme and tone, record shop books are truly homogenous. Like anything ostentatiously “alternative”, there is much more conformism here then anywhere else. These books are conformist aesthetically, socially, and politically. The books sold in record stores reflect the fact that self-conscious transgressive tastes are the most truly conservative of all.

There’s a real sense of ahistoricality about the shelves. Aside from a few novels of sufficient culthood (The Catcher in The RyePortrait of An Artist), nothing written before 1960 seems to feature. Unless they were lucky enough to enhance the gaiety of nations by using hallucinogenic drugs, ancient civilisations may as well not have existed. Religion exists to be debunked, or denigrated in the name of “spirituality”.

Contemplating the books available in a record store is a bit like contemplating what used to be called men’s magazines but now can only really be called lad’s magazines. Even the ones that used to be somewhat “quality” – GQEsquire – now plough the same thematic furrow. Men of around my age, it would seem, are only interested in clothes, pornography, gadgets, criminality, the acquisition of “rock hard abs” and more clothes. It’s not a comforting thought. Neither is it comforting to contemplate the conformist anti-conformity of the books marketed at my generation.

Review of “Set Up, Joke, Set Up, Joke” by Rob Long, SAU Blog, 5th July 2006

Around the time I wrote this I was partial to insider accounts of film-making, and was favourably impressed with the sheer amount of time wasting this seemed to involve. I was also unfavourably struck by the pomposity of the whole enterprise, a pomposity which seems to have grown since. Where is the irreverence of authors like Rob Long now? Once superhero movies would be roundly mocked, now everyone wants to be in one.  Re-reading this, as well as being struck by Long’s piercing one-liners, I am struck by how much space I devoted to my dislike of the Algonquin Round Table.

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Set Up, Joke, Set Up, Joke
by Rob Long
London: Bloomsbury, 2005
Paperback, £9.99

Falling in love with a writer is a lot like falling in love in the more usual sense. Little things, rarely amenable to rational analysis, decide the matter one way or another. The same goes for deciding that a writer is or is not simpatico. A deft, insightful passage, or clumsy, trite lines, can make the difference one way or another when deciding.

I gave Dorothy Parker every chance. I read, stoney-faced, the supposed witticisms of the Algonquin Round Table (I can imagine few circles of hell more unbearable than that company, with everyone competing, it seems, to say something witty and clever), the verse “a kind of dilution of A. E. Housman and Edna Millay” as Edmund Wilson put it whenever it tries to be more than the light, strained wit of the book reviews.

However, what finally made me fall out of love with Dorothy Parker (not, it should be clear, that I was ever much in love with her in the first place) was a passage quoted in the preface to Christopher Silvester’s The Penguin Book of Hollywood from a letter to her friend Alexander Woollcott in the late thirties:

Last week the board of directors of Selznick Pictures, Inc. had a conference. The four members of the board sat around a costly table in an enormously furnished room, and each was supplied with a pad of scratch paper and a pencil. After the conference was over, a healthily curious employe [sic] of the company went in to look at those scratch pads.Mr David Selznick had drawn a seven-pointed star; below that, a six-pointed star, and below that again, a row of short vertical lines, like a little picket fence.

Mr John Whitney’s pad had nothing whatever on it.

Dr A. H. Giannini, the noted Californian banker, had written over and over, in a long, neat column, the word “tokas”, which is Yiddish for “arse”.

And Meryan Cooper, the American authority on Technicolor, had printed on the middle of the page, “RIN-TIN-TIN”.

The result of the conference was the announcement that hereafter the company would produce twelve pictures a year, instead of six.

I don’t know, I just that you might like to be assured that Hollywood does not change.

Readers who find this passage hilarious, or even mildly amusing, may be wondering why it marked the moment I definitely decided that Dorothy Parker was actively the kind of writer I don’t like. Perhaps it’s the idiocy of implying a relationship between idle doodles and mental activity – as if a writer’s doodles would be perfect pentameters. Perhaps it’s the pervasive cheapness of the shot. More profoundly, reading Silvester’s entertaining but repetitive compendium of writing on Hollywood, one got tired of this kind of thing. For one thing, a book which devoted 24 gossipy pages to the making of the Taylor-Burton Cleopatra, set against with one passing reference to Singin’ in the Rain, can be fairly said to have lost sight of the fact that at times the Hollywood “system” does transmute dross into gold.

Writers writing about writing are bores. Only someone of the genius of Borges could pull it off, and there the interest was more in the metaphysical conceits and the laconic, allusive style. Writers writing about writing are even more boring when they are writing about the difficulties of being a writer. And they are most boring of all when they are writing about the difficulties of being a writer dealing with the philistine plutocrat Hollywood executives. Parker’s plaint seems to exemplify this. My sympathies are with the execs.

Excerpts from Rob Long’s Conversations With My Agent were an oasis in the Silvester book. There was no sense that writers were higher beings, cruelly mistreated by the Neanderthal suits. Writers are not only as avaricious as the money men and women, but in their own way more powerful. Long introduced the Hollywood Inversion Principle of Economics (HIPE), the principle by which most of the truisms of everyday business are reversed in Hollywoodonomics. Other businesses live by net profits; Hollywood is transfixed by the gross. Far from being the put-upon peons of popular consciousness, the “creatives” have power in Hollywood unmatched anywhere except perhaps in Silicon Valley, able to delay projects indefinitely by simply hanging around watching cartoons.

Rob Long is a rare beast, a Hollywood Republican. He contributes to National Review, for starters. Or maybe not that rare a beast – it’s instructive to reflect that the movie stars who successfully achieved elective office – Reagan, Schwarzenegger and Eastwood – were all Republicans (of course, Eastwood’s success was at a much lower level). His conservatism is lightly worn here – a reference to not being a Hillary Clinton supporter (in the context of tickets to a Clinton fundraiser being used as currency in the status-frenzied Hollywood world) and a hilarious description of a meeting of the Writers Guild of America, West. While working writers loathe the idea of a strike:

The non-working writers are a more querulous lot. Freed from the burden of actually having to show up to a job every day, they look to the occasional WGA strike to round out their social calendar, to catch up with old friends on the picket line. And since all writers crave excuses for not writing, what better excuse for being unproductive than a strike? Writing? Not me. I’m honoring my brother and sister scribes! I’m taking part in the labor movement! Lazy? Untalented? Nope. Just committed to social justice.

Unsurprisingly, the WGA is fixated on the Blacklist, described by Long thus:

The Blacklist was, essentially, a list of writers who, because of their affiliation with the Communist party, were unemployable by the major studios. It now functions as a handy excuse for older writers who, because of their incredible lack of talent, were unemployable by the major studios.

Long is bracingly cynical about the writers capacity for self-delusion. This ties in with the more general capacity for self-delusion of the – well, I’ll let you decide which nickname is most just for Hollywood:

Hollywood has two pompous nicknames for itself: “the Business” and “the Industry”. Both names pack an ironic punch: calling it “the Business” must surely elicit a sickly smile from shareholders of the Sony, Vivendi, and AOL/Time Warner Corporations, who are probably still waiting for the spending to stop and for the business to begin; while the nickname “the Industry” – with its connotations of industriousness – is equally silly when one considers that the most prevalent activity on any soundstage is the reading of magazines and the eating of pastries.

Having dilated on the boringness of writers complaining about the hardship of being a writer, it may seem hypocritical to claim that reviewing the book is especially difficult. However, one of the occupational hazards of book reviewing is the occasional rave or slam that owes more to the circumstances in which the book was read rather than its own inherent quality. For instance, once I wrote an embarrassingly over-the-top positive review of Gullimero Martinez’s The Oxford Murders, which I enjoyed greatly largely because it was the first non-medical book I had read after a set of exams. I would revise my enthusiasm somewhat (though not completely) now, but there it is in cyberspace, my hysterical overpraise, until the end of time or at least the internet.

Perhaps there was some reason in my own life why I read Set Up, Joke, Set up, Joke straight through in one sitting – which is, after all, for a certain kind of book the most genuine praise a reviewer can bestow – and in a year it will seem much less than what it seems to me now.

I hope not. Set Up, Joke, Set Up, Joke is greatly enjoyable, and to adapt a horrible cliché of blurb-speak, recommended to those who love reading about Hollywood and all its works and those who hate reading about Hollywood and all its works. The book follows a former bright young television comedy scriptwriter, now a somewhat older television comedy scriptwriter whose ideas have dried up. The rather loose structure of the book is a following of Long and his writing partner through a year and a half of development, as they go through the process of firstly trying to come up with an original idea, then the humiliation of developing material “for talent”:

Which means, simply, that you’re coming up with a show for an actor who the network not only likes but is paying to sit around and be available. The word talent in this context simply means actor and/or actress. It doesn’t mean talented. It is just a noun, interchangeable with the word mammal.

There is a sort of framing device, which involves a series of meetings mimicking the meetings that occur during development, but commenting on the book itself. Invariably, the interchangeable commenting on the book profess to “loving it”, before immediately suggesting radical changes, usually involving the Long figure’s likeability. Long is very good on the pomposity of Hollywood verbiage. Another example from this incredibly quotable book:

So with the star suitably dazzled by flattery and woozy with gold fever, the network searches around for a writer. They’re looking for auspices, which, like most industry terms, is neither accurate nor wholly literate … Hollywood almost always has two or three ways of describing the same job, each imprinted with its own little status DNA. There’s no real difference, for instance, between a cinematographer and a director of photography, except that the former probably gets paid more money. Actors can be described as a wonderful piece of talent, an element, and, at the very top, a creative force. And a television writer is sometimes a unique comic voice, then, if lucky, becomes a writer/producer, which, if everything works out, evolves into a show-runner, until, finally, the six-figure auspices, as in: We will pay a lot for a show produced under that writer’s auspices.

There are serious bits amidst the fun. Most serious is the story of Paul. Paul came to Hollywood a little bit after Rob Long (apparently there is a sort of generational collegiality in Hollywood, with those who came around the same time seeing themselves as classmates of a kind). Over the years they kept in touch, with Long going on to the success of Cheers and his other ventures, and Paul becoming a development executive at a successful film production company. Paul got fired, and went out for a drink with Long:

Getting fired from that kind of job was a rite of passage in a young executive’s life, it seemed to me. We met that night, talked, drank a few beers, and said good night.The next day, he shot himself.

Long reproduces his eulogy, rather touching stuff about letting people know what they mean to one and such:

A week after Paul’s death, I wrote three letters to friends who have been good to me, who are important to me, but who I have never told. They were embarrassing letters to write, and the minute I dropped them into the mailbox, I regretted it. But they were sent.I did these things in honor of Paul. My good friend Paul. A person I never knew.

Then the sucker punch:

It went over pretty well. The writer’s ego in me is impossible to smother, so I was gratified when people came up to me later, after the service, to thank me for my words, and to ask for copies. But a true writer is more than an egomaniac. He’s also a pathological liar. And in my eulogy, I hadn’t told the truth.”What did we talk about that night?” Well, actually, I remembered what we talked about that night. Paul asked me for a job. I told him that I couldn’t give him one.

This is a long way from the Dorothy Parker view of noble, smart writers corrupted by evil business. The writers in Long’s universe are as venal and driven by ego as anyone else in Hollywood, possibly more so.

Television is, as Myles Harris pointed out in the Social Affairs Unit Web Review, pervasive in most of our lives. Those of us who own televisions and who tell ourselves and others that we never watch it can surprise ourselves by reflecting how much time – precious, fleeting, never-to-be-recovered time – is spent in front of the box. Even those who affect to hate it seem to watch an awful lot of it – Long recounts the tale of a prominent television writer who affected to a New York Times interviewer that she never watched. She turned out to possess “an upstairs television”, “a downstairs television” and “a kitchen television”. I actually believe Long, however, when he says that:

I never watch the damn thing either, and certainly never waste my time with anything as awful as Temptation Island. This had less to do with my elevated sensibilities than my all-consuming jealousy. Why turn on the tube – even just to flip around the dial – and run the risk of seeing a show more successful and popular than anything my partner and I have ever written? Or, worse, better than anything my partner and I have ever written?