One of the senior members of Writers in Kyoto announced last year that they would no longer be buying or reading self-published books on the grounds that the lack of quality control meant that it wasn’t worth the investment in terms of time. There were too many typos, too much self-indulgence, and too much quantity over quality. It may be an extreme view, but there’s obviously more than a grain of truth in the assertion.
It was with some concern then that I embarked on Dancing over Kyoto, a self-published Kindle book by Richard Russell. Yes, there are typos. Yes, there are places where the book might have done with good editing. But overall, the quality of writing makes this a self-publication well worth the reading. Judging by the number of acknowledgements, I take this to be the result of care taken with rewriting in response to feedback.
Memoirs by expatriate males are a staple of Japan literature, featuring the mutual attraction of a Western narrator and Oriental female. Dancing with Kyoto is unusual in that the romances are with American women (the sole attraction for a Japanese female is unconsummated). Yet the two big love affairs are puzzling in that the extreme ardour of the narrator is but a prelude in each case to a painful break-up. Somehow one can’t help wanting to hear the other side of the story, testament to the extent to which the writing draws one into the personal narrative.
The male-female relationships are not the only unusual feature, for rather than viewing Japan as an English teacher or a Zen practitioner, the narrator writes from the viewpoint of a trained lawyer with an interest in importing Japanese art items. This perspective adds an extra dimension to the observations, and the way in which as an amateur the narrator goes about entering the world of antique wheeler-dealing, even to the extent of running his own gallery, is fascinating.
The biographical story is set against the author’s love of Kyoto and description of his sojourns in the city. Towards the end the narrative turns abroad to experiences in China, where he is part of a trade delegation to a remote part of the country, and India where he encounters the customs of the Parsis. The cultural insights are valuable and provide a comparison with Japan, but I found myself hoping for a return to Kyoto because of the enlivening touch of familiarity. Kurodani Temple for example is lovingly evoked, and the descriptions of The Three Sisters annex made me regret never having visited, though I passed by often enough.
In the end, what raises this self-publication above mere solipsism is the quality of the writing. Sex and diarrhoea are no easy subjects to write about (there are several Bad Sex awards for fiction though no prize for diarrhoea that I’m aware of), yet Russell manages to write his way around both with tact and humour, impressive by any standards. I was dreading the results of his ‘Indian belly’ but the author managed to turn it into something of a linguistic pleasure, and during a particularly sensual Chinese massage he writes of keeping ‘my sails furled and my rigging stowed’ while she works her way around his ‘point of no return’.
Here then is one of the exceptions to the rule – a self-published book that is actually worth the time of reading. Great title, too!
Dancing over Kyoto can be found on amazon, where it’s amassed an impressive 29 customer reviews, suggesting that either the author has a lot of friends or that Kyoto is indeed a ‘brand name’ when it comes to book sales. As can be seen, the cover too is suggestive of a thoughtful approach – ‘Always judge a book by its cover,’ said Oscar Wilde, and in terms of self-publishing he had a good point. If no care is taken with the cover, the implication is that little care is taken with the content.