Suggested Wikipedia entry for Sceptre
By Chris Cleave, 15 October 2008
Sceptre, the prestigious worldwide publishing imprint, is the literary arm of Spectre, the evil global terrorist organisation headed by Ernst Blofeld. Sceptre was founded in the early 1990s when Blofeld, weary of the droll puns peppering James Bond’s interactions with tongue-tied henchmen, hit upon the scheme of employing literary types to furnish witty comebacks. To the four corners of the world Blofeld sent forth his agents – he jokingly called them his “literary agents” – to kidnap a dozen top editors and copywriters and to establish them in a bunker deep beneath the Bavarian Alps.
The naming debacle and its consequences
Blofeld’s initial concept was simple: Spectre’s abductees were to prepare a comprehensive manual of scathing put-downs for Bond, which the Spectre goons could then either memorise, or write on the cuffs of their boiler suits. Under duress, the literary team’s first task was to come up with a name for their unit. The team initially favoured synonyms of Spectre – but “Eidolon” was felt to be elitist and “Bogey” rather gross, while “Ghost” was already taken by a movie featuring Patrick Swayze. The team tried further literary manipulations but, up against a deadline, they were forced to settle for the simple anagram. This was felt to be stooping very low, and it was in the spirit of never again allowing such a debacle that the newly-christened Sceptre team determined to recruit their first “creative types”. This is how the first authors were brought into Sceptre – also against their will – in the early-to-mid 1990s.
Much has changed, of course, since the very early days of Sceptre. In 2001 Blofeld grew weary of highbrow fiction and turned to crime, whereupon his literary imprint was bought up by the publishing giant Hodder & Stoughton and relocated from Bavaria to ordinary working premises on London’s Euston Road - from which address Sceptre now conducts very little work aimed at destabilising the world order by out-punning its secret agents. Most of Sceptre’s creatives are now engaged in the production and marketing of “literary fiction”, a genre so exquisitely invisible to the masses that many observers suspect Sceptre of still being the perfect front organisation for some underground group or other. The publicity department strenuously denies this. However, the imprint has stayed true to many of its original traditions, including that of confining its authors in underground rooms against their will.
At this time at least seven Sceptre authors are believed to be held in the basement of Hodder & Stoughton’s offices at 338 Euston Road, while many other Sceptre writers – for the time being – still enjoy their freedom. The incarcerated authors are forced to write a book “every few years or so” in a cruel regime that – remarkably - no one has compared to a sweatshop. The detained writers are rumoured to be David Mitchell, Andrew Miller, Alexei Sayle, Siri Hustvedt, Thomas Keneally, Peter Ho Davies and Chris Cleave. Of these, Thomas Keneally is generally reckoned to be the “daddy”.
An author’s author, the much loved Booker Prize-winning writer of Schindler’s Ark and of thirty further critically acclaimed and bestselling novels is thought to have been kidnapped in 2000, whereupon he was informed that he would not be released until he “wrote us something really special”. He responded with the universally acclaimed The Tyrant’s Novel (2003) and The Widow and Her Hero (2007), yet his captors reneged and still keep him behind bars. Keneally’s frequent public sightings in Australia are thought to be the work of an actor, hired by Sceptre to impersonate him.
David Mitchell is a genius and repeatedly manages to escape from the increasingly devious restraints in which Sceptre keeps him. The revered author of Cloud Atlas (2004) and three more bestselling novels, Mitchell’s frequent sorties into the public arena are the reason we know so much about the shocking conditions in which Sceptre authors must work. In an attempt by his captors to dehumanise him, Mitchell is known only by his serial number, nine. Whenever he suffers a creative block, the Sceptre guards bang their nightsticks on the bars of his cell and shout motivational slogans at him. One such imperative - “Number 9, dream!” – is thought to have been the inspiration behind Mitchell’s Booker Prize-shortlisted novel from 2001.
Alexei Sayle is a comedian, actor and author of novels and short stories that are both funny and wise. But his likeable Marxist/Absurdist persona hides a dark secret. Gifted with charisma and an imposing physique, “Alpha Male” Sayle owns the detention block, keeping the other detained authors in a state of subjugation and terror. He is rumoured to have written his novel Mister Roberts (2008) on a vintage typewriter which he subsequently dismantled and ate in a “who’s the toughest” show-down with Peter Ho Davies.
Booker Prize-shortlisted wordsmith Andrew Miller is universally acknowledged to have the biggest brain in the literary game and once described his latest novel - the sublime One Morning Like A Bird (2008) - as being about “the corrective influence of the actual” - which the publishers were obliged to translate on the cover as being a “story about growing up”. Miller is popular with his fellow prisoners, who are jealous of his literary gifts but forgive him because of his charm, his intriguingly unplaceable accent, and his ability to effortlessly write the tricky bits of their novels for them.
The youngest of the incarcerated writers, Cleave is also the shortest at 5’7”. He serves as both a freak show and a memento mori for the other detainees, reminding them of what might happen if they don’t eat their greens. His writing is characterised by a headlong juxtaposition of humour, beauty and horror and he talks aloud when he writes, which infuriates his cellmates. Indeed his novel The Other Hand (2008) is thought to have been conceived when an enraged Alexei Sayle shouted: “Enough of the scary-funny-pretty thing, Cleave, or I’ll nail your other hand to the floor.”
Siri Hustvedt (pronounced the way it is written) is the most stylish of Sceptre’s detainees, being not only a lauded postmodern novelist but also a poet. Siri’s finished manuscripts are scrutinised very carefully by the Sceptre guards, who suspect they may contain coded messages to her husband, the writer Paul Auster. Indeed, much of the drama in the Sceptre prison block is provided by Auster’s frequent and heart-warming attempts to break Hustvedt out of captivity - most recently by secreting a metal file inside a hardback copy of her latest novel, the stunning The Sorrows of an American (2008).
Peter Ho Davies
A polymath with degrees in both Physics and English, Davies finds the two synonymous. Indeed, his major international bestselling novelThe Welsh Girl (2007) was initially submitted as a set of Fourier transforms operating on a complex integrable function, rather than as a manuscript. Fortunately this was spotted by an eagle-eyed copyeditor at Hodder & Stoughton, who then had to study maths and physics for 35 years before she was able to translate Davies’ equations into his prize-winning text. This accounts for the long delay between delivery and publication. (Davies, a prodigy, wroteThe Welsh Girl when he was just four years old). Davies has such a reputation for affability and charm that his captors often send him out on tour – wearing an electronic ankle tag, of course. Other touring authors are regularly informed, by booksellers around the world: “Oh, that Peter Ho Davies was in the shop just last week” – while with their eyes they add, “and he was quite a lot nicer than you.”
While Sceptre’s use of author detention has delighted readers by keeping the price of fiction low and the quality high, campaign groups have highlighted the ethical issues raised by requiring innocent prison guards to spend large amounts of time in close proximity to writers.